Geology is the study of the Earth -- the only home we have.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not just about the study of rocks, although understanding rocks is a good thing. It is the study of the materials and processes that make the Earth the dynamic, life-supporting planet that it is.
Everything we know about Earth: The history and evolution of life, the creation and evolution of the continents and ocean basins, the history of our climate, comes from the study of the geologic record. Historical geology is the study of the evolution of Earth and life. It includes the study of fossil life, but also the physical changes to the Earth through its history, changes that include: movements of continents; formation and reconfiguration of ocean basins; growth of mountain ranges; erosion and redistribution of sediments; changes in surface environments; and changes in climate over time.
Every construction project we undertake, whether it is the preparation of a site for a home or building, a road, a bridge, or a dam, requires a detailed geologic study to determine the degree of slope stability, drainage, contamination from previous use, susceptibility to various geologic hazards, such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, shrinking/swelling of soils and creep.
Geologists are also responsible for finding resources that we require to run a modern society, or even for survival. Modern technologies such as cell phones, computers, tablets, iPods, DVRs, DVDs, and televisions, require rare earth elements to manufacture memory chips, processors, and batteries. Fossil fuels like petroleum are valuable not only for their energy content but for their ability to be manipulated for the manufacture of a wide variety of plastics, vinyl, Teflon, as well as solvents, fertilizers, and even pharmaceuticals. Our access to clean, potable water depends not just on our ability to find water, but on understanding how to protect water resources from contamination, and how to clean up contaminated water.
According to the American Geological Institute, today there are more than 600,000 Geoscience professionals working in the United States in fields as varied as mining, oil & gas, environmental science, city planning, water & resource management, atmospheric & space science, oceanography, civil engineering, hydrogeology, education & research, and many others. Most of these fields are expected to experience significant growth within the next decade, while about half of the current professionals are expected to retire within the same period. The employment opportunities are very good and getting better.
Geology is a field-based science. Besides quantitative skills and a good understanding of physical processes, geologists must have an active, creative mind and good observational skills. The best way to develop these skills is through copious field training. As a result, geology is a discipline that appeals to people who enjoy the out-of-doors and love to travel. Remember, geology is everywhere but mostly outside!
Someone told me once that people that are drawn to geology have many of the same idiosyncrasies found in good detectives. They enjoy solving puzzles, and are prone to thinking inductively. They tend to be good spatial thinkers; they have decent-to-good organizational skills; they can begin to work out a problem even if the information available to them is incomplete, or they can intuitively determine what additional information is needed. Like many other “talents,” these mental abilities are more learned than they are inherent – they are developed by practice and application, just like muscles can be developed by exercise.
Many of the problems facing us today are complex: Where can we look to find the energy needed to run an increasingly technological society? How do we deal with the hazardous materials that we generate as a by-product of that technology? How do we supply basic resources (such as clean water and air) to people while protecting those resources? What is happening to our climate, and what, if anything, can we do about it? Because of this complexity we need people who are trained to approach these problems with respect for their complexity, and confidence that they can nonetheless be solved.
The Earth and life upon it are literally made for each other. Humans have evolved along with the planet. Our challenge in the long term is to recognize that the planet continues to evolve, both on its own and due to our own actions. The practical puzzles and information provided by Earth Science curricula present a kind of boot camp for minds that may help us to survive responsibly on Earth, or perhaps someday even on other planets.