American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

PPP2000 Forum

The following report appears as a News Note in the September 1998 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted here with permission.

As an earthquake is striking, could technology be used to transmit information just ahead of its path to automatically shut off electric lines and stop high-speed trains? What systems are needed to alert pilots flying the polar route over Alaska of an engine-stopping ash cloud from an erupting volcano so that they have time to safely change their route? How does Mickey Mouse respond when a hurricane is heading towards the crowds at Disney World?

These questions and many others were addressed during a forum sponsored by AGI, the American Geophysical Union, and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology on June 30. The forum on "Real Time Monitoring and Warning for Natural Hazards" was the seventh in the ongoing Public Private Partnerships 2000 series organized by the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Natural Disaster Reduction and the Institute for Business and Home Safety. The goal of these forums is to increase communication between government and the private sector to reduce losses from natural hazards. In remarks opening the forum, AGI Government Affairs Program Director David Applegate said that the real-time forum provides an opportunity for geoscientists to identify ways to "translate research results into public policy that saves lives and reduces losses."

Panels paired real-time data producers with data users for a variety of natural hazards. In a panel on real-time monitoring and warning for atmospheric and hydrologic hazards, National Weather Service Director John J. Kelly summarized a theme of the forum: that we are working to "keep natural hazards from becoming natural disasters." He discussed the importance of accurate forecasts and delivering consistent, reliable information to decision makers. Keynote speaker Bob Ryan, a Washington DC television weatherman and past president of the American Meteorological Society, echoed Kelly's concerns about communication. He spoke on the challenges of effectively presenting scientific information so that people will take the necessary action when a warning is issued. He speculated on future real-time warning methods, such as targeted messages via computer, pager, or cellular phone.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Chief Hydrologist Bob Hirsch explained one method of real-time information transfer used by the USGS. A majority of the 7,000 USGS stream gages transmit information on water levels in real time to a USGS web server, allowing the public and government officials to determine water levels and issue flood warnings. William Michael of the Walt Disney Company, which must contend with every type of natural hazard with its theme parks and studios in Florida and California - not to mention cruise lines, retail stores, and other businesses around the world - provided information on data needs. Because of the threat of natural hazards, Michael explained, Disney relies on forecast and extensive preparedness training and mitigation activities to maximize customer safety.

The second panel focused on seismic and volcanic hazards, which are more difficult to predict and hence to issue adequate warnings. USGS seismologist Lucile Jones noted that it is not impossible, however, to provide warning for an earthquake. Because electrons travel faster than earthquake pressure waves, computers linked to a dense seismic network could calculate the probable path of an earthquake once it starts to shut down nuclear reactors, gas mains and secure hazardous materials. This technology, along with rapid notification after the earthquake on exact locations and magnitude of shaking, can help determine the nature and scope of the crisis and concentrate resources to areas where they are most needed.

Terry Keith of the Alaska Volcano Observatory and Edward Miller of the Air Line Pilots Association provided information on the dangers of flying through volcanic ash and the importance of monitoring volcano eruptions and immediately warning pilots of this danger. Monitoring is especially important in the North Pacific, where air freight revenue is estimated to be $10 million per day, and there are 100 active volcanoes along the route.

A final panel discussed barriers - technical, economic, legal and sociological- to the effective use of real-time data. Education and communication were commonly prescribed remedies to overcoming many of the barriers. Other issues such as the threat of lawsuits from actions stemming from a warning were also discussed. The advice from David Hutchison with the Department of Justice was to continue to issue warnings, provide information, and let "people like him" worry about the lawsuits.

Additional discussion on the PPP 2000 series is provided in the Comment in this issue of Geotimes and on the PPP2000 website.

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

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs Program
Last updated September 1, 1998

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