Lava field with snow

Past Projects

The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism was founded in 1904 to map the geomagnetic field of the Earth. Over the years the research direction shifted, but the historic goal to understand the Earth and its place in the universe has remained the same. Today the department is home to an interdisciplinary team of astronomers and astrophysicists, geophysicists and geochemists, cosmochemists and planetary scientists.

These Carnegie researchers are discovering planets outside our solar system, determining the age and structure of the solar system, and studying the causes of earthquakes and volcanoes. With colleagues from the Geophysical Laboratory, these investigators are also helping to define the new and exciting field of astrobiology.

Kerry Key Alaska

Expedition to the Aleutian Islands: Geoscientists head to remote Alaska volcanoes

  • Diana Roman (Principal Investigator)
  • Erik Hauri (Principal Investigator)
  • Amanda Lough

Akutan and Adak. Gareloi and Little Sitkin. Kanaga, Segula and Buldir: Volcanoes on Alaska's remote Aleutian Island chain. Is all quiet on this western front? Scientists will soon find out.

Many of Alaska's more than 130 volcanoes are located along the 1,550-mile-long Aleutian Arc. It extends from the Alaska mainland west toward Kamchatka, Russia, and forms the northern part of the tectonically active "ring of fire" girding the Pacific Ocean basin.

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Diana Roman


Forecasting volcanic activity requires continuous monitoring for signals of magmatic unrest in harsh, often remote environments. Furthermore, because volcanoes generally host abundant (non-volcanic) environmental noise, monitored signals must be confirmed on multiple instruments to avoid the possibility of false alarms due to a non-volcanic source of an apparent increase in a monitored signal. BENTO is a next-generation monitoring system that is highly portable, low-cost, rapidly deployable, and entirely autonomous. Such a system could be used to provide critical monitoring and data collection capabilities during rapid-onset eruptions, or to provide a crude baseline monitor at large numbers of remote volcanoes to 'flag' the onset of unrest so that costlier resources such as specialized instrumentation can be deployed in the appropriate place at the appropriate time. Ongoing field-testing and refinement of BENTO prototypes, and strategies for their deployment, in a wide range of volcanic environments, is helping to produce a reliable technology that can be incorporated into volcano monitoring activities worldwide.

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High Lave Planes of Eastern Oregon

High Lava Plains (HLP) of Eastern Oregon

Starting in 2005 and extending into 2010, the HLP project, funded by the Continental Dynamics Program of the National Science Foundation's Earth Sciences Division, seeks to establish a better understanding of why the Pacific Northwest, specifically eastern Oregon's High Lava Plains, is so volcanically active. This region, chosen for study because of its high volcanic flux (this is the most volcanically active area of the continental United States), and its relatively young age, provides the team with an interesting and challenging problem. None of the accepted paradigms explain why the magmatic and tectonic activity extend so far east of the North American plate margin. By applying numerous techniques ranging from geochemistry and petrology to active and passive seismic imaging to geodynamic modeling, the researchers will examine an assemblage of new data that will provide key information about the roles of lithosphere structure, tectonics, flat-slab subduction, slab roll-back, and plumes as instigators of aerially extensive magmatism continuing from plate margins into the interior of the continent.

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Magma Ocean

NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Carnegie Team focuses on life’s chemical and physical evolution, from the interstellar medium, through planetary systems, to the emergence and detection of life by studying extrasolar planets, solar system formation, organic rich primitive planetary bodies, deep sequestration of CHON volatiles in terrestrial planets, prebiotic molecular synthesis through geocatalysis, and the connection between planetary evolution to the emergence, and sustenance of biology. This program attempts to integrate the sweeping narrative of life’s history through a combination of bottom-up and top-down studies. On the one hand, this team studies processes related to chemical and physical evolution in plausible prebiotic environments – circumstellar disks, extrasolar planetary systems and the primitive Earth. Complementary to these bottom-up investigations of life’s origin, they will continue this field and experimental top-down efforts to document the nature of microbial life at extreme conditions, as well as the characterization of organic matter in ancient fossils. Both types of efforts inform the development of biotechnological approaches to life detection on other worlds.

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Intracontinental Deformation And Surface Uplift In Mongolia

High-elevation, low relief surfaces are common on continents. These intercontinental plateaus influence river networks, climate, and the migration of plants and animals. How these plateaus form is not clear. We are studying the geodynamic processes responsible for surface uplift in the Hangay in central Mongolia to better understand the origin of high topography in continental interiors.

This work focuses on characterizing the physical properties and structure of the lithosphere and sublithospheric mantle, and the timing, rate, and pattern of surface uplift in the Hangay. We are carrying out studies in geomorphology, geochronology, thermochronology, paleoaltimetry, biogeography, petrology, geochemistry, and seismology.

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Siberia Landscape

Siberian Traps and the End-Permian Extinction

About 252 million years ago, the largest mass extinction and the largest volcanic eruptions in Earth history occurred apparently synchronously:

  • Worldwide 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species went extinct.
  • In Siberia 6,000,000 cubic kilometers of magma erupted, enough to cover the continental U.S. to almost a mile in depth.

Is it coincidence or causality? We have a hypothesis, and it ties closely with current climate changes.

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The MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission to orbit Mercury following three flybys of that planet is a scientific investigation of the planet Mercury. Understanding Mercury, and the forces that have shaped it is fundamental to understanding the terrestrial planets and their evolution. The orbital phase will use the flyby data as an initial guide to perform a focused scientific investigation of this enigmatic world.

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