Courses

 

We teach about how the earth works, inside and out. Whether to fulfill science distribution requirements, round out a background in physics or biology (or classics, or economics!), or to major in Geosciences, our Department has many topical and exciting courses.

Our Mountain setting is beautiful, and also acts as a natural Geoscience lab. Geosciences students often spend time outdoors, learning experientially about the world we all live in,  looking at earth systems processes as they are happening. Whether assessing the flood potential of local streams, mapping the folded and faulted rocks of the Taconics or Green Mountains, studying Pleistocene glacial deposits, or collecting minerals or fossils, Geosciences students gain a wealth of enriching earth science experience. 

In addition to field trips and activities, cutting-edge lab techniques and analyses are also central to Geosciences, and students gain hands-on experience with microscopy, coding (MatLab, R, and other programming languages), a wide range of analytic techniques (Scanning Electron Microscopy, various forms of chemical analysis), and GIS mapping and interpretation  Many courses have built-in research projects, and we also train our students in writing and presentation skills.

Introductory Courses

Introductory courses are designed for any student wanting to know more about our home planet. Not just for prospective majors, these courses are broad overviews that give fascinating insight into how the earth works. There are no prerequisites, and all courses include field and lab work.

Upper-Level Courses

Upper-level courses focus on specific aspects of geosciences in greater depth. The 200-level courses are open to any student who has taken a 100-level geosciences course.

Note: Courses in gray are not available this year.

GEOS 100 LEC Introduction to Weather and Climate

Last offered Spring 2024

How is it that we have such a hard time predicting if it's going to rain next week, but we can be confident in projections of future climate change decades from now? This course will explore how fundamental laws of physics determine why air moves and changes, creating the wind, clouds, precipitation, and extreme events that form our weather. Building off of our understanding of the atmosphere, we'll look at longer time scales to develop an understanding of earth's climate system, global heat and moisture transport, climate change, and the ways that humans can change our planet. We will use weather and climate models to learn how scientists and meteorologists predict future conditions. Labs include benchtop experiments, data analysis projects, and self-scheduled meteorological observations. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 101(S) LEC The Co-Evolution of Earth and Life

Our planet is about 4.6 billion years old and has supported life for at least the last 3.5 billion of those years. This course will examine the relationship between Earth and the life that inhabits it, starting with the first living organisms and progressing to the interaction of our own species with the Earth today. Students will investigate the dynamic nature of the Earth-life system and learn about the dramatic changes that have occurred throughout the history of our planet. We will ask questions such as: How did the Earth facilitate biologic evolution, and what effects did those biologic events have on the physical Earth? When did photosynthesis evolve and how did this biological event lead to profound changes in the world's oceans and atmospheres? How and why did animals evolve and what role did environmental change play in the radiation of animal life? How did the rise and spread of land plants affect world climate? How do plate tectonics, glaciation, and volcanism influence biodiversity and evolutionary innovation? What caused mass extinctions in the past and what can that teach us about our current extinction crisis? Labs will involve hands-on analysis of rocks, fossils, and real-world data as well as conceptual and analytical exercises; field trips will contextualize major events in Earth history and will help students learn to read the rock record. Through these investigations, the class will provide a comprehensive overview of Earth's dynamic history. [ more ]

GEOS 102(S) LEC An Unfinished Planet

Earth is an evolving planet. The pace of plate tectonics may be imperceptibly slow but earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused by shifting plates disrupt civilizations. In a geological time frame, nothing on Earth is permanent: ocean basins open and close, mountains rise and fall, continental masses collide and pull apart. There is a message here for all of us who live, for an infinitesimally brief time, on the moving surface of the globe. This course uses the plate tectonics model--one of the fundamental scientific accomplishments of the 20th century--to interpret the processes and products of a changing Earth. The emphasis will be on mountain systems (on land and beneath the oceans) as expressions of plate interactions. Specific topics include the rocks and structures of modern and ancient mountain belts, the patterns of global seismicity and volcanism, the nature of the Earth's interior, the changing configurations of continents and ocean basins through time, and, in some detail, the formation of the Appalachian Mountain system and the geological assembly of New England. Readings will be from a physical geology textbook and primary sources. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 103 LEC Global Warming and Environmental Change

Last offered Fall 2022

Earth is the warmest it has been for at least five centuries, and the surface of our planet is responding. From extreme floods and drought to landslides and wildfires, the natural processes that shape Earth's surface are tied to temperature and precipitation. People are beginning to feel the impacts, but in different ways depending on where they call home. In this course, we will investigate how climate change is altering landscapes and the natural processes that support them, highlighting all the ways that people are being affected today. Ultimately, we will develop an understanding of the consequences of climate change that connects physical processes with geography. Specific topics include foundations of the Earth system, plate tectonics and the construction of landscapes, Earth materials, rivers and flooding, hillslope processes, coastal processes, and climate impacts on natural resources such as fresh water and soil. Labs will use local field sites and analytical exercises to evaluate recent cases that reflect an interaction of the landscape and climate. We will also visit and engage with Black communities and community leaders across New England who are grappling with the unjust distribution of resources to mitigate climate impacts and who have been disproportionate bearers of environmental risk. [ more ]

GEOS 104(F) LEC Oceanography

The oceans cover three quarters of Earth's surface, yet oceanography as a modern science is relatively young: the first systematic explorations of the geology, biology, physics and chemistry of the oceans began in the late 19th century. This introduction to ocean science includes the creation and destruction of ocean basins with plate tectonics; the source and transport of seafloor sediments and the archive of Earth history they contain; currents, tides, and waves; photosynthesis and the transfer of energy and matter in ocean food webs; the composition and origin of seawater, and how its chemistry traces biological, physical and geological processes; oceans and climate change; and human impacts. [ more ]

GEOS 106 SEM Being Human in STEM

Last offered Fall 2019

This course combines academic inquiry and community engagement to investigate the themes of diversity and social climate within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. Students will examine how diverse identities including but not limited to gender, race, disability, sexuality, national origin, socioeconomic status, religion, and ethnicity shape the STEM experience both at Williams and nationally. We will ground our understanding through critical reading of primary scholarly research on topics such as implicit bias, identity threat, and effects of team diversity on excellence. From there, we will execute small group projects. Students will design, execute, and evaluate interventions that relate to the course goals and that have direct relevance to Williams students, faculty, and staff. For example, a student group could implement a survey of minoritized STEM students, or create a qualitative interview-based assessment of how socioeconomic status impacts students' abilities to participate in STEM fields. Course work includes weekly readings, reflective/opinion writing, in class discussion, and the development and presentation of a group project. [ more ]

GEOS 107 LEC Astrobiology

Last offered Fall 2021

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. As such it is an inherently interdisciplinary field, incorporating all of the basic natural sciences: biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and the earth sciences, as well as aspects of philosophy, sociology, and engineering. Questions we will seek answers to in this class include: How, why, when, and where did life evolve on Earth, and what does that tell us about how it might evolve elsewhere? What are the chances that there is life on other planets and moons in our solar system, and why? Are there habitable planets elsewhere in the universe, and will we ever truly know if any of them contain life? We will approach these questions using a combination of lectures, activities, labs, homework assignments, and visits from some of the country's leading Astrobiology researchers. Examples of lab and homework activities include exploring our definition of life by making observations about living and non-living systems, examining evidence for ancient habitable environments in rocks, and modeling chemical fingerprinting tools used by Mars rovers. Assessment will be based on participation, quizzes, labs and homework assignments, and a final group project where students will present a mock NASA mission proposal. This course requires no previous experience in the sciences. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 109 LEC Geologic Hazards

Last offered Spring 2024

Dramatic geologic events like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis can inflict devastating tolls on human life, infrastructure, and economies, as the recent earthquakes in Turkey, Syria, and Afghanistan have sadly demonstrated. These events loom large in our imagination because of this same destructive power. Pop culture is full of references to natural disasters. (Think Hollywood movies like Don't Look Up, San Andreas, or The Day After Tomorrow. Even South Park has a volcano.) Most of these portrayals are based on some tiny seed of established scientific idea or fact, but much of the (mis)information they present is inaccurate. This course seeks to set the record straight. We will develop a framework based on fundamental geologic principles to understand why the most potent natural hazards are concentrated at tectonic plate boundaries. Case studies from recent and historical events will be used to investigate both how volcanoes and earthquakes work and how cascading systems failures exacerbate the human impacts of these phenomena. Exploration of these topics will include lectures, hands-on activities, and weekly laboratory exercises. Occasional comparison to disaster movies will be used to separate fact from fiction. The course will culminate in a final creative or written project. [ more ]

GEOS 110 LEC Oceans and Society

Last offered Fall 2023

Oceans impact society in many ways: they provide much of our protein, they hide untapped mineral wealth, their circulation regulates global climate, they transport and accumulate our plastic garbage, marine storms batter coastal infrastructure, and sea-level rise threatens communities. However, despite the oceans' importance throughout history--for trade, as a source of food, and because of their unpredictable dangers--we know shockingly little about them. More than 6000 people have reached the summit of Everest, Earth's highest elevation; but only 22 have visited Challenger Deep, the deepest point below the ocean surface. We have mapped the surfaces of Mars and Venus in far more detail than the topography of Earth's ocean basins. New marine organisms are discovered regularly. And we still don't fully understand the complex details of how ocean and atmosphere work together as the planet's climate engine. In this course, you will examine ocean science themes with direct societal relevance that are also at the forefront of scientific investigation. Topics will be selected based on current events, but are likely to include deep sea mining, meridional overturning, sea level rise, atmospheric rivers, and aquaculture. By taking focused dives into a range of subjects you will learn about the evolution and operation of the ocean as a physical and geological system as well as investigating the intersections between ocean functions, climate change, and human societies. Exercises and discussions will foreground active learning. A field trip to the Atlantic coast will integrate experiential investigation of the intersection between coastal change, extreme weather, and communities. The aim is to have energised interdisciplinary discussions about topics of pressing societal relevance, to understand some of the fundamentals of ocean science, to develop expertise in gathering and distilling information by researching new topics, and thereby to improve critical and analytical thinking. [ more ]

GEOS 111 TUT Radical Science- How Geology Changed the Way We See the World

Last offered Fall 2022

Copernicus shocked Europe when he suggested that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Hutton and other geologists made an equally radical proposal more than two centuries later when they introduced the concept of deep time and argued that the Earth was much older than 6,000 years, as determined by biblical scholars. Several decades later, Darwin and Wallace shook the foundation of western philosophy once more when they proposed that organisms evolved. When geologists reinterpreted landscape features once attributed to the great flood as evidence for past continental glaciation, the concept of extreme climate change through time sprang to life. During the 20th century, the permanence of Earth's geography was challenged by the continental drift hypothesis, which was initially rejected for decades until it reemerged as plate tectonic theory. This tutorial explores how geologic breakthroughs challenged western views of humans as the center of creation living in a world with limited change. There will be weekly tutorial meetings with pairs of students, and students will alternate writing papers on assigned topics. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 17 Hurricanes / Typhoons and Global Warming

Last offered NA

Since 1990, forty-seven tropical depressions of hurricane intensity have developed on average each year mainly in the northern hemisphere. Among them, a half-dozen become major storms in the North Atlantic Ocean, another 10 are generated in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and as many as 22 take hold over the western Pacific Ocean (where they are called typhoons). Whereas the numbers have remained relatively static, evidence suggests that storm intensity is on the rise. Most such storms dissipate in the open oceans, but elsewhere coastal impact affects the physical geography of rocky shores, beaches, and river deltas, as well as the infrastructure associated with human habitation and commerce. During the Pliocene warm period between 4.5 to 3.0 million years ago, the average global temperature was both higher than today and global sea level stood above today's datum. These conditions may have contributed to permanent El Niño conditions across the Pacific Ocean having a spill-over effect on the Atlantic Ocean. With few exceptions since 2015, each succeeding year through 2023 has recorded an increase in the average global temperature. Air temperature affects sea-surface temperature, which is the key factor triggering hurricanes / typhoons on a seasonal basis today. This course looks at the physical evidence for storm deposits of exceptional size from the Pliocene warm period and the last inter-glacial epoch roughly 125,000 years ago. In the northern hemisphere, such deposits are well studied along the shores of Mexico's Gulf of California as well as islands such as the Azores in the North Atlantic. The physical dynamics of recent hurricanes are reviewed for further insight on where and how coastal impact is most expected. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

GEOS 201(F) LEC Field Methods and Structural Geology

Geologic history is preserved in rocks and it can be deciphered using fundamental principles such as superposition and cross-cutting relationships. Field observations are essential to understanding the rock record, and data and interpretations are encoded in geologic maps. This course introduces students to topographic and geologic maps, best practices for geologic field work, the field identification of common minerals and rocks, geologic contacts, and structures such as folds, and faults. Students will develop skills for presenting field data in papers, figures, and oral presentations. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 205 LEC Economic Geology and Earth Resources

Last offered Fall 2019

"If it can't be grown, it must be mined." We depend on the solid Earth for a huge array of resources. The metal in your soda can, the plastic in your Nalgene, the components of your computer, the glass in your window, the hydrocarbons being burned to keep you warm in the winter or to transport you in cars or aircraft, the cars and aircraft themselves: all are made of materials mined from the Earth. Right now there are more people building more houses, paving more roads, making more vehicles, more electronics, and more plastic packaging-all with geologic materials. As demand soars in both established and growing economies, and as we realize the environmental damage that can result from resource extraction and processing, the importance of understanding Earth's resources increases. Finding new deposits and managing those we have requires insight into the geology that underlies the location and origin of strategic Earth materials. This class introduces the geologic processes that control formation, distribution, and extent of materials reserves: dimension stone and gravel, base and precious metal ores, gemstones, petroleum, nuclear energy sources, and specialty materials for medical, technological, and military uses. This course is in the SOLID EARTH GROUP for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 207 LEC The Geoscience of Epidemiology and Public Health

Last offered Spring 2023

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the many ways that diseases can be transmitted in the environment. As a society we are becoming aware of the many ways that geological processes and materials and influence human health, in ways both beneficial and dangerous. This course unites geoscience, biomedicine and public health approaches to address a wide range of environmental health problems. These include water-related illnesses (e.g. diarrhea, malaria); minerals and metals, both toxic (e.g. asbestos, arsenic) and essential (e.g. iodine); radioactive poisoning (e.g. radon gas); and the transport of pathogens by water and wind. In many cases, the environmental health problems disproportionately affect marginalised populations, contributing to greater disease and death among poor communities and populations of colour. We will examine the broad array of dynamic connections between human health and the natural world. We will discuss the social justice implications of a range of environmental health problems. And we will examine current research into how coronaviruses, such as the one causing COVID-19, are transported in the environment. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences Major. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

GEOS 210(F, S) LEC Oceanographic Processes

Part of the Williams-Mystic Coastal and Ocean Studies Program, this course provides an introduction to physical, geological, chemical, and biological oceanography. Using local field sites as well as places visited on field seminars, we will investigate why the Earth has oceans, why they are salty, how they move and flow, reasons for sea level change on both long and short timescales, and how our oceans interact with the atmosphere to control global climate. We will emphasise societal interactions with the ocean, and will consider coastal processes including land loss. We will apply an environmental justice and anti-racist lens to our discussions. Field work will take place on shores in southern New England, as well as during field seminars on the Atlantic ocean, the West Coast and the Mississippi River Delta. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 211(F) TUT Rates and Dates: Calibrating the Rock Record

Late in the eighteenth century, the Scottish naturalist, James Hutton, argued that Earth had "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" challenging the widely held biblical view that Earth was a mere 6,000 years old. Yet it was not until the discovery of radioactive decay that geologists were able to accurately date rocks and assign absolute ages to the geologic time scale, which had been developed using fossils and relative dating of rocks. Before radiometric dating, there were numerous attempts to estimate the age of Earth using the rates of natural phenomena, but these early approaches were plagued by faulty assumptions about geologic processes. We still endeavor to estimate the rate of a wide variety of geologic processes, and many are critical to society, such as climate change, sea-level rise, plate motions, and mass extinctions. In this tutorial, we explore the methods of radiometric dating that allow us to determine the age of igneous rocks that cooled from a magma, estimate when deeply buried metamorphic rocks cooled below certain temperatures, and determine the age of organic materials from their radiocarbon signatures. We then examine methods used to estimate the rates of geologic processes with particular emphasis on diffusion -- the movement of matter or energy in response to a gradient in concentration, temperature, or potential energy -- and the explicit and implicit assumptions that are critical to rate calculations. Topics include the basic isotope systematics of geochronology (U-Pb, K-Ar, and 14C ages) and thermochronology (U-Th/He or 40Ar/39Ar), as well as the rates of processes such as plate motion, sea-level rise or fall, glacial advance or retreat, magma storage and ascent, and/or mineral growth rates. There will be weekly tutorial meetings with pairs of students, and students will alternate writing papers on assigned topics. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 212 LEC Paleobiology

Last offered Spring 2024

The fossil record is a direct window into the history of life on Earth and contains a wealth of information on evolution, biodiversity, and climate change. This course investigates the record of ancient life forms, from single-celled algae to snails to dinosaurs. We will explore how, why, when, and where fossils form and learn about the major groups of fossilized organisms and how they have changed through time. In addition, we will cover a range of topics central to modern paleobiology. These include: how the fossil record informs our understanding of evolutionary processes including speciation; the causes and consequences of mass extinctions; how fossils help us tell time and reconstruct the Earth's climactic and tectonic history; statistical analysis of the fossil record to reconstruct biodiversity through time; analysis of fossil morphology to recreate the biomechanics of extinct organisms; and using fossil communities to reconstruct past ecosystems. Laboratory exercises will take advantage of Williams' fossil collections as well as published datasets to provide a broad understanding of fossils and the methods we use to study the history of life on Earth, including using the programming language R (no previous experience is required). We will also view a diversity of fossils in their geologic and paleo-environmental context on our field trip to Eastern New York. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 214(S) LEC Mastering GIS

The development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has allowed us to investigate incredibly large and spatially complex data sets like never before. From assessing the effects of climate change on alpine glaciers, to identifying ideal habitat ranges for critically endangered species, to determining the vulnerability of coastal communities to storms, GIS has opened the door for important, large-scale environmental analyses. And as these technologies improve, our ability to understand the world grows ever greater. This course will teach you how to use GIS to investigate environmental problems. We will review fundamental principles in geography, the construction and visualization of geospatial datasets, and tools for analyzing geospatial data. Special attention will also be given to analysis of remotely sensed (satellite) imagery and to collection of field data. By the end of the course, you will be able to conduct independent GIS-based research and produce maps and other geospatial imagery of professional quality. [ more ]

GEOS 215 LEC Climate Changes

Last offered Spring 2023

Paleoclimatology is the reconstruction of past climate variability and the forces that drove the climate changes. The Earth's climate system is experiencing unprecedented and catastrophic change because of anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases and land use change. Paleoclimatology allows humans to put modern climate changes into the context of the history of this planet, and shows how and why it is unprecedented and catastrophic. Each climate event we study from Earth's past teaches us lessons on why the climate system responds to anthropogenic perturbations, what climate changes we're committed to in the future, how long-lasting they will be, and what climate consequences we can avoid if we take action and reduce greenhouse gas emissions sooner. In this course, we will discuss the major mechanisms that cause natural climate variability, how climate of the past is reconstructed, and how climate models are used to test mechanisms that drive climate variation. With these tools, you will analyze and interpret data and model simulations from climate events from Earth's history, and apply these findings to anthropogenic climate changes happening now and that are projected to happen in the future. Laboratories and homework will emphasize developing problem solving skills as well as sampling and interpreting geological archives of climate change. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 217 LEC Planets and Moons

Last offered Spring 2020

This course examines the history and geology of the solar system. No two planets are exactly alike, and as we acquire more data and higher-resolution images, our sense of wonder grows. However, we can't hike around and hammer rocks on Venus or Titan, so we have to infer composition, form, texture and process from remotely-captured images and sparse chemical and spectral data. We will consider the origin of the solar system, the formation and evolution of planetary bodies, and the role of impacts, volcanism, tectonics and geomorphology in shaping them. We will summarize basic geological concepts of stratigraphy, structure and chronology and show how they can be applied off-world. We will review solar system exploration, and will include planetary data in lab exercises. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 220 TUT Evolution of and on Volcanic Islands

Last offered Fall 2020

Plate tectonic theory accounts for the vast majority of volcanic islands in ocean basins. They form above mantle plume hot spots (Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands), subduction zones (Aleutian and Indonesian arcs), and mid-ocean ridges (Azores and Ascension Island). Iceland is unusual because it is located above a hot spot and the mid-Atlantic ridge. Each plate tectonic setting produces chemically distinctive magmas, and the lifespan of volcanic islands varies widely. Islands above hot spots may be geographically remote and emergent for only several million years, but be part of a long-lived sequence of islands that persists for over a hundred million years. In contrast, island arc volcanoes belong to long geographically continuous chains of volcanoes, commonly in close proximity to continents. This tutorial explores the geologic evolution and lifespan of volcanic islands from formation to submergence, and searches for correlations between these characteristics and plate tectonic setting. We will also consider how geographic isolation, areal extent, lifespan, and climate affect biological evolution on volcanic islands.There will be weekly tutorial meetings with pairs of students, and students will alternate writing papers on assigned topics. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 221 TUT Examining Inconvenient Truths: Climate Science meets U.S. Senate Politics

Last offered Fall 2020

Former President Barack Obama once said: "There's one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of a changing climate." While consensus regarding the causes and impacts of climate change has been growing steadily among scientists and researchers (and to some extent, the general public) over the past two decades, the U.S. has yet to confront this issue in a manner consistent with its urgency. This lack of action in the U.S. is at least partly due to the fact that science provides necessary but insufficient information towards crafting effective climate change legislation and the unfortunate fact that climate change has become a highly partisan issue. The primary objective of this tutorial will be to help students develop a greater understanding of the difficulties associated with crafting climate change legislation, with an emphasis on the role of science and politics within the legislative process. To this end, the tutorial will address how the underlying scientific complexities embedded in most climate policies (e.g., offsets, carbon capture and sequestration, uncertainty and complexity of the climate system, leakage) must be balanced by and blended with the different operational value systems (e.g., economic, social, cultural, religious) that underlie U.S. politics. Over the course of this tutorial, students will develop a nuanced sense of how and when science can support the development of comprehensive national climate change legislation within the current partisan climate. This course will take a practical approach, where students will craft weekly policy oriented documents (e.g., policy memos, action memos, research briefs) targeted to selected members of the current U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the committee that has historically held jurisdiction over a majority of the major climate change bills that have moved through the legislative process. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 226 TUT The Oceans and Climate

Last offered Spring 2015

The oceans are a fundamental part of Earth's climate system. Ocean currents redistribute heat and water vapor around the globe, controlling temperature and precipitation patterns. Marine phytoplankton blooms and air-sea gas exchange modulate the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. The dynamic interaction of the atmosphere and the sea surface results in multi-year climate variations such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. This course will examine gradual and abrupt climate shifts from Earth's history and the ocean's role in driving, amplifying or dampening the changes, the ocean's response to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and the projected impacts of continued emissions and climate change on the ocean in the coming decades and millennia. We will analyze articles from the scientific literature that lay out the theory on the ocean's influence on climate, reconstruct past climate and ocean changes, test the mechanisms responsible for those changes, and with that knowledge, project the consequences of continued anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Topics may include the climate effects of opening and closing seaways with plate tectonics, ocean feedbacks that amplify the intensity of ice ages, the instability of ocean circulation during ice-sheet retreat, the evolution of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation with changing carbon dioxide through the geologic past and the next century, ocean heat and carbon dioxide uptake during the last century and into the future, and the impact on sea level, seafloor methane reservoirs, ocean acidification, oxygenation and marine ecosystems. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 227 TUT Climate Data Analysis

Last offered Spring 2022

In this tutorial, students will learn how to access and work with the datasets that show how our climate is changing. The course introduces a series of analytical methods used in climate science, and students then apply those 'recipes' to data of their choosing to research parts of the climate system. Over the course of the term, a student might investigate the seasonality of global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, maps of sea level anomalies, and the impact El Niño patterns have on Western US rainfall. Students will present their findings, and their insights into the particular aspect of the climate system, at weekly tutorial meetings. Analytical approaches covered in the class include climatologies, time series analysis (trends, periodicity, and autocorrelation), anomaly maps, composites, and zonal/meridional averaging. As for regions and climate systems students can explore: the sky is the limit. This course is in the Oceans and Climates group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 234(S) LEC Introduction to Materials Science

Materials Science is the study of how the microscopic structure of materials--whether steel, carbon fiber, glass, wood, plastic, or mayonnaise--determines their macroscopic mechanical, thermal, electric, and other properties. Topics of this course include classifying materials; material structure; thermodynamics and phase transformations; material properties and testing; how solids bend, flow, and ultimately break; and how to choose the right material for design applications. Materials Science is a highly interdisciplinary field and as a result the course prerequisites are broad but also flexible. Interested students who are unsure about their preparation are strongly encouraged to contact the instructor. [ more ]

GEOS 250 TUT Climate,Tectonics, and Erosion

Last offered Fall 2023

Traditionally tectonics investigated processes operating deep in the crust and mantle, whereas geomorphology focused on surficial processes that shape the landscape. This course explores the complex interactions between tectonic and surficial processes. It has long been recognized that crustal uplift during mountain building creates new landscapes, but we now suspect that variations in erosion rate can fundamentally influence the development of mountains. Climate plays a central role in this feedback loop; the rise of mountains can change climate, and such changes can alter regional erosion rates. This course will examine how geologists use characteristic markers to estimate the amount of surface uplift, methods for determining uplift rate, surface response to faulting and folding, measuring displacement of the crust with GPS and interferometry methods, how mountain building affects erosion and exhumation rates, the limits to relief in mountains, and the interaction between mountains and climate. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

GEOS 255(F) LEC Environmental Observation

To study the environment, we need to observe and measure it. We collect data--numbers that represent system states--and analyze them to create understanding of the world we live in. Advances in technology create more opportunities to discover how the planet works. Through a survey of observational approaches (including weather stations, direct sampling, remote sensing, community-based monitoring, and other techniques), this course will investigate the process of turning a physical property in the environment into a number on a computer and then into meaningful information. We will explore both direct field measurements and remote sensing techniques, diving into how to choose the appropriate sensor for a scientific question, how sensors work, analysis approaches and statistical methods, and how to interpret the resulting data. We will also learn how to mitigate measurement bias through a combination of lab experiments and field work and how to make interpretations of measurements that accurately reflect what is being measured. The course will focus on the near-surface environment, including the atmosphere, water, and biosphere. Students will carry out a research project using observation techniques covered in class to explore a scientific question of interest. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 275 LEC Ocean and Climate Changes

Last offered Spring 2024

Earth's oceans are a central part of the global climate system, and changes to the oceans throughout Earths history were often accompanied by dramatic climate shifts. In this class we will discuss the interconnected nature of oceans and climate, evidence for ocean and climate changes in the geologic past, what is happening to the oceans today, and what may happen in the future due to human-induced climate change. We will use computer models to explore ocean circulation in three dimensions, examine societal case studies to appreciate how people rely on the oceans, and analyze articles from the scientific literature to learn about the origins of foundational oceanographic knowledge and modern advances. Using marine sediment records, we will synthesize paleoclimate data and reconstruct past changes in the ocean and climate system. Through these explorations you will learn about the influence of the oceans on the global carbon system over both short and long timescales, and how changes in ocean circulation have altered Earth's energy balance. Using modern satellite data, we will investigate changes happening in the world's oceans today and assess the mechanisms thought to be responsible. We will visit a dedicated ocean research facility to learn about the tools and techniques employed by oceanographers to answer questions about our changing oceans. And, with the aid of emissions scenarios and probabilistic models, we will explore future scenarios of climate change and evaluate how the oceans will be affected by, and will in turn influence, the changing climate system. [ more ]

GEOS 280 Carbon dioxide uptake and our climate future

Last offered NA

Because of the failure to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, it is now clear that removal of carbon dioxide already emitted to the atmosphere is necessary to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius maximum warming target to avoid severe and irreversible consequences from continued greenhouse gas emissions. Natural carbon sinks have already taken up two thirds of the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and these terrestrial and marine systems are being investigated to determine if this uptake can be enhanced by geoengineering: human intervention to offset the impacts of climate change. In addition, technologies are being developed to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, though none are yet operating at a large enough scale and low enough cost. In this tutorial, students will study the terrestrial, near-coastal, and deep-ocean carbon cycles, and analyze both the capacity for future natural uptake, the potential augmented uptake that could be achieved by deliberate manipulation of these systems, and the impacts of these carbon cycle perturbations on ecosystems and humans. Students will evaluate the scientific basis behind real startup ventures and carbon credit schemes that capitalize on the exploding interest and investment in carbon uptake technologies. And they will write a research proposal for investigating and/or testing a scientifically compelling carbon uptake strategy. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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GEOS 301(S) LEC Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the study of landforms, the processes that shape them, and the rates at which these processes change the landscape in which we live. The course is designed for Geosciences majors and for environmental studies students interested in the evolution of Earth's surface and the ways our activities are changing the planet. We will examine the ways in which climatic, tectonic, and volcanic forces drive landscape evolution over relatively short periods of geologic time, generally thousands to a few millions of years. More recently, the impacts of human activity in reshaping landscapes, determining the movement of water, and changing climate could not be clearer. We will also examine how these impacts are affecting communities, including causes and possible solutions to environmental injustice. We will explore local case studies of geomorphology, such as the impact of ice-age glaciation on landscapes in the northeastern United States and the legacy of deforestation and river damming during the colonial era. We will learn a range of practical skills for describing physical environments and for predicting how they change, including field surveys, GIS analysis, and numerical modelling. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 302 SEM Sedimentology

Last offered Spring 2024

Sediments and sedimentary rocks are the book in which Earth's history is recorded, where we read the stories of ancient oceans and continents, and how life evolved. Sand and dirt preserve information about the rocks that were eroded to form them, the fluids and forces that transported them, the ways in which they were deposited, and the ecosystems that they supported. Understanding sediments is also fundamental to society, for many kinds of civil engineering as well as pollution and environmental remediation. We will investigate sediment composition, fluid mechanics, bedforms, and depositional environments, building to an integrated understanding of erosion, deposition, and changes over time. We will also acknowledge and examine the roles that racism and colonialism have played in sedimentologic research. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 303 LEC Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology

Last offered Spring 2021

Using plate tectonics and the geologic assembly of New England as a template, this course explores the origin of crystalline rocks--volcanic, plutonic, and metamorphic--that comprise 94% of the Earth's crust. Field and lab studies are the crux of the course, supported by experimental work and thermodynamic principles. Chemical and mineralogical compositions and rock fabrics provide evidence for crystallization environments and tectonic settings, past and present. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 304(S) LEC Mineralogy and Petrology

Minerals are Earth's basic building blocks. They form, deform, and transform in response to environment conditions, and in doing so, they record a wide range of processes in the Earth system. In this course, we will use minerals to understand the geologic record at multiple timescales, from the slow process of continental assembly and break-up to rapid processes such as volcanic eruptions and biogeochemical cycles. Central to this analysis is rock and mineral characterization. Therefore, laboratory and field studies will hone fundamental observational skills of minerals at multiple scales, from atomic scale crystalline structures to macroscopic physical properties in hand sample. Discussion of experimental and natural data (phase relationships, thermodynamics, and major and trace element geochemistry) in conjunction with these petrographic approaches, will create a framework for interpreting the dynamic processes and geologic settings where igneous and metamorphic rocks form. The semester will culminate in a final project that applies both the observation and interpretive skills developed, giving students the chance to collect data and "read the geologic record" left behind in rocks from around the world. [ more ]

GEOS 309 LEC Modern Climate

Last offered Fall 2023

What will happen to the Earth's climate in the next century? What is contributing to sea level rise? Is Arctic sea ice doomed? In this course we will study the components of the climate system (atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, biosphere and land surface) and the processes through which they interact. Greenhouse gas emission scenarios will form the basis for investigating how these systems might respond to human activity. This course will explore how heat and mass are moved around the atmosphere and ocean to demonstrate how the geographic patterns of climate change arise. We will also focus on climate feedback effects--like the albedo feedback associated with sea ice and glacier loss--and how these processes can accelerate climate change. In labs we will learn MATLAB to use process and full-scale climate models to investigate the behavior of these systems in response to increasing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 312 TUT Mass Extinctions: Patterns and Processes

Last offered Fall 2022

Over the last 541 million years of Earth history, five major mass extinctions have occurred, each dramatically changing the makeup and course of life on our planet. During some of these events, over 75% of all marine animal species went extinct; during others, groups like the dinosaurs vanished from the planet after tens of millions of years of ecological dominance. This tutorial course will explore the idea of extinction from the evolution of the concept in human thought to current research on the mechanisms and patterns of extinctions through time. We will examine what makes an extinction "mass", delve into the causes and consequences of the major mass extinction events of the Phanerozoic, and discuss the potential human-induced "6th extinction" event occurring in the present day. This course is in the Sediments and Life group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 317 SEM Current topics in Planetary Geology

Last offered Spring 2021

We will look in detail at geological processes on rocky and icy bodies of the Solar System. Each week will have a specific theme, and students will read a series of scientific articles on that topic. The readings will form the basis for writing and discussion. Areas to be investigated may include ice ages on Mars, the origin of Earth's moon, tectonics on Venus, chaos terrain on Europa, geysers on Enceladus, cryovolcanism on Triton, methane lakes on Titan, the viability of mining in the Asteroid Belt, and the prospects for life on other worlds. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 320(S) LEC Ecosystem ecology in the Anthropocene

Ecosystem ecology provides a framework for understanding the multidirectional interactions between biological organisms and their physical environments, and provides critical insight into our approaches for managing resource use in an era of anthropogenic change. In this class, we will explore the biological and biogeochemical underpinnings of ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycling. Topics will include interactions between species composition and ecosystem function, nutrient use efficiency, resource transformations, ecosystem management and restoration, and feedbacks to global change. Lecture content will be supported by regular discussions of the primary literature. Labs will introduce students to field and laboratory techniques to study resource and energy flow in local ecosystems, as well as approaches to project design, hypothesis development, data collection, and analysis. The laboratory program will culminate with a multi-week independent project. [ more ]

GEOS 327(F) LEC Coastal Processes and Geomorphology

Can people live safely along the coast? Recent events like SuperStorm Sandy and the Tohoku Tsunami have shown us how the ocean can rise up suddenly and wreak havoc on our lives and coastal infrastructure. Only educated geoscientists can evaluate the risks and define informed strategies to prevent future coastal catastrophes. Currently almost half the global population lives within 100 km of the coast, with a large percent of those living in densely populated cities (e.g., New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Sydney, Mumbai). Despite the growing risks and challenges associated with climate change and rising sea levels, the coastal population continues to grow rapidly. To help ensure these growing populations can live safely along the coast requires a detailed understanding of the processes that shape the coastal zone. These processes act across a variety of scales, from deep-time geologic processes that dictate coastal shape and structure, to decadal-scale processes that determine shoreline position and evolution, to weekly and daily processes such as storms and tides. This course will provide an in-depth look at the forces--wind, waves, storms, and people--that shape the coastal zone, as well as the geologic formations--sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, barrier islands, deltas, and coral reefs--that are acted upon and resist these forces. Coastal dynamics are strongly affected by human interventions, such as seawalls, dredged channels, and sand dune removal, as well as by sea level rise and changes in storm frequency and magnitude associated with climate change. Finally, the course will provide students with a perspective on how the U.S. seeks to manage its coastal zone, focusing on sea level rise and coastal development. This class will include a quantitative lab that will use MATLAB software to model and evaluate various coastal processes. Students will gain a basic understanding of MATLAB functionality, and will be asked to independently apply what they have learned to various data sets provided by the instructor. [ more ]

GEOS 401 TUT Global Tectonics and the Rise of Mountains

Last offered Fall 2020

Fifty years after the sea-floor spreading hypothesis was first verified using magnetic anomalies, we have spectacular data sets from paleomagnetism, seismology, volcanism, the Global Positioning System, and digital elevation models that provide rich details into the kinematics and mechanisms of present and past plate motions. We will read journal articles to explore how plate tectonics can help explain the evolution of mountain belts with special emphasis on the Appalachians. [ more ]

GEOS 405 SEM Geochemistry: Understanding Earth's Environment

Last offered Fall 2017

Rocks, water, air, life: what comprises these interconnected components of the Earth system? How do they interact today, and how did these interactions differ in the past? In this course we will study how chemical elements are distributed in the Earth, cycle through the Earth system, and act together to produce a planet that is habitable. As Earth's landscapes and oceans, and the life they harbor, have evolved through time, they have left an imprint in the geological record that we can read using geochemical tools such as molecular fossils, elemental ratios, and stable and radioactive isotopes. Topics include the synthesis of elements in stars, the formation and differentiation of planet Earth; radiometric dating; the major constituents of the atmosphere, rain, rocks, rivers and the ocean; how they're linked by chemical weathering and biological activity; and reconstruction of past environments and ecosystems. Students will explore these topics through lecture; reading and discussing articles from the scientific literature; and collecting, analyzing and interpreting data from environmental samples. This course is in the Oceans and Climate group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 409(F) LEC Volcanology

Volcanism can be defined as the set of processes by which magma and its associated gasses are transported through the crust and extruded to Earth's surface and atmosphere. This course will explore the underlying chemistry and physics that govern these processes and give rise to volcanic systems as diverse in appearance and eruptive style as Kilauea, Mount St. Helens, and Yellowstone. Understanding a volcanic system and its associated hazards requires interdisciplinary approaches including field mapping, physical characterization of erupted products, geochemical analysis, and geophysical monitoring. Leveraging insights from these disciplines, we will develop a holistic view of volcanism sensu stricto: how magma is formed, transported, stored, and erupted on Earth. This course will also take a broader perspective recognizing that while individual eruptions may last for just seconds, the sum of volcanism over geologic time is immense. Through a combination of lectures, laboratory experiments, journal articles readings, reflections, and a final project, we will also interrogate the role of volcanoes in plate tectonics, global geochemical cycles, Earth's habitability, and mass extinctions. This course is in the Solid Earth group for the Geosciences major. [ more ]

GEOS 410(S) LEC The Cryosphere

The Earth's climate system is often described in terms of its spheres, including the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, oceans, and the cryosphere. The cryosphere is the naturally occurring ice on Earth in all its many forms: snow, glaciers, ice sheets, sea ice, frozen lakes and rivers, and permafrost (frozen soil). These parts of the climate system may seem remote, but have implications for climate and weather around the world. Melting glaciers and ice sheets have already contributed to sea level rise, and are projected to do so even more in the future. This course will explore the cryosphere, including snow, sea ice, permafrost, and glaciers through lectures, hands-on and data analysis labs, reading journal articles, and a final project. As a 400-level seminar, this capstone course is intended to build on and extend knowledge and skills students have developed during previous courses in the major. [ more ]

GEOS 411 SEM Geobiology

Last offered Fall 2018

Geobiology--the study of interactions between earth and life over geologic timescales--is a new and interdisciplinary field that has grown out of exciting advances in earth and life sciences. During this course we will examine the many ways in which organisms -- from bacteria to trees -- have left their mark on our planet. Topics include the origin of life, the rise of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere, the evolution of biomineralization, the environmental context for animal evolution, the role of microbial communities in the earth system, the emergence of land plants, and the potential for planet-life interactions elsewhere in our solar system. Geobiology incorporates tools and ideas from geochemistry, paleontology, microbiology, and sedimentology. Class time will be divided between lectures and student-led discussions of primary literature. Labs will be varied and involve everything from growing our own microbial ecosystems to querying online databases and analyzing geological, geochemical, genetic, and paleontological data. Our field trip will take us to Upstate New York where we will sample water from a stratified lake and visit ancient microbial fossil reefs. The final project will involve writing a proposal in small groups on a geobiological topic based on the style and format of a National Science Foundation grant, and presenting the idea to the class. [ more ]

GEOS 414 SEM Reading Deep Time

Last offered Spring 2023

Ancient sedimentary rocks and the fossils they contain are time machines - direct windows into the deep history of life on Earth and the environments that life inhabited. In this course you will learn to "read" these deep time records by collecting, interpreting, and analyzing paleontological, stratigraphic, and sedimentological data. The course will be organized around a week-long spring break trip to explore the rocks of the House Range of Utah. The Cambrian and Ordovician strata of the House Range offers an outstanding record of one of the most important periods in Earth history, tracking the rise of animal ecosystems and major increases in fossil diversity. The first 6 weeks of class will be spent learning the fundamentals of quantitative methods in paleontology and stratigraphy (often referred to as historical geology). Labs will focus on skill building including learning basic coding in R (no experience needed or expected), and learning how to interpret paleontological, sedimentological, and stratigraphic data. We will also read widely on the field locality and on the Cambrian and Ordovician Periods. During the field trip, we will explore the House Range. Students will learn skills including interpreting geological maps, measuring stratigraphic sections, finding and identifying fossils, and correlating rock units across basins. We will collect samples and data on the field trip and bring them back to Williams. The second 6 weeks of the course will be spent processing and analyzing the samples and data collected during the field trip, culminating in final projects to be done in small groups. Students will help determine what data we will collect in the field and what projects emerge. Examples might be interpreting carbon isotopic analyses to reconstruct ancient oceanographic conditions, biostratigraphic correlation using fossils to reconstruct basin dynamics, determining paleoenvironment based on analyses of thin sections, or digging into trilobite fossil preservation and evolutionary trends. Students will draw on previous experiences and course content in the Geosciences and bring small group research projects to completion by the end of the semester, which will be presented in poster form. This course fulfills the Geosciences Group B Elective: Sediments and Life. [ more ]

GEOS 470 LEC Science for Environmental Justice

Last offered Spring 2024

Economically challenged communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental contamination and disturbance. Although environmental racism caused by industrial pollution has been made clear in scholarship for some time, the integrated stresses of climate change and industrial contamination are now triggering new challenges to life in underprivileged communities. Resolving environmental injustice will require meaningful engagement from scientists across a range of disciplines, from chemistry and the geosciences to ecology and public health. In this senior seminar, you will learn about the history of the environmental justice movement while examining how science has been used to address cases of environmental contamination and mismanagement. You can expect experiences in field data collection, laboratory analyses, and numerical modeling, skills that are required to assist communities suffering from environmental injustice. And we will work in partnership with residents of Tallevast, Florida, who have long suffered from the impacts of groundwater contamination and governmental neglect. This partnership will involve a residential field trip to Tallevast during spring break, where you will undertake an environmental study in support of the community. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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GEOS 493(F) HON Senior Thesis: Geosciences

Geosciences senior thesis; this is part of a full-year thesis (493-494). [ more ]

GEOS 494(S) HON Senior Thesis: Geosciences

Geosciences senior thesis; this is part of a full-year thesis (493-494). [ more ]