The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UTSA offers undergraduate and graduate students research opportunities in five principal areas:

  • Geoinformatics
  • Geology and Geophysics
  • Paleoenvironment Reconstruction
  • Polar and Climate Sciences
  • Water Cycle Science

The Department also encourages collaborations among different research groups, across campus, and with other institutions.

Department faculty, researchers, and students pursue field and laboratory studies of geological and environmental problems. The department's facilities include biogeochemistry, hydrogeology, isotope geochemistry, micropaleontology and stratigraphy, remote sensing/spatial analysis, river science, and sea ice studies.

making lava in the lab

Research Areas

The earth system is dynamic with its four components (hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere) constantly changing and interacting with each other. To monitor the evolution of the earth system requires the ability to generate accurate near real-time maps of its components on spatial scales that go from local to global. An effective way to accomplish this mapping with adequate spatial coverage is using remote sensing techniques. This results in large volumes of digital geo-information that can be stored, manipulated, visualized, analyzed, and shared with physical computational systems or in the cloud.

The Geoinformatics focus area deals with all of these aspects of managing geoinformation particularly using Geographic Information Science (GIS) tools. In addition, the focus area includes various applications of geoinformation such as mapping of water and natural resources, land use and land cover, solar radiation, polar ice, and natural hazards. The emphasis is on new technologies to acquire geoinformation such as autonomous aerial (drones) or underwater (ocean gliders) vehicles and/or new approaches such as applying big data analytics and cloud computing to geoinformation.

Participating Faculty

The surface of the Earth evolves constantly through changing feedback mechanisms between the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. During the Earth's evolution, movement of tectonic plates, creation of mountain ranges, creation of depositional basins, fluctuations in sea level, and changing climate facilitated the evolution of life and biodiversity. These forcing mechanisms also contributed to the deposition of geological material ultimately responsible for the origin of resources such as oil and gas, and storage of water in subsurface reservoirs. Today, an ongoing need for fossil energy as well as an increasing demand for surface and groundwater resources raise questions and concerns about the sustainability of our environment. These can only be addressed through better understanding of the evolution of landscapes and life during Earth's history.

Our Geology and Geophysics research focuses on topics that include:

  1. Evolution of marine life during periods of environmental crisis and changing seawater chemistry to define potential scenarios for the future of modern marine ecosystems.
  2. The exploration for conventional and unconventional natural resources using integrated geophysical and field techniques.
  3. The structural and tectonic evolution of Texas and its impact on natural systems.
  4. The use of geophysical methods to investigate and understand both natural and cultural resources, including groundwater, geologic hazards, snow and ice in the cryosphere, and evidence of past human habitation.

Participating Faculty

Paleoenvironment reconstruction research in the department investigates past climates and physical environments during Earth's history. The research involves unlocking evidence from the geologic and biologic records preserved in Earth's rocks using cutting edge field and laboratory techniques, and investigating modern sediment transport processes in the field and experimentally to better interpret these archives. The work informs on how the Earth has evolved over time and provides key insight into how climate change may impact present day conditions and future scenarios. Ongoing projects in this research cluster have implications for the prediction of natural resources (e.g., water, hydrocarbons) and for understanding how ongoing climate change impacts sedimentary systems.

Participating Faculty

Current areas of emphasis of participating faculty are:

  • Yongli Gao  -- Climate and tectonic forcing mechanisms on the formation and evolution of cave systems and karst terrains in the Americas and Southeastern Asia
  • Alexis Godet  -- Environmental and tectonic forcing mechanisms on the production of carbonate sediments during the Cretaceous explored using outcrops in Texas, France, and Italy
  • Judy Haschenburger  -- The role of sand- and mud-sized sediment on the transport and depositional processes of gravel investigated in the San Antonio River and laboratory flume
  • Lance Lambert  -- Interactions of paleontological species with other species, and with parameters of their physio-chemical habitats (applies to both paleobiology and stratigraphy)
  • Janet Vote  -- Paleoenvironmental forcing factors of extinction events and their effects on ammonoid evolution across the Permo-Triassic boundary

The anthropogenic warming of the earth's climate system in recent decades is inducing rapid changes in sea ice, ice sheets, land snow cover, and mountain glaciers in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The net impact is a loss of ice volume and a rise in global sea level due to increases in melting (or break-up) of glaciers, ice caps, ice shelves, and ice sheets. In the Arctic, the resulting ice volume reduction is unprecedented, leading to a "new normal" with environmental implications that are just beginning to be examined.

To address these pressing issues, our Polar and Climate Sciences research focuses on answering questions that include: What are the variations and trends in Arctic and Antarctic sea ice volumes? How do these sea-ice changes feed back into the global exchanges of heat, mass, and greenhouse gases? How do iceberg and ice shelf melting contribute to freshwater input into the ocean? What are the variations and trends in glaciers, snow cover, and lakes over the Tibetan Plateau which is sometimes referred as The Third Pole? What are the processes associated with changes in the rate of sea level rise? What will be the impact of sea level rise to the coastal environment and how will coastal communities adapt and respond?

Participating Faculty

Water is fundamental to sustain life on Earth and it is continuously cycling through the Earth's system which includes land, atmosphere, and ocean. Evaporation, precipitation, surface and groundwater flow, are all part of this cycle also known as the hydrological cycle. Water evaporates from the ocean to be transported by the atmosphere and to form clouds, and then precipitates back to land to be carried by surface and ground water flow back to the ocean. This continuous cycling of water through the Earth's system also involves transport and exchanges of energy and thus water helps regulate Earth's climate and its variability.

Water interacts with Earth materials and living beings and alters its chemical and biological quality. Quality of available water resources is equally important in order to provide safe drinking water to growing populations. Future projections by the United Nations indicate that during the next few decades water supply and water quality will deteriorate due to various factors that include population growth, economic development, and climate change. Climate change effects include more severe droughts and flood events, which will further intensify water scarcity and contamination.

To address these challenges, our water cycle research focuses on topics that include:

  1. Applied hydrogeology and geomorphology with emphasis on water quality and source water protection
  2. Surface hydrology and sediment transport processes with applications to flood control
  3. Interdisciplinary studies of climate change impacts on the hydrological cycle from local to global scales, using field-based observations/measurements, remote sensing and modeling approaches
  4. Aqueous geochemistry and geomicrobiology to study biogeochemical cycling in natural and artificial water systems
  5. Groundwater flow and reactive transport modeling to understand fate and transport of geogenic and anthropogenic contaminants

Participating Faculty