News aggregator

Turning CO2 Into Rock: Podcast with Peter Kelemen - How Do We Fix It?

Featured News - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 14:15
The demand for energy around the world continues to grow each year. And so does the amount of carbon dioxide that's pumped into the earth's atmosphere. Lamont's Peter Kelemen explains in this podcast.

New Center for Climate & Life to Bring Latest Science to Business & Finance - Columbia Record

Featured News - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 14:11
The Center for Climate and Life, a new research initiative based at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will focus on how climate change affects our access to such basic resources as food, water, shelter and energy.

Dwindling Snowpack Around the World Threatens Water Supply for 2 Billion People - Vice News

Featured News - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 12:00
As global warming brings about a decline in snowpacks around the world, billions of people face a high risk of shrinking water supplies in the coming century, a study by Lamont-Doherty's Justin Mankin finds.

For Severe Weather, 'Is This Climate Change?' Is the Wrong Question - Live Science

Featured News - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 12:00
The links between climate change and severe weather are not as simple as blaming a severe storm on a warming planet, as Lamont-Doherty's Jason Smerdon explains.

Peat Fires Choking Southeast Asia Pose a New Threat to Global Climate

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 07:10
Fires on the island of Borneo are visible from space. (NASA)

Fires on the island of Borneo are visible from space. (NASA)

Smoke from forest fires has been choking cities across Southeast Asia for months. The hazy, yellow blanket poses serious public health and economic risks for the communities it envelops. Indonesian authorities have been working hard to put out the fires, but have had trouble preventing the fires, which are intentionally set to clear land for agriculture. The government has resorted to using warships to evacuate its citizens from fire-affected areas. However, few of the other inhabitants of Indonesia’s forests, like the endangered orangutans, have made it to safety.

The fires are more than a local menace—they pose a global threat as well. They are huge—visible from space—and have begun to garner worldwide attention. Burning peat releases immense stores of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, strongly contributing to global warming. Since September, daily CO2 emissions from the fires alone routinely surpass the average daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy.

Why is so much carbon released from these fires?

The forests now burning had been growing on, and were contributing to, vast stores of peat—the partially decayed plant material that accumulates where growth is faster than decay. Peatlands (places where peat accumulates) are an important part of the Earth’s climate system—they are the primary locations where carbon from the atmosphere is sequestered on land. While they cover only 3% of the land surface, they hold 30% of soil organic carbon.

Since the end of the last ice age, approximately 600-700 gigatonnes of carbon—that’s 600-700 billion tonnes—have been sequestered from the atmosphere as peat, roughly equivalent to the total amount of carbon that was in the atmosphere before industrial times. As tropical peat forests are drained and burned, carbon that took thousands of years to accumulate is rapidly released back into the atmosphere.

Haze from Indonesian peat fires is causing health problems in cities downwind. (Naz Amir/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Haze from Indonesian peat fires is causing health problems in cities downwind. (Naz Amir/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Guido van der Werf, a forest scientist at the University of Amsterdam, estimated the total emissions from the fires this year to be 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2, or about 0.44 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) so far this season.

Let’s put this number into some context.

Of the 600-700 GtC that have been sequestered in peatlands globally since the last ice age, about 100 GtC are in the tropics; the rest are in boreal and Arctic regions. That means that the emissions from the fires this season alone are nearly half a percent of the total carbon accumulated in all tropical peatlands since the last ice age ended a little more than 11,000 years ago, or 0.15% of all the carbon emitted by human activity since the industrial age began.

Indonesian peatlands accumulate carbon at a rate of about 55 grams of carbon per meter squared per year—higher than most tropical peatlands elsewhere. If we generously extrapolate this rate to the about 400,000 km2 of tropical peatlands worldwide, the rate of accumulation of all tropical peatlands globally is only about 0.02 GtC annually. At 0.44 GtC, the Indonesian peat fires this season have emitted what took the entire Earth’s tropical peatlands at least 22 years to accumulate.

Forest fires are set each year, often illegally, for agriculture. The most common purpose is to produce palm oil, an economically important commodity, which is an ingredient in thousands of foods and cosmetics. Indonesia produced about 31 million tonnes of palm oil last year, and is projected to produce 31.5 million tonnes this year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that burning a gallon of gasoline releases 2.5 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. This year, a gallon of palm oil from Indonesia will have released almost 10 times that, 24 kilograms of carbon, from burning peat forest.

Palm oil can be produced sustainably, but there is great economic pressure on small farmers to produce palm oil as quickly and cheaply as possible. Enforcement of laws that prohibit burning of peat forest is left to local authorities who are more easily influenced by their constituents and the palm oil companies that support them than by the Indonesian national government. Consumer pressure may be the only way to reduce these unsustainable agricultural practices.

What makes this year so bad?

El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean have made Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia particularly dry, lowering the water tables in the peat forests, making much more of the peat available to burn. Normally, peat does not burn below the water table, where it is water saturated. Further, many places where land is cleared by burning are also drained, artificially lowering water tables even further.

During the last major El Niño, 1997-98, about 0.95 GtC were released from Indonesian peat forest fires, and though this year only about 0.44 GtC have burned away, the season is not yet over.

Peat smolders after a fire. (Tan Yi Han, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Peat smolders after a fire. (Tan Yi Han, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Jonathan Nichols is a Lamont Assistant Research Professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a lover of peatlands. Follow him on Twitter @BogFossil.

Related: Indonesia on Track for Worst Fires Since 1997

An end to ice (sampling)

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Wed, 11/18/2015 - 14:04

It’s been a busy few days as we wrap up ice sampling and make the transition to sampling by boat at the regular Palmer LTER stations.  This afternoon we’ll break down the ice removal experiment we started over a week ago.  On Monday we went out for the final sampling at our ice station – though if the ice sticks around for a couple more weeks we’ll try to go out one final time to see how the spring ice algal bloom is developing.  The heavy snow cover on the sea ice has delayed the start of the bloom, however, things are starting to happen.  During our last sampling effort we lowered a GoPro camera underneath the ice to take a look.

You’ll notice a couple of interesting things about the underside of the ice.  First, it’s extremely rough.  Landfast sea ice often looks like this; the ice forms from many small flows being compressed together against the shoreline during the fall.  As a result there is a lot of “rafting” of small ice floes atop one another.  This can present some real challenges when selecting a sampling spot.  The first couple of holes that we tried to drill exceeded what we knew to be the mean thickness of the sea ice.  It took a few tries to find a representative spot.

The amount of ice algal growth in McMurdo Sound sea ice in mid-October, covered by only a few centimeters of snow, is much greater than in the Arthur Harbor sea ice, covered by 30 cm of snow, despite that fact that it is mid-November.

The amount of ice algal growth in McMurdo Sound sea ice in mid-October of 2011, covered by only a few centimeters of snow, is much greater than in the Arthur Harbor sea ice, covered by 30 cm of snow, despite that fact that it is already mid-November and Arthur Harbor is much further north than McMurdo Sound.

You’ll also notice that the ice has a distinct green color, concentrated on the lower (or higher, in the video) rafts.  That’s the start of the ice algal bloom.  If the ice was snow free the bloom would have developed by now into a thick carpet.  You can contrast the video above with the image at right of sea ice sampled from McMurdo Sound roughly three weeks earlier in the season (in 2011).  Although much thicker that ice was covered by only a few centimeters of snow.  If the Arthur Harbor ice sticks around for a couple more weeks it will develop some good growth (unless the krill come along and graze the algae down).  You might be wondering why, if the algae are limited by the availability of light, they are concentrated on the deeper rafts further from the light.  I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hypothesis.  I’ve been searching for a literature reference for this and haven’t located one yet, but I recall hearing a talk from an expert on the optical physics of sea ice describing how the sunlight that manages to penetrate sea ice reaches a maximum some distance below the ice.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but makes sense if you consider the geometry of the floes that coalesced to make the ice sheet.

One hypothesis for the vertical distribution of ice algae - and I have to caution that this is just an idea - is that the refraction of light as it passes through sea ice sets up a light maximum that is some distance below the bottom of the ice. Algae and phytoplankton would preferentially inhabit this zone.

One hypothesis for the vertical distribution of ice algae – and I have to caution that this is just an idea – is that the refraction of light (indicated in this schematic by yellow lines) as it passes through sea ice sets up a light maximum that is some distance below the bottom of the ice floes (white boxes). Algae and phytoplankton (indicated by green) would preferentially inhabit this zone.

As you can observe in the video the light is largely penetrating the ice around the edges of these floes.  The rays of light enter the water at an angle, and intersect at some distance below the ice determined by the mean size of the floes and (I’m guessing) the angle of the sun.  The depth where this intersection happens is the depth of greatest light availability.  Above this depth the water is “shaded” by the ice floes themselves.  In our case I think this depth corresponds with the depth of those deeper floes.  Unfortunately our crude hand-deployed light meter and infrequent sampling schedule are insufficient to actually test this hypothesis.  We’d need a much higher-resolution instrument that could take measurements throughout the day.  Something to think about for the future.

In the meantime Rutgers University undergraduate Ashley Goncalves, spending her Junior year with the Palmer LTER project at Palmer Station, made this short video that describes the process of collecting water for our experiment from below the ice in Arthur Harbor.  Let the boating begin!


Before Paris, Cause for Optimism

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 11/18/2015 - 09:16
 Wikimedia Commons

Solar and wind power are on the rise, but they will need better storage technology to make a big enough dent in our use of fossil fuels. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot more reason for optimism about the Paris climate talks than there was before Copenhagen in 2009. In particular, this time around, President Obama has taken clear steps to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly via executive action in the face of an intransigent Congress. Perhaps as important was the president’s recent cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, which was a largely symbolic move, but drew public attention to the issue of “stranded assets.” Why should fossil fuel companies continue to explore for more oil and gas, and produce fuel from increasingly low-grade reservoirs, using technically difficult methods, when identified reserves are already larger than any safe limit on total emissions?

COP21_ad1This said, the commitments made by various nations in advance of the Paris meeting are far too small to effectively curb increasing atmospheric CO2, as articulated by Steve Koonin in a New York Times op-ed a week ago, for example. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is Koonin’s: “The flood is coming, start building your ark.” No doubt he is right, to some degree. It seems probable that growth of fossil fuel emissions will continue, and atmospheric CO2 will exceed 600 ppm by mid-century. At that point, many expensive adaptations to climate change will already be underway. Also, the negative consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation may be clear enough to warrant implementation of a palette of methods for carbon-dioxide removal from air. (Interested readers should refer to the National Research Council report on this topic). Alternatively, we will be stuck with high greenhouse gas concentrations and continued warming for centuries to come.

Another perspective is that in Paris the international community will commit themselves to taking effective action designed to curb emissions and avoid warming beyond 2° C. Having made this commitment, together with some first steps, they may return in future years to amend their specific regulations, in order to succeed in their agreed goal. This is essentially what happened with regard to regulating CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emissions in order to preserve the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. The first international treaty, The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, committed nations to effective action. But the specific regulations in that treaty were insufficient for success. Because a commitment had been made, however, subsequent revisions were relatively easy to implement, and ultimately success was—more or less—achieved.

 Sara Keleman

Peter Kelemen is the Arthur D. Storke Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Photo: Sara Kelemen

Finally, it is just possible that Paris is less important than it seems. The dramatic fall in price for electrical generation using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has been accompanied by 35 percent annual growth of PV capacity in this century, with wind power capacity growing in parallel at more than 25 percent per year. This is, in part, a success story for tax breaks and other incentives that have driven rapid growth, which in turn reduced the unit costs.

Conventional wisdom is that this rapid pace will soon diminish. When wind and solar electrical generation exceed a few tens of percent of the total, energy storage methods will become essential, to account for the temporally intermittent, spatially disbursed nature of renewable power generation. In turn, energy storage technology is improving very slowly, so most people think that a storage bottleneck will persist past 2050.

However, perhaps this conventional wisdom is wrong. If the international community were to fully understand the threat of climate change, and the likely cost of mitigation and adaptation, perhaps we would commit to continued tax breaks and incentives, and propel the renewable energy transition toward completion. In the long run, I am sure this would be less expensive than coping with the consequences of growth in greenhouse gas emissions through 2050. The energy industry can be incredibly nimble, as recently exemplified by 35 percent annual growth in fracked oil production in North Dakota. If solar PV and wind, including storage, were to become truly cost-competitive at the utility scale, there is no doubt that renewable capacity would continue to double every few years.

Finally, one more thought. The energy transition, and/or mitigation of CO2 emissions, will surely be expensive. However, it is not clear to me why this is considered to be a drain on the economy. We already spend plenty of money taking care of waste products, via sewage treatment and garbage disposal. It seems to me that large-scale replacement of energy infrastructure, or carbon dioxide removal from air, like the recent replacement of communications and data storage infrastructure, will serve to create jobs and economic growth. Of course, such processes will involve a net transfer of resources to some groups, away from others. Perhaps that is the main impediment to progress.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Keleman was among those writing for State of the Planet about the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here is an excerpt from back then (the full text is here):

… Somehow, some people have come to believe that if a single study suggesting human-induced climate change is incorrect, the entire scientific basis for the hypothesis is invalidated. A corollary, implicitly adopted by some “believers” and “skeptics” alike, is that predictions of warming due to human CO2 emissions must be almost certain in order to justify major efforts to reduce CO2 output.

… Nevertheless, everyone involved needs to embrace the idea that all scientists are skeptics; that all scientific theories are open to doubt; and in particular that future projections of climate change are subject to considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, the economic and environmental impacts of warming are also uncertain, as are the costs of CO2 mitigation. When scientists hide these uncertainties, or simply don’t discuss them, they lose credibility.

… Does this mean that no political action should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved? Of course not. … atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years. This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory. Though there are many other factors that influence global climate, there is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And, in addition to the threat of climate change, there are ample reasons to conserve energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The longer we delay, the higher will be the cost of limiting CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.

El Niño and Its Connections to Extreme Weather - TRNS Radio

Featured News - Tue, 11/17/2015 - 18:19
El Niño is driving drought in Indonesia, heavy rain in Argentina and intense Pacific cyclones. Lamont-Doherty's Adam Sobel, director of the Columbia Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, describes the connections between El Niño and extreme weather during the El Niño 2015 Conference.

What Everyone Should Know About Climate Change

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Tue, 11/17/2015 - 12:38

The Science, Revisited

The climate is changing. We’re causing it. It’s going to affect our lives and our livelihood, if it isn’t already. It’s going to be expensive. But we can do something about it.

That’s how a group of young scientists at a conference in 2013 summed it up. This video, shot by climate scientist William D’Andrea of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains in the simplest terms possible what we ought to know about climate change, and why we should care.

This is one in a series of posts looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. The original post about D’Andrea’s project, with a second video, is here.


Billions of People Depend on Water From Shrinking Snowpacks - New York Times

Featured News - Tue, 11/17/2015 - 12:00
Snowpacks are a vital source of water for humans, but they may shrink in some regions as the climate warms. A new study from Lamont-Doherty's Justin Mankin estimates how changes in showfall will affect water supplies.

Climate Through A Different Lens: Poverty, Inequality, Sustainability

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 16:53
 Think Progress

Flooding in Pakistan. “It is no secret that the poor in any country, and the poorer countries, are the most adversely affected by the present and future climate.” Photo source: Think Progress

There is no religion that does not teach its adherents the need to nurture the earth, or the need for the brotherhood, equality and humility of men. In every generation, in every land and in every clime is born a populist who embraces such goals to rise as a leader of the people. Yet, on the eve of Paris, we are visited by gunfire and death, symbolizing the distrust that is bred by inequity of opportunity. Religions uniformly preach peace, even as some adherents invoke martyrdom as a path to address injustices, perceived and real. Sadness embraces the families of those martyred as well as those whom they extinguished with little reason.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center and a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center and a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

It is remarkable that we are in the 21st COP at Paris. In the furthest reaches of the world, there is now an awareness of our changing climate, of the human influence, and of the leaders who debate what needs to be done, year after year, decade after decade. The clock ticks, and in the absence of change in energy policies, the day comes ever closer. Inequities past and future color the debate, forestalling action. Technology has brought us low-cost global communication, and also enabled a global economy. It has also brought us closer and further from each other. We now know more about other cultures. We also see the differences, and sharpen our sense of inequities. Perhaps, this, rather than a control of greenhouse gases, needs to be the primary conversation.

It is no secret that the poor in any country, and the poorer countries, are the most adversely affected by the present and future climate. Their ability to withstand floods or droughts, or climate induced disasters of any sort, is the most limited. Unable to buffer themselves from the vagaries of climate, they have lower economic and agricultural productivity, lower resilience to shocks, and are for all purposes trapped. They lack reliable sources of energy that could increase their productivity, and allow them a better access to the local or global economy. Solving this may provide them the income that eventually helps them better address shocks, climatic, political or economic. Of course, such a pathway has to be harmonious with nature. These are the challenges we should be discussing and addressing as a common, global goal.

Most energy sources on the planet can be traced back to the sun. The winds blow in response to temperature differences created by imbalances in solar radiation. Hydropower relies on river flows that come from rain, which in turn is supplied by evaporation stimulated by the sun. Biofuels, coal, oil and gas result from biological activity on land and in the oceans that was once stimulated by the sun. We know how to harness all these sources to produce electricity and heat. The sun’s rhythm governs our every day, waking, sleeping and working, as it does life across the planet. It would seem that finding a way to tap this energy in an environmentally benign way, and making it as available to the masses as cellular phones have become, would be the grandest economic opportunity of the 21st century.

Indeed, recent initiatives in China and elsewhere have dramatically reduced the initial investment required to tap solar and wind energy. This is exciting since these sources can be implemented and spread much as cell phones have—across the world, to areas poor and rich, on or off an existing grid. This is a grassroots business opportunity, that brings together large manufacturers, last mile implementers, supply chain intermediaries and maintenance specialists, and diverse users who are bound to translate the opportunity into diverse income streams through their ingenuity and local knowledge.

COP21_ad1The COP discussions have revolved around targets for decarbonization to mitigate climate change. I think this needs to be a discussion about how the development of a renewable energy platform can lead to sustainable and inclusive economic growth of all sectors of society in the world. Uplifting the poor, while a moral imperative, may not actually translate beyond political slogans. Perhaps, this is why the debates are not framed in this light. The 20th century showed us that the rich get richer as the poor are uplifted. Let the 21st be about how to improve conditions for all living beings on the planet.

The second thread in the climate change discussions is that of climate change adaptation, recognizing that the political processes that lead to reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases may not yield results in time. There are many dimensions to this discussion, ranging from questions as to investment in infrastructure to financial risk management to migration to food and water security. A tacit assumption in many such discussions is that societies are, by and large, adjusted to climate risk, and it is the change due to human influence on the earth’s climate that we need to address.

This is a rather unfortunate posture that cripples real action, since future predictions of future climate with any specificity as to location or variable of concern are clouded by significant uncertainty not just in the models, but also in the assumptions that drive our models. Yet, floods and droughts ravage many places, with loss of life, disease, food insecurity, and property losses emerging as a surprise that we struggle to recover from, even from events that have been seen perhaps many times in the last century, but forgotten over the course of time. Again, if we are concerned about the well-being of people, we have a moral imperative to help increase resilience to climate shocks, whether or not we are concerned with climate change. The latter is an attendant factor that simply increases the urgency of the matter.

It is my view that mitigation of and adaptation to climate change should not be seen as two separate sides of a response to a threat. Rather, we need to approach both synergistically, under a paradigm that is primarily focused on economic growth and poverty alleviation, which in turn would reduce the risks of conflict and the threat to life on earth.

Every year, as climate induced disasters happen, in Brazil, in the United States, in Europe, in India, in Africa and in China, vivid images of tragedy pull at our heartstrings, and much is spent on international relief and recovery. Yet, many of the poorer places that are subject to these disasters have little to show a year later from the outpouring of support. A focus on economic growth stimulated by renewable energy, and accompanied by pre-emptive solutions to floods and droughts, through improvements in agriculture, in food preservation using energy sources, in the diversion and control of floods, and in early warning and action systems, would be transformative.

With increased income comes the possibility to acquire a more egalitarian perspective, pay for education, to pay for infrastructure development, to pay for effective institutions and for risk mitigation. I look forward to a world where the enlightened few see it fitting to steer us in this direction, and look beyond the rhetoric of emissions, and inequity in past and future carbon emissions, with suspended disbelief as to the potential calamities that face us. Sustainable development as an objective encompasses the climate and energy challenge, and the natural responses to these challenges promise directions for bringing people and countries out of poverty.

In September, the governments of the world agreed to the sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030, except Goal 13 (of 17), to deal with climate change. In December we can complete the agreement on that 13th goal. The 193 countries of the world must do nothing less.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Lall also wrote for us back in 2009, before the Copenhagen summit. Here’s an excerpt (for his full post, go here):

… In most places where we have multi-century historical records of rainfall or “proxy” natural records, such as tree rings, we see persistent shifts in rainfall patterns. Presumably due to natural causes, these often go beyond ranges experienced in the 20th century, and have lasted years or decades. In the meantime human population has boomed. Many developing countries are particularly subject to such swings, and now with huge numbers of people and little infrastructure, they are particularly vulnerable. Developed countries also are now quite susceptible to systematic climate shifts, since much of their modern infrastructure, especially for water, was designed on the assumption that climate does not change with time. Today, in many places in North America, Australia and Europe, this infrastructure is at the limits of its performance, and their chance of failure is high if protracted droughts or extreme floods come along.

Given the prospects for human suffering and international conflict over water, Copenhagen offers an opportunity to focus the climate change debate in a new way, that has nothing to do with conjecture: we must increase the resilience of water resources to shifts that we already know are quite real.

… While there is pessimism about the prospects of a binding agreement on future carbon emissions, there are things we can do now to address problems that are already with us—and will almost certainly accompany us down the road. It is imperative that the momentum and interest generated at Copenhagen be channeled toward them.

Carlos Gutierrez: A Life at Sea Aboard Research Ships - Columbia Record

Featured News - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 12:00
Carlos Gutierrez operates heavy equipment on the R/V Marcus G. Langseth. In his 43 years here, he has worked on every Lamont-run ship since the Vema, a three-masted schooner.

Climate Change May Lead to Water Crisis - Tech Times

Featured News - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 09:55
More than two billion people living in the Earth's northern hemisphere may face an impending water crisis as the snow deposits that help provide them with much needed water supply are beginning to decline as a result of climate change. A new study led by Lamont's Justin Mankin looks at the populations most at risk.

Shrinking Snowpacks Projected to Affect 2 Billion Lives in N. Hemisphere - International Business Times

Featured News - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 09:40
A new study led by Lamont's Justin Mankin looking at the impact of shrinking snowpacks in the northern hemisphere suggests that over 2 billion people could suffer from water shortages.

Unlocking the secrets of the Ross Ice Shelf

As the project sets out to explore the Ross Ice Shelf it seems appropriate to include a photo of Minna Bluff,  a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to McMurdo. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history. (Photo Nigel Brady)

As the ROSETTA project sets out to explore the Ross Ice Shelf it seems appropriate to include a photo of Minna Bluff, a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to McMurdo. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history. (Photo N. Brady)

The Ross Ice Shelf is much like the Rosetta Stone. The historic stone was inscribed in three different scripts; each telling the same story but in a different tongue. When matched together the information was enough to allow scholars to decode an ancient language. The Rosetta Project in Antarctica also brings together three different ‘scripts’, but in this case they  written by three Earth systems; the ice, the ocean and the underlying bed each have a story to tell. Mapped together these three systems can be used to unlock the mysteries of Antarctic ice history in this region and help us to develop models for predicting future changes in Antarctic ice.

Two gravimeters, one was used last year in test flights in Antarctica with GNS Science from New Zealand, and the second is from Dynamic Gravity Systems purchased through funding by the Moore Foundation. (Photo K. Tinto)

The team moves two gravimeters from the tent where they have been stabilizing for two days after arriving in Antarctica.  One instrument was used last year in test flights in Antarctica with GNS Science from New Zealand, and the second is from Dynamic Gravity Systems purchased through funding by the Moore Foundation. (Photo K. Tinto)

The  multi-institutional project is multi-disciplinary in nature and takes advantage of the recently commissioned IcePod integrated ice imaging system as the main science platform. IcePod is package of geophysical instruments packed into a 9 ft. container and loaded onto the large LC130 transport planes supporting science in the polar regions. Flown by the US Air National Guard these planes are the workhorses of the science program.  A unique ‘arm’ that fits into the rear side-door of the plane is used to attach the IcePod outside the aircraft, allowing it to be used on both dedicated missions and flights of opportunity.

IcePod’s instruments include two radar to image through the ice, lidar to measure to the ice surface, cameras for surface images, and a magnetometer to better understand the tectonics and origin of the bed below the ice shelf. Together with the IcePod instruments the project will  use two separate gravimeters in order to develop a bathymetric map of the seafloor under the ice shelf. Gravity is a critical data piece in this project as the radar is unable to image through the water under the ice shelf.

Crossing the Transantarctic Mountains on the flight to South Pole. (Photo N. Brady)

Flying up from the Ross Ice Shelf to cross the Transantarctic Mountains on the flight to South Pole. The Transantarctic Mountains are a stunning contrast to the flat surface of the Ross Ice Shelf. With peaks that reach upwards of 4000m they act like a zipper stretching  across the continent for over 3500 kms connecting two very different sections of the Antarctic continent. (Photo N. Brady)

The Ross Ice Shelf is a thick slab of ice that serves to slow and collect ice as it flows off the Antarctic peninsula. Ross is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves moving ice at rates of 1.5 to 3 meters/day. Somewhat triangular in shape, it is bounded by the West Antarctic ice sheet on the west, the East Antarctic ice sheet on the east, and the Ross sea along the front.


Our interactive Rosetta flight tracking instrument. Go to the page to follow the flights as they are added.

This three year project involves 36 separate flights in a two season field campaign. The first field season is underway now, and will focus on building the larger framework for the dense 10 km spaced grid of flights that is planned for the following season. As each day’s flights are logged they are being posted on our interactive website. You can follow our campaign by linking directly to this data portal to watch the grid develop. You can select the project proposed flight plan (v9) on the Data Map to get a complete look at the project plan. The end product will be a dense grid of flightlines evenly spaced and crossing with regular tie points.

On the flight to the South Pole the LC130 hercules aircraft is the rear right parked at the edge of the skiway. The ice pod is on the far side the South Pole station. Team members Kirsty, Tej and Fabio are heading towards the South Pole passenger terminal waiting to reboard. (Photo N. Brady)

On the flight to the South Pole the LC130 hercules aircraft is the rear right parked at the edge of the skiway. The icePod is on the far side the South Pole station. Team members Kirsty, Tej and Fabio are heading towards the South Pole passenger terminal waiting to reboard. (Photo N. Brady)

First flights included two survey lines across the ice shelf. The most southern of the two lines was flown by IcePod in 2014 during commissioning flights, and by the NASA IceBridge project in 2013. These two flights provide a calibration line for the system. The northern line is the first new line for the project. The map also shows a small test flight for the equipment and a line up to South Pole that was a piggy back flight with another mission of the plane.

You will note that flights originate from McMurdo so there is a dense radiating line from the base. Minna Bluff is a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to MCM. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history.

Check the flight tracker daily for updated flight lines.

For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project please check our project website: ROSSETTA

Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.

The Paris Climate Summit: Resources for Journalists

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 14:24

From rising sea levels to pressures on agriculture, people everywhere face challenges from climate change. Above, flooded land near Khulna, Bangladesh. (Photo by Kevin Krajick)

Many experts at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are attending or closely watching the Paris climate summit. These include world authorities on climate science, politics, law, natural resources, national security, health and other fields, who can offer expert  analysis to journalists. Also, this week we start our Paris Climate Summit blog, with news, views, and scientific perspective from our staff. Below, a guide to resources that journalists covering the summit can tap.

   The Paris Climate Summit   A frequently updated blog from Earth Institute experts with explainers, commentary and other features.
   Recent Climate Research   The top Earth Institute scientific papers from 2015 and previous recent years.
   Milestones in Climate Science  A 60-year timeline of studies from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that have shaped modern climate science.
   Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009  Our blog from the last major summit provides historical perspective.

(Not an exhaustive list. *Denotes person attending the summit.)

 Climate science
*Peter deMenocal, professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Paleoclimatologist DeMenocal leads the observatory’s new Center for Climate and Life, which will examine globally how climate change affects ecosystems and human sustainability.
Jason Smerdon is a Lamont-Doherty climate researcher and educator who co-directs the Earth Institute’s undergraduate sustainable development program.
Gavin Schmidt directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is a leading communicator on the fundamentals of climate science, and the implications.

 International negotiations/law/politics
*Scott Barrett, Earth Institute professor of natural resources; expert in dynamics of transnational negotiations, treaties and conflict resolution, especially climate. Barrett is coeditor of a new e-book prepared especially for the summit.
*Michael Gerrard, director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, leader in the study of climate’s legal implications on state, national and international levels.
Michael Burger, executive director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, consults internationally on efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and on climate adaptation.
Steven Cohen, Earth Institute executive director, comments frequently on political developments surrounding climate and sustainable development.

Solutions, adaptations, sustainable development
*Lisa Goddard, director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which works with governments around the world to predict and adapt to medium-term climate swings.
*Cynthia Rosenzweig, Earth Institute senior research scientist, is a pioneer in studying how cities can adapt to climate change.
*Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director, Sustainable Development Solutions Network. SDSN is a UN effort hosted by the Earth Institute that mobilizes teams across the world to solve global challenges, including climate change.
*Laura Segafredo manages SDSN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of energy researchers charting steps for nations to cut emissions.

Natural resources
   Upmanu Lall directs the Columbia Water Center, which tackles water-supply challenges and their relation to climate across the world.
Pedro Sanchez, director, Agriculture and Food Security Center, helps direct multiple projects in developing countries to ensure a robust food supply in changing conditions.
Shahid Naeem, director, Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, is an ecologist who deals with issues of conservation and biodiversity.

International security
Marc Levy, deputy director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), is a political scientist who studies the human dimensions of environmental change, including climate’s potential for violent conflict.
Alexander deSherbinin, CIESIN senior researcher, maps out the human consequences of climate change, including potential large-scale population migrations.

*Madeleine Thomson, IRI senior researcher, works to understand the health effects of climate, and help provide adaptations.
*Patrick Kinney, Earth Institute professor based at Mailman School of Public Health, studies the health effects of climate change, especially in cities.

Anthony Annett, an economist, leads the Earth Institute’s initiative to engage religious communities with climate and sustainable-development issues.
*Ben Orlove, anthropologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, studies how the public apprehends climate change issues.

 # # #

More information: Kevin Krajick, Senior editor, science news, The Earth Institute 212-854-9729


Ghosts of Oceans Past - Science

Featured News - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 12:00
Accurately measuring historic sea levels isn't easy. Lamont-Doherty's Maureen Raymo discusses some of the challenges.

No boating yet and a sneak peek at phytoplankton

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Fri, 11/13/2015 - 09:33

The storms of the past week cleared most of the pack ice out of Arthur Harbor, although the land fast ice that we’ve been sampling from has survived.  In anticipation of the start of the boating season there was a flurry of activity yesterday as station personnel cleared off the boat ramp and got the zodiacs ready.  Unfortunately Jamie and I didn’t think to start the time lapse below until yesterday afternoon after most of the three-ring circus had died down, but you still get a sense of the activity.

There are two science groups waiting to start boating operations; our group and a group of penguin researchers (aka “the birders”).  Both groups are part of the Palmer LTER.  While we will spend the summer investigating water column processes however, the birders will spend their summer visiting the various penguin rookeries and maintaining a remarkable long term dataset of penguin population.

The birders do far more than just count penguins, they analyze diet, physiology, breeding success, and a host of other factors. The number of penguins alone however, tells an interesting story.

Taken from Ducklow et al. 2013.  The birders do far more than just count penguins; they analyze diet, physiology, breeding success, and a host of other factors. The number of penguins alone however, tells an interesting story.  Since the mid-1970’s the number of adélie penguins along the West Antarctic Peninsula (or at least at those rookeries that we can access and monitor) has declined sharply.  There are good indications that this is related to the general decline of sea ice in the area.  A high ice year like we are having right now might be good for the adélie’s but the situation is complex.  The ice has been good but the weather is also warm and wet.  Warm, wet conditions are extremely hard on adélie penguin chicks and can lead to large (at times total) breeding failures.

The birders were supposed to get their final zodiac training today, but although the harbor is clear of ice the winds are back up (gusting around 30 kts at the moment) so everything is getting shifted back.  In the meantime we will have a late night sampling another time point from the experiment that we started on Tuesday.  As I described in the previous post, for this experiment we are making use of the highly unusual ice conditions to study what happens to the microbial community when the ice is suddenly removed (as has happened to much of Arthur Harbor and the surrounding area in the last week).  Although we won’t know the results of most of our analyses for several months, we can make some interesting qualitative observations as the experiment progresses.

One of the interesting observations so far was the initial condition of the microbial community.  During a down moment yesterday I took a look at water from just 24 hours into our experiment to see what was growing (so this isn’t exactly the initial condition, but a close approximation of it).  What we found really surprised me.  Here are a couple of images that illustrate the phytoplankton community in our experiment:

By far the most abundant phytoplankton growing under the ice in Arthur Harbor right now. The size and teardrop shape suggest that it is a Cryptophyte.

By far the most abundant phytoplankton growing under the ice in Arthur Harbor right now. The size (about 10 microns) and teardrop shape suggest that it is a cryptophyte.  This is interesting because many cryptophtes are mixotrophic; in addition to undergoing photosynthesis they can consume bacteria as a source of carbon.

A small pennate diatom. This is the only one that I could find, but, this is purely speculative, like it might be dividing.

A small pennate diatom. This is the only one that I could find but, and this is purely speculative, it looks like it might be dividing.  Magnification is the same as the previous image, so I would guess that this cell is 10-20 microns in length.

The traditional wisdom would suggest that the spring phytoplankton bloom should start with diatoms.  Following the initial diatom bloom there are successive, mixed blooms of haptophytes, cryptophytes, dinoflagellates, and other groups of phytoplankton.  Observations from this time of year are very sparse however, so it is difficult to know if we are seeing something that is unique or the normal phytoplankton assemblage for this time of year.  The composition of the phytoplankton assemblage is not merely academic; it dictates how carbon will flow through the food web in a given season.  Large diatoms for example, are easily feed upon by krill, resulting in high krill biomass and more and more healthy top predators (e.g. penguins, seals, and whales).  Smaller phytoplankton (like cryptophytes) produce a more complex food web that might ultimately channel less carbon to the top trophic levels.  We will have to wait and see how the situation plays out this year…


From Copenhagen to Paris: Getting Beyond Talk

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 11/12/2015 - 15:44

logo-cop-21-carr-During the Copenhagen climate meetings in 2009, I posted a piece in the Huffington Post assessing the conference. At that time I observed that:

“There is a broad consensus about the need for reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. Copenhagen is providing the entire world a crash course in climate science and policy. Over the past decade, the politics of national and global climate policy has shifted from the fringes of the public policy agenda to the center. The real story of Copenhagen is the maturation of this key issue of global environmental policy. … Climate change is just the first global environmental problem we have come to understand. At Copenhagen we are barely discussing the other global environmental issues such as species extinction, the destruction of the oceans and degraded fresh water supplies. But we could.”

As we approach the Paris version of these endless talks, COP21, to be held next month, it’s fair to ask: What has changed over the past six years, and did Copenhagen stimulate any of these changes?

What has changed is the broad consensus on climate change has broadened, and recent polls show that even Republicans in the United States understand the nature of the problem. Globally, individual nations have volunteered greenhouse gas reduction targets in anticipation of the Paris meetings. Unlike Copenhagen, where calls for mandatory reductions and transfer payments to the developing world caused the collapse of any potential agreements, the world community seems more realistic as it approaches the Paris meetings. An agreement that codifies the reductions already pledged seems within reach, even if its value is more symbolic than real.

There remains a possibility that the call for transfer payments from wealthy nations to developing nations could disrupt the effort at building a global consensus. Previous aid promises were not fulfilled, and there is some political pressure to get the issue back on the global agenda. One of the major changes since 2009 is the clear perception that some nations once classified as developing, such as China, Brazil and India, can no longer be thought of in that way. While this was also the case in 2009, six years later, they are clearly in a category of their own.

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute.

Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute.

My own view of the Paris talks and the ones that came before is that they have value, but it is important to understand their inherent limits. The climate issue is really an issue of the energy base of a nation’s economy. Modern economies require energy, and economic development depends on plentiful, reliable, reasonably priced energy. The issue is so central to economic growth and the stability of political regimes that no nation state will fundamentally limit its flexibility in delivering energy for any reason. It is central to sovereignty in the modern world. But communicating the dangers of fossil fuels and the need to transition to a renewable energy based economy is something these meetings have achieved, and the importance of that achievement should not be underestimated.

The climate issue seems to generate a high level of ideologically based politics, emotional rhetoric and political symbolism. It is time to move past symbols to pragmatism and political reality. We need to move toward an acceptance of nine fundamentals if we are to address the climate change crisis:

  1. Human induced climate change is real, already underway and will continue into the future.
  2. We cannot precisely predict the future impact of climate change on human settlements and economic well-being.
  3. Fossil fuels are the largest single generator of greenhouse gases.
  4. Our economic way of life and therefore the political stability of our world are highly dependent on energy that mainly comes from fossil fuels.
  5. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is necessary but will take decades to accomplish.
  6. Reducing the use of fossil fuels by raising the price of these fuels is unlikely to achieve political support or be supported by the world’s governments.
  7. Reducing the use of fossil fuels by developing lower priced, reliable and renewable sources of energy requires additional technological development.
  8. Reduced energy costs will have great political appeal and positive economic impact.
  9. The increased use of current renewable energy technologies will be facilitated by government policy to attract capital and reduce the price of energy.

In my view, the battles over oil pipelines, fracking and divesting capital from fossil fuel companies are symbolic battles that serve to distract us from the operational issues that will facilitate the transition to a renewable energy economy. One issue to engage in is the coming battle to renew the favorable tax treatment of renewable energy in the U.S., now slated to end in December 2016. Ending that tax expenditure would slow down the growth of the solar and wind industry and have an immediate and dramatic impact on the production of greenhouse gases.

The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation’s research budget for renewable energy technologies needs to be increased dramatically. The federal government should take the lead in purchasing electric vehicles and installing renewable energy. A federal fund to restore and build infrastructure will probably appear on the federal agenda during the next decade. Some part of that funding should be devoted to upgrading the electric grid to make it smarter and more efficient, funding public charging stations for electric vehicles, funding mass transit, and providing resources to make coastal infrastructure more resilient and better able to adapt to the impact of climate change.

The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors.

The greatest danger to America’s transition to a renewable resource based economy is not industry, which will make plenty of money off of this transition, or the public, which appears ready to move, but the anti-government ideology that continues to paralyze our federal government.

The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors. There will be some instances when the work that needs to be done—for example, basic research or infrastructure finance—will require federal funds. There will be other instances when the tax code or other incentives will be needed to attract private capital and companies into the market. And there will be even more instances when government action is not needed, and the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let the private sector act. By sophisticated partnership, I mean one that is guided by results-oriented pragmatism rather than symbols and ideology.

The climate talks in Paris will focus attention on the climate issue and increase understanding of the nature of the problem. Then the spotlight shifts to nations and cities, and hopefully from talk and chit-chat to funding and action. There are many signs that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. The speed of that transition is at issue and will require creativity, consensus and cash to be completed.

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. 


How Panama Changed the World - PBS NOVA

Featured News - Thu, 11/12/2015 - 12:00
Lamont scientist Conny Class and former Lamont post-doc Esteban Gazel scan islands off Panama for clues to how the country formed and its impact on ocean circulation.



Subscribe to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory aggregator