Lamont Weekly Report, August 15, 2014

    In a midweek punctuation to a period when many were in the field or enjoying vacations elsewhere, a summer storm brought heavy rain and flooding to the area, including a record-setting 13.5 inches of rain within 24 hours at Islip. For those on campus, the study of our planet continued.
    On Monday afternoon, the M.A. Program in Climate and Society staged a poster session in the Monell lobby at which graduating students shared results from their summer internship and thesis experiences. The students have worked with a variety of organizations ranging from NASA and the United Nations to IRI and the Observatory.
    On Tuesday morning, Art Lerner-Lam, Miriam Cinquegrana, and I hosted a visit by Andrew Zolli, who represents PlanetLabs, a private company that is in the process of deploying a constellation of small satellites to produce a global image of Earth, at 3-5 m/pixel resolution, that is updated at least daily ( PlanetLabs will host a small workshop on the Lamont Campus next month on the humanitarian uses of space, including such topics as “how to correlate data from many sources – satellites, drones/UAVs, crowdsourced mobile data, and algorithmically derived insights – and make them useable in humanitarian response.” The goal of Andrew’s visit, beyond viewing meeting spaces for the workshop, was to begin to explore areas of common interest between PlanetLabs and our campus.
    On Tuesday afternoon, I attended a meeting hosted by Mike Purdy to continue negotiations with NASA on the completion of a Space Act Agreement to facilitate collaborative programs in research and education between Columbia University and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Also participating from Columbia were Peter Schlosser, Adrian Hill from Mike’s office, Dean of Science Amber Miller, and Associate General Counsel Ed Silver. Participating from NASA were GISS Director Gavin Schmidt and Deputy Director Ron Miller, and Piers Sellers and Andrew Falcon, respectively the Deputy Director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate and the Chief Counsel at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The group agreed that we are sufficiently close to a final version of the Space Act Agreement that the two attorneys left the meeting early to work on the language in the sections still under discussion.
    Lex van Geen and Adjunct Associate Research Scientist Jacob Mey are coauthors of a paper in last Friday’s issue of Science reporting evidence that global warming may not deplete the oxygen content of the Pacific Ocean as much as previously expected. The conventional view was that warming of the upper layers of the ocean would lower both the level of dissolved oxygen and the density, the latter change lowering the tendency for mixing with colder water at greater depth. The combined effects, along with microbial respiration, were thought to render the mid-level oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) increasingly hostile to marine life. Measurements by van Geen and Mey of the ratio of the stable isotopes of nitrogen, a proxy for ocean oxygen content, in marine sediments off southern California and northern Mexico showed instead that the ocean oxygen content increased over most of the last century. The explanation proposed in the paper, led by Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington, is that global warming over most of the last century decreased the strength of the Pacific trade winds, which decreased phytoplankton production in surface waters, reduced the flux of sinking organic matter to bacteria in the OMZ, and thereby limited microbial respiration and oxygen (
   The Summer 2014 issue of Columbia Magazine features two stories on Lamont science. There is a short piece on Bärbel Hönisch’s work on the rate and magnitude of ocean acidification during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) and their impact on marine shellfish ( The PETM, about 55 million years ago, is one of the best analogs to the modern era in terms of geologically rapid increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and surface temperature. A second and much longer article is on the forensic work of Kevin Uno on the traffic in illegal ivory, obtained from African elephants hunted since the UN declared them to be among Earth’s most endangered species. Kevin’s work involves precise carbon-isotope dating of the ivory with accelerator mass spectrometry (
    New to the Lamont Log ( this week is a video from Natalie Accardo of “stomp tests” of portable seismometers deployed in Tanzania and Malawi as part of the Study of Extension and maGmatism in Malawi aNd Tanzania (SEGMeNT) experiment led by Donna Shillington, Jim Gaherty, and colleagues from other institutions and designed to characterize magmatism and deformation along several segments of the East African Rift ( The stomping seismologists are not expected to be a major contributor to deformation in the area. A longer article was posted by Rebecca Fowler on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet page (
    Another recent addition to our web pages is a Kim Martineau story, complete with photos and a video by Kim and Francesco Fiondella (, on the field class led by Nick Christie-Blick this spring to the sedimentary rocks and extensional fault systems of Death Valley, California (where it would take seven years of average rainfall to match Islip’s one day of record rain this week). To the freshmen and sophomores in his class, Nick offers a variant of the Socratic method, posing questions that the students can answer by observation, deduction, and discussion. A geological field camp can be a life-altering experience, and Nick’s class has led more than a few students to decide on a major in the Earth and Environmental Sciences.
    Whether you’re still drying out from this week’s rains or thirsting for a drink in Death Valley, may you enjoy one of the last few weekends before the pace of the academic year accelerates sharply.