Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Environmental Scientists and Geoscientists

Environmental scientists and geoscientists use their knowledge of the physical makeup and history of the Earth to protect the environment; locate water, mineral, and energy resources; predict future geologic hazards; and offer advice on construction and land-use projects.

Environmental scientists conduct research to identify and abate or eliminate sources of pollutants that affect people, wildlife, and their environments. These workers analyze and report measurements and observations of air, water, soil, and other sources and make recommendations on how best to clean and preserve the environment. Understanding the issues involved in protecting the environment—degradation, conservation, recycling, and replenishment—is central to the work of environmental scientists, who often use their skills and knowledge to design and monitor waste disposal sites, preserve water supplies, and reclaim contaminated land and water to comply with Federal environmental regulations.

Many environmental scientists do work and have training that is similar to other physical or life scientists, but is applied to environmental areas. Many specialize in some specific area, such as environmental ecology and conservation, environmental chemistry, environmental biology, or fisheries science. Most environmental scientists are further classified by the specific activity they perform (although recent advances in the understanding of basic life processes within the ecosystem have blurred some traditional classifications). For example, environmental ecologists study the relationships between organisms and their environments and the effects of influences such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude. Utilizing their knowledge of various scientific disciplines, they may collect, study, and report data on air, food, soil, and water. Ecological modelers study ecosystems, the control of environmental pollution, and the management of resources. These environmental scientists may use mathematical modeling, systems analysis, thermodynamics, and computer techniques. Environmental chemists may study the toxicity of various chemicals—how those chemicals affect plants, animals, and people. Geochemists study the nature and distribution of chemical elements in ground water and Earth materials.

Some environmental scientists work in managerial positions, usually after spending some time performing research or learning about environmental laws and regulations. Many work as consultants to business firms or to government agencies, helping them comply with environmental policy, particularly with regard to ground-water contamination and flood control. Environmental scientists who determine policy may help identify how human behavior can be modified in the future to avoid such problems as ground-water contamination and depletion of the ozone layer.

Geoscientists study the composition, structure, and other physical aspects of the Earth. With the use of sophisticated instruments and by analyzing the composition of the earth and water, geoscientists study the Earth’s geologic past and present. Many geoscientists are involved in searching for oil and gas, while others work closely with environmental scientists in preserving and cleaning up the environment.

Geoscientists usually study, and are subsequently classified into, one of several closely related fields of geoscience. Geologists study the composition, processes, and history of the Earth. They try to find out how rocks were formed and what has happened to them since their formation. They also study the evolution of life by analyzing plant and animal fossils. Geophysicists use the principles of physics, mathematics, and chemistry to study not only the Earth’s surface, but also its internal composition; ground and surface waters; atmosphere; oceans; and magnetic, electrical, and gravitational forces.

Oceanographers use their knowledge of geology and geophysics, in addition to biology and chemistry, to study the world’s oceans and coastal waters. They study the motion and circulation of the ocean waters; the physical and chemical properties of the oceans; and how these properties affect coastal areas, climate, and weather. Oceanographers are further broken down according to their areas of expertise. For example, physical oceanographers study the ocean tides, waves, currents, temperatures, density, and salinity. They examine the interaction of various forms of energy, such as light, radar, sound, heat, and wind, with the sea, in addition to investigating the relationship between the sea, weather, and climate. Chemical oceanographers study the distribution of chemical compounds and chemical interactions that occur in the ocean and on the sea floor. They may investigate how pollution affects the chemistry of the ocean. Geological and geophysical oceanographers study the topographic features and the physical makeup of the ocean floor. Their knowledge can help companies find oil and gas off coastal waters. (Biological oceanographers, often called marine biologists, study the distribution and migration patterns of the many diverse forms of sea life in the ocean, but because they are considered biological scientists, they are not covered in this statement on environmental scientists and geoscientists. See instead the statement on biological scientists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Geoscientists can spend a large part of their time in the field, identifying and examining rocks, studying information collected by remote sensing instruments in satellites, conducting geological surveys, constructing field maps, and using instruments to measure the Earth’s gravity and magnetic field. For example, they often perform seismic studies, which involve bouncing energy waves off buried rock layers, to search for oil and gas or to understand the structure of subsurface rock layers. Seismic signals generated by an earthquake are used to determine the earthquake’s location and intensity. In laboratories, geologists and geophysicists examine the chemical and physical properties of specimens. They study fossil remains of animal and plant life or experiment with the flow of water and oil through rocks.

Numerous specialties that further differentiate the type of work geoscientists do fall under the two major disciplines of geology and geophysics. For example, petroleum geologists explore for oil and gas deposits by studying and mapping the subsurface of the ocean or land. They use sophisticated geophysical instrumentation and computers to interpret geological information. Engineering geologists apply geologic principles to the fields of civil and environmental engineering, offering advice on major construction projects and assisting in environmental remediation and natural hazard reduction projects. Mineralogists analyze and classify minerals and precious stones according to their composition and structure. They study the environment surrounding rocks in order to find new mineral resources. Paleontologists study fossils found in geological formations to trace the evolution of plant and animal life and the geologic history of the Earth. Stratigraphers examine the formation and layering of rocks to understand the environment in which they were formed. Volcanologists investigate volcanoes and volcanic phenomena to try to predict the potential for future eruptions and possible hazards to human health and welfare. Hydrologists study the quantity, distribution, circulation, and physical properties of underground and surface waters. They examine the form and intensity of precipitation, its rate of infiltration into the soil, its movement through the earth, and its return to the ocean and atmosphere. The work hydrologists do is particularly important in environmental preservation, remediation, and flood control.

Geophysicists specialize in areas such as geodesy, seismology, or magnetic geophysics. Geodesists study the Earth’s size, shape, gravitational field, tides, polar motion, and rotation. Seismologists interpret data from seismographs and other geophysical instruments to detect earthquakes and locate earthquake-related faults. Geomagnetists measure the Earth’s magnetic field and use measurements taken over the past few centuries to devise theoretical models that explain the Earth’s origin. Paleomagnetists interpret fossil magnetization in rocks and sediments from the continents and oceans to record the spreading of the sea floor, the wandering of the continents, and the many reversals of polarity that the Earth’s magnetic field has undergone through time. Other geophysicists study atmospheric sciences and space physics. (See the statements on atmospheric scientists, and physicists and astronomers, elsewhere in the Handbook.)