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National Science Foundation
Illustration of Tsunami Hazard Zone.

A warning sign prepared for the National Weather Service's TsunamiReady program.

Credit: NOAA

NSF supports a vast collection of ongoing research projects aimed at understanding the causes, consequences and prevention of disasters. Some of these studies are carried out by large interdisciplinary groups; others are carried out by single researchers and their assistants. Some involve field trips to take data at ground zero; others generate their own data through computer or laboratory models performed thousands of miles away. Some focus on physical factors such as tsunami generation and the properties of moving water; others focus on biological and social aspects such as warning transmission, evacuation, human behavior and environmental impacts. The disciplines involved range from oceanography and engineering to ecology and epidemiology—and all share data by way of large, linked computer systems, which help scientists gather a complete picture of the many aspects of destruction.

Map of Global Seismic Network.

The Global Seismic Network, operated by the NSF-supported Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, consists of nearly 140 stations affiliated with national and international networks. More than three-quarters of the stations provide real-time data access via the Internet or satellite.

Credit: IRIS Consortium

Large-Scale Efforts

Large-scale research consortia and networks provide the technological and administrative infrastructure for disaster research. For example:

  • The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), through its NSF-supported Learning from Earthquakes project (LFE), trains rapid-response teams of civil engineers, geoengineers and social scientists, and then deploys them around the world to investigate and learn from earthquake damage. Typically, a reconnaissance team sets out within three days of a disaster for a tour of one to two weeks. Each day, the team travels into the damaged region to make rapid, general damage surveys of the affected area, document key initial observations and assess the need for follow-up research. Team members discuss their findings at nightly debriefings and their field reports are posted on EERI’s virtual clearinghouse.
  • Photo of Tsunami Wave Basin.

    The tsunami wave basin at Oregon State University is the world's largest and most comprehensive facility for studying tsunamis and storm waves.

    Credit: Kelly James, Oregon State University

    EarthScope, a new network of multipurpose geophysical instruments and observatories, will significantly expand researchers’ ability to observe the dynamic Earth in detail. Modern digital seismic arrays will produce 3-dimensional images of the North American continent, as well as the molten rock of the Earth’s “mantle” deep below. Global Positioning Satellite receivers, strain meters and new satellite radar imagery will measure and map the smallest movements across faults, as well as the magma movement inside active volcanoes and the very wide areas of deformation associated with plate tectonic motion. An observatory deep within the San Andreas Fault will provide direct measurements of the physical state and mechanical behavior of one of the world's most active faults in a region of known earthquake generation.
  • The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), a consortium of 96 U.S. universities and nonprofit institutions, studies earthquake activity as a way to understand the forces at work deep inside our planet’s crust, mantle and core. Along with the USGS, IRIS has established the 137-station Global Seismographic Network, which includes observation stations in the field, global telemetry, data collection and the archiving and distribution of data to large numbers of researchers.
  • NSF’s recently completed George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), provides a complete, nationwide system of test facilities where researchers create laboratory and calculated simulations to study how earthquakes and tsunamis affect buildings, bridges, ports and other critical infrastructure. World-class laboratories around the country are linked by a state-of-the-art network, making it possible for researchers to collaborate remotely on experiments, computer models and education. The NEES tsunami wave basin at Oregon State University is the world’s largest and most comprehensive facility for studying tsunamis and storm waves.
  • The Earthquake Engineering Research Centers (EERCs) allow engineers and scientists to measure ground shaking from deep sea earthquakes, which in turn allows them to map likely hazard areas in all ocean regions. The information aids damage prediction, including effects on buildings, bridges and other lifelines, and helps decision-makers estimate consequences to safety, economies and emergency response methods.
  • The University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center (DRC) is the first research center in the world devoted to studying the social aspects of disasters. Center scientists investigate how groups, organizations and communities prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters and crises of all sorts. DRC researchers have studied hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous chemical incidents and plane crashes—even civil disturbances and riots. Staff members have conducted nearly 600 field studies since the center’s inception, traveling to communities throughout the United States and foreign countries, including Mexico, Canada, Japan, Italy and Turkey, as well as sites affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami.
  • The Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center (NHRAIC), at the University of Colorado, Boulder, allows social science researchers to carry out rapid-response studies of major urban disasters. The center also collects and shares data related to preparedness for, response to, recovery from and mitigation of disasters, and is the leading clearinghouse for multidisciplinary and social science studies of hazards and disasters.

Individual Investigators

Much of the most critical information about our living planet comes from individual, investigator-led studies such as these:

  • NSF-funded investigators from the California Institute of Technology, who were already studying the rise and fall of atolls in the Sumatra earthquake zone, returned immediately after the event to measure earthquake-related vertical displacements.
  • Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, are planning to survey a network of geologic instruments in North Sumatra, the Mentawai Islands and Banda Aceh to determine the deformation of the Earth’s crust caused by the Sumatra earthquake.
  • Photo of JOIDES Resolution.

    Researchers aboard vessels like the drillship JOIDES Resolution and other ocean-bottom research platforms, are studying how earthquakes, large slumps and other land slips generate tsunami waves.

    Credit: Integrated Ocean Drilling program, www.iodp.org

    Researchers aboard vessels like the drillship JOIDES Resolution, as well as on other ocean-bottom research platforms, are studying how earthquakes, large slumps and other land slips generate tsunami waves. They are carrying out modeling studies of tsunami interactions with the shore zone, including the nature of present and past sediment deposited by tsunamis.
  • Infectious disease researchers help sort out the effects of environmental changes on the spread of disease, particularly those changes that follow natural disasters.
  • NSF-funded research on microbial genome sequencing helps scientists understand the life functions and ecology of microbes that play critical roles in the environment, agriculture and food and water safety—not to mention causing disease in humans, animals and plants
  • Disturbance ecologists examine how biological populations, communities and ecosystems respond to extreme natural and human events, including hurricanes and tsunamis.
  • Researchers at sites along the California coast and the island of Moorea are studying coral reefs and coastal upwelling ecosystems.

Remote Sensing

Remote-sensing technologies can measure damage over large geographic areas and can provide reconnaissance information where ground access is difficult. The Indian Ocean disaster marked the first time in which events could be recorded, almost as they happened, by high-resolution sensors such as Quickbird and Ikonos; moderate-resolution sensors such as SPOT, LandSat and IRS; and low-resolution sensors MODIS and Aster. Researchers are using the images produced by these instruments to identify and measure damage to critical infrastructure, including electric power systems, water supply, sewerage, transportation, safe-shelter buildings and ports and harbors. Inspectors on the ground will verify the remote assessments.

Photos of Before and AFter Tsunami. Before Tsunami After Tsunami

These photographs of Banda Aceh, Sumatra, were taken by the QuickBird satellite.

Credit: DigitalGlobe

Civil Infrastructure

Researchers are also investigating new kinds of sensors and networks to monitor the structural integrity of bridges, buildings, and other civil infrastructure and to assess damage after a disaster.

  • For instance, a project at the University of California, San Deigo, pairs computer scientists with structural engineers to develop new ways of monitoring bridge stress, as well as new guidelines for making decisions about repair and replacement. Potential applications include long-term condition assessment and emergency response after natural or man-made disasters and acts of terrorism for all types of large, constructed facilities.
  • Investigators at Portland State University are embedding radio wave-emitting sensors in building walls to relay 3-D reconstructions of the interior structure, including air cavities, to external rescuers.  Adding additional sensing capabilities, such as heartbeat, voice, heat and gas sensors will provide information about the location of other survivors and any fires or gas leaks.

Integrated Warning Systems

Since the Galveston hurricane of 1900, improved systems for detection, warning and evacuation have decreased the loss of life from natural hazards in the United States—yet population growth in hazard-prone areas continues to increase the risk of disaster. This is why NSF's research portfolio includes basic work on integrated warning systems. These efforts include new technologies for detection, modeling and communications; improving public education and preparedness; identifying the resources that local authorities will need for warning and evacuation; developing appropriate messages for, and means of dissemination to, at-risk populations; and improving the management and maintenance of warning systems over time.

At Texas A&M University, for example, researchers are developing a large database containing warning and preparation times, evacuation rates, use of evacuation routes and evacuation costs for both risk-area residents and business and tourist travelers. Economic impact to businesses due to evacuations will be estimated using multiple surveys. This database will provide support to public officials who face hazards, such as hurricanes, and help them balance the threat to public safety against evacuation costs under time constraints and uncertainty.

Photo of Provided food, cookies, and water.

The U.S. Navy supported the humanitarian effort Operation Unified Assistance, and provided food, cookies and water to villagers on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Credit: Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jacob J. Kirk, U.S. Navy

The Human Factor

Scientists have documented and analyzed social phenomena in the immediate wake of disasters, such as altruism, volunteerism, the willingness of people from surrounding areas to help and people’s ability to improvise responses. These behaviors vary by country and culture. Researchers are developing highly distributed, reliable and secure information systems that can evolve and adapt to radical changes in their environment. Such systems would deliver networked information services and up-to-date sensor data over ad-hoc, flexible, fault-tolerant networks that adapt to the people and organizations that need them, all of which is important for effective emergency communication and management. Such technology facilitates access to the right information by the right individuals and organizations at the right time. This is necessary to provide security, to serve dynamic virtual response organizations and to support the changing social and cultural aspects of information-sharing among organizations and individuals.

Much of the current research in social psychology focuses on emotional and cognitive response to stress, as well as people’s vulnerability or resiliency in the face of threat and terror. Research in geography and regional science examines patterns of settlement that lead to social vulnerability and the impact of hazards, including earthquake hazards, on different groups. An earlier study exploring the restoration of assumptions of safety and control following the 2001 terror attacks on the United States has direct implications for understanding the restoration of human well-being following these devastating events.

For instance, why do some communities perceive particular hazards as extreme risks, while others perceive those same hazards as low or non-existent risks? Risks and risk management occur within a rich and complex sociocultural context in which groups of individuals are predisposed to select, ignore and interpret risk information in different ways. Social scientists at the Decision Science Research Institute, headquartered at Georgia State University, are systematically identifying and describing clusters of individuals who share similar risk perceptions and other psychosocial values. They ask: Can we identify communities of distinct risk interpretation among the American public? If so, what are their distinguishing characteristics? Are these communities dynamic and in constant flux? Or are they relatively stable, transcending feelings about specific risks? In other words: Do distinct, identifiable communities form around different kinds of risks, such as health versus security hazards, or do some groups consistently perceive and interpret a wide variety of risks in similar ways?

By Leslie Fink
A Special Report After the Tsunami