Earth Institute Profiles

John Mutter

Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Department of International and Public Affairs

John Mutter

John Mutter

When John Mutter’s students ask him what he did over the summer, they might be in for somewhat of a surprise.  First, he spent two months at sea as the chief scientist on a research vessel.  Exciting, but fairly standard for a top geophysicist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  The second part is where the story takes an unexpected turn: He spent a week of his summer visiting coroners and others in Louisiana and Mississippi. A highly respected global expert on the impact of natural disasters, Mutter was in Hurricane Katrina’s devastating wake.

Mutter uses his natural science training and social science intuition to examine questions concerning the role of disasters in economic development and human welfare. A question he is addressing is: “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?”  Mutter believes that this question is extremely important, as meteorological extremes are expected to increase as a result of human-induced climate change, and he is working to help those who are most vulnerable to horrific natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, Mutter leads the Earth Institute’s partnership with the UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch, researching environmental degradation as both an outcome and a driver of disasters and conflicts.  His studies range from the global analysis of disasters and development to an examination of the immediate and long-term mortality impacts of Hurricane Katrina (hence the morgue visits), where he has established a program to assess the specific vulnerabilities of communities of different social class, race, age and gender.  

Mutter also examines 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.  The general theme of his research follows the relationship between natural systems and human well-being, with particular focus on the vulnerability of poor societies to natural variations and extreme environmental conditions, as this could inform an understanding of the human response to natural changes at all scales and intensities.

How scientific advances in developed countries can be used to help people in developing countries is another major focus for Mutter. He states: “I am increasingly compelled to think about science and its role in the elevation of the world's poor.  Science is the engine that drives economic progress in the developed world, but little science is practiced in poor countries, and the benefits of our science have not come to the poor. How can science, which has brought so much to us, help elevate the poorest people on earth? With a third of the world's people living in poverty, this has become an urgent question.”

Jointly appointed as a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of International and Public Affairs, Mutter served as deputy director of the Earth Institute for five years until 2007 and is a member of its academic committee. He has also served as interim director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on two occasions and as Lamont’s executive deputy director. He directs the Earth Institute’s postdoctoral Fellows Program and is director of graduate studies for the Ph.D. in Sustainable development. “Building a strong group of young scholars dedicated to research in sustainable development is one of the most important things I hope I can do for the Earth Institute,” he says.

Mutter’s original research interests are in the natural sciences, with a focus on the use of marine seismology technologies to study processes in the formation of the earth’s crust and mantle at mid-ocean ridge and continental rift settings.  He has studied active rifting in the Woodlark Basin off Papua New Guinea and recently, as mentioned above, he spent most of the summer of 2008 as chief scientist aboard Columbia’s research vessel, the Marcus G. Langseth, conducting the first 3-D 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.

Mutter is also one of the principal investigators on the Earth Institute’s National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCE program, which is designed to create institutional change that will improve the opportunities for women in earth science and engineering at Columbia.

One of Mutter’s other current innovative projects is an Earth Clinic-funded collaborative, the Bamboo Bikes initiative, with Columbia research scientist David Ho and bicycle designer Craig Calfee.  This project addresses the need for a new type of bicycle for Africans living in remote and poor villages who must utilize bicycles for a variety of uses.  The bamboo frames are significantly tougher than people realize and actually dampen vibrations from unpaved road.  Mutter and his team hope that the bikes can aid in Africa’s use of sustainable transportation and economic development, since they are locally manufactured.  Mutter says: “Bikes made in Africa by Africans from local renewable products and designed for the needs of the rural poor can make a major difference in small farming communities’ ability to prosper from entering market economies.”

Mutter has authored or co-authored more than 80 articles in scientific journals in the natural and social sciences and many popular publications. His fieldwork included over three years at sea in all parts of the world's oceans. He holds a dual passport for both Australia and the United States, and is married to Carolyn Zehnder Mutter, assistant director for science management at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), located on the Lamont-Doherty campus. He has five children, three girls and two boys; “and they are all wonderful,” he says.

Mutter received his B.Sc. in physics and pure mathematics from the University of Melbourne, Australia in 1969, his M.Sc. in geophysics from the University of Sydney, Australia in 1978, and his Ph.D. in marine geophysics from Columbia University in 1982.