The Role of National Geological Surveys in the 21st Century

Dr. James Devine

It is an honor for me to speak to this gathering on this auspicious occasion. During my early days of geophysical and seismological research, I quickly learned of the value of the scientific research being accomplished here in Japan. I recall that much of our understanding of liquifaction came from the work of Japanese scientists on the consequences of the Niigata earthquake of 1964. My respect has only increased over these last 38 years. So I take particular pleasure on being able to participate in this happy occasion.

Man has relied on the resources of the earth for many centuries for shelter, fuel and fundamental needs of life. As the world industrialized in the 18th and 19th centuries, the demand for energy and for minerals grew rapidly. No longer were local occurrences of coal and iron sufficient to meet the expanding uses; nor was the local rock necessarily the right rock for building larger and more complicated structures. This situation brought on the demand for governments to organize experts to observe in a coordinated way and at a regional or national scale the broad distribution of minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, gold and silver, the geologic setting of various rock types and the energy sources needed to exploit these natural resources. At first, temporary geological expeditions were organized and their findings made public. The value of these efforts was gradually recognized and national scale organizations, Geological Surveys, were formed and prospered.

For the 100-year period, 1850-1950, many countries could show huge benefits from the existence of a national geologic survey. However, by the end of that period great progress had occurred and industrial processes had matured, and the continued need for national level Geological Surveys dimmed in the eyes of many governmental leaders. So for the next 50 years, many Geological Surveys around the world, experienced restructuring, reorganization, reduction, or complete elimination. In some countries, local or subject specific groups accomplished the geological interpretation needed for exploration of nations' natural resource wealth.

So as we now move into the 21st century, it is fitting to take some time to reflect on the past and use that reflection to help guide the directions to be taken in the future. I propose to do that, in a small way, for the geological condition around the world, and offer a few opinions for consideration while looking toward the future.

In the year 2002, there exits in some form approximately 50 national Geological Surveys in the world. In addition, to these Surveys, there are hundreds of societies and organizations, which address various elements of the geological domain. So let's look at some of the accomplishments to date. As I have stated ear, quantity, and quality of much of the world's minerals have been identified. These minerals range from antimony to zinc. (That's A to Z in English.)

Likewise, major fossil energy sources have been identified in all continents of the world and sophisticated technologies for estimating undiscovered resources have been developed. Examples of these resources include oil and gas, coal, lignite, geothermal and unconventional gases such as hydrates and coal-bed methane.

Major sources of building materials, such as sand for the glass industry, and even marble for sculpture are all well known today.

Also, the world has greatly benefited by the work of Geological Surveys in the field of natural hazards, a subject certainly well known and well studied in Japan. As a collective body of geological scientists, we have developed an understanding of the forcing mechanisms of earthquakes and the consequences resulting from strong ground shaking, liquefaction, and soil response. Similar advancement has been made in understanding volcanoes and even to predicting, in many cases, their timing and size of the eruptions. Other geological processes, such as landslides, subsidence, soil swelling and sinkholes are now understood and appropriate remedial actions recognized.

Most of the world now understands its basic geologic setting through the publication of national and regional geologic and tectonic maps and analyses. Consequently, proper decisions can be made as to where to site a dam and how it must be built, or where to relocate or develop a new community that has access to water and to be built on stable ground.

An extremely valuable natural resource, one in ever increasing demand is potable water. In many countries, the assessment of ground and surface water and the quality of each falls under the purview of the geological survey. The careful monitoring of these resources provides valuable information to officials charged with the management of the resource; for example, the amount of resulting stream pollution from improper use of pesticides on farm land. Also improved understanding of the geologic setting of ground water can aid in protecting its continued availability.

All geologic problems have a geospacial reference. Consequently, the development of programs to identify where things are on the surface of the Earth with respect to each other has proceeded through history much as the progress in geologic understanding. The results of these and other efforts have lead to the development of tools for representing geospatial information in useful formats. Traditional methods consist of geologic and topographic maps. Also, hundreds of special use maps abound. One such modern tool consists of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS has provided an efficient and effective technique for deploying special information that has application to the solution of many earth science problems. Geologists understand these problems and their solutions very well.

Even though great progress has been made worldwide in all the earth science areas, the task is far from complete. Much remains to be done in both the developing and the developed world. Emerging nations have all the kinds of information needs for their lands that the developed world has produced for its use over the last century or longer. That need is quite obvious. However, the developed nations also face severe geo-science problems as well. The need for certain minerals, particularly the more exotic ones, is greater today than ever. Certainly there is increasing demand for energy, especially clean energy. Natural hazards cause great loss of life and the associated costs are rapidly increasing. Many countries have no choice but to build nearer and nearer to known geologic hazards. As you all know, many of the most advanced components of society are and will continue to be located near major faults and active volcanoes. Landslides, ground failure, beach erosion, and subsidence are problems to many nations and will continue to be so in the future.

In all of these cases, the specifics of the problem cannot be solved until there is a thorough understanding of the national or regional setting.

Consequently, the need for national geologic surveys is, in my opinion, increasing, not decreasing. However, the difficulty in demonstrating the value of "established surveys" lies in the fact that much of this need is for a much different kind of survey than those of the past. Surely, many of the traditional geologic problems continue to affect society as I have outlined and require classic scientists to address them. However, many of today's problems fall outside of these traditional study areas; for example, environmental concerns have risen to the forefront in virtually every nation of the world. This includes pollution of the air, water and even the ground. It includes the problem of disposal of hazardous and nuclear waste and for better mineral and energy estimation and extraction techniques. Another major world-wide problem is the scarcity of potable water. The solutions to these issues lie, at least in part, in understanding the geological setting and processes that affect each of these problems. However, many issues require new techniques and new skills to solve them.

An example of this can be illustrated by the following two examples. Immediately following the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, there was a call for scientists to analyze the resulting dust to determine the safety conditions for the rescue and recovery workers. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey were able to obtain data remotely with help from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Laboratories. USGS geologists also gathered data and samples at the site. This information was analyzed for a variety of mineralogical and chemical parameters using Reflectance Spectroscopy, Scanning Election Microscopy, X-ray diffraction, chemical analyses and chemical leach tests. Over 40 mineral components were identified and amounts compared with normal conditions to provide specific guidance to the recovery effort. Just a few years ago, we would not have been able to do more than make simple estimates of what might be present.

A second example of today's needs for geologic analyses, lies in the efforts to find a safe solution to the growing stockpile of nuclear waste. In the United States the recommendation of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada to be put forth for licensing has been made by President Bush. The fundamental basis for demonstrating the public safety of this site lies in the huge body of geologic information developed to support this recommendation. However, this information needed to include well-defined analysis of how any water entering the proposed underground faculty would travel through the unsaturated zone and the saturated zone to reach the region beyond the site area. The solution could only be developed by scientists skilled in the combination of geology, hydrology, tectonics, and geochemistry. These scientists are of a "new breed". Many countries of the world are facing, or will face a similar problem. Even countries without nuclear waste have toxic and chemical wastes that need similar solutions.

Today's geologic problems are complex and their solutions will require not only different kinds of scientists but also new and different tools. We are fortunate in that the advent of satellite technology has brought forth an entire new suite of remote sensing capabilities not available to the geologists of the past. For example, we all have seen the spectacular images from the Iconus and Spot Image Satellites. Also, I am happy to report that the USGS has recently signed an agreement with Japan for the direct reception and distribution of Landsat 7 data. This provides an extremely useful tool for national and regional studies. One of the most exciting new remote sensing tools to become available in recent years is the Advanced Spacebourne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). ASTER is the result of a cooperative program between the United States and Japan. Scientists are just beginning to discover the value of this system for solving earth science questions.

In one example, already underway, ASTER is being used to monitor gas emissions and thermal change of hundreds of volcanoes and can be used to make detailed observations of eruptions as they occur. Monitoring of floods, earthquakes, ice flow, beach erosion and other earth-science processes will be made easier by the use of the ASTER system.

Likewise, on the ground there are now new and more powerful analysis tools such as electron scanning microscopes, x-ray diffraction and reflection spectroscopy instruments that greatly improve our ability to understand the composition of materials.

Finally, new computers and software provide for an entire generation of new capabilities that will allow for creative solutions to geologic problems, old and new.

So in conclusion, I would offer the opinion that in this rapidly changing world, the role of national geologic surveys is needed more now than ever and, if we educate our young scientists properly and take advantage of the new technologies many of today's problems can be solved. But it will require the will, both societal and political, to make it happen.

Finally I congratulate the Geological Survey of Japan once again on the great accomplishments over the last 120 years and wish you all success as you start your next 120 years.