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What on Earth is going on?

kjlhJohn Arthur reacts to the recent disturbing news about exploration geophysics course closures.

This was my reaction to learning that Edinburgh, Durham and Imperial have all recently closed globally respected Exploration Geophysics MSc courses.

Have universities have turned their backs, having in earlier years been beguiled by grants and jobs in the hydrocarbon exploration sector, even though the science extends far beyond discovering more carbon? Has the partial association with the search for fossil fuels coloured the views of applicants (and perhaps even VCs, nervous about the ‘climate’ taint)?


I wrote to various professional colleagues, commenting on the March issue of Ground Engineering, which also continued a debate on the use of Continuous Surface Wave (CSW) profiling and provided news on the development of gravimetry instrumentation. Yet, having made my career in engineering applications of geophysics, I was disturbed to find not one mention of the word ‘geophysics’ in either article! In the 16 resumés of university geoscience courses (pp28 & 30, same issue), only one dared use the word.

Have we become pariahs? Have we practitioners oversold the benefits of our profession? Or has TimeTeam labelled us a bunch of wacky wizards?

Something, surely, has led to a lack of trust between engineers, usually in the position of client, and environmental geophysicists, who are usually the contractor. It is not just the fault of the purchaser.  With the advent of automation, practitioners may carry out surveys without fully understanding the ‘what, where, why and in what order’ - and make promises that cannot be delivered because of constraints imposed … by the laws of physics! The scale of task (and financial risk) that environmental geophysics is being required to address is also growing exponentially.


Trial pitting, drilling and excavation were once our stand-by; but the nature of these problems means that intrusive techniques can liberate or compromise the very ground we are seeking to make safe. Therefore, legislators and developers should turn to non-intrusive geophysical techniques, to characterise the subsurface and make informed decisions as to where and how many intrusive confirmations are needed to plan a strategy for remediation/containment or abandonment

In considering the need for training in the use of geophysical techniques, we need to look outside traditional areas of employment. For example, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency Geosphere Characterization Panel have become acutely aware that legislators impose strong controls on the number and position of exploratory boreholes and are relying on geophysics to deliver the information on which siting, safety-case, post-closure safeguarding will be designed and delivered.


The days of claiming that 'only the drill will prove it' are fading as the drill will only be applied at a very late stage and not where the critical facility itself will be situated. New sources of energy (coal-bed methane and underground coal gasification) will also require remote monitoring of areas that cannot be investigated directly.

All those responsible for specifying and procuring geophysical services or appointing and directing geophysical staff need training in the techniques, approaches, strengths and limitations of geophysics in order to obtain optimal advice and understand the data and their interpretation.

Geophysics is the ONLY method for rapid assessment of the state of the underworld before taking to the drill!