Voices of Alaska: How state funding is used by the Alaska Earthquake Center

  • By Michael West
  • Saturday, February 27, 2016 5:13pm
  • Opinion

As the state and university examine priorities, a very legitimate question is how something as ill defined as “research” can be central to the state’s well being. I can think of no organization to better illustrate the answer than the Alaska Earthquake Center. The Earthquake Center, housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, is operating this year on $740,000 in state general funding, embedded in the university’s budget. These are the only monies spent by the state on earthquake monitoring, but this funding enables millions more from outside sources to support earthquake efforts. The state provides the nucleus to which other projects can attach.

For thirty years, the Center has used state monies to maintain a network of 150 earthquake monitoring stations that span the Aleutians to Southeast to the North Slope. The state owns the equipment, pays telecommunications costs, and supports engineers, technicians, data analysts and research scientists. Under direction from the state legislature (AS 14.40.075), the Alaska Earthquake Center maintains a public archive of all earthquake and volcanic seismic data, assesses hazards to the state, and provides 24/7 monitoring of the approximately 35,000 earthquakes that occur each year in Alaska.

Because this core facility exists, the Alaska Earthquake Center is able to secure add-on projects from federal agencies and corporate entities. A sample of these include:

National Weather Service. Support rapid tsunami warning with real-time data feeds.

U.S. Geological Survey. Support the national earthquake monitoring framework.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Corp. Provide custom monitoring along the pipeline corridor.

Alaska Energy Authority. Provide custom monitoring to Bradley Lake hydropower facility.

The Center is able to secure these projects because of the core earthquake monitoring facility supported by the state. These external funds are about three times larger than the direct state support. If the state-supported Alaska Earthquake Center did not exist, there would be no reason to fund these initiatives through the university (funded at about $25 million over the past decade).

Most important, however, having a state-sponsored earthquake facility allows externally-funded projects to pay back to the citizens of Alaska. When an earthquake such as the magnitude 7.1 on January 24 occurs, the resources from all of these projects are leveraged together to assess and track the event. The financial leadership of the state ensures that all of these resources work together in a single coordinated effort. So though state funding provides the core facility, the vast majority of Alaska’s earthquake monitoring effort is ultimately paid for by federal and corporate entities.

The Alaska Earthquake Center is in no way unique. Given the relevance of the center’s mission, however, and the degree of external funding, it seems a wonderfully clear example of how state funding is leveraged to provide Alaska with a far greater service than we would otherwise have.

Michael West is a State Seismologist for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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