The United States Geological Survey, also called USGS, is one of the many departments in the U.S. government.

USGS scientists study the entire landscape of the country. They study natural resources, including some of the country's most beautiful plains, valleys, mountains, and bodies of water. USGS scientists also study anything, natural or manmade, that can harm these natural resources.

The USGS also studies things like air quality and water quality. Measuring pollutants in the air and water in different areas of the country tells scientists where pollution is heavy. Pollutants in the water of a specific region may indicate that the region’s aquifer is contaminated. The USGS can investigate and study the problem further.

The USGS was created in 1879. Congress created the new department to study and keep track of all the public lands, minerals, and resources in the country. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the need to study western lands increased tremendously. The Louisiana Purchase was more than 2.1 million square kilometers (829,000 square miles) of land, which more than doubled the size of the United States. There was simply much more land to keep track of, and the USGS was created to keep track of it.

Today, there are roughly 10,000 scientists, technicians, and other staff that work for the department. Some of the branches of science represented by the USGS include cartography, or mapmaking; seismology, or the study of earthquakes; volcanology, or the study of volcanoes; and climatology, the study of patterns in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Major Sciences

Even though USGS studies everything from the atmosphere to plant life to rock formations, the department focuses on four major sciences: biology, geography, geology, and hydrology.

Biology is the study of living things. A biologist working for the USGS may study invasive species, for instance. An invasive species is an organism that is not native to an area and is threatening the health and population of the native species in the area. For example, USGS keeps track of zebra mussels, which are crowding out native species and causing problems with shipping in the Great Lakes.

A USGS biologist may also focus on human health. The biologist may track the spread of West Nile virus, or keep a list of harmful pollutants in air, dust, soil, and water.

The USGS maintains data on "animals as sentinels of human health." This information recognizes that the health of animals can often be an early-warning system to threats to human health. Animals interact more directly with the environment than people do, so they respond more quickly to environmental changes. Symptoms and changes in the behavior of animals, from bats to worms, are monitored by USGS biologists.

Geography is the study of the Earth and its land. The surface of the land is constantly changing. Some causes of change are natural, such as wildfires, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Some changes are manmade, including agricultural and industrial development.

The geographers of the USGS study geospatial patterns, or significant features of the landscape. One of the primary programs of the USGS is the Geographic Analysis and Monitoring Program (GAM). The goal of GAM is to monitor the changes occurring on the surface of the Earth and analyze the consequences of these changes. GAM assesses the Earth's land cover—the material on a specific portion of the Earth’s surface. The GAM Program established an erosion monitoring station on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in Alaska, for instance. This station used a camera and measuring instruments to document coastal erosion in the area.


Geology is the study of how the Earth changes over time. The layers under the surface of the planet are a record of how the Earth has changed. The chemical composition and location of rocks and minerals tell geologists how landmasses have shifted or changed over time. Often, there is material in the rocks and mineral layers, such as fossils and fossil fuels.

USGS geologists study mineral resources of the United States. This includes minerals such as gold, as well as coral found in the coastal waters of Florida. Geologists consider the human needs for such minerals, as well as the impact mining would have on the environment.

Hydrology is the study of water and how it moves, changes, and shifts all around the planet. Water is probably the most important natural resource the USGS studies. Americans use about about 1.5 trillion liters (408 billion gallons) of water every day, according to the USGS.

Hydrologists study the quantity, quality, and availability of water. Hydrologists locate aquifers and measure how much water they now hold or have held in the past. They measure how quickly water supplies are drained by homes and businesses. They sample water from different areas to see what chemicals are present, and how safe the water is to drink, cook with, or use for bathing. Finally, hydrologists use technology to determine how much water is available to what areas. Some areas, like the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern California, have healthy water resources. Other areas, like the desert of Southern California, have fewer water resources.

Location, Location, Location

One big task of the USGS is mapping just about everything in the United States. The USGS is the primary resource for research on where something is, what's around it, and what the topography of the area is.

This information can be used for all kinds of tasks, like helping ambulance drivers and firefighters find the best route to their destination, letting engineers know where to build stable buildings and bridges, and keeping people informed of local hazards like floods.

Some areas of the country, like San Francisco, California, have earthquakes. Earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates under the Earth shift, causing everything on the surface to jiggle around. When everything on the surface jiggles around, it can sometimes cause a lot of problems: buildings fall, streets get torn apart, and people get hurt. The USGS monitors these active tectonic plates. Scientists try to predict, as best they can, when an earthquake or some kind of shift will happen underneath the surface. The idea is to give people notice before a big earthquake happens, so they have time to clear out to a safe place.

USGS scientists monitor volcanoes, too, so they know roughly when one might erupt. There are many volcanoes in the state of Hawaii and Alaska, for instance. Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes on Hawaii. The USGS keeps a “Kilauea: Latest Update” report online.

The USGS studies more than just the surface of the Earth. The USGS studies the interior of the Earth and even the solar system using a technique called remote sensing. Remote sensing detects and monitors radiation (heat and light) from a specific area.

Radiation is affected by the amount of water, chemicals, and other substances in an area. Measuring radiation can tell scientists what chemicals are present in the area without actually drilling or visiting the area. Remote sensing is conducted through instruments on airplanes or satellites orbiting the Earth. One of the most exciting remote imaging finds is that our moon, which looks pretty dry, can hold large amounts of water beneath its surface.

Remote sensing techniques can also be used to study the movement and behavior of wild animals, such as migration patterns. USGS remote sensing technology also helped scientists discover that chloride, a natural chemical, can harm fish and other aquatic animals. Remote sensing is able to identify rivers and streams that have large amounts of chloride, and the information can help local communities take action to protect their water and wildlife.

The USGS motto is "Science for a changing world." The world changes a little bit every day; research from the USGS helps us all deal with those changes.

Surveying the United States
The US Geological Survey offers "science for a changing world."

Astrogeology
The USGS studies the geology of other planets and moons in our solar system. Besides researching the materials present on the surface of planets, the USGS also publishes the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature.

This program contains detailed information about all names of topographic features on planets and moons. From Aananin to Zal Montes, the Gazetteer has them. Aananin, named after a Korean god of the heavens, is a crater on Rhea, a moon of Saturn. Zal Montes, named after a legendary Persian warrior, is a mountain on Io, a moon of Jupiter.

John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell was the second director of the USGS. After losing an arm during the Civil War, Powell explored the American West. He was especially interested in rivers, and he rafted down the Green River and Colorado River. Powell led one of the first expeditions through the Grand Canyon.

Powell recommended that little of the arid land of the American Southwest be used for agriculture. His recommendations were mostly ignored.

Needles in a Haystack
Believe it or not, crickets are very important to the ecosystem. The USGS wants to know how many crickets are left, so scientists set aside entire days trying to find as many as they can in the huge urban area of New York City.

Aananin
Noun

crater on Rhea, a moon of Saturn.

agricultural development
Noun

modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.

Noun

the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

air quality
Noun

measurement of pollutants and other harmful materials in the air.

ambulance
Noun

motor vehicle with special equipment used to transport sick people.

analyze
Verb

to study in detail.

Noun

an underground layer of rock or earth which holds groundwater.

arid
Adjective

dry.

assess
Verb

to evaluate or determine the amount of.

astrogeology
Noun

study of the physical history and structure of planets and moons.

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

availability
Noun

usefulness or readiness to use.

biology
Noun

study of living things.

cartography
Noun

art and science of making maps.

chemical
Noun

molecular properties of a substance.

chloride
Noun

chemical substance containing the element clorine (Cl).

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

Noun

study of the Earth's atmosphere.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

coastal erosion
Noun

wearing away of earth or sand on the beach by natural or man-made methods.

consequence
Noun

result or outcome of an action or situation.

contribute
Verb

to give or donate.

Noun

tiny ocean animal, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form reefs.

country
Noun

geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.

Noun

bowl-shaped depression formed by a volcanic eruption or impact of a meteorite.

cricket
Noun

chirping, leaping insect.

data
Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

destination
Noun

place where a person or thing is going.

detect
Verb

to notice.

determine
Verb

to decide.

development
Noun

construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

discovery
Noun

something seen, documented, or noticed for the first time.

drain
Verb

to empty.

drill
Verb

to make a hole using a rotating digging tool.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Noun

tiny, dry particles of material solid enough for wind to carry.

earthquake
Noun

the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

engineer
Noun

person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

enormous
Adjective

very large.

erosion monitoring station
Noun

collection of cameras and measuring equipment used to keep track of an area's erosion.

erupt
Verb

to explode or suddenly eject material.

establish
Verb

to form or officially organize.

expedition
Noun

journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

fish
Noun

aquatic animals with gills, and usually fins and scales.

flood
Verb

to overflow or cover in water or another liquid.

Noun

remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

geology
Noun

study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

geospatial
Adjective

having to do with geography and location.

gold
Noun

valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

Grand Canyon
Noun

large gorge made by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona.

Great Lakes
Noun

largest freshwater bodies in the world, located in the United States and Canada. Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior make up the Great Lakes.

hazard
Noun

danger or risk.

Noun

the study of water.

impact
Noun

meaning or effect.

indicate
Verb

to display or show.

instrument
Noun

tool.

Noun

type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

Io
Noun

moon of Jupiter.

jiggle
Verb

to move up and down or back and forth in quick movements.

John Wesley Powell
Noun

(18341902) American geologist and explorer.

Jupiter
Noun

largest planet in the solar system, the fifth planet from the Sun.

Kilauea
Noun

youngest, most-active volcano in the U.S. state of Hawaii.

land cover
Noun

physical material at the very top surface of the Earth, such as grass.

landmass
Noun

large area of land.

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Louisiana Purchase
Noun

(1803) land bought by the United States from France, extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

mineral
Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

mining
Noun

process of extracting ore from the Earth.

monitor
Verb

to observe and record behavior or data.

Moon
Noun

Earth's only natural satellite.

motto
Noun

words or expression used as a guiding thought or principle.

mountain
Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

native species
Noun

species that occur naturally in an area or habitat. Also called indigenous species.

natural resource
Noun

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

nomenclature
Noun

names or system of names.

occur
Verb

to happen or take place.

Verb

to move in a circular pattern around a more massive object.

organism
Noun

living or once-living thing.

Noun

flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

pollutant
Noun

chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

predict
Verb

to know the outcome of a situation in advance.

primary
Adjective

first or most important.

public land
Noun

part of the Earth's surface owned by a country's citizens or government.

quality
Noun

characteristic or feature.

quantity
Noun

amount.

radiation
Noun

energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.

recommend
Verb

to advise, approve, or suggest.

recycle
Verb

to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.

remote sensing
Noun

methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.

resource
Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

Rhea
Noun

moon of Saturn.

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

rock
Noun

natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.

roughly
Adverb

nearly or approximately.

sample
Verb

to take and test a small part of something, which represents the entire thing.

satellite
Noun

object that orbits around something else. Satellites can be natural, like moons, or made by people.

Saturn
Noun

sixth planet from the sun.

seismology
Noun

study of earthquakes.

shift
Verb

to change position.

shipping
Noun

transportation of goods, usually by large boat.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

solar system
Noun

the sun and the planets, asteroids, comets, and other bodies that orbit around it.

stable
Noun

building where horses or other animals are kept.

Noun

body of flowing water.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

tectonic plate
Noun

massive slab of solid rock made up of Earth's lithosphere (crust and upper mantle). Also called lithospheric plate.

topographic
Adjective

having to do with maps based on natural and human-made features of the land, and marked by contour lines showing elevation.

topography
Noun

study of the shape of the surface features of an area.

Noun

(United States Geological Survey) primary source for science about the Earth, its natural and living resources, natural hazards, and the environment.

valley
Noun

depression in the Earth between hills.

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

volcanologist
Noun

scientist who studies volcanoes.

water quality
Noun

chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water for a specific purpose such as drinking.

West Nile virus
Noun

infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, with symptoms ranging from mild flu to possible death.

Noun

uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.

Zal Montes
Noun

mountain on Io, a moon of Jupiter.

zebra mussel
Noun

aquatic animal (mollusk) native to Europe.