Planet Earth

Geology is at a Crossroads

Geology is changing, but have colleges and universities caught up with that change?

Rocky Planet iconRocky PlanetBy Erik KlemettiJan 4, 2021 1:35 PM
Earthquake damage to Glenn Highway along Mirror Lake in Chugiak, Alaska on November 30, 2018. Credit: Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

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Geology was a discipline built to find the resources of our planet. The first real geologic map, crafted by William Smith in 1815, was part of a quest to find fuel for the Industrial Revolution. Smith used his work as a springboard to develop ideas that are essential to our understanding of geologic time. However, at its roots, the study of the Earth was linked to the search for resources.

Things have changed a lot over the past 200 years. The study of our planet, better described as Earth sciences these days, has evolved to be more than just the search for oil, metals and coal. We study the planet to better understand natural hazards, to map out the Earth's climate history and future, to examine the intersection between life and the solid planet, to hypothesize about the origin of life and to really just learn more about where we live.

Of course, the search for resources hasn't ended either. Some of the largest companies on the globe today are ones built on resource extraction: ExxonMobil, BP, BHP, Newmont, Chevron and more. In total, they are worth trillions of dollars and it is through the work of generations of geologists that the world is what is it today: industrialized, swimming in cheap energy and technologically advanced.

Changing Resources

That is not without consequence. Quite obviously, climate change is the biggest. The extraction and use of petroleum, coal and natural gas have lead to humans radically changing the Earth's climate to our detriment. Mining has done irreparable (on human timescales) harm to delicate ecosystems. They have also lead to exploitations of people and nations for the sake of the enrichment of others. These are crosses that modern Earth sciences must bear.

Yet, even today, we need these resources — and we need people to find new sources of oil, copper, gold, aluminum, rare-earth elements and more. This is now balanced with the dire necessity to change what resources we use. Hydrocarbons like petroleum, coal and natural gas will have to be phased out as much as possible in order to stop the hurtling subway of climate change. Those lucrative jobs in the oil industry that have sustained many geology programs at colleges and universities are going away.

Oil Rig. Credit: Earlean Mckendrick

The New York Times recently threw a spotlight on this. For many geology students, the idea of a very lucrative and (somewhat) stable career in the oil industry had significant appeal. In how many industries can undergraduate and masters students realistically get hired at starting wages close to or over $100,000 per year? You can see the appeal when you are 23 trying to make your way in the world.

Like any industry, oil had ups and downs. When oil prices were high, there was a tendency to see more students gravitate towards geology degrees. When prices dropped, they didn't. Oil companies would let the most recent hires go during those downturns but scoop up many new graduates once the price rebounded.

Oil Dries Up

Suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly), the landscape has changed. Instead of having the backstop of the oil industry for geology graduates, the double whammy of extended low oil prices and the need to move away from petroleum has meant that jobs in the industry have gone away. Unfortunately, the academic ranks have not really caught up with this sea change.

And this is what I find perplexing. I would venture to say that when most high school students are asked about geology, many think the only jobs that you can get with such a degree are in oil or mining. That's because that is likely all they really hear about in their pre-college experience. Most of it isn't good (and likely rightly so).

That's why the whole field is at a crossroads and not only in what we call ourselves. In many ways, geology has become a bit of a dirty word with its close link to resource extraction. It also doesn't really reflect what an education and career studying the Earth does anymore — or what it should be doing.

Many faculty and institution still cling to the ideas that have been central to geology for at least a century. This is in content, skills and job advice we offer our students. Most of this is centered on careers that are resource-focused because, as many a geology faculty have said, "you can always get a job in oil."

The New, Old Study of the Earth

This isn't the case, both practically and ethically. Instead, we need to rebrand and retool.

Mountains in Mongolia. Credit: Rachel White, Imaggeo.

The term Earth sciences is a much closer description of what people who study the Earth do today. It is about linking together all the processes that happen on and within our planet. It is about revealing how we can better realize the repercussions of resource use. It is about understanding and protecting people from the consequences of climate change and natural hazards. It is about finding the resources we need to drive the planet on green energy.

The skills students need to do this are different, yet also very similar to what a geologist 50 years ago might learn. You still need to know about rocks and minerals. You still need to know how the interior of the Earth works and plate tectonics. You still need to understand how rocks are made and destroyed. You very much still need to see rocks in the field and realize what they are telling you.

However, you also need to know how to interpret the planet in new ways. Earth scientists need to be comfortable with big data and with geographic information on a global scale. We need to know how to do lab analyses and how to interpret whether data collected is robust and reliable. Gone are the days where you can make a career from merely mapping the Earth's surface.

On top of this, we need to humanize the Earth Sciences. More students in the field need to understand the economic, anthropologic and social ramifications of Earth processes (natural and human-driven) past and present. We need to realize that there are different ways to understand the planet than a resource-focused objective. We need to understand how the Earth impacts lives.

This means that many departments at colleges and universities, both graduate and undergraduate, need to rethink their focus and curriculum. Sometimes disciplines tend to stagnate, especially when so much money was coming from such a specific part of the field. Universities are eliminating geoscience/geology programs due to low enrollment — and some (or maybe a lot?) of that drop in enrollment reflects how the discipline isn't in sync with what students want from studying Earth sciences.

Our students want to go into careers about sustainability, renewable energy, climate change resilience, natural disaster preparedness and human interactions with the planet. Our curriculum should begin to reflect these changes. I'm not saying we abandon the central tenets of an Earth science (geologic) education, but rather critically consider what it means to be an Earth scientist in 2021.

It is hard to pick a new path. We've reached that crossroads. If the discipline doesn't adapt, it will quickly follow the path that leads it to the same place as the dinosaur.

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