Iconic and dramatically diverse landscapes characterize the western United States, including snow-capped mountain ranges, deep canyons, volcanoes, monuments of stone, geyser fields, and vast lava-capped plateaus - in marked contrast to the more subdued lands of the east. North America is a dynamic, at times cataclysmic, continent with a deep geologic past. In this course, we will focus our attention on the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Glacier National Parks, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Columbia Plateau. By placing these parks in their geologic context, students will gain a framework within which the geology of many additional western landscapes can be understood. No prior study of geology is necessary. Participants in this course will be introduced to fundamental concepts in earth science: rock types and their origins; plate tectonics and crustal dynamics; weathering, glaciation and the carving of landscapes; sea level rise and fall; measuring geologic time; and reading geologic maps. We will also join the debate surrounding some unresolved geologic questions about these National Parks by critically assessing cutting-edge data and interpretations. The course will also develop scientific communication skills, and will culminate in the joint production of a geologic guidebook for the general public to understand the nature and origin of select parts of the west. This course will meet for two two-hour sessions each week. Not open to students who have completed Geology 111 and cannot be taken concurrently with 111.
Spring semester. Professor Harms
The global ocean is one of the defining features of our planet’s surface. It regulates weather patterns, sculpts the coasts of the continents, and contains records of the past 200 million years of earth's climate in sediment on the seafloor. In this course we will develop an understanding of the global marine system through study of its interconnected geological, chemical, physical, and biological processes. These fundamental principles include seafloor spreading, the transport of heat from the equator to the poles, and cycling of nutrients and organic matter by plankton. We will address how the ocean has evolved over the planet’s history, from changes in its circulation brought on by shifting continental configurations and climate fluctuations to its chemical responses to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The course will conclude with scientifically informed considerations of some of the challenges humanity faces in deciding how to use the ocean and its resources.
Limited to 48 students with 12 seats reserved for first-year students. Fall Semester. Associate Professor Jones.Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Spring 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2019, Spring 2022, Fall 2023
Humankind is a major agent of environmental change. With each new hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave, public conversations turn to the topic of anthropogenic climate change. But it can be difficult to separate what we know with confidence from what we think we know, and what we are unsure of, given the complex information landscape that defines our moment in time. This leaves many people asking "Is climate change happening? Is it us? Where are we headed? How fast? How do we know?" In this class, we will address these questions directly with a focus on building an interdisciplinary understanding of Earth's climate system. In addition, we will discuss the disparate impacts of climate change on communities around the world, how climate information gets shared between scientists and citizens, and the challenges of building consensus on climate issues.
The internet presents a double-edged sword for climate communication - it is our primary tool for sharing the data and models used to understand Earth's climate, but can be a platform for misinformation and mischaracterization of science for political ends. We will explore this dichotomy in detail, through both the direct download and interpretation of climate data and an evaluation of the way climate change is discussed in the public forum. We will meet three times a week with lecture, small group discussion, and an end goal of producing digital media to share our collective understanding of climate with a broader audience.
Three class meetings per week. This course is open to all students of the College. Limited to 48 students. Fall Semester. Assistant Professor Holschuh. Omit 2023-242023-24: Not offered
How well do you know the planet on which we live? In this course we will explore Earth from its core to its surface, from the mountains to the deep ocean basins, from the past and present to the future. The earth is an evolving and dynamic system, changing on time scales that range from seconds, to millennia, to eons: volcanos erupt, earthquakes vibrate the globe, continents separate and collide, and mountains rise only to be worn away and rise again. What physical processes drive this dynamism? How does the restless nature of Earth impact our residency? Studying active geologic processes will provide us with a means to decode the history of Earth as written in rocks; analyzing the rock record allows us to test hypotheses about the formation and continual modification of the planet. With a geologic understanding of your home planet, students will emerge from the course with an expanded notion of what it is to be human. This is a science course designed for all Amherst students.
Three hours of class and two hours of lab in which the student gains direct experience in the science through examination of earth materials, field trips, and projects.
Fall semester: Assistant Professors Bernard and Victor Guevara; Spring semester: Professor Tekla HarmsOther years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Fall 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Fall 2024
For at least 3.5 billion years, Earth’s surface environments have supported some form of life. What geologic processes first created and subsequently maintained a habitable environment? How does contemporary global climate change compare to climate variations over Earth’s long history? This course looks at Earth’s climate and its surface environment from a geologist’s perspective. We will develop an understanding of the atmospheric, oceanographic, geological, and biological systems that interact to modulate the climate. Because Earth’s surface environments are products of and participants in these systems, we will also build the skills necessary to observe and interpret the landscape through study of modern coastal and riverine processes in the context of our region’s glacial history. Exploration of the sedimentary rock record, in which evidence of the history of ancient climate and life is preserved, will inform our inquiry into the ongoing climate experiment humanity is running through the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The scientific tools we develop will allow us to analyze predictions of future climate change and assess possible paths forward.
This is an introductory science course designed for all students of the college. It provides a foundation for further study of Earth’s climate and surface environments. Three hours of class and two hours of lab. Not open to students who have taken GEOL-121.
Limited to 40 students with 20 students per lab. Spring semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Michelle Fame.Other years: Offered in Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2025
This course focuses on the history of life as preserved in the sedimentary rock record. Students will learn how paleontologists and geobiologists use skeletal fossils, molecular fossils, and geochemical signatures to ask and answer questions about the evolution of ancient life and Earth history. Students will study the origination, radiation, and extinction of major groups of organisms in the context of global environmental change, with an emphasis on invertebrate and microbial life. Laboratories include the systematic description, identification, and interpretation of fossils as well as quantitative techniques to solve paleontological problems. Three hours of lectures and three hours of laboratory. One weekend field trip.
Requisite: At least on GEOL course, recommended GEOL 112. Fall semester. Associate Professor Jones.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Spring 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2019, Fall 2021, Fall 2023
(Offered as GEOL-253 and ENST-253) Geospatial inquiry is an iterative creative process that involves asking, answering, and communicating the results of questions using data linked to geographic locations. The anticipated results of this process are thoughtfully assembled maps and geographic datasets that serve as accessible, persuasive, and even beautiful means of conveying large amounts of complex information. Geospatial thinking is a critical skill for pursuing a systems-based perspective on our rapidly changing and interconnected world.This course is a hands-on introduction to geospatial inquiry using geographic information systems (GIS) software applied to a variety of intersecting topics in environmental studies, natural science, and the humanities. Technical topics include geospatial data acquisition and database management, coordinate systems and projections, creation and manipulation of raster and vector datasets, data digitization, incorporation of field data into GIS, use of lidar, aerial imagery, and other remote sensing tools, and the production of professional-quality final maps.While there is a lecture component in the course, students will mainly be engaged in active learning in the form of skills tutorials, reflection and discussion assignments, independent and peer troubleshooting, and question-driven projects.
Fall semester. Limited to 25 students. Visiting Assistant Professor Fame.
Pending Faculty ApprovalOther years: Offered in Fall 2023, Spring 2025
Minerals are the fundamental building blocks of planetary materials, are essential natural resources for human society, and they modulate earth and environmental systems. This course explores the origin, distribution, and scientific and societal relevance of minerals. Through project-based inquiry, students will investigate the chemical and physical properties of minerals across a range of spatial scales, from the scale of individual atoms, to that of a hand specimen. We will use physical and chemical observations of minerals to infer the processes and environments that lead to their formation, and how minerals exert a first-order control on large scale geologic processes, from earth’s core to the human environment.
Requisite: GEOL 111 or 112. Limited to 12 students. Fall semester. Assistant Professor Victor Guevara.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Spring 2025
Ours is a restless planet where plates drift, and continents rift apart and collide. The record of this is written in the deformation of the crust – manifested as faults, folds, and rock fabric. In this class we will learn to recognize and assess these and other structures, to quantify the deformation that occurred as the structures were made, and to infer the forces that were at work. To do this, we will develop skills essential to all geology: the ability to think across a broad range of spatial scales -- from the microscopic to an outcrop to a mountain range – and to draw valuable parallels from one scale to another; the skills of visualization in three dimensions and of understanding earth evolution across the fourth dimension of time; and the capacity to infer this three dimensional geology from what is exposed on the earth’s two dimensional surface and to represent three dimensional geology with maps and cross sections.
In addition to hands on classroom laboratory assignments and local in-person field trips, lab activities will take advantage of a range of innovative digital technologies- gigapan images, animations, Google Earth visuals -to achieve the learning goals of Structural Geology.
Three hours of lecture and three hours of laboratory each week.
Requisite: GEOL 111. Spring semester. Professor Bernard.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Spring 2022, Spring 2023
As the global human population expands in a future marked by climate change, the search for and preservation of our most vital resource, water, will demand thoughtful policy and greater scientific understanding. This course is an introduction to surface and groundwater hydrology, geochemistry, and management for natural systems and human needs. Lectures will focus on understanding the hydrologic cycle, how water flows over and within the earth, and the many ways in which this water is threatened by contamination and overuse. Discussions will speak to water issues globally, both historical and from the front pages today. This course concludes with a final project. Three hours of lecture each week.
GEOL 300 will focus on the intersection of water and energy by examining the Clean Water Act and how it is, or isn't, applied to the oil and gas industry.
Limited to 20 students. Omit 2023-24. Professor Martini.2023-24: Not offered
(Offered as GEOL 301 and ENST 301) As the global human population expands in a future marked by climate change, the search for and preservation of our most vital resource, water, will demand thoughtful policy and greater scientific understanding. This course is an introduction to surface and groundwater hydrology, geochemistry, and management for natural systems and human needs. Lectures will focus on understanding the hydrologic cycle, how water flows over and within the earth, and the many ways in which this water is threatened by contamination and overuse. Three hours of lecture and three hours of lab each week. The laboratory will be centered around on-going local issues concerning use and restoration of the Fort River watershed.
Requisite: GEOL 109 or 111 or consent of the instructor. Omitted 2023-34. Professor Martini.2023-24: Not offered
From the muddy Mississippi River delta to the clear waters of the Bahamas, from the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet to the shifting dunes of the Namib sand sea, sediment is continually being produced, transported, and deposited on the planet’s surface. These processes are fundamentally linked to global climate and tectonics. Sedimentary rocks are therefore archives of environmental, climatic, and tectonic changes through Earth history. In this class, students will learn how to interpret the sedimentary rock record, on scales ranging from individual grains to kilometers-thick sequences of strata. Students will develop an understanding of sedimentary processes in modern environments and learn how to interpret the sedimentary rock record.
GEOL 311 will be conducted remotely, using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities. In lab, students will participate in virtual field trips, do hands-on work with rock specimens, practice techniques of image interpretation, and learn to manipulate sedimentary data sets. Students will be guided through the course by close, regular interaction with the instructor as would be true in a classroom setting. We will draw inspiration for our remote studies from the success of the Mars Curiosity Rover, which is essentially a tool to do sedimentology on another planet! Three hours of lecture and three hours of laboratory each week.
Requisite: GEOL 111. Recommended requisite: GEOL 112. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Jones.2023-24: Not offered
The majority of Earth’s volume is composed of igneous and metamorphic rocks, which originate through processes that operate deep beneath earth’s surface, driven by the movement of tectonic plates. Igneous and metamorphic rocks preserve an interpretable record of the creation and modification of continents, mountain building, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The formation and existence of these rocks, in turn, modulate global volatile cycles, and the evolution of life on earth. In this course, students will explore the processes and environments involved in the genesis of igneous and metamorphic rocks by integrating field and petrographic observations with quantitative applications of experimental data and chemical principles (thermodynamics, major and trace element geochemistry). Through field and laboratory investigations, students will learn how to read the archive of earth processes as preserved in igneous and metamorphic rocks and make inferences about the implications of their formation for the evolution of the Earth system.
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022
Requisite: GEOL 111 and GEOL 271. Professor Guevara. Spring 2024
At the planetary scale, Earth’s climate is simple. Earth’s surface absorbs light energy from the sun, it radiates energy through the atmosphere back into space, and the balance of inputs and outputs sets our surface temperature. Thus, changes in solar radiation, atmospheric chemistry, and Earth’s orbital configuration can explain the large-scale climate changes throughout Earth’s history. But the details that matter to individual countries, cities, and communities are much more complicated. The atmosphere and ocean, engines driven by energy from the sun, work to distribute heat around the globe and drive regional variation. To understand the operation of the climate system, scientists use two complementary approaches: climate models, which rely on foundational principles of physics and modern observations to explain how energy flows through the Earth system; and the paleoclimate record, physical and chemical proxies, preserved in geologic materials, that tell the story of Earth’s past.
In this class we will explore the processes that control both planetary and regional climate, identify the tools we use to understand climate change through time, and contextualize modern change using data sets derived from the geologic record. We will use our lab period to build skill with data analysis and visualization in Python, allowing hands-on experience working with the climate models and climate data policymakers use for our projections of future climate change. No prior Python experience is expected.
Requisite: GEOL 112 or 121 or CHEM 151 or PHYS 116 or consent of the instructor. Omitted 2023-24. Assistant Professor Holschuh.2023-24: Not offered
Before the boundaries between physics and geology were drawn, those who studied the Earth system were “natural philosophers” -- scientists who sought order in the cosmos through quantitative description of the world around us. Despite the modern disciplinary labels, physics and geology are still intertwined, as physical laws form the basis for explaining and exploring Earth’s most fundamental systems. In this course, we will use the physicist’s tool kit to investigate questions in tectonics, seismology, hydrology, and climate. We will collect data using concepts in acoustics, electromagnetics, and gravitation, which allow us to characterize the Earth in four dimensions. Finally, we will use these observations to understand energy and mass flow at all scales, exploring questions about the interior of our planet, the top of our atmosphere, and everything in between. This class will be a quantitative exploration of the Earth system, and is designed to help build physics-based intuition in the geosciences. Specific math, physics, and/or geology course work is not required; these skills will be built during the course. Three hours of class and three hours of lab each week.
Omitted 2023-24. Assistant Professor Nick Holschuh.2023-24: Not offered
Earth is a planet that records its own history through the accumulation of sediment at its surface. Few sedimentary basins around the globe preserve a longer or more detailed record of that history than the Umbria-Marche Basin in central Italy, where a continuous record of sedimentation from the Jurassic through the present day are exposed throughout the Apennine Mountains. Italy is the birthplace of the geological science of stratigraphy, which seeks to establish the chronology of sedimentary rock deposition. Modern stratigraphic techniques are based on geological, geochemical, geophysical, and paleontological foundations; students will learn the principles of stratigraphy in the first half of the course. We will also study the tectonic evolution of the Apennines and the geologic history of the Umbria-Marche Basin in order to prepare for our spring break field work. This preparatory work will include reading and discussing the primary scientific literature.
Students will travel to Italy during spring break to conduct field work in the central Apennines. The field component will be based at the Osservatorio Geologico di Coldigioco, and will include four full days of field trips and three full days of field-based stratigraphic logging and sample collection. Data collected during spring break will form the basis for collaborative class research projects that will be completed at Amherst during the second half of the semester, applying and extending the techniques developed before the trip.
Spring semester. Professor David Jones.
An analysis of the dynamic processes that drive the physical evolution of the earth’s crust and mantle. Plate tectonics, the changing configuration of the continents and oceans, and the origin and evolution of mountain belts will be studied using evidence from diverse branches of geology. Present dynamics are examined as a means to interpret the record of the past, and the rock record is examined as a key to understanding the potential range of present and future earth dynamics. Three hours of class and two hours of laboratory each week.
Requisite: GEOL 111 and two additional upper-level GEOL courses or permission of the instructor. Fall semester. Professor Harms.2023-24: Not offered
This course examines the principles of thermodynamics, via the methodology of J. Willard Gibbs, with an emphasis upon multicomponent heterogeneous systems. These principles are used to study equilibria germane to the genesis and evolution of igneous and metamorphic rocks. Specific applications include: the properties of ideal and real crystalline solutions, geothermometry, geobarometry, and the Gibbs method—the analytic formulation of phase equilibria. This course also introduces the student to the algebraic and geometric representations of chemical compositions of both homogeneous and heterogeneous systems. Four class hours each week.
Requisite: GEOL 271 or CHEM 161, or PHYS 116 or 123. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Cheney.2023-24: Not offered
Through biogeochemical cycles microbes influence the chemical composition of all of our habitable environments. They are found in the most extreme environments on Earth, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of our oceans as well as in the deep subsurface of Earth’s crust. In this seminar, we will examine tracers and proxies for microbial activity present in rock, sediment, soil and porewater. Environments to be studied include hydrothermal vents, deep sedimentary basins, early Earth and possible extraterrestrial habitats. We will survey the major biologically relevant elements of the periodic table (C, O, S, N, Fe, P) and examine how these elements cycle through the environment, focusing on stable isotopic tracers of biological processes. Students will gain experience with field and laboratory techniques and we will emphasize the current scientific literature in discussions. Three hours of class per week plus field and laboratory times to be scheduled with the professor.
Requisite: CHEM 151 or GEOL 301 or consent of the instructor. Omitted 2023-24. Professor Martini.2023-24: Not offered
Independent reading or research. A written report will be required. A full course.
Approval of the Departmental Chair is required. Fall and spring semesters. The Department.Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Fall 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Fall 2024
Independent research on a geologic problem within any area of staff competence. A thesis of high quality will be required.
Open to seniors who meet the requirements of the Departmental Honors program. Fall semester. The Department.Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, January 2022, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2025