The work of the underwater geologist is extremely varied, including mapping and surveying, sampling, instrumentation placement and measurements of physical, chemical and environmental parameters. The disciplinary context is equally varied including geomorphology, palaeontology, sedimentology, geochemistry, hydrogeology and oceanography.
Some representative examples of the operating environments of the underwater geologist include inland lakes and reservoirs, coastal areas and flooded cavities. A particular area of activity is the study of karstic hydrogeology and associated structures that can be explored by diving. Such studies have important practical aspects when one considers that 25% of the world's population uses water from karstic aquifers. Some submarine spring systems can be better designed thanks to the intervention of cave geologists, such as that of the Mortola spring on the Italian-French border on the Mediterranean and the famous spring of the Mar Piccolo (TN). Large underground cavities and reservoirs have also been discovered in semi-arid areas or where there are no obvious karst forms on the surface. The sampling and study of submerged speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites) is crucial for identifying past climatic successions and for a precise reconstruction of temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide variations, helping to predict future climate change.
Topographical survey in flooded karstic cavity
Measurement of a stalagmite in a sea cave
The study of submarine areas where volcanic fluid emissions are present enables the validation of monitoring methodologies for the environmental impact of sea acidification due to increased CO2.
Activities in coastal environments include detailed geomorphological surveys of the seabed, shoreline measurements, non-destructive sampling and accurate positioning of measuring instruments (e.g. tide gauges and current meters) in areas not otherwise accessible.
The instrumentation used, in addition to normal underwater equipment, includes samplers, measuring instruments, video systems, and lifting balloons to move low-weight instruments.
In cavity work, specific procedures and materials are necessary; in such a situation, in fact, a direct ascent to the surface is not possible but one is obliged to follow the morphology of the conduits, completing distances greater than the simple diving depth. Furthermore, special underwater progression and navigation techniques must be employed to ensure an adequate level of safety for operators. For these reasons, it is absolutely necessary that the scientific operator engaged in activities in this type of environment has obtained cave-diving training from qualified organisations. In Italy, for the geologist intending to conduct research in a flooded caving environment, the point of reference for all the necessary specialisations is the Scuola Nazionale di Speleologia Subacquea della SSI (Società Speleologica Italiana) with its Centro Nazionale Speleosub di Oliena (SS).
Use of a multi-parameter probe for chemical-physical measurements at sea
Fluid withdrawal from an underwater geothermal source
The training course for underwater geologist is a three-year degree and a possible subsequent two-year specialisation course. A graduate in geological sciences can obtain the title of geologist by means of a state examination.
In the academic sphere, the degree may be followed by a PhD. The latter path becomes, in fact, compulsory for those who wish to pursue a career in academia, since almost all research positions require the possession of a doctoral degree (post-doc positions).
At present in Italy there are no specific training courses for underwater geologists formally recognised by the state. Abroad, for example in the UK, the diving geologist is recognised as a “Scientific Diver” according to the “Approved Code of Practice for Scientific and archaeological diving projects” in accordance with the “Diving at Work Regulations 1997”. The creation of an appropriate code and clear definition of the minimum requirements necessary to act as an underwater geologist in Italy would be desirable and would enhance the professional figure. Equally important would be the involvement of the academic world in the development of degree courses specifically for underwater geology, possibly in collaboration with Research Institutions (e.g. ENEA, CNR, ISPRA and INGV) that employ geologists working as Underwater Scientific Operators.
Caramanna G. (2020) Il geologo subacqueo. Identikit professionali degli Operatori Scientifici Subacquei. La collana del faro, Il Pianeta Azzurro, 1/2020: 18-20.
Geologist with over 25 years of diving experience. He is a NAUI instructor and is currently a consultant and instructor for the training of scientific diving operators at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA.
Giorgio has numerous research projects in the field of underwater geology to his credit, including activities in caves and under the ice. He is a former board member and currently a member of the technical-scientific committee of AIOSS.