Going into the New Year, the USGS reflects on the natural hazards of 2014 as a reminder of the dangers we face and the need for preparedness to save lives and property.

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Exploring the Natural Hazards of 2014

In 2014, several damaging natural earthquakes occurred around the world. A devastating landslide occurred in Washington State, while heavy rains and landslides also hit California. Notable volcanic activity occurred in Alaska, Hawaii and Iceland, with some alerts and eruptions still ongoing. A drought state of emergency was declared in California, and sinkholes have continued to be of heightened interest. USGS scientists also analyzed seismic data to help focus investigations on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Start with Science

While natural disasters are devastating, we can learn from their destruction if we pursue the science needed to understand their causes, the technology to characterize and assess the underlying hazards, and then apply both to build more robust and safer communities. The USGS is dedicated to learning from these past events and progressing forward with innovative research and monitoring to better characterize hazards and their impacts.

Significant Earthquakes Around the World

The magnitude-6.0 earthquake that struck northern California in August was the strongest in the Bay Area since the magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, almost 25 years earlier. Another notable event was the magnitude-8.2 earthquake that struck Chile in April. Hundreds of aftershocks larger than magnitude 4.0 followed the main shock. These included magnitude 6.9 and 7.7 earthquakes in the days following the earthquake.

Other noteworthy earthquakes included: a magnitude-6.4 earthquake in Puerto Rico in January; a magnitude-5.1 earthquake in Cuba also in January; a magnitude-7.2 earthquake in Mexico in April; a magnitude-7.9 earthquake in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in June; and a magnitude-6.9 earthquake in Mexico in July.

Read a recent USGS news release to learn more about earthquake events in 2014 and how the number of large earthquakes decreased from 2013.

USGS science plays a vital role in understanding and preparing communities for earthquake hazards in our country and internationally. This past year, the USGS updated the U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps, which reflect the best and most current understanding of where future earthquakes will occur, how often they will occur, and how hard the ground will likely shake as a result. While all states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years (the typical lifetime of a building). Scientists also conclude that 16 states have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing very damaging ground shaking.

Seismic Event vs. Airline Crash

Early in the investigation of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, it was speculated by some that a small seismic event on March 7 was evidence that the plane crashed in the Gulf of Thailand. However, USGS quickly re-analyzed the available data to show that a magnitude 2.7 seismic event—a natural earthquake­—had occurred to the west of Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, and that there were no seismic signals of a plane crash. USGS scientists often investigate non-earthquake seismic events to determine their causes.

Landslides Strike Washington & California

A large landslide occurred in northwest Washington State on March 22. The landslide killed 43 people, caused additional injuries, and buried about 40 homes and about one mile of State Route 530. The landslide occurred in an area of known landslide activity, but travelled rapidly over an unusually large distance, leading to the great loss of life and destruction. USGS scientists provided technical expertise to Washington State and Snohomish County to ensure the safety of the search, rescue, and recovery operations, which lasted for more than one month.  

Starting in November and continuing through December, California faced substantial rainfall and landslides. The areas of greatest concern were those hit with heavy rain, on steep terrain, and that have been subject to wildfires in the past 1-2 years.

Landslides occur in all 50 states and U.S. territories and cause billions in damages and more than 25 fatalities on average each year. USGS science is helping answer questions such as where, when and how often landslides occur, and how fast and far they might move. USGS scientists produce maps of areas susceptible to landslides and identify what sort of rainfall conditions will lead to such events.

Volcanic Unrest

A lava flow that emerged on June 27 from the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō vent on the East Rift Zone of Hawaii’s Kīlauea Volcano destroyed roads and property in the town of Pāhoa. The vent began erupting in 1983 and has continued erupting essentially nonstop for more than 31 years. The June 27 flow is the most recent of such events and continues to advance and grow. Kīlauea’s current aviation color code is ORANGE, as it continues to erupt at its summit and within its East Rift Zone.

Activity at Alaska’s volcanoes has been of particular concern this past year. At Pavlof Volcano, a low-level eruption began in May and quickly escalated with a volcano warning alert and aviation color code of RED issued in June. Currently the alert level is slightly lower at the color YELLOW, with a return to more robust eruptive activity possible and potentially occurring with little or no warning. Shishaldin Volcano in Alaska is at a higher color code of ORANGE and currently under watch for a potential eruption.

Internationally, Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland is currently erupting and first went on high alert when it started to show signs of unrest in August. To date, seismic activity and other indicators are still strong and there are up to 40 to 50 earthquakes per day related to volcanic activity. The activity at Bárðarbunga has already resulted in approximately 2 cubic kilometers of magma erupted, the largest eruption in Iceland in 100 years, as well as significant amounts of sulfur dioxide gas. The Icelandic Meteorological Office continues to provide forecasts and up-to-date information on the volcano’s activity.

In the United States, the USGS is the agency responsible for monitoring the Nation’s volcanoes. The United States has approximately 169 active volcanoes, and more than half of them could erupt explosively and threaten aviation and communities. Furthermore, there are over 1,550 active volcanoes in the world, and the USGS-USAID Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) assisted several countries in responding to volcanic unrest in 2014.

Drought Worldwide: Spotlight on California

Nearly 50 percent of the Nation is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and about 2.5 percent of the Nation is experiencing exceptional drought. Water availability is a growing concern not only across the Nation, but also worldwide. The USGS conducts real-time monitoring of the Nation’s streams and groundwater, providing officials with critical information for flood warnings and drought mitigation.

On January 17, 2014, the California State Governor declared a drought state of emergency. California's 2014 Water Year, which ended September 30, 2014, was the third driest in 119 years of record. It also was the warmest year on record. Since October 1, California has had several significant precipitation events and there are predictions for wetter conditions, but the state currently remains in drought conditions and most reservoir levels are still well below historic averages.

Phenomenon of Sinkholes

One of the most newsworthy sinkhole events that happened this past year was the collapse at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. About 20 percent of the United States lies in areas with geology susceptible to sinkholes, known as karst terrain. USGS scientists and their state geological survey partners play a key role by developing geologic maps of the Nation to help understand where sinkholes are likely to occur and assess potential risk.

Living with Mother Nature in 2015 – Start with Science

These events are just a sampling of what occurred in 2014. Mother Nature has many other hazardous faces—from solar storms to hurricanes and additional dangers. Without a doubt, natural hazards will continue, but with an enhanced scientific understanding and effective preparedness, the devastation and destruction can be diminished. The USGS will continue to research and monitor natural hazards in an effort to keep citizens better informed and prepared.

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