Murkowski Convenes Oversight Hearing on Natural Hazards

Improvements to Monitoring and Mapping Tools Critical to Reducing Risks of Natural Hazards

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, yesterday chaired a full committee hearing to discuss natural hazards, including volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and avalanches, and the effectiveness of early warning monitoring systems to minimize risks and protect local communities. The committee received testimony from experts from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Forest Service, the Mayor of Kodiak, Alaska, Washington State Geological Survey, the Alaska Earthquake Center, and Colorado Geological Survey.

“Every day, communities across our country face the devastating risks of natural hazards,” Murkowski said. “Just last week, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Alaska, about 175 miles southeast of Kodiak. In 2015, 53 landslides came down in Sitka, tragically claiming three lives. Last month in southern California, mudslides claimed the lives of 21 people and caused millions of dollars in damage, and now we are monitoring for landslides in Rattlesnake Ridge in Washington state. The good news is that our federal, state, and local partners are developing or making improvements to the tools and maps we need to better understand these natural hazards in an effort to give more advanced warning to communities in danger to help minimize risks.”

The accuracy and timeliness of early warning alerts for natural hazard events is critically important for local communities. Dr. David Applegate, USGS associate director of natural hazards, highlighted the capabilities of an ongoing project to improve early warning earthquake monitoring systems, particularly on the West Coast.

“There are a number of countries that have deployed earthquake early warning systems. Japan is the most advanced and has had it in place for a number of years,” Applegate said. “In Japan, I think a good example would be the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that we have discussed. One of the capabilities with the earthquake early warning system is to slow down the bullet trains. They had, I believe, 26 bullet trains operating several hundred miles an hour. They were able to slow those trains before the strong shaking arrives. They had no derailments from that event. Think of the number of folks who were on that. There was a successful earthquake early warning…We have a prototype system for the West Coast, for California through Washington that is currently in sort of a beta test phase.”

When the magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck off the coast of Alaska last week, many monitoring systems worked well and alerts were issued quickly, but Dr. Mike West from the Alaska Earthquake Center noted that there were also a number of failures, some of which were not caused by the earthquake.

“[T]here were significant failures during this earthquake as well, however,” West said. “An unrelated power outage at Golden Valley Electric Association caused much of the state’s seismic data to be unavailable at the time of the earthquake. Though some systems had backup power, the failure caused internet outages that essentially shut down parts of the seismic network for more than an hour.”

Dr. West concluded his testimony by advocating for redundancies to be built into hazards preparedness plans, in order to avoid lapses in monitoring. 

Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson spoke about her city’s concerns about another hazard, landslides, from Pillar Mountain.

“It’s [Pillar Mountain] right above Pier 3 where all of our goods come in on ships, barges, twice a week,” Branson said. “And also, that would cut us off from the Coast Guard base, and there’s also a potential hazard out by the Coast Guard base itself. We know the Coast Guard is there to assist us in such a disaster. Landslides, mudslides, we’ve had mudslides from Pillar Mountain that have wiped away homes, so it’s certainly an ongoing hazard for Kodiak residents as well.”

Murkowski is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She has introduced or cosponsored several bipartisan hazards bills, including the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act and the National Landslide Preparedness Act, in the 115th Congress. Both bills are included in her broad Energy and Natural Resources Act, which currently awaits consideration on the Senate floor. Murkowski is also the lead cosponsor of S. 1768, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s, D-Calif., National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program Reauthorization Act.

An archived video of yesterday’s hearing is available on the committee’s website. Click here and here to view Murkowski’s questions for the hearing witnesses.