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Spotlight: Environmental geology

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Pollution and contaminated land management is yet another area where environmental geologists are becoming increasingly involved

Our activities have a profound impact on the earth. We move enormous quantities of soil, rock and liquid around, transforming entire landscapes and affecting the ecosystems within those landscapes. We generate substances that disperse into the atmosphere and alter its chemical composition. We produce compounds that seep into surrounding habitats to set in motion events that have far reaching and long lasting consequences.

However, it’s by no means a one-way street. The earth’s own chemical, organic and mechanical processes affect humans every day in some way, shape or form. Understanding all these processes geologically, on both sides of the equation, and how they impact upon, and interact with, each other, is the role of environmental geology.

Environmental vs Engineering Geology

While environmental geology is closely linked with engineering geology there are significant differences between the two. Where engineering geology focuses on terrafirma and how geological activities within it affect structures built on it from an engineering perspective, environmental geology encompasses the wide range of human aspects within these processes.

Engineering geologists, for example, may consult with civil engineers around the suitability of underlying geological structures for various types of infrastructure. They provide information about the potential impacts on the structural integrity of said infrastructure from local geologic activities, and play an integral role in minimising the effects of any adverse earth events (earthquakes, landslides etc) on infrastructure. Environmental geologists also contribute to these discussions but they will seek to further assess the potential geologic impacts on human populations and local ecosystems.

In other words, an engineering geologist will tell you how and why infrastructure reacts to an adverse geological event and why something should or shouldn’t be built in that particular geological location from a structural perspective. An environmental geologist will tell you how and why that geologic event affects people (including their infrastructure) and the environment, and why something should or shouldn’t be built in that particular geological location from a population and environmental perspective.

Environmental geology courses typically focus on 5 main areas:

  • Human Population Growth,
  • Sustainability,
  • Earth as a System,
  • Hazardous Earth Processes,
  • Scientific Knowledge and Values

In particular, environmental geologists are concerned with the interaction between human populations and:

  • Natural hazards – floods, storms, volcanic action
  • Natural resources – soil, energy, water
  • Climate and climate history – from a geological perspective
  • Environmental and pollution policies
  • Land use – from a geological perspective

These professionals are trained to analyse pollution and its sources, how pollutants move through the environment, how the earth’s systems interact with pollution and contaminant flows, and about contaminant hydrogeology

On a more specific level, they are involved in understanding, tracking and monitoring

  • How population growth impacts local and global geological environments
  • How humans and their past / present / future activities impact climate from a geological aspect
  • How human activities (building, mining etc) impact local geologic environments
  • How the quality of geologic water resources impact human health
  • How the application of environmental, pollution and other similar policies affect the geological environment and ecosystems
  • Environmental hazards to help produce environmental hazard maps

Environmental geologists can be found managing hydrogeological and geological resources including:

  • Surface and ground water resources
  • Minerals
  • Fossil fuels
  • Land use

Environmental geologists use geomorphological and edaphological tools to study the earth’s lithosphere and determine best use practices around soil and land use. They are also trained to identify and reduce our exposure to natural hazards (floods, earthquakes, volcanic activity etc), to manage waste disposal from domestic and industrial processes, and reduce or minimise the effects of pollution.

Additionally, they may get involved in other activities associated with their field of expertise, including litigation.

Environmental geologists are also involved in identifying natural hazards like flood plains and fault lines and using this information to compile hazard maps. These maps allow authorities and individuals to make better-informed decisions around where to build and are a useful tool for improving awareness about building and living in certain types of geological environments.

Pollution and contaminated land management is yet another area where environmental geologists are becoming increasingly involved. Indeed, the investigation, assessment, and remediation of contaminated land typically now lands in the lap of the environmental geologist. These professionals are trained to analyse pollution and its sources, how pollutants move through the environment, how the earth’s systems interact with pollution and contaminant flows, and about contaminant hydrogeology. They are involved in planning and executing remediation projects (including mine site rehabilitation), licensing and permitting, waste management, site investigations (drilling, sampling, testing contaminated sites) as well as population health and safety.

Career paths for environmental geologists

Many environmental geologists do specialise in certain areas and are employed by engineering consultancies where they may act as Environmental Consultants, Environmental Geochemists, Contaminated Land Specialists, Environment Risk Management Specialists, Hydrogeology Specialists etc.

What you need to be an environmental geologist

A good understanding of historic and current geologic events is a necessary part of being an environmental geologist. Knowing the types of events the earth has produced in the past, the frequency with which they’ve happened, and the damage they’ve caused, helps shape our understanding of potential current and future occurrences. This in turn helps us make better plans for the future in terms of population growth and its associated support systems.

For example – an environmental geologist would have been able to advise authorities that building a city just 8 kilometres from a volcano was not in fact a good idea! It’s advice like this that helps avert the type of disaster that eventually befell said city when the volcano erupted in 79AD, burying it and its citizens beneath metres of volcanic rubble.

Likewise, an environmental geologist will suggest that town planning authorities not issue permits to build on flood plains (for obvious reasons) without taking steps to remove the risk of future flooding. However, they may also advise that removing that risk could have adverse effects on the ecosystems within the existing flood plain. Or that diverting flood waters elsewhere without taking into account the underlying geologic structures could create a whole new set of problems.

They would then be able to work with planning authorities, civil engineers and engineering geologists to come up with solutions based on sound geologic knowledge and experience. Should a flood happen, environmental geologists can assist with the remediation of an affected area and help restore it back to its pre-flood condition.

In short….

The basic principle underlying environmental geology, as is the case with all the environmental sciences, is that human progress and development should not come at the expense of the natural environment. Rather, it must work harmoniously with the environment and it must be sustainably managed to ensure it remains like that with minimal adverse impact upon natural systems.

(This article first appeared in Mining International Inc.)

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