A Career in Geophysics


Concern for the environment has been steadily increasing for the past several decades. This awareness has led to increased efforts to clean up past problems and to reduce the future impact on the environment. Geophysics has a role to play in both areas.

Environmental geophysics is a relatively new field. It is primarily used to identify, map or predict the presence and potential movement of surface water and groundwater and to identify contaminants in the soil within the upper 10 to 50 m of the Earth's surface. It can also be used to help locate sites for underground waste disposal, examine archaeological sites or even assist the police in their investigations of possible burial sites.

environmental geophysicist collecting data near river

Acquisition of ground-penetrating radar over a frozen lake to find its depth.

Working Conditions

Environmental geophysicists often are part of multi-disciplinary teams which include geological engineers, biologists, hydrogeologists and technicians. They can be involved in a wide variety of activities that are both geophysically and non-geophysically related.

Environmental geophysicists often welcome the chance to leave the desk behind, pack up their portable computer and travel out of the city to investigate problem sites, even in inclement weather. In addition to doing field work in the rural environment, some field work is done in urban settings. As flexible people, they become involved in water or soil sampling, mapping and statistics as well as conducting their own geophysical surveys.

satellite image

University of Alberta professor Martin Unsworth uploads geophysical data collected in Tibet.

Data Collection

Environmental geophysicists use many of the instruments and techniques used in mining and petroleum geophysics such as magnetic, electrical and seismic methods. Adapted for use at shallow depths, these methods are very effective.

Seismic surveys, redesigned for shallow targets, are less common due to their higher cost but in some situations, their usefulness outweighs the extra dollars needed.

Ground Penetrating Radar

A relatively new technique, ground penetrating radar (G.P.R.), is being tested. As the name suggests, it puts a very high frequency radio signal into the ground and records the reflected signal much like the seismic method.

remote sensing aircraft over landscape