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USGS Marks 134 years of Science for America: A Most Unusual Birthday

Fundamental knowledge of the land and its resources is a basic need for effective government and a productive economy in any nation.  The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), celebrating its 134th birthday on March 3rd, serves our Nation by providing reliable scientific information that can be used in many different ways: to describe and understand the Earth; to minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; to manage water, ecosystem, energy, and mineral resources; and to enhance and protect our quality of life.

A legacy of science for the Nation

Using science to understand our natural heritage is at the core of the USGS. It can even be traced in our pre-history.

More than 200 years ago, the first government survey of the natural resources of the American West, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery (1804-06), was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson and funded by Congress. In carrying out Jefferson’s detailed instructions in regard to cartography and scientific goals, the explorers mapped every twist and turn of the Missouri and the Columbia rivers, gathering information about the soils, plants, animals, and native inhabitants of the lands through which they passed.

A screenshot of the USGS National Map

The National Map is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the Nation.

In 1867, shortly after the Civil War ended, Congress authorized the first of a series of major western explorations that were led by Clarence King (USGS first director), F. V. Hayden, George Wheeler, and John Wesley Powell (USGS second director). In 1879, following the National Academy of Sciences recommendation that these surveys be consolidated, the 45th Congress established the U. S. Geological Survey on March 3 with the mandate to conduct “the classification of the Public Lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.”

Over a period of 134 years, the USGS has evolved from a small group of scientists and surveyors who provided guidance on how to describe and manage the public lands of the West to a leading Federal science agency that conducts research and assessment activities on complex natural resource and science issues at scales ranging from local to global.

The Survey today

The institutional strength of the modern USGS is the broad array of science expertise we have. The USGS operates programs that include natural hazards research, such as our earthquake, volcano, and landslide programs; a network of 8,000 streamgages that monitor water availability and help in forecasting floods; and other programs that investigate invasive species, wildlife disease, and climate change.

A USGS scientist stands on the edge of a boat in the Salton Sea of California, collecting a sediment sample from the bottom of the lake.

A USGS scientist monitors sediment quality in the Salton Sea of California. USGS studies toxic contaminants in the environment to better understand their effects on fish, wildlife, and human health.

We have nearly 9,000 science and science-support staff at work at more than 400 USGS science centers across the Nation. The USGS leverages its resources and expertise in partnership with more than 2,000 agencies of State, local and tribal government, the academic community, other Federal partners, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

The Survey does not manage any land or resources or have regulatory responsibilities. Our priority is our “boots on the ground” scientists who work with sophisticated monitoring networks to study our world and its natural processes. Our entire focus is on providing objective, ready-to-work science that decision-makers need to face difficult, multi-faceted issues.

The Survey conducts vital resource assessments for energy and mineral potential. We also conduct research on the environmental and human health impacts of the production and use of various energy resources. The USGS is the sole Federal source of scientific information and research on nonfuel mineral potential, production, and consumption, as well as on the environmental effects of the extraction and use of mineral resources. To support the development of economic and national security policies in a global context, the USGS collects and analyzes data on essential mineral commodities from around the world.

USGS maintains the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) whose mission is to rapidly determine the location and size of all destructive earthquakes worldwide and to immediately disseminate this information to concerned national and international agencies, scientists, and the general public.

We’re the largest civilian mapping agency. Furthermore, we continuously observe the Earth through the Landsat satellite program in partnership with NASA. The latest satellite, Landsat 8, was recently launched on February 11 and is expected to be operating by mid-May as an advanced complement to the existing Landsat 7.

Today, with the world population at more than 7 billion and projected to grow to 9 billion by 2040; with competing priorities to balance – for the economy, for the environment, for public health and safety; with the serious, perhaps irreversible consequences of climate change and sea-level rise to consider, our leaders need scientific information about the land and its resources that they can trust with the greatest confidence to guide their decisions.

An artist's rendition of the Landsat 8 satellite in orbit around Earth

USGS and NASA co-operate Landsat 8, the latest satellite in the longest-operating continuous Earth-observing mission. Image courtesy of NASA.

With historical data comes increased perspective

Historical datasets that have been meticulously collected and archived by the Survey provide a critical context for the current state of natural systems as well as for discerning human influences on the environment.  Some of these long-term USGS datasets include borehole temperature records in Alaskan permafrost; historical water temperature data; streamgage readings for over a century in several locations; four decades of global change observations from Landsat satellites; catalogs of historical earthquakes and historical data from the Global Seismic Network; and paleoclimate records gleaned from ice cores and seafloor samples.

With historical records like these, in combination with cutting-edge research in paleogeology and chemical analysis, USGS scientists can look far back in time — across decades and centuries, in some instances; in other cases, even millions of years — to understand the conditions of global climate, temperature, and precipitation of a certain age. This wealth and breadth of data provides an invaluable framework for understanding climate and environmental changes that are taking place today.

Data in demand

Public demand for USGS scientific findings and data is strong and growing stronger. The International Energy Agency has said of us, “The most widely respected source of information on global conventional oil and gas resources is the U.S. Geological Survey.” A May 2012 article in a respected international journal found that the U.S. Geological Survey is the most cited institution in the world for environmental science.

Other broad sectors of the public and the emergency response community have come to rely on USGS for timely, robust, reliable hazard information. For example, USGS supplies rapid assessments of earthquake fatalities and economic losses; real-time flood inundation mapping to support emergency response; predictions of coastal impacts from hurricanes 48 hours prior to hurricane landfall; debris-flow susceptibility maps; rapid notification of the onset of a volcanic eruption at high-threat volcanoes; and real-time wildfire condition information to support fire fighters.

A drill rig in the Fayetteville Shale gas play of Arkansas. USGS assesses energy and mineral resources critical to the Nation’s security and economy.

A birthday in unusual circumstances

Whether it’s our birthday or just a regular day in early March, the USGS, like many other Federal agencies, faces the near-term prospect of across-the-board sequestration cuts to its staff and monitoring capabilities. Budget sequestration will impact our ability, immediately and for months ahead, to provide the critical science needed to minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters. The entire USGS workforce in every state across the country will be faced with the prospect of furloughs. This substantial loss of employee productivity, coupled with the uncertainty of funding key operating contracts and research grants, will inevitably degrade our monitoring and forecasting capabilities nationwide.

The National Academy of Sciences, the same prestigious body that recommended the establishment of the Survey in 1879, recently released (Feb. 2012) a rigorous review of the importance of international programs at USGS. The Academy concluded, “A global, integrated understanding of the Earth sciences is of fundamental importance to enhance U.S. public health and security, safeguard our natural heritage, and support economic development. …. As the Nation’s leading, integrated Earth science agency, the [USGS] has a significant role to play in contributing information and knowledge to address Earth science issues arising in and beyond U.S. national boundaries.”

The leadership, scientists, and employees of USGS heartily concur. Across the United States, we want the best science about the Earth and its natural resources to be readily available so that it can be used effectively in making vital decisions that will affect our fellow citizens, our communities, and the environment.

USGS-134 Years of Science for America
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A quick look at how we did science then and now... Read More

Old Benchmark
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One of the very first USGS Benchmarks from 1896 Read More

Mapmaking in the 1930s
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USGS mapmakers in the 1930s relied on multiplex equipment Read More

Mapmaking in 2013
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USGS mapmakers now rely on the web-based National Map Read More

Hazard Mapping in the 1970s
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In the 1970s, USGS mapped geologic hazards with a tool called a geodolite Read More

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Today, USGS maps hazards using terrestrial lidar, a laser-based contour mapper Read More

Remote Sensing in WWII
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In WWII, USGS helped the war effort by airborne remote sensing Read More

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Today, USGS' remote sensing flagship is the recently launched Landsat 8 Read More

Streamgaging in the 1890s
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USGS began monitoring streamflow and water quality soon after its founding Read More

Streamgaging Today
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120 years later, USGS streamgages continue to monitor the Nation's water supply Read More

Where to Next?
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After 134 years of high-quality earth science, where will the future take USGS? Read More