The UGS Program Evolution

So much has changed within each of the Survey’s programs, even since our 50th anniversary 25 years ago. For this special Survey Notes issue, each program manager contributed a brief look into how their programs have evolved and changed over the past 25 years or so. For more information about each program and their staff, please visit the “About Us” page.

Geologic Mapping Program

by Stefan Kirby

A man and a woman standing in the field with a geologic map.

Don Clark and Genevieve Atwood at the Tooele 30’x60’ quadrangle map field review in May 2017.

Geologic maps were part of the earliest work produced at the UGS and have been vital to the Survey’s mission throughout its history. Over the past 25 years the map making process has changed in step with the advent of digital technology, software, databases, and internet connectivity. In the late 1990s geologic maps were still created with decades-old techniques using physical aerial photographs, complicated line transfer onto paper base maps, and subsequent hard-copy review and publication of a printed product. Today our maps are created entirely in the digital realm with the aid of an innovative database structure developed by our program staff. This database structure enables a web interface that makes detailed geologic information available to all. Improvements in software and hardware including mobile tablets, web-linked data structures, and digital 3D visualization have changed the map creation process.

Although our methods have changed, the Geologic Mapping Program (GMP) continues describing Utah’s amazing geologic landscapes, resources, and hazards. We have published groundbreaking maps across Utah that describe the vivid geology of southern Utah’s color country, the complicated geologic landscapes of western Utah, and the extent of significant geologic hazards including the Wasatch fault and other areas important for specific energy and mineral resources.

The GMP is in the midst of its most significant change in staffing and workflow in decades. Notable recent retirements include Grant Willis, Jon King, Bob Biek, and Kent Brown, all of whom have been leaders in geologic mapping and cartography in Utah and the Nation. These positions have been filled with a new crew of early career professionals from diverse backgrounds that include mappers and GIS analysts, who are leading the way with new mapping techniques and expedited workflows. At the Utah Geological Survey’s 75th anniversary the GMP is stronger than ever and ready to raise the standard of geologic mapping across Utah and the Nation.

Groundwater and Wetlands

by Hugh Hurlow

Claire Spangenberg Kellner records groundwater measurements in Meadow, Utah, March 2022.

Claire Spangenberg Kellner records groundwater measurements in Meadow, Utah, March 2022.

Groundwater investigations at UGS were sporadic and narrowly focused until 1994, when a water section was created within the Applied Geology Program. The initial team consisted of Mike Lowe (manager), Frank Ashland, and Charlie Bishop. Frank conducted a landmark hydrogeologic study of the Snyderville Basin. In 1995, Hugh Hurlow joined the section to work on a hydrogeologic study of the St. George area, in concert with groundwater flow modeling by the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1996, Janae Wallace came aboard to log water well cuttings, then expanded her repertoire to include a variety of water quality studies primarily funded through the Utah Division of Water Quality. That same year, the section evolved into the Environmental Sciences Program with the addition of paleontology and paleoecology staff, including the dynamic Jim Kirkland as State Paleontologist. We grew steadily as our partnerships with state and federal government agencies, water conservancy districts, and local governments solidified. GIS Analyst Richard Emerson recognized the absence of a wetland program in other state agencies and the potential of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Wetland Program Development Grants (WPDG), and secured funding to hire an ecologist to lead wetlands projects at the UGS and serve as the State Wetlands Coordinator. In 2014, Diane Menuz became manager of the wetlands section, which grew with increasing success at bringing in federal funds, focusing on wetland mapping, assessment, and remote sensing projects. In 2016 the paleontology group moved to the Geologic Mapping Program and our program was renamed the Groundwater and Wetlands Program (GWP). Meanwhile, the groundwater section expanded its expertise to include water budget analysis, hydrogeochemistry, geothermal studies, watershed monitoring, and geophysics.

Another phase of rapid change and growth began in 2018, as water issues in Utah became more serious and drought threatened all water supplies. We turned to focus on critical zone/climate science as Paul Inkenbrandt developed the Utah Flux Network to directly measure consumptive water use by crops and native vegetation including wetlands, and Hugh Hurlow began a program to evaluate the hydrologic effects of watershed restoration. The GWP added three new positions between 2020 and 2023 as funding and demand increased. Today the GWP has 18 scientists and an operating budget of $2.3 million; both figures were unimaginable at the end of 2016 when our founding father Mike Lowe retired. Looking ahead, we have a group of excellent scientists that are great colleagues and care about their work having positive impacts on the greater community and natural environment. Our partnerships with state and federal agencies and local governments have strengthened and increased. We strive to provide the best possible data and analyses to address Utah’s difficult water resource issues.

Paleontology Section

by Don DeBlieux

Jim Kirkland and Gary Hunt prepare a large femur bone for plaster jacketing at Doellings Bowl in Grand County, August 2011.

Jim Kirkland and Gary Hunt prepare a large femur bone for plaster jacketing at Doellings Bowl in Grand County, August 2011.

The UGS paleontology section has consisted over the years of a small, yet incredibly productive team led initially by Jim Madsen, the first State Paleontologist, followed by Dave Gillette and now Jim Kirkland. Over the past two decades, Kirkland and the paleo team—Martha Hayden, Don DeBlieux, and various paid interns and volunteers—have been leading players in the paleontological renaissance that has taken place in Utah. Jim’s work on the geology, paleontology, and stratigraphy of the Cedar Mountain Formation has transformed our knowledge of these rocks and put them on the map as one of the richest dinosaur-bearing formations in the world. Our paleontology field program has been wildly successful with the discovery of thousands of vertebrate fossils and publication of dozens of scientific papers. A few highlights include the description and naming of new dinosaurs including Falcarius utahensis, Diabloceratops eatoni, Yurgovuchia doellingi, Martharaptor greenriverensis, Iguanacolossus fortis, Hippodraco scutidens, and Mierasaurus bobyoungi. In 2014 we successfully collected a 9-ton block of Utahraptor fossils that was a major achievement. The paleontology team has collaborated with numerous scientists from all over the world and hasmentored and trained over 100 students and volunteers during theirdinosaur excavations. The team was also instrumental in the preservation of the world-class dinosaur tracksite at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site and the establishment of the museum there. We have also had fruitful partnerships with public land management agencies such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management to survey fossils on lands they administer. Finally, we continue to maintain the Utah Paleontological Database, the oldest of its kind in the U.S., which now boasts over 25,000 locality records. As the present team winds down their careers, they look forward to passing along their substantial knowledge of Utah paleontology to their successors so the UGS paleontology section can continue to thrive into the future.

Energy & Minerals Program

by Michael Vanden Berg

Stephanie Mills describes the impact and utility of core preserved at the Utah Core Research Center in 2023.

Stephanie Mills describes the impact and utility of core preserved at the Utah Core Research Center in 2023.

Over the past 25 years, the Energy and Minerals Program (EMP) has grown into one of the largest groups at the UGS. EMP has been very successful in applying for and receiving large grants from the federal government and other agencies to study Utah’s energy and mineral resources. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, many of these funded projects focused on fossil fuel resources including coal, oil, natural gas, and even oil shale. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, focus shifted from researching conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs to studying resource plays (e.g., shale gas and shale/tight oil). However, priorities at the federal level shifted again in the late 2010s and into the early 2020s. Nearly every project within the EMP group currently focuses on mitigating carbon emissions, including studying geothermal resources, carbon dioxide storage reservoirs, and critical mineral resources, especially minerals related to the electrification of our modern society (e.g., lithium, copper, tellurium, indium, etc.). The EMP is well suited to pivot between these changing priorities since all types of resource evaluations are dependent on a deep understanding of Utah’s subsurface, expertise that is well established at the UGS.

Geologic Hazards Program

by Steve Bowman

Emily Kleber monitors landslide movement with GPS equipment at the Parkway Drive landslide in North Salt Lake, April 2016.

Emily Kleber monitors landslide movement with GPS equipment at the Parkway Drive landslide in North Salt Lake, April 2016.

The Geologic Hazards Program (GHP) has undergone significant changes in the past 25 years, especially regarding how data are collected, visualized, stored, and distributed to the public. For example, we now use high-resolution GPS equipment and lidar-equipped drones to measure and monitor the movement of landslides. Drones also make assessing an active landslide and responding to other hazard emergencies much safer. The way we conduct fault studies has also changed with technology; time-consuming manual methods have been replaced by digital elevation models, electronic survey transits, and software on computers and tablets. Hazard maps are now digitally created using geographic information systems (GIS) and are accessible through the online Utah Geologic Hazards Portal. The GHP’s documents, maps, and photos are now digitized and available in the UGS GeoData Archive. We have also digitized and archived aerial photographs of Utah, creating the Utah Aerial Imagery Database, which is the largest aerial imagery database at a state level in the U.S.

Over the years, the GHP has developed strong collaborations with the Utah Division of Emergency Management, local governments, and federal land management agencies, as well as the academic community. In 2003, the UGS and U.S. Geological Survey established the Utah Earthquake Working Groups; 21 years later, these working groups continue to help guide earthquake research in Utah.

Advances in technology along with strong partnerships within the scientific community have allowed our program to more efficiently, accurately, and safely study and address geologic hazards in Utah.

Data Management Program

by Marshall Robinson

Mackenzie Cope works on the Utah Rockhounder Web Application that highlights where to find rocks, minerals, and fossils in Utah, May 2022.

Mackenzie Cope works on the Utah Rockhounder Web Application that highlights where to find rocks, minerals, and fossils in Utah, May 2022.

Formerly part of the Geologic Information and Outreach Program, the Data Management Program was created in 2021 as a natural outcome of the UGS’s rapidly growing digital datasets. The UGS mission to share timely scientific information hinges on efficient digital data management and web development. Naturally, allocating more resources to accomplish this mission was and still is crucial to the upkeep and creation of our data-heavy online web applications which are used daily by other government agencies, researchers, teachers, and the general public.

The new program started with five staff members (Marshall Robinson, Lance Weaver, Jay Hill, Mackenzie Cope, and Martha Jensen), and has since lost one (Martha Jensen) to the Bureau of Land Management, and gained four (Nate Payne, Abby Mangum, Clinton Lunn, and Rachel Willmore). We manage the 700+ page UGS website and state earthquakes website along with 30 interactive web applications spanning many disciplines of geology, all of which are excellent tools for helping a wide range of audiences understand Utah’s geology. Our team is dedicated to and deeply cares about ensuring the data found on the UGS website and web applications are up-to-date and easily accessible.

Geologic Information & Outreach Program

by Mark Milligan

Jackson Smith explains the geology at Simpson Springs during the 2023 Administrative Professionals Geologic Field Trip.

Jackson Smith explains the geology at Simpson Springs during the 2023 Administrative Professionals Geologic Field Trip.

The UGS has always had a component of non-technical outreach. This can be seen in the articles and comics of old issues of Survey Notes and its predecessor Quarterly Review. A UGS “Information Section” dated back to at least 1984. But it was not until 1993 that a full-fledged program, then called the Geologic Extension Service (GES), was officially created. According to then director M. Lee Allison, the program was loosely modeled after (and the name was blatantly copied from) the Agricultural Extension Service, which was well known at the time. The primary goal of GES was (and still is for today’s Geologic Information and Outreach Program) to be a one-stop source for geoscience information in Utah. The program initially included the UGS Library, and later added the Natural Resources Map & Bookstore, Editorial section, Web Services section, and technical reviewer.

One of the biggest changes to the program has been our shift from the realm of paper to the digital age. We now publish all our publications in a digital format available for free to the public on our website. Along with digital publication came the creation of our searchable online publications database and the assignment of a unique digital object identifier (DOI) to all our publications, which allows easy reference and access on the internet. Other features available on our website include the “Ask a Geologist” service where anyone can select the link and send an email with their geology questions, and an online video library of Earth Science Week topics for teachers to use in their classrooms. We also now provide an array of geologic interest stories and information through various social media platforms.

Other notable work our program has done is to provide the geologic information for two new geologic parks: the G.K. Gilbert Geologic View Park at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Cottonwood Heights, and the Sunrise Rotary Regional Geologic Park in the Park City area. We have also provided over 200 articles to Survey Notes, the triannual publication of the Survey, over the past 25 years. With our team of enthusiastic geologists, we’re ready for many more years of productivity and change!