USGS Science Leads the Way for National Preparedness

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With hurricanes in the east and wildfires in the west, natural hazards have the potential to impact a majority of Americans every year. USGS science provides part of the foundation for emergency preparedness whenever and wherever disaster strikes.

The scope and impact of natural hazards currently wreaking havoc within the borders of the United States are unlike anything we have seen in recent years. Hurricane Harvey brought a deluge of water and caused billions of dollars in damage to Houston and surrounding areas. Hurricane Irma, now a category 5 hurricane, is ramping up to possibly come ashore and batter large portions of the Southeast, and the National Hurricane Center is tracking two more large tropical storms, Jose and Katia. Whole regions of the western United States are on fire—as of September 5th, roughly 47,000 fires have decimated close to eight million acres of land. 

In addition to hurricanes and wildfires, already this year we have seen approximately 61 earthquakes over a six magnitude world-wide, some associated with significant damage and loss of life. Volcanoes have been active as well, from the on-going volcanic activity at the Bogoslof Volcano in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the continuous monitoring of the Yellowstone “Supervolcano.” In Florida (and elsewhere) sinkholes have opened up to swallow entire houses and have put communities literally on edge. 

The more we know about hazards, the more we can guard ourselves and our communities against their destructive impacts. The USGS is leading the way in national readiness and preparedness for natural hazards and disasters. Our scientists, emergency planners and administrators work with federal, state and local agencies to understand hazards, their potential risks and impacts and how to mitigate large-scale loss of life and property.

Photo credits: Jim Pfeiffenberger, National Park Service (Credit: Jim Pfeiffenberger, National Park Service. Public domain.)

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, federal, state, and local agencies can perform meaningful risk analyses. 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 to determine impact to local facilities, emergency preparedness plans to ensure appropriate steps are taken before and after an event, large infrastructure investments – such as dams and reservoirs – and improvements to private property standards and materials to make homes and community infrastructures more resilient to natural hazards.

Hurricanes and Tsunamis

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.

In addition, the USGS studies recent and historic tsunamis to better understand impacts, processes and causes, with a focus on investigating earthquakes as triggers. Scientists have evaluated the number of people or businesses exposed to tsunami hazards, as well as demographics and evacuation time for each of these communities. This provides officials with the ability to develop outreach, preparedness and evacuation plans that are tailored to local conditions and needs.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image of the rapidly intensifying storm at 11:24 a.m. Central time (16:45 Universal Time) on August 24, 2017. NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Land Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS (LANCE).
(Public domain.)

Earthquakes

Earthquake hazards are a national problem, with nearly half of Americans at risk of exposure to potentially damaging earthquakes. The USGS 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, 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 United States called ShakeAlert. The system could provide vital seconds to even minutes of warning before the arrival of strong shaking.

USGS map showing (1) the locations of major populations and (2) the intensity of potential earthquake ground shaking that has a 2% chance of occurring in 50 years.(Public domain.)

Volcanoes

The United States is home to 169 active volcanoes across numerous Western states and territories. Volcanoes can show signs of unrest hours, days and sometimes even 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.

Floods and Drought

The USGS operates a nationwide streamgage network to monitor water level and flow in rivers and streams. The USGS also works with many partners to provide essential data for flood forecasts, watches and warnings. USGS science 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, with the USGS serving as an implementing partner.

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 (check out more information on sinkholes at the USGS Water Science School). 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.

House in a sinkhole. View to east across the sinkhole. (Credit: Anthony S. Navoy, USGS. Public domain.)

Wildfires

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.

(Public domain.)

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 even directional drilling for oil and gas. Large magnetic storms can also 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.

America’s PrepareAthon! on September 2017

Get prepared and join millions of people participating in America’s PrepareAthon! This is a campaign encouraging people across the nation to practice preparedness actions before a disaster or emergency strikes. Activities include drills, group discussions, exercises and more.

The Great ShakeOut on October 19

Millions of people across the nation will be participating in the next ShakeOut earthquake preparedness drill, to be held on Oct. 19, 2017. At 10:19 a.m. local time, participants will “drop, cover and hold on.” Mark your calendar and sign up to join.

Resources for Further Inquiry and Study – Knowing how hazard risks can impact your area helps keep you and your family safe.  Take a few minutes to click on the links below for more information and sign up for applicable alerts to keep you informed at a moment’s notice.

Explore Your Hazards

  1. See past, current and forecasted hazards along the coasts.
  2. Get details on the latest geomagnetic disturbance event caused by solar activity.
  3. Gather info on current flooding and past incidents at the USGS flood website.
  4. Browse through statistics on water use in the United States.
  5. See the Fire Danger Forecast, which is a dynamic map updated daily (at the top right, click “view legend for selected layer[s]” to see what the colors mean).
  6. Current and past wildlife die-off information is available online—through an interactive map—to help inform disease prevention and mitigation strategies.
  7. An estimate of how long it would take for someone to travel by foot out of a tsunami-hazard zone can be calculated through the USGS Pedestrian Evacuation Analyst.
  8. See the latest earthquakes worldwide.
  9. Learn of potential ground-shaking hazards from both natural and human-induced earthquakes.
  10. If you live near a recent wildfire, see maps showing the potential for debris-flow activity.

Sign Up for Alerts

  1. Sign up for free notification emails about volcanic activity happening at U.S. volcanoes.
  2. See how high or low river levels are through USGS WaterWatch. Receive texts or emails when water levels in rivers and streams exceed certain thresholds through USGS WaterAlert. Or you can request data on-demand through USGS WaterNow.
  3. Sign up to receive earthquake notices through the USGS Earthquake Notification System.

Finally, on September 1, we launched a brand new USGS Natural Hazards Science Facebook page.  Along with the regular USGS Facebook page, the Natural Hazards page will keep you up to date with natural hazards and how the science behind them keeps our Nation prepared.