John C. Mutter

I am a professor at Columbia University in New York and am involved in three distinct but inter-related sets of activities.

I am appointed in two fairly distinct departments — The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences ( and the School of International and Public Affairs (  I am also a member of the Faculty of the Earth Institute.

One way to get a sense of what I do is the interview Claudia Dreyfus did with me for the New York Times.

The first of these is a natural science department that focuses on understanding basic Earth processes, the second is Columbia’s policy school.  My research in this field is carried out at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades New York.  I have held the Earth Science appointment for more than 20 years and the policy school appointment more recently. My basic background is in physics and mathematics and later geophysics/seismology.  My appointment in a policy school began in connection with a new PhD program in Sustainable Development in SIPA.   I am presently the Director Graduate Studies for that program .   We have around thirty students in the program at present and they are studying some of the greatest challenges facing the future of our planet ( He also directs the Earth Institute’s post-doctoral Fellows Program ( that has a similar focus on the central issues of sustainable development.  My research and teaching includes areas of the basic natural sciences and others that merge  the natural and social sciences germane to the study of sustainable development especially the role of natural disasters in development.

My teaching in DEES is at graduate and undergraduate level.  I have co-taught an Introductory course in Earth Sciences most often taken by students needing to satisfy their science requirement. In that course I am able to teach about the Earth’s complex dynamic systems like earthquakes and climate variations such as El Nino to very bright undergraduates who have had little exposure to Earth Sciences – they are bright about something else (Art History maybe). I find it a challenge and a joy.  I have also taught a seminar section in the Core Curriculum course called Frontiers of Science that is now required by all Columbia College stunts in their first year.  Topics range well beyond Earth Sciences into neurobiology and quantum mechanics; real challenge for someone like most scientists who specialized early on in his career.  I also teach a graduate level course in Marine Seismology where we learn how seismic energy can be used to learn about the interior of the Earth.

In  SIPA as Director of Graduate Studies for the PhD Program in Sustainable Development I manage most academic aspects and detail issues of that program had its first intake of six students in Fall 2004.  This program provides PhD training in the intensely cross-discipline area of sustainable development with themes ranging from the economics of natural resource management to ecological preservation and its interaction with economic development.  I advise all the students in their first and second years.  I also created a teach with a group of faculty colleagues a course titled Environmental Science for Sustainable Development that is a core requirement for the PhD students.   For the last two years i have co-taught with a Heather Grady of the NGO Realizing Rights a course titled Climate Change, Rights and Development that explores the impacts and responses to climate change from a human rights perspective.  I co-teach an undergraduate version of the same course with Professor Ruth DeFries that is a core course for the undergraduate major and special concentration in sustainable development.  I developed a new undergraduate course for Spring 2011 Natural Disasters and Sustainable Development.  The course was co-taught with a social scientist, Sonali Deraniyagala and we will teach it again in Spring 2012 for SIPA and other Masters students.

I direct the Earth Institute’s post-doctoral Fellows program.  Currently there are 16 Fellows with widely ranging research interests.    “The Fellows Program is the premier program in the world for those dedicated to a better understanding of critical scientific and social issues related to meeting global sustainable development goals. Postdoctoral fellows will join multidisciplinary teams of outstanding, committed scientists from a diverse group of Earth Institute research units and departments across Columbia University” (from the EI Web site).

My research has several foci as well.  At the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory I have, since my PhD training in physics and Math and then geophysics, studied the continental margins, oceanic crust and mid-ocean ridge tectonic evolution using geophysical methods, primarily marine reflection seismology. My early research interests included the study of physical mechanisms and processes associated with seafloor spreading, continental extension and the development of passive continental margins. Initial studies focused on rifting and volcanism in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea. I continued those research thrusts with studies of active rifting in the Woodlark Basin off Papua New Guinea and other areas. Most recently I was Chief Scientist aboard Columbia’s research vessel Marcus G. Langseth conducting the first 3D seismic imaging experiment of seafloor spreading at the East Pacific Rise.  This study will reveal how magma rises from deep in the Earth’s interior to create new crust and controls the distribution of biological communities at hydrothermal vent systems.  That study had me at sea for most of the summer of 2008.

My research based at SIPA is focused on issues in sustainable development particularly extreme events and their translation into natural disasters that can harm human development prospects.   This engages my original natural science training in combination with social science intuition (especially economics) to examine questions concerning the role of disasters in economic development and human welfare.  How much of the global inequality in development status can be attributed to the particular burden that the poorest people face from natural extremes such as hurricanes and earthquakes?  This question is elevated in importance with the expectation that meteorological extremes will increase under climate change. The recent tragedy in Haiti accents plight of the poor in the face of natural catastrophes.  I lead the Earth Institute’s partnership with the UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch researching environmental degradation as both outcome and driver of disasters and conflicts.   My studies range from the global analysis of disasters and development outcomes to an examination of the immediate and long-term mortality impacts of Hurricane Katrina where  direct a program to assess the specific vulnerabilities of communities of different social class, race, age and gender ( ).  I also examine these questions through the lens of human rights, asking whether rights attainment can predict disaster outcomes such as the response to Cyclone Nagris in Myanmar and how the norms and principals of human rights can provide guidance for climate adaptation strategies.  In this regard i have worked with International Council on Human Rights Policy ICHRP on issues of Climate Change and human rights and I serve on the Board of Realizing Rights The general theme of his research follows the relationship between natural systems and human wellbeing, with particular focus on the vulnerability of poor societies to natural variations and extreme environmental conditions as it might inform an understanding of the human response to natural changes at all scales and intensities.

I have also been a principal investigators on a National Science Foundation ADVANCE program that is designed to create institutional change that will improve the opportunities for woman in Earth science and engineering at Columbia.

I co-founded the Bamboo Bike Project with David Ho ( ) that is bringing improved transportation to poor rural communities in Africa.

Until July 2007 was Deputy Director of The Earth Institute during Jeffrey Sachs’ first five years as Director.   The Institute is taking a comprehensive approach to understanding to nexus between the Earth’s environment and the nature of the human condition. It is probably no accident that most of the world’s poor people live in arid or tropical environments and suffer more from variations in natural conditions than those in the temperate zones. Perhaps an enhanced understanding of the relationship between the natural systems and human development can be used to improve the condition of the world’s poor and for the lives of all. This is a undertaking of humbling dimension and scope and I am working to apply my experience as a science manager (two terms as Interim Director at Lamont as well as its Executive Deputy Director) to this daunting but critical problem.

I received a B.Sc in Physics and Pure Mathematics from the University of Melbourne, Australia, an M.Sc in Geophysics from the University of Sydney, Australia, and a Ph.D. in Marine Geophysics from Columbia University. I was born in Melbourne, and am an Australian citizen and citizen of the U.S.

I have authored or co-authored more than 70 articles in scientific journals and many popular articles. Fieldwork includes over three years at sea on research 30 cruises aboard Columbia’s vessels and others in all parts of the world’s oceans, crossing the equator, the Arctic Circle and Antarctic Circle.


  • paul walker  On April 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    hey we’re studying your “climate change ethics: where to start” and i was wondering where the original publication came from

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