In the Critical Zone: Geography at the U.S. Geological Survey

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Geography is again becoming an integral part of the premier natural-science agency of the federal government. Geographic research emphasizes the surface of the earth, a portion of the earth system that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) defines as the “critical zone.” Although geography was part of the USGS from the creation of the agency, in recent years geography in the agency has largely been limited to topographic mapping. Recently, the USGS and an advisory committee of the National Research Council (NRC) reviewed the role of geography at the Survey. The committee's report, along with ongoing decision-making in the federal government, is likely to reshape geography in the USGS. The newly defined USGS has a regional structure and four disciplines: geology, hydrology, biology, and geography. The NRC report emphasizes the need for the creation of a spatial database called the National Map to replace the existing series of paper topographic maps. The report also outlines the need for geographic research in geographic information science (GIScience), nature-society connections, and bridging of science to decision-making. The NRC report has been briefed throughout the USGS, in the federal executive branch, and in Congress. The changing role for geography in the USGS requires change in the agency culture, revised budgetary decisions, and the establishment of a long-term core agenda for research. Academic geographers will need to prepare a new generation of geographers for participation in the USGS and similar agencies.

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