Government Shutdown Puts Earthquake Reporting At Risk

Holly Quan
January 17, 2019 - 1:44 pm

With the regularity of an early morning alarm clock, earthquakes centered in Piedmont and the Oakland Hills struck two mornings in a row. The jolts were felt across the Bay Area, causing phones to ring off the hook at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park. But because of the ongoing government shutdown, there was no one there to answer the calls.

But nearby, U.C. Berkeley’s Seismology Lab is open for business, and was able to pick up the slack.

Cal regularly partners with the USGS and in the event of a government shutdown, and it’s Cal scientists who put out the initial magnitude, location and depth of an earthquake.

Dr. Peggy Hellweg, the lab’s operations manager, told KCBS Radio that some of that earthquake information comes from the USGS' automated systems, other data comes from Cal, and all of it is funneled to a central computer.

“The bad thing about it right now is that the USGS systems are kind of running blind,” said Helwegg. “And if something breaks down, it breaks down, and then we have a much poorer view of earthquakes in Northern California.”

The two organizations meet regularly to plan and discuss their reporting and response to earthquakes, with Cal’s Seismology Lab taking the lead for the region. But that’s not happening during the shutdown.

“There’s going to be a huge backlog of work for people to do at USGS,” said Helwegg, when the impasse finally ends. The standoff over President Trump's demand for border wall funding has created the longest government shutdown in the country's history. 

The USGS also pays a lot of the Cal scientists’ salaries. The contract is due to be renewed at the end of January, but there’s currently no one working to process the paperwork.

After that deadline, U.C. Berkeley scientists could find themselves, like many federal workers and contractors, without a paycheck—and the public could be left without any earthquake reporting at all.

While the shutdown's implications may be alarming, Helwegg cautioned people about drawing any ominous conclusions from the consecutive quakes on Wednesday and Thursday.

“But it’s always a possibility that the big one is coming."

Written by Jordan Bowen.