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Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellows Visit the USGS in Menlo Park, CA

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Major Shawn Filby , Dr. Steven Chase, and Dr. Paul Brand
Above: The ComSci Fellows began their tour in the USGS Visitors Center. Pictured here (left to right) are Major Shawn Filby of the National Reconnaissance Office, Dr. Steven Chase (almost hidden) of the Federal Highway Administration, and Dr. Paul Brand of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, pointing to a favorite travel destination.

USGS ecologist Jan Thompson (left) welcomes the ComSci Fellows to her lab.
Above: USGS ecologist Jan Thompson (left) welcomes the ComSci Fellows to her lab.

A group of senior-level employees from various Federal agencies visited the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) center in Menlo Park, CA, on May 18 during a field trip to promote interagency understanding and cooperation. The visitors are participants in the 2004-05 U.S. Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellowship (ComSci) Program. The 14 ComSci Fellows who toured the center represent such agencies as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency, to name a few. Their whirlwind (2-hour) tour of the center included briefings on topics in which they had expressed particular interest, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and how water quality and monitoring efforts in San Francisco Bay compare with those in the Chesapeake Bay.

Jan Thompson, an ecologist in the USGS Water Resources Discipline, compared the San Francisco and Chesapeake Bays, explaining to the ComSci Fellows that although the two large estuaries look similar in many ways—both are ringed by urban development, for example—they are very different ecologically. Fine sediment from surrounding watersheds makes San Francisco Bay a turbid system with limited light, resulting in a shortage of biologically available carbon (provided by aquatic plants) despite the large amount of nutrients that flow into the bay from wastewater-treatment plants and agricultural runoff. The carbon shortage leads to a shortage of food for fish, one of the reasons why there are no commercial fisheries in the bay. The Chesapeake Bay, in contrast, has historically been a more productive system with extensive commercial fisheries, partly owing to clearer water, which produces more plants at the base of the food web. Today, the clearer water and excessive nutrients result in too much carbon, with an overabundant growth of aquatic plants. The result is episodic anoxia, in which an excess of plant material is left unconsumed and dies, settling to the bottom, where bacterial decomposition of the plants uses up the oxygen in a water mass, killing the organisms. The two bays also differ sociopolitically. Monitoring of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, for example, is paid for largely by the Federal Government and several States that surround the bay, whereas monitoring in San Francisco Bay is paid for largely by water contractors who tap numerous reservoirs filled with snowmelt that historically drained into the bay. The ComSci Fellows were keenly interested in Thompson's comparison of the two estuaries, as well as in their tour of her lab, where her studies include ecosystem effects of invasive species, a problem common to both bays but more acute in San Francisco Bay, which is known as the most invaded aquatic system in North America.

Eric Geist, a geophysicist in the Western Coastal and Marine Geology Team, explained to the ComSci Fellows how modern technological tools are used along with computer models to analyze tsunamis. Analyzing past tsunamis provides critical information for an ongoing interagency effort to develop forecast models for short-term tsunami warnings and inundation models for long-term mitigation planning. Geist demonstrated his computer model of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (see URL http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/tsunami/sumatraEQ/model.html) and gave the ComSci Fellows a brief overview of how a tsunami is triggered by sea-floor deformation during an earthquake, how tsunami waves shorten and steepen as they enter shallow water, and how the waves interact with coastline topography to produce reflections and other secondary waves. Using the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as an example, Geist showed the fellows how

  • data from the Global Seismic Network provide information about fault-rupture processes used to model tsunami generation;
  • bathymetric and topographic databases are used to model tsunami propagation through the ocean and inundation over coastal land; and
  • technological advances—such as bottom-pressure recorders, cabled deep-sea observatories, and satellites—improve scientists' ability to directly measure tsunami wave heights and test model predictions.

Geist emphasized that interagency collaboration is essential for the effective mitigation of tsunami hazards.

Additional briefings for the ComSci Fellows included presentations on earthquake and geographic research and a demonstration of the USGS "one stop" source for geospatial data, The National Map.

The ComSci Program was established in 1964 to provide senior-level executive-branch employees with an opportunity to study national and international issues relating to the development, application, and management of science and technology. Each class of fellows takes a week-long field trip to investigate academic, private-sector, and government science, technology, and technology policy; this year's class chose the San Francisco Bay area for their field trip. In addition to the USGS, some of the organizations they planned to visit included the Golden Gate Bridge Transportation Authority; the Exploratorium; the University of California, Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology; the Stanford Linear Accelerator; Agilent Technologies; Sun Microsystems; the NASA Ames Research Center; Intuitive Surgical Robotics; the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory; and Genentech, Inc.

Related Web Sites
U.S. Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellowship (ComSci) Program
U.S. Department of Commerce
Tsunami Generation from the 2004 M=9.0 Sumatra Earthquake
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
The National Map
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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Publications June Publications List

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