ITARS Uncategorized Earth Science: Understanding the Planet and Its Challenges

Earth Science: Understanding the Planet and Its Challenges

What is Earth Science?

Earth science is a diverse discipline that studies the planet’s structure, processes, and four billion years of biotic evolution. It combines techniques and knowledge from chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics to help us understand the natural world and develop solutions for environmental challenges.

Graduate students are encouraged to apply for fellowship funds that support field/laboratory research expenses. Scholarships are also available from departmental endowments and the KU Student Assistance Fund.

Environmental Science

Environmental science studies the composition, structure and evolution of the Earth’s air, water, and land. Its importance to humanity stems from the fact that our expanding world population requires ever-increasing resources, faces increasing losses from natural disasters and releases pollutants into the environment.

The study of environmental science or environmental studies, geology and physical geography involves many hands-on classes and labs; field trips; and practicum and research projects of a practical nature. KU’s unique Hawai’i location offers a variety of environmental experiences, from class trips to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, to boat labs on Kaneohe Bay and He’eia Stream or Kawainui Marsh. Faculty-led research takes students around the globe. Examples include studying water quality in Central Indiana, analyzing COVID-19 data from Antarctica and researching the geologic history of mountains in California.


Geology applies techniques and knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology, and math to understand Earth’s complex processes and history. It also teaches us to evaluate natural resources and develop solutions to environmental challenges that affect human life.

Geologic history is the scientific study of the order and sequence of rock layers, focusing on how older beds are layered upon younger ones. It is often based on fossils and uses the principles of stratigraphy. It also establishes a geologic time scale, with the ability to determine their relative age using geochemistry.

Geology can be divided into several areas of specialty. Economic geology studies the location and extraction of mineral resources that can be used for economic needs. Glaciology studies glaciers, including their structure, movement, and effects on climate, organisms, and the physical landscape.


The scientific study of the physics of the Earth, including its atmosphere and oceans. (American Heritage Dictionary, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

This branch of Earth science examines the underlying physical characteristics of geological structures and processes. It includes seismology and magnetism, and the physics of the Earth’s internal structure.

Geophysics is a vital part of the effort to address three of the world’s grand challenges – energy, water, and climate. It helps provide energy, improves the safety and efficiency of oil exploration, and makes better use of limited freshwater resources.

For example, geodesy gives us extremely precise measurements of the Earth’s gravity and orientation – critical for everything from measuring tectonic plate movement to monitoring changes in glaciers or soil erosion after a fire. And it provides the basis for our navigation and positioning systems.


The study of the atmospheric environment, including weather and climate. It includes topics like how air pressure varies with altitude, how air temperature changes in different regions of the Earth, and how water vapour and mass flow affect the atmosphere. It also looks at how long-term weather patterns change over time, with the study of climate (also known as climatology).

Students study the properties and characteristics of Earth materials, investigating a variety of mineral and rock samples and their relationships to each other. Students then explore the nutrient cycles, examining how important nutrients like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are recycled through Earth systems over long periods of time.

Honors courses offer students the opportunity to take on more rigorous assignments, such as research papers and extended collaborative laboratories. These courses prepare students for more advanced geology, meteorology, oceanography, and astronomy classes.


Earth science is an incredibly diverse field, with multiple subdisciplines that overlap. Scientists often know a lot about their particular area of expertise, but only by understanding the whole picture can they make sense of how it all fits together.

Physical oceanographers study the physical properties of the world’s oceans and seas, focusing on things like ocean temperature, density, waves, tides, currents, and their interactions with Earth’s atmosphere. Chemical oceanographers monitor the chemical composition of the ocean water to understand how it shapes the planet, and marine geologists focus on the study of the ocean floor.

Biological oceanographers study marine ecosystems, including fish, plants and animals. They often work with research animals and take trips into the ocean to perform different experiments or collect data.

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