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Environmental Science Research

Departmental research in Environmental Science includes environmental remote sensing, hydrology, environmental geophysics, estuarine processes, and global climate change.

Quantitative modeling of remote sensing data is being used to study environmental change and the impacts of anthropogenic stress. Watershed hydrology involves the integration of computer models with ground truth field studies of watersheds, and includes studies of the active role that groundwater plays in short term and long term stream flow generation. Environmental geophysics projects investigate groundwater, geoengineering and various environmental problems through the application of non-invasive field techniques such as ground penetrating radar, seismic, gravity, electromagnetic, resistivity and magnetic methods. Environmental Geochemistry projects include analysis of sources and rate of contaminants. Faculty are pursuing links between circulation and flushing of estuaries, history of saltwater flooding, sea level rise, and development of salt marshes as an environmental record of the progression of storm impacts, land use and nutrient changes. Global climate initiatives include testing the ability of global climate models to reconstruct past marine and terrestrial environments, and estimating and evaluating tropical sea surface temperature variability.

For more information about Brown University's Environmental Sciences Center, please click to this site:

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Remote Sensing

The strengths of remote sensing are its broad areal coverage, high frequency of observations, spatially explicit data, and quantitative measurements. Laboratory studies and field investigations using portable spectrometers are being used to develop a quantitative understanding of the physics of remote sensing and to develop the next generation of information-extraction algorithms. Applications of remotely sensed data on spatial and temporal scales include estuarine and coastal ocean dynamics of thermal effluent, timing and nature of algal and phytoplankton blooms, and response of semi-arid regions to anthropogenic environmental stress.

Some links with additional information on remote sensing research and affiliations with Brown University:

Remote Sensing Links

Small business looks at the big picture – taken from space

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Watershed Hydrology

Stream flow, precipitation and well data, along with the results from non-invasive geophysical studies, are being used to understand the hydrologic variables that affect the dynamics of watersheds.

Studies in the northeastern United States attempt to trace the migration of water in space and time throughout the watershed from its initial precipitation to partitioning among groundwater, stream flow, and evapotranspiration, as well as transport into estuaries. Hydrologic topics being addressed include stream system response to storm and drought events, aquifer extraction limits for public use, ground water supply safety, and contaminant migration through the system.

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Estuary Ecosystems

Coastal watersheds and estuaries are complex, highly interlinked, dynamic ecosystems. The great temporal and spatial variability of the processes in these systems makes them ideal for field studies designed to explore the patterns and causes of natural environmental change.

This variability also complicates the identification and quantification of societal impacts on these systems. Time scales can vary: tidal flushing (hourly), storm events (hours to weeks), spring/neap tidal responses (weeks to months), seasonal and interannual responses. Remote sensing and hydrologic studies of the watersheds and estuaries can be coordinated to build an integrated understanding of systems. Research is also underway to use sediment cores from coastal marshes and inland lakes to delineate hurricane overwash deposits and forest damage in southern New England during the last 350 years. Pollen and sedimentary evidence are being used to help identify hurricanes in prehistoric times. Increased tidal flooding which occurred between 100-150 years ago indicates an acceleration of the rate of sea level rise in southeastern New England during that period.

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Global Climate Change

Interdisciplinary research into global environmental change focuses on the dynamics of global change on all time scales, ranging from tens to millions of years in a wide variety of locations. Research on the stratigraphic record is needed to understand the variability and evolution of the Cenozoic ocean, atmosphere, and cryosphere. The Earth System History group is developing quantitative global data sets (such as the spatial and temporal variability of plankton, pollen, lake-levels, and stable isotopes) which are relevant to reconstructing and understanding the processes and mechanisms of global environmental change. The responses of faunal and floral communities and geochemical indices to environmental change are being tested with climate models to reconstruct past and potential future environments.

Dr. Steve Clemens conducts a field course

Research topics include: processes which transform changes in the Earth’s orbitally-induced pattern of solar radiation into climate change on time scales of 1000’s to 100,000’s of years; relationships between tectonic uplift, evolution and intensity of monsoonal circulation, weathering and sequestering of carbon and atmospheric CO2; history and causes of large scale changes in vegetation communities in the eastern North America during the past 18,000 years; development and testing of paleoceanographic proxies; and initiation and testing of climate and ocean model simulations of past environments.

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Marine Biological Lab (Woods Hole, MA)

The Joint Program between Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole (MBL) prepares young scholars to lead the nation and the world in the biological and environmental sciences.

Through collaborative efforts in teaching and research, the faculties of the two institutions provide a unique educational and research environment that combines in-depth disciplinary scholarship with interdisciplinary approaches. Graduate applicants should seek admission through cooperating Brown departments, and indicate their interest in the Joint Program at the time of their application. All students in the Joint Program will have an MBL faculty co-advisor. A period of residency on the MBL campus will vary according to the research program of each student.

Three groups in Geological Sciences have strong links to MBL: Environmental Science, Earth Systems History, and Planetary Sciences. The Ecosystems Center at MBL has a distinguished record of studying biogeochemical cycling in the coastal zone. This complements research at Brown investigating both physical and biochemical processes in New England estuaries (Brown Geological Sciences Professors Herbert, Mustard, and Prell. In addition, MBL has a record of leading scholarship with a number of Long Term Ecological Reserves. These provide unique opportunities for field studies and retrospective looks at the long-term response of ecosystems to both natural and human-induced changes. Research in the Department of Geological Sciences on molecular isotopic approaches to studying the physiology of aquatic plants (Geological Sciences Professor Yongsong Huang) has strong links with MBL faculty interested in biogeochemical cycling.

A second major strand that connects MBL and Geological Sciences at Brown involves collaboration between the genomics group at MBL and our Planetary group. Modern genetic studies probe the deep branches of life. This work complements interests in the ESH and Planetary groups on the origin of primitive organic compounds, on the origin of life on Earth, and the potential for simple life to exist elsewhere in the solar system. A NASA-funded astrobiology project combines the interests of researchers in Geological Sciences at Brown (Professors Jim Head and Jack Mustard) and at MBL (led by Dr. Mitchell Sogin).

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