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August 18, 2022

Aerial surveys will aid the protection of life and personal property from earthquakes and benefit the region’s economy through the potential discovery of critical minerals that are essential to the nation’s infrastructure, industry and market independence

Reston, Va. — The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) today, in partnership with state geological surveys, will begin aerial flights to collect high-resolution airborne geophysical data over the Appalachian Mountains thanks to an investment of approximately $4.5 million from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This data will help improve our understanding of the area’s critical mineral resources, a key step in securing a reliable and sustainable supply of the critical minerals that power everything from household appliances and electronics to clean energy technologies like batteries and wind turbines.

Image shows a map of the eastern United States with a green polygon on it
The airplane survey will take place within the polygon on the map, which covers parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

This study will cover a vast, 27,500 square-mile area, covering parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia where geophysical data has not been collected for more than 45 years. The study will be funded by and conducted through the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI), a partnership between the USGS and state geological surveys to modernize understanding of the nation’s fundamental geologic framework through new mapping and data collection. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law accelerates Earth MRI with additional funding over five years with a focus on understanding domestic critical mineral resources both still in the ground and in mine wastes. The same data and mapping will also inform the nation’s infrastructure planning. For example, parts of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania have potential for rare earth elements and aluminum in clays and in mine waste areas. The geophysical data can also be used to investigate geologic hazards. Southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland experience moderate earthquakes, including a M4.6 earthquake in 1994.

“This collaboration shows what the USGS and the state geological surveys can accomplish together,” said Warren Day, Earth MRI lead scientist for the USGS. “The new data will create a foundation for better understanding of mineral resources, earthquake hazard potential, natural radioactivity and other areas in which geoscience is essential to manufacturing and energy production, infrastructure and public health and safety.”

"The geophysical work performed by the USGS in Maryland shows the extensive collaboration and cooperation between State and Federal agencies,” said Richard A. Ortt, Jr., Maryland State Geologist. “The science collected by this effort will help Maryland know more about the earth under our feet and aid in industrial, commercial and residential development and sustainability for the next century."

“This partnership with the USGS and our neighboring state geological surveys is a valuable opportunity to fill gaps in our understanding of Pennsylvania’s underlying geologic framework,” said Gale Blackmer, Pennsylvania State Geologist. “The large project area will help us explore the transitions between several major geologic provinces. The knowledge we gain can be applied to important societal needs in the region such as groundwater resources, earthquake risk and carbon storage opportunities, as well as to evaluating critical mineral potential.”

"For our nation to get serious about the green energy transition, we need to get serious about finding the minerals we'll need to make that transition.  Where better to look than in our own backyard?  The proposed airborne geophysical survey will greatly advance our knowledge of the minerals beneath our feet," said David Spears, Virginia State Geologist.

“Participation in Earth MRI has significantly improved our understanding of West Virginia’s critical mineral resource potential, and I am excited to continue to advance our knowledge through acquisition of this high-resolution data,” said Jessica Moore, West Virginia State Geologist.

graphic airplane gathering geophysical data
Graphic of airplane in flight conducting an airborne geophysical survey with flight lines and resulting geophysical data.

These airborne geophysical surveys will collect a combination of magnetic and radiometric data. These data can be used to map rocks from just beneath trees and grass to several miles underground. Magnetic data can be used to identify ancient faults, magma bodies and other geologic features. The radiometric data indicate the relative amounts of potassium, uranium and thorium in shallow rocks and soil. Scientists use this information to help identify mineral deposits, faults that may rupture during an earthquake, areas that may be prone to increased radon and areas with groundwater- or energy resources.

The initial airborne geophysical survey will be followed by additional investments including new geologic maps, topographic surveys, geochemical sampling and other techniques to study the chemistry of mine wastes and surrounding lands.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is advancing scientific innovation through a $510.7 million investment for the USGS to support integrated mapping and interpretation of mineral resources data, the preservation of data from geochemical samples from Earth MRI, and infrastructure improvements for the USGS energy and minerals research center in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier this year $74 million was allocated to advance critical minerals mapping through the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, thanks to resources provided from the Law.

More information can be found here. To learn more about USGS mineral resource and commodity information, please visit our website and follow us on Twitter.

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