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NSF & Congress
Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Research Hearing on the Recent Nisqually Earthquake in Seattle, and Federal Efforts to Mitigate Damage Caused by Earthquakes

March 21, 2001

The House Science Committee's newly renamed Subcommittee on Research held its first hearing of the 107th Congress on March 21, 2001. The hearing was entitled Life in the Subduction Zone: The Recent Nisqually Quake and Federal Efforts to Reduce Earthquake Hazards. Testimony was received from Dr. John Filson, Coordinator of Earthquake Programs at the USGS; Dr. Priscilla Nelson, Director, Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems at NSF; Dr. Stephen Palmer, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Geology and Earth Resources Division; and, Dr. M. Meghan Miller, Professor of Geological Sciences, Central Washington University.

Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) opened the hearing by saying that one issue of concern to him is the current unbalanced federal research portfolio, and the consequences the disproportionately low funding level requested for NSF will have on long-term productivity and our standard of living. He noted that NSF-funded research often leads to economically important breakthroughs which can save lives, and that the Nisqually earthquake hearing would highlight this point.

Dr. Filson focused his remarks on the geological causes, the seismological and geological effects of the Seattle earthquake, and lessons learned. He described the three major roles of the USGS as being earthquake monitoring and notification; earthquake hazards assessments; and, research on earthquake processes, theory, and effects. Dr. Filson explained tectonics and ground shaking patterns, along with the three different types of earthquakes; very large earthquakes, deep earthquakes, and shallow earthquakes, with Nisqually being considered a deep earthquake. Dr. Nelson explained that NSF supports individual investigators in post-earthquake research and funds reconnaissance activity through NSF consortia and research centers, and awards to professional organizations. She described the Incorporated Research Institutes in Seismology (IRIS) consortium, and how it provides the seismographic facilities to monitor earthquakes worldwide. Dr. Nelson also described how the Nisqually reconnaissance teams produced reports that will be developed into a comprehensive assessment by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), and discussed some of the summary observations. She also noted some of the research focus areas that have been identified as a result of the Nisqually earthquake. Dr. Nelson further explained that in engineering, the recent focus has been on new methodologies for design involving Performance Based Earthquake Engineering (PBEE).

Dr. Palmer noted that the Nisqually earthquake is comparable, in terms of seismic energy release, to the Northridge and Kobe earthquakes, but damage here was moderate because the release of energy occurred 30 miles beneath the earth's surface. Noting that the location of the Nisqually earthquake was within a few miles of the 1949 Olympia earthquake, likewise a deep earthquake, Dr. Palmer said damage patterns of the Nisqually earthquake were well understood and predictable prior to the event. Severe damage occurred primarily in older unreinforced masonry buildings and bridges. While he noted there are bigger quakes to come, Dr. Palmer said this incident is a wakeup call for accelerating earthquake hazard mitigation in this region and many other at-risk areas throughout the country. Dr. Miller noted that the Nisqually earthquake was the first in the Pacific Northwest to be detected with GPS geodesy. She noted that Central Washington University received NSF support to densify the Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array (PANGA) continuous GPS network in the Puget Lowlands in order to address critical questions regarding the Nisqually and future Pacific Northwest earthquakes. Dr. Miller further noted that the scientific community is ready to expand these observations in a manner that will support a systematic accounting of seismic hazard in many vulnerable states through the Earthscope initiative approved by the National Science Board.

Chairman Smith questioned witnesses on the use of technology to predict earthquakes. Dr. Filson noted that you can't predict earthquakes like hurricanes - we need to understand the physics of earthquakes, before prediction. Dr. Nelson said we are coming more to terms with how to prepare, and what it means to be prepared. She said as we learn more about the environment, we will understand more. Members also questioned witnesses on the investment in research and mitigation in relation to the cost -- loss of life and property. Dr. Nelson said the more we know about the performance of structures, the more we understand the cost impacts. We need to know the risks for mitigation.. She explained the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and the mobile labs that can evaluate on-site structures. She said it's good for the social impact because it builds public trust in how to repair after an event. Members also questioned witnesses on how well we are prepared for earthquakes, on building codes, and on warning systems. Dr. Nelson noted the importance of PBEE in understanding the response of buildings with respect to preparedness and building codes. Panelists stressed the social implications of a warning system by asking what people would do with the information, and who would be in charge of the information, and what would they say. Dr. Palmer also noted the liability concern. Dr. Nelson noted that this is an area of research that needs to be addressed.

Various members also addressed the panel as to research being conducted in other parts of the country besides the west coast. Dr. Filson described the efforts of the USGS, while Dr. Nelson noted work supported by NSF at the University of Illinois in liquefaction, adding that more needs to be done in understanding seismic risk in major cities. She said we can learn from structural damage to old buildings in Seattle and take this to mid-America. Dr. Palmer noted that codes need to be scrutinized to address liquefaction. Chairman Smith questioned witnesses on how satellites could be used for seismic activity. Dr. Miller discussed three satellite efforts currently underway. Final questions addressed efforts to encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers.

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