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Google Earth Meets MRDS: A Basic Tutorial

Last Updated: 7th Dec 2008

By Daniel Russell

Google Earth Meets MRDS

How to Install Those Neat
USGS Mineral Resource Overlays
Into Your Google Earth

by Daniel E Russell

[This tutorial is not meant to show users every aspect of using Google Earth or the Mineral Resource Data System (MRDS). Instead, it is intended simply to help people to download and install the MRDS layers into your computer, hopefully written in a manner that even a novice computer user can find useful. Additional information on MRDS data will be posted later.]

All screen captures of Google Earth (TM) used in this tutorial are copyrighted by Google, and are used courtesy of Google.

All screen captures of the United States Geological Survey's Mineral Resource Data System are used courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

The Mineral Resource Data System (MRDS) is an enormous database of geospatial data maintained by the United States Geological Survey. It contains information on the location and primary commodities of more than 267,000 mines, quarries, and prospects internal to the United States, both historic and modern. The origins of the MRDS date back to 1969, when the USGS began to systematically computerize all of their available records on mineral localities. Beginning in the late 1990's, the USGS database began to integrate the United States Bureau of Mines' MAS/MILS database of mines, quarries and prospects (a laborious process requiring about 4 years of work).

In addition to mine names, the database contains geospatial data, providing the locality of mineral deposits with respect to latitude, longitude, and altitude above sea level; information on the primary and any secondary commodities which occur there; information on the history of the exploitation of the deposit (if known); the geological context in which the deposit occurs, and (sometimes fragmentary) bibliographic references. The MRDS has become a popular tool with economic geologists, mineral exploration companies, Federal and State agencies engaged in environmental work, historians, and archaeologists.

Relative recently, the MRDS information was made accessible to the public on the Internet. In addition to the database itself, the USGS has made the information available as layers which can be integrated into Google Earth, allowing users to actually see the position of mineral localities superimposed on satellite photographs of the Earth.

The MRDS is NOT a guide to places to collect rocks and minerals!

Please not that while the MRDS is really useful, but it is not perfect. It is inevitable that there will be some degree of error when you are creating a database with more than 270,000 entries. And indeed the MRDS contains mistakes. These are of two major types:
Duplicate entries: Many of the mines show up in the Google Earth layers several times. This appears to be a result of the integration of the MAS/MILS data into the MRDS database. It is also because many mines have multiple names, or are known by several slightly different names, or were entered into the database under slightly different names.
Inaccurate locations: There are clearly cases in the MRDS where there is incorrect longitude and latitude information. If two duplicate entries for the same small site occur in the MRDS, and they are not in the same location, one is correct and the other clearly isn't. However, its rare that the difference between the two disputed localities is greater than 0.2 miles.
The quality of the information in the MRDS is only as good as the quality of the original source material being used by the USGS staff in creating the entry. As the old computer programming saying goes: “Garbage In, Garbage Out”. Many 19th Century mines (especially those on the East Coast) were rather nebulously defined with respect to geospatial coordinates. Further, it is not possible for the USGS staff to “ground truth” (go out into the field and physically verify the position of a locality) more than 267,000 sites, many of which are today abandoned, heavily overgrown with vegetation, partially obscured by accretion of sediment, and on private property. It is an imperfect universe, and users need to trade in their Great Expectations for Realistic Aspirations.

The following is a step-by-step guide to installing MRDS layers.

Step 1: Install Google Earth

The software for Google Earth is available free of charge at http://earth.google.com


Step 2: Go to the USGS's MRDS Website

Go to the MRDS website at http://tin.er.usgs.gov/mrds


You will note that on the first page it is possible to download the entire US as a single MRDS layer. Unless you have a very good computer with a great deal of memory and processing power, this may not be a good idea... the layer contains enough information to choke a horse. Instead, I find it much more convenient to deal with the MRDS in small chunks. You have the option of loading MRDS information by state, by county within a state, or by USGS quadrangle into Google Earth. Each has its merits; I find states are easiest to work with when looking at a broad range of sites. But when I'm doing work on the history of mining districts (such as the Tintic District in Utah, or studying the copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan) its much easier to work with counties or even a few USGS quadrangles. (We'll look at how to pick counties and quadrangles further down.)

Step 3: Pick an area

As an example we'll load the Connecticut layer to Google Earth

Click on “Select data for one or more geographic areas”

This brings you to an interactive map of the United States at http://tin.er.usgs.gov/mrds/select.php


Click on “Connecticut” from the menu of states.


You will be forwarded to a new page:


Step 4: Select the type of data you need

At the top of the page is a pull down menu with its first option listed as “Shapefile”. Click on that and other options will appear.

“Shapefile” is a layer for the Arcview GIS program(you don't want that unless you use ArcView GIS software). The other options - dBase, Html, TabText, and CSV - all refer to the actual database entries which you can download. We'll discuss that further down... the information they contain is potentially VERY useful! [BTW, do not panic over the “shopping cart” entry... the layers and associated data are FREE]

For now, pick the last option, “Google Earth”. Then click on the “Get Data” button next to it.


Step 5: Download or Install the Layer

You will be taken to a new page:


Click on the top option for the KML data. (By the way, KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language, just as HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language.) Depending on which version of Windows you are using, a download dialog box will open.


You can either save the layer to your hard drive, or allow your computer to auto-install the layer into Google Earth. I prefer the later. If you would like to use this option, click on “Open With” (and select “Google Earth” if your computer doesn't automatically do this). The layer should then auto-install into your Google Earth program. (On some versions of Windows, your computer will even open Google Earth for you as the layer is being installed!)

If you wish to simply save it to your hard drive and install it later, select “Save File” then select or create a directory to store it in.

To install a layer that you have saved to your hard drive, open Google Earth. Click on “File” option (upper left corner of the Google Earth window); a drop down menu will appear. Select “Open”. A dialog box will open allowing you to select the layer file you saved from the directory in which you placed it. Click on the layer file-name and hit “Open”.
Select File and Hit "Open"

The new layer – whether it was auto-installed or whether you installed it manually – will appear in the “Places” window on Google Earth (which by default appear on the left hand side of the screen). It will be in the “Temporary Places” folder. If the “Places” window is not visible, click on the little Places icon on the Google Earth Toolbar:


Seen from a fairly high altitude, this is what the MRDS layer for Connecticut will look like – hundreds and hundreds of little X's (which are actually a crossed hammer and pick - the ancient international symbol for mines and mining).


Using your mouse, you can scroll in and look at any area on the satellite photos.

Step 6: Rename The Layer(s) You Have Installed

Google Earth generically installs the MRDS layers as one or more layers entitled “Mineral Resource Data System”. If you are planning to load more than one layer, its useful to name each layer something to help keep them sorted out. By right clicking on the layer name with your mouse you get a menu which includes “Rename” as an option.


Step 7: Save the Layer

If you have just loaded a brand new layer from MRDS, Google Earth places it in a temporary folder called “Temporary Places”. If you close Google Earth without saving the layer or layers in Temporary Places, you will lose the information (and have to reload the MRDS data again.). Google Earth usually offers the following prompt when closing:

Hit “Yes” if you wish to save the layer.

Alternatively, you can click on the newly loaded layer and drag it to the My Places folder before you start closing down.

Downloading Database Texts

A truncated version of the MRDS database in available online as your choice of dBase, comma-delimited text, csv text, or html. The information contained in these text files is not as complete as the data that an online enquiry about a specific locality will return.

The process of downloading these files is similar to downloading a layer. From the main MRDS page at http://tin.er.usgs.gov choose “Select data for one or more geographic areas”, select the area you are interested in, and download the data. Using a program like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, these files can be searched, sorted, and edited.

Downloading County and/or Quadrangle Level Layers

On the page for each state's MRDS layers, you are provided the option of picking individual counties or quadrangles over selecting the entire state as a single layer. I find working at a county level is especially useful when working on a mining district.

The process for downloading the smaller layers is the same as downloading state layers (see above)

1x2 degree quadrangles can be useful when working on larger western US states. For small states like Connecticut, they are an inconvenience (with the state being almost, but not quite, covered by one quadrangle – and the rest of the state scattered across five quadrangles in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island). The 30x60 minute quadrangles are very useful when dealing with western states. The classic 7.5 minute quadrangles are very useful when dealing with mining districts.

As an example, the quadrangle maps available for Montana include:

click for larger views

Montana - 1x2 Degree Quads
Montana - 30x60 minute quads
Montana - 7.5minute quads

Looking Up Information on Specific Mines

Having found an enticing looking mine in the area you are interested in, it is possible to call up the information contained in the MRDS data file over the Internet.

Place your mouse cursor over the crossed “hammer and pick” symbol and click on it. A small pop-up window will appear giving the name of the locality (or more correctly the version of the locality as it appears in the MRDS – mines commonly have more than one name). In this instance, the mine is the Middletown Lead-Silver Mine. This text is followed by “Record 10067768 of the Mineral Resources Data System” (the record number is unique to each site).


If you click on the Record Number, a new window will open inside Google Earth which contains a webpage from the USGS that provides information on the locality (on your computer it may open as a separate browser window). This is the “short version” of the database entry, a quick abstract of the most pertinent data fields.


For an even more detailed database report on the locality, click on “Show Entire Record Report”


A new browser window will open to display the report. As an example, the report page for the Middletown Lead Mine is located at:

You can find a description of some of the fields used in the datbase report in the MRDS FAQ

Finding the Location of a Specific Mine

There are two ways in which you can locate specific mines, quarries or prospects.

One is to click on the name of a mine or quarry that appears in the list of localities (which is actually a subdirectory) underneath each layer's name. If this isn't list isn't visible, click on the little X to the left of the layer's name. The list should become visible


Scrolling through the list can help you stumble across all sorts of interesting things! Trying to find a single specific locality amongst 11,000 is, however, a test of Improbability Theory.

Sometimes, Mindat can come to the rescue with latitude and longitude information for a specific mine.

The USGS does offer a finding aid at http://tin.er.usgs.gov/mrds/find-mrds.php. Simply enter the sites name and hit enter. The search results will appear at the bottom of the window, and will provide you with the latitude and longitude coordinates to enter into Google Earth.

Terms of Use of Google Earth Images

Terms and conditions of using Google Earth images – with or without the MRDS overlays – are spelled out at: Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth

Number of current MRDS entries

Alabama: 4859 Alaska: 11923 Arizona: 13056 Arkansas: 3783
California: 42742 Colorado: 17894 Connecticut: 1263 Delaware: 49
District of Columbia: 48 Florida: 1604 Georgia: 2667 Hawaii: 50
Idaho: 12126 Illinois: 2298 Indiana: 1048 Iowa: 3420
Kansas: 174 Kentucky: 627 Louisiana: 579 Maine: 1566
Maryland: 1089 Massachusetts: 1127 Michigan: 3117 Minnesota: 2332
Mississippi: 1170 Missouri: 12919 Montana: 10310 Nebraska: 85
Nevada: 15600 New Hampshire: 748 New Jersey: 1255 New Mexico: 8146
New York: 3192 North Carolina: 5178 North Dakota: 323 Ohio: 1439
Oklahoma: 4473 Oregon: 16375 Pennsylvania: 2805 Rhode Island: 120
South Carolina: 1778 South Dakota: 2475 Tennessee: 4683 Texas: 2723
Utah: 13777 Vermont: 975 Virginia: 4485 Washington: 11163
West Virginia: 321 Wisconsin: 6173 Wyoming: 5311

Article has been viewed at least 25550 times.


Thanks for posting this Russ, this is a great!

Everett Harrington
7th Dec 2008 1:24am
What an enormous ammount of work you put into this project!! Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Maggie Wilson
8th Dec 2008 1:16pm

Daniel Russell
9th Dec 2008 4:02am
Thanks for posting this information Russell

Juan Jimenez
10th Dec 2008 3:32am

This may be way out of your realm, but would you have any idea how to add mines/locations to the databases? I just started playing with this last week and noticed that some locations are a bit off and there are some mines that are not in the data base (at least in areas that I'm interested in). I would also like to add mineral collecting locations that would not appear in the MRDS. Any suggestions would be welcome.

Henry Barwood

Henry Barwood
14th Dec 2008 3:30pm
The fellow listed as being the official computer whiz-bang for the MRDS programs at the USGS is Paul Schruben, Computer Specialist, 703-648-6142, pschrube@usgs.gov

I have only just begun to experiment with modifying the MRDS layers. If you open a layer as a text file you will see that there is for each site a discrete section of the file that starts with PLACENAME and ends with /PLACENAME. Internal to that you need to alter the field for NAME and COORDINATES. You also should probably do something with the field that starts a href="http://tin.er.usgs.gov/mrds/show.php?labno=10021703" as that section puts in the call to the MRDS site description for that particular site.

Daniel Russell
15th Dec 2008 8:35am
OK... this is what a KML layer for a single site looks like. It has been modified from a USGS MRDS layer. Trying to post this as text is futile because almost all of it is interpreted by Mindat as html-type commands...

KML Layer Test

The area highlighted in green is the actual information for the single site (the Renwald Mine in Lower Kreplachistan).

I tested this in Google Earth just now and it appears to work. If you'd like a master copy just private message me yer e-mail.

Daniel Russell
15th Dec 2008 9:00am
I phrased that badly. "This is what a KML layer that CONTAINS a single site looks like". A layer with 60 sites will contain 60 sequential iterations of the area in green, each with its own Name, Description, and Coordinates.

Its 4am. I'm Dain Bramaged.

Daniel Russell
15th Dec 2008 9:03am

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