What Is Geology?



In the West, the Latin “geologia” has meant the study of the Earth since about the mid-18th century (before then, it meant earthly matters as compared to God’s works).

What is geology today?  A look at the local gas mart is a good place to start.

Exploration geology

Right up front is one of the four things everybody first thinks of as “geology” – oil, the source of gasoline and diesel at the pumps and the gas in the propane and LP cylinders.  (To complete the thought, just add the diamond engagement ring on the cashier’s finger, a used DVD of Jurassic Park on sale at the counter and a volcano quietly steaming away in the background because you’re in Hawaii.)

There’s also asphalt and roofing tar,  as well as automotive lubricants and maybe some kerosene.  That pretty much covers it, right?

Oh no.  Useful geology is all around.  The minerals used in the cars, motorcycles and bicycles; construction materials for the store; underground constructs that level the ground and seal off storage and septic tanks; power lines . . . well, you get the idea.

Economic geologists helped bring us all that.  Another sort of geologist might have been at the zoning board meeting before the store went up.

(Junko Takahashi/amana images/Getty Images)
Junko Takahashi/amana images/Getty Images


There’s a strong connection between water and geology, as you can see in any landscape.

Closer to home,  hydrogeologists monitor water quality and supply in local wells, reservoirs or aquifers, as well as in streams and lakes.

Planning officials may have asked them about possible ground water pollution from the proposed new store.  A geologist might also have passed along tips like how to tilt the parking lot surface so runoff wouldn’t contaminate the marsh next door.

Much of the water in your area eventually ends up in the ocean, where marine hydrogeologists work.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff below the waves.  Marine geologists study rocks and sediments down there for research and economic reasons, as well as to chart navigation and other hazards.

Meanwhile, back at the store, that volcano in the background has started acting up. . . .

Natural hazards

Relax, say Hawaiian Volcano Observatory scientists, we’ve got it covered.

In 2012, the HVO celebrated its 100th anniversary, but the oldest volcano observatory in the world is the Osservatorio Vesuviano.  Volcanologists there have studied Italian volcanoes, particularly Vesuvius, since 1841.  These two observatories are part of a global and growing network.

Volcanoes cause earthquakes, but so do many other things.  The field of seismology has developed over the last 150 years to study and understand earthquakes better.  Improved instrumentation allows seismologists to map hazard zones and estimate the stress a quake might put on structures, including our store.

Landslides and other debris flows happen suddenly, often without a triggering earthquake or eruption.  As urban areas expand into hilly terrain, geoscientists are there to identify risks and suggest steps that can prevent or reduce their impact.

A small landslide in a canyon near the store last month revealed some fossils.  That’s where those freshmen geology students in the green van at Pump #3 are going now.


Say “dinosaur” and many people think of the first Jurassic Park movie.  Older folks also remember museum dioramas that gave visitors a similar sense of “reality” in a freeze-frame sort of way.

(National Park Service)
National Park Service

Paleontology exists to say that both these views are not correct.

T-rex likely had feathers, and some Wikipedia images of dioramas now come with red-boxed warnings that they’re inaccurate.

Scientists are such buzz-killers.

But there is that whole “factually accurate” thing.

Not too long ago, humanity had no facts.  When huge bones were dug up, people thought them the remains of dragons, old-time giants, casualties of the Great Flood 4-1/2 millennia ago or some such thing.

Only in the last century or so did anyone realize that systematic study of these bones and other fossils could give you a precise map of when different layers of rock formed.  This allowed scientists to question Biblical dates of Earth’s formation, and that really rocked the Western intellectual world, as well as developing the idea of geologic time.

Then museums started putting fossil specimens back together again as best they could (not always the right way), and the public loved it.  Lots of money poured in for expeditions and research.  Financial support increased as dioramas and special effects movies became popular.  Major new discoveries happened in the field.

Computers also made a big difference.  They not only improved FX, they also helped scientists do things they’d never tried before, like  visualize the soft tissues on well-preserved fossils.

Today, our idea of what ancient life looked and sounded like is more accurate than ever.  But wait . . . didn’t they say that in the 1800’s, too?

The Solar System

The Sun is setting now and our store’s lights are coming on.  There go the students, heading back to campus.

Not all of them will major in geology.  Of those who do, maybe one or two might follow in Harrison Schmidt’s steps.  He’s the only geologist so far to have walked on an extraterrestrial surface.

Things get very sciency very quickly when talking about astrogeology, but there’s a simple visceral pleasure we all can understand when somebody takes that first step in a new world.

That’s what geology is, after all – life studying its surroundings and putting them to use.  Geology sees into the past, is aware of the present and always busy, imagining its way to the future.

(More about this video.)

Front page image: Morguefile/msmediadesign

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