USGS Director Suzette Kimball testified about the priorities and capabilities of the USGS today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Her written remarks follow:
Chairman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell, members of the committee, thank you very much for inviting me to testify today. I am excited for this opportunity to share some of my views on the state of the USGS and its mission. I would like to start this conversation with some history.
In 1879, Congress passed legislation that merged several Federal scientific and mapping surveys. We call this statute our Organic Act, because it inaugurated the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). From the beginning, the mission of this combined endeavor was not only to map the West and locate resources, but also to push the boundaries of science. USGS scientists, for almost 140 years now, have pursued that mission with an uncommon dedication. I am honored to be their 16th Director and cognizant of the responsibility that the President, the Congress, and this committee have entrusted to me.
Not only is the USGS older than 12 of the States, it is also the forbearer of several important government agencies, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Reclamation. In the time since we were established, technology and Earth science have evolved and we have evolved along with it, to meet the scientific needs of the Nation. For example, with the increase in global demand for critical mineral commodities, USGS has focused on conducting research to understand geologic processes that have concentrated known mineral resources at specific localities in the Earth’s crust and to estimate or assess quantities, qualities and areas of undiscovered mineral resources, or potential future supply. We have increased resources toward the National Geospatial program, earthquake early warning, volcano monitoring and the national streamgage network. USGS has also focused our activities on fulfilling statutory authorities, most recently by addressing national water availability and use through the SECURE Water Act.
Our evolution is evident, as you noted two years ago, Madame Chairman, in a resolution recognizing the anniversary of the massive earthquake that occurred in the Prince William Sound region of Alaska on March 27, 1964 (the Good Friday Earthquake). USGS science in response to that event helped confirm the theory of plate tectonics, fundamentally changing earthquake science. Shortly thereafter, in 1966, Bill Pecora, our 8th Director, advocated for the use of satellites to study natural resources. This innovation led to Landsat and opened the age of Earth observation from space.
In 1995, Congress merged biologists from the National Biological Survey with the USGS, helping us to become an integrated Earth science agency. As scientific and technological advances have revealed the complexity of the issues we face, the value of bringing Earth science disciplines together has become ever more apparent. Today’s challenges demand the innovation made possible by integrating the full breadth of USGS capabilities.
One example that illustrates the value of USGS’s diverse scientific capabilities is our leadership in understanding methylation processes of mercury. Mercury is a toxin that can build up in the food chain, becoming deadly to humans. It is most dangerous after undergoing a specific chemical change, methylation. Our geological expertise allows us to understand how and where methylation occurs, and our biological expertise allows us to understand how it affects plants, animals, and humans. Combining the talents, tools, and methods from these two disciplines is necessary to correctly assess methylmercury and its potential impacts.
I want to stress that we rely on numerous partnerships to pursue our scientific mission. The state geological surveys, universities, municipal governments, other Federal agencies, and foreign governments all count as critical partners of the USGS. As you may know, our budget is leveraged resulting in, approximately, an additional half a billion dollars contributed by our partners, especially State governments and other Federal agencies. We see this as an indication of their confidence in and support for our work. Such partnerships also have made it possible, for example, to create and publish a whole-lifecycle mining report, that offers industry and regulators guidance on how to site, develop, and close a mine with resource and environmental implications taken into account. In the future, we plan to do similar work for energy resources.
The USGS works closely with other Interior bureaus such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as other Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Rather than duplicate those agencies’ missions, the USGS complements their research activities and contributes sound science for their decisionmaking. We are pleased to know that Congress looks to us, too, because researchers from the USGS are here hundreds of times a year meeting with you and your offices.
While I am proud of our integrated approach to problem solving, drawing on geological and biological science, remote sensing, epidemiology, ecology, or any of the myriad disciplines that constitute Earth science, innovation is the characteristic I most hope to nurture during my tenure in this office. While the Bureau has often been at the forefront of innovative research and science, we must take advantage of technological change and respond to emerging scientific directions to meet our full potential.
Today USGS labs are spearheading novel technologies. For example we are using eDNA to monitor the spread of Asian carp. We also work on other invasive species such as zebra mussels, brown tree snakes, and cheatgrass. Through our groundbreaking work on white-nosed syndrome, avian influenza and other wildlife diseases, the Bureau has become known as “the CDC of wildlife,” and is on the front lines of possible future epidemics.
One of our ongoing pursuits is 21st century mapping. In Alaska, we are harnessing our partnerships with the State and the University of Alaska, along with the technology of interferometric synthetic aperture radar, or ifsar, to produce modern geospatial information for the State. Back in the lower 48, high resolution elevation data are being collected using lidar technology by a coalition of Federal, State and private industry partners, to inform decisionmaking and enable newfound abilities like mapping and even forecasting landslides. The landslide tragedy at Oso, Washington, in 2014, not unlike the Good Friday Earthquake, pushes us to look farther, aim higher, and complete a scientific achievement worthy of the investment and trust placed in us by the American people.
Speaking of hazards, the USGS has long led Federal research into various geologic hazards and we are pressing forward on innovative approaches in this area, too. Along the West Coast, we are establishing, in cooperation with states, universities, and philanthropic partners, a state-of-the-art earthquake early warning system. This system could readily be expanded to Alaska and other high-risk regions of the country. We are also applying advanced telemetry and remote sensing technologies, making a volcano early warning system a reality. For many of your constituents, these are hazards they live with every day and they are also threats to the Nation as a whole.
The unknown unknowns of Earth science motivate us to advance our understanding of the natural world. As we look toward the future I see challenges where we are positioned to lead, all of which I have touched on: water security and availability, tools for protection from and response to natural hazards, assessment of critical minerals, forecasting and preventing biological threats, and creating the next generation of mapping tools and technology.
I have every confidence that the USGS will continue to meet these challenges, and I am heartened by a recent survey of marine and coastal scientists and managers which found the USGS to be the most credible Federal science agency. This is not a reason to boast, but a calling to meet such high expectations.
The mission of the USGS in the 21st century will not only be to locate natural resources for the benefit of the Nation, but to find ways of exploiting those resources sustainably so that our prosperity is not fleeting or fragile. For example, we are researching microbial production of natural gas, which may someday make it possible harness the energy of coal resources while avoiding many of the environmental costs traditionally associated with it. It is the job of the USGS, working with our partners, to help bring that future to fruition.
On behalf of the approximately 8,000 employees of the USGS, thank you again for inviting me here today. I would be happy to answer any questions you have.
New US Topo maps for Texas and Oklahoma are now available in the USGS Store for free download. One of the main improvements is the inclusion of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) road data.
“The US Topo digital maps are a great public resource to provide authoritative, robust maps to emergency management field personnel and first responders when response time matters”, said Michael Ouimet, Critical Information Systems Manager for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “Our agency deployed the US Topo digital maps to our field personnel across the state.”
Other important additions to the new US Topo maps for Texas and Oklahoma are the integration of wetlands layers using data from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Wetlands Inventory, along with the continued incorporation of “crowdsourced” trail data from the International Mountain Bike Association.
The US Topo map improvement program has entered its third, three-year cycle of revising and updating digital US Topo quadrangles. These new US Topo maps replace the second edition US Topo maps and are available for no-cost file download from The National Map, the USGS Map Locator & Downloader website , and several other USGS applications.
The USGS recently released US Topo maps for Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas which were the first set of states to feature TIGER data. The TIGER database contains all geographic features — such as roads (more than 6.3 million miles), railroads, rivers, and legal and statistical geographic boundaries — needed to support the Census Bureau’s data collection and dissemination programs.
To compare change over time, scans of legacy USGS topo maps, some dating back to the late 1800s, can be downloaded from the USGS Historical Topographic Map Collection.
For more information on US Topo maps: http://nationalmap.gov/ustopo/.Scan of the 1886 legacy topographic map quadrangle of the greater Austin, Texas area from the USGS Historic Topographic Map Collection Updated 2016 version of the East Austin US Topo quadrangle with orthoimage turned off to better see the improved road network. (1:24,000 scale) Updated 2016 version of the East Austin US Topo quadrangle with orthoimage turned on. (1:24,000 scale)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The U.S. Geological Survey released additional evidence that western Alaska remains a hot spot for avian influenza to enter North America. The new report announces that while no highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses have been found in Alaska, the state remains an important area to monitor due to migratory bird flyways from North America and Eurasia that overlap the region.
“Our past research in western Alaska has shown that while we have not detected the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, up to 70 percent of the other avian influenza viruses isolated in this area were found to contain genetic material from Eurasia, providing evidence for high levels of intercontinental viral exchange,” said Andy Ramey, a scientist with the USGS and lead author of the recent report. “This is because Asian and North American migratory flyways overlap in western Alaska.”
The designation of low or highly pathogenic avian influenza refers to the potential for these viruses to cause disease or kill chickens. The designation of “low pathogenic" or “highly pathogenic" does not refer to how infectious the viruses may be to humans, other mammals or other species of birds. Most strains of avian influenza are not highly pathogenic and cause few signs of disease in infected wild birds. However, in poultry, some low-pathogenic strains can mutate into highly pathogenic avian influenza strains that cause contagious and severe illness or death among poultry, and sometimes among wild birds as well.
Past research by the USGS, found low pathogenic H9N2 viruses in an Emperor Goose and a Northern Pintail. Both viruses were nearly identical genetically to viruses found in wild bird samples from Lake Dongting, China and Cheon-su Bay, South Korea.
“These H9N2 viruses are low pathogenic and not known to infect humans, but similar viruses have been implicated in disease outbreaks in domestic poultry in Asia,” said Ramey.
In the new report, the USGS collaborated with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska, and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Georgia to obtain and test bird samples from Alaska Native subsistence hunters during spring of 2015. Hunters provided researchers with over 1,000 swabs from harvested water birds, the primary hosts of avian influenza viruses.
Last year, the USGS published an article describing the introduction of highly pathogenic avian influenza into North America at the end of 2014, likely via migratory birds that migrated through Alaska. However, highly pathogenic avian influenza was never documented in Alaska. The highly pathogenic viruses spread throughout parts of the western and Midwestern U.S., impacting approximately 50 million poultry. However, those highly pathogenic viruses have now not been detected in North America since July 2015.
This fall, the USGS will sample wild birds at Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Most of those samples will come from sport hunters.
The new report is entitled, “Surveillance for Eurasian-origin and intercontinental reassortant highly pathogenic influenza A viruses in Alaska, spring and summer 2015” and is published in Virology Journal.
Additional information about avian influenza can be found at the following websites:
Ecosystem Restoration Projects Generate Jobs and Business Activity in Local, Regional, and National Economies
Riparian planting in the Powell River watershed in Lee County, Virginia. Part of the Lone Mountain NRDAR restoration. Photo credit: Upper Tennessee River Roundtable. Clearing of juniper in the Burley Landscape in Idaho. Photo credit: BLM.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – From restoring the sagebrush sea to rejuvenating watersheds and landscapes after fires, ecosystem restoration can bear substantial economic fruit for local, state and national economies, according to a USGS study published today.
USGS economists evaluated 21 Department of the Interior restoration projects and found that for each dollar invested in ecosystem restoration, there was a two- to three-fold return in economic activity that rippled through local, regional and national economies. Case study projects include restoration activities associated with Natural Resource Damage Assessment sites and Bureau of Land Management sagebrush and sage-grouse habitat restoration, fuels reduction and post-fire restoration projects.
“Based on case study results, we found that for every $1 million invested in ecosystem restoration, between $2.2 and $3.4 million flow through to the U.S. economy, demonstrating how such investments support jobs and livelihoods, small businesses and rural economies,” said USGS economist and lead author Catherine Cullinane Thomas.
The report quantified methods to provide economic impact analyses focused on the jobs and business activity generated through money spent on ecosystem restoration activities. The research was a joint project among the USGS, the DOI Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program, the DOI Office of Policy Analysis, and the BLM Socioeconomics Program.
"This report highlights the importance of restoration activities not only for the benefit of natural resources impacted by oil spills or hazardous chemicals, but also for the economic well-being of human communities," said Steve Glomb, director of the DOI Office of Restoration and Damage Assessment.
"The study shows that these collaborative projects sustain our local economies in addition to restoring our nation's public lands and resources," said Josh Sidon, a BLM economist and study co-author.
All 21 case studies can be found at https://www.fort.usgs.gov/economic-impacts-restoration.
Economic impacts are reported as job-years, a measure of the total number of annualized full and part-time jobs accumulated over the duration of the restoration project. Labor income is a measure of the wages and salaries earned through the jobs supported by project expenditures. Value added is a measure of the contribution to Gross Domestic Product. Economic output is a measure of the total value of the production of goods and services supported by project expenditures.
Highlighted Case Studies:
Through Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, the BLM and other federal, state and local agencies and organizations teamed up to help restore and manage high-priority ecosystems in Utah, including portions of Colorado Plateau and Great Basin. WRI partners are providing better wildlife habitat, restoring critical watersheds and reducing the risk of wildfire to urban communities. To date, WRI partners have restored more than 1.1 million acres in Utah. Sagebrush restoration in the South Beaver area is one of many WRI projects. This area is crucial mule deer winter habitat, contains important elk habitat and historic sage-grouse habitat. Restoration in this area is ongoing and encompasses 145,000 acres.
Total cost of restoration: $3.5 million, an estimated 72 percent spent locally in Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties in Utah.
Local economic impacts:
Labor income: $1.9 million
Local economic output: $4.2 million
Contribution to GDP: $2.5 million
Regional economic impacts:
Labor income: $3.5 million
Regional economic output: $8 million
Regional contribution to GDP: $4.6 million
The area surrounding the BLM’s Burley Field Office in Idaho is home to a variety of species, such as the greater sage-grouse, mule deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and pygmy rabbit. In the late 1800’s, with the settlement of the west, this landscape began to shift from a sagebrush steppe ecosystem to woodlands dominated by Utah juniper and conifers, decreasing available habitat for sagebrush-dependent species such as the sage-grouse and mule deer.
Total cost of restoration: $1.4 million
Local economic impacts:
Labor income: $300,000
Local economic output: $450,000
Contribution to GDP: more than $310,000
Regional economic impacts:
Labor income: $1.6 million
Regional economic output: $3.1 million
Contribution to GDP: $1.9 million
The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois has a unique history of industry, employment and restoration. During World War II, the War Department established the Illinois Ordnance Plant on the site to manufacture ammunition and bombs. Following the war, the land was transferred into the National Wildlife Refuge System. In 1987, because of extensive environmental contamination from the ordnance plant and other industrial tenants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the industrial complex as a Superfund site. The wastewater treatment plant on the Crab Orchard NWR is one of 21 sites on the refuge that have been remediated.
Total cost of restoration of wastewater treatment plant: $9 million, more than a third spent in local economy
Local economic impacts:
Labor income: $1.8 million
Local economic output: nearly $5 million
Contribution to GDP: contributed $3 million
National economic impacts:
Labor income: nearly $9 million
National economic output: $22 million
Contribution to GDP: more than $13 million
For more information on the other case studies in this report please see the accompanying website at https://www.fort.usgs.gov/economic-impacts-restoration. The USGS Open-File Report, Estimating the economic impacts of ecosystem restoration—methods and case studies, was authored by Catherine Cullinane Thomas, USGS; Christopher Huber, USGS; Kristin Skrabis, DOI; and Joshua Sidon, BLM.
A new study offers hope for cold-water species in the face of climate change. The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, addresses a longstanding paradox between predictions of widespread extinctions of cold-water species and a general lack of evidence for those extinctions despite decades of recent climate change.
The paper resulted from collaborative research led by the U.S. Forest Service with partners including the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, University of Georgia and the Queensland University of Technology. The research team drew information from huge stream-temperature and biological databases contributed by over 100 agencies and a USGS-run regional climate model to describe warming trends throughout 222,000 kilometers (138,000 miles) of streams in the northwestern United States.
The scientists found that over the last 40 years, stream temperatures warmed at the average rate of 0.10 degrees Celsius (0.18 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade. This translates to thermal habitats shifting upstream at a rate of only 300-500 meters (0.18-0.31 miles) per decade in headwater mountain streams where many sensitive cold-water species currently live. The authors are quick to point out that climate change is still detrimentally affecting the habitats of those species, but at a much slower rate than dozens of previous studies forecast. The results of this study indicate that many populations of cold-water species will continue to persist this century and mountain landscapes will play an increasingly important role in that preservation.
“The great irony is that the cold headwater streams that were believed to be most vulnerable to climate change appear to be the least vulnerable. Equally ironic is that we arrived at that insight simply by amassing, organizing and carefully analyzing large existing databases, rather than collecting new data that would have been far more expensive,” said Dr. Daniel Isaak, lead author on the study with the U.S. Forest Service.
The results also indicate that resource managers will have sufficient time to complete extensive biological surveys of ecological communities in mountain streams so that conservation planning strategies can adequately address all species.
“One of the great complexities of restoring trout and salmon under a rapidly changing climate is understanding how this change plays out across the landscape. Dr. Isaak and his colleagues show that many mountain streams may be more resistant to temperature change than our models suggest and that is very good news. This provides us more time to effect the changes we need for long-term persistence of these populations,” said Dr. Jack Williams, senior scientist for Trout Unlimited.
This study is complementary and builds upon the Cold-Water Climate Shield. This new study is unique as it describes current trends rather than relying on future model projections and addresses a broad scope of aquatic biodiversity in headwater streams (e.g., amphibians, sculpin and trout). In addition, the data density and geographic extent of this study is far greater than most previous studies because over 16,000 stream temperature sites were used with thousands of biological survey locations to provide precise information at scales relevant to land managers and conservationists.
The study, entitled “Slow climate velocities of mountain streams portends their role as refugia for cold-water biodiversity” was conducted by Daniel Isaak, lead author from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station; Michael Young, Charles Luce, Dona Horan, Matt Groce and David Nagel of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station; Steven Hostetler, U.S. Geological Survey; Seth Wenger, University of Georgia; Erin Peterson, Queensland University of Technology; and Jay Ver Hoef, U.S. NOAA Fisheries, Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Additional funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Northern and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.
States covered by this study are Idaho, Oregon, Washington, western Montana, as well as small portions of western Wyoming, northern Nevada, northern Utah and northern California.
Bull trout, a popular fish species of conservation concern, that find shelter in mountain stream climate refugia. Photographer: Bart Gamett, U.S. Forest Service
Miniature temperature sensors used to record hourly measurements in rivers and streams at thousands of sites where data were used to develop stream temperature climate scenarios. Photographer: Dan Isaak, U.S. Forest Service, firstname.lastname@example.org Northwest United States temperature and climate map developed from data at more than 16,000 sites that was used to highlight climate refugia for mountain stream species. Photographer: Dan Isaak, U.S. Forest Service, email@example.com Typical headwater mountain stream that will provide cold-water species climate refugia this century. Photographer: Dona Horan, U.S. Forest Service
The world's largest breeding population of ospreys is coping well with the long-lasting residues of toxic chemicals that were banned decades ago but remain in the Chesapeake Bay food chain at varying levels, such as the pesticide DDT and insulating chemicals known as PCBs. The resilient fish hawks are also showing few effects from two other groups of chemicals that have become widespread in the estuary—flame retardant PBDEs and pharmaceuticals intended for human use. Those are key findings of a three-year study led by US Geological Survey scientists, which follows up on a wide-ranging USGS survey conducted in 2001 of persistent chemical pollutants in the fish and fish hawks of the Chesapeake Bay, the United States' biggest estuary.These osprey chicks in a nest on the James River in Virginia are just a few days old. Nestlings in industrial areas carry traces of toxic chemicals in their blood plasma, but osprey parents successfully raised chicks at almost all sites, says USGS scientist Rebecca Lazarus, lead author of 3 research papers on the ospreys' Chesapeake Bay food chain. Photo credit: Rebecca Lazarus, USGS.
The researchers tested fish, osprey eggs and the blood plasma of osprey chicks in the Chesapeake Bay's tidal waters. In the ospreys' eggs they found high levels of PCBs at some locations. They also found residues of DDT and a related compound, p,p'-DDE, but at levels much lower than the ones that caused osprey and bald eagle population declines in the late 20th century. Both PCBs and DDT were banned in the 1970s. Further, the researchers found that young ospreys are being exposed to PBDEs, which are considered potentially toxic to wildlife. Yet these residues had no discernible effect on the big raptors' success in the Chesapeake region, where as many as 10,000 breeding pairs are expected to nest this season.
"Osprey populations are thriving almost everywhere in the Chesapeake," said Rebecca Lazarus, a researcher at the USGS' Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the lead author of a report on the study's latest findings, published April 1 in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. "We found them nesting in some of the most highly contaminated areas in the Bay and we did not find any relationship between contaminants and their nests' productivity."
The scientists found one cautionary sign: the osprey nestlings' blood carried low levels of a biological marker for genetic damage. Levels of the marker were highest in one of the bay's most polluted areas, near Baltimore's Back River wastewater treatment plant, and osprey nests near that plant did poorly at raising chicks to adulthood. Baywide, the damage is not enough to affect the birds' overall ability to reproduce, but it may be having subtle, undetected effects, and warrants more research, Lazarus said.
USGS researcher Rebecca Lazarus prepares to take a blood sample from an osprey fledgling in a nest on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, Delaware Bay in 2015. Lazarus and colleagues did similar sampling of 48 chicks on Chesapeake Bay in 2011-2013. All the Chesapeake Bay nestlings' blood plasma had traces of a human medication to fight hypertension, diltiazem, and biomarkers of low-grade genetic damage, with no discernible effects on the ospreys' reproductive success. Photo credit: USGS.
Ospreys have just returned from winter homes in South America to Chesapeake Bay, the estuary one writer called "the osprey garden of the world." The bay's shallow waters and abundant fish attract roughly one-quarter of the Lower 48 States’ ospreys. The fish hawks usually return to the nests they used the year before. In March the males in each of the Bay's breeding pairs began gathering sticks to mend their nests. By mid-April most females will be brooding two or three eggs.
These charismatic fish hawks are one of the world's most widely distributed birds, found on every continent but Antarctica, and one of its most distinctive, with golden eyes, six-foot wingspans, and barbed talons adapted to hold wet, wriggling fish. Their global range, all-fish diet, and their role as a top predator make them ideal subjects for studies of water pollutants' paths through the aquatic food chain. The USGS research is the one of the world's most comprehensive studies of ospreys' exposure to toxic chemicals; a similar study on Pacific Northwest ospreys was published in 2008.
In the 1960s and 1970s scientists found the pesticide DDT was biomagnifying, becoming concentrated in ospreys and other fish-eating birds and causing females to lay eggs so fragile that they cracked under the parents' weight. The bay's osprey population fell to fewer than 1,500 pairs before DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. In 1979 Congress also banned PCBs, which can cause reproductive failure in animals. PBDEs, which were introduced as replacements for PCBs, are being phased out because of concerns about potential toxicity.
The EPA classifies more than 70 percent of Chesapeake Bay tidal waters as impaired by toxic chemicals. To track these toxics and their effects on bay ospreys, Lazarus and her colleagues collected fish, osprey eggs, and blood samples from 48 osprey chicks along Chesapeake Bay tributaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Working during the spring and summer nesting season from 2011 through 2013, they included several sites the EPA considers pollution "regions of concern" – Baltimore's Harbor and Patapsco River; Washington, DC's Anacostia and Potomac rivers; and the Elizabeth River at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
In the first set of study findings, published in 2015 in the journal Environmental Pollution, the researchers found that in these heavily industrial, urban regions of concern, levels of the DDT breakdown byproduct were 80% lower than in the 2001 study, but PCB levels barely declined at all. Osprey eggs from developed areas had PCB levels three to four times higher than at nests on an island in the open bay.
"In fact the levels of PCBs have not changed significantly in the past 35 years, which tells you how persistent these chemicals are," said USGS ecotoxicologist Barnett Rattner, an expert on toxics in bay ospreys who led the 2000-2001 study and worked with Lazarus on the latest research. "Yet the birds are doing well. They're exposed to these toxic chemicals, which are biomagnified up the food chain, yet fortunately we do not see any really serious effects in ospreys."
In the next phase of the work, the researchers reported finding numerous human medications in Chesapeake Bay water samples, but only one in osprey chicks. Pharmaceutical compounds pass through humans' waste into wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, which discharge them into waterways. The scientists looked for 23 pharmaceutical compounds and an artificial sweetener and found 18 of them in bay waters and seven in fish. The drug diltiazem, used to treat hypertension in people, was found in all 48 chicks' blood samples, though at levels below those known to cause adverse effects in wildlife.
"Some of these chemicals are in the wastewater stream, but they do not seem to be biomagnifying in ospreys," Rattner said. Those results were published in 2015 in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management.
For more information on USGS science being used to help restore the Chesapeake Bay, visit http://chesapeake.usgs.gov/
Katherine Haman, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ( Phone: 360-870-2135 ); Catherine Hibbard, United States Fish and Wildlife Service ( Phone: 413-531-4276 ); Marisa Lubeck, USGS ( Phone: 303-526-6694 );
Wing damage from fungus in little brown bat. These little brown bats in a NY cave exhibit the fuzzy white muzzles associated with the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome.
The USGS National Wildlife Health Center conducts a bat autopsy as part of its efforts to study the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats. A healthy, banded little brown bat hangs out in a cave. Photographer - Paul Cryan, USGS
OLYMPIA, Wash. – White-nose syndrome (WNS) has been confirmed in a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) found near North Bend – the first recorded occurrence of this devastating bat disease in western North America. The presence of this disease was verified by the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.
WNS has spread quickly among bats in other affected areas, killing more than six million beneficial insect-eating bats in North America since it was first documented nearly a decade ago.
WNS is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets, livestock or other wildlife.
On March 11, hikers found the sick bat about 30 miles east of Seattle near North Bend, and took it to Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) for care. The bat died two days later, and had visible symptoms of a skin infection common in bats with WNS.
PAWS then submitted the bat for testing to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, which confirmed through fungal culture, molecular and pathology analyses that it had WNS.
“We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus. People can help by following decontamination guidance to reduce the risk of accidentally transporting the fungus.”
First seen in North America in the winter of 2006/2007 in eastern New York, WNS has now spread to 28 states and five Canadian provinces. USGS microbiologist David Blehert first identified the unknown fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which causes the disease. WNS is named for the fuzzy white fungal growth that is sometimes observed on the muzzles of infected bats. The fungus invades hibernating bats’ skin and causes damage, especially to delicate wing tissue, and physiologic imbalances that can lead to disturbed hibernation, depleted fat reserves, dehydration and death.
“This finding in a far-western location is unfortunately indicative of the challenges we face with the unpredictability of WNS,” said Suzette Kimball, director of the USGS. "This underscores the critical importance of our work to develop tools for early detection and rapid response to potentially devastating wildlife diseases."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads the national WNS response effort, working with state and federal partners to respond to the disease. The Service’s National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator Jeremy Coleman said the first step will be to conduct surveillance near where the bat was found to determine the extent of WNS in the area. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is responsible for bat management and conservation in Washington and will coordinate surveillance and response efforts.
WDFW veterinarian Katie Haman said the disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, although people can carry fungal spores on their clothing, shoes or caving gear.
“The bat found near North Bend most likely had been roused from hibernation and was attempting to feed at a time of very low insect availability,” Haman said. “At this point we don’t know where the infected bat may have spent the winter, but it seems likely that it was somewhere in the central Cascades.”
Haman said Washington state has 15 species of bats that benefit humans by consuming large quantities of insects that can impact forest health and commercial crops.
WDFW advises against handling animals that appear sick or are found dead. If you find dead bats or notice bats exhibiting unusual behavior such as flying outside during the day or during freezing weather, please report your observation online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/wns or contact the WDFW Wildlife Health Hotline at (800) 606-8768.
To learn more about WNS and access the most updated decontamination protocols and cave access advisories, visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.
Note the bright red patch on the wolf's hindquarters in this thermal image of a captive wolf at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. This is where fur was shaved to replicate the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange. The fur will eventually grow back. USGS scientists are examining thermal imagery of wolves as one step in assessing impacts of sarcoptic mange on the survival, reproduction and social behavior of this species in Yellowstone National Park. All research animals are handled by following the specific requirements of USGS Animal Care and Use policies. Researchers at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and their partners place thermal remote cameras near deer and elk carcasses in Yellowstone National Park to capture images of wolves with mange feeding in the wild. Red-colored blotches in the thermal images reveal areas of hair loss from which wolves with mange lose heat. Researchers at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and their partners place thermal remote cameras near deer and elk carcasses in Yellowstone National Park to capture images of wolves with mange feeding in the wild. Red-colored blotches in the thermal images reveal areas of hair loss from which wolves with mange lose heat.
During winter, wolves infected with mange can suffer a substantial amount of heat loss compared to those without the disease, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners.
Using a remotely triggered thermal camera to capture vivid and colorful images, scientists gathered body temperature data from mange-infected gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and compared that to a sample group of healthy captive wolves with shaved patches of fur to simulate mange-induced hair loss. Using these data, scientists were able to quantify the level of heat loss, or energetic costs, during the winter months.
Results show that a more severe mange infection could increase heat loss by around 1240 to 2850 calories per night which represent roughly 60-80 percent of the average wolf’s daily caloric needs.
“That lost heat has to be replaced, otherwise the wolves’ core body temperatures would be getting colder,” said Paul Cross, USGS ecologist and lead author of the study. “To replace that lost heat wolves would need the equivalent of about two to four extra pounds of elk meat per day.”
Sarcoptic mange, present in one of 10 known packs in Yellowstone as of 2015, is a skin disease caused by a mite that burrows into the skin, causing irritation and scratching that then leads to hair loss. Researchers engineered the remotely-triggered thermal camera for use in Yellowstone to record the surface temperatures of wolves with and without mange-induced hair loss. Those images could then be compared with images from healthy, captive wolves. In addition, field crews observed or photographed all radio-collared wolves and their pack mates for the purpose of recording infection status.
The study also found that increased wind speed was a more significant factor in heat loss than colder temperatures. To compensate for the extra heat loss, infected wolves would need to increase food consumption in addition to other daily energy demands for survival. For wolves with mange this is more difficult as hair loss and depressed vigor leaves them vulnerable to hypothermia, malnutrition and dehydration, which can eventually lead to death.
Data from GPS-collared wolves in Yellowstone indicated that wolves with mange reduce daily movement distances depending on the degree of infection. In addition, the wolf with the most hair loss became more active during the day than during the twilight hours, which is opposite behavior of a healthy wolf.
“By definition, parasites drain energy from their hosts. In this study we estimated just one portion of the energetic costs of infection,” said Cross. “Even when parasites do not kill their hosts they are affecting the energy demands of their hosts, which could alter consumption rates, food web dynamics, predator-prey interactions and scavenger communities.”
Mange was introduced into the Northern Rockies in the early 1900s by the Montana state wildlife veterinarian in an attempt to help eradicate local wolf and coyote populations. The disease persists in coyotes and foxes and once wolves were reintroduced into the ecosystem in 1995-96, they appeared to be free of mange until 2002.
The article “Energetic costs of mange in Yellowstone wolves estimated from infrared thermography” is published in Ecology.
The study is a collaborative effort between the USGS, Pennsylvania State University, University of Western Australia, Yellowstone National Park, University of Wollongong, NWB Sensors Inc. and Montana State University.
More information about wolf disease studies can found on the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center website.This video describes USGS research utilizing remote thermal imaging cameras to study the extent and impact of mange on wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
Leslie Gordon ( Phone: 650-329-4006 );
After more than three years of monitoring the towering granite cliffs of Yosemite National Park, scientists have new insights into a potentially important mechanism that can trigger rockfalls in the park. Although many conditions can trigger rockfalls, some rockfalls are more likely to happen in the hottest part of the day, during the hottest part of the year.
Rockfalls in Yosemite are common and part of the natural process of erosion, but they also pose hazards to park visitors. Improved understanding of this thermal triggering mechanism may assist the National Park Service in managing rockfall hazards in the park.
To explain this phenomenon, U.S. Geological Survey and NPS geologists placed sensitive deformation and temperature gauges in a crack behind a large, partially detached slab of granite clinging to a Yosemite Valley cliff. The scientists found that daily heating and cooling of the rock surface caused the crack to open and close by nearly half an inch. The resulting stress can cause such cracks to grow, destabilizing the rock slabs to the point where they fall, in a process called exfoliation.
According to Brian Collins, USGS geotechnical engineer and coauthor of the study, “Our research provides clear evidence that thermal effects can move large slabs of rock and that these movements, over time, can lead to rock falls.”
“Summertime rockfalls have been something of a mystery,” said Greg Stock, Yosemite park geologist and coauthor of the study. “With this work we now have a plausible explanation for why they happen.”
The full report, “Rockfall triggering by cyclic thermal stressing of exfoliation fractures,” is published in the current issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, and is available online.Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock and USGS civil engineer Brian Collins download data from instruments measuring how much granitic exfoliation sheets move from daily temperature variations as a precursor to rock fall. Photo credit: Valerie Zimmer, National Park Service.
Jessica Fitzpatrick ( Phone: 703-648-6624 );
On March 28, USGS scientists will release a report and the first-ever maps showing potential ground-shaking hazards from both human-induced and natural earthquakes. In the past, USGS maps only identified natural earthquake hazards.
This will also be the first one-year outlook for the nation’s earthquake hazards, and is a supplement to existing USGS assessments that forecast earthquake shaking over 50 years.
This report can be used by government officials to make more informed decisions as well as emergency response personnel to assess vulnerability and provide safety information to those who are in potential danger. Engineers can use this product to evaluate earthquake safety of buildings, bridges, pipelines and other important structures.
The USGS is the only federal agency with responsibility for recording and reporting earthquake activity nationwide and assessing seismic hazard. USGS hazard assessments are incorporated into building codes that influence a trillion dollars in new construction annually and improve the nation’s resilience to earthquake disasters.
The USGS invites media to join a telephone press conference to discuss this new research and updates to the nation’s earthquake hazards.
- Mark Petersen, Chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, USGS
- Michael Blanpied, Associate Coordinator, Earthquake Hazards Program, USGS
- Justin Rubinstein, Deputy Chief of the Induced Seismicity Project, USGS
Monday, March 28, 2016
1:00 pm ET
To join, please call 1-888-989-7565 and use the passcode 1317771.
For those outside of the U.S., call 517-308-9122 and use the passcode 1317771.
A recording of the event will be available approximately one hour after the call is completed, and it will be accessible for 30 days. It can be retrieved at 1-800-925-4633 (toll free) or 203-369-3529 (toll for those outside of the U.S.).
New research can help water managers along the Rio Grande make wise decisions about how to best use the flow of a river vital for drinking water, agriculture and aquatic habitat. These studies also show how conditions from the prolonged drought in the West have affected the Rio Grande watershed.
The Rio Grande forms the world’s longest river border between two countries as it flows between Texas and Mexico, where it is known as the Rio Bravo. The river runs through three states in the U.S., beginning in southern Colorado and flowing through New Mexico and Texas before it forms the border with Mexico.
Parts of the Rio Grande are designated as wild and scenic, but most of the river is controlled and passes through several dam and reservoir systems during its 1,896 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The river is managed through a complex system of compacts, treaties, and agreements that determine when and how much water is released along the river’s length.
The amount and timing of water releases have varied in recent years due to drought. Recent USGS research on the middle Rio Grande looked at the effects of those changes on the amount of salts that build up in the Rincon and Mesilla Valleys in Texas and New Mexico. Results showed a decline in the amount of salt carried by the river due to a decrease of releases during the drought. The two valleys responded differently to the decreased releases. Salt levels in the Rincon Valley declined, whereas salt levels in the Mesilla Valley increased. Salt buildup in the soil and water can affect agriculture, which is an important industry in those valleys.
Successfully managing water use along the river is important to the sustainability of agricultural and communities along the river. To help with that goal, USGS has measured water gains and losses to the Rio Grande from between the Leasburg Dam near Leasburg, New Mexico, and the American Dam near El Paso, Texas. American Dam is near where the Rio Grande becomes the border with Mexico. For the past several years, drought conditions contributed to decreasing flows along this 64-mile stretch, and sections of the river were dry during parts of the year.
Flow in the Rio Grande is affected by how water is used throughout the basin. For instance, the Albuquerque area of New Mexico has two principal sources of water: groundwater from the underlying aquifer system and withdrawals and diversions from the Rio Grande. From 1960 to 2002, pumping from the aquifer system caused groundwater levels to decline from about 40 feet along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque to more than 120 feet in the valley away from the river. As a result, the USGS, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, conducted a study to understand the exchange of water between the Rio Grande and the aquifer system.
By characterizing the interaction between surface water from the Rio Grande and groundwater from the aquifer system, scientists provide valuable information to help managers make informed decisions about water use.
In addition to helping decision makers determine how to best manage the river for human use, USGS scientists are studying how native fish and their aquatic habitats are affected by different streamflow conditions along the river. For example, previous investigations have shown that the decline in Rio Grande silvery minnow may be attributed to modifications of the natural streamflow regime, channel drying, construction of reservoirs and dams, stream channelization, declining water quality, and interactions with nonnative fish. Understanding native species habitat limitations is important for decision makers to better plan future flow operations to meet desired resource goals.
More information on the research and results discussed in this release can be found in the following studies:
- Variability of surface-water quantity and quality and shallow groundwater levels and quality within the Rio Grande Project area, New Mexico and Texas, 2009–13
- Seepage investigation of the Rio Grande from below Leasburg Dam, Leasburg, New Mexico, to above American Dam, El Paso, Texas, 2014
- Seepage investigation of the Rio Grande from below Leasburg Dam, Leasburg, New Mexico, to above American Dam, El Paso, Texas, 2015
- Groundwater hydrology and estimation of horizontal groundwater flux from the Rio Grande at selected locations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2009–10
- Fish assemblage composition and mapped mesohabitat features over a range of streamflows in the Middle Rio Grande, New Mexico, winter 2011-12, summer 2012
- Physical characteristics and fish assemblage composition at site and mesohabitat scales over a range of streamflows in the Middle Rio Grande, New Mexico, winter 2011-12, summer 2012
RESTON, Va. — A new public-private research collaboration supported by the U.S. Geological Survey will tackle how to best cope with the increasing droughts of the future.
The USGS, The Nature Conservancy, and The Wildlife Conservation Society are launching the Ecological Drought Working Group as part of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP). This research group is composed of drought, climate change, economic and conservation experts from these and other institutions. The scientists will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the ecological impacts of drought on ecosystems and wildlife and people and their livelihoods, as well as propose methods to lessen such impacts, both ecologically and economically.
“The group’s findings will inform local communities, businesses and conservation practitioners about the most effective ways to prepare for and respond to drought impacts,” said Shawn Carter, senior scientist at the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and a co-lead of the working group.
Carter noted that both historical and recent droughts not only cause great economic hardships, but they also are often ecologically devastating. Droughts, which have ravaged much of the United States in recent years, are estimated to have resulted in more than $100 billion in damages between 1980 and 2000.
“Our work can help communities adapt to the long-term effects of drought by supporting healthy ecosystems,” said Carter. “For example, even a relatively simple action, such as reintroducing beavers into ecosystems where they used to live, can boost the natural storage capacity of watersheds.”
Working group co-lead Molly Cross, North America WCS climate change adaptation coordinator, emphasized that for people to be adequately prepared for drought they need to understand how drought-impacted ecosystems can harm human communities, such as through increased wildfire hazards or through adverse effects on fish and wildlife valued for hunting- and angling-based economies. “By raising awareness and understanding about these ecological impacts of drought, we’ll be able to help people all over the country make informed decisions to prepare for and respond to long-term drought,” Cross added.
Products from the SNAPP Ecological Drought Working Group will be tailored to add value to state and local drought planning, including in the Upper Missouri headwaters of Montana. In 2015, five counties in this region were declared disaster areas due to their extreme drought conditions. The Obama Administration’s National Drought Resilience Partnership selected this region as a place to demonstrate how federal and state agencies can leverage knowledge, capacity and resources to better prepare Montana communities for future drought impacts. Additional case studies will be examined by the SNAPP Ecological Drought working group to encompass a range of drought impacts across the United States.
“Drought has been plaguing our country for decades, but people tend to focus on immediate challenges such as the impacts on agriculture and surface and groundwater availability,” said Craig Groves, executive director of the Science for Nature and People Partnership. “Drought and its impacts are much more complicated and profound than that. Even seemingly minor changes in water supply can have huge ecological impacts that are keenly felt by both people and nature. The Science for Nature and People Partnership is delighted to be working with USGS to better understand and respond to this mounting challenge for people from all parts of the country.”
“Climate change is likely to intensify the frequency and ferocity of droughts in places where it typically occurs, and lead to novel drought impacts in unexpected places,” said Giulio Boccaletti, Global Managing Director for Water, The Nature Conservancy. “The new SNAPP initiative will be crucial for helping us to better anticipate the range of future drought impacts so that we can implement strategies to protect people and nature, and improve the odds of achieving long-term benefits from our drought planning efforts.”
About the United States Geological Survey
The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information. For more information, visit http://usgs.gov.
About the Science for Nature and People Partnership
Founded in 2013, the Science for Nature and People (SNAPP) partnership is the world’s premier innovation engine of conservation science and sustainable development policy, partnering with public, non-profit and private sector organizations around the world to transform the relationship between people and nature. Backed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, SNAPP funds, convenes and supports Expert Working Groups addressing challenges in four focus areas: Food Security and Nature, Water Security and Nature, Community Resilience and Climate Change, and Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity Benefits. SNAP has been generously supported by Angela Nomellini and Ken Olivier, Shirley and Harry Hagey, Steve and Roberta Denning, Seth Neiman, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. For more information, visit http://snappartnership.net/
Long-term declines in the overwintering Eastern population of North American monarch butterflies are significantly increasing their likelihood of becoming extinct over the next two decades, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and U.S. Geological Survey research published today.Monarch Male Butterfly — A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) resting and sunning at an overwintering site in the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico. This individual is a male, identifiable by the black spot on each hindwing. Photo credit: Steve Hilburger, USGS.
The new study, available in the journal Scientific Reports, found that the Eastern migratory monarch population declined by 84 percent from the winter of 1996-1997 to the winter of 2014-2015. Using this information, the study demonstrated that there is a substantial chance – 11 to 57 percent – of quasi-extinction over the next 20 years. A quasi-extinct population is one with so few remaining individuals left that recovery is impossible. While the remaining individuals may survive for a short time, the population as a whole will inevitably go extinct.Monarch Butterflies on Tree — A group of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) covers an oyamel fir tree (Abies religiosa) at an overwintering site in the Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico. Photo credit: Steve Hilburger, USGS.
“Because monarch numbers vary dramatically from year to year depending on weather and other factors, increasing the average population size is the single-most important way to provide these iconic butterflies with a much-needed buffer against extinction,” said Brice Semmens, the lead author of the study and a scientist at Scripps.
Semmens said that as an example of this variability, just after the analysis concluded, the World Wildlife Fund Mexico and partners reported a large increase in monarch numbers since last year. However, this increase was followed by a recent winter storm that may have adversely affected the population. The authors emphasized that although one good winter – as occurred this year – is positive news, higher average monarch numbers are necessary for reducing the long-term risk of quasi-extinction.
Because counting individual monarchs is challenging, scientists measure population size based on the geographic area that their colonies cover while spending the winter in Mexico. The United States, Mexico and Canada aim to increase the number of Eastern monarchs wintering in Mexico so that they occupy about six hectares, or about 15 acres, by 2020. This year’s population size increased substantially to about four hectares, or close to 10 acres. The population was 1.13 hectares (about 2.8 acres) during the winter of 2014-2015, and at its lowest, 0.67 hectares (about 1.7 acres) during the 2013-2014 winter.
The Scripps and USGS scientists found that if the Eastern population reaches the six-hectare goal announced in last year’s national pollinator strategy, the quasi-extinction risk over 20 years would decrease by more than half.
“Previously published research suggested that the most effective way to increase monarch numbers is to focus on the restoration of their breeding habitat,” said USGS scientist Darius Semmens, a coauthor of the report. “Over the previous two winters, Eastern monarch populations were very low, indicating a higher risk of losing the species. If their numbers continue to grow, as they did this year, the risk will decrease.”
Scripps and the USGS collaborated with scientists from the University of Arizona, Iowa State University, University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas on the study. The research was conducted as part of the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, a team of scientists and resource managers working together to help inform the management of monarch butterflies. The partnership was hosted by the USGS Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis in Fort Collins, Colorado.
About the Monarch Butterfly
Reasons for monarch population declines are complex, although some evidence suggests that loss of breeding habitat is the primary factor. Other factors include adverse weather conditions in recent years, loss of overwintering habitat, disease and exposure to contaminants.
There are two main populations of monarch butterflies in North America: the Western, which winters and migrates west of the Rocky Mountains, and the more abundant Eastern population, which is the subject of the new study and ranges east of the Rockies from central Mexico to southern Canada. Eastern monarchs breed in the United States and Canada, and migrate to Mexico for the winter. Western monarchs migrate inland north and east from colonies along the California coast to states ranging from Washington to Arizona. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a petition to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act.
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Jon Campbell ( Phone: 703-648-4180 );
The U.S. Geological Survey and the European Space Agency (ESA) have established an innovative partnership to enable USGS storage and redistribution of Earth observation data acquired by Copernicus program satellites.
The ESA-USGS collaboration will serve scientific and commercial customers who are interested in the current conditions of forests, crops, and water bodies across large regions and in the longer term environmental condition of the Earth. Data acquired by the European Union’s Sentinel-2A satellite launched in June 2015 are highly complementary to data acquired by USGS/NASA Landsat satellites since 1972.
"Landsat and Sentinel data will weave together very effectively," said Dr. Virginia Burkett, USGS Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change. "Adding the image recurrence of two Sentinel-2 satellites to Landsats 7 and 8 will increase repeat multispectral coverage of the Earth’s land areas to every 3 to 4 days. With more frequent views of the Earth, we will significantly improve our ability to see and understand changes taking place across the global landscape.”
The agreement is part of a broader understanding between the European Union and three U.S. federal science agencies — NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and USGS — that was signed in October 2015. All parties are committed to the principle of full, free and open access to Earth observation satellite data produced by the European Union’s Sentinel program and by the respective U.S. agencies. An ESA article further describes the cross-Atlantic collaboration.
"Free and open access to Landsat and Sentinel-2 data together will create remarkable economic and scientific benefits for people around the globe," said Dr. Suzette Kimball, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. "At the outset of our partnership we can only imagine the synergies between our two perspectives from space. But I'm confident that the final product of our partnership will be an enriched knowledge of our planet."
Sentinel data are available at no cost from the Copernicus Scientific Data Hub. Additionally, in order to expedite data delivery around the globe, users may also download both Sentinel-2 and Landsat data at no charge in a familiar digital environment from USGS access systems such as EarthExplorer. Presently, only selected Sentinel data are available from the USGS in an early testing phase. Timely access to all Sentinel data will follow as the procedures for data transfer, user access, and data delivery continue to be optimized at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.
The MultiSpectral Instrument (MSI) sensor on board Sentinel 2A acquires 13 spectral bands that parallel and contrast to data acquired by the USGS Landsat 8 Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+). Unlike the Sentinel-2 satellites, Landsat satellites also include a capability to collect thermal infrared data which is used in a variety of water and agricultural monitoring applications. NASA has published an online comparison of Sentinel-2A and Landsat bandwidths.
The Landsat program is a joint effort of USGS and NASA. First launched by NASA in 1972, the Landsat series of satellites has produced the longest, continuous record of Earth’s land surface as seen from space. Landsat data were made available to all users free of charge by the U.S. Department of the Interior and USGS in 2008.
Recent scientific work outlines the severe consequences the practice of bottom trawling has on loose sediment on the ocean floor. Bottom trawling is a widespread industrial fishing practice that involves dragging heavy nets, large metal doors and chains over the seafloor to catch fish. Although previous studies documented the direct impacts of bottom trawling on corals, sponges, fishes and other animals, an understanding of the global impact of this practice on the seabed remained unclear until now. The first calculation of how much of the seabed is resuspended (or stirred up) by bottom-trawling shows that the sediment mass is approximately the same amount of all sediment being deposited on the world’s continental shelves by rivers each year (almost 22 gigatons).
Understanding regional and global magnitudes of resuspended sediment is an essential baseline for the analysis of the environmental consequences for continental shelf habitats and their associated seafloor and open-ocean ecosystems. The scientists found new ways to look at and into the seabed to document the evidence of the effects of bottom trawling.
Bottom trawling can result in vastly different effects on different types of seabed sediment (such as sand, silt or mud), each with different ecological consequences. Trawling destroys the natural seafloor habitat by essentially rototilling the seabed. All of the bottom-dwelling plants and animals are affected, if not outright destroyed by tearing up root systems or animal burrows. By resuspending bottom sediment, nutrient levels in the ambient water, and the entire chemistry of the water is changed. Resuspended sediment can lower light levels in the water, and reduce photosynthesis in ocean-dwelling plants, the bottom of the food web. The resuspended sediment is carried elsewhere by currents, and often lost from the local ecosystem. It maybe deposited elsewhere along the continental shelf, or in many cases, permanently lost from the shelf to deeper waters. Changing parts of the seafloor from soft mud to bare rock can eliminate those creatures that live in the sediment. Species diversity and habitat complexity are directly affected by changing the physical environment of sand, mud or rock that results from trawling.Conceptual drawing of bottom trawling from a fishing boat, showing a net and metal plate being dragged along the seafloor behind a boat on the surface. Artist: Ferdinand Oberle, 2014.
“This study raises serious concerns about the future stability of continental shelves – the very source of the vast majority of the fish we consume,” said geological oceanographer and lead author Ferdinand Oberle, now a visiting scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and previously with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and MARUM, the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen (Germany) when the study was done. “A farmer would never plow his land again and again during a rainstorm, watching all his topsoil be washed away, but that is exactly what we are doing on continental shelves on a global scale.”
As part of the study, scientists developed a new, universal approach to calculate bottom-trawling-induced sediment resuspension that gives marine management a new and important tool to assess the impact from bottom trawling. Previous studies characterized the seabed as either “trawled” or “untrawled” but with these novel methodologies it was possible to show systematically a range of bottom-trawling-induced changes to the seabed and classify them in accordance with how often the seabed was disturbed by bottom trawlers.
“The global calculations were a big surprise and we calculated them at least 10 times to make sure we were not making a mistake. I am still in awe of these results and their environmental implications,” said USGS oceanographer Curt Storlazzi, a coauthor of the paper who helped develop the computational models for the study.
These new understandings about the effects of bottom trawling, come out of scientific cruises on the Research Vessel METEOR from Germany to the offshore area northwest of the Iberian peninsula with a team of international scientists. During the cruises, scientists conducted sidescan-sonar surveys and collected bottom current data. Laser sediment particle samplers and a remotely-operated submersible vessel were utilized as well. After the cruises, laboratory work involving lead-isotope dating and sediment grain-size analysis, and the development of a sediment mobilization model contributed to the conclusions of the study.
Two new research papers to come out of this study were published in Elsevier's “Journal of Marine Systems,” and are available online:
Deployment of Scientific Research Equipment (Tripod) from ship, RV Meteor. Photo courtesy of Ferdinand Oberle. One of the many passing bottom trawlers on the NW Iberian Shelf as seen from Research Vessel METEOR. Photo courtesy of Ferdinand Oberle. Oceanographic Research Vessel METEOR. Photo courtesy of Ferdinand Oberle. Oceanographic Research Vessel METEOR. Photo courtesy of Ferdinand Oberle.
Much of the coast from Maine to Virginia is more likely to change than to simply drown in response to rising seas during the next 70 years or so, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study is based on a new computer model that captures the potential of the Northeast coast to change, driven by geological and biological forces, in ways that will reshape coastal landscapes.
In a paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change, the researchers reported that 70 percent of the Northeast Atlantic Coast is made up of ecosystems that have the capacity to change over the next several decades in response to rising seas. For example, barrier islands may migrate inland, build dunes, change shape, or be split by new inlets as tides, winds, waves and currents sculpt their sands. Marshes trap sediment and break down decaying plants into new soil, which may elevate them sufficiently in some areas to keep pace with sea-level increases.
While most sea-level rise models that cover large areas show low-lying coastal land converting to open water in coming decades, many of these inundation models over-predict the land likely to submerge. The USGS model, developed in collaboration with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, produces a more nuanced picture of sea level rise as a mosaic of dry land, wetlands, and open seas, rather than as a uniform response across the landscape.
The USGS model is the first to factor in natural forces and make detailed predictions from the 2020s through the 2080s over a large coastal area, some 38,000 square kilometers (about 9.4 million acres). It is an advance over most regional models, which project drowning as the only outcome as the oceans rise. These are often referred to as “bathtub models” and assume the coast is progressively submerged as sea levels rise.
Projections from inundation models are straightforward: some coastal land will remain above the levels of the rising seas and some will drown. The new model includes the potential for dynamic coastal change and shows where in response to future sea levels, coastal lands fall on a continuum between dry land and open water.
“Geologists have always known that the coast has some potential for give and take,” said lead author Erika Lentz, a research geologist at the USGS Coastal and Marine Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But the standard bathtub models of sea level rise don’t reflect that. This approach couples what we do know about these systems with what we still need to learn—how different ecosystems may respond to different sea-level rise scenarios— to estimate the odds that an area will persist or change instead of simply drown.”
By casting results in terms of odds, the new model provides a more accurate picture of sea-level rise vulnerability for informing adaptation strategies and reducing hazards, the USGS researchers say. They make it clear, however, that just because an area is less likely to drown might not mean it is less vulnerable. “Our model results suggest that even natural changes may pose problems,” Lentz said. “For example, the likelihood that barrier islands will change could impact the infrastructure and economies of coastal communities, and the barrier islands or marshes may not protect coastal communities in the same way they do today.”
In fact, the outcome is uncertain for the Northeast’s low-lying developed coastlines, where seawalls, buildings and other immovable structures thwart some natural processes. The model found the region’s developed coastal lands lying 1 meter (about 3 1/2 feet) or less above sea level will likely face a tipping point by the 2030s, when humans’ decisions about whether and how to protect each area will determine if it survives or drowns.
A 2012 USGS study identified the densely populated region from Cape Hatteras to Boston as a hot spot where seas are rising faster than the global average, so land managers urgently need to understand how their coastal landscape may change, said John Haines, coordinator of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program.
“The model allows us to identify vulnerable areas, and that information can be very valuable to land managers as they consider whether to protect, relocate or let go of certain assets,” Haines said. “Even when the results are uncertain, it’s useful to know there’s a 50 percent chance that an important habitat or infrastructure project may be lost in a few decades.”
To come up with their model for the Northeastern United States, the researchers mapped all coastal land between 10 meters (about 33 feet) above sea level and 10 meters below it, from the Virginia-North Carolina line to the Maine-Canada border. They factored in a variety of forces that affect coastal change, from planetary phenomena like the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates to local ones like falling groundwater levels that cause land surfaces to sink. Looking at parcels of 30 meters by 30 meters—about the size of two NBA basketball courts side by side—they weighed the balance of forces on each parcel.
Using scenarios that assume humans will continue adding moderate to high levels of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through the 21st century, the team projected global sea level rise for the 2020s through the 2080s, and applied that to the coast. The model then estimated the likelihood, from 0 to 100 percent, that each parcel will persist above sea level at the end of each decade.
Predictions for many parcels fell close to 50 percent in the first few decades, a tossup between drowning and surviving. The uncertainty was greatest when the researchers had to wrestle with more than one question that can’t yet be definitively answered. Among them are, how fast will seas rise, can coastal marshes make new soil quickly enough to stay above the waves, and what engineering strategies will people use to protect some shorelines?
“By building in our understanding of the sea level rise response of the coastal landscape, we’re providing a more realistic picture of coastal change in the Northeastern U.S. over the next several decades,” Lentz said.
The researchers’ next step will be to group the basketball-court-sized parcels into larger areas, such as major coastal cities, national wildlife refuges, and national seashores, and assess the vulnerability of these areas to future change and drowning. This information may assist decisionmakers as they develop management priorities to address longer-term coastal challenges.
This research was supported by the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program and the Department of the Interior Northeast Climate Science Center (NE CSC), which is managed by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center. The NE CSC is one of eight that provides scientific information to help natural resource managers respond effectively to climate change.
USGS scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Minnesota and University of Alaska Fairbanks, have mapped belowground permafrost in areas of Alaska that have been affected by wildfire, years-to-decades after the fires occurred.Scientists deploy geophysical equipment in the Nome Creek, Alaska area to assess the effect of wildfire on permafrost. Small electrical signals are injected into the ground through metal stakes connected to the orange cable in the foreground. The measured response is used to detect belowground permafrost conditions. USGS photo, Burke Minsley, 2014.
“There has been global concern for many years about the effects of the warming climate on high-latitude permafrost and its vast stores of organic carbon," said Virginia Burkett, USGS Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Change. “When permafrost thaws, carbon currently locked up in the frozen ground is released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. Wildfires amplify carbon emissions from declining permafrost in ways we are just now beginning to understand."
Exceptionally warm and dry weather caused hundreds of wildfires in Alaska and Canada in 2015. Millions of acres of land were burned, causing immediate risk and disturbance to local residents and ecosystems, with plumes of smoke that carried all the way to the lower 48 states.
During two years of extensive field surveys in interior Alaska, the research team combined field observations with geophysical measurements that crossed the boundaries of historical and recent fires to analyze the impacts of wildfire on the underlying permafrost. The impact of fire on permafrost can be highly variable across different landscapes.
“Data from the geophysical surveys give us a detailed picture of how permafrost is distributed in the subsurface. This new information helps improve our understanding of how permafrost has changed in response to fire,” said Burke Minsley, a USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study.
“The geophysical techniques we used can be compared to medical imaging that probes the human body without surgery,” Minsley continued. “We can ‘see’ permafrost conditions underground without expensive and disruptive drilling. Data about wildfires and permafrost conditions can be combined with satellite remote sensing observations to help extend interpretations over much larger areas across the state.”
Scientists have long known that severe fires can remove the layer of organic material at the ground surface that serves to insulate permafrost and maintain frozen conditions. This study documented locations where permafrost appears to be resilient to disturbance from fire, areas where warm permafrost conditions exist that may be vulnerable to future change, areas where permafrost has thawed, and one location where permafrost appears to be recovering after fire. More information is needed to quantify fire impacts on permafrost in order to assess future vulnerabilities.
The research article was recently published online in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface , a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
Recent USGS press releases on permafrost:
USGS Projects Large Loss of Alaska Permafrost by 2100 (11/30/15)
Arctic Tundra Fire Causes Widespread Permafrost Landscape Changes (11/12/15)
Ancient Permafrost Quickly Transforms to Carbon Dioxide upon Thaw (10/26/15)
Scientists have collected and analyzed 84 environmental samples to establish baseline data prior to any active uranium mining activities at the Canyon Uranium Mine, located south of Grand Canyon National Park. This baseline information will play an important role in assessing if contaminants escape from the mine site and how they would move through the environment once mining operations begin.
Canyon Mine is currently not producing any uranium ore. The mine is located within the public lands acreage in northern Arizona that the Department of the Interior withdrew in 2012 from consideration for new uranium mining claims for 20 years. However, Canyon Mine can still produce uranium ore, because it is one of four pre-existing mines that were permitted before the 2012 decision.
“A key factor in Interior’s 2012 decision was the limited amount of scientific data available to assess potential uranium extraction effects on the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas,” said USGS director Suzette Kimball. “Fortunately, the USGS has expertise across the country in collecting baseline data and analyzing samples for water and sediment quality.”
USGS scientists have worked with the mine owners to collect samples for the baseline data study.
“Getting into the Canyon Mine area before any ore is extracted has provided an excellent opportunity to get high-quality baseline data,” said USGS scientist Katie Walton-Day, who leads the research team on this project. “That data are necessary to quantitatively assess off-site migration, if any, of mine-related contaminants resulting from future ore extraction activities at the Canyon Mine.”
Baseline data from the study includes analysis of 33 contaminants in the 84 samples, including uranium, arsenic, molybdenum and vanadium. The following chart provides some of the results:
Inside mine perimeter (n = 3)
Low Mean High
Outside mine perimeter (n = 72)
Low Mean High
3.3 5.6 9.9
1.4 2.0 6.2
23 35 58
7.1 10 18
1.4 2.1 3.2
0.75 1.1 2.4
43 52 57
29 45 59
In addition to establishing the baseline in soils and stream sediments around the mine site, USGS scientists are studying the plant and animal life in the area to determine which species to monitor once mining begins.
“Biologists are looking at what types of species live here, how many of each species there are, and even what levels of contaminants are already in their tissues,” said USGS scientist David Naftz, lead author of the study. “When combined with the soil and sediment samples, we’ll have a really clear snapshot of what conditions are like here before any uranium ore is extracted.”
The results of the study were published this week in the journal Geoderma Regional. More information about the study can be found here. The approach and baseline data are part of a long-term comprehensive study designed by USGS to establish radiological and chemical baselines and environmental pathways of exposure within and surrounding the Canyon Uranium Mine, in northern Arizona prior to ore extraction.
The USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and Environmental Health Mission Area provide objective scientific information on environmental contamination to improve characterization and management of contaminated sites, to protect human and environmental health, and to reduce potential future contamination problems.
Snake fungal disease, or SFD, a disease causing high mortality rates in some species of snakes, has been found in Louisiana for the first time, according to a new study by U.S. Geological Survey scientists. SFD now has been confirmed in at least 16 states in the Eastern and Midwestern United States.
Wild snakes play important roles in ecosystems as both predator and prey. They provide direct benefits to humans such as consuming crop-destroying pests. Snakes are efficient predators upon various rodents, which may damage property, ruin crops and spread disease. In addition, snake venom research has provided several medicines that are used to halt heart attacks and prevent blood clots and continues to show promise in other areas of medicine.
“Snakes may not be everyone’s favorite animal, but they are undeniably important in a well-balanced ecosystem,” said USGS Ecologist Brad “Bones” Glorioso, lead author of the study. “They deserve our respect and understanding.”
SFD is characterized by scabs or crusty scales, nodules below the skin, cloudy eyes, abnormal molting, and areas of thickened skin. Snakes infected with SFD, besides being lethargic and lacking an appetite, will attempt to bask in the sun to raise their body temperatures despite unsuitable conditions. This behavior, in addition to the fact that infected snakes are often in poor body condition, makes them more vulnerable to predators.
“SFD is an emerging threat to wild snake populations particularly in the eastern United States,” Glorioso added. “We don’t know yet how the disease affects various species, but in at least one species, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of infected snakes die from the disease.”
In Louisiana, the first confirmed case of the disease was in a juvenile snake from the Cypress Island Preserve near Lafayette. It is one of the few documented cases in the US of the disease in a juvenile snake.
“Finding the disease in a juvenile snake is of particular concern. If younger snakes die from the disease before reaching reproductive age, it could have devastating effects on snake populations,” said Glorioso.
Since completing the initial study, the researchers have confirmed the presence of the disease in snakes from other locations in the state.
In the last two decades, fungal and fungal-like diseases, including chytridiomycosis in amphibians, white-nose syndrome in bats, and colony collapse disorder in bees, have caused some of the most severe die-offs and extinctions ever observed in wild species.
USGS scientists recently identified the specific fungus responsible for causing snake fungal disease.
The disease was implicated in recent die-offs and declines in populations of two protected species of pit viper in the Midwest and Northeast. In Midwest populations of the massasauga, a candidate for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act, infected snakes have an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent mortality rate. Mortality rates of infected timber rattlesnakes in the Northeast are estimated between 30 percent and 70 percent.
To date, the disease has been confirmed in at least 14 snake species including the northern water snake; racer; rat snake; timber rattlesnake; massasauga; pygmy rattlesnake; milk snake; plains garter snake; mud snake and southern water snake. It is believed to be more widespread than is currently documented as snakes showing signs of infection have been reported in other states and in other species.
The authors have begun a more detailed capture-mark-recapture study on snakes at Palmetto Island State Park that includes taking swabs of all snakes, including those that appear healthy, to be tested for the presence of the fungus that causes SFD. This protocol will allow them to model survival probability based on whether the snake was positive or negative for the fungus, and to determine population trends.
The study, “First Documented Case of Snake Fungal Disease in a Free-ranging Wild Snake in Louisiana,” was published in Southeastern Naturalist.
A juvenile Broad-banded Watersnake that tested positive for snake fungal disease (SFD) exhibiting ulceration of the skin on the head from St. Martin Parish, Louisiana. SFD has proven lethal in many snakes, and the disease is recognized as an emerging threat to wild snake populations.
An unknown hybrid species of salamander captured in Olympic National Park, Washington. The eft stage of a red-spotted newt in Walker County, Georgia (Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area)
The areas of the United States that are most at risk of a potentially invasive salamander fungus are the Pacific coast, the southern Appalachian Mountains and the mid-Atlantic regions, according to a recently published U.S. Geological Survey report.
These findings can help managers protect already declining amphibians in the U.S. from the Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, fungus. Bsal is decimating wild salamander populations in Europe and could emerge in the U.S. through the captive amphibian trade. The new USGS study identifies areas of the U.S. with high likelihoods of two risks: Bsal introduction and severe consequences for local salamanders.
“The eastern U.S. has the highest diversity of salamanders in the world, and the introduction of this new pathogen is likely to be devastating,” said Katherine Richgels, a USGS researcher and the lead author of the study. “Our findings can help with early Bsal detections by highlighting high-risk areas.”
Scientists developed a county-specific Bsal risk assessment for the U.S. by analyzing characteristics of Bsal ecology, such as optimal temperatures for fungal growth, and data on amphibian imports, pet trade establishments and the regional diversity of salamander species. They found that if Bsal enters the country:
- The total risk of Bsal to salamanders is highest throughout the eastern U.S., particularly the mid-Atlantic states of New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
- The Pacific coast and Appalachian Mountains are likely to have significant population declines due to high concentrations of diverse salamander species and mild climates that are well suited to Bsal growth.
“Amphibians are the most endangered vertebrates in the world,” Richgels said. “Disease risk assessments like ours can help managers prevent and mitigate losses of vulnerable U.S. salamanders.”
Bsal was first identified in 2013 as the cause of mass wild salamander die-offs in the Netherlands and Belgium. Captive salamander die-offs due to Bsal have occurred in the United Kingdom and Germany. Scientists believe Bsal originated in Asia and spread to wild European populations through the import and export of salamanders.
“Bsal represents one of the most significant disease threats to U.S. wildlife since the emergence of white-nose syndrome, which has devastated hibernating bat populations in the eastern U.S.,” said Anne Kinsinger, Associate Director of Ecosystems for the USGS.
The USGS risk assessment informed a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interim rule prohibiting the importation and interstate transport of certain salamander species. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center is leading early detection surveillance for the potential introduction of Bsal in the U.S. Early detection would allow for rapid management actions to prevent and control the spread of the fungus should it be found.
Among the hundreds of invasive species already established in the U.S. is the microscopic chytrid fungus that has devastated amphibian populations. On February 18, the Department of the Interior released an interdepartmental report. The report proposes to stop the introduction and spread of invasive species through a coordinated set of actions to find and eradicate potential invasive species before they spread and cause harm.
For more information on emerging wildlife diseases, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.A three-lined salamander (Eurycea guttolineata) discovered in Prince William Forest Park, VA. Aneides aeneus (Green salamander) Howards Waterfall Cave, Southeastern Cave Conservancy Preserve, Dade County, Georgia 1. This black-bellied salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) was found in the Citico Creek Wilderness, Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee.