Geological Survey

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Geological Survey

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is the federal agency responsible for surveying and publishing maps of topography (giving landscape relief and elevation), geology, and natural resourcesincluding minerals, fuels, and water. The USGS, part of the U. S. Department of the Interior, was formed in 1879 as the United States began systematically to explore its newly expanded western territories. Today it has an annual budget of about $700 million, which is devoted to primary research, resource assessment and monitoring, map production, and providing information to the public and to other government agencies.

The United States Geological Survey, now based in Reston, Virginia, originated in a series of survey expeditions sent to explore and map western territories and rivers after the Civil War. Four principal surveys were authorized between 1867 and 1872: Clarence King's exploration of the fortieth parallel, Ferdinand Hayden's survey of the Rocky Mountain territories, John Wesley Powell's journey down the Colorado River and through the Rocky Mountains, and George Wheeler's survey of the 100th meridian. Twelve years later, in 1879, these four ongoing survey projects were combined to create a single agency, the United States Geological Survey. The USGS' first director was Clarence King. In 1881 his post was taken by John Wesley Powell, whose name is most strongly associated with the early Survey. It was Powell who initiated the USGS topographic mapping program, a project that today continues to produce the most comprehensive map series available of the United States and associated territories.

In addition to topographic mapping, the USGS began detailed surveys and mapping of mineral resources in the 1880s. Mineral exploration led to mapping geologic formations and structures and a gradual reconstruction of geologic history in the United States. Research and mapping of glacial history and fossil records naturally followed from mineral explorations, so that the USGS became the primary body in the United States involved in geologic field research and laboratory research in experimental geophysics and geochemistry. During World Wars I and II, the USGS' role in identifying and mapping tactical and strategic resources increased. Water and fuel resources (coal , oil, natural gas , and finally uranium ) were now as important as copper , gold, and mineral ores, so the Survey took on responsibility for assessing these resources as well as topographic and geologic mapping.

Today the USGS is one of the world's largest earth science research agencies and the United States' most important map publisher. The Survey conducts and sponsors extensive laboratory and field research in geology, hydrology , oceanography, and cartography. The agency's three divisions, Water Resources , Geology, and National Mapping, are responsible for basic research. They also publish, in the form of maps and periodic written reports, information on the nation's topography, geology, fuel and mineral resources, and other aspects of earth sciences and natural resources . Most of the United States' hydrologic records and research, including streamflow rates, aquifer volumes, and water quality , are produced by the USGS. In addition, the USGS publishes information on natural hazards, including earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, and droughts. The Survey is the primary body responsible for providing basic earth science information to other government agencies, as well as to the public. In addition, the USGS undertakes or assists research and mapping in other countries whose geologic survey systems are not yet well developed.

[Mary Ann Cunningham Ph.D. ]



U.S. Geological Survey. Maps for America. Reston, VA: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981.

USGS Yearbook: Fiscal Year 1985. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985.

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Geological Survey

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