Earth and Environmental Systems Institute continues to evolve

By Anne Danahy
March 04, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The year was 1987, and an article in the Daily Collegian highlighted a new, ground-breaking science center at Penn State.

The center’s director said that it had become clear that people were changing the Earth “on a global scale. And if we are really to understand what is occurring we have to understand how the earth system varies naturally and what to expect from some of the influences” people are having on it.

That was Eric Barron, then a newly hired associate professor at Penn State and head of the Earth System Science Center in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Now, nearly 27 years later, Barron is returning to Penn State as the University's 18th president, and ESSC is part of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, where faculty and researchers continue the tradition of pioneering research.

Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences, who started at Penn State as head of the Department of Geosciences in 1990, said that “ESSC was a heretical concept in a way — the first academic ‘earth system’-oriented research center.”

That unconventional approach has fostered collaboration across disciplines including geosciences, geography, meteorology and agriculture. Programs and research projects that didn’t fit neatly into one particular discipline were able to flourish.

The impact of climate change on glaciers in the Antarctic, and by extension, rising sea levels; the importance of wetlands; effective ways to measure greenhouse gas emissions; the potential for natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale and the best ways to assess the potential impacts on water quality; how climate change can affect wildfires; and the potential for finding other habitable planets are among the areas of research that continue in EESI today.

Break with tradition

The idea for the center, started under then-Dean Charles Hosler, was to bring together the experts on “earth’s systems.”

“That was a time when the government and academia were beginning to look at this as an entire system instead of stove pipes with small, separate pieces,” said John Dutton, EMS dean emeritus. “It was a new concept to take a holistic view, and look at how the oceans, land and atmosphere all interact and influence each other.”

Dutton, head of the Department of Meteorology in 1985, had been part of a committee that advised NASA on earth science research programs. About that time, NASA offered to sponsor earth science-related research, and from that came a grant that helped ESSC start as an interdepartmental unit in 1986.

“The traditional approach in the Earth Sciences has been to isolate the components — the atmosphere and ocean, the mantle, crust and the land surface, the sheets of ice and the terrestrial and oceanic chemical and biological subsystems,” read a 1985 piece by Dutton in the Earth and Mineral Sciences Bulletin, adapted from a committee report.

“We can no longer afford the simplicity of this approach, for it has become clear that these components have profound effects on each other across wide bands of time scales.”

Heinrich Holland, a visiting professor from Harvard and famous geochemist who has since passed away, served as the temporary director of ESSC while a search for a permanent director was undertaken.

“Dick Holland told me about a young man at the University of Miami. He said, ‘You ought to get him,’” Dutton recalled.

That, of course, was Barron, who took over the newly formed ESSC. Among the first faculty hired for ESSC were Lee Kump, head of the Department of Geosciences; James Kasting, now Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences; and Richard Alley, also an Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences.

“They saw that human impact on the environment was going to be an issue for many years to come, and they worked to take advantage of the strengths here,” Kasting said of the creation of ESSC.

Barron also had the vision to bring in experts to set up computing systems that would allow for the high-tech computer numerical modeling key to climate and planetary science research, Kasting said.

In April 1988, the Department of Geosciences celebrated its 75th anniversary. In the edition of the college’s Bulletin that marked that anniversary, Barron wrote about the new center’s areas of research focus.

“We are well on the way to achieving a new view of the Earth as a global interacting system,” he concluded.

Pioneering research continues at Environment Institute, EESI

“Climate change, violent storms, volcanoes, urban sprawl and global warming will be some of the areas covered by the newly established Environment Institute,” read an article in the University’s internal news publication, Intercom, in 1998.

EMS formed the Environment Institute to be led by Barron and to include the original ESSC along with the Center for Integrated Regional Assessment. By then, ESSC had 30 associate professors and 12 research faculty.

Alley said Barron was one of the leaders in the field.

“Eric’s research was pioneering in looking at the history of Earth’s climate, why it changed and what those changes meant,” he said. “This has been part of a huge transformation in the geological sciences.”

Barron teamed up to work with leading climate modelers, including David Pollard, now a senior research associate in EESI, to generate and test hypotheses about historic patterns in the Earth’s climate that were being observed.

“By testing hypotheses generated from the data against the models, and using the results to guide new measurements and observations in the data realm, Eric, collaborators and others working at that time moved much of ‘historical’ geology into a new realm of relevance,” Alley said. “The biggest of the many results emerging from this line of research is that changing CO2 is very important for climate.”

In 2002, Barron became dean of the college, succeeding Dutton when he retired. An Intercom article about Barron’s appointment noted that the Environment Institute was “designed to act as a catalyst for the college and University in environmental research, provide leadership in new areas of innovative and interdisciplinary research and education, and develop initiatives or centers that focus on compelling scientific, social and engineering issues, and problems that require varied expertise.”

In April of the following year, Susan Brantley took over as director of the Environment Institute, which became known as EESI — the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute — in 2004 to reflect its continually growing role. Since then, the faculty, researchers and graduate students in EESI continue to lead the way in fields from the behavior of fires in the Amazon to trailblazing work on how ice behaves in the Antarctic.

“Eric Barron had a real vision when he led a research center that took an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the changes happening on Earth and the role people have in them,” Brantley said. “We continue to build on that model — looking for innovative approaches to science and education by looking at the entire Earth system.”

Last Updated March 21, 2014