Geophysicists study the structure and composition of zones below Earth’s surface using techniques that employ seismic, electrical, and magnetic signals. They use non-invasive methods to study subsurface conditions, for example contamination and oil and gas exploration. There are many practical applications for geophysics beyond environmental projects, for example finding potable water sources, assisting police forensic studies, or developing new methods for the detection of anti-personnel mines.
At a glance
Imagine you are on a small boat slowly sailing through the harbour of a busy industrial city. You are an environmental geophysicist and this harbour tour is actually a geophysical survey. The boat and the instruments attached to it are helping you map contamination levels in the sand and rock on the harbour floor. The city has hired you to conduct this geophysical survey as part of an enormous remediation project to clean up the city’s harbour after hundreds of years of pollution.
As an environmental geophysicist, you specialize in measuring geological characteristics in hard-to-reach places, for example deep in the earth at depths beyond what can be reached by excavation or at the bottom of the ocean. Today your boat is towing a marine magnetometer back and forth over the harbour floor. The magnetometer is a sensor that maps the amount of magnetic oxides in the sediment, which is a measure of the amount of contamination in the harbour floor from effluent, shipping traffic, and nearby steel processing plants.
As the sensor picks up different levels of magnetic oxides, the data is fed into an on-board computer, which in turn produces a magnetic map illustrating the different levels of contamination on the harbour floor. In order to get a good map, you will have to drag the magnetometer across most of the harbour, so you will be at this for the next few days. Once you have gathered all the data, you will analyze and interpret the results to produce a contaminant map for the remediation team to use in its cleanup.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental geophysicist:
Plan, conduct, and interpret geophysical surveys for environmental exploration and studies.
Use various techniques, for example seismic reflection and refraction, resistivity profiling and electromagnetic sounding, ground penetrating radar, radioactivity, and magnetic surveying, to search for buried objects, fractures, and contaminants.
Map contamination, for example from old mines or abandoned oil wells.
Use mathematical and data processing methodologies to produce an interpretable image of the subsurface.
Study geophysical data to determine the type, shape, and location of underground rock structures and the depth and quality of water.
Supervise collection and processing of geophysical data.
Develop mathematical models and computer programs to interpret geophysical survey results.
Determine the source and level of pollutants.
Develop plans to remediate a contaminated site, including necessary follow-up geophysical surveys to evaluate progress.
Prepare reports and scientific papers to present findings and study results.
Environmental geophysicists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the office:
Analyzing data collected in the field using existing software or by developing new models and programs
Compiling survey information and data
Creating maps and extrapolating information from data
Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, government officials, and stakeholders
Preparing presentations and writing scientific research papers
In the field:
Carrying out geophysical surveys
Monitoring quality control of data as it is acquired
In the lab:
Studying the physical properties of rocks, sediment, and soils
Where to work
There are a number of places environmental geophysicists can find employment. They include:
Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
Universities, colleges, and research institutes
Geophysical data acquisition and processing firms
Environmental and engineering consulting firms
Resource firms, including oil and gas and mining
Education & requirements
If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental geophysicist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental geophysicist is a university graduate degree.
If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental geophysicist, the following programs are most applicable:
In most provinces, geophysicists must be registered and licensed with their provincial association as a Professional Geoscientist. Certification requirements are similar to engineering professions and are often governed by the same body.
Geophysicists in an entry level position can make an average of $36,500 per year in Canada.
For a geophysicist with several years of experience and education $75,000 per year in Canada is average.
Geological and geophysical technician
I was lucky. Right after graduation in the mid-1970s I started a job mapping permafrost distribution, ice conditions, and aggregates in the Mackenzie Valley of the Northwest Territories. One of the first projects was to determine if a pipeline passing between two fish over-wintering areas on the Yukon Coastal Plain would have an ecological impact. This was a truly environmental application of geophysics but it was not labeled as such until many years later. I have been involved in environmental applications of geophysics since that original survey.
People separate environmental geophysics from oil and gas geophysics, however, there is only one core field of geophysics. I recognized this perspective after gaining experience as a geophysicist and then returning to university for a Masters in Environmental Design. For example, the tools that are used in mineral exploration are directly applicable to solving environmental problems. I found it very helpful to learn the jargon of the environmental discipline. It is easier to adapt geophysics to suit environmental issues when you have a broad background.
Like many people in this profession, I take a life-long learning approach to my work. There is a small community of geophysicists in North America. It is easy to network and share knowledge with this group through the Internet and at conferences. I also read trade journals and work closely with other professionals who share my interests. My current learning focus is a doctoral level degree in the area of environmental geophysics.
The future of geophysics is very promising. We are able to do things now that were impossible to consider thirty years ago. As the tools we use become more advanced we continue to find new applications for their use. My plans are to take more of a mentoring role in the next few years, helping others to accomplish their goals in the profession. By sharing my experience with the energetic and intelligent upcoming generation of geophysicists, we will all benefit.
Don’t focus just on geophysics. Get an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. If you start with a broad educational background, continue to learn on the job and enhance your education throughout your career, you will do very well in this type of work. Establish contacts and gain experience by getting involved with organizations that work with problems requiring the skills of a geophysicist. Develop your thinking skills and gain a good understanding of environmental management systems. There is a great variety of rewarding work within the field of geophysics.
I work as part of a highly skilled team. When a client presents a situation we begin the planning and conceptual design of the project that will result in solving the problem. An example of this type of work would be saline pollution of a fresh water well located on an island surrounded by salt water. To determine how to fix this problem we map the distribution of the salt water, determine the causes of its inland movement and propose solutions to the client. The client can pass this information on to others who will implement the best solution. You need a passion for this type of work. Time is spent in the office and in the field. The person who collects the field data does the data interpretation. There can be extensive travel, however most of my work is done in Western Canada. The flexibility that is found in this career allows a geophysicist to work almost anywhere in Canada.
The tools we used to map permafrost distribution in the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project were prototypes. These instruments have since been improved and used in a variety of new applications. Because of the success of our work in the 1970s with new technology, the instrument manufacturer grew to become a world leader. They have developed better tools for use in other applications. All groups involved have benefited from this technology that came out of a need to protect the environment.