Welcome to a new blog series from the Illinois State Geologist! I’ve been in this role, which was created by state statute, since 2014, but I’ve been deeply involved in the geology of Illinois for far longer. I’m excited to share my perspective on the geosciences, geological issues in Illinois, and how what’s beneath our feet shapes so many aspects of our world. I hope you will enjoy these “rockflections”!
Let’s begin with a brief history of the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), reflecting on what it is, where it came from, what it does and why, and who it serves.
The ISGS is now part of the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute (PRI) along with the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, Illinois State Archeological Survey, and Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. With ~900 research scientists and support staff, PRI is unique in North America. No other U.S. state or Canadian province, not even the U.S. Geological Survey or the Geological Survey of Canada, maintains an equal breadth of expertise dedicated to the natural and cultural resources within its jurisdiction. “Hats off” to the visionaries who developed the concept well over a century ago, and those Illinois governors and General Assembly members who recognized the importance of supporting a deep understanding of our natural and cultural resources, their sustainability, and their positive impact on the state’s prosperity.
The ISGS, founded in 1851 and continuously running since 1905, now has ~170 geoscientists and support staff. Similar to geological surveys throughout the world, its mission is to provide Illinoisans with earth science information that is accurate, objective, and relevant to environmental quality, economic prosperity, and public safety. In other words, there is a deep commitment to help people.
All geological surveys were founded to discover rock and mineral resources needed to supply an industrial base, and thereby directly contribute to economic development. In Illinois, this meant discovering and reporting on coal, oil, fluorspar, lead, and zinc mineral resources, as well as sand and gravel and crushed stone for construction aggregate. To this day, mineral and energy resource discovery remains a central ISGS activity, but with emphases shifting toward discovery of critical minerals in support of green infrastructure and national security and sequestering carbon dioxide and other gases in support of reducing greenhouse gasses and mitigating climate change.
Adding to the ISGS portfolio, and also directly supporting economic development, was response to rapid population expansion to suburban areas beginning in the 1950s. The ISGS Geology-for-Planning program was designed to address land-, mineral-, and water-use issues by mapping the subsurface in detail and creating derivative products designed for stakeholders. The phrase Environmental Geology was coined by the ISGS to encompass these activities. This concept quickly grew into a full-fledged sub-discipline of geology with now hundreds of university courses taught worldwide and tens of thousands of practicing geoscience consultants. Indeed, this ISGS-invented and now worldwide activity helps inform the public and allows local decision makers to balance water and mineral resource extraction with economic development and ensures that human interactions with these resources maximize resource potential and minimize environmental consequences.
If you have a geoscience/geology question, or have a specimen of a rock, mineral, or fossil that you'd like to share, Ask the State Geologist!