Within the Department, geosciences research focuses on the physical, chemical, and biological processes that converge near Earth’s surface. This varied work connects the solid Earth with the hydrosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. Our areas of active research include: geomorphology, from mountains and coasts to seascapes and planetary surfaces; the dynamics and deposits of glaciers, rivers, coastal and marine environments; regional and global impacts of climate change; Earth history from formation to present; low-temperature and isotope geochemistry; and organic geochemistry and biogeochemistry. Our teaching and mentorship prepare students and postdoctoral associates for careers in fundamental research, government, education, environmental consulting and law, community planning, resource management, and other disciplines that rely on quantitative and rigorous understanding of Earth’s environments.
Biogeoscience is a systems approach to solving complex environmental issues. Researchers can better understand ecosystems by studying interdisciplinary processes such as nutrient cycling, ecological population dynamics, isotope geochemistry, watershed hydrology and many others. Current research topics include terrestrial carbon influence on lake ecosystems, mercury and carbon dynamics in streams, nitrogen fluxes in low-relief watersheds, recovery from acid deposition in mountain streams, nitrogen budgets on permaculture farms, and early warnings indicators of ecosystem regime shifts. Field sites include Shenandoah National Park (SWAS-VTSS), University of Notre Dame-Environmental Research Center, the Pace Estate, and Timbercreek Organics.
Research on coastal systems in the department covers a broad range of disciplines and environments. Studied systems include seagrass meadows, coral reefs, mangrove forests, salt marshes and barrier islands. Our diverse research groups study the ecology, hydrology and geomorphology of these various systems. Current research focuses include plant genetics, carbon storage, sea level rise, flow regimes, aquaculture, primary production and metabolism, invasive species and more. This research takes place in many locations, including Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Florida and the Caribbean, Israel, Panama, Hawaii and Mexico.
Geomorphology and Sedimentology
Geomorphology is the study of how planetary landscapes change through time in response to physical, chemical, and biological processes. Researchers in the department study landscapes over a wide range of scales, from particle-scale sediment transport to the global evolution of planetary surfaces, utilizing a variety of methods including computational modeling, field studies, and experimental work. Examples of recent research projects include investigating the effects of floods and debris flows on stream channels; quantifying rates of sediment erosion and deposition in coastal wetlands; constraining fluvial modification on the surface of Mars to assess the planet’s potential for habitability; and using computational modeling to understand landscape evolution on the icy moons on Jupiter, Saturn, and other giant planets.
Within the Department there is a strong focus on the interactions between the Earth’s surface and its atmosphere. These efforts integrate hydrological, ecological, and meteorological principles to understand the exchange of water, heat, and trace gases between the land and the atmosphere. Much of the interest in these mass and energy fluxes centers on the nonlinear feedback effects between the surface and the atmosphere, and the resulting impacts to the biosphere and atmosphere.
Humans interact and alter each of the earth systems studied in the department. Researchers in the department collaborate across natural and social science disciplines to better understand the interactions between humans and the environment. Recent work in this area has focused on the environmental impacts of food production, including the development of a nitrogen footprint, possibilities for yield gap closure, and mapping the global virtual water and seafood trade networks. Additional social-environmental research aims to evaluate the effect of weather events on air quality and human health, assess the possibility of credits for carbon sequestration in sea grass beds, and understand the drivers and consequences of land use change in the tropics.