Researchers with geophysics equipment on the ice of Lake Superior.
Essential and Versatile

Applied geophysics is an essential and versatile field, blending physics principles with earth sciences to explore and understand the Earth's subsurface for practical applications.

What is Applied Geophysics?

Applied geophysics is the study of how the Earth works and what it's made of. Scientists called geophysicists use this knowledge to explore what's under the ground, check for dangers like earthquakes, and find better ways to get things like water, minerals, oil, and natural gas without harming the Earth too much.

Ever wondered what earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mineral exploration, environmental guardianship, underground resource mapping, and crafting earthquake-resistant structures have in common? These phenomena and applications may seem worlds apart, but they all converge at one extraordinary crossroads: geophysics! When you ponder the mysteries of what lies beneath the Earth's surface, or need to find the best location for an environmental cleanup site, it is the work for geophysicists to provide the answers.

This field's scope is broad and encompassing:

  • natural resource exploration
  • urban and infrastructure planning
  • groundwater management
  • prediction and mitigation of natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
  • planetary exploration
  • environmental protection
  • glaciology
  • archaeology
  • and even forensics

What Do Applied Geophysicists Do?

Geophysicists understand and utilize the Earth's subsurface, ensuring that our use of natural resources is informed, environmentally responsible, and geared toward the safety and advancement of society. 

In the face of global challenges like climate change and the growing demand for renewable energy sources, the contributions of applied geophysicists are increasingly vital. They are actively involved in developing and implementing innovative solutions for carbon storage, renewable energy projects, and efficient water resource management.

At its core, applied geophysics is about understanding various physical processes and properties of the Earth. Geophysicists use this knowledge to:

  • conduct a detailed subsurface survey just as medical professionals use X-ray and MRI technology to see inside the human body
  • evaluate geological hazards
  • devise efficient methods for sustainable resource extraction, including water, minerals, oil, and natural gas
  • decipher seismic waves, gravitational field, electromagnetic currents, and subterranean magnetism, akin to technologies like airport metal detectors and ultrasound fish finders.

Their expertise is vital in industries ranging from construction and environmental management to oil and gas exploration, making them integral to both the stewardship of our planet and its economic exploration.

Disaster Prevention and Mitigation

Applied geophysicists play a key role in predicting natural disasters and mitigating their impacts, such as by monitoring earthquake activity, signs of volcanic eruptions, or by identifying areas vulnerable to hazards like landslides and avalanches.

Example: By analyzing historical seismic data, current seismic activity, and conducting slope stability analysis, they can identify potential landslide risks, contributing to early warning systems that save lives and reduce economic losses.

Environmental and Renewable Energy Advancement

They contribute to the development of renewable energy sources and assess environmental impacts, such as locating suitable sites for geothermal energy or evaluating conditions for carbon sequestration.

Example: Geophysicists might use gravity surveys to find the best locations for geothermal wells that can provide sustainable energy.

Infrastructure Planning and Safety Assessment

Applied geophysicists are essential in planning and assessing the safety of major infrastructure projects. They evaluate ground stability, soil properties, and the potential impact of geological hazards on structures such as bridges, dams, and buildings.

Example: In the construction of a dam, applied geophysicists may conduct geophysical surveys to assess the bedrock's integrity and the risk of seismic activity. This information is crucial for designing a structure that can withstand natural forces, ensuring the long-term safety and stability of the dam.

Contamination Monitoring and Assessment

Applied geophysicists play a crucial role in monitoring and assessing soil and groundwater contamination. Their expertise is vital in environmental studies to detect and evaluate the extent of pollution.

Example: In the case of a suspected industrial spill, applied geophysicists might use electrical resistivity tomography to map the distribution of contaminants in the soil and groundwater. This non-invasive method provides detailed images of the subsurface, helping to assess the contamination's scope and inform remediation strategies.

Natural Resource Exploration and Extraction

They specialize in locating and quantifying natural resources such as minerals, oil, gas, and groundwater.

Example: Applied geophysicists may conduct seismic surveys to map underground formations, informing decisions about where to drill for oil or how to construct a foundation for a skyscraper. Using electromagnetic methods, they can identify potential zones of mineralization, guiding mining operations to extract resources efficiently.

Technological Innovation and Instrumentation

Applied geophysicists design and utilize cutting-edge instruments and data analysis techniques to measure and interpret geophysical data.

Example: They may develop new sensor technologies to detect changes in the Earth's magnetic field that reveal subsurface features.

What Careers are There in Applied Geophysics?

Applied geophysics is a dynamic and expansive field, offering a wide range of challenging and rewarding career paths. Graduates with a degree in applied geophysics find themselves in a profession that is essential for the responsible exploration and utilization of natural resources, environmental management, and understanding geophysical processes.

Examples of Specific Job Titles and Roles

  • Seismologist: These professionals analyze seismic data to understand earthquake dynamics, contributing to the development of building codes and early warning systems that minimize earthquake damage and save lives.
  • Geophysical Data Analyst: Tasked with processing complex geophysical information, these analysts are the backbone of data interpretation, transforming raw data into usable insights for resource extraction and hazard assessment.
  • Environmental Geophysicist: Working on the front lines of environmental stewardship, these geophysicists assess the impact of human activities and develop methods for environmental restoration and pollution abatement.
  • Geothermal Energy Specialist: At the intersection of renewable energy and geophysics, these specialists evaluate the potential of geothermal sites, contributing to sustainable energy solutions.
  • Hydrogeophysicist: These experts apply geophysical methods to the management of water resources, ensuring the sustainability of aquifers and the quality of our water supplies.
  • Exploration Geophysicist: Specializing in the search for subsurface resources like oil, gas, minerals, and water, exploration geophysicists use seismic, magnetic, and gravity data to identify and evaluate potential deposits. Their expertise guides drilling operations and helps minimize environmental impact.

Broader Job Impact

Applied geophysics is used in many ways, like making maps under cities and exploring old sites without digging. It also helps with studying planets. Importantly, it connects economic development with taking care of the environment. People who work in this field are important in finding ways to use the Earth's resources without hurting it for the long term.

What Skills Do Applied Geophysicists Need?

Geophysicists need skills to explore what's under the ground and be helpful in different projects like taking care of nature, managing resources, and more. Education in applied geophysics equips professionals with a broad skill set, preparing them to tackle diverse projects ranging from extensive geological surveys to the analysis of minute variations in the Earth's gravitational field. Applied geophysicists are integral to any endeavor that requires a deep understanding of the Earth's interior, making this field dynamic, evolving, and instrumental in shaping a sustainable future. Applied geophysicists need a blend of technical, analytical, and practical skills to be successful in their field:

  • Strong Foundation in Physics and Mathematics: Proficiency in subjects like calculus, statistics, and physics is essential for understanding and applying geophysical principles.
  • Technical Proficiency: Skills in using and interpreting data from geophysical instruments and software, such as seismic, magnetic, and electrical resistivity tools.
  • Data Analysis and Computer Modeling: Ability to process, visualize, and analyze complex datasets, often using specialized software and computer simulations to model subsurface structures.
  • Problem-Solving: The capacity to develop innovative solutions to complex geological puzzles and practical challenges in resource exploration and environmental protection.
  • Fieldwork Competence: Practical skills in conducting field surveys and experiments, often in diverse and sometimes remote environments.
  • Communication: Clear and effective communication of complex data and concepts to other scientists, engineers, policymakers, and the public.
  • Project Management: Organizational skills to manage projects, including budgeting, logistics, and team coordination.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: The ability to work effectively in multidisciplinary teams, as geophysical projects often involve collaboration with other scientists and engineers.
  • Critical Thinking: The capacity to critically evaluate methods and data, ensuring accurate and reliable results.
  • Continual Learning: Commitment to staying updated with the latest advancements and technologies in geophysics through ongoing education and professional development.

Is Applied Geophysics Hard?

Applied geophysics is challenging due to its interdisciplinary scope, one that merges intricate principles from physics, mathematics, geology, and engineering. It demands complex problem-solving skills to address multifaceted issues related to the Earth's subsurface, technical proficiency for mastering specialized instruments and software, and strong ability and interest in math and computation, to model and interpret geophysical data. 

Fieldwork, sometimes in diverse or extreme environments, adds a layer of physical demands including stamina and adaptability. But for those who are passionate about the Earth sciences, the field can be immensely satisfying, offering the chance to contribute to important sustainability and environmental initiatives.

What Tasks Do Applied Geophysicists Do?

The tasks that applied geophysists do require a mix of outdoor and indoor work, technical knowledge, problem-solving skills, and the ability to communicate effectively across different disciplines and sectors. Applied geophysicists perform a variety of tasks that include:

  • Data Collection: Gathering geophysical data using methods like seismic reflection and refraction, gravity, magnetic, electrical, and electromagnetic surveys.
  • Data Processing and Interpretation: Applying signal processing techniques to enhance data quality and interpreting this data to create models of the Earth's subsurface.
  • Fieldwork: Conducting surveys and experiments in the field to collect primary data, which often includes travel to various locations and working in different environmental conditions.
  • Analytical Work: Analyzing geophysical and geological data to identify subsurface features such as mineral deposits, oil and gas reserves, groundwater, or archaeological sites.
  • Reporting and Presentation: Preparing reports and presenting findings to clients, stakeholders, or the scientific community, translating complex geophysical information into understandable terms.
  • Research and Development: Engaging in research to develop new geophysical methods or refine existing techniques, often in collaboration with academic and research institutions.
  • Environmental Assessment: Evaluating potential environmental impacts of projects and contributing to environmental protection and remediation efforts.
  • Resource Management: Advising on the exploitation and management of natural resources, ensuring they are extracted sustainably and responsibly.
  • Disaster Mitigation: Monitoring natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, or volcanic activity, and developing strategies for disaster risk reduction.
  • Equipment and Software Development: Designing and improving geophysical equipment and software to advance the field and enhance the precision of subsurface investigations.

How Much Do Applied Geophysicists Earn?

The salary of applied geophysicists can vary widely depending on factors such as education, experience, location, the sector of employment, and the specific role they perform. According to Payscale, the average annual pay for an entry-level geophysicist is $63,144. On average, geophysicists in the oil and gas industry tend to make slightly more than those in academia or government roles but the difference is not substantial.

As in any industry, entry-level positions typically start with a lower salary range, but with experience and advancement, the earning potential increases significantly. Senior geophysicists or those in managerial positions, especially those working in profitable sectors or in regions with a high demand for geophysical expertise, can earn substantial salaries. If an applied geophysicist specializes in any of the emerging areas or tackles pressing global challenges, they could potentially command a premium salary, reflecting the high demand for their specialized skills and expertise. Geophysicists may also benefit from additional perks such as bonuses, profit-sharing, or field allowances, especially when working in remote or challenging environments.

Applied Geophysics Salaries
Mean Entry-Level Salary Mean Annual Salary Top 10 Percent
$63,144 $94,864 $171,000

Figures from, accessed May 2024.

See additional engineering salary information.

The Future of Applied Geophysics

The future of applied geophysics is bright, with a key role in sustainable resource development and environmental stewardship. Technological advancements, particularly in artificial intelligence and machine learning, are refining data analysis capabilities, allowing geophysicists to create more detailed and accurate models of the Earth's subsurface. The adoption of high-performance computing enables complex simulations, essential for understanding geophysical processes.

Innovations including drones and autonomous vehicles for data collection, alongside advancements in satellite technology, are enhancing the ability to survey and monitor geophysical phenomena, even in remote locations. This technological leap is enabling applied geophysicists to work more efficiently and safely, too.

As the field grows, it becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, and more able to tackle complex environmental and resource management issues. The increasing focus on environmental protection and the impact of climate change will likely lead to a surge in demand for geophysical expertise, particularly in projects aimed at mitigating natural disasters and assessing infrastructure resilience.

Applied geophysics is embracing emerging technologies. It is expected to play a pivotal role in addressing the environmental and resource challenges of the future, with geophysicists at the forefront of this transformative era.

Applied Geophysics at Michigan Tech

Brendan Harvile with rock samples in buckets.

The Applied Geophysics program at Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences is the only program in the State of Michigan.

We are the only department in the U.S. that houses both engineering programs under one roof. The department is also unique in offering four majors/degrees (Applied Geophysics, Geological Engineering, Geology, Mining Engineering). Accredied by ABET for Geological and Mining Engineering and The Higher Learning Commission for Applied Geophysics and Geology.

Here is a glimpse of what sets our program apart:

  • Hands-On Experience: Our students do not just learn in the classroom; they gain hands-on experience in the field. We offer a unique sequence of two summer field courses—Field Geophysics and Field Geology—where students have the chance to apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios, ensuring they are ready for the challenges of their future careers.
  • State-of-the-Art Facilities: Our Department is equipped with the latest technology and tools, including state-of-the-art instruments for applied geophysics investigations.
  • Dedicated Faculty: Our faculty members are not only educators but also active and successful researchers. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the classroom, ensuring students get a comprehensive education. The low student-to-faculty ratio (~6:1) ensures that every student receives undivided attention from the faculty.
  • Research Opportunities: Michigan Tech is home to pioneering research in geophysics. From sustainable resource extraction to the impacts of climate change, our students and faculty are at the forefront, making significant contributions to the field.
  • Community and Networking: Being part of the MTU community means being connected to a vast network of alumni, industry partners, and professionals. Events like the Career Fair and department events with alumni provide students with unparalleled opportunities to network, learn, and secure their future careers.