Cross-cutting Themes


From our earliest history, humans have marveled at the planet we call home, and wondered in awe about what lies beyond the moon and stars.

At MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), we are driven by curiosity. How did life originate? Is it unique to Earth? When did the oceans and atmosphere form? What can 4.3 billion year-old rocks tell us about our past and future climate and its influence on life? We delve into questions about the fundamental forces shaping the natural world, spanning the full scale of space and time—from microscale structures of minerals and aerosols to the composition of massive planetary bodies light years away; from earthquakes which strike in a split second to the co-evolution of life and environmental systems over billions of years. Our work stands at the crossroads between basic theory—be it physics, biology, or chemistry—and practical applications to sustain life on Earth, allowing us to both benefit from and protect our planet.

The breadth of our research is unparalleled. In our pursuit of answers, EAPS students and faculty cross boundaries between disciplines, fostering interdepartmental collaborations unmatched by any other program. Geologists team with atmospheric scientists to understand how a model of changing precipitation trends can help predict landslides. DNA sequencing of extant organisms combined with isotopic dating of ancient rocks reveals the origins of animal life in sea sponges and the influence of tiny microbes on mass extinction. Ours is a truly interdisciplinary effort to understand nature in all of its forms.

We are explorers. We travel the globe, scouring the geologic record for evidence of ancient organic life. We partner with NASA to search distant space for signs of exoplanetary atmospheres. We examine how the forces tens, hundreds, or even thousands of kilometers below our feet influence the surface we live on. We survey the oceans, clouds, and ice caps to understand Earth’s dynamic climate, and even its implications for our environment and human health. Our pioneering research provides the facts that help inform the understanding of the broader community—from policymakers and the public, to our colleagues in science and industry around the world.

Four complementary themes drive our research:

EARTH. Examining the origin, evolution, and future of our planet, we investigate how landscapes form and how environmental systems like the oceans change over time. This fundamental research also allows us to address practical issues—like exploring for natural resources and safely extracting them from the ground, and expanding our ability to forecast, mitigate, and adapt to natural hazards.

PLANETS. Seeking to understand the Earth within the context of our solar system—and the universe beyond—we explore planetary accretion, magnetic fields, formation of climates and atmospheres, asteroid impacts, and the potential for life on planets orbiting distant stars.

CLIMATE. By delving into the history, mechanics, stability, and future trajectory of Earth’s climate, we study the boundaries and resilience of the entire climate system, revealing the complex interplay between atmosphere, oceans, land, ice, and life.

LIFE. Probing ancient rocks for biological signatures, we reconstruct prehistoric environments to understand how life evolved within them. Our discoveries explain how the biosphere affects climate, the causes of mass extinctions, and how ancient organisms shaped landscapes, while also developing techniques to detect life on other planets.

How did the earliest life forms on Earth influcence the environment? What is the climate like on Pluto? How many earthlike planets are out there? Is it possible to predict earthqukes? Or Landslides? What role do the oceans play in regulating Earth's temperature? Can we capture and store carbon emissions safely underground?