Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

The Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) focuses on many of the most relevant and complex scientific problems of the 21st century. The Department plays a central role in at least three primary areas of direct societal relevance: Hazards, Climate Change, and Sustainable Subsurface Resources. Its place as a basic-science unit in engineering (CoE) and agricultural (CALS) colleges provides unique opportunities; at major research universities science-focused departments such as EAS are rarely affiliated with either an engineering or agriculture school.

Undergraduate students help with the installation of a seismometer on Cornell’s North Campus. (Photo by Jason Koski, Cornell University.)

Over the last five years, EAS has engaged in radical rethinking of the department to position EAS’s research and teaching to be broadly relevant and highly impactful for addressing 21st century questions, while at the same time working to develop a diverse and equitable culture. The department also aims to achieve broad-based recognition as a leader in the field and a powerhouse in providing technological and business innovation solutions to problems of societal interest. EAS’s strategic plan will foster excellence in all dimensions of the department’s mission by focusing effort on the following four priorities:

  • Creation of a Cornell Natural Hazards Institute that integrates across-campus research on natural or anthropogenic events such as earthquakes, volcanism, floods, droughts, landslides or space weather, to better understand how to respond to these challenges. Human vulnerability has increased due to growing populations in high-risk regions, fragility of infrastructure, and climate change. The vulnerability comes from all environments where EAS has expertise: the Earth’s subsurface, the interface between the atmosphere and the subsurface (the “critical zone”), the atmosphere, and the oceans. The Institute will build on existing strengths in all of these realms, connecting the natural science expertise in EAS with that of the Engineering’s School expertise in the built environment and impacts on food security in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
  • Every day there are media reports about the impact of storms, fires, droughts on humans and ecosystems. There has also been an upsurge in interest in innovative new technologies to address climate change, for example solar or wind for renewable generation of electric power. The question of how to feed an estimated 8-10 billion people in the next 40 years while maintaining biodiversity in a changing climate remains an open problem. A Cornell Center for Climate focused on understanding climate change and increasing resiliency for humans and ecosystems which are highly impacted. Solutions to climate change require understanding the interactions between the atmosphere and the land surface: agriculture and land use cause approximately 40% of climate change today. Sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar require expertise in atmospheric sciences at the land surface interface. EAS’s unique position between world-class engineering and agriculture colleges allows expert integration of issues across the land-atmosphere interface.
  • The Cornell University Borehole Observatory (CUBO) capitalizes on exploratory research for the Earth Source Heat effort to make a carbon-neutral campus. Cornell is in a unique position of being able to instrument 3 km beneath the campus in 2021, with high sensor density and for long time, allowing a host of science and engineering to be done in this hostile, remote environment. The Observatory provides unique access to fundamental Earth science processes while helping de-risk low-carbon subsurface energy solutions at Cornell and around the world. Besides the subsurface characterization needed to securely assess low-carbon subsurface energy systems here and around the world, it can also address fundamental Earth Science challenges in the deep biosphere and limits on life; elemental cycling through the subsurface; the physics that connects earthquakes to fluid flow; and insight into deep basins. CUBO facilitates strong connections with initiatives across EAS (including connections to Climate, Hazards, and Metals), CoE and Cornell, 13 and will provide unique learning opportunities for both the students and general public as part of Cornell’s Living Laboratory.
  • The World Bank estimates a 2-to-1000-fold increase in the demand of many metals due to a transition to renewables. Metal mining and processing are currently a large source of metals to the atmosphere, water and land down wind and downstream of mining facilities. These metals can act as pollutants or nutrients in different ecosystems, and may be toxic to humans. The Future of Metals, Minerals & Sustainability Initiative connects EAS to Cornell programs at the nexus of materials, energy, and the economy. Both common and rare metals will be in increasing demand as technologies evolve, highlighting sustainable strategies for accessing and using them. The intersection of Earth materials formation, extraction, use and impacts link the diverse fields of study in our department (Earth, oceans, environment, atmospheres) as well as areas in the College of Engineering, Business, Agriculture, and Arts.

The focus on creating multi-investigator centers of excellence in these priority areas will provide a springboard for diversity initiatives that focus on underserved populations. The geosciences have notably low participation by underrepresented minorities at all levels, and initiatives that reach back at least to high school seem necessary to effect any systemic change. The sheer scale and rising societal awareness of the importance of the problems at the heart of EAS priority directions offers an opportunity to change perceptions about the field and its ability to attract students from diverse backgrounds. Specifically, our priority directions depart from the traditional geologist-in-the-field view of the discipline and have clear, easily articulated relevance to vulnerable populations. A centerpiece of all initiatives would be experiential teaching and development initiatives, leveraging Cornell Tech, to engage impacted but poorly represented populations.

A time lapse of a test in the Earthquake Simulation Laboratory. (Photo by Robert Barker, Cornell University.)

Several approaches advance these goals. One approach is to cement the current linkages between Colleges and other departments CALS-CoE linkages within EAS through cross-college hires in climate research, natural hazards, and sustainability, as well as a focus on using the latest technological tools, for example, new instruments, remote sensing, modeling and machine learning. These foci also naturally link to goals of other College of Engineering departments. A presence on the Cornell Tech campus would bring a focus on changing climate, natural disasters and finite resources to a diverse urban setting, all of which place dense urbanized populations at risk. Endowed teaching positions focusing on using innovative new research and teaching approaches applied to important problems would enhance undergraduate, professor master’s and graduate programs.

Duffield Hall in the snow with

Photo by Kevin Stearns, Cornell University.