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Our Ever-Changing Earth: Science to Understand, Prepare for, and Mitigate the Risks of Change

USGS CoreCast

2011: The Year of the Flood

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Climate Connections: Questions from North and South Carolina

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East Coast Earthquakes

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Winter storm erosion of coastal bluffs at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, January 2010.

As the climate changes, the conditions behind the unprecedented erosion of the 2009-2010 winter could become more common. Erosion assessments are helping coastal decison makers prepare for the potential damage of future storms. (Photo Credit: Jeff Hansen, USGS.)

  • As a 5.8-magnitude earthquake near Mineral, Virginia, sent a jolt through 22 eastern States in August, many were surprised and frightened.
  • As roads, homes, and farmlands were swamped by flooding from melting snowpack and spring rains, and as more property, roads, and even century-old covered bridges were washed away by flooding brought on by hurricanes this summer, many were caught off guard by the record-breaking water levels.
  • As severe drought conditions in Texas caused die-offs of fish and wildlife and helped fuel widespread wildfires that forced residents to quickly gather family and escape to shelters, many were not prepared for the damages to their natural resources and homes.
  • As climate change alters the ranges of species (such as moose and beaver), the reliability of vegetation (such as salmonberries), and the predictability of weather in the Arctic, residents have become concerned about their safety, their sources of food, and their livelihoods.

Unexpected hazardous events and changes to the world around us can be devastating.

But USGS science can help remove the element of surprise.

  • Thanks to building codes based on USGS science, the damage to structures during the earthquake was greatly reduced.
  • Thanks to streamflow data and flood statistics that support the National Weather Service’s flood warning systems, communities had real-time flooding information as well as time to prepare before the floods hit.
  • Thanks to wildfire mapping to guide emergency response decisions, residents had time to evacuate areas threatened by fires.
  • Thanks to climate change modeling and impact studies, decision makers are developing a better understanding of how a changing climate is impacting our societies and natural resources.

Answering the Questions Posed by Our Ever-Changing Earth

October 9 – 15, 2011, is Earth Science Week, themed “Our Ever-Changing Earth,” and October 12 is International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction.

These awareness events provide an opportunity for everyone to learn how science is helping to answer questions that arise in the face of our vulnerabilities to both natural hazards and changes to the earth.

Is your area prone to earthquakes?  

Even though East Coast earthquakes may seem rare to the current generation, they are not a new or an unknown occurrence.

Church steeples still lean in Charleston, South Carolina, after an intense earthquake shook the city in 1886. And seismic studies have shown that earthquakes in eastern States are felt over much broader areas and can cause damage many miles from their epicenter.

You can learn about the earthquake hazards in your area by accessing seismic hazard maps and data from the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program.

How can we anticipate and prepare for likely flooding?

USGS scientists monitor real-time streamflow and water quality for thousands of streams across the Nation. With the USGS WaterAlert service, you can receive data electronically from streamgage stations when certain thresholds are exceeded.

The information collected by these gages not only allows individuals and communities to have real-time warnings of flooding, but by providing a long-term record, this information also helps communities to plan for likely future flooding.

As the climate and the landscape changes, the historical record is not always a good indicator of what will happen in the future.

To help prepare for potential flooding, USGS scientists can combine an understanding of how water behaves on the landscape with detailed topographic maps of specific areas to provide cities with flood inundation maps that show which areas would likely flood given specific water levels.

What is causing the ocean and soils to become more acidic?

Increased acidity of the ocean and soils has been linked to damaged ocean food webs and to poor crop sustainability. A recent study on acidification found that it is human activities, such as the mining and burning of coal, the mining and smelting of metal ores, and the use of nitrogen fertilizer, that are making our air, water, and soils more acidic.

To help policymakers address the problem, researchers also created world maps that are helping to alert policymakers about possible future trends and areas to watch for developing hotspots.

How is climate change affecting people in the Arctic?

To help understand socioeconomic issues of climate change, the USGS interviewed those with traditional and personal environmental knowledge: Yup’ik hunters and elders in two Alaskan villages.

The villagers described the changes they have seen and expressed concerns ranging from safety, such as unpredictable weather patterns and dangerous ice conditions, to changes in plants and animals as well as decreased availability of firewood.

Are our coastal homes at risk to future storms?

The El Niño conditions of the winter of 2009 – 2010 eroded beaches at some sites in California and the Pacific Northwest. But how bad was the damage and what can residents expect in the future?

USGS erosion studies on the West Coast  revealed that the conditions produced by El Niño, with above average wave energy and ocean water levels, contributed to unprecedented beach erosion in some areas. As the climate changes, El Niño conditions are likely to be more frequent, and these assessments are helping coastal experts to better predict how future climatic patterns will affect the Pacific Coast. With this information, land managers and decision makers can mitigate for possible damage to western coastlines

Our Ever-Changing Earth

Earth is ever changing, but through earth and natural science studies, the USGS is helping the Nation to understand our vulnerabilities, to anticipate the impacts, and to mitigate the risks.

Learn more about Earth Science Week events in your area.

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