The U.S. Geological Survey has a long history of keeping a close eye on our changing planet—using both unclassified and classified imagery
USGS Senior Advisor for Science Applications Jim Devine loves to talk about his work. But he’ll stop short if you ask one too many questions about the Civil Applications Committee, known as the CAC, which coordinates the use of data and imagery collected via U.S. National Technical Means (NTM).
The CAC developed out of the work of a World War II veteran and USGS scientist who began using classified satellite images for topographic mapping in the 1960s. The charter that created the committee in 1975 allowed civilian agencies to access classified images for non-military, non-classified purposes. USGS manages the CAC, acting as liaison between the intelligence and defense communities and civil agencies.
The CAC coordinates and filters requests from federal civil agencies, which are then approved by NGA. It then converts the images into a declassified product, disseminates the information, and protects intelligence sources and methods.
“We do this in close conjunction with the Intelligence Community,” Devine said. “They know what we do-we’re very, very careful to stay within those bounds, and we’re not ever allowed to step over the lines. That would ruin our ability to access this information.”
In addition to traditional mapping, CAC activities include remote sensing applications such as monitoring sea ice, glaciers, and volcanoes; detecting and tracking wildfires; coordinating emergency response to natural disasters; and monitoring ecosystems. In addition to USGS, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Army Corps of Engineers are among the most prolific users of the imagery.
In partnership with the CAC, USGS also manages the Global Fiducials Library, an archive that maintains a long-term imagery record of environmentally significant sites around the world. The program began with the CIA a couple of decades ago in an attempt to answer questions about how the Earth was changing, such as what are the national security implications of a sea level rise?
The program monitored 500 locations worldwide over time, revealing the impact of rapidly changing coastlines and invasive species. In the last six years, the program has started to make images available to the public and has received approval to release more than 6,000 images covering about 125 sites.
Featured image: Sermilik Fjord, Greenland