Why geoscience matters

Nearly everything around you—from the mountains out your window to the cell phone in your hand to the water from your tap—is connected to geoscience. Encompassing geology, geophysics, hydrogeology, mineral engineering and many other fields, geoscience is a study of the entire Earth and the systems and forces that shape and reshape it. Geoscientists study the things that fascinate us, like minerals and fossils, and are at the forefront of addressing complex problems that will impact our future, like climate change, natural resource use, environmental degradation and energy sustainability.

In 2019 and 2020, Rasoul Sorkhabi, a research professor at the University of Utah’s Energy & Geosciences Institute and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and adjunct professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, surveyed 136 of his colleagues about the issues, questions and challenges facing geoscience, as well as the potential directions for the field in the future. The respondents identified climate change, the petroleum industry and mineral resources as the top priority fields in applied geoscience.

We spoke with Sorkhabi, who says that the survey results (found here and here beginning on page 56) show how geoscience students, researchers and professionals can take advantage of critical opportunities to strengthen science and their communities.

How do geosciences affect our lives?

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Rasoul Sorkhabi

Being a geoscientist myself, I am biased towards my profession. However, I think there is some truth if we say that the first science in human history was geoscience; that is when our ancestors, a couple of millions of years ago, picked up some stones, examined their features, and concluded that some stones were more useful or more attractive than the others. Earth materials—metals, water and soil—have always been important in all civilizations.

Almost everything we use comes directly or indirectly from Earth. Cell phones utilize dozens of elements including rare earth metals that are becoming hard to produce. Geological processes from hydrological cycle to earthquakes directly influence our lives and economies. Geoscience studies Earth as a whole, not simply its chemicals or forces, but Earth as a planetary system with interlinked components and a prolonged evolution.

Discoveries and concepts in geoscience have impacted modern culture and viewpoints. For instance, “deep time”—thinking about nature in terms of millions and billions of years old came from discoveries in geoscience. Or when we study how Earth utilizes its finite materials—water, elements, rocks, etc.—through recycling, we then view recycling as a basic principle of sustainability. In short, geoscience contributes to both material and intellectual development of our society.

What drove your survey of priorities in geosciences?

As a geoscientist, I wanted to know what my colleagues think about the most important questions and the most challenging issues in our field and in our community. Additionally, I hoped that if the survey was successful, its results would articulate the relevance of geoscience in our society and draw the attention of the public and students to some of the fascinating and beneficial questions that geoscientists address.

What surprised you about the results?

Many geoscientists suggested interesting questions and problems, but questions themselves did not surprise me. However, when I reflected on how these questions can be approached and investigated, I realized that we need various disciplines and techniques to tackle a given problem from various angles. This is easier said than done. Geoscience, like any other major science, is divided into more than a hundred fields and disciplines. But solutions to these big questions will result from integration and interactions.

Another interesting thing I noticed was that as scientists we often talk about our knowledge and research results, but rarely do we talk about what we do not know. This is evident in textbooks and how we teach science. Textbooks try to convey a set of established knowledge in a structured manner. But if we also present Earth Science to students in terms of unresolved big questions and practical beneficial questions, it would captivate their imagination and curiosity.

What can students at the U do to prepare themselves for future needs in geoscience?

Obviously, a solid education in geoscience should include core courses including the knowledge of minerals, rocks, fossils, faults, earthquakes, groundwater, earth history, mapping and so forth. There is a famous saying that “the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks.” Field geology is essential. However, students also need to be equipped with digital tools and computational skills. Indeed, these new technologies—GIS, GPS, data science, software packages— have changed the workflow of geoscience and will continue to do so.

Another aspect of geoscience education is to train the students to write well. We spend a great deal of our time in writing from simple emails to research papers and project reports. Articulating our findings in a proper language is a valuable skill. Finally, the students should learn how to relate geoscience to businesses, industries, policies and society at large.

You list energy resources, including petroleum resources, as a priority. Is there a place for petroleum geoscientists in a changing energy landscape?

As the world is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, two areas will increasingly be important: On one hand, the world will need, more than before, energy consumption and economic development. These two go hand in hand. Every activity consumes energy.

On the other hand, we will need, more than before, to ensure ecological protection and sustainability. Global warming, as the survey showed, is a global environmental problem and the burning of fossil fuels has a critical role in this. There are, of course, other environmental issues too—deforestation, water shortage, wildfires, desertification and so forth. Many of these problems are indeed interrelated.

Geoscientists will play significant roles in both of these areas. They are providing affordable and adequate energy and mineral resources for economic development and the everyday needs of society. They are also exploring ways and technologies that protect Earth’s sustainability and mitigate the adverse impacts of human activities. Neither of these is a small challenge and both of them are essential.

The world definitely needs a drastic transition to low-carbon economies and technologies. In the recent decade, petroleum programs in all universities have been hit hard by price volatility and market crashes. How the petroleum industry will evolve or reinvent itself as an energy industry in a low-carbon world remains to be seen. Indeed, how various energy technologies will evolve in the coming decades offers exciting ventures. However, many of the tools, concepts and technologies for imaging subsurface rock formations and exploring sedimentary basins that were developed by the petroleum industry over many decades of investment and research and development can also be utilized for other energy and mineral resources. Energy is closely linked with both economic development and environmental sustainability, and striking a balance between these two components is crucial to our world—but these challenges also provide great opportunities for geoscientists and engineers.

Why should students choose a career in geosciences?

As far as the job market is concerned, there will always be opportunities and needs for various geoscientists. A recent report by the American Geoscience Institute indicates that there will be 5% growth in geoscience jobs by 2029.

What I personally love about geoscience is that it is an integrative science; you learn some chemistry, physics, biology, geometry and geography to become a geoscientist. Of course, geoscience has its own principles and methods too, but it integrates other sciences in its workflow. A geoscience graduate should also preferably choose a certain discipline to master. Excellence comes from our passion, knowledge, and practice.

Today we face major global challenges such as climate change, natural resource use, environmental degradation and energy sustainability. Earth scientists and engineers are at the forefront of addressing these complex problems.

Learn more about the U’s Department of Geology and Geophysics’ undergraduate majors here and graduate programs here.

The College of Mines and Earth Sciences at the University of Utah bridges the interface between the earth sciences and fields of engineering offering a wide variety of exciting research and educational experiences. The four pillars of the college are Atmospheric Sciences, Geology & Geophysics, Materials Science & Engineering and Mining Engineering. Whether it’s discovering a new dinosaur, studying climate change or creating renewable energy sources, you can tackle the world’s grand challenges here.

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Paul Gabrielsenresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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