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The Future Of Geology: A Geologist’s Take On School, Careers, And The Environment
by -- August 26th, 2015

As I write this the DOW has plummeted 1000 points and WTI is at a pre 2009 low of $38.00 per barrel. These are undoubtedly interesting times in the world economy and times that make me appreciate the importance of energy and the environment in driving the international landscape. As a geologist, there aren’t many other careers that work on so many scales, both within the field and within the world markets. Geologist work to predict earthquakes, find energy locked inside the earth, help protect natural processes, and supply much of the world’s natural resources.

The life of a geologist is one full of adventure and questions to answer, which has led me around the globe in search for answers and often times leave with ever more. In the coming decades and centuries, geologists will be tasked with finding ever scarce resources for a growing population. Meanwhile, we will lead the charge in limiting global climate change, reducing man made environmental contamination, and finding alternate sources of Earth’s energy. In a generation where were predicted to face harsher droughts, stronger storms, and decreasing natural resources, there is never a time when smart, ingenuitive, and passionate geologist are needed more.

Here I hope to provide some background to what brought me into geology, how being part of the Nicholas School shaped my life and a bit about being a geologist. I hope to keep this an open dialogue and welcome any comments below about the field or my personal experience.

A Geologist To Be

The first course that opened my eyes to geology was a coastal geology and geomorphology course on the barrier islands of North Carolina. This was a summer course where we lived at the marine lab and went out to collect samples and talk about coastal geology every day. From the start, I was awestruck that people actually got paid to hike along remote barrier islands and answer fundamental questions about why they formed, how have they changed in the past, and how rising sea levels would affect residents daily lives. By the time the course ended, I had found my career and just began to answer the many questions that lingered in the back of my mind.

Coastal geomorphology on Bald Head Island.

Coastal geomorphology on Bald Head Island.

Much of my earlier life was spent outdoors while growing up on Kauai, Hawaii with a Horticulturist father. We spent every weekend hiking around the island and I was never shy about asking questions as we came across new plant species, a waterfall, or a black sand beach. This was a fundamental time when I learned to think on scale that ranged from microns to kilometers, and from seconds to millennia.

Shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree I began my PhD at the Earth and Ocean Sciences department within the Nicholas School of the Environment. Coming straight from undergraduate, I didn’t have much in mind for a future degree but I simply knew I enjoyed geology and wanted to continue to study. This was a pivotal moment in my life where I further defined who I was and developed my knowledge with the help of my advisor, fellow graduate students, and the faculty.

Very few people continue to research the topic they complete their dissertation on, straying into other research topics, industry, government, consulting, etc. With that comes the realization that Duke did not simply allow me to study paleoclimatology on the Amazon, but guided me through a process of self examination and problem solving. The biggest lesson my PhD gave me was the ability to answer questions previously unanswered, to find solutions in the fog of data, and know how to leverage brilliant minds to a common goal.

A Career in Geology

As a geologist I’ve always been keen on helping publicize the career as I believe it’s woefully underrepresented and offers tremendous opportunities. A geologists career can take you around the world, provide a constantly changing and challenging career, offer excellent salaries, and allow you to tackle some of the great issues of our generation.

It’s well recognized the geological difficulties we will face in the future, namely energy, climate change, and water. These three interlinked factors will require geologists to help tackle the problems. Geology will be instrumental and integrated with many other disciplines as we find global solutions that appear to have no silver bullet.

There are record droughts in California with no significant relief in sight, there is a need for water conservation, identify deeper potable aquifers, reduce water consumption, etc. We will find that water stress will dictate population dynamics and limit food production in certain regions around the world.

California drought over time.

California drought over time.

As the world population nears 10 billion, there will be an ever increasing demand for energy to lift developing countries out of poverty and into economic prosperity. However, there are limitations to conventional energy supplies and a worldwide demand to transition to renewable energy sources to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. Geologists can play a key role in identifying low carbon natural gas and areas of sustained and ample wind and sunlight. Meanwhile, we must realize our role in sustaining biodiversity, protecting vital ecosystems, and directing the world’s leaders.

I hope this has offered a glimpse into the world of a geologist and spawned you to take action, whether it’s to pursue geology as a career or a hobby. There are many questions to answer and we need bright, young, and energetic minds to tackle them. I hope to see you leading the way and embracing a constant challenge and adventure.

Trevor Nace obtained his PhD in Geology from Duke University. He now works for Shell in Houston and enjoys sharing his love for geology and writing about technology on his tech website Appamatix.

Read more about Trevor here

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