Not many people get to peep into a volcanic cauldron. Geologist DM Banerjee did. In 1979, Banerjee was among a group of researchers staying at Hotel Volcano on the rim of Mauna Loa volcano’s crater, in Hawaii.
“When we reached the hotel, I saw some (dark) clouds there. When I pointed this to a colleague, he took me to the window and showed me the source — the crater of Mauna Loa, with red hot lava simmering in it,” recounts Banerjee, now professor emeritus, department of geology, Delhi University (DU). At a distance of about 1 km from the hotel — a US Geological Survey property — the lava’s temperature would be 800-1,000 degree Celsius.
Banerjee was part of a group of experts on phosphate rocks (the raw material for superphosphate fertiliser) who were in Honolulu to discuss a viable strategy for exploration of this fertiliser rock material in unknown terrains of the world, especially in food-scarce Third World countries. The visit was sponsored by East West Center of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. The group made a one-day visit to Mauna Loa to “break the monotony of the high profile technical discussions”.
“Standing on the rim of the volcanic crater and feeling the moist steam emanating from it, I felt deeply excited. This sense of adventure and the desire to unravel the mysteries of nature makes a person successful as a geologist,” says Banerjee.
This drive can take you anywhere from a mountain to an ocean, from a thick jungle to a flood plain, etc.
Geologists, or rather earth scientists, study the earth — the solid and liquid matter it is made of, the structure of its constituents and the processes by which earth materials (e.g. oil, metals, rocks) are formed. They study the evolution of the planet and living beings, such as the dinosaurs, that have lived on it. Earth scientists undertake studies to find rocks with economically valuable minerals. They also try to provide solutions to landslides and flood prevention.
Earth scientists are crucial players mainly in areas such as oil and gas, mapping, mining and construction (dams, hydel projects, bridges, and other mega structures). The latest fields in earth sciences are environmental biology, ecology and geology and nanogeosciences where scientists study minerals or rocks at the nano scale, say the experts. According to Prof. VN Bajpai, head, department of geology, DU, “None of the sciences has this much scope.”
However, geology is a low-key discipline that not many students hanker after, though according to Banerjee, “people are becoming interested in it after the recent earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 Tsunami”.
Concedes Dr Sudhakar Manda, assistant general manager (business development), RMSI, a global geospatial information and software services provider, “Geology is definitely not as popular and demanding as IT-related study fields. Having said that there are many sectors which simply cannot function without a geologist on board. These fields (mentioned earlier) have existed in the past and have practically not been affected at all by the IT revolution and a low but consistent demand continues.”
Manda says the entry of the private sector is creating opportunities overseas as well. “A booming economy and the opening of mining operations to private parties are increasing the demand for such niche domain experts. Africa and South America especially are opening up for global mine operators and a year or two down the line, there will be a large requirement of people for assessment of resources and thus for geologists.”
Students can ready themselves by enhancing their skill sets. Manda suggests, “Apart from a basic degree, which happens to be a cake only, a person should add the icing over it with courses in ecology and environment, geotechnology, geographic information system (IT related), remote sensing etc. This opens up opportunities aligned with current market trends including options in participation in climate change studies and search and space technology.”
What's it about?
Geology or earth sciences is basically the study of the earth and earth processes. This discipline includes geophysics, atmospheric science, oceanography (study of how the ocean behaves, wave patterns, coastal erosion etc), hydrogeology (concerned with distribution and movement of groundwater in the earth’s crust), palaeontology (deals with fossils), study of the origin of life, physics of the earth, crystallography, geostatistics, geomaths and geochemistry.
Earth scientists work in the Geological Survey of India, Central and state groundwater authorities, Indian Bureau of Mines, government mining departments (directorates of mines and geology), mining companies, oil exploration companies such as ONGC, gas exploration companies like Reliance, pollution control boards, Hindustan Zinc Ltd, Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography, Central Road Research Institute, New Delhi and other research organisations.
Teaching and research in universities and colleges is an option for the academically-oriented
The average workday of a Geological Survey of India geologist away in the field which could be a jungle, a mountain, a ravine, or a plain, where he stays in a camp for three-four months:
7.30 am: Set out for field work. Collect samples and data. Carry out mapping
5 pm: Before sunset, return to the camp
Till 9 pm: Organise the samples. Process the data. Plot the data on a map
At the HQ, geologists study the samples, write reports, and take care of administrative tasks, too
The median salary of a geologist with an MSc degree is Rs 2.16 lakh a year. According to Dr Sudhakar Manda from RMSI, “The variation is huge and depends on the option a person chooses and his basic IQ. Starting from a meagre Rs 5000 - 7000 a month for a fresh geologist in a small private mining company in a remote location, s/he can fetch Rs 25,000 - 35,000 a month as starting salary in an international oil and gas company (if posted on oil rigs off shore, he might earn US$200 - 300 per day as additional perk)”
. Interest in science, including biology
. Good physique and stamina to work in the field
. Deep understanding of nature and natural phenomena
How do I get there?
Take science (with maths) at the plus two level. Go for a Bachelor’s degree in geology, followed by a Master’s. A doctorate is required for (university) research positions
. University of Delhi
. Banaras Hindu University
. Jadavpur University, Kolkata
. Presidency College, Kolkata
Most universities offer this discipline. Some of the IITs have related programmes
Pros & cons
You might discover something
You can visit unusual places
Requires hard work in the field
Work may involve travel
A life of adventure
A senior geologist talks about the challenges in the field
What is the variety of work geologists can do with GSI?
A geologist is basically concerned with the study of the earth with respect to its morphology, structural aspects, mineral occurrences, rocks and their engineering properties etc.
The branch of petroleum geology deals with the location and exploration of petroleum. In palaeontology, one studies the fossils of flora and fauna. Geologists carry out studies in relation to climatic changes, too.
Apart from these, there are various scientific investigations carried out by GSI’s other specialised wings, namely, marine and coastal geoscience, airborne survey and coal for locating natural resources of the country.
What are the latest domains geologists are interested in?
Geochronology i.e. dating of rocks using modern methods, and isotope geology i.e. study of rare elements of economic value, are areas of interest. Another important aspect now is planetary geology in which we study meteorites (samples) to know more about the formation of the universe. Remote sensing and its applications in geology is another tool for carrying out geological studies. A recent development in this discipline is environmental geology and climate change studies.
How many geologists work with GSI?
Currently about 2,000 geologists are engaged with GSI who are discharging various duties at different levels. We take in about 200-300 geologists every year (through a Union Public Service Commission exam). In addition to geologists, we recruit people from related sciences, like geophysics, chemistry, and engineering services as well.
Geology has not been a hot choice among youngsters? What’s the current scene?
That’s perhaps because of the hard life of a geologist who has to endure in terrains ranging from the inhospitable high Himalayas to the cold Antarctican continent and various densely forested areas of the country. The tediousness of the job may be a deterrent for many youngsters to take up the subject of geology. Only adventurous students are attracted to the excitement of the work, and are taking up geology in various universities of the country.
NK Dutta, director general, Geological Survey of India (GSI) Interviewed by Rahat Bano