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What We Do at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Learn more about the science of the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Small silver metal boat with USGS lettering on the side, water is splashing up on the side and a small wake is formed.
We use our research vessel Parke Snavely to collect data and run surveys. Credit: Tom Reiss, USGS

The Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center studies western U.S. coastal and offshore areas, including Alaska, Hawai‛i, and other Pacific islands. Our scientists conduct research, monitor processes, and deliver products to help managers make more informed resource management and policy decisions.

The Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center consists of about 120 staff, including geologists, geophysicists, oceanographers, and geographers stationed in Santa Cruz and Moffett Field, California.

Our research at USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center falls under these themes . . .


Hazards: Coastal and Offshore

USGS makes detailed seafloor maps of offshore geology to identify faults and underwater landslides. The results help coastal communities become more resilient to marine geologic hazards that include earthquakes and tsunamis. We also develop statistical and computer models of earthquake and tsunami recurrence to help manage risk.

Ground view of collapsed building and burned area, Beach and Divisadero Sts., Marina District.
Ground view of collapsed building and burned area at Beach and Divisadero Streets, Marina District, San Francisco, following the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Credit: C.E. Meyer, USGS
Labeled seafloor map shows the shaded depth and active faults offshore of a part of the California coast.
Seafloor geology map shows active faults offshore from the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DC) on the central California coast. Credit: Sam Johnson, USGS


Coastal Change

USGS research helps managers better understand and project the physical impacts of storms, climate change, and sea-level rise on coastal systems—from the permafrost coasts of Alaska, to the Puget Sound estuary, the California coast, and low-lying Pacific atolls. Coastlines are dynamic, with sediments accumulating or eroding from beaches and tidal marshes, storm waves eroding cliffs, and sea-level rise threatening low-lying coastal communities.

A person rides an ATV on a beach alongside gigantic chunks of coastal bluff that have fallen onto the beach.
Gigantic chunks of perafrost coastal bluffs tumbled down onto the beach along Barter Island on the North Slope of Alaska. A USGS scientist drives past them, seeking good locations to place instruments and markers that will be used in photographic analysis. Public domain.
Photograph shows eroding cliff in Isla Vista, California, with parts of houses hanging over edge.
Homes along the edge of the coast in Isla Vista, California, Santa Barbara County, face a short lifespan because of eroding bluffs that support them. Credit: Patrick Barnard, USGS


Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems

The USGS studies geologic and oceanographic processes that create and maintain habitats for coral, clams, crabs, salmon, and other ocean and estuary inhabitants. USGS studies of currents, suspended sediment, and groundwater chemistry, for example, help assess natural and human influences on the health of coral reefs. High-resolution seafloor mapping characterizes the seabed as rocky, sandy, or muddy; and bottom photos help identify the organisms that occupy those habitats.

A woman and a man wearing safety gear stand on a rocky embankment along a river near a tripod with a device.
Research geologist Amy East confers with physical scientist Josh Logan, preparing to conduct a lidar survey near the mouth of the Elwha River in Washington. Public domain.
Underwater, a man wearing a t-shirt, board shorts, mask, snorkel, fins, and gloves secures an instrument to a coral reef.
USGS research geologist Curt Storlazzi free dives in order to set an instrument on the reef off Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi in March 2015. Credit: Amy West, USGS


Ocean Ecosystems

Maintaining healthy and sustainable coastal and marine ecosystems relies on scientific understanding of how these areas function across landscape scales. Ecosystem-scale science addresses understanding important linkages between watersheds, estuaries, wetlands and offshore ocean regions. Human activities can impact or degrade the health and productivity of these resources by fragmenting habitats, altering drainage or circulation patterns, and introducing contaminants. USGS brings together multidisciplinary expertise focused on developing tools and models to improve understanding of how healthy ecosystems function as well as how they respond to environmental changes and human impacts including regional ecosystem restoration. Research studies address coral reef, coastal wetland, benthic habitat and groundwater resources.

A woman stands near a table with some deep-water coral samples.
Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center research oceanographer Nancy Prouty explains how deep-sea corals can help determine climate and ocean chemistry over hundreds to thousands of years ago. Credit: Paul Laustsen, USGS
USGS scientist Nancy Prouty collects deep-sea water samples as part of the EXPRESS 2019 expedition
Collecting deep-sea water samples as part of the EXPRESS 2019 expedition. Credit: Amanda Demopoulos, USGS



We maintain state-of-the-art lab facilities for rock, sediment, and geochemical analyses. Our Marine Facility provides vessel operation, equipment design and fabrication, and support for field sampling and mapping. Center personnel develop tools for processing, analyzing, distributing, and archiving large volumes of data.

A person wearing rubber gloves and lab coat holds a spatula and plastic sample bag, ready to take a sample from a sediment core.
Sediment cores may be subsampled for further processing and analysis.Credit: Rex Sanders, USGS
Four people on the stern of a boat wear life jackets and prepare a long cable.
USGS science crew prepare to pull in the multi-channel streamer to troubleshoot the system.Credit: Janet Watt, USGS


Ocean Science: Energy and Mineral Resources

USGS scientists study seabed deposits, such as nodules, mineral crusts, and sulfide “chimneys” at deep ocean hot springs. Metals from such deposits could be vital to American energy and manufacturing needs, including emerging green-tech applications. This work is part of a broader effort to better understand the mineral and energy resources within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends from shore out 200 nautical miles.

A collection of three photos showing people performing various operations on a ship.
Shipboard operations from various research expeditions. Top: A dredge is wrangled back on deck. Credit: Kira Mizell, USGS. Bottom left: Amy Gartman photographs freshly collected samples. Bottom right: Kira Mizell cuts ferromanganese crusts with a diamond-blade saw on the deck.