The History of COSMOS

By Katie Wooddell & Bob Nigbor

Established in 1997, the Consortium of Organizations for Strong Motion Observation (COSMOS) formed as a non-profit consortium of organizations to expand and modernize the acquisition and application of strong-motion data to increase public safety from earthquakes. Its formation marked a critical step in the advancement of earthquake strong-motion science and engineering. COSMOS provides an organization to enable programs and institutions to work together to improve the way strong-motion data are measured, used, and disseminated.

While COSMOS likely derived its name for the catchy acronym, the name is fitting. COSMOS is an organization that had a bright beginning and has a future with a scope that continues to expand. But COSMOS did not exactly begin with a bang. It took many years for public seismic hazard awareness and the political climate to ready itself for an organization like COSMOS.

National interest in earthquake hazards began to grow after the Mw9.2 “Good Friday” Alaska earthquake in 1964. This largest earthquake in the US record caused massive damage and claimed over 100 lives, including tsunami-related deaths as far away as Oregon and California. Another reminder came in 1971 when the Mw6.6 San Fernando earthquake resulted in extensive surface faulting, locally severe damage, and increased public demand for seismic hazard awareness and safety. Political pressure reached its peak around 1975 when scientists could not decide if the mysterious Palmdale Bulge, a 30-45 cm uplift zone spanning an approximated 83,000 square kilometers, was a real phenomenon. Was this a measurement error or a tell-tale sign that a large earthquake was brewing? The public was ready for answers.
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Direction for the political pressure came with Newmark’s 1976 report on “Earthquake Prediction and Hazard Mitigations for USGS and NSF Programs,” and the US Congress responded by establishing the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) in 1977. Congress tasked NEHRP with reducing the risks to “life and property” from future US earthquakes through an earthquake hazard reductions program focused on various aspects of risk reduction ranging from improved technical design considerations to public education and the inclusion of new technologies, such as early-warning systems.

NEHRP finally provided the unification of politics and funding, and several instrumental workshops in the late 1970s and 1980s quickly followed. The collection of documents resulting from these workshops provides the recommendations that laid the foundation for the formation of COSMOS.

By the beginning of the 1990s, there was a clear need for action by the strong motion community. In 1993, a group of the industry’s brightest stars gathered in Albuquerque, NM, to develop the mission statement for the US Strong-Motion program. The group consisted of top earth scientists, geotechnical engineers, and structural engineers including:
Norm Abrahamson (Consultant)
Cliff Astill (National Science Foundation)
John Filson (US Geological Survey)
Gus Franklin (Waterways Experiment Station)
Neil Higgins (Applied Research Associates, Inc.)
Ed Idriss (University of California, Davis)
Bill Iwan (California Institute of Technology)
Klaus Jacob (Columbia University)
Bill Joyner (US Geological Survey)
Helmut Krawinkler (Stanford University)
Bob Nigbor (Agbabian Associates)
Joe Penzien (International Civil Engineering Consultants)
Chris Poland (H.J. Degenkolb Associates)
Tony Shakal (California Division of Mines and Geology)
Carl Stepp (Electric Power Research Institute)
Andy Viksne (Bureau of Reclamation)
Les Youd (Brigham Young University)
Documented in a report entitled “Research Needs for Strong Motion Data to Support Earthquake Engineering,” this critical meeting provided the focus that ultimately resulted in the formation of COSMOS. The report defined the mission of the US Strong-Motion Program to: 
Support public safety by providing the users of earthquake strong-motion information with data and analyses on strong earthquake shaking for:
• Improving engineering evaluations and design methods for facilities and systems,
• Providing timely information for post-earthquake alerting and assessments, and
• Contributing to a greater understanding of the mechanics of earthquake generation and ground motion characteristics.
The Committee for the Advancement of Strong-Motion Programs (CASMP) formed in 1994 as a direct response to the recommendations of the 1993 workshop. In 1996, Cliff Astill of the National Science Foundation funded CASMP for six years, naming Carl Stepp as the Principal Investigator. The objective of CASMP was to provide a “continuing broad national overview of strong motion needs and to foster and encourage the advancements in the collection, dissemination, and utilization of strong-motion data as a tool for improving public safety in earthquakes.”
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At the 1997 CASMP workshop in Monterey, Stepp’s group developed “Vision 2005: An Action Plan for Strong Motion Programs to Mitigate Earthquake Losses in Urbanized Areas.” It recommended the formation of COSMOS with the following charges:
• identification of national strong-motion data needs;
• assessment of the utility of existing strong-motion programs;
• development of a national strategic plan for strong-motion programs;
• development and enhancement of programs to implement the national strong-motion plan; and
• promotion of coordinated international strong-motion programs to augment federal programs. 
 COSMOS officially formed in 1997 and began acting on its charge. Two years later, it incorporated as a California non-profit with a Charter and Bylaws. Since then, COSMOS has provided valuable leadership to both national and international strong-motion programs.
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