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NSF & Congress

The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program: Past, Present, and Future

Dr. A. Galip Ulsoy
Director, Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems
National Science Foundation

Before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology
June 24, 2004


Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to submit this testimony from the National Science Foundation (NSF) concerning the Subcommittee's reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). NEHRP was established in 1977 and operates as an effective multi-agency partnership; NSF is privileged to serve as a NEHRP agency. We are confident that NEHRP - in collaboration with other Federal agencies, local and state governments, colleges and universities and private sector organizations throughout the country - will continue to take crucial steps toward meeting the challenge of reducing deaths, injuries and property damage caused by earthquakes in the years to come.

In order to provide context for the NSF involvement in the NEHRP partnership, let me first discuss the broader NSF mission.


In this era of dynamic change, in which science and technology play an increasingly central role, NSF has remained steadfast in pursuit of its mission: to support science and engineering research and education for the advancement of the nation's well being. Knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. The Foundation is that main source of funding for the growth in fundamental scientific knowledge and, at the colleges and universities funded by NSF, scientists and engineers are working to provide more effective earthquake predictions and to discover ever more effective approaches to their prevention and amelioration.

The perspective of each NEHRP agency is critical to creating a complete picture of the nation's vulnerability to earthquakes -- an understanding that leads to effective mitigation and hazard reduction. Collectively, we cover the spectrum from natural and social sciences to engineering, from discovery to implementation, from response to mitigation. With the vulnerability of the nation to natural hazards growing increasingly complex, we need an integrated, multi-agency perspective to make significant progress.


NSF supports research and educational activities in many disciplines, and this is reflected in our role within NEHRP. Our role complements the responsibilities assigned to our principal partners in the program: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NSF is involved in continuing strategic planning with the other NEHRP agencies in order to further interagency coordination and integration.

Legislation authorizing NEHRP called for NSF to support studies in the earth sciences, earthquake engineering and the social sciences. Since 1977, NSF investments have supported growth of vibrant hazards-related research communities in engineering, geosciences and in the social sciences. Leadership from the engineering research community has been important to technology transfer of research outcomes into practice and into improvements in codes and standards. NSF's investments in center-based research (the Earthquake Engineering Research Centers - EERCs, and the Southern California Earthquake Center- SCEC) have been very important for the integration of social sciences into engineering and geoscience research questions, and NSF's investments in IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) have resulted in an effective global network for seismic monitoring. The EERCs are recognized for global leadership in the development of new concepts of performance-based earthquake engineering (PBEE), and consequence-based approaches to understanding the performance and vulnerability of complex infrastructure systems. NSF's centers programs provide very useful institutional arrangements for conducting complex holistic research, and this tradition will be carried into the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) project as it becomes fully operational at the end of FY 2004.

During 2003, NSF supported the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to develop a long-term research and education plan to advance the state-of-the-art and the state-of-the-practice in earthquake engineering and earthquake loss reduction and to identify grand challenges in earthquake engineering research. The result is a comprehensive, community-held vision that includes buy-in from all sectors and disciplines including academics, practicing engineers and geoscientists, social scientists, and government employees and regulators. The plan takes advantage of opportunities presented by high performance computing, information systems, simulation and visualization (see Securing Society Against Catastrophic Earthquake Losses: A Research and Outreach Plan in Earthquake Engineering, Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, 2003, and also Preventing Earthquake Disasters: The Grand Challenge in Earthquake Engineering, National Research Council, 2003).

Earthquake and hazards-related research and educational activities are supported in many of the programs at NSF, including particular contributions from the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), the Geosciences (GEO) and the Engineering (ENG) Directorates. Fundamental seismic research is funded in GEO, while ENG supports fundamental earthquake engineering research. Social science research related to earthquake hazard mitigation and preparedness is supported through the SBE and ENG Directorates. Significant progress continues to be made in these programs in understanding plate tectonics and seismic processes, geotechnical and structural engineering, and the social and economic aspects of earthquake hazard reduction.

In addition to the four NEHRP-funded earthquake centers, numerous individual investigator and small group projects related to earthquakes are also supported by NSF. Other NEHRP-related NSF activities include programs involving earthquake research facilities, post-earthquake investigations, international cooperation, and information dissemination. In the remainder of this testimony, recent highlights of such activities will be briefly described.


NEHRP legislation has reinforced NSF's own expectations regarding the important role for NSF to ensure that U.S. researchers have the required facilities to conduct cutting-edge research well into the next century.

The George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES)
Previous NEHRP legislation called for NSF, in collaboration with the other NEHRP partners, to develop a comprehensive plan for modernizing and integrating experimental earthquake engineering research facilities in the U.S. That plan was completed and implemented as an NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) project -- the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). In 1999, the NEES project was authorized for construction between FY2000 and FY2004. The current FY2004 budget includes the final increment of $8.0 million for completion of this $81.8 million project.

NEES will be a networked simulation resource of fifteen geographically-distributed, shared use next-generation experimental research equipment sites. The NEES sites were identified through peer-reviewed proposal competitions and include facilities under construction in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.

The NEES experimental capabilities will lead to new tools for modeling, simulation, and visualization of site, structural, and nonstructural response to earthquakes and tsunami effects. NEES will provide an unprecedented engineering capability for attacking major earthquake problems with coordinated multi-organizational teams, producing convincing results that can be adopted into building codes and engineering practice.

  • NEES experimental research equipment, located at U.S. universities or off-campus field sites, includes shake tables, geotechnical centrifuges, a tsunami wave basin, large-scale laboratory experimentation systems, and field experimentation and monitoring installations.

  • The NEES network links nation-wide users and equipment sites through a high performance Internet system that will include web-based collaborative tools, data and simulation software repositories. The NEES network also provides access to leading edge compute resources.

  • Through the network, researchers can remotely interact with each other and with their experimental and simulation tools via "telepresence" tools.

NEES will also serve as a major educational tool. Undergraduate and graduate students throughout the U.S. will be able to access the network for data, information, and course material as well as to participate in various experiments. Involvement with NEES will also enable students to sharpen skills in utilizing modern information technology tools and resources. These learning opportunities could be made available for pre-college students as well as college students, ushering in an unprecedented appreciation for earthquake problems and a new age for earthquake engineering education.

Proposal competitions for all equipment sites and the NEES Internet-based network were completed by FY2002. All awards are by cooperative agreement and all projects are on schedule and at budget. The sites and the network will be operational by September 30, 2004. Internet sites for NEES are established as for the sites and the overall project, and for the network.

From FY2005, the NEES network and facilities will be maintained and operated by the non-profit NEES Consortium, Inc. The NEES Consortium will be funded by NSF to provide the leadership, management, and coordination for all the NEES shared-use resources. The NEES experimental capabilities will lead to new tools for modeling, simulation, and visualization of site, structural, and nonstructural response to earthquakes and tsunami effects. NEES will provide an unprecedented engineering capability for attacking major earthquake problems with coordinated multi-organizational teams, producing convincing results that can be adopted into building codes and engineering practice. NEES experimental resources and data are expected to be used annually by approximately 1,000 U.S. researchers and students, and the Consortium is expected to develop as a broad and integrated partnership in earthquake engineering community, both within the U.S. and abroad, as equipment sites around the world join the NEES network.

We expect NEES to lead to a new age in earthquake engineering research and education. It should be well worth the large investment. We look forward to keeping the Subcommittee informed about its development.

Progress in earthquake prediction and hazard mitigation is critically dependent on results of studies that probe fundamental earthquake processes. Knowledge of regional tectonic conditions enables geophysicists to establish the long-term level of earthquake hazards. Understanding stress accumulation provides the basis for identifying and interpreting earthquake processes. Knowledge of the rupture process, particularly the effects of the local geology on ruptures, provides the basis for estimates of ground shaking. The compelling need for such knowledge has led to the development of the EarthScope project, first authorized and funded in FY2003.

EarthScope is also an MREFC project, developed with partnership from USGS and NASA. EarthScope will apply modern observational, analytical, and telecommunications technologies to investigate the long-term structure and evolution of the North American continent and the physical processes controlling earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. When fully deployed, EarthScope's components will include modern digital seismic arrays, global positioning satellite receivers, strainmeters and new satellite radar imagery, and an observatory deep within the San Andreas Fault.

The need for knowledge about earthquake processes also explains the intellectual support at NSF for the USGS project -- the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS). ANSS is a permanent national network of shaking measurement systems that will make it possible to provide emergency response personnel with real-time earthquake information, provide engineers with information about building and site response, and provide scientists with high-quality data to understand earthquake processes and solid earth structure and dynamics. ANSS includes a strong emphasis on urban areas and the response of buildings to shaking. Discussions are underway to link the ANSS resource with EarthScope, NEES and the NSF research programs.

NSF expects strong synergy among EarthScope, ANSS and the NEES network, and we will be sure to keep the Subcommittee informed about their progress.

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS)
In 1984, the seismological community created the IRIS initiative: the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. The IRIS constituency, now at 100 members, includes virtually all U.S. universities with research programs in seismology, plus 44 foreign affiliates. Through IRIS, NSF supports two instrumentation programs that are needed for seismology to take advantage of the many advances in instrumentation and computer technology that have taken place: a permanent network - the Global Seismographic Network (GSN) -- in cooperation with USGS; and a portable seismic array - the Program for Array Seismic Studies of the Continental Lithosphere (PASSCAL).

The GSN plan for 120 stations evenly placed throughout the world has been essentially completed. The past two years have seen a number of accomplishments. Use of the GSN seismometers in a rapid analysis of damaging earthquakes has been invaluable. Attention is now being directed toward the much more difficult job of instrumenting the large gaps in the network consisting of the major ocean basins of the world. The IRIS GSN is a founding member of the Federation of Digital Seismographic Networks (FDSN). Other participating networks include Canada, Germany, the French Geoscope, Italy's Mednet, and Japan's Poseidon. FDSN stations worldwide now total about 180.

The PASSCAL plan is for a portable array of 1000 seismic instruments for detailed study of the lithosphere and rapid response to monitor earthquake occurrence or possible earthquake precursors. The PASSCAL Instrument Center is at the University of New Mexico. 600 PASSCAL instruments are now available for fieldwork and they are being used in a number of projects in the US and throughout the world.

The IRIS Data Management Center (DMC) was developed to handle the extremely large volume of digital data that is generated, stored, and accessed by the seismological community. Data is provided through Data Collection Centers in Albuquerque and San Diego to the data archive/mass store in Seattle. Users have network access to the archive and to IRIS headquarters for more general information services. All FDSN data, from 180 stations worldwide, and all PASSCAL project data are available at the DMC, which serves as the first FDSN archive for continuous data. Over 14 terabytes were stored in the DMC at the end of 2002 and it continues to grow at about 3 terabytes per year. A measure of the success of IRIS's effort is the remarkable number of investigators making use of DMC data. In 2002, there were more than 45,000 data requests serviced by the DMC for seismic data.


NSF has supported development of several Global Positioning System (GPS) networks. The NSF- and USGS-funded Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) has provided the impetus for the development of a large-scale permanent GPS geodetic array in southern California focused on earthquake hazard assessment -- a new and ambitious concept for the use of GPS technology. SCEC organized the southern California geodetic community through establishment of the Southern California Integrated GPS Network (SCIGN). SCIGN brings together networks and GPS expertise at UC San Diego, UCLA, MIT, USGS and JPL/NASA. Funding is garnered from many sources, with an implementation plan developed by the SCIGN Steering Committee used to guide resource allocation. The permanent array is now complete at 250 stations.

PANGA is an 18-station permanent GPS network installed in the Pacific Northwest with support of NSF and the Canadian Geological Survey in collaboration with the Central Washington University, University of Washington, and Oregon State University.

The University NAVSTAR Consortium (UNAVCO) has become UNAVCO, Inc., a non-profit membership-governed organization that supports and promotes Earth science by advancing high-precision geodetic and strain techniques such as those using GPS. UNAVCO, Inc. was formed in response to community support of its role as lead organization for community-based planning and management of new initiatives such as the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO), by establishing corporate oversight, and through the already-established community workshops and working groups.

NSF supports separately a number of investigations utilizing the UNAVCO GPS equipment in crustal distortion areas that are prime candidates for future earthquakes. Seismically active areas occupied to date within or near the U.S. include California, New England, the Caribbean, Colorado, Hawaii, Wyoming, and Montana. Outside the U.S., important distortion areas in Turkey, Iceland, Greenland, Asia, and South America are being monitored.

Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC)
The Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) was founded in 1991 as an NSF Science and Technology Center, and continues under support from NSF and the USGS. The SCEC headquarters are at the University of Southern California, and the Center includes eight core university partners. Other universities, state and local governments, and private companies are participating in the research and outreach activities. The primary science goal of SCEC is to develop a comprehensive, physics-based understanding of earthquake phenomena in southern California through integrative, multidisciplinary studies of plate-boundary tectonics, active fault systems, fault-zone processes, dynamics of fault ruptures, ground motions, and seismic hazards.

Earthquake Engineering Research Centers (EERCs)
NSF funded three earthquake engineering research centers (EERCs) in October 1997. Each EERC is a consortium of several academic institutions - with an administrative headquarters at a designated campus - involved in multidisciplinary team research, educational and outreaches activities. The EERCs are combining research across the disciplines of the earth sciences, earthquake engineering, and the social sciences, and some special studies utilizing the results of research conducted at the EERC's are funded by FEMA.

The Mid-America Earthquake Center (MAE) is headquartered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. MAE's mission is to reduce losses across societal systems through the development of consequence-based engineering approaches that are founded on advanced technologies for characterizing seismic hazards and the response of the built environment.

The Multi-disciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) has its headquarters at the State University of New York at Buffalo. MCEER's vision is to help establish earthquake resilient communities and its mission to discover, nurture, develop, promote, help implement, and, in some instances pilot test, innovative measures and advanced and emerging technologies to reduce losses in future earthquakes in a cost-effective manner. MCEER places significant emphasis on the seismic response of networks and critical facilities.

With its administrative headquarters at the University of California at Berkeley, the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) focuses on earthquake problems in areas west of the Rocky Mountains. The main focus for the PEER Center is performance-based earthquake engineering (PBEE) that includes socio-economic evaluation of whether the seismic performance is cost-effective and suitable to the owner and society.

The three EERCs are not only involved in research and technology advancement for the mitigation of earthquake damages. In order to meet the needs of future professionals in the field, they are also educating hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in the latest analytical, computational and experimental techniques. They also reach out to K-12 students to inspire even younger generations in earthquake engineering: An example is PEER's "Learning with LEGO" Program, which brings annually over 500 K-12 students from socio-economically disadvantaged areas to the campus for an open house and shake-table demonstration.

The EERCs also engage in a variety of public outreach activities; keeping the public abreast of scientific and technological advancements so they can better understand natural hazards, policy issues, and disaster mitigation as it applies to the individual.

  • MCEER has worked with the Discovery Channel to develop three programs related to earthquakes.

  • The PEER Center worked with the California Academy of Sciences to develop the Academy's Earthquakes! Exhibit, which is visited by over 1 million people annually, and focuses on earthquake preparedness and safety.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, NSF funded quick response research awards that mobilized more than 50 faculty and students to begin the process of observing, recording, and evaluating the impact on the public, the structures, and the organizations involved in response (see Beyond September 11th: An Account of Post-Disaster Research, National Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, University of Colorado, 2003). The National Hazard Research Application and Information Center (NHRAIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder -- a Center funded through NSF with contributions from many federal agencies including FEMA and USGS - coordinated much of the social science research, and the NSF-funded Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems (ICIS, provided on-site facilitation and coordination for researchers arriving at the World Trade Center site.

In large part, the reason that NSF could move so fast following the events of 9/11 was that there had been so much practice in multiagency coordinated post-disaster investigations following major earthquakes in the United States and abroad. Areas struck by major earthquakes represent natural laboratories, offering unusual opportunities to collect time-sensitive information and to learn vital lessons about earthquake impacts. This data importantly serves to test models and techniques derived from analytical, computational and experimental studies, and to observe and document effects on the natural and built environment and resulting social, economic, and policy impacts. For these reasons and for nearly 30 years, NSF has supported post-disaster investigations in conjunction with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) "Learning from Earthquakes" (LFE) project. The post-earthquake investigations involve quick-response teams of researchers, deployed with close coordination to USGS and other NEHRP agency activities. Recent events investigated with NSF support include: the 2001 earthquakes in Nisqually, Washington; Peru; India; the 2002 earthquakes in Italy; El Salvador, and Alaska; and the 2003 earthquakes in Colima, Mexico and Bam, Iran.

The EERCs are also active in post-earthquake reconnaissance. The Centers send students to areas around the world hit by earthquakes. Four MAE applicants traveled to Taiwan to engage in a hands-on field assessment exercise. Future plans call for a group of EERC faculty and 12 graduate students to spend 10 days visiting earthquake sites to complete hands-on field assessment exercises. Also, MCEER's expertise in earthquake reconnaissance was used to collect and disseminate perishable data in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack for later study to gain a better understanding of how resilience is achieved in physical, engineered and organizational systems.


The National Science Foundation aims at nothing less than U.S. world leadership in science, engineering, and technology. Earthquakes are a global hazard. Many countries find collaborative research and the sharing of information essential in meeting this challenge and the U.S. is no exception. Like the other NEHRP agencies, NSF has a long history of cooperating with other countries - such as China, Mexico, Italy and Japan - facing similar seismic risks. There have been recent developments that serve as excellent examples of how NSF's efforts enable U.S. earthquake researchers to collaborate effectively with international colleagues.

Following the 1999 earthquakes in Izmit, Turkey, and Chi-Chi, Taiwan, NSF made awards to 23 U.S. research teams, each involving collaborators in Turkey and/or Taiwan. In 2002, researchers from the U.S and other countries gathered in Turkey for a workshop on continuing research needs and opportunities. The research outcomes from this program are providing much needed data on strong ground motion near fault ruptures and attenuation of ground motion with distance from the causative fault. The vast number of recording stations, especially in Taiwan, and the similarity between fault systems in the Western US and those in Turkey and Taiwan will greatly aid seismic code development in the United States. The data base for required set-back distances from faults, ground motion estimates close to faults, and similar questions will increase by more than ten times due to the results of research on the Turkey and Taiwan earthquakes.

The response of modern high-rise structures designed under Turkish and Taiwanese codes that are very similar to codes in the United States has been documented through this research, as have the effects of construction quality, code enforcement and specific seismic design. This will directly lead to better design and construction techniques to minimize damage from earthquake loading. In addition, a very important determining factor in loss of life and property during earthquakes is the level of preparedness of individuals, companies, national and international institutions and government agencies prior to the earthquake. Several research projects addressed these issues, and information gathered has proven to be invaluable to emergency planners in the United States.

Individual researchers also engage in international collaboration. For example, an NSF award to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of California at San Diego includes a significant international component. The researchers will complete experimental studies on the effect of earthquake-induced lateral ground spreading due to liquefaction on pile foundations, both in full size and centrifuge model conditions. The research will take advantage of the NEES experimental facilities in the United States, and facilities operated by the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention (NIED) in Japan, including the world's largest shake table (15 m by 20 m) at Miki City. This research constitutes the first opportunity for direct comparison of results in controlled experimental environments between centrifuge and full size tests to be conducted at NIED. The NEES network will be used both during experiment conduct and collaborative development of engineering interpretations and computer simulations.


Results of NSF research are carried forward into implementation through involvement of the researchers in professional organizations, and through activities managed by our three sister agencies. In this respect, NSF funding enables a knowledgeable research community to be prepared to answer questions posed by seismic events, and by observations of the performance of the built environment and sociopolitical systems during and after earthquake events. NSF-funded research enables changes warranted in engineering practice, and enhances understanding and assessment of risks and uncertainties in natural, physical, and social environments.

NSF-funded fundamental research in base isolation devices was taken up by NIST where methods of test for these systems and provisions for design were developed. NIST's contributions made it possible for the engineering profession to include base isolation in design of new structures and seismic upgrades, and FEMA funds were instrumental in making the early applications of base isolation systems possible. In a similar sequence of knowledge transfer and implementation, NSF-funded research on geographic distributions of hazards, liquefaction potential and ground instability have directly fed into microzonation assessments and the USGS-produced ShakeMaps. These maps are, in turn, used in HAZUS (HAZards United States), a GIS-based (Geographic Information Systems) technology that FEMA developed and that allows users to compute estimates of damage and losses that could result from an earthquake.

The future is bright for the NEHRP agencies, and recent actions have been taken that will enhance coordination of plans and efforts:

  • FEMA, USGS, NIST and NSF have set up a Subcommittee on Research that is chartered to identify synergies among research and development programs and to identify ways existing programs can work together more effectively; including enhances linkages between ANSS, NEES, EarthScope and the research programs at USGS and NSF.

  • Under USGS leadership, the NEHRP agencies have worked during FY2002 to create a "Plan to Coordinate NEHRP Post-Earthquake Investigations" that establishes how the agencies will coordinate and share information in the event of a significant national or international earthquake.

  • During FY2004 the agencies have exercised this plan to provide clarity concerning how the agencies will interact following an earthquake. This has been accomplished through a series of tabletop exercises, with simulated earthquake scenarios, using Internet and teleconferencing.

  • The NEHRP agencies continue evaluation and updating of the strategic plan, and to maintain the strong ties with stakeholders that were so important to the success in creating the original plan in FY2001.

  • The NEHRP agencies are also developing an all-agency Internet portal for dissemination of information about research opportunities and outcomes, news releases, plans and activities in a form that can be easily accessed by the research community, government organizations, and the public at large.

The new research plan of EERI and NAE that lays out a road map for research and technology transfer, and with the end of construction for NEES in FY2004 and the start of grand challenge research projects using this network and equipment, the initiation of the EarthScope project, continued development of ANSS, and with the coordinated NEHRP post-event response plan in-place - NEHRP is poised to accomplish great things.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for the opportunity to present this testimony. NSF is very excited about what NEHRP has been able to accomplish in the past, and what we expect will be possible to achieve in the future.