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Students at USGS: As A USGS Geographer Kitty Kolb Helps Protect People’s Lives and Property
Released: 10/1/2012 7:00:00 AM

Contact Information:
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Office of Communications and Publishing
12201 Sunrise Valley Dr, MS 119
Reston, VA 20192
Don  Sweet 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-6645

Melanie  Gade 1-click interview
Phone: 703-638-4353

I’m Kitty Kolb, a Geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey North Carolina Water Science Center.  I recently graduated from Central Piedmont Community College with my Associate of Applied Sciences degree in Geospatial Technology. Now I work full-time for the USGS as a Term employee, which means my appointment is eligible for renewal each year for up to four years.

I work with data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology in an effort to make sense of real world issues and problems. GIS is the "tool of choice" of modern geographers to map natural and man-made features on the earth’s surface. In general, GIS enables geographers to analyze terrain, infrastructure, and population data to produce maps useful to land-use planners and scientists. GIS isn’t just for geographers, though. GIS is a powerful tool for anyone who needs spatial information to make decisions or explore patterns.

What is a day in your life like?

I could start my day by making a contour map of rainfall amounts from yesterday’s storm, then write a Python computer program to summarize the kinds of land use in basins for a water quality project, and finish with creating a map in Google Earth showing the location of drinking water wells for a groundwater study. GIS allows us to accomplish science more efficiently. Without GIS, gathering data would take much more time and our data would be less accurate. For example, in the past, scientists in the USGS used a special tracing wheel to measure distances and draw the boundaries of a watershed on a topographic map. Now I can do the same basin outline much more accurately and precisely with the click of a button on my computer. If I am not spending my day in the office, I often go in the field to help with streamflow measurements. 

Kolb surveying elevation change

Surveying the elevation change of the stream at Cataloochee Creek near Cataloochee, NC, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo credit: Michelle Moorman. Taken July 2011.

What is your most memorable experience with the USGS so far?

So far, my favorite experience with USGS has been my involvement with the North Carolina Stream Stats program. StreamStats is a USGS web-based program that uses GIS data to provide users with streamflow statistics like the typical daily average, maximum, and minimum streamflows at one of our stream gages. It can also estimate the amount of streamflow that would cause a 1-percent-chance flood at a location, formerly called the 100-year average flood.  Along with streamflow, it can calculate basin characteristics like percentage of forest, wetlands, and developed areas for different watersheds. Such information allows users to better understand the effects landscape has on water as it moves through the watershed. Just two examples of StreamStats’ many uses are: engineers estimating peak flows to help design bridges and culverts, or ecologists estimating the average yearly rainfall across a watershed. This spring, the StreamStats program was made publically available for the state of North Carolina. My job for the last two years was to assemble and prepare the GIS layers that are the basis for the program. I calculated elevation data, defined river paths, and land-use characteristics for developed areas, forests, and wetlands throughout the State. These data make it much easier to show where water wants to travel and find the boundaries between watersheds.  

I was so proud to see all our hard work become a live tool, which is so valuable for the public and water-resource managers! You can access StreamStats at http://streamstats.usgs.gov.

What do you see as the most valuable part of your work?

The most valuable part of my work is that I help protect people’s lives and property.  After Hurricane Irene in 2011, I made a Google Earth map of the high water marks that resulted from Irene’s storm surge, which were collected by USGS staff. This was exciting for me. The USGS uses the storm surge data to understand the effects of past hurricanes, which eventually allows for the development of tools and methods to help predict the effects of future hurricanes. These data also allow scientists to better understand local effects of the storm on the environment like flood extent, erosion, or vegetation changes. During this process, USGS field teams were measuring the high water marks and sending me information in almost real-time, and I was able to update the maps as their data came in. Afterwards I was shocked and honored to find that my maps were used by agencies such as at FEMA and Homeland Security! They were using our storm surge information as well, for damage assessments and impact assessments. Without GIS, all the agencies involved wouldn’t have been able to respond as quickly to help residents and businesses rebuild.

Kolb measuring streamflow

Measuring streamflow at Irwin Creek near Charlotte, NC. Photo credit: Keith Ryan. Taken May 2012.

How did you start working for the USGS? 

My background and my Master’s degree are in archaeology; I learned how to use GIS as an archaeologist, and decided to go through formal training in GIS at our local community college. One of my professors posted a notice for a Volunteer In Science opportunity at the Charlotte Field Office of the USGS North Carolina Water Science Center, and I got the placement. After a few months as a Volunteer In Science, I was fortunate to do my required cooperative work experience for my degree at the USGS. I was initially hired as a Student Temporary Employment Program worker and later converted to a Student Career Employment Program worker before I graduated. Currently, I’m working towards earning my GIS Professional designation, which is the GIS profession’s equivalent of a Professional Engineer license or CPA designation. Even though archaeology and hydrology seem far apart, they translate pretty well. They both go back to the Scientific Method and identifying a question and gathering data.

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