On Thursday we lowered a camera into an ice borehole to get a look at the underside of the ice. In the following video, you can clearly see the algae living in the bottom of the ice due to their pigments, which they use to harvest light.
These organisms are not frozen into the ice; they’re living creatures that grow and thrive in tiny pockets of brine inside the ice. You might notice in the video that the underside of the ice is not flat, this is probably a reflection of variability in physical conditions in and above the ice, such as snow cover thickness.
While watching this video, Andy Juhl and I discussed how cool it is that there are vibrant communities growing in extreme environments. “One of the lessons that research in polar regions has taught us is that we need to broaden our definition of where life exists and thrives. In the Arctic, we have life growing inside ice, at below freezing temperatures. This means that we know to look in more unusual places for science of life and that’s one of the interesting things we learn by doing this kind of work,” Andy said. “Ice is not necessarily an inhospitable habitat, and on other planets where we see ice, that’s a place where we should probably look for signs of life.”
The second film shows a bit of life on the seafloor. This video was shot near shore where the water depth is about 8 meters, so it’s fairly shallow; water temperature here is -2C. The bottom consists of soft mud and it looks like there are deposits of algae that probably came from the ice on the surface of the bottom (those are the darker areas). There’s a variety of bottom dwelling organisms that live in the mud, such as the isopod that wanders across the mud in this clip. We don’t yet know how large the isopods are or what they eat; scientists on our team are trying to figure out a way to measure an isopod in situ or capture one to examine in the lab.
As our work in Barrow progresses, we’ll continue to post more videos so that you can get a sense of the life that makes up this fascinating ecosystem.
Fieldwork is exciting and inspiring, leading scientists to new ideas, places and observations about how the world works. Spring on Alaska’s North Slope provides an especially productive environment for fieldwork. When the sun never sets, it’s easy to linger in the field and the lab long into the well-lit night.
Our team spent about six hours on the Arctic sea ice Thursday, enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the low teens, while making observations, maintaining sampling sites and taking measurements. Most of our time was spent at two different field sites Andy and Craig established near Point Barrow, a narrow spit of land that’s the northernmost point in the United States. Traveling to these sites involves loading up two sleds with all of the sampling equipment, hitching the sleds to snowmobiles and carefully traversing the sea ice on said snowmobiles, which, I discovered today, is extremely fun.
One of the research questions Andy and Craig are exploring in Barrow is how the amount of snow covering sea ice might affect the diverse species of algae living in and just below the ice. A thin snow cover allows more sunlight to reach the algae; a thicker snow cover creates a darker environment. As in any ecosystem, many different species are competing for light and nutrients. For this study, Andy and Craig want to see how changing one factor in the Arctic sea ice ecosystem – the amount of available light – might allow some organisms to grow better and become more prevalent than others.
Last week Andy and Craig set up an artificial snow gradient at our first field site, where different snow depths cover the ice in a small, isolated area. Ice cores were drilled here on their first day and Andy and Craig will repeat this same exercise later in May. Collecting data over these specific time intervals will enable them to see how snow depth and distribution affect the community of organisms living in the ice. This information will provide an idea of what might happen to the entire ecosystem if more light is introduced via less snow cover in the future.
At the second field site, scientists used an auger to drill a hole in the ice, which is currently about four feet thick. Then a camera was lowered into the hole, with a live feed to a computer so we could see what was happening in the sea directly below us. A thick layer of algae covered the underside of the sea ice and once lowered eight meters to the sea floor, the camera revealed isopods (small crustaceans), jellyfish and a few unrecognizable members of the Arctic marine ecosystem.
“We do the camera work because there’s no substitute for seeing the ecosystem intact. We need to get cores in order to collect samples, but you get a really different impression of the ecosystem with the camera,“ Andy explained.
Later in the afternoon we searched the ice for a sampling station Andy and Craig used last year, but were unable to find it. The area had become covered with huge pressure ridges, large fragments of ice that pile up when sheets of ice collide, which are hard to cross on a snowmobile. At one point fresh polar bear tracks meandered among the ridges, but we never caught sight of the bear who made them.
While I arrived in Barrow, Alaska on Tuesday, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and graduate student Kyle Kinzler from Arizona State University, got here one week ago. They took a few days to unpack and set up their lab (everything they need to work here must be shipped to Barrow in advance), scout locations for sampling on the ice and ensure that their tools and equipment are working properly before they begin their fieldwork.
Our team alternates days in the lab and days on the ice. The lab space we’re using is a bit north of town at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC), a newly constructed facility where the National Science Foundation leases space for its researchers. Scientists wishing to work in and around Barrow can use BARC as their home base. At the moment the building is fairly quiet as the only other occupants are a group of international graduate students being trained on how to conduct sea ice research.
Today was a lab day, where recently collected samples were processed, experiments performed and preliminary data analyzed. Fieldwork is just the beginning of a research process that can take several years. The majority of the samples and data collected here won’t be examined until scientists are back at their respective institutes, where it can take months or longer to analyze all of their samples and data and then write up the results. But, to ensure that their research is on the right track, a few experiments and analyses are done while in Barrow.
This afternoon I spent time in a zero degree walk-in freezer talking with Craig Aumack, who’s conducting experiments to learn more about the organisms living in Arctic sea ice. Each year, as soon as any light is available, algae start growing in the ice and continue to bloom through the onset of spring and the Arctic’s long summer days. Algae prefer to live in the bottom of the ice, because, like all plants, they need light and nutrients, and these are plentiful at the sea-ice interface.
Craig’s experiments are called settling experiments, and these help him learn what happens to the organic materials and organisms living in the sea ice when they’re released into the ocean. Craig wants to determine the rate at which these particles sink down through the water column; this information reveals whether particles are more likely to be consumed while falling through the water column or once they accumulate on the seafloor. Particles that sink slowly are more likely to be eaten by zooplankton, tiny marine animals, while those that fall to the bottom will be consumed by worms, crustaceans and mollusks.
Settling experiments must be done in a freezer because organisms that call ice home would quickly die if exposed to a 70-degree temperature difference. Though extreme temperatures can also cause humans to become a bit uncomfortable, we’re able to don parkas and puffy jackets to protect us; algae don’t have this luxury. So, Craig replicates the conditions in which ice algae thrive, and bundled up, works in a frigid environment.
Andy Juhl was happy to explain this experiment and their research further, fortunately outside of the freezer. “There’s a whole ecosystem living inside the ice. Ultimately, we want to know what the dynamics of this special ecosystem are and how this is connected to the rest of Arctic ecosystem,” he said.
“We know the Arctic is changing very rapidly in terms of ice cover, duration of ice cover and extent of ice cover. One of the things we need to understand if we’re going to try to predict what will happen to the Arctic in the future is the ice ecosystem and its importance to the functioning of the entire Arctic,” Andy said.
Tomorrow, Thursday, we head out onto the ice to sample. This afternoon I received my land use permit from the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, the organization that owns the land we’ll be working on, and successfully completed my snowmobile training, so I’m officially ready for fieldwork.
Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, microbiologists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, are spending a month in Barrow, Alaska studying algae in and below sea ice, and how our warming climate may impact these important organisms. They’re investigating the factors that control the growth of algae inside of sea ice, how these algal communities are connected to other Arctic marine organisms and what happens to the organic matter that builds up inside sea ice. I’ve joined them to document and tell stories about their research, how it’s done, why and what they’re learning.
Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States and is situated where the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Throughout the long winter, these waters are covered with a thick layer of ice. This ice is home to many different microscopic algae, which form the base of the polar food web.
During late winter and spring, large communities of these algae flourish, or bloom, inside and on the undersurface of the sea ice. As the ice melts, algae are released into the nutrient rich waters, feeding plankton and higher trophic levels, including fish, whales and seals.
The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, shortening winter and causing pack ice to thin and break up earlier and earlier each year. How will these changes impact the Arctic marine food web? Answering this question and understanding how the ice algae respond to our warming climate will inform resource managers and policymakers, as well as local residents, of how the larger Arctic marine ecosystem may be impacted.
Andy and Craig hope to learn how our fast-warming climate and the resulting dissipation of sea ice affect the entire marine food web. This knowledge is essential to assessing the value of the ice community in the Arctic and is paramount to predicting ecosystem-wide consequences to rapidly changing Arctic environments.
We’re based at the UMIAQ field station in Barrow, which provides logistics support for NSF-funded scientists conducting research in the area. From Barrow, we’ll travel across the sea ice by snowmobile to nearby Point Barrow, where we’ll establish sampling stations and drill and remove cores of ice. Samples will be analyzed back in the lab to investigate the flux of the algal organisms and organic matter from the sea ice to the water column during the spring melt.
Over the next few weeks we’ll share stories from the ice about our research, the role sea ice algae play in Arctic ecosystems and how that’s changing, and what’s it’s like to live at the top of the planet. And, if we’re lucky, a few pictures of whales and polar bears.
The Lamont IcePod team is a blended mix of engineers and scientists learning from each other through the design and testing of this new instrument. With a range of talents and backgrounds, the project mixes seasoned field workers with those new to field work; experienced instrument developers with those newly learning this end of engineering; and scientists with countless hours spent pouring over Greenland ice sheet data with those exploring the ice sheet for the first time. It is the opportunity for mentoring and development that comes from this mix of early career with experienced personnel that has made the IcePod Instrument Development Project a good fit for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.
So who makes up the IcePod engineering and science team? As we work through data and examine the products collected in the first part of our field season there is an opportunity to introduce members of the team and the data and instruments they operate.
Chris Bertinato trained as an aerospace engineer before joining the IcePod team. In the air he is the team’s connection to the flight decisions made by the crew. Like the members of the flight crew he dons a headset as soon as aircraft begins its warm up. The headsets are connected into the plane electronics through lengthy cabling that trails behind each set. The cabling necessitates a threading and weaving between the crew as they move about the aircraft, testing and checking equipment and switches. Watching them work one can imagine a class devoted to practicing safe maneuvering about the plane while tethered to the electronics system – something like a Maypole dance!
Chris is a main operator of the equipment rack and has responsibility for the Laser Imaging Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system part of the optical package in the pod taking constant measurements to find the surface elevation, and the inertial navigation system (INS) used to locate or “georeference” the data. The INS is a critical navigation aid that employs several accelerometers (motion sensors) and gyroscopes (rotations sensors) to continuously calculate the position, orientation, direction and speed of the plane as it moves through space. INS were first developed for rockets, but have become essential instruments for collecting referenced data in an aircraft, since the pitch, roll and yaw of the plane (see drawing) as it moves through the air can make it difficult to correctly locate and orient the data for processing. For those of us used to flying on commercial airliners, movies and music can provide enough of a distraction that we don’t notice the regular rolling of the aircraft as it responds to buffeting by the air around it.
The cylindrical housing for the laser sits snugly in one of the pod bays with the INS sitting atop in the small grey box. The laser focuses down through a clear panel, and scans back and forth in a swath that at 3000 ft. of altitude swings approximately 3000 ft. wide collecting elevation information. The data is then fed through a processor that turns it into elevation data.
The image above shows a swath of laser data over the airbase, and can be used to help explain the instrument. The color in the image shows the reflectance of different surfaces to the laser. You will see three of the LC130 aircraft lined up across the front of the airfield, cleaned from snow and clearly outlined in the data. There are two additional aircraft positioned in the middle of the image that are still surrounded by snow and therefore remain somewhat obscured. Trees, roads and other features in the adjacent area are clearly imaged.
In Greenland Lidar will be used to assist with locating features of interest in the ice sheet. The image above of meltwater channels in Greenland will be important to track during the summer season as these channels can reactivate seasonally, becoming a blue stripe on the otherwise white landscape. These darkened blue sections will absorb more heat energy from the sun due to their altered reflectivity (albedo) encouraging additional surface melt. In an upcoming post we will discuss how the infrared camera carried in the pod will allow us to track the heat energy in the channel both in its current state, and as it begins to melt later in the season.
Lidar will also be used to detect openings in the ice sheet (crevasses). Many of the crevasses are deep yet not wide, making them difficult to detect without the assistance of instruments. Detecting crevasses is important as they pose danger for pilots attempting to land and deliver support to ground crews, can be deadly for overland traverses that are carry scientists and support staff across the ice, and can provide us with critical information on changes in the ice sheet. Lidar data collected in our IcePod flights can be used to help in all of these situations.
For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
When we walked into the Sheraton in Springfield, Massachusetts we were greeted by none other than a wall full of cross sections from trees perfectly sanded to reveal the rings.
“No way” I say. “I forgot the camera!” says Neil.
We were just walking into the Northeast Natural History Conference, along with Dario and Jackie from the Tree Ring Lab. When I pictured my freshman year of college last summer, I pictured a lot of things. I did not picture getting to go to a conference to present a poster on my own research.
On the first day we listened to talks given by people who dealt with everything from conservation science to birds and berries and beetles. I’ve gone to multiple talks at Lamont, but those talks are mostly geared towards graduate students, so I’m always the slightest bit lost listening to them. This conference seemed to be geared towards a wider audience: I could actually understand the talks. I couldn’t believe it at first. After the first day I knew a little more about a wide range of topics: I can now tell you about the reproductive cycle of a lobster, what kind of fruits allow birds to fly farther during migration and even the life cycle of an Emerald Ash Borer in a tree.
I also learned more about the research process, since many people were presenting research projects that we weren’t already familiar with. I thought there was only a specific set of proxies for climate, but I found that people are continually finding more and more. I listened as someone described how they were using a mountainside as a proxy for climate change, and I realized that one of the great things about environmental science is that you can use the world as your lab, in many cases literally.
That afternoon during lunch we were told to make sure our GPS systems were safely hidden in our car. We were warned that we had to realize that we were now in a “big city.” We joked at our table—all being from New York—about how Springfield didn’t seem like a big city at all. I liked the thought, however, of a field of science where so many people are able to work in small rural towns that they do see Springfield as a big city. Want to know a secret? As much as I like school in the Big Apple, and I see myself living the city life for a while after school, I don’t see myself living anywhere with a population over five thousand after that.
Everyone in the lab was scheduled to present the next day. I was scheduled to give a poster, but Jackie, a Senior undergrad at Columbia, was scheduled to give a talk: we were both freaking out in the hotel room that night, but she probably had more justification. That night Jackie, Neil and Dario went through their talks while I made a big deal over how to cut my poster. Jackie ended up cutting it for me; my hands were too shaky. I must have asked a million questions to prepare that no one ever actually asked me, but by the end of that night I felt ready. “At least I’m not giving a talk!” That didn’t really calm Jackie’s nerves.
The next morning we had an awesome breakfast, I bought a piece of flan for no apparent reason, and we headed to the conference. I set up my poster and less than a half hour later sat to watch Jackie, Dario and Neil give their talks back to back. They were all wonderful, and some questions were asked that sparked some good conversation. Someone made a comment about baldcypress, and my ears turned up at the corners. She was mentioning how incredibly sensitive it was to drought, and I have to admit I got a little too excited. I talked to her afterwards: “That makes so much sense! I’ve been trying to cross-date this batch of baldcypress for so long, and it seems like every drought year thus far has produced either a narrow, missing or micro ring, and yeah, like you mentioned, isn’t it crazy that they’re so sensitive…” yeah, I was a little over-excited. It worked out well, because I had to go stand by my poster directly afterwards.
This is it. I’m standing by my poster. Someone comes up to me. THEY’RE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING I CAN’T ANSWER… THEY’RE GOING TO… “Hey, so can you tell me a bit about what you did?”
Wait. Really? I can do that!
The rest of the poster session went well. I was asked more than “can you tell me about your poster,” but it wasn’t half as bad as I had imagined. There were many questions I could answer, and there were many that I couldn’t. I ended up liking the questions I couldn’t answer more, however, because they told me what to do next. The same scientist who I had talked to previously about the baldcypress caught me off guard when she told me she’d look forward to reading about my findings in a paper. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess that’s my next step: take the unanswerables and answer them.
All in all, I learned more than I ever thought I could at the North East Natural History Conference, and walked away with much more than just natural history. I’m more excited than ever for what’s to come.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is finally out of the woods. She has, essentially, completed her first-year as a student in environmental science and creative writing at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She has completed her blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations…for now. We are happy to announce that she will be working with us for Summer 2013.
When we left Stratton Air Field almost two weeks ago, I recall smiling when a mechanical issue temporarily pulled us from the aircraft and the woman shepherding us back into the waiting area remarked, “Don’t worry, we keep doing it until we get it right!” Today we are faced with just that type of day. Testing a new system is all about running through the same set of operations “until you get it right.” For our team, this means flying the same patterns over the same locations looking for repeat targets to test and retest our instruments.
The aircrew arrives each morning ready to fly the patterns and routes we have selected. They are willing to redirect if the weather changes, or if our priorities shift, but we have stayed fairly consistent in our requests. Of course, being in Greenland, we talk about varying our plan and picking some of our science team’s favorite targets. It seems almost unfair to be here and not venture off to the fast changing Jakobshavn or Petermann glaciers. But we are a disciplined group with a specific mission…we need to do it “until we get it right.” The navigator programs the plans into his system and we are ready to fly.
We are lucky. No matter how many times we fly over the Sondrestrom Fjord, it always looks stunning: the water a deep blue, the ice pieces feathered along the edge where the floating tongue ends. Once we move over the deeper ice in the center of the glacier, we still marvel at the twisting, refrozen meltwater streams that wind across the ice face.
Over the rocky edges of the landmass it is still fascinating to see the twisting rolls of collapsing ice that pile and swirl along the brim of the flat-topped frozen lakes. The mountains themselves look like painted rocks with their smooth and shiny surfaces.
It is hard to believe one could ever tire of these flights. Each area we fly over is more stunning than the next. Today our flight is cut short. Engine trouble brings us back to the base, but we’re hoping that tomorrow we’ll be back up in the air trying one more time, “until we get it right.”
For more on this project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu
Holidays vary around the world with their dates and traditions, so it should have come as no surprise that we would find a holiday in our scheduled Greenland visit. Today, April 26, is “Store Bededag,” which translates as “Great Prayer Day,” brought by the Danish to Greenland when they ventured to this island from their homeland. Kangerlussuaq, and other populated areas of Greenland, are a mix of Danish and Greenlandic in people, language, food and tradition. The holiday does not stop our survey flights today, but a snow storm with low-visibility has brought us to the ground. In the end it is a good day to focus on data.
Prior to today we have completed several flights, each with a tightly designed purpose, and there is plenty of data to be gone through. With our newly designed system, each instrument must be tested individually for operational capability and range, and then assessed for the enhancement that comes from aligning the results with the data from the other instrumentation. Calibration runs are also required for some of the instruments. In the end, each flight ends with a stack of data disks which need to be reviewed in detail.
Each flight has a list of priorities designed around specific target locations and weather availability. Yesterday our target instruments were the visible and infrared cameras, the laser system and the deep ice radar system. For the two cameras we would fly down Sondrestrom Fjord building a set of matching images.
The Bobcat, our visible image camera, showed a wide swath of surface imagery, noting where fast moving ice had crumpled into bands of ridges, as well as where it had thinned, cracked, and showed evidence of refrozen melt water streams.
The Infrared Camera operates at a higher frame capture than the Bobcat, and collects temperature differences from the places where the ice has thinned or opened. The colder the surface, the blacker the infrared image; warmer surfaces show as white. The tongue of the fjord is an excellent testing area for this.
The Deep Ice Radar was being fine-tuned on this flight. Following the first Greenland test flight, the system was adjusted and the team was anxious to see the results. We headed up Russell Glacier to get to enough ice depth to receive the radar returns, but with the weather worsening and the winds kicking up, we didn’t go any further than needed.
The LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection And Ranging) testing was our last test of the day. Designed to give us surface elevation, with repeat use it can show change in ice surface elevation over time. In order to show small change in ice elevation, a very tight accuracy is needed, on the order of 10 cms. The LIDAR calibration was designed as a gridded pattern of 4 by 4 lines flown at 170 knots of air speed. Calibration flights can be bumpy and twisty, as the plane will roll with the turns needed to create the pattern. The 20-knot headwinds cause some additional turbulence, but the full eight passes are completed before a return to the airfield.
For more on Icepod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod
Half of the people lining the walls of the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) building are waiting to go north to the top of the ice sheet at Summit Camp, and the other half are waiting to go east to the top of the ice sheet at Raven Camp. The science and support teams have been ready and waiting for several days now, hoping for a break in the weather up on the ice sheet.
Ice sheets are large enough that they can create their own weather. Large mountains of ice several miles thick, they stretch into higher elevations and gather the clouds around them. The sunny but cold weather (-21 to -9 degrees C) is a tease to the group ready each morning and waiting for clearance, day after day.
For the Icepod team the waiting is just as difficult. A series of flight options have been drafted, but with the target of getting equipment and teams out to the camps, our flights are shifted for the moment to “piggybacks” with other flight missions. Piggybacks are actually an excellent opportunity for the project to show how the pod might work once the full system is tested and ready for science use. The project design is for the pod to be fully integrated into the guard’s NSF Operation Deep Freeze mission of supporting science in the polar-regions. In the future, as the LC130’s deliver cargo and personnel to the polar science camps, the pod can be switched on by the loadmaster to gather data as the aircraft transits.
Word comes mid-morning that the first flight of carpenters and materials will head to Raven Camp. There is not room for us but we are set for the second flight. The runway at Raven Camp is a groomed strip on the ice sheet, so the pod will make its first ice landing.
The first morning flight and ice landing go well for the pod, but one aircraft engine is causing some concern. The aircraft is looked over and the engine is cleared for us to take off late in the day with the second cargo delivery. We will fly out at high altitude before we stop at camp to install a temporary GPS for an Icepod GPS calibration. A forklift is used to load two large pallets of cargo onto the metal tracks that run the length of the aircraft and that assist the quick release of the supplies. The delivery at Raven Camp will be a “combat offload” with the cargo unstrapped and the plane moving forward on the ice so that the load slides out the back.The pod team is loaded and ready to head out.
Cargo Combat Offload
“Combat Offload at Camp Raven April 23, 2013 with the Icepod project. (credit Matt Patmore)”
With the cargo delivered, several of us exit the aircraft to install a GPS base station on the ice sheet so that the pod can complete its GPS calibration. A cloverleaf design will be flown with 20 to 30 degree turns closing the loops and straight lines between, while the GPS tracks the changes in direction and the movement in the air. In the pod design an array of GPS’s were mounted, one on the aircraft hatch and several on the pod itself, in order to determine the best location for “seeing” the satellites and yet be close to the instruments. The GPS is critical to all the data, used to tie back to a specific point on Earth. One station is set up back at Kangerlussuaq, and the second set up at Raven Camp will provide us a closure point so that we can tie together and adjust all the points in between.
The station is set to operate. The team returns to the aircraft from the ice sheet and the calibration is flown. A follow-up flight to Raven Camp over the next few days will retrieve the GPS station. Once completed, the team heads for home over the ice sheet for a 9 p.m. touchdown. Although the aircraft loses an engine in the return transit, the day is determined a success with the completed piggyback flights, ice ramp landings and the GPS instrument calibration.
For More on Icepod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
“You can do math on excel?” I ask. I immediately imagine a face-palm response, but Dario, one of my advisors, is nice enough to hide it. I’ve collected tree core samples, I’ve prepared them and cross-dated them. Now what?
Oh, right. The Science.
I guess I never really understood there could be so much involved in answering a question. When I imagine the scientific method I’ve learned since the sixth grade, I somehow imagine a question that can be answered with a yes or no. If I let go of this apple, will it fall to the ground? Hypothesis: yes, it will. Experiment: yes, it does. Conclusion: yes, it will. To the credit of my high school science teachers, it’s not that they didn’t make it perfectly clear that the why and the how are just as important as the yes or the no. I just couldn’t imagine that you’d have to explain why the apple falls with four different figures: haven’t you seen an apple fall too?
Dario is helping me understand how to analyze the data from the black oak samples I have already been working with for some time now. I know these samples. Or at least I think I know these samples. I’m learning there’s more to know about them than I initially thought.
We’re analyzing the climate response, which proves to be exactly what it sounds like. We have recorded measurements of climate (precipitation records, temperature records) and a proxy for tree growth (our ring width measurements!) and by comparing those we can see how a tree population responds to a range of climactic conditions. Alright. I can do this. I’ve made graphs before.
“So we’re going to find correlations,” says Dario.
“Click on an empty cell.” I start to make a scatter plot; I think what we’re going to do is look at the slope of a line of best fit.
“So we’re going to see if the correlation is positive or negative?” I ask.
“Yes, but we also have to see if the correlations are significant.” Isn’t any correlation higher than a zero significant? They’re showing a relationship.
Dario continues, “Any correlation above a 0.2 or so is significant for the hundred years of ring width and climate that you have for this analysis.” I learn how to use the =correl function to compare the populations to temperature and I have to say I’m disappointed. I thought 0.2 sounded so low, but some of my data is showing a much lower correlation, and the data that is significant only ranges from about really close to 0.2 to 0.38 or so. I wanted to see a 0.5 correlation like I did between tree samples within a species as I was cross-dating. Comparing precipitation to ring width gives me slightly higher correlations, a few in the 0.3 range, but I’m still feeling underwhelmed.
“No, but it’s still significant! It matters!” Dario tells me to make a scatter plot comparing precipitation to ring-width measurements over time at both sites. At first it looks like a ball of yarn, but as I mask the plot out I can see why those 0.3 correlations are significant. I follow each curve, visually skateboarding up and down the peaks and valleys and noticing that I’m going up and down a lot of very similar hills as I do so. What’s most rewarding is looking for years I know are drought years (1966 and 1954 were big droughts) and seeing relatively low measures of precipitation and ring width during those years. I knew while I was cross-dating that those years were important when I saw how small the rings were, but now I can prove it. Like the apple falling, I can’t just say that because I see the rings are small those were dry years. I have to compare it to precipitation records, temperature records, and, dare I say it, the Palmer Drought Severity Index (I have to admit I don’t entirely understand the mechanics behind the index, but I understand that dryness is a composite of precipitation and temperature forcings).
Dario, over multiple days, teaches me a few more nuances of Excel and helps me understand the ARSTAN program and how we use it to make our ring-width measurements more effective as proxies for tree growth. He mentions this would all be easier if I knew how to use R. I make a mental note: learning R is the next step. If I thought that was scary, now I have to put this information on a poster. That real people will see. At a real conference.
Neil shows me a few poster examples, and the message is clear. Show your data instead of describing it in words. That also means I’ll have to explain my data by actually… talking… about it. Gulp. The North East Natural History Conference is next weekend, but I feel like I’m ready. I understand the why and how after analyzing my data. At least I understand it enough to give an answer better than yes or no.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.
By Ana Camila Gonzalez
Ever since I’ve started learning to cross-date tree core samples, I’ve learned I have a type. I prefer my tree cores to be black oaks, middle-aged, with some nice big rings to show me. Alright, fine, I can deal with some smaller rings every now and then. As long as they’re some nice marker rings.
Unfortunately, the trees don’t seem to be trying to impress me.
I was told on a fifth grade field trip that you could tell the age of a tree by chopping it down and counting from the ring on the outside, which represents the current year, to the inside ring, which represents the year it started to grow. I’m coming to learn at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that there are a few problems with that statement.
Primarily, you don’t have to chop the tree down. I learned while doing fieldwork that coring a tree does not damage it at all. More importantly however, you can’t always find the exact age of a tree by simply counting the rings backwards. One has to verify the years you assigned to each ring against other samples, and, occasionally, against known climatic or ecological events. Sometimes a ring can be missing, possibly from either a very dry year or insect defoliation that causes a lack of growth on the side of the tree you’re looking at. Sometimes a ring is there, but it’s tiny; so small you need a microscope to see it: a micro ring. And this is where cross dating comes in.
I sit down to cross date my first batch of samples, black oaks from 2003, with rings I can see without using a microscope. I use the microscope regardless, of course, because sometimes what looks like a ring from far away can actually be a false ring: an “extra” late wood growth caused by an early freeze, early warming, or some disruption to ‘normal’ seasonal weather. The microscope helps me see whether these bands have defined edges or seem to fade, and I’ll know that only the truly defined ones are rings.
I seem to be lucky, however, as none of the Black Oaks seem to have any false rings. I’m actually eager to find some missing rings and micro rings, but I don’t find any of those either; missing rings in oak are so rare that you’ll likely be able to plant your own oak forest and watch it grow to maturity before you find one. This is so easy, I think. I feel like I have it in the bag.
I finish measuring the rings on my samples and labeling them with the years I assigned hypothetically to each ring from my cross dating. Now I’m ready to run the measurements through COFECHA, a program that gives me the correlations between individual samples and finally the correlation between all of the samples. When I first run the program with every sample, I’m told something between 0.5 and 0.6 is the expected correlation for ‘good’ black oaks (in other words, there is a 50 to 60 percent chance that given the ring-width measurements on one sample, you’d be able to predict the measurements on a second sample from the same batch). I get a 0.3 correlation. What could I have possibly done wrong?
I soon find that although Black Oaks don’t usually produce missing rings, micro rings or false rings, it is still a possibility, for reasons I didn’t understand at that time. There is also the possibility of human error resulting from mounting the samples incorrectly, missing pieces of the sample after coring and so on. (Editor’s note: one of the biggest issues dating oaks is jumping from one side of a ray to another while moving down an increment core. Sometimes the rings that are aligned across this division are not!).
What I was doing up until this point was just writing down the years where I found narrow and wider rings as marker rings and trying to find a pattern with everything I wrote down. It was helpful, but I needed to learn more about cross dating to make a few problem samples correlate with the population.
First, I was told I could take a step back and get my nose off of the microscope. By holding up a problem sample to one with a good correlation, I could try and find where patterns aligned visually, and this was usually more helpful than just trying to find the patterns in a sea of numbers I had written down. Second, I was focusing too much on individual samples and not remembering that multiple cores are often taken from the same tree: before a sample can correlate well with an entire forest it is easier to make sure it correlates against the others from the same tree. Finally, I learned that some trees—the very young, the very old, and the trees that constantly get outcompeted for resources—just don’t conform: the rebels, the grumpy old men, the proud nerds. Very suppressed rings won’t correlate well with a series, and neither will very wide rings that signal a release from competition from neighboring giants. Sometimes a 0.3 or a 0.4 correlation is the best you can get for a sample, and I had to learn how to know whether to accept that or keep trying further.
That first batch took me a week and a half to finally cross-date. You should’ve seen the look on my face when I saw my first correlation in the 0.5 range.
And that was just the black oak.
I decided to continue coming to the Tree Ring Lab over winter break, and at first it was incredibly peaceful. A few days of sanding and stabilizing some pines really put me in the Christmas spirit. And then I met Baldcypress, which made me more of a Grinch.
At first, baldcypress and I were really only going to be a one-time thing. I was only told to measure three or four batches from the 80s as a side project, but after I logged all the measurements the COFECHA results were cringe-worthy. I was told I had to try my hand at cross dating the cypress.
If I thought the black oak population had trouble samples, I reconsidered. While Quercus velutina hardly ever displays missing rings, false rings or micro rings, Taxodium distichum seems to want to flaunt them. My first batch had mostly been false rings, but I also learned what a micro ring actually looked like.
I remember staring at a set of what should have been ten rings for 20 minutes, but only seeing nine. I finally asked my advisor and then watched as Neil marked a band relatively darker than its surroundings a cell wide as a ring. If any ring could be called a marker ring, it was this one. Sometimes finding a micro ring where I knew, from the chronology, that a narrower ring should be, was actually a relief. 1966, a heavy drought year for most of the Northeastern US, quickly (and morbidly) became my favorite year.
I dealt with so many false rings that I felt like I was five and my fingers were all turning green (I’m glad no one ever showed me this; I always felt like a princess). Every time I thought a sample couldn’t have any more missing rings I found more. I started thinking everything was a micro ring.
The black oak took a week and a half. I’ve gotten through three batches of baldcypress, and I’m on my fourth: I started over winter break and it is currently spring break. Of course, I’ve been working on other things as well, including a poster presentation on my black oak samples for the Northeast Natural History Conference, but it feels as if the baldcypress just doesn’t want to leave me alone.
Yes, I do have a type. I like real rings, I like big rings and I like rings that conform. In the end, however, I’ve learned more from the “problem children” than the ones that worked out like I wanted them to. I might even admit that the baldcypress has been much more rewarding to work through.
Shhh, don’t tell the black oak.
Ana Camila Gonzalez is a first-year environmental science and creative writing student at Columbia University at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She will be blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations.
By Daniel D. Douglas
“Are you using this idea for your thesis research?”
I heard this as I stood in front of a classroom full of old-growth forest ecology students. The question had come from Neil Pederson, who was sitting directly in front of me. He was asking this question because I had just spent the past 12 minutes discussing the intricacies of land snail biology and ecology that would make them great organisms to use for ecological modeling in regards to disturbance. Things such as their lack of mobility, susceptibility to desiccation and sudden change that would occur because of major disturbance make their preferences for habitat similar to the defining characteristics of old-growth. Neil looked at me with the excitement of a small child on Christmas morning because he knew that I could potentially be on to something.
So, you can imagine his dismay when I answered his question with “No, I hadn’t really given it any thought.” I know I winced (at least on the inside, if not physically) after I answered because I had suddenly realized that I could be passing up a golden opportunity. I remember walking back to my apartment that night, thinking about what had just happened. I thought about it another hour or so after I arrived home and then emailed Neil to discuss the potential that my presentation had for being used as a master’s research project. Long story short, we developed a research plan of attack with the help of David Brown, my co-advisor, to study how anthropogenic disturbance* can shape land snail communities.
Not many people study land snail ecology. I had the fortune of working under someone that did, Ron Caldwell, while I was an undergraduate at Lincoln Memorial University. I had become deeply interested in these ignored and overlooked organisms. So, as I entered graduate school in biological sciences at Eastern Kentucky University, I had a fairly strong background in “snailology”, aka malacology. I had been unsuccessful in finding a graduate program where I could continue to work with land snails and was wandering the halls of EKU uncertain about what I was going to do for a graduate research project.
What happened in Neil’s class that semester was really fate telling me this is what I should be doing. A year and a half later, I found myself sitting on my back porch sifting through leaf litter samples, picking out micro-snails, excitedly thinking “I’ve got something here.” It was clear that these organisms could be indicators of past human disturbance.
This research took me to some of the most memorable places that I’ve ever been. Since the availability of old-growth in Kentucky is sparse, my sampling sites were limited. The first place I sampled, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, was just a few miles north in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky and, oddly enough, a few miles outside of Lexington. It’s crazy to think that a place with trees hundreds of years old exists right outside a fairly large municipal area, but it does.
Floracliff rests on the Kentucky River Palisades in a very rugged, deeply dissected network of gorges cut by streams over eons of geologic time. It also has some of the most spectacular examples of old-growth trees you’ll find in Kentucky, including the oldest known tree in Kentucky to date: a 400+ year old Chinqaupin Oak.
Though this wasn’t true old-growth, it gave me some of the best results I got for the entire study: there was a clear separation of the land snail communities between old and young forest sites. In fact, abundance, richness, and species diversity, were all greater in the older sites. This is also the site where I found the most new county records (i.e. never documented from that county). These results only whet my appetite for more data from different forests.
The next stop was EKU Natural Areas‘ Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station, a small patch of prime mesophytic old-growth forest in Letcher County. It’s bizarre to think that forests like this exists in the Cumberland Plateau portion of Kentucky, due to the fact that our countries insatiable thirst for natural resources has left the region in one kind of an ecological ruin. I was deeply impressed by this forest as wandered around. The snails at LCW did not disappoint either. I saw the same patterns as in Floracliff: old-growth forest had greater abundance, richness, and diversity. The highest species richness for the entire study came from LCW as well, which is something that I did not expect. The evidence was beginning to stack up.
My final study site was Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve. This preserve is over 1200 hectares and contains the largest tract of old-growth forest in Kentucky. Dominated mostly by oak and hemlock, the forest is very rugged and it had more rhododendron than I care to remember. Nevertheless, it is impressive. Comparing Blanton to a nearby young forest didn’t necessarily give me the same exact results, statistically speaking, but I still saw the same trend of higher abundance, richness, and diversity of microsnails in old-growth forest.
You may be asking, “What does this all mean” or, “Well, he found that there is better habitat for these organisms in undisturbed forests. That’s doesn’t really seem novel.” In reality, this is novel. Better, it is important.
First, I documented that a minimum of several decades, if not more than a century, is needed for land snail populations to recover to a point that resembles what their assemblages looked like before human disturbance. As an important part of forested ecosystems in terms of nutrient cycling, organic material decomposition, calcium sequestration, and food sources for many other animals, it is vital that we know things like this so that we can better manage our forests for everything that lives there, starting from the ground up. Second, all of you must know that everything in an ecosystem is interconnected and, once one thing is removed, it can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Better management practices will help us maintain ecological integrity of forests. Third, my findings also indicate the need for locating and protecting remnants of old-growth forests. As I have shown, old forests, whether true old-growth or lightly logged by humans a century or more ago, are biodiversity hotspots and therefore deserve protection beyond their representation of how complex forests are at great ages. And finally, my findings also indicate that land snails have great potential for being used as indicators of old-growth. This is something that many scientists, especially citizen scientists, have been chasing after for decades.
For myself personally? This means that I have a lot more work to do. Despite the fact that there are people out there that study land snails, they remain poorly understood. I feel as if it is my job to bridge that gap in the knowledge. I also hope that what I have accomplished with this research will open the door for future studies on not just land snails, but other non-charismatic fauna. I also hope that my work enables people to look at more than just the trees in old-growth forests. The trees are wonderful, and we are lucky to still have them, but there is a lot going on underneath those trees that we don’t know much about.
* = the linked article is open access and free for downloading – download away!
Daniel Douglas earned his master’s degree in biological science from Eastern Kentucky University in 2011 studying terrestrial snails, important, but less charismatic creatures.
Lamont graduate student Natalie Accardo reports from the Pacific. Blog 4: Jan. 13, 2013
The NoMelt project is more than just a seismic experiment; it also has an important magnetotelluric (MT) component. MT instruments measure natural magnetic and electric fields on the seafloor, allowing scientists to estimate the electrical conductivity of the underlying rocks. Conductivity is highly sensitive to tiny amounts of water and molten rock within the upper mantle and thus can help distinguish whether the mantle is “wet” (and thus easy to deform) or “dry” (rigid and plate-like).
To obtain information concerning the conductivity of the mantle, six long-period MT instruments were deployed along with the seismographs from the R/V Langseth in 2011. These instruments, which appear more like sea spiders than scientific hardware, sit on the ocean floor and record electrical and magnetic fields approximately every minute. We recover these instruments in the same way that we retrieve the OBS (previous post), although they proved to be much more shy than the OBS in communicating with us. We welcomed back our first MT instrument on a dark and windy night, and over the course of two weeks we recovered five additional instruments without incident, displaying them in all of their neon-orange glory on the stern deck.
With the last instruments safely strapped down, we have put the NoMelt site in our rearview mirror and are steadily speeding to our final destination of Honolulu. Sunny skies and calm seas accompany the slowing pace of activity during our four-day transit to port. Behind the boat, we trail fishing lines with every color of bait in the hopes that a tuna or mahi mahi might take a bite. Deck chairs have snuck their way out from the shelter of the hangers and onto the sun-drenched back deck where we, like moths to a lantern, try to soak up every last ray of sun before we must head back to the chilly Northeast.
Today we passed close enough to the island of Hawaii to give us our first glimpse of dry land in almost a month. The crew poured onto the main deck to snap photos and hunt for the tiniest glimpse of cellphone reception. There may be no better way to be welcomed back to land than the awesome sight of Mauna Loa towering above the clouds. Overall, the trip has been a great success. Most of our instruments survived their year of solitude on the dark, cold seafloor and came back to us with a set of unique and priceless data. We consider ourselves lucky to have gotten the chance to visit this remote region of the world, which will likely not see comparable human activity for some time.
Until next time, Aloha!
Lamont graduate student Natalie Accardo reports from the Pacific. Blog 3: Jan. 1, 2013.
Christmas found the R/V Melville in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the last day of a seven-day transit to the NoMelt Project site. In a coincidence that we hoped would be auspicious, we reached our first OBS site late that night. As much as we yearn to be home to do celebrate the holidays with our families, we also realize how fortunate we are to have the chance to do what we do. Many of us began Christmas day with phone calls home to offer holiday greetings to our families and loved ones. Then the entire crew mustered on the upper deck for the requisite group photo, with more than one Santa Claus in attendance. Sunshine abounded as the captain led a crew-wide gift exchange that produced enough chocolate candies to feed an army. The rest of the day was filled with a “coits” (a ring toss) tournament on the main deck, where two young female scientists (that is us!!) came from behind to win the championship and all the pride and glory that come with it. An epic feast topped off with homemade pies and cakes ended the day for most of the crew; for the science party our adventure was just beginning.
We arrived at the first OBS station late into the night of the 25th with apprehension abounding. Recovering OBS instruments from the ocean floor is always a tricky business, especially in our case; these instruments have been sitting beneath more than 3.5 miles of water for over a year. With cold, tired batteries powering the instruments’ acoustic transponders, communicating with them through miles of ocean currents amounts to a whispered conversation on a stormy night.
We initiate communication with an OBS by transmitting audible “chirps” from a communications box in the main science lab to a transducer on the ship’s hull. The transducer acts as a speaker to transmit the chirp through the ocean and down to the instrument. If the OBS is alive and well, it transmits seven chirps in response. Given the distance these signals have to travel, it takes about eight long, stressful seconds to hear the instruments reply. Sometimes there is no reply, and we try again, at different locations, from different angles, with alternate acoustic devices.
Once we know an instrument is up and running, we conduct an acoustic survey by cruising around and sending continuous chirps. We measure the time it takes for the instrument to chirp back to determine the distance to the OBS, providing a precise estimate of the instrument’s actual location on the seafloor. Once we have completed the survey, we are ready to bring the OBS up. We send another series of commands that tells the instrument to release itself from the seafloor and then monitor the distance to it as it rises through ocean. Once on the surface, the captain skillfully steers the ship very close to the OBS so that we can hook lines onto it and pull it safely on board.
Our Christmas Night OBS was successfully recovered, and by New Year’s Day we had retrieved 12 OBS and one magnetotelluric instrument (to be discussed in the next installment). Sadly, two instruments never responded and are assumed lost to the deep; we are likely to never know why. Our success can be seen in the growing army of instruments that stand at attention on the main deck.
We are completing the charge around the perimeter of the deployment, picking up instruments approximately every 10 hours. Soon we will make the turn and head onto the central line of the deployment, where interstation spacing is much shorter and the recoveries come hard and fast. From the Pacific we wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year!
Lamont graduate student Natalie Accardo reports from the NoMelt recovery cruise.
Blog 2: Dec. 23, 2012
Today marks our sixth day aboard the R/V Melville on a journey to a remote region of the Pacific to retrieve seismic instruments that have been quietly recording earthquake signals on the ocean floor for the past year. We have covered more than 2,600 km thus far but must cruise for another two and a half days before we reach the NoMelt project site. We have been making good time — the ship’s crew has been pushing the Melville to move at a quick pace, 12.3 knots or 14 miles per hour – and should be at the project site around midnight on the 25th of December.
The Melville initially met rough seas off the coast of California that forced most of the science party to remain horizontal in our bunks in an attempt to sleep off the affects of seasickness. We hastily tied down laptops, keyboards, and a glittering Christmas-themed snow globe so that they would not be chucked about by the rolling waves. Sticky mats and cup holders found their way into the mess hall so that the those of us who could stomach a meal would not find ourselves with a lap full of spaghetti or coca-cola.
However, calm seas found their way to us two days out of port and have stuck with us since. Hotter temperatures and increasingly sunny days remind us that we are steadily cruising toward our tropical destination. We fill our days at a leisurely pace acquiring bathymetric and magnetic data from the ship’s onboard instruments, deploying drifter instruments, and working on projects we’ve brought from home. As we near the project site, the pace will pick up, and the science party will commence 24-hour round-the-clock scientific operations.
The science party makes up only six of the total 30 people on board. The rest represent the talented, permanent crew of the Melville, who work tirelessly to keep her safe and operational in the open ocean. Their vocations span the gamut from the engineers that keep the huge diesel engines humming smoothly to the computer technicians that keep the Internet running and the onboard ship computers (and scientists!) happy. The crew is gregarious and inviting, welcoming any question or concern, no matter how banal. They may even invite you to join in their card games … though few of us are brave enough to test their skills.
Christmas and New Year’s are just around the corner and promise to be exciting, as they will mark our first days retrieving the OBS from the deep. Until then we wish everyone safe holiday travels and happy holidays!
The R/V Marcus G. Langseth completed the initial portion of the NoMelt experiment on Dec 29, 2011. In the subsequent year, scientists began analyzing the active-source seismic data collected on that cruise, constructing initial models of the oceanic plate. The full analysis awaits the so-called “passive source” data – the year-long recordings of earthquakes and natural electrical and magnetic signals on the instruments that remain on the seafloor.
On Dec. 18, 2012, the R/V Melville departed San Diego to recover remainder of the NoMelt instruments and data. The expedition includes two scientists from Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: Post-doctoral scientist Patty Lin and graduate student Natalie Accardo. Natalie is sending regular reports from the ship, and I will post them here.
Post 1: Natalie Accardo, Dec. 19, 2012.
In the early hours of Dec. 18, a team of scientists aboard R/V Melville set out from San Diego to a remote portion of the Pacific Ocean on a trip that will take 28 days and cover more than 8,500 kilometers. On this voyage, we aim to recover 27 ocean bottom seismographs (OBS) instruments that have been sitting silently on the ocean floor for nearly a year. Throughout their stay on the seafloor, the OBS have been continuously listening and recording the shaking caused by distant earthquakes all over the world. By recording ground motion, we can constrain seismic wave properties and in turn the geologic characteristics of the oceanic plate. With this information, we hope to answer the multilayered question of what defines a tectonic plate.
For decades, geologists have focused most of their attention on locations where tectonic plates come together (i.e. subduction zones like Japan) and break apart (i.e. rift settings like the East African Rift System). Yet to better understand the complex processes happening at those sites, we must first understand the fundamental characteristics of a tectonic plate. For further information concerning instrument deployment and other aspects of this project, please refer to previous blog entries.
It takes seven days to make the 4,300 km journey from San Diego to the NoMelt OBS sites. During the transit time, we use instruments aboard the Melville to map topography and gravity of the ocean floor. Additionally, at regular intervals we toss “drifter” instruments overboard. These so-call “instruments of opportunity” were designed by students at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) to be deployed by any research vessel traveling through an area of interest. They are completely autonomous and will record sea surface information (temperature, salinity, etc.) wherever the currents take them, data that will be of use to oceanographers at UCSD.
Today marks only our second day on board and has given us our first true glimpse of the open ocean. Rocky seas have confined most of the science party to their bunks in a group effort to retain what is left of our last meal. However, the promise of calmer weather in the coming days has brought some cheer to the entire crew.
Francesco Fiondella is normally behind the scenes writing web stories, developing audio slideshows and videos for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). But at this year’s annual American Geophysical Union (AGU), the tables were turned for a brief moment. He was video ambushed by climate scientist Andrew Robertson and forced to explain a poster he made with me and fellow IRI’er Brian Kahn about unconventional ways scientists can communicate with the public online. The poster covers our experiences with an “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular social news site, Reddit.com; creating a Storify to curate the online conversations that took place during our recent State of the Planet conference on Twitter and Facebook; and using Projeqt to create a visual story about the IRI’s work in drought-stricken West Africa.
Earlier that day, Fiondella had interviewed Robertson on his research on improving the prediction capability of water availability in the Himalayas to help water resource managers make better planning decisions. That interview inspired Robertson to see if he could give Fiondella “a taste of his own medicine.”Video Ambush
Andrew Robertson Interview
By Elisabeth Gawthrop, Climate and Society ’13
Three of North America’s major rivers run through the Midwestern U.S. In the spring of 2011, major flooding in region caused an estimated $3 billion in damages and killed seven people. Although scientists cannot predict exact precipitation amounts for a given season, they can attempt to predict the odds that a given season will have below average, average, and above average precipitation. If forecasts show an increased likelihood for above average precipitation, the odds of flooding usually increase, too. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s Andrew Robertson studies how climate variability across multiple timescales, from daily to decades, affects these forecasts. Using the American Midwest as a case study, Robertson and his colleagues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia Water Center analyzed the relationships between flooding events and weather and climate patterns on multiple timescales over the 20th century. Find out more about how Robertson and his colleagues are trying to improve flood prediction in the Q&A below and stop by his talk at AGU.
How do El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) interact to make climate patterns more or less favorable for precipitation in the region?
We have analyzed recurrent daily atmospheric circulation patterns, attempting to link these daily patterns to patterns of longer time scales and covering wider regions and, separately, to extreme floods. We found some weak but statistically significant linkages between weather patterns associated with both floods and ENSO/MJO patterns. La Niña, the cool phase of ENSO, tends to cause a large-scale pattern that’s more conducive to creating the conditions that lead to floods the Midwest. We also found that an active MJO event tends to lead to cause an atmospheric “wave” that passes over the Midwest two weeks following the event. This wave is also conducive to floods. Even though we have a century of records, it’s too short to say much about relationships with the PDO, a phenomenon that shifts over a period of decades as opposed to the monthly and seasonal fluctuations of ENSO and MJO.What is the skill of your results? Will forecasters be able to incorporate more of these longer time scale variabilities into seasonal forecasts?
The prospects for improved seasonal forecasts are limited because the ENSO linkage is weak. There are better prospects for eventually developing “seamless” forecasts in which forecast information is combined together and capitalizes on the MJO relationships. Particular combinations of ENSO and MJO could lead to better “forecasts of opportunity” in situations where both ENSO and MJO impacts are reinforcing each other.Is there a human-induced climate change signal that could change these relationships in the future?
The century-long record of floods does not reveal an increasing trend toward more frequent extreme floods over the Midwest signature. Many of the flood events occurred in the early and midcentury, with fewer at the end of the twentieth century.Why did you focus on precipitation from March through May in the Midwest in particular?
The spring season over the Midwest is a time of heightened flood risk, due to potential confluence of factors conducive to floods. Combinations of snow melt, high ground saturation, and strong interactions between Gulf of Mexico moisture and slow moving cyclones that can occur in the spring lead to increased likelihood of flooding events.Want more news from the AGU Fall Meeting? Follow IRI on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
In the spectacular collapse of ice sheets as the last ice age ended about 18,000 years ago scientists hope to find clues for what regions may grow drier from human caused global warming. In a talk Thursday at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting, Aaron Putnam, a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, painted a picture of earth’s dramatic transformation as seen in climate records extracted from ancient cave formations, ice cores, lake shorelines and glacial moraines.
Earth came out of the last ice age in two phases, triggered paradoxically by the cooling of waters in the North Atlantic Ocean, said Putnam. In phase one, the stratification of North Atlantic waters pushed Earth’s wind and rain belts south. The winds caused carbon dioxide to out-gas from the Southern Ocean, rapidly heating the Southern Hemisphere by 16,000 years ago. In phase two, with the evening of temperatures in the polar oceans, the wind and rain belts returned north. By 14,700 years ago, the Northern Hemisphere begins to rapidly warm, bringing the planet as a whole out of the ice age.
The first interval made normally dry regions wet, and wetter regions, dry, and then the situation reversed 2,000 years later, said Putnam. In the U.S., lake levels in the mid-latitudes swelled as the jet stream pushed south bringing more rain. Lake Lohantan in Nevada and Lake Estancia in New Mexico reached their highest levels about 16,000 years ago, research by Lamont’s Wally Broecker suggests. At the southern edge of the tropical rain belts, Lake Tauca in Bolivia reached its maximum extent at the same time. Meanwhile, the monsoon rains in Asia were failing, leaving evidence of drought in Hulu Cave near Nanjing, China, and Venezuela’s Cariaco Basin. Antarctic ice cores also show evidence of less vigorous vegetation growth in the northern forests. “These are massive changes that are happening,” said Putnam.
The rapid retreat of glaciers in New Zealand suggest that the Southern Hemisphere warmed quickly once the Southern Ocean started to release carbon dioxide. Moraine dating by Putnam and his Lamont colleagues, Joerg Schaefer and Michael Kaplan, show that glaciers were biggest at 17,800 years ago. In just 2,000 years, the ice retreated close to where it is today and temperatures warmed 3 degrees Celsius, their research shows. (Another degree of warming would happen by the onset of the Holocene 12,000 years ago)
Today, with the North Atlantic now warming, Putnam and his colleagues expect the chain of events to reverse, with wind and rain belts shifting north. “We should anticipate that the dry lands and deserts of the Northern Hemisphere will become drier, which has implications for water resources,” he said. “Monsoons could pick up in South Asia and Venezuela.”
Aaron Putnam’s account of trekking through the Bhutan Himalaya in search of glacial moraines New York Times, November 2012
At our higher elevation we will fly faster and can cover a lot of ground. The landscape of Antarctica can be hard to get ones head around – a glacier catchment is usually too big to fit into one field of view, so we see it bit by bit, and try to build up a physical picture in the same way we build up our understanding of the system – piece by piece. We have flown several missions into the Amundsen Sea region on the west Antarctic coast in the past, but this was the first time where we could really see the context of all of these different glaciers – flowing into the same embayment, forming ice shelves, calving ice bergs, and drifting northwards through the sea ice.
The flight offers views of some of the most noteworthy features in Antarctica. Pine Island Glacier, one of world’s fastest streaming glaciers, developed an 18 mile crack along its face in the fall of 2011 which spread further over the last few months. The crack will inevitably lead to breakage, dropping an iceberg which scientists have estimated will be close to 300 pound in size.
Bordering the glacier is one of two shield volcanoes we passed over during our flight. Pushing up through the Antarctic white mask, Mount Murphy diverts the ice streaming along the glacier. A steeply sloped massive 8 million year old peak, Mount Murphy pulls my thoughts back New York as it was named for an Antarctic bird expert from the American Museum of Natural History.
From Mount Murphy we continue to the second shield volcano, Mount Takahe. Ash from 7900 years ago found in an ice core from the neighboring Siple Dome has been attributed to an eruption from this volcano. This massive potentially active volcano is about 780 cubic kms in size. The volcano was named by a science team participating in the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) after the nickname of the plane providing their air support …an unusual name for a plane as its origin is that of a plump indigenous Māori bird from New Zealand which happens to be flightless! Regardless the rather round Mount Takahe soars high above the glacier as we move overtop.
From there we fly over the tongue of Thwaites Glacier as it calves icebergs into the Amundsen Sea. To read more about Thwaites check out my first blog of the season: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/10/18/launching-the-season-with-a-key-mission-icebridge-antarctica-2012/
For more on the IceBridge project visit: