Earth Science: An Overview

An Introduction to Geosciences

Hot water and clouds of steam erupting into the air.
View of the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park as it erupts against a dark sky, Wyoming, 1941. Ansel Adams/Archive Photos/Getty Images

What are the Earth Sciences?:

The Earth sciences, or geosciences, are collective name for a wide range of scientific disciplines that involve studying the natural processes of the Earth, specifically how matter and energy manifest in those natural processes. 

Types of Earth Sciences:

Our planet is composed of an array of diverse, complex, and interconnected physicsal and biogeochemical systems, which means that the geosciences span a huge array of different disciplines.

Many of these disciplines overlap with each other in various ways. For example, 

  • Geology - The study of the solid material of which the Earth is composed (i.e. rocks) and how it changes over time.
  • Geophysics - The integrated field of geology, physics, and mathematics, that focuses on analyzing the interactions of matter and energy through both experiment and mathematical modeling. 
  • Geodesy - The science of accurately measuring three properties about the Earth: its geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravitational field.
  • Meteorology - The study of the Earth's atmosphere and its associated weather pattern behavior.
  • Oceanography - The study of the Earth's oceans, including their chemical compositions, the fluid dynamics of how they move and interact through waves and ocean currents, the geology of the ocean floor, and the marine organisms that live within the oceans. It is sometimes also called marine science or oceanology.
  • Volcanology - The study of volcanoes and related phenomena and substances, such as lava and magma, and the geophysical and geochemical processes related to volcanoes and their eruptions. It is also spelled "vulcanology" (though it does not involve the study of Mr. Spock's alien race from Star Trek.)

    Major Innovations:

    Some of the most significant discoveries in the geosciences include:

    • Discovery of the Earth's magnetic field. (The Chinese discovered that magnets aligned with a northerly orientation about 2,000 years ago. Though the magnetic compass began being used in Europe in the 1200s, it wouldn't be until the 1600s that William Gilbert would publish the first known account proposing that the Earth behaved like a giant magnet.)
    • Benjamin Franklin's discovery that lightning was composed of electricity was a seminal moment in meteorology. (1752)
    • Estimation of the age of the Earth (in the 1800s)
    • Discovery of plate tectonics (though the idea is older, it was widely adopted and "proven" in the 1960s) 

    Geoscience on the Move:

    One of the biggest benefits - or drawbacks, depending on your point of view - to a career in the geosciences is that they can be among some of the more field-oriented areas of physics research. Meteorologists can chase storms across the world, while geophysicists can travel to study regions of volcanic activity. Oceanographers tend to spend a lot of time near the sea. While the study of the Earth still results in time spent in the lab, there are some more options in geoscience than in many other areas of the hard physical sciences.

    Preparation for a Career in Earth Science:

    Thermodynamics & fluid mechanics (for the flow of liquid, gas, and molten rock) are crucial to most of the fields of geosciences, as is knowledge of minerals and chemistry. The Earth sciences are good for experimentation at a young age, such as collecting and classifying rocks or making simple weather measurements.