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September 1, 2015

September is National Preparedness Month, a time to focus on the threats posed by natural hazards and the importance for individuals and communities to be prepared.

September is National Preparedness Month, a time to focus on the threats posed by natural hazards and the importance for individuals and communities to be prepared.

Already in 2015, Nepal was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that resulted in hundreds of aftershocks, thousands of landslides and tragic loss of life and devastating damage to property. Summer started with a geomagnetic storm. Over five million acres have burned from wildfires in Alaska so far this year, making this fire season the third most severe since reliable records began. Flooding in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana was devastating to many in late May and early June.

Natural hazards like these threaten thousands of lives and cause billions of dollars in damage every year throughout the nation. Sound science is essential in preparing for natural hazards and helping to guide decisions to minimize their impacts.

USGS: Start with Science

The USGS works with many partners to monitor, assess and conduct research on a wide range of natural hazards. USGS science provides policymakers, emergency managers and the public the understanding needed to enhance family and community preparedness, response and resilience.

By understanding how the Earth behaves and identifying potential hazard scenarios, meaningful risk analyses can be performed. For example, USGS science can be combined with information such as population distribution and construction practices to inform insurance rates, local building and land-use codes, emergency preparedness plans, investment in infrastructure, such as dams and reservoirs, and improvements to private property to make homes more resilient to natural hazards.

Image: Rock Slide in Nepal from an Earthquake in April of 2015
Villagers in Kerauja below a rock slide that resulted from a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on April 25, 2015, in Gorkha district, Nepal. Photo Credit: Brian Collins, USGS


Aug. 29 was the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes to ever hit our country. This unfortunate disaster serves as a reminder about the importance of being prepared.

How vulnerable is your community to hurricanes, not just to wind but also to storm surge and inland flooding? Before, during and after major hurricanes or tropical storms affecting the United States, the USGS assesses the likelihood of beach erosion, overwash or inundation. The USGS also provides real-time impacts of approaching storms via the Coastal Change Hazards Portal. This  online tool allows anyone to interactively “watch” coastal change forecasts as well as “see” past, present and future hazards along the coastline from local to national-level scales.


Earthquake hazards are a national problem, with nearly half of Americans exposed to potentially damaging earthquakes. The USGS has created and provides information and tools to support earthquake loss reduction for the country. These include hazard assessments, earthquake scenarios, comprehensive real-time earthquake monitoring and public preparedness handbooks.

Imagine if doctors could be warned to stop delicate procedures before the damaging seismic waves of an earthquake arrive. Or if emergency responders were provided a few moments of advance notice to act, or if trains could be slowed or stopped, airplane landings could be redirected and people could have time to drop, cover and hold on. The USGS and its partners are building a prototype Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the U.S. called ShakeAlert. The system could provide vital seconds to minutes of warning before the arrival of strong shaking.


The United States is home to 169 active volcanoes across numerous Western states and territories. Volcanoes can show signs of unrest hours, days and months before they erupt. The USGS operates five Volcano Observatories to detect and interpret these precursors as part of the USGS National Volcano Early Warning System. By analyzing data from its monitoring networks, the USGS issues public warnings and alerts about conditions at U.S. volcanoes, including models for ashfall forecasts and aviation notices. The USGS works with emergency-management authorities well in advance of volcanic crises to help potentially impacted communities prepare.

Image: Memorial Day Flood in Texas
Road and bridge damage on the Blanco River near Blanco, Texas, from the Memorial Day 2015 Flood. Photo Credit: Michael Nyman, USGS.

Landslides and Sinkholes

Landslides occur in all 50 states, and every year cause loss of life and billions of dollars in damage to public and private property. USGS science is helping assess where, when and how often landslides occur, and how fast and far they might move. For example, USGS scientists produce maps showing where landslides might occur, and they identify what sort of rainfall conditions cause them. In southern California, the USGS partners with NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) to provide important advance warnings for debris-flows generated in areas burned by wildfire.

About 20 percent of the nation is at risk from sinkholes. These areas are underlain by karst, which is characterized by terrain where the underlying rock is easily dissolved by groundwater. The USGS produces geologic and subsurface maps that help managers and others to better understand karst regions and identify local areas that may be susceptible.


Over half of the nation is currently suffering from some degree of dry conditions. Although only 3 percent of the country is experiencing exceptional drought, those areas include some of the nation’s most fertile and productive agricultural lands that account disproportionally for many of the fruits and vegetable that grace the tables of American families.

The USGS conducts real-time monitoring of the nation’s rivers and streams, providing officials with critical information for drought mitigation. USGS science also contributes to the U.S. Drought Monitor as well as the Drought Outlook led by NOAA’s NWS. On a global scale, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network identifies populations with the most food insecurity. This network is an activity of the U.S. Agency for International Development and its office, Food for Peace, with the USGS serving as an implementing partner.


In response to flooding in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana earlier this year, the USGS deployed flood monitoring teams throughout the region. Scientists made high-flow measurements and maintained the timely delivery of streamflow data on which federal, state and local emergency response depend. Indeed, for more than 100 years, the USGS has operated a nationwide streamgage network to monitor the water level and flow in the nation’s rivers and streams. The USGS works with many partners to provide essential data for flood forecasts, watches and warnings.


The USGS provides tools and information before, during and after fire disasters to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, including delivery to fire managers of up-to-the minute maps and satellite imagery about current wildfire extent and behavior.

Human Health

Wildlife diseases such as avian influenzasylvatic plague, Newcastle disease virus and West Nile virus are a concern, and USGS scientists are working with many partners to monitor, investigate and develop control options. The USGS also has expertise to help assess and respond to certain wildlife disease emergencies, especially foreign animal diseases. Dust storms are another hazard impacting safety and human and ecosystem health, especially in the Southwest. The USGS and land managers are working together to better understand the causes and sources of dust storm activity.

Fire is a natural part of the boreal forest—an ecosystem dominated by black and white spruce.
Fire is a natural part of the boreal forest—an ecosystem dominated by black and white spruce. This species is designed to burn and has cones that release their seeds when under intense heat. Photo Credit: S.T. Rupp, Alaska Climate Science Center.

Geomagnetic Storms

Magnetic storms are caused by a dynamic interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field. The resulting rapid magnetic field fluctuations storms can interfere with radio communications, GPS systems, satellites and directional drilling for oil and gas. Large magnetic storms can even interfere with the operations of electric power grids, causing blackouts. For these reasons, these storms are considered hazardous for both the economy and national security.

The USGS operates a network of specially designed observatories that provide real-time data on magnetic storm conditions. These data are critical for tracking the intensity of magnetic perturbations and are used by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center for issuing warnings and by the U.S. Air Force for their operations. Through the National Space Weather Program, USGS scientists are working with other federal government agencies and private industry to mitigate hazardous effects to the nation’s electric power grid.

PrepareAthon on September 30

On Sept. 30, sign up and join America’s PrepareAthon! This is a campaign encouraging people across the nation to practice preparedness actions before a disaster or emergency strikes. The National Day of Action will focus on floods, wildfires, hurricanes and power outages. This is the second such day of action this year as part of President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 8: National Preparedness. The effort is led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, combining the expertise of many government agencies, including USGS.

The Great ShakeOut on October 15

Millions of people across the nation will be participating in the next ShakeOut earthquake drill on Oct. 15, 2015. At 10:15 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 along with encouragement to take other steps to improve their resilience when disaster strikes. Mark your calendar and sign up to join.

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