History of ESD

About the Earth Sciences Division 1977-2015

Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos announced (March 2015) the creation of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area (EESA) to position Berkeley Lab’s programs to have greater impact in environmental sciences, climate sciences, and subsurface energy resources. In October 2015, new Divisions were announced and the Earth Sciences Division moved on to become part of the evolution of the EESA organization.

The Earth Sciences Division had just reached 38 years of …creating new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable sustainable stewardship of critical environmental systems and judicious use of the Earth’s subsurface energy resources… and we look ahead to chart new science discoveries under the EESA mission, while not forgetting where it all began.

It all began with the Earth Sciences Division


Image shows micrograph thin slice of a mineral, circa 1997.

Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division (ESD) was founded in 1977, when the energy crisis of that time highlighted the need for developing alternative sources of subsurface energy. ESD was formed by assembling over 35 scientists, from UC Berkeley and other existing Berkeley Lab divisions, who brought together expertise in geophysics, hydrogeology, and geochemistry to address new subsurface energy challenges. Led by Division Director Paul Witherspoon, the early years of ESD’s research focused on geophysical characterization and numerical modeling of fracture flow, associated first with fundamental geosciences, geothermal energy exploration, and nuclear waste isolation.

ESD, since its inception, significantly contributed to environmental and subsurface energy sciences and helped to shape the associated U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) research agenda. In order to respond to identified research challenges, ESD attracted different expertise and developed new capabilities. The software codes that were developed, in the early years, to simulate subsurface geothermal reservoir processes evolved into the TOUGH suite of codes, which are now used in ~30 countries around the world. This time period also marked significant development in ESD’s analytical centers and capabilities to image the Earth’s “hidden” subsurface, including what is still known as the Geosciences Measurement Facility, the Center for Computational Geosciences, and the Center for Isotope Geochemistry.

Starting in the early 1990s, ESD played a leading national role in quantifying the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a long-term repository for the nation’s nuclear waste. Through this effort, ESD’s capability to simulate, monitor, and explore coupled thermal-hydrological-mechanical-geochemical processes, particularly in unsaturated, fractured subsurface systems, grew substantially. Over time, ESD’s expertise in the oil and gas efforts was called upon through longstanding partnerships with the industry and consists of multidisciplinary research in reservoir characterization and monitoring, optimization of reservoir performance, and environmental protection.

Based on a solid foundation developed through subsurface energy research, ESD was well poised to take on research challenges associated with environmental problems that emerged in the late 1980s to early 1990s. ESD played a significant role in shaping and contributing to DOE’s environmental remediation program, with a particular focus on in situ bioremediation of the metal and radionuclide contaminants that make up DOE’s vast stewardship of legacy waste.

This effort led to ESD’s growth in molecular microbiology, near-surface geophysics, reactive transport modeling of microbially mediated processes, and environmental synchrotron science. Also in the late 1990s, ESD became a leader in investigating many aspects of geological carbon storage, ranging from nanoscale controls of supercritical CO2 reactivity to field testing of reservoir integrity.

An increased recognition of the importance of quantifying global climate change led to the latest expansion of ESD. At the start of the millennium, ESD established a critical mass of climate scientists and terrestrial ecologists to meet this challenge, and formed strong partnerships with Berkeley Lab computational scientists to undertake demanding climate simulations.

Always Earth Sciences

The people who charted the Earth Sciences Division are now charting the research paths within one of two EESA Divisions. The Energy Geosciences Division and the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division offer a breadth of expertise of integrated teams, leading the nation in solving complex environment and energy challenges. (Click About EESA to learn more.)

Read more about the history of the Earth Sciences Division from these links: