Scoping Out the Planet

Greg van der Vink hopes that EarthScope yields unprecedented data about faults and plates. It may do for geoscience what human genome sequencing did for biology

At the largest, continental level is USArray, which consists of three seismic components. The first is "Bigfoot," a mobile grid of 400 seismometers that will stomp across the U.S. over the next 10 years. Within each footprint (which covers about one quarter of the country), a flexible array of 400 portable seismometers will provide dense instrument coverage in geophysically interesting places. To provide reference data for Bigfoot and the flexible array, 43 permanent seismic stations will be added to an existing array maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. One Bigfoot station resides at the Wishkah Valley School near Aberdeen, Wash., where students now monitor its data collection online.

Van der Vink has helped keep the three components close to schedule, and none has run over budget. Still, EarthScope's future is uncertain. The original plan was to pay for EarthScope in pieces: $200 million over the first five years to build and install instruments (2003 to 2008); $13 million a year for the next 10 years to operate and maintain the facilities, plus an additional $100 million to fund actual science. Congress authorized the first $200 million in 2003 but unexpectedly delayed a decision on bankrolling EarthScope's next decade of operations and maintenance.

"We have no interest in building a facility if there are no funds to use it," says van der Vink, who admits that funding is somewhat out of his hands. "We have a team and structure in place to deliver EarthScope on time and on budget." He remains optimistic that the $40 million he and his colleagues requested in January will come through to kick-start the first year of EarthScope operations and maintenance in 2009.

Many are confident in van der Vink's ability to keep the funds flowing. As head of IRIS, van der Vink obtained an extra $50 million through federal and private channels. "Greg is at his best portraying EarthScope's activity and potential on the Hill," says Thorne Lay, the USArray representative on the EarthScope Facilities executive committee.

Although he never set out to work in the world between science and politics, van der Vink confesses that it is a little bit addictive. "Intellectually," he says, "the work [in Congress] is most challenging because you have to find solutions that are not only scientifically accurate but socially, politically and economically acceptable as well."

When he finally complies with my request for a sports analogy describing EarthScope, funding and management challenges are not part of his description. Instead he echoes this multidisciplinary requirement with determination. "EarthScope needs to create the next generation of athletes to compete in the decathlons of the future--not in single events," he says. "The future lies in all-around athletes."

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