Natural Hazards Legislation Poised to Retain Momentum in New Congress

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Publication date: 
9 January 2019

Recently enacted legislation provides new congressional backing for the nation’s earthquake monitoring and drought information systems. Though Congress did not pass other bills supporting volcano and landslide monitoring before it adjourned, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has indicated she remains committed to working on them and has identified climate change as a hazard that also warrants action.

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Sen. Murkowski

(Image credit – Office of Sen. Murkowski)

During the 115th Congress, lawmakers advanced several bills aiming to improve U.S. resilience to natural hazards, two of which recently became law. President Trump signed the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) Reauthorization Act on Dec. 11 and the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Reauthorization Act on Jan. 7.

Among the other hazards preparedness bills considered in the previous Congress, the Senate passed the “National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act” last May, and the House Natural Resources Committee advanced the “National Landslide Preparedness Act” in November. The volcano bill has already been reintroduced in the new Congress as part of a larger “lands package,” and other hazards-focused bills will likely follow. 

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who backed the earthquake, volcano, and landslide bills, spoke about her support for natural hazards research and preparedness at the American Geophysical Union meeting in December. She also said she considers climate change as the foremost hazard facing the U.S., emphasizing the effects it has already had on Alaska and welcoming input from the scientific community on how to address the problem.

Congress provides new direction for earthquake and drought programs

The NEHRP Reauthorization Act represents the first time since 2004 Congress has provided new statutory direction to the interagency program, which is responsible for a range of research, monitoring, and mitigation efforts. The law recommends funding levels for NEHRP activities and codifies the program’s shift in emphasis away from predicting earthquakes well before they strike, which has proven intractable, to developing early warning systems and building community resilience.

The law also directs the program to publish maps of active faults, folds, and regions that are susceptible to liquefaction, landslides, and other seismically induced hazards. It further requires the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a five-year management plan for the national seismological monitoring network and calls for a comprehensive assessment of NEHRP’s effectiveness, among other provisions.

The NIDIS Reauthorization Act was sponsored by the outgoing chair and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL). The law provides new legislative backing for the system, which provides information about rainfall, water supplies, and drought vulnerabilities. It further directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages NIDIS, to develop a strategy for a national soil moisture monitoring network.  

The Senate also appended a slate of amendments to the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 and the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 to the final version of the NIDIS legislation.

Murkowski, USGS director describes hazard preparedness efforts

In her keynote address to AGU last month, Murkowski highlighted her work on natural hazards legislation. She began by discussing the recent eruption of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii and the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck her state on Nov. 30, days before Trump signed the NEHRP reauthorization bill.

Murkowski observed that even though the Alaska earthquake was strong, damage and injuries were mitigated by preparedness measures and lessons learned from the magnitude 9.2 earthquake that struck the state in 1964. Offering her view on the value of the links built between research, monitoring, and preparedness through programs such as NEHRP, she remarked,

There is no substitute for the science or for the federal programs that help us understand what could happen, how to prepare for it, and how to protect our homes and our property.

Describing her long-standing interest in advancing natural hazards legislation, she said that in the past she had been mocked on social media for introducing a bill to “watch volcanoes,” but that she garnered praise for her foresight following the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, which disrupted international air traffic.

Murkowski said there is now wider appreciation in Congress for the threats that natural hazards pose, remarking, “Our hazards legislation has become a higher priority because we realize that monitoring systems and networks are crucial to ensuring that Americans are informed of the hazards that we face.”

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The ShakeAlert system measures the distance between P and S waves to provide advance earthquake warnings

(Image credit – ShakeAlert)

USGS Director Jim Reilly, who took the helm of the agency last April, touched on similar subjects in his own address the next day. He said improving hazard preparedness is currently one of four major focus areas for the agency alongside leveraging big data, better understanding ecosystems, and assessing supplies of critical minerals.

Describing the recent Alaska earthquake as an “eye-opener,” Reilly emphasized the importance of early warning systems for saving lives and property. He described how an early warning system developed in partnership with USGS, called ShakeAlert, can provide warnings up to two minutes before an earthquake event.

Although brief, such an advance warning provides enough time to allow officials to shut down gas systems, he said, preventing the types of fires caused by the 1989 California Loma Prieta quake that killed more than 60 people. Earlier this month, the early warning system was released to the public as an app called ShakeAlertLA that sends warnings ahead of earthquakes in the Los Angeles area.

Reilly also mentioned the importance of developing volcano early warning systems for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, citing the Eyjafjallajökull eruption to illustrate the widespread disruption such events can cause.  

Murkowski calls climate change urgent threat

Murkowski also told AGU attendees that she regards climate change as another type of natural hazard. She described her home state of Alaska as on the “front lines” of the problem, saying that warming there is occurring at twice the rate as in the rest of the country, and that it is currently experiencing changes in sea ice, permafrost, and animal migration patterns. Taking a firm stance on climate change, she remarked, “It is real. It is happening. It is now. And almost none of these changes are for the better for us.”

Concluding her remarks, Murkowski said, “Know that you have got an advocate in me for the geosciences in Congress. ... I welcome your ideas, your input in addressing anything from natural hazards to mineral security to climate change.”

Murkowski’s climate views stand in contrast to those espoused by most other congressional Republicans and Trump administration officials. Consistent with the administration’s propensity to keep the subject at arm’s length, Reilly’s remarks on climate change were guarded.

Remarking on USGS’ work on the National Climate Assessment and the origins of the temperature projections it used, he stressed a need for further research on climate models, saying there are “a lot of things that we still don’t know, but we will, which is the critical point.”

AGU President Eric Davidson asked Reilly to comment on White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders’ characterization of the latest assessment as “not based on facts” and “not data-driven.” Davidson said many AGU members found these remarks “maybe more than a little bit discouraging.”

Reilly responded that he did not necessarily view her statement as “all that inflammatory,” but added, “it could have been, and certainly other people have been.” While there is often a “left and a right” to debates on climate, he said, “It doesn’t affect where we are in the middle, which is the science. The science has no politics, it’s never settled, and we are going to continue looking at it.”

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