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April 22, 2019

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

Throughout human history, time and time again, we see that Dr. Mead’s thoughts on changing the world are absolutely correct. From the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, to the first-ever imaging of a black hole, small groups of dedicated individuals galvanized by a higher purpose have achieved incredible things for the betterment of their fellow mankind.

In the spring of 1970, another such movement got its start with a series of national events, celebrated as Earth Day, taking place across this great country. A senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, who was moved by the fallout of a massive oil spill in California, brought to his friend and colleague, Congressman Pete McCloskey, the notion that there was an appetite among his fellow Americans to see the world from a new perspective, one in which environmental issues and concerns were as much a part of a national discussion as taxes or military spending or the Super Bowl. These two men recruited a third like-minded individual, Denis Hayes from Harvard University, to initiate and organize what they hoped would be a day of national education about the environment and how important it was to protect it. It was an ambitious idea, but more than 20 million Americans showed up for it on the 22nd of April, 1970, and turned it into a reality — in parks, in the streets, and in theaters and auditoriums nationwide. Forty-nine years later, it’s still going strong.

My Earth Day story – I participated in the very first Earth Day as a high school student in Dallas. A group from my high school traveled to the state capital for a conference. We heard from legislators, scientists, and others interested in characterizing the environment. This one event didn’t shape my interest in studying geosciences, but it was part of the formative process that led me to a lifelong interest in our planet.

Being director of the U.S. Geological Survey provides me unique opportunities to be involved with some of the most cutting-edge earth science on the planet. We have unprecedented capabilities to view, examine, and analyze the composition and characteristics of the planet we call home. As I reflect on the importance of Earth Day this year and take time to step back and marvel at the world around me, I’m reminded that science in all its forms and functions has at its core the ability to revolutionize how we see things, from the infinitesimally small to the mind-bending, immense scale of the universe. As a species, we humans are at a crucial point in our existence where profound environmental, societal, and technological trends will have significant impacts on how we shape our future — from resource availability to ecological sustainability to interstellar exploration.

As the United States’ premier earth science agency, every day is Earth Day at the USGS. Our mission is to provide unbiased, objective, and independent scientific information and data to support decision and policy making at all levels of government — from federal to state to local city councils. USGS information is used in a variety of ways to assist in making critical decisions to ensure the well-being and prosperity of America’s communities. From resource assessments to natural hazard risk analysis to ecosystem and wildlife conservation, and many other ventures and initiatives, the USGS is engaged nationwide to provide communities the information they need to make the best decisions possible in support of their citizens. This mission is something we take very seriously, and there isn’t a single member of the USGS who doesn’t understand the vitally important nature of what we do. After all, the communities we serve are the communities in which we live — USGS customers are our friends and neighbors, colleagues and council members, parents and teachers — and it is a privilege to be able to serve our fellow Americans from coast to coast.

As we celebrate this Earth Day, I thank every one of the men and women at the USGS for their unwavering commitment to our mission and to serving our nation with such distinction and credibility. The USGS — along with our partners at the federal, state, and local level, as well as in academia and industry — is continuing to step boldly into the coming decades of the 21st century. We will continue to provide the most objective earth science information and data through advanced science products that will support our nation's prosperity and the safety of our citizens — all with an eye towards conservation and preservation of the Earth’s resources, ecosystems, and wildlife. This is the USGS’s 21st century vision, and it will require enhanced integrative capabilities and technology to answer increasingly complex, interdisciplinary, and computationally intensive scientific questions that are most important to the nation and the world. There are tremendous opportunities for the USGS to lead the natural science community in the decades to come and to contribute to a holistic understanding of our Earth as a system of systems.

Happy Earth Day from the USGS!

James Reilly

Director, USGS


Here’s a look back at a few of our science highlights during this past year — stories you may have seen, and some you may have missed.


  • As part of keeping officials and the public apprised of volcanic threats, the USGS periodically reassesses the threat level of U.S. volcanoes and updates volcanic threat assessment documentation. The most recent assessment finds that 161 U.S. volcanoes pose potential threats to American lives and property, eight fewer than in the first assessment in 2005. The assessment helps to prioritize U.S. volcanoes for research, monitoring, and mitigation efforts based on objective measures of volcano hazards and exposure of people and infrastructure to those hazards.


  • Published in 2018, Science for a Risky World: A USGS Plan for Risk Research and Applications defines for the first time the role of the USGS in risk research and applications. This includes hazard assessments, operational forecasts and warnings, vulnerability assessments, risk assessments, risk communication, decision-support systems, and post-event assessments.


  • USGS reached a significant milestone in the conservation and recovery of the endangered whooping crane. On March 11 and 13, 2019, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center transferred its last two cranes of the approximately 75 that were in its flock to other institutions, closing out more than 50 years of the center’s whooping crane research and captive breeding success.


  • In May 2018, Kīlauea Volcano erupted in the Lower Puna district of Hawai'i, known as the Big Island of the Hawaiian Island chain, which is home to roughly 200,000 people and a haven for tourists and adventure seekers. Kīlauea is the youngest and southeastern-most volcano on the Island of Hawai‘i. More than 115 employees from across the USGS were part of the response effort to the lower East Rift Zone eruption and summit collapse. Scientists worked around the clock to track fountains and lava flow and report information to local emergency managers, so they could issue alerts to the community.




  • In May 2018, the Department of the Interior published a list of 35 mineral commodities considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States. The list includes aluminum — used in almost all sectors of the economy; the platinum group metals — used for catalytic agents; rare-earth elements — used in batteries and electronics; tin — used as protective coatings and alloys for steel; and titanium — overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or as a metal alloy.


  • Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a major health concern for wild deer populations, and it is present in more than 20 states. Early detection of CWD gives wildlife managers more options to minimize the establishment of the disease and to limit its geographic spread. In June 2018, the USGS with the National Park Service released a new statistical approach to disease surveillance to improve scientists’ and managers’ ability to detect chronic wasting disease earlier in white-tailed deer by targeting higher-risk animals. This approach can also provide financial and personnel savings for agencies that are required to monitor for wildlife diseases, including the National Park Service.

Keep checking back for more stories about USGS science.

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