Montana State University

Department of Earth Sciences

Department of Earth Sciences

Montana State University
P.O. Box 173480
226 Traphagen Hall
Bozeman, MT 59717-3480

Phone: 406 994 3331
Fax: 406 994 6923

Department Head

David W. Mogk

Emeritus Professors

  • K.J. Hansen; climatology; physical geography, mountain systems, biogeography.
  • W.W. Locke; Earth surface processes, natural hazards, glacial geology, soil development and paleo climate, post-glacial volcano-tectonic deformation in Yellowstone.
  • S.G. Custer; ground and surface water hydrology, stream morphology, water quality, snow dynamics (snow-melt runoff, wet and dry snow avalanche processes; snow distribution).


  • J.R. Horner (Regents Professor; Curator of Paleontology, Museum of the Rockies); paleobiology, distribution and systematics of Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs, histological structure of various extinct vertebrates with implications for physiologic, metabolic, and ontogenetic processes.
  • D.R. Lageson; structural geology and regional tectonics of the Northern Rocky Mountains, earthquake geology, crustal extension of the northern intermountain region.
  • D.W. Mogk; evolution of the Archean crust of SW Montana, petrogenetic processes in the middle crust, chemistry and isotopic studies of the Archean rocks, surface chemistry of minerals, geoscience education.
  • J.G. Schmitt; tectonics and sedimentation in foreland and extensional basins, alluvial fan sedimentology, vertebrate taphonomy.
  • C. Whitlock; Quaternary environmental change, vegetation fire, and climate history of the western U.S. South America, and New Zealand.
  • W.K. Wyckoff; cultural and historical geography of the United States, evolution of western American cultural landscapes, rural and urban settlement geography.

Associate Professors

  • T.C. Feeley; volcanology, volcanic hazards, geochemistry of continental magmatism.
  • M.H. Gardner; stratigraphy, sedimentology, subsurface geology, ancient ocean systems, petroleum geology.
  • J. Liu; economic-urban geography, China.
  • .L. Skidmore; biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology of glaciated systems.
  • D.J. Varricchio; dinosaur paleo ecology, taphonomy and anatomy.

Assistant Professors

  • J. Hendrikx; snow, avalanche, cryosphere, climate change, snow hrydrology, alpine and arctic systems.

Adjunct Assistant Professors

  • S.R. Challender; geographic information science instruction, data base structures, geographic information analysis.
  • A.C. Epple; physical and cultural geography.

Assistant Research Professors

  • F.D. Jackson; paleontology, taphonomy and reproductive paleobiology of dinosaurs.
  • D.B. McWethy; ecosystem diversity and change across large special and temporal scales.
  • C. Shaw; structural geology, metamorphic petrology, field geology micro structural analysis, thermochronology.

Affiliate Professors

  • R.L. Lawrence (Land Resources and Environmental Science); remote sensing, forestry, hydrothermal and ecological change in Yellowstone National Park.
  • K.L. Pierce (US Geological Survey, NRMSC)
  • D.W. Bowen; sedimentary basins, stratigraphy of basin fill deposits.
  • G.T. Pederson; climate change, water resources, and ecosystem interaction.

Degree Offered

M.S. in Earth Sciences
M.S. in Land Rehabilitation (Interdisciplinary degree)
Ph.D. in Earth Sciences

Earth Sciences offers M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Earth Sciences (Geography, Geology, and Geobiology content areas). We stress independent thesis research with some supporting course work. Although we are a small department, our expertise spans most of the subfields of Earth Sciences. Our Geography faculty includes specialties from settlement geography through bioclimatology to GIS and snow science, while the interests of our Geology faculty range from petrogenesis to paleobiology to applied hydrogeology and from dinosaur taphonomy and stratigraphy to geomorphology. Our Geobiology faculty have research Interests in vertebrate paleontology, paleoecology, biogeography, paleoclimatology, and geomicrobiology. Our program strengths are in basin analysis and energy resources, dinosaur paleontology, geography of the northern Rocky Mountains, architecture and composition of the lithosphere, snow science and cryospheric processes, and climate change. Examples of thesis titles can be found on the Department of Earth Sciences web page (see above).


The department generally expects applicants to have a GPA of 3.0 or higher and GRE Scores better than the 50th percentile and a strong academic background in Earth Sciences (Geography, Geology, or Geobiology). Foreign students must have a TOEFL score better than 550 for the paper test and 231 for the computer test. The Department does not accept general applicants to our graduate program. An applicant should identify a major advisor from the list of faculty above, contact that individual, and determine whether there is space available in that advisor's program.

For students who wish to study geography, the department requires the equivalent of a geography minor (eight semester geography courses including map skills, world regional, human, and physical geography) as background. A geography undergraduate degree is preferred and coursework and practical experience involving geographic skills such as cartography, field methods, aerial photograph interpretation, remote sensing, GIS and quantitative methods are considered a desirable part of an applicant’s background.

For students who wish to study geology, the department expects an applicant to have a year each of calculus, physics and chemistry as well as physical geology, mineralogy, petrology, historical geology, geomorphology, sedimentation, stratigraphy, structural geology, and a field geology course which emphasizes mapping. These requirements are typically met by an undergraduate degree in geology. A student who has not completed all requirements may be admitted but is expected to make up deficiencies during the first year of graduate study.

For students who wish to study geobiology, the department expects an applicant to have a degree in geology, biology or a closely related field. The most competitive students have significant upper-division course work in both geology and biology.

For optimum course scheduling, applicants are accepted into the graduate program only at the start of Fall semester. However, a student desiring to take courses to strengthen qualifications for the graduate program may be admitted as a non-degree student at the beginning of either the Spring or Summer term. Successful applicants must be accepted both by the department and by the Division of Graduate Education.

Program Requirements

Students are expected to develop a solid curricular foundation in geography, geology or geobiology. All graduate students in the Earth Sciences Department are required to take Earth Science 594 Section 01 Thesis Design for one credit in the fall of their first year. Graduate programs include a core of geography, geology, or geobiology courses and are further tailored in consultation with the advisor and graduate committee to the specific talents and interests of the individual student. Coursework in disciplines outside the department is encouraged to support and enhance specific research areas in the Earth Sciences.

Graduate and 400-level (senior) courses in earth science include: surface-water resources, ground-water resources, snow dynamics, physiography, geobiology, geomicrobiology, Quaternary Environments of the Western US, Quaternary paleoecology, and Quaternary environments. Graduate and 400-level (senior) courses of study in geography include: historical geography, geographic thought, aerial photo interpretation, mountain geography, applied GIS and spatial analysis, tourism planning, mountain geography, regional geography, East Asia in the global system, GIS research fundamentals, settlement geography, bioclimatology, and land use planning. Graduate and 400-level (senior) courses of study in geology include: glacial geology, sedimentology, applied geological hydrology, advanced stratigraphy, clastic sedimentology, ancient ocean systems, tectonics of sedimentary basins, petroleum geology, depositional systems, vertebrate paleontology, macroevolution and the fossil record, taphonomy, comparative vertebrate anatomy, Hell Creek paleontology, geology of the northern Rocky Mountains, structural analysis, tectonics, igneous geochemistry, igneous geochemistry, and volcanology.

The Marathon Center of Research and Teaching Excellence in Earth Science

M-CORTES is a partnership between Marathon Oil and Earth Sciences funded through the MSU Foundation. This Center is designed to support students, education, and research related to oil and gas. This center includes general department support, scholarships, training opportunities, internships, and travel grants.


The primary research facility is the northern Rocky Mountain field laboratory which includes Yellowstone National Park, and the Greater Yellowstone GeoEcoSystem. Field work is also done in China, Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand. Field-based research in the Rocky Mountains is a component of many Earth Sciences graduate students’ study. Field equipment include tools for location and altitude (from conventional compasses and altimeters to auto levels, a total station and GPS ground stations), sampling devices including suspended and bedload sediment samplers, current meters paleomagnetic rock drills, hammer seismograph, auto level, total station, snow density kits, U.S. Federal Snow samplers, ram sondes, shear frames, lake-sediment coring equipment and the like. Field work is supplemented by laboratory analysis in several facilities across campus. The Department has crushers, Franz magnetic-susceptibility separator, balances, rock saws, lap wheels, and a paleontology preparation laboratory. The Department also has several high-quality (Leitz and Nikon) transmitted and reflected light research petrographic microscopes with photo microscopy and cathode luminescence capability and computer-driven image analysis capabilities. There is an MSU Paleoecology Lab under the direction of Cathy Whitlock, a geomicrobiological/geochemical laboratory under the direction of Mark Skidmore, a structural geology laboratory under the direction of David Lageson, and the stratigraphic and basin analysis laboratory under the direction of Michael Gardner.

There are other laboratories on campus that Earth Scientists use. The MSU Spatial Sciences Center under the direction of Rick Lawrence provides instruction and research opportunities for faculty and students interested in Global Positioning Systems, GIS and remote sensing. This center supports ARC/INFO and ERDAS on workstations, pcARC/INFO and IDRISI and IMAGINE on PCs, and a variety of digitizers, scanners, printers and plotters for data input and output.

The Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory (ICAL) contains analytical equipment which includes a scanning electron microscope (with EDS, BSE, and CL spectrometers), automated powder X-ray diffraction, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, Auger electron spectroscopy, and time-of-flight SIMS.

The Subzero Science and Engineering Laboratory under the direction of Ed Adams has a variety of cold rooms for research on snow and ice including a flume laboratory for the study of ice in streams and lakes, and laboratories with radiation and thermal pulses to examine snow and ice properties under varying weather and climatic regimes.

The vertebrate (dinosaur) paleontology laboratory of the Museum of the Rockies, under the curation of Jack Horner, contains state-of-the-art microscopic and computerized image-enhancement equipment for the study of dinosaur bones, as well as other chemical and mechanical equipment for the preparation and analysis of fossilized vertebrates.

Graduate students in Earth Sciences have been successful with National Science Foundation Fellowships and research grants from Geological Society of America, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Society for Sedimentary Geology, the U.S. Forest Service, and Sigma Xi, and have won University-wide and regional awards for thesis research.

Financial Assistance

Teaching and research assistantships are available each year. Graduate scholarships are awarded annually on a competitive basis in the second year of residence to assist with thesis research. See the Earth Sciences web page or contact the department for more information.


>Back to Table of Contents

Updated: December 2011