House Subcommittee Discusses Earthquake Early Warning System Development

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Publication date: 
26 June 2014

The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on June 10 to discuss the potential benefits of earthquake early warning systems.  Representatives heard from witnesses about warning systems used in other countries including Japan, Mexico, Romania and Mongolia and discussed the cost benefits of developing a national warning system for the United States. 

“Why isn’t America there yet,” asked Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) as he questioned why America does not have a national early warning system.  He noted the impact of the Great Alaska earthquake and that of the 1994 earthquake in Mexico City while describing the benefits that early warning systems provide.  He praised the public-private partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey and a coalition of universities that are developing an early warning system in the western United States.  Additionally, he expressed his concerns over the “lack of focus and investment in Earthquake Early Warning” by the USGS.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) spoke about California’s Field Act that required schools to be built to withstand earthquakes as he emphasized the need for adequate earthquake preparation.  He compared the return on investment that a projected domestic earthquake early warning system would cost, stating that it would cost $38 million in the first year and $16 million in operating costs per year afterwards.  Lowenthal described how the USGS budget is overstretched and his letter to the Appropriations Committee requesting increased funding for the agency. 

Committee Ranking Member Peter Defazio (D-OR) outlined the need for two warning systems on the west coast: a land-based system capable of early warning as well as a sea-based system that would provide early detection.  He stressed that the technology to build these systems already exists but there is a need for the congressional will to provide funding for it.   

Five witnesses testified.  Bill Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards at the USGS spoke about a pilot system in California, the Shake Alert.  He noted that “earthquake risks are well known” and that 75 percent of national risks are concentrated on the west coast, drawing attention to the potential consequences on trade if the ports are damaged. 

John Schelling, Interim Mitigation and Recovery Section Manager in the Washington State Emergency Management Division spoke about advances in earthquake science and technology, specifically the Advanced National Seismic System.  He stressed the need to reduce cost by mitigating the effects of earthquakes and noted the coordinated efforts between USGS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Schelling advocated for the reauthorization of the Tsunami Warning and Education act and the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program.

Douglas Toomey, Professor of Geophysics at the University of Oregon described the differences between off shore and on-shore fault monitoring.  He promoted the unique opportunities in earthquake research in the Pacific Northwest region. 

Richard Allen, Director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory at the University of California stated that the earthquake risks for the US are “substantial.”  He described the California State-wide Early Warning System, Shake Alert, stating that it was in demonstration mode.  The project is “now ready to leverage the existing federal investments in our seismic and GPS network” to provide warning.

John McPartland, Director of the Bay Area Rapid Transit spoke about the significance of early warning for the transit program in the Bay Area.  Two critical aspects include slowing and stopping trains in the event of an earthquake and also to address disaster support and recovery.  He spoke of the critical injuries that occur in the event of a train crash. 

There was a bi-partisan interest in protecting public safety and a need to provide funding to ensure safety.  Members on both sides supported the development of a national early warning system.  This hearing included a continuation of many of the discussions from a March 27 hearing.

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