Research Programs

Research at Rice spans a wide range of topics, falling under the broad themes of studies of the Earth's interior and Earth system science.

Earth's interior

A major research theme at Rice focuses on understanding the structure, dynamics and evolution of the Earth's interior from the core to the crust using a diversity of tools including seismology, geochemistry, geodynamics, and structural geology. Key areas of research include mantle convection, lithosphere formation and evolution, geochemical differentiation of the mantle and crust, volcanism, plate kinematics, mountain building, basin formation and continent formation/evolution.

Earth Systems Science

Earth system science at Rice involves geochemical, biogeochemical and physical interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, biosphere, Earth's surface and its deep interior. Our research focuses on mass exchanges between these different reservoirs over time scales, ranging from seasonal to millennial to billion year timescales. We use a variety of tools, including sedimentology, geochemistry, and biogeochemistry, to better understand the role of these interactions on climate change, biological evolution, environmental change and the compositional evolution of the atmosphere, oceans and crust. Our research in Earth Systems Science is also being applied in our department to better understanding the origin, economics and health of various natural resources, such as groundwater, hydrocarbons, and mineral resources.

Dugan, Levander, Niu, Sawyer, Symes, Zelt, Danbom (adjunct)
Seismic imaging is a cornerstone of modern Earth science, providing images of the subsurface that are used to constrain geological, geochemical and geodynamic theories for the origin and evolution of the planet. The Rice seismology group works on imaging and interpreting heterogeneities in Earth's interior at various scales. We focus on imaging the fine seismic structures near the surface (sedimentary basins, plate boundary zones, mountain belts, continental margins, volcanoes) and the Earth's deep interior (lithosphere, mantle transition zone, core-mantle boundary, and the core). Rice seismologists have active and passive seismic studies currently ongoing in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
Structural Geology, Tectonics and paleomagnetism
Gonnermann, Gordon, Lee, Lenardic, Morgan, Sawyer, Avé Lallemant
The processes that govern the formation and deformation of Earth's crust are investigated through a combination of terrestrial and marine field studies, geodesy, seismic data acquisition and interpretation, physical and numerical modeling, petrology and geochronology. Research topics include the formation and evolution of oceanic and continental lithosphere and crust, plate reconstructions, basin formation, continental rifting, formation of accretionary prisms, and faulting dynamics.
Dasgupta, Gonnermann, Gordon, Lee, Lenardic, Morgan, Sawyer
Dynamic processes within the Earth's interior control the formation and evolution of the Earth's crust and mantle. Research topics addressed include the formation and evolution of continents, influence of asthenosphere on mantle convection, mantle dynamics, volcanism and its effect on climatic evolution, plate tectonics, subduction dynamics, and thermal evolution of the planet.
Volcanology, petrology and high-temperature geochemistry
Dasgupta, Gonnermann, Lee, McGovern, Morgan
Departmental research focuses on the broad problem of how the Earth differentiates into different compositional reservoirs, such as the crust, mantle, core and atmosphere. A key step in the differentiation of the Earth is melting in the mantle and crust and the resulting volcanic activity produced at the surface. Towards these ends, we are interested in 1) the chemical and physical processes associated with magma formation, migration, eruption, and compositional evolution, 2) the structure and spatio-temporal distribution of volcanoes, and 3) the distribution of volcanic stresses, deformation and seismicity. Faculty research includes the origin of magmatism in different tectonic settings, volatile cycling in subduction zones, the role of volatiles in volcanic eruptions and long-term climate, the processes of core formation and the compositional differentiation of the Earth's crust and mantle. We approach these problems from observations and experiments. In the former, we are firmly grounded in field observations using structural and geophysical data and laboratory measurements of composition using a variety of mass spectrometry and micro-analytical instruments. In the latter, we simulate elevated pressure and temperature conditions of magmatic processes as well as the dynamic conditions of magma eruption.
Planetary Science:
Dasgupta, Gonnermann, Lee, Lenardic, Lüttge, Morgan, Mackwell (adjunct), McGovern (adjunct).
Research in planetary science at Rice spans the fields of geodynamics, volcanic processes, petrology, and geochemistry. Numerical modeling is used to characterize mantle convection and crustal evolution on other planets. Growth and deformation of Martian volcanoes is interpreted through image analysis, mechanical modeling, and flexural studies. The geochemistry of lunar and Martian meteorites provides insights into the origin and evolution of these planetary bodies. Laboratory experiments provide instights into the structure and chemistry of metallic cores in various planetary bodies and the process of core formation in terrestrial planets. The proximity of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) ensures a lively exchange between JSC and LPI scientists and Rice faculty and students, enabling shared use of analytical facilities, joint research projects, and course offerings in planetary science. Rice and NASA scientists frequently co-advise graduate students, and many of our undergraduates perticipate in summer intern programs at the LPI. Our department is a member of the recently funded Center for Lunar Science Exploration, which is an integral piece of the National Lunar Science Institute.
  • Planetary Dynamics & Mechanics: Lenardic, Mackwell (adjunct), McGovern (adjunct)
  • Planetary Petrology & Geochemistry: Dasgupta, Gonnermann, Lee
  • Planetary Dynamics & Volcanology: Morgan, McGovern (adjunct)
Low-Temperature Geochemistry:
Dickens, Droxler, Lee, Lüttge, Masiello, Xiao (adjunct).
Low-temperature geochemical and geobiological processes govern near-surface Earth processes, including mineral precipitation, dissolution, and alteration, and chemical transfer in the environment. Low-temperature research areas at Rice include mineral dissolution kinetics, diagenesis and mineral alteration, chemical oceanography, soil biogeochemistry, and chemical weathering. The dynamics and kinetics of fluid/mineral and fluid/rock interactions are studied experimentally using Vertical Scanning Interferometry, Electron and Atomic Force Microscopy and modelling techniques like Monte Carlo and ab initio methods. Tools of modern analytical chemistry (nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry, isotope geochemistry) are used to understand th Earth's carbon cycle, and to study the mechanisms and timescales of carbon movement between reservoirs. Other laboratory facilities are shared with high-temperature geochemistry research (above).
Environmental Science:
Anderson, Dickens, Droxler, Dugan, Lee, Levander, Lüttge, Masiello, Morgan, Zelt
Environmental science is a highly interdisciplinary field that addresses how humans interact with their environment. Faculty in the Department of Earth Science conduct research in a range of environmental areas, including carbon cycling, greenhouse gases, chemical and physical oceanography, coastal geology and sea-level change, coral reef evolution, geobiology and microbe-rock interactions, corrosion processes, water resources and contaminant transport, fate and transport of nanomaterials, slope stability, geophysical imaging, and geohazards. Field and laboratory studies on carbon in soil and rivers contribute to our understanding of mechanisms and timescales of carbon movement between reservoirs, motivated by interest in the fundamental functioning of the Earth system, and in carbon cycle changes driven by anthropogenic processes, with applications in greenhouse gas management. Investigations of slope stability, landslide mechanics, and geohazards are conducted in both marine and terrestrial settings, and through combined modeling and laboratory studies.
Sedimentary Geology, Stratigraphy, and Surface Processes:
Anderson, Dickens, Droxler, Dugan, Abreu (adjunct), Harris (adjunct), Simo (adjunct).
Carbonate and clastic depositional systems, and sequence stratigraphic studies provide insights into the transfer and storage of sediments in marine environments, and the larger climatic processes that drive them. These processes can be used to investigate changes in sea-level through time, ice-volume storage, and glacial retreat rates over large time and space scales. Ongoing marine geological research offshore of Antarctica focuses on climate in the region during the Holocene, to gain a better understanding of the factors that regulate climate change and how these changes have influenced glaciers and ice sheets. Coastal studies, for example, along the Texas coast, focus on predicting the response of coastal environments to climate change and accelerated sea-level rise. Other studies look at shallow basin systems to understand how ancient systems formed and evolved. Research programs in carbonate and mixed clastic-carbonate systems currently focus on late Quaternary and Cenozoic evolution of the shelf edges, platform margins, slopes and adjacent basins in Maldives, the Great Barrier Reef, the Western Gulf of Mexico, and Gulf of Papua, and the Belize margin.
Marine Geology and Geophysics
Global Change
Geomechanics, Porous Media, and Hydrology
Energy Resources