ECOS Department - 100 Morrissey Blvd. - Boston, MA 02125

Curtis R. Olsen

Environmental Biogeochemistry
Environmental Processes Group
Environmental Forensics Lab

Office: (617) 287-7433
Fax: (617) 287-7474
  • Ph.D. Geological Sciences (Environmental Biogeochemistry) Columbia University, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, NY
  • M.Phil. Geochemistry
    Columbia University, New York, NY
  • B.A. Geology and Biology
    Columbia College, New York, NY

My research examines the dispersal and fate of contaminants in linked watershed and coastal environments, biogeochemical and environmental tracers (radionuclides and stable isotopes), and environmental remediation and management. Throughout the world, human population growth and urbanization are driving accelerated changes in environmental quality and ecosystem structure and functioning at the land/ocean interface. The distribution of radionuclides, stable isotopes, and other biogeochemical tracers (identified in the illustration) can be used to study the complex biological, chemical, physical, and geological interactions that affect the transport, cycling, and ecological fate of materials in terrestrial and aquatic systems. Natural and anthropogenic radionuclides have an advantage over other types of biogeochemical tracers because they not only serve as tracers to quantify the net effect of complex biogeochemical interactions, but they also decay with a constant half-life and serve as biogeochemical clocks to quantify the rates for environmental and ecological processes.


Although my research activities have focused on the fate of radionuclides, carbon, and trace substances in river, reservoir, estuarine, and coastal environments; I have also conducted studies on the hydrological and biogeochemical processes governing the movement of materials in watersheds. Specific research activities involve determining:

  • wet and dry deposition of atmospherically derived contaminants and their interception and retention by vegetation and soils in terrestrial systems and organisms and particles in aquatic systems;
  • contaminant runoff from watersheds;
  • contaminant migration in soils and groundwater near contaminated sites;
  • contaminant sorption or bioaccumulation rates by particles, vegetation and organisms;
  • contaminant removal rates from aquatic systems by settling particles;
  • fine-particle dynamics and sediment accumulation patterns in freshwater and coastal systems;
  • sediment mixing rates by benthic organisms;
  • records of environmental change as preserved in fine-grained sediment cores;
  • remediation alternatives for effective clean-up of contaminated sites, and,
  • ecological and human-health risks associated with environmental contamination. Research papers have been published in all of these areas.

    SGER: Exploratory Research on the Environmental Impact of the World Trade Center Attack on Sediment Quality and Dynamics in New York Harbor.

    National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project to identify the impact of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center Terrorist Attack on sediments and sedimentation in New York Harbor. Principle Investigators: Dr. Curtis R. Olsen and Dr. Sarah D. Oktay. With Dr. Daniel Brabander and Dr. John Kada.


    Radiochemical Tracers of Pollutant Pathways

    Using Be-7 and other radiochemical tracers to identify and follow pollutant pathways in the environment.


    Organic Carbon Burial in Coastal Marine Sediments

    Identifying the rate, nature, and factors affecting organic carbon burial in coastal marine sediments and its implications to the global carbon cycle.

    • Jun Zhu (Ph.D 2012)
      Estuarine and Coastal Sediment Transport and Processes
    • Brittan Wilson (Ph.D)
      Fate and effects of Triclosan in estuarine sediments

    Cooper, L. W., I. L. Larsen, C. Solis, J. M. Grebmeier, C. R. Olsen, D. K. Solomon, and R. B. Cook. 1996. Chapter 8. Isotopic Tracers for Investigating Hydrological Processes. In: Landscape Function and Disturbance in Arctic Tundra. J. F. Reynolds and J. D. Tenhunen (Eds.), Ecological Studies, V. 120, Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, pp. 165-182.

    Foster, N., C. R. Olsen, F. Cross. 1998. Integrated Science and Management for Habitat Restoration. Proceedings of the Ocean Community Conference ‘'98, Marine Technological Society. Vol. 1, Washington DC, pp. 431-435.

    Olsen, C. R., I. L. Larsen, P. J. Mulholland, K. L. Von Damm, J. M. Grebmeier, L. C. Schaffner,R. J. Diaz, and M. M. Nichols. 1993. The concept of an equilibrium surface applied to particle sources and contaminant distributions in estuarine sediments. Estuaries 16:683-696.

    Olsen, C. R., M. Thein, I. L. Larsen, P. D. Lowry, P. J. Mulholland, N. H. Cutshall, J. T. Byrd,and H. L. Windom. 1989. Plutonium, lead-210, and stable carbad-210, and stable carbon isotopes in the Savannah Estuary: Riverborne versus marine sources. Environmental Science and Technology 23:1475-1481.

    Olsen, C. R., P.D.Lowry, S.Y.Lee, I.L.Larsen, and N.H.Cutshall. 1986. Geochemical and Environmental processes affecting radionuclide migration from a formerly used seepage trench. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 50:593-607.

    Olsen, C. R., N. H. Cutshall, and I. L. Larsen. 1982. Pollutant-particle associations and dynamics in coastal marine environments: A review. Marine Chemistry 11:501-533.