Earth and Ocean encompasses the natural terrestrial and marine environments of the planet. This Area of Excellence works to understand the basic underpinnings of these environments, how they are impacted by climate change and other forces, how they can be used sustainably for natural resources and as a way to counteract climate change.

Why does this area of excellence matter in sustainability?

The earth and oceans are our source of food and water and our sinks for atmospheric CO2, heat, and anthropogenic pollution. Terrestrial environments experience shifting climate zones, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and loss of farmland. The oceans experience ocean acidification and rising sea levels due to climate change, plastics, oil spills and deep-sea mining, fish kills and beach closures, fisheries collapse, and the demise of coral reefs. They also are the source of green and blue technologies such as storm damage mitigation, pollution remediation, sustainable aquaculture, and drug discovery. Basic and applied research is necessary for discovery and a better understanding of the problems and solutions, as well as the relationship between the two systems.

Key Questions:

  • Given that climate change is happening, how will these changes impact life on land and in the sea (e.g., storms, flooding, food security)
  • How can we ensure that our rivers are as clean as possible before they reach saltwater (e.g., plastics, chemicals, pathogens, organic compounds)?
  • How can we use our ocean's resources wisely and sustainably?


Kristina Bezanson (ECo), David Boutt (GEO), Julie Brigham-Grette (GEO), Laurie Brown (GEO), Stephen Burns (GEO), Isla Castaneda (GEO), Brian Cheng (ECo), William Clement (GEO), Tim Cook (GEO), Michele Cooke (GEO), Andy Danylchuk (ECo), Rob DeConto (GEO), Haiying Gao (GEO), Jim Holden (Micro), Michael Jercinovic (GEO), Adrian Jordaan (ECo), Marco Keiluweit (SSA), Lisa Komoroske (ECo), Isaac Larsen (GEO), R. Mark Leckie (GEO), Stephen Mabee (GEO), Dana MacDonald (GEO), Steven Petsch (GEO), Michael Rawlins (GEO), Jeff Salacup (GEO), Charlie Schweik (ECo), Michelle Staudinger (ECo), Mike Williams (GEO), Matthew Winnick (GEO), Jon Woodruff (GEO), Baoshan Xing (SSA), Brian Yellen (GEO), Qian Yu (GEO)

For more details about our faculty, staff, and researchers engaged in this area, please visit the SES Earth and Ocean Directory page.

*Department of Environmental Conservation (ECo), Environmental Microbiology Group within the Department of Microbiology (Micro), Department of Geosciences (GEO), Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP), Stockbridge School of Agriculture (SSA)

Featured Projects

Project 1: Sedimentary Controls on Tidal Marsh Integrity and Resilience

Co-Principal Investigators: Jon Woodruff, Associate Professor, Geosciences; Brian Yellen, Research Assistant Professor, Geosciences; and Tim Cook, Research Associate Professor and Lecturer, Geosciences

Contributors: Hannah Baranes (PhD graduate student), Stella Wenczel (undergraduate)

Tidal marshes along the Atlantic coastline provide critical habitat for a wide variety of fish, crustaceans, and birds; help protect coastal ecosystems by filtering excess nutrients and pollutants in runoff from land; and serve as a buffer against coastal erosion and flooding during storms. These valuable ecosystems are threatened by coastal development and the effects of climate change, including: sea level rise, increasing water temperature, geographic shifts in species, and changes in runoff. Accordingly, billions of dollars have been allocated for tidal marsh restoration and creation. However, it remains unclear where and under what conditions restoration efforts are most likely to succeed. Faced with limited resources and increasing threats to marshes there is an immediate need by coastal resource managers for tools to rapidly quantify marsh health, identify primary stresses, and assess the viability of efforts to improve resiliency or actively restore marshes.

The availability of mineral sediment to marshes is a critical factor controlling marsh survival and adaptability to rising sea level. Yet, sediment distribution across the landscape and the factors that control its delivery to marshes are poorly constrained, particularly for the Northeast where the coastline is often considered sediment starved and tides and waves can be especially variable. Consequently, the goals of this project include: (1) compiling and integrating existing data on sediment availability and variability for a suite of representative coastlines in the Northeast into a publicly accessible resource, (2) developing a method for linking patterns in sediment availability and distribution to rapidly assessed metrics of marsh health; and (3) developing a framework for predicting marsh resiliency based on remotely sensed observations and readily available oceanographic and geologic datasets. The outcomes of this work will help coastal managers identify marshes most vulnerable to climate change and evaluate the potential success of restoration efforts.

Project 2: Microbiology of Axial Seamount

Jim Holden

The goal of this project is to determine how microbes live within the ocean crust in the absence of sunlight and oxygen on the chemicals and minerals emitted from a deep-sea volcano.  Furthermore, the goal is to model the interactions and impact of the different kinds of microbes found in this system on carbon fixation and the chemistry of the local environment.  We are also working to develop new technologies for the in situ detection of microbes and minerals using underwater robots.