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Environmental Systems


M Fonstad

M Fonstad

The Environmental Systems concentration in Geography focuses on the processes that shape the physical features of the landscape. Climate, geology, and biology interact in complicated ways to result in the weather, landforms, and life that characterize any place. The surface of the Earth as we see it today is the result of millions of years of gradual change and of past catastrophes. The long-term dynamics of natural systems provide the context for evaluating changes wrought by people over recent times, while also acknowledging and evaluating potentially long history of people shaping and interacting with environments through time. Using remote sensing, spatial modeling, natural archives in lake sediments, and field survey methods, the research in the department includes:

  • Developing river channel restoration objectives through detailed studies of channel morphology (McDowell)
  • Quantifying the riverscape through new remote sensing technology (Fonstad, Marcus)
  • Postglacial biogeography: studying the assemblages of vegetation through the large climatic changes coming out of the last glaciation through the study of lake sediments (Gavin, Bartlein)
  • Interacting natural disturbances on the landscape: drought, fire, erosion and insect outbreaks (Gavin)
  • Global-scale data syntheses of climate changes and fire occurrence (Bartlein)

    M Jackson

M Goslin

M Goslin

What kinds of jobs might a focus in Environmental Systems prepare you for?

These courses focus on developing skills in understanding the biological, climatological, and geomorphic processes that influence environments and landforms around the world. A spatial perspective will allow you to understand how these processes play out in different places, and specifically how long-term processes, including climate change, erosion, and species dispersal, shape the environments and resources that humans rely upon. Further, a spatial perspective focuses on understanding how global processes, including climate change and natural disasters, can influence local environments, and vice-versa. Physical geographers also rely on developing skills with remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems, and spatial modeling, which are highly valuable skills in today’s economy.

More specifically, people with a focus in environmental systems might look for jobs that look at environmental change in the context of the modern world, including:

  • Design plans to restore river systems;
  • Conduct field surveys of environmental change;
  • Develop plans for potential natural disasters;
  • Provide policy guidance for agricultural insurance programs;
  • Develop climate action plans for cities;
  • And more!

Some jobs titles include:

Resource Manager
Environmental Field Technician
Restoration Ecologist
Hazard Planner
Land Use Planner
Agricultural Planner
Atmospheric Scientist

Check out the Jobs for Geographers page for a few examples of current jobs and resources to search for many more!

If you have more questions about what you can do with a focus in Environmental Systems, contact Dr Leslie McLees, the Undergraduate Coordinator & Advisor at


Note: Occasionally GEOG 410 is also offered as a course that would count towards the Environmental Systems Concentration. Check the Course Offerings (the “pink sheet”) or email the Undergraduate Advisor at to clarify. 

GEOG 321. Climatology. 4 Credits.
Energy and moisture in the atmosphere, atmospheric circulation, controls of regional and microclimates, applied climatology, climatic variations, past and future climates.
Prereq: GEOG 141.

Course usage information

GEOG 322. Geomorphology. 4 Credits.
Landforming processes with emphasis on mass movements, rivers, eolian, glacial, and coastal processes. Special fee.
Prereq: GEOG 141 or GEOL 102 or 202.

Course usage information

GEOG 323. Biogeography. 4 Credits.
Relation of plants and animals to the environment, distribution of individual species, historical changes in plant distribution.
Prereq: one from GEOG 141, GEOL 103, 203, BI 370.

GEOG 360. Watershed Science and Policy. 4 Credits.
Physical and biological processes of watersheds; problems of land use, water quality, riparian zones, aquatic ecology; scientific basis of watershed management and policy. Special fee.
Prereq: GEOG 141, or GEOL 102 or 202, or BI 130 or 213.

Course usage information

GEOG 361. Global Environmental Change. 4 Credits.
Natural and human-induced environmental changes and their impact on different environmental systems. Not available to those who have taken GEOG 143.
Prereq: GEOG 141.

421/521 Advanced Climatology: [Topic] (4R) Topics in climatology, including physical climatology, dynamic and synoptic climatology, and paleoclimatology. Prereq: GEOG 321. R when topic changes. Bartlein.

423/523 Advanced Biogeography: [Topic] (4R) Selected topics in biogeography including relation of plants and animals to their environment, historical changes in plant distribution, and palynological analysis. Special fee. Prereq: GEOG 323. when topic changes. Gavin.

425/525 Hydrology and Water Resources (4) Emphasis on surface water including precipitation, evapotranspiration, surface runoff, and stream flow. Understanding and analysis of processes. Management for water supply and quality. Special fee. Prereq: GEOG 321 or 322 and MATH 112. Fonstad.

427/527 Fluvial Geomorphology (4) Hydraulics and hydrology of stream channels; channel morphology and processes; drainage network development; fluvial deposits and landforms; field and analytical methods. Required field trips. Special fee. Prereq: MATH 112; one from GEOG 322, 425, GEOL 334. McDowell.

430/530 Long-Term Environmental Change (4) Evolution of the physical landscape during the Quaternary period. Elements of paleoclimatology, paleoecology, and geomorphology. Required field trips. Special fee. Prereq: GEOG 321 or 322 or 323. Bartlein, Gavin.

432/532 Climatological Aspects of Global Change (4) Role of the climate system in global change, the Earth’s climatic history, and potential future climatic changes. Prereq: GEOG 321 or 322 or 323. Bartlein.

433/533 Fire and Natural Disturbances (4) Wildfire and other landscape disturbance processes, historical and current patterns of fire, use and management of fire. Prereq: BI 307 or GEOG 323 or BI 370. Offered alternate years. Gavin.