Letter to the Editor: Real Ambitions on Climate and Environment Require Attention to Fundamentals

To the Editor:

Bates’ proposal to secure five tenure-track positions, anchoring a program on climate and environment, is a bold step forward. But Bates will stumble if it overlooks the fundamentals of Geology — the foundation of geosciences — that it has provided for decades.

It may be, as Vice President and Dean Malcolm Hill, imagines, “kind of an ‘if you build it, they will come’ scenario.” However, what is certain is that Bates Geology (today called Dept. of Earth and Climate Sciences) has been “building it” and “they have been coming” to it for well over the last 35 years. Take for example, some of the work of recently retired Bates Geology Professor Mike Retelle – whose position, as of now, has been discontinued. 

Since 1987, Mike has… 

  • Supervised 108 senior theses (over 70 with honors) where students focused on various forms of past, present, and future climate and environmental change.
  • Instructed over 2,500 students in the field on data collection, scientific observation and research from the coast of Maine to the White Mountains, the Southwest, the Shetland Islands, northern Norway and most importantly the Arctic.
  • Co-founded and ran the NSF funded, Svalbard Research for Undergraduate Education Program, A High-Latitude Undergraduate Research Experience in Glacial, Marine, and Lacustrine Processes Relevant to Arctic Climate Change, now located at the University Centre in Svalbard.

Mike has left a remarkable legacy and his career has had a significant impact on shaping our own career paths. This example illustrates how the efforts of one geology professor, dedicated to field learning and geosciences, can inspire and train generations of today’s science teachers, researchers, and geoscience professors across the world—all of whom are dedicated to helping us better understand climate and the environment. Given the ambitions of Bates, we hope they also see the value in reappointing someone to this position.

Many, including ourselves, welcome a new STEM Building at Bates. And it is also good news that Bates wants to bulk hire with an interdisciplinary focus on climate and environment. But it is not such good news if Bates loses the capacity to teach about sediments and landscapes, topics foundational to studying paleoenvironments and climate change (e.g. glacial geology, sea level rise, fluvial geomorphology, coastal dynamics, limnology, palaeoclimate, post glacial rebound). It is critical for students to comprehend these processes before developing models that attempt to characterize them. This less-flashy geology is foundational to Earth and Climate Sciences – and thus a prerequisite for a holistic understanding of environmental science. Bates College would be the only Earth and Climate Science Department in the entire NESCAC without a geomorphology professor- a glaring and damaging omission. A solid investment in the future of earth, environmental, and climate education at Bates should include a geology position in earth surface processes.


PhD. Wesley R. Farnsworth (Bates Geo ‘11) Research Fellow University of Copenhagen DK

PhD.Cand. Allie Balter-Kennedy (Bates Geo ‘14) Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University NY

MSc. Lauren B. Farnsworth (Bates Geo ‘13) High School STEM Teacher, Freeport ME

PhD. Greg de Wet (Bates Geo ‘11) Assistant Professor, Geosciences Department, Smith College MA

M.Ed. Ingrid Knowles (Bates Geo ‘11) Dean of Students, Science Teacher, Brooks School MA

BSc. Daniel Frost (Bates Geo ‘05) Department Chair, High School STEM Teacher, Thornton Academy ME