San Diego

Ground force: researchers take readings from an EarthScope seismic station in Socorro, New Mexico. Credit: EARTHSCOPE

US Earth scientists fear that lack of funds could derail a megaproject to examine the geophysical structure of North America.

EarthScope, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is designed to generate a three-dimensional view of the geophysical processes affecting Earth's mantle, tens of kilometres below the continent's surface. It should revolutionize scientists' understanding of volcanoes, fault systems and earthquakes.

Construction of the project's infrastructure is now into its second year, and involves some $200-million worth of equipment. Although Congress authorized the NSF to buy and install the equipment over five years, it has delayed a decision on funding for the operation and maintenance — estimated at $13 million per year — and the $100 million required for research over the first decade of operations.

Approved in 2003, when the NSF's $4.2-billion annual research budget was expected to grow rapidly, EarthScope now faces a starkly different financial climate — the NSF's budget for the 2006 fiscal year is expected to be flat or even slightly reduced.

On 24 January, EarthScope submitted a 500-page research plan for the coming years, including budget requests for operation and maintenance. EarthScope officials declined to discuss financial specifics, except to say that they were in line with earlier projections.

But there is no clear picture of the near-term finances for individual research projects. Just $4 million was available for EarthScope research this year, officials say. “People now are very nervous about the whole thing,” says Adam Dziewonski, a seismologist at Harvard University who chairs a seven-strong advisory panel to the USArray, one of the project's components.

“The Earth science community's concern is merited. We need to work together to identify all available funding for research and operations,” says the NSF's programme director for EarthScope, Kaye Shedlock.

EarthScope has three main components. The USArray is a mobile system involving more than 800 seismometers that will move east from California across the nation for a decade, visualizing the geophysical structure. The Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) is a system of devices for examining tectonic plate interactions from Alaska to the lower states. And the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) experiment will drill a core into the coastal mountains south of San Franicsco, installing pressure gauges and seismometers in the active fault zone to record movements and quakes.

USArray seismometers are now being deployed in California. SAFOD scientists have drilled more than 2.5 km deep, and plan to core into the fault this summer. PBO researchers are also preparing to set out equipment in Alaska this summer.

Gregory van der Vink, EarthScope's project director, acknowledges that there is concern in the geoscience community, but he is confident that the programme can secure the necessary research funds in the coming budget discussions. The goal is not just to put instruments in the ground and data in an archive, but to use them in research, van der Vink says. “We will do everything we can to win funds for research. This is the data set for the next generation of geoscientists,” he adds.