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Finishing Up in Bangladesh

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Sat, 02/24/2018 - 13:49

Céline proudly takes her gravity meter out of the shipping box. It felt like Christmas morning to her.

Humayun and I arrived in Sremongal and were reunited with the others. After dinner, the gravity meter that Céline will use for measurements here after we leave finally arrived, making Céline very happy. It had been stuck in customs getting clearance for days as she impatiently waited for it to arrive. As time was growing short, Céline suggested that we should split into two installation teams and each do one of the far northern sites. Alissa, Humayun, Sanju and I went to BN05 while Celine, Nano, Paul and Karim went to BN04. Both are

The good road to BN05. It is elevated far above the fields so it stays above water during the monsoon flooding.

2-3 hours away, but potentially longer if the roads are bad. Traveling through extensive fields of rice, the road was surprisingly good for someplace so remote and easily flooded. As was often the case, the scouted site was not good, so we called the chairman. While he wasn’t home, his brother was and after a long conversation with Humayun, offered his family’s home. It was large enough that there were several options, but one was clearly better than the others and we installed one of our smaller waterproof seismometers, just in

Humayun breaks ground for the sensor hole with a kodal, a cross between a hoe and a shovel that is great for digging.

case of flooding. We were now experienced and completed it in less than 2 hours. More tea and photos and we were on the long road back. Céline’s team was also successful; two sites in one day put us back on track.

We again split the next day, with Céline, Alissa, Humayun and myself going to install B9, while the others went to look at the geology in the hills farther east. along the way they also stopped off at a tea garden to scout BN01. B9, officially BA09, had already been scouted, so we

Posing for a group photo at the nearly completed BN05 site.

quickly installed and took pictures with the family. After that was done, we went to service some stations, collecting the few days of data to make sure everything was working well and analyze the noise levels at the sites. We stopped at B10, where the owner treated us to his boroi, small apple-like fruits. Then we went to B8 located at a manager’s house in a tea garden. We wanted to do B7 as well, but they had important guests visiting and did not want us to come by today.

Céline stays out of the sun while writing the readings when servicing a station.

The next day was our last installation in this region, the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh. We again split into teams for the final installation, for doing field geology, and for servicing. Karim and I did the service runs. We did B3, outside a private home, then B2 in a tea garden manager house. We only saw the 6 servants that maintained the property. As we left, Karim pointed out that he thought two of them were transgender. Next was the long hard drive to B1. As we came close we called the manager to

Opening the equipment box at B8. They constructed a nice bamboo fence for the site.

ask about sending his jeep to drive the last stretch of road. However he had guests, so we had to walk the last mile to the tea garden. Along the way, we passed crews fixing the road. This time, we were invited to join his guests for tea and cookies in the gazebo when we finished. It was very welcome after the long walk in the hot sun. While we were having tea, our driver showed up. They had finished fixing the road sufficiently for our van to come up. The next people to visit for servicing will appreciate that. We ended the day servicing BN03 as B4 was also

Posing with the extended family of the people hosting the site at B9. The box is kept in the house for safety.

having important visitors at the tea garden. We got back before the others and then went for a final dinner together.

The next morning, Humayun, Alissa and I headed to DUET in Gazipur, where we started this trip. We met Jim’s team and put all the empty boxes into storage. Then we dropped Jim and Alissa at the airport, while Chris and I dove into Dhaka. My first time here this trip. We have the final station to install in the morning and then we fly out the next

Our team leaving B9 after another successful installation.

day. Nano and Paul and Sanju will do geology for a few more days then meet us in Dhaka. Nano flies out with us, Paul heads to India the next day. Céline will continue to stay in Srimongal doing a gravity survey with Karim for the next week.

The last station is south of Dhaka between the Dhaleshwari River and the Padma, the combined Ganges and Brahmaputra. It is at a health service complex. We met and had tea, then

Me posing with the staff of the manager’s bungalow during the service run.

looked around the grounds for a good site. The first were vetoed as not secure. Too many drug addicts near the clinic. Finally we found a good spot in the open near some people’s homes, including the night security guard. It went quickly and in the middle they climbed a tree and got us some fresh green coconuts. Coconut water is very refreshing on a hot day. We finished, but not earliy enough to visit the Padma. We still had to store the remaining equipment at Dhaka University. It has been a very successful

Kids watch us service the station at BN03. This site had the sensor indoors.

trip. As is my experience here, people find a way to get done what needs to be done. It is a country that is resilient out of necessity. We have installed 6 GPS, 28 seismometers, Céline is getting gravity measurements that have help up a project, and Paul has at least one good geological transect across an anticline with a few more days of work. Some of us have been working together for years, but others are new to our group and Bangladesh. Over 3 weeks in the field together will help change us into a team.

Sam, myself and Chris drinking green coconut in a selfie by Muktadir, who joined us for the day.

Céline in the truck helping to unload the remaining equipment.

Sanju buying bananas and Bangladeshi snacks like singara and piagju

Installing the seismometer array

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Thu, 02/22/2018 - 08:47

Jim, Chris and myself being hosted at the original scouted site for B11. We were served tea along with grapes, pomegranate, and oranges.

I spent two more days with Jim’s team. The first day we went to scout two of the sites and then install one that was already scouted. Humayun had sent a team of students out to scout the 28 seismometers we were installing, but some of the sites were good and some were not. B11 was too close to the highway and without an out of the way place with a good place for a solar panel. After tea and fruit, the owner walked around the village with us and we found a better site. It was at the edge of a yard next to the cow shed and at the edge of a slope. The family was ready to host it

View of channel will boat through the trees on the walt between the site and the car. During the monsoon, it will be used to get around.

there, so we moved on to Scout B12, the one site that was not scouted. I could see there were no roads to where I have located the site. I chose a new place as we tried to drive to it. We went as far out on the road as we could drive and started talking to people. We met the local chairman and walked around with him. There were a couple of larger, more elevation homes and we went to one and discussed it with the family. They were positive, but would make a final decision tonight.

We went on to B13, already scouted, to

Walking through a village looking for a place to put the seismic station.

install. It was on the other side of the Meghna River. We unloaded our gear and got ready, but the family backed out. He thought the installation was for 2 hours, not 2 years. We went looking for a new site. First locally, then driving a little farther afield, then as a school but we struck out. It was the end of the day and we have not put any seismometers in the ground.

The next day was better. In the morning we went to install B11. When that was

Chris in the seismometer hole at B12. It is the larger hole for the sensor that needs a “vault” – the blue barrel in the background.

done we decided to try a different road for B12. We went out on it as far as we could and beyond that point there were no homes. We turned around and stopped at every house to inquire about putting a seismometer there. Actually, Sam did and without speaking Bangla, there was little we could do. Some weren’t interested or scared of the equipment, some had no good location. After about a half dozen homes, we waited outside one promising place, but the owner wasn’t home. Finally his brother said we could put it at his house.

Sam discussing the installation with the person whose house we eventually used.

Not quite as good, but it was a bird in the hand. That night Humayun and Sanju arrived with Paul, who flew in to see the geology on the way to NE India. After dinner, Paul and Sanju went east to join the other team, while Humayun joined ours.

The next day, Jim, Chris and Sam went build a fence at B11, while Humayun and I went to scout. I felt that with the problems both teams were having as some sites, we might not be able to finish

Chris waiting for the deliberations to finish with a flock of kids.

on time. Adding a third team for scouting would help save time and let the other concentrate on the actual installations. We went to the government building for B10. When it turned out to not be good, we went to the local chairman and he ended up offering his house, an excellent site. Then it was time for B13 once again. We tried on the other side of the Old Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra shifted about 60 mi west of here about 200 years ago leaving a smaller river and a broad low area with rice fields and

Some of the rice fields that surrounded us in this particularly, low flat part of Bangladesh .

brick factories. We took smaller and smaller roads, ending in a heavily rutted dirt road. We saw a government building that looked good, but it was locked. We talked to the neighbor and decided to put the instrument there. Not an ideal location, but after 2 days of failed attempts to get B13, we took it and headed east to join the other seismology team, stopping to say goodbye to the team finishing up B10.

Jim tries to talk to an older neighbor while waiting. However, neither speaks the other’s language

The completed station at B12 with the wire mesh fence protecting the buried sensor. The box is inside the house.

Sam on the roof securing the solar panel while Razzak holds it in place with a bamboo stick.

Our car and truck on the road past B12. It is elevated to prevent flooding during the monsoon with rice paddies on either side.

Transition to Seismology Scouting

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Sun, 02/18/2018 - 12:12

A Bangladeshi breakfast: paratha (bread), mumlet (egg), bhaji (vegetables), moog dal (mung beans).

With the scouting done, we just that the installation of the final two GPS sites to do. Since we started drilling the hole for the antenna rod at Kalenga, we went there first to finish the installation. This time, the new road surface had dried enough for us to go over it. We arrived and went to work, becoming an experienced team for the installation. As promised, they had built us a ladder, a rickety one, but functional. After competing the job, we were surrounded by kids when we returned to the ground from the installation. We once again

Looking down on Sanju and Keith installing the grounding rod among schoolchildren.

handed out chocolates to all the students and teachers, had tea and went on our way.

It was still afternoon, so we drove to Chunarughat where the seismic team had just finished installing a station in the college where we reoccupied. We all had tea, some fresh pineapple, snacks and caught up. They went off to another site, while we went to scout two sites farther along that were on tea plantations. We had had problems

Handing out chocolates to the students at Kalenga.

getting permissions as some were large corporations with headquarters in Dhaka. We headed to the first one, the Chundeecherra Tea Estate. We found the office and explained the situation. As first we were dismissed, but Sanju persisted, making friends with the assistant, who called the manager back and we were invited to his bungalow. We went there and discussed the project, and had tea and snacks. The Tea Garden and bungalow – a term meaning a house in the Bengali style – date from 1876. He

Having an afternoon tea with the manager of the Chundeecherra Tea Estate.

needed to confirm with his higher ups in Dhaka, but had been won over to allowing our deployment. In fact, later we received approval to place seismometers in any Tea Garden belonging to the National Tea Company.

He directed us to the next Tea Garden, although we got lost before finding the right place. While we call these places Tea Gardens, they can be miles of tea plants in every direction, major operations to run. We had trouble

A CNG on the bad road to Kalenga.

finding the correct entrance. We again showed up at the manager’s house and were welcomed with tea and snacks. Sanju did his magic again, making friends and persuading him to allow us to install the seismometer at his bungalow. This tea company is privately held and the manager gave approval pending confirmation with the owner, his uncle. A productive day.

A buffalo on the way to the last station.

The next day we went back to install the last GPS station, again bringing chocolates for the students. The drilling was slow as the concrete was hard and the batteries didn’t last. We sent our driver to recharge them at the nearest town with electricity.

He went with the principal on his motorcycle. After finishing the job we took our last group photos and had tea and cookies with the teachers.

The brightly colored walls of a classroom with a scene from the 1971 War of Independence above “Rain Rain Go Away”

Again we went to stop at a Tea Garden for permission. This was at Finley’s a large multinational company. We were turned away at the gate. Sanju did not give up. He persisted and argued with them for a long time, although it seemed fruitless. He then tried going above them calling the local chief of police and elected representatives. He would not give up. Eventually the assistant manager came out and spoke to us. We explained our situation. He had previously spoken with the scouting team. He agreed that we needed to speak to the Chief

Sanju attaches the batteries on the roof while a teacher gives the class an outdoor lesson in English.

Operating Officer of Finlay. He would be in the next morning at 9. We had succeeded in getting out foot in the door thanks to Sanju’s determination. And with all of the GPS stations completed, we could turn our full attention to scouting the seismic stations for the one day before Keith leaves to return to the U.S.

The next morning we arrived and were let through the gate. We drove to the COO’s office and waited until he was free. Again we explained what we were doing, reassured him, as the others that the seismometers only listen to earthquakes from around the world. They do not interfere with anything or cause earthquakes. His concern was not being able

After finishing the last station, the three of us posed together on the roof.

to provide security to watch the instruments, but we reassured him that we usually left them unattended. He tentatively agreed pending some paperwork. We headed to the offices of the managers of the individual Tea Gardens we would be installing in. We drove past miles of tea to the first. When we showed the manager to location, he pointed out that it was not in Finlay’s but another Tea Garden beyond their property.

We were served tea at the front of the school.

We headed off farther into the hill. The roads got progressively worse, although the road cuts showed some good geology. Finally, we hit a rut we could not drive through and walked the last mile. After waiting for him in the gazebo to finish his shower, we again had tea and snacks. We got an agreement and chose a site in his yard next to the satellite dishes (after reassuring him it would not affect reception). Another site successfully done. We walked back and then got a ride the last part of the way

Crowds of kids followed us as we packed up our van to leave.

from his jeep, carrying the head of another tea company. We drove to the other site on Finlay’s property, but the manager was not home. He would be back in 2 hours at 4. We left and went to pick up some gift bags of tea that Sanju’s father had left for us. It was on top of the next anticline. After several wrong turns, and more cups of tea, we got our packages. It had only taken an hour and a half to get there. On the way back, we got a call from the manager, he would meet the COO tonight to discuss the seismometers, so no need to come today. We had done what we could today. This part of the trip was a success.

Finishing the GPS Scouting

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Wed, 02/14/2018 - 13:12

The electric auto rickshaw we took out to Dolucharra to finish up by securing the box

After the drive yesterday, it was clear the car needed fixing.  No need to rush out early in the morning and I got some much needed sleep for my jetlag and my cold.  After a later, for us, breakfast, Bulbul, our driver took the car to be fixed.  We took an autorickshaw to the first site to add the chain and lock security system and see the sky view without the trees.  This time we had neither a ladder nor a truck to climb on.  Keith and Sanju scaled the building, but I was still shaky from the cold and stayed

Sanju scaling the school building to get to the roof. The overhang made it tricky.

below.  I worked on my blog until I ended up showing a group of kids my photos.  That was where I was when they found me after completing the short job. My choice to stay down was reinforce by learning that Sanju had fallen on the way down.  A pice of the concrete roof had broken off in his hand and he fell backwards onto the cut down tree.  Luckily he was OK.  His glasses frame was broken, his elbow banged up and had a some scratches from thorns, only minor injuries.  With the car still being repaired,

Showing the kids at the school my photos of them, Bangladesh and the world.

we had some enforced free time.  We went to a famous shop outside of Srimongal past a rubber tree plantation, where they serve 7-layer tea. In fact, this was where it was created.  Carefully pouring (I presume) they float 7 distinct layers of different colored teas on each other.  Refreshed, we headed back to wait for the car, and Keith repaired Sanju’s glasses.

It was too late for an installation that was

A grove of rubber trees that we passed on our way to tea.

an hour drive away, so we turned out attention westward. We were reoccupying a site at a College (high school) in Chunarughat, but we also had one more place to scout. This one was to be co-located with a seismic site, B4. The advance team found a home, but it would require constructing a monument.  We went to see for ourselves if it would work for us, passing one of the two seismic teams joining us in Srimongal – Nano, Céline, Alissa and Karim.  A few minutes of greetings and

Keith sips his seven-layer tea.

we were both back on our way. Driving across the rice fields, with a few wrong turns, we found the direct road had a bamboo bridge we could not cross.  We had to double back and take a longer more roundabout route ending with bumpy dirt roads that were not meant for cars.  Finally, we hit another bamboo bridge less than a kilometer from the site.  We walked there and met the owner of the house.  It would be usable

We briefly crossed paths with one of the seismic teams at the statue of a woman picking tea on a hilltop.

for seismometers, but there was no open sky view for us.  We walked another kilometer farther, but this time we had no luck.  The school was surrounded by trees. We were told that there was another school at a place called Kalenga with no trees.  By now it was dark, so we headed to the dinner with the seismic team. They were having a more difficult time.  Permissions were not finalized and appeared to be harder to get.

 The next day we went to Chunarughat to do the reinstallation.  I have been here a few times since the initial visit in 2007.  The last time, I saw the antenna, it was loose and assumed it was a problem with the mount.  Instead, it was more serious.  The rod itself was loose and had rotated.  2 silver threads on the rod were visible

On the roof with the redone monument, solar panel and cable.

beneath the green weathered ones. Looking at my photos we pieced together that the antenna cable came loose and the straightening of the loops to relieve tension had rotated the antenna 1.5 times so the north end was pointing south. The unscrewing created a 3.5 mm increase in the height of the rod. I will have to look at the data carefully to see if we can figure out when it happened and correct it.  Keith then carefully unscrewed it, added a really strong epoxy and screwed it back to its original level.  Sanju and I took rickshaws into

Sanju took a selfie of us in the rickshaw.

town to buy more electrical wire for the solar panel and for grounding.  After a while, Chunarughat was up and running again.

 After some tea and snacks, it was time for the last task – finding the final GPS site. We went off in search of the now mythical Kalenga.  I didn’t understand why everyone we asked seemed to know the direction to Kalenga until I realized there was a Forest Reserve of the same

A college assistant did his spiderman imitation to help us get the solar panel cable installed.

name.  We continued along progressively worse roads until the colorful school at Kalenga appeared.  It was indeed open, surrounded on two sides by rice fields.  Although it was on the anticlines, the rivers eroding it had created valleys suitable for rice will into the anticline.  The school principal quickly agreed to the installation.  We didn’t have more equipment with us, but we had the drill.  That would save us some time tomorrow, so we drilled until the power ran out of the batteries.  None of these schools had power, so instead of the large drill, we had to use the smaller battery powered

Posing with the reporter (to my left) that came out to interview us while we were drilling at Kalenga.

one.  We had been needing to recharge the batteries to do all the drilling, but with this early start, perhaps we would not.  In any case, sites for all the GPS had been located and arranged.  All that was left was the mechanics of the actual installation for the last two sites.

Giving out chocolates to the children at Dolucharra to thank them for the use of their school.

Primary Schools to the Rescue

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Sun, 02/11/2018 - 12:46

Up ahead on a hill was the brightly colored primary school, perfect for a GPS installation

We headed to the next area. One of Humayun’s students scouted for a location and found a reinforced concrete building, but it was not on the anticline as I wanted. It was farther west on the flatter land adjacent to the hill. It was on the wrong side of the rice/tea transition. We met the owner of the property and he accompanied us as we searched for another place. We could see why he stopped. Farther on the driving was more difficult and the houses were all thatch and tin. Walking around, we were shown a reinforced concrete building

Lifting the solar panel up to the roof for installation. To get to the top you have to climb from the ladder to the window ledge to the roof.

under construction, but it wouldn’t be finished for 2 years. We kept hunting and then we found it. There, in a clearing, was a brightly colored primary school. Again, the headmaster quickly agreed to let us install the GPS on the roof. I even was presented to the classes. The students are a mixture of Bengali, Khasi and Garo. The later two are groups that are mainly in the eastern and western Shillong Plateau (Meghalaya). We are finding that many of the villages in the hills are part of the 2% of the non-Bengali population of Bangladesh. The Bengalis like the plains and rice farming, the others are hill people growing other crops. The Khasi here are Christian, we passed a church on our way in. Later we met their tribal leader.

This time a short ladder was found, allowing us to climb to the ledge over the window and then onto the roof. Much easier going up than going down

“High” tea is served on the rooftop.

with the roof overhang. We again went to work, drilling holes in their roof and mounting the antenna, the solar panels and chaining the receiver box down for security. They had no electricity so we had to use the cordless drill until it ran out of power. Then we had to send our driver to the closest village to recharge them. Meanwhile, they served us tea and cookies on the roof. We couldn’t quite get the antenna rod as far in as I like, but plenty for stability.

Keith with Sanju attaching the antenna wire

The next day we had another site in a building that was too far from the hill. Again we went forward into the hills. This time, however, there was no local school. One of the Khasi villagers showed us around, but even the open fields had too many tall trees around. The best we could find was the corner of the rice of our guide. He would sell us the little plot of land we need, but it would be expensive since it would permanently removed it from productive rice farming. Sanju pointed out that there were some

The chain and lock system we devised to attach the GPS to the roof for security and the monsoon

Manipuri villages to the south, so we went back to the main road to try them. We discovered the maps of the area were not accurate; we failed to get to Islampur. We tried some other roads farther south. Our car could not make the direct route, so we took a detour that led us into dirt roads through a tea estate. It led us off in the wrong direction and our van was sounding worse and worse. It sounded like the CV joint was failing. We circled back to the main road on an unmapped road. We picked up someone who would show us how to

Our guide showing us possible GPS sites

drive to Kolabonpara, our last option to the south. Beyond that is India. Again, there were no local concrete buildings. The best we could find was a newly planted field of tea. Since the tea is kept waist high, we could put the monument in the middle of the field. However, the only way to get to it was over a bamboo bridge. It would be very difficult to get a welder and generator over that. We took the name and phone number of the

One of the many bamboo bridges we crossed, but our van could not.

manager, who was away in Dhaka, and headed off. On the way back north, we decided to make one last try by going to a village north of where we started. We got most of the way there and found a newly rebuild section of dirt road. It was too soft for the van, so we walked the final ½ hour to the village. We went passed the rice fields in through the beautiful woods next to the first high hill. Finally at the end, we saw it, the land opened up and there in the clearing was another brightly colored reinforced

Sanju and I search for the best way to go using my phone for directions.

concrete school. Since it was Friday, it was closed, but we got the name, address and phone number of the headmaster and went off to meet him. He turned out, not only to be Manipuri, but to also be Sanju’s “uncle”. Our hotel. With permission in hand, we headed back to our hotel. Scouting had taken the entire day, but we now had a location for the next GPS.

Working through the woods towards what turned out to be another good school.

Meanwhile, the seismology team did their huddle test – assembling all 30 instruments to test them.

Installing the first two GPS sites

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Fri, 02/09/2018 - 21:26

While driving looking for sites, we passed several elephants – the local cranes for lifting heavy items.

Unlike the GPS in your car or phone that gets a location to about 10 feet, the much more expensive systems we are putting in will get daily position estimates to about 2 millimeters. To do that, they need a clear view of the sky in all directions. We have two options for mounting the GPS antennas. If we can locate solid reinforced concrete buildings, we have cement a stainless steel rod into one of the columns. If not, we can build a braced monument out of vertical and diagonal stainless steel rods driven into the ground and welded

One of the lemon trees at Lemon Garden

together to make a solid base. We came prepared for either. The first can be done in a day, but the second will need at least two days and finding a local welder. This part of Bangladesh has the sediments folded up into linear hills where they grow tea and broad flat valleys where they grow rice. We will put 6 GPS on different parts of multiple hills and valleys.

Walking through the grounds of Lemon

Carrying the freshly cut pineapples down the hill.

Garden in the morning fog, there were no appropriate buildings and no sufficiently open space. We did find their grove of lemon trees (actually limes). We considered a hill nearby, but there was a tree at the top. As we saw later, the slopes are planted with pineapples that were being harvested. If fact, the hills here are either heavily forested or covered in tea. The tea plants are kept short for ease of picking leaves, but trees are scattered among them. We headed over to my backup for this area, a village

Climbing up the truck to get to the roof. We always have interesting ladders in Bangladesh.

nearby where perhaps there will be some homes, government buildings or schools that are suitable. As soon as we got to the village, we saw the local school. It is the only reinforced concrete building in the village. It   seems promising, but there are some trees around it that block the view. We met with the school officials and amazingly they agreed to cut down the trees. However, we needed final permission from the Upazila (county) Education Minister. We drove down to Srimongal, and got our permissions, along with cups of tea and cookies. It is amazing how accommodating the Bangladeshis are to us.

Our next hurdle was a ladder to the roof. When none was found, used the truck as our ladder, climbing onto its roof and then the building’s. It was now the afternoon, so we quickly went to

Keith drilling the hole in the reinforced concrete column for the antenna rod.

work, drilling an 18” hole in the roof and epoxying in the rod for the antenna, assembling the solar panel frame and attaching it to the roof, and finally setting up the waterproof box that will hold the GPS, the batteries, and the modem that will send the data to UNAVCO in Colorado. While we were working, the woodcutter arrived. Sanju is an ethnic Manipuri from the others side of this hill or anticline. He used his contacts to find a woodcutter, who arrived along with his uncle and younger brother. His tools

Sanju watches the woodcutter work on the tree.

were a machete and a rope. Because we needed two trees cut down and he needed to avoid a nearby home, he raised his price. In the end, it cost us 1400 Taka, almost $17, a tiny fraction of the cost in the U.S. Part of the tree falling killed a lemon tree, so we will have to pay the owner for the loss. Sanju is still negotiating the terms. As is almost always the case, it was dark before we finished the last part, installing the grounding rod for lightning protection.

Keith and Sanju wiring batteries in the receiver box. The receiver is the black and orange rectangle mounted vertically.

The next day, we traveled two and a half hours to our farthest site. This is a reinstallation of one be installed in 2007. The GPS, borrowed from UNAVCO had to be returned in late 2016. That makes this a simpler installation as the rod and cables are already in place. It is in a medical clinic with the equipment box located in the birthing room. The people I had met in 2007 have moved and there is a new doctor and his family living in the clinic. Since 2007, a number of trees have grown up. We again need to have trees cut down. Sanju negotiated with

Sanju watches Keith finish the installation while leaning on the birthing table with medical equipment behind.

the neighbor and she agreed to cut the tree for a fee, which she will sell for the wood. The branches of another tree will be cut back once the boroi fruit, like miniature apples are collected. Lunch was again tea and snacks. Two days and two sites installed. After delays of a few more days, the seismic group finally got their equipment and started testing them as we finished the second site. Things are going well for us.

One of the trucks bringing over 2 tons of seismic equipment to DUET

Fellowship of the Seismometers

Geohazards in Bangladesh - Thu, 02/08/2018 - 12:55

I am back in Bangladesh to start the deployment of equipment for a large new project. Results from our last project showed there is a large earthquake hazard here. We demonstrated that the Sumatra subduction zone, where India plunges beneath Asia, continues to the north under Bangladesh. The subduction down at Sumatra caused the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed over 230,000 people. Even though the plate boundary comes onshore, unusual for subduction zones, is it still active with the world’s largest pile of sediments, the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, entering it. We have designed an experiment to investigate this plate boundary across 3 countries: Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

A map showing our planned deployment of seismometers in Bangladesh (red), India (blue) and Myanmar (green). The heavy black and gray lines are the major and secondary faults. The GPS we are installing now are in the box labeled DET.

Our first step is to install 29 seismometers and 6 GPS receivers in Bangladesh. To do this, we have a team of 11 people. Most of us will be here for three and a half weeks. There are five of us from Lamont, two engineers from PASSCAL and UNAVCO, organizations that provide support and equipment to NSF projects like ours, and four from Dhaka University. Ahead of us, we shipped over 2 tons of seismic equipment and carried over 300 lbs. with us on the plane. Thanks to a 2 hr. delay due to fog in Dhaka, our flights lasted a full 24 hours, longer for the two engineers coming from Colorado and New Mexico. We then spent the next several at the airport getting all our luggage, getting them through the huge backup at customs from all the delayed flights, changing money and getting local phone numbers.

Keith, Alissa and Jim trying their first Bangladeshi meal.

At a lunch stop, 4 members of our team who have never been here before tasted their first Bangla food. So far, they are all enjoying it. We then arrived at the Dhaka University of Engineering and Technology (DUET), north of that city to set up our base.

When we arrived we found out that the seismic equipment is being help up by customs. Since the packing list mentions antennas, the GPS antenna that gets exact time for the seismometers,

Our group: Karim, Samiul, Jim, Alissa, Keith, myself, Chris, Céline, Nano, Humayun and Sanju.

customs referred it to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. Humayun went back to Dhaka and spent the day there dealing with it, while Alissa and I tried to find the documents he needed to show the antennas only receive signals and do not cause not interference. The paperwork is slowly going through the bureaucracy and we hope it will be released tomorrow. Meanwhile, we spent the time running around Joydebpur shopping for the materials we need. The seismologists need to build underground vaults to hold

Jim and Nano arranging for the thick tiles that the sensors will sit on to be cut to size. The tiles will be used instead of a concrete pad, saving time.

the instruments, while the GPS team needed grounding rods and wire. Most of seismic supplies bought or ordered, so they should be ready to move out ahead of schedule even with the delay, if they get it tomorrow. The GPS team finished our shopping so tomorrow we will pack up, hopefully be able to fit everything in one van and take off. It will be Keith from UNAVCO, Sanju from Dhaka University and myself. When they are done shopping and testing, the seismic team will split into two 4-person groups for the installations, starting with the dense central line of stations. We will hopefully

Meeting with the president of DUET

see one of them by the end of the week when they arrive in the Srimongol area, where we are going. The other team will initially work from here at DUET. These are the two ends of the dense lines in Bangladesh and they will spend the following week deploying towards each other.

Of course we had too much stuff for the van, so the truck will come with us to carry our equipment than then return to

Tea plants covering the hills of Sylhet. They are trimmed low to make it easier to pick the tea leaves.

DUET. He had the mandatory meet and greet with the president of DUET. In the end our leaving first thing in the morning stretched to 12:30. We had hoped to stop at one of the sites on the way, but instead we went straight to the Lemon Garden Resort in the hills near Srimongal. The hills in Sylhet, the NE part of Bangladesh are covered in tea estates. There are a growing number of resorts in the hills as well. Lemon Gardens has beautiful grounds and tomorrow we will see if there is a good spot for a GPS.

Upmanu Lall Recognized as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Tue, 12/19/2017 - 10:03
upmanu lall onstage at ceremony

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, is honored onstage as an AGU fellow.

Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, was one of 61 scholars to be honored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) last week.

Each year, the organization recognizes just 0.01 percent of its members as AGU Fellows. This title is reserved for scientists who have “made exceptional scientific contributions and gained prominence in their respective fields of Earth and space sciences.”

The organization announced this year’s class of Fellows in July, but the awardees were commemorated in a ceremony and reception on Wednesday at the AGU meeting in New Orleans. Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and president-elect of AGU, presented the class of Fellows.

Lall’s work focuses on global water scarcity, predicting and mitigating floods, and developing sustainable water management strategies. At the ceremony, AGU praised his “incisive contributions to the understanding and predictability of hydrologic processes at regional and global scales.” But Lall feels his colleagues deserve much of the credit. “It’s really a recognition for all the students and postdocs who have been working with me,” he says.

Through the America’s Water project, the Columbia Water Center is working to build a comprehensive picture of water sources and stresses in the U.S. Up next, Lall and his team plan to address the growing number of communities across the U.S. who are losing access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

“AGU Fellows are recognized for their outstanding contributions to scholarship and discovery in the Earth and space sciences,” Eric Davidson, president of AGU, said in a statement in July. “Their work not only expands the realm of human knowledge, but also contributes to the scientific understanding needed for building a sustainable future.”

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Air Pollution May Kill More Africans Than HIV/AIDS

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Mon, 12/18/2017 - 11:59
fire in an agricultural field

Farmers often use fire to clear agricultural fields, but the practice adds to air pollution. Here, a man tends a fire in a Louisiana field. Photo: Chloe Gao

AIDS and malaria epidemics receive much attention from international health organizations, but a sneakier killer is on the loose in Africa. Air pollution may now be the continent’s number one killer, according to a forthcoming study. Susanne Bauer, an Earth Institute affiliate who models atmospheric composition at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, presented these findings at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Thursday.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the widespread practice of burning crop residues helps to clear stubble from fields and fertilize the soil. “It’s really, really cheap to treat your fields after the harvesting season with fires,” explained Bauer during her presentation. But where there’s fire, there’s smoke. The practice releases fine particles into the air that can harm human health, and sub-Saharan Africa alone produces about a third of the planet’s burning biomass emissions. Bauer and her colleagues set out to learn more about the particles’ origins, chemistry, and health effects.

The Biggest Killer

The team used a climate model and satellite data to map where the biomass burning takes place. They tracked where the smoke from those fires ends up, and studied the distribution of gases and harmful particulates that come from other sources, such as industry and nature. Then they fed the data into an economic health model to estimate how many lives each type of pollution would shorten. The model takes into account factors such as population density, age distribution, and risk factors from other diseases.

Bauer and her colleagues calculated that the largest portion of Africa’s air pollution-related deaths came from a surprising source. “The biggest killer on that continent is nature, because of the gigantic dust sources around the Sahara,” said Bauer.

Particles smaller than 2.5 microns—about half as wide as a red blood cell—can lodge themselves in human airways. Once inside, they increase a person’s risk of lung cancer, heart attack, lung disease, stroke, heart disease, and more.

The team calculated that Saharan dust and other natural pollutants cause 1.2 million Africans to die prematurely every year. That’s more than AIDS, which kills around 760,000 Africans per year, on average.

In 2015, AIDS was unseated as the leading cause of death in Africa. It was replaced by lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, which claim one million African lives per year.

By these estimates, air pollution from the Sahara is the number one killer in Africa. In addition, studies suggest that some types of air pollution are linked to respiratory infections.

Other Dangers

Industrial and urban emissions were the second deadliest source of air pollution. They claim 324,000 lives per year, according to the team’s estimates. Gases emitted by vehicles and factories—such as ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides and sulfates—as well as soot and organic carbon were mostly to blame. This manmade pollution ranks between meningitis and malaria in Africa’s leading causes of death.

Although burning forests and fields created the largest amount of air pollutants in the study, the practice takes place in areas where population density is low. As a result, biomass burning ranked as the third largest source of air pollution-related deaths. It causes an estimated 70,000 premature deaths per year.

One weakness of the study, said Bauer, is that she and her colleagues assumed all types of fine particles had equal toxicity. That may not be the case in reality. However, scientists don’t know much about each particle’s specific effects on human death rates.

Growing Awareness

“I think it’s very striking that air pollution’s overall mortality is the same order of magnitude as AIDS,” said Bauer. “There are a lot of initiatives to fight AIDS, to fight malaria, but air pollution is certainly under-addressed on that continent.”

Part of the reason for its obscurity may be that premature deaths from air pollution are hard to pinpoint. You can’t diagnose them like you can for malaria and AIDS. The negative effects of air pollution can manifest in a variety of ways, and exacerbate conditions that can have multiple causes.

“I don’t think society understood how dangerous it is,” she said.

The team calculated that interventions—such as reducing pollution from industrial sources, improving land management techniques, distributing masks, and informing people about the dangers of dust storms—could save 350 thousand lives each year.

Tackling air pollution in Africa will not be easy. Many nations already face political, economic, and social challenges, on top of other known health problems. But Bauer says awareness about the dangers of air pollution is growing, and that’s the first step toward fixing the problem.

The team is preparing this research for submission in a peer-reviewed journal. Other contributors include Ulas Im from Aarhus University and Keren Mezuman from Columbia University.

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Enough is never enough

By Julian Spergel

The best way to move the Icepod with all its instruments is with the help of a sledge! (photo Susan Howard)

After what seemed a multitide of small setbacks due to weather and plane repairs, Rosetta’s third season came to an end amid a flurry of last minute flights, packing, and saying goodbye to our new friends. The last few days flew by as we cleared out our tent on Williams Field, disassembling our equipment, and returning borrowed equipment to the proper departments. Packing down here is done carefully. Everything we had brought down to the tent had to be checked off a list, packed in its proper container, labelled for shipping, placed on a metal pallet, weighed and labelled by weight for packing, put back on a metal pallet, and finally sent off for shipping. I’m glad my own things did not need to go through such a rigorous process, though I bet I would lose fewer possessions if I was this meticulous! Among the fourteen of us, the whole process went by quickly, and the tent that we had considered our little corner of Antarctica emptied in just two days.

Some of the iced team from left to right Chris B. one of the IcePod engineers, and Grant and Martin, two of the gravimeter operators. (Photo – Susan Howard)

But enough is never enough when you have traveled so far for data! Almost from nowhere we were given a surprise opportunity to fly one of our survey lines the second-to-last day of our Antarctic season and we jumped at it! While it wasn’t possible to unpack all of our instruments, the careful packing and labeling of the pallets allowed us to readily locate what we needed. In a final burst of unpacking we had our gravimeters together and were ready to go. There is always time for more data.

For the return trip I was tasked with carrying one of two copies of our scientific data (there is always redundancy in data this hard to collect)! I carried a hard plastic suitcase filled with a dozen thumbdrives and over seventy hard drives, equaling seventy pounds of memory, from McMurdo Station, Antarctica to New York City. Some readers may be wondering why we used such a physically demanding method of sending data home. Even in 2017, there is no means of transferring data as safely and as quickly as a graduate student carrying a bag of hard drives! After some huffing and puffing, and some odd looks from security personnel, I delivered the data to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory outside NYC for our archivists to put onto the server.

Map of Rosetta flight lines for the three seasons of work. Spacing at 10 km resolution for the bottom (northern) and most of the southern section of the map. Other areas are at 20 km spacing.

What have we accomplished this third field season? Ultimately, after flight cancellations due to over a week of harsh weather and cancellations due to airplane technical issues, we were able to complete fourteen of the eighteen flights we planned for this Antarctic season. In total, we had roughly two hundred sixty hours of flying over an area the size of Texas. The goal of the Rosetta-Ice project was to use airplane-mounted sensors to create a 10-km resolution grid of geophysical measurements of the Ross Ice Shelf’s glaciology and geology. After three Antarctic field seasons, our mapping is finished. In the northern (bottom) two-thirds of our survey grid we have created a 10-km resolution map, and in the remaining third of the surveyed area we have a 20 km-resolution map. The data collection phase of our project is over, but the analysis of the data is ongoing. With the new, higher resolution map of the Ross Ice Shelf and the underlying seafloor, previously unseen small-scale features can be identified and studied. Research assistant Isabel Cordero has been working on ‘picking’ the ice layers of the radar echograms, identifying the layers of accumulated ice from the various glacial sources, for the past year. I’m looking forward to the day when, in a few months time, we print out all the radar echograms that we collected, with the ice layers and interesting points labelled for everyone to peruse.

Radar flight line L700, a slice across the front of the Ross Ice Shelf that shows the separate ice packets from series of glaciers around the shelf. On the western side (the left) Roosevelt Island is clearly identifiable pushing up under the ice.

In the coming months, we will be presenting our initial findings. But for several years we will continue to dig in to the collected data, as we seek to answer the research questions that led our project in the beginning. The goals for Rosetta-Ice’s were to answer questions about the conditions on top of and inside the Ross Ice Shelf’s ice, as well as the conditions in the ocean water circulation and rocky bed beneath the ice, and look at linkages. The most exciting aspect of finishing a scientific project is not just what questions can be answered, but what new questions will develop as we learn more about the Ross Ice Shelf and Antarctica as a whole. For further updates about our project keep checking back to our project site.

The author, Julian Spergel on Castle Rock, Antarctica for a final look at the vast white continent before ‘wheels up’.

This will be my final blog entry, and I would like to finish on a personal anecdote. At the beginning of my time on this blog, I wrote about how coming to Antarctica was a personal goal of mine. On my last hike of my time in Antarctica, a five-hour trek to a large rock crag called “Castle Rock,” I had a moment where, as I looked out over the landscape, I felt a sense of completion. Standing in the middle of a flat, windswept field of snow and ice and watching the snow-covered volcano Mt. Erebus smoke white steam into the sunny blue sky, I thought: “This is Antarctica. All my life, I have imagined what it would be like to be here, and here I am, and it ia even more majestic than I thought.” I did my best to memorize every detail of the scene: the cold, the silence, the vividness of the colors. There was so much of Antarctica that I would never be able to see, and the freshness of my memories of being here would soon fade, but if I could just remember this moment, it would be enough.

I was so lucky to be able to visit this remote corner of our planet. I only wanted to return again soon, to see and learn more. Before I knew it, I was stepping out of the plane in Christchurch, inhaling my first scents of plant life in over a month.

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery. He graduated with a B.S. in Geophysical Sciences from the University of Chicago in 2016. He has been involved with a number of diverse projects and has been interested in polar studies since early in his career. His fieldwork has brought him north to the Svalbard Archipelago and south to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Learn more about previous years’ research, here.

For more on this project, please visit the project website:

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What Caused the Great Famine?

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Fri, 12/15/2017 - 11:32
drought great famine

From 1876-78, droughts cause crop failures around the world, causing millions to die. Photo: dasroofless via Flickr

From 1876 to 1878, the Great Famine killed between 30 and 60 million people around the world. Drought enveloped much of the planet, causing food shortages all the way from Brazil to India and China, and wiping out approximately three percent of the global population.

Climate scientist Deepti Singh from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory recalls reading about the droughts’ devastation and wondering, “What could cause something like this? And what’s the likelihood that it could happen again in the coming decades?”

She and her colleagues are quantifying the extent and severity of the global drought, and trying to find out what made it so severe. She presented the research on Friday at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Great Famine was “arguably the worst environmental disaster to ever befall humanity,” the team notes in a forthcoming paper. It “helped create the global inequalities that would later be characterized as ‘first’ and ‘third worlds’.” Understanding the drought’s driving forces is important, says Singh, since they could strike again at any time—perhaps worse than ever, since hotter temperatures make droughts more intense.

Scientists have long suspected that El Niño was partially to blame for the global famine. Driven by temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, El Niño is a climate pattern that often comes with warm and dry conditions in India, Australia, and South America. In their paper (which has not yet been published), Singh and her colleagues provide some of the first quantitative evidence that this environmental catastrophe was likely driven by the strongest El Niño that human instruments have ever measured. Other record-breaking conditions may have been at play as well, they find.

A Global Problem
great famine causes people in india to starve

The Great Famine killed an estimated 12 to 29 million people in India. Image: Wikimedia Commons

To find out exactly where, when, and how long the droughts occurred, as well as their severity, the researchers turned to tree-ring based drought atlases. Tree rings grow thicker during wet years, so old trees can provide a history of past climate conditions. Edward Cook, co-author and director of Columbia’s Tree Ring Lab, developed three of the atlases used in the paper. Rain gauge data, some of which goes back 175 years, also indicated how scarce water was at the time of the drought.

The team’s findings suggest that the 1876-78 droughts extended far beyond Brazil, India, and China, although that’s where famine struck the hardest. The search turned up evidence for dry conditions in Egypt, Morocco, Australia and even southwestern and eastern North America. Tree rings suggested Asia’s drought was the worst in 800 years or more.

Prelude to Disaster

To find out what made the conditions so severe, the researchers looked at sea surface temperature data collected by sailors going back as far as the 1870s.

Sea surface temperatures confirmed that there was indeed an intense El Niño that persisted for the larger part of two years of the Great Famine (1877-78). But the extreme El Niño may have been primed by cooler waters in the central tropical Pacific from 1870 to 1876. This prolonged period of coolness—the longest on the record—may have led to immense buildup of warm water in the western tropical Pacific. This ended in a strong La Niña event in 1875-76. The La Niña kicked off dry conditions in India, Mexico and the southwestern U.S., then discharged into a strong El Niño, which brought along more dryness across a large fraction of the globe.

“It’s like a pendulum,” explains Singh. “If you keep pushing it in one direction, further and further from the center, and then release it, it’s going to go to the extreme in the other direction.”

Oceanic Accomplices

El Niño didn’t work alone in generating the Great Famine. Singh and her colleagues found evidence of exceptional conditions in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well.

In 1877, the Indian Ocean experienced exceptionally warm temperatures, particularly in its western portion, generating a dipole in sea surface temperatures. These contrasting conditions in the Indian Ocean can often lead to dry conditions in Australia and South Africa. But in 1877, the thermal contrast between the two halves was the strongest ever recorded before or since, which likely assisted El Niño in generating severe droughts in those regions.

In 1877 and 1878, the north Atlantic was the warmest it has ever been, according to records that date back to the 1850s. This may have pushed moisture-carrying atmospheric winds northward, away from the Brazilian Nordeste, which lost two million lives during the famine that followed.

Scientists disagree over whether El Niño could have triggered these effects in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Maybe it was just bad luck that extreme conditions happened in all three oceans at once. But the oceans are all connected, and Singh and her colleagues suspect El Niño set off the cascade of effects.

“It’s hard to think that all of this was a coincidence,” Singh says.

Looking to the Future

All in all, the team concludes that a host of record-setting conditions—an intense and long-lasting El Niño, likely primed by a cool Pacific, and exacerbated by a warm Atlantic and strong thermal contrasts in the Indian Ocean—combined into the perfect storm that was the Great Famine. And it could happen again.

Since the conditions that cooked up the Great Famine arose from natural climatic variation, there’s nothing to stop a global drought from recurring. If those conditions were to arise again, they could again put global food security in jeopardy.

In fact, it could be worse the next time around. As the global thermostat rises, the warmer temperatures could make future droughts more severe, says Singh.

Next, she and her colleagues hope to find out how often events like this might happen in the future, how severe they might be, and which countries would be worst affected. Understanding what caused the global drought could help to predict and prepare for the next one, in hopes that it won’t trigger another global famine.

The study is currently is in preparation for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Other authors include Richard Seager, Benjamin I Cook, Mark Cane and Mingfang Ting from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Michael Davis from the University of California, Riverside.

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American Geophysical Union 2017: Key Events From the Earth Institute

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Mon, 12/04/2017 - 14:35

A chronological guide to key talks and other events presented by Columbia University’s Earth Institute at the American Geophysical Union 2017 meeting. Unless otherwise noted, scientists are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. For abstracts, see the Meeting Program. Reporters: contact scientists directly, or news editor Kevin Krajick, 917-361-7766.

Emergence of a New Pacific Island: Analog to Mars?   Vicki Ferrini
In 2015, a brand-new island emerged in the Pacific’s Tonga chain, when a volcano exploded through the water line. NASA scientists are studying its evolution with satellite imagery, and Ferrini and colleagues have mapped the bathymetry around it from a ship. This is the first time a newly forming island has been so studied in real time. The observations open a new window onto earth processes, and also may serve as an analog to understanding similar-looking island-like features on Mars. Ferrini will speak at an AGU-sponsored press conference with NASA scientists Jim Garvin and Dan Slayback.
PRESS CONFERENCE: Evolution of a New Pacific Island May Unlock Secrets to Mars. Monday, Dec. 11, 9am, Press Conference Room
Scientists Map a New Volcanic Island

 Wildlife on the Move in a Warming Arctic  Scott LaPoint, Ruth Oliver
Fast warming in the arctic appears to be altering wildlife movement, behavior and ranges. LaPoint discusses tracking data showing that migratory golden eagles are arriving in northern breeding grounds earlier every spring. Oliver discusses automated bioacoustic networks that record bird calls at select far northern locations, allowing researchers to track changes in the arrival of many species. LaPoint will later join researchers from other institutions in a press conference to discuss climate-related changes among other species.
LaPoint: Monday, Dec. 11, 10:50-11:05am, Morial Center 356-357. B12C-03
Oliver: Monday, Dec. 11, 11:05-11:20am, Morial Center 356-357. B12C-04
PRESS CONFERENCE: Climate Change and Unexpected Consequences for Animal Populations. Monday, Dec. 11, 4pm, Press Conference Room

 Getting Under an Antarctic Ice Shelf  Robin Bell
AGU president-elect Bell will discuss the latest findings from the ROSETTA project, which is using instruments above and below the ice to produce new images of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, the ocean, its floor, and deep geologic structures. Among other things, the research is revealing that the shelf is melting from the top in some areas, but the bottom in others—differences that in some cases may be influenced by underlying geology.
Monday, Dec. 12, 4:12-4:15pm, Morial Center eLightning Area. C14B-04
Unlocking the Secrets of the Ross Ice Shelf

 Studying Lava With Drones and Neuroscience  Einat Lev
In 2016, Lev and colleagues trekked to Chile’s Quizapu volcano, site of South America’s largest historical lava flow, to map the vast surface in great detail via drone. Along with related work at volcanoes in Hawaii, Iceland and elsewhere, this research should yield new insights into natural controls on lava flows, and how people might deal with them. Lev and colleagues are also now about to simulate lava dynamics in the lab using materials and methods adapted from cutting-edge neuroscience experiments.
Tuesday, Dec. 12, 9:30-9:45am, Morial Center 208-209. V21A-07
Peering Into Chile’s Quizapu

 Facebook and the Mapping of Humanity Alexander deSherbinin, Robert Chen, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN)
CIESIN scientists have partnered with Facebook to map human habitation and infrastructure at fine scales across the world. Facebook started the effort in order to locate billions of people not yet connected to the internet—information that can be applied to a wide variety of socioeconomic projects. De Sherbinin discusses information newly available in 30-meter resolution, and how institutions are working to use the data. Chen will discuss relatively new tools collecting data, including drones, cell phones, internet providers, satellites and citizen scientists, and new “big data” capabilities to process it.
Chen: Tuesday, Dec. 12, 10:50-11:05am, Morial Center 255-257. PA22A-03
De Sherbinin: Friday, Dec. 15, 9:09-9:21am, Morial Center 228-230. IN51H-06
Mapmakers Team With Facebook

 The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Party
Traditionally on Tuesday night at AGU, staff and alumni of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory gather from around the world for a reunion. Journalists registered for AGU are welcome—a great chance to make contacts, hear the buzz about new work, and have fun.
Tuesday Dec. 12, 6:30-8:30pm, Lowes New Orleans, Louisiana Ballroom, 300 Poydras Street

 From Plate Tectonics to Nuclear Bombs Lynn Sykes
Seismologist Lynn Sykes has devoted much of his long career to detecting secret nuclear test explosions, and working to develop verifiable test-ban treaties. In his new book Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, he details the science and intrigues of his work. Sykes will sign copies at the Columbia University Press exhibit booth. He will also give a talk on his role in solidifying the theory of plate tectonics, when he mapped undersea earthquakes in the 1960s—subject of his second book, coming in 2018.
Silencing the Bomb signing: Wednesday, Dec. 13, 11am-12pm, Columbia University Press booth (#1552), Exhibition Hall
Tectonics: Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2:04-2:20pm, Morial Center E2. U33A-02 (Invited)

Unviable U.S. Dams Michelle Ho, Columbia Water Center, Richard Seager
Dams that supply water to the U.S. West were designed with little knowledge about the range, frequency and persistence of precipitation extremes. Scientists have since identified prehistoric droughts worse than any seen historically, and projections say the region will get drier as climate warms. In this light, Ho assesses the viability of existing dams. In a separate talk, Seager synthesizes the latest findings on regional climate, taking in studies of paleoclimate and plant physiology, and new revelations about the influence of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. One concern: as the West dries, plants in natural ecosystems could adapt by sucking up more soil moisture, competing with humans for ever-scarcer water.
Ho: Wednesday, Dec. 13, 1:40-6pm, Morial Center Poster Halls D-F. NH33B-0246
Seager: Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2:04-2:22pm, Morial Center 343. PP33D-03
Michelle Ho: In a Land of Plenty, Big Water Problems
Richard Seager Sees Hand of Climate Change in Drought

 The Melting Himalayas Joshua Maurer  Mukund Rao
Due to lack of long-term observations, scientists have been unclear about how Himalayan glaciers as a whole are being affected by warming climate. By combining declassified films from old spy satellites with modern satellite imagery, Maurer and colleagues now have a 40-year record of changes in 1,000 glaciers spanning 2,000 kilometers. They say ice has been consistently wasting since 1975, and the rate has doubled since 2000. In a related study, Rao compares recent stream flows in the glacier-fed Indus River watershed with tree rings going back to 1452. Results suggest that since the 1980s, water flow has been greater than at any time in in the last 500 years, probably driven by increased glacier melt.
Rao: Thursday, Dec. 14, 9-9:15am, Morial Center 267-268. GC41G-05
Maurer: Friday, Dec. 15, 11:35-11:50am, Morial Center 275-277. C52A-06

Africa’s Air Pollution Problem Susanne Bauer, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Sub-Saharan Africa produces a third of earth’s particulate pollution caused by biomass burning—yet the exact origins, chemistry and health effects of particles remain poorly known. Using satellite imagery and other resources, Bauer and colleagues have done a comprehensive study. She will discuss where particles come from, the number of people affected, and how pollution may work with other factors to cause premature death.
Thursday, Dec. 14, 11:05-11:20am, Morial Center 395-396. A42C-04

 A Newly Revealed Record El Niño, and a Killer Drought  Deepti Singh
The 1876-78 Great Famine killed more than 50 million people across Asia, Africa and South America–possibly the worst human environmental disaster ever. Blame often has been laid on socioeconomic factors of the colonial era, but the trigger was drought. Using tree rings, instrumental observations and sea-surface temperature reconstructions, Singh says that the drought resulted from the greatest El Niño yet identified, surpassing those of the 1980s ‘90s. Singh says it arose from natural conditions that could be repeated today, affecting multiple grain-producing regions simultaneously and undermining global food supplies.
Friday, Dec. 15, 8:45-9:00am, Morial Center 265-266. GC51F-04 (Invited)

 Andean Ecosystems: Early Climate Casualties? Daniel Ruiz-Carrascal, International Research Institute for Climate and Society
The world has agreed to limit the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees C, but that may not be good enough for the high Andes. To study the effects of warming, Ruiz-Carrascal and colleagues have collated weather and biological data for decades across high-elevation South America. He will discuss evidence that many ecosystems are already ailing, due to both warming and human intrusions, and suggests they may start falling apart altogether at 1.5 degrees—a threshold we already are approaching.
Friday, Dec. 15, 1:40-6pm, Morial Center Poster Hall D-F. GC53A-0871
Climate Change Threatens Fragile Andes Ecosystem

 Films From the Field
Short films on the fieldwork of our scientists, shot on location, will be screened at the daily AGU Cinema. This year’s crop can also be viewed any time online at the links below.
Biblical Land, Killer Drought (2017) Along the shores of the Dead Sea, in an already sere and volatile land, a team from Jordan, Israel and the United States explores geologic evidence that repeats of ancient megadroughts could reshape the Mideast.
What the Vikings Can Teach Us About Climate Change (2017) Climatologists plumb the bottoms of deep lakes in Norway’s arctic Lofoten Islands, in search of clues to how Vikings survived and thrived here a thousand years ago, at the height of their power.
Sierra Glaciers and the Global Climate Puzzle (2017) Glacial geologists explore remnants of the last ice age in California’s high Sierras, in search of insights into how warming climate may affect water supplies for people far below.
AGU Cinema: 8am-12pm Monday, Tuesday. 8am-10am Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Morial Center, First Floor, Sharing Science Room/Rivergate Room


The post American Geophysical Union 2017: Key Events From the Earth Institute appeared first on State of the Planet.

A Bit of Sun on an Antarctic Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving week at McMurdo has brought warm, clear weather, so it is hopeful we will have a full week of back-to-back flights in our second-to-last week. The weather was perfect for the annual Antarctic “Turkey Trot” 5k race. Rosetta Projects very own Chloe Gustafson won 1st place, and holds the honor of being the first woman to win the race!

Chloe Gustafson won 1st place in the Antarctic Turkey Trot and holds the honor of being the first woman to win the race!

Chloe Gustafson won 1st place in the Antarctic Turkey Trot and holds the honor of being the first woman to win the race!

The warm weather has also begun to melt the snow around the station, turning the snow mushy and revealing the dirt underneath the ice that we had forgotten was there. The landscape of McMurdo changed over the course of a number of hours, from ice- and snow-covered to “mud season.” As the ground surface becomes darker, it absorbs more heat, and the surrounding ice melts faster. This process called ice-albedo feedback is one that is driving a majority of the accelerated change in both poles.

Sea ice images collected from IcePod from the Rosetta Project.

Another rapidly changing part of the Antarctic landscape was observed during a recent Rosetta survey flight that skirted the edge of the ice shelf to observe sea ice, icebergs, and areas of persistent open water called ‘polynyas’. Icebergs are chunks of glacier that break off into the ocean. We saw ‘tabular icebergs’, boxy chunks of ice that still have sharp vertical walls after breaking off the ice shelf. On our flight, most of the icebergs I saw were frozen into the sea ice, like ice islands sticking out from a frozen ocean. Sea ice forms from the freezing of ocean water: small chunks of ice called ‘new ice’ grow and merge into sheets of thin sea ice, which then accumulate snow. While it is still in motion, the ice is called ‘drift ice,’ but once it freezes to the front of the ice shelf or the sea bed, it is called ‘fast ice.’ The fractured tiles of sea ice and dark water looked like stained glass, and it was incredible to see the variety of patterns and the shifting colors of light reflected in the icy seascape below.

Lidar image of se ice shot from the IcePod.

Lidar image of sea ice shot from the IcePod. The ice carries a look of intricately woven lace.

In collaboration with the University of San Antonio project Polynyas and Ice Production in the Ross Sea (PIPERS), we used IcePOD, our aircraft-mounted suite of sensors, to help measure the thickness of the sea ice and get a better understanding of temporal and spatial patterns of air-sea-ice interactions around the sea ice. The cracks and gaps in the sea ice were of special interest to the PIPERS scientists, who are studying the evolution of polynyas in the Ross Sea, which are caused by upwelling water or wind currents. You can learn more about PIPERS at their website.

// Edwardsiella andrillae n. sp., lives with most of its column in the ice shelf, with only the tentacle crown extending into the seawater below. The ANDRILL 200 Coulman High Project (CHP) fieldwork in Antarctica during the austral spring and summer of 2010-2011 was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs, and in New Zealand by the NZ Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. A. Close up of specimens in situ. Image captured by SCINI. B. “Field” of Edwardsiella andrillae n. sp. in situ. Image captured by SCINI. Red dots are 10 cm apart.

A new species of sea anemone Edwardsiella andrillae. Edwardsiella andrillae n. sp., lives with most of its column in the ice shelf, with only the tentacle crown extending into the seawater below. Image from The ANDRILL 200 Coulman High Project (CHP) fieldwork in Antarctica  2010-2011,  funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs, and in New Zealand by the NZ Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
A. Close up of specimens in situ. Image captured by SCINI. B. “Field” of Edwardsiella andrillae n. sp. in situ. Image captured by SCINI. Red dots are 10 cm apart.

Understanding sea ice is important to understanding polar biology and understanding polar oceanography. The sea ice hosts a unique ecology of animals and bacteria. Penguins, seals, and other marine animals use the sea ice. Species of photosythetic plankton live on the bottoms of sea ice chunks. Famously, the ANDRILL project discovered a previously unknown species of sea anemone, /Edwardsiella andrillae/, that lives clinging to the underside of the sea ice in the Ross Sea. Sea ice plays a role in keeping the polar oceans cold, reflecting the Sun’s energy off its shiny white surfaces back into space. Lastly, as sea ice freezes, salt is squeezed out into the surrounding water, making it denser and thus causing it to sink. This downward push helps to drive the conveyor belt-like circulation of surface water from the Equator to the Poles and the bottom water circulation from the Poles to the Equator. This is called thermohaline circulation. Thus sea ice plays a role in the Earth’s oceans, both locally in the Antarctic and worldwide.

Why did the scientists of PIPERS want to use IcePod when flying over their sea ice study area? Not for the ice-penetrating radar, which looked very confusing after processing. Both the shallow and deep ice radar instruments are intended for looking through hundreds of feet of ice, not a few feet of sea ice. But our LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) returned some beautiful three-dimensional images of the sea ice-topography. They can use these high-definition images to study small details of the ice.

Ice threaded with leads of open water that show up dark black against the white ice. These dark areas absorb energy from the sun causing a feedback loop.

Ice threaded with leads of open water that show up dark black against the white ice. These dark areas absorb energy from the sun causing a feedback loop.

Flying over the sea ice was a treat for the flight’s passengers, myself included, but it was not the most interesting flight for the trip’s IcePod flight engineer, Tej Dhakal. I asked him what kinds of terrain are the most interesting to fly over as he is monitoring the instruments. He said that he enjoyed flying over areas where the instruments reveal hidden details: the Crary Ice Rise, a large mound of ice forming over a rise in the seabed below that is only really visible in the radar echograms, and the Siple Coast, where a sharp change in radar returns indicates precisely where the coastline sits, which is often different than what has been previously mapped. The Trans-Antarctic Mountains are interesting because there is a high density of crevassing. Hopefully this week’s remaining flights will add this kind of interest.

Wendell seal mother pops up from the hole in the ice to communicate with her pup.

Wendell seal mother pops up from the hole in the ice to communicate with her pup.

In seal news, the baby seal, who I’ve named Boopy, has grown much larger and is nearly ready to go for its first swim. Its mother popped out of the ice hole to yell at it to not bother the larger seal lying nearby.

For more information about Rosetta-Ice, check out our website and the archive of this blog. Have questions about Rosetta-Ice or about living and working in Antarctica? Feel free to email your question to, and I will try to answer it in the next blog entry!

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and is blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery.

Wind, Snow and Ice: Summer in Antarctica

By Julian Spergel

The theme of the past week has been: Weather. Weather is of course always happening, but in the lingo of McMurdo Station, ‘weather’ means ‘bad weather.’ Over the past week, I’ve seen the accumulation of around six inches of very fluffy snow.Radar image from McMurdo weather website Nov. 21, 2017.

Radar image from McMurdo weather website Nov. 21, 2017.

Radar image from McMurdo weather website Nov. 21, 2017.

In the center of McMurdo Station, visibility has not yet decreased too much, but on Williams Field there were several days of Condition 1, the most extreme, with visibility of less than one hundred feet. In terms of temperature, it has not gotten too cold, with thermometer temperatures hovering between the mid-teens and low twenties Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, all flights have been grounded for nearly a week.

Windy and snow blowing! Conditions on Willy Field, Antarctica during the recent spat of bad weather. (J. Spergel)

When weather permits, the Rosetta team has been checking in on the instruments in our Williams Field tent and on the air plane, digging out the entrances to the tent, and remaining in a state of preparedness for our next flight opportunity. In between our check-ins the cargo staff went out to investigate and found the back doors of the tent blown open, letting in snow and cold. They relayed to us that the instruments are looking ok, and this was later confirmed by two of the members of the Rosetta team when they were able to make it down to the field.

Snow has blown up against the Rosetta Field station providing some good shoveling exercise for the team. Photo J. Spergel.

Snow has blown up against the Rosetta Field station providing some good shoveling exercise for the team. Photo J. Spergel.

It isn’t all bad news. The flights that were going to the South Pole were grounded as well, and the fresh fruits and vegetables that would have gone to them were served to McMurdo Station instead. We enjoyed fresh avocados at every meal for several days as snow blew outside! Their loss our gain!

This austral summer seems to be unusual, with unseasonably active weather. People who have been here in recent years note that the weather during November is normally clear. According to NOAA’s weather statistics for the period 1961-1990, McMurdo Station receives on average a little less than half an inch of snow water equivalent in November. This year, the McMurdo weather office measured nine inches of snow in the twenty-four hours between 1 A.M November 16th and 1 A.M November 17th. This would equal ~ a full in of snow/water equivalent in just 24 hours! It has been a snowy month.

View around Willy Field on a snowy day. photo J. Spergel

View around Willy Field on a snowy day. photo J. Spergel

Antarctica is a polar desert, but as mentioned before in this blog, it also experiences extreme weather. The weather patterns of the Ross Ice Shelf in particular have been a topic of research. The triangular Ross Ice Shelf is bordered by the Trans-Antarctic Mountains on one side, the high glaciers of Marie Byrd Land on the second and the Southern Ocean on the third. As a result, the ice shelf experiences a confluence of air masses. From the mountains and glaciers, cold, dense air sinks downslope and flows across the ice shelf in the form of katabatic wind. These winds join the clockwise-spinning air mass system coming from the Ross Sea. The high elevation of the mountains acts as a wind barrier and creates barrier winds parallel to the mountain ranges, which also add to the force of the wind vortex. As a result, the cyclonic Ross Ice Shelf Airstream (RAS) is a permanent, year-round part of the climate. Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is located, sits in the path of this wind and, like a rock in a stream, creates eddies on its leeward, i.e northward, side. Precipitation events occur when relatively warm, moist air is brought to Ross Island, and that moisture is released as snow.

 Atmosphere, 2006, Vol 111, Issue D12

A look at characteristics of the Ross Ice Shelf air stream from a 2006 study. Julian describes this cyclonic wind in the paragraph above.  Source: Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmosphere, 2006, Vol 111, Issue D12.

In other news, I was startled by this skua sitting in front of the dorm building, and now the rest of the Rosetta team has nicknamed me “Skua.”

A south polar skua appears very benign but these aggressive birds fly right at the heads of humans when they feel threatened. Photo (from a safe distance) J. Spergel

A south polar skua appears very benign but these aggressive birds are large and fly right at the heads of humans when they feel threatened. Photo (from a safe distance) J. Spergel

For more information about Rosetta-Ice, check out our website and the archive of this blog. Have questions about Rosetta-Ice or about living and working in Antarctica? Feel free to email your question to, and I will try to answer it in the next blog entry!

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery.

Crevasses – Antarctic Ice Fractures

By Julian Spergel
Antarctic Ice showing crevassing along the edges of flow. photo J. Spergle

Antarctic Ice showing crevassing along the edges of flow. photo J. Spergel

As we prepare for our sixth flight of the season, I wanted to offer a glimpse of one of the types of glacial features that we are observing and studying as we map the Ross Ice Shelf: Crevasses. The word sends shivers down the spine of anyone whose job involves working on a glacier. These cracks through the glacier can be hundreds of feet deep and hidden beneath a thin layer of snow. They are incredibly treacherous and have claimed the lives of many polar explorers and scientists. They also appear quite frequently in our sensor data as we fly our survey flights for Rosetta-Ice.

The Icepod instrument, with the radar blades shown along the front edge, is being used by the Rosetta project to view through the ice to understand the features and thickness. Photo S. Howard

The Icepod instrument, with the radar blades shown along the front edge, is being used by the Rosetta project to view through the ice to understand the features and thickness. Photo S. Howard

Crevasses are fractures in a glacier caused by the stresses of movement. They are like the cracks in the surface of clay as one pulls it apart past the limits of elasticity. They most often occur where the flow of a glacier increases, like in a steep deepening valley, and are thus oriented perpendicular to direction of flow. Crevasses that lie in a cross direction are called ‘transverse crevasses.’ There are also longitudinal crevasses that form parallel to ice flow and at an angle to the valley walls. These form as the glacier widens and the ice is pulled apart. These cracks in the surface of the ice shelf are an easily identifiable marker of areas of high stress within the ice flow. Mapping where crevasses appear is equivalent to mapping where the ice tensional stresses are highest.

Several different types of crevassing are visible in this image including transverse crevasses, as ice flow from different areas collides. photo M. Wearing

Several different types of crevassing are visible in this image including transverse crevasses, as ice flow from different areas collides. photo M. Wearing

On an otherwise featureless ice shelf, crevasses show where the different ice flows merge as they flow towards the open sea. Fahnestock et al. (2000) mapped crevasses, rifts, and glacial stretch marks they call “flow lines” on the Ross Ice Shelf in order to study the flow of ice from different glacial source areas to the Ross Sea and how these patterns may have changed in the past thousand years. From their study of the surface features, they were able to draw lines across the Ross Ice Shelf and identify whether a region of ice shelf was flowing in over the Trans-Antarctic Mountains from East Antarctica, or from the rapidly flowing ice streams from West Antarctica, named from southwest to northeast Ice Streams A, B, C, D, and E. A piece of ice takes about one thousand years to travel from the back of the Ross Ice Shelf to the front, and from its surrounding area we can tell where the piece of ice originated.

Ice streams A, B, C, D and E flowing in from West Antarctica. Image from Rignot et al, 2011

Ice streams A, B, C, D and E flowing in from West Antarctica. Image from Rignot et al, 2011

The Rosetta ice-penetrating radar shows us crevasses deep with in the ice. These cracks formed on the surface and were carried along and buried by centuries of snow and glacial flow. In the radar image, buried crevasses appear as thin arches. As the radar beam penetrates through the snow and ice like ripples in a pond, bouncing off of surfaces of changing density, the sharp corner of a crevasse scatters the ripples. When the radar image is processed from the echoes of the broadcasted signal, this sharp point of scattering becomes an arch descending down from an otherwise flat surface.

Radar images of crevassing in the ice shelf showing the characteristic arch descending down from the flattened surface. Photo J. Spergle

Radar images of crevassing in the ice shelf showing the characteristic arch descending down from the flattened surface. Photo J. Spergle

What do these buried crevasses tell us? Like digging to the bottom of a stack of papers on a desk, these ancient crevasses tell us of past glacial events. Their burial depth divided by the local snow accumulation rates gives an estimate for the period of stagnation required to stop flow, fill and bury the crevasses to the observed depth. They indicate past flow conditions, or even the locations of abandoned shear margins, where there used to be a boundary between ice streams moving at differing speeds.

Close up view showing the strain in the ice as it is pulled by changes in flow speed. photo S. Howard

Close up view showing the strain in the ice as it is pulled by changes in flow speed. photo S. Howard

Lastly, crevasses are interesting because sometimes fascinating things fall into them. A few studies have shown that wind-blown meteorites get caught in snow-filled crevasses. Knowing where to look for rare meteorites is a huge help to our friends in the astro-geology community. Crevasses are also the places where meltwater drains down to the base of the ice. This affects the slipperiness of the glacier’s bed, and can speed up it flow. Meltwater flowing through crevasses also widens the crack, called hydrofracturing. This can further weaken the structural stability around the crevasse, priming the area for a later break. While Rosetta-Ice is not specifically looking for extraterrestrial rocks or draining water, we are on the lookout in our radar data for anything that can tell us about the history or current flow conditions of the Ross Ice Shelf.

Answers to a few of the questions asked by students at East Harlem School:

Is it possible for plants to grow in Antarctica?

Yes, a few. There’s a dozen native species that live on the Antarctic Peninsula, the thin peninsula of land that stretches north into relatively warmer parts of this continent. Everywhere else, only a few lichens, the crinkly stuff that grows on rocks and trees, survive.

How do you survive in the cold? What’s the hardest part about living/being in Antarctica?

With the right warm clothing and the right behavior, Antarctica’s conditions are very survivable. It’s very important to wear the right layers of clothes because you need to both stay warm, but also not let your sweat stay wet against your skin. I wear a thermal underwear layer that is warm and wicks sweat away. On top of that I’ll either wear a warm shirt or a thin sweater. On top of that, I wear a fleece or wool jacket, and then I wear my big red parka. Everyone has one and we call them our “Big Reds.” On my legs, I wear fleece pants and snowpants. I wear two layers of socks usually, and either my boots or the rubber boots that they gave us, called “Bunny Boots.” When I get too cold, I go inside, out of the wind, to warm up.

For me, the hardest part of living in Antarctica is the isolation. I personally use the internet a lot to connect to friends and family, but the combination of the slow internet connection and the time difference makes it difficult.

How has global warming affected how much ice will be there in 5 years?

We’re certain that the warming of ocean water is melting from underneath the floating ice shelves around Antarctica, and we predict that the warming atmosphere will lead to more melting and calving, but how much global warming-caused ice loss might there be within the next five years? There’s no way to know. What we still don’t know about how Antarctica’s climate works could fill a library. Weather over Antarctica is incredibly unpredictable, and we still cannot tell for sure how the multi-year climate cycles affect melting continent-wide. That question, how will global warming effect ice mass loss in Antarctica, is quite literally a multi-million dollar question. Thousands of scientists are studying every aspect of the Antarctic glacial system to get a sense of what is “natural” — what amounts of ice loss and gain are within the normal range of decades- or century-long cycles — and what can be interpreted as a result of human-caused climate change. Hopefully, Rosetta-Ice will yield a small piece of the puzzle.

For more information about Rosetta-Ice, check out our website and the archive of this blog. Have questions about Rosetta-Ice or about living and working in Antarctica? Feel free to email your question to, and I will try to answer it in the next blog entry!

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery.

Flying is Easy, Just Think Happy Thoughts…

By Julian Spergel

As of my writing, we have completed three survey flights.  It feels good to finally be collecting data. The night shift, myself included, has spent the past two days checking the collected data for signs of any instrument breakage or recording errors.

 Susan HowardFlying past the Trans-Antarctic Mountains that line the East side of the Ross Shelf. Photo credit: Susan Howard

Although Peter Pan suggested ‘happy thoughts’ would get us airborne, in Antarctica we are still very much at the will of the weather. Yesterday evening’s flight was cancelled because of fog, and so this morning we wanted to get as much flying in as possible before the late afternoon fog rolled in. Although the morning shift had to wait a bit for the IcePod instruments and the plane to warm up before departing, they were able to complete two full survey lines before their afternoon return. It is early in the season and I haven’t been able to fly a mission yet myself, but I am eagerly waiting for my first opportunity.

 Alec LockettView out of the LC-130 during Monday afternoon’s flight. The aircraft wing is visible in the top left of the photo and the tiny grey spot in the snow is the shadow of the plane. Photo Credit: Alec Lockett

Our daily schedule is not the easiest when we fly. This is especially true for those who need to make decisions about our daily activities. Every day, from 4 to 4:30 AM, Kirsty Tinto, our chief scientist, checks to see if that morning’s flight is going ahead, next she checks in with the team ending their night shift for updates on instrument functioning. At 5 am, she and the day’s flight engineer meet with the weather operations and flight operations team to go over the day’s flight plan considering the weather forecast. The team has to be flexible when building a daily mission that works with the daily weather constraints.

 Susan Howard

Flight Engineer Chris Bertinato monitoring the airborne instruments inside the LC—130 cargo hold. Photo Credit: Susan Howard

Meanwhile, the gravity instrument operators, affectionately called the “graviteers,” go down to the airfield with the aircraft load-masters to oversee the loading of the gravimeter into the plane. Collecting data on minuscule changes to gravity requires that we know exactly where in the plane the instruments sit to calculate accelerations. Although it is tempting to leave the sensitive instruments on the plane overnight, the gravimeters must be kept warm at all times for peak functionality, as a result the gravimeters must be loaded and surveyed at the beginning of every day and unloaded at the end of the day. The plane is readied for take-off with a systems check and the flight crew and our project’s flight engineers prepare for flying.

The non-flight members of our team arrive to Williams Airfield soon after from our base at McMurdo camp. Every shift has an archivist, someone who copies the data from the various digital storage units carried in flight and then carefully transports them back to the tent. The data is transferred to the central computer, as well as to two backup hard drives for redundancy. At the end of the shift, there are nine hard drives and two USB sticks filled with data. The archivist also selects three to four five-minute segments of data for quality control, which we call “QCing”. The other QCers and I look through the segments from every data set for breaks in the data, for anomalies, and for particularly good or interesting segments. Arguably, the most important data set to check is our positioning-navigation-timing system. None of our data is useful if we cannot precisely place where in the world we were when we collected the data. Some of our instruments must also know precisely the angle and velocity of the plane in order to yield useful data. Once that is checked, we look at the data readouts.

Timelapse video of a few hours of night shift “QCing” Credit: Julian Spergel

If there’s anything surprising within the Ross Ice Shelf, we QCers might be the first ones to know…while it is fun to wonder what we could find, what do we actually see? In the radar data, we can see the surface and bed of the ice shelf and often we can see areas of buried crevasses. In the shallow ice radar, we can often see where different ice masses from geographically disparate glacial sources merge as they flow towards the ocean. From LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging), we can see very high detailed maps of the surface of the ice shelf, which can give us information about the flow of the ice and the changing surface climate conditions, i.e. wind and temperature. From gravity and magnetics readings, we can glean information about the size of the cavity under the ice shelf and the ocean bed beneath the water.

An aerial photo from our onboard camera of the edge between the ice and McMurdo Station. Photo by Susan Howard.

An aerial photo from our onboard camera of the edge between the ice and McMurdo Station. At the lower right you can see the circlar shape of a tank. Photo by Susan Howard.

Though we’ve just begun our survey flying, we’re excited to see what our instruments will show us about the Ross Ice Shelf. Weather permitting we will fly day and night this week pushing through being tired. Yes we are tired, and I know I am guilty of getting a little snippy, but we are down at the edge of the world for valuable scientific work. When I see the sun kiss the horizon, and watch the shadows lengthen for a moment and the snow become golden, I know that this experience will end up being incredible.

The mother crab-eater seal nursing her newborn pup. In the background, a skua hungrily eyes the afterbirth. South polar skua are aggressive seabirds,  scavengers and carrion eaters, readily scavenging any food source.

The mother crab-eater seal nursing her newborn pup. In the background, a skua hungrily eyes the afterbirth. South polar skua are aggressive seabirds, scavengers and carrion eaters, readily scavenging any food source. One of our ‘tough’ Alamo floats is named after a south polar skua. 

In non-science news, we saw the birth of a baby crabeater seal on Sunday. Everyone else on the team has named the newborn seal “Rosetta,” but in my mind, the seal’s name is “Boopy.”

For more information about Rosetta-Ice, check out our website and the archive of this blog. Have questions about Rosetta-Ice or about living and working in Antarctica? Feel free to email your question to, and I will try to answer it in the next blog entry!

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery.

Settling in to McMurdo

The Rosetta team has been in Antarctica for a week now and we’re almost done with unpacking and testing all of our equipment. Our first survey flight of the season is scheduled for the end of the week.

An official 'proof'! My photo by the McMurdo sign is proof that we have really made it here after a lot of anticipation!!

An official ‘proof’! My photo by the McMurdo sign is proof that we have really made it here after a lot of anticipation!!

The first few days of our time in Antarctica was spent on safety training and ‘waiting on the weather’. Each step of our set-up process, like receiving cargo, installing electricity in our tent, unpacking our boxes, and building disassembled instruments, needs to wait for safe weather conditions, which in Antarctica is by no means guaranteed. Our workstation is a yellow Jamesway tent on the airfield named Williams Field. It is about a thirty minute drive from McMurdo Station, on a nearby section of the Ross Ice Shelf.

The landscape seems endless with ice shelf merging into white cloudy skies. The airplanes on the ice are close to the only relief.

The landscape seems endless with ice shelf merging into white cloudy skies. The airplanes on the ice are close to the only relief.

Even though we are within a short drive of McMurdo station, a small town with most of the safety and logistical equipment on the entire continent, we still need to prepare ourselves for sudden, extreme weather. Every time we leave the relative safety of McMurdo, we carry our Extreme Cold Weather equipment and our tent has emergency food and sleeping equipment. Driving onto the ice shelf is a surreal experience: the landscape is a nearly featureless white, flat expanse, with only tiny buildings and the black, slug-like shapes of lounging seals to break up the uniform whiteness. When there are low-lying clouds, the ice and the sky seem to meld into a single white area.

Unpacking our workspace in the Jamesway that will be our 'command center' during our work here.

Unpacking our workspace in the Jamesway that will be our ‘command center’ during our work here.

After two days of unpacking, our little tent is becoming very cozy. We have a line of tables for our computers and printer, a coffee machine and two gas heaters, a number of powerful external hard drive units called a Field Data Management System. Our scientific instruments are coming together, as well. To keep both ourselves and our electronics warm, we keep two heat-stoves running all the time. In preparation for our flights, we’ve split into two shifts, one in the day and one at night. Myself and six other people spent last weekend transitioning our daily schedules to sleeping during the day and being awake to work over the night. Due to the polar latitude, the sun never goes down, so the two shifts experience nearly identical levels of light. Yet my sense of time is very confused and I often forget what day of the week I am currently in.

Setting up our basestations to support our flight data.

Setting up our basestations to support our flight data.

Before we start recording and processing data from our first survey flights, we need to rebuild the instruments that were deconstructed for shipping, and calibrate them to make sure the data recorded is accurate. With round-the-clock activity, we have set up everything in only a few days. One of the needed activities was hanging the gravimeter onto a freely-suspended gimbal with bungee cords so that it is stabilized against the movement of the plane. Many of the components of our sensors are very delicate, but a large number of the external components are larger, easily adjusted, and could be found in a hardware store. Unlike other fields of science, polar fieldwork operates best when adjustments can be made while wearing heavy gloves.

Helping Tej to calibrate the IcePod on the C130 aircraft.

Helping Tej to calibrate the IcePod on the C130 aircraft.

Additional set up involves installing “base stations” to record a background level of magnetics and GPS information. A five minute walk across the ice from our tent, we have erected two yellow tripods and partially buried a small box of sensors. The instruments are powered by a small solar panel that we set up nearby. Each tripod needed to be secured against wind by tying the legs to bamboo poles we buried in the snow, a snow anchor. The snow on the ice shelf is incredibly dry and compact, so digging into it feels like digging through styrofoam. Filling in the holes with snow, stamping on it, and waiting only a few minutes allows the snow to harden to a strength similar to concrete.

Checking on the data output inside the plane and hoping for good weather for a flight!

Checking on the data output inside the plane and hoping for good weather for a flight!

Our first test flight is scheduled for the end of the week. We will fly one of our survey lines and make sure that the instruments’ readings are accurate so that on future flights we will know that the instruments are working properly. In addition we will be ensuring that each of the instruments functions by checking sections of the data after every flight. My assigned role once flights are running regularly is to analyze the ice-penetrating radar during the night shift.

For more information about Rosetta-Ice, check out our website and the archive of this blog. Have questions about Rosetta-Ice or about living and working in Antarctica? Feel free to email your question to, and I will try to answer it in the next blog entry!

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Professor Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery.

What’s a few days delay when preparing to visit a 33 million year old ice sheet?

The Rosetta team has been delayed in Christchurch, NZ since October 20th, and today, the 24th, we are all hoping very hard that today will be the day, that the weather will cooperate and the plane will have no issues so that we can get to McMurdo and start preparing to work. Morale is still high, we have all enjoyed exploring the local sights in Christchurch in the spare time we suddenly have. But it would be a huge inconvenience if we stay in Christchurch too long.

The Dumont d'Urville base where winds have been recorded at 199 mph. (photo credit Samuel Blanc)

The Dumont d’Urville base where winds have been recorded at 199 mph. (photo credit Samuel Blanc)

The dangers of Antarctic air travel cannot be emphasized enough. The weather is notoriously temperamental: winds as fast as 199 mph (327km/h) have been recorded at Dumont D’Urville station. Wind gets funneled down mountains and through fjord valleys, picking up speed. Blowing snow can limit visibility in a matter of seconds. Even crossing the Antarctic Circle is dangerous. Because there are no large landmasses to break the 40th line of latitude, ocean and wind currents can spin unimpeded around the continent. This is called the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Sailors called the latitudes between New Zealand and Antarctica in order of southernness the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and the Shrieking Sixties.

Yet this inaccessibility is two-sided. The spinning wall of wind and water acts as a thermal insulator and keeps Antarctica chilly. The extreme environment, the massive ice sheet, and the unique ecosystems that attract the scientific community are all due to this forbidding climate system.

Antarctica is an isolated massive block of land primarily covered in ice. (photo M. Turrin)

Antarctica is an isolated massive block of land primarily covered in ice. (photo M. Turrin)

Was Antarctica always so inhospitably cold? Surprisingly, no. The development of the Antarctic ice sheets are relatively recent compared to the 4.5 billion year old history of the Earth. The precise mechanism that triggered Antarctic glaciation is still debated, but there is significant evidence that continental scale glaciation began around 33 million years ago, at the boundary of the Eocene and Oligocene. A combination of lowering CO2 levels and the formation of the Circumpolar Current when South American and Antarctica detached led to mountain glaciers in the Trans-Antarctic mountains to expand until the continent was covered [10.1038/nature01290]. Prior to this point, Antarctica is believed to have been forested, and dinosaur and early mammal fossils have been found around the continent.

We theorize that the crustal depression that has become the embayment holding the Ross Ice Shelf developed during the break-up of Gondwana.

We theorize that the crustal depression that has become the embayment holding the Ross Ice Shelf developed during the break-up of Gondwana.

The glacial and geological history of the Ross Embayment, the bay in which the Ross Ice Shelf sits, is one of Rosetta-Ice’s leading research questions. By making measurements of the seafloor, we hope to improve our understanding of the timing and distribution of sea-floor extension in the geological past. The tectonics of the region are still not well understood. We theorize that the crustal depression that has become the embayment developed during the break-up of Gondwana, the Mesozoic supercontinent composed of modern-day South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, India, and Arabia around 200 million years ago. As it pulled apart over millions of years, it stretched the crust in the region of the Ross Sea, thinning and depressing it. Over the past 33 million years, glacial ice has carved out landforms that now lie under the ice. During our work, we will use our instruments to look through the ice shelf and map those present day landforms. We would like to improve our knowledge of the history of the region, both of the geology and of the ice shelf. Why is this important? In addition to increasing our knowledge of the world’s geological history, the past of the Ross Sea can give us clues to its future. If we see evidence that the Ross Ice Shelf has broken up or disappeared in the past, we can say that the present-day ice shelf has the capacity to disappear in the future.

Stay tuned for updates on our Antarctic arrival and our scientific work. We’re standing by in Christchurch, parkas on, bags in hand, excited and ready to start another season of Antarctic science.

Julian Spergel is a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and will be blogging from Antarctica. He works with Prof. Jonathan Kingslake on analyzing spatial and temporal trends of supraglacial lakes on the Antarctic Ice Sheet using satellite imagery. He graduated with a BS in Geophysical Sciences with General Honors from the University of Chicago in 2016. He has been involved with a number of diverse projects and has been interested in polar studies since early in his career. His fieldwork has brought him north to the Svalbard Archipelago and south to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Learn more about previous years’ research, here.

For more on this project, please visit the project website:

Under the Sea Ice, Behold the Ancient Arctic Jellyfish

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Mon, 10/23/2017 - 14:20

The doings of creatures under the Arctic sea ice are many, but they are rarely observed by humans; it’s pretty hard to get under the ice to look. In recent years, marine biologist Andy Juhl and his colleagues have gotten around this problem by driving snowmobiles several miles from Point Barrow, Alaska, out onto the adjoining frozen Chukchi Sea, drilling holes in the four-foot-plus thick ice, and poking in a video camera attached to an small underwater vehicle.

Among the things that they have observed: sizable Chrysaora melanaster jellyfish floating by, trailing their foot-long-plus tentacles along the shallow bottom. Their presence came as a surprise: adult jellyfish, or medusae, are generally thought to live only a few months. Scientists had assumed that the species survived winter only in a life stage called polyps–formless masses that cling to rocks and release little baby medusae in the spring. In a scientific paper out this week, Juhl and colleagues say the videos indicate that the creatures in fact last through winter. They could even be several years old–the Methuselahs of medusae.

“One reason we were interested was, first of all, we saw them, and it was kind of weird,” said Juhl, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The whole study is based on videos we made over several years.” Also, he says, the rich pollock fishery in the nearby Bering Sea is the engine for “everything fish”–fish sticks, fish paddies and other mystery-meat-type marine fast foods. But in some years, jellyfish numbers in the Bering Sea swell, and fishing nets can get seriously clogged–a problem that may crescendo over several years before dying back again. The study may reveal something about the jellyfish population dynamics that drive these cycles.

Juhl’s working hypothesis: cold winters, when sea ice is thick and long-lasting, are good for Chrysaora survival. He says the ice probably shields the medusae from turbulent winter storms, and the low water temperatures reduce their metabolism enough for them to subsist on relatively little food. “Life under sea ice is like living in a refrigerator–everything slows down,” he said. He said that jellyfish blooms may follow one or two years of heavy sea-ice cover because lots of adults survive.

Juhl points out that many other Arctic creatures also depend on sea ice. These range from lowly algae and bug-like amphipods that thrive on its underside to giant polar bears who roam around on top, waiting to pick off seals that emerge from breathing holes.

With Arctic climate warming and sea ice declining rapidly, what will happen to Chrysaora? Elsewhere in the world, including in the Mediterranean, other species of jellyfish are swarming and becoming pests, apparently in response to warmer waters, overfishing and coastal pollution. These forces are bad for other flora and fauna, but the resilient jellies often thrive, eventually taking over the ecosystem. In the far north, it could be the opposite; ice-loving jellies could decline if things warm up. So could the other, more iconic, creatures of the north that depend on sea ice. But at least jellyfish might not be clogging fishermen’s nets so much. “For most things, there are positives and negatives to climate change,” said Juhl.

One still unanswered question: Do these jellyfish sting? “I don’t know,” he said. “There aren’t that many people around there swimming to find out.”

Related: The Arctic’s Secret Garden

Final Stop – Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf

We have embarked! Our third Antarctic field season is underway putting us only 18 flights away from completing our mission to investigate the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. The Rosetta Ice Project is focused on developing a more complete understanding of the Ross Ice Shelf, the history of how it formed, what are the factors driving its current condition and what might control its future stability.

Drawing of the author Julian Spergel (by Freddy Bendekgey)

Drawing of the author Julian Spergel (by Freddy Bendekgey)

It is this writer’s first Antarctic field season, although traveling to Antarctica has been a life dream of mine since high school. I came to my obsession in an unusual way. In the summer of 2011, a heat wave knocked out the air conditioning units in my town. Sweltering, I took what little refuge there could be had in the public library. I had read somewhere that reading about cold places could cool you down, so for the next few weeks I pored over every account of polar exploration I could get my hands on. I was hooked, and especially hooked on Antarctica. It represented to me a place that remained mysterious and extreme, and whose challenging exploration by scientists represented the pinnacle of human ingenuity and international collaboration. I feel honored to be included in this field season, and to be documenting our findings and experiences for readers to learn from and enjoy. It is exhilarating to be on my way to achieving a personal goal of mine, though when I pictured myself as an Antarctic explorer as a teenager, I thought I would be taller!

An annotated version of the front of the Ross Ice Shelf from radar collected in this project. Note the shelf sits with most of the ice below the waterline.

An annotated radar image collected in the project showing the front of the Ross Ice Shelf. Note the shelf sits with most of the ice below the waterline.

To more thoroughly introduce the Rosetta-Ice project, it is a National Science Foundation funded multi-year collaboration between Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Colorado College, and Earth & Space Research with critical support from the New York Air National Guard. Out goal is to complete a high-resolution survey of the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica. The Ross Ice Shelf is a floating ice shelf roughly the size of Texas or of France that extends from the Trans-Antarctic Mountains into the Ross Sea, the portion of the Southern Ocean that faces New Zealand. Part of the ice shelf’s perimeter is grounded, at term that means frozen all the way down and connected at the base to the seafloor below. The rest of the shelf extends out floating as a thick apron of ice with about 10% of it visible above the ocean’s surface, the rest floating below the waterline. The ice shelf is up to 4000 thousand feet thick in its interior, and its margin with the sea is nine hundred feet thick in places. A large percentage of the surrounding ice streams in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and West Antarctic Ice Sheet flow into the Ross Ice Shelf. As a result, the friction of the grounded portions affects the rate at which the ‘upstream’ ice flows and loses its mass through iceberg calving.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory / Photo: Winnie Chu. The Rosetta project is focused on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. This shelf plays a critical role in stabilizing the Antarctic ice sheet, buttressing the ice that is constantly moving over the land surface. Studying how the ice, ocean and underlying land interact will inform us of potential change in the ice shelf from projected climate change. IcePod, shown along the front of the shelf, is a critical instrument in completing this project.

The IcePod flying over the the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica as part of the Rosetta project. The pod is lowered from an LC130 aircraft and holds a series of instruments that are critical to completing this project. (photo: Winnie Chu)

Rosetta-Ice is a detailed aerogeophysical survey, a series of survey flights collected using LC130s, rugged military cargo planes that fly equipment and support in the polar regions. The planes carries a variety of remote-sensing instrumentation inside an attached structure called IcePod, and flies a tight grid of observation tracts collecting data. The ultimate result will be a map of the Ross Ice Shelf with a spatial resolution of 10km (6mi). This will give us a comprehensive look into the ice shelf’s surface elevation, its internal glacial stratigraphy, its thickness, the ocean circulation beneath it, and the morphology of the bed beneath.

The research questions that the project seeks to answer concerns the ice shelf’s past and future. We want to understand how the ice shelf formed, and we are thus studying the internal structures within the ice and the bathymetry and geology of the bed underneath. Looking from the past to the future, we are interested in the stability of the floating ice. For this question, we are studying the circulation of ocean water underneath the ice, how the ocean interacts with the ice through melting, and where the ice shelf may be resting on the underlying bed. Each one of our instruments’ data gives us a piece of the answers. The Rosetta Stone, our project’s namesake, was inscribed with a message in multiple languages that could only be completely understood by comparing the three translations and interpreting them together. Likewise, we are interpreting our data from ice-penetrating radar, visual and infrared imagery, magnetic readings, and gravimeter information together to produce a complete picture of the Ross Ice Shelf’s dynamics.

McMurdo Base, Antarctica imaged with LiDAR. (processed by S. Starke)

McMurdo Base, Antarctica imaged with LiDAR. (processed by S. Starke)

In this coming week, we will be settling into McMurdo Station, the largest of Antarctica’s research stations, and setting up and calibrating our instruments so that we can begin this year’s flights as soon as we can. For more information about previous years’ work, please take a look at previous blog entries in the archives of this blog.

Author: Julian Spergel.  Julian will be blogging this season from Antarctica for the project.

For more on this project please go to the project website:



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