Curiosity about the Earth is in MIT’s DNA—the seeds of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) were planted in 1861 by geologist William Barton Rogers, MIT’s founder and first president, with Geology and Mining Engineering (Course IV) being one of the original six courses taught at MIT. In EAPS, our curiosity leads us to ask fundamental questions about our planet’s 4.6 billion year history—and its future. How did Earth come to be? What forces shaped it over time? And what sequence of events produced a world where life can thrive? Which mechanisms caused major environmental upheavals in Earth’s past? How can we meet humanity’s need for energy and natural resources while maintaining Earth’s habitability? Will we ever be able to predict earthquakes? Could we be approaching another mass extinction? Every day, EAPS scientists and students conduct discovery-driven research to understand the processes shaping our planet, investigating Earth’s deep interior structures, the forces that build mountains and trigger earthquakes, the climatic influences that shape landscapes and stir the oceans, and the conditions that foster life.
How do EAPS scientists conduct their research?
The Earth is our laboratory. Our students and faculty sail the oceans, fly into the clouds, and scale glaciers and mountains to observe and sample. Back in our world-class labs, we design complex experiments and computational models. Our research demands that we cross disciplines. Physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology are all brought to bear in our investigation of the interconnected, overlapping systems that support life on Earth. Measurements of uranium and lead isotopes in Siberian volcanic rocks give us an elemental clock, pinpointing the eruption of 5 million cubic kilometers of lava over 252 million years ago and revealing a link to the demise of almost 90% of life on Earth. Past landslides inform computational models using soil depth, root strength, and pore water pressure to accurately predict future patterns and vulnerable areas. GPS and seismographic sensors deployed in the field enable detailed mapping to understand everything from large-scale mantle dynamics and tectonic activity all the way down to localized surface deformations and seismic events induced by man-made changes in subsurface reservoirs. And we combine lab experiments with computer simulations to help explain how fluids flow through the pores of rock structures deep underground—with implications for increased recovery of hydrocarbon resources, carbon sequestration, and the exploitation of geothermal energy.