Engineering Geology
Allen W. Hatheway

Engineering geology is the application of classic geologic techniques to address needs in construction, human sustainability and environmental protection. This overlap includes hydrogeology, earth mechanics and engineering geophysics. Engineering geologists serve the public directly, mostly through consulting firms in engineering and applied science, and from state and provincial geological surveys.

Engineering geology is essential to all human activities that result in construction and all human activities that result in modification or use of Earth's surface, particularly water supply, waste management, transportation and delivery of utilities. The simple rule of thumb here is that any human activity that opens up the ground or alters the topography should have input from an engineering geologist to determine how engineered works will be able respond in their assigned roles in the face of natural conditions, including flooding, earthquakes, coastal processes and volcanism. Most engineering geologists are competent hydrogeologists and practice in applications related to environmental regulation and protection.

Worldwide, Engineering Geologists are bound professionally by the International Association for Engineering Geology and the Environment and in North America by the Engineering Geology Division of The Geological Society of America, the Association of Engineering Geologists, and the Engineering Geology Division of the Canadian Geotechnical Society.

Professional licensure is important to and for engineering geologists because they serve the public welfare more directly than do geologists in government, academia or in the resource extraction industries. According to engineering geologist Robert Tepel, more than 28,000 geologists and geological engineers are licensed in the United States. Currently, 27 states and all of the Canadian provinces offer licensure to qualifying graduate geologists.

Topics of recurring application by engineering geologists are as broad as human activity, but most efforts concentrate around the specialty technique of Site and Waste Characterization, in which engineering geologists explore the "footprint" of ground that has been identified to support engineered construction. This characterization demands that the geologist conduct detailed field geologic mapping, generally with the use of backhoes, to dig exploratory trenches about a meter wide and four or more meters deep, exposing earth materials that will feel the stresses imposed by the planned construction. The techniques of sedimentology, geomorphology and groundwater geology are foremost in observation and description of conditions necessary for engineers to design optimal and human-safe construction.

Relatively few North American universities offer specialty degree programs in engineering geology or geological engineering, but all university departments with more than a dozen faculty should consider having such a faculty member to advise students who do not plan on moving directly into research-oriented jobs or doctoral programs related directly to teaching. The market for departments to train non-traditional students is vast and untapped, particularly to train women returning to college after raising children. The University of Missouri-Kansas City Department of Geosciences is the leader in this movement and has been placing such graduates into consulting firms and various government regulatory agencies for the past 20 years. Departments located in major cities should consider offering at least one survey course in engineering geology and hiring tenure-track faculty with the interest and capability of fitting graduates to jobs that can be filled by engineering geologists.

In 2003, the major job market for engineering geologists was brisk but required careful orientation for graduating seniors and master's degree holders, who need tutelage from a caring and informed faculty member who has been successful in engineering geology. Foremost among the employers are all consulting engineering firms operating in the applied geosciences (, the major waste management companies (those operating landfills), the government construction agencies (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) and the state and federal environmental protection agencies.

Trends in the discipline

High degrees of emphasis for 2003 are the siting, design and operational maintenance of waste disposal facilities. Employers are the waste management companies, regulatory oversight agencies, and the state and provincial transportation agencies and their counterpart geological surveys.

For those graduates wishing to serve in the defense of their countries or to gain leadership training through military service, military geology is a career opportunity, particularly using geomorphology. Military geology, as an application specialty, has been running at a high level in the Association of Engineering Geologists and the Geological Society of America's Engineering Geology Division since 1991, the beginning of military campaigns to bring peace to the Middle East. Britain and the United States lead in this activity.

Particularly important in 2003 was the realization that all historic industrial manufacturing activity led to the creation and leakage, spillage or dumping of toxic wastes in and around plant sites. Literally all such wastes are soluble to some degree in surface water and groundwater and those wastes that are fluid and that are denser than water and not totally miscible (as is only alcohol) are known as dense, non-aqueous-phase liquids (DNAPLS). These liquids are particularly detrimental to the environment because of their propensity to sink to depth and then to contaminate passing groundwater. All matter of sedimentological and structural geologic character of subsurface soil and rock control the "fate and transport" of these toxics and their ability to degrade the health of human "receptors." We have come to realize that not only are the halogenated manmade compounds particularly dangerous to human health but that those chemical compounds that are at least somewhat viscous (semi-volatile organic compounds) typically are not only dense but are virtually non-degradable in natural environmental systems.

2003 will continue to be a year ion which engineering geologists are seeking to describe sites of construction activity in engineering terms. But we will also find these geologists looking for the presence of subsurface contaminants and devising means to treat and otherwise reduce or remove the contaminants' threats to humans and the environment.

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Hatheway is a consulting geological engineer Rolla, Mo., and Big Arm, Mont. An annual report on the geological engineering profession appears each year in the international journal Engineering Geology. The latest of these reports is available as a downloadable pdf document.

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