Earth Science is the study of the Earth and its neighbors in space. It deals with the origin, composition, and history of the planet as well as the physical, chemical, and biological processes that have changed and shaped it over the past 4.6 billion years. Earth Science is an exciting science with many interesting and practical applications.
The majority of geological studies give results which are of practical use. For example geological information and techniques are used in exploring for, finding and extracting oils and gas and ores for metals; engineering geology investigates and reports on conditions of sites and the ground for major construction projects such as dams, roads, tunnels, and oil rigs; and environmental geology and hydrogeology investigates underground water supplies. Earth scientists also use their knowledge in studying the impact of human activity on Earth's environment and design methods to protect the planet.
The Four Earth Sciences
Many different sciences are used to learn about the earth, however, the five basic areas of Earth science study are: geology, oceanography, soil sciences, meteorology and astronomy. A brief description of these branches is given below.
Geology: Science of the Earth
Geology is the primary Earth science. The word means "study of the Earth". Geology deals with the composition of Earth materials, structures, and processes. It is also concerned with the organisms of the planet and how the planet has changed over time. A few sub-branches of geology are:
- Mineralogy involves the study of the makeup and physical characteristics (including crystal forms) of naturally formed substances with chemical compositions and atomic structures (minerals) whereas petrology involves the study of the nature, make up, textures and origins of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.
- Sedimentology involves the study of the processes which form sedimentary rocks.
- Stratigraphy involves the historical study of the rocks that comprise the Earth's crust, their relationship with each other, their structure, how they are grouped, conditions involved in their formation and their fossil content. It is common to study particular periods of geological time, for example, Quaternary or Precambrian.
- Paleobiology (previously known as paleontology) involves the study of the history of life on Earth, its anatomical development and evolution.
Oceanography: Science of the Oceans
Oceanography is the study of Earth's oceans - their composition, movement, organisms and processes. The oceans cover most of our planet and are important resources for food and other commodities. The oceans also have a major influence on the weather and changes in the oceans can drive or modulate climate change. Oceanographers work to develop the ocean as a resource and protect it from human impact. The goal is to utilize the oceans while minimizing the effects of human actions.
Meteorology: Science of the Atmosphere
Meteorology is the study of the atmosphere and how processes in the atmosphere determine Earth's weather and climate. Meteorology is a very practical science because everyone is concerned about the weather. How climate changes over time in response to the actions of people is a topic of urgent worldwide concern. The study of meteorology is of critical concern for protecting Earth's environment.
Soil science is the study of soil as a natural resource on the surface of the earth including soil formation, classification and mapping; physical, chemical, biological, and fertility properties of soils; and these properties in relation to the use and management of soils.
Soil scientists have raised concerns about how to preserve soil and arable land in a world with a growing population, possible future water crisis, increasing per capita food consumption, and land degradation.
Academically, soil scientists tend to be drawn to one of five areas of specialization: microbiology, pedology, edaphology, physics or chemistry. Yet the work specifics are very much dictated by the challenges facing our civilization's desire to sustain the land that supports it, and the distinctions between the sub-disciplines of soil science often blur in the process.
Astronomy: Science of the Universe
Astronomy is the study of the universe. Here are some examples of why studying space beyond Earth is important: the moon drives the ocean's tidal system, asteroid impacts have repeatedly devastated Earth's inhabitants, and energy from the sun drives our weather and climates. A knowledge of astronomy is essential to understanding the Earth. Astronomers can also use a knowledge of Earth materials, processes and history to understand other planets - even those outside of our own solar system.
The Importance of Earth Science
Today we live in a time when the Earth and its inhabitants face many challenges. Our climate is changing and that change is being caused by human activity. Earth scientists recognized this problem and will play a key role in efforts to resolve it. We are also challenged to: develop new sources of energy that will have minimal impact on climate; locate new sources of metals and other mineral resources as known sources are depleted; and determine how Earth's increasing population can live and avoid serious threats such as volcanic activity, earthquakes, landslides, floods and more. These are just a few of the problems where solutions depend upon a deep understanding of Earth science.
Earth Science Careers
If you are a freshman, you can start preparing for a career in Earth science by enrolling in science courses that are especially relevant but math, physics, writing, and other disciplines are also used by Earth scientists during every working day.
Some universities have Earth Science programs but most offer more specific training in programs such as geology, meteorology, oceanography or astronomy. In these programs you will be required to take some challenging courses such as chemistry, physics, math and biology. Earth science is an integrated science and professionals in that field must solve problems that require a knowledge of several fields of science.
If you already have a degree in another discipline such as biology, chemistry, geography or physics, you might be able to go to graduate school and obtain a Master's degree in one of the Earth sciences. That will most likely require taking some undergraduate courses to meet program entry requirements. However, if you have a strong interest in Earth science it is probably worth doing.
At present, job opportunities in many areas of the Earth sciences are better than average - even with the down economy. Opportunities in geology are especially good.