Environmental Geologist

Environmental geologists study the earth with the specific focus of understanding human interactions with the land, particularly as a means to predict or anticipate geological issues and provide information to help minimize impacts on the environment. They work on a variety of projects and can be involved in studying earthquakes, erosion, watershed management, mineral resources, and landfills. Environmental geologists also examine the effects of urban and industrial expansion and are vital to finding successful strategies for minimizing the negative effects of growth.

Entry-Level Salary:
Senior-Level Salary:

At a Glance

Imagine you are standing on the bank of a shallow, fast-moving creek, watching carefully as one of your colleagues manoeuvres a mechanized auger to extract a core sample from the bank. You are an environmental geologist working on a project to construct a 300-kilometre underground pipeline that will carry crude oil from northern wells to refineries farther south.

The pipeline must cross a number of environmentally sensitive areas, such as this creek, and the regulatory process requires that all environmental issues be addressed before construction begins. In order to do this, the pipeline’s builders have assembled a multidisciplinary team of geologists, biologists, and geographers to study the proposed pipeline route and determine its potential impact on the environment. The team will also make recommendations on ways to mitigate the pipeline’s impact and avoid serious problems.

As an environmental geologist, you specialize in the rock and soil that this pipeline will be buried under, and the team will rely on your expertise to evaluate geological conditions along the proposed route. Hundreds of core samples will be taken from sites along the route and analyzed for particular characteristics. For example, you will take the core sample from the creek bed to your lab and analyze its soil and rock composition. You will look at particle size and porosity, which is a measure of the space taken up by pores in rock and soil. You will also measure the core samples’ hydraulic conductivity. This very important measurement gives you an idea of how quickly liquid moves through the soil or rock around the pipeline. Should crude oil ever leak from the pipe, you can estimate how far and how quickly the leak will seep before it is contained.

This is particularly important around sensitive areas such as the creek: if the hydraulic conductivity of these samples is too high, barriers must be installed to ensure that a crude oil leak doesn’t seep into the creek. You may also recommend that barriers and extra fill be used in areas where stability is an issue so the pipeline isn’t cracked by pressure or movement in the earth. Before the 1.5-metre trench is dug, you will be responsible for making certain geological conditions for the route are mapped and assessed so any environmental concerns can be properly addressed.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental geologist:

  • Conduct geological surveys and field studies.
  • Collect and analyze rock and core samples from field studies, drilling, and test programs.
  • Collect soil and sediment samples for geochemical analysis.
  • Study the effects of erosion, sedimentation, and tectonic deformation.
  • Record and interpret geological information from maps, reports, boreholes, aerial photos, satellite imagery, and geochemical surveys.
  • Assemble and operate the environmental cleaning apparatus, for example, soil vapour extraction systems.
  • Assemble and calibrate air analyzing instruments.
  • Collect samples of contaminated soils.
  • Study and identify natural risks such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and mudslides.
  • Prepare geological maps, cross-sectional diagrams, and reports based on fieldwork and laboratory research.
  • Supervise geological technicians and other staff.

Work Environment

Environmental geologists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Compiling survey information and data
  • Analyzing field data, aerial photographs, and satellite images
  • Creating maps and cross-sectional diagrams
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, government officials, and stakeholders
  • Preparing reports

In the field:

  • Carrying out geological surveys
  • Collecting soil, sediment, and rock samples
  • Recording geophysical measurements using field instruments

In the lab:

  • Studying rock cores, cuttings, and samples
  • Analyzing samples using microscopes, microprobes, and other analytical equipment

Where to Work

There are a number of places environmental geologists can find employment. They include:

  • Environmental and engineering/geotechnical consulting firms
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Universities, colleges, and research institutes
  • Resource firms, including oil and gas and mining
  • Geological surveys

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental geologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Geography
  • Computer Science

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental geologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental geologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Geology
  • Geological Engineering
  • Environmental Earth Science
  • Environmental Science

In most provinces, environmental geologists 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.

Role Models

Christina Turcotte

As a high school student growing up in New Brunswick, Christina Turcotte found that she had an aptitude for math and sciences-particularly biology. So, when she enrolled at the University of New Brunswick, biology was her first choice. “I had no idea that an interest in biology could lead to a career in geology,” Christina says. During her second year at university, Christina was urged by a friend to join the university geological society.

Field trips to mines and geological formations across New Brunswick opened her eyes to a new set of possibilities. She switched majors and, within four years, had earned a B.Sc. in geology with a major in environmental geochemistry. Today, Christina is working for a Montreal-based environmental consulting firm. Her job keeps her in the field most of the time, for instance, examining commercial and industrial buildings for PCBs, asbestos, and improperly dumped chemicals or overseeing the removal of underground tanks. “The work I do requires well-developed investigative skills,” Christina says. “People skills are also high on the list because you have to be reassuring, firm and fair in dealing with clients. When I return to the office, interpretation skills come into play. You have to combine evidence from sources such as samples, historical research, aerial photographs and interviews to form a complete picture of a particular site.”