Similar to human beings, the earth is constantly growing and changing over time. From moving plates, to changing tides, the earth is alive with activity. But how exactly do we keep track of it all? That’s where a geodesist comes in.
What is it?
A geodesist uses technology, such as satellites, to measure three fundamental parameters of the earth; its geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravitational field.
They use real-life observations, rather than theory, to determine earth coordinates as well as topological features. It’s different from a topic like geography, since geodesy focuses on researching features not visible to the human eye.
A geodesist’s findings can help scientists figure out how the world works, and create predictions on how the world will be in the future.
What would you be doing?
Geodesists study various things related to the earth, such as tectonic plates, polar activity, the earth’s rotation, sea levels, and variations in Earth’s gravity. The Earth is dynamic and constantly undergoing changes, with those changes ranging from noticeable, large rapid forces, such as tides, to small, long-term motions, such as ice caps melting.
A variety of instruments, such as geographic information systems, satellite technology, and remote sensing help a geodesist take measurements on both land and sea. Therefore, geodesists design experiments and use technology to obtain experimental data, which can be used to reach a conclusion about the nature of the earth.
For example, using signals from GPS satellites 20,000 km from Earth, geodesists are able to accurately determine the positions of points within a small error margin in just a few minutes. 20,000 km is just a few thousand kilometres more than a flight from London to Sydney, Australia would be!
A geodesist who wants to measure the acceleration of gravity uses atomic clocks and lasers. These instruments could actually detect a difference of one-billionth of your body weight. All the bacteria on earth combined is about 1,166 times more massive than all humans combined, so you can begin to imagine how large 1 billion times your weight would be. Imagine being able to detect such a small change!
A geodesist’s findings can lead to important predictions for the future, especially as the world becomes more reliant on data in all sorts of industries.
What does a typical day involve?
A typical day in the life of a geodesist involves either measurements at specific locations or in the field, or data analysis. They are generally employed as researchers at universities, navigators, or surveyors, and might also be brought in as contractors for a project.
Some days, geodesists might be outside collecting the necessary data, and other days, they will be interpreting that data in a lab. For example, they may be analysing their data to check that their findings are within acceptable margins, or verifying the mathematical correctness of collected data.
A lot of a geodesist’s daily tasks depend on who they are employed by, and whether they are in a research based role at an institution, or working on something like a construction project.
What specific skills are needed?
A geodesist must be detail oriented, since they are typically collecting and analysing data. After all, geodesists are using mathematics to measure and predict properties of the earth. Ensuring that they have all the relevant data for their calculations is crucial for success.
Critical thinking is another key trait of geodesists. Even with all of their planning, there is a chance that some data may be incorrect. A geodesist should be able to sort out the relevant data from their measurements.
Communication skills really are critical in any job, especially in geodesy. Geodesists must be able to communicate their findings to others, whether that is colleagues, scientists, or the general public using their data.
A large part of a geodesist's job revolves around using technology, so they must have the ability to learn new technology and be computer literate. This may be learned through courses that they complete, or skills that they learn on the job.
A geodesist must have a certain amount of independence to be able to investigate the natural world. Although they may work on teams, geodesists have to also be able to conduct and interpret their own research.
What type of qualifications are required?
Typically, jobs in geodesy require a bachelor’s degree in either geodesy, or another analytical degree. Some of these analytical degrees include mathematics, physics, earth sciences, engineering, and cartography.
Although a bachelor’s degree is typically needed, a master’s degree can be very helpful for larger projects or government jobs. This can help a geodesist have a deeper understanding of maths, planetary physics, and natural processes.
A lot of the time, the required qualifications vary between organisations. If you want to be involved in large-scale projects, having a higher degree can give you an edge on other individuals in the business. Likewise, if you want to be researching new research methods at large institutes, a postgraduate degree will be necessary.
Where can I get some more information?
NASA’s Brief History of Geodesy video
Interview with Chief Geodesist Dr. Dru Smith on Federal News Radio concerning the future direction of the US National Geodetic Survey
Read about the pivotal work that Gladys West, one of the hidden figures of geodesy, completed that helped advance GPS technology
Check out the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s educational resources where you can search up different focus areas of specific skills, such as GIS and mapping
Geoff Blewitt speaks about 30 years of being a geodesist in 5 minutes
Learn more about Irene Fischer, who had a distinguished career as a geodesist