Implementing a Computerized Database System to Manage Geologic Data

Today marks the 18th annual worldwide celebration of GIS Day, an opportunity for users of geographic information systems (GIS) technology to demonstrate real-world applications that are making a difference in our society. So in honor of the day, I would like to share a short account describing how geographIT, a division of EBA Engineering, Inc., is using GIS to implement a stratigraphic database management system for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey. This system offers a statewide view of all of Pennsylvania’s geology and supports seamless data sharing of geological content.

I know “stratigraphic database management system” is a bit of a mouthful, but in layman’s terms, this simply means developing a database to capture the earth’s rock layer data typically collected in the field by geologists and drilling companies—in this case data collected by geologists working for the Pennsylvania Geological Survey.

When driving on highways in mountainous areas, you sometimes pass through road cuts exposing rock walls. Do you marvel at the different-colored rock bands that sometimes appear to be folded? These rock bands reflect different geologic “strata,” and they reveal important information about the earth’s history, natural resources, and even geologic hazards such as rockslide potential. The purpose of a “stratigraphic database management system” is to store and manage data about these geologic strata.

The Bureau needed a centralized, collaborative way to store and access the vast amount of complex geologic data being collected in the field from a variety of sources such as rock core samples, mines, quarries, drill holes, natural outcrops of rock, and highway road cuts. EBA developed a centralized database that multiple users can access simultaneously to manage their data.

One noteworthy feature is the system’s ability to capture drill hole survey data in the format commercial drillers provide, and then automatically generate 3D representations of the drill holes. This is particularly important for the shale gas industry, which uses new techniques to drill in very precise patterns, including horizontally. The database system can manage and display stratigraphic profiles even if the drill hole is not directly underneath the surface drilling location.

Click here to see the topography (surface elevation) of a 4-square-mile area in Pennsylvania, including drilling traces of wells and combinations of vertical and horizontal drill holes below the surface (in purple). Note that this new system can capture lateral deviations of drill holes including branching patterns. Users can also highlight specific sections of drill holes to investigate geologic formations at any depth.

The stratigraphic database management system is a great improvement over the Bureau’s previous record keeping system and offers the following additional features:

  • Universal access via a web browser without the need to install software or data on any computer.
  • Project-based security for all geological data, including easy assignment and withdrawal of access permissions to individual users.
  • Historical data capture, with helpful features like generating snapshots for the entire dataset for any point in the past.
  • Ability for researchers and managers to search and extract data efficiently.
  • Ability to associate photographs, images, and external documents to specific geologic records.
  • Use of GIS to visualize geologic information as 2D maps, as well as 3D rotatable views.

The Pennsylvania Geological Survey has an important mission to “contribute to the understanding, wise use, and conservation” of the state’s rich variety of land and resources, whether that be coal, petroleum and gas resources, water supplies, construction materials, or other resources. The stratigraphic database management system helps state employees achieve this mission and is an ideal solution for any organization that manages and shares geologic information across multiple users. It’s an excellent example of GIS at work in the world!

Andrew Ross is a senior GIS analyst for geographIT, a division of EBA Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at 717.399.7007 or


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Andrew Ross