Careers in the Geosciences

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Careers in the Geosciences

Careers in the Geosciences

Adapted from information obtained from James Cook University School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Earth Science and Geology
A modern industrial society
Fun things Geologists do
Serious things Geologists do
Environmental Hazards
The Geosciences  and Societal Problems
Environmental geology
Soil Sciences
Petroleum Geologists
Economic Geology
Reasons why you should choose Geology (Earth Sciences)
Career Opportunities and Profesional Recognition
Further education and requirements
Career Trends


Earth Science and Geology

Global change is not a new idea to geoscientists; the nature of our work means we are aware that there have been tremendous modifications to our planet.  Geoscientists are responsible for recording the creation, accretion, destruction and movements of the continents. We also have to find out where, when, and how, mineral deposits have formed and to locate non-renewable energy resources for the future. We have observed and recorded changes in the diversity of life.
The planet has been kind to some lifeforms that have remained almost unchanged for 600 million years. Other organisms, such as trilobites, graptolites and dinosaurs, that once were incredibly successful in terms of numbers and longevity have been eliminated from the record and are no longer represented by living forms.
In the most recent stages of earth history we have noted the movement of continental scale glaciers across high and mid-latitudes. We have
observed sea-level fall and rise by tens of metres and traced our own development to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century.
We now know from satellite imagery that our planet is finite.
Earth Science is the study of the materials, processes, systems and resources which make up our planet.
Earth Scientists take a global view and are interested in the natural resources of the earth and how and when they were formed.
Earth Scientists are concernied with the optimal use of these precious resources.
Earth Science is of vital concern to Australia because our export income is derived largely from the earth's natural resources such as coal, oil, or the soil on which our agricultural productivity is based.
In addition, many of the global environmental concerns of today - resource utilisation, and depletion , atmospheric and climate change, water pollution and land degradation-- lie with the field of earth sciences.
Geology is the core discipline of earth science and is used in the exploration for deposits of minerals, metals and fuels essential to our present lifestyle. Geologists are also at the forefront of environmental earth science, resource mapping, recycling technology, remote sensing, geochemistry, geophysics and computer simulations.
Geoscientists have looked at the earth from space. We can now record the physical processes that shape the planet from the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the deepest seas. We explore the movements of the crust, and probe to the centre of the planet.
Earth scientists have the responsibility of finding new mineral sources vital to the economic development of rich and poor nations.
We contribute to the protection of the planet and its resources by
our studies of the environment.
We examine the cost and location of structures built by mankind. We help to decide sources and management of water supplies and of adequate
energy resources.
We are involved in seeing that our waste products are stored so that they pose the smallest possible threat to ecosystems. We also contribute a vital component to the understanding and prediction of natural hazards and
disasters, including earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts and tidal waves.

A modern industrial society

A modern industrial society depends on natural resources and the ability to process those resources. In turn, the discovery of earth resources requires the skills of geoscientists.
Exploitation and management of these resources lies in the realm of business and government.
Ultimately, the demand and disposal of products rests with individual conscience and different levels of government.
Mineral materials, including metals, non-metals (for example,
cement, building stones, clay, sand and gravels) and fossil fuels, and the industries that process them, involve over one third of our economy. Their importance should not be underestimated and the cost of their use should not be forgotten.
As a nation we face many problems for which geological solutions must be sought. How large are our non-renewable energy resources (oil, gas, coal, and uranium), and what will it cost to find and develop them?
Is it possible to extract safely the mineral resources of our remote and unique regions? What is our stock of metals and other earth materials
such as water, potash, and construction materials?
Certain minerals, especially salts and zeolites, have the capacity to "store" and "release" heat - can we supply the solar industry of the future? Some "rare earth" minerals may have great potential in super-conductivity; where are these minerals located and can we extract them?
We have a large continental shelf - what is its resource potential?

Fun things Geologists do

Serious things Geologists do

Environmental Hazards

Environmental hazards must be evaluated in planning cities, highways and pipelines. They also must be examined in searching for disposal sites for nuclear and toxic chemical wastes, or in looking at landslide, volcanic and earthquake hazards.
Geoscientists have the ability to trace the modification of the atmosphere through historic and prehistoric time. A deep drillhole into the Antarctic ice has revealed the changing composition of greenhouse gases through the last 160,000 years. The warming earth scenario, predicted as a by-product of rising CO2 levels, will create major problems because of melting
permafrost and shrinking glaciers.
What are the implications in terms of flooding, river bank instability, and downstream silting?
What effect will a rising sea level have on coastal cities, construction, drainage and salt marsh habitats?
These potential problems require geoscientific expertise, detailed research and analysis together with chemists, physicists, mathematicians, biologists and engineers.
This is barely enough to meet the present demands of industry. It will not
be enough to fulfill increased future demand that will arise because of the changing world priorities. The mining industry has experienced an upturn in the area of precious metals such as gold and platinum; clean energy is a vital priority, as is the demand for construction material, increasing world population and the quest for an improved environment will see substantial demands for groundwater geologists.
This also will be true for geoscientists trained in the evaluation of natural hazards, in the safe disposal of hazardous wastes, in remote sensing and in all the areas of geological engineering. Geoscientists will interact with other
scientists and with businesses and governments even more than they have in the past. It is likely that serious environmental problems incurred through current economic practises in the developing nations, such as desertification,
soil mismanagement and siltation, must be resolved by politicians acting on the advice of geoscientists.
A degree in the earth sciences is essential for your input in any of these areas. You should be aware of the vital part played by the geosciences in the health of planet Earth, and of all its species. Your generation has the ability to choose relevant and personally rewarding careers.

The Geosciences  and Societal Problems

 With the exploration of Australia, theAmericas, Africa and Asia in the last century, earth scientists began to remark on the similarities in the opposing
coastlines. They also noted the close affinity between fossil
animal and plant species, especially in the southern hemisphere. This soon led to speculation that the Atlantic and other oceans had opened up by the separation of once fused continents.
From 1908 to 1915, Alfred Wegener became the pre-eminent spokesman for the theory that the continents had drifted apart. This idea was premature and rejected by many geoscientists for lack of an adequate mechanism.
By the early 1960's, mid-ocean ridges had been discovered and interpreted as linear tracts where the sea floor was opening and spreading and where new crust was formed. "Plate tectonics" emerged as a new refinement of the theory of continental drift. The idea states that the earth's surface is divided into rigid "plates" which move. The plates grow at mid-ocean ridges, and then converge and sink down into the Earth's crust at trenches and in mountain belts.
Later ideas concerned "assembly-line" volcanoes, magnetic pole reversals and changes in understanding the formation of mountains. Complementary theories revolved around the composition and behaviour of the earth's core, its mantle and its crust, the origin of faults and earthquakes and the development of sedimentary basins and their mineral deposits. Other concepts involved the evolution and distribution of animals and plants in relation to ancient
climates and to ideas of continental accretion. These have changed our theoretical ideas of the earth.
Questions still remain unanswered but satellite images have confirmed many recent theories. Satellites and manned flights also have revealed dramatic changes in the environment over the past
twenty years.
Still other changes have swept through the geosciences during the last two decades.
Beginning in the sixties, there emerged the realisation that the global supply of oil and gas was finite. Prices were raised to protect depleting supplies.
The book, Limits to Growth, received attention because it stated that our planet faced a major catastrophe unless alternatives for wasteful consumption of non-renewable resources were found. Nations checked their inventories of
minerals, not only oil and gas, but also coal, uranium, and
base metals.
This led to a strong demand for geoscientists. The collapse of the Oil Producing, Exporting Countries (O.P.E.C.) cartel, and the Iran/Iraq war, coupled with the
necessity of developing nations to service foreign debt repayments, led to a decline in energy prices and slowed the search for new deposits in the eighties. In the same decade, documentation of carbon dioxide increases in the global
atmosphere has increased concerns about the burning of fossil hydrocarbons. Nevertheless, diminishing reserves, and the needs of increasing populations, will soon cause nations to increase their exploration for future reserves.
To support a single individual in our industrialised society, about 25 tons of rocks must be extracted and processed from the earth each year. Demands on our resources will increase as Australia attempts to retain energy self-sufficiency and exports  fossil energy supplies overseas .
Humankind now moves more surface materials on the planet than all the natural forces employed by rivers, marine and glacial transportation combined. We see that such tremendous uses of energy are not without an environmental price.


Hydrogeology, the study of the occurrence, movement, quality and quantity of water in soils and rocks, is a rapidly expanding career option. Graduates are in great demand.
 Agricultural, industrial and residential uses require large quantities of pure, uncontaminated water, often beyond that readily available at the surface. The hydrogeologists' task is to find the hidden subsurface water resources, assess their quality and decide the reservoir potential. In addition, the hydrogeologist is often directly involved in major assessment studies concerning
water pollution, or the disposal of chemical and radioactive wastes.
Hydrogeologists get their training within the four-year geology programme. They must have courses in mathematics, geophysics, chemistry, and engineering.
Training also may be taken through the engineering side. The engineer will take a geology option or minor with sedimentology, stratigraphy, glacial geology and
geomorphology. Both geologists and engineers may qualify as hydrogeologists. Familiarity with remote sensing techniques will be an asset. Many, if not most, hydrogeologists, operate as consultants to industry or government. Research careers are followed through advanced degrees at the masters and doctoral level.

Environmental geology

Environmental geology involves studying the interaction between the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere and the activities of humankind. A most important component of environmental geology is stratigraphy; with data largely supplied by test drilling, geophysical techniques
and geological engineering.
Environmental geologists are often involved in studies of land use and as parts of teams, commissions or enquiries that analyse the impact on the environment caused by development. These may relate to underground or surface
mines, the diversion of rivers or the creation of artificial lakes. They may examine expansion of urban and industrial areas at the expense of wilderness and agricultural zones, and the location of waste disposal sites. They work alongside hydrogeologists, glacial geologists, engineers, biologists and
chemists. They provide geotechnical engineers with the necessary geological framework. Such geologists are in the forefront of decision-making when nuclear and chemical waste disposal problems are being resolved. In effect, the
environmental geologist is expected to provide information vital to decisions that will buffer or minimize man's contact with nature.
Environmental geologists must deal not only with the surficial deposits, but also with the bedrock underneath. Accordingly their university courses must include stratigraphy, sedimentology, structure, geomorphology and geological
processes and models. Few universities offer a specialisation in environmental geology. Check for geology departments with close ties to engineering programmes on the environmental side. A four-year geology degree programme
is the normal path. Students must be prepared to take pertinent courses from engineering, chemistry and biology, particularly those that relate to the environment. Some universities offer course options which deal with the social
impact of environmental changes. Such options are important. Those who carry on with graduate work usually stop at the M.Sc. or M.Eng. level, unless they are involved in research, for which the Ph.D. is necessary.  

Soil Sciences

The soil sciences are are closely connected with geology since soils represent the uppermost covering layer. The quality and thickness of soils relate to bedrock composition, water content, weathering processes, landforms and the living cover of plants and animals. The importance to agriculture and forestry is obvious. Soil samples also provide a tool for mineral exploration. An analysis for metal content may reveal subsurface mineral enrichment. Soil research is an aspect important to environmental geology, glacial geology, and
hydrogeology. Teams of soil scientists and geoscientists are responsible for extensive surveys and mapping projects. Geoscientists are thus playing a part in Australia's other resource industries - agriculture and forestry. Agriculturalists are becoming increasingly concerned about soil degradation, particularly due to the higher levels of fertilisers that are being applied to maintain crop production. They are also concerned about increases in soil salinities from expanded irrigation, and about soil erosion caused by deep ploughing.
The world is losing topsoil at slightly less than one percent per year. This poses serious threats to food production and also causes environmental problems of siltation and flooding in the lower reaches of rivers. The role of geoscientists and soil scientists will increase in these areas.

Petroleum Geologists

Crude oil and natural gas occur in sedimentary basins. They are complexes of hydrogen and carbon, generated through the decomposition of plant and animal remains under heat and pressure. Like coal, their ultimate origin goes back through photosynthesis to solar energy. The source of hydrocarbons
is usually an organic rich shale from which light liquids or gases are expelled and migrate upward or laterally.
Eventually they are trapped by an impervious layer and accumulate in a reservoir, such as a porous sandstone or limestone. Globally, the greatest production of oil is from the young sedimentary rocks, about 60% from those less than 60 million years old.
It takes a considerable expertise to locate petroleum, and the petroleum geologist must be well versed in the various branches of petroleum geology namely, stratigraphy, sedimentology, structural geology and geophysical
techniques. We are fortunate enough to have substantial petroleum reserves. Most of these reserves (as large as those of the Middle East). Australia has oil in the Bass Strait, Victoria, the Northern Territory, the Timor Sea, off the Queensland Shelf and trapped in oi shale deposits in Western Queensland as well as huge amounts of methane trapped in Queensland's coal deposits and will require an enormous capital investment for extraction. Petroleum reserves become available at high cost for exploration and development.
 New reserves have proved difficult and expensive to extract. Exploration costs for oil and gas have sky-rocketed. The industry is fast moving and innovative, and will attract many bright students in geology and petroleum engineering. Low oil prices do not encourage the enormous capital investments needed in  the near future employment will likely be with smaller independent companies and consultants rather than with the large multi-nationals. Predicted market prices for petroleum through the early 1990's are low, and thus growth will be
slow, resulting in cyclic recruitment peaks and lows dictated by market conditions.
International crises, particularly those in the Middle East, often have dramatic effects on oil prices. Such crises are difficult to predict and force governments and petroleum companies to consider the strategic needs for supplies. Severe curtailment of Middle East supplies will assure high prices and increased exploration and production in Australia.

Economic Geology

Economic Geology encompasses the study of mineral deposits, exploration for new resources, development and mining of all non-hydrocarbon ore deposits, and environmentally-safe disposal of waste materials from mining activities. Students with career goals in Australia's mineral resource industries should expect to study all of the core areas of geology, including mineralogy, petrology,
geochemistry, structural geology, stratigraphy and paleontology. In addition, specialist courses in mineral deposits geology, exploration geochemistry and geophysics are usually taken.

Reasons why you should choose Geology (Earth Sciences)

Career Opportunities and Profesional Recognition

Further education and requirements

Career Trends

Most graduates go into the petroleum and mining industries (about 60% and 20%, respectively). Increasing numbers of geoscientists are likely to become more involved with the environmental sub-professions of waste management, water, remote sensing interpretation, construction and natural hazard
prediction. Practically all universities provide a working background for the oil and mining industries, with special emphasis on theories, processes and models. Oil and mining companies provide the graduate with on-the-job training
early in their career for skills geared to their specific operations. A normal career path will see the young geoscientist spend a great deal of time mapping or working away from urban centres. Frequently this is in remote regions or on location at mining or drilling sites.
In industry, the new graduate will be assigned specific projects. With time and experience responsibilites and supervisory roles increase and work will become more diverse, both technically and geographically. Given the
expansion by many Australian companies in the developing world,  it might be wise to consider taking  a second language.
New challenges facing humanity are altering the traditional role of the geosciences. Problems which were once the exclusive realm of "pure geology" are now being examined by teams of geoscientists who not only have
substantial training in geology, but also in physics, chemistry and biology. The impact of the geosciences on business and social structures ensures that geoscientists further interact in these areas. This, in turn, broadens the scope and application of the geosciences. In future, we may be drawing many more
"external" experts into the teams working on geoscientific problems and challenges.
Hirings in geosciences have gone through high and low cycles for many years. The future prospects are exceptionally bright well beyond the year 2000. As world population expands and the global supply of minerals and fuels shrinks, more geoscientists will be needed. Students enrolling in a four-year
geoscience programme should seek training in basic geological courses. These
should include economic geology, environmental geology, mapping, mineralogy, paleontology, petrology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, and structural geology. The fundamentals of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics and computer science must also be taken. Students should not
neglect mind-broadening courses in history, literature, philosophy, economics, and languages. If you think that you might wish to work in a certain region of the world, think about language training in advance; perhaps in fields such as
Spanish, and Portuguese for South America, and Malay,
Thai, Vietnamese, or Chinese for Southeast Asia.
During your junior and senior years consider the future.

Part-time field work may be available after the first year of university: the experience in the field is invaluable to your studies and to your later career. Be flexible; do not become "tunnel-visioned", preferring one area to the exclusion of others. Though you have gained expertise in one field of geoscience, you may be drawn into another later.
Many geoscientists find that their interests shift. Someone with a
hard-rock background may very well move into environmental or glacial geology. A geochemist may become largely concerned with paleontological problems. A geophysicist may become heavily involved in structural
geology. An economic geologist may become increasingly
involved with environmental matters.
One thing is certain, the geosciences are not dull! As a field geologist you may be placed in situations that will test you in every way possible. Earth scientists are often first hand witnesses to volcanic eruptions, to earthquakes, tidal waves and other natural catastrophes. You will likely travel to remote parts of this continent and overseas. Geoscientists have been to the moon, and will be involved with the missions to Mars and beyond.
In a research capacity you will be expected to be at the forefront of world
geoscience. As a profession, earth scientists are probably the most environmentally aware members of the scientific fraternity. Whether you look at the forces that have shaped Earth through the view from earth satellite images, or from an isolated tent perched on a ridge of tilted strata in Antarctica, you will appreciate humanity's place on the planet.
The Earth Sciences are fundamental to our society; we have a long way to go and the future has never looked so challenging nor so bright.