USGS Marks 136 Years of Science for America

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Recognizing that fundamental knowledge of the land is essential for an effective government and a productive economy, the 45th Congress and President Hayes established the U.S. Geological Survey 136 years ago, on March 3, 1879.

Recognizing that fundamental knowledge of the land is essential for an effective government and a productive economy, the 45th Congress and President Hayes established the U.S. Geological Survey 136 years ago, on March 3, 1879. The new organization was to be responsible for the scientific “classification of the public lands and examination of the Geological Structure, mineral resources and products of the national domain.”

Video Transcript

At the time, the Federal Government held title to 1.5 billion acres of land, mostly west of the Mississippi, of which only 200 million acres had been surveyed. As Congressional and Executive Office directions have expanded the Survey’s role through the years, the USGS has evolved from a small group of scientists and mappers who provided guidance on how to describe and manage the public lands of the West to a leading Federal science agency that conducts research and assessment activities on complex natural resource and science issues at many scales.

USGS scientists investigate a wide range of issues vital to American communities, the environment, and the economy — from assessing factors that could lead to the contamination of aquifers to analyzing the likelihood of landslides; from monitoring the worldwide supply of minerals to tracking invasive species; from comprehensively mapping the Nation’s topography, its streams and rivers, land cover, and geology to investigating the complexities of natural and human-induced seismicity. With nearly 9,000 science and science-support staff at work at more than 400 USGS science centers across the Nation, the USGS actively leverages its resources in partnership with more than 2,000 agencies of State, local and tribal government, the academic community, other Federal partners, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

The value of the past

A long history can sharpen our sense of the future.

USGS scientist sets up a repeat photograph of Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park to document glacial recession. USGS phot
USGS scientist sets up a repeat photograph of Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park to document glacial recession. USGS photo, Lisa McKeon, 2010.

Historical datasets that have been meticulously collected and archived by the Survey provide a critical context for the current state of natural systems as well as for discerning more recent human influences on the environment. In a 2001 review of the future role of the USGS, the National Academy of Sciences observed, “The value of the USGS's high-quality, long-term monitoring databases will increase as data are collected over extended periods of time and as they include a wider range of environmental variability and human influences. … Long-term databases are one of the USGS's most important contributions to the nation, and care must be taken not to disrupt them.”

Long-term USGS datasets include continuous readings from thousands of streamgages (more than 200 have periods of record for more than a century); over four decades of global change observations from Landsat satellites; catalogs of historical earthquakes and related data from the Global Seismic Network; and extensive paleoclimate records gleaned from ice cores and seafloor samples. This wealth and breadth of data provides an invaluable framework for understanding climate and environmental changes that are taking place today.

Reflections on an anniversary

A long history can remind us of great deeds.

During these 136 years, the American people and the USGS as an organization have benefited from the vision and dedication of many USGS scientists who have dared to take on difficult challenges. A fuller recognition of the mark they made on the society of their time can serve to inspire us to tackle similarly demanding tasks today.

Here are sketches of five inspiring USGS scientists with brief references to the challenges of their day and the contributions they made to public science.*

Damage from the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake. The USGS is currently working with partners to develop an Earthquake Early Warni
Damage from the 1994 Northridge, CA earthquake. The USGS is currently working with partners to develop an Earthquake Early Warning System for the U.S. West Coast. USGS photo, 1994.

Grove Karl Gilbert (1843-1918)

Gilbert, the first Chief Geologist of the USGS, was one of the founders of modern geomorphology, the study of landforms. He recognized that landforms reflect a state of balance between the processes that act upon them and their structure and composition. He conducted the first major quantitative modeling of streamflow in large flumes and observed the effects of the great 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

In 1900, Gilbert won the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society of London’s most prestigious award. He was only the third American to be honored with the award. Having made significant contributions to the fields of tectonics, hydrology, glaciology, earthquake studies, and geological methods, Gilbert is widely considered one of the most distinguished American geologists.

Henry Gannett (1846-1914)

Beginning his career in topographic
mapping with Hayden’s survey in 1871, Gannett recognized the importance
of geography as the cornerstone for
other sciences and endeavored to
present geographic knowledge so that it could be widely utilized by diverse audiences. He served as USGS Chief Geographer from 1882 to 1914. Many enduring methods and standards of USGS mapmaking were developed under his leadership.

Gannett contributed to the establishment of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in 1890, later serving as its chairman. Gannett was also one of the founders of the National Geographic Society (president, 1910–14), the Geological Society of America, and the Association of American Geographers.

Florence Bascom (1862-1945)

Bascom, the first woman geologist hired by the USGS, was also the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and the first woman officer of the Geological Society of America. She began teaching geology at Bryn Mawr College in 1895, but she combined her teaching career with active field and laboratory work for the USGS from 1896 to 1936.

She was an authority on the rocks of the Piedmont and published maps and folios; she also studied water resources of the Philadelphia region. She developed the geology curriculum at Bryn Mawr into a graduate program that trained most American women geologists during the first third of the 20th century. At least three of her students later joined the USGS: Eleanora Bliss Knopf, Anna Jonas Stose, and Julia Gardner.

USGS technicians retrieve a digital seismic streamer on the research vessel Pelican during a cruise to explore gas hydrates in t
USGS technicians retrieve a digital seismic streamer on the research vessel Pelican during a cruise to explore gas hydrates in the Gulf of Mexico. USGS photo, Seth Haines, 2013.

Luna Leopold (1915-2006)

A son of Aldo Leopold, an early leader of the movement to preserve the American wilderness, Luna Leopold was a pioneer in making ecological foresight a part of hydrological studies.

During his ten years as USGS Chief Hydrologist, Leopold initiated a new era in the study of rivers, one that involved quantitative approaches that spread to the broader field of geomorphology. His research related meteorology and climatology to landscape process, a concept that has become a central feature of geomorphology. In a USGS circular published in 1969, Leopold coined the term “environmental impact.”

Leopold’s enthusiasm for rivers proved contagious, inspiring generations of colleagues and students to devote their talents to the pursuit of science and to its application for society. He received many scientific honors, including the G. K. Warren Prize from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Medal of Science.

Lucille Stickel (1915-2007)

Stickel began her career as a Junior Biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1943 at the Patuxent Wildlife Center and rapidly became a leading authority in the field of wildlife toxicology. (In a re-organization in 1996, this facility became the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, enabling USGS to stand in the shadow of her legacy.)

In 1946, when Stickel published her first contaminant paper, a study of the new pesticide DDT, virtually nothing was known about the harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife. The impact of her pioneering research would be significant and far-reaching. Rachel Carson used Stickel’s research as the basis for much of Silent Spring, a book that ushered in a new age of environmental awareness.

From 1973 to 1981, Stickel served as Director of the Center, making her the first woman to head a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory. Stickel’s influential contributions to the preservation of wildlife and natural resources were recognized in 1998 when the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry honored her with its prestigious Rachel Carson Award.

Fissure eruption at Kilauea volcano, HI. The lava spatter reaches 30 feet in the air. USGS photo, 2011.
Fissure eruption at Kilauea volcano, HI. The lava spatter reaches 30 feet in the air. USGS photo, 2011.

From inspiration to resolution

Our nation faces difficult challenges ahead that concern the environment and natural resources. With the world population at more than 7 billion and projected to grow to 9 billion by 2040; with competing priorities to balance – for the economy, for the environment, for public health; with earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters to guard against; with a growing demand for energy and the somber consequences of climate change to consider, our leaders need scientific information about the land and its resources that they can trust with the greatest confidence to guide their decisions.

Inspired by an illustrious past, we can look forward with confidence to providing important scientific insights for meeting these formidable challenges.

* The selection of these five individuals among many others is intended only to be broadly representative. Former Directors are not included since their accomplishments tend to be more widely known.

USGS home page cover image. Early USGS hydrologists (1888) at Emdudo, NM, on the Rio Grande River, the “birthplace of systematic streamgaging."  In 2014 USGS celebrated the 125th anniversary of the streamgage there. USGS photo, 1888.

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