The practicality of geology

My first geology professor said that the public only knows a geologist as a “person running around the country with a hammer.” That accurate assessment illustrates two points: that geologists are passionate about their field (as are most scientists), and that the public views geology as a science with little practical value. Most people know that geologists work for oil and mining companies, and study volcanoes and earthquakes. Beyond that, the public perceives geologists as researchers using public money to study things that may be interesting, but contribute little to social or economic progress.

My own interactions with friends, family, and the general public reinforce that perception. Just a few weeks ago, a stranger at a bar labeled me a “liberal leech”, knowing nothing else about me except that I am a geologist. When someone heard I was studying geology, he or she would usually respond, “what do you do with that degree?” Even close friends or family members struggle to understand what I do. “He likes rocks,” they will say. The implication is that a Geologists waste time studying things that cannot possibly land them a job (considering I have been unemlployed almost a year, maybe they have a point 🙂 ). If it doesn’t make money, people consider it a worthless career. I expect this perception from the more devout religious types, or from those that are strong capitalists. But I also hear this from engineers and other scientists. Engineers believe invention and design can conquer all, and other scientists consider geology an antiquated science with little future.

Professional geologists fall into three categories:
1) Those that search for profitable Earth materials. This not only includes hydrocarbons (oil and coal), metals, and gems, but also things like sand and gravel, lime, and gypsum. These are the only “practical” geologists as viewed by the general public. They earn a living by finding and extracting materials of value, and few dispute the practicality of these geologists.

2) Those that research interesting things that seemingly have no practical implications. These are the geologists the public views as “running around the country with a hammer”. They earn a living from government expenditures and grant money. The grant money comes from public sources, non-profit organizations, and private for-profit companies. The practicality of this research is rarely immediate, but the findings may ultimately benefit society. For example, a geologist may receive grant money to map a remote area for the purpose of understanding where the ocean was 100-million years ago. The map may eventually prove extremely useful when a road is built through that area, and engineers need to know over which rock unit to locate that road in order to have a stable road bed.

3) Those that work to save money and lives. Most know of earthquake and volcano hazards. But, most don’t know that more monetary damage is done every year by simple things such as soil creep and swelling clay. Beyond the major catastrophes, this category of geologist gets little attention. These geologists ultimately earn a living from public money, or from government regulation, and thus carry the stigma of being unimportant. Society gives little attention to how much money or how many lives are saved because of careful study and common-sense regulation. Devore, California provides a perfect example, a place that I visited and photographed in 2005. .

Devore is a small neighborhood nestled in the foothills northeast of San Bernadino. On Christmas day 2003, a debris flow (the media calls them mudslides) inundated the neighborhood, destroying many homes and ending the lives of many people. The homes not destroyed by the debris flow have little value, and residents must live amongst destroyed homes and piles of debris. Those homeowners have little chance of selling their homes and recovering their investment. Unfortunately,

Any competent geologist understands the terrain around Devore and concludes it is NOT SAFE for occupation. First, the San Bernadillo mountains are oversteepend by tectonic forces, and landslides are inevitable. Second, the region’s natural climate cycle is months of little rainfall, followed by wind and fire, and then torrential rain. This is true for much of southern California, and is the reason fires and mudslides are common. Since vegetation helps hold hillsides together, burning the vegetation greatly increases the landslide risk. Third, Devore is built on top of former debris flows, and a simple examination of the landscape reveals those old debris flow deposits are actually quite young. Logic says that if an area was inundated by a debris flow recently, the chances of it happening again are almost guaranteed.

So why were developers allowed to build in such an obviously unsafe area? The builder only cares about selling houses, and unless some regulation prevents development, the builder could care less what happens after they make their profit. Should it be the responsibility of the homeowner to research and understand the hazards before buying a property? A little geologic knowledge would have saved lives and money, but whose responsibility is it to pay for that knowledge?

Devore is an obvious (and common) example of a preventable geologic hazard. But, an ignorance of basic geologic principles and lax regulations resulted in the failure of Teton dam and the near failure of Glen Canyon dam. My intro to Geology textbook had a sidebar explaining that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen – and that book was published in the mid 1990s! Here in Arizona, a new highway was severely damaged by a landslide, despite the fact that geologists had noted previous landslides in the area before the highway was built. Let’s not overlook countless flood disasters because of houses built on floodplains, beach erosion, groundwater contamination because of poorly-constructed wells, countless bridge failures because engineers did not understand river dynamics, and foundations and roads destroyed because builders failed to pay attention to the soil properties.

If funding for such studies disappears, or regulations ease, the future cost of mitigating these hazards greatly outweighs today’s cost of prevention.

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7 Responses to The practicality of geology

  1. Geology is an interesting study! My grandma was a geologist while living in Soviet Union. She told me about her travels to mountains, hill and canyons… She used to work in Academy of Geology. I don’t really know much about geology, but I knew that she was a talented specialist. Her picture was even in Soviet encyclopedia. I also know that geologist possess exceptional knowledge.
    It is really insulting when people tell stupid things just because of lack of info or misconception of certain idea.
    Good evening, Kevin, by the way… 🙂

  2. I’m so pleased to find informative blogs like yours, but sad that it’s so easy for you to find avoidable disaster material. Just this week I read about three big new mountaintop removal projects as well as more hydrofracturing for natural gas. Consequences down the road appear to be given little consideration.

    • Hydrofracturing means creating man-made fractures in rocks in order to increase production from wells. It’s not just used for gas wells, but also for water and oil wells. In hard rocks, the fluds and gasses principally move thorough cracks. Hydrofracturing aims to increase the number, size of cracks, and the number of interconnecting cracks. Think of it as a city increasing traffic flow by adding more roads, more offramps, and more lanes. At issue is control – if the crack propagates in an unintended direction, it could potentially allow fluids or gasses to move to unintended locations, for example allowing natural gas to move into groundwater aquifers. If you rely on a well for water, hydrofracturing from a gas well miles away could potentially contaminate your water supply. It’s a very controversial issue, but I think potenital dangers are rather obvious.

  3. wadingacross says:

    I took two semesters of geology in college figuring they’d be an easy ‘a’. They were, but I was also interested in the subject and as long as it doesn’t involve math, I understand and enjoy most science.

    A dream and goal I’ve always had is to live in the country, to have a farm. As a kid I wanted to live in Montana. Anyhow, I’ve always thought it’d be interesting/good to figure out where the “safest” place to live in the US was. In the end, no place is 100% safe, but I figure it’s got to be pretty easy to find a place where the only thing you might have to worry about is a fire or a burglary.

    I would not want to live in an area I knew had geologic “issues” or potentialities.

    That said, I currently live in a hilly neighborhood and have problems with runoff, and a couple of years ago I experienced my first earthquake. A mild quake hit just east of the metro St. Louis area. It shook our chiffarobe a little, that was it. Were it not for my wife telling me, I would have assumed it was just a big truck rumbling down the street.

    • Thanks for stopping by! It’s interesting you brought up math and geology, as the joke we used to say is that Geology is the science for those who hate math. If you are looking for a “safe area”, you are right, it is all relative. Generally speaking, if you stay away from slopes, and away from water, you are better off. Many hazards can be solved with careful engineering – but at a cost.

  4. Hippie Cahier says:

    I apologize if I will learn this when I come back to explore later. Do you consider yourself to fall into one of these three categories exclusively (the third)? How did you come to choose this as a passion/life path?

    I am pressed for time at the moment, but I hope to come back for a visit later and hope you don’t mind if I add you to my “blogroll.” This most definitely falls into the “fascinating” category.

    • I have worked in both categories one and three, sometimes with the same company. My time as a grad student was exclusively category two. In a way this blog is an unpaid category two. But there is also a “fourth” category that I didn’t discuss. Those are people who use their geologist education and skills in a career that has little to do with the science. I’ve also done plenty of that.

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