Methods of Investigation used by Geoscientists

Many geoscientists have trouble recognizing their research methods in a typical description of "the scientific method," which often focuses on the use of controlled experiments to test hypotheses. Geoscientists rarely have the opportunity to perform controlled experiments, however. Instead, hypothesis testing in the Earth sciences is grounded in methodical observations and detailed descriptions of the natural world (Manduca and Kastens, 2012) . The processes and products that Earth scientists explore are often challenging to observe because they occur over long time periods or long in the past; they are remote - deep within the interior of Earth, at the bottom of the ocean, or on another planet, for example; or they occur over large spatial scales. To overcome these challenges, Earth scientists utilize several strategies for focusing their data collection and observations and testing their hypotheses:

Key Geoscience Research Methods

  • Comparing products of modern processes to those found in the past: Connecting the present to the past was encoded in the geosciences in the 1800's with the development of the concept of uniformitarianism. But Earth scientists go far beyond what was originally conceived by James Hutton and codified by Charles Lyell. Today, we study rocks, sediments, ice - any records we can find that record fluctuations of key parameters in the past. Examples include:
    • Monitoring and measuring the behavior of modern turbidity currents and deposits to understand deep sea rocks that now host natural resources
    • Developing physical models of deltas to understand ancient delta deposits
    • Studying past extinction and rapid climate change events to better understand current climate change and its potential effects
  • Studying geographically or temporally specific examples to deduce underlying processes: Earth scientists work with a single planet, and must develop an understanding of fundamental processes from an historical record and modern processes. As a result, time and location are critically important in determining which examples are important and interesting. Examples include
    • Studying the occurrence of large earthquakes to determine the physical processes that result in the generation of tsunamis.
    • Studying stratigraphic sections around the world that cross a single event, such as a mass extinction, to determine the nature and extent of the event.
  • Developing multiple converging lines of inherently incomplete data: Earth scientists are very aware that the rock record provides a very limited window into the past, and multiple lines of evidence are required to test any hypotheses. As a result, collaboration is an essential component of Earth science, bringing people together with different areas of expertise. Examples include:
    • Seismologists conducting an experiment to see structures at depth working with geologists who map features at the surface.
    • Climate scientists working with geomorphologists to model the effects of changing rainfall patterns on the evolution of the landscape.

Activities that highlight Geoscience Methods

Unit 3: Simple Climate Models
Louisa Bradtmiller, Macalester College

Unit 4: Impacts of Environmental Change on Organisms: Horses
Camille Holmgren, SUNY Buffalo State University

Unit 3: Energy Flows and Feedback Processes
Bob Mackay, Clark College; Allison Dunn, Worcester State University; Phil Resor, Wesleyan University

Unit 5: Circulation in the atmosphere - a map and cross section based jigsaw
Phil Resor, Wesleyan University; Allison Dunn, Worcester State University; Bob Mackay, Clark College

Unit 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking – What is a System?
Karl Kreutz, University of Maine; Lisa Gilbert, Cabrillo College; deborah gross, Carleton College

Unit 3: Geologic Record of Past Climate
Callan Bentley, Piedmont Virginia Community College

Unit 5: Modern CO2 Accumulation
Pamela Gore, Georgia State University

Unit 6. Rainwater Harvesting
Steven Burian, University of Utah; Manoj Jha, North Carolina A & T State University; Gigi Richard, Fort Lewis College; Marshall Shepherd, University of Georgia

Part 2: Field work planning & investigation
Kate Darby, Western Washington University; Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College; Lisa Phillips, Texas Tech University

Unit 5: Sensory Map Development
Kate Darby, Western Washington University; Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College; Lisa Phillips, Texas Tech University

Part 1: Sensory data collection protocol development
Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College; Kate Darby, Western Washington University; Lisa Phillips, Texas Tech University

Unit 4: Case Study Analysis
Lisa Phillips, Texas Tech University; Kate Darby, Western Washington University; Michael Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College

Browse the complete set of Geoscience Methods activities »


When testing hypotheses using these strategies, Earth scientists may collect detailed descriptions, perform experiments, develop models, and compare descriptions and results (for more information about these methods, see additional resources. The ultimate test of the hypothesis, however, is its ability to explain the observations from the natural world (Manduca and Kastens, 2012) . Those observations may take the form of descriptions of rock types or soils in the field, laboratory measurements of the age of a rock, satellite observations of ocean temperatures, etc.

Teaching the methods of investigation

The single most important thing you can do in your teaching is to be explicit in highlighting and describing the methods you are using.

Additional resources about the methods of science at Visionlearning