Why hydrogeology is so cool

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous. Any further discussion will be found there.

Close your eyes. (OK, maybe keep them open so you can read the rest of this post.) Imagine a geosciences specialty where there are lots of jobs right now. Now imagine a specialty where there are lots of jobs year after year after year. In fact, imagine a specialty where, according to the American Geological Institute, there are four jobs for every qualified graduate and it is described as “recession-proof.”

What specialty did you imagine? If you answered “hydrogeology” you’ve either studied the job market or you’ve read a feature in the 8 August issue of Science.

Almost 80% of U.S. hydrogeologists (~18,000 people) work for environmental consulting firms. These companies specialize in helping other companies, communities, and landowners, with issues ranging from water supply exploration and development, source water assessment plans, remediation of contaminated soils and water, and dealing with all sorts of regulations and permitting. Other hydrogeologists work for government agencies and in the mining and petroleum industries. Most of those jobs only require a M.S. degree, but if you decide to go on for a Ph.D., academic jobs are relatively plentiful (at least compared to fields like igneous petrology or, erm, paleomagnetism).

Aside from the good job prospects, what makes hydrogeology a hot field for a student deciding where to specialize? Hydrogeology is perfect for someone interested using their science skills to make a difference in the real world. Everyone needs water to maintain basic bodily functions and sanitation, so most hydrogeology problems can’t help but be “applied research” at some level. Hydrogeology has also got a mix of geology, hydrology, chemistry, and math, so you can never get bored with it. Trying to put aside my own particular research interests, here’s a short list of topics that I’d say are some of the interesting problems in hydrogeology right now.

With increasing population and increasing urbanization, accessing sufficient clean water supplies is a global problem. Surface water supplies, such as rivers and lakes, are often fully allocated and consumed and are more easily contaminated than groundwater. That makes urban groundwater development an attractive option, but because groundwater pumping can affect lake levels and river flows (and vice versa) conjunctive use must be carefully planned and managed. Sounds like a job for a hydrogeologist!

Along the same lines, there’s a lot of interest right now in actively managing the linkages between surface water and groundwater as a way of mitigating climate variations. During wet periods, surface water resources are used and groundwater is artificially recharged, and during dry periods, the groundwater is pumped back out and used. This sort of scheme, called aquifer storage and recovery, is not just of interest in the arid western US, but also in wet places like Florida.

Discovery and clean-up of groundwater contaminated by hazardous wastes, radioactive materials, and sewage effluents are the bread and butter of many hydrogeologists. These problems are not going to go away, but other substances are getting the buzz in the contaminant hydrogeology community. Recent research as documented the widespread occurrence of emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and endocrine disruptors in groundwater supplies, and we are still trying to understand the distribution of naturally-occurring contaminants, such as arsenic in the deltas of south-east Asia (as featured in a recent issue of Nature). These issues highlight the intersection of hydrogeology and public health.

If climate change is your thing, don’t rule out hydrogeology. In addition to questions of water resource availability and changes to recharge patterns in a warmer world with more intense precipitation, hydrogeologists are playing an important role in examining underground injection of carbon dioxide as a potential sequestration technique for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Finally, I do have to put in a little plug for my own area of interest. If you like the idea of studying groundwater, but also really like to be able to see what you are working with, and maybe even wade around in it, you should consider focusing on groundwater-surface water interactions. There’s lots of cool research being done to understand how groundwater and surface water interact in streams to affect water quality parameters, aquatic ecosystems, and responsiveness to climatic variability.

If something on my laundry list has appealed to you (or maybe you’re still thinking about the job prospects), what should you do? Take a hydrogeology class, of course. If your university’s geology department doesn’t offer one (which would be unusual), look to civil engineering where water classes are also located. Also make sure that you have a solid background in core geology areas like sedimentology and structure. Consulting firms will expect you to be able to log drill cores and interpret geologic maps. After that, you should consider taking additional water related classes such as contaminant hydrogeology, physical hydrology, groundwater modeling, or mass transport. You should also try to find an internship with a local consulting firm or government agency; that will give you crucial work experience and help you get your feet wet, so to speak. (Caveat emptor though, my career path has been a pretty typical academic trajectory from undergrad through faculty position.)

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