Quaternary-overburden geology: the red-headed stepchild of geology


Too often I experience that resource workers and even geologists know little about Quaternary-overburden geology. This has to change.

In the oil and gas sector and mining sector, Quaternary geology (pronounced kwa-tur-na-ree) is the shallow geology that often buries deeper resource targets. It is frequently referred to as overburden geology. Quaternary geology is a burden! With negative branding like that, it’s no surprise even some seasoned geologists have little interest in learning about Quaternary geology. It’s even marginalized in our schools, with many geologists graduating school with little to no training in Quaternary geology. Students are often motivated to study geology because they are interested in rocks, but Quaternary-age geology is so young that it is sediment, not rock – boring! (I have two graduate degrees in Quaternary geology, and find it anything but boring)

But this is changing – and out of necessity. The Quaternary geology is at our feet and extends to the bedrock, and consequently is the geology that most resource activities are interacting with – accessing groundwater, extracting building materials, stripping the Quaternary to get at deeper geology, drilling through it, or building on it.

Groundwater in Quaternary geology

It is within the Quaternary that the largest sources of fresh groundwater reside. And, it is these very sources that are also potentially negatively impacted by resource activities.

With regulations around aquifer management and sustainability tightening, the red-headed stepchild of geology is about to step into the spot light.

Hydrogeologists study the movement of groundwater. The name “hydrogeologist” implies that they are geologists and groundwater scientists. Unfortunately the education system does not operate this way. Few hydrogeologists have a good understanding of geologic systems, especially of Quaternary geology. Too often, simplified assumptions are made of the Quaternary geology, leading to weak groundwater modelling results.

If you don’t get the geology right, any groundwater model, no matter how sophisticated, will be wrong.

At what point is a groundwater model imaginary? Photo by Jeana Willis.

To be better stewards of groundwater resources, we need to make better hydrogeologists, or at least have them work closely with, or get trained by, Quaternary-overburden geologists.

Glacial geology is Quaternary geology

Interest in global climate change and sea level rise have highlighted the role of glaciers and glacial processes. In the popular media, images of calving ice fronts and rapidly retreating ice margins are common. Will the Antarctic Ice Sheet suddenly slide off into the ocean? Has it done this before? How quickly will sea level rise?

A central focus of Quaternary geology is concerned with glacial systems, processes and deposits. This is because the Quaternary Period is the last two million years of earth history marked by dramatic climate changes that resulted in the waxing and waning of continental-scale glaciers. The activity of these glaciers heavily modified the landscapes of high latitude countries. They scoured and shaped the land and produced tremendous amounts of sediment that our species interacts with in a variety of ways.

Quaternary-overburden geologists are specialists at understanding glacial and other earth surface processes, and the resulting patterns of erosion and deposition. Quaternary geologists decipher the stratigraphy to delineate groundwater aquifers, discover construction materials, and much more.

Learn more about Quaternary-overburden geology

Quaternary-overburden geology is evermore relevant in a variety of professions. If you are a student, take at least one course in Quaternary geology along with a course in geomorphology. Note, for historical reasons, that at many schools you will have to study geomorphology in a geography department, rather than a geology department. If you are working, see if you can take a course at a university as part of your professional development, or even work directly with or get trained by a Quaternary-overburden geologist.

Written by Tim Johnsen, PhD,  ProGeoscience.com

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Dr. Tim Johnsen is the founder and president of ProGeoscience Consulting. He is a senior geologist specialized in Quaternary, surficial and overburden geology. He integrates a suite of specialized skills to create high quality geologic reconstructions that are tuned to solve the particular problems of his clients – on budget and on time. He turns the complex and often intimidating world of Quaternary, surficial and overburden geology into the predictable and solvable.


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