Courses of Study 2017-2018 
    May 27, 2022  
Courses of Study 2017-2018 [ARCHIVED CATALOG]

Science of Earth Systems

In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences .


Course Offerings  

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 mega-disasters 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, natural and man-made earthquakes, 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 choose to focus on one of a number of disciplinary specialties, such as geophysics or biogeochemistry, 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 exist 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.


R. W. Allmendinger, chair; G. A. Abers, W. D.  Allmon, T. R. Ault, L. D. Brown, L. M. Cathles, S. J. Colucci, A. T. DeGaetano, L. A. Derry, C. H. Greene, P.G. Hess, D. L. Hysell, T. E. Jordan, S. Mahlburg Kay, K. M. Keranen, R. B. Lohman, N. M. Mahowald, B. C. Monger, M. E. Pritchard, S. C. Pryor, S. J. Riha, J. F. H. Thompson, W. M. White, D. S. Wilks, M. W. Wysocki

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.

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 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 math 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 sciences, environmental geoscience, geological sciences, and ocean sciences. Other concentrations can be tailored to a student’s interests in consultation with the student’s advisor and upon approval of the SES curriculum committee. The concentration should be chosen before or during the junior year in consultation with the student’s advisor and with 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 the following:

  • Courses in SEA Semester
  • Field Courses offered at Shoals Marine Laboratory*
  • Field courses offered by another college or university*
  • Experience gained participating in field research with Cornell faculty (or REU at another institution)*
  • *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.
  • A minimum of 12 credit hours per semester.

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, contact Savannah Williams, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences,, or visit