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The geological and environmental sciences are naturally interdisciplinary, and include the study of earth materials, earth processes, and how they have changed over Earth's 4.56 billion year history. More specifically, courses and research within the department address the chemical and physical makeup and properties of minerals and rocks (at pressures from the surface to the core), as well as of soils, sediments, and water; the formation and evolution of Earth and other planets; the processes that deform Earth's crust and mantle and that shape Earth's surface; the stratigraphic, paleobiological, and geochemical records of Earth history including changes in climate, oceans, and atmosphere; present-day, historical, and long-term feedbacks between the geosphere and biosphere, and the origin and occurrence of our natural resources.

The department's research is critical to the study of natural hazards (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and floods), environmental and geological engineering, surface and groundwater management, the assessment, exploration, and extraction of energy, mineral and water resources, remediation of contaminated water and soil, geological mapping and land use planning, and human health and the environment.

A broad range of instrumentation for elemental, structural and radiogenic/stable isotope analysis is available, including ion microprobe, electron microprobe, thermal and gas source mass spectrometry, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy. The Stanford Nanocharacterization Laboratory and facilities at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and the U.S. Geological Survey in nearby Menlo Park are also available. Branner Library, devoted exclusively to the Earth Sciences, represents one of the department's most important resources. The department also maintains rock sample preparation (crushing, cutting, polishing), mineral separation, and microscopy facilities.