Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

The Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) has broad intellectual horizons that encompass the solid earth, its fluid envelopes, and its diverse neighbors throughout the solar system and beyond. The department seeks to understand the fundamental processes defining the origin, evolution and current state of these systems and to use this understanding to predict future states. The department currently comprises 38 faculty, including two with primary appointments in Civil and Environmental Engineering, 174 graduate and undergraduate students, and more than 100 research staff, postdoctoral appointments, and visiting scholars. EAPS is notable for its collaborations with other MIT departments and schools to address complex interdisciplinary problems. In this vein, the department is an enthusiastic supporter of the new Earth Systems Initiative.

Educational Activities

EAPS has vigorous graduate educational programs in geology and geochemistry, geophysics, atmospheres, oceans, climate, and planetary science. Each discipline of EAPS continues to be ranked among the top graduate programs in the country, with most areas being rated either first or second nationally. The EAPS graduate program currently focuses on the PhD degree, which is the goal of about 90 percent of its graduate students. During the past academic year, 149 graduate students were registered in the department including EAPS students in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program. Of these, 107 are US citizens, and 42 are international students. Women constitute 44 percent of the graduate student population. EAPS awarded 21 PhD and 13 SM degrees during AY2002. A bi-annual prize continues to be awarded to recognize and reward the efforts of outstanding EAPS graduate teaching assistants.

EAPS continues to maintain a strong presence within the undergraduate program at MIT. It offers a wide variety of Freshman Advising Seminars each fall with about 10 faculty members participating each of the past three years. A new undergraduate seminar has been developed to introduce newly declared sophomore majors to the broad research interests of the faculty. In the past two years, EAPS gained a total of 21 new majors, which is a significant increase compared to prior two years. The EAPS Independent Activities Program (IAP) continues to be one of the most vibrant at MIT, and faculty have maintained a healthy Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) including opportunities for field experience in geological settings, astronomical observations and national laboratories. The new Terrascope program, discussed below, has the potential to further increase the number of EAPS majors.

An exciting new activity for the department is the Earth Systems Initiative (ESI), which began this past spring. This major new undertaking will be aimed at providing an in-depth understanding of the intimate relationships between biological and geological processes that operate over the full extent of time and space scales on Earth. This is an interschool undertaking, with EAPS and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) being the largest players. The ESI has significant science, engineering and educational facets. Kip Hodges of EAPS and Penny Chisholm of CEE and Biology will be co-directors. More information about ESI can be found online at

Associated with the launch of the ESI is a new Earth System Freshman Core Program called Terrascope. This innovative alternative to the freshman core program will use the Earth system as context for the physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology subjects in the science core. The new program will include a participating design class modeled after 12.000 Solving Complex Problems and will involve EAPS and CEE faculty in teaching and advising roles. Terrascope will be led by the new ESI co-directors Professors Chisholm and Hodges. More information about ESI can be found online at


John Grotzinger was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Carl Wunsch was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of London (FRS). Sam Bowring was appointed by the provost to the Breene M. Kerr chair in geology. Ed Boyle will be editor of Earth and Planetary Science Letters for the next three years. Rafael Bras was selected to be the Kisiel Lecturer at the University of Arizona, and is incoming chair of the faculty, president elect of the AGU Hydrology Section, and incoming vice president of the Alumni Association. Clark Burchfiel will become president of the Geological Society of America in October 2002. Kerry Emanuel will serve as editor of the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences beginning January 1, 2003. Brian Evans received an outstanding achievement award from the University of Minnesota Alumni Foundation. Tim Grove was elected a fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). James Hansen received the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award. Kip Hodges was selected as a MacVicar faculty fellow, and as the co-director (with Penny Chisholm of CEE) of the new Earth Systems Initiative and the new Terrascope Freshman Program. Professor Lindzen has been listed by Current Contents as one of the highly cited researchers. Mario Molina was awarded the 2002 medal to the citizen of merit from the Mexico City Government and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Professor Molina also received honorary  degrees from University of Waterloo, Florida International University, Utah State University and Universidad de Pachuca, Mexico. Alan Plumb was selected to be the Haurwitz memorial lecturer by the American Meteorological Society and was elected a fellow of the American Meteorological Society in January 2002. Ronald Prinn was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli was elected a fellow of the American Meteorological Society in January 2002. Julian Sachs was awarded the Jeptha H. and Emily V. Wade award by the MIT provost on June 5, 2001. Roger Summons was awarded the Australian Organic Geochemistry medal in March 2002. Maria Zuber was named a Sverdrup visiting scholar in the Department of Physics at Augsburg College in April 2002.

Over the past two years, several vigorous searches have led to five exciting new faculty appointments. Roger Summons, whose work in "molecular fossils" is widely recognized and lauded, has been appointed professor of geobiology. Julian Sachs, an accomplished young paleoclimatologist, has joined the faculty as the Doherty Assistant Professor. David Mohrig, who has made notable contributions to sedimentary geomorphology, was named assistant professor of geology. James Hansen, who is doing innovative research on optimal observing and forecasting, has joined us as assistant professor of atmospheric science. Most recently, Raffaele Ferrari, who is an expert in the dynamics of small-scale circulations in the ocean, was appointed as assistant professor in Physical Oceanography.

The department currently has active faculty searches in six exciting areas: planetary science, experimental geophysics and geochemistry, seismology, geobiology, atmospheric chemistry, and low temperature geochemistry. These searches, along with the appointments already made are laying the foundation for the department's future.

The department continues to pioneer work in new interdisciplinary areas. The Earth Resources Laboratory is broadening its base to include a wider range of geophysical, geological, and environmental topics. The Center for Global Change Science (including the Climate Modeling Initiative) and the Program in Atmospheric, Oceans and Climate continue to foster cross-fertilization among all areas of the earth sciences that control the climate system. Research activities are gradually broadening so that geologists are now working with oceanographers and atmospheric scientists, and models of the climate system have been constructed both for the modern system and for times deep in the geological past. A large new faculty group interested in co-evolution of the geosphere and biosphere has formed and is participating in the Earth Systems Initiative noted earlier. Department faculty also continue to play leading roles in the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

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Current Research

Edward Boyle's group has documented a dramatic decline of lead in the North Atlantic in response to the phasing out of leaded gasoline. The unique isotopic signature of the changing sources of lead shows that the water at the bottom of the eastern North Atlantic sank from the surface 80 years ago.

Clark Burchfiel's group is studying the Cenozoic post collisional intracontinental tectonic evolution of the Tibetan plateau including GPS studies of active crustal movements correlated with active deformation. Tectonic studies in Bulgaria and Macedonia are also proceeding.

Jim Elliot, Susan Kern (graduate student), and their colleagues at Lowell Observatory continued their Deep Ecliptic Survey for Kuiper Belt objects and Centaurs to understand their evolution. They have achieved 40 percent of their goal of discovering a sample of 500 new bodies.

Kerry Emanuel has been studying the physics of air-sea interaction at very high wind speeds, and the role of global tropical cyclone activity in controlling the ocean's thermohaline circulation and, thereby, global climate.

Brian Evans, Visiting Professor Yves Bernabe, and Uli Mok, working on fluid flow and deformation, found that the evolution of permeability of rocks during natural processes is a unique function of the mechanism of porosity change.

Glenn Fleirl and his students have examined the growth of disturbances in time-dependent tidal flows and shown that these can amplify and lead to turbulence. These flows could, along with swarming behavior, effect concentrations of zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay.

Frederick Frey is involved in the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Project, which is drilling Mauna Kea volcano to a depth of 3100 m. He shows how the magma sources and melting process, and the decreasing extent of melting with decreasing eruption age, changed systematically as this volcano moved away from the hotspot.

Tim Grove and his colleagues have developed a flux-melting model for magma generation in subduction zones. Water is released from the cold subducted oceanic lithosphere, rises into hotter overlying mantle, lowering the melting point of peridotite and resulting in the generation of H2O-rich magmas.

Brad Hager, student Linda T. Elkins Tanton, and Grove found that impact by giant meteorites can lead to flood basalts on the moon and earth. Crater excavation via removal of ejecta leads to immediate pressure-release melting, perhaps followed by prolonged secondary eruptions due to small-scale convection.

James Hansen has been working on prediction and predictability, with special interest in the impact and possible exploitation of model inadequacies in probabilistic state estimation and forecasting.

Thomas Herring has been using global positioning system (GPS) and very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) data to develop geophysically based models of changes in the rotation of the earth and earth deformation on global and regional scales.

Kip Hodges' group has been exploring neotectonic activity and the development of Himalayan topography, and continental subduction in Eocene time in the Indian Himalayas. A new excimer laser microprobe will provide the capacity for high-spatial resolution mapping of Ar and He isotopic distributions in single crystals.

Richard Lindzen's recent research has focused on the possibility of a very strong negative climate feedback involving tropical clouds, the mechanisms whereby the atmosphere's major heat transporting eddies equilibrate, and the ways in which tropical waves and deep convection interact.

John Marshall has focused attention on the Antarctic Circumpolar Current of the ocean, developing theories of its meridional overturning circulation, which is a central component of the global climate system.

David Mohrig focuses on the evolution of terrestrial and submarine landscapes over long time scales (>10,000 years) through the study of sedimentary record. His laboratory experiments are helping to understand evolution of submarine channels.

Mario Molina and Luisa Molina have continued to develop the Mexico City Project, including a February 2002 measurement campaign. Their laboratory studies show that organic particles react relatively fast with the hydroxyl radical.

Dale Morgan's group works on induced polarization, self-potential, and resistivity imaging for a groundwater and contaminant mapping. They completed groundwater mapping in Curacao and imaging at the DOE Savannah River Site.

Reginald Newell is analyzing observations collected by two aircraft during the 2001 spring. A relationship between atmospheric spin and ozone is being studied to find the level of ozone origination.

Alan Plumb and his group are working on: modeling and theory of stratospheric transport; dynamical linkage between stratosphere and troposphere; monsoon modeling; and, in collaboration with Professor Marshall, ocean eddy transport processes.

Ronald Prinn and his students and research scientists have completed studies which have elucidated trace gas production by oceanic phytoplankton, better defined the chemistry of dimethyl sulfide, and examined new gases for OH estimation.

Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli and her group worked on: exchanges between the subtropical and the tropical ocean and how these interactions affect the global thermohaline circulation; new approaches for model simulation of the ocean circulation; and biochemical/physical models for the Black Sea ecosystem.

Daniel Rothman and his group have shown that the regular spacing of channels initiated by subsurface flows in diverse settings is caused by an intrinsic dynamical mechanism, and that the spacing itself decreases with increasing slope and pressure gradient.

Julian Sachs has been measuring organic chemicals and their isotope ratios in marine sediments and polar ice to provide estimates of sea surface temperatures, wind speeds and ocean productivity in the last 450,000 years. The data aids understanding of the causes of abrupt climate change.

Peter Stone, Ronald Prinn, and their colleagues have completed the first quantitative analysis of the uncertainties in projections of global warming. They find that the most probable increase in global mean temperature from 1990 to 2100 is 2.4 C, with a 95 percent probability range of 0.9 to 5.3 C

Roger Summons, is studying the chemical and carbon isotopic composition of lipids from cultured microbes, environmental samples, and their fossil analogues in ancient sedimentary environments in order to document and understand the nature of Earth's early microbial life.

Nafi Toksöz and his team are working on seismic tomography of the earth's crust in the Middle East and Asia to locate more precisely earthquakes and possible explosions to support international monitoring of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Rob van der Hilst used a novel wavelet approach to integrate constraints from seismic wave propagation and from gravity-topography coherence to help understand the structure, deformation and mechanical strength of continental lithosphere on different time scales.

Kelin Whipple has been working on relationships between climate and elevation and mountain range evolution. His minimum estimates of landscape response time argue against the often-invoked steady-state assumption, and a river incision law was refined to predict patterns and rates of tectonic uplift.

Carl Wunsch is shifting much of his oceanographic research toward understanding what observations say about the nature of the ocean circulation in the geological past, bringing to bear modern data analysis tools and dynamical ideas.

Maria Zuber and colleagues used altimetry data from the Mars Global Surveyor to measure variations in the depth of CO2 "snow" on Mars. They also measured small variations in the planet's gravity field, which combined with surface elevation changes, provided the first estimate of the density of condensed CO2 on Mars.

Ronald G. Prinn
Department Head
TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry

More information about the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences can be found on the web at


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