• 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."

    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.

    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.

    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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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.

    agriculture Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    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.

    aquifer Noun

    an underground layer of rock or earth which holds groundwater.

    Encyclopedic Entry: aquifer
    arid Adjective


    assess Verb

    to evaluate or determine the amount of.

    astrogeology Noun

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

    atmosphere Noun

    layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

    Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere
    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).

    climatology Noun

    study of the Earth's atmosphere.

    coast Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    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.

    coral 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.

    crater Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: crater
    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.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    dust Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: dust
    earthquake Noun

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

    ecosystem Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    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.

    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    fossil fuel Noun

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

    geography Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    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.

    hydrology Noun

    the study of water.

    impact Noun

    meaning or effect.

    indicate Verb

    to display or show.

    instrument Noun


    invasive species Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species
    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.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    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.

    migration 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.

    orbit Verb

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: orbit
    organism Noun

    living or once-living thing.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    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.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    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


    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.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    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.

    stream Noun

    body of flowing water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: stream
    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.

    USGS Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Surveying the United States
    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    volcano Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: Plate Tectonics and Volcanic Activity
    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.

    wildfire 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.