State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Pioneering Oxford Geoscientist Alex Halliday to Head Columbia University’s Earth Institute

Alex Halliday
Alex Halliday is the new director of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Photo: Oxford University

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger today announced his appointment of Alexander N. Halliday, a geochemistry professor at University of Oxford and vice president of the UK’s Royal Society, as the new Director of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Halliday’s groundbreaking work in isotope geochemistry has shaped our understanding of the formation and evolution of planets in our solar system, and the natural processes that modulate climate here on Earth.

“The work of Columbia’s Earth Institute, particularly on climate change and sustainable solutions across the globe, has never been more relevant or more urgent,” said Bollinger. “Alex Halliday is a renowned research scientist and skillful academic leader who is uniquely suited to charting the Institute’s future and its vital interdisciplinary role at the University.”

With about 400 published research papers, Halliday has been at the forefront of using mass spectrometry to measure small isotopic variations in elements found in nature, making it possible to analyze everything from meteorites to seawater to living organisms to understand the birth of our solar system, the origins of water on Earth, and how Earth’s oceans incorporate and remove elements that are key nutrients for sustaining life.

Halliday and his colleagues used a method developed in his lab, hafnium-tungsten radioactive dating, to show that Mars and most of Earth formed relatively soon after the solar system’s birth, within 10 million years of the solar system’s creation — a geological blink of an eye. They used similar radioactive-dating tools to show that the Moon emerged much later, consistent with a spectacular late collision with Earth. They also showed that the Earth and Moon are isotopically identical for key elements, unlike other planets in the solar system, indicating a strong genetic link. Last year, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) awarded Halliday one of its highest honors, the Harry Hess Medal, for this work.

“Columbia’s Earth Institute is the most distinguished and effective center of its kind in bringing so many leading researchers across disciplines together to understand and address issues facing our planet and its future,” said Halliday. “It is a critical time for us to expand the conversation about climate change and sustainability — not only among researchers in many fields, but among everyone in our society — and I could not be more enthusiastic about the opportunity to engage faculty, students, policymakers and citizens in this work at Columbia.”

Halliday has also distinguished himself as an effective leader and administrator. He helped Oxford grow into one of Europe’s largest research universities with a focus on strategic planning, faculty hiring and fundraising. As head of Oxford’s science and engineering division between 2007 and 2015, he launched several building projects, greatly expanded the number of postdoctoral research students, focused attention on diversity, and strengthened Oxford’s ties with government and the private sector. He also proposed the formation of ONE, the Oxford Networks for the Environment, linking academics across Oxford. Currently, as Vice President of the Royal Society, he has encouraged engagement between scientific researchers and those in the public and private sector on climate, energy, and other critical issues facing society.

As president of the Geochemical Society, Halliday established the Clair C Patterson Medal for environmental geochemistry. As president of the European Association of Geochemistry, Halliday ensured the organization’s financial independence and raised its prestige by expanding its annual conference and creating new awards. During his tenure at ETH-Zurich’s Department of Earth Sciences, he implemented a strategic plan for the department and helped network the university’s sustainability programs under one umbrella using Columbia’s Earth Institute as a model. Halliday earned his undergraduate degree in geology at the University of Newcastle in northeastern England, followed by a Ph.D. in physics in 1977. He was a postdoctoral scholar at the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, near Glasgow, before moving to the University of Michigan in 1986 to set up his own lab which he populated with the world’s most advanced mass spectrometers at the time. In 1998 Halliday moved to ETH-Zürich and in 2004 joined Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences.

In addition to AGU’s Harry Hess Medal, Halliday’s honors include the European Association of Geochemistry (EAG)’s Urey Award, Institute of Measurement and Control’s Oxburgh Medal for technique development in environmental science and engineering, and Geological Society of London’s Murchison Medal. He is a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a member of Academia Europaea, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, AGU, Meteoritical Society, Geochemical Society and EAG. He has served as an editor or reviewing editor for several major journals, including Science and Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters. Halliday succeeds former Earth Institute director, Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, who continues his tenure as a University Professor and Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Development.

As a professor in Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Halliday will divide his time between Columbia’s Morningside campus and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he will establish his geochemistry lab. He will start in spring 2018.

“Alex Halliday is one of the outstanding scientists of his generation,” said Donal D.C. Bradley, head of Oxford’s Division of Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences. “He has made immense contributions to the field of geochemistry and to the development of science and engineering at Oxford. We wish Alex continuing success at Columbia, and look forward to ongoing research collaborations at Oxford.”


About Columbia University Among the world’s leading research universities, Columbia University in the City of New York continuously seeks to advance the frontiers of scholarship and foster a campus community deeply engaged in the complex issues of our time through teaching, research, patient care and public service. The University is comprised of 16 undergraduate, graduate and professional schools, and four affiliated colleges and seminaries in Manhattan, and a wide array of research institutes and global centers around the world. More than 40,000 students, award-winning faculty and professional staff define the University’s underlying values and commitment to pursuing new knowledge and educating informed, engaged citizens. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the fifth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.

The Earth Institute, Columbia University, mobilizes the sciences, education and public policy to achieve a sustainable earth. Through interdisciplinary research among more than 700 scientists and researchers in diverse fields, the Institute is adding to the knowledge necessary for addressing the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. With over two dozen associated degree curricula and a vibrant fellowship program, the Earth Institute is educating new leaders to become professionals and scholars in the growing field of sustainable development. We work alongside governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals to devise innovative strategies to protect the future of our planet.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is Columbia University’s home for Earth science research. Its scientists develop fundamental knowledge about the origin, evolution and future of the natural world, from the planet’s deepest interior to the outer reaches of its atmosphere, on every continent and in every ocean, providing a rational basis for the difficult choices facing humanity.

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Joanne Davies
6 years ago

Congratulations Alex, on your new position
Just when we thought you might start to take life easy!!
Joanne and Gareth

Dave Johnson
6 years ago

The role of Columbia University’s Earth Institute is fundamental for the inseperable relationship between human society and our fragile planet. We are all forever thankful for Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ leadership as its director and liok forward to his continuous reflection on sustainability goals and the strategies to achieve them. There is also an urgent call to serve awaiting Dr. Halliday as his oversight of the EI commences in the spring. His background, achievements, and credentials are strong reasons for him to assume the role of director. Best wishes as 2017 fades into the mist and 2018 arrives with promise and hope for future success.

Jason Wilkenfeld
Jason Wilkenfeld
4 years ago

CongratulatIons on your appointment. In the early 1960’s, I was Doc Ewing’s research assistant and did a tour on the Vema. I left to pursue a more traditional career in Physics.

Jason Wilkenfeld