The geosciences are currently undergoing a revolution as profound as that of the 1960’s when plate tectonics, a field pioneered by Princeton Professors Harry Hess and Jason Morgan, established that terra firma is actually on the move. Today the intellectual excitement comes from the recognition that dynamical forces determine not only the physical appearance of our planet, but also its environmental character. For example, the composition of the atmosphere, which strongly influences the Earth’s remarkable diversity of climatic zones, depends upon the continual exchange of matter and energy between the atmosphere, the oceans, the biosphere and the solid Earth. The highly interdisciplinary study of these physical and biogeochemical exchanges is a matter of urgency given that the rapid increase in the world population, and in our technological prowess, is turning humans into a geological agent, capable of modifying the factors that make the Earth habitable by us and other species. Environmental issues are bound to grow in importance, nationally and internationally, over the next several decades, so that a background in the geosciences is a highly desirable, if not an essential component of a contemporary education. The Department of Geoscience offers undergraduate and graduate curricula not only for those interested in an academic or industrial research career in the geosciences, but also for future businessmen, lawyers, diplomats, teachers and politicians who will increasingly be dealing with issues that have a significant environmental component.
Recent additions to our faculty have strengthened our long-standing commitment to the study of fundamental processes and phenomena of the global climate and the solid earth, and have broadened the scope of our scientific mission to include exciting new interdisciplinary fields. We are now engaged in field work related to the discovery of early vertebrate life in Australia, to the study of major extinctions in India and Tunisia, to the search for thermophilic bacteria in deep South African gold mines, to the plankton ecology of the surface ocean, and to the large-scale circulations of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We use seismology to study earthquakes and to image the interior structure of the Earth. We conduct laboratory experiments on materials that are subjected to pressures and temperatures like those within the deep Earth, and use highly precise mass spectrometric measurements of isotopic ratios in ice cores, air samples, sediments and microfossils to investigate climatic variations in the past. We study the biochemistry and genetics of phytoplankton and bacteria that participate in the cycling of nutrients such as nitrogen, carbon and reactive metals, and we use sophisticated computer models, on supercomputers and workstations, to model solid-state convection in the Earth’s mantle, the generation of the Earth’s magnetic field within the fluid core, the intricate interactions between the ocean, terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere that control feedbacks between anthropogenic forcing and natural systems, and the effects of climate change in the atmosphere and ocean. Students at Princeton, both undergraduate and graduate, have an opportunity to participate in groundbreaking research that will enable us to be wise and responsible custodians of this benign planet.
Because our research is of direct relevance to a variety of issues that affect society — from the assessment of hazards associated with earthquakes and severe storms, to regional pollution and global warming — we offer courses on environmental policies that complement those offered by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Undergraduate majors in our department have the option of following either a more traditional career-oriented track or a track in environmental policy. Graduate students may choose to affiliate with either the Geosciences Department or with the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences . To increase opportunities for interdisciplinary studies, and to expand the list of courses available to students, we collaborate closely with groups that have research interests similar to ours: the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Princeton Environmental Institute, and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, a NOAA research facility devoted to the study of weather and climate.