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What is Geophysics?-Introduction, Branches, and Applications

September 30, 2023
written by Qamar Zaman

Geophysics is the study of the Earth’s internal and external properties, using physical and mathematical principles to understand the Earth’s structure, composition, and processes. Geophysicists use techniques such as seismology, gravity, magnetics, and electromagnetism to investigate the Earth’s interior, atmosphere, and oceans.

 Their findings help us understand the Earth’s evolution, the movement of tectonic plates, and the potential for natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

An Introduction to Geophysics

Geophysics is the study of the physical processes and properties of the Earth. It applies the principles of physics to understand the Earth’s interior, its composition, structure, and dynamics. Geophysics provides key insights into the fundamental nature of the Earth that are critical for addressing major societal issues.

By studying the Earth’s interior and processes, geophysicists can better understand earthquake hazards, locate natural resources, manage groundwater, assess volcanic hazards, and study climate change. The data gathered through geophysics is essential for geologists, engineers, policymakers, and the public.

History of Geophysics

The origins of modern geophysical techniques trace back to the 19th century:

  • Henry Cavendish conducted the first experiment to measure Earth’s density in 1798 using a torsion balance.
  • George Airy demonstrated that variations in gravity could be used to study density contrasts in the crust in 1855.
  • Lord Kelvin used thermal gradient measurements to estimate Earth’s age in the 1860s-1870s.
  • The first seismograph to study seismic waves from earthquakes was built by John Milne in the 1890s.
  • Emil Wiechert and Richard Dixon Oldham used seismic data to reveal the Earth’s core in 1906.
  • The geomagnetic field was definitively linked to Earth’s iron core by Walter Elsasser in 1939.
  • The development of plate tectonic theory in the 1960s relied heavily on geophysical findings.
  • Improved instrumentation, computing power, satellite observations, and large collaborative networks continue to drive discoveries.

Scope of Geophysics

Geophysics encompasses a wide range of physical principles and methods applied to study the Earth. Some key areas that fall under the umbrella of geophysics include:

  • Seismology – The study of seismic waves from earthquakes to probe the Earth’s subsurface structure. This provides key insights into earthquake hazards and oil/gas reservoirs.
  • Geodesy – Highly precise measurements of the Earth’s gravitational field, shape, and orientation in space. This reveals information on tectonic motions and mass variations in the Earth.
  • Geomagnetism – The study of the Earth’s magnetic field, its sources in the Earth’s core, and variations over time. Important for navigation and understanding core dynamics.
  • Gravity and Isostasy – Measuring minute variations in gravity to infer density contrasts that reveal structures deep in the Earth’s interior.
  • Electrical & Electromagnetic methods – Using electric and EM measurements to characterize the conductivity structure of the subsurface. Key for mineral, groundwater, and oil exploration.
  • Geothermics – Probing Earth’s thermal structure and heat flow to understand its thermal evolution. Also used for geothermal energy exploration.

Branches of Geophysics

There are several major branches within the field of geophysics:

image of geophysics


Seismology focuses on earthquakes and seismic waves to study the Earth’s subsurface structure. Seismologists deploy seismic monitoring networks and use seismic data to generate models of the Earth’s interior. This provides crucial information on earthquake hazards and the distribution of oil and gas reservoirs.


Geomagnetism studies the Earth’s magnetic field and its variations over time. Measurements of the geomagnetic field provide information on the Earth’s core and reveal insights into the planet’s deep interior. Geomagnetism also aids in navigation and resource exploration.

Gravity and Geodesy

This field focuses on studying temporal variations in the Earth’s gravitational field and its precise shape. Gravity studies can detect mass variations that reflect processes deep within the Earth. Geodesy utilizes satellite data to map the Earth’s surface with centimeter-scale accuracy.


Geodynamics analyzes the motions and deformations of the Earth to understand its interior dynamics and evolution. This includes studying convection currents, plate tectonics, and the viscoelastic structure of the Earth.

Exploration Geophysics

Exploration geophysicists apply geophysical techniques to detect and characterize natural resources such as petroleum, minerals, and groundwater. Methods include seismic, electromagnetic, gravity, and magnetic surveys.

Applications of Geophysics

Geophysical data provides vital information across a broad range of applications:

Earthquake Hazard Assessment

Seismological data enables geophysicists to identify active faults, understand earthquake rupture processes, and estimate earthquake hazards. This is crucial for engineering design and disaster planning.

Mineral and Hydrocarbon Exploration

Seismic, gravity, and magnetic surveys are key tools for exploring new oil, gas, and mineral resources. Geophysical data helps identify promising locations for drilling and mining.

Groundwater Exploration and Management

Techniques such as electrical resistivity tomography can detect aquifers and monitor groundwater levels. This assists with managing water resources and supply.

Natural Hazard Assessment

Geophysicists use a variety of methods to study hazards like volcanoes, landslides, and tsunamis. This analysis provides early warning and improves hazard mitigation.

Climate Change Research

Geophysical data from ice cores, sediment cores, and boreholes provides insights into past climate changes. This paleoclimate data enables climate models to make better predictions.

What do Geophysicists do?

Geophysicists study the physical processes and properties of the Earth using principles of physics. Some of the main things geophysicists do include:

  1. Conduct seismic surveys to map the structure of the Earth’s interior and locate oil, gas, and mineral resources. This involves generating and measuring seismic waves.
  2. Monitor earthquakes and study earthquake mechanisms using seismological data. This provides information on earthquake hazards.
  3. Measure variations in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields over time. These measurements can reveal changes deep within the Earth.
  4. Use geodetic techniques like GPS and satellite altimetry to precisely map the Earth’s surface and detect small motions and deformations.
  5. Develop computer models of seismic wave propagation, plate tectonic motions, and mantle convection currents to study the Earth’s dynamics.
  6. Interpret geophysical data and create maps, cross-sections, and 3D models of the subsurface structure.
  7. Design and carry out geophysical field studies and experiments using a variety of instruments and techniques.
  8. Analyze remote sensing data from satellites to study changes in the Earth’s surface.
  9. Use geophysical methods to detect groundwater resources, map ocean currents, and assess climate change.
  10. Communicate geophysical research and findings to the broader geoscience community as well as policymakers, government officials, and the public.

Related FAQs

What is the basic concept of geophysics?

Geophysics is the study of the Earth using physics, focusing on the planet’s composition, structure, and processes.

What do geophysics do?

Geophysicists use techniques like seismic surveys, gravity measurements, and geomagnetic studies to explore the subsurface and understand earthquakes, volcanoes, climate change, and more.

Is geophysics a branch of engineering?

No, geophysics is an earth science field closely related to geology. However, it does involve applying physics concepts and engineering techniques.

What is an example of geophysics?

Using seismic waves to map the structure of the Earth’s crust and upper mantle is an example of exploration geophysics.