What is an Environmental Geologist?

Environmental geologists help prevent contamination of soil and groundwater by determining geologically safe locations for new landfills, coal ash disposal sites, and nuclear power plants. They also help plan underground waste disposal. For example, companies in certain industries dispose of chemical-laden waste water by pumping it deep underground. Environmental geologists help determine sites for safe waste water “injection wells” and may oversee the process.

These professionals also help plan new mines to make them as safe for the environment as possible. They decide where to put the mining waste and how to protect groundwater, and may develop a soil and water monitoring plan. They also evaluate effects of proposed projects on the geological environment, and how geology may limit development.

In addition to preventing contamination, environmental geologists also help clean up contamination from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks or chemical spills. For example, they examine the structure of the soils and rock, along with the flow of groundwater, to determine the extent and distribution of contaminants underground. They may also assist with the remediation of Superfund sites and old mines by assessing and mapping underground conditions.

Environmental geologists may also help protect and restore water resources, such as Louisiana wetlands damaged by oil shipping channels and subsidence. They may also help prevent or repair coastal erosion. Some create natural hazard assessments and safe evacuation routes for local communities.

What Does an Environmental Geologist Do?

Environmental geologists plan or conduct geological field studies to collect data on a particular site, such as soil types, rock structure, and groundwater flows. They also use geographic information systems (GIS) and other specialized software to create geologic maps, maps showing the distribution of contamination, or cross-sectional diagrams.

They then use the information gathered from field surveys, maps, well logs, bore holes, ground penetrating radar,aerial photos, and the geologic literature to understand underground geological conditions and potential natural hazards.

They use their expertise and the information they've gathered to assess the geological safety of a location for a particular use, such as waste disposal or siting a nuclear power plant. They also advise on how to reduce risk or restore contaminated sites. They may write reports detailing their findings for clients.

Where Does an Environmental Geologist Work?

Many environmental geologists work for consulting firms, where they offer their expertise to oil and mining companies and other clients. They may also be employed by those companies directly, as well as by engineering and environmental remediation firms. Some work for state and local government agencies, such as geological surveys and environmental agencies. Others become professors or research staff at colleges and universities, or high school science teachers.

Environmental geologists may work outside part of the time, collecting data on site or overseeing remediation operations. They may travel and work long or irregular hours when doing fieldwork. Most geoscientists work full time.

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What Is the Average Environmental Geologist Salary?

Environmental geologists, who fall under the broader BLS category of geoscientists, earned a median salary of $93,580 as of May 2020.*

Environmental Geology Jobs & Job Description

Environmental geologists' specialty is analyzing the earth and its impact on humans and the environment. Generally, the intent of the field is to forecast geological events and problems and inform governments, the public, and other stakeholders about preventative means and how an event might affect the environment. While responsibilities for the job do vary based on field specialty, the tasks below fall within the scope of most environmental geology jobs:

  • Read scientific literature and research reviews
  • Conduct surveys and field studies to gather geological data
  • Analyze material samples from the project field using a variety of collection techniques
  • Gather soil samples and subject to chemical analysis
  • Study geophysical events like erosion and tectonic motion and their impact on human populations and the environment
  • Use maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery, geochemical surveys, GIS data and other sources to perform site analysis
  • Identify and report on events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and mudslides.
  • Prepare reports and inform imagery based on fieldwork and laboratory research.
  • Compiling survey information and data
  • Analyzing field data, aerial photographs, and satellite images
  • Creating maps and cross-sectional diagrams
  • Preparing reports

Senior tier environmental geology jobs may have the following elements in addition to tier-one responsibilities:

  • Supervise technicians and support staff
  • Communicating clients, colleagues, government officials, and stakeholders
  • Navigating environmental regulations
  • Applying for grants and funding options
  • Managing project budgets, timelines, and communications
  • Supervise other chemists, chemical technicians and technologists
  • Supervise laboratory teams and monitor the quality of their work
  • Oversee lab work space, field resources, and materials procurement
  • Participate in interdisciplinary projects
  • Act as consultant in their field of expertise

What Is the Job Demand for an Environmental Geologist?

Employment of geologists is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030.*

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What Do Environmental Geologists Study?

An increasing number of schools offer undergraduate majors and graduate degrees in environmental geology. However, many environmental geologists have more general degrees in geology. Coursework includes instruction on the fundamentals of geology such as structural geology and geochemistry, as well as coastal geomorphology, streams and flooding, soil science, natural hazards, waste disposal, climate change, environmental science, and mathematics. Courses may include lab work, field trips to mines, and visits to other sites of geological interest. Students may want to supplement their studies in geology with electives in geography, environmental studies, math, and information technology. Since geologists use GIS and specialized geological software to map and survey sites, classes in GIS and computer science are highly useful.

Those with practical experience will have an edge in the job market. Pursue an internship during your undergraduate studies to enhance your resume. Environmental firms hire geologists with both bachelor's and master's degrees. Those with higher degrees receive higher pay and have greater opportunities for advancement.

Environmental Geology - Related Degrees

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Environmental Geologists Have?

  • The Association of Environmental & Engineering Geologists (AEG) offers professional development through technical and professional short courses and seminars. Visit its career page to view job opportunities. It also provides networking opportunities through technical meetings and a member directory. AEG also publishes Environmental & Engineering Geology Journal, which members can access for free.
  • At over 100 years old, the Geological Society of America (GSA) is the foremost professional association for geologists of all stripes. It has 18 divisions, including one for Environmental and Engineering Geology. It also organizes networking opportunities through geoscience travel and tours.

*2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for geoscientists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.