Earth & Environment
Unraveling Earth's Complexities
Caltech scientists and engineers investigate the greatest mysteries of our planet and its systems, advancing knowledge of Earth's atmosphere, ocean, climate, history, and structure, as well as improving our understanding of and response to environmental hazards.
More than three dozen Caltech faculty members lead research groups in using and designing the tools and technology that allow them to strengthen our understanding of our world. Caltech's distinctive approach partners Earth and environmental scientists with engineers while building upon the Institute's legacy of expertise in geoscience, physics, chemistry, engineering, and seismology; that advantage is only furthered by the many close collaborations with the Caltech-managed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), focusing particularly on its remote-sensing technologies.
Earth & Environment Research Portfolio
Earth's Origin & Evolution
- The coevolution of Earth's landscape and its biological life
- Mass extinctions, glacial changes, and the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere
- The role of microbial interactions in shaping Earth's ecosystems
- The evolution of Earth's landscape over centuries
- Earth's internal composition at all depths
- Interactions between atmospheric circulation, surface temperature, and precipitation zones
- Processes that influence weather and climate across all timescales
- The role of ocean circulation, heat, and chemical transport in climate
- The dynamics, structure, and chemistry of other planetary atmospheres
Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics
- More accurate pollution and ozone predictions
- The sources of biogenic and anthropogenic pollution
- Regional and global air quality
- Carbon, methane, and nutrient cycles
- Earth's tectonic plates and processes—from the sudden rupture of an earthquake to the slow formation of a mountain
- The effects of seismic activity on landscape, buildings, and infrastructure
- Earthquake models and laboratory simulations; fault histories
- Ground motion around the world, tracked using seismic and global-positioning networks
- Tools to study and mitigate environmental hazards
- Advanced, specialized tools from isotopic chemistry for reconstructing ancient climates, taking dinosaurs' temperatures, and probing the temperatures and fluids of ancient faults
- Earthquake early-warning systems
Research Centers and Partnerships
Caltech's Earth and environmental scientists and engineers collaborate across disciplines and transcend traditional boundaries through strong partnerships with the U.S. Geological Survey and JPL, as well as through numerous campus research centers.
- The Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science
- Terrestrial Hazard Observation and Reporting (THOR) Center
- Seismological Laboratory
- Southern California Seismic Network
- Community Seismic Network
- Tectonics Observatory
- Caltech scientists pioneered the imaging of the earthquake rupture process and led the development of the most advanced earthquake monitoring networks in the world.
- In the 1930s geophysicist Charles Richter (PhD '28) developed a formula for measuring earthquakes that became known as the Richter scale. Nearly 50 years later, seismologists Thomas C. Hanks and Hiroo Kanamori updated the Richter scale to provide more accurate readings of large quakes at greater distances.
- Caltech scientists have developed techniques for measuring isotopes in fossils, rocks, shells, and corals. Their analysis has led to insights into everything from the origin and evolution of Earth, to past climates, to the formation of other planets.
- Three Caltech scientists have received the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement—the highest honor in environmental science, environmental health, and energy research.
- Arie Haagen-Smit (1974), known today as the father of air-pollution control, was the first to directly link smog in Southern California to automobiles.
- Clair Patterson (1995) discovered that lead exposure poses significant health risks, prompting controls in the U.S. auto industry and helping to phase out leaded gasoline and leaded paint.
- John Seinfeld (2012) improved the management of air pollution with groundbreaking research into the origin, chemistry, and evolution of particles in the atmosphere.
- Three Caltech scientists have received the Crafoord Prize (a prize given annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in either astronomy and mathematics, biosciences, geosciences, or polyarthritis research).
- Gerald Wasserburg (1986) was the first to determine the timescale by which the early solar system developed.
- Don Anderson, MS '58, PhD '62 (1998) determined the large-scale structure of Earth's interior.
- Walter Munk, BS '39, MS '40 (2010) advanced our understanding of ocean currents, tides, and waves and their role in our planet's dynamics.
- Caltech's graduate programs in Earth and environmental sciences are among the best in the world, according to rankings by U.S. News and World Report and the National Resource Council.
Emerging Fields or Areas of Research
Caltech scientists and engineers are interested in strengthening research that advances understanding of our planet and its environment by investigating the evolution of Earth and life—and how they have influenced and shaped each other—developing and applying tools to investigate climate, and deepening our knowledge of earthquakes and other terrestrial hazards, while also enhancing our ability to mitigate their damage.