What is Structural Geology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Structural geology is a subfield within geology which focuses on the study of geological structures, with the goal of learning how, when, and why they formed. There are a number of applications for structural geology, ranging from determining where valuable mineral resources might be buried to assessing land to determine whether or not it is safe to build on. Practitioners in this field usually have a bachelor's degree in structural geology, and they may have pursued graduate work as well.

The study of plate tectonics is a form of structural geology.
The study of plate tectonics is a form of structural geology.

A structural geologist examines geological phenomena, looking specifically for signs of deformation which show the kinds of stress put on the rock as it formed. Deformation can reveal the angle of stress, the origins of the stress, and its intensity, with the geologist also examining the composition of the rock. By looking at how things form and change over time, specialists in structural geology can draw a number of conclusions which may be used to gain a deeper understanding of geology.

A structural geologist specializes in the formation of rock structures, such as how wind erosion shaped a desert yardang.
A structural geologist specializes in the formation of rock structures, such as how wind erosion shaped a desert yardang.

In some cases, structural geology is concerned with the history of the Earth. The study of plate tectonics is a form of structural geology, using deformations in existing rock structures to follow the movements of the Earth's crust. Structural geologists can draw connections between similar geologic formations, explore the conditions which must have been present when various geological features formed, and learn about ongoing geological processes such as mountain formation.

Economically, structural geology is very important. Understanding the process of geological formation and being able to analyze deformation patterns can allow geologists to identify geologic features which may hold pockets of economically useful minerals and resources such as petroleum. Structural geologists also assess geologic risks, ranging from sinkholes to volcanoes, which could be of concern to communities and developers. A structural geologist can also be called in after an accident or geologic event to examine what happened and why it occurred, with the goal of preventing property damage and loss of life in the future.

Structural geology can take place in the field, with geologists making site visits to examine formations of interest personally, and in the lab. Structural geologists use a variety of equipment in the work, including computers for complex calculations, spectrometers to determine the mineral content of rock, and satellite or aerial photography to get a broad view of an area of interest. Because the scale of structural geology can be so large, the ability to step back and get a sweeping view is critical to fully understanding the geological processes at work in a given area of the world.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@clintflint - It's not all theoretical though. I know they recently had to call in a couple of structural geologists in order to assess an area near me after an earthquake. There had been a lot of what they call liquefaction, where the ground is put under so much stress that it basically turns to mush.

The geologists had to determine whether or not it was safe for people to go into certain areas. I think they also tried to predict whether or not there would be more earthquakes, but unfortunately, we aren't very good at doing that yet. Hopefully in the next few decades we'll get better at it, although to be honest, I think we'd be better off putting money into making our buildings more earthquake proof.


@pleonasm - That's something I remember from a book. Whenever you see those sandy-looking rocks that are often in layers, they were once sand and the area was either a beach or a desert.

It's amazing how much landscape can change over time. We tend to think it doesn't change very much at all, particularly now that we control so much of it. But, people often find seashells on the highest mountains and realize that they were once on the bottom of the ocean.

Likewise there might be dinosaur fossils under te ocean that we will never see, because they are just too deep to reach.


I only took one class in basic structural geology when I was at university but I remember it as being one of the more enjoyable classes (probably because the lecturer was pretty cool).

We didn't just do theory, we also did things like pouring colored water into sand and rocks to see where it would go and various other demonstrations of how water works through different substrates and under pressure. We went out on field trips for a geological survey and took soil samples and they showed us what the history of our local surroundings was. It was really interesting, particularly as I didn't realize that at one point we'd been underwater and the lovely looking desert areas were once beaches!

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