Disaster Science

Science Center Objects

Natural (coastal storms, wildfires, floods) and human-induced (structural failures, building collapse, oil, and/or chemical spills) disasters occur every year in the United States. Minimizing loss of human life and damages to personal property and infrastructure is the focus of most disaster response and preparedness activities by federal, state, and local communities. However, the potential for threats from exposures to chemicals and pathogens during post-disaster events is typically unknown but is speculated about by the media and public based largely upon their perceptions or fears. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Environmental Health Programs Disaster Science Capability Team's unique expertise uses novel field- and laboratory-based science tools to rapidly assess, understand, and anticipate the potential health hazards posed by disaster-related contaminants and pathogens to employees, residents, visitors, and Native American populations on public and U.S. Department of Interior managed lands, and to fish and wildlife species.

M/V Selendang Ayu aground

M/V Selendang Ayu aground and broken in two on the shore of Unalaska Island, December 11, 2004, and an estimated 354,218 gallons of oil was released into the environment. This incident is an example of the Federal cases involving damage to and restoration of natural resources under Federal trusteeship available on the Damage Assessment and Restoration Tracking System (DARTS) Web site.

(Credit: Alaska Department of Enviromental Conservation. Public domain.)

Current Science Questions and Activities

  • Create a capabilities toolbox based on USGS Environmental Health Mission Area's unique role before, during, and after a natural or anthropogenic disaster
  • Develop response matrices for USGS scientists to improve communication within USGS and federal/state response agencies to more effectively utilize our unique capabilities during the disaster cycle
  • Research to inform mitigation and preparedness for future disasters/events through supplemental studies originating from previous disaster events:
    1. Avian migration models that integrate toxic response, physiological ecology, and natural history to assess environmental contaminant effects in migratory bird populations
    2. Persistent organohalogen pollutants, elemental contaminants, and stable isotopes in Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) eggs from Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
  • Develop unique capabilities to acquire, process and analyze remotely sensed data to assess the health effects of disasters due to contaminant releases and to inform planning, response, remediation, and restoration
  • Science to support Inland Oil Spill Preparedness Project (IOSPP): Glacier Fish Baseline Health Assessment
  • Science to support Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR)
  • Development of passive sampling and sensing platforms for field sampling of chemical contaminants for baseline and post-disaster hazard identification