What is Geophysics and the Difficulties Studying it?

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I am in my second year (of three) at a UK Russell Group University studying Geophysical Sciences. I am sure after reading the word ‘geophysics’ in the title some of you will have no idea what this is.

It is an Earth Science. By definition, geophysics is ‘physics of the Earth’. I believe a better description of what it is I am studying would be “the physical processes behind the Earth’s systems”.

A big part of geophysics is about determining sub-structure (what is beneath the ground) using geophysical techniques, for example looking for small variations in the Earth’s gravitational field. An example of work that a geophysicist can do in the world could be working in the oil and gas industry. By using the geophysical techniques, they can work out where large oil and gas reserves are found which can then be extracted for our everyday needs.

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I would love to go into more detail (I am sure you would rather I did not!), but the truth is I still do not know too much more about what I am studying yet. This is because in my first year of university you do not study any geophysics. The first year consists of core modules for geology, physics and mathematics. This is to give you a foundation before you can study geophysics.

Being strong at three different fields is no easy task, so there is a lot expected of you when you pick this degree. The problem with this is that when you take these modules, you are expected to be at the same standard as a geologist, physicist and mathematician. Which I hope you could see is not easy! A main problem of mine is how different geology is to the likes of physics and maths. If they were all interlinked, they would all help each other, but unfortunately this is not the case.

Now that I have reached second year, I have started a module on Exploration Geophysics. Personally I am really enjoying the module as it is nice to be studying my actual degree! The only issue with this module is that it is very basic and does not go into much depth. This is because the module is compulsory for geologists too. As you can tell, you must be highly motivated – having to wait such a long time to learn about what you actually signed up for can often (at least in my case) mean you lose motivation from time to time.

Next semester, we start physics based labs, which should be fun as it all refers to geophysical applications. To my knowledge, it is only the geophysicists taking it! But you actually only study what I consider to be ‘proper’ geophysics in year three. From this I would say that geophysics is a risk. It is very hard to get experience before coming to university, so for the most part you know very little about it (but then again this is why you go to university) and if you have to wait until year three before you go in depth, you do not actually know if you like geophysics till then. Luckily for me, I have enjoyed it so far and have every bit of confidence that this will not stop when I go into year three.

I want to end by making it clear that these are only a few difficulties in studying geophysics. There are far more positives than negatives to my degree and I have no regrets. I hope to in the future write about the positives! If my degree was not challenging and did not keep me on my feet, then it would not be for me. It is highly rewarding and I believe I have a good chance of employment after I graduate. geophysics is such an unknown field of study to the public yet will play a big role in the future. I hope to one day be a part of that.

Should we be using fossils fuels?

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Fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal as they are more commonly known) are formed by organic matter deposits buried in the ground, normally hundreds of millions of years ago, that over time in the Earth’s crust experience different pressures and temperatures that eventually lead to the formation of such fossil fuels. The UK alone has been burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760) and has not stopped since. Furthermore, in 2013, over 84% of our energy production came from fossil fuels. This begs the question: should we be using fossil fuels?

If you ask anyone about the use of fossil fuels, one of the first points they are likely to make is about the environmental impacts. Of course it is true that burning these fuels leads to large amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. We know stories of worldwide changes to environments from these increased levels of carbon dioxide etc., such as the melting of the ice caps, destruction of coral reefs and so on, which in the future look to have unimaginably destructive consequences.

Leading on, an easy answer would be to just use another type of energy instead. If only it was that easy. The fact that, in 2013, they accounted for over 84% of the UK’s energy shows just how reliant we truly are on fossil fuels. Although this percentage has decreased since then, it is still a high amount. But is there a new source to replace it? At the moment it appears not, even though renewable usage is increasing every year. Countries such as Iceland use very little fossil fuels (only oil for their cars to my knowledge) so it could be said, why can the UK not do the same? Iceland has a different geological environment, where they have both glaciers and very active tectonics, which allow for mass amounts of geothermal energy, hydroelectric power and so on. The UK does not have the same environment.

There are however ‘bailout solutions’, as I call them, where you continue using fossil fuels but use technology to clean up afterwards. An example of this is Carbon Capture Storage. This is where you take carbon from burning fossil fuels and store it in the ground in the locations where the oil and gas were extracted. This way the carbon is not released into the atmosphere. It is in theory a good idea (provided the carbon never reaches the atmosphere), but it almost justifies using fossil fuels which is not the point we should be getting across.

Fossil fuels are of course a finite resource. Hence they are only a temporary solution to our energy needs. Of the same token, fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract each year. This is because the reserves that are the easiest to extract have, for the most part, been taken and those that remain are complex and hence costly. These points alone should suggest to us that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

When you look at the geopolitics involved with fossil fuels, you see that a lot of the countries that have large reserves are considered to have lower political stability. This makes trade a lot harder for imports and they could at any point just cut you off. This gives them power. In effect, it is better to create energy within your own resources.

An option that the UK is currently pursuing involves using gas where possible. This is because gas produces around half the emissions of coal. If we have no option at this moment in time but to use fossil fuels, we may as well use the one that will release the least amount of harmful gases into the atmosphere.

Finally, to answer my question: should we be using fossils fuels? I believe in my honest opinion we have no option with our high energy demands but to use fossil fuels. I consider myself to be an environmentalist and it would make me very happy to not use them but I believe we all have to be realistic and say that there is no energy source that can replace fossil fuels at this time. Renewables will over time become more significant and fossil fuels will slowly phase out especially when they become economically unviable. Unfortunately, this will not be for a while. This of course needs to change in the future as fossil fuels are only a temporary solution, but there are ways to reduce its environmental impacts with Carbon Capture Storage and using more gas.

If you have anything to say on the topic, please feel free to comment below!