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The ‘bird’ has flown!

Tracking Antarctica's Ice Shelves - Fri, 12/02/2016 - 20:35
ROSETTA team gathered around the Alamo float as it is loaded on the plane for deployment in front of the Ross Ice Shelf.

ROSETTA team gathered around the Alamo float as it is loaded on the plane for deployment in front of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Voices are raised in celebratory cheers from the southernmost continent to across the U.S. The ‘bird’ has flown! Our first ALAMO float is deployed! Now we can begin to answer some of the big questions on this mysterious ice/ocean interface “How cold is the water in the Southern Ocean where it meets the Ross Ice Shelf? What is the salinity in that location? How deep is the water? and how do all these things change and how does it vary with time and location?

Location of the first Alamo float dropped from the LC130 for the ROSETTA Project.

Location of the first Alamo float dropped from the LC130 for the ROSETTA Project is shown in front of the Ross Ice Shelf.

This season the ROSETTA project will have our ALAMO (air-launched autonomous micro-observer) ‘bird’ on location phoning home to answer our questions; and each question will spur more questions, probing us to better understand the ocean circulation in this dynamic region. This area of the earth’s oceans is not well sampled. Elsewhere in the world we have floats and instruments that bob up and down and follow the currents as they collect information on circulation and ocean measurements. However, around the Antarctic continent we have large gaps in coverage. The seasonal sea ice interferes with the ships that are used to transport and deploy most floats, and the difficult conditions that face the floats once they are installed increases the difficulty in placing them in the Southern Ocean.

Map of the distance to the four closest floats pointing out the lack of floats around the Antarctic ocean.

Map of the distance to the four closest floats pointing out the lack of floats around the Antarctic ocean.

Five additional Alamo floats are planned to be launched in the coming days of the project. Once complete a small armada of floats will be bobbing and moving in front of the Ross Ice Shelf providing us critical information on this remote region. Because of the floating, diving and dropping involved in our Alamo floats we have named them for sea birds – snowy petrel, sooty shearwater, wandering albatross to name a few.  Some of the floats will rest quietly on the bottom and bounce up every 3 to 4 days to collect and send home some data, others will operate like our existing float following ocean circulation and once a day collecting a full profile of data to send home. The trick is to locate them where they can tell us about water moving along the front of the ice shelf yet keep them from being tugged too close to the shelf front where they might be damaged.

The first set of data from our 'sea bird'.

The first set of data from our ‘sea bird’ shows the surface water is much different than the water once you dive down in the water column.

With the first transmission we saw that the ocean temperature dropped from -1.25 C at the surface to -1.9 C at a depth of 700 meters where it touched down, and that the salinity moved from 34.4 PSU to close to 34.8 PSU in that same depth profile. As the ALAMO moves we hope to will learn about how the circulation moves along the front of the ice shelf. Each additional instrument will tell us more building our understanding of this remote area and significantly increasing our ability to model future ice movement in this region. Read more here about our Alamo!

Alamo dropped, mission complete! An image of the shadow of the LC130 as it flies across the Ross Ice Shelf. (Photo by Fabio)

Alamo dropped, mission complete! An image of the shadow of the LC130 as it flies across the Ross Ice Shelf. (Photo by Fabio)

ROSETTA is a multi-institutional project that brings together the scientists from geophysics, oceanography and geology to investigate the Ross embayment and the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. A large part of this project is operated from the air using LC130 transport aircraft and the IcePod instrument platform. To understand more about how this ice shelf fits into the larger ice surfaces of Antarctica ROSETTA is collecting a dense grid of measurements over ice – shelf thickness, surface ice measurements, the shape of the ocean floor below the ice shelf and ocean circulation around and under the ice shelf. But for the ocean circulation data there was a need to switch from aircraft to buoys.

IcePod on the side of the New York Air National Guard LC130 Skier 92, on the ice shelf in Antarctica. (Photo N. Frearson)

IcePod on the side of the New York Air National Guard LC130 Skier 92, on the edge of the ice shelf in Antarctica. (Photo N. Frearson)

The ROSETTA-Ice team consists of scientists from Lamont-Doherty, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Colorado College, Earth and Space Research, and New Zealand’s GNS Science. Funding for the larger project comes from National Science Foundation  Antarctic Integrated System Science , and the George and Betty Moore Foundation. The Alamo buoys were made possible with support from the Old York Foundation, Scripps, and a crowdfunding project. You can read about earlier seasons of ROSETTA here

Project link: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/rosetta

Extreme Tornado Outbreaks Are Becoming More Extreme - Climate Central

Featured News - Thu, 12/01/2016 - 16:06
Tornado outbreaks have become more extreme in recent decades, potentially related to climate change, but not for the expected reasons, according to a new study from Lamont's Chiara Lepore.

AGU 2016: Key Events From the Earth Institute

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Tue, 11/29/2016 - 13:52

Scientists at Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important findings at this year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Below, a guide, in rough chronological order. Unless otherwise noted, scientists are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. For abstracts, see the Meeting ProgramReporters may contact scientists directly, or science news editor Kevin Krajick, kkrajick@ei.columbia.edu 917-361-7766.

                                                             * * *

 Surprising U.S. Drinking-Water Dangers   Maura Allaire, Columbia Water Center
Following revelations that the Flint, Mich., water supply was laced with lead, it became obvious that the nation has no long-term picture of water-supply problems. Allaire has assembled one, examining EPA violations in all 50,000 community systems back to the 1980s. She found some 1,000 violations for excess lead or copper−but sewage-linked bacteria (27,000 violations), and fertilizer-linked nitrate (15,700) are even more prevalent. Known violations are probably only part of the picture, she says.
Monday, Dec. 12, 8:45am-9:00am, 104 Moscone South.   PA11E-04
Water Quality Concerns Beyond Flint

 Climate Change, Air Pollution and Health  Patrick Kinney, Mailman School of Public Health
Kinney, an expert on climate and human health, assesses how rising temperatures may create more U.S. air pollution. Ozone, which forms faster in hotter conditions, is projected to climb unless more controls are put on products of combustion. Wildfires will increase as climate warms, and the damaging fine particulates they produce will increase in step. This may in fact already be happening, according to recent measurements in California. Monday, Dec. 12, 10:50am-11:05am, 2020 Moscone West.   GC12A-03

 The Fate of Himalayan Glaciers   Joshua Maurer
The picture of how climate is affecting Himalayan glaciers is blurred, because most studies focus on specific regions and timeframes. Now, Maurer and colleagues have assembled a record of long-term change across wide areas by consistently processing data ranging from declassified 1970s spy-satellite imagery to the latest remote observations. They see widespread dynamic retreat of clean-ice glaciers and down-wasting of debris-covered ones. In particular, glaciers calving into proglacial lakes are undergoing pronounced retreat.
Monday, Dec 12, 1:40pm-6:00pm, Moscone South Posters.   C13D-0869

2016_07_31-21_58_31_566-CDT

 Vegetation Changes in a Drying Southwest   Justin Mankin, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Models predict that the U.S. Southwest will dry significantly in coming decades, due to warming, and this appears to already be underway. Most studies have looked only at the surface effects, but Mankin looks both on and under the ground, from standing vegetation to 3 meters into the soil. Vegetation may become more efficient at drawing up water—but that efficiency may dry out the soil even more.
Monday, Dec. 12, 5:15pm-5:30pm, 3003 Moscone West.   GC14B-06

 Can We Geoengineer the Mantle?    Peter Kelemen
Most proposed methods for removing carbon from the air require extensive infrastructure and energy. Geochemist Kelemen proposes to harness natural processes in seawater and sub-seafloor mantle rocks to take in vast amounts of carbon, using little of either. The process would pipe carbon-poor water from mantle rocks to the sea surface; rapid reactions would then turn atmospheric carbon to a limestone-like solid that would sink. Kelemen and colleagues are working in Oman to explore the scheme.
Tuesday, Dec. 13, 9:30am-9:45am, 3003 Moscone West. GC21J-07
Story/photo essay on Kelemen’s work in Oman | Turning CO2 to Stone

 Great Debate: Do We Really Need Geoscientists?
What is the role of geoscientists? What are they good for, or not? How do we suggest vocations to young people? Panelists include Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University; Laura Guertin of Pennsylvania State University; Yoshisuke Kumano of Japan’s Shizuoka University; and Peter Kelemen of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The event will be webcast.
Tuesday Dec 13, 4:10pm-5:50pm, 2020 Moscone West 2020.   U24A

 The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Party
Traditionally on Tuesday night, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences gather staff and the many alumni now at other institutions worldwide. Journalists covering AGU are welcome—a great chance to make friends, hear informally about new work and have fun.
Tuesday Dec 13, 6:30pm-8:30pm (or beyond), San Francisco Marriott Union Square, 480 Sutter Street, Union Square Ballroom – Mezzanine

 Too Hot to Work Timothy Foreman  Ph.D. Program in Sustainable Development
Warming climate is projected to heighten vector-borne diseases, human mortality and civil conflict. Foreman looks at another potential problem: worker productivity, which he says may drop sharply in countries that are already hot and humid. His behavior study in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua finds that a 1-degree C increase reduces each worker’s output up to an hour a day. The effect is strongest in the poorest, hottest places.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 8:00am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters.   PA31B-2202

Future El Niño Mark Cane
Cane, who co-created the first working predictive model of the Niño-Southern Oscillation, will address the big questions still surrounding the world’s most powerful weather maker. In 1986, there was only one model; now there are 40, but forecasting still often falls short. Why is ENSO still so unpredictable? Do we even know how potentially predictable it is? And what will become of it in the next century, as background temperatures warm?
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 1:40pm-1:55pm, 3006 Moscone West.   A33N-01

glacier

 Greenland’s Glacial Earthquakes Are Booming Kira Olsen
In Greenland, earthquakes generated by icebergs calving off marine glaciers are multiplying fast. From 1993-2010, 305 events were recorded. 2011-2013 saw 145 more, boosting the earthquake catalog by nearly half. Seismicity has risen especially in western Greenland, and activity has started up in at least one previously quiescent glacier. Such marine fronts now account for half of Greenland’s yearly ice loss.
Wednesday, Dec 14, 1:40pm-6:00pm, Moscone South Posters.   C33C-0839
Glacial quakes may help forecast sea level  / Quakes point to rising temperatures

 Taking the Pulse of the Mid-Ocean Ridges Maya Tolstoy
In this year’s Birch Lecture, marine geophysicist Tolstoy discusses recent surprising findings about the mid-ocean ridges. They are generally viewed as churning out seafloor at a steady rate, but evidence now suggests their activity may wax and over a wide variety of time scales, due to factors including orbital cycles and changing sea level. If seafloor spreading is not steady, geochemical cycles including the carbon cycle probably are not, either.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 4:15pm-5:00pm, 104 Moscone South.   T34A-01

 Systematic Groundwater Changes Linked to Fracking Beizhan Yan
In the first broad study of its kind, Yan and colleagues have shown consistent changes in groundwater chemistry near hydraulic fracturing wells in Pennsylvania. Common substances are found at higher levels, including calcium, chlorine and sulfates–possible harbingers of more dangerous changes to come. Yan gives an update on data from this area, and how water quality compares with that in adjacent New York, where fracking is banned.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 4:45pm-5:00pm, 3014 Moscone West. HC34C-04
Study Links Groundwater Changes to Fracking

 Southern Pine Beetles Heading North  Radley Horton, Center for Climate Systems Research
In coming decades, warmer winters are expected to allow the northward spread of many cold-limited insects, including the destructive southern pine beetle, already making inroads in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Horton presents the first projections of future spread, which he says will be rapid. He predicts that by midcentury, the beetles will be in vast, previously unaffected forests across the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. Effects could include threats to the timber industry and biodiversity.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 5:00pm-5:15pm, 3012 Moscone West.   GC34A-05

 Understanding Giant Landslides With Seismology Lucia Gualtieri
Lamont seismologists can now detect landslides in real time by the seismic waves they produce. Gualtieri looks at North America’s largest since the collapse of Mt. St Helens: an October 2015 slide at Icy Bay, Alaska, when some 150 million tons of rock slid into a remote fjord. No one died, but it created a 600-foot-high tsunami and remade the landscape. Seismology is shedding light on the dynamics of slides and slide hazards.
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 5:30pm-5:45pm, 306 Moscone West.   NH34B-07
The Icy Bay landslide  / Icy Bay and other Alaska landslides

 Newly Found Meltwater Rivers in Antarctica   Jonathan Kingslake, Robin Bell
Surface meltwater streams have helped lead to the shocking collapses of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula. Up to now, such streams have been thought to exist mainly within the peninsula’s ice shelves, in the northernmost, warmest part of Antarctica. But new satellite imagery and field observations show they are widespread, with drainages snaking through landbound ice to within a few hundred miles of the South Pole, where this was thought to be impossible. Kingslake discusses what drives them. He predicts streams will soon proliferate if the continent warms, possibly leading to unexpectedly fast ice disintegration.
Friday, Dec. 16, 5:15pm-5:30pm, 3007 Moscone West.   C54A-06

Volcanoes: Coming to New England?   William Menke
Some 30 years ago, geophysicists detected a 400-kilometer-wide anomaly under parts of New England and eastern New York, where the mantle is unusually hot. It was assumed to be the remnant of a hot spot that moved on some 130 million years ago. Now, based on new seismic images and signs of helium making its way up to lakebeds, Menke says the feature is an active upwelling–hot and shallow enough to create lava. Similar features may underlie other parts of the East Coast.
Friday, Dec. 16, 8am-12:20pm, Moscone South Posters.   T51G-3012

1

 Films From the Field
Lamont-Doherty scientists gather data on every continent and every ocean. Short films on some projects will be shown at the AGU Cinema; others can be viewed online. Some of the most recent:
Between the Trees and the Tundra In northern Alaska, a team studies trees at the edge of their range, and how they may respond to climate change.
Quizapu, a Great Chilean Volcano An expedition to study the blasted, remote terrain that is the source of some of South America’s biggest eruptions.
Seeking Humanity’s Roots A journey to the desert of northwest Kenya, where scientists are finding the oldest known human remains and artifacts.
At Sea With the R/V Marcus G. Langseth The United States’ flagship vessel for seismic exploration is opening new vistas into the deep structure of the seabed.
The Largest Mass Poisoning in History Scientists investigate how arsenic has seeped into the drinking water of millions of Bangladeshis, causing a public-health catastrophe.
AGU Cinema: Short Films on Science. 101 Moscone South. Monday-Wednesday, 8am-3:30 pm. Thursday, 8am-6pm. Friday 8am-noon.

My Trip to the Bottom of the Sea

Cruising to an OASIS - Sat, 11/26/2016 - 08:48
The view of life on the sea floor at Avery Seamount from the windows of a research submarine. Photo courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), co-chief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

The view of life on the sea floor at Avery Seamount as Bridgit Boulahanis saw it from the portholes of a research submarine. Seafloor photos courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), co-chief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

By Bridgit Boulahanis

The biggest question driving the OASIS mission is simple: how old are the lava flows along the 8°20’N Seamount Chain. Answering that question is far from simple, requiring a plethora of data, multitudinous methods of sample collection, and many experts in order to conduct the analysis.

We can get information about the magnetic polarity of the rocks below us from our magnetometer, allowing us to understand the relative age of the seafloor in relation to known magnetic pole reversals. We can use shipboard multibeam and autonomous underwater vehicle multibeam to gain an idea of the character of the seafloor we survey, generating maps of the major features and preliminary analysis of the sediment cover in the region. We can use dredges, large metal baskets lowered overboard with weights, to pick up rocks across a broad area in order to characterize the chemical composition of lavas in that region. Each of these forms of data collection is adds an important piece to the puzzle we are trying to solve.

However, the most exciting form of data collection is the sampling we can do with Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin. Alvin allows us to get precise samples of specific lava flows and morphological features, ensuring that we know exactly where the rocks we chemically analyze come from. Beyond its incredible sampling capabilities, it is the most exciting way to learn about the seafloor. Last week, I had my first opportunity to dive in the submersible, and while the science is what drew me here, it was the thrill of seeing firsthand what was on the bottom of the ocean that had me wide awake many hours before launch, standing on deck as the sun came up, staring over the side into the depths that I would soon be exploring. In the morning air it was hard to imagine that soon I would be under thousands of meters of water, seeing with my own eyes what I have been studying for years.

Bridgit Boulahanis and Mike Perfit prepare for their dive to the seamount. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis and Mike Perfit prepare for their dive to the seamount, with the research submarine in the background. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

After a small breakfast and what felt like years of excited pacing, we entered the submersible. I was diving with Alvin pilot Jefferson Grau and Dr. Mike Perfit, Distinguished Professor of Geology at University of Florida. The tight space that makes up the human occupied space of Alvin has just enough room for three, and so as the submersible was lowered into the sea off of the R/V Atlantis, we settled in for a cozy nine hours.

After bobbing with the waves on the surface for several minutes as the pilot and crew did their final safety checks, we began our descent. Almost immediately upon leaving the surface the motion of the waves faded away and the submarine felt still enough to almost trick me into believing we weren’t moving at all. However, soon the bright blue of the shallow ocean faded to the black of the deep, and bursts of bioluminescence surrounded the submersible. More seasoned colleagues had told me that I should keep an eye out for bioluminescence, but there was so much of it that it would have been hard to miss! It looked as if we were descending through a field full of fireflies, with occasional fireworks popping up as we passed larger organisms bursting out of the darkness.

It took us almost 90 minutes to reach the seafloor, and I spent the entire time looking out the two portholes I could reach from my side of the submersible. I was already enamored with the experience, and we hadn’t even gotten to the ocean bottom. During our final approach we turned on all of Alvin’s external lights, suddenly bringing daytime to a previously eternally dark part of the world. Jefferson and Dr. Perfit, both veterans of Alvin exploration, advised that I look out my side porthole to catch the soonest glimpse of the seafloor. For several minutes I waited, staring down to where light blue faded to darkness. Then, suddenly, it was there – sandy sediment extending in every direction with pillow basalts peaking out around.

A red shrimp swims into view beside basalts on the seafloor. Photo courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), cochief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

A red shrimp swims into view among basalts on the seafloor.

Immediately we began collecting samples of the rocks around us using Alvin’s two manipulator arms, while writing descriptions of the area and recording audio descriptions of everything we saw. Following a dive track laid out before our descent, we traversed up the side of Avery Seamount while noting the characteristics of everything we passed. Dr. Perfit pointed out rocks for Jefferson to sample, while I operated cameras to ensure we attained high quality footage of each sampling location. Our conversations were filled with preliminary analysis, with Dr. Perfit guiding me in identifying the differences between the various rocks outside our window.

Midway through our dive we came to a steep wall approximately 30 meters high, a cliff face at a 90 degree angle to the seafloor. Even in the best multibeam maps of the ocean floor we cannot represent such rapid depth changes accurately – our sonar will smooth even the largest crags automatically, making knowing about these sorts of cliff faces elusive without underwater vehicles. Despite my years of looking at these maps, I never pictured vertical cliffs rising off of the seafloor. To say this realization rocked my world would not be hyperbole, but it would be a bad pun.

Our dive track took us past the steep wall, and so Alvin rose up, floating along the cliff face that seemed to climb endlessly from the sediment below. Soon the dark pillow basalts became speckled with sea life – corals and anemones, starfish and sponges. Everywhere we looked, life was not only present but appeared to be thriving. While as geologists and geophysicists we do not sample any of the living organisms we find, it was very exciting to see, and we noted their location to pass on to biologist colleagues who might return.

Alvin’s sample basket was almost completely full by the time we approached the summit of Avery Seamount, and we spent our last moments on the seafloor extracting one last rock for later analysis. Though the dive lasted its full nine hours, it passed far too quickly. Too soon we were rising to the surface, passing back up through the bioluminescence and the lightening shades of blue until we were again hoisted on board the ship.

Basalt and sediment on the sea floor, as seen from the research submarine.

Basalt, sediment, and sea life on the sea floor, as seen from the research submarine.

Upon exiting Alvin we were met with a cheering science party, a tradition every time the submersible comes back on deck. After applause and hugs we scientists did what we do best – got straight to work on the analysis. We classified the samples we had collected and began the description and photography process, logging each rock carefully so when they get back to a laboratory on land the geochemists have all of the information they might need.

The descriptions and samples we collected while on the bottom will help us to characterize how old Avery Seamount might be, providing valuable insight into the processes that formed this expansive seamount chain. Having contributed to increasing scientific understanding in such a hands on way is absolutely thrilling. Now when I look over the edge of the ship it is impossible not to picture of the varied terrain that must be slipping past me deep below, teeming with life and calling out for me to visit again soon.

Bridgit Boulahanis after the dive. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis after the dive. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is in the eastern Pacific Ocean aboard the R/V Atlantis on an expedition to investigate a chain of submarine volcanoes along the East Pacific Rise. Learn more about the expedition in her blog and on the OASIS Facebook page and YouTube channel.

My Trip to the Bottom of the Sea

Mountains Under the Sea - Sat, 11/26/2016 - 08:48
The view of life on the sea floor at Avery Seamount from the windows of a research submarine. Photo courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), co-chief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

The view of life on the sea floor at Avery Seamount as Bridgit Boulahanis saw it from the portholes of a research submarine. Seafloor photos courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), co-chief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

By Bridgit Boulahanis

The biggest question driving the OASIS mission is simple: how old are the lava flows along the 8°20’N Seamount Chain. Answering that question is far from simple, requiring a plethora of data, multitudinous methods of sample collection, and many experts in order to conduct the analysis.

We can get information about the magnetic polarity of the rocks below us from our magnetometer, allowing us to understand the relative age of the seafloor in relation to known magnetic pole reversals. We can use shipboard multibeam and autonomous underwater vehicle multibeam to gain an idea of the character of the seafloor we survey, generating maps of the major features and preliminary analysis of the sediment cover in the region. We can use dredges, large metal baskets lowered overboard with weights, to pick up rocks across a broad area in order to characterize the chemical composition of lavas in that region. Each of these forms of data collection is adds an important piece to the puzzle we are trying to solve.

However, the most exciting form of data collection is the sampling we can do with Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin. Alvin allows us to get precise samples of specific lava flows and morphological features, ensuring that we know exactly where the rocks we chemically analyze come from. Beyond its incredible sampling capabilities, it is the most exciting way to learn about the seafloor. Last week, I had my first opportunity to dive in the submersible, and while the science is what drew me here, it was the thrill of seeing firsthand what was on the bottom of the ocean that had me wide awake many hours before launch, standing on deck as the sun came up, staring over the side into the depths that I would soon be exploring. In the morning air it was hard to imagine that soon I would be under thousands of meters of water, seeing with my own eyes what I have been studying for years.

Bridgit Boulahanis and Mike Perfit prepare for their dive to the seamount. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis and Mike Perfit prepare for their dive to the seamount, with the research submarine in the background. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

After a small breakfast and what felt like years of excited pacing, we entered the submersible. I was diving with Alvin pilot Jefferson Grau and Dr. Mike Perfit, Distinguished Professor of Geology at University of Florida. The tight space that makes up the human occupied space of Alvin has just enough room for three, and so as the submersible was lowered into the sea off of the R/V Atlantis, we settled in for a cozy nine hours.

After bobbing with the waves on the surface for several minutes as the pilot and crew did their final safety checks, we began our descent. Almost immediately upon leaving the surface the motion of the waves faded away and the submarine felt still enough to almost trick me into believing we weren’t moving at all. However, soon the bright blue of the shallow ocean faded to the black of the deep, and bursts of bioluminescence surrounded the submersible. More seasoned colleagues had told me that I should keep an eye out for bioluminescence, but there was so much of it that it would have been hard to miss! It looked as if we were descending through a field full of fireflies, with occasional fireworks popping up as we passed larger organisms bursting out of the darkness.

It took us almost 90 minutes to reach the seafloor, and I spent the entire time looking out the two portholes I could reach from my side of the submersible. I was already enamored with the experience, and we hadn’t even gotten to the ocean bottom. During our final approach we turned on all of Alvin’s external lights, suddenly bringing daytime to a previously eternally dark part of the world. Jefferson and Dr. Perfit, both veterans of Alvin exploration, advised that I look out my side porthole to catch the soonest glimpse of the seafloor. For several minutes I waited, staring down to where light blue faded to darkness. Then, suddenly, it was there – sandy sediment extending in every direction with pillow basalts peaking out around.

A red shrimp swims into view beside basalts on the seafloor. Photo courtesy of P. Gregg (U. Illinois), D. Fornari (WHOI), M. Perfit (U. Florida), cochief scientists of OASIS cruise AT37-05 on RV Atlantis funded by the National Science Foundation. Image taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems. Copyright WHOI.

A red shrimp swims into view among basalts on the seafloor.

Immediately we began collecting samples of the rocks around us using Alvin’s two manipulator arms, while writing descriptions of the area and recording audio descriptions of everything we saw. Following a dive track laid out before our descent, we traversed up the side of Avery Seamount while noting the characteristics of everything we passed. Dr. Perfit pointed out rocks for Jefferson to sample, while I operated cameras to ensure we attained high quality footage of each sampling location. Our conversations were filled with preliminary analysis, with Dr. Perfit guiding me in identifying the differences between the various rocks outside our window.

Midway through our dive we came to a steep wall approximately 30 meters high, a cliff face at a 90 degree angle to the seafloor. Even in the best multibeam maps of the ocean floor we cannot represent such rapid depth changes accurately – our sonar will smooth even the largest crags automatically, making knowing about these sorts of cliff faces elusive without underwater vehicles. Despite my years of looking at these maps, I never pictured vertical cliffs rising off of the seafloor. To say this realization rocked my world would not be hyperbole, but it would be a bad pun.

Our dive track took us past the steep wall, and so Alvin rose up, floating along the cliff face that seemed to climb endlessly from the sediment below. Soon the dark pillow basalts became speckled with sea life – corals and anemones, starfish and sponges. Everywhere we looked, life was not only present but appeared to be thriving. While as geologists and geophysicists we do not sample any of the living organisms we find, it was very exciting to see, and we noted their location to pass on to biologist colleagues who might return.

Alvin’s sample basket was almost completely full by the time we approached the summit of Avery Seamount, and we spent our last moments on the seafloor extracting one last rock for later analysis. Though the dive lasted its full nine hours, it passed far too quickly. Too soon we were rising to the surface, passing back up through the bioluminescence and the lightening shades of blue until we were again hoisted on board the ship.

Basalt and sediment on the sea floor, as seen from the research submarine.

Basalt, sediment, and sea life on the sea floor, as seen from the research submarine.

Upon exiting Alvin we were met with a cheering science party, a tradition every time the submersible comes back on deck. After applause and hugs we scientists did what we do best – got straight to work on the analysis. We classified the samples we had collected and began the description and photography process, logging each rock carefully so when they get back to a laboratory on land the geochemists have all of the information they might need.

The descriptions and samples we collected while on the bottom will help us to characterize how old Avery Seamount might be, providing valuable insight into the processes that formed this expansive seamount chain. Having contributed to increasing scientific understanding in such a hands on way is absolutely thrilling. Now when I look over the edge of the ship it is impossible not to picture of the varied terrain that must be slipping past me deep below, teeming with life and calling out for me to visit again soon.

Bridgit Boulahanis after the dive. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis after the dive. Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari.

Bridgit Boulahanis, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is in the eastern Pacific Ocean aboard the R/V Atlantis on an expedition to investigate a chain of submarine volcanoes along the East Pacific Rise. Learn more about the expedition in her blog and on the OASIS Facebook page and YouTube channel.

paprica on the cloud

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Fri, 11/25/2016 - 22:15

This is a quick post to announce that paprica, our pipeline to evaluate community structure and conduct metabolic inference, is now available as an Amazon Machine Instance (AMI) on the cloud.  The AMI comes with all dependencies required to execute the paprica-run.sh script pre-installed.  If you want to use it for paprica-build.sh you’ll have to install pathway-tools and a few additional dependencies.  I’m new to the Amazon EC2 environment, so please let me know if you have any issues using the AMI.

If you are new to Amazon Web Services (AWS) the basic way this works is:

  • Sign up for Amazon EC2 using your normal Amazon log-in
  • From the AWS console, make sure that your region is N. Virginia (community AMI’s are only available in the region they were created in)
  • From your EC2 dashboard, scroll down to “Create Instance” and click “Launch Instance”
  • Now select the “Community AMIs”
  • Search for paprica-ec2, then “Select”
  • Choose the type of instance you would like to run the AMI on.  This is the real power of AWS; you can tailor the instance to the analysis you would like to run.  For testing choose the free t2.micro instance.  This is sufficient to execute the test files or run a small analysis (hundreds of reads).  To use paprica’s parallel features select an instance with the desired number of cores and sufficient memory.
  • Click “Review and Launch”, and finish setting up the instance as appropriate.
  • Log onto the instance, navigate to the paprica directory, execute the test file(s) as described in the paprica tutorial.

Retreat of Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier Began Around 1940s - Space Daily

Featured News - Fri, 11/25/2016 - 12:00
New research by an international team, including scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, shows that the present thinning and retreat of Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica is part of a climatically forced trend that was triggered around the 1940s. Even when climate forcing weakened, ice-sheet retreat continued, the scientists found.

‘Ghost ice shelves’ and the third Antarctic Ice Sheet

Tracking Antarctica's Ice Shelves - Thu, 11/24/2016 - 09:46
A snow covered mountain peak in the Antarctic Peninsula reaches skyward some 7000 ft. into the air. (Photo M. Turrin)

A snow covered mountain peak in the Antarctic Peninsula reaches skyward some 7000 ft. into the air. The shine on the mountain surface on the right side of the image shows sections of exposed ice, the results of foehn winds that develop on the Peninsula. Foehn winds are dry, warm downslope winds on the lee side of a mountain range resulting in limited new snow addition. The result here is large sections of exposed blue ice. (Photo M. Turrin)

The Antarctica Peninsula has been referred to as Antarctica’s third ice sheet. Following behind the East and West Antarctic ice sheet in size, one might be inclined to minimize its importance in the effects of melting Antarctic ice, on changes in sea level and other impacts, but that would be an imprudent mistake. The peninsula is Antarctica’s most northern spit of land; like a crooked finger it stretches out beckoning towards the southern tip of South America and her warmer climate. In prior time the edges would have been completely buffered from contact with the surrounding ocean by an extensive series of ice shelves – some are now ‘ghost shelves’.

 M. Turrin)

The ice on the Antarctic Peninsula spills from high mountains down to flat reaches of ice and then into ice shelves that buffer the ice edges from the ocean water. (Photo: M. Turrin)

Today this thin extension of ice-covered mountains is the section of Antarctica most exposed to the warming ocean; the water literally surrounds the land, chafing against the ice where it spills from land into the ocean. This contact between the Peninsula ice and warming ocean water has resulted in a series of ‘ghost ice shelves’ and their loss is having a measurable effect on land ice loss.

This spectacular mountain range dominates the skyline in the Peninsula. (Photo M. Turrin)

This spectacular mountain range dominates the skyline in the southeastern Peninsula. (Photo M. Turrin)

The topographic relief on the Peninsula is breath taking. With mountains topping out at 7000-8000 feet of elevation it offers a profound contrast to the flattened ice shelves and gentle sloping regions that carry ice in the areas we have surveyed around the Amundsen Embayment. The ice mounds up high on the tops of the Peninsula peaks, in some regions burying them almost entirely and in others the ice is sharply cut back on the exposed rock to show meters of stacked ice layers and sections of older blue ice peering out under the the newer layers.

Mountains are buried under deep layers of ice. The shadow of the DC8 can be seen against the mountain. (Photo M. Turrin)

Mountains are buried under deep layers of ice. The ice drapes over the peaks with patches of ‘blue ice’ peaking through where surface snow has been removed exposing the compressed glacial ice. The shadow of the DC8 can be seen against the mountain. (Photo M. Turrin)

Like other regions of Antarctica the ice is slowed in its descent from land to the ocean by the presence of ice shelves, but along the peninsula these ice shelves have been undergoing change and loss over many years. Some, like Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, are already gone – ‘ghost shelves’ – just a glaciologists footnote. Once the most northern ice shelf on Antarctica, Prince Gustav Ice Shelf was situated along side Larsen A until it began a long decline and finally disappeared mid 1990s; the first of the Peninsula ice shelves to be lost. Others, while remaining attached to the shoreline, are significantly reduced from their earlier size, like Wordie Ice Shelf, a small portion of which remains resting along the western base of the peninsula, sitting just north of the rapidly thinning and retreating ice on the George VI ice shelf.

 AntarcticGlaciers.org)

Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves located on MODIS satellite imagery. The Prince Gustav Ice Shelf would have been just north of what is labeled Larsen A. (Source: AntarcticGlaciers.org)

Surveying the Antarctic Peninsula and her ice shelves is a multi-flight mission for IceBridge. Over the course of approximately a half dozen missions the instrument teams will survey along the edges from the southwestern end at Stange Ice Shelf up and around to the southeastern edge at the Larsen D ice shelf. The peninsula center will also be covered with a dense series of flight lines taking us between the towering peaks where the glacial terrain begins and ends with buffering ice shelves at sea level.

 M. Turrin

Peninsula mountain face, again showing the exposed blue ice from heavy winds that buffet the peninsula. (Photo: M. Turrin)

Lamont’s roll in the larger IceBridge project is the collection of the gravity measurements. While the other instruments tell us details about the changes occurring now, such as loss of ice elevation and changes in ice thickness, the gravimeter is the only instrument we carry onboard that can give us the critical information needed to build models of future change. Understanding the space that lies under the ice shelves, how ocean circulation patterns might direct warm water into that space, and how the cavity space is shaped where the ice goes afloat (grounding line) is all crucial information for predicting the future stability of each ice shelf, and ultimately the ice on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Antarctic Peninsula looks almost like a painting in this photo as the sun settles low on the horizon. (Photo M. Turrin)

The Antarctic Peninsula looks almost like a painting in this photo as the sun settles low on the horizon. (Photo M. Turrin)

IceBridge: Since 2009, the NASA IceBridge project has brought together science teams to monitor and measure each of the ice features in order to improve our understanding of changes in the climate system and our models. Lamont-Doherty, under lead scientists Jim Cochran and Kirsty Tinto, has led up the gravity and magnetics measurements for these campaigns. You can read about earlier IceBridge expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland on State of the Planet, here and here.

Two other project links: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge

http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/rosetta

Big Droughts, Forest Fires Could Be the New Normal in Appalachia - PBS NewsHour

Featured News - Tue, 11/22/2016 - 12:00
Wildfires have burned more than 100,000 acres across seven states since late October in the southern Appalachian Mountains, typically a wet region. NewsHour talked with Lamont's Park Williams, who said conditions at the epicenter of the drought rivaled conditions typically witnessed in the American West.

Planned Burns in West Vital to Restoring Forests - Arizona Star

Featured News - Mon, 11/21/2016 - 09:41
Records show that “when there is fuel on the landscape and you dry it out, then fire is inevitable,” Lamont's Park Williams says. His recent research explores the role of rising global temperatures.

Smudged Volcanic Crystals Offer Clues to Past Eruptions - Science

Featured News - Thu, 11/17/2016 - 12:00
Volcanic crystals can act like clocks, telling researchers how soon a volcano erupted after its last pulse of magma. Lamont's Terry Plank talks with Science about "crystal clocks" and measuring the speed of rising magma.

Antarctica's Southern Ocean May No Longer Help Delay Global Warming - Nature

Featured News - Wed, 11/16/2016 - 12:00
Researchers are studying the ocean's carbon dynamics to improve predictions for sea level and temperature rise. “New technologies are allowing us access to these remote areas, and we are far less dependent on driving a ship through the sea ice," Lamont oceanographer Arnold Gordon told Nature magazine.

Photo Essay: Where the Trees Meet the Tundra

Beneath the Alaskan Tundra - Wed, 11/16/2016 - 10:36

Due to warming climate and increasing human exploitation, far northern forests and the tundra beyond are undergoing rapid changes. In northern Alaska, scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other institutions are studying trees at the very edge of their range to understand what to expect in coming decades. READ THE FULL SCIENTIFIC STORY  or   SEE A VIDEO

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In northern Alaska, just past the arctic circle, boreal forest begins giving way to tundra. The largest ecological transition zone on earth, the so-called tree line circles the globe for more than 8,300 miles. On a June evening, Lamont-Doherty ecologist Natalie Boelman observes fast-changing weather closing in. This region is reached via the Dalton Highway, one of the few North American roads that reach this far. Built in the 1970s to serve the arctic-coast oil fields, it ends more than 500 miles beyond Fairbanks, the nearest city. The Alaska pipeline, which channels oil southward, parallels the road to the right. Further north, in a valley at the very edge of tree line in the mountains of the Brooks Range, scientists set up a laser-powered LiDAR camera to survey an acre or so. Its highly detailed 3D map of vegetation will provide information on subtle differences in topography and other elements that may allow trees to survive, or not. Lamont-Doherty plant physiologist Kevin Griffin examines a spruce, the only kind of tree capable of growing here. “If temperatures keep warming, species might change, and trees might be able to grow further north,” says Griffin. “If that happens, there will be a whole suite of consequences for ecosystems.” The tree line is altitudinal as well as latitudinal; trees living in valleys can’t survive higher elevations. Here on a windswept mountaintop above one of the team’s study sites, only plants typical of the lowland tundra further north hang on. Lamont-Doherty grad student Johanna Jensen installs a dendrometer, which will record minute changes in this spruce trunk’s diameter over the next three years. The trunk may swell or shrink daily depending on the flow of nutrients and light; if the season is mild, it may even grow a bit. Just beyond the trees, team leader Jan Eitel of the University of Idaho installs a  sensor to record total radiation reaching the plot—a key factor in plant growth. Boelman prepares to test a tree’s capacity to use sunlight for photosynthesis. At the height of summer, intense sun shines 24 hours a day. Remote-sensing specialist Lee Vierling of the University of Idaho takes fluorescence readings from spruce needles. Instruments behind him  automatically record temperature, wind speed, air pressure and humidity. In this environment, everything grows slowly. This seedling only looks like a baby; it is actually 15 or 20 years old.  Boelman and Vierling judged this spruce to be at least 96 years old, meaning it probably took root some time shortly after World War I. University of Idaho grad student Andy Maguire programs the LiDAR. In cooperation with NASA, the scientists will combine their painstaking ground observations with large-scale satellite imagery to paint a picture of how the north is changing. The north is home to a surprising diversity of animals. Here, a year-round forest-dwelling gray jay surveys its domain. In summer, vast numbers of migratory birds also come to nest. Some prefer the trees, while others inhabit only the tundra beyond, so changes in either one will have ecological fallout. The Alaska pipeline has shipped billions of barrels of oil from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the south since the 1970s. The root of global warming is fossil fuel, and this region, the source of so much of it, is warming two to three times faster than the worldwide average. The oil  is starting to run out, but development is proceeding apace. Boelman checks out a fiber-optic cable being laid to Prudhoe Bay. There is now talk of a new pipeline that would carry natural gas instead of the waning oil. The most visible impact of warming climate on northern forests is increasing wildfire; this stretch along the Dalton Highway burned a couple of years ago. Each summer, huge blazes afflict Alaska, Canada and Russia; some even spread into the tundra, where fires had been previously unknown. The researchers stayed each night at the decayed early 1900s gold-mining town of Wiseman (though not at this cabin). Wiseman became reachable by road in the 1990s, and now tourists can drive here—another sign that the far north is opening up. Scott Schoppenhorst, a mechanic, has lived in Wiseman for 30 years. “Call it global warming or what you want--winters are warmer, and everything is growing faster,” he says. Here he is trying to get some grass to grow near his airplane hangar, and he is pretty optimistic it will work.   From the local perspective, the warming trend can be good; the few gardens in Wiseman are certainly benefiting. Oil and mining are pillars of Alaska’s economy, and most residents support more development. One Wiseman doorway is testimony. As human influence grows here, scientists hope to better predict how the environment will affect plants, trees, animals, people. A Wiseman fence made of caribou and moose antlers speaks to the powerful intertwining of man and nature in this region.
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Further north, in a valley at the very edge of tree line in the mountains of the Brooks Range, scientists set up a laser-powered LiDAR camera to survey an acre or so. Its highly detailed 3D map of vegetation will provide information on subtle differences in topography and other elements that may allow trees to survive, or not.

Where Trees Meet Tundra, Decoding Signals of Climate Change

Beneath the Alaskan Tundra - Wed, 11/16/2016 - 10:35

In northern Alaska’s Brooks Range, the earth as most of us know it comes to an end. From Fairbanks, the northernmost city on the North American road grid, drive up the graveled Dalton Highway. Unpeopled boreal forest stretches in all directions. About 200 miles on, you pass the arctic circle, beyond which the sun never sets in midsummer, nor rises in midwinter. Eventually, the trees thin out, and look scrawnier. The rolling landscape rises into big mountains, and you are threading through the bare, razor-edged peaks of the Brooks. Midway through the mountains, scattered spruces cling only to valley bottoms; further upslope is tundra, covered only with low-lying plants. At about 320 miles from Fairbanks, you pass the last little trees. Beyond lie the barren lands of the North Slope, ending at the industrial arctic-coast hamlet of Deadhorse and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay—the only reason this road is here at all.

 Kevin Krajick) CLICK TO VIEW A SLIDESHOW

Near the arctic circle in northern Alaska, forests begin giving way to tundra. as cold air, frozen soils and lack of sunlight squeeze out trees. Researchers are investigating how warming climate may affect the ecology of this boundary. (All photos: Kevin Krajick) CLICK TO VIEW A SLIDESHOW

The northern tree line, beyond which the climate is too harsh for trees to grow, circles all of earth’s northern landmasses for more than 8,300 miles. It is the largest ecological transition zone on the planet’s surface—a fuzzy boundary that actually loops north and south, and may appear gradual or sharp, depending on locale.

In the far north, climate is warming two to three times faster than the global average. As a result, both tundra and boreal forests are undergoing massive physical and biological shifts. But the details and the outlook remain unclear. Will warming cause forests to advance, pushing out the tundra? If so, how fast? Or will warming reduce the forests—and perhaps also tundra vegetation—by causing more wildfires and insect outbreaks? What will become of the countless birds and animals that depend on one or both environments? And will the huge amounts of carbon stored in the North’s frozen soils and its trees increase, or be released, to cause even more warming?

The tree line is the longest ecological transition zone on earth's surface, circling through the northern landmasses of North America and Eurasia for some 8,300 miles. Here, the tundra beyond the trees is in red. At bottom right is Alaska, where researchers are now working in the area just beyond the arctic circle.

The tree line is the longest ecological transition zone on earth’s surface, circling through the northern landmasses of North America and Eurasia for some 8,300 miles. Here, the region beyond the trees is in red. At bottom right is Alaska, where researchers are now working in the area just beyond the arctic circle. (Map courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

To  help answer these questions, scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other institutions are engaged in a long-term project to sort out what allows trees to survive or not in this borderline environment. They have set up monitoring plots, conveniently located along the highway, at the edge of the trees. Here, instruments will continuously measure air and soil temperature, precipitation, wind speed, humidity and other parameters for the next several years, and compare these with the growth and survival of trees. The fieldwork is part of the larger Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a multiyear NASA-sponsored project that seeks to combine large-scale satellite observations of the northern regions with these fine-scale ground studies.

Natalie Boelman, an ecologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, measures the height of trees at one study plot.

Natalie Boelman, an ecologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, measures the height of trees at one study plot.

“There are many conditions that affect whether trees can and cannot grow,” says Lamont-Doherty plant physiologist Kevin Griffin. The main one is heat; trees generally are viable only where the mean growing-season temperature is above about 6.4 degrees C (about 43.5 degrees F). But that is not the whole answer, says Griffin. “We also know it’s things like water, wind, nutrients, how much light is received, whether it’s direct or diffuse light, snow cover in the winter—it’s a complex combination. How that all works, that’s precisely what we’d like to find out.”

Led by Jan Eitel, a forest scientist at the University of Idaho, the scientists arrived by pickup truck in early June to set up the plots. Almost no one lives between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, but they were able to put up at a lodge in the onetime gold-mining settlement of Wiseman, a mostly deserted huddle of cabins (current population about 20) dating from the early 1900s that lies near the highway. From here, the scientists commuted daily to a half-dozen sites, chosen for their sharp ecological edges; at each one, you could walk from the trees right into adjoining tundra, just slightly upslope. The most northerly plot is near a onetime modest landmark, the so-called Last Spruce, a starved-looking tree marked with a metal sign that said “Farthest North Spruce Tree on the Alaskan Pipeline – Do Not Cut.” A year or so ago, someone cut it down.

Trees grow very slowly here; this one that Boelman is examining is about 15 years old.

Trees grow very slowly here; this one that Boelman is examining is about 15 years old.

Part of the project involves mapping the sites with LiDAR, a surveying technology that shoots a pulsing laser to create an exquisitely detailed 3D landscape map. Accurate down to a few centimeters, it maps ground layout, individual tree branches and plant cover. In this environment, where trees are barely hanging on, the tiniest bits of variation in topography or temperature might make a life-or-death difference for a seedling; a bed of deep moss may swaddle it in warmth; a subtle swale, projecting boulder or another tree might protect it from raking winds.

But most far northern soils are permanently frozen just below the surface, and warming climate is not altering the fearfully small amount of light reaching plants much of the year. A neighboring tree might also cast just enough shade so that a seedling cannot get enough light and warmth, and a too-dense stand of trees might reduce the overall soil temperature they themselves need for rooting and uptake of nutrients. The surveys, repeated every few days by automated cameras, are designed to show how the landscape changes over time.

Shrubby deciduous dwarf willows and aspens grow here, but the only real trees this far north are the spruces. Once one takes root, it grows slowly—very slowly. One day University of Idaho remote-sensing specialist Lee Vierling and Lamont ecologist Natalie Boelman aged some smaller ones by counting whorls—the bit of stem that sprouts from the top each growing season. One Christmas-tree size spruce reaching just over their heads turned out to be 96 years old; it had apparently started growing in 1920.

“Woodrow Wilson was president then,” said Vierling. “World War I was just over.” The tallest trees reach 20 to 30 feet, a height that spruces can reach in a decade or two further south; these have probably stood for 200 to 300 years.

Lamont-Doherty plant physiologist Kevin Griffin checks an instrument designed to monitor a spruce tree’s photosynthetic activity.

Lamont-Doherty plant physiologist Kevin Griffin checks an instrument designed to monitor a spruce tree’s photosynthetic activity.

Warmer weather is almost certain to make these trees grow faster, and such weather is already here. With 24-hour daylight, the team worked up to 14 hours a day, much of the time sweating in intense sun. Around this time, the thermometer up at Deadhorse hit an all-time record of 85 degrees F—identical to New York’s Central Park that same day.

“The trees are really booming here,” said the team’s hostess in Wiseman, Heidi Schoppenhorst, who has lived here her whole life. “The climate is warming, and there’s more rain in June, when it really matters.”

There is already evidence from satellite imagery that the tundra beyond is becoming greener and shrubbier. Many scientists expect the tree line to advance eventually, and some studies purport to show that this is already happening. Some models predict that half the current tundra could be converted by 2100, though others say the process would be much slower. On the other hand, some studies assert the trees are actually retreating in areas, as heat dries forests, helping invasive insects and fires to destroy growing areas.

In Alaska, fires are predicted by one study to grow fourfold in coming decades, and it is already being ravaged; on the way up, the scientists passed through several big tracts reduced in the past few years to blackened sticks. This year a fire around Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, drove out 80,000 residents and leveled part of the city. A few years ago, Boelman was part of a team that studied a 2007 lightning-sparked fire that burned 400 square miles of tundra on the North Slope—the biggest tundra fire ever recorded, in an area where thousands of years may go by without any fire at all.

Team leader Jan Eitel of the University of Idaho sets up a solar-powered radar camera that will scan a study site continuously for years, to capture how trees respond to changing conditions.

Team leader Jan Eitel of the University of Idaho sets up a solar-powered radar camera that will scan a study site continuously for years, to capture how trees respond to changing conditions.

“The differences between tundra and trees are really interesting, especially since one is predicted to start encroaching on the other,” said Boelman, stroking the needles of a nearby spruce about up to her shoulder, but probably much older than she is.

Boelman is part of a separate ABoVE project in which researchers are radiotagging northern animals including caribou, bears, moose, wolves and eagles, to see where they travel in relation to changing fire and weather conditions. Boelman has been working in northern Alberta tagging American robins, which are known to inhabit wide ranges and migrate vast distances. If anecdotal evidence means anything, the trend could be northward; in the last 20 years, some Inuit communities who had never seen robins before have had to invent a name for them: “Koyapigaktoruk.”

On her first trip to the north, Lamont-Doherty graduate student Johanna Jensen takes down data on a wired-up spruce. The study will provide not only long-term information on climate change, but opportunities for young scientists to work directly in the field.

On her first trip to the north, Lamont-Doherty graduate student Johanna Jensen takes down data on a wired-up spruce. The study will provide not only long-term information on climate change, but opportunities for young scientists to work directly in the field.

A few days after installing complex arrays of sensors, cameras and data loggers, along with solar panels and tangles of wires to connect them, the scientists discovered an unexpected wildlife phenomenon: Rabbits, rampant in the forest, loved chewing through the wires, and their equipment was blinking out. The team quickly made repairs and improvised defenses, burying the wires in spongy moss or surrounding them with palisades of sharp, dead sticks. Plans were laid for obtaining chicken wire for a more permanent solution.

Rabbits do not thrive like this in tundra, but if the trees and shrubs move northward, the rabbits will probably move with them. So will other creatures that favor such habitats, such as lynx, moose, black bears and white-crowned sparrows. Those who favor tundra would then have to adapt or get nudged out; these include musk oxen and open-area nesting birds such as Lapland longspurs and ptarmigans. Some animals, including barren-ground caribou and wolves, move seasonally between the two.

Boelman is neutral about the outcome. “People assume that when the ecosystem changes, it’s going to be all bad.” she said. But, she said “with climate change, there are almost always winners and losers. Some species will suffer, but others will benefit.”

Along the Dalton Highway itself, change is happening fast. Near the study sites, workers were digging an endless ditch to lay a fiber-optic line to Deadhorse. Intrepid tourists, encouraged by the mild weather, passed by in heavily laden vehicles and waved. A man pushing a large stroller-type contraption southward was said to be on a mission to walk from Deadhorse to Austin, Tex. Giant trucks raced northward carrying cable, pipes, prefab buildings. Some were carrying gasoline, against the pipeline flow of oil going in the opposite direction. The fossil-fuel circle was being completed; refined energy was heading back to help keep up the production of raw energy.

 

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A Front Row Seat on the Ocean Floor

Cruising to an OASIS - Tue, 11/15/2016 - 14:12

By Bridgit Boulahanis

Ocean scientists are, in their hearts, explorers. Our group aboard the R/V Atlantis may be more infected with the exploration bug than most. The first goal of our expedition makes that clear: We aim to map regions of the seafloor never before seen by human eyes. After a two-day transit to our survey site, the first four days of our research program are dedicated solely to mapping.

An unexplored seamount is our first mapping target. Prior to our expedition, the region was only known to be a shallow area because of satellite-derived maps. Information from satellites gives scientists the global seafloor map that we use in the absence of data of better quality. Unfortunately, this data resolution is on the order of a kilometer, which provides a general idea of the major features of a region but misses many crucial details that may be scientifically important.

With our shipboard mapping system, we can create maps at 75-meter resolution. This is similar to the difference between seeing that there is a large green feature in the middle of the island of Manhattan, and being able to pick out the exact location of the Delacorte Theater within the park.

Watching the Liona Seamount come into focus.

Scientists aboard Atlantis watch the Liona Seamount come into focus.

Knowing all of this, it makes sense that when the R/V Atlantis arrived on station to map what was this week dubbed, the entire science party was gathered in front of one computer. As each new swath of data came in, scientists called out features they could immediately identify and began debating the origin and age of the seamount springing up before our eyes.

This is just the first stage of exploration and discovery for our month-long expedition. Liona Seamount stands at the western edge of a long chain of seamounts extending from the East Pacific Rise at a latitude of approximately 8°20’N. Our mission, titled Off-Axis Seamount Investigations at Siqueiros (OASIS), aims to characterize this entire chain of submarine volcanoes. We will use every resource at our disposal to increase scientific understanding of these seamounts.

The Liona seamount.

A 3D map of Liona Seamount. Courtesy of Dan Fornari and Trish Greg

The next phase of our survey will include even higher resolution maps made by the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Sentry. If our shipboard maps revealed the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Sentry’s maps would allow us to see people sitting in the seats. We will also be utilizing cameras designed to be towed just above the seafloor and provide thousands of high-resolution images of the features below.

Physical samples of rocks from our seamounts are also crucial to this study, and will be brought on board through overnight dredging and collection using the research submarine Alvin.

The first round of data is already in the hands of the eight graduate students aboard, rapidly being processed and parsed for in-depth analysis. In addition to new maps covering several hundred kilometers of seafloor, we have collected magnetic data giving us the approximate age of the seamounts we are studying, and gravity data that will help us to gain a rough understanding of the structure of the oceanic crust.

The results we have gotten so far are thrilling, but no doubt some of the most exciting data of our expedition is still ahead of us.

bridgit-boulahanisBridgit Boulahanis, a graduate student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is sailing in the eastern Pacific Ocean aboard the R/V Atlantis on an expedition to investigate a chain of submarine volcanoes along the East Pacific Rise. Learn more about the expedition on the OASIS Facebook page and YouTube channel.

The Domino Effect

Tracking Antarctica's Ice Shelves - Mon, 11/14/2016 - 22:45
Along the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. (photo M. Turrin)

Along the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, large chunks of ice flow freely from the land into the ocean. Photo: M. Turrin

Ice shelves can behave like dominos. When they are lined up and the first one collapses it can cause a rippling effect like dominos. We have seen this with the Larsen ice shelves. Named in series, the Larsen A, B and C shelves extended along the northeastern edge of the West Antarctic Peninsula, and covered a large swath of coastline as recently as 20 years ago. Bordering the western edge of the Weddell Sea, each extended from a separate embayment yet merged into a large expanse of ice, considered one ice shelf complex. All this was before 1995, before the dominoes began to collapse.

Glacier on the Antarctic Peninsula moving. (Photo M. Turrin)

In this area of the Antarctic Peninsula, ice moves as if it is on a conveyor belt, flowing down between the mountain peaks and toward the ocean. You can see here it is building an ice moraine as it flows. This stretch of glaciers flows onto the Larsen catchment. Photo: M. Turrin

It was January 1995, toward the end of the austral summer, when Larsen A, the smallest of the three shelves, broke apart rather suddenly and was gone. The furthest north of the Larsen trio, this small shelf was situated just north of the Larsen B and just outside of the Antarctic Circle. Due to its size and location, the 1,500-square-kilometer block of ice was the most vulnerable of the three Larsen shelves. Warming water that had been moving around the peninsula was the probable cause for the demise.

The Larsen ice shelf complex, as it was and what it is now. (Images from NASA, compilation from Carbon Copy)

The Larsen ice shelf complex. Images: NASA; compilation: Carbon Copy

When Larsen A disappeared, Larsen B immediately became more vulnerable. Although twice the size at 3,250 square kilometers, the shelf was now un-buffered from warming ocean waters to the north; this combined with several warm summers and Larsen B weakened and became destabilized. In 1998, satellites captured evidence of the front edge of Larsen B beginning to change. Satellite images pointed out melt water ponds on the surface of the shelf, but with some 220 meters of ice thickness, these ponds did not seem to pose a threat. Then between early February and early March 2002, the shelf suffered a massive collapse, with section after section all but evaporating before our eyes. There was disbelief among the science community that a section of shelf this size, and one that had been relatively stable for an estimated 10,000-12,000 years, could so swiftly suffer a collapse. The second domino had fallen.

The Antarctic Peninsula has elevation rising 8000 ft. with ice covering the tops of the mountains in thick layers. (Photo M. Turrin)

The Antarctic Peninsula has elevation rising 8,000 ft., with ice covering the tops of the mountains in thick layers. Photo: M. Turrin

With the loss of a significant section of the Larsen shelf complex, there was a subsequent acceleration of the glaciers that had once been braced by the shelves’ protective presence. Without the stable pressure pushing back against these glaciers, the ice sheet in this area accelerated by up to 300 percent, transferring ice from the Antarctic continent into the ocean and contributing more ice to sea level rise. With the acceleration came a rapid loss in size in the glaciers feeding the Larsen area.

Larsen C and the crack that has developed mapped through time. (Modis imagery annotated by the MIDAS project.)

Larsen C and the crack that has developed, mapped through time. Image: Modis imagery annotated by the MIDAS project

Larsen C remains the fourth largest of the ice shelves by a few hundred square kilometers of ice. A crack appeared in the shelf in 2011 and has grown in size over the subsequent years. Set back about 20 kms. from the edge of the shelf, it threatens to break off about 8 percent of the shelf, or a chunk of ice about the same size as the state of Delaware, at ~6,000 sq. km. With the crack set so far back, there is concern that it might threaten the integrity of the larger ice sheet, weakening the support that holds the shelf in place.

Crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf that continues to spread, even in the winter months. (Photo M. Turrin)

Crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf that continues to spread, even in the winter months. Photo: M. Turrin

Just as Larsen B revealed the speed with which an ice shelf can collapse, Larsen C may be poised to reveal how quickly a large crack can propagate along the shelf. The rift is growing even during the Antarctic winter, adding an additional 22 kms. to a length of 130 kms. in total during the last austral winter between March and August 2016. In addition, the crack has widened from 200 meters to 350 meters. Overflying the crack, we were able to collect high resolution imagery that will help with tracking the fate of the third domino in the lineup.

Section of the deep crack in the Larsen C ice shelf. (Digital Mapping System from the IceBridge Project.)

A section of the deep crack in the Larsen C ice shelf collected by high resolution imagery using the Digital Mapping System as part of the IceBridge Project. Photo: DMS team, IceBridge

IceBridge: Since 2009, the NASA IceBridge project has brought together science teams to monitor and measure each of the ice features in order to improve our understanding of changes in the climate system and our models. Lamont-Doherty, under lead scientists Jim Cochran and Kirsty Tinto, has led up the gravity and magnetics measurements for these campaigns.

http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge

http://www.ldeo.columba.edu/rosetta

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The Domino Effect

Ice Bridge Blog - Mon, 11/14/2016 - 22:45
Along the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. (photo M. Turrin)

Along the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, large chunks of ice flow freely from the land into the ocean. Photo: M. Turrin

Ice shelves can behave like dominos. When they are lined up and the first one collapses it can cause a rippling effect like dominos. We have seen this with the Larsen ice shelves. Named in series, the Larsen A, B and C shelves extended along the northeastern edge of the West Antarctic Peninsula, and covered a large swath of coastline as recently as 20 years ago. Bordering the western edge of the Weddell Sea, each extended from a separate embayment yet merged into a large expanse of ice, considered one ice shelf complex. All this was before 1995, before the dominoes began to collapse.

Glacier on the Antarctic Peninsula moving. (Photo M. Turrin)

In this area of the Antarctic Peninsula, ice moves as if it is on a conveyor belt, flowing down between the mountain peaks and toward the ocean. You can see here it is building an ice moraine as it flows. This stretch of glaciers flows onto the Larsen catchment. Photo: M. Turrin

It was January 1995, toward the end of the austral summer, when Larsen A, the smallest of the three shelves, broke apart rather suddenly and was gone. The furthest north of the Larsen trio, this small shelf was situated just north of the Larsen B and just outside of the Antarctic Circle. Due to its size and location, the 1,500-square-kilometer block of ice was the most vulnerable of the three Larsen shelves. Warming water that had been moving around the peninsula was the probable cause for the demise.

The Larsen ice shelf complex, as it was and what it is now. (Images from NASA, compilation from Carbon Copy)

The Larsen ice shelf complex. Images: NASA; compilation: Carbon Copy

When Larsen A disappeared, Larsen B immediately became more vulnerable. Although twice the size at 3,250 square kilometers, the shelf was now un-buffered from warming ocean waters to the north; this combined with several warm summers and Larsen B weakened and became destabilized. In 1998, satellites captured evidence of the front edge of Larsen B beginning to change. Satellite images pointed out melt water ponds on the surface of the shelf, but with some 220 meters of ice thickness, these ponds did not seem to pose a threat. Then between early February and early March 2002, the shelf suffered a massive collapse, with section after section all but evaporating before our eyes. There was disbelief among the science community that a section of shelf this size, and one that had been relatively stable for an estimated 10,000-12,000 years, could so swiftly suffer a collapse. The second domino had fallen.

The Antarctic Peninsula has elevation rising 8000 ft. with ice covering the tops of the mountains in thick layers. (Photo M. Turrin)

The Antarctic Peninsula has elevation rising 8,000 ft., with ice covering the tops of the mountains in thick layers. Photo: M. Turrin

With the loss of a significant section of the Larsen shelf complex, there was a subsequent acceleration of the glaciers that had once been braced by the shelves’ protective presence. Without the stable pressure pushing back against these glaciers, the ice sheet in this area accelerated by up to 300 percent, transferring ice from the Antarctic continent into the ocean and contributing more ice to sea level rise. With the acceleration came a rapid loss in size in the glaciers feeding the Larsen area.

Larsen C and the crack that has developed mapped through time. (Modis imagery annotated by the MIDAS project.)

Larsen C and the crack that has developed, mapped through time. Image: Modis imagery annotated by the MIDAS project

Larsen C remains the fourth largest of the ice shelves by a few hundred square kilometers of ice. A crack appeared in the shelf in 2011 and has grown in size over the subsequent years. Set back about 20 kms. from the edge of the shelf, it threatens to break off about 8 percent of the shelf, or a chunk of ice about the same size as the state of Delaware, at ~6,000 sq. km. With the crack set so far back, there is concern that it might threaten the integrity of the larger ice sheet, weakening the support that holds the shelf in place.

Crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf that continues to spread, even in the winter months. (Photo M. Turrin)

Crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf that continues to spread, even in the winter months. Photo: M. Turrin

Just as Larsen B revealed the speed with which an ice shelf can collapse, Larsen C may be poised to reveal how quickly a large crack can propagate along the shelf. The rift is growing even during the Antarctic winter, adding an additional 22 kms. to a length of 130 kms. in total during the last austral winter between March and August 2016. In addition, the crack has widened from 200 meters to 350 meters. Overflying the crack, we were able to collect high resolution imagery that will help with tracking the fate of the third domino in the lineup.

Section of the deep crack in the Larsen C ice shelf. (Digital Mapping System from the IceBridge Project.)

A section of the deep crack in the Larsen C ice shelf collected by high resolution imagery using the Digital Mapping System as part of the IceBridge Project. Photo: DMS team, IceBridge

IceBridge: Since 2009, the NASA IceBridge project has brought together science teams to monitor and measure each of the ice features in order to improve our understanding of changes in the climate system and our models. Lamont-Doherty, under lead scientists Jim Cochran and Kirsty Tinto, has led up the gravity and magnetics measurements for these campaigns.

http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge

http://www.ldeo.columba.edu/rosetta

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In Bangladesh, Arsenic Poisoning Is a Neglected Issue - The Lancet

Featured News - Sat, 11/12/2016 - 12:00
Millions of people in Bangladesh are still being exposed to arsenic in their drinking water, decades after the problem was identified. The Lancet talks with Lamont's Lex van Geen about his work on arsenic in drinking water in South Asia.

How Did Climate and Humans Respond to Past Volcanic Eruptions? - Eos

Featured News - Fri, 11/11/2016 - 10:00
To predict and prepare for future climate change, scientists are striving to understand how global-scale climatic change manifests itself on regional scales and also how societies adapt—or don’t—to sometimes subtle and complex climatic changes.These issues were at the heart of the inaugural workshop of the Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society (VICS) Working Group, convened at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

A first meeting with an old friend

Tracking Antarctica's Ice Shelves - Thu, 11/10/2016 - 22:09
Pine Island Ice Shelf

As we fly over Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica the blowing snow adds a surreal quality to the 200 ft. high towering edge of the ice shelf. (Photo M. Turrin)

If you have studied the impacts of climate on Antarctica you have encountered Pine Island Glacier. Tucked in at an angle under the West Antarctic Peninsula handle, this seemingly innocuous glacier has been making headlines for years as one of the fastest flowing ice stream glaciers on Earth. In Antarctica, Pine Island pushes ice at a rapid clip into Pine Island Bay part of the larger Amundsen Sea. So although we have never met face to face, Pine Island is a glacier I have known for years.

Antarctica has two large ice sheets, sensibly labeled the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the East Antarctica Ice Sheet and separated by the looming Transantarctic Mountains that break through above the thick layer of ice covering much of Antarctic’s surface. In large part West Antarctica is comprised of the Antarctic Peninsula, the handle shaped extension of the continent reaching out towards South America, but below that there is a vulnerable area that drains into Amundsen Sea, one of three catchment areas for this ice sheet. Glaciers in this region have been changing rapidly, led by Pine Island and the neighboring Thwaites. If melted, the ice from Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers together, has the capacity to raise global sea level by up to 2 meters (~7 feet.)

velocity map

The red color represents the fast moving ice of Pine Island glacier in this velocity map on the left. On the left side is a map of subglacial topography showing in dark blue the deep trough that underlies the glacier. (credit velocity map E. Rignot)

For Pine Island the vulnerability results from a compounding of challenges, a small ice shelf offering little support to the land ice behind and little protection from the warming ocean water that makes its way up onto the shelf. In addition the base of the glacier rests on land that is backward sloping, or tipping back underneath the ice. A retrograde bed, as these are called, allows the warm ocean water access to move back under the glacier, further destabilizing and acceleration ice flow.

Crevassing in the ice shows areas where there is strain from ice flowing at different rates. Ice will often crevasse as it accelerates. (Photo M. Turrin)

Crevassing, or deep cuts in the ice, shows areas where there is strain from ice flowing at different rates. Ice will often crevasse as it accelerates, as is shown in this heavily crevassed ice flowing out from the Pine Island ice shelf.  (Photo M. Turrin)

At 160 miles of length, and 68,000 square miles of catchment, Pine Island handles the drainage for approximately one tenth of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Over the last forty years it has been over-performing, accelerating its flow, and is attributed with one quarter of Antarctica’s current ice loss. In its years of operation (2003-2010), Ice Sat I satellite  provided us with a series of measurements for this glacier showing that Pine Island Glacier was moving more ice into the ocean than any other drainage basin worldwide. Since 2009 the IceBridge project has continued this monitoring, extending our data for this region so that we won’t miss critical information while IceSat II is being prepared for a 2018 launch. Pine Island glacier measurements are critically important to help us project global sea level rise.

On the DC8

On board the DC8 there is a flight command center with a very busy team that works between the science team and the air crew to ensure the science is completed safely and as designed. (photo M. Turrin)

Pine Island glacier is shrinking. As the glacier has accelerated its flow, the ice stream has thinned and correspondingly the face of the glacier has lost elevation. In some areas ice elevation loss has equaled 4 meters or more a year. The drop in elevation is more  quadruple the annual precipitation for the area, and has occurred in both summer and winter.

Crevasse

Ice Bridge laser image of the crack in Pine Island Glacier. The deep blue line bisecting the front of the glacier is the crack or crevasse in the ice. The depth of the crack that cuts in from the edge of the ice shelf is close to 40 meters deep in this area. (image NASA IceBridge)

More bad news may be ahead for Pine Island. Although the glacier does not have a large ice shelf, there is a relatively small shelf that helps to restrain some of the flow from land to ocean. However, in the last decade a fairly significant crack has developed in the shelf threatening to pull off another large chunk of ice and relaxing the hold the shelf has on the ice behind. As we overflew two locations IceBridge surface laser measurements captured the crack depth at 60 and 70 meters deep. This crack has continued to expand over the last few years and it is only a matter of time before this section of shelf will separate moving off into the ocean and leaving the ice shelf more exposed.

The Pine Island Glacier crack extending back into the glacier. (Photo M. Turrin)

The Pine Island Glacier crack extending back into the glacier. (Photo M. Turrin)

IceBridge: Since 2009, the NASA IceBridge project has brought together science teams to monitor and measure each of the ice features in order to improve our understanding of changes in the climate system and our models. Lamont-Doherty, under lead scientists Jim Cochran and Kirsty Tinto, has led up the gravity and magnetics measurements for these campaigns.

http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge

http://www.ldeo.columba.edu/rosetta

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