Courses of Study 2014-2015 
    Jun 24, 2024  
Courses of Study 2014-2015 [ARCHIVED CATALOG]

Science of Earth Systems: An Intercollege Major


Offered by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
2124 Snee Hall
(607) 255-5466

The Earth Sciences have never been more critical to society than they are today. Global warming, dwindling energy resources, inadequate water supplies, political strife  over strategic minerals, and megadisasters threatened by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunami, and hurricanes: these are but a few of the headlines that appear with increasing frequency. The Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell is a global leader in research directed toward understanding the fundamental processes that have shaped our planet, and is committed to providing Cornell students with the earth literacy needed to serve as informed citizens and wise stewards of the Earth. EAS faculty members and graduate students carry out frontier research on both basic and applied aspects of subjects as diverse as satellite monitoring of volcanic activity, the deep structure of the Andes Mountains and Tibetan Plateau, the nature of the earth’s ionosphere, ocean acoustics, controls on global climate, and improved weather prediction.

The Science of Earth Systems (SES) major is the undergraduate program offered by EAS to Cornell students in the College of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Students in this program can pursue education and research that prepares them to compete for careers or graduate study at leading institutions in this country and abroad. Students may chose to focus on one of a number of disciplinary specialties, such as geophysics or tectonics, or develop the broad expertise needed to understand the interactions between the diverse elements of earth and life in the past, present, and future. By analyzing the complex relations among  the ocean, solid earth, atmosphere, and biosphere, students can help meet society’s growing demand for energy, minerals, and clean water as well as contribute to  mitigating the negative impacts related to global warming, rising sea level, natural hazards, and decreasing biodiversity.

The SES program is intrinsically interdisciplinary, involving many branches of science and engineering. Examples of the latter include civil and environmental engineering, biological and environmental engineering, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and electrical and computer engineering. The SES program is unique in that it incorporates the fundamentals of Earth Science with the emergence of a new and more complete approach that encompasses all components of the earth system-air, life, rock, and water-to gain a new and more comprehensive understanding of the world as we know it.

To achieve a complete understanding of these important issues, students must have a desire to take a very hands-on approach. An abundance of opportunities exists for geological, oceanographic, and meteorological research in the field and for nationwide and international travel as well as paid research experience. Students have worked with faculty members in the Andes, the Aleutians, the Rocky Mountains, the Atacama Desert, the Caribbean, Tibet, and Hawaii, and have spent a semester at sea in the Woods Hole Ocean Studies Program. Students are also able to probe the ionosphere of Earth and the surface of Mars by utilizing techniques in remote sensing.

The SES major provides a strong preparation for graduate school in any one of the earth sciences, such as atmospheric sciences, geological sciences, geophysics, geochemistry, oceanography, hydrology, and biogeochemistry. Students seeking employment with the B.A. or B.S. degree will have many options in a wide variety of careers related to energy, the environment, and critical resources in both the private sector and government. Students with the strong science background provided by the SES major are also highly valued by graduate programs in environmental law, public affairs, economics, and public policy.

Requirements for the Major

1. Basic Math and Sciences

This part of the SES curriculum builds a strong and diverse knowledge of fundamental science and mathematics, providing the student with the basic tools needed in upper-level science classes.

a. At Least Two Semesters of Mathematics

e. One Advisor-Approved Course in Mathematics, Statistics, Computer Science, or Natural Science

 An advisor approved course in statistics or computer science, or an additional advisor-approved course in mathematics or natural science, including, but not limited to, a course in astronomy, a second course in biology, or an additional course in physics or chemistry.  Students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences must select a second course in biology.

2. Required Introductory Course

3. Science of Earth Systems Core Courses

The core courses emphasize the interconnectedness of the Earth system, and are founded on the most modern views of the planet as an interactive and ever-changing system.  Each crosses the traditional boundaries of disciplinary science. Students are required to select at least three courses from the following five core course options:

*Students who have completed the discontinued course EAS 3040 - [Interior of the Earth] may use it in place of one of these two options.

4. Concentration Courses

The concentration is achieved by completing four intermediate to advanced-level courses (3000-level and up) that build on the core courses and have prerequisites in the required basic sciences and mathematics courses. These courses must be approved by the student’s advisor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Note that additional basic mathematics and science courses may be required to complete the concentration courses, depending upon the student’s choice of concentration. The concentration courses build depth and provide the student with a specific expertise in some facet of earth system science. Four concentrations are defined for the major: atmospheric science, biogeochemistry, geological sciences, and ocean sciences. Other concentrations can be tailored to a student’s interest in consultation with the student’s advisor and upon approval of the SES curriculum committee. Examples include mathematical geosciences, geohydrology, and planetary science. The concentration should be chosen during the junior year or before in consultation with the student’s advisor and with the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

5. Field Experience

Exposure to the basic observations of earth science in the field is necessary to understand fully the chosen area of concentration in the major. A minimum of 3 credits of appropriate course work is required, although more experience with field work is encouraged. Possibilities include:

Field course options marked by an asterisk (*) require pre-approval by the faculty advisor and the SES Curriculum Committee. These courses/internships/REUs should require observations to be taken in the field and interpreted by the student. Field courses should generally require 40+ hours of active observation and data collection in the field. Students will be required to give a presentation on their field work when they return. Students using a non-credit research option for the field course requirement are required to complete an additional 3+ credits of EAS concentration courses.

Academic Standards

The criteria for good standing in the Science of Earth Systems major are as follows:

  • Semester GPA ≥ 2.0
  • Cumulative GPA ≥ 2.0
  • At least C- in all major required courses

Please note: students must take all major required courses for a letter grade.

Honors Program

An honors program is offered by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences for qualified students. Students interested in applying should contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies during the second semester of their junior year or very early in the first semester of their senior year.

Additional Information

Minor: Students may minor in Science of Earth Systems as well.

For more information about the major or minor, please contact Savannah Williams, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences,, or visit

Cornell University Field Program in Earth and Environmental Systems: Semester in Hawaii

Field study is a fundamental aspect of earth system science. Students wishing to increase their field experience may fulfill some of the requirements for the Science of Earth Systems major by off-campus study through the Cornell University Field Program in Earth and Environmental Systems (EES). The EES program, offered during the spring semester, emphasizes field-based education and research. It is based on the island of Hawaii, an outstanding natural laboratory for earth and environmental sciences. Courses that may be applied to the SES major include EAS 3220 , EAS 3400 , and EAS 3510 .  The EES program also offers opportunities for internships with various academic, nonprofit, and government organizations. Typically students participate in the EES program during their junior year, although exceptions are possible.