The Role of the Geoscientist in Assuring the Safety and Integrity of Infrastructure
Adopted October 2014, Revised May 2019
Geoscientists have a fundamental role in the engineering and architectural design, planning, construction, and
maintenance of infrastructure systems in the built environment, and in understanding the functionality and
sustainability of natural infrastructure, with respect to their relationship to local geology, hazards, and the
This position statement (1) summarizes The Geological Society of America’s consensus view on the importance of
geoscientists’ contribution to infrastructure concerns; (2) describes geoscientists’ roles in addressing aging and
expanded infrastructure; and (3) recommends actions to incorporate geoscientists, expand consistency of skills, and
educate the public on the natural resource setting for infrastructure systems.
1. Governments at all levels are encouraged to incorporate licensed geologists or geological engineers in the
infrastructure design and planning process.1 In some municipalities, geologists are required to provide
recommendations and participate in the design process for development on steep slopes in known landslide hazard
areas. Similar planning-level participation from geologists is essential for construction in flood zones,
earthquake-prone regions, and karst environments. Geoscientists’ involvement with planning and design will raise
awareness and consideration of geologic conditions that will both affect the integrity of the constructed public
works and how the construction design may affect or alter the natural environment.
2. Legislative bodies and government agencies are encouraged to include geoscientists within the public policy
process. If not properly planned, the basic infrastructure of communities can be quickly overwhelmed, especially in
the face of disaster. Inclusion of geoscientists in legislative forums, especially those concerning policy, can
provide needed awareness and relevance of the role the earth sciences play in the planning of public works.
3. Increase decision-maker and stakeholder awareness about natural hazards in high-risk communities.2 The scientific
knowledge afforded by geoscientists is essential in guidance of infrastructure design when building in areas that
are threatened by natural hazards and extreme events (e.g., floods, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, and storm
4. Establish and promote consistent requirements of professional geologist licensure programs. Some countries,
notably Canada, Australia, and parts of the United States and Europe, require licensure or comparable certification
if geosciences activities are to be performed in the public domain*. In the United States, several states are
members of the National Association of State Boards of Geology (ASBOG®), which uses standardized examinations to
license professional geologists and provide guidance in maintaining a professional geologist licensure program.
Licensure requirements promote technical consistency in the profession as well as reinforce best practices to ensure
public safety and welfare.
5. Institutions of higher learning are invited to partner with applied earth-science professionals to contribute
practical curricula with a focus on infrastructure systems.1 Increasing urbanization and projected expansion into
geologically hazardous areas and vulnerable coastal zones, and the demands for improvement in existing
infrastructure, require a highly skilled, versatile, and innovative workforce of applied earth-science
professionals. Given the growing demands with infrastructure needs, the role of the applied geoscientist—especially
one who has geotechnical and engineering expertise—will be crucial in helping to educate the next generation of the
* Licensure and certification are different in scope and implementation. Licensure has governmental authority and
oversight; certification is conferred by a professional association. Certification may or may not include testing of
Society depends on well-built, functional infrastructure every day, from structures like roads, rail lines,
pipelines, bridges, dams, and navigable waterways to public works that deliver critical services to the public, like
water-supply systems, electrical grids, and telecommunications. These systems provide services and resources
essential to maintaining the health, safety, and sustainability of communities. Natural infrastructure, such as
forests and wetlands and other open spaces that conserve or enhance ecosystem values and functions, provide similar
A large portion of existing infrastructure in the built environment was constructed over the past century; however,
without ongoing maintenance and improvement, infrastructure systems deteriorate over time. In many locations,
existing infrastructure is approaching and even exceeding its original design life. Additionally, recent gains in
prosperity and population in emerging economies has caused increased demand for improvement and expansion of
infrastructure systems. The viability and integrity of public works is also dependent on the quality and
availability of industrial minerals and rocks used in the construction process. While it is clear that society’s
infrastructure needs crucial assessment, maintenance, and upgrades, future infrastructure likely will require new
design approaches and priorities.
A thorough understanding of how earth dynamics and geologic materials affect infrastructure over the construction and
design life cycle is imperative in the built environment; conversely, any construction alters the natural
environment, and geologists are well-positioned to consider the effects of infrastructure on future risk
probabilities for slope instability and altered rates of groundwater recharge and surface-water runoff, among other
environmental changes, especially in light of increased frequency of extreme weather events. Flood damage from levee
failures along the Mississippi River in 2011, damage to power grids and transportation systems in the northeastern
United States due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hindering of post-typhoon aid to the Philippines due to substantial
airport damage from Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and the 2017 Oroville dam (California) spillway failure are reminders of
the havoc resulting from poor planning and infrastructure disrepair.
Geoscientists are essential in assessing how the natural environment functions and interacts with the lifecycle of
built infrastructure in many ways: (1) characterization of subsurface geological conditions with respect to their
effect on the planning, design, construction, maintenance, and on-going sustainability or modernization of
infrastructure projects; (2) planning for new infrastructure and the assessment of existing infrastructure, with
respect to environmental impact, natural resource availability, and the incorporation of regional and site-specific
natural-hazard analysis; (3) evaluating and monitoring construction methods in high-risk areas (for example:
unstable slopes, high water table, sensitive soil conditions, karst); (4) continual monitoring of potential geologic
hazards and environmental conditions in sensitive and critical facilities (e.g., power plants, dams, pipelines,
landfills); and (5) awareness of increasing frequency of extreme weather events that may increase the probability of
conditions that severely stress any given infrastructure system.
Resilient infrastructure is not only dependent on the geologic conditions where it is built but also on the expertise
of the geoscientist involved in the environmental and geotechnical study that complements the engineering. This
expertise is the result of education, experience, and qualification. Licensure or a similar form of certification of
applied geologists ensures minimum criteria of knowledge and work history necessary to promote consistent best
practices and ethical conduct.
Referenced GSA Position Statements that Support Recommendations in this Position Statement:
1. Promoting Earth Science Literacy for Public Decision Making, revised May 2018, https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/positions/pos21_ESLiteracy.pdf.
2. Improving Natural Hazards Policies through Geoscience, GSA, revised October 2017, https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/positions/pos6_natHazards.pdf.
3. Managing U.S. Coastal Hazards, GSA, revised November 2018, https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/positions/pos22_CoastalHazards.pdf.
4. Climate Change, revised April 2015, https://www.geosociety.org/documents/gsa/positions/pos10_climate.pdf.
Opportunities for GSA and its Members to Help Implement Recommendations
- Work with local and regional planning boards or institutions to educate them on the value of geoscientists in the planning and design of infrastructure systems. This might include field trips to illustrate pertinent engineering and environmental issues.
- Encourage and provide expert input on public policy that will improve society’s resilience to natural hazards.
- Licensing geologists, or certifying geologists where licensure laws are absent, is an important component for increasing public and political recognition and support for the science and profession. Professional geoscientists in countries or provinces without licensure should consider developing accreditation programs. In the United States, geologists in states without licensure are encouraged to contact ASBOG® to learn how to bring licensure into their states or obtain professional certification from a national organization such as the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG) or a comparable professional organization relevant to the practice of geological engineering. Members can also contact legislatures to promote the addition of geologist licensure to state or national legislation.
- Support government geologic surveys. These institutions provide essential knowledge and resources needed for the development and building of infrastructure.
- Promote partnerships among geology departments, especially those working in tandem with civil engineering programs, and practicing professional geoscientists to review academic curricula with a focus on skills used in infrastructure planning, development, and maintenance. Encourage experienced earth-science professionals with pertinent industry knowledge to share their knowledge and perspective with geology and geologic engineering programs. Fostering such partnerships would provide useful insight into developing pertinent curricula that would prepare college graduates to meet the future challenges of society. As part of the curriculum review, consider coursework that would satisfy educational requirements in countries or regions where certification or licensure is required to practice geology in the public domain.