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Climate Is Changing Fast in West Antarctica

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/20/2015 - 09:18

A snapshot of the changing climate of the West Antarctica Peninsula, where the impact of fast-rising temperatures provides clues about future ecosystem changes elsewhere. 


Click here to view the embedded video.

When the ship pulls up at Palmer Station each Antarctic spring, the arriving scientists glance up at the massive glacier that covers most of Anvers Island. It has been retreating about 7 meters per year, and this year is no different.

In this part of Antarctica, on the peninsula that sweeps toward South America, the climate is changing fast.

“Global warming is affecting Antarctica just as it’s affecting everywhere in the world at this point, but it is proceeding faster in both of the polar regions than it is anywhere else on the planet. What happens here is an early warning of what will be happening to ecosystems elsewhere – it’s just happening sooner and faster in Antarctica,” said Hugh Ducklow, the lead principal investigator at Palmer Station and a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Glacier retreat near Palmer Station, Antarctica. (US Antarctic Program)

Glacier retreat near Palmer Station, Antarctica. (US Antarctic Program)

Temperatures have been warming on the West Antarctic Peninsula at about 0.5° Celsius per decade since the early 1950s, a rate about four times faster than the global average. While winter sea ice extent in the Southern Ocean as a whole has changed little, the sea ice here begins to advance about 2 months later than it did in the 1980s and retreat about a month earlier. The West Antarctic Peninsula is bathed by relatively warm waters from the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that comes close to the surface near the peninsula, and that current is gaining heat as the oceans warm, studies show.

The changes and their cascading effects are showing in the ice and in the numbers and species of marine wildlife. The population of native Adélie penguin has declined from 15,000 pairs in the area around Palmer Station in the 1980s to fewer than 3,000 today. Penguin species from farther north, the Chinstrap and Gentoo, have started moving in, while Adélie numbers are increasing farther south in a region that hasn’t experienced as much warming. Fur seals and elephant seals, neither native to the area, are also now appearing near the Anvers coast. (Read more about the changing habitat of penguins and seals in this recent post and in the video above.)

Warming temperatures and changes in the sea ice matter for the entire marine food chain in this region where whales feed in the summer and large numbers of sea birds breed.

The ice is an important factor in the strength of the spring phytoplankton bloom and for the growth of ice algae, which are both important food sources for krill, which in turn are the main food source for the region’s penguins, whales and seals.

COP21_ad1When sea ice covers the coastal water in early spring, it prevents the spring bloom from starting too early, when it could be disrupted by storms, explained Jeff Bowman, a marine biologist from Lamont who is currently working at Palmer Station. As temperatures rise, the sea ice leaves earlier, and climate phenomena that drive weather patterns could impact marine life in different ways. Studies suggest that the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is more likely to be positive, meaning stronger winds will be more common, likely disrupting phytoplankton growth, and tropical storms could send precipitation across the Southern Ocean that can put penguin eggs and chicks at risk. (Read more about phytoplankton and what Bowman is seeing at Palmer Station in his research blog, Polar Microbes.)

The scientists at Palmer Station see changes like these up close every year, and they have collected data through the Long-Term Ecological Research program for the past two decades to track ecological and environmental changes and how those shifts cascade through the ecosystem. Two years ago, a video team joined them. You can watch the Palmer Station scientists at work and see the surrounding environment in the movie Antarctic Edge: 90 Degrees South.


Learn more about Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists and their work.

From Copenhagen to Paris: Likely to Fail Again?

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 11/20/2015 - 08:22
Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University. His website is

Scott Barrett

The plan, going into Copenhagen in late 2009, was to broaden and deepen the Kyoto Protocol. This plan failed. The draft agreement prepared in advance of this conference was very long and filled with brackets, indicating that countries could not agree about very much. Once it became clear that an agreement about limiting emissions could not be negotiated, a short agreement was put together on the spot by a subset of countries.

This agreement set a global goal for limiting temperature change and invited all countries to submit pledges for the contributions they intended to make to this global effort. This agreement was not “legally binding,” and an analysis of the pledges submitted after this conference indicated that they fell far short of the emission limits that would need to be made if the global goal were to be achieved.

The Paris conference will build on the foundation laid so hastily in Copenhagen. The intention is to negotiate a “legally binding” agreement that will include arrangements for measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions. Rather than negotiate emission limits, countries are submitting new “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.”

COP21_ad1An analysis by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat shows that these intended contributions, if fulfilled, will still allow global emissions to increase through 2030. The claim is that the pledges being made will reduce emissions relative to “business as usual,” but this is a hard claim to substantiate since “business as usual” isn’t observable. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that countries will fulfill their pledges.

All of the pledges made in Paris will be voluntary. It is hoped that, by a process of “pledge and review,” these pledges can be strengthened—and that countries will feel obligated to fulfill them. However, countries have not always fulfilled their pledges in the past, and it isn’t obvious that this agreement is going to cause countries to behave very differently in the future.

Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University. His website is He and Carlo Carraro and Jaime de Melo have written a new e-book, out this month, that you can download: “Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime.” 

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

The three pages of text that emerged after years of preparation and two weeks of intense negotiation in Copenhagen signally fail to address what the document correctly calls “one of the greatest challenges of our time”—global climate change. To many, the Copenhagen Accord will seem a setback; actually, it is a continuation of a long history of failure. The essential problem lies with the strategy of addressing this complex issue by means of a single agreement. Breaking this colossal problem into smaller pieces would allow us to achieve more.

… Climate change is the greatest collective action problem in human history, so we should not be surprised that it has been difficult to address. But our approach has made it harder than necessary. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate.

Just one simple line of data has a full story behind it

Annotated radar image from project flight over the Ross Ice Shelf (credit ROSETTA)

Annotated radar image from project flight over the Ross Ice Shelf (credit ROSETTA)

The lines of data are slowly creeping across our Ross Ice Shelf GIS map and with each new line comes an improved understanding of Ross Ice Shelf. What can you learn from a ‘snapshot’ of data? The radar image above contains a nice story. You can see the ice thickness in the Y-axis of the annotated radar image. The ice shelf is approximately 300 meters thick. For scale this means you could stand 3 statues of liberty one on top of another and still have 21 meters of ice layered above them. The top layer on the ice shelf is snow that has accumulated on the surface of the shelf, layered almost flat as it fell on a level ice surface. Below you can see the ice that has flowed in from the Antarctic ice sheet with rumpling and roughness collected as it moved over the rougher terrain of the bed topography. Below that you can see the faint outline of the bottom of the ice shelf. This is where the radar stops, unable to image through the ocean water.

 Matt Siegfried)

Gravity data collected on the bed below the ice shelf.  (Credit: Matt Siegfried)

Air National Guard, complete with IcePod patch on his uniform, reviewing safety breathing apparatus with Sylvain Pascaud, filmmaker  LCL production interested in technology and airborne science.

Air National Guard, complete with IcePod patch on his uniform, reviewing safety breathing apparatus with Sylvain Pascaud, filmmaker LCL production interested in technology and airborne science. (credit: Matt Siegfried)

The radar and gravity work together to create a complete image of the Ross Ice Shelf and the bed below. Radar provides information on the ice layers but stops where the gravity excels, at the ice/ocean interface. With two gravimeters strapped down side by side in the LC130 and humming away as they collect data, the dual instrumentation has the project well covered.

A schedule of flying two flights a day can be exhausting.  However, the limited time in an Antarctic field season led to the plan to fly with two crews so data can be collected day and night; after all radar, gravity and magnetics don’t need the light to collect images. The personnel have been broken into teams so there is a constant rotation of working, sleeping and data review. The small cohort in the science team has been training each other on the various instrument operations to provide more flexibility in the flight planning.

Being on the ice can be an intense and compressed time…but it can also be filled with unexpected problems and delays. Weather has cancelled several flights, as have priority needs of the guard to handle emergencies and support missions.  The cold, dry static environment can be hard on equipment and a couple of the laptops used to manage the data have stopped working adding stress to the workload, as has illness. Although the team has been challenged by the cold and the weather they have managed 6 flights with more on the upcoming docket.

Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica, New Zealand research base.

Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica, New Zealand research base.

The team has taken advantage of down days to share presentations about the ROSETTA project with the other residents of McMurdo and Scott Bases. McMurdo and Scott are both located on Ross Island just at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. McMurdo is home to the U.S. research teams housing about 1000 residents during the austral summer season. Scott Base is home to the New Zealand teams, with close to 100 during the austral summer season. Sharing science is one of the perks of polar fieldwork.

McMurdo Base, Ross Island, Antarctica U.S. research base.

McMurdo Base, Ross Island, Antarctica U.S. research base.

Check out the newest lines on the GIS map and stop back for more. As we write the team is gearing up for another flight….and more lines of data with more stories.

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

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

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 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 snowfall 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.

Columbia Climate Change Experts Stay Focused on the Science - Columbia Record

Featured News - Mon, 11/16/2015 - 12:00
Forty years ago, Lamont-Doherty's Wally Broecker coined the phrase “global warming” when he published an article titled "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Warming?” It appeared in a 1975 issue of Science.

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.

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




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