Earth Science and Congress: An Inseparable Duo (11/04)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Ashley Dere is reprinted from the November 2004 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.


Geoscientists are curious people, driven by the desire to know how things work. They focus their queries on earth structures and processes in a quest to make sense of the large mass we call home. As inhabitants of the earth, these are logical questions worthy of investigation and deserving of an answer. The fact that not all residents harbor this vision, however, does not diminish its importance, but simply elevates the obligation of scientists to inform others of the significance of their discoveries.

While Congress may not be inclined to value science for the sake of knowledge, their interest is piqued when it can help their constituents. Natural hazards are an excellent example because all 50 states are concerned with some volatile force of nature. Whether it is earthquakes, tornados, or floods, Congress is realizing that a better understanding of the earth and its processes can help mitigate the effects of these events to some degree, saving lives, property, money, and, of course, garnering votes in the process. At a glance, it seems like an apparently simple formula: if we advance our understanding of earth processes, we can better minimize the consequences of natural disasters. This, in turn, will drastically cut federal disaster costs and Congress can then invest that money elsewhere. Ultimately, earth scientists, constituents, and Congress will all be happy. Unfortunately and undoubtedly, few things in life are this simple. However, this past summer provided some examples of the progress being made. To recognize this progress and propel it forward, it is critical to understand how several pieces must fit together to further our understanding of the earth.

Earth in the National Budget

The connection between earth understanding and mitigating natural disasters has been slow to develop. Perhaps Dr.William Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, has the right idea. In a message given to the Senate’s Natural Hazards Caucus during a roundtable forum in January of 2001, he outlined the stark differences in the nation’s perception of manmade and natural disasters. He proposed that when manmade disasters occur the prevailing attitude is to prevent it from happening again, and changes are promptly made. Natural disasters, however, are seen as uncontrollable forces and therefore people rebuild as before, with few, if any, changes made. The result is an endless cycle of destruction and loss. While there is a consensus that our knowledge of earth processes is far from complete, this is no excuse to neglect research, or application thereof, to national policies.

Congress plays a critical role in realizing this goal of increased earth understanding. As holders of the nation’s proverbial “purse,” members of Congress have discretion over the funding levels of earth science research. When it comes to natural hazards issues, Congress has traditionally taken a reactive approach. The Congressional Wind Hazards Coalition reported in July that federal disaster aid has risen from $3.9 million in the 1980’s to $25.4 billion in the 1990’s, an increase that has far outpaced the funding for research-based mitigation programs.

Senator John Edwards (D-NC), cochair of the Congressional Natural Hazards Caucus, spoke before the Natural Hazards Disaster Caucus Forum on June 21, 2000, stating that helping states recover from natural disasters is one of the federal government’s most costly endeavors. To illustrate this fact,he explained that from 1977 to 1993, approximately $120 billion was spent on disaster-related projects, but only a quarter of that amount was applied toward mitigation efforts. Edwards is just one member of Congress spearheading efforts to invert this trend. He is joined by 50 other members of Congress who have come to understand the importance of proactive behavior when dealing with natural hazards.This summer provided evidence that the trend is starting to reverse; the House passed bills to address earthquakes and wind hazards and also increased funding to mitigate landslides, a less popular but equally calamitous hazard.

Earth Below Us

Contrary to popular opinion, earthquakes are not just a west coast problem, as the 2003 earthquakes on the east coast demonstrated. In fact, they affect all or parts of 39 states. Research performed under the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) has helped the nation obtain a better grasp on the effects of earthquakes, especially pertaining to buildings. NEHRP made its debut in 1977 as a long-term, nationwide, earthquake risk reduction program. The program was slated for reauthorization this summer, and, with minor changes, the House and Senate both agreed it was worthy of continued investment.

NEHRP has been instrumental in improving our knowledge of earthquakes and consequently reducing the loss of lives and property. One aspect of the program, the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), is comprised of over 7,000 shaking measurement systems to create a nationwide network intended to provide earthquake data to emergency officials, building designers and engineers, and scientists studying solid earth structure and dynamics.Data collected under this program has lead to the creation of shake maps. These maps combine earthquake intensity and population data in real-time to facilitate the best response and recovery in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Scientifically based earthquake maps have also saved money by improving the reliability of our built environment. For example, earthquake research has shown that areas of California’s Central Valley are less vulnerable to earthquakes than previously thought, safely reducing retrofitting costs. Research in the Portland, Oregon area, however, has indicated a higher risk of earthquakes, justifying a need for more stringent building codes.

As a testament to their heightened awareness of earthquake hazards, the House voted to increase funding for ANSS in the fiscal year 2005 interior spending bill. ANSS received a boost of $1.35 million over fiscal year 2004 – an impressive 30% increase for a program that has been plagued by low funding since its inception.There is much ground yet to cover, however, as the appropriated $5.75 million falls well below the $36 million authorized by the bill annually. As for the overall program, Thomas O’Rourke, President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, testified at a House Research Subcommittee hearing on May 8, 2003 that NEHRP funding had eroded 40% in real dollars since 1978. For fiscal year 2005, the bill authorizes $157.5 million, split between four agencies; the House has only appropriated $114.5 million according to the NEHRP Coalition.

Earth Above Us

Relatively new to the Congressional scene are concerns over windstorm hazards. Yet another of Congress’ limitless acronym programs, NWIRP, or the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, was introduced earlier this year. The bill, which passed through the House this summer, is similar to NEHRP in that it seeks to use mitigation strategies, obtained through research, to minimize damage done by windstorms, be it tornados, hurricanes, or any other wind event.

The key component to mitigation emphasized in this bill is research. NWIRP largely originated from an applied research program at Texas Tech University, where, in 1970, one of the strongest recorded tornadoes caused extensive damage to the city of Lubbock and its residents. From this and subsequent windstorm events, researchers at Texas Tech collected data and, with the help of wind tunnel simulations, have applied this information to bolster building codes in windstorm afflicted areas. Without a better understanding of weather patterns, the researchers, and now many members of Congress, acknowledge that little can be done to mitigate any harmful effects of windstorms. While NWIRP has yet to receive funding, the steps Congress has taken to pass this bill demonstrate their embryonic efforts to spend money on problems before, rather than after, damage has been done. The program requests a meager $20 million a year for the next three years, an amount that pales in comparison to the $26.5 billion in damage incurred by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, with the anticipated costs of August’s Hurricane Charley not far behind. In testimony given to the House Science Committee on March 24, 2004, the Congressional Wind Hazard Reduction Coalition pointed out that while Congress invests over $100 million a year on earthquake mitigation, approximately $5 million is spent to minimize wind hazard losses. Congress definitely has their work cut out for them, but at least they are taking steps in the right direction.

Earth as a Whole

Congress’ awareness of natural hazards has also translated into an interest of mitigation through observation, as testimony on Capitol Hill this summer included primitive plans for globally integrated earth and ocean observation systems. The idea behind this international effort is to promote coordination of data among nations to study and understand how different earth elements interact. Aside from the vast knowledge this would provide, Congress has acquired an understanding of the monetary and mitigating advantages such systems could offer. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics,U.S. farmers gain about $15 of value for every $1 spent on weather forecasting and the El Nino ocean observing and forecast system alone provides the U.S. with an annual economic return between 13% and 26%. With thousands of buoys and land-based environmental stations monitoring the world’s oceans and lands and over 50 environmental satellites orbiting the globe – all collecting valuable data – the possibilities are bountiful.

At this stage the involvement of Congress has been minimal, but enthusiasm for the projects is mounting. Congress held hearings this summer to monitor the status of an Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), an attempt to network ocean research and monitoring.A report released in April by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy sparked discussion of an IOSS when it stated that only 5% of the ocean floor has been explored, severely limiting Congress’ ability to manage ocean resources and understand ocean processes. Despite the interest shown by members of Congress, funding is once again the formidable hurdle; legislation to finance the project has yet to be authorized.

On an international scale, the EPA is spearheading efforts to coordinate earth data with a conglomerate of industrialized and developing nations. The first Earth Observation Summit was held in Washington, D.C. in July of 2003 and another followed last April in Tokyo, where participants drafted a framework for a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, also known as GEOSS. The IOOS, for example, would be just one component of GEOSS that would also enhance weather predictions, monitor disease outbreaks, and reduce U.S. energy costs. The group gathered most recently on June 9th and 10th to discuss the progress of the system and begin work on a ten-year implementation plan, which is expected to be finalized by next year. GEOSS is supported by 49 countries that all recognize the myriad of benefits Earth observation would afford them. The House Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee heard witnesses stress the importance of earth observation during a July 13th hearing. They said that forming ocean to land and land to ocean correlations was critical: without making connections between the two, the data will be debased.

The role of Congress in promulgating earth science research cannot be overlooked. Their investment is necessary to further our knowledge of the earth and apply that edification in ways that bear fruit for both humans and the Earth. In the end, perhaps the most important thing to realize is the benefits of understanding the earth stretch far beyond satisfying scientific curiosity. However, in the words of Mike Leavitt, Administer of the EPA, “the greatest hurdles [will] be bureaucratic, not technological.”

Ashlee Dere is a senior at the California Polytechnic Institute, San Luis Obispo on the central coast of California where she is majoring in Earth science with a sustainable environments minor. Originally from San Diego, CA, she has worked as an intern with the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department and has participated in soil judging and other student activities sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America. Ashlee gained insight on budget issues, Yucca Mountain and natural hazards legislation this summer.


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Posted June 29, 2005


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