A popular topic among educators and recruiters in our discipline is what geology, and the people who practice it, will look like in the future.
It’s an interesting question when you consider the origins of our discipline, its pioneers and how both geology and its practitioners have evolved in the past 100 years.
Arguably, one of the most important contributors to our field was James Hutton. He was known as “The Man Who Found Time,” but not because he made a deliberate effort to do so. Hutton was attempting to solve the riddle of erosion and sedimentation – a quandary that had plagued many naturalists and thinkers of the day.
When he “found” time, he was hardly aware that he was laying the foundations of geology.
Hutton’s concepts were furthered by Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell’s main vocation, by all accounts, was law, yet he authored one of the most widely used and interesting books on geologic theory at the time.
So influential was Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” that it was carried by his friend Charles Darwin aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and heavily informed the theories put forth in “On the Origin of Species.”
You’re Only Right For So Long
Lyell’s contributions evolved the definition of a modern geologist by popularizing Hutton’s theories of uniformitarianism. He rejected the prevailing theory of deposition by catastrophism and cemented sedimentation and erosion as basic geologic principles.
The result illustrates one of the beautifully ironic truths of our science: as my graduate adviser observed, “In geology, you’re only right for so long.”
Our understanding of the earth and its history is being continually refined by advances in research and technology.
Consider William “Strata” Smith, creator of the first geologic map of Great Britain. During the early 1800s, Smith conducted stratigraphic surveys on foot, on horseback and other means of transportation. In doing so, he inadvertently evolved our science to rely on extensive amounts of field mapping.
Nearly 200 years later, and despite the advent of remote sensing, mapping remains a staple of geologic training. If Smith had access to Google Earth by some odd change of fate, it is unlikely that mapping intensely by foot would be a staple in our education.
However, even with Google, the mapper is no better off in understanding the subsurface. Mapping technology may have evolved beyond the methods employed by Smith, but the philosophy of “ground truthing” he pioneered remains fundamental.
The historical precedent of geology as an integrative science is well-established and the geologists of the future will need to be equally multidisciplinary. The transition to this future reality already can be observed as the title of “geologist” is supplanted by “geoscientist” on many business cards and email signature lines.
Increased emphasis on math and physics will be required as techniques for extracting hydrocarbons from rock become increasingly complex.
For example, in the past 15 years and since the boom of unconventional plays, we have begun to produce hydrocarbons from nano-pores, which was unthinkable 20 years ago and akin to the denial of uniformitarianism in Hutton’s day.
This achievement evolved from past endeavors to understand flow through macro-pores.
Perhaps future geoscientists, with a greater proclivity for physics, will tackle the issue of hydrocarbon flow through pico-pores and change how we look at producible stratigraphic horizons.
More Math and Physics
I have been told by many that geology will ultimately begin to merge more with engineering, but I passionately disagree.
Much of the engineering we deal with in industry is related to mechanical and physical properties. Currently, the most pressing problem for a geoscientist is not how to produce hydrocarbon, but how to find more of it that will produce similarly.
My opinion is that sometime in the future, as the industry encounters more technical challenges, you will likely see additional math and physics courses in most geologic curriculums and new hire geoscientists with multiple, potentially unusual, skill sets. You likely will see less reliance on the previous “standards” of education in geology and more emphasis on using computer-based technology to rapidly find and produce new reservoirs.
If Hutton, Lyell and Smith are any indication, the geoscientist of the future will be an out-of-the-box, integrated thinker that will push the industry forward, and the rest of us along with it.