Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing for U.S. Geological Survey

In her opening statementSen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said her committee had not conducted a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) direct oversight hearing, outside of the nominations process, for a long time, and many important and relevant issues are open for exploration.

USGS is known as a non-partisan agency with no significant regulatory functions.  For Alaskans, its work involves monitoring the sometimes-daily threats from volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other natural hazards.

The Alaska Mapping Executive Committee (AMEC), formed in 2012 to prioritize the collection of high resolution data, presents another success story.  It has expanded to collect other map layers, providing vital data to ensure the safety of pilots flying in Alaska and individuals exploring the Alaska wilderness.

AMEC reached its halfway mark last year, with 50 percent of Alaska now mapped.

In this hearing, Sen. Murkowski said she wanted to explore:

  • Mineral security – The U.S. last year imported more than 50 percent of its industrial minerals, including 100 percent of 19 strategic ones.
  • Hyperspectral imagery – While used for mineral exploration, very little of the U.S. has been mapped with this technology.

In her opening statementSen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) highlighted USGS’s partnerships to monitor, respond, and protect the public from natural hazards.

She and Sen. Murkowski have co-sponsored the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act (S.2056) to protect communities in high risk areas along the west coast.

Another significant west coast hazard is earthquakes.  Dr. John Vidale, Washington’s state seismologist, has been working with the USGS and other Pacific coast states to develop an earthquake early warning system.  This system could save millions of lives and billions of dollars.

Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Murkowski also introduced the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act (S.533), which passed the Senate last year and would require USGS to work with the NOAA Tsunami Program.

So much needs to be done with mapping and working with local communities, Sen. Cantwell said.  People need to see the maps and what could potentially happen, then plan a response.

Discussing landslides, which cause over two dozen fatalities and $1 to $2 billion a year in damages nationally, Sen. Cantwell said that a better understanding of these hazards these hazards and their impacts has the potential to help save lives and protect property.  She was pleased that USGS will increase its work in this area.  A national landslide mitigation strategy, with more science and more monitoring, is needed to prevent these terrible tragedies from occurring.

USGS has faced a number of institutional challenges in carrying out its mission, she added.  With a budget of only $1.06 billion, the organization leverages its resources many times over.  However, many areas (such as hazard and water monitoring) are severely underfunded, and where good science really can help the work move forward.

Strategic investments can advance new science and tools, and programs and business practices can be modernized and streamlined.

Sen. Cantwell said she knew that other committees are talking about drone and drone systems, and the critical tools and information they can provide.




Witness Panel 1


Dr. Suzette Kimball, Director, USGS began her testimony with a summary of USGS history.  In 1879, the Congress created USGS when it passed legislation that merged several federal scientific and mapping surveys.  Its mission was to map the west, locate resources, and push scientific boundaries.

In response to the 1964 Alaska earthquake, USGS helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics.  In 1966, then-USGS Director Bill Pecroa advocated for the use of satellites to study natural resources, which led to Landsat and Earth observation from space.

The Congress merged the National Biological Survey with USGS, creating an integrated Earth science agency.  One example of its work is current knowledge about mercury’s methylation process.  After methylation, mercury is in its most dangerous state.  USGS geological expertise allows people to understand how and where methylation occurs, and biological expertise allows an understanding of the effects on plants, animals, and humans.

Dr. Kimball said USGS relies on numerous partnerships to pursue its scientific mission.  Its budget is leveraged with approximately $500 million contributed by partners such as state governments and other federal agencies.

USGS labs are currently spearheading novel technologies, using, for example, DNA to monitor the spread of the invasive Asian carp.

In Alaska, USGS harnesses its partnerships with the state government and the University of Alaska, along with interferometric synthetic aperture radar technology (IfSAR), to produce modern geospatial information.  In the lower 48, federal, state and private industry partners are using LiDAR technology to collect high resolution elevation data in order to inform decision making and enhance mapping and landslide forecasting.

Along the West Coast, USGS is cooperating with states, universities, and philanthropic partners on an early earthquake warning system, which could be readily expanded to include Alaska and other high risk areas.


USGS’s 21st century mission will not only be to locate natural resources for the nation’s benefit, Dr. Kimball concluded, but to find ways to exploit those resources sustainably so that prosperity is not fleeting or fragile.  One example is research into the microbial production of natural gas, which could allow coal resource energy to be harnessed while avoiding much of the environmental cost.


Witness Panel 2


Ed Fogels, Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (AK DNR), testified on behalf of the State of Alaska, saying that USGS is Alaska’s primary partner in improving its knowledge of the state.

Alaska’s topographical maps, used by the public and private businesses, are over a half-century old and compiled from antiquated surveys that occurred between 1948 and 1955.  They are notoriously inaccurate and have never met National Map Accuracy Standards.  In fact, on some Alaska maps, the mountains are horizontally displaced by over one quarter mile and ridgelines are off by 1,000 meters or more vertically.  Alaska’s maps are 1:63,000 in scale while a typical U.S. map is 1:24,000 or better.  These facts alone show how dramatically Alaska lags behind the nation in mapping and how the numerous public interests in Alaska have been underserved, Fogels said.

Alaska’s map is widely regarded as being incapable of supporting modern electronic information management practices and analyses, which are mission critical across many different applications in the digital era.

USGS and the state have made a great deal of progress on these issues recently, Fogels explained.  In 2006, the state appropriated $2 million to use as seed money—establishing the Statewide Digital Mapping Initiative (SDMI)—to plan and create an accurate Alaska base map consisting of satellite imagery and elevation data.  To date the State of Alaska has appropriated $19.5 million (including $13.5 million alone for IfSAR) while federal partners have contributed $35.1 million.


Using a federal grant, the SDMI authored two intergovernmental and stakeholder-driven plans: the Geospatial Strategic Plan and the Geospatial Business Plan.  Finalized in 2011 and 2012, respectively, these plans identified and documented the most responsible and efficient path forward for the mapping efforts.

At the 2012 Alaska/Federal Mapping Roundtable in Washington D.C., the participants concluded unanimously that every federal agency has a stake in mapping Alaska and would be a direct beneficiary, such that there was no time to delay.  AMEC’s creation was the result.

In 2014, the SDMI became the Alaska Geospatial Council (AGC) as described in the Alaska Geospatial Strategic Plan and endorsed by Gov. Sean Parnell and, subsequently, Gov. Bill Walker.

As of 2015, elevation acquisitions for Alaska exceeded 63 percent and, in 2016, are expected to exceed 70 percent, mainly because of end-of-the-year funding coordinated by AMEC.  The incoming elevation data is being used to produce modernized features such as surface water.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also eagerly awaiting the completed dataset to revise and modernize Alaska’s aeronautical maps.

Elevation data is the most critical and expensive part of a map to acquire, but is useful for a very long time.  USGS manages the 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) in response to the increasing need for high-quality elevation data.  In Alaska, the data collected is moderate resolution IfSAR while the rest of the U.S. will use high resolution Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).

In preparation for 3DEP, USGS contracted with Dewberry Consulting (2011) to perform the National Enhanced Elevation Assessment (NEEA).  A total of 602 mission critical activities were identified that need significantly more accurate data than are currently available.  The results of the assessment indicate enhanced elevation data has the potential to generate $13 billion in new benefits annually.

Seven framework layers form a foundation for a robust geospatial framework.  Alaska lacks accurate detailed geospatial data, inhibiting responsible development and resource conservation, delaying or preventing adequate response to natural disasters and emergencies, and preventing effective measurement and monitoring of ecological processes.

Three key areas of basic information exist that, if improved, would greatly enhance the Alaska’s attractiveness to mineral exploration companies.  This involves completing geologic mapping, airborne geophysical, and modern geochemical surveys in areas that are both prospective for and open to mineral development.

In addition, Alaskan communities urgently need additional geologic hazard mapping efforts to adequately prepare for the increased hazards and changes from a warming climate, shrinking sea ice and permafrost degradation.

Hyperspectral surveys collect data on light reflecting from vegetation or soil surfaces.  This data provides information on minerals present in the soil and exposed rock, as well as vegetation types.  It helps geologic mapping and mineral development, and has numerous applications in the areas of agriculture, forestry and ecology.

With far less than one percent surveyed, these surveys have barely begun in Alaska, yet by determining mineral content, vegetation types, and changing vegetation patterns, they would offer many benefits for geologic mapping and mineral exploration, as well as forestry, land cover and ecological applications.

Much of the central, northern, and western parts of Alaska have landforms, ground and surface water patterns, and ecological systems controlled by the distribution of permafrost, and in many cases the land is only stable because it is frozen.  If the permafrost thaws, surface and groundwater patterns change, lakes either drain or reform elsewhere, and new hydrologic patterns affect bird and mammal populations.

The human population is affected by all of this.  Understanding changes to the permafrost is crucial to understanding potential impacts of climate change on all aspects of life in Alaska.


The level of completion of geologic hazard mapping in Alaska is, for the majority of hazards, far behind that of geologic mapping.  Some key areas in need of addition mapping are coastal erosion, coastal flooding, avalanche and landslide susceptibility mapping.

Shrinking sea ice, and ice that either forms later, or breaks up earlier, leaves coastal communities vulnerable to fall and spring storms, with associated erosion, sea ice inundation, and flooding. Most of Alaska’s coastal communities do not have sufficient information on tides, water levels, community elevation data and wave strength to accurately predict what will happen during any particular storm.

Warming climate and changing precipitation patterns indicate landslides may become a more common event.  As permafrost melts, slopes become unstable.  Alaska does not have either a statewide, or community level series of maps depicting areas with known landslides, or areas at risk for future landslides.

Fogels concluded:  The State of Alaska is currently in a severe budgetary crisis and it is unlikely Alaska will be able to contribute additional funding beyond 2016’s contribution but having said that I believe Alaska has demonstrated a good faith effort to advance our shared mapping initiative.  Federal agencies need to proactively program their budgets to meet this mapping need.  This need will not be met simply because the elevation data has been finalized.  Geodetic control, orthoimagery, transportation, hydrography, cadastral and administrative boundaries are all fundamental framework layers.  Soils mapping and vegetation also needs to be addressed as does geology, hazards and etc.  In short, the State of Alaska is deeply appreciative of the on-going efforts to modernize the Alaska map.  The state welcomes AMEC’s and USGS’s efforts to incentivize a more proactive budgeting process across all affected departments and beneficiaries.

Dr. Patrick Leahy, Executive Director, American Geosciences Institute testified about AGI’s 2015 publication, “Geosciences for America’s Critical Needs: Invitation to a National Policy Dialogue,” which outlines the major geosciences issues facing the nation.  It reflects to the extent possible, a consensus community view on geoscience priorities.

Unfortunately, geoscience activity funding at USGS has not kept pace with the costs of maintaining a skilled workforce and laboratory, information technology, and data curation facilities that are essential parts of the nation’s research infrastructure.

Dr. Leahy said that understanding the interactions between Earth’s natural system and human activities is more important than ever.  Land-use decisions should be based on sound information.  The availability and flow of domestic and global minerals, energy, and water resources can have significant effects on national security and prosperity.  USGS is a key agency that provides geosciences information that is not duplicated in any other part of the federal government.

Dr. Robert McCoy, Director of the Geophysical Institute (GI) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, testified about some of the institute’s activities in Alaska.

Important hazards in Alaska that fall under the purview of the USGS include:

  • Volcanoes – Alaska has 52 historically active volcanoes, with an average of a new eruption every three months. About 85 percent of air traffic from Asia passes over these volcanoes including 50,000 passengers per day.  The Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) monitors the volcanoes in a partnership between USGS, GI, and the state.
  • Earthquakes – Alaska is by far the most seismically active state. The Alaska Earthquake Center (AEC) recorded and located 40,000 earthquakes in Alaska (about one every 13 min) last year.  The second largest earthquake ever recorded was in Alaska and 90 percent of all U.S. earthquakes above magnitude 6 are in Alaska.
  • Tsunamis – Alaska has been battered over time by numerous tsunamis and Alaska’s shoreline still bears the residue from the tsunamis generated by the 1964 “Good Friday Earthquake.” Tsunamis from this and several other Alaska earthquakes have crossed the Pacific and caused severe damage and casualties in Hawaii and the west coast.
  • Snow, ice, permafrost and glaciers: Alaska has the longest coastline in the U.S. with extensive sea ice, permafrost that covers an area twice the size of Texas, and more than 100,000 glaciers. Most of the glaciers are receding rapidly.
  • Space weather: Throughout the winter months (weather permitting), Alaska residents are treated to glorious displays of auroral activity. While unforgettably beautiful, this space weather effect plays havoc on a wide range of communication and navigation systems including HF, satellite communications and GPS navigation.  Large magnetic storms can drive geomagnetically induced currents threatening power grids and potentially causing large area power outages.

Dr. McCoy concluded: There is nothing new about all these natural hazards in Alaska, they have been occurring for millions of years.  What is new is that as the globe warms and polar ice recedes, the nation is becoming aware of the importance of the Arctic and that because of Alaska, the US is an Arctic nation.  Those coming to Alaska for research, investment, or operations should be aware of the diversity and magnitude of the natural hazards in Alaska.  GI is prepared to continue to partner with ADGGS and the USGS to monitor and help mitigate natural hazards in Alaska.