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Bring back real mapping

lklFar from scrapping the undergraduate mapping exercise, industry needs universities to beef it up, says Stuart Harker *

In Mark Brodie (Geoscientist 23.07 August 2013) used this column to issue a plea to change the university teaching of undergraduate geology to include more relevant and up to date vocational training. In principle, this is a proposal that I wholeheartedly support. Indeed the inclusion of geophysical logging in the curriculum gets my vote. However, the old adage that, all other things being equal ‘the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks’ still applies in industry employment as well as academia.


Geological mapping is the hands-on way that geologists get to hone their skills in structural understanding in 3D. In addition, these geologists become familiar with scales from micro to megascopic, the variety of lithologies and depositional environments, lithological contacts and their relationships in geological evolution of the area and difficulties in sampling and measuring sections. A picture may be worth a thousand words in the classroom to pass an exam, but to see, measure and touch the outcrops in the field will be remembered for a lifetime.Reduction of the mapping component in the undergraduate degree has been going on for the 25 years or so, largely due to cost constraints, legislation changes and health and safety issues. As a result we now see new recruits to industry who may know the theory, but not the practice of how to evaluate and represent their interpretation of Earth history. The need to think in 3D is essential to all of this work.

Without mapping skills the geologist becomes reliant on computer applications to produce a map.  Unfortunately computers can only produce what they have been programmed to do. Computers do not yet have the ability to visualise and interpret data as we humans can. For producing valid structural interpretations and thickness (isopach) or parameter distribution maps, the geologists must first use their experience to determine what the relevant map should look like in their heads, before pushing the “Nintendo” solution. Otherwise it’s the familiar “Garbage In, Garbage Out” (GIGO) scenario. Validation by structural and correlation sections is also a part of this process. Cross sections are merely vertically oriented maps after all. There is no substitute for learning your mapping skills in the field, even though you may never go out on a field mapping exercise in your industry career.


I have been fortunate throughout my industry career to have been able to maintain geological field work activity, which puts the geologist back in touch with the reality of nature. Accurate and geologically realistic mapping is the foundation-stone of success in exploration. I have also taught prospect generation and evaluation on a Masters course and there invoked a hands-on mapping exercise. I now use this exercise as a simple pencil and paper test to prospective employees to see how (or even if) the candidate can think in 3D. Unfortunately, most today cannot. This is a very sad state of affairs and I put out a plea for universities to reinstate mapping as a compulsory part of the undergraduate geology course.

* Stuart Harker is VP Geology at Circle Oil Plc and a former VP Regions of the AAPG.