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December 29, 2022

As 2022 wraps up, we’re looking back on the amazing work of USGS scientists, in an attempt to create a Top 10 list. But with so much exciting science at the USGS, it became apparent right away that picking the top ten “best” stories of the year would be impossible. For every project we’ve already highlighted, so many more haven’t gotten attention. There’s simply so much science and so little time!

With that in mind, here are 10 terrific stories of USGS research from the past year. These are stories we think you won’t want to miss on what we learned about Earth’s ecosystems, the exciting tools and technologies we used to do it, and how we continued to provide science for a changing world:

1. We uncovered a connection between high mercury concentrations in birds and avian influenza infection.

Flock of 7 ducks in the air in a rough V formation
Flock of northern pintail flying at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, California.

Avian influenza made headlines in 2022, as an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza infected wild and domestic birds across the country. USGS scientists specializing in wildlife health were on hand to help respond to this crisis. One reason USGS was ready to assist with the outbreak is that our scientists have long studied how avian influenza spreads and affects birds, making new discoveries all the time that help managers respond when a major outbreak does occur. In September, USGS scientists and collaborators published a new study reporting that wild ducks with higher concentrations of mercury in their blood were more likely to be infected with avian influenza. Some contaminants, including mercury, are known to suppress the immune system, but this kind of relationship between contaminants and wildlife disease has rarely been studied. The paper suggests that mercury contamination could promote the spread of avian influenza along migratory flyways.

2. We monitored fish populations using sound waves and autonomous submarines and wind-powered drones.

A large research boat at the dock, with a brightly colored Saildrone, a drone with a sail-like structure on the dock nearby
A traditional research vessel and a Saildrone, used together this summer to carry out hydroacoustic fishery surveys and experiments to provide the best possible information on prey fish abundances to fishery managers.

USGS scientists have long used a variety of tools to assess fish communities in the Great Lakes and provide critical information that helps natural resource managers respond to changing conditions or plan for protection or restoration of lake ecosystems. In August and September, USGS scientists and partners deployed two different types of high-tech vehicles for monitoring fish populations in western Lake Superior. One type was an autonomous underwater vehicle, while the other was a remotely-controlled wind and solar-powered surface Saildrone.  The scientists were testing these vehicles with the goal of improving fish assessments using sound waves to detect objects in water, a method known as hydroacoustics. These new vehicles are quiet and will collect acoustic data that can be compared to data obtained by crewed, conventionally-powered research vessels. The comparisons will help scientists determine whether the noise generated by conventional vessels influences fish behavior during hydroacoustic fish surveys, potentially affecting the survey results.

3. We used drone imagery to monitor walrus populations.

Aerial view of the edge of a large walrus haulout on the northwestern shores of Alaska
Aerial view of the edge of a large walrus haulout on the northwestern shores of Alaska.  The image was taken using a survey drone that was flown to collect imagery of walruses resting on shore for purposes of estimating the abundance of walruses that use the U.S. Chukchi Sea waters during the autumn.

It has been historically difficult to estimate the size of walrus populations, since they live in remote areas and are dispersed over large marine and coastal areas. Walruses haul out to rest on sea ice between foraging trips when sea ice is available, but when sea ice is not available, they haul out on land often in large numbers. As warming temperatures reduce the availability of sea ice in the Arctic, Pacific walruses use coastal haul-outs more often and in larger numbers. Together with new technology, this has made it easier for northern residents and scientists to monitor walrus populations. In June, USGS scientists published a study that used drone imagery to more precisely estimate abundance of Pacific walruses in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea in the fall. 

4. We built a platform for K-12 climate science lessons focused on the Pacific Islands.

Aerial photograph of Laysan Island, Hawaii
An aerial photograph of Laysan Island, Hawaiʻi, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

You might know that the USGS conducts climate science research across the country and around the world, but did you know that we also develop educational materials based on USGS science to bring our science to students of all ages? This year, the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center launched a new website, the K-12 Education Hub, which provides lesson plans, tools, and other online resources to aid students, teachers, and researchers in communicating science and climate research specific to Hawaiʻi and the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands. Available lesson plans so far include Marine Biology Climate Change in Micronesia and World Geography Climate Change in Guam. Students and teachers can access interactive resources like the Hawaiʻi Rainfall Explorer, with more lesson plans and resources to come in 2023.

5. We used DNA to inform the conservation of a toad threatened by climate change.

USFS researcher holding Yosemite toads
U.S. Forest Service researcher Stephanie Barnes holds a rare Yosemite toad (Anaxyrus canorus).

The year 2022 was a big one for amphibian research in national parks. First, USGS scientists and National Park Service partners published several papers in a special journal issue about amphibian conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including a review of amphibian research in national parks more broadly that highlighted many USGS studies. In the fall, two new publications about the federally threatened Yosemite toad provided more useful science in one of our country’s oldest and best-known national parks. These studies used DNA sequencing and environmental data to determine how Yosemite toad populations in Yosemite National Park are likely to respond to climate change, predicting an upward elevational shift for this already high-elevation species as well as a north-eastward shift. They also delineated genomics-based conservation units for the Yosemite toad, which can provide insight into which populations are most vulnerable and how different populations may be used in management actions such as reintroductions.

6. We used amoebas to track climate change in peatlands since the 17th century.

scientist Miriam Jones holds a peat core in a bog
Miriam Jones holding a peat core that was extracted from a thawed permafrost bog at the Alaska Permafrost Experiment (APEX) site at Bonanza Creek LTER, Alaska.

In August, an international collaboration including USGS published findings of climate change in high-latitude peatlands, noted that 54% of the peatlands studied have been getting drier and 32% have been getting wetter since the 17th century. Peatlands store an enormous amount of carbon, and their ability to store or emit carbon depends on how wet or dry they are. To get a long-term picture of the hydrology of high-latitude peatlands, the scientists used a type of tiny single-celled organisms called testate amoebas. Testate amoebas are common in wet environments like peatlands and are sensitive to hydrologic conditions. The term “testate” refers to the shells, or tests, built by these amoebas, which are easily preserved in sediments, making them a useful tool for studying the past. By looking at the types of testate amoebas in peat cores, scientists can determine what the water table looked like at different times throughout history.

7. We combined paleoecological data and indigenous knowledge to document fire history in California.

Douglas-fir forest in northwestern California
Dense stands of Douglas-fir surround South Twin Lake in the Klamath bioregion of northwestern California.

In March, USGS scientists published a paper that combined Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge from Karuk and Yurok oral histories with empirical paleoecological data, such as pollen, tree fire scars and sedimentary charcoal, to document changes in forest conditions and fire over the last millennium in northwestern California. The study demonstrated the strong influence of Indigenous stewardship on forest conditions in northern California for at least a millennium. Indigenous burning practices coupled with lightning-induced fires kept forest carbon low, at approximately half of what it is today, and kept forests more open and less dense. These stable forest conditions appear to have enhanced the resiliency and health of the fire-prone forests of northern California. The study relied on a close collaboration between scientists and tribal members who developed a research proposal that specified how they would honor tribal intellectual property, data sharing, and reciprocity requests. Tribal members contributed to the writing process and in workshops to share the findings once the study was published. This study process serves as a model for how scientists can work effectively with tribal members and incorporate traditional knowledge with other scientific methods.

8. We created a public map of 7 years of drinking water research findings from across the nation.

Well pump
A well pump in rural North Dakota.

Drinking water in the United States is rarely  tested for contaminants and pathogens at the tap, where human exposure can occur. In 2016, the USGS launched a new effort to study contaminants in drinking water across the United States. Since then, sampling has been completed in locations across the country, including Chicago, Cape Cod, North and South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, with sampling continuing in additional locations. Now that many of the results are in, USGS scientists are working to make the data and information on the studies available to the public. This year, USGS scientists published a geonarrative about the drinking water research effort, along with a map and data viewer of drinking water contaminant findings so far.

9. We used the “world’s largest selfie stick” to document a unique flowering pattern in saguaro cacti.

USGS researcher photographs saguaro blossoms to collect research data
Southwest Biological Science center research ecologist Daniel Winkler photographs the top of a saguaro using the "world's largest selfie stick" to collect phenology data for a study that examined saguaro flowering patterns.

In early December, USGS and National Park Service scientists reported that the flowering pattern they found in the Southwest's iconic saguaro cacti had never been documented before in any flowering plants. The study was inspired by natural history observations from 1924 that had never been fully measured or rigorously documented. Since the cacti blooms in the study were all over 6 feet tall, far above the scientists’ heads, they came up with a clever solution to photograph the flowers: a collapsible flag pole with a camera attached. The researchers refer to it as the "world's largest selfie stick". With the help of this tool, the team revealed that blooms emerge in the east at the beginning of the cacti’s reproductive season, then continue to flower in a counterclockwise pattern around their stems.

10. We revealed how extinctions and invasions can hide in plain sight.

Man holds up a USGS hat with a lizard sitting on top
James Molden shows off an Orange-throated Whiptail, a species native to Southern California that may be confused with the invasive Sonoran Spotted Whiptail.

Sometimes, the science of the natural world just doesn’t reveal itself until you finally get your camera in just the right place—say, on the top of the world’s largest selfie stick or mounted to a drone. It’s a core part of what USGS scientists do – using a lens or a scientific method to reveal natural processes that are otherwise hard to see. Several studies published this year revealed entire ecological processes, like invasion and extinction, that can seemingly hide in plain sight. For example, one study of whiptail lizards in Southern California found that the invasive Sonoran Spotted Whiptail went undetected for over two years because they look so similar to native whiptails. Another study, this time of lizards in the western Pacific, found that counts of at-risk species may dramatically underestimate how many species are at risk of extinction when there are many species that are understudied or undescribed in the scientific literature. In the single lizard genus at the center of the study, they predicted that an additional 18 species are threatened with extinction when accounting for undescribed and data-deficient species.

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