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Resources in Peril is one of four June feature stories about saving Earth's legacies.

Resources in Peril
Paul Cutler and Christopher G. Maples

Volume and space numbers

Essential steps

Editor’s Note: Following is a summary of and some excerpts from Geoscience Data and Collections: National Resources In Peril, a report released in April by the National Research Council’s Committee on the Preservation of Geoscience Data and Collections.

In the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission was investigating the geology of potential nuclear storage areas in Kansas. The Commission collected drill cores that the Kansas Geological Survey stored in its repository. Decades later, on Jan. 17, 2001, natural gas exploded from beneath Woody’s Appliance Store and the Décor Shop in downtown Hutchinson, Kan. To find out how the natural gas made its way from a nearby underground gas storage field to Hutchinson, the survey used the Atomic Energy Commission cores, making new use of old data (Geotimes, October 2001).

This story is one of many that reveal the sometimes unforseen value of the data we collect about our planet. Geoscience data and collections — groups of data related by type, origin or scientific application — are the underpinnings of almost everything we do in the geosciences. They record how processes operating today functioned in the past. They are keys for conducting science, for developing natural resources, even for helping people manage a natural hazard. Loss of our geoscience data and collections would have long-term, negative effects, some of which we cannot foresee.

Technician John F. Rhoades pulls an ice core from the main storage area of the National Ice Core Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. The lab stores about 16,400 meters of core at 36 degrees Centrigrade below zero. Run by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation, the lab is home to cores taken from Antarctica, Greenland and North America. Image courtesy of National Ice Core Laboratory

Some losses are irreparable. A dispute over warehouse fees when the Newfield Petroleum Company was moving offices resulted in the loss of core from the deepest well ever drilled in North America, for example. The estimated cost to acquire this same core today ranges between $12.3 million and $16.4 million. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the cost to replace the geoscience data and collections archived in its Core Research Center at Lakewood, Colo. — a facility that contains no more than 5 percent of the volume of at-risk geoscience data and collections in the United States — is on the order of $10 billion, according to a 1999 National Research Council (NRC) report.

The geoscience community has amassed enormous amounts of geoscience data and collections at great cost. Replacing data collections — if they could be replaced at all — would demand equally enormous cost and effort.

However, many of these data and collections are in peril. Many already have been lost, and even more are at risk. The term at risk can apply to data and collections that are either not being cared for adequately or are associated with groups that are about to abandon them.

Housing of and access to geoscience data and collections have become critical issues for federal and state agencies, academic institutions, museums and industry. Nearly two-thirds of the state geological surveys polled for the report (22 of the 35 surveys that responded) said that their geoscience data and collections libraries have 10 percent or less remaining space. Even more critical, 46 percent of those same state geological surveys reported that they no longer have space available for their collections, or that they can no longer accept new data and collections.

The dilemma over geoscience data and collections is this: more and better geoscience data and collections exist now than
ever before, and more are acquired every day. However, space for and maintenance of these data and collections simply has not kept pace with their acquisition. Therefore, appropriate management of geoscience data and collections has become a more critical problem now than ever than it has ever been.

The NRC established the Committee on the Preservation of Geoscience Data and Collections to develop a comprehensive strategy to manage geoscience data and collections in the United States. The committee members and sponsors of the study reflect the broad interest in preserving geoscience data and collections: industry, academia, and all levels of government from city to federal. The committee was charged with:

Measuring the problem

Compounding the problem is that even assessing the volume, quality and location of the nation’s geoscience data and collections proves challenging. “Simply stated,” the NRC report says, “the quantity, variety and quality of the nation’s geoscience collections and data are largely unknown. The committee found that information on geoscience collections and data that have been lost or discarded is elusive because of their proprietary nature, the unwillingness to admit of discarding such collections and data, and the challenges and costs of donating them to a public facility … versus discarding them.” (See page 23 of the report.)

The NRC committee sought to answer:

Although information of this type is in short supply, the NRC report does shed some light on the general magnitude of the problem by assembling information about what is known.

The NRC committee found that space for existing geoscience collections is critically short. This challenge itself the committee expected. However, both the magnitude of the problem, and a lack of planning for future space needs, were not expected. For instance, several state geological surveys that have constructed core libraries or significantly added onto existing facilities within the past 15 years already report 16 percent or less remaining space.

The committee determined that an immediate need is to construct three regional geoscience data and collections centers in three regions of the United States: the Gulf Coast, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. The committee also called for building or making space for more regional geoscience data and collections centers as needed.

Judging the data

Not everything can or should be saved. To that end, the committee proposed several common-sense criteria for assessing whether or not to accept, reject, keep or dispose of geoscience data and collections. The most important criterion is good metadata: adequate information about the data and collections. Geoscience data and collections have little value or use in the absence of ancillary information for using them effectively. Other criteria are accuracy, likelihood of reacquisition, potential applications, quality, completeness and overlap with existing collections. Adequate assessment of geoscience data and collections holdings at any given facility requires some type of external science advisory board.

Credit for curation

Finally, the committee noted that curation of collections is crucial, but not always rewarded. Currently, many geoscience data and collections are not used to the fullest primarily because not all potential users have access to information about those collections, a situation directly related to how well they are curated. Information about geoscience data and collections needs to be made available more widely. Such widespread knowledge will lead to additional, widespread use and to more timely, better supported research results.

One way to reward effective curation, and thus recognize geoscience data and collections efforts, is to require users of holdings to cite those holdings — as actual bibliographic entries rather than within appendices or acknowledgements. Such acknowledgement would highlight how geoscience data and collections are used and provide long-overdue recognition for the tireless efforts of those who have worked to preserve and curate them.

The preservation of adequately documented geoscience data and collections has both immediate and long-term benefits. Although the immediate benefits often are apparent, the long-term benefits require careful and imaginative evaluation. The right data and collections can help us know our natural resources. They can help us assess the value and extent of holdings on public lands. We can use data and collections to understand natural hazards and thus work to make people safer. They are the tools for helping us understand our planet’s history and the history of life on it.

The continued loss of potentially useful geoscience data and collections erodes our ability to realize these and other benefits. The recommended steps in the NRC report outline a strategy that will reduce this erosion, but only if we act now.

The volume of data
Minimum Estimate of the Volume of Geoscience Data & Collections in the United States
(original sources reported in NRC 2002)
Core (ice)
tubes 14,500
Core (rock/sediment) boxes 8,015,715
boxes 10,402,000
Fossils specimens 122,935,000
Geochemical analyses paper 1,750,000
specimens 828,000
Other well records variety 2,045,000
Scout tickets variety 21,960,350
Seismic (2-D/3-D) line miles/ sq. miles 357,270,149
Thin sections
slides 647,000
Velocity surveys paper & digital 87,500
Washed residues bags 180,000
Well logs variety 46,021,700

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Running out of room
Estimates of the storage space non-state geological facilities have left for long-term archiving of geoscience collections and data. See the NRC report for a full explanation of how these numbers were calculated.
Reprinted with permission from Geoscience Collections and Data: Natural Resources in Peril
Smithsonian Institution
more than 15%
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 0%
USGS Core Research Center, Denver, Colo.

Ocean Drilling Program, College Station, Texas 11%
C&M Storage Inc. (various locations) 12%
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History
University of Rhode Island 30%
California Well Sample Repository, Bakersfield 10%
Denver Earth Resources Library 0%
National Ice Core Laboratory, Boulder, Colo.
Los Angeles Basin Subsurface Data Center 33%
National Lacustrine Core Repository (Univ. of Minnesota) 75%

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Essential Steps
In its April report, Geoscience Data and Collections: National Resources in Peril, the National Research Council recommends taking these steps to save geoscience data and collections at risk of being lost. Not all recommendations are listed here.

Priority for rescuing geoscience data and collections should be placed on those in danger of being lost.

Priority for retention and preservation of geoscience data and collections should be directed toward those that are well documented and impossible or extremely difficult to replace.

Cataloging efforts to gather comprehensive information about existing geoscience data and collections should be funded as soon as possible. Access to these funds should be on a competitive basis, and preference should be given to institutions with holdings that meet the same priorities as those outlined for preservation.

Establish a distributed network of regional geoscience data and collections centers, each with an external science advisory board. Three such centers should be established immediately, one each in the Gulf Coast, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Coast regions. Additional regional centers, as merited, should be established over the next five to 10 years. Centers should rely upon existing expertise and infrastructure, such as state geological surveys, museums, universities and private enterprises and, where practical, more efficient use of existing space be encouraged before expansion and new construction. Access to the center-establishment and improvement funds must be on a competitive basis.

Preference for center establishment should be given to those centers that meet three main criteria: 1) need for such a center in the region (i.e., active clientele, identified collections of high-priority, at-risk data in the region); 2) broad involvement and support among various regional geoscience and other entities (government, academia and industry); and 3) active participation of an independent, external science-advisory board.

Establish a federal geoscience data and collections coordinating committee to optimize federal agency coordination. The federal geoscience data and collections coordinating committee should appoint several federal external science-advisory boards to advise on priorities for federal holdings, with respect to preservation, cataloging and access across and within federal and quasi-federal agencies. The federal geoscience data and collections coordinating committee also should monitor and facilitate progress of cataloging efforts across the federal government.

Electronic reporting should be implemented as soon as possible, with additional funding as required to accelerate it, in order to reduce the added burden of cataloging future data and samples.

Establish a combination of federal, state, regional and local government incentives and requirements for geoscience data and collections donations and deposition.

The geoscience community itself should adopt standards for citation in scientific and other publications of geoscience data and collections used. In addition, institutions and professional societies should establish (where appropriate) awards and other forms of recognition for outstanding contributors to the preservation and accessibility of geoscience data and collections.

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Cutler is a program officer at the National Research Council in Washington. E-mail
Maples is a professor and department chair at Indiana University, Bloomington, and chair of the Committee on the Preservation of Geoscience Data and Collections.

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