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A year on the job, she takes pride in disaster response

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When she took over in November 2009 as the first female director of the U.S. Geological Survey, geophysicist Marcia McNutt already had her work cut out for her in streamlining and modernizing a historic scientific agency. That was before a string of natural disastersearthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a volcanic eruption in Iceland and the Gulf of Mexico oil spillmade her job an even bigger challenge. In October she spoke at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver about the roller-coaster ride of her first year. Science News contributing editor Alexandra Witze compiled this edited version of McNutt’s comments.

On January 12, I was pulled out of a meeting to find out that Port-au-Prince had been nearly a direct hit for a magnitude 7.0 earthquake. My stomach started churning. This wasn’t just another 7.0 earthquake; this was something pretty major. The USGS had a novel tool called PAGER [Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquakes for Response], which is a preliminary assessment of the damage from earthquakes that took into account things such as the groundshaking, proximity to population centers, and the building standards — which gave an immediate heads-up to the decision makers in our federal government so they could know what kind of response was appropriate.

In this administration, the leadership is eager to use science in decision making. We as scientists should be eager to make our science relevant and communicate it well so that they can.

In the aftermath of the Haiti quake, there were rumors going rampant in Port-au-Prince in the days and weeks following the main event, that there were going to be other triggered earthquakes as large as, or larger than, the main quake. Many relief workers were afraid of doing their jobs freeing trapped victims in buildings. So the USGS developed a statement on aftershock probabilities as a function of time that told relief workers what size aftershocks they could expect. All the relief agencies said it was very helpful. It helped people go about their jobs in a sensible way.

Then we had the monstrous 8.8 Chilean quake about six weeks later. This earthquake was a very interesting comparison to the Haiti earthquake. My colleague [USGS geophysicist] Ross Stein most aptly made the comparison: Imagine putting 400 people in a room and shaking it up. If there were 400 Haitians in the room, one would walk out alive. Put 400 Chileans in the room and shake it up, and 399 walk out alive. The difference in those two experiments is the decades of preparation in Chile for the big earthquakes. We need to have tools ready and deployable so that we can at least prepare people, so that the impacts are less. We can’t stop the plates from moving, but we can prepare so that the economic and human casualty toll is minimized.

We still had people in the field in Haiti and Chile when a little-known and unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupted and disrupted air traffic. Prior to Eyjafjallajökull, the airline jet engine manufacturers had had a zero-tolerance policy for engines flying through volcanic ash. This would be equivalent to the automobile tire manufacturers having a zero-tolerance policy for automobiles driving in the snow — saying we don’t know if our tires perform well in snow so we’re just going to say if it snows, don’t drive. That’s not acceptable.

Of all the events that happened this year, the one that touched me the closest was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I personally led the flow rate technical group, which did the calculations on the rate of flow release and came up with the government assessment that flow rate at the end of the incident was 53,000 barrels of oil per day. It had been 63,000 barrels per day at the start.

One of the efforts that I’m most proud of from the USGS was the well integrity team. There were grave concerns, both at BP and within the federal government, as to whether the various well casings and liners had kept their integrity or whether there were blown seals and cracks such that if we shut the well to stop its flow, oil might escape through those into surrounding formations and eventually up into the ocean. That could produce a worse environmental disaster than the one we already had.

We shut the well on July 15 for a well integrity test. [USGS hydrologist] Paul Hsieh stayed up all night modeling the reservoir beneath the well. The science advisers to the secretary of energy, out of an abundance of caution, had recommended that the well be reopened. The pressure was too low to take a chance. But Paul sent his most plausible scenario, which predicted a high depletion of the reservoir without any loss in well integrity. Based on Paul’s modeling, the secretary of energy, the secretary of interior and [National Incident Commander] Thad Allen agreed to leave the well shut. It never leaked another drop of oil. That is a true example of science being used in a truly unique situation where it counted.

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