USGS Internet Block
Update, Wednesday Dec. 12:
On Saturday, December 8, Judge Lamberth ammended the order, allowing certain U.S. Department of the Interior agencies, including the USGS, to reconnect Internet services. USGS online activities are again open for business.
See the Department of the Interior press release at http://www.doi.gov/news/011210a.html.
*original posting on Dec. 6; updated on Dec. 7
On Thursday afternoon, the Department of the Interior ordered all of its bureaus, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to disconnect from the Internet. The USGS Web site could not be accessed. USGS staffers received an e-mail from Director Charles Groat saying they could no longer send and receive e-mail outside of the USGS system, and encouraging them to make arrangements to conduct business by phone and fax.
Survey leaders met with with Interior Department officials Friday morning to communicate how the Internet shut off affects the USGS, said Carolyn Bell, a spokesperson for the survey. But Friday afternoon, Bell said the survey still didn't know how long the block will continue.
The order is part of an ongoing court case, Cobell vs. Norton, accusing Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and before her Secretary Bruce Babbitt, of mismanaging land-based trust funds set up in the late 1800s and held for hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.
Recently, a special master for the Cobell litigation hired a contractor to attempt to break into the trust fund computer system. After the contractor was successful, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered that all outside access to the trust fund be closed. That meant discontinuing online access into and out of the entire Interior Department, of which the USGS is a part.
Besides affecting daily business for survey staff members, the order also affects many of the real-time monitoring systems USGS runs. These systems use the Internet to collect and distribute real-time data, as well as issue warnings, on earthquakes, volcanic activity, landslides, floods and other hazards. "Emergency planners can't get to the information they need to make decisions. It's beyond the public not having access," Bell said..
The survey issues warnings when natural disasters happen. “In this modern world, we do that via e-mail and the Internet,” said Marianne Guffanti, a USGS geologist and former program coordinator of the Volcano Hazards Program “To do that by phone and fax is inadequate.”
For example, Guffanti said, the survey relies on e-mail to obtain notices from Russian scientists about active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The ash these volcanoes emit spews into the flight paths of commercial airliners, jeopardizing the engines.
The USGS National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colo., which accesses data from seismic networks to send out warnings of earthquakes across the globe as they happen, was “not completely cut off,” NEIC Chief Waverly Person said. “But we are hampered.”
NEIC usually receives real-time data from about 250 seismic stations in North America and from stations around the world. The data from these regional, national and global seismic networks is integrated through Internet and e-mail so that NEIC can detect and measure earthquakes as they happen. But without that online information flow, the center only has access to data via satellite from 60 of the North American stations, and is cut off from 30 of its international stations, said Harley Benz, NEIC's coordinator for seismic networks. "We're now down to the old way. We're calling people," Benz said. The center can still detect earthquakes, but its abilities are degraded and it can't distribute its data electronically, Benz added.
Also affected is the Water Resources Division, which uses the Internet to continuously send out data from 8,000 streamflow gaging stations and monitoring wells across the country for information about and monitoring of floods, drought, streamflow and water quality. "We've had to shut down all of our data feeds," said Lorna Schmid, acting chief of the division's World Wide Web program. The USGS can continue to collect the water data, but cannot distribute it. "That is part of our mission: to provide data and information to protect against loss of life and property" Schmid said.
According to the USGS, some of the other hazard monitoring and warning systems that are affected include:
Military: The survey is working with the Office of Homeland Security and on issues related to Afghanistan, Bell said. USGS field and headquarters employees can no longer receive and analyze data online with the CIA and the National Imagery Mapping Agency (NIMA).
Earthquakes: Survey volcanologists have lost access to data from the University of Washington Seismic Net.
The order also hampers communication with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Office of Emergency Services. Nor is the survey getting data it needs from Los Angeles, Seattle or Salt Lake City, which will leave a data gap in the real-time groundshaking maps the survey is developing for earthquake recovery plans in those areas.
Tsunamis: “We are not getting the date to provide tsunami warnings for anywhere in the United States,” Bell said.
Volcanoes: The survey cannot acquire data from the network of acoustic flow monitors on Mount Rainier. The network detects potentially catastrophic lahars. Also hampered is its ability to provide warning to the Federal Aviation Administration about potentially harmful ash clouds in flight paths.
Geomagnetism: The survey has lost the ability to alert other federal agencies to changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Changes in the field can affect satellites, guidance for commercial and military airline systems, and the Global Positioning System.
Landsat: USGS operates the Landsat 7 and Landsat 5 remote sensing satellites. With the survey offline, thousands of people who use the satellite information cannot access the libraries and archives of Landsat images, which are distributed electronically.
Lisa Pinsker also contributed to this report.
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