AGU 2010

Subscribe to AGU 2010 feed
News from the Earth Institute
Updated: 9 hours 30 min ago

At AGU, Earth Institute’s Columbia Water Center Adds to the Abundance of Scientific Riches

Wed, 12/22/2010 - 12:32

The annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting is an all-you-can-eat buffet of the most current scientific knowledge available on the planet.  Name your pleasure: space, climate change, geomagnetism, nonlinear geophysics, volcanology, biogeosciences, etc.  You have to be careful to indulge in moderation over the five-day event, or risk unseemly bloating.

The Columbia Water Center contributed its own tasty dishes to the feast, mostly under the hydrology section of the menu. (but enough of the food analogies)

Several CWC scientists and affiliated researchers gave talks at this year’s event, December 13 – 17, in San Francisco, and several more had posters representing their work on display.  The CWC contribution drew heavily on our research projects in India, but also explored other water issues.  Detailed slideshows and posters, along with videos (some filmed in dark presentation rooms) are available on a web page devoted to CWC at AGU 2010.

Upmanu Lall started the week with a presentation called ‘Why is it Flooding Everywhere this Year?  Coincidence or a Predictable Climate Phenomenon, and How Can We Respond?’  Without going into the technical material here, Lall concluded that a project on understanding and predicting global flood and drought patterns could facilitate flood risk management and climate change adaptation activities.  These would benefit local, state and national planners, and also corporations and financial industries such as insurance.

Diagram on Managing Climate Risk from Upmanu Lall's presentation.

Shama Perveen and Naresh Devineni are working on a project to develop an in-depth assessment of the growing water shortages in India, as discussed in an earlier post by Perveen.  At AGU she spoke about ‘Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India: Spatial Water Deficits and Storage Requirements’.  Preveen showed a series of diagrams that demonstrated the rapidly falling Indian groundwater levels, population pressure and agricultural demands.  Devineni followed up with a look at the water storage capacity in different parts of India, relating them to crop water requirements.  This work will help Indian policy makers decide which crops can be grown in each geographic region to maximize food production while minimizing water use.

PhD student Ram Fishman addressed ‘How Low Can It Go? – Scenarios for the Future of Water Tables and Groundwater Irrigated Agriculture in India’, which looked at the relationship between energy use, water use and agricultural production, and their combined effect on the water table.  He also presented a poster, ‘Does Irrigation Buffer Agriculture from Climatic Variability – Evidence from India’, which further elaborates on this research.

Ram Fishman explains his poster to other interested researchers.

Tobias Siegfried offered five posters, which ranged from water stress and conflict in Central Asia to groundwater sustainability in India, to climate change impacts in the western US.

Chandra Krishnamurthy, Christina Karamperidou and visiting professor Francesco Cioffi also used posters to explain their research projects, and IRI’s Paul Block gave a presentation on ‘Statistical Dynamical Climate Predictions to Guide Water Resources in Ethiopia’.

Lall then finished up the week with two more presentations.  One, ‘Will Hydrologists Learn from the World Around Them?’, was a critique of climate research that doesn’t adequately address the issues of bias in modeling.

In the other, ‘Exploring Oceanic Source Regions and Moisture Transport of Extreme Floods over Large Basins in the Contiguous United States’, Lall talked about the statistical analysis of atmospheric moisture circulation patterns, which may be able to help predict large flooding events in specific geographical regions.

An illustration of atmospheric moisture transport trends from the presentation by Upmanu Lall.

As a group, the work presented was a significant contribution to the AGU meeting, which gave all the researchers the opportunity to interact with scientists in related fields, and keep increasing our collective knowledge and understanding of critical global climate and water issues.

Next year’s AGU feast may be even more lavish….

Columbia Water Center AGU 2010 resources page here.

Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

The Last Arctic Sea Ice Refuge

Fri, 12/17/2010 - 12:24

If climate change proceeds apace, summer sea ice in the Arctic is projected to nearly disappear by the end of this century. But a group of researchers predicts that ice will continue to collect in one small area, perhaps providing a last-ditch stand for ringed seals, polar bears and other creatures that cannot live without it. The findings were presented yesterday at a heavily attended press conference put on by the American Geophysical Union by polar oceanographers Stephanie Pfirman and Robert Newton of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with colleagues from Alaska and Canada.

Ice currently piles up most heavily in a narrow band (red, yellow) along the northern edge of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, and is expected to persist into the future as other areas (blue, green) disappear in summer.  (Fowler/Maslanik, 2010)

Ice currently piles up most heavily in a narrow band (red, yellow) along the northern edge of the Canadian Archipelago and northern Greenland, and is expected to persist into the future as other areas (blue, green) disappear in summer. (Fowler/Maslanik, 2010)

Studies of ice formation patterns, water currents, winds and the arrangement of arctic land masses has led the scientists to project that even as summer sea ice nearly disappears from the northern ocean by about 2050, floes will continue to pile up and persist along the northern flanks of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland. This region is currently clogged with heavy ice, some of it drifting in from as far away as Siberia.

“We wanted to look at the tail end–what will happen after the arctic moves to largely ice-free state?” said Pfirman. “Where will the [last] ice be located? If it collects in one area, it could maintain a sea-ice ecosystem for decades.”  Brendan Kelly, a polar biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska, explored the ecological implications, but cited potential problems, including declines in the snow cover needed by seals, and the genetic dangers of having declining populations of rare creatures crammed into shrinking areas. Bruno Tremblay, a climatologist and oceanographer at McGill University, in Montreal, ran an animation showing the shrinkage of warm-season sea ice in the recent past, and a projection into the future . The scientists said that sea ice will continue to cover the ocean in the winter for the foreseeable future–but that arctic creatures need the ice during warmer seasons as well to breed and eat.

Newton said that if there is to be a remnant area, the “first step” is to identify where it might be. With this information, a wide community of governments and native peoples would  then at least have information available to consider whether or how to manage such a place in the face of shipping,  oil exploration, tourism and other activities that are expected to increase as the arctic becomes more accessible. “We’re hoping to provoke this conversation,” said Newton.

Watch the press conference

Read the news reports in:

Nature

Discovery News

The Christian Science Monitor

Associated Press

USA Today

The Caribbean’s Growing Disaster Hotspots

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 23:07

The 125 million people of the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico region are highly exposed to hurricanes, floods and landslides–and it is not only because of bad weather. Increasing numbers of the poor are crowding into confined areas that are most prone to destruction–low-lying flood plains, too-steep hillsides, and the like. Robert Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), will describe this alarming trend in an AGU talk on Friday, the last day of the meeting.

Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean number of extreme climate hotspots, by administrative unit. Blues are low number; greens moderate; yellow to red show progressively more. (Courtesy CIESIN)

Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean number of extreme climate hotspots, by administrative unit. Blues are low number; greens moderate; yellow to red show progressively more. (Courtesy CIESIN)

CIESIN specializes in creating maps that show humans’ interaction with the natural environment. Ones for this region show deadly combinations of poverty and physical vulnerability to weather. (Blues signal low numbers; greens moderate; yellow to red, progressively more.) Hotspots are clustered across Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Along the coast of Latin America are wide swaths of danger spanning Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Not surprisingly,  low-lying parts of Texas, Louisiana and southern Florida also stand out.

Many scientists believe climate change will worsen extremes of weather. The CIESIN research suggest that even if this never happens, as the population of dangerous areas grows, these hotspots will continue to get more dangerous.

See CIESIN-generated maps of worldwide vulnerability to changing climate.

Is New York City Ready for Drought?

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 12:21

The oldest living tree that Neil Pederson sampled as part of his drought reconstruction stands to his left: A chestnut oak from northern NJ, it was 428 years old when sampled in 2003. The inner ring date on that sample is 1576.

All day long a flood of thousands scientists and students ebbs and flows across San Francisco’s 4th Street and Howard Avenue, coursing between the cavernous Moscone West and Moscone South convention buildings. The AGU is like a supercomputer of earth science, with human currents of data swapping information, heading from one talk to another, processing what they’ve heard, who they’ve met, what’s coming next.

What’s coming next in New York City, sooner or later, is a long dry spell, according to research by Lamont-Doherty’s Neil Pederson. The city has seen repeated shortages of water over the past 20 years — even though the climate has been relatively wet over the past few decades, and despite a decline in overall water use. Pederson says the water system emergencies of recent years suggest that “maybe the system is not in tune with the climate.”

Ultimately, he said in a talk today at AGU, New York City “is not prepared for the next significant drought.”

A chronology of drought in the New York region shows more severe events dating back to the 1500s, and a general decline in severity over the past century or more. (Source: N. Pederson)

Pederson and his colleagues looked at 12 species of trees along the Hudson River Valley and, combined with research by Ed Cook, director of Lamont’s Lamont’s Tree Ring Lab, and others, constructed a record of rain and drought going back into the 1500s. There are still a few trees around who’ve seen four or more centuries pass, Pederson said, including on in the Hudson Valley dating to the early 1500s. Additional records researched by Cook come from the beams cut for now-historic homes built in the 18th century, Pederson added.

The use of 12 species has expanded the accuracy of the chronology, Pederson believes, though it’s hard to gauge by how much just yet. He found that the region has suffered severe droughts in every century through the 1800s. But except for a short period in the 1960s, the dry periods over the past 120 years have been relatively minor. Is the New York City region due for another paleo-scale drought?

Honoring a Pioneer in Planetary Evolution

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 09:34

Experimental petrologist David Walker has been a leader in understanding the evolution of the moon and Earth.

David Walker, a professor of geochemistry at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will be honored tonight by colleagues at the American Geophysical Union for decades of groundbreaking work to understand the early formation of the moon and Earth. Walker will receive the AGU’s Harry H. Hess Medal, awarded for “outstanding achievements in research of the constitution and evolution of Earth and other planets.”

Walker began his career as a student at Harvard University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as samples of the moon were being returned by the Apollo space missions. Walker was into experimental petrology, a field in which lab scientists try to re-create and understand the conditions under which natural rocks form. With the aid of the moon samples, Walker helped helped piece together much of the story of lunar history accepted today. “Much of what we now take for granted about the formation of the lunar crust and mantle came out of the Harvard experimental petrology lab in the 1970s, clearly with Dave Walker’s intellectual stamp on it,” said Carl B. Agee, a planetary geologist at the University of New Mexico who wrote the citation for the award.

After coming to Lamont a few years later, Walker began working on questions about Earth, including its early separation into chemically distinct layers, and the genesis of magmas that flow out at mid-ocean ridges to form the seafloors. He is currently working on experimental studies to elucidate the formation of earth’s core, and its interaction with the overlying mantle.

Walker also played a key role in developing devices that could duplicate the extreme high-pressure conditions found deep within planets, simplifying designs so that any decent machine shop could turn out the equipment cheaply. “Walker-type” anvils, used to compress experimental solutions to these extreme pressures, are now standard in labs across the world.

Along the way, Walker also has found time to become a popular teacher who has helped students explore topics as diverse as alternative energy sources; radioactive waste, and mineralogy.  Agee wrote that Walker “is a true leader in experimental petrology, in both designing and improving experimental equipment, and pioneering new ideas of the evolution of the Earth, Moon and planets.”

India’s Water Is Running Out

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 14:12

India is running “the largest water-mining project in the world”–and it cannot be sustained much longer, Columbia Water Center researcher Shama Perveen told an audience on Monday. That is mainly because farmers, who depend heavily on irrigation water drawn from underground aquifers, are using far more water than rainfall can replenish. Perveen’s talk, “Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India,” contained a series of daunting statistics:

Satellite imagery shows dropping groundwater tables across much of northern India. (GRACE/Tiwari et al., 2009)

Satellite imagery shows dropping groundwater tables across much of northern India. (GRACE/Tiwari et al., 2009)

–India’s northern breadbasket region, home to 600 million people, lost about 60 cubic kilometers of water from its groundwater aquifers in 2002-2008.

–Farmers who used to pump water from five or 10 feet below the surface are now sometimes drilling down 200 or 300 feet.

–Unlike the United States and Australia, which have dams that can store up to 6,000 cubic meters of water for each person, India has a dismal storage capacity of 200 cubic meters per capita.

Perveen says that building dams will not suffice, because of the extreme imbalance between rains and usage; in some regions, dams would have to hold five years’ worth of rainfall just to keep up. In the future, India will have to make irrigation far more efficient, and switch from water-intensive crops like rice, she said.

Read about the Columbia Water Center’s research in India and elsewhere.

The Right Tools to Talk Climate

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 13:38
//data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/

From NASA GISS. http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/

Navigating the ocean of AGU requires patience. For a newcomer, parsing the inch-thick spiral-bound notebook of presentations, with pages of maps of the enormous Moscone Center, is a bit like finding your way around a city in a foreign language (at least there’s a nice crossword puzzle on Page 31).

You need the right tools to understand what’s going on, and to get where you need to go. Columbia researchers have been looking for the right tools to navigate another complicated place: The gap between what climate science tells us, and how a lot of the public hears that information, and what policymakers are prepared to do about it. They’re giving a couple of talks on the subject at AGU.

On Wednesday, Mary-Elena Carr will join colleagues from the Columbia Climate Center Lamont-Doherty to talk about “Climate Information and Misinformation: Getting the Message Out.” With researchers from Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors, they looked at three ways to address climate change skepticism: blogging about it, talking to people in discussion groups, and writing a report.

“As scientists, I think we sometimes come at it in a very naïve way,” Carr says. If you just give people the facts, they should be able to figure it out. That didn’t work when they blogged: Pushing the climate hot button led down a rabbit hole of contention and suspicion. The discussion group left participants hungry for more information.

The conclusion: That using a single report – like one Carr prepared for Deutsche Bank in 2009 – is the best way to address the skeptics. Ultimately, Carr says, you need a variety of sources talking about climate change, including political and religious leaders – and people the audience can identify with.

On Thursday, Sabine Marx of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions will speak on “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” She has studied how different groups of people think about climate, and how to use that information to talk about the science.

“For most people abstract information does not translate into powerful vivid images that would trigger action,” Marx wrote. “Furthermore, we have found that people’s interpretation of scientific uncertainty can get in the way of using forecasts and projections. Other barriers include public risk perceptions and attitudes, cultural values, and myopia, as well as the importance that people place on self-interest/economic goals vs. collective interest/social goals.”

But, Marx says, there are ways to overcome these barriers. For instance, you can start with a good story.

Deep Ocean Heat Is Melting Antarctic Ice

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 13:23

Like dirt swept under the carpet, some of the human-made heat produced over the last century has been getting soaked up by the world’s oceans, and sinking into deep waters. Now, it is coming back to haunt the surface, in a very sensitive place: western Antarctica, where vast ice sheets meet the ocean. The result appears to be that ice is rapidly being eaten from the bottom, says Douglas Martinson, a polar scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who presented the findings Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Warm waters carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current are brushing the ice front in the western part of the continent, in the area of the Bellingshausen Sea.

Warm waters carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current are brushing the ice front in the western part of the continent, in the area of the Bellingshausen Sea. (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Douglas Martinson, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

Martinson said that heat stored in deep waters far from Antarctica is being pushed southward and becoming entrained in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a vast, wind-driven water mass that constantly circles the frozen continent. The evidence comes from 18 years of Antarctic voyages Martinson has made to measure water temperature, salinity and other qualities at different depths. He called the increases in ocean heat in the past few decades “jaw dropping.” Temperatures have risen only a few degrees above the melting point–but that is all it takes to cut at the ice front. “This is like a huge freight of hot coals–fresh, hot water being delivered right to the the front door,” he said.

This raises the specter of sea-level rise driven by melting in this region–but there is a larger implication, said Martinson. Even if all sources of human-produced carbon dioxide in the air were cut off, the built-up heat will remain in the ocean for many years to come. “Pretend your brains out that the politicians did something to stop global warming tomorrow.  Even if they did, we will still have decades and decades of upwelling of that warmed water eating ice,” he said.

Read a Discovery News article about Martinson’s talk.

18,000 Scientists–In One Place

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 01:13

This week marks the world’s largest annual gathering of earth and space scientists: the five-day December meeting of the American Geophysical Union. There will be about 18,000 of them, spread across two giant San Francisco convention halls giving talks and discussing the latest in their fields. Scores of researchers from the Earth Institute will be involved. Among many other things, they will give presentations on the destruction of Antarctic ice by warming oceans (from Douglas Martinson, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory);  clues contained in ancient trees as to how climate change may affect New York City (Neil Pederson of Lamont); an examination of India’s water crisis (Shama Perveen of the Columbia Water Center); and fast-growing “hotspots” of potential weather-related disasters in the Caribbean” (Bob Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network).

On brighter notes, William Ryan and colleagues at Lamont will demo a new mobile app called Earth Observer, scheduled to be released this week at the Apple iTunes store, which gives the general public access to fabulous graphics and information about the earth previously tapped mainly by scientists.  There is also the traditional Lamont-Doherty alumni party, held every year on Tuesday night at AGU—a gathering that reunites top scientists from across the world who studied at Lamont.

Check out our press advisory for journalists , detailing just a few of the significant and interesting talks from Earth Institute staff: http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/2637.