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Circular 1281

Geography for a Changing World – A Science Strategy for the Geographic Research of the U.S. Geological Survey, 2005-2015

By Gerard McMahon, Susan P. Benjamin, Keith Clarke, John E. Findley, Robert N. Fisher, William L. Graf, Linda C. Gundersen, John W. Jones, Thomas R. Loveland, Keven S. Roth, E. Lynn Usery, and Nathan J. Wood

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (10.4 MB)Executive Summary

This report presents a science strategy for the geographic research of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for the years 2005-2015. The common thread running through the vision, mission, and science goals presented in the plan is that USGS geographers will provide national leadership to understand coupled human-environmental systems in the face of land change and will deliver pertinent information to decisionmakers on the vulnerability and resilience of these systems. We define land change science as the study of the human and environment dynamics that give rise to changed land use, cover, and surface form.

A number of realities shape the strategic context of this plan:

  • The Department of Interior Strategic Plan focuses on meeting society’s resource needs and sustaining the Nation’s life support systems, underscoring the importance of characterizing and understanding coupled human-environmental systems.
  • In redefining its mission in the mid-1990s, the USGS envisions itself as an integrated natural science and information agency. The USGS will assume a national leadership role in the use of science to develop knowledge about the web of relations that couple biophysical and human systems and translate this knowledge into unbiased, reliable information that meets important societal information needs.
  • The following trends will influence USGS geography-oriented science activities over the next decade. Most of the emerging earth science issues that the USGS will address are geographic phenomena. A growing international concern for aligning society’s development activities with environmental limits has led to an articulation of a science agenda associated with global environmental change, vulnerability, and resilience. Earth science investigations have evolved toward the study of very large areas, and the resulting huge volumes of data are challenging to manage and understand. Finally, scientists and the public face the challenge of gaining intelligent insights about geographic and environmental processes from these data, with the ultimate goal of guiding resource-management decisions.

The first four science goals in the plan support understanding the human and environmental dynamics of land change. Each science goal has an associated set of strategic actions to achieve the goal. These goals and actions are consistent with national science priorities and the Department of Interior and USGS missions, take advantage of existing expertise, and lead to the strengthening of critical geographic research capacities that do not exist in other USGS disciplines.

First posted September 21, 2011

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Suggested citation:

McMahon, Gerard, and others, 2005, Geography for a Changing World – A Science Strategy for the Geographic Research of the U.S. Geological Survey, 2005-2015, Sioux Falls, SD: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1281, 76 pages



Executive Summary


List of Acronyms


Geographic Research and the USGS Mission

Goal 1: Characterize and quantify land surface status and trends to provide a framework for understanding change patterns and processes from local to global scales

Goal 2: Identify local, regional, national, and global drivers of land change to forecast plausible land change scenarios over the next 20-50 years

Goal 3: Understand past, present, and future environmental consequences of land change to support better management of their effect on people, environment, economy, and resources

Goal 4: Improve the scientific basis for vulnerability and risk assessment, mitigation, response, and recovery related to the human and environmental dynamics of land change

Goal 5. Develop credible and accessible geographic research, tools, and methods to support decisionmaking related to the human and environmental consequences of land change

Goal 6: Develop and test hypotheses about the use of geographic regions to understand the human and environmental dynamics of land change

Goal 7: Observe the Earth at all scales using remote sensing to understand the human and environmental dynamics of land change

Goal 8: Provide timely, intelligent access to new and archived USGS geographic data needed to conduct science and support policy decisions

Goal 9: Develop innovative methods of modeling and information synthesis, fusion, and visualization to improve our ability to explore geographic data and create new knowledge

Operational Objectives

Next Steps

References Cited


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