Categorized | Earthquake, Featured, Sci-Tech, Volcano

Volcano Watch: What does the National Earthquake Information Center have to do with Hawaii?

Lobby of the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado. USGS photo.

Lobby of the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado. USGS photo.

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

One of the marvelous aspects of our modern, internet-connected world is the ability to share vast amounts of data at the speed of light across the globe. Increasingly, government agencies responsible for monitoring hazardous processes (like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) are taking advantage of technology to use resources efficiently and support public safety. A great example is how the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado helps us here in Hawai’i.

The location of NEIC seems odd at first. We are often asked, “There aren’t many earthquakes in Colorado, why is the NEIC there?” The relatively low seismic hazard in Colorado, compared to Hawai’i, Alaska and the West Coast, makes it an ideal backup location in case a large earthquake or other natural disaster disrupts a local seismic network (like the one used by HVO to monitor earthquake and volcanic activity here in Hawai’i). In addition, there are major telecommunications hubs that run through the Denver area. The NEIC takes advantage of these to ensure highly reliable connectivity with lots of communication capacity.

The role of NEIC as remote backup has already proven its worth. Indeed, during Hurricane Iselle, HVO systems were down for several days, during which the NEIC backed up HVO’s earthquake monitoring operations. Though there weren’t any large earthquakes during the outage, NEIC could have located the event and assigned a magnitude, if needed. HVO personnel were also in contact with scientists at the NEIC to provide local expertise.

Also during the outage, a single temporary station was installed to monitor Kīlauea Volcano’s summit. Data from this station was collected by the NEIC using a cell modem radio because HVO had no communications or power. When internet was available, HVO scientists based in Hilo could then see the data in Golden and keep track of Kīlauea Volcano.

But, the NEIC is much more than just a backup for the local authorities.

The NEIC monitors earthquakes worldwide using a global network of seismometers supplemented by regional seismic networks (like those operated by HVO). With this global coverage, the NEIC is able to analyze earthquakes worldwide down to about M4.5 or less. So, when a large earthquake occurs in Japan, Indonesia, Nepal, or elsewhere in the world, the magnitude and location reported in the news are typically from the NEIC.

In order to be able to respond to earthquake anywhere in the world at any hour, the NEIC is in operation 24 hours each day, 7 days a week. At least two geophysicists are on duty at the NEIC at all times.

HVO now uses the NEIC’s 24/7 capability to better monitor volcanoes on the Island of Hawai’i. Currently, geophysicists at the NEIC check on Kīlauea and Mauna Loa in the middle of the night Hawai’i’ time to make sure nothing out of the ordinary is happening at either volcano. This helps HVO more closely provide 24/7 ‘eyes on the data’ without additional staffing. The program has been successful enough thus far that the Alaska Volcano Observatory is planning to use NEIC for overnight checks of critical volcanoes in Alaska by the end of the summer.

The NEIC is also a leader in software and data visualization innovation. Several powerful computer programs that HVO relies on to monitor earthquakes were developed at the NEIC. Of public interest, the NEIC develops and runs the Earthquake Notification Service where anyone can sign up to receive notices of earthquakes around the world (

The NEIC also developed and operates Hawai’i’s Shakemap, Did You Feel It? and PAGER products, all very popular among earthquake enthusiasts and emergency managers far and wide. The NEIC website that delivers these products along with earthquake locations and magnitudes is a rich source of earthquake information. We invite you to check it out:…

So, despite its location in landlocked Colorado, the National Earthquake Information Center is an important part of the seismic and volcano monitoring effort at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Working with NEIC, HVO will continue to improve the ability of the public in Hawai’i to explore earthquake information in intuitive and useful ways.

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