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NSF & Congress


Dr. Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

Before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation
February 2, 2005

Good morning. Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Inouye, and members of the Committee, thank you very much for the opportunity to present testimony on the National Science Foundation’s role in providing greater science and research to understanding tsunami events.

The events surrounding the December 26, 2004, Sumatra-Andaman Island earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami constitute disasters for the natural, social, and constructed environments in the region. Because the National Science Foundation (NSF) has the mission to build the nation’s scientific and engineering knowledge capacity and capability, NSF and the communities we support have a responsibility to undertake relevant research in the context of the events.

NSF has moved quickly to focus the U.S. research community to address the disaster, response, and relevant lessons for future disasters, building on the research related to these topics that we have funded in the past. Later in my testimony, I will detail the ways our previous research has contributed to the ability of the United States and others to understand and respond to the disaster, and information on the NSF’s role in supporting the U.S. research community’s immediate response to the tragedy.

This disaster has revealed several areas in which understanding -- as well as infrastructure -- were insufficient to deal with the crisis, and where NSF's research communities can bring basic knowledge and relevant infrastructure to bear. The U.S. communities include problem-focused, interdisciplinary research teams, often with international partners in mutually beneficial and sustainable collaborations. NSF is working with counterpart organizations in countries directly affected by the disaster, as well as other countries in the region, to improve communications, collaboration, and priority setting as the immediate and longer-term research efforts get underway.

This disaster has raised awareness of and attention to the phenomena of earthquakes and tsunamis, and their predictability. NSF has long funded scientific and engineering research infrastructure aimed at detecting and understanding the impacts of these phenomena. Prominent examples include the real-time Global Seismographic Network (GSN), the data from which forged the critical core of the early warning of the December 26, 2004, earthquake. This Network, operated by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, is funded in partnership by NSF and the United States Geological Survey, and is the primary international source of data for earthquake location and tsunami warning.

We also fund research designed to support damage and loss prediction and avoidance for the United States and elsewhere, including earthquake and tsunami effects on buildings, bridges, and critical infrastructure systems, and estimates of economic consequences, human and societal impacts, and emergency response. For example, engineers and scientists at the Earthquake Engineering Research Centers and the Southern California Earthquake Center are working to establish the nature and attenuation of subduction-type earthquake ground shaking, and to develop probabilistic hazard assessments that can be applied to critical infrastructure design in areas threatened by earthquake and tsunami hazards.

NSF has recently established the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), a major national infrastructure project to create a complete system of test facilities. The project is revolutionizing earthquake-engineering research. NSF-funded researchers create physical and computational simulations in order to study how earthquakes and tsunamis affect buildings, bridges, ports, and other critical infrastructure. The NEES Tsunami Wave Basin at Oregon State University is the world’s most comprehensive facility for studying tsunamis and storm waves.

These globally historic earthquake and tsunami events have heightened awareness in the engineering and science research communities of the huge responsibilities to create new knowledge about our human and organizational environments, natural biologic systems, constructed environments, and about our vulnerabilities in the face of damaging forces. It is important that the work includes all aspects of environmental damage, mitigation, response, and recovery.

The National Science Foundation Research Portfolio

The tremendous loss of lives and destruction of the natural and built environments resulting from the December 26 events brought to the forefront questions about disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery. NSF’s research investments have developed a knowledge and human resource base over broad areas relevant to these questions. Current and past pertinent research activities include:

Earthquakes: The Sumatra earthquake occurred along a subduction zone where tectonic plates collide. These subduction quakes are the largest and most destructive type of earthquake, and cause most of the world’s tsunamis. NSF researchers have been making exciting advancements in subduction zone research including new techniques and facilities that define the structure, chemistry and dynamics of active subduction zones. A prime example is the findings about the Cascadia subduction zone in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This fault structure generated a 9.0Mw earthquake on January 26, 1700, with a tsunami that destroyed whole forests on the largely uninhabited Oregon coast, toppled buildings on Vancouver Island, and killed coastal dwellers in Japan.

Tsunami Generation: NSF research includes field studies using research vessels and other platforms and facilities, including the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program’s (IODP) drill ship the Joides Resolution. NSF research aims to understand the processes by which earthquakes, large slumps, and other landslips generate tsunami waves, and to model how tsunamis interact with the shore zone, including the nature of present and past sediment deposits left by tsunamis.

Rapid Response Reconnaissance: NSF supports the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and its Learning from Earthquakes (LFE) project that trains and deploys rapid-response teams of civil engineers, geoengineers, and social scientists to earthquakes that occur around the world. These teams identify information resources, research needs, and provide ground truthing for remotely sensed observations. NSF also funds the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which supports rapid-response research by social science researchers, and leads the world as a clearinghouse for multidisciplinary and social science studies of hazards and disasters.

Remote Sensing: Remote-sensing technologies quantify damage over large geographic areas and provide reconnaissance information where access to impacted areas is difficult. For the first time, high-resolutions sensors (Quickbird and Ikonos), moderate-resolution sensors (SPOT, LandSat, and IRS), and low-resolution sensors (MODIS, Aster) are recording the Indian Ocean events in near real-time. With this information it will be possible to identify and quantify damage and impacts to critical infrastructure systems (including electric power systems, water supply, sewage, transportation, safe shelter buildings, ports, and harbors). Such assessments can then be verified by on-the-ground inspections.

Physical and Computational Simulation: Tsunami disasters are dominated by coastal damage and loss of life. Scientists and engineers need to predict site-specific wave run-up patterns and determine tsunami-induced forces and scour effects to enable better design of waterfront structures and help guide decision-making processes including vulnerability assessment. NSF research has developed scenario simulations for tsunami hazard mitigation, including tsunami generation, hydrodynamics, warning transmission, evacuation, human behavior, and social and environmental impacts. The NEES Tsunami Wave Basin is being used to construct and test large-scale, realistic models of infrastructure -- such as shorelines, underwater pipelines, port facilities, and coastal communities.

Sensor Networks: NSF research investigates new uses for and new kinds of sensors and networks for health monitoring and damage assessment of the civil infrastructure, both physical and cyber. Flexible and scalable software architectures and frameworks are being developed to integrate real-time heterogeneous sensor data, database and archiving systems, computer vision, data analysis and interpretation, numerical simulation of complex structural systems, visualization, probabilistic risk analysis, and rational statistical decision making procedures. NSF has also funded research on socio-technical arrangements for bringing information to policymakers.

Risk Assessment: Risk assessment and decisions about preparing for risks are immediately relevant topics that NSF-funded scientists have researched in depth. Basic science and engineering research provides the in-depth understanding needed to design effective detection, warning, mitigation, response, and recovery programs. Research on risk communication and decision-making regarding low-probability, high-consequence events is being applied to many types of disasters. Key for application of engineering knowledge is to establish the basis for performance-based design to be applied to all critical infrastructure systems and facilities of the constructed environment.

Warning Systems and Evacuation: NSF has supported extensive and long-term research on warning systems and evacuation, with clear implications for managing tsunami events. NSF research includes basic work on integrated warning systems for rapid-onset extreme events, including detection, modeling, and communications technologies, and also the social and organizational components needed for effective warnings: societal and community public education and preparedness, appropriate authorities and resources for organizational and governmental entities responsible for warning and evacuation processes, appropriate messages and means of dissemination to at-risk populations, and the management and maintenance of warning systems over time. One specific focus for research has been sensor networks that must "funnel" a sudden impulse of data that is generated due to an anomalous event such as an earthquake, terrorist attack, flood, or fire. The objective is to understand how to design sensor networks to adequately handle these impulses of data and to feed the information into public warning systems.

Behavioral Responses: Emotional and cognitive responses to stress as well as vulnerability and resiliency in the face of threat and terror are the focus on current research in social psychology. Research in geography and regional science examines patterns of settlement that lead to social vulnerability and the differential impact of hazards, including earthquake hazards, on different groups. An earlier study exploring the restoration of assumptions of safety and control following the 2001 terror attacks has direct implications for understanding the restoration of human wellbeing following these devastating events.

Human and Socio-technological Response: Behavioral and social science research funded by NSF provides insights about how people respond to disasters and identifies the short- and long-term effects. Scientists have documented and analyzed social phenomena in the immediate wake of disasters, such as altruism, volunteerism, convergence, and improvisation. These phenomena vary by country and culture. NSF researchers are developing distributed, reliable, and secure information systems that can evolve and adapt to radical changes in their environment. Such systems would deliver critically important services for emergency communication and management through networked information services and up-to-date sensor data over ad-hoc flexible, fault-tolerant networks that adapt to the people and organizations that need them. Such technology facilitates access to the right information, for the right individuals and organizations, at the right time. This is necessary to provide security, to serve our dynamic virtual response organizations, and to support the changing social and cultural aspects of information-sharing among organizations and individuals.

Emergency Response Research: The complex problems associated with earthquake and tsunami hazard mitigation and response strategies necessitate interdisciplinary and international research efforts, including modeling and computational simulation, large-scale laboratory modeling, geographical information and communication systems, and social sciences and planning. NSF supports research on social, political, and managerial aspects of emergency response activities and aid provision, including need-based distribution of assistance within diverse societies.

Ecology: Research on the ecology of infectious disease contributes to understanding the dynamics of epidemics and change, particularly in the context of ecological changes such as those following natural disasters. Disturbance ecology examines how biological populations, communities and ecosystems respond to extreme natural and human events, including hurricanes and tsunamis. Long-term ecological research is critical to understanding the base line conditions, without which the changes resulting from catastrophic events such as earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be understood.

Microbial Genome Sequencing: NSF funded research on microbial genome sequencing provides key information that enables identification and understanding of the life functions and ecology of microbes that play critical roles in the environment, agriculture, food and water safety, and may cause disease in humans, animals, and plants. Genome sequence information can be utilized to develop tools to detect disease-causing organisms and develop countermeasures such as antimicrobial chemicals and vaccines.

Education and Human Resources: NSF has dozens of active projects funded that target or include Earth science education and understanding of natural hazards. For example, the NSF National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education (SMETE) Digital Library program is supporting a multi-year project to develop a data-oriented digital library collection on education in plate tectonics, the central Earth science paradigm governing earthquakes and resultant tsunamis. Such a collection works to "bridge the gap" between science data archives and libraries, and improves access to the historic and modern marine geological and geophysical data. Further, the project is enhancing the professional development of teachers through interactions with a local school district and with teachers nationwide. Also, NSF has supported the incorporation of advanced technologies in K-12 learning materials in Earth science, including visualizations and working with images from space, real-time data, and experimentation with models and simulations (techniques used in earthquake events to generate model predictions of tsunamis). This work was utilized to update and improve one of the most widely used high-school Earth science textbooks.

NSF Investments in Research Infrastructure

The natural disaster raised awareness of and attention to the phenomena of earthquakes and tsunamis, and their predictability. NSF has long funded scientific and engineering research infrastructure aimed at detecting and understanding the impacts of these phenomena. Prominent examples include:

  • IRIS, GSN -- Real-time Global Seismographic Network (GSN) data forged the critical core of the early warning of the December 26, 2004, Sumatran Earthquake. The GSN, operated by IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) and funded in partnership by NSF and the United States Geological Survey, is the primary international source of data for earthquake location and tsunami warning.

  • Engineers and scientists at the Earthquake Engineering Research Centers1 (EERCs) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC at the University of Southern California) are working to establish the nature and attenuation of subduction-type earthquake ground shaking, and to develop probabilistic hazard maps and shaking levels due to subduction earthquakes in all oceans. This information will support damage prediction for the U.S. and elsewhere, including earthquake and tsunami effects on buildings, bridges and other lifelines, and estimates of economic, safety, and emergency response consequences.

  • NSF has completed construction of the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), a major national infrastructure project to create a complete system of test facilities that is revolutionizing earthquake engineering research. NSF-funded researchers create physical and numerical simulations in order to study how earthquakes and tsunamis affect buildings, bridges, ports, and other critical infrastructure. The NEES Tsunami Wave Basin at Oregon State University is the world’s most comprehensive facility for studying tsunamis and storm waves.

The National Science Foundation's Immediate Response

For more than three decades, NSF has supported quick-response disaster studies that dispatch scientists and engineers to the aftermath of crises ranging from hurricanes and earthquakes to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Researchers were in the field within days after the South Asian tsunami to gather critical data before it was lost to nature and reconstruction. The ephemeral information, including assessments of physical damage to both the built and natural environments, as well as social science research that will help emergency teams and local leaders better direct future rescue efforts, is vital for scientists and engineers to understand and prepare for future disasters.

A variety of mechanisms are available to support quick-response research, including the following: 1) Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER), which may be awarded in order to gather data that is likely to disappear over time after the impact of disasters; 2) supplements to existing awards to fund data collection; 3) specific continuing grants that support quick-response field reconnaissance and research across a variety of disciplines; and 4) flexibility inherent in existing awards that allows for the support of post-disaster investigations. NSF has already utilized all of these types of support in responding to the December 26, 2004, earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Several programs and projects have established funding to send rapid response teams to disaster sites:

NSF Earthquake Engineering Research Centers are undertaking work on damage assessment. The Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) sent a team of researchers to Thailand in partnership with the Asian Institute of Technology and the Earthquake Disaster Mitigation Research Center from Japan. Shubharoop Ghosh from ImageCat will join a team led by Prof. Yamazaki of Chiba University. The team is examining impacts of the earthquake and tsunami upon buildings and critical infrastructure. Research is also being supported by the earthquake centers on validating the potential of remote sensing data to accurately assess damage and impacts.

Multidisciplinary research has been undertaken through the NSF-funded Learning From Earthquakes (LFE) Program that is managed by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), a non-profit institution in Oakland, California. LFE is sending two teams to Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldive Islands, and India. The teams will gather data on estimated wave heights, extent of inundation, geological scouring, and other perishable information related to the physical aspects of tsunamis. They will coordinate their work with teams from Japan and Australia.

In addition, other EERI activities will collect data. Jose Borrero, University of Southern California, was one of the first U.S. researchers to gain access to one of the hardest-hit area of Sumatra. A 13-member team of engineers led by EERI member Sudhir Jain, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, is investigating the structural damage and impacts on port facilities along the eastern coast of India, as well as on the Adaman and Nicobar Islands.

These initial EERI teams include geotechnical, structural, and coastal engineers; geologists; geophysicists; and experts in fluid mechanics. In subsequent efforts, a joint EERI/ASCE team of engineers will travel to the area along with social scientists from the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. They will focus on damage to lifelines, including highways, bridges, ports and harbors, water delivery systems, sewage facilities, and other utilities. They will also begin to document the resulting impacts on communities and the entire region. These impacts include search and rescue operations, medical response, multinational relief, organizational response, effects on children and families, shelter and housing, and social and economic impacts. Members of EERI and other earthquake engineering experts who reside in the affected countries will also contribute the results of their independent investigations. These reports will be compiled on the EERI website, published by EERI as part of the LFE program, and made available internationally.

NSF's Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) is a major source of information about tsunamis. The O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University, home to the largest tsunami research facility in the world, was sought out as a source of answers to the pressing questions in the wake of the disaster. The lab hosted local news teams as well as CNN, NBC's "Today Show," the Discovery Channel, and Spiegel TV from Germany.

The Directorate for Geosciences is offering SGERs and award supplements to study physical processes in the earthquake-tsunami zone. For example, NSF-funded investigators from the California Institute of Technology who were already studying uplift or subsidence of atolls in the earthquake zone returned to Sumatra immediately after the event to measure earthquake-related vertical displacements. Additionally, scientists from the University of California-San Diego plan to resurvey a network of approximately fifty geodetic monuments in North Sumatra, the Mentawai Islands, and Banda Aceh to determine coseismic and postseismic deformation caused by the Sumatra earthquake. These new data will provide critical geodetic constraints for the seismographic inversion of the earthquake source to constrain models of the subsequent devastating tsunamis and to contribute to the study of the great earthquake cycle in that region. The NSF-funded geodetic consortium UNAVCO Inc. is coordinating efforts by the scientific community to measure the post-earthquake distortion in the region of the earthquake. The NSF-funded seismology consortium IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) is leading efforts to develop real-time, finite-fault modeling techniques so that information on the actual characterization of the earthquake source can be updated continuously as real-time seismic data are received.

The oceanographic communities are actively mapping the earthquake rupture zone, studying aftershock events, and venting of natural fluids using ocean bottom seismometers, ships, remotely operated vehicles, and potentially autonomous undersea vehicles. In addition, the NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences will sponsor a series of free, on-line workshops for K-12 teachers that will provide them with lesson plans, teaching materials, and access to scientists so that they can present the latest scientific tsunami information to their students. These workshops will reach several thousand teachers this month alone, with additional workshops possible dependent upon demand. A major challenge for these oceanographic studies is gaining permission from the Indonesian government to conduct research in its territorial waters.

The Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering will be offering SGERs and award supplements to extend projects on sensor networks for damage identification, information about the location of survivors, emergency response infrastructure technology, and the ability of organizations to respond to man-made and natural disasters. The San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego has offered computational and data integration and data backup resources to local universities, facilities, or government agencies that might need them.

The Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) priority area has allocated $1 million to support SGERs for multidisciplinary research, including such issues as warning systems, disaster epidemiology, crisis decision-making, emergency response, and short-term and long-term recovery and mitigation. These awards will be established by the end of February 2005. Additional funding will be available from the NEES program to archive data collected under these SGERs in the central data repository operated by NEES Consortium, Inc. The Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences has also made special funds available for SGERs pertinent to learning from this event.


Mr. Chairman, as you well know NSF has as its mission the promotion of the progress of science, the advancement of the national health, prosperity and welfare, and the securing of the national defense. Since science is truly global in nature, NSF engages in these activities in collaboration with international partners. As such, NSF will continue to respond to disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami events in partnership with others in the global science and engineering communities.

The South Asian tsunami disaster is representative of an entire class of catastrophic disasters: events that are low probability yet have high consequences. With the right information, communities and nations can characterize such risks and determine how to allocate resources for detection, warning, and preparedness.

Research into decision-making provides insights and tools for characterizing such risks and for addressing future questions about allocating resources to detection and warning. NSF, in cooperation with the world research community, including the scientists, engineers, and students from the affected countries, will continue to generate new knowledge about the natural phenomena of these events, the design of better coastal structures, the development of early warning and response systems that can mitigate loss of life, and recovery from such disasters. These new bodies of knowledge need to be transferable to all regions of the world that can benefit from these efforts. With NSF support, scientists will continue to study societal vulnerability to natural hazards with a view to building resilience through increased knowledge and preparedness, improved natural resource management, and other policy strategies so that we may help stem the loss of life and property in future events.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for this opportunity to testify on a topic of great importance to the world community. I hope that I have conveyed the serious approach that NSF has taken to help generate new knowledge about the natural phenomena that lead to tsunami events, the design of safer coastal structures, the development of early warning and response systems, and effective steps for disaster recovery.

I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.

global map
Larger version is here.

Figure 1. Global map showing the location of GSN stations and great circle paths between the stations and the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake.

Credit: IRIS

Larger version is here.

Figure 2. This record displays the vertical movement of the Earth’s surface recorded by GSN seismometers around the world due to the 9.0 earthquake near Sumatra on December 26, 2004. The seismograms are plotted with time (since the earthquake initiation) on the horizontal axis. On the vertical axis, the seismograms are arranged by distance from the earthquake epicenter. Note that the 1 cm scale bar at the bottom corresponds to the actual vertical motion recorded.

The large amplitude signals are surface waves, which travel around the Earth in all directions from the fault. These surface waves are largest near the fault, and they arrive at the closest stations within the first 8 minutes. At the antipode, they arrive from both directions at about 100 minutes after the earthquake. Surface waves continue to circle the Earth, returning to the epicenter after about 200 minutes and then begin another cycle. A major aftershock (magnitude 7.1) can be seen at the closest stations at about 210 minutes after the mainshock.

Credits: IRIS/USGS Global Seismographic Network; IRIS Data Management System and Consortium; US Geological Survey; National Science Foundation; Albuquerque Seismological Laboratory; University of California, San Diego; Richard Aster, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

1MAE (Mid America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), MCEER (Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the University of Buffalo) and PEER (Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley). Return to speech