Geology - can you dig it?

March 5, 2011 

— Oil prices have hit $100 per barrel again. Scores were killed recently by an earthquake in New Zealand. In the past year, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes have devastated parts of the globe. Metal prices are skyrocketing. What's going on? Geologists understand these events, but few people seem to understand what geologists do.

I am a geologist. If this fact comes out at a party, the person I'm talking to is typically stymied for a bit before saying something such as, "When's California going to fall into the ocean?" (not going to happen), or "Been out on a dig?" (no, that's what archaeologists do) or "Seen any good rocks lately?" (rolling of eyes...).

It is clear that my conversation partners really have little idea what a geologist actually does and view geology as a hobby, like collecting stamps. This is unfortunate, given how important geology is to the lives of everyone on Earth.

If I were to ask average people where gasoline comes from, most wouldn't really know. They might have a mental image, from a children's book, of a black pool of oil underground with a pipe sticking into it, but this is far from the truth. Many think drinking water comes "from the faucet," with little idea of what the source is. The average American home has more than 400 pounds of copper in it. Where does that come from? Even the sources of the sand and gravel vital to construction are a mystery to most people.

Well over 90 percent of the power used in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Thank a geologist - we're the ones who find oil, natural gas, coal and uranium. Even if you think that these energy sources are loathsome, we're stuck with them for some years to come. Geothermal energy? That's an easy one - thank a geologist.

We all take clean, fresh water for granted. Thank a geologist - we find that fresh water and monitor its quality and inventory. Many "green power" devices, such as high-capacity batteries, LEDs and superstrong magnets, depend upon rare, obscure elements such as dysprosium, neodymium and indium. Thank a geologist - we're the ones who know how those elements are cycled in the Earth and where to find them.

The prices of many of these metals, including all that copper in your house, have doubled or tripled in recent years, and the price of oil has quadrupled in the past decade. Business people would benefit from learning a little geology so that they could understand this better.

Geologists are the go-to people for natural hazards. We monitor earthquakes and map faults so that buildings and bridges can be sited as safely as possible. We advise on where to put roads and houses to avoid landslides, and where to put tunnels for roads, pipelines and other infrastructure. We monitor volcanoes for risks to the local populace and aviation. We map areas susceptible to flooding. When the gasoline storage tank at the corner gas station starts to leak, we figure out where that underground gasoline plume is going and how to fix the problem.

We know how the beaches are moving, what happens when a hurricane passes over a barrier island, how fast sea level is rising and what will happen if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts (hint - sell your coastal property: Sea level will rise 10 feet). We determine what Earth's climate has done in the past. We've figured out the fossil record of evolution and mass extinction, that asteroids sometimes strike the planet and that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old.

Geology factors into most aspects of modern life, and geologists are essential to making our technological society work. My opinion as to why geologists don't get much press is that we're having too much fun to worry about public relations.

Allen F. Glazner is Kenan distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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