Government shutdown taking toll on earthquake detection and warning systems

SEATTLE — Scientists monitoring earthquake activity in Washington and down the West Coast told KIRO 7 Thursday that the shutdown is taking a toll on their work.

Seismic devices all over Washington State can detect ground movement, and it’s sensitive enough to detect a nearby stomp.

That data -almost at the speed of light- gets sent back the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) at the University of Washington.

But because about half the team there is made up of U.S. Geological Survey employees who are furloughed, when something breaks, there aren't enough people working to quickly fix it.

“USGS staff have for over a month now, not been here,” said Paul Bodin, a UW professor and manager at the PNSN.

“If something happens during this shutdown, do you consider us less prepared,” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun asked.

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​“I'm concerned about that,” Bodin said.

Bodin said they've already seen the impact. Recently, data from three high threat volcanoes went dark.

“Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Hood,” Bodin said.

He says the problem stemmed from a bad cable – something that should've taken minutes to fix, but instead lasted for hours.

“Had there been volcanic unrest, earthquakes on the volcanoes during that period of time, we wouldn't have seen it,” Bodin said. “And the potential for harm to the citizens, the citizenry was elevated during that time period,” he said.

He said Thursday morning, another system seemed to be malfunctioning.

“After a big earthquake, it tells people where to go look for damage. That system stopped sending me heartbeats. I have no one to talk to at USGS, is it running, is it not,” Bodin said.

These new problems are cropping up as Washington has already been struggling to play catchup to get ready for the next "big one.”

“As far as being prepared for a major earthquake, how prepared would you say we are right now?” Sun asked.

“Wow, we're dramatically underprepared, in part because we've been very lucky,” said Bill Steele, also with the PNSN.

Scientists are working to roll out earthquake early warning systems.

For something like the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001, Steele said having the system in place would’ve given people about 15 seconds of warning – seconds that can make the difference between life and death.

But hundreds of devices to track ground movement still need to be put in place in order for the early warning system to work.

“That work has pretty much stopped, and I don’t know when it’s’ going to be able to be started up again,” Bodin said. “We have instrumentation that's ready to go into the field, to a site, and here it sits,” he said showing us equipment in the lab that was supposed to be installed north of Bainbridge Island.

Many of the field crews who do that work are furloughed.

“You look at Dave’s desk - he still has his Christmas tree from the before Christmas party,” Bodin said.

“The longer the shutdown goes on, the more problems are going to crop up and our ability to deal with them is crippled,” he said. “A real frustrating element is not knowing when this is going to be over.”

The team at PNSN has a contract that requires a certain amount of installation work be complete by mid-August, and as the shutdown drags on, it cuts into the time they have to complete that work.