This release can be found in the USGS Newsroom at:

USGS main page

News Release

December 8, 2003
Catherine Puckett 707-499-1210

The U.S. Geological Survey at AGU

Bookmark and Share

Highlights of USGS presentations at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, Dec. 8-12, 2003, in Moscone North, San Francisco, are below.

What Happens to People and Places When Tsunamis Inundate Populated Areas?

Answers to these questions will have an impact on lives and property during tsunamis events, as high water reaches inland locations following significant offshore earthquakes. USGS scientists are presenting new types of maps to provide a better understanding of how these destructive waves affect people and associated objects such as ships and automobiles. The scientists have developed the first type of tsunami indentation maps that will be understandable to a layperson and will provide a particularly useful tool for disaster planning officials and emergency response personnel. This type of mapping represents a significant breakthrough in cost reduction compared to traditional techniques and brings a marked improvement in information content related to potential tsunami hazards. The GIS layering system allows customized portrayal of expected maximum area of inundation, water velocity, wave arrival time and departure, sediment load, and the "wave’s" ability to knock down humans, move cars, and other things. These innovative map products are intended to increase disaster planning efficiency and decrease emergency response time by providing officials with improved map products for better tsunami preparedness.
First Author: Phil Watts; Second Author: J. Walder

THE POSTER ABOVE IS RELATED TO SESSION OS22A. Identifying Submarine Landslide Time of Failure
This session discusses the extraordinary hazards of underwater landslides, which have remained out of sight and mind until recently, raising a debate as to their frequency of occurrence. Extolled as "visionary" by participants and scientific leaders alike, Tappin and Watts have assembled a special session with broad interdisciplinary interest that demonstrates the connectedness between biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering when determining the times of underwater landslide failure, the central issue in the field.

Mount Rainier Hazard Warning System

To improve on protecting residents who live in the pathway of potentially devastating volcanic lahars that originate on the western slopes of Mount Rainier, USGS scientists have installed automatic lahar detection systems in area river valleys that provide topographic channels for these dangerous volcanic events to travel swiftly in a downstream direction. The scientists, in cooperation with local county officials, have devised and installed warning systems that will be automatically activated by significant lahar events capable of causing major destruction to downslope lives and property, while being able to ignore less severe natural occurrences such as minor lahar activity, earthquakes, or extreme weather or flood events. Monitoring facilities in Tacoma are staffed around the clock by public safety officers who are prepared to issue advisories and evacuation recommendations to the local populace of Pierce County, WA.
First Author: A.B. Lockhart, The Mount Rainier Lahar Detection System

Ongoing Kilauea Eruption Provides New Evidence of Sulfur Dioxide Hazards

The continuing eruption of Kilauea volcano provides an opportunity to examine the effects of volcanic emissions on the natural and human environment on the island of Hawai`i. Kilauea has released 13 megatons of sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere since the current eruption began in 1983. During conditions of prevailing trade winds, measurements of sulfur dioxide gas and associated aerosols document the conversion of the gas to acidic aerosol as the plume propagates to the leeward side of the island. When trade winds are disrupted, sulfur dioxide measurements in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park have shown episodes of particle concentration in excess of federal health standards and World Health Organization guidelines. These safety standards have been exceeded repeatedly and have resulted in the rapid corrosion of metal objects, degradation of domestic water quality, agricultural crop damage, and adverse impacts on human respiratory and pulmonary function. Other impacts may include decreases in local rainfall and increased mortality of asthmatics. Following the onset of this continuous period of eruption, deaths from asthma on the island increased by a factor of 10 and resulted in several health studies investigating the relationship between exposure to volcanic pollution and health effects. In addition to measuring gas and particle exposures, the studies examine lung development in children, disease prevalence in adults residing downwind from volcanic degassing sources, and acute effects in asthmatics. To provide needed information examining the relationship between exposure and health effects, the USGS, in collaboration with the National Park Service, has developed a real-time advisory for heavily visited park areas known to exceed U.S. air quality standards. A new color-coded system provides park visitors and employees with advisory information when sulfur dioxide concentrations exceed recommended exposure levels.
First Author: T. Elias, Two decades of degassing at Kilauea Volcano, Hawai`i: perspectives on island impacts

Yellowstone National Park — Thermal Unrest and Implications for Seismic Hazards

Recent deformation maps of Yellowstone National Park show a large area of uplift (30 x 40 km) centered under the north rim of the Yellowstone caldera, which is nearly centered on the popular tourist attraction of Norris Geyser Basin. The area began inflating in 1997 and reached a maximum inflation of 125 mm during the summer of 2002 (latest available satellite data) beginning a series of strain-related events that could lead to an increase in heat transported to the surface, producing the currently observed changes in thermal activity in this area. The spring and summer of 2003 were times of vigorous thermal unrest in the Norris Geyser Basin, heralded by three eruptions of Steamboat Geyser, and accompanied by renewed activity of Porkchop Geyser (dormant since in 1989). Other evidence of increased activity are the formation of a new line of fumaroles at Nymph Lake, just north of Norris, and marked through temporary increases in ground temperatures in Norris’ Back Basin. The National Park Service has closed some footpaths in the area and is in frequent contact with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory partners at the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Utah. Changes at Norris wee studied with a temporary deployment of 7 broadband seismometers and 5 continuously operating GPS receivers. At the AGU meeting, USGS researchers will present updated information on satellite monitoring of ground deformation and a synopsis of the changes in hydrothermal activity at Norris. University of Utah collaborators will discuss the temporary seismometer deployment and initial findings.
Monday Poster: Chuck Wicks (InSAR), Stress transfer, thermal unrest, and implications for seismic hazards associated with the Norris Uplift Anomaly in Yellowstone National Park

Dec. 10, 9 a.m. talk: Jacob B. Lowenstern, Hydrothermal disturbances at the Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park (USA) in 2003

Predicting Erosion and Flooding in Areas Burned by Wildfire

Areas burned by wildfire are prone to extreme post-fire erosion if the fire is followed by significant rainfall before methods of erosion control can be implemented. USGS scientists are working to develop computer models to predict erosion and flooding following forest fires that destroy areas of protective hillside vegetation. Traditional erosion models have been developed for agricultural regions throughout the country and are not suitable for predicting rainfall runoff from sloped hillside areas burned and stripped of vegetation by wildfire. The scientists are working to formulate a better understanding of how soil surface conditions are impacted and changed by wildfire, and how those changes might affect rainfall runoff patterns and erosional processes that could cause potentially catastrophic mud slides, debris flows, and flooding in urban and suburban areas adjacent to recent wildfire areas. Working with current data, the scientists will be constructing new models that include critical information about overland water flow, runoff channel formation in burned environments, variable soil particle sizes, characteristics of slope steepness, and rainstorm intensities, in order to understand the impact of rainfall on surface soil following wildfires.
First Author: David Kinner, Effects of surface sealing, soil moisture evolution, and rainfall intensity on runoff from hillslope plots burned by wildfire

National Fire Fuels and Risk Assessment

Hazardous fuel reduction, ecosystem rehabilitation and restoration, and firefighting safety, are priorities of land managers and have been recently emphasized by national fire policies such as the National Fire Plan. The effective implementation of these policies requires mapping of vegetation conditions, fire fuels, risks, and the development of ecosystem status at local, regional, and national scales. USGS has initiated a new research and development project called LANDFIRE to develop integrated methods of producing geospatial wildfire information and predictive models for land-use managers, as well as for many other applications. Product development includes mapping areas of fire potential based on existing vegetation types and structure, a variety of biophysical data layers, fire fuels models and risk layers, and state-of-the-art techniques for assessing fire behavior and effects. In this presentation, USGS scientists will review research results and findings of the LANDFIRE project using information obtained from a prototype study in the Uinta and Wasatch ecosystems in central Utah. The scientists will present information about how computer technology can be combined with field data, satellite imagery, and ecological variables, to successfully produce an operational map product. They will also be discussing how different types of remotely sensed vegetation cover and structure can be described as fire fuel classes and risk layers for determining fire behavior and effect models, and the opportunities for national implementation of this type of technology.
First Author: Z. Zhu (Brian Tolk will present), National fire fuels and risks assessment using remote sensing and ecological modeling: prototype results

Rapid Assessment of Ground Shaking Impact Following Global Earthquakes

The USGS National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) is developing a system to rapidly assess the overall impact of earthquakes occurring around the globe, and to provide a near real-time identification of earthquakes likely to pose human casualties, structural damage, or likely to attract significant news media attention. The goal of the system is to help NEIC provide critical earthquake-related information to emergency response agencies, the scientific community, the media, and the general public. The system will be designed to fill the existing time gap between initial earthquake notifications from scientific sources and the time that epicentral damage information becomes available through on-the-scene reports, and will provide damage assessments based on estimated and observed ground motions, population numbers in the affected area, and the overall fragility of the region. Researchers anticipate that within seconds of computing necessary information an automatic impact summary can be issued, together with associated alarms, well before any on-site damage estimates are received. The initial system will be basic in nature, will be relatively easy to implement, and will provide a baseline for further enhancements. Worldwide population databases will be used to determine the total population exposed to various levels of shaking. The fragility of an area will be initially derived from regionalized estimates based upon the NEIC database of historical damaging earthquakes. Future improvements will incorporate socioeconomic factors, as well as qualitative assessments of engineering practices, structural design, and construction requirements in areas affected by the ground shaking.
First Author: Paul Earle, Rapid assessment of ground shaking impact following global earthquakes

Indexing Global Populations at Risk from Volcanic Hazards — a Central American Case Study

USGS scientists have developed a method for objectively comparing population areas that are subject to volcanic hazards because of their proximity to potentially active volcanoes, using Central American volcanic centers and surrounding populated areas as a case study. Populated areas within 10 kilometers and also 5 kilometers of active volcanoes were considered in this study for Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The 5-km study is an estimate of the number of people who will almost certainly have to be evacuated and cared for over an extended period during an eruption, whereas the 10-km study radius considers population numbers that may be adversely affected by some type of volcanic process during an eruption, sometimes acutely affected if the eruption is large enough. The scientists used the 10-km study to compare 75 individual volcanic areas, prepared reports for areas in each country that are vulnerable to volcanic hazards, and determined that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have at least one major urban area within 10 km of a potentially active volcano.
First Author: John Ewert, Indexing global populations at risk from volcanic hazards — a Central American case study

Atmospheric Mercury Concentrations in Rocky Mountain Watersheds

USGS scientists have been actively engaged in interdisciplinary studies to understand complex processes involved with controlling the exchange water and gases in our environment, including the effect of climactic and atmospheric variables on areas designated as watersheds throughout the United States. As part of these ongoing studies, scientists are examining high-altitude watershed sites in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to measure concentrations of mercury deposited from atmospheric sources. Overall, mercury deposition was greater than mercury export in these areas, indicating an accumulation of mercury in these alpine and subalpine ecosystems. High-altitude headwater streams, containing high concentrations of dissolved and particulate mercury, drain these watershed areas and lead to downstream lakes and reservoirs where fish consumption advisories have increased due to increased levels of mercury in the water. Although measured methyl mercury concentrations in stream samples taken during 2002 was relatively low, measurements of total and methyl mercury in surface and groundwater samples taken from various alpine and subalpine landscapes in 2003 documented elevated levels of mercury from atmospheric deposition, and put additional emphasis on the need for a better understanding of mercury cycling and transport in high-altitude ecosystems of western North America.
First Author: Donald H. Campbell, Atmospheric deposition and fate of mercury in high-altitude watersheds of the Rocky Mountains.

New Earthquake Loss Estimation — — What Really Matters?

A simple earthquake loss model has been developed and used to evaluate the importance of using different types of earth science information to estimate losses to single-family residences from earthquake shaking. The evaluation points out that improved characterization of the magnitude and frequency of future earthquakes and geologic maps of surface deposits are the most important earth science tools to use for predicting regional variations in ground response and structural behavior for specific areas, and for improved reliability of earthquake loss estimates. The loss model predicts damage to masonry and wood-frame single-family residences and shows that average earthquake insurance coverage may not be sufficient to cover even the impact of moderate earthquakes. Loss estimates can be quite variable depending upon soil type and resultant ground motion amplification factors. Future refinements to current loss estimates will probably have more dramatic effects on those sites in eastern states rather than western states.
First Author: Tom Holzer, New earthquake loss estimation — — what really matters?

Geophysical Research Suggests Connectivity between Hayward and Calaveras Faults

USGS scientists have used gravity, magnetic, and earthquake data in the eastern San Francisco Bay area to reveal the three-dimensional underground geologic structure of that area and show the relationship of that structure to ongoing earthquake activity in the region. When information from all these sources is combined, there is a compelling suggestion of a structural connection between the Hayward and Calaveras Faults. At depths below 5 kilometers, seismic activity appears to be continuous, connecting the two prominent and notorious seismically active faults that are part of the broader San Andreas faults rift zone in the San Francisco Bay area. The scientists use cross-sections and 3-D visualization techniques to illustrate the proposed geometrical connection between these two well-known features, affecting land-use planning and decision-making processes throughout the highly populated eastern San Francisco Bay area.
First Author: D.A. Ponce, Geophysical anomalies and seismicity suggest a connection between the Hayward and Calaveras Faults, Eastern San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California

Is Water Quality Getting Better or Worse?

For one group of contaminants, trace metals, results of a recent USGS study are cautiously optimistic. Researchers used sediment cores from 43 lakes across the U.S. to reconstruct water-quality histories from the 1960s to the present. Downward trends in most metals tested outnumber upward trends, so in terms of metals, things seem to be improving. Major environmental policy initiatives since the 1970s, including establishment of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, deserve at least some of the credit. In spite of overall improvements in metals contamination, there are still concerns, including increasing trends in zinc and continued high concentrations of most metals in the more dense urban settings.
First Author: Barbara Mahler, Water Quality of Hydrologic Systems Posters
H51C-1082 (Author attending from 9-11 a.m.)

Methane Hydrate Recovered from Submarine Mud Volcano in Santa Monica Basin

USGS scientists recently discovered the existence of methane hydrate in a core sample taken from the summit of an underwater mud volcano, about 300 meters in diameter, offshore of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The mud volcano is situated 24 kilometers southwest of Redondo Beach and rises to produce as much as 30 m of bathymetric relief. The discovery core penetrated submarine sediments at the volcano’s summit and brought to the surface chunks of ice, silty mud, and a mixture of mixed shell fragments and carbonate clasts, while displaying violent degassing that typifies deposits of methane hydrate when brought to the surface and exposed to surface environmental conditions of normal atmospheric temperature and pressure. The methane-containing carbonates consisted of massive recrystallized nodular masses and a bivalve assemblage cemented with carbonate material. Gases collected in adjacent core locations contained elevated amounts of methane with traces of heavier hydrocarbon gases, indicative of a possible thermal origin. The existence of methane hydrate at the shallow depth (813m) was unexpected by the scientists and indicates, together with other supporting evidence, that the mud volcano is actively venting methane gas. Although the exact source of the gas is unknown at this time, it appears to be collecting in sedimentary deposits as shallow as 200 meters below the regional seafloor.
First Author: W.R. Normark, Methane hydrate recovered from a mud volcano in Santa Monica Basin, offshore Southern California

Did You Feel It? Five Years of Citizen Science

The U.S. Geological Survey Community Internet Intensity Map (CIIM) is an automatic Web-based system for rapidly generating seismic intensity maps based on shaking and damage reports collected from Internet users immediately following felt earthquakes in the United States. The data collection procedure is fundamentally Citizen Science. The vast majority of data are contributed by non-specialists, describing their own experiences of earthquakes. Internet data contributed by the public have profoundly changed the approach, coverage and usefulness of intensity observation in the U.S. We now typically receive thousands of individual questionnaire responses for widely felt earthquakes. After five years, these total over 350,000 individual entries nationwide, including entries from all 50 States, the District of Columbia, as well as territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The widespread access and use of online felt reports have added unanticipated but welcome capacities to USGS earthquake reporting. Earthquake occurrence in poorly instrumented regions can be validated, sonic booms can be identified and located, and USGS can more readily gauge societal importance of earthquakes by the nature of the response. In some parts of the United States, CIIM provides constraints on earthquake magnitudes and focal depths beyond those provided by instrumental data, and the data are robust enough to test regionalized models of ground-motion attenuation. CIIM invokes an enthusiastic response from members of the public who contribute to it; it clearly provides an important opportunity for public education and outreach. In this paper USGS researchers provide background on advantages and limitations of on-line data collection and explore recent developments and improvements to the CIIM system, including improved quality assurance using a relational database and greater data availability for scientific and sociological studies. They also describe new applications, including automatic location and magnitude determination, estimating ground motions from the intensity observations thereby augmenting ShakeMap, and automatic geocoding to allow for more refined intensity localization. CIIM can be found online at under ``Did You Feel It?’’. URL:
First Author: V. Quitoriano, Five years of citizen science: macroseismic data collection with the USGS Community Internet Intensity Maps (``Did You Feel It?’’)

Higher Earthquake Risks for Seattle Area

A new model for the underground structure of the Seattle fault that incorporates the latest geologic findings from a number of recent studies reveals a higher level of earthquake hazards than previous models. The higher seismic hazards result from the recognition that the northern end of the Seattle fault underlies more of Seattle than previously thought, and from incorporating the newly recognized Tacoma fault into the model. The Seattle and Tacoma faults dip towards each other and underlie the entire central Puget Lowland region between Elliott Bay and Tacoma at a shallow depth of 8 miles or less, leading to estimates of increased ground shaking in this region. Researchers hope that the new model will provide a useful framework for detailed investigations of individual faults being studied in excavations throughout Puget Lowland. The new model is based on several large geophysical databases acquired by the USGS and its collaborators in the past several years, including a detailed aeromagnetic survey, high-resolution seismic reflection profiling, several Seismic Investigations in the Puget Sound (SHIPS) projects, LIDAR surveys, and trenching of fault scarps.
First Author: Tom Brocher, Interpretation of the Seattle Uplift, Washington, as a Passive Roof Duplex

USGS EROS Data Center Hazards Distribution System

The U.S. Geological Survey EROS Data Center (EDC) responds to emergencies on behalf of various government agencies for human-induced and natural disasters. This response consists of satellite tasking and acquisitions, satellite image registrations, disaster-extent maps analysis and creation, base image provision and support, Web-based mapping services for product delivery, and post-disaster data archiving. The EDC Emergency Response personnel are on call at all times and have access to many commercial and government satellite and aerial photography tasking authorities. EDC staff work with agencies for preparedness planning, which includes provision of base imagery. These data may include digital elevation models, hydrographic models, base satellite images, vector data layers such as roads, aerial photographs, and other pre-disaster data. These layers are incorporated into a Web-based browser and data delivery service, the Hazards Data Distribution System (HDDS). The HDDS can be made accessible either to the general public or to specific agencies. As usage of data for a particular event declines, the data are moved to a post disaster near-line archive that is still accessible, but not in real time. The HDDS concept anticipates customer requirements and provides faster delivery of data and services.
First Author: Brenda K. Jones, USGS EROS Data Center Hazards Distribution System

Quick Finite-Fault Inversion and Strong Motion Prediction: Feasibility, Process, and Developments

As part of a larger, concerted effort to rapidly assess the impact of major earthquakes globally and to provide input into other post-earthquake analyses (e.g., ground motions, stress changes, tectonic implications, etc.), USGS researchers are developing and testing a new system to automatically determine finite-fault characteristics by inversion of teleseismic body waveforms. Although initially constrained from teleseismic data alone, which currently are the only rapid and reliable available data after major events worldwide, additional data will be used (either directly or as constraints) as they become available, including aftershock locations, geodetic displacements, and regional waveforms. The ultimate goal of USGS is to provide well-constrained, estimated peak ground motions for input into a global ShakeMap, which in turn will allow automatic, reliable estimates of losses and overall impact. A fully automated system requires overcoming additional, significant hurdles. Among the more challenging hurdles is compensating for travel time anomalies within an automated system. Using the 2002 Denali earthquake as an example, USGS scientists show the importance of this correction and how we calibrated the teleseismic path effects with proximal fore- or aftershocks. They also show how an improved fault geometry based on a high-resolution DEM map enhanced the solution. They will also discuss ongoing developments, further results, and plans for this system.
First Author: D. Wald, Quick finite-fault inversion and strong motion prediction: feasibility, process, and developments

The USGS Earthquake Summary Posters: A GIS-based Education and Communication Product for Post-Earthquake Information

Earthquake Summary Posters (ESP’s), a new product of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Program, are produced at the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden. The posters consist of rapidly generated, GIS-based maps made following significant earthquakes worldwide. ESP’s consolidate, in an attractive map format, a large-scale epicentral map, several auxiliary regional overviews (showing tectonic and geographical setting, seismic history, seismic hazard, and earthquake effects), depth sections (as appropriate), a table of regional earthquakes, and a summary of the regional seismic history and tectonics. The immediate availability of the latter text summaries has been facilitated by the availability of Rapid, Accurate Tectonic Summaries produced at NEIC and posted on the web following significant events. The rapid production of ESP’s has been aided by generating, during the past two years, regional templates for tectonic areas around the world by organizing the necessary data for the map base and the thematic layers that overlay the base. By the end of this year, approximately 85% of the Earth’s seismic zones will be covered for generating future ESP’s. During the past year, 13 posters were completed, comparable to the yearly average expected for significant earthquakes. Each is linked to the special event earthquake pages on the USGS Earthquake Program web site, We will soon make both GIS and PDF files of individual elements of the posters available online. ESP’s provide an unprecedented opportunity for college earth-science faculty to take advantage of current events for timely lessons in global tectonics. They are also invaluable to communicate with the media and with government officials. ESP’s will be used as a vehicle to present other products now under development under the auspices of NEIC and the ANSS, including rapid finite-fault models, global predictive ShakeMaps, "Did You Feel It?", and Rapid Assessments of Global Earthquakes. URL:
First Author: Arthur Tarr, The U.S. Geological Survey’s earthquake summary posters: a GIS-based education and communication product for presenting consolidated post-earthquake information

The USGS serves the nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.

Subscribe to receive the latest USGS news releases.

**** ****

Links and contacts within this release are valid at the time of publication.

Bookmark and Share