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Earth has been habitable throughout most of its history, whereas our nearest planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, have not. Climate history on all three planets was also influenced by gradually increasing solar luminosity over Solar System history.

Understanding why these three planets have followed such different evolutionary paths is a problem that requires a combination of data from geology and from spacecraft missions, along with application of sophisticated numerical modeling techniques. Similar models are also used to estimate the width of the liquid water habitable zone around other stars and to help guide the astronomical search for Earth-like extrasolar planets.

Faculty member James Kasting leads this effort, along with collaborators from Penn State's Astrobiology group (Arthur, House, Kump & Ohmoto).


When viewed at every possible space and time scale, Earth is a dynamic planet. This complex system is constantly evolving and adjusting to various influences, including human activity, which is forcing Earth’s climate and biogeochemical systems into realms that have analogues only in Earth’s distant past.

Faculty (Alley, Arthur, Bralower, Fantle, Freeman, House, Kasting, Kump, Patzkowsky & Wilf) and students at Penn State work in collaborative groups to unravel the history of Earth’s dynamic past so that we may better predict its future. They use a variety of approaches including field work, laboratory analyses and experiments, and numerical modeling to address perplexing questions ranging from “how did life emerge on Earth?” to “how much longer will Earth remain a habitable planet?”

Investigations of Earth-system evolution are directed toward a better understanding of the forces that drive long-term change in ocean chemistry and climate as well as the ways in which Earth’s environment and biota interact on the shorter time scales associated with mass extinction events and other episodes of rapid environmental change.


Ice and Climate Research addresses the effects of ice on sea level, the history of Earth’s climate, especially as recorded in ice cores, and interactions of ice with its surroundings. Even small changes in glaciers and ice sheets can greatly affect sea level. Penn State researchers are active in field-based as well as model-based studies focused on changes in large-scale ice sheets in West Antarctica, Greenland, and other locations around the world.

Ice cores contain detailed histories of past climates including startling revelations about abrupt climate changes. Penn State geoscientists use knowledge of the physical properties of ice to interpret past climates and ice-flow processes. Glacially-sculpted landscapes record the power of ice to modify the landscape and perturb biogeochemical cycles, another focus of Penn State research.

Recent student projects include geophysical surveys of ice-stream initiation in West Antarctica, measuring ice motion in Alaska, characterizing ice cores at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver and at remote Antarctic sites, and modeling of the future of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Faculty members Sridhar Anandakrishnan and Richard Alley lead the Ice and Climate Group, together with researchers Todd Sowers, Don Voigt, David Pollard and Byron Parizek. Ties to many other disciplines broaden the field greatly.

Learn more about Penn State Ice and Climate Research


A major research focus of astrobiology is enabling the recognition of signatures of life on the early Earth, in extreme environments, and in extraterrestrial settings.

The Geosciences Astrobiology group (Arthur, Brantley, Fantle, Freeman, House, Kasting, Kump & Ohmoto) develops novel approaches to detecting and characterizing life, investigate biosignatures in mission-relevant ecosystems and ancient rock and evaluate the potential for biosignatures in extraterrestrial settings


Anthropogenic climate changes pose serious risks.

How big are these risks? What are scientifically sound, economically viable, and ethically defendable strategies to manage them?

Analysing these questions requires fundamental advances in the involved disciplines (e.g., Geosciences, Geography, Economics, Engineering, Meteorology, Statistics, or Philosophy) as well as a tight integration across these disciplines.

The Penn State Center for Climate Risk Management (led by Faculty member Keller) supports the required multidisciplinary collaborations between scientists in Geosciences (e.g., Alley, Bralower & Kump) and beyond (e.g., Davis, Fisher-Vanden, Forest, Haran, Tuana, or Wagener).