David R. Soller
U.S. Geological Survey
(This article was first published in the McGraw-Hill Yearbook of Science & Technology 2004, pp. 128-130.)
The public has come to expect near-instantaneous delivery of relevant, understandable information via the Internet, which in turn has begun to affect the methods used in geologic mapping, as well as the nature of the product. Geologists are rapidly incorporating GIS and information technology (IT) techniques into the production and dissemination of geologic maps, as described in the following sections:
Geologic mapping is a highly interpretive, scientific process that can produce a range of map products for many different uses, including assessing ground-water quality and contamination risks; predicting earthquake, volcano, and landslide hazards; characterizing energy and mineral resources and their extraction costs; waste repository siting; land management and land-use planning; and general education. The value of geologic map information in public and private decision-making (such as for the siting of landfills and highways) has repeatedly been described anecdotally, and has been demonstrated in benefit-cost analyses to reduce uncertainty and, by extension, potential costs.
The geologic mapper strives to understand the composition and structure of geologic materials at the Earth's surface and at depth, and to depict observations and interpretations on maps using symbols and colors (fig. 1). Within the past 10 to 20 years, geographic information system (GIS) technology has begun to change aspects of geologic mapping by providing software tools that permit the geometry and characteristics of rock bodies and other geologic features (such as faults) to be electronically stored, displayed, queried, and analyzed in conjunction with a seemingly infinite variety of other data types.
For example, GIS can be used to spatially compare possible pollutant sources (such as oil wells) with nearby streams and geologic units that serve as ground-water supplies. In addition, GIS can be used to compare the position of a proposed road with the surrounding geology to identify areas of high excavation costs or unstable slopes. These comparisons have always been possible, but GIS greatly facilitates the analysis and, as a result, offers geologists the opportunity to provide information in map form that is easily interpreted and used by the nongeologist.
Figure 1. Graphic representation of typical information in a general purpose geologic map that can be used to identify geologic hazards, locate natural resources, and facilitate land-use planning. (After R. L. Bernknopf et al., 1993)