Environmental Geology Is Geology Applied to Living
The environment is the sum of all the features and conditions surrounding an organism that may influence it. An individual’s physical environment encompasses rocks and soil, air and water, such factors as light and temperature, and other organisms. One’s social environment might include a network of family and friends, a particular political system, and a set of social customs that affect one’s behavior.
Geology is the study of the earth. Because the earth provides the basic physical environment in which we live, all of geology might in one sense be regarded as environmental geology.
However, the term environmental geology is usually restricted to refer particularly to geology as it relates directly to human activities, and that is the focus of this book. Environmental geology is geology applied to living. We will examine how geologic processes and hazards influence human activities (and sometimes the reverse), the geologic aspects of pollution and waste-disposal problems, and several other topics.
Why Study Environmental Geology?
One reason for studying environmental geology might simply be curiosity about the way the earth works, about the how and why of natural phenomena. Another reason is that we are increasingly faced with environmental problems to be solved and decisions to be made, and in many cases, an understanding of one or more geologic processes is essential to finding an appropriate solution.
Of course, many environmental problems cannot be fully assessed and solved using geologic data alone. The problems vary widely in size and in complexity. In a specific instance, data from other branches of science (such as biology, chemistry, or ecology), as well as economics, politics, social priorities, and so on may have to be taken into account. Because a variety of considerations may influence the choice of a solution, there is frequently disagreement about which solution is “best.” Our personal choices will often depend strongly on our beliefs about which considerations are most important.
Environmental geology explores the many and varied interactions between humans and that geologic environment.
Environmental problems related to geology generally fall into one of two categories: hazards and resources. We will define a geologic hazard as any geologic condition, natural or artificial, that creates a potential risk to human life of property. Examples include earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and pollution. There are some geologic processes, such as the eruption of volcanic lava (Figure 1.7), that present a clear hazard to society. Ironically, what we consider as geologic hazards are commonly processes that play an important role in maintaining our habitable environment, and have been operating throughout Earth’s history.
Volcanic eruptions, for example, are as old as the Earth itself and have been instrumental in the development of the atmosphere and oceans. Also interesting is the fact that human activity can affect certain types of geologic processes themselves, increasing the severity of an existing hazard and making it more costly in term of the loss of life and property.
A good example is the use of engineering controls to minimize flooding in one area, but which oftentimes ends up causing increased flooding somewhere else.
Moreover, human interference in natural processes commonly produces unintended consequences, as in the loss of wetlands resulting from our efforts to control flooding. By destroying wetlands, humans inadvertently disrupt the food web within critical ecosystems, which ultimately results in the loss of sport and commercial fisheries.
Figure 1.7. This house erupted into flames when a volcanic lava flow moved through a residential neighborhood on the big island of Hawaii. Lava flows have been taking place on the big island for the past 700,000 years and have resulted in the formation of the island itself. The other Hawaiian islands are much older. Although lava flows are a natural geologic process that creates habitable living space for people, they also pose a serious risk to human life and property.
Pollution is a type of hazard because it directly impacts human health and the ecosystems on which we depend. Although pollution ca occur naturally, human activity is by far the most common cause (Figure 1.8).
Figure 1.8. Pollution of air and water resources is a serious issue that affects both natural ecosystems and our quality of life, particularly human health.
An example is metallic mercury, which cycles through the biosphere after being released during the natural break-down of certain types of minerals. Mercury tends to accumulate in wetlands due to the acidic and low oxygen conditions, but is then periodically released into the atmospehre when droughts allow fires to sweep through the dried-out wetlands.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been releasing mercury into the environment in similar manner by running vast quantities of coal, which are ancient swamp deposits that naturally contain mercury-bearing minerals (Chapter 13 and 15). Consequently, the amount of mercury in the biosphere is now significantly higher than natural background levels.
The problem is that mercury forms bonds with carbon atoms, creating highly toxic compounds capable of moving through the aquatic food chain and into humans. Of particular concern are pregnant or nursing women who eat mercury-contaminated fish and unknowingly pass the toxic compounds on their small children. The result is that children with elevated levels of mercury run a higher risk of developing serve and irreversible brain damage.
What is an Environmental Geologist?
Environmental geologists help prevent contamination of soil and groundwater by determining geologically safe locations for new landfills, coal ash disposal sites, and nuclear power plants. They also help plan underground waste disposal. For example, companies in certain industries dispose of chemical-laden waste water by pumping it deep underground. Environmental geologists help determine sites for safe waste water “injection wells” and may oversee the process.
These professionals also help plan new mines to make them as safe for the environment as possible. They decide where to put the mining waste and how to protect groundwater, and may develop a soil and water monitoring plan. They also evaluate effects of proposed projects on the geological environment, and how geology may limit development.
In addition to preventing contamination, environmental geologists also help clean up contamination from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks or chemical spills. For example, they examine the structure of the soils and rock, along with the flow of groundwater, to determine the extent and distribution of contaminants underground. They may also assist with the remediation of Superfund sites and old mines by assessing and mapping underground conditions.
Environmental geologists may also help protect and restore water resources, such as Louisiana wetlands damaged by oil shipping channels and subsidence. They may also help prevent or repair coastal erosion. Some create natural hazard assessments and safe evacuation routes for local communities.
What Does an Environmental Geologist Do?
Environmental geologists plan or conduct geological field studies to collect data on a particular site, such as soil types, rock structure, and groundwater flows. They also use geographic information systems (GIS) and other specialized software to create geologic maps, maps showing the distribution of contamination, or cross-sectional diagrams.
They then use the information gathered from field surveys, maps, well logs, bore holes, ground penetrating radar, aerial photos, and the geologic literature to understand underground geological conditions and potential natural hazards.
They use their expertise and the information they've gathered to assess the geological safety of a location for a particular use, such as waste disposal or siting a nuclear power plant. They also advise on how to reduce risk or restore contaminated sites. They may write reports detailing their findings for clients.
Where Does an Environmental Geologist Work?
Many environmental geologists work for consulting firms, where they offer their expertise to oil and mining companies and other clients. They may also be employed by those companies directly, as well as by engineering and environmental remediation firms. Some work for state and local government agencies, such as geological surveys and environmental agencies. Others become professors or research staff at colleges and universities, or high school science teachers.
Environmental geologists may work outside part of the time, collecting data on site or overseeing remediation operations. They may travel and work long or irregular hours when doing fieldwork. Most geoscientists work full time.
Environmental Geology Jobs
Environmental geologists' specialty is analyzing the earth and its impact on humans and the environment. Generally, the intent of the field is to forecast geological events and problems and inform governments, the public, and other stakeholders about preventative means and how an event might affect the environment. While responsibilities for the job do vary based on field specialty, the tasks below fall within the scope of most environmental geology jobs:
- Read scientific literature and research reviews.
- Conduct surveys and field studies to gather geological data.
- Analyze material samples from the project field using a variety of collection techniques.
- Gather soil samples and subject to chemical analysis.
- Study geophysical events like erosion and tectonic motion and their impact on human populations and the environment.
- Use maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery, geochemical surveys, GIS data and other sources to perform site analysis.
- Identify and report on events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and mudslides.
- Prepare reports and inform imagery based on fieldwork and laboratory research.
- Compiling survey information and data.
- Analyzing field data, aerial photographs, and satellite images.
- Creating maps and cross-sectional diagrams.
- Preparing reports.
Senior tier environmental geology jobs may have the following elements in addition to tier-one responsibilities:
- Supervise technicians and support staff.
- Communicating clients, colleagues, government officials, and stakeholders.
- Navigating environmental regulations.
- Applying for grants and funding options.
- Managing project budgets, timelines, and communications.
- Supervise other chemists, chemical technicians and technologists.
- Supervise laboratory teams and monitor the quality of their work.
- Oversee lab work space, field resources, and materials procurement.
- Participate in interdisciplinary projects.
- Act as consultant in their field of expertise.