Geoscientists Without Borders

Geophysicists of the Afghanistan Geological Survey operate a portable proton-precession magnetometer in the countryside. Good science can be done on a shoestring. US Geological Survey photo

Geophysicists of the Afghanistan Geological Survey operate a portable proton-precession magnetometer in the countryside. Good science can be done on a shoestring. US Geological Survey photo

We have all heard about Doctors Without Borders, an organization that sends skilled medical people wherever their urgent help is needed. I guarantee that few of you have heard about Geoscientists Without Borders (GWB), a humanitarian program with similar aims for geologists and their allied specialists. (GWB is not formally connected to Doctors Without Borders.)

No profession is immune to the desire to help—certainly not geoscientists. Seismologists study earthquakes to save lives as well as understand the planet. Volcanologists study eruptions because they’re deadly, not just cool. Hydrologists seek safe and sustainable water supplies for all the world’s people. And so on. Geoscientists offer not just warm bodies and field skills, but also powerful geophysical technologies: tools using electromagnetic, acoustic or nuclear forces to pierce the Earth’s surface and draw data from places we cannot reach.

Geoscientists use these tools routinely for their everyday jobs, whether it’s curiosity-driven research or dollar-driven investigations. The chance to do good with their tools is what draws geoscientists to GWB. In addition, GWB projects involve students “to provide opportunities for the future workforce to see the value of geophysics for humanitarian uses and to prepare them with real-world experience.”

GWB is not set up for search-and-rescue work. The slower-paced projects it funds have to do with locating groundwater supplies for remote communities, landslide mapping in mountain districts, mapping of deep geology for earthquake preparedness and tracing areas of subsurface pollution. Many projects bring instruments to an area and leave them in the hands of local students who are trained in their use.

All projects are run by nonprofit institutions, mostly universities. They offer great opportunities for, say, supporting a master’s project, especially for graduate students with homelands outside the United States. But industry scientists could participate if their company has an affiliated foundation, for instance. GWB’s initial funding in 2007 came from the exploration giant Schlumberger, and it is run by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation. This month, the prestigious Geological Society of America joined GWB as a supporter. GWB has a Facebook page too.

A typical project is one in South Africa that involves Berkeley scientist Louise Pellerin of Green Engineering, Inc. as well as several other government and academic entities. The Dayspring Children’s School near Johannesburg relies on a well for its water, but the growth of water-loving eucalyptus trees has lowered the water table. The GWB project has done an underground survey using gravity and electromagnetic instruments to study the situation and support a plan with good data. South African geology students have gained valuable experience, and the children have been energized by the attention.

Geoscientists Without Borders 4 September,2012Andrew Alden


Andrew Alden

Andrew Alden earned his geology degree at the University of New Hampshire and moved back to the Bay Area to work at the U.S. Geological Survey for six years. He has written on geology for since its founding in 1997. In 2007, he started the Oakland Geology blog, which won recognition as “Best of the East Bay” from the East Bay Express in 2010. In writing about geology in the Bay Area and surroundings, he hopes to share some of the useful and pleasurable insights that geologists give us—not just facts about the deep past, but an attitude that might be called the deep present.

Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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