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Studying Geology at UCT


Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the Universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

- Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996

Why study geology? 

Geoscientists follow paths of exploration and discovery in quest of solutions to some of society's most challenging problems.

  • Predicting the behaviour of Earth systems and the universe
  • Finding adequate supplies of natural resources, such as ground water, petroleum, and metals
  • Conserving soils and maintaining agricultural productivity
  • Developing natural resources in ways that safeguard the environment
  • Maintaining quality of water supplies
  • Reducing human suffering and property loss from natural hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, landslides, hurricanes, and tsunamis
  • Determining geological controls on natural environments and habitats and predicting the impact of human activities on them
  • Defining the balance between society's demand for natural resources and the need to sustain healthy ecosystems
  • Understanding global climate patterns

Geoscientists are stewards or caretakers of Earth's resources and environment. They work to understand natural processes on Earth and other planets. Investigating the Earth, its soils, oceans, and atmosphere; forecasting the weather; developing land-use plans; exploring other planets and the solar system; determining environmental impacts; and finding new sources of useful Earth materials are just a few of the ways geoscientists contribute to our understanding of Earth processes and history. Geoscientists provide essential information for solving problems and establishing governmental policies for resource management; environmental protection; and public health, safety, and welfare.

Geoscientists are curious about the Earth and the solar system. Is there life on other planets? How are they changing? What effects will shrinking glaciers have on the oceans and climate? What makes a continent move, a mountain form, a volcano erupt? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?

Geoscientists are concerned about the Earth. How is the global climate changing? How do Earth systems work? How and where should we dispose of industrial wastes? How can society's growing demands for energy and water be satisfied while conserving natural resources for future generations? As global populations increase, can we grow enough food and fiber to sustain them?

The Earth is an outdoor laboratory filled with opportunities to observe Earth processes in action. By applying their knowledge of forces and factors that shape the Earth, geoscientists seek to reconstruct the past and anticipate the future.

Geoscientists gather and interpret data about the Earth and other planets. They use their knowledge to increase our understanding of Earth processes and to improve the quality of human life. Their work and career paths vary widely because the geosciences are so broad and diverse. The National Science Foundation considers geology, geophysics, hydrology, oceanography, marine science, atmospheric science, planetary science, meteorology, environmental science, and soil science as the major geoscience disciplines. The following list gives a glimpse of what geoscientists do in these disciplines and a variety of subdisciplines.

Atmospheric scientists study weather processes; the global dynamics of climate; solar radiation and its effects; and the role of atmospheric chemistry in ozone depletion, climate change, and pollution.

Economic geologists explore for and develop metallic and nonmetallic resources; they study mineral deposits and find environmentally safe ways to dispose of waste materials from mining activities.

Engineering geologists apply geological data, techniques, and principles to the study of rock and soil surficial materials and ground water; they investigate geologic factors that affect structures such as bridges, buildings, airports, and dams.

Environmental geologists study the interaction between the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and human activities. They work to solve problems associated with pollution, waste management, urbanization, and natural hazards, such as flooding and erosion.

Geochemists use physical and inorganic chemistry to investigate the nature and distribution of major and trace elements in ground water and Earth materials; they use organic chemistry to study the composition of fossil fuel (coal, oil, and gas) deposits.

Geochronologists use the rates of decay of certain radioactive elements in rocks to determine their age and the time sequence of events in the history of the Earth.

Geomorphologists study Earth's landforms and landscapes in relation to the geologic and climatic processes and human activities, which form them.

Geophysicists apply the principles of physics to studies of the Earth's interior and investigate Earth's magnetic, electric, and gravitational fields.

Glacial geologists study the physical properties and movement of glaciers and ice sheets.

Hydrogeologists study the occurrence, movement, abundance, distribution, and quality of subsurface waters and related geologic aspects of surface waters.

Hydrologists are concerned with water from the moment of precipitation until it evaporates into the atmosphere or is discharged into the ocean; for example, they study river systems to predict the impacts of flooding.

Marine geologists investigate the ocean-floor and ocean-continent boundaries; they study ocean basins, continental shelves, and the coastal environments on continental borders.

Meteorologists study the atmosphere and atmospheric phenomena, including the weather.

Mineralogists study mineral formation, composition, and properties.

Oceanographers investigate the physical, chemical, biological, and geologic dynamics of oceans.

Palaeoecologists study the function and distribution of ancient organisms and their relationships to their environment.

Palaeontologists study fossils to understand past life forms and their changes through time and to reconstruct past environments.

Petroleum geologists are involved in exploration for and production of oil and natural gas resources.

Petrologists determine the origin and natural history of rocks by analyzing mineral composition and grain relationships.

Planetary geologists study planets and their moons in order to understand the evolution of the solar system.

Sedimentologists study the nature, origin, distribution, and alteration of sediments, such as sand, silt, and mud. Oil, gas, coal and many mineral deposits occur in such sediments.

Seismologists study earthquakes and analyze the behavior of earthquake waves to interpret the structure of the Earth.

Soil scientists study soils and their properties to determine how to sustain agricultural productivity and to detect and remediate contaminated soils.

Stratigraphers investigate the time and space relationships of rocks, on a local, regional, and global scale throughout geologic time -- especially the fossil and mineral content of layered rocks.

Structural geologists analyze Earth's forces by studying deformation, fracturing, and folding of the Earth's crust.

Volcanologists investigate volcanoes and volcanic phenomena to understand these natural hazards and predict eruptions.

Geoscientists may be found sampling the deep ocean floor or examining rock specimens from the Moon or Mars. But the work of most geoscientists is more "down to Earth." They work as explorers for new mineral and hydrocarbon resources, consultants on engineering and environmental problems, researchers, teachers, writers, editors, and museum curators as well as in many other challenging positions. They often divide their time among work in the field, the laboratory, and the office.

Field work usually consists of making observations, exploring the subsurface by drilling or using geophysical tools, collecting samples, and making measurements that will be analyzed in the laboratory. For example, rock samples may be X-rayed, studied under an electron microscope, and analyzed to determine physical and chemical properties. Geoscientists may also conduct experiments or design computer models to test theories about geologic phenomena and processes.

In the office, they integrate field and laboratory data and prepare reports and presentations that include maps and diagrams that illustrate the results of their studies. Such maps may pinpoint the possible occurrence of ores, coal, oil, natural gas, water resources, or indicate subsurface conditions or hazards that might affect construction sites or land use.

Source:  American Geosciences Institute,
Image credit, Geotripper Blog (Garry Hayes)