branches of earth science

What Are the Main Branches of Earth Science?

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Our home planet is a massive and sometimes scary place, but there are so many things to learn about it that it can be hard to focus on just one thing. That’s why earth science, or the study of the many and varied environments of our home, consists of multiple different branches. Let’s take a closer look at the main branches of Earth science, and the kinds of things you might learn by studying each.

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Geology

Geology is the study of the rocks under our feet — quite literally. Geologists study everything from how rocks form to how they come together to form islands or the continents we build our cities on. They also study creating and destroying these materials, and how we can use these materials efficiently without harming the planet.

This earth sciences topic gets broken down even further into some additional categories, depending on the specific topics under study. Planetary geologists take the study of geology out into the stars, looking closely at the geology of other planets. If they are specifically studying the moon, they become lunar geologists.

Mineralogy is the study of minerals, their composition and how their structure affects both them and the stones around them. Geologists who study earthquakes are known as seismologists, and those who study volcanoes are called volcanologists. Marine geologists study the earth as it exists underwater, paying special attention to oceanic basins and the sea floor.

Even people who dig up dinosaur bones are geologists, though they prefer for people to call them paleontologists.

Meteorology

Every time you turn on the news to find out what the weather is going to be on any given day, you’re taking advantage of the Earth science of meteorology. Meteorology is the study of weather, including weather patterns, as well as things like clouds and dangerous weather like tornadoes and hurricanes. This branch of Earth science breaks down into three equally broad classifications — weather and climate, life sciences and atmospheric physics.

Meteorology is essential during hurricane season. These scientists can track and predict things like hurricanes and tornadoes to ensure that the people in their paths have enough time to prepare, evacuate — or, in the case of tornadoes, take shelter.

On a less catastrophic scale, meteorologists also study things like air circulation, heat transfer, rainfall and humidity — all the information that generates your morning weather report.

Oceanography

Water covers more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, and a large majority of that is ocean. That is where oceanography comes in. Oceanography is a broad term for the study of the world’s oceans. There are four different branches of this type of earth science. The first is ocean chemistry, which studies the chemical properties of this planet’s oceans and how it interacts with things like marine ecosystems and ocean currents.

Next is marine physics — the study of the movement of the ocean’s currents. It ties into fluid dynamics, as marine physicists study the way water flows, and the water column structure of the oceans. Then there is marine biology, which, as its name suggests, follows the study of marine animals and the ecosystems they call home. Finally, there is ocean geology, or underwater geology. We’ve already talked about geology, so we won’t elaborate more here.

Oceanography, in general, has applications everywhere from studying the effects of climate change and the environment to helping fishermen create sustainable fisheries, so we don’t decimate the ecosystem trying to feed all the hungry mouths on this planet.

Climatology

The climate is in the news a lot lately, specifically about climate change, but that isn’t all climatologists study. Climatology is a subset of meteorology, but it is so critical right now that it deserves its own section in this article.

On a broad scale, climate is the kind of weather you expect to find in a specific area. You know Florida will be hot because of its sub-tropical status, and you expect a white Christmas in New York because it is further from the equator. Architects design homes according to a local climate, as do infrastructure developers. Even the clothing you find in stores is suitable for the climate of a given area.

Climatologists’ task is to study the climate and how it changes, both naturally and as the result of human intervention. The climate is changing — the extremely destructive hurricane seasons of the last couple of years are a testament to that. Climatology enables these scientists to recommend ways to change our housing and infrastructure, as well as ways to prepare for the potent and sometimes devastating consequences of climate change.

Astronomy

Astronomy might not seem like an Earth science, since it focuses on things outside our atmosphere, but the things astronomers learn can have real-world applications down here on the surface of the planet.

There are many different branches of astronomy as well. Astrophysicists can study the solar winds our sun releases to assess how they can affect our planet. Solar astronomers can study the sun itself to help predict things like solar flares that can affect electronics and satellites. Astrobiologists study everything from how we can grow plants and raise animals in space to the possibility of life on other planets.

Astronomy is the last of our earth science topics, but it is far from the least important, especially if we hope to become an interstellar species one day and travel to the stars.

Earth sciences are some of the most varied sciences in the world — the list we’ve gathered here is only a small sampling of the different branches of earth science. If you’re interested in learning more about the world around you, looking into one of the earth sciences is a great way to go — and there are plenty of options available if you don’t find the perfect branch for you on the first try.

Category: Environment

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.