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Why Study Earth Systems


The Earth Systems Program is an interdisciplinary environmental science major and coterminal masters program. Students learn about and independently investigate complex environmental problems caused by human activities in interaction with natural changes in the Earth system. They become skilled in those areas of science, economics, and policy needed to tackle the globe’s most pressing environmental problems, becoming part of a generation of scientists, professionals, and citizens who approach and solve problems in a systematic, interdisciplinary way.

Many of our most pressing and complicated environmental problems are caused by multiple and interacting human activities in combination with natural changes in the Earth system; thus, these problems often lie outside the scope of any single discipline. To understand them and develop viable solutions, they must be viewed in an integrated way. The Earth Systems Program provides the opportunity to understand the natural workings of the Earth system and how it responds to change. Given below through a series of questions and answers is an outline of knowledge and skills that you will gain in this major.

What are the fundamental components of the Earth system?

If we want to understand current environmental problems against the backdrop of natural change, what are the components that need to be understood? The Earth Systems Program includes courses that describe the natural workings of the physical and the biological components of Earth as well as courses that describe the human dimensions that lead to change in the Earth system and its components.

Training in the fundamentals comes through introductory coursework in geology, biology, and economics. Depending on the Earth Systems track you have chosen, your training may also include introductions to the study of the oceans, soils, microbiology, or energy systems. As you begin to question the role that humans play in affecting these systems, you will find that Programs and Departments at Stanford such as Urban Studies, Latin American Studies, Human Biology, Anthropology, Public Policy, and Political Science offer courses that approach this question from a variety of directions.

What are the critical system-level interactions in the Earth system, and how do they respond to anthropogenic change?

Given the backdrop of natural variation, and the ever-changing human influences, what are the fundamental interactions among the physical, biological, and human components of the system that must be understood in order to understand and solve environmental problems?

Several courses in your Earth Systems curriculum are designed to introduce you to the dynamic and multiple interactions that characterize global change problems. They include our introductory course, Introduction to Earth Systems, as well as Human Society and Environmental Change and Biology and Global Change.

Competence in understanding system-level interactions is critical to your development as an Earth Systems thinker, so additional classes that meet this objective are excellent choices as electives.

How do we recognize, quantify, and report change in the environment?

What are the key analytical and computational tools and measurement systems that offer insight into global and regional environmental change, and how are they used to identify change and develop solutions?

The test of your Earth Systems degree, post Stanford, will be your ability to recognize, quantity, describe, and help solve some of the complex problems that face our society. Through required breadth and foundation courses, and specific track classes you will build skills in these areas. For example, large-scale environmental change lends itself to assessment using the tools of satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems. Local or regional scale problems may be better addressed through field analysis. Training in each of these is either required or available and highly recommended. Quantification of problems affecting physical systems requires solid training in calculus, linear algebra, physics, chemistry, and statistics. Specialized training, such as in laboratory or field methods, may be necessary and is recommended.

Finally, having the ability to effectively communicate ideas and research results is extremely important. Whether you will be teaching young students, working with professionals and academics, or setting policy with lawyers and politicians, working together toward solutions to our environmental problems begins with common understanding of the issues. Several Earth Systems courses will help you to improve your ability to communicate complex concepts to expert and non-expert audiences alike.

How can we develop solutions to environmental problems that take into consideration natural processes as well as human needs?

How can human needs be met in a sustainable way, i.e. in a way that avoids damage to the life support system services that Earth provides for us? The Earth Systems Program provides opportunities to explore alternatives and build workable solutions to some of the major environmental issues and their causes. Happily, many courses at Stanford focus on solutions. A comprehensive list of environmental courses, and advice on those that focus on problem solving, is available in our Program office. The Earth Systems Program emphasizes the importance of workable solutions in several ways, including a required 9-unit internship and knowledge synthesis in the Senior Capstone and Reflection course.

Again, we welcome you to the Earth Systems major and to our community.