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House Science Committee

Subcommittee on Research

Hearing on Life in the Subduction Zone: The Recent Nisqually Quake and Federal Efforts to Reduce Earthquake Hazards (3-21-01)

Hearing Summary
The newly named House Subcommittee on Research held its first hearing on March 21, 2001, to discuss the effects of the Nisqually earthquake that struck the Seattle area on February 28 and to discuss future areas for targeted research. The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), which funds earthquake research and damage mitigation programs in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Because this was the subcommittee's first hearing of the new Congress, Chair Nick Smith (R-MI) opened by describing some of the agenda items the subcommittee would tackle this Congress. Of special concern to Smith is the "unbalanced federal research portfolio" that concentrates resources in the National Institutes of Health and sidelines basic research done by other agencies like NSF. He said that the Research Subcommittee "will continue to emphasize the important role that NSF plays in funding fundamental research."  In his opinion, NSF funds basic research that often leads to economically important and lifesaving scientific breakthroughs.

The purpose of this hearing was to analyze the earthquake assessments performed by or with funding from various federal agencies, assess the behavior of buildings and land in response to the quake, examine how to improve building codes and earthquake preparations in the Pacific Northwest, and get ideas where to focus future research efforts. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) also made an opening statement regarding the effects of the earthquake on his constituents.  He praised the quick and effective response of FEMA and was supportive of research efforts that would help the area be even better prepared for the next earthquake, noting "I believe that we should look at the Nisqually quake as a quiz and use it to prepare for the test."


Testimony was heard from Dr. John Filson of the USGS, Dr. Prisilla Nelson from NSF, Dr. Stephen Palmer of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and Dr. M. Meghan Miller of Central Washington University. Written testimony is available at

Dr. Filson is the director of the Earthquake Hazards Program of the USGS, which is responsible for earthquake monitoring and notification, performing hazard assessments, and basic earthquake research. He focused his testimony on the cause of the Nisqually quake, the seismological and geological effects of the quake, and the continuing research of the USGS on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. He explained that three types of earthquakes occur in the Cascadia subduction zone -- large earthquakes at the plate boundary, deep earthquakes in the down-going Juan de Fuca Plate, and shallow earthquakes in the overriding North American Plate. The Nisqually quake was of the second type, the focus being 33 miles below the surface in the upper part of the Juan de Fuca plate. The USGS Pacific Northwest Hazard Assessment (PNHA) prepares maps that predict ground shaking levels in different areas in response to the different types of earthquakes. After the quake, an assessment of the actual ground shaking was prepared. The shaking experienced in the Nisqually quake was lower than that predicted by the assessment. If the seismic network in the Puget area continues to grow under the PNHA, these assessments could be available within ten minutes of a quake to get emergency response teams to the most affected areas. The shaking causes landslides, lateral spreading of weak soils, and liquefaction as well as direct damage to human structures. According to a post-event assessment, the ground failures from the Nisqually earthquake were widespread but not severe. The landslide damage could have been much worse if the quake had occurred after a rainy season. Overall, the work that is being done by the PNHA is beneficial to the region, and should be continued and enhanced. More resources should be focused on increasing the density of the seismometer network and assessing the reactions of different rock types and soils to earthquakes.

Dr. Nelson is the Division Director for Civil and Mechanical Systems in the Directorate for engineering at NSF.  She gave an overview of the NSF earthquake research centers in the U.S., international centers, and organizations in Washington that were involved in reconnaissance activities after the Nisqually earthquake. She then presented an assessment of structural and non-structural damage caused by the quake. Most of the damage from the February 28 event was non-structural and occurred in local areas with poor soil conditions. The structural damage occurred in unreinforced masonry buildings on poor soil. To improve earthquake preparedness and response efforts, resources should be put into assembling a direct and indirect loss database, evaluating the effectiveness of mitigation investments, investigating the interface of earthquake science with societal responses, and implementing Performance Based Earthquake Engineering.

Dr. Palmer gave an overview of the structural and non-structural damage done by the Nisqually earthquake. Because the earthquake occurred deep in the crust, the ground shaking was minimal and little structural damage occurred. The results of the shaking were somewhat predictable in light of the effects of the similar Olympia earthquake in 1949. Dr. Palmer focused on the damage done as a result of soil liquefaction resulting from the quake. He was the principal investigator for much of the liquefaction hazard mapping performed under a grant from the NEHRP program. All of the areas where liquefaction actually occurred as a result of the Nisqually quake had been mapped as high or moderate hazard areas. Also, most were areas where failure had occurred in the 1949 earthquake. In many instances, soil improvement is considerably more expensive than other mitigation options. He concluded that the research activities taking place in the Pacific Northwest, including the hazard mapping, have been successful. These activities should be continued and improved to prepare for earthquakes that create stronger ground motion or last longer.

Dr. Miller focused her testimony on the capabilities of Global Positioning System (GPS) geodesy technology for showing relative plate motions and surface deformation at the millimeter scale. Continuous observation through a network of GPS stations could help detect strain build up in the Pacific Northwest and predict where and how large future earthquakes will be. GPS geodesy is used in many programs that do earthquake research, and as a result the basic physics of earthquakes is becoming better understood. GPS geodesy results can be integrated with other earthquake research and be applied to risk assessment, urban planning and damage mitigation. The proposed NSF Earthscope initiative would provide great insight into earthquake risk, basic earthquake physics, and plate tectonics.

Chairman Smith asked about the risk of aftershocks from the Nisqually earthquake like those that occurred after the large earthquake in El Salvador in January. Dr. Miller explained that it is not well understood whether one earthquake can or does trigger later earthquakes. The Olympia earthquake in 1949 had several aftershocks, so there is a possibility, but better understanding of earthquake physics is needed to make that kind of prediction. Miller's statement went along with the panel's recommendations on where research dollars should be spent. Further understanding of earthquake physics is a top research priority. Information gained from basic earthquake research would facilitate the creation of better hazard assessment maps. Several subcommittee members were interested in research activities taking place in other parts of the country. Dr. Nelson cited an abundance of earthquake research opportunities outside of the west, especially in assessing the structural damage and transportation problems that would be associated with the rare mid-continent events like the 1811-12 New Madrid quakes. Several times it was emphasized that each locality has unique geology and seismic potential that require individual hazard assessments and tailored building codes if mitigation of potential earthquake damage is to be possible. The representatives were also curious about the early warning system that could give seconds notice to communities that have not yet felt the shaking. The Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) supported by the USGS has the potential to provide the advance warning in the Pacific Northwest if the seismic network continues to grow. Even a few seconds  warning could save lives and property -- natural gas pipelines could be shut off, school children could get under their desks and precision tasks could be interrupted among other things. According to Dr. Filson, one of the challenges will be making the "social handshake" that takes the data collected through increased research activities and makes it useful for damage mitigation activities. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) asked how the threatened budget cuts affect the research activities and morale in the USGS, citing the experience of friends at the survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory.  The representative's questions in this regard were in response to the rumored budget cuts for NSF and USGS that will be in the President's budget request for this coming fiscal year.

Sources:  Hearing testimony and notes

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by AGI/AAPG spring 2001 intern Mary H. Patterson, Government Affairs Program

Posted April 2, 2001

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