Someone fascinated by natural objects like glaciers and crystals or awestruck by scenic landscapes ranging from deserts to swamps should be aware of an academic discipline that focuses on solving the mysteries surrounding Earth’s history and destiny.
What Earth Science Is and What Earth Scientists Do
Earth science concentrates on investigating how the planet works and why. This field delves into the many layers of the Earth and explains how those pieces fit together into a cohesive structure. The interdisciplinary subject not only provides insight into the mechanics of the solid parts of the planet, but also illustrates the inner workings of the liquid and gaseous portions. It addresses questions about the origins and evolution of the atmosphere, various land formations and bodies of water.
This branch of science includes research into what the globe might have looked like in the past, the way it might appear in the future and how it fits into the universe as a whole, which facilitates comparisons with other planets like Venus and Mars.
Earth science is inextricably connected to astronomy, which is the study of outer space, since the behavior of the sun and moon influences conditions on Earth and there are many space hazards that could potentially destroy the Earth, such as asteroids and comets.
Earth science is highly relevant to the welfare of humanity, as it allows people to predict and prepare for natural disasters such as hurricanes and volcanic eruptions. It also helps people locate and extract valuable raw materials that are hidden underground, ranging from fresh water and fossil fuels to minerals and precious metals.
“From where certain crops prefer to grow, to why there’s a hill on the horizon, to the shape of the coastline, every natural feature on a landscape can be explained through Earth Sciences,” Gemma Cassidy, who has a Ph.D. degree in earth science, wrote in an email. “Beyond the natural world, an Earth Scientist will have been involved in getting the electricity and/or gas in your home and the petrol/diesel into your car, as well as finding the rare earth elements for your smart phone. Perhaps most crucially, it is Earth Scientists who work to understand where is safe for us to live, and help to assess how you mitigate risk in a city in a volcano/earthquake/hurricane-prone area.”
Types of Earth Science
Here are some of the major categories within earth science, an enormous academic discipline that encompasses multiple areas of study.
— Atmospheric science
— Climatology or climate science
— Environmental science
Steven A. Hauck II, professor and chair of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, notes that some earth scientists concentrate on water while others focus on oceans or rocks. Earth scientists may examine the Earth’s core or its magnetic field, he says.
How to Become an Earth Scientist
Although a majority of earth scientists have a bachelor’s degree, this credential isn’t a requirement for all earth science jobs. “Most earth scientists have a four-year college degree,” Hauck says. “I wouldn’t say all.”
Aspiring earth scientists should plan to pursue a four-year degree in this area, he says, and some types of earth science occupations may demand graduate education. A master’s or doctorate is usually necessary for a research career, Hauck explains.
Doug Gouzie, a professor of geology at Missouri State University, advises future earth scientists to get a “good, solid foundation” in math and chemistry, since knowledge of both those areas is valuable within the earth science field.
What You Can Do With an Earth Science Degree
An earth science degree is marketable within the energy and mining industries. The credential is also helpful within positions that focus on environmental sustainability and that which can be based at government agencies or private-sector companies, Hauck says.
[READ: How to Become a Geologist.]
“Earth science is a really broad field,” he explains. “It’s not just about rocks or fossils. It’s about understanding the world around us and how it works and so there are many different ways of doing that.”
Cassidy, who oversees various scientific journals that relate to her field of study for the academic publisher Wiley, notes that earth scientists can find a variety of jobs.
“Oil, gas and mineral extraction have always been options for Earth Scientists, but there are a vast array of other careers available such as geoenvironmental work, geotechnical engineering, or hydrogeology,” she says. “There is also the option to continue in a research career, and continue to study pressing topics like climate change or natural hazards. Other, less direct options include teaching, and of course, publishing.”
What Makes Earth Science Unique
Curiosity about how Earth compares to other planets and what occurs below its surface led Hauck to study and learn about the differences and similarities between the Earth and other planets.
“Where we live is this really thin layer on top of an immense planet that’s mostly beneath our feet, right? And so I was really excited about trying to connect what we see at the surface with what’s happening in the 99% of the planet that’s beneath our feet and trying to understand that,” Hauck explains, adding that he was also intrigued by the possibility of analyzing extraterrestrial environments.
Gouzie says one of the best aspects of a job as an earth scientist is getting to go out and have adventures in interesting locations like caves and coastlines.
Unlike chemists who frequently use undiluted substances, earth scientists typically deal with raw materials with a hodgepodge of ingredients, Gouzie explains. “I get to see the variety of all the impurities — the imperfections — and I find that kind of neat, because it’s kind of like psychologists dealing with people,” he says. “You’re not dealing with something that is pure and completely predictable.”
The diversity of topics under the earth science umbrella makes the field special, according to scholars within the discipline. Earth science incorporates ideas from biology, chemistry and physics, so it tends to be a practical area of study, scholars say.
Gouzie once worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researching landfill leakages, and he has investigated the way dangerous substances can move through groundwater and threaten the health of humans. He now focuses on caves and sinkholes. Because earth science examines tangible objects and addresses a wide array of issues, the field may be especially attractive to some aspiring scientists, especially those who would prefer to concentrate on concrete problems, he says.
There are some challenging aspects of earth science. For instance, certain inaccessible parts of the Earth, like its inner core, are impossible to observe directly. Scientists need to be creative about finding ways to deduce information about these remote regions, such as by monitoring seismic wave activity through machinery.
Additionally, earth scientists sometimes have to work in harsh or hazardous environments such as arctic or volcanic regions.
Rachel Barr, vice president of sustainability at UBQ Materials — an Israeli company that converts waste into recyclable thermoplastic — notes an urgent need for people to study earth science.
“There’s never going to be enough people who have studied this and who are engaged in this area,” says Barr, who earned a master’s degree in environmental science at Yale University in Connecticut. “The more people involved, the better it is for the whole society, as well as the planet.”
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