Landscapes – mountains, valleys, rivers, coasts – evolve through the combined influence of tectonic shifts in Earth’s crust, the climate, and the presence of life. Some landscape changes occur quickly and can pose hazards, like landslides. Others occur over thousands or millions of years, and help us measure long-term trends. We study how mechanisms at all scales – from individual grains of sand all the way up to entire continents – create landforms. Areas of particular interest are river networks, the influence of climate, and the implications for biological evolution and biodiversity.
The surface of a planet or moon is a record of its past, because the landscapes we see there took a long time to form. Some planetary landscapes are even fossilized remains of a more active time. This lens into the past lets us address big questions about the Solar system: Why did Mars start off with lakes and rivers but end up a cold desert? What regulates climate on worlds without water, and could those places support life?
We use spacecraft data to explore how landforms that are familiar on Earth, such as rivers and coasts, differ when they occur on other planets. By applying lessons learned from theory and field observations on Earth, we aim to read the history of a planet’s geology and climate and guide the search for life elsewhere.
The Human Landscape
How have landscapes shaped the human past? Can landscapes help fill gaps in the archaeological record? We have begun to collaborate with archaeologists to investigate how the physical landscape influenced human migrations, settlement patterns, and early agriculture.