OPINION: Alaska students, consider geoscience — it rocks

Alaska needs more Alaska-educated geoscientists, because geoscientists are key drivers of our resource-based economy and Alaska employers are struggling to find qualified applicants. Students who enroll in geoscience have excellent potential for fun, exciting, challenging, rewarding and satisfying careers. Unfortunately, geoscience education after ninth grade in Alaska is rare. Most high school graduates are probably not aware of the exciting careers available in this field. The oil and gas and metal mining sectors top the list of average wages among 14 employment categories in Alaska, and many Alaska geoscientists work in geohazard mitigation (volcanos, earthquakes and landslides), groundwater supply, protection and restoration, permafrost and soil evaluation, glacier studies, and environmental protection. In the future, deep underground reservoirs may be used as geologically stable repositories for carbon dioxide to help maintain climate stability.

Natural resource development has occurred in Alaska since the gold rush days and will do so far into the future. Copper was mined at McCarthy between 1911 and 1938 to help electrify millions of homes and provide copper for brass munitions to help win World War I. Since then, Alaska’s large metal mines have operated safely and consistent with the national interest, as determined by environmental impact statements and robust state environmental regulation and without significant water pollution. For example, the salmon runs of the Copper River near McCarthy are still world-famous, pristine and productive. Other examples of responsible resource development in Alaska abound.

The root of Alaska’s wealth arguably stems from state geologist Tom Marshall’s recommendation -- against considerable pushback -- to acquire land at Prudhoe Bay years before the first exploratory well was spudded there.

Alaska has an abundance of oil, gas and mineral resources. Alaska also has strict environmental policy and oversight to approve projects with low impacts and high value that create many local jobs. Worldwide oil demand is always met with produced oil. Reduced or foregone Alaska oil production encourages oil production elsewhere, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela. Many of us would prefer that this revenue stay in-state, where we can also apply our environmental stewardship practices. Promoting responsible development here to meet demand makes sense, rather than in other countries that do not have the same oversight, and that would result in more negative impacts to the environment.

The transition to electrification will unfold over decades. In addition to continued production of oil and gas, this will require copper and other critical minerals for electrical grids, batteries, electric vehicles and many consumer devices. Recognizing our nation’s vulnerability, the federal government has recently funded airborne geophysical studies in Alaska to find new resources across Alaska’s world-class mineral belts.

Alaska has consistently contributed to our nation’s demand for critical oil and mineral needs for more than a century and has vast potential to continue doing so in an environmentally responsible manner for many decades to come. More geoscientists are needed to enable sound science-based decision making.

If you want to become part of Alaska’s resource, geohazard, water, climate change or environmental future, exciting and fulfilling Alaska career opportunities await you. Consider enrolling in geoscience at the University of Alaska, where undergraduate and master’s degrees are offered in Anchorage and Fairbanks and a Ph.D. program is offered in Fairbanks -- all taught by world-class faculty. Additional programs such as ANSEP (Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program) and ARE (Alaska Resource Education) provide natural resource educational programs at all levels. Feel free to attend the UAA Geology Club’s annual Career Fair this Feb. 28 from 2-5 p.m. in the Atrium of the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building on the UAA campus to find out more.


Jim Munter, CPG, CGWP, is a 32-year member and current Chair of the Community Advisory Board of UAA’s Department of Geological Sciences and is still enjoying a 40-plus year hydrogeology career in Alaska, based in Anchorage. The opinions expressed herein are his own.

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