U.S. geodesists urgently needed

December 8, 2022  - By
Matteo Luccio


With the last generation of trained geodesists either retired or getting ready to retire, we are at a critical stage of not being able to meet the geospatial needs of the future,” wrote David B. Zilkoski in his Nov. 1 Survey Scene column on our website. Few people, he pointed out, realize our $1 trillion geospatial economy — from precision agriculture to smart cities, from UAVs to location-based services — depends on geodesy. A collapse of geodesy would also harm our efforts to monitor rapid changes in the Earth’s surface due to sea-level rise, the deformation of tectonic plates, and temporal changes in the Earth’s water reservoirs.

Federal agencies, Zilkoski recalled, used to send staff to be trained in geodesy because they needed geodesists for such significant projects as the readjustment of the U.S. national horizontal and vertical geodetic networks. Now, while U.S. federal agencies still require this expertise to develop and refine geodetic models and tools, so do major U.S. companies for everything from routing delivery trucks to controlling earth-moving equipment to guiding tractors.

A January 2022 white paper by Mike Bevis and others titled “The Geodesy Crisis” reported that China has more geodesists than the rest of the world combined, and the number of Ph.D. geodesists in the entire Department of Defense, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is approaching zero.

I discussed the geodesy crisis with Everett Hinkley, who works for the federal government, serves as a subject-matter expert on several high-level boards, and dubs himself a “concerned citizen geodesist.”

Matteo Luccio: How did we get here? Was it due in part to the success of GPS?

Everett Hinkley: The factors include:

1. In the early 1990s, the U.S. government largely disinvested in academic research and academic sponsorship in geodesy. Without student sponsorship, the few university programs that produced geodesy experts withered on the vine.

2. Math and science skills in U.S. public schools have declined.

3. More subtly, there was a subliminal and misguided notion that “Now that we have GPS, why do we need to continue to improve our geodetic models?”

ML: If left unaddressed, in what fields or applications will the crisis manifest first?

EH: In areas where precise positioning is critical: cadastral mapping, self-driving vehicles, sea-level rise (a growing danger) and others. The effects will be felt incrementally, at least at first.

ML: Are some geographic regions of the United States particularly vulnerable to some effects of the crisis due to high subsidence, drift or other ground movements/changes?

EH: Yes. The two areas that will show the first signs of divergence between actual and assumed locations are those that are tectonically active (both horizontally and vertically) and low-lying coastal ones.

ML: Besides funding, what could entice college students to enter the field?

EH: Basic marketing is needed by the geospatial community at large. We need to reach out to math “stars” in high school and let them know that pursuing a career in geodesy will guarantee them employment after graduating from college.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.