September is National Preparedness Month, a good reminder of the threats posed by natural hazards and the importance for individuals and communities to be prepared.
Hurricane Sandy blew throughout the East Coast last October, intense wildfires continue to blaze in the West and lay the groundwork for deadly debris flows in their aftermath, and scorching temperatures combined with low precipitation have brought widespread drought to much of the American heartland. Natural hazards like these threaten thousands of lives and cause billions of dollars in damage every year throughout the nation. Sound science is essential for preparing for natural hazards and helping to guide decisions to minimize their impacts.
USGS: Start with Science
The U.S. Geological Survey works with many partners to monitor, assess and conduct research on a wide range of natural hazards, providing policymakers and the public a needed understanding to enhance preparedness, response and resilience.
Earthquake hazards are a national problem, with communities in 37 states facing significant risk. The USGS has created and provides information tools to support earthquake loss reduction, including hazard assessments, scenarios, comprehensive real-time earthquake monitoring and public preparedness handbooks.
Imagine if doctors had time to stop delicate procedures before an earthquake. And if emergency responders had a few extra moments to gear-up, airplane landings could be postponed or redirected, trains slowed, and people could move to safer locations. The USGS and its partners are helping to provide critical seconds of notification by developing a prototype Earthquake Early Warning System in the United States.
You can sign up to receive earthquake notices through the USGS Earthquake Notification System as well as USGS social media channels. Tips and suggestions for earthquake preparedness can be found on the Earthquake Country Alliance website and the USGS Prepare website. When you feel an earthquake, you can report your experience on the USGS “Did You Feel It?” website.
The Next Earthquake: Are You Ready?
Millions of people across the nation will be participating in the next ShakeOut earthquake drill on Oct. 17, 2013. At 10:17 a.m. local time, participants will “drop, cover and hold on.” This event offers citizens a chance to practice what to do when an earthquake happens in their community. Mark your calendar and sign up to join.
Lava flows, debris avalanches and explosive blasts from volcanic eruptions have devastated communities. Noxious volcanic gas emissions have also caused widespread lung problems, and airborne ash clouds have caused millions of dollars of aircraft damage and nearly brought down passenger flights.
Fortunately, volcanoes can show signs of unrest hours, days and months before they erupt, and the USGS National Volcano Early Warning System is designed to detect these precursors. The USGS issues warnings and alerts of potential volcanic hazards – including ash fall forecasts – to responsible emergency-management authorities and those potentially affected. See current alerts and status for volcanoes in the United States. Learn more by visiting the USGS Volcano Hazards Program website and watching a video on USGS volcano science.
Falling rocks, mudslides and debris flows can be deadly hazards, and we are still learning more about them. USGS science is helping answer questions such as where, when and how often landslides occur, and how fast and far they might move.
For example, USGS scientists produce maps of areas susceptible to landslides and identify what sort of rainfall conditions will lead to such events. The USGS is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) on a Debris Flow Warning System to help provide forecasts and warnings to inform community and emergency managers about areas at imminent risk.
For more information, watch a video about USGS landslide science, and visit the USGS Landslide Hazards Program website. Scientists at the USGS are also asking you to help by reporting your landslide experiences and sightings at the new USGS “Did You See It?” website.
About 20 percent of the nation is underlain by karst, which is characterized by terrain where the underlying rock is easily dissolved by groundwater and is consequently vulnerable to the earth disappearing. Sinkholes are common in these areas and can be as sudden as they are devastating.
Although there isn’t yet an effective method to predict where an individual sinkhole may occur, the USGS produces geologic maps that help managers and others to better understand karst regions and local areas that may be susceptible. It is recommended that people in sinkhole-vulnerable areas observe their property for signs of subsidence, such as tilted floors, misaligned door frames or cracking, and small holes in and around structural foundations. Additionally, individuals can check if they live in areas underlain by soluble rock through county offices, local or state geological surveys, or USGS maps.
The USGS plays an integral role in preparing for and responding to wildfires. The USGS provides tools and information before, during and after fire disasters to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, while providing real-time geospatial support for firefighters during the events. For example, the USGS provides fire managers with up-to-the minute maps and satellite imagery about current wildfire extent and behavior throughout the nation.
Once the smoke clears, the danger is not over. Secondary effects of wildfires, including erosion, landslides, invasive species and changes in water quality, are often more disastrous than the fire itself. As fires are contained, USGS scientists help to assess their aftermath to guide the re-building of more resilient communities and restoration of ecosystems.
Flooding, Storms and Drought
The USGS conducts real-time monitoring of the nation’s rivers and streams, providing officials with critical information for flood warnings and drought mitigation. If you want to know whether river levels in your area are higher or lower than normal, visit USGS WaterWatch. You can also use USGS WaterAlert to receive texts or emails when water levels at a specific streamgage exceed certain thresholds. Or you can request data on-demand through USGS WaterNow.
The USGS and the NWS work together to make flood inundation maps that show you exactly where the water will be – what yards, roads and buildings will be covered – and when a river or stream reaches a certain water level.
The USGS also studies coastal vulnerability and change from hurricanes and extreme storms, helping inform flood forecasts and evacuation warnings. Before, during and after major hurricanes or tropical storms affecting the United States, the USGS assesses the likelihood of beach erosion, overwash or inundation. Scientists also measure storm surge and monitor water levels of inland rivers and streams.
Unlike flooding, droughts often take a long time to begin to impact an area, sometimes incubating for months or even years. USGS science contributes to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is the official report detailing drought conditions, as well as the NWS Drought Outlook, which forecasts future drought.
Magnetic storms are periods of time when Earth’s magnetic field is unusually active. More specifically, they occur when the Sun abruptly emits a wind of electrically charged particles. Magnetic storms can impact radio communications, GPS systems, satellites, pipeline corrosion, oil and gas drilling operations, and even electric power grids, causing blackouts. It is also during magnetic storms that beautiful aurora borealis — or “northern lights” — are visible.
The USGS Geomagnetism Program conducts research on geomagnetic hazards, develops products needed for situational awareness of magnetic storms, and operates 14 observatories around the United States and its territories, which provide real-time ground-based measurements to track the intensity of magnetic storms. The USGS’s programs products are used by a variety of agencies and industries, including electric-power grid companies, oil and gas drilling companies, NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force.
This story outlines just a glimpse of USGS research in regards to preparedness, with our expertise also including wildlife diseases such as avian influenza, environmental contaminants, climate change, and more. Browse through our websites to see the range of science underway at USGS.