What is Geophysics?

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As the name implies, geophysics involves the application of physical theories and measurements to discover the properties of the earth. The discipline dates to antiquity, mainly as a scientific approach to earthquake prediction (a problem still unsolved), but major progress began in the late 1500s with initial work in such areas as magnetism and gravity. Tremendous improvements in instrumentation in the early years of the 20th century generated rapid progress in geophysics and ultimately led, in the 1960s, to the theory of plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics, the study of the interior structure of the earth, and such related areas as global and regional processes are known collectively as solid earth geophysics. The subdiscipline known as exploration geophysics involves the use of geophysical theory and instrumentation to locate petroleum and other mineral sources. Unlike solid earth geophysics, exploration geophysics generally concentrates on finding lateral heterogeneities in a relatively small part of the earth's crust.

Geophysics has increased dramatically man's ability to exploit natural resources. Human senses cannot quantify, or even detect many physical phenomena (e.g., magnetism). Humans cannot detect variations in the earth's gravitation field of one part per million, but modern gravity meters can (in fact, to 0.02 parts per million or better). Seismology, the primary method of petroleum exploration, requires exact timing and recording of very low-amplitude vibrators, vibrations (or shaking) that is far below that which a human would sense.

The following definitions are from Robert E. Sheriff's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Applied Geophysics.


  1. The study of the earth by quantitative physical method, especially by seismic reflection and refraction, gravity, magnetic, electrical, electromagnetic, and radioactivity methods.
  2. The application of physical principles to studies of the earth. Includes the branches of (a) seismology (earthquakes and elastic waves); (b) geothermometry (heating of the earth, heat flow, volcanology, and hot springs); (c) hydrology (ground and surface water, sometimes including glaciology); (d) physical oceanography; (e) meteorology; (f) gravity and geodesy (the earth's gravitational field and the size and form of the earth); (g) atmospheric electricity and terrestrial magnetism (including ionosphere, Van Allen belts, telluric currents, etc.); (h) tectonophysics (geological processes in the earth); and (i) exploration and engineering geophysics. Geochronology (the dating of earth history) and geocosmogony (the origin of the earth) are sometimes added to the foregoing list.
  3. Often refers to solid-earth geophysics only, thus excluding (c), (d), (e), and portions of other subjects from the above list.
  4. Exploration geophysics is the use of seismic, gravity, magnetic, electrical, electromagnetic, etc., methods in the search for oil, gas, minerals, water, etc., with the objective of economic exploitation.


  1. One who studies the physical properties of the earth or applies physical measurements to geologic problems; a specialist in geophysics.