Multipurpose Science for a Changing World
David Applegate, Ph.D., Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), gave closing keynote remarks on the final day of USGIF’s GEOINT 2023 Symposium in St. Louis, Missouri.
Dr. Applegate opened by describing the important role of the USGS. “As the science arm of the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey… [brings] foundational data and expertise to inform the decisions that regulators, managers, policymakers, and the public have to make every day,” he said. The U.S. Geological Survey focuses on addressing disparate “environmental, resource, and public safety issues” of scientific phenomena common to the United States.
“Science for a changing world – that’s our motto,” Applegate acknowledged. “Delivering our science to decision-makers in the most effective way we can” is at the core of the USGS mission. He explained the necessity of “actionable information” in creating effective and efficient solutions for those that need them. “It’s not the one thing that we do that makes a difference. It’s the ability to bring a whole suite of data, expertise, and decision support tools” to provide context to our national landscape.
Applegate urged listeners to take their efforts a level deeper, however. “To this goal of delivering actionable information, I would add a further challenge to deliver it to those who need it the most, including underserved communities, in a form that they can use.” This reiterated sentiments from other conference attendees, many of whom called for data standardization, improved and more inclusive service, and better encapsulation of end user requirements throughout the week.
He spoke of the USGS’s strength at the organizational level. Applegate cited 68 science centers and over 400 locations, all of which are home to an incredible “array of laboratory- and field-based work” that empower the “8,000 federal employees, 10,000 total staff including contractors, volunteers, and America’s scientists” dedicated to describing and understanding the Earth.
Ultimately, the USGS delivers “thousands of topographic and geologic maps” as well as intricate “scientific research and hazard mitigation” to better address the needs of our nation. “This diversity of USGS data is fully achieved because of our robust mapping, remote sensing, and monitoring capabilities.”
The keynote pivoted to discussing the benefits of the interagency Civil Applications Committee (CAC) that, according to USGS.gov, is an entity that “facilitates the appropriate civil uses of overhead remote sensing technologies and data collected by military and intelligence capabilities, including commercial sources.”
“Much of the work of the CAC takes place through a set of working groups on topics such as environmental security, global environmentally sensitive sites, biosecurity, illegal, unlicensed, unregulated fishing, and geodesy and the world magnetic model,” Dr. Applegate said. “We also set up communities of practice and interest to further connectivity across the interagency.”
“The tools have changed through time, but the need for foundational geospatial data remains on Earth and – in the case of our astrogeology science center in Flagstaff, Arizona, and its fifty-year partnership with NASA – on other planets as well.”
Amongst other achievements and announcements, Dr. Applegate revealed that “we’re working hard to complete the national baseline coverage and are on target with current funding to complete acquisition by 2026.”
He continued: “This is an exciting vision for the USGS that leverages the investments of the past while addressing the needs of the future.” Applegate and the USGS strive “to build a modern elevation foundation with seamless information from the peaks of our mountains to the depths of our waters” and more generally, aim to “build and refresh” data.
The efforts of the United States Geological Survey “provide foundational data to underpin a broad range of applications and critical initiatives including FEMA’s Risk Rating 2.0, improving coastal and inland floodplain mapping, the National Water Model, Clean Water Act, and the National Landslides Preparedness Act.”
Dr. Applegate stressed that the applications of USGS’s work are multifaced and omnipresent, where “geophysical data, geochemical data, and geologic mapping” are capable of characterizing areas with “critical mineral potential”, “natural research management”, and “myriad spectral coverage” purposes.
He spoke of the advantages of Landsat across states, federal agencies, and the private sector. “Spectral coverage beyond human eyesight helps us map surface composition and temperature… It sees change at human-relevant and actionable scales, up to a weekly revisit frequency. Best of all, Landsat provides gold-standard, highly calibrated scientific data that scientists rely on to tease out the often-subtle change on the land surface, and by commercial Earth observation companies, to help calibrate their data and improve their products.”
Dr. Applegate pivots to Landsat, the longest-running joint enterprise for acquisition of satellite imagery on the Earth, between NASA and the USGS. “Landsat is the most widely used remote sensing data source within a federal civil agency and contributes substantial economic benefits to our economy.”
“All three current Landsat satellite missions are operational… Landsat data has never been more popular than it is today. Last year, USGS partnered with industry to rapidly reprocess the entire fifty-year archive and make it publicly available in the commercial cloud,” Applegate stated.
“As a result, more Landsat data accesses were made by users directly from the cloud over the last twelve months – over four billion data accesses – than in the entire previous 49-year history of data product sales and downloads,” he said. “We expect this trend to continue to grow.”
He cited faster revisit times, more frequent coverage, richer humanitarian aid and disaster relief, new superspectral capabilities across new bands, improved spatial resolution, more significant response to natural hazards, and more as important pillars to the USGS mission and horizon. USGIF and Trajectory magazine thank Dr. David Applegate for his contributions to the geospatial intelligence field and the business of the United States Geological Survey.
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