David Brezinski, Appalachian biologist for the Maryland Geological Survey, is one of the authors of the new geologic map of Garrett, Allegany and western Washington counties.
David Brezinski, Appalachian biologist for the Maryland Geological Survey, is one of the authors of the new geologic map of Garrett, Allegany and western Washington counties. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

The last statewide map of Maryland geology, published in 1968, is out of print. Online versions of it are marked with a disclaimer that it's too imprecise for anything but "historical and illustrative purposes." But a push to drill for Marcellus shale could help bring it into the 21st century.

The Maryland Geological Survey this month published a new map of Western Maryland that could guide potential shale exploration there and be a first step in redrawing a statewide map.

Geologists say it's a sign of the state of the industry — over the decades, funding going toward geology research and mapping for its own sake has dwindled. Instead, the focus is on issues like shale drilling, with its potential for both high rewards and environmental risks.

Either way, it could help geologists migrate from those yellowed, distorted state maps to current technology that uses satellite positioning and GIS data. If it means getting the high-tech maps onto iPads and interactive websites, it could also address concerns about a graying work force and waning public interest, they hope.

The map fulfills a request from the state Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. Gov. Martin O'Malley created the group by executive order in 2011, aiming to provide scientific knowledge to inform state lawmakers' debate. The geological survey's David Brezinski worked as senior author of the map for the past year.

While little is expected to have changed in Western Maryland geology over the past 45 years, revising such a map can involve changing how rock formations are classified or grouped, to make them in line with other states' maps, said Jeff Halka, geological survey executive director. The map, as its online disclaimer suggests, is also not precise enough for practical use, if one were to try to line up its landmarks with, say, geographical features on a road map, Halka said.

It's also important to revise the map to serve the needs of shale drilling analysis. The new version provides better information on the distribution, depths and thickness of Marcellus shale. The commission is working on a report due in August in which it will weigh in on whether the state should pursue hydraulic fracturing of the shale, and if so, how it should be regulated and monitored. The practice, commonly known as "fracking," is a means of extracting natural gas deposits but is criticized for its potential contamination of groundwater, among other concerns.

Establishing a baseline map of the region, showing the locations of hazards such as old coal mines, caves and groundwater deposits, is needed before a clear idea of the venture's risks and benefits can be formed, said David Vanko, dean of Towson University's college of science and mathematics and chairman of the commission.

"None of those questions could be answered without a geologic map," said Vanko, who is also a geologist. "It's best to answer those with a map that's not outdated."

But going beyond Western Maryland with updated, more high-tech mapping is not so simple without pressing demand for it. At an annual geological survey meeting on state geologic mapping in November, Brezinski acknowledged that projects aimed at maximizing state economic resources, such as shale or offshore wind, rise to the top of the priority list.

"That seems to be the product everybody's looking for these days," Brezinski said.

On top of that, GIS technology can be difficult for old-school geologists to master, though there aren't enough resources to support new hires of bright young graduates. When John M. Wilson, a geologist responsible for extensive mapping of Eastern Shore geology, died in 2011, it was a great loss for the organization, forcing leaders to look to the future.

"If you don't have the money to attract the talent, you're sort of dead in the water," Brezinski said.

The geological survey has a staff of about 18, about half as many as 30 years ago, and a third of whom have salaries and benefits paid directly by the state, Halka said. The rest are paid for with a mix of grants, federal sources and county governments.

Expanding the efforts made to revisit Western Maryland geology across the rest of the state is something the organization is interested in, and could be a three- to six-year project, Halka said.

Meanwhile, other projects the organization plans to focus on in 2013 include more exploration of how groundwater flows in Maryland aquifers and better mapping of the ocean floor off of Ocean City. The projects, along with the Western Maryland map, emphasize the nuanced direction of research.

Glancing at a large printout of a draft version of the Western Maryland map at the November meeting, Vanko joked: "There's gas in them thar hills."




Find the map here: http://www.mgs.md.gov/geo/wmdgeomap.html