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Earth Science

The following information is from the 2016-17 Vassar College Catalogue.

Earth Science: I. Introductory

100 Earth Resource Challenges 1

(Same as ESSC 100, ENST 100, and GEOG 100) This course combines the insights of the natural and social sciences to address a topic of societal concern. Geographers bring spatial analysis of human environmental change, while Earth scientists contribute their knowledge of the diverse natural processes shaping the Earth's surface. Together, these distinctive yet complementary fields contribute to comprehensive understandings of the physical limitations and potentials, uses and misuses of the Earth's natural resources. Each year the topic of the course changes to focus on selected resource problems facing societies and environments around the world. When this course is team-taught by faculty from Earth Science and Geography, it serves as an introduction to both disciplines.

Open only to freshmen; satisfies college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

101 Geohazards 0.5

Geohazards explores the geological and societal causes of death and destruction by earthquakes, landslides, floods, volcanoes, storms, and avalanches around the world. Students explore basic earth processes and learn how the Earth and its inhabitants interact in dangerous ways because people repeatedly fail to appreciate Earth's power. Jill Schneiderman.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods during the first six weeks of the semester.

107 Field Geology of the Hudson Valley 0.5

Experience 1.5 billion years of Hudson Valley geologic history from some of the classic vantage points in the region. Field trips to high points such as Breakneck Ridge, Brace Mountain, Bonticou Crag, and Overlook Mountain are supplemented by lectures and readings on the geologic history and the history of geologic studies in the valley. Jeffrey Walker.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Six-week course.Two 75-minute periods and one 4-hour laboratory.

109 Hot Topics in Earth Science and the Media 1

From fracking to mountaintop removal, BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, invasive species and their impacts on native ecology, and global warming, geology and related ecologic processes have been major topics in the news lately. This course examines the science behind different natural processes and phenomena (e.g. How do coal beds form? What makes a particular stratigraphic level potentially valuable for hydraulic fracturing? What do we know about responding to oil spills? What does the paleontological record tell us about species invasions?) and also examines media portrayals of these hot-topic issues. Students gain a deeper understanding of the scientific community's knowledge on these issues and develop the ability to assess whether or not media coverage is fair and accurate. We also discuss how science itself is portrayed in the media and the importance of accurate and accessible scientific communication. 

Open only to freshmen; satisfies the college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

111 Science and Justice in the Anthropocene 1

(Same as GEOG 111 and STS 111) Geoscientists have proposed a new designation in the geologic time scale for our current time period, "the Anthropocene." The designation reflects the fact that human beings are acting as geological agents, transforming the Earth on a global scale. In this freshman seminar course we explore the possibilities of reconfiguring the actions of humans in the Anthropocene so as to lead to a flowering of a new Era once called 'the Ecozoic' by cultural historian Thomas Berry. Jill Schneiderman.

Open to freshmen only; satisfies college requirement for a Freshman Writing Seminar.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

135 Volcanoes and Civilization 1

Few natural phenomena are more spectacular than a volcanic eruption. Volcanoes have been an important part of human culture throughout history whether in legends or in actual events. Through accounts of volcanic events, such as Plato's account of the legend of Atlantis, recent scientific analysis of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, or news media coverage of current eruptions, this course studies the role volcanoes have played in society as it traces the historical development of volcanological study using sources such as classical literature, nineteenth century treatises in natural science, modern scientific journals, and the popular media. Jeffrey Walker.

An optional field trip to an active volcano is possible.

Two 75-minute periods.

151a and b. Earth, Environment, and Humanity 1

(Same as GEOG 151) Catastrophic events such as hurricanes and tsunamis and the specter of global climate change affirm the centrality of Earth Science in a well-rounded liberal arts education. This course explores three intertwined questions: 1) How do Earth's different systems (lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere) function and interact to create the environment we live in? 2) What are the causes of, and how can we protect ourselves from, geologic hazards such as earthquakes, flooding, and landslides? 3) How are human activities modifying the environment through changes to the composition of the atmosphere, biogeochemical cycles, and soil erosion, among other factors? While serving as an introduction to the Earth Science major, this course emphasizes those aspects of the science that everyone should know to make informed decisions such as where and where not to buy a house, whether to support the construction of an underground nuclear waste repository, and how to live more lightly upon the Earth. The department.

Several lab exercises take place in the field. Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period.

198a or b. Special Projects in Earth Science 0.5 or 1

Execution and analysis of field, laboratory, or library study. Project to be arranged with individual instructor. The department.

Open to first-year students and sophomores only.

Earth Science: II. Intermediate

201b. Earth Materials: Minerals and Rocks 1

The earth is made up of many different materials, including minerals, rocks, soils, and ions in solution, which represent the same atoms recycled continually by geological and biogeochemical cycles. This course takes a holistic view of the earth in terms of the processes leading to the formation of different materials. The class involves study in the field as well as in the laboratory using hand specimen identification along with the optical microscope and X-ray diffractometer. Jeffrey Walker.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151 or permission of the instructor.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period.

203b. Earth History 1

In this course we study the methods and principles employed in deciphering the geologic history of Earth and the development of life on the planet. We emphasize the geologic evolution of the North American continent and the main features of the fossil record. Students learn to recognize the patterns of both biologic and tectonic evolution of Earth through time, from the Archean to the present. Woven throughout the course is consideration of the history of geologic thought through examination of the ideas of James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wegener. Jill Schneiderman.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory.

211 Sedimentology 1

Sediments and sedimentary rocks preserve information about the rocks that were eroded to form them, the fluids and forces that transported them, the mechanisms by which they were deposited, and the processes by which they were lithified. This course introduces the principles of sedimentology, including sediment composition, fluid mechanics, bedform analysis, and depositional environments.
 

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory.

220a. Cartography: Making Maps with GIS 1

(Same as GEOG 220) Cartography, the science and art of map-making, is integral to the geographer's craft. This course uses GIS to make thematic maps and to acquire and present data, including data fitting students' individual interests. In addition, we explore the culture, politics, and technology of historic cartography, and we examine techniques in using maps as rhetoric and as political tools. Throughout the course, we focus on issues of clear, efficient, and intentional communication through graphic presentation of data. Thus, the course integrates problems of graphic design and aesthetics with strategies of manipulating quantitative data. ArcGIS is used in labs for map production and data analysis. Mary Ann Cunningham.

Prerequisite(s): one 100-level Geography or Earth Science course, or permission of the instructor.

Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Two 75-minute periods; one 2-hour laboratory.

221 Soils 1

(Same as GEOG 221) Soils form an important interface between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. As such, they are critical to understanding the functioning of ecosystems. This course studies soil formation, and the physical and chemical properties of soils critical to the understanding of natural and constructed ecosystems. Field trips and laboratory work focus on the description and interpretation of local soils. Jeffrey Walker.

Prerequisite(s): one introductory course in Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science; or ENST 124.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period.

224b. GIS: Spatial Analysis 1

(Same as GEOG 224) Geographic information systems (GIS) are increasingly important and widespread packages for manipulating and presenting spatial data. While this course uses ArcGIS, the same software as Cartography, the primary focus here is spatial analysis (calculating patterns and relationships), rather than map design for data visualization. We explore a variety of techniques for answering questions with spatial data, including overlay, map algebra (math using multiple input layers), hydrologic modeling, surface interpolation, and site selection. Issues of data collection through remote sensing and sampling are addressed. GIS involves a more rapid introduction to the software than Cartography does; it is useful to take both Cartography and GIS (preferably in that order) to gain a more complete understanding of spatial data analysis and manipulation. Neil Curri.

Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Two 75-minute periods; one 2-hour laboratory.

231b. Geomorphology: Surface Processes and Evolution of Landforms 1

(Same as GEOG 231) Quantitative study of the physical, chemical, and biological processes that create Earth's many landforms. Topics include weathering and erosion, landsliding and debris flows, sediment transport by rivers and glaciers, the role of climate in landscape modification, and the use of landforms to document earthquake hazards. Lab exercises emphasize fundamental skills in geomorphologic analysis such as mapping, surveying, interpretation of aerial photography, and use of Geographic Information Systems software. Kirsten Menking.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151 or permission of the instructor.

Satisfies college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period. An overnight weekend field trip may be required.

235 Water 1

(Same as GEOG 235) Sixty to seventy percent of Dutchess County residents depend on groundwater supplies to meet their daily needs. Industrial pollution and road salt have contaminated many of these supplies, spawning legal actions and requiring costly remediation. Ensuring adequate and safe groundwater supplies for humans and ecosystems requires extensive knowledge of the hydrologic cycle and of how contaminants may be introduced into water resources. We explore how rainfall and snowmelt infiltrate into soils and bedrock to become part of the groundwater system, learn what factors govern subsurface flow, and discuss the concept of well-head protection, which seeks to protect groundwater recharge areas from contamination. Using Vassar's teaching well at the field station we perform a number of experiments to assess aquifer properties, water chemistry, and presence of microbial contaminants. Comfort with basic algebra and trigonometry is expected. Kirsten Menking.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151, ENST 124, or permission of the instructor.

Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period.

251 Global Geophysics and Tectonics 1

What can physics and simple math tell us about the earth? By utilizing an array of techniques, geophysicists gain an understanding of the processes that shape our planet. Reflection and earthquake seismology give us insight into deep earth structure, plate tectonic mechanisms, mountain building, basin formation, and hazard mitigation. Variations in the earth's gravitational field yield information on density contrasts beneath the surface, from the scale of mountain ranges to buried artifacts. Heat flow variations are useful in determining regional subsurface thermal structure, fluid advection, and climate variation. Laboratories are designed to use the skills required in most geology related fields. They involve the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) software, and construction of simple computer models. 

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151 or ESCI 121   .

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory.

254 Environmental Science in the Field 1

(Same as BIOL 254 and ENST 254) The environment consists of complex and often elegant interactions between various constituents so that an interdisciplinary approach is required to understand how human interactions may affect it. In this course, we study a variety of aspects of a specific environment by considering how biological, chemical, geological, and human factors interact. We observe these interactions first hand during a weeklong field trip. Some of the questions we may consider are: How does a coral polyp create an environment that not only suits its particular species, but also helps regulate the global climate? How has human development and associated water demands in the desert Southwest changed the landscape, fire ecology, and even estuary and fisheries' health as far away as the Gulf of California? How have a variety of species (humans included) managed to survive on an island with the harsh environment of the exposed mid-ocean ridge of Iceland? The course is offered every other year, and topics vary with expertise of the faculty teaching the course. Kirsten Menking and Mark Schlessman.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.

260 Conservation of Natural Resources 1

(Same as GEOG 260) Natural resources are perennially at the center of debates on sustainability, planning, land development, and environmental policy. The ways we conceptualize resources can be as important to understanding these issues as their actual distributions are. This course provides a geographic perspective on natural resource conservation, using local examples to provide deeper experience with resource debates. We focus particularly on forest resources: biodiversity, forest health, timber resources, forest policy, and the ways people have struggled to make a living in forested ecosystems. We discuss these issues on a global scale (such as tropical timber piracy and forest conversion), and we explore them locally in the Adirondacks of New York. This course requires that students spend October Break on a group study trip in the Adirondacks. Students must be willing to spend long, cold days outside, including some strenuous physical activity (unless special permission is arranged with the instructor). Mary Ann Cunningham.

Students wishing to register under Earth Science must have had at least one previous earth science course.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

271 Structural Geology: Deformation of the Earth 1

Structural geology explores the deformation of Earth's crust caused by the movement of its tectonic plates and the resulting structures that are produced at scales ranging from the microscopic to the mountainous. It underpins the oil and gas industry and mining because fossil fuels and precious metals are commonly associated with folds and faults. It is also important in earthquake and landslide hazard prediction. Lab exercises emphasize the fundamentals of geologic mapping, how to use geometric principles to predict what lies in the subsurface from surface observations, and how rocks behave under varying conditions of stress. Many exercises occur in the field. Kirsten Menking.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 151 or permission of the instructor.

Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods; one 4-hour laboratory/field period. An overnight weekend field trip may be required.

275 Paleontology and the Fossil Record 1

(Same as BIOL 275) Paleontology isn't just a "dead science"- by studying processes that have occurred in the past, we can deepen our understanding of the current biota inhabiting the Earth. Conversely, by studying the modern distribution of organisms and the environmental, taphonomic, and ecological processes that impact their distribution and preservation, we can enhance our understanding of the processes that have controlled the formation and distribution of fossils through time. In this course, we explore the methodology used to interpret the fossil record, including preservational biases and how we account for them when studying fossil taxa. We also explore large-scale ecological changes and evolutionary processes and discuss how they manifest across geologic time, and how these relate to Earth's changing fauna. We additionally learn about how paleontology has developed as a field in the context of different historical and social perspectives. Lab exercises focus on applying paleontological methods to a variety of different fossil and recent samples. 

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods and one 4-hour laboratory period.

277 Biogeochemistry 1

As the name implies, biogeochemistry focuses on the living world (bio), the geology of the earth (geo) and the interaction of biology and geology on the chemistry of our planet. This course focuses on the biological influences on important geochemical transformations, and how biological systems, underlain by different geologies, affect measurable chemical attributes important to life. The course also covers human influences on biogeochemical cycles. Impacts addressed include the effects of atmospheric deposition (pollution), changes in land use history and how climate change influences biogeochemistry. Lynn Christenson.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods, and one 4-hour laboratory.

290a or b. Field Work 0.5 to 1

297 Readings in Earth Science 0.5

Contemplating Time. Deep time, the concept of geologic time recognized by Persian polymath Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo in the 11th century and developed further by James Hutton during the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment, has been called the single greatest contribution of geology to science. The concept provides a critical link between earth science and environmental change. Using reading and reflection, the aim of this course is to help students develop a feeling for the enormity of Earth's duration in relation to human life spans. Students contemplate the nature of time from geoscientific, religious, and literary perspectives. Reading works by Loren C. Eiseley, Mircea Eliade, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Jay Gould, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shunryu Suzuki, and Elie Wiesel, among others, we consider subjects such as the two great metaphors of time, arrows and cycles, in relation to natural and anthropogenic environmental change. The class meets weekly for contemplative practice and is suitable for students at any level. Jill Schneiderman.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.

Not offered in 2016/17.

298a or b. Independent Work 0.5 to 1

Execution and analysis of a field, laboratory or library study. The project, to be arranged with an individual instructor, is expected to have a substantial paper as its final product. The department.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.

Earth Science: III. Advanced

300a. Senior Research and Thesis 0.5

Critical analysis, usually through observation or experimentation, of a specific research problem in earth science. A student electing this course must first gain, by submission of a written research proposal, the support of a member of the earth science faculty with whom to work out details of a research protocol. The formal research proposal and a final paper and presentation of results are required parts of the course. A second faculty member participates in the final evaluation. The department.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.

Yearlong course 300-ESCI 301.

301b. Senior Research and Thesis 0.5

Critical analysis, usually through observation or experimentation, of a specific research problem in earth science. A student electing this course must first gain, by submission of a written research proposal, the support of a member of the earth science faculty with whom to work out details of a research protocol. The formal research proposal and a final paper and presentation of results are required parts of the course. A second faculty member participates in the final evaluation. The department.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.

Yearlong course ESCI 300-301.

321 Environmental Geology 1

This course explores the fundamental geochemical processes that affect the fate and transport of inorganic and organic pollutants in the terrestrial environment. We link the effects of these processes on pollutant bioavailability, remediation, and ecotoxicology. The department.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 201, or CHEM 108/CHEM 109.

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 4-hour period/laboratory/field session.

323 History of Geological Thought: 1690-1980 1

(Same as STS 323) In this course we examine the historical context and scientific ideas put forth by natural philosophers and scientists including Thomas Burnet, Nicolas Steno, James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wegener, Marie Tharp, Bruce Heezen, Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, James Lovelock and Walter Alvarez. Topics of study include geologic time, continental drift and plate tectonics, evolution and punctuated equilibrium, Gaia, and bolide impacts. Jill Schneiderman.

Prerequisite(s): Must be a science or Science, Technology, and Society major at the junior or senior level, or by permission of the instructor.

Not offered in 2016/17.

Two 75-minute periods.

335 Paleoclimatology: Earth's History of Climate Change 1

(Same as ENST 335) In recent decades, record high temperatures and extreme weather events have led scientists and policy makers to grapple with the fact that human activities are affecting the climate system. At the same time, scientists have come to realize that climate is capable of dramatic shifts in the absence of human intervention. The science of paleoclimatology seeks to understand the extent and causes of natural climatic variability in order to establish the baseline on top of which anthropogenic changes are occurring. In this course we examine the structure and properties of the oceans and atmosphere and how the general circulation of these systems redistributes heat throughout the globe; study how cycles in Earth's orbital parameters, plate tectonics, changes in ocean circulation, and the evolution of plants have affected climate; and explore the different lines of evidence used to reconstruct climate history. Weekly laboratory projects introduce students to paleoclimatic methods and to records of climatic change from the Paleozoic through the Little Ice Age. Kirsten Menking.

Prerequisite(s): 200-level work in Earth Science or permission of the instructor.

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 4-hour classroom/laboratory/field period.

340b. Advanced Urban and Regional Studies 1

(Same as ENST 340 and GEOG 340) Topic for 2016/17b: Arctic Environmental Change. Arctic environments define a geographic region that is important to understand both in terms of its distinctive biogeographic patterns and functions and because it is subject to some of the most dramatic and far-reaching environmental consequences associated with climate change. This course examines the biogeographic and climate patterns of the region to understand how it contributes to global biodiversity, and why it contributes disproportionately to the regulation and change of the earth's climate system. What characteristics define these environments and make them especially vulnerable to positive feedbacks in a changing climate? How might climate changes alter the distribution of plants and animals in the region? How do environmental changes at high latitudes influence the global climate system? We examine current literature and data, including reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to explore these questions about ongoing and anticipated environmental change in arctic regions. Some background in understanding earth systems or climate change is helpful. Mary Ann Cunningham.

One 3-hour period.

351b. Volcanology 1

Volcanoes are an important window into the workings of the earth's interior. They are also spectacular landscape features: serene in repose, and often violent in eruption. This course addresses the physical aspects of volcanoes, including such topics as the generation of magmas, styles of eruptions, products of eruptions, tectonic controls on the formation of volcanoes, and methods for predicting eruptions and mitigating the hazards associated with volcanic activity. An optional field trip to an active volcano is possible. Jeffrey Walker.

Prerequisite(s): ESCI 201.

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 4-hour period.

361 Modeling the Earth 1

(Same as ENST 361) Computer models are powerful tools in the Earth and Environmental Sciences for generating and testing hypotheses about how the Earth system functions and for allowing simulation of processes in places inaccessible to humans (e.g., Earth's deep interior), too slow to permit observation (e.g., erosion driven uplift of mountains ranges), or too large to facilitate construction of physical models (e.g., Earth's climate system). Taking readings from the scientific literature, we create and then perform experiments with simple computer models, using the STELLA iconographic box-modeling software package. Topics include the global phosphorus cycle, Earth's radiative balance with the sun and resulting temperature, the flow of ice in glaciers, and the role of life in moderating Earth's climate. Toward the end of the semester, students apply the skills they have acquired to a modeling project of their own devising. Kirsten Menking.

Prerequisite(s): one 200-level course in the natural sciences.

Satisfies the college requirement for quantitative reasoning.

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 4-hour classroom/laboratory period.

379 Conservation Paleobiology 1

Humans currently and pervasively impact many (if not all) of Earth's ecosystems. Two major challenges in modern conservation efforts are our lack of a well-defined baseline for pre-disturbance ecological conditions and an incomplete understanding of the natural range of variability for different systems. This discussion based course explores how paleontological data in both terrestrial and marine environments (e.g., varved lake deposits, rodent middens, marine fossil deposits, and archaeological material) can be used to help set restoration targets and inform conservation practices by filling in these knowledge gaps. We also gain experience interpreting geohistorical data, and discuss several specific case studies where the geologic record has been utilized to inform conservation planning. By the end of the course, students are aware of the range of different types of information that can be gathered from the geohistorical record (such as burn regimes and climate records, as well as inferences about paleo-diets and changing environmental conditions), the unique contributions of this record to increasing understanding of current conservation issues, and the impacts that humans have on ecosystems. Students additionally complete a semester term paper on how geohistorical records could be applied to mitigate a conservation problem, and present their findings and suggestions to the class. 

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 3-hour period.

383 Extinction Events in Earth's History 1

This seminar course uses selected readings from the scientific literature to cover the major extinction events in Earth's history. The introduction to the course focuses on a brief overview of geologic time, fossilization, key fossil groups, and diversity estimates. Special emphasis is placed on the modern extinction event in the last quarter of the semester. Each week students are required to read 1-2 papers, answer provided questions, and participate in group discussions. A required final project is a short oral presentation on an organism currently facing extinction. David Moss.

One 3-hour period.

385 Stable Isotopes in the Earth and Environmental Sciences 1

Stable isotopes are fundamental tools used in the Earth and Environmental Sciences to investigate past climates, track animal migration routes, unravel food webs, and study the origins of life on Earth, among other applications. This course highlights the uses of stable isotopes in ecological, climatic, environmental, and geological studies and also discusses the limitations and scientific abuses of these tools. Students learn the fundamentals of stable isotope biogeochemistry, including the differences between stable and radiogenic isotopes and the processes that fractionate (separate) common stable isotopes among different biogeochemical reservoirs. Readings derive from the primary literature and are adjusted to cover topics of interest to students. Potential topics include, but are not limited to, biogeochemical cycling, uplift of mountain ranges, paleodiets of fossil organisms, and climate change.

Prerequisite(s): One 100-level earth science or chemistry course.

Not offered in 2016/17.

One 4-hour period.

399a or b. Senior Independent Work 0.5 to 1

Execution and analysis of a field, laboratory, or library study. The project, to be arranged with an individual instructor, is expected to have a substantial paper as its final product. The department.

Prerequisite(s): permission of the instructor.