U.S. SEISMIC NETWORKS: A TIME FOR CHANGE
The following is based on my "parting comments" made at the annual meeting of the Council of the National Seismic System (CNSS) in May of this year. These comments originate from my experiences over the last two years as Chairman of the CNSS and reflect some of the frustrations I experienced as well as recognition of progress made and my hopes for the future. While they are mostly for the benefit of seismic network operators and staff, they may be of interest to anyone concerned about the future of long-term seismic monitoring in the U.S.
First, as Vice-chairman and then Chairman of the CNSS, I learned a lot about the complex aspects of cooperation between networks and the coordination needed to serve our many clients effectively. I gained a new appreciation of many individuals who take responsibility for making things work on a scale larger than a single network. Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to recognize these "extra effort" people individually.
I want to devote this commentary to some of the problems I have come to know and love as CNSS Chairman. With the drafting of an "Assessment of Seismic Monitoring in the U.S." report to Congress by the U.S. Geological Survey, we are at a watershed. Even though this report is not "officially" released (end of June 1999), it is getting an amazing amount of attention already, and major new funds for what the report calls an "Advanced National Seismic System" (ANSS) are a real possibility. Much of the following is based on my personal experience and the underlying assumption that the vision and goals outlined in the assessment report are good and, in general, what we all want.
Unfortunately, I see a number of difficulties with the way some things have been going and want to lay it on the line from my point of view. For an ANSS to succeed I am convinced that major changes in the way seismic monitoring is done in the U.S. must be made. The emerging possibility for significant federal funding to upgrade U.S. seismic monitoring infrastructure provides an opportunity to learn from our past problems and move beyond them.
Professional Network Operation
As CNSS Chairman I have made the point several times that I feel that the permanent seismic networks must not continue to be run only as science experiments. While many have broadened their scope, there are many others still burdened by the legacy of their original mission as research-only networks. Networks of the future must be run in a professional manner with a full-time staff devoted to their operation, not a university professor who takes time out from classes now and then to fix a station or pick arrivals. This, of course, also applies to some of the nonacademic institutions such as the "University of Menlo Park", where the mix of research goals and operational activities have been muddled in the past (though not so much recently). Some of us (I include myself in this group) must decide if we are going to manage a network or do research on its data. If we want to do research, we must hire a professional operational staff. Policy direction for the network should come from a wider group than just the scientists. It must include engineers, public policy people, emergency managers--i.e., representatives of ALL the network's clients--and have a strong national overprint so it is truly part of a national seismic system with appropriate standards and services.
This mode may not be cost-effective for many of the very small networks. I don't think many such networks, in their current modes, are viable in the future. I suggest that geographical consortia of the current small networks should be formed. The day-to-day operations would then be handled by a professional operations staff. Policy direction and cooperation from the participating institutions should be expected, but the quality and responsiveness to all users of the network's data must be uniformly high. I submit that this main operational group might not even be on a university campus. It could be a separate nonprofit (à la the IRIS model), a state agency, or a USGS local group. However, it is imperative that it maintain close ties with research objectives. Research scientists should probably remain the most important, but not the only, clients of the network. With current data networking technology, all research groups (and others) with an interest in network data could have real-time data feeds. Sacrifice of control and ownership will be needed, and the old model in many cases thrown out. It's revolution time for some.
The IRIS Model of Cooperation
IRIS has shown that seismologists can get together, organize, and work on common goals which result in more and better resources for seismic research. IRIS has been a great success. HOWEVER, there are aspects of this model which do NOT directly transfer to the permanent seismic network operations. NSF and IRIS are pure science organizations, USGS permanent networks are not (as mentioned already). Primarily one institution, NSF, funds IRIS and the research using IRIS facilities. NSF's job is comparatively simple: fund high-quality science through a peer-review system and support that science using the IRIS facilities. NSF does not engage in doing science itself nor run the facilities. The permanent networks, on the other hand, operate in a very different environment. The USGS (which supports only about two thirds of the permanent network stations) both funds and operates networks itself. It also funds and does research itself on the data from the networks. The situation is further complicated by the position USGS occupies within the Department of the Interior, where there are a plethora of missions unrelated to seismology, research, or even geology. So, the situation is not simple. There are all sorts of possibilities for conflicts of interest, working at cross-purposes, duplications, and inefficiencies which NSF and IRIS just do not face. We can learn by the cooperative process among the seismologists who got and keep IRIS going, but I feel it is naive in the extreme to think we can just copy that model.
We mostly understand and appreciate the competition inherent in an active and vigorous research community. We compete for research funds, research credit, promotions, and data access. The attitude still remains that if I bust my butt collecting data, I get first crack at it. If I locate an earthquake first or best or it's in my backyard, it's my earthquake. This is our history; it goes back to the Byerly/Gutenberg line of the 1950's or before and still may be appropriate for individual research projects. For permanent networks providing data for many purposes, though, I don't think this is appropriate. While things are getting better, we still have cases of mistrust and noncooperation between different networks, particularly between a regional network and the National Seismic Network because of their overlapping jurisdictions. This is often only a case of miscommunication, resulting in rumor or innuendo rather than a true conflict. Things are moving in the right direction. We can accelerate that motion if we all value and recognize the need for cooperation among networks rather than competition.
This topic is an extension of the above topic of turf battles but is accentuated by our widely different histories and clients. Strong-motion data are the future for earthquake hazard mitigation efforts, be it for engineering purposes long after an earthquake has happened or within seconds of an event for real-time warning systems. The separation of the strong-motion verses weak-motion communities must break down. It is happening in Southern California, with some effort and bumps in the road from what I hear, but it is happening and the results are promising. The model of a national strong-motion program (NSMP) being run totally by one group from one place for the whole country makes no more sense than all conventional seismographs being run only by the USNSN group in Colorado. The NSMP must involve, coordinate, and cooperate with regional network groups for all of our sakes.
Cooperative Technological Developments
I have been in the middle of what I am calling the Earthworm/Antelope fiasco. I call it a fiasco not because of the technological products which now exist (which are quite impressive), but rather because of the process by which we have arrived where we now are. The process has stunk. A little history for illustration is needed. The Earthworm effort was originally talked up as a modular, scalable networking, recording, and processing system born in the early 1990's from a meeting of network operators called Alta-II. The developers proposed, and some of us strongly supported, the idea that with a base system going others could join the group and contribute improvements, separate modules, and ideas to the system. A talented group from the University of Alaska was the first to make such contributions. However, their contributions were slow to be adopted by the original Earthworm team (though many eventually were). Alaska grew impatient, and there was a falling apart of this cooperative effort.
A little over two years ago, several of us on the sidelines saw this happening and hoped to "fix" the process, i.e., get the original model of participation by many back on track. The creation of an advisory group of people interested in the cooperative development of Earthworm was formed at a CNSS meeting. Unfortunately, this group's efforts have been almost a total failure. Other than one request for the production of Earthworm documentation (which the original development team then did produce), nothing has resulted. Few of its members have taken any responsibility for directing or suggesting developments of Earthworm.
However, independent of the advisory group, there has been ad hoc participation by several different regional networks which have contributed software, bug fixes, and suggestions which have slowly been making Earthworm a viable system. Unfortunately, not all networks using Earthworm code have so reciprocated. Some of the larger networks, some with lots of resources and talent, have taken, used, or adapted Earthworm code and not provided anything in return, not even bug fixes. Also, some networks seem to think that Earthworm should be provided to them and run for them, and they need not take the responsibility of learning its subtleties.
Of course, the whole network data processing system "fiasco" has gotten more complex with the arrival on the scene of Antelope, which in some ways is a direct competitor to Earthworm and in others a nice complement to it. While I don't want to get into any of the technical issues of Antelope, as an aside, it's my opinion that Antelope is nowhere near the Messiah its fervent supporters claim nor the devil its detractors might suggest. Like many things, the truth lies somewhere between the extreme positions. It seems a good system with some very strong points, but with some difficulties which may be largely related to its proprietary nature. There has now developed what would seem to be two "camps", the Earthworm camp and the Antelope camp. Both systems seem to be quite viable and potentially very complementary. Unfortunately the "process" for taking advantage of this potential complementarity has broken down. Whatever happens in the future regarding such technical issues, I would hope that the process can be open, with participation, in good faith, by all.
Participation in a National Seismic System
We all have too much to do. Network operators all have local tasks that take priority over national tasks. We all want to do interesting research and minimize administrative hassles. We all have individual responsibilities to teach classes, supervise students or employees, write interesting proposals and papers, report to obnoxious bosses or deans, and write useless reports to administrative muckety-mucks. It leaves little time for national-level interaction. Even if there were time, there is little direct incentive for any of us to cooperate with anyone else or follow national standards or policies. Cooperative network agreements with the USGS have reporting and data-distribution requirements, yet many of us do not fulfill those requirements, and we keep being funded. Over four years ago the CNSS passed a resolution to make our network data available in SEED format in a major data center. Since then it seems that only the NSN has been successful in doing that. Most of our data is in different formats with unknown response information and quality. It is no wonder that many NSF-funded researchers don't know or even care about the permanent seismic networks. As one noted researcher recently said, "If the data are not in something like the IRIS Data Management Center, then they just don't exist."
Things must change. If the recommendations of the assessment report to Congress are to be successfully implemented, then business as usual won't work. The USGS, as the lead agency, with authority invested in them by Congress for earthquake monitoring, must take a strong leadership role and hold all of our feet to the fire if we don't perform. This, of course, includes their own operations as well. At the same time the USGS must recognize that the success of a national monitoring system depends on all of us. They don't do it alone, nor should they design a new system alone. It must be a cooperative effort on all sides. We all must be willing to contribute our ideas and suggestions and to seriously consider those of others. I am convinced that the USGS science and seismology managers are willing to listen. They have demonstrated that willingness in the drafting of the assessment report. There is still some doubt in my mind that the administration above the level of operational scientists in the USGS and Department of the Interior are behind the assessment report. The extreme delay in the release of the report is evidence of that. This brings up the option advocated in a previous "Opinion", in the November/December 1998 SRL by Walter Arabasz, of supporting the National Seismic System by congressional line-item funding rather than depending on the budgeting plans within the Department of the Interior. There are good reasons for and against this model, too many to be included here.
Independent of funding models, the assessment report is powerful. Not only does it illustrate why and how the conventional seismic networks can cooperate, but it includes the strong-motion community as well. If funded it can provide many times the resources we now struggle to share. However, for those resources to be wisely used we must all take the time and effort to participate in its design plan. This will also require a serious commitment to compromise on our tightly held, historical biases and to sacrifice some of the independence we have had in the past. If, on the contrary, those resources are divided up in some arbitrary way for each of us to go our own independent ways with them, as we have in the past, it will be a great disservice to the country and its taxpayers.
I don't know the future of the CNSS, but I expect it to change and evolve over the next few years just as our networks must. I do feel that its new chairman, Tom Heaton, with experience in both the strong-motion and weak-motion fields, has appropriate strengths. Also, his association with the southern California Tri-Net project, which in some ways is a prototype of what the Advanced National Seismic System might shoot for, places him in a good position to expedite this evolution.
To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.
Posted: 20 September 1999