Director, U.S. Geological Survey
n late 2005
yers resigned his commission as State Geologist and director of Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas in protest of a natural gas pipeline deal the state’s Republican governor, Frank Murkowski, was negotiating with a handful of the world’s biggest oil companies. M
yers was one of six of the state’s top natural resources officials to quit that f
all rather than support a deal they felt made too many concessions to the major oil companies at the expense of small independent firms they deemed necessary to exploring and developing Alaska’s reserves.
Myers, a Wisconsin native who moved to Alaska in 1983 as an exploration geologist for an oil company that has since been absorbed by ConocoPhillips – one of the three big firms involved in the controversial pipeline deal – does not have much to say these
days when asked about the episode.
“That’s past history,” he said. “Hopefully what comes out is that I’m a person of strong ethics and principles.”
Shortly after stepping down, Myers got a call from the White House asking if he would be interested in heading the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a 10,000-person multidisciplinary agency within the Department of Interior that combines
hard science with comprehensive mapping to monitor the nation’s natural resources and predict earthquakes, volcanoes and other hazards.
Myers said he was not looking for a federal appointment. But the chance to run such a diverse agency was irresistible. Within
a year of being offered the job, Myers and his family made the move to Washington, leaving behind a Cessna 180 he loved to pilot on weekend trips into the Alaskan wilderness.
Myers learned to fly in college and was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force Reserve before switching over to intelligence for the remainder of his 26 years of military service. As such, he is no stranger to satellite reconnaissance, a background that serves him well as the head of the agency that operates Landsat, a family of spacecraft that have been collecting moderate-resolution imagery of the world’s land surface since the early 1970s.
Additionally, one of the duties of the USGS director traditionally has been to chair a so-called Civil Applications Committee that provides a central conduit to the intelligence community for civilian agencies wanting to use classified remotely sensed data to study or predict environmental change. However, that role, the USGS’s for more than 30 years, is being ceded this fall to the Department of Homeland Security.
Myers spoke with staff writer Brian Berger at USGS headquarters in Reston, Va., about those changes as well as Landsat and a newly released White House plan that calls for the Department of Interior to establish a National Land Imaging Program for the continuous collection of Landsat-type imagery for decades to come.
What will Homeland Security’s takeover of the civil applications job mean for USGS?
We are working on a very smooth transition. Homeland Security’s National Applications Office itself will stand up in October but will be running in parallel with our Civil Applications Committee until the capacity of the National Applications Office is at a similar level. Beyond that, the USGS will continue to use the data as part of our responsibility for being the nation’s warning system for earth
quakes and volcanoes, for example. So we anticipate that the use of that data, when necessary and appropriate, will continue.
Why is the U.S. Department of Interior the right place for the National Land Imaging Program?
For starters, the department is the nation’s primary land steward, with about a fifth of the United States land mass under its management. And our history with Landsat goes back to the beginning, when William Pecora, the U.S. Geological Survey’s director from 1965 to 1971, proposed building a remote sensing satellite to gather data about the world’s land cover.
We’ve had a record of success with Landsat, if you look at the way the satellites and the data have been managed. The challenge has been continuity. Both Landsats 5 and 7 are beyond their operational lifetimes. We’re making good progress on the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) and hope to have it up in 2011. But it just shows that we need a program with more continuity.
One of the strengths Interior brings to future land imaging is we see the capability as necessary and operational rather than something experimental. We also have a strong relationship with the user community, in part because we are big users of the data. Our capacity to interpret the data and link it with the in situ data makes Interior kind of a natural.
Are all the budget issues associated with establishing a National Land Imaging Program worked out?
Clearly there’s a lot of work still to be done and significant policy decisions to be made. The significance of the report is that it’s not an Interior product but that it is coming out of the White House and represents a consensus within the national space community. So what we have here are some very strong recommendations and an acceptance of the challenge by the Interior Secretary. Now comes the time when folks have to roll up their sleeves and develop those key policy decisions and work through all the issues.
Will the impetus for a National Land Imaging Program outlive the current
The plan is apolitical. It’s a very strong and logical statement of need for a stable land imaging effort, the same way the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
has taken leadership on weather. We’ve also had very good support from Congress for LDCM. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think the report will withstand the test of time.
What does USGS have to do to get ready for LDCM and beyond?
We recognize that the transition into an operational program with long-term continuity is a very different thing than having NASA build the satellite and hand it over to us. We recognize additional engineering capacity within the USGS is going to be necessary as we move from a model where it is NASA’s responsibility to build, launch and checkout the satellite to where that responsibility will fall on the Department of Interior.
So in the future, USGS will run Landsat spacecraft procurements instead of NASA?
Folks are still reviewing the options. One thing that is necessary no matter who builds the satellites is a stable base of long-term funding. The report was just
released and those issues need to be worked through.
Is USGS assuming Landsats 5 and 7 will fail before LDCM enters service in 2011?
We are not assuming the current satellites will fail before then. We are preparing for it, but we are not assuming it. A lot of work is being done to conserve Landsat 5’s fuel to make sure we can stretch to 2011. We
also are looking at software fixes for the scan line corrector problem on Landsat 7 and hope to bring some of the client base back to this spacecraft.
There are some issues with gyroscopes. We’re doing everything we can to make sure the life of those satellites extends and hope that Murphy’s Law doesn’t come into play. If it does, we will start looking seriously at the data gap and how to acquire other data if we actually do lose operational capacity in either satellite. While accelerating LDCM to any earlier than 2011 does not appear realistic, we will do everything we can to ensure it stays on schedule.
What are the options for mitigating a data gap?
We are working with NASA to look at the available options, including getting imagery from India and Brazil. But it’s clear that whatever data we find to help get through the unfortunate situation of a data gap will only be partial. That’s one of the findings of the future land imaging report.
There really is no substitute for Landsat.
What goals do you have for USGS?
There’s not another agency in the world quite like the USGS. We bring a diverse set of capabilities spanning geology, biology, ecology, remote sensing
and mapping, into a single objective science agency. Although we are part of the Department of Interior, which is the principal conservation agency managing a fifth of the nation’s landmass, the USGS itself has no regulatory responsibilities, so we can be incredibly objective.
My goal as director is to use the Geological Survey’s capabilities to attack some of the big societal challenges, including climate change, energy
and invasive species, that call out for the type of science we can deliver. Being non-advocacy, we can provide a solid science basis for those who have to make the policy decisions without having to be a part of the team that makes those policy decisions.
What is USGS’s current role in climate change?
One of our biggest contributions to the nation’s climate change research program is in understanding how the nation’s landscape has changed and continues to change. We use national systems like Landsat to look at changes in land cover. Our biologists look at the effect of climate change on species. Our water folks look at changes in the availability and distribution of water. Our geologists help us understand historical climate change by looking back millions of years.
The USGS is almost 130 years old and some of our records go back that far, so we are one of the few agencies that have maintained continuous records for the time frame necessary to understand climate change. We
also can combine in-the-field observations with remote sensing. It’s a very hands-dirty approach to understanding the rate of change and helping society adapt to the changes to come.