Hello Keith,
Are GIS and Remote Sensing of any use to a geologist? What are their applications w.r.t. to Geology. I was looking at courses for GIS. San Francisco State University is offering a GIS Certificate.
Any suggestions?


First a little history lesson.

I started in Remote Sensing back in the 70's when it was just starting to be used. There seemed to be sudden realization of how it could be used when the photographs taken from the Gemini and Apollo space craft were seen by the public and scientific communities.  The Landsat satellites revolutionized what had been called "photo-geology" and took it a leap forward.

Recall that until man started to fly our only view of geology was what we put on paper with a compass, theodolite and maps.  We had to visualize the folds and structures because they were too immense for us to see but a small piece at a time in cross section.

Enter the airplane and we could now start to see larger pieces in the form of structures on a localized level.

Then from space we could see the geology of whole basins and regions, whole mountain ranges and continents all at a single glance.  This in large part sped up the acceptance of the integrated theory of plate tectonics.

When started studying geology in 1974 plate tectonics was still being taught as an unproved alternative to the geosynclinals theory of mountain building.  Within less than 6 years Plate Tectonics was pretty much accepted throughout the geologic community.

The techniques of photo geology were applied to satellite images, and take to a whole new level with the additional data available with multispectral sensors.  The satellite images were no longer just pretty pictures, we could data mine them for additional information from the four spectral bands available.  This data manipulation and the increased computing power of the next generations of computers revolutionized the science and blurred the lines between Remote Sensing and GIS.

Satellite and aeroplane mounted sensors like radar offered us a world of data that we could not have imagined only 6 years earlier.  That was kind of our undoing.

In the late 1980's after a decade of being sold to the petroleum companies as the miracle cure to finding oil, the remote sensing community hit a low point.  Throughout the 80's just about every oil company had its own dedicated remote sensing lab and staff devoted to generating images from inexpensively available images from the Federal Government.  At $200 a piece they were dirt cheap and every company had its own inventory and we swapped tapes with our counterparts like we used to do with our vinyl lp record albums.

Well, when the price of oil dropped from a high of $32 a barrel to $8 overnight in 1987  the companies panicked and started laying people off and the remote sensing teams suffered most.

The company I worked for Phillips Petroleum, laid off 35 people in the remotes sensing team and closed down their lab.  Back then our computer occupied an old bank vault, and it had less computing power than your average desktop today.

It did not help that for almost a decade, promises were made that never materialized, huge sums of money were spent, and the Remote Sensing community kept beating the same old dead horses.  By that I mean, I would go to symposium and meetings and I would see the same academic and industry people giving the same talks on the same problems, publishing the same papers with just slight variances. They were making a career out of studying the same thing, milking their companies or the study grant system like a dairy cow.

Well by the end of the 80's nearly all the companies realized that it would be cheaper to pay someone else to do the RS stuff for them.  So they laid off their staffs and contracted out.

All those recently laid off people formed small "value added" contractor companies who did the same thing they had done before, but as contractors.  So they would charge the companies to rectify and geometrically correct that image on tape, the one that now cost $2000 and was copywrited, to prevent sharing, and they would charge $3000 or more to do the value added processing.

It seemed to work out okay for everyone.

Today with Google Earth and the other national satellites up, Russian, Japanese, European, and Chinese, data is everywhere.

The GIS boom came in the 1990's.  ESRI was off the mark first.  I set up one system for environmental work, where we digitized maps for litigation and attributed lab data on toxic metals to various neighborhoods, to correlate with medical data of the residents.

Throw in historical images of the areas over preceding decades to show the history of use and you have the kind of work I did for a while in support of the teams of attorneys.

So to answer your question, yes, geologists still do use remote sensing.  In face gravity and magnetics are considered remote sensing techniques.

Aerial photos and satellite images still have a place in mapping and determining the structural and tectonic regime of an area.

We spent many a hour drawing lineament maps on images to map the prevalent jointing, fractures and faults of a region.  You could see how these features controlled the structural fabric and drainage of the area.  They highlighted areas of structural porosity due to fractures and faults, an would no doubt be of use in the shale plays today if people were still using the technique.

Back then I used a lot of analog methods rather than digital.  To edge enhance an image I used big Fresnel lenses or etched glass diffusion plates to highlight subtle alignments not readily visible to the naked eye.  Today the digital edge enhancement filters do that.

One thing that created a ready market for our skills was the environmental industry.

Today, to get loans for commercial property, a site assessment must be done.  This consists of a photo geologic investigation of the history of the site to determine what was there before.

Then the UN and IMF required environmental impact assessments be carried out for any area for which money was being loaned in developing countries in order to minimize the adverse affects on local people and cultures.  These studies included a remote sensing imagery analysis be carried out to assess impact on the local environment, taking into account deforestation, impact to drainage systems and surface water and things like that.

So I would recommend that any geoscientist today take at least one class to familiarize themselves with the capabilities and uses.

Now the GIS certificate sounds more like a technician class for someone who will be sitting at a monitor all day imputing in data or tracing boundaries from a map.  City planning and engineering departments use GIS a lot and have to constantly update their maps.

I do not think this is the kind of class you want, unless you entertain becoming a technician doing that as your primary task.

Looking at the syllabus, it looks interesting enough, but I have to caution you, the only real place of employment for someone getting a certificate of this kind is with a government agency.

I did environmental consulting for nearly 10 years and we only just began to do GIS and RS on computers in the late 1990's about the time I left.  The reason is, it is expensive to have a staff to do just this, since only large projects can afford it.  So its a lot of overhead.  Consultants are cash and carry, low overhead operations.  Environmental Resource Management Inc was my employer and would fly me around to do RS work from LA to Charleston.  I was a specialist in it.

You have to look at specialized work pragmatically.  Who is going to pay you to do this stuff?  How many companies have call to keep someone around to do Remote Sensing studies of near shore marine environments, or Crime Scene Investigations, or Environmental Assessments?  Not many, mainly universities and government agencies.  They do not have to turn a profit.

Most commercial companies will outsource the work.  So ask the school if they have records of graduates landing jobs and who they are working for.  I wager most if not all are working for government.

One last thing.

I feel strongly that our school system is broken.  It is rife with conflict of interest.  Professors no longer care if students are taught a salable skill, they only want to fill seats.
In truth, the environmental industry is pretty much flat and declining since the 90's.  Houston where I worked was booming with cleanups, and monitoring.  Before the BP gulf of Mexico blowout ERM was laying people off due to lack of work.  Then bang! over night they hit the lotto and recalled people to put them to work raking tar balls off the beaches.  The truth is that a lot of those people in white tyvec suits are MS geologists and engineers who are being billed out at $65 an hour to do physical labor.  I know, I was used that way many times.  Since its billable hours, the company does not care if you have multiple degrees and are behind a rake, and BP didn't check.  I was billed out t UNICAL to pick up trash and run a weed eater for two weeks at $60 an hour.

Professors come up with no end of "fad" courses to seduce students with.  From Crime Scene Geology (any geologist with geochemistry can do that) to Environmental classes that are simply designed to steal tuition from students and not land them jobs.  I believe the global warming industry made things worse by training the Professors to follow the money, and not useful science.  

I saw this happen at my alma mater, who now does no Geology older than the Pleistocene.  Their graduates are having a hard time landing jobs.

I hire, and I had way too many applicants with geology degrees with a concentration in environmental.  They just did not have the necessary skills.  


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Keith Patton


I can answer questions concerning physical and historical geology, environmental geology/hydrology, environmental consulting, remote sensing/aerial photo interpretation, G&G computer applications, petroleum exploration, drilling, geochemistry, geochemical and microbiological prospecting, 3D reservoir modeling, computer mapping and drilling.I am not a geophysicist.


I have 24 years experience split between the petroleum and environmental industries. I have served as an expert witness in remote sensing, developmental geologist, exploration geologist, enviromental project manager, and subject matter expert in geology and geophysical software development.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists
American Association of Photogrammetrists and Remote Sensing

Bachelor and Master of Science
Registered Geologist in State of Texas

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