Science at Interior -- A Google Plus Hangout

Office of the Secretary
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I want to first thank everyone for joining us on "" for our first ever Google + hangout. We are very fortunate to have Mr. Adam's eighth grade science class from Cleveland, Ohio. Thanks for joining us. We are also honored to be joined by Dr. Marcia McNutt who is the director of the USGS and chief scientist and also Secretary Ken Salazar.

So for the next probably 30 to 40 minutes we are going to be answering questions from the students related to science and interior. But, before we get to that, I'd just like to offer up some brief intro remarks from the Secretary and from Dr McNutt. Mr. Secretary would you like to go first?

Thank you very much to Mrs. Aziz and to Mr. Adams and to all of the students there from the eighth grade. I just want to say "Hello" to all of you. I want to say on behalf of President Barack Obama, it's our honor to have this opportunity to have this conversation with you about science and about the future.

The President in the last few days held an event at the White House where he celebrated the scientific achievements of young people. He is a great believer in science. Science will drive everything that we do, not only here in America but around the world. So we are very excited about having this opportunity to spend some time in a conversation with all of you.

Dr. Marcia McNutt, who is one of the best known scientists around the world, who knows more about science from Antarctica to the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic to Alaska, is the head of what is probably the best earth science agency in the entire world, the head of the United States Geological Survey. Where we have approximately 10,000 scientists to do the work of science.

I'll turn it over to Marcia to make a few introductory remarks as well.

Well thank you very much Mr. Secretary. My greetings as well to the eighth grade class of Mr. Adams. Thank you very much Mrs. Aziz for inviting us into your class and your school and into Ohio. I am very pleased to bring greetings from the USGS and all of our scientists to you.

I was amazed when I started looking at the contributions that the State of Ohio has made to science and to discovery. I was amazed to learn that for example Thomas Edison hailed from the great state of Ohio. New Jersey may try to claim credit for him but actually he was from Ohio.

In fact, when it comes to trying to do discovery and exploration, Ohio wins in terms of astronauts. John Glen, Neil Armstrong, and Judith Resnik three of the most famous astronauts ever, all came from the great state of Ohio. So to Mr. Adams and your class of eighth graders, you all have a great legacy to follow in terms of great scientists and great explorers.

I hope you all some day will consider the US Geological Survey because our goal is to never stop asking questions, never stop exploring and never stop pushing the boundaries of discovery. So over to you.

Great. Thank you Doctor McNutt, and thank you Secretary Salazar. Mr. Adams, I'll turn it over to you guys for your first question.

OK. Thank you. We really want to thank you for this opportunity, and who knows? Maybe one of these students will turn out to be another great Ohio scientist. This is William. Please introduce yourself, just your first name, and ask your question loud and clear.

Hi, I'm William, and my first question is: [pause] how far did the oil spill go?

OK, the question was, for those at home, how far did the oil spill spread? I'm referring to the Gulf coast spill from 2010. Who would like to take that one first?

Leo, let me start and then I'll turn it over to Dr. McNutt. The oil spill was one of the most significant national crises that we have seen in the United States throughout our entire history. Dr. McNutt and I spent a huge amount of time centrally commanding the effort of the United States, along with Admiral Allen and my colleague Secretary Chu and the Department of Energy.

We are doing this at the explicit direction of the president, that we do everything and anything that we could to stop the oil from continuing to pollute the gulf and spreading. Dr. McNutt's scientists actually have been given great recognition because they were the ones who helped us figure out a way of stopping the well.

Marcia, you may want to talk just a little bit about the SAMMY Awards and why it was that the USGS was recognized, and answer Leo's question.

OK. Yeah. Thank you very much for that question. Actually, during the height of the Gulf oil spill, hundreds of thousands of miles of the northern Gulf of Mexico were closed to fishing by the National Marine Fisheries, because of concerns about oil pollution. There was a concern at one point that the oil might get into something called the "loop current", and get spread down below Florida and actually into the Gulf Stream. Fortunately, we got the well capped and the oil shut off before that happened, so it never did get out of the Gulf of Mexico. It was always contained to the Gulf of Mexico.

Once we got it capped, the oil then disappeared quite quickly, and was consumed by microbes in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil-eating microbes that were able to consume the oil quite quickly, because there are natural leaks within the Gulf of Mexico that support a microbial community that naturally eats oil, that every other day of the year leaks into the Gulf at much smaller amounts than had been leaking from the Macondo well.

We were fortunate that through intervention techniques we were able to put a cap on the well. It was actually one of our USGS scientists who figured out a method of using pressure measurements from the well to determine that that cap would hold and that we could leave the well shut in safely. Because of that, the partnership for public service honored a USGS scientist with Federal employee of the year, this past October.

That was actually the first time that a Department of Interior employee had ever received a top honor in the Federal Government. So we were actually quite please. He was also the employee who determined that the total amount of oil released during the oil spill was 4.9 million barrels of oil.

Great. Thank you.

Thank you for that question.

That event was worrisome. If I could, a follow up question with William. If I visited the Gulf today in any of the four states that surround the Gulf, what would be the likelihood as a typical tourist of running into any sign that that spill took place?

Mr. Adams, I think that today, and I've been down there many times, I was just in Louisiana, New Orleans, I think, about four weeks ago, you don't see anything anymore. If you know what you're looking for, you can go out with some of our other scientists, biologists in the official Allied Service and go to some places along the coast where there are still some remnants, a few remnants of oil. So, the cleanup is still continuing.

But, for all practical purposes from the point of view of the tourist and visitors to the entire Gulf of Mexico, you can't tell that there was ever an oil spill in the Gulf.

Well, that's good to hear. As I said, that was a worrisome situation and we just didn't know how it was going to turn out. Glad it turned out for the best.

All right. Our next student is Jerian, introduce yourself.

My name is Jerian Richards. My question is, how can I become a part of the USGS?

Could you hear that?

Could you just repeat it? I think, Dr. McNutt heard it. But could you just repeat it one more time?

How could I become a part of the USGS?

Great question.

Go ahead, Marcia.

Great. Well, Jerian, we would love to have bright young member of Mr. Adams' science class as a part of the USGS. There are many routes to become a member of our staff. One way that young people begin to become members of the USGS is they start by becoming student members of the USGS through programs like SCAP and other youth initiatives that the Secretary has been a very strong proponent of.

The Secretary and the Obama administration have been wonderful cheerleaders for getting young people into the Federal Government, particularly into our science vacancies by promoting programs that get youth engaged into the Federal Government. We have a number of programs that we'd love to tell you about that brings students in for summer jobs and other programs that have you intern with our scientists. Help us with our research programs and then, through college programs and other programs that let you help us with your research. Then after you're done with school, we hire you on. So, it's a great way for us to get to know you and you get to know us and we see if it's a match.

Jerian, I'll just add a few comments to Dr. McNutt answer. We have in the Department of Interior 72,000 employees. That's 72,000 employees. But, it's important to note that 40 percent of them will retire between now and 2016. So, about the year you're graduating from high school, you're going to have some 30,000 to 40,000 people we're looking for to come and work here, wildlife biologists, space scientists, oceanographers, all kinds of really neat things.

We're not the only one. There are lot of others that are out there. We have a huge internship program. We'll be hiring 12,000 young people this summer alone. Hopefully you'll look at the Department of Interior as one of the places you want to work at in the future.

I would just add, if you're interested in the summer jobs program, a lot of that information is on a special website we set up especially for youth which is at There's plenty of information on there that you can check out.

Thank you.



We do have jobs all over the country. You don't have to come to Washington DC, all over the country.

Great. Alright, loud and clear.

Hello, my name is Michelle. My question is, what was your main role in stopping the oil spill?

I'm sorry, could you repeat that one more time?

What was your main role in stopping the oil spill?

What was our main role in containing the oil spill? Was that right?


OK. What was your name again?


Michelle? Help me a little bit.

Did you say Michelle?



Dichelle, with a D.


Role, r-o-l-e, what is the role of the USGS? It's kind of follow up to the other question about the oil spill.

What is the role of the USGS? Why don't you go ahead, Marcia?

OK. Well while the oil was spilling into the gulf, USGS worked hard with the Department of Energy in figuring out, how we could plug the well. The issue basically was, there was concern about whether the well could be plugged without it leaking under ground.

So the purpose of having scientists from the USGS, who were experts in the geology of the Gulf and in drilling and other aspects like that, was to try to understand under what conditions could the well be capped safely without causing a bigger disaster than the one we had on hand.

We had experts from drilling, experts in Gulf geology, experts in reservoirs. We worked hand in hand with engineers from the Department of Energy to figure out a way to plug the well and stop the spill without causing any more harm than was already happening. That's what we were able to do.

I also led a team that was charged with estimating how much was leaking from the well. Because that was important in terms of assessing the damages that were being caused by the spill. That we were successful in doing, as well.

Thank you, Dichelle, for your question.

You're welcome.

This is a follow up to that. I am just wondering, the company itself who owned the well, they were taking actions to stop it, too. What was it like working with the company on something like this? Because everyone has an interest in it, everybody has resources. How did you coordinate what everybody could do to come up with the best approach?

We worked very well with BP in this because after all everyone had the same objective and that was to stop the oil spill. BP had a number of excellent scientists and engineers who worked very well with us. The purpose of course of having the Federal team down there, was to assure our leaders in Washington, people like Secretary Salazar and Secretary Chu, that the federal interests were also being looked after and that proper decisions were being made.

But, we were all united in our desire to make sure that we were taking the most expeditious and lowest risk route to stopping that oil spill.


Let me just add to that, President Obama saw this as a national crisis. He wanted to make sure that the whole government was doing everything that it could to stop the well from leaking. Under the laws of United States, it was the responsibility of BP to stop the leak. But we frankly knew very shortly after the incident occurred that there was not the capability that BP had quickly to shut it off. We knew that within probably 48 to 72 hours.

So, we assembled a Federal team at the highest level. It included probably half of the Cabinet Secretaries reporting in to the President and to the White House. We oversaw the effort. At one point I said, we were putting our boot on the neck of BP. But that was because we were making them accountable for the lack of their responsibility of stopping the leak.

The effort continues as we are working still to hold the companies accountable for the pollution they caused and the damage that they caused to the environment from the Macondo well exposing.

Seems like a situation where everybody really has to work together.

At the end of the day that's how it worked. I'd start out my day, everyday very early in the morning essentially getting a download from all of the United States officials that were involved at BP. Then set out, what had been accomplished the last 24 hours and what the plan was for the next 24 hours working closely with Admiral Thad Allen and the White House, drafting the orders we were giving to BP.

So it became, yes, as Marcia said, we were all aiming at the same thing. That was that we needed to stop this well from continuing to pollute the Gulf of Mexico. We needed to do it as fast as we possibly could.

All right. Next we have Nicole. Nicole will pose her question. Go ahead, loud and clear.

My name is Nicole Briggs. My question, is what type of other tests that USGS is doing to benefit the world and people of today and tomorrow and the future?

Marcia. [laughs]


There's so much in that question, but an excellent question.

She could spend two hours answering that question but, it's a perfect question. Good question.

Nicole, you ask the best and the hardest questions. You're so right, we could spend forever. But, let me just do a quick summary. In general, the USGS has two primary missions. One is to ensure the sustainability of the primary resources that society needs to ensure our quality of life. That is things like fresh clean water, sufficient energy, and minerals that fuel our society. These are earths' resources that we need now and for future generations.

We aren't responsible for policies but, it's science that we supply that help inform those decisions on management of resources and policies that will ensure now and into the future our quality of life. Then the other primary responsibility we have is for natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, landslides.

We're responsible for the science that helps communities build resilience to ensure that we are well prepared for whatever nature throws at us. So, that gradually over the years people know what to do and, communities are better built and better prepared, so that we reduce loss of life and we reduce the economic consequences of natural disasters. Those are the two primary missions and every year we try to do a better job of securing our quality of living and reducing our vulnerability to natural disasters.

Wow, that's a big job.

That's why we need clever young people like all of you.

Awesome. OK. Next, Valencia has a question for you. Go ahead and introduce yourself loud and clear, Valencia.

Hi, My name's Valencia. I wanted to know, how is it like being a part of the USGS?

Nice question, Valencia. Let me just say, Valencia, to introduce the note here for Marcia. It's a very coveted position to be the Director of the USGS. Because we chased Marcia McNutt all over the world until we got her. Because she's such a famous scientist that everybody wanted to have her and she decided to take this position because President Obama offered it to her and because the USGS was the only thing that would move her all the way across the country from Monterrey, California to Western Virginia and Washington DC to run this organization. So, I think she has a very good answer for your question. Dr. McNutt.

Well, Valencia, let me answer your question in a slightly different way. Let me tell you, a lot of days I am dealing with bug issues like huge earthquakes in Japan or major resource challenges. But, let me tell you about my favorite day as Director of the USGS. That day was the day because USGS also has under its purview the Board of Geographic Names. So, we're responsible for assigning names to geographic features. Because of that sometimes we get to right a wrong.

One of the wrongs that we got to correct was a mountain in the Santa Monica Mountains in California that had been misnamed and deserved to be named after the first African-American settler to come into the Los Angeles area. His name was John Ballard. A bunch of people put together a petition to name this mountain after John Ballard who was a freed slave from Kentucky who in the late 1800's moved to the Los Angeles area and was the first homesteader to homestead this mountain.

He not only homesteaded the mountain but, he founded a church there called is the AME church which is the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Which proved to be the largest church in the Los Angeles area and was so large that it was the church where Michael Jackson was buried. When we had this ceremony to rename this mountain after John Ballard, they had a big article in the Los Angeles Times about renaming this mountain and rededicating it to John Ballard.

Literally thousands of people showed up to rededicate this mountain. All of them descendants of John Ballard who didn't even know they were related to each other. They all came out to find these long lost cousins and they all said, our children now must grow up to be important, they must grow up to be somebody because their great, great grand-pappy was somebody. It was a fabulous day.


It was a fabulous day.

It must have been. That's great. [inaudible 25:46]

That was my favorite day.

[laughs] A great day it was too.

Valencia? Let's make way for Delmonte.

That brought tears to my eye.

Brought tears to my eyes, too.

Yeah, seriously.

Good. Delmonte, your name, loud and clear, and then your question.

My name is Delmonte and my question is: did the tsunami Japan had have any effect on the US?

Just in case anybody missed that, I think the question was, did the tsunami that was the result of the earthquake in Japan have any effect on the United States? Was that the question?



Let me take a piece of that, and then Dr. McNutt you can go much more into it. It did have an impact on us because we were obviously monitoring it. The president, along with Secretary Chu and others, were involved in dealing with the consequences of it.

The tsunami in Japan has had huge implications on the economy worldwide, and also huge ramifications for our programs related to nuclear energy, which is so important to how we power our economy. I know because the USGS is the expert on tsunamis and natural disasters and we had USGS people who were involved in it as well. Marcia?

Yes, well, the Secretary's already listed quite a few of the consequences in terms of nuclear policies and economics. In addition, the tsunami waves themselves were recorded and did damage along the Pacific margin, to places in California, in Alaska, in Guam, and other places that are under US jurisdiction. So we did see impacts.

We are also tracking a very large island of debris, which is making its way across the Pacific Ocean, which is the garbage, basically, which was washed out to sea after Sendai was basically destroyed by this wall of water. Literally entire villages were washed out to sea, and all of this destroyed buildings and cars and other infrastructure of society was all taken out to sea and is now making its way across the Pacific to Hawaii and eventually to the West coast of the US.

So a number of people have gone out and done a beach cleaning survey, so that all of the beaches in Hawaii and in the West coast of the US will be pristine clean before this garbage arrives, so that we will be able to track what the impact of this garbage is when it arrives, because everyone expects that it will have a large impact when all of this trash arrives from the tsunami.

Wow. Great question. OK. Michelle? Introduce yourself loud and clear and ask your question.

Hi, my name is Michelle. How does our use of natural resources and the pollution we emit, affect the future of the earth?

Leo The question was, how is... I am sorry, can you say it one more time?

Loud and clear.

How does our use of natural resources and the pollution we emit affect the future of the earth?

Michelle, the human activity has impacts in it, has consequences as well. Much of what we are seeing today is that, because of the carbon dioxide emissions that we currently make here in this country, CO2, we are seeing the planet warming up. So, right now if you go to the Arctic, conditions are changing very rapidly in the Arctic, the ice is melting. If you go to one of our national parks, Glacier National Park in the northern part of Montana, right on the Canadian border, the glaciers are disappearing and we expect they may disappear completely within six to ten years from now.

We're seeing changes in terms of, how much water is available in different rivers and how our plants are growing in different places and a whole host of other things. Everything that we do in our society at the end of the day, has some impact on the planet that we inhabit. So, one of the primary missions of the Department of Interior overall and it includes, certainly, the US Geological Survey, it includes the National Wildlife Service, the National Parks Service and so many of our other agencies which I oversee, is to make sure that we conserve our planet for people beyond us, for your generation and for your children and for your grandchildren.

So, how we take care of our planet and minimize the impact that we have on our planet as we use our planet, one of the high priorities that we have.

Let me have Dr. McNutt, Michelle, answer your question a little more.

Michelle, I love the way you asked the question because you didn't even limit it to only the global warming aspect. But, you broadened it to other things we're doing as well. All the waste that we produce, simply by not thinking in terms of how we purchase goods. I know that many states are now outlawing plastic bags or at least charging people for using bags rather than bringing their own bags to the grocery store and recycling.

It used to be, centuries ago, that people didn't have trash pickup at their doorsteps. So, everyone would have to live in their own plot of ground with all the refuse they produced for their entire lives. Believe me, people thought twice before throwing anything away, if you have to live with everything you produce. Now, we think nothing of all the excess packaging that comes with the things we buy because we just throw it away and it disappears. Well, we have to worry about the fact that our landfills are being overcrowded and that there's no more room in them any more.

Basically, I think all of us do have to worry about the fact that as a society of consumers we are running out of space and we have to think about recycling a lot more, and we have to worry about what we're putting into the atmosphere as well as what we're putting in the ground.

Thank you for your question, and I think it's part of being an educated person to know where everything we consume goes.

It was a great question. Thank you, Michelle. OK. Jason, introduce yourself loud and clear and give your question.

My name is Jason and I want to know, do you work to prevent extinction of animals or plants in the US?

What was the question again?

Do you work to prevent extinction of animals or plants in the US?

Yes, good question. We absolutely do work very closely with our sister agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, because whereas many people are surprised to know that the USGS -- which they think of as primarily earth science related -- but we have many biologists in our organization as well, and we work hand-in-hand with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent extinction of species.

For example, we're working very hard on species such as the polar bear, the pacific walrus, the Florida panther and other species of concern, because after all biodiversity is very important for all of us. Extinction is forever, and we want to make sure that we preserve all species in the wild where they belong.

Thank you for that question.

Let me just add to what Marcia said. Marcia's right, and so we're very proud of the fact that we have been able to save species that are iconic species from going into extinction. The grizzly bear, the wolf in the Rocky Mountains and in the Great Lakes, the spotted owl in the North West, a whole host of species all over this country today are either recovering, or have already recovered.

In large part because we want to make sure that as many animals as possible, are animals that continue to inhabit our Earth. It's a great part of the mission of this department, and something that we're all very proud of.

Alright, Mr. Adams, I think we've got time for probably two more questions.

OK. Good. Once again, Paul.

OK. My other question is, what new technology does the USGS plan on making for other types of natural disasters?

It's a very good question, Marcia. All yours.

OK. The newest technology that we're working on that we're extremely proud of, is a working on a system for earthquake early warning. We're working in partnership with universities. In order to make sure that the next time a major earthquake occurs particularly in California, which is going to be the prototype place for, where we're going to be rolling this out, as soon as the earthquake starts people will get an alert that an earthquake is coming their way.

So, that the things that will happen, will be things like gas mains will shut off, high speed trains will stop. Elevators will stop at floors and the doors will open so, people won't be trapped. If someone's in an operation room, doctors will be alerted so, they don't start cutting patients open right before an earthquake happens. All sorts of important things will happen so that people will know that an earthquake is going to happen before the shaking arrives.

We're really excited about that. Thank you for that great question.

Thank you. Finally, William. Something else is on William's mind.

All right.

What's the coolest thing about volcanoes?


Marcie, you know more about volcanoes than probably any other person in this whole world. So, I'll submit the question to you.

[laughs] Thank you for that question, William.

You're welcome.

Volcanoes actually are very interesting because in the case of volcanic eruptions, they are actually easier to anticipate than earthquakes. Because they typically start with something called volcanic tremor which is a number of small earthquakes happening. So, we know when a volcano is starting to wake up. They give us more warning than earthquakes do.

But, one thing that we're concerned about with a lot of volcanoes is that we have a number of large sleeping volcanoes in the United States. Yellow Stone, Long Valley in California that haven't produced large volcanic eruptions in a very long time but we aren't counting them down and out forever. If they were to wake up, they could cause large eruptions that could produce lots of smoke and ash that could blanket large parts of the country.

So, we're maintaining networks on all of these volcanoes just to that we would know if they start to wake up. But, as I say, if they did, they could produce very damaging eruptions. So, volcanoes are a hazard that is probably underappreciated in this country.

Thank you for that question.

Great one. Thank you Dr. McNutt. We actually got one question that will be both relevant to both the Secretary and you Dr. McNutt that I thought students across the country would really like to hear from both of you. This question was, back when you were in middle school were you good at math and science? What was your favorite subject?

Mr. Secretary we'll go to you first.

When I was in eighth grade, the same way that you are in eight grade now, I was strong in math and I was strong in science. So frankly, when I graduated from high school, I thought that I would pursue a math and science engineering type of vocation. Then when I got to college what I ended up doing is majoring in political science because I became very much more interested in history and in the politics of the United States and of the world.

My life has been a life that has taken me from playing basketball, both in high school and college, to being the attorney general of my state of Colorado. Moving forward and becoming a United States Senator, being elected and campaigning for Barrack Obama in 2004. When he became the US Senator for the state of Illinois, I became the US Senator for the state of Colorado. I guess, we've been at this job since 2008, so from that point forward, serving as a member of the president's cabinet where I'm seventh in line for the presidency but working with the president on all the issues that affect our entire world.

What I would say is this, I think somebody said the Confucius had a saying, if you find a job that you love, you will never work another day in your life. So find a job that you love and you'll never work another day in your life. I see Mr. Adams and Mrs. Aziz doing the kind of work that they love. I saw his reaction there as Dr. McNutt described the renaming of the mountain in California. We saw the passion that he has for his job.

For all of the young people who are there in Cleveland and those watching us from around the country, I would say the following. One is, science careers are exciting and they are interesting. You see a lot of them on display here at the US Geological Survey at the Department of Interior. It's a great place to go.

Some of you will find your passions in other areas but at the end of the day, try to find what you really love to do. Then as Confucius said, you'll never work another day in your life.

I agree. Dr. McNutt.

Let me tell you my story as a strong warning for all of you. When I was in junior high, high school, and college, I only took math and science courses because I really didn't like writing term papers. By taking only taking math and science courses I could avoid writing term papers. What do I spend all my time doing now, writing papers.

Writing papers [laughs] Oh well, [inaudible 43:27]

Warning for all of you, learn to write, you will spend a lot of your time doing it.

Great. Mr. Adams, is there anything else you would like to add or a final note?

I just want to say thank you very much, to all of you, for this opportunity. It was a great opportunity for our students and for our school. Hopefully we'll have more Ohio scientists come from this group.


That's great. Thank you, Mr. Adams and thank you Mrs. Aziz for taking the time. Thank you to the students in the back and those of you who are tuning in at home. Wave to the crowd, we've got a few hundred people watching, I think. If people were joining us late, they can check us out at We'll have this Google + hangout up in the next couple days but until then, thank you to the class, thank you to Dr. McNutt and thank you to Secretary Salazar for taking the time today. We look forward to seeing you again soon. Thanks everyone.

Dr. McNutt and students: Thank you.

Thank you.

Last edited 4/26/2016