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12/26/91

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Earth sciences' next century

By the turn of the 21st century, the School of Earth Sciences will be:

  • Studying the earth in a new way - as a global system, where geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere interact.
  • Enlarged, diversified, and addressing a broadened range of basic and applied fields in the geosciences.
  • A central part of a network of interdisciplinary studies with bridges beyond the school and even beyond the university.
  • A leader in reversing the nationwide trend of declining enrollment in undergraduate earth science classes, attracting students by preparing them to work on the challenges of global change.

This is the vision outlined in "Planning for the Next Century," submitted last spring to Provost James N. Rosse by Dean Gary Ernst and a committee of eight faculty members.

At the end of a year of budget crisis for the university, however, Ernst admits there are some immediate roadblocks to that vision.

As its contribution to reduce Stanford's deficit, the School of Earth Sciences is targeted for operating budget reductions of 7.9 percent over the next two years - a cut of $400,000 per year. A further structural deficit within the school itself has been growing, because parts of endowments that are restricted to investment in oil stocks have generated less income than expected. The result is a total deficit close to 16 percent.

"That's the serious problem we face," Ernst said. "How can we cut way back and still address a future that is replete with opportunities?"

To Ernst the opportunities are tantalizingly close, and the funds needed are attainable - once the school completes what he said will be "draconian measures" to cut the deficit. The school will have to attract outside funding for new programs, he said, but expansion also will come from creative collaboration with the talent and resources in other departments and institutions.

He sees Stanford as a potential leader in the new field of global earth studies, where the intellectual challenges are great and the results may have local, national and global benefit.

"Everything other than sunlight that sustains life comes from our planet," he said. "We have to utilize it wisely, but the problem is that we don't understand in any real detail how the planet functions. This is a high-priority problem, and it never will be solved totally; how can it? With more and more population, we never will achieve equilibrium with the environment, because the problem will evolve over time."

Earth scientists are the logical choice to tackle such problems, he said, "because we're used to spreading across the disciplines. People in the earth sciences have to be biologists, paleontologists; they have to be oceanographers. They have to understand about ancient climates, about volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, all the hazards and all the materials we use that come from the planet."

Opportunities

"We recognize this as a great opportunity right now for us to attack," Ernst said.

The faculty already have begun to look at the Earth from a global perspective, and Ernst envisions expansion in fields like these:

  • Studies of global interactions. The 1991-92 academic year marks the beginning of an undergraduate program in "earth systems" and a graduate program in "global change."

Earth systems draws on a wide range of consulting faculty, from biologists to engineers, both within and outside Stanford. Global change, funded partly by NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, will focus on carbon dioxide cycles, and on interactions of living things with the atmosphere, oceans and the surface of the planet. Eventually, the school may found a new department devoted to studies of global change.

  • Studies of fluids in the earth's crust. "Water is one of the limits of growth," Ernst said. Stanford scientists have done substantial work in the field of hydrogeology, (see story p. 3) showing how to protect and preserve underground water resources. Plans call for collaboration with water resources experts on the civil engineering faculty, and eventually a Center for Crustal Fluids with world-class expertise in this expanding field.
  • Isotope geochemistry. Studies of the history of the Earth - including previous episodes of global change - depend on state-of-the-art organic and inorganic research with isotopes. In the near future, Stanford geochemists currently working in this field will team with those from the nearby U.S. Geological Survey to form a Center for Ion Probe Analysis.
  • Geologic hazards. This is not strictly an academic matter at Stanford, where the chances are two in three of a major (7.0 or greater) earthquake within the next 30 years. Stanford studies of the processes that drive volcanoes, landslides and earthquakes also will be essential to the countries of the Pacific Rim.
  • Optimizing use of limited resources. This long has been a concern of Stanford's petroleum engineers. (See story p. 2)
  • Studies of the Earth from space, and comparisons with other planets. "Space and planetary sciences are on the school's wish list as long-term objectives," Ernst said. "Part of the future of earth sciences is tied to remote sensing from space platforms (see story p. 3) Instead of trying to launch into space on our own, we will participate in the ongoing space program as it unfolds at Stanford."

Undergraduate education

In their Plan for the Year 2000, Ernst and his colleagues also outlined strategies to take the school's undergraduate education into the next century. Nationwide, undergraduate enrollment has been declining, partly because one traditional career path - the oil industry - has suffered a decade of hard times.

Meanwhile, jobs are going unfilled in at least one environment- related field - hydrogeology - and Ernst predicts more manpower shortages in earth scientists trained to address the planet's problems. Society's need for mineral and energy resources worldwide will not diminish, but the same skills that can find minerals and oil are more and more being used to learn how to mitigate past damage and prevent adverse environmental impacts.

To attract the next generation of earth scientists, the committee plans to develop the undergrad earth systems program, and add new courses and opportunities for hands-on learning to get students involved in the intriguing puzzles to be solved in the field and the lab.

They also plan to appoint new faculty with expertise in the atmosphere and oceans, and to enrich students' education by collaborations with biologists, engineers and space scientists.

How to pay for expansion

The members of the "Plan for the Next Century" committee were Professors Amos Nur, Andre Journel, Khalid Aziz, Gordon Brown, Gail Mahood, Irwin Remson, James Ingle and Marco Einaudi.

Planning last spring - before the depth of the budget crunch became clear - they estimated that the school's research and instructional initiatives would require endowment for seven additional faculty members, five or more research faculty, and six to 10 technical support personnel.

In addition to salaries and benefits, they estimated that $500,000 per year would be needed to provide matching funds for instrumentation.

How will the school pay for expansion?

"To do this kind of work we need enough resources to make substantial progress. If all you have is chewing gum and baling wire, you're not going to get very far," Ernst said.

"It's not a good time to ask the university for those funds. We will have to go out and forage for ourselves."

Ernst said the school will be able to attract outside support because it can demonstrate that it is building for the future - with the new Green Research building and the refurbished Geology Corner, for example.

Also, he said, the school can strengthen current disciplines and branch out to non-traditional ones "with the present faculty and students we have, even though it's much broader than our own capabilities."

"This is because the surrounding community has so much capacity," Ernst said. "NASA Ames, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Electric Power Research Institute, Hopkins Marine Station . . . you name it."

Ernst said he hoped to build bridges to biologists and civil engineers, economists and political scientists, to build a loose confederation of expertise at Stanford and beyond. And he expressed optimism - no, confidence - about the challenges ahead.

"We have many things on our plate, things we can and should be doing," Ernst said. "It's wonderful to be an earth scientist in this time of intellectual challenge, with programs that relate to genuine needs."

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