6 Other Major Discoveries by the U.S. Geological Survey

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Yesterday, the U.S. Geological Survey registered a 4.9 tremor in North Korea that originated roughly one kilometer underground, suggesting the test of a nuclear bomb. Detecting nuclear tests is one of a wide range of missions for the USGS. The Survey was founded in 1879 in part to take full measure of the Louisiana Purchase and lands conquered during the Mexican-American war. Today it charts and measures not only the lands and resources of the United States, but also the Moon and Mars and beyond. Here are a few things discovered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

1. The Moon’s Face

In 1892, Grove Karl Gilbert, Chief Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, tested samples at what is now Barringer Crater in Arizona, and reported that the crater was the result of volcanic activity. (His report is famous for its meticulous scientific methodology—Gilbert himself believed the crater had celestial origins, but deferred to the science.) The findings were wrong, but they got him thinking about the craters on the Moon. He believed that they were caused by impacts by meteoroids. From the naval observatory in Washington, he studied the surface of the Moon for eighteen nights over the course of three months. (Senator Edward Wolcott of Colorado didn’t care for such tomfoolery, complaining during a Congressional session, “So useless has the Survey become that one of its most distinguished members has no better way to employ his time than to sit up all night gaping at the Moon.”) In a paper titled The Moon’s Face, Gilbert presented the first scientific arguments for impact origins of craters on Moon. (Previously, volcanoes were widely believed to be responsible for the Moon’s features, and guesses that impacts might be responsible for the craters had no scientific backing.) His research was fifty years ahead of its time, and a milestone in lunar geoscience.

2. One trillion dollars in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has seen decades of war, tyrannical rulers, Mad Max frontiers, and a grim future. There is hope, though. In 2006, a U.S. Geological Survey study found evidence of $1,000,000,000,000 in lithium, gold, niobium, and other valuable metals. (The Pentagon would call Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”) The discovery was made after a USGS team arrived to help with the reconstruction effort. They came across old charts from the Afghan Geological Service created by Soviet miners during the occupation. The USGS proceeded to conduct aerial surveys with equipment designed to measure gravity and magnetic fluctuations. They surveyed seventy-percent of the country and were astonished with their findings. In 2007, they returned, this time with scanning devices capable of rendering three-dimensional portraits of the country’s mineral deposits. It is the most comprehensive geologic study of Afghanistan ever recorded, and is a measure of hope in an often-hopeless land.

3. An explanation for life on inhospitable worlds

Most life on Earth requires oxygen to breathe and carbon to eat. The best guess, then, has been that life on other planets would require the same setup. In 2002, Nature published the findings of Frank Chapelle of the U.S. Geological Survey. He discovered a community of microscopic organisms called Archaea located beneath a hot spring in Idaho. Unlike your average dog or monkey, Archaea survive on hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The microbes had long been found in sparse numbers, but Chapelle’s massive, exclusive community of Archaea in such inhospitable conditions give scientists reason to believe that such organisms might exist on Mars or Europa.

4. Rising sea levels on the east coast

When we think of melting ice caps, we tend to think of water everywhere rising at once and at the same rate. That's not exactly what happens. Because of currents, regional oceanographic temperatures, and land movements, water rises in some places faster than others. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each year since 1990, the global sea level has risen 0.6 to 1.0 millimeter globally. On the east coast of the United States, however, the rise has been 2.0 to 3.7 millimeters annually. The upshot is that if something doesn’t change, by 2100, the sea level on the coast will rise 8 to 11.4 inches above the already significant global increase of two to three feet. This will make flooding, already a serious concern for New York and Boston, significantly worse.

5. A landing spot for Curiosity

Taking up where Grove Carl Gilbert left off, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Program maps celestial objects and studies their features. The program also develops sensors and scanning techniques to beam images back to Earth for processing. The USGS mapped and selected the landing site on Mars for the Curiosity rover, and USGS scientists analyze collected data and help plan each day’s mission.

6. Earthquakes, everywhere, all the time

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the past week there were 375 detected earthquakes. It is estimated that each year there are several million earthquakes, though not all are felt, and many occur in remote areas. Although it seems like the number of earthquakes is on the rise, the USGS reports that the number of earthquakes magnitude 7.0 and up remains constant. The number just seems worse because geologists have become much more skilled at detecting them.