Back in my day… Differences in fieldwork between the 1980’s and now

Back in my day…

Differences in fieldwork between the 1980’s and now

Recently I saw a post on LinkedIn, where a young geologist was critically comparing desktop geology tasks to fieldwork.

When I first read this post I thought (perhaps unfairly) of GenY again moaning that fieldwork is not as sexy as looking at a computer inside an air-conditioned office. The post coincided with the start of a month’s fieldwork in a remote area of Africa, 35 years after I first embarked on fieldwork in Africa. I have recorded critically the similarities and differences on this latest excursion compared to that first trip 35 years ago. I also acknowledge the situation a generation before me.

Transport. My mentors and supervisors conducted their first fieldwork in Africa and Australia by camel, often away from the comforts of the colonial club for periods of up to 6 months. Thirty-five years ago we had Landrovers with the inevitable crank-shaft breakages or the unstable Hilux. Today, from Mongolia to Australia to Africa the Landcruiser is the vehicle of choice providing reliability and toughness. A significant upgrade!


Left: Crossing an African river in a Hilux, 1980. Right: Failing to cross a river in the Pilbara in a Landcruiser, 2014.

Accommodation. Whilst camping shops in shopping malls sell fancy camping widgets, truth is that the things that worked years ago remain the most reliable and camping has changed little in this time. It remains easier to collect firewood than it is to maintain gas stoves and to replenish cylinders in remote locations. Thirty-five years ago gas or paraffin fridges were the only way to keep things cool (except they rarely worked), vehicle-battery power fridges now enable the food to kept longer, and wine and beer chilled.

Left: African bush shower, 1980. Right: Ashburton field camp, complete with caravan with kitchen and shower, and satellite communications, 2013


Mapping. The tools I used 35 years ago are little different to those I take today, indeed I use exactly the same (heavily scratched) compass in the northern hemisphere. These tools are more or less the same our mentors used, and the hand-lens and hammer are the same. Pencil and notebook I will come to shortly, but perhaps the one item that has not changed, but should, is the compass-inclinometer. There are iPhone apps that purport to measure dip and strike. In trials these operate satisfactorily, but I am yet to see them used systematically and earnestly on extended field programmes. The iPhone is simply not rugged enough.



Left: Robert Shackleton collecting rocks for geochronology, 1980. Right: Soil sampling, 1980


Notebook and maps. The field notebook remains essential and appears to be not replaced by tablet or voice recognition widgets. At SJS Resource Management we have found the latest tablets with GIS software capable of overlay images, maps, geophysics, sampling and topography effective. We use these to design and site drill-holes, but continue with pen and paper for original mapping. For anything that is a revisit to data, the tablet with its multiple interchangeable layers is effective and a massive upgrade in less than a generation. Tablets linked to GPS enable the location of data, the addition of new data in the field, and spatial linking of field photos and sketches.

Air photographs. Photographs and other imagery are now rectified, gridded, freely and widely available. This contrast with only a short period ago when, if available, airphotos were of poor quality, rarely rectified and never with a grid. Making a montage was painful and sometimes pointless due to the lack of correspondence. Military permission to possess such material was essential (a situation that applied in Italy as well as most of Africa). The difference in the availability of air or space imagery is perhaps best illustrated by a non-geological example, the British fought the entire Falkland’s War in 1982 without airphotos! Modern imagery makes fieldwork (and war) so much easier.

Location. Hour after hour, day after day the major fieldwork task was position location. We identify the patterns of desert bushes and placed ourselves on grainy out-of-focus photos. GPS is the stunning and totally accepted improvement, yielding an accuracy of +/-3m in most grids and geoidal projections. Fieldwork 35 years ago was simply not that easy.

Crossing a river while mapping, 1980

Cameras. Camera film 35 years ago was expensive, and needed to be kept weeks or months whilst finding a processing laboratory. Then, you discovered that some setting was not correct. Digital cameras are smaller, more detailed (more pixels) and enable the collection of photographs in far greater volumes with instant quality control.

Other data. Fieldwork today is accompanied by the use of tools that enable the linking of data between imagery and surface. Magnetic susceptibility meters are essential if you compare your map with an underlying magnetic image. Similarly the hand-held XRF provides in ten minutes whole rock chemistry that thirty-five years ago perhaps took three months of analytically effort (and university politics). To Magsus meters and portable handheld XRFs are now added multispectral scanners for alteration mineral chemistry. Widgets not dreamt of when I first undertook fieldwork in Africa.

Communications. Thirty-five years ago I caught an airplane to Africa in November and re-appeared at my employers the next Easter, my first contact with them in that time. (My desk had been given away!) Now even the remotest location (except unpopulated outback Australia, and the northern Arctic) appears to have mobile phone and internet coverage, and daily communication is the norm whether necessary or not.

Safety. Thirty-five years ago “Safety” was not a word I remember being used. There were certainly no inductions, safety plans, assessments, protocols, three-letter acronyms or log-out/in procedures. Emphasis was on self-responsibility, and you did not blame the employer for your own weaknesses. It is a pity that pandering to the safety mantra, solo fieldwork is now more or less abandoned despite the instant communication tools such as mobile phones, satellite phones, vehicle tracking devices, UHF radios, EPIRBs and SPOT that all make for far greater safety.

Summary: Fieldwork remains fieldwork, mosquitos still bite and men with AK47s require careful management, but foreign and remote places are the exciting opportunity for an education not possible at home. Fieldwork tools have changed, excepting the hand lens and hammer where it is difficult to conceive of a practical or reliable upgrade. Transport, communications, safety, imagery, data mobility (tablets) and analytical tools not conceivable 35 years ago are de rigueur today. Perhaps the single advance we most need is a robust compass-clinometer with built in GPS, camera and data storage/transfer.

Comment: For most of the world (with no more than a dozen critical exceptions) we lack geologically maps that are accurate records of on-ground structure and lithology.  Whilst most countries have something that portends to be 1:250,000 maps, rarely are 1:100,000 or better maps available. Far too often the so-called geology maps are in reality imagery interpretations, inadequate and often wrong. It is time for more, not less fieldwork, using modern technologies to produce the maps essential to identify the water, metal and energy resources essential for the standard of living of the next generation.

Julian Vearncombe

SJS Resource Management Pty Ltd, Canning Bridge, Western Australia

If you have any memoirs, stories or comments about fieldwork past, please email us at for compiling into an article.

Julian Vearncombe 24-Feb-2015
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