Sunday, November 7, 2010

State Geological Surveys ~ Rare Moments of Civilized Joy in the Quest for Online and Free

 I am struck first by the abstract beauty of a geologic map, but, as Martin Schmidt writes,

The nice part is that the attractive patterns also mean something and give us some information, as long as we can read the message in the pattern.  (Maryland’s Geology, 1993, p. 23)

Geologic maps hold keys to the fossil pursuit.  Without them, the fossil hunter searches blind or only follows in someone else’s footsteps.  With them, there’s more guided purpose to the effort, though, certainly, no guarantee of success.  I’ve written about these maps several times during the life of this blog, including a description of New Zealander Joan Wiffen’s fixation on the legend of a geologic map which asserted that reptile bones could be found in certain of that country’s Cretaceous formations.  With that encouragement, she labored and brought forth dinosaur bones where many had concluded there were none.

A geologic map identifies and locates an area’s rock formations – either where the formation is exposed or where it lies beneath unconsolidated material on its surface.  Such a map labels these bedrock formations with letter codes keyed to its legend, and sometimes illuminates them with color, as with the portion of a geologic map of Arkansas at the head of this posting.  The legend of a geologic map describes the rocks and, as with Wiffen’s bit of serendipity, may on occasion characterize the formation with a phrase that sets a heart racing, a phrase like “richly fossiliferous.”

Recently, while doing some research for this blog, I was reminded how pursuit of a geologic map mirrors that for fossils – it requires study, patience, hard work, and luck.  Not for the faint of heart, particularly if one wants a map online and free.  Given that I’m more than happy to consult 30 or 40 year old maps, I don’t think that’s asking too much – online and free.

The previous posting on this blog included some discussion of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek which occurred in Missouri during the Civil War.  To bolster a fossil connection for that battle, I searched for a geologic map covering the battlefield.  The Missouri state geological survey seemed like a good bet; I followed a link from the Association of American State Geologists to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.  The webpage that opened up looked very promising with a beckoning link labeled “Geologic Maps” on the right side of the page.

A click on “Geologic Maps” took me to a page featuring that dreaded word – “purchase” – the first of the stumbling blocks that the Missouri state geological survey put in my way.  I often come up against that commercial hurdle digging through state geological survey websites, but seldom so quickly.  Might I have missed the mother lode of free digital maps on the website?  Sure, but I doubt it.  I have to conclude that Missouri gives nothing in the line of geologic maps away for free.  The state certainly showed me.

Game, set, match?  Failure?  Not yet.  My next step was to turn to the U.S. Geological Survey and, because Missouri has received matching grants from the USGS’s STATEMAP program to support mapping under a state-designed geological framework, it kindly provided a link to that program on the USGS website.  Given my experience so far, I was not surprised to find that the online products listing for Missouri on STATEMAP showed zilch under “New Mapping.”  As with any fossil hunt, it’s the glint on the periphery that marks possibility.  A link at the side of the STATEMAP products page labeled “Geologic Map Database” led me to the Geoscience Map Catalog of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (NCGMP).

Lo and behold, a place name search for Wilsons Creek, Missouri (hey, why not swing for the fences?), offered up several related links, including one to Wilson's Creek National Battlefield.  That link took me to a page where the user can specify the kind of map desired – in this case I told the system I wanted a map of bedrock and I wanted it in a digital format.  (Still swinging for the fences.)

Of the several maps offered up from this search, one –a map published in 1987 – was a winner.  It’s ironic that this one was prepared by staff of the Missouri geological survey.  Anyway, zoom in on the map, search a bit, and, then, experience a moment of civilized joy.  There on my computer screen is the battlefield and its geological formations in glorious . . . well, not so glorious grayscale.  No color – a small price to pay for the pleasure of a successful quest.  (Elsewhere on the map was the key explaining the coding for the bedrock formations labeled Muo and Mlo which are the primary ones at the battlefield.)

I’ve endured similarly frustrating experiences with the several other state geological surveys’ websites I’ve searched, but seldom has the “purchase” word shown up as quickly and as definitively.  I can usually find a spot where a particular state survey has posted a digitized out-of-date set of geologic maps.  The experience can be rewarding with some surveys.  The geological map at the head of this posting surfaced with some rooting around on the Arkansas survey’s website and was produced in 1976 (and revised in 1993) by the USGS and the Arkansas Geological Commission staff.  Still, as my Missouri experience illustrates, it’s good to know about the USGS mega collection of geologic maps.

Perhaps, restricting my quest to the USGS is the solution nearly every time.  But, should it be?  Why does someone like me, a casual, paleontologically oriented user have trouble with state geological surveys online?  Aren’t they in the business of producing and disseminating geologic maps?

The answers to these questions lie in the nature of the surveys, their tangled histories, their missions and purposes.  Significantly, a state geological survey is not a specific survey, but, rather, an entity or agency whose responsibilities do include mapping of the state’s geology but often extend well beyond that.  Each of the state surveys has a different history and a differently nuanced set of missions.  Further, as a search of just one or two of their websites will reveal, each has a unique approach to making its products available.  Compounding all of this, each makes use of the web with different degrees of grace.

The oldest state geological surveys are approaching 190 years of age.  North Carolina’s survey, legislatively authorized in 1823, is the oldest, while Massachusetts (1830) has been labeled the “first full-blown state supported geological survey.”  (Walter B. Hendrickson, Nineteenth-Century State Geological Surveys:  Early Government Support of Science, Isis, Vol. 52, No. 3, Sep. 1961, p. 359)  (I’m uncertain about why Massachusetts merits this designation, perhaps it has to do with the breadth of the authority and provision of ongoing state funding.)  The State Geological Surveys:  A History offers an interesting glimpse of the often difficult conception and birth of each state survey (edited by Arthur A. Socolow, 1988, and available on the website of the Association of American State Geologists).

Commercial and agricultural interest sparked the creation of these surveys, particularly the desire to support internal improvements related to transportation, such as the placement and building of canals and roads.  Hendrickson observes that, though a desire to advance science and general knowledge was present at their founding, the foremost objective, the trumping objective, was the generation of “economically useful information.”

So, folks like me with avocational interests are not state geological surveys’ primary kind of audience.

This utilitarian interest on the part of state legislatures played out in the surveys in wonderfully narrow-minded ways.  For example, in the late 19th Century, Arkansas was once again supporting a state geological survey, after an on-again off-again dalliance with the idea.  Support for the survey this time arose from an interest in assessing gold and silver deposits in the western part of the state.  When the survey reported that the gold prospects for the mines that were then open were nil, annoyed legislators curtailed state funding and the survey went away, not to return as a discrete entity until 1923.  Shoot the messenger, the tried and true response of legislators at every level.

The creation of the USGS in 1879 played a role in strengthening this focus of the state surveys because the USGS, as Hendrickson puts it, took over the “theoretical work,” which “left the state survey free to undertake practical work.”  (p. 371)

I’ll take one last stab at it.  Even if I’m not a member of the target audience, why aren’t recent maps readily available online and free in all of the surveys’ websites?

There is at least one possible reason and it’s, of course, finances.  As creatures of the state, the geological surveys can suffer from the same financial maladies that befall other state-funded agencies.  Lee Allison, the state geologist for Arizona and director of its state survey, wrote last year on his blog Arizona Geology that “it’s clear that state geological surveys across the nation are generally hurting from the economic mess.”  Despite a few states in which surveys seemed to be flourishing, Allison wrote that surveys were confronting myriad threats, including hiring freezes, pay cuts, furloughs, and, in one state, eventual elimination of the survey.

So, on this narrow issue, I would guess that the agencies confront a choice – offer maps online and free creating goodwill and support, but also depriving the hard pressed entities of a bit of needed revenue.  Perhaps, on this, the state geological surveys find themselves between . . . a rock and a hard place.

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