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Budget Cuts Leave Pricey Earthquake-Monitoring Equipment Unrepaired

Published On: Mar 27 2014 08:00:00 PM AKDT

System cost millions of federal dollars to install, but needs more money to maintain. 


Millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a sophisticated earthquake monitoring system in Anchorage won’t work properly because funding has been cut to maintain it.

Taxpayers spent millions of dollars on a sophisticated system that monitors earthquakes in Anchorage, but a portion of it is now defunct because scientists aren't getting the funds to maintain the equipment, a federal scientist said. 

Decades ago, earthquakes were measured using a giant rotating drum, a spring, a weight and a pen.

Recording and sharing data took weeks; sometimes months. We’ve come a long way since then.

Thanks to high-speed internet and modern technology, we now have that information within seconds.

Anchorage is home to a network of instruments that measure how structures react when the earth shakes. The seismometers are buried underground and bolted to bridges and buildings throughout the Anchorage bowl.  

“Anchorage is one of the most heavily instrumented areas in the country in terms of the number of seismometers,” said John Power, scientist-in-charge at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which maintains the network for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Similar seismometers are also used to measure volcanic activity.

Depending on the model, each instrument cost federal taxpayers between $1,000 and $30,000. Installing them cost thousands of dollars more.

The seismic network is expensive and high-tech, but it also has problems.

“Currently not all of our instruments are in operational state, sadly,” Power said.

At any given time, about a quarter of the seismometers are not working, according to records from Alaska Earthquake Information Center.

“It aggravates me,” said John Aho, a structural engineer who spearheaded the effort back in the 1990s to install the network. “We have a multimillion dollar system in probably the most dense seismic-free field instrumentation system in the country, and it aggravates me that we can't keep all the instruments working.”

Power said “it’s certainly not a situation we’re pleased about.”

The seismometers are not working “because of long-term declines in our funding,” Power added.

Information from the instruments is used for shake maps, which help search and rescue crews reach victims.

It also helps design more efficient buildings, which are currently built to codes based on information collected from the way buildings behave in California.

“The purpose of the network initially was to fine-tune those specific to Anchorage,” said Buzz Scher, who heads up the state’s seismic hazards safety commission and is also a long-time member of the geotechnical advisory commission, a separate group that informs the municipality of earthquake hazards in Anchorage.  

Much is lost when engineers don’t get information from seismometers, Scher said. That information is critical for deciding whether to let people back into a building after an earthquake.

"These kinds of records will help expedite re-entry or re-use of critical facilities,” Scher said.

But first, the instruments need to be working.

Power said Alaska can expect to see a new batch of seismometers next year through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, Scher said he and other engineers are trying to secure funding through the municipality to fix and maintain the existing seismometers so engineers don’t need to rely on scientists on California to do the job.