Earth and Environmental Sciences

Program Category: PhD Programs

Chair: Peter Kelemen

Director of Graduate Studies: Goran Ekstrom


Degree Programs: Full-Time: MA, MPhil, PhD

The goal of the department is to train broadly educated Earth scientists for careers in academia, research, government, and industry. Along the way, our students move swiftly from receiving knowledge to creating it. All the facilities and equipment necessary for modern studies in the Earth sciences are available for the use of students in the department, whose research is conducted in one of the following locations:

  • The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a research institute of the university directed toward the understanding of the origin and history of the Earth and the processes taking place within it. Its library is exceptional and its lab facilities are world-class. Activities include research in terrestrial and field-based geology, marine geology and geophysics, borehole research, dendrochronology, plant physiology, paleontology, tectonophysics, petrology, meteorology, climate studies, seismology, geochemistry, atmospheric science, mathematical Earth science, and all forms of oceanography.
  • For over a century, the American Museum of Natural History has been a research facility affiliated with Columbia in the fields of mineralogy and paleontology. Curators direct the research of graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The museum is exceptionally well-equipped to train graduate students, with one of the largest natural science libraries in the country, well-furnished laboratories, large collections, and a variety of specialized equipment.
  • The Institute for Space Studies is part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is located adjacent to the Morningside campus. The institute conducts theoretical and experimental research in climate, planetary atmospheres, and astrophysics.

Faculty and students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences also have ongoing research connections with the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, and within the Columbia's Earth Institute, an umbrella organization uniting all of the Earth-oriented science being conducted at Columbia.

Fellowships are awarded to PhD students in recognition of academic achievement and in expectation of scholarly success. Teaching and research experience are considered an important aspect of the training of doctoral students. Thus, fellowships for students in the PhD program include some teaching and research apprenticeship.

The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences also sponsors a free-standing master's program in Climate and Society.


The staff of the department is largely situated off campus, at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Undergraduate and beginning graduate classes are conducted on the Morningside campus in order that students may also take basic science courses in other Columbia departments. Advanced graduate courses and/or research are usually conducted at the appropriate off-campus facility: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for terrestrial and marine geology, physical oceanography, climate studies, ecophysiology, Earth systems, petrology, geochemistry, and seismology; the American Museum of Natural History for mineralogy and vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology; and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies for aspects of space and atmospheric science. Aspects of economic geology are offered on the Morningside campus and at the American Museum of Natural History.

The teaching faculty is augmented by numerous research scientists who take an active part in directing the research work of graduate students.


Almost all the facilities and equipment necessary for modern studies in the Earth sciences are available for the use of students in the department. Details of the programs undertaken at the observatory, the museum, the Goddard Institute, and on the Morningside campus are given in the sections that follow. Of particular importance are vast collections not only of rocks and minerals but also of deep-sea cores; high-speed electronic computing facilities for the analysis and interpretation of geologic data; the electron microprobe; electron microscopes; mass spectrometers; and the global scope of the shipboard program undertaken by the Columbia research vessel Marcus G. Langseth.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a research institute of the university. Research at the observatory is directed toward the understanding of the origin and history of the Earth and the processes taking place within it. Activities include research in seismology, geochemistry, climate studies, petrology, sedimentary and structural geology, applied mathematics, ecophysiology, atmospheric sciences, Earth science pedagogy, and oceanography (acoustical, physical, chemical, geophysical, biological, geological, and optical). Students interested in research in these disciplines are ordinarily enrolled as graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. In addition to a limited number of specialized courses, the student’s curriculum consists of courses in the basic sciences related to the student’s field of specialization, participation in the general research program of the observatory, and execution of the student’s own research program for the master’s essay or doctoral dissertation.

Seismic stations are operated at Palisades and at many other sites in the northeastern US to form the Lamont Cooperative Seismographic Network. Data are also received in near real time from a network of stations installed by Lamont in Kazakhstan. A strong tradition is maintained in the seismology group of reading seismograms on a regular basis and interpreting them in terms of earthquake source theory, tectonic setting, hazard analysis, and Earth structure. Sets of analog and digital seismograms at the observatory comprise one of world’s most extensive collections of historic and modern seismic data. Thus we have the original data of seismograph station networks operated by Lamont at many sites around the world, plus microfilm copies of all data from the World-Wide Standard Seismograph Network and a large Canadian network, as well as extensive hard disk storage to maintain online access to massive digital data sets.

Corresponding to the large observational effort is an equally large and varied data-interpretation program emphasizing new discoveries and creative thinking rather than routine data analysis. Particular emphasis is placed on earthquake physics, hazards, risks and long-term prediction, and the study of seismic signals from nuclear explosions as they relate to monitoring of nuclear test ban treaties.

A more recent focus at LDEO is ocean-bottom seismology, enabled by the recent construction of a large fleet of autonomous seafloor instruments to record both local and distant seismic events as well as man-made sources for tomographic studies. Recent technological developments have greatly extended the capabilities of such instruments, enabling a broad range of new types of experiments. Work is focused on both structure beneath the oceanic crust and on tectonic and volcanic processes of the Earth. The OBS group is also working on autonomous underwater vehicles for seismic and geophysical studies in the Arctic.

Lamont scientists conduct geophysical studies of the world’s oceans using its research vessel Marcus G. Langseth, often in collaboration with ships and scientists of other countries. Graduate students conducting relevant studies in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences are expected to participate in the shipboard programs. These students often have the opportunity to design the apparatus for investigating a particular phenomenon, to use the apparatus for field data collection, and to reduce and interpret these data for presentation as a dissertation.

The R/V Langseth is exceptionally well-equipped for marine geophysical work. Data collected at sea is analyzed at the observatory’s multichannel seismic computer facility that uses a variety of in-house and commercial software. Research in marine seismology, gravity, magnetism, and geothermal studies is continuing along many paths, including efforts to understand more completely the driving mechanism of plate tectonics and the structure and evolution of the lithosphere as well as of passive and active continental margins. One recent focus has been in the mid-ocean ridge system. Several Lamont scientists are now engaged in studies of the ridges that involve analyzing images of the sea floor’s detailed fabric. Lamont scientists are also studying subsurface images of the ridge axis, which allows the magma reservoir to be mapped. This, combined with geochemical analysis of lava dredged from the sea floor, helps Lamont scientists create physical models of the spreading process.

Research in physical oceanography at Lamont-Doherty incorporates a wide spectrum of activities. Data obtained from ships, satellites, and drifting and moored instrumentation are used to study a variety of regional and global ocean phenomena. Modern observational methods of physical and chemical oceanography, including tracer studies, are blended with modeling and theoretical activities to allow more sophisticated study of ocean circulation and mixing than previously attained. Field programs, with associated laboratory studies, are worldwide; however, some concentration has evolved in three areas: thermohaline circulation of the world’s oceans interocean mass, heat and freshwater flux and the polar oceans, including studies of sea ice. In recent years, more field and laboratory activities are being directed toward problems of the waters of the continental shelf, particularly of the mid-Atlantic shelf region of the United States.

The study of the chemistry of marine and continental waters is directed toward understanding the complex cycles of dissolved and particulate organic and inorganic substances on isotopic, elemental, and molecular levels. These cycles may be divided into source or mode of formation of constituents, behavior in the aqueous environment, and incorporation into sediments. Delineation of geochemical and biological cycles is extended, where possible, to the effects of human perturbations on these systems. The relation of climatic and tectonic changes to changes in the chemical composition of sea water and sediments is also considered.

Students in biological oceanography may undertake research for the dissertation in conjunction with one of the areas in this field recently under investigation: primary production (estuarine, coastal, and open ocean) ecology of marine protozoa, bio-optics, the oceanic nitrogen cycle, and phytoplankton physiology.

Lamont-Doherty is at the very heart of global paleoclimatic research. Scientists here study the paleontologic, the isotopic, and the chemical record in the observatory’s large collection of deep-sea cores; the pollen record in bog sediment; the noble-gas temperature record in deep aquifers; the dust record kept in loess; and the sea-level record kept by corals. They also make use of general circulation models for both the atmosphere and the ocean to understand paleoclimatic conditions and the possible causes for the changes that have occurred. Tree-ring research methods, including densitometry, are also being used to study ocean and land climate interactions, teleconnections, and past variability as recorded in the annual rings of old-aged trees from all parts of the world, thus adding to the storehouse of knowledge about global climate change. All of the varied activities of different groups in the observatory have been integrated into a single unified program of climate studies.

Plant ecophysiological research focused on mechanistic studies of plant environmental responses provides important information about the movement of mass and energy through the Earth system. In the plant ecophysiological laboratory, the interactions among terrestrial plants, the physical planet, and its climate are studied at many scales, from seconds to centuries and from molecules to the globe.

Many phenomena (e.g., polarity reversals) associated with the geodynamo—the source of Earth’s magnetic field—have time constants well beyond historic records, hence the importance of paleomagnetism to our understanding of fundamental aspects of Earth’s deep interior. At the same time, a precise knowledge of long-term geomagnetic field behavior has broad implications in addressing geologic problems. Current paleomagnetic research at the observatory includes refinement of a high-resolution geomagnetic polarity time-scale for the Mesozoic and Cenozoic; Phanerozoic apparent polar wander; and the magnetization distribution of the oceanic crust and its relationship to ridge-crest processes. A fully equipped laboratory is available to conduct research on all aspects of the subject.

At Lamont-Doherty studies in atmospheric sciences are part of a broader interest in climate, especially the interactions of the ocean and atmosphere.  A coupled ocean-atmosphere model developed at the Observatory is used to make predictions of El Niño events. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, with its major presence at Lamont-Doherty, focuses on early warnings of El Niño and other climate changes that cause droughts, floods, and other destructive weather patterns around the world. Current research concerns include drought in the tropics, structure of the tropical atmosphere, Atlantic sector climate patterns, and climatic influences of mid-latitude sea surface temperature anomalies. We also explore the social and economic consequences of climate variations (e.g., on agriculture, water resources, and public health). Both computer modeling and analysis of observational data are used extensively.

A thriving joint initiative between this department and the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics fosters new theoretical approaches to understanding Earth systems: the solid Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. The focus of Earth science has evolved from an Earth-exploratory mode to an emphasis on understanding processes, particularly system processes, which places increased emphasis on the development of new theory to treat such systems. Because people who work in this area tend to have intellectual affinities both with the Earth sciences and with applied mathematics and applied physics, it is natural that this initiative be joint between both of these departments. A strong and cohesive group of six faculty members, has research strengths in physical oceanography, solid Earth geophysics, atmospheric dynamics, geophysical fluid dynamics/magma transport, atmospheric physics, and tropical meteorology.

Graduate students doing research at Lamont-Doherty have an unusual opportunity to study the nature and origin of geologic structures. The backgrounds and interests of staff members at the observatory facilitate attempts to understand the relations of mountain-building processes to ocean-floor tectonics and the origin of ancient mountain belts in terms of recent and current tectonic activity. Current research also includes studies of the tectonic/structural effects of continental hot spots, regional timing, and kinematics of extensional structures in the western Cordillera of North America. Students are encouraged to work with those in other fields such as seismology, tectonophysics, and marine geophysics.

Research in sedimentary geology and paleontology is aimed at the processes by which sedimentary basins develop, fill, and become structurally deformed, and especially at the origin of stratal patterns and cyclicity in sediments and sedimentary rocks, mass extinctions, and the evolution of continental ecosystems. Projects are conducted in North America, Australia, and India in strata ranging in age from Pleistocene to Proterozoic.

Research in geochemistry is largely centered on the development of chemical and isotopic methods for studying the Earth and on the application of these methods to geologic problems.

A wide range of research activities is open to the student. Radiometric age determination in terrestrial rocks and meteorites is made by U-Pb, Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, Re-Os and Lu-Hf methods. The isotopic composition of Pb, Nd, Sr, Hf, and Os, as well as rare-Earth element abundances, is used to study the origin of volcanic rocks, the time scale of mantle differentiation, and the nature of planetary formation processes.

The Ar geochronology lab offers the opportunity for high precision dating of K-bearing materials from samples as young as a few thousand years to those as old as the Earth (limited only by geological complexity). Applications of high resolution chronology exist in many subdisciplines of the Earth sciences. We also use the system as a tracer of sediment sources.

Petrologic studies are conducted on volcanic and plutonic igneous rocks from ocean basins, ocean islands, island arcs, Alpine belts, continental platforms, and the Earth’s moon and meteorite parent bodies. These petrologic studies complement those of isotopic chemistry and have the same objectives. Standard petrographic facilities and a wide range of analytical instrumentation, including plasma emission spectroscopy, ICPMS, and an electron microprobe, are available. Experimental petrology research at low and high pressure is also undertaken. Lamont petrologists are attempting to integrate field work, experimental work, and major-element, trace-element, and isotopic analyses in order to understand more fully petrogenesis in diverse geologic settings. Examination of DSDP/IPOD samples represents a major commitment to oceanic crustal studies. Other facilities include transmission and scanning electron microscopes (including an ion thinner) and facilities for optical microscopy and X-ray diffractometry.

The program in tectonophysics emphasizes the study of the physical processes in rock that give rise to the various tectonic phenomena observed in nature.

In the Rock Mechanics Laboratory, a wide range of apparatus is available for studying fracture and deformation of rock under crustal and uppermost mantle conditions of temperature and pressure. Much of this work is applied to gaining an understanding of the physics of the earthquake mechanism.

General-purpose and dedicated digital computers are available at Lamont-Doherty and elsewhere in the university. The observatory also has its own libraries, electronic shops, greenhouse, and instrument laboratory. Many graduate-level courses are offered at the observatory, and the department maintains its central office at the observatory (as well as a smaller office on the Morningside campus). A shuttle-bus service is operated throughout the day to assist students and faculty members in commuting the seventeen miles between the observatory and New York City-based campuses.

Morningside Campus

The undergraduate and beginning graduate classrooms and teaching collections of the department are in Schermerhorn Hall.

The Geology Library, in Schermerhorn Hall, houses a solid collection supporting the teaching effort. An ongoing interlibrary loan relationship is maintained with the Geoscience Library at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The Geoscience Library houses more than 20,000 volumes and maintains 400 serial subscriptions reflecting the research interests of Lamont scientists.

The Map Room, in Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, is the fourth largest map collection in New York City. It includes topographical maps published by the United States Geological Survey as well as many of the older editions of the equivalent series published by foreign governments. Historic geology maps are housed here as well. An 11,000-piece collection of more recent geology maps, including the United States Geological Survey series and State Geological Survey series, is housed in the Geoscience Library located at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

American Museum of Natural History

For nearly a century, the American Museum of Natural History has been a research organization affiliated with Columbia University in the fields of mineralogy/petrology and paleontology. Curators serve as adjunct faculty and/or research advisors to graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. The American Museum is exceptionally well equipped to train graduate students, with one of the largest natural science libraries in the country (over 450,000 volumes), well-furnished laboratories (including paleontology, molecular systematics, and genomics labs), vast biological and geological collections, and a variety of computers and specialized equipment such as an electron microprobe, a scanning electron microscope, laser surface scanners, and a high-speed parallel computing facility ("Beowulf Cluster," ranked 107th among the world's most powerful supercomputers). In addition, the museum maintains and encourages the use of field research stations and laboratories in Arizona and Georgia.

Students interested in the paleontology and mineral sciences programs enroll in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and fulfill most of their degree requirements there, including basic science courses. Specialized courses and seminars are generally conducted at the museum through the museum's new Richard Gilder Graduate School, which encompasses its post-secondary training programs in science.

The museum’s Division of Paleontology is host to the most active vertebrate paleontology research department of its kind in the country. It is located in a building especially designed to contain what is probably the most important fossil mammal collection in the world. The other collections constitute unique research reservoirs. Students are expected to participate in the extensive field programs conducted each summer in western North America, South America, Mongolia, and elsewhere. Research interests of paleontologists at the museum involve multidisciplinary approaches to geologic and biologic problem solving, from molecular and anatomical phylogenetics to refined geochronology in fossil-bearing sequences, to better resolve evolutionary patterns and processes and the relationships among tectonic, environmental, and faunal changes through time. Systematics research emphasizes the origin and evolution of selected taxa of the fishes, turtles, archosaurs (especially dinosaurs, birds and lizards), and mammals and Triassic cynodonts. The purposes of this research are to enhance understanding of the phylogeny and evolution of various vertebrate groups and to form innovative concepts of evolution, zoogeography, and theoretical approaches to systematics.

Research in the museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences covers four broad areas: mineralogy and crystallography, petrology, mineral deposits, and meteoritics. Some of the current research in each of these areas includes studies of jadeite petrogenesis; mafic layered intrusions; the role of volatiles in petrogenesis; hydrothermal processes as related to ore deposits; and petrologic studies of chondritic and achondritic meteorites.

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

The Institute for Space Studies is part of the Goddard Space Flight Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and is located at Broadway and 112th Street (Armstrong Hall), adjacent to the Morningside campus. The institute conducts theoretical and experimental research in global change including long-range climate modeling, biogeochemical cycles, Earth observations, planetary atmospheres, and astrobiology. Global change focuses on humanity’s large-scale impact on the environment by fostering interaction among the atmospheric, geological, and biological science communities.

The climate program involves basic research on the nature of climate change and climatic processes, including the development of numerical climate models. The work is aimed at supporting the utilization of space-acquired data in climate analysis and prediction, evaluating the potential impacts of climate change and understanding the paleoclimatic data collected in conjunction with Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Research in biogeochemical cycles involves the study of the sources, sinks, and distribution of atmospheric trace gases and particulates. Earth observation utilizes satellite data to investigate the role of clouds, aerosols, and the Earth’s surface in the climate system. The planetary atmospheres program includes theoretical studies of structure, radiative transfer, dynamics of the atmospheres of Mars, Venus, and the Jovian planets, and participation in experimental studies conducted from space probes. Astrobiology research, conducted in collaboration with the Columbia Astrobiology Center, focuses on spectral signatures and theoretical modeling of extrasolar habitable planets.

Research at the institute is carried out in collaboration with Columbia and other universities in the metropolitan area. Members of the institute hold faculty appointments and supervise the research of graduate students in fields related to the Institute program. The institute holds colloquia and scientific conferences in which members of the university community participate. Opportunities for visiting scientists to conduct research at the Institute are provided by postdoctoral research associate programs, administered by the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or by a joint Columbia-institute program.

The institute operates a large scientific computing facility, consisting of SGI origin 3000 and 2000 servers, Macintosh G5, IBM RISC 6000 and SUN Sparc workstations, and peripheral equipment. The computers, together with the Institute library and other facilities, are made available to Columbia faculty members and students participating in research at the Institute. For more information, see Atmospheric and Planetary Science.

Joint Programs

A joint program with the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering offers the opportunity for graduate instruction in mineral economics or integrated research of geology with mining geophysics, rock mechanics, ore dressing, hydrometallurgy, alternate energy resources, or materials science.

A joint program with the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics focuses on aspects of mathematical geoscience.

A joint program with faculty at Barnard College emphasizes environmental science and geologic study of the coastal zone. Within a radius of one hundred miles of New York City, varied shorelines offer numerous opportunities for geologic field research in problems of coastal sedimentology, coastal geomorphology, the effects of man on coastal processes, and the relationship of geology to problems of water pollution.

A collaborative program with the Department of Science Education at Teachers College emphasizes aspects of Earth science pedagogy.

Special Admissions Requirements: 

In addition to the requirements listed below, all students must submit one transcript showing courses and grades per school attended, a statement of academic purpose, and three letters of evaluation from academic sources.

All international students whose native language is not English or whose undergraduate degree is from an institution in a country whose official language is not English must submit scores of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or IELTS.

For more information, refer to our Admissions Information and Frequently Asked Questions pages.

Deadline for Fall Admission: Friday, January 6, 2017
Resume Requirement: Yes
Writing Sample: No
GRE General: Yes
Degree Programs: Full Time



An undergraduate major in engineering or in one or more of the natural sciences is required.

Strongly recommended: one college year, with high record of chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Additional competence is required for graduate work in certain branches.