History of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

The history of our team, its name, its location through the years.

Three men stand in front of a single-engine airplane in an open field.

Three pioneers of USGS geological studies, in 1965, from left to right: Parke D. Snavely, Jr., Robert E. Wallace, and Thomas W. Dibblee, in front of a 1964 Cessna 182G Skylane.

The USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC) consists of about 120 staff, including geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and geographers stationed in Santa Cruz and Moffett Field, California. PCMSC is part of the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program.

While marine (or deep-sea) geological and geophysical research was not formalized as a mission-critical program in the USGS until the early 1960s, ocean studies had already begun. The USGS’ prime mission on the open sea back then was not so different from USGS marine research today: mapping submerged lands to learn about resources, hazards, and the environment. The first USGS marine program was also the first of any USGS programs to be a cooperative effort between two USGS Mission Areas (formerly known as “Divisions”): Geologic and Water Resources. It also was the first program to have its “leader” stationed in Menlo Park, California rather than in Washington, D.C.

In 1962, Dr. Orlo Childs (1914-1996) was selected as the first office chief. He was stationed in Menlo Park, California, with Gilbert (Gil) Corwin as his liaison in Washington, D.C. However, instead of a $3 million budget, as originally promised, Childs ended up with $300,000 – a real “shoestring budget.” With secretary Winnie Trollman and illustrator/map maker Tau Rho Alpha, the three comprised the new marine geology program.

Photo of a man wearing a baseball cap, smiling at the camera, and holding a tobacco pipe in his teeth.

Parke D. Snavely, Jr.

When Childs left the program, the headquarters were temporarily set up in Washington, D.C. with Gil Corwin at the helm. In 1965, Parke D. Snavely, Jr. (1916-2003) agreed to take over on the condition that he would be headquartered in Menlo Park. The marine program greatly expanded, and Snavely is remembered as a pioneer of marine geology research at the USGS. We named our 34’ research vessel, acquired in November of 2007, after Snavely.

In 1962, the USGS program formally became the Office of Marine Geology and Hydrology. The headquarters of the program office was in Menlo Park, and soon thereafter a subsidiary branch was established on the east coast. Now the program had representation on both coasts, with the Branch of Atlantic Marine Geology (or AMG, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts) and the Branch of Pacific-Arctic Marine Geology, or PAMG, in Menlo Park. (Sometime in the 1980’s, “Arctic” was eventually dropped off, making it PMG.) In the 1970’s, the U.S. was facing an energy crisis, prompting the expansion of offshore energy exploration. The marine program name would change to Office of Energy and Marine Geology in the early 1970’s.

The national program would eventually be headquartered in Reston, Virginia, to oversee government appropriations and to distribute the funding throughout the three centers. With research firmly rooted in geology, our program was part of the Geologic Division of the USGS. The Division included the Earthquake Hazards group, Volcano Hazards group, and Geologic Mapping, the group responsible for creating and updating our topographic maps on land. The USGS had long been creating geologic and geophysical maps of the seafloor, to show features such as faults, submarine landslides, and geologic structure beneath the seafloor. In 1988, some of the scientists from AMG would relocate to St. Petersburg, Florida to develop the third and final branch of the marine program, expanding the reach of USGS coastal and ocean research in and along the coasts of the Pacific, Arctic, Atlantic, and now the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

From 1962 until the early 70’s, PAMG would remain in Menlo Park on an expanding campus that housed many different USGS groups like the Water Resources Division, Earthquake Hazards, Geologic Mapping, and even a USGS Map Sales office and USGS Library. PAMG offices were located at 275 Middlefield Road, down the road from the main part of the USGS campus at 345 Middlefield Road. At 275 Middlefield, we occupied what we affectionately called the “Shell Building,” built originally by Shell Oil Company as a research center. The Shell logo remained present in various architectural elements in the building. As our numbers and our program expanded, so did our need for office space. PAMG moved to Willow Road, just a short drive away, to a space formerly owned by Hiller Aviation, the famous helicopter manufacturer. Behind the building, a warehouse and large yard served as our staging area for field operations. Nowadays, the old “Hiller Building” is part of the expansive Facebook Campus.

PAMG did not stay long at the Hiller Building, due to the fact that during this time the area was experiencing a high crime rate. Our now-retired research scientists told many a story about being in situations that jeopardized their lives. Happily, they all made it out unscathed. PAMG leadership sought to move to a safer location, and in 1978 moved to office space on Deer Creek Road in Palo Alto, on property owned by Stanford University. We would remain there, housed with a small group of scientists from the Water Resources Division, until 1997. The field operations crew moved to warehouse and yard space at the Port of Redwood City, which boasted a deep-water port that could accommodate our large, ocean-going research vessels. The Port of Redwood City would remain the home of our Marine Facility, or “MarFac,” until about 2006.

Photograph of a building surrounded by trees and stone pathways.

"Deer Creek Road, Building A" entrance. This building housed USGS Branches of Pacific-Arctic Marine Geology (PAMG), Petroleum Geology, and Sedimentary Processes. Credit: Laura Torresan, USGS

Photograph of a building surrounded by trees and stone pathways with steps leading up to the building patio entrance.

"Deer Creek Road, Building B" entrance. This building housed PAMG front offices plus other PAMG employees, as well as employees from the Water Resources Division. Credit: Laura Torresan, USGS

The burgeoning coastal communities of the United States demanded protection and preservation of life and property, requiring extensive research on the science surrounding nearshore and coastal hazards, resources, and the environment. Now named PMG, our research priorities shifted towards coastal science, and our hiring and collaboration goals accommodated this move. As our expertise in coastal science grew, our leaders strategically added the term “coastal” to our team name. In the early 1990’s, PMG became Marine and Coastal Surveys, or MCS.

The need for coastal research continued to expand, and Congressional funding focused less on deep-sea research, favoring studies on coastal hazards and environments. Our leadership decided it was time, once again, to change our Team name to reflect this shift. Sometime around the mid-1990’s, we became the Western Region Coastal and Marine Geology team, or WRCMG. This was partially due to the fact that our offices were merging onto the USGS Western Region Headquarters campus with other USGS groups in Menlo Park, California—yes, back to 345 Middlefield Road!

Photograph of a building in the distance with a flagpole in front of it, trees, cars parked, and grassy lawn in the foreground.

Building 3 on the USGS Western Region campus in Menlo Park, California. Credit: Laura Torresan, USGS

Two men walk along a path near one building towards another building with trees and a grassy lawn.

Building 1 formerly housed many different USGS groups, including the Western Coastal and Marine Geology team, but slowly has been leased out to other federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Veterans Affairs (VA). At the right is the Menlo Survey Federal Credit Union. Credit: Laura Torresan, USGS

 

Photograph of the edge of a tall brick building with nearby trees and a large sign.

McKelvey Building (Building 15) in Menlo Park, California. Credit: Jessica Ball, USGS

The high-tech industry of the greater Silicon Valley exploded in the 1990s, and commercial rent rose dramatically. As we drew closer to lease renewal at Deer Creek Road, it was apparent that the USGS would be priced right out of the beautiful campus, nestled at the time among Hewlett-Packard’s buildings. Even though HP slowly left the area, other big names in high-tech moved in like SAP and Tesla headquarters. In the mid-1990’s, the USGS would build a new building on their campus at 345 Middlefield Road, named after Dr. Vincent McKelvey, the esteemed USGS Director from 1971-77. The McKelvey Building would house most of our personnel from Deer Creek and improve and expand upon our laboratory capabilities. This consolidation of USGS employees in Menlo Park would ultimately save money. The USGS offices left Deer Creek in 1996-97.

During the Deer Creek era, a few of our coastal researchers were living 40-50 miles away in the popular beach town area of Santa Cruz. The impending move to Menlo Park would not only increase their commute time, but also would move them farther away from the coastal and ocean environment where they conducted their field studies. They sought shared office space at the University of California, Santa Cruz who eventually set up portable units for them there. This allowed them to intertwine with the large coastal research community and with university programs of the greater Monterey Bay area. The concept of repositioning ourselves closer to coastal researchers and institutions grew in popularity, and the push to move our offices to Santa Cruz gathered momentum. Over the next 8-9 years, WRCMG would slowly expand the office space in Santa Cruz and move most of our employees, all field operations, and most of our laboratories out of the Menlo Park area.

Our governing unit at the National level was now the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program (CMGP), overseeing WRCMG as well as our sister teams in Woods Hole and St. Petersburg. In the early 2000’s, the USGS dissolved its “Divisions” in favor of defining “Mission Areas.” WRCMG was added to the Natural Hazards Mission Area (where we remain today), because our efforts focus on hazards in coastal and ocean environments, prioritizing science to study the protection and preservation of life and property.

Around the year 2000 or 2001, temporary office space opened up in the former Wrigley Gum factory’s warehouse on the west end of Santa Cruz, complete with lingering fumes from the gum-making process. There were no traditional offices, and no air conditioning; just desks in a large, open-air warehouse space in the middle of the second floor with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that could be opened. Eventually, Wrigley’s former “front office” space freed up at the end of the same factory building, and the first official build-out of our own office space was finalized around 2004. Approximately 30 of our scientists living in the Santa Cruz area set up shop there, and a handful moved from Menlo Park. This marked the beginning of the gradual move away from the “Western Region” headquarters of Menlo Park, prompting our new Chief Scientist Sam Johnson (who’d left his position at the USGS in Denver to lead our team in its move to Santa Cruz) to drop “Region” from our name. We became the Western Coastal and Marine Geology team, or WCMG.

A building with a couple of trees in front and plants with flowering stalks of purple flowers.

USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC) in 2015.

A group of people enter a building at the loading dock, walking up a loading ramp.

PCMSC Marine Facility loading dock entrance in 2019.

 

Photo of a low, one-story building with windows and a big front entrance reading Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. building in 1955.

As previously mentioned, the WCMG Marine Facility, or MarFac, was located in the Port of Redwood City, where we conducted all of our field operations and developed and stored field equipment and instrumentation. Since about 1978, we had been leasing a large warehouse and waterfront area which boasted a deep-water port in south San Francisco Bay that accommodated large, ocean-going ships. As the economy grew and businesses continued to expand in the San Francisco Bay area, the Port announced a move toward commercial leases and therefore that they would let the USGS lease run out. After an extensive search around the greater central California region, we were fortunate to find adjacent space to the expanding WCMG science offices that would be suitable for MarFac operations. MarFac moved from Redwood City to the Wrigley Building in 2005-06.

A few years later, expansion of the offices and lab spaces continued, and most of the remaining WCMG employees in Menlo Park moved to the new office space in Santa Cruz. Around the same time, USGS leadership in Reston, Virginia renamed all USGS teams and locations to “Science Centers.” Our team’s new name changed to, and still remains, “Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center” (PCMSC). Our sister teams in Woods Hole and St. Petersburg also changed appropriately (WHCMSC and SPCMSC). In 2018, to align with Mission Priorities of the Department of the Interior and Federal Government, and to better reflect and fully cover the scope of our research, our Program name changed to the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program (CMHRP).

The title of our team leader morphed through the years. In the beginning, USGS team leaders were called Branch Chiefs. This title eventually changed to Chief Scientist, then Center Chief, then finally to Center Director.

PCMSC Leaders

Name Active Dates
Orlo Childs (1914-1996) 1962-1963
Gilbert Corwin (d. 1994) 1963-1965
Parke D. Snavely, Jr. (1919-2003) 1965-1970
Jack Schoellhamer (d. 2006) 1970-1974
David W. Scholl 1974-1978
H. Edward Clifton 1978-1982
Robert W. Roland 1982-1983
David G. Howell 1983-1986
Monty A. Hampton (1941-2019) 1986-1989
David A. Cacchione 1989-1992
Michael E. Field 1992-1996
Michael D. Carr 1992-2001
Homa J. Lee 2001-2002 (9 months in an Acting Role)
Thomas E. Parsons 2002-2003 (4 months in an Acting Role)
Samuel Y. Johnson 2003-2008
Michael D. Carr 2008-2010
Robert J. Rosenbauer 2011-2016
Guy R. Gelfenbaum 2017-