Chair: Lyman P. Persico

Nicholas Bader

Kirsten Nicolaysen

Patrick K. Spencer


About the Department

Geology integrates physical, chemical, and biological studies of the Earth from its inception to the present day. Courses in Earth Science increase every student’s appreciation of the world’s natural processes and of how current fluctuations in the magnitudes and frequency of geological events and in the availability of natural resources affect human societies and their integrated ecosystems. Serious students of geology find opportunities in the environmental, energy, mining, teaching, engineering, and geophysics fields, and in resource management, K-12 education, academia, hydrogeology, space science, hazard management, and oceanography.

A student who enters Whitman without any prior college-level preparation in geology will have to complete 49 credits (32 in geology) to fulfill the requirements for the geology major. After a geology or geology combined major is declared, no geology course, except Geology 158, may be taken P-D-F.

Learning Goals

Upon graduation, a student will be able to:

  • Apply geologic concepts to the interpretation of geologic materials and landscapes.
  • Apply quantitative techniques to geological questions.
  • Read and interpret geological information, including graphical data, geologic and topographic maps, and scientific literature.
  • Effectively communicate geologic concepts, including by written communication, oral communication, and mapmaking.


For students who started at Whitman College prior to Fall 2024, courses in Geology count toward the science distribution area; selected courses count toward science or quantitative analysis.

For students who start at Whitman College in Fall 2024 or later, please refer to the General Studies section for a full list of courses that count toward each distribution area.

Programs of Study


See course schedule for any current offerings.

Physical geology including earth materials, the processes responsible for uplift and erosion, landforms, plate tectonics and the earth’s interior.  Three lectures per week. Open only to first- and second-year students; others by consent of instructor. Students who have received credit for Geology 120 or 125 may not receive credit for Geology 110.

Laboratory exercises to accompany classroom instruction in The Physical Earth.  Must be taken concurrently with Geology 110.  Topics may include the identification of rocks and minerals, interpretation of topographic and geologic maps, and fluvial processes.  One three-hour laboratory per week; field trips.  Students who have received credit for Geology 121 or 126 may not receive credit for Geology 111.

An examination of the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest, including Washington, Idaho, Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. Fundamental geologic processes that have shaped the Pacific Northwest will be examined through detailed study of different locales in the region. Three lectures per week. Open to first- and second-year students, others by consent of instructor. Students who have received credit for Geology 110 or 125 may not receive credit for Geology 120.

Laboratory exercises to accompany classroom instruction in Geologic History of the Pacific Northwest.  Must be taken concurrently with Geology 120.  Topics may include general geologic skills such as the identification of rocks and minerals, interpretation of topographic and geologic maps, and fluvial processes, with a particular focus on the topics examined in lecture.  One three-hour laboratory per week; field trips.  Students who have received credit for Geology 111 or 126 may not receive credit for Geology 121.

Natural geologic processes including Holocene deglaciation, landslides, flooding, volcanism, and earthquakes pose risks both to human wellbeing and societal infrastructure. Human decisions for how we choose to interact with the physical environment and its resources (atmosphere, soils, energy sources, minerals) may further imperil societies or may inform global and regional mitigation of Anthropocene climate change, water quality and quantity problems, resource use, and land erosion and mass movement. This introductory course provides exploration and discussion of geologic processes within the paradigm of plate tectonics. Three lecture/discussion periods per week. Students who have received credit for Geology 110, 120, or 210 may not receive credit for Geology 125. Open to first- and second-year students; others by consent of instructor.

Laboratory exercises to accompany classroom instruction in Environmental Geology.  Must be taken concurrently with Geology 125.  Topics may include general geologic skills such as the identification of rocks and minerals, interpretation of topographic and geologic maps, and fluvial processes, with a particular focus on natural hazards such as floods and mass movement.  One three-hour laboratory per week; field trips.  Students who have received credit for Geology 111 or 121 may not receive credit for Geology 126.

An introductory course in meteorology designed for nonscience majors with an emphasis on the weather patterns and climate of the Pacific Northwest. Topics covered include Earth’s heat budget, atmospheric stability, air masses, midlatitude cyclones, global circulation patterns and climates, and the origins of violent weather phenomenon.

Human communities must adapt to gradual and abrupt changes in the physical environment. Sea-level rise, storm surge, flooding, and landslides are examples of hazardous environmental events requiring mitigation. While enhancing the infrastructure that copes with these physical changes, geoscientists ensure energy, water, and mineral resources and mitigate toxic legacy waste. Necessary first steps in associated geoscience investigations require identifying the scope and scale of a research question and evaluating which scientific instrument to implement during a project. This 1 credit course provides a science experience for incoming first-year students interested in pursuing any science major. The course is intended for students whose high school science had few hands-on science lab experiences. This course may include one or two half-day field trips to local county and city infrastructure and to local geologic features. The course also introduces scientific instrumentation including the imaging capabilities of electron microscopes, chemical analysis using X-Ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and/or laser analysis of particle sizes. Other activities include guest speakers, discussion of science articles written for the general public, and one short writing assignment. For first-year students only; participation pending approval of a short application. No distribution credit. This course does not count toward the Geology major. Graded credit/no credit.

The land we live on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink are all part of the Earth’s climate system. This remarkably complex system has changed dramatically over the past four and a half billion years. Changes in climate have occurred for a variety of reasons and on a variety of timescales. Some of those changes are well understood while others are still being studied today. Recently, we have reached a new paradigm where human activity is the predominant cause of climate change. In the 21st century, arguably no other scientific field has made such broad inroads into the public’s consciousness and no other topic has been so thoroughly misunderstood, demonized, and misrepresented as climate science. This course will cover the complexities of natural and anthropogenic climate change through the fields of paleoclimatology and Earth systems science. We will explore the many methods of paleoclimatic reconstruction using proxy climate indicators, how the carbon cycle is connected through Earth’s four major subsystems, how climate affects biota and vice versa, and what past abrupt climate changes can tell us about future climate changes. We will end the semester by contemplating the future of Earth’s climate including climate mitigation strategies such as geoengineering.

The geology of part of the United States or elsewhere, with emphasis on geologic history, including petrology, stratigraphy, tectonics, and geomorphology. Lectures on the geology and other aspects of the area will precede field trips, which will take place during vacations and on long weekends. Geologic mapping may be involved. May be repeated for credit for different areas. Graded credit/no credit.

Fundamental principles of analysis pertaining to sedimentary rocks and rock sequences. Fluid flow, weathering, sediment transport, sedimentary structures, depositional systems. Geologic time and chronostratigraphy. Principles of Lithostratigraphy. Three one-hour lectures and one three-hour lab/week. Field trips. Textbook, professional articles, in-class presentations, research paper.

Soils provide nutrients, water and support for growing plants, host an amazing variety of organisms, and even influence global climate. This class will focus on the dynamic systems in soil and on the interactions between soils and larger ecosystem properties. Course topics will include pedogenic processes, agricultural ecosystems, the interpretation of paleosols, and the role of soils in the global biogeochemical cycling of organic carbon and nutrients. Lectures, field trip(s).

An exploration of the geology of a region, followed by a field trip to that area. Likely to include geomorphology; structure and tectonics; minerals, rocks, and sediments; fossils and stratigraphy. Classes followed by a field trip at least a week long. Students will make maps and presentations and keep a detailed notebook. May be repeated as location changes. See course schedule for any current offerings.

This intermediate-level course examines the role of minerals in human societies and Earth systems with particular emphasis on internal structure of minerals, the carbon cycle and carbon sequestration, the nuclear fuel cycle, and the growing concern regarding mining and resource scarcity. Skills include hand sample identification of minerals, analysis of crystal structure by X-Ray Diffraction, analysis of mineral composition by X-Ray Fluorescence or electron microscopy, primary literature searches and science writing. Lectures, discussions, and laboratory exercises. Open to seniors only by consent of instructor.

A class devoted to understanding water resources, including both surface water and groundwater. We will study the hydrologic cycle and the properties of water, the shape and behavior of streams, the recharge and movement of groundwater, and environmental management of water including wells, dams, irrigation, and water contaminants. Lab topics will include stream gauging and the construction of hydrographs and hyetographs, determining peak discharge, water sampling, flow nets, well tests, and computer modeling of groundwater and contaminant flow. Three lectures and one three-hour lab per week.

See course schedule for any current offerings.

An introductory course in the application of seismic, gravitational, thermal, and magnetic methods for the study of the structure and composition of the interior of the Earth.

The physical and biological events during the geologic past. Special consideration given to plate tectonics and fossils in the lectures, and to fossils and geologic maps in the laboratories. Three lectures and one three-hour lab per week; required and optional field trips.

An intermediate-level course that examines the evolution of selected marine and nonmarine sedimentary basins primarily in North America. Consideration of sedimentary features ranging from small-scale sedimentary structures and grain textures and composition to bedform geometry, unit contacts and tectonic significance of depositional features represented. Fossil succession, biostratigraphy and paleoenviromental indications. Hydrocarbon and other economically significant mineral potential. Geologic map interpretation of important sedimentary basins. Lectures, presentations, and field trips. Professional articles, Internet sources, reference sources. Offered in alternate years.

Critical reading of the work of writers on Earth science. Examination of works demonstrating different styles, from scientific to poetry to descriptive prose, and how those writers incorporate Earth into their work. Two lectures per week, papers, in-class presentations, field trip. Offered in odd-numbered years.

An investigation of volcanoes, including morphology, composition, eruption processes, periodicity, and impacts on climate and humans. Exploration of the topic will occur through lecture, in-class experiments, computer simulations, discussion of primary literature, and several field trips. Offered in alternate years.

Description, origin, development, and classification of landforms. Relationships of soils, surficial materials, and landforms to rocks, structures, climate, processes, and time. Maps and aerial photographs of landscapes produced in tectonic, volcanic, fluvial, glacial, periglacial, coastal, karst, and eolian environments. Exercises on photo-geology. Lectures, discussions, laboratories, and field trips. Open to Geology majors; others only by consent of instructor.

The geology of part of the Pacific Northwest, with emphasis on geologic history, including petrology, stratigraphy, tectonics, and mineralogy. Geologic mapping, paleontology, and mineralogy may also be involved. Most field trips will take place on long weekends. Each student will be required to write a report. May be repeated for credit for different areas. Required of all Geology and Geology combined majors.

A comprehensive examination of the fossil record through Earth history. Taxonomy and classification of important fossil groups, evolution and extinction, functional anatomy and morphology, ecologic significance of individual taxa and assemblages through time, paleogeographic reconstruction based on the fossil record, time-significance of fossil groups. Two lectures, one three-hour lab/week. Textbook, journal articles, research paper, and weekend field trip. Offered in alternate years.

A reading or research project in an area of the earth sciences not covered in regular courses and of particular interest to a student. Maximum of six credits.

The geologic history of the Pacific Northwest provides excellent examples of an active tectonic margin including accretion of oceanic crust and arc terranes and current arc volcanism. We examine magma generation and differentiation, volcano morphology, and physio-chemical processes of volcanoes from Earth’s mantle to the surface through interpretation of rock suites from the Stillwater Complex, the Cascade and Alaska-Aleutian arcs, and the Columbia River Basalt Group. Lab activities include reading the primary literature, hand sample identification, use of petrographic microscopes, interpretation of thermodynamic phase diagrams, an introduction to computer modeling of magmas (e.g., MELTS), and field trips possibly including one overnight field trip.

Specific problems in the geological sciences will be considered. Textbook and/or professional articles, discussions, paper, possible field trips. May be repeated for credit with different topics. See course schedule for any current offerings.

Terroir is a French word that refers to the idea that agricultural products derive unique sensory characteristics from the physical and cultural environment in which they are produced. The focus of the course will be on the science, philosophy, economics, and politics of terroir, in particular as they relate to the production and marketing of wine. The course will only be open to seniors or others by consent, providing they are 21 years of age.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a powerful computer tool designed for exploring, creating, and displaying spatial information. GIS has become the primary way in which spatial information is managed and analyzed in a variety of fields. Any data that has a spatial component (including most data in the Earth and environmental sciences) can potentially benefit from a GIS. Lectures will examine the applications and the conceptual framework for computer GIS, and lab exercises will teach students to use GIS software. The final third of the course is dedicated to individual projects.

The description and analysis of intermediate- to large-scale rock structures. Topics include the analysis and graphical representation of stress and strain in rocks, deformation mechanisms, fabric development in metamorphic rocks, the geometry and mechanics of folding and faulting, and structures related to intrusive bodies. Geologic map interpretation and cross-section construction are used to analyze the structural geology of selected regions. Three lectures and one three-hour lab per week; field trip(s).

An in-depth study of the tectonic events that shaped the western United States. A review of plate tectonic theory emphasizing plate interactions and orogenesis and the tectonic evolution of the western U.S. beginning with the amalgamation of Precambrian basement and ending with the development of the San Andreas transform and Cascadia subduction systems. Each week two class periods are devoted to lectures, discussions and student presentations. The third class period is reserved for practical exercises, particularly geologic map interpretation. There is one required weekend field trip.

An investigation of Earth’s systems and environmental problems using the principles of equilibrium, thermodynamics, diffusion, oxidation-reduction, solution chemistry, and isotope geochemistry. Skills will include discussion of primary scientific literature, statistical analysis of geochemical data, conditions of mineral formation via mineral equilibria models, and calculation of rock ages by radioactive decay. Themes of assigned readings may include carbon sequestration, water quality, or spent nuclear fuel disposal. May incorporate use of analytical equipment such as the Scanning Electron Microscope and Portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscope. 

Seminar on various topics in the earth sciences. Topics covered in each year are chosen by the instructors, and may include the history of geology, geologic controversies, and ethical issues related to the profession of geology. Students are expected to complete assigned readings and make an oral presentation. Required of all senior geology majors and combined majors.

An advanced course in geological field methods. In a typical course students make maps in stratified and crystalline terranes, with rocks in varying degrees of deformation. Maximum of nine credits. Note: Geology 480 is not regularly offered by Whitman College. Students wishing to complete major requirements with a field experience should plan to complete an approved summer field course offered by another collegiate institution.

A project involving field and laboratory research in the geological sciences. Written and oral reports are required during the senior year. Maximum of six credits.

Designed to further independent research or projects leading to the preparation of an undergraduate thesis. Required of and limited to senior honors candidates in geology.