SEATTLE - From Friday evening on October 4 to Monday afternoon on October 7, data from some 100 strong motion seismometers around Western Washington state could not be seen by scientists at the University of Washington's Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
That was because the data from those monitors is processed through a U.S. Geological Survey computer in Menlo Park, California, and one of those computers suffered a routine glitch. The problem was there were no federal workers at work at the U.S.G.S. They're on mandatory furlough.
Immediately, calls started going out from University of Washington scientists to find somebody who could get inside the building in Menlo Park and reboot the computer. After numerous calls to the top in Washington, D.C., that happened.
"They were able to get an essential person at a lower level to spend a few minutes, and that's all it took to get the data flowing again,” said Paul Bodin, the manager of the PNSN.
Bodin and PNSN Director and Washington State Seismologist John Vidale say the network - hundreds of seismometers that keep constant vigil over any ground shaking in Washington - is up and running now. But they say the system is not robust. One third of the seismology staff at the UW are federal employees and they are not in their offices. That’s about a dozen people.
If a major quake struck and the network held, there would be far fewer people to conduct the analysis on potentially damaging aftershocks that might or might not follow a quake in the Northwest. The network also provides shaking information that can tell first responders where to head to help out the worst hit areas. Planning for future research to study our earthquake vulnerabilities is on hold.
The good news is that it's been a quiet couple of weeks for quakes. That can change in an instant.
"As long as people are willing to roll the dice and do without the eyes on the ground that a seismometer network provides, maybe they're not unhappy with the government shut down," said Vidale.