What's the point of geologists?

The dawn of the information society and the comfort of modern life is driving many of us to forget that the future of humanity, some 9 billion people by 2050, still depends on properly functioning ecosystems as well as the availability and quality of natural resources. Humanity must also protect itself from a vast array of natural hazards. Many of these resources and hazards are connected togeology - the "georesources" and "geohazards" related to the nature, structure, dynamics and history of the Earth found beneath our feet.

© Maciej Klonowski
© Maciej Klonowski
© Maciej Klonowski
© Maciej Klonowski

Georesources include energy, groundwater, mineral resources, soil, underground space and the geological heritage. Under ground space is becoming an increasingly important resource not only for constructing infrastructure (car parks, tunnels), but also for storing environmentally sensitive waste over long periods (toxic, radioactive and carbon dioxide (CO2) waste). The geological heritage includes landscapes, natural sites of geological interest and buildings constructed from materials with geological origins. It is these materials that give their distinctive look to our monuments.

As the earthquake in Sichuan (China) reminds us, the Earth is a living planet, with a crust made up of plates moving in a continuous dance, as a result of convection cells stirring the mantle. Geohazards are sometimes spectacular when they occur, but they are often much more subtle. They all endanger the human heritage, with some also threatening human health and even life. Volcanic eruptions, landslides and earthquakes are very obvious, while radon emissions - a cause of many cancers - the cycle of expansion and retraction of soil rich in clay, the collapse of natural caves, the excess or lack of trace elements in ground water and soil are much more subtle, even invisible without the use of special scientific techniques.

Everything happens under our feet

Geographical and geological information, and geological knowledge and expertise, have practical applications in numerous fields. They are indispensable for localising, characterising and managing georesources; reducing the impact of geohazards; and understanding the growth and migration of pollutants in soil and groundwater. Their public and private users are very diverse as this information knowledge and expertise are needed for taking decisions and creating policies, notably in regards to sustainable development ethics.

While embedded sensors on satellites allow quick and harmonised observations of the atmosphere and the Earth's surface, geology remains inaccessible to direct observation, with the exception of outcroppings and core drillings. A geologist, depending on the field of study - general geological knowledge, search for water, study of a CO2 stockpile, surveying a landslide, modelling pollution migration into a body of water, etc. - uses a variety of techniques among the wide range of observation techniques available, most of which are indirect.

This diversity of observation tools and levels (from "macro" to "nano") used over the course of a single study as well as the capacity to reason in four dimensions (the three dimensions of space and that of time) are unique for geological observations of the Earth. Time is an essential dimension as geological phenomena are dynamic. Finding a deposit of ore or hydrocarbons often necessitates the re-creation of the land, climate and geological conditions - plate position, sedimentation, magnetism, tectonics, etc. - as they were hundreds of millions of years ago, as the deposits were formed, in order to understand their subsequent development.

Towards a European geological survey

The Association of the European Geo - logical Surveys (EuroGeoSurveys) represents 33 national members and over 10 000 people. One of its objectives is to promote the contribution of geosciences to business and the EU's action plans and to work towards the development of a European geological infrastructure.

Its members are public organisations at the interface between the observation of substratum and applied research, on the one hand, and societal needs, on the other. Its mandate is to provide, at national and regional levels, geographical information and impartial expertise as requested by its users. Research is an important component of its work, responding to needs such as the development and improvement of observation, prospecting and modelling techniques; the development of four-dimensional geological knowledge and understanding of geological processes; the development of geological information interoperable between countries and between diverse fields of earth observation; the understanding of the migration and increase of pollutants in groundwater, CO2 stockpiling in geological formation; and the enhancement of geothermal energy.

This research has an increasingly important European dimension. Today, European geological services have contributed to more than 150 projects in the 5th and 6th Framework Programmes (FP5 and FP6), with new projects under FP7 being planned.(1) The integration of geology into EU policies and legislation remains rather fragmented, but is progressing given the growing importance of questions connected to the access and management of natural resources, reducing the impact of natural disasters and developing pan- European geographical information systems.

There is still a lot to be done, both by the Commission and the Member States, to integrate geological knowledge into European construction and to overcome the fragmentation between the national and regional levels. To this end, a clear EU mandate is needed to go beyond the current project approach and develop, with Member States, a truly European geological capacity of competitiveness and sustainable development.

Patrice Christmann
Secretary General, EuroGeoSurveys


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In the geologist's toolbox...

  • Various embedded sensors on Earth observation satellites.

  • Various airborne geophysical technologies.

  • Ground-based geophysical technologies including seismic exploration used to develop accurate 3D models of the substratum and its resources, notably hydrocarbons.

  • Ground-based observations and surveys

  • Isotopic geochemistry making it easier, for example, to obtain precise information about the age of rocks and the conditions during their creation.

  • The study of fossils of all sizes, which allows for the dating of sediments and sedimentological study which allows for the re-creation of their sedimentological conditions form the paleography of the sediment basin and its surroundings.

  • The study of fluid inclusions in certain minerals provides information about the conditions during rock and mineral deposit formation.

  • Mathematical models from a limited number of observations help describe a process and predict certain situations (landslides, changes in the water table reserve, shape and reserves of a deposit).

  • Analysis and imagery technology (optical microscopes, electronic scanning, microprobes, x-ray crystallography...).