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Chasing Ghengis Khan

People have been looking for 800 years. Looking for Chinggis Khaan, né Ghengis Khan. From the people searching for his birthplace to the people searching for his last resting place. After more than 800 years since his rise from the mountains of Mongolia, Chinggis lives on as a charismatic and almost mythical person. He seemingly rose from obscurity, quelled feuds between tribes, and created the largest land empire in world history. If you read beyond what you likely learned in high school or college, you will see his leadership skills were progressive and exceptional. You will learn that Chinggis has an influence on our world nearly 800 years after his death. From paper money to the pony express, from war strategy to the structure of the human genome, his life has touched generations of humans over the centuries.

The new Chinggis Khaan statue, Photo: U. Aria

When you begin working in Mongolia it is absolutely essential that you learn the importance of the man. Soviet communism attempted to quell his spirit and his importance in Mongolian culture. Mongolians were not allowed last names so everyone could be equal, so no one could trace their family history to the royal family. This, of course, did not work. In a culture that has songs and stories dating back centuries, if you, a native Mongolian, meet a stranger in the woods on the other side of the country and drink tea, break bread, and just lounge, you will soon break into a song that you and the stranger know from the depth of your soul. You will sing, smile, and enjoy a wonderful afternoon with this once distant, now close cousin. That kind of cultural bind does not break under any kind of political pressure. Perhaps it only made it stronger? See, in the late-1990s, soon after the fall of communism, Chinggis essentially rose from the ashes. He was everywhere in Mongolia – TV commercials for cell phones or a brand of vodka. And once you, as an outsider, spend considerable time in Mongolia, especially during Naadam and especially in the open Gobi steppe with people who still live as their ancestors did centuries ago, you understand the importance of the man and you will also begin to chase Chinggis. And, it is with this new project that our group of geographers, paleoclimatologists, ecologists, historians, and ecosystem modelers begin our pursuit of Chinggis Khaan.

Unlike other chasers who came before us, our search for Chinggis is not directly a pursuit of him as an individual. We understand he was an incredible leader who was the life force for the great Mongol Empire. Our pursuit is more contextual. We seek to understand the environmental conditions before, during, and after the rise of the Mongol Empire. In many ways, the success of the Mongol Empire is a historical enigma.  At its peak during the 13th century, the empire controlled areas from the Hungarian grasslands to southern Asia and Persia. Powered by domesticated livestock, the Mongol Empire grew at the expense of farmers in Eastern Europe, Persia, and China.  Two commonly asked questions of this empire are “What environmental factors contributed to the rise of the Mongols?, and “What factors influenced the disintegration of the empire by 1300 CE?  . For a long time (centuries?),  it was thought that drought partly drove the Mongols on their conquest in Eurasia. Luckily enough for us, a serendipitous collection of a few pieces of deadwood and old Siberian pine trees suggests essentially the opposite. Our collection of an annual record of drought, currently dating to the mid-600s CE, suggests that the early-1200s were unusually wet. Of course, these findings are very, very, very preliminary – we only have two trees through this time period.

Old trees and older lava. Photo: N. Pederson

So, with funding from the Lamont Climate Center, National Geographic Society, West Virginia University, and the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program of the National Science Foundation, we are headed back to Mongolia for a fourth straight year to scour the study site that yielded a 1,300 year record for more old, dead wood. With a combined crew from the National University of Mongolia, West Virginia University, and the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Observatory, Columbia University and the Earth Institute, we will spend 10 days in the field seeking, documenting, and collecting wooden gold, xylemite if you will.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, the Great White Lake of Mongolia. Photo: N. Pederson

Part of our crew will also spend about three days at upper tree line on a mountain in the western Khangai Uul (uul is Mongolian for mountain) updating and expanding the collection that suggested that it was warmer during the rise of the Mongol Empire. We are so excited. We have a great crew, will be spending our time mostly in one place, and will have some of the finest scenery in Mongolia in our eyes everyday.

Solongotyin Davaa, Mongolia. Photo: N. Pederson

Frankly, we are also excited about our larger project. We honestly do not know what the end results will be. The idea that wet conditions aided the expansion of the Mongol Empire is simply a hypothesis built upon ecosystem ecology, human ecology, and our preliminary results. See, energy is critical for human and natural systems to function, yet few studies have examined the role of energy in the success and failure of past societies. Increased rainfall on the Great Gobi Steppe should allow the grassland to capture more solar energy. Greater grass production logically would have allowed the Mongol Empire to capture, transform, and allocate this energy through their sheep, horses, yak, etc. In turn, this should have allowed greater energy from which Chinggis could develop a larger and more complex social, economic, and political system.

A lone takhi in the northwestern edge of the Gobi, Uuvs Aimag, Mongolia. Photo: N. Pederson

Feeding tree ring based climate history into an ecological model, we plan to investigate how past climate influenced grassland productivity, herbivores, and, thus, energy flow through the Mongol ecosystem. These data will be compared to historical records on the empire and sediment records from lakes that can estimate herbivore density.

Much has been made about the demise of cultures as a result of a downturn in climate or degradation of their environment. Our estimates of energy availability and environmental quality allows us to investigate whether the contraction of the empire was related to drought, cold, declining grassland productivity, or poor water quality associated with rapid urbanization and climate change.Thus, as part of our larger project, we will test the hypothesis that the arc of the Mongol Empire was influenced by the energy available to nomadic pastoralists for building a mobile military and governmental force sufficient to conquer and govern a significant portion of Asia and Eastern Europe.

The diverse Mongolian landscape. Photo: N. Pederson

We leave in less than two weeks.  As happens each year around this time, memories of past trips are revived and we begin seeping back into the Monglish culture that develop on these trips. We look forward to re-uniting with colleagues like Baatarbileg Nachin and his students like Bayaraa. A highlight this year will be working alongside a Mongolian postdoc, Sanaa, who Neil met as an undergrad in 1998. It will be an honor and pleasure to work with Sanaa again. Mongol phrases and words are bubbling up from the depths of our grey matter. Mongolian music is spinning nearly full-time in one household; a soundtrack for this year’s fieldwork is coming into shape.

We hope to catch a set of Altan Urag, a rising rock band in Mongolia. To us, they represent some of the cultural struggle in Mongolia today: “How to we maintain the qualities we are so proud of during the height of our empire, as new or external culture moves into our land?” and “As commercialization in the post-communism era (including a ‘gold-rush’ in the mining industry that created one of the fastest growing economies in the world) pushes and pulls us, how do we maintain who we are?” Altan Urag and young Mongolian artists are reaching back in their history for symbols and sounds that make them distinctly Mongolian. At the same time, these artists keep their eyes and ears open to the new possibilities of their larger world. Similar to how Chinggis melded European and Chinese technology to forge his great empire, many of today’s young Mongolians blend their history with external elements to create a new Mongolia. We cheer these efforts on. We are big fans.

Categories: TRL

Transitions: Climate, Fire, and Forests in Mongolia

The silence you may have heard since our last post was the sound of microscope lights flickering, measuring stages gliding, brains grinding, numbers crunching, and poi dogs pondering. We wrapped up all planned field work last summer for our research grant on climate, fire, and forest history in Mongolia. We have transitioned from the field-intensive portion of the grant to the data and publication phase of the scientific process. We have presented research in various meetings and settings and have earnestly begun to put our findings to our peers to begin the publication process. We are also transitioning to a new vein of research in Mongolia that gets to the title of this blog. It has been a long time coming.

First, Dr. Amy Hessl was inspired by the forest in transition on Solongotyin Davaa. This is the famous forest where global warming was first reported in Mongolia. High elevation forests are rare to burn. So, the thought that a landscape with wood that has been on the forest floor for more than 100o years became an important part of Amy’s summary on “Pathways for climate change effects on fire: Models, data, and uncertainties“.

The 2010, post-fire landscape of Solongotyin Davaa from Figure 1 in Hessl’s “Pathways for climate change effects on fire: Models, data, and uncertainties”

Next, Amy led a slew of us in a publication summarizing our initial findings of fire history from the northern edge of the Gobi Steppe to Mongolia’s border with Russia near Sükhbaatar City. With the glaring exception on Bogd Uul, this paper, “Reconstructing fire history in central Mongolia from tree-rings“, gives a quick glimpse into the fairly persistent fire regime across central Mongolia over the last 280-450 years.

Four centuries of fire history in central Mongolia: initial results

NPR recently finished a series of reports on the environmental and cultural transitions currently happening in Mongolia as a result of climate change and the massive mining boom underway. The post that caught our attention was the one on “Mongolia’s Dilemma: Who Gets The Water?” Water has been a focus or the Mongolian-American Tree-Ring Project (MATRIP) since the beginning (see MATRIP’s major publications on this subject here, here (get the streamflow data here), here, here). So, we are happy to announce that this rich vein of research has continued with the fire history research grant by first filling an important gap in the MATRIP network and then having several manuscripts on this subject in revision or review.

One paper that we are quite excited about is an analysis of drought variability across Mongolia’s ‘Breadbasket’. We were taken aback in throughout the last three field seasons by the large-scale revitalization of Mongolia’s agricultural sector. It was surprising to see center-pivot irrigation and large tracts of fields in northern Mongolia. This cultural change is intended to transition Mongolia towards agricultural independence for its growing population. Our analysis highlights important differences in drought variation for the eastern and western portions of the breadbasket region. Stay tuned!

Finally, we are headed back to Mongolia this summer to begin pilot work on new research currently funded by the Lamont Climate Center, The National Geographic Society, and West Virginia University. As hinted in our last post, we will begin field work to determine if there was a warmer and wetter climate during the rise of Chinggis Khaan’s Mongol Empire.

Really –  stay tuned!

Categories: TRL

Problems with myUNI, password tools

IT Announcements - Thu, 04/26/2012 - 13:59

Columbia University IT group is investigating intermittent problems with the myUNI services for password changes and resets.  Some users are experiencing long wait times and a <

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Network Maintenance Successful

IT Announcements - Thu, 02/23/2012 - 20:31

CUIT successfully updated network maintenance in Lamont-Doherty on Thursday, February 23rd, from 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM, as previously scheduled/announced. During this network configuration change

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Internet's Primary Link Maintenance

IT Announcements - Wed, 02/22/2012 - 10:09

CUIT Network Operations will be performing maintenance on Lamont's primary link to the downtown Columbia campus (our link to the internet) 5-6 PM this Thursday, February 23.

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LDEO mail outage

IT Announcements - Sun, 02/19/2012 - 04:53

 Most outgoing mail was turned off from Sunday, ~12:30 AM until ~3:31 AM because a compromised account was being used to send spam.

More Rain & More Horses Leads to a Stronger Chinggis? It is a thought!

Bayrbaatar & Amy the day before our fateful discovery

Amy Hessl is featured on National Geographic radio about our team’s discovery of ancient deadwood that suggests the rise of Chinggis Khaan was associated with increased rainfall. Listen to learn more.

an ancient Siberian pine

Categories: TRL

the devil shivered in his sleeping bag

By Neil Pederson

As discussed in the previous post, the first half of the field season would be the scientific highlight of the 2011 field season. While we had highlights later on, in terms of finding new stuff, that was it. We knew that would be a highlight because we had a fairly good idea of what was coming next. To our delight, we would be heading back to the small mountain village called Bugant. This is a delight because the family we stay with on trips to the northwestern Khentii Moutains are exemplary in terms of Mongolian generosity.

We knew that we would immediately not only be served fresh tea and plenty of candies and snacks upon our arrival, we also knew that no matter what time ae arrived we would be served a meal. We arrived at about 9 pm and, sure enough, by 9:45 we were fully into our meal.

As always, it was a fun and spirited meal. All the extended family came to visit with us and each other:

We looked forward to the next day’s field work because we were going to one of the most interesting forests we’ve seen in Mongolia – it was an intact, old-growth forest….

the OG forest at high elevation in the northwestern Khentii Mountains

However, not all scientific fieldwork is full of exploration and discovery like those fueled by sawdust and mosquito wings. Sometimes, quite often actually, scientific research is monotonous. Even in the field. The work ahead, while in beautiful places, was akin to making the doughnuts. We had to go back to areas we had sampled before, install plots and just core whatever trees fall in those plots. There would be no bird-dogging or seeking out great old trees. What fell in our plots, randomly-located so that they best represented the average forest, ended up being our study trees. Ah, we are not complaining. It is just not as thrilling as the hunt. It feels almost industrial – industrial ecology.

We were a bit leery of this forest as well. When we last sampled in 2009, it turned out to be a cold and wet visit. 2011 turned out to be very much the same. In fact, it turned out to be wetter and colder. It definitely had us shivering in our sleeping bags.

We had expected to complete our work in the first day at the site pictured above. But, after a couple passing showers that were fairly heavy for Mongolia, the temperatures dropped quickly and, well, we started getting cold. We were prepared for this, but somehow this day got to us. We really started shivering and making mistakes. When you start making mistakes when you are cold and wet, that is a good sign to call things off. Not much good can come from continuing. What one can expect is potentially bad data, more mistakes and more mistakes that could become dangerous. So, we called it a day and went fishing.

OK, Baljaa went fishing. Specifically, he went wood fishing. It is a method commonly used to gather firewood in areas with little wood. As you can see, Baljaa, despite being a Mongolian cowboy with more than a hundred horses [he’s a good catch, ladies!], struck out. Time to call in the pro:

As you can see, Baatarbileg is still the master!

What did we cook with this wood? Our clothes, of course:

cooking clothes

Actually, the fire and wonderful soup for dinner warmed us up. I do not think the devil actually shivered in his sleeping bag.

The next day turned out to be sunny and we finished off this site. We did get one new discovery: a Mongolian lizard. It got so used to being held, or perhaps it was so hungry from the previous cool, wet day, it itself ‘fished’ for food while being held:


The next day found us heading back to the ‘cement patio’ site. This is a favorite site for us as we had a wonderful Mongolian cookout in 2009. What we had forgotten was how far back we had driven into the Khentii Mountains to find this site.

Talk about monotonous [and desperate…like the beginning of 2011, we were desperate in 2009 to find a goldmine site], we drove 20 km on the road below just to find this site. You can hear below how we had forgotten how far back we drove in 2009.


We hit the slopes as soon as we re-discovered the cement patio; it took about 3 hrs of driving to get to this spot. I had not been up this slope yet as I sampled a different slope in 2009. When Amy said it was steep, I really didn’t know what she meant. As you can see, the slope was nearly a 40% slope:

the footing was tough


While in the midst of conducting this industrial ecology, the sky decided to open up again. However, the storm didn’t seem as serious as the prior day and we hunkered down for about 20 minutes. Sure enough, the storm passed as we completed most of our work at this site.

The views from this site are pretty spectacular.

Bugant forest landscape

Indeed, it is such a special forest that we will have a special post regarding the state and potential future of this part of the Khentii Mountains.

We headed down the mountain back to the patio and found an incredible patch of berries. There were two types of currants and one type of blueberry. It was delicious. In fact, as it was Chuka’s birthday (our other driver in 2009 and 2011), we gathered as much fruit as possible and re-created our 2009 cook out night to celebrate Chuka. It was a fantastic night until yet another thunderstorm crashed the party and sent us scurrying for the tents. All in all, it was a pretty great night.

There is not too much to report for now about this site. It is definitely another old-growth site that Amy has already written about. We saw some amazing specimens for the main conifer species in Bugant and hiked some cool ridges. We saw wolf and bear scat. We were lucky to spend time in that exceptional Mongolian Wilderness. Here are a couple more pictures.

the gang, Bayaraa, Amy and Baljaa, in a wonderful birch forest


Baljaa, proud of his effort and work (as he should be) and happy to be in the Khentii Wilderness


more of that Bugant birch forest - note the wonderful Nars (Scots pine) to the right


Categories: TRL

Celebrating the end of the Antarctic field season

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Thu, 02/17/2011 - 22:18

We decide today is the last day for our camp, and we pack up and drive back to our base camp, the Central Transantarctic Mountain camp (CTAM). A sadness in a way, because it was our cozy home for a week. We ate, slept, and joked around here night after night. Also, we realize that packing up camp represents the end of the field season, except for one more day. For the last day of work we will fly by helicopter to the Achernar area from the CTAM camp.

Moraines at the Lewis Ice Tongue, the location of the last rock surface sampled during the field season

The last day at Mount Achernar. We use the helicopter to go near the southernmost part of the area, near the Lewis ice tongue, which comes off the East Antarctic ice sheet. After a long day, we collect our last samples, and wait for the helo to pick us up – the end of the field work for this season. We realize we had a very successful field season. Not one day of work was lost at either Mt Howe or Mt Achernar (a very rare experience for Antarctica). We think about how we accomplished our goals in terms of getting to both remote sites and collecting samples.

Spontaneous dance performance celebrating the end of the highly sucessful field season

Back at CTAM camp, we scramble to get all our stuff packed up ready to be shipped back to McMurdo. They are closing the CTAM camp for scientific work in a week because they need to take everything down by the middle of February. The middle of February represents the end of the field work for everyone in Antarctica. It starts to get too cold, and the sun starts setting in some areas farther north. People start to go home then and McMurdo gets ready for the winter.

The 'Antarctica's Secrets' team (Mike Roberts, Mike Kaplan, Nicole Bader, Kathy Licht, Tim Flood) getting ready to fly back to McMurdo station

We all fly back to McMurdo. A bed and running toilets (!) for the first time since we left for our camping trips. Also, the dorms have dark curtains that go over the windows. So, darkness, a bed, and a toilet – who would have known life can get so good!

Mike Kaplan (Lamont)

The Twin Otter, ready to fly the team back to McMurdo

Glacial deposits: A clue to reconstructing the history of the Antarctic ice sheet

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Thu, 02/10/2011 - 11:44

We set out on the snowmobiles with all the sleds to Mount Achernar with all our stuff. After about three hours we reach the site (crossing the flagged crevasse zone with no problem). We are joined by a fifth team member, Tim Flood, a Professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Tim has expertise in petrology or rock composition. So, we will have one additional person for the Achernar part of the trip.

Kathy Licht, Tim Flood and Nicole Bader exploring glacial deposits near Mt Achernar

At first we only find ‘blue ice’ to set up camp. Blue ice gets its name mainly because – in contrast to the typical situation of having a layer of snow on top of the ice sheet – there is only ice. The snow layer that normally covers the top of the ice sheet is blown away where the winds blow pretty fast and consistently. This means there is no good place for camp right in the Achernar area because all the blue ice is a sign of strong winds. We decide to back up a few miles to where the snow starts again and camp a little but away from Mount Achernar. This means we will have a ‘daily commute’ to get to where we want to work, but at least we have a nice place to live for the week. It is less windy where we decide to set up camp and a nice layer of snow in which to pitch the tents and walk around. Blue ice is very difficult to walk on – it is just what it sounds like – walking on ice!

Setting up just another field camp at Mt Achernar

We set up camp. Unlike at Mount Howe, here each person will have their own tent. In addition, we set up the bathroom tent and a huge kitchen tent, named the ‘Arctic oven.’ The arctic oven will act as a kitchen and dining area. It is about 25 feet long, enough to be comfortable. And, when we have two stoves going inside, the temperature gets up to a comfortable 60 degrees or even higher (hence, its name); comfortable enough to start peeling off all our jackets while eating. Two little speakers that Tim picked up in an airport, attached to ipods, means we even have a stereo system in the arctic oven cook tent.

The first day we drive out to where we want to work. It takes about an hour and a half each way by snowmobile. This is quite a bit of time. In addition, the glacier deposits we want to study are much larger in area compared to at our first site at Mount Howe. It is not practical for us to drive everywhere and get to all the places by walking. We realize we will need to utilize the helicopter from nearby CTAM. So, the next week or so we alternate: a “snowmobile day” when we commute by snowmobile from camp to the field site and “helo days”. On the helo days, the helicopter flies out to our camp (a short flight by helicopter from the CTAM camp) picks us up, takes us exactly where we want to go around Mount Achernar, and then at the end of the day, comes back out to bring us back to our camp. All these trips only take the helicopter folks about 75 minutes in total each day, given how fast they go.

Collecting samples from the top of boulders that got left back by the retreating glaciers. At home in the lab at Lamont, we will use a method called 'Surface Exposure Dating' to figure out when the ice sheet left these boulders behind when it retreated.

We spend the next 8 days or so doing the same sort of work as at our first site Mount Howe. We map the glacier deposits (how red or oxidized are they – how do their elevations changes? How do the deposits themselves change in terms of shape and composition and other characteristics?). Mike K and Mike R (with occasional assistance from others) collect samples for the surface exposure dating, so they can eventually figure out how old all the deposits are. Kathy, Nicole and Tim study the composition and types of glacier rocks and sediments left behind.

Similar to our finding at Mt Howe, we find pronounced changes in the glacier moraine deposits around Mt Achernar. This indicates there are likely deposits of different ages, left behind at different times by the ice sheet when it was bigger. All the team members continue to collect samples that will be analyzed later in the lab.

Running water in Antarctica at Mt Achernar

Mike K, Kathy, Mike R, Nicole and Tim

How to cross a crevasse zone on the Antarctic ice sheet

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Sun, 02/06/2011 - 21:32

We are back at the CTAM (Central Trans Antarctic Mountain) camp.

Gas station in Antarctica

Over the last several days we take stock in that we accomplished the first major goal of our trip. That is, to study the glacier deposits at Mount Howe, the southernmost rock outcrop on Earth. We found (what we think are) deposits left behind by the ice sheet when it was bigger, at several different time periods in recent Earth’s history. We can tell in a preliminary way, before we have carried out the laboratory work back home, that the glacier deposits must be of different ages because they are different ‘colors’ – red for more oxidized (rusted). They also show other signs of varying in age such as the weathering of the rocks and landforms, which increases away from the ice sheet (=older). This means that there will be a record of the glacier leaving behind different types of rocks over a period of time, likely well before the last ice age. It was an important goal to find such deposits for our sampling.

Using snowmobiles to move to the next field camp site at Mt Archernar

We quickly regroup our stuff over the next few days at the CTAM camp and start to get ready for the next major camp move, to Mount Achernar. For this stage of our trip, which is only about 25 kilometers from the CTAM camp, we are hoping to get there by snowmobile. We will use 4 snowmobiles pulling 6 sleds (two snowmobiles will pull two sleds each). This will allow us to move our entire camp, set it up for more than a week near the site, work, and then come back to CTAM after 8 days or so. However, there is a small problem. There is a crevasse shear zone in the ice sheet between the CTAM camp and Mount Achernar. So, we must figure out where to cross the crevasse zone. We do this two ways. First, we take a helicopter trip from CTAM for an hour (they are quick) to scope out or reconnaissance the area (a “reconn”). On the helicopter, we think we figure out where we might be able to cross the crevasse zone. The helicopter trip also allows us to see the whole area of Mt Achernar and where we want to camp. Camp ideally has to be on a snow patch so we can stake the tents down and in a spot not too windy.

Kathy Licht from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis on a reconnaissance helicopter flight to check out the best way to get to Mt Archernar

The second way we figure out how to cross the crevasse zone is to go to it, by snowmobile on just a day trip from CTAM (another “reconn”). Mike R (Roberts), our mountain guide, shows us how to link the snowmobiles by ropes, in case one falls into a crevasse. We also put on climbing harnesses and rope ourselves to a second set of ropes between the snowmobiles. This is so that if we fall in, we can either climb out or be pulled out by others.

Checking out the crevasse zone and finding a way to get safely to Mt Archernar

We get to the crevasse zone which starts at about 15 miles from the CTAM camp. The first few crevasses seem quite bad – each about 2 to 5 feet cross. Although they all seem to have natural ‘snow bridges’ that cross the top of the crevasse, which we can drive across, we need to be confident that they will not collapse due to the weight of the machine. Mike R slowly investigates each crevasse we cross to see how strong the overlying snow bridges are and how wide each crevasse is. After about an hour, we start thinking maybe there are just too many crevasses (every few hundred feet we are finding another one) and it would take too long to figure out how to get across the entire crevasse zone. Mike R suggests we park and get off the snowmobiles, link up with ropes and slowly walk for a while to see how much longer the bad crevasses continue. This seems easier at the moment then stopping and starting the snowmobiles every time we reach another crevasse. To our surprise, the crevasses quickly get smaller and disappear just as we start walking! We did it ! We found a reasonable and quick way to get across the crevasse zone which is less than a 1 mile wide at its bad part. We put flags next to each one so that we can easily see where they are when we come back through on the way to Mount Achernar site to do our work.

Mike Kaplan, Kathy Licht, Nicole Bader and Mike Roberts

Moraines and spaghetti in the Transantarctic Mountains

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Mon, 01/31/2011 - 23:30

The first day of geologic work at our Mt Howe field camp. We start walking on the moraines (piles of debris left by a glacier, just like around NY, Indiana, Wisconsin, where we are from) and we have to put on crampons. These are spikes that go on the bottom of our boots. This is because the moraines are really hummocky to walk on and right under just a few inches of dirt is ice, making us slip and slide and do more leg splits than we can remember!

Taking a sample from a huge boulder on a moraine that got left behind by a glacier

But, we quickly identify roughly where we think the ice was during the last ice age. We can do this because the deposits are ‘grey’ in color as they do not have time to oxidize (like rust on a car). The stuff left behind by older ice ages is red in color – because it has had time to oxidize. We start collecting our first samples. Kathy and Nicole collect material to figure out the type and chemistry of the glacier deposits left behind, which will help tell them which way the ice must have been moving in the past and what kind of rocks it brought up from below. Mike K and Mike R start measuring the elevations of all the glacial deposits and more important start collecting samples from the tops of large boulders. These samples will help us figure out the time at which they were left behind. Once back home, we will use a method called cosmogenic surface exposure dating. We will use our lab facilities at Lamont-Doherty Earth Obsservatory to date the rocks, using the cosmogenic nuclides Beryllium-10 as well as Helium-3.

Over the next 6 days or so, both teams just systematically collect samples from each set of ridges or moraines that the ice sheet left behind in the past. The idea is that each distinct moraine ridge represents a different time period or glacial period when the ice sheet was bigger. The weather holds up well, an important fact when you are only a couple hundred miles from the South Pole. The temperature remains about -10 to 0 during the day. Anytime the wind picks up thought, the wind chills causes it to get colder fast. Often exposed skin has to be covered quickly. Only a few days are cloudy, otherwise the sun adds a little bit more warmth. Fortunately, the tents are warmer, especially when we run the coleman stoves. So, eating dinner is way more comfortable than being outside.

Mike K., Mike R., Kathy and Nicole

After a long day sampling glacial deposits at -10 degrees it is time for dinner in one of the tents at Mt Howe field camp

Setting up camp 184 miles from the South Pole

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Fri, 01/28/2011 - 15:12

We fly from McMurdo to our first base camp, named CTAM, which stands for Central Transantarctic Mountains. This camp is set up by the US National Science Foundation every 5 to 10 years, with input from scientists on the cutting edge research that can be done in the region where it is set up. An idea for having the camp is to make central Antarctica more accessible every once in awhile to scientists who want to carry out research in remote parts of the continent, such as our team. Otherwise, many of these areas are too hard to get to from the larger more permanent bases and camps such as McMurdo.

Tent city at the Central Transantarctic Mountain Camp

Here we will gather all our things, organize our gear for the final time, and then go to our remote ‘deep’ field sites to work. This is the third largest camp on the Antarctic continent this season, and is helping various science teams carry out research, such as in biology and on fossils, geology, and on the ice sheet (for example, how it flows). The camp allows teams such as ours to reach by helicopter and twin otter plane more remote locations this year in central Antarctica, which is normally very difficult.

First, Kathy and Mike R fly to the first of our major camps, at Mount Howe. The next day, Mike K and Nicole fly.

Loading gear (including a snow mobile!) into the Twin Otter to fly to the Mt Howe Camp

We use a twin otter plane to take all of our gear, including a snow mobile, and only two people can go at a time. The trip takes about two hours each way. This is the first time Mike K and Nicole really get to see Antarctica. The flight is one of those unique experiences of a lifetime as we fly over the mountains high enough to poke through the Antarctic ice sheet. Upon arriving, camp is set up (fortunately Mike and Kathy get much of this done the first day), including two three Scott tents and a mountain tent. One Scott tent is our bathroom – one of the most important tents to go up! Mike K’s tent will act as a dining room and kitchen.

Flying across the Transantarctic Mountains - a unique experience of a lifetime

Using a GPS, we figure out the South Pole is only 184 miles from our camp. Less than 3 hours if we are driving on an interstate in the US.

Mike, Kathy and Nicole

Setting up the camp at the Mt Howe field site

Survival training in Antarctica – aka Happy Camper

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Thu, 01/20/2011 - 22:48

We survived Happy Camper survival school! This is essential training for anyone who goes into the field on the coldest most remote continent on Earth. Kathy took hers 4 years ago. We learn to build snow trenches for survival and all things related to camping in the cold, although we still appreciate that it is warmer here than back home (in the 30s, dry and sunny). Also, everyone goes through snowmobile basic repair and use, rock climbing 101, and crevasse rescue training.

Happy Camper - required two day/one night class where one camps outside, learns about all the camping equipment, and shows he or she can deal with the elements, before being sent out into the unknown

Tomorrow is the last day before flying out to the remote CTAM (central Transantarctic Mountains) camp that we will use a base for getting to Mt Howe and Mt Achernar. Mike Roberts, our mountaineering guide, uses the last day to give one more crevasse-rescue training course.

Mike Kaplan from Lamont practicing rock climbing, in preparation of the field trip to the Transantarctic Mountains

We learned how to stop a fall down a steep slope, set up rescue systems and traversed around an ice fall to learn to recognize and avoid crevasses. Upon our return, we found out that our flight will be delayed a day. Very typical for Antarctica!

Mike and Nicole

Antarctic Impressions

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Mon, 01/03/2011 - 15:47

It’s great to be back on this amazing continent.  I certainly never tire of the beauty of this place.  Well, I wouldn’t call McMurdo a beautiful place, but it is buzzing with activity and provides great support for the scientists.  Things are much the same here as 4 years ago when I was last on the ice.  Dozens of science groups work out of McMurdo station, which acts as a hub of activity for a wide range of scientists, including geologists, biologists, glaciologists and atmospheric scientists.

McMurdo Station is the largest Antarctic station and the logistic hub of US-lead Antarctic research

Many groups, like ours, utilize McMurdo as a place to organize field gear for camping trips to distant sites on the continent to collect samples.  Others groups stay in McMurdo to conduct experiments on samples collected nearby.  All the science groups have small offices and some work on high tech equipment here in the Crary Lab.  This is an amazing resource, particularly in terms of support staff who really work hard to help us out.

An exciting new addition to the local scenery is the small group of windmills erected to generate power for this energy hungry place.  My understanding is that this effort was led by the New Zealanders, whose base (Scott Base) in only about a mile away.   Luckily, the international cooperation between the NZ and US Antarctic programs means that McMurdo is benefitting from this great ‘green’ experiment in power generation.

Mt. Erebus (77°32'S, 167°10'E), Ross Island, Antarctica is the world's southernmost active volcano

McMurdo station rests on the South West tip of Ross Island, which is dominated by the active volcano, Mt. Erebus.   As a current resident of the rather flat state of Indiana, I take pleasure in temporarily living on the flanks of a volcano rising more than 12,000 ft above sea level, with its nearly perpetual puff of smoke at the summit.

Kathy Licht, IUPUI

A beautiful day in Antarctica

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Tue, 12/28/2010 - 08:04

We left Christchurch in the rain – the last we will see for awhile! After a 5 hour flight on a US air force plane, we land on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

Nicole Bader and Mike Roberts, the mountaineering guide of our team, on the plane from New Zealand to Antarctica

We get off the plane in Antarctica – and – it is beautiful – in the 30s (Fahrenheit) sunny and dry. When it is this dry and sunny, it is light jacket weather. Some people are working around in short sleeves and fleeces. Just like the weather in New York (as family tells me on email the next day), and significantly warmer than the weather in Wisconsin (where Nicole came from). This is Mike Kaplan and Nicole’s first time here, but Mike Roberts and Kathy have been here before.

Mike Kaplan and Nicole Bader arriving in sunny Antarctica

The planes land on snow, which is groomed with a special compacting machine so that a normal plane can land and take off on the snow.

The next 10 days are for packing, coordinating, and most important, taking safety classes of all types, including the most important – happy camper. Nicole and Mike need to do a two day/1 night class where we camp outside, learn about all the camping equipment, and show we can deal with the elements, before they send us out into the unknown. We also need snow mobile school, helicopter safety school, environmental safety and awareness, crevasse training, and on and on…With all the gear and packing to put together, including food, this will take well over a week before we can even think of leaving McMurdo and heading out to the next stage and field work.

Most of our time is getting our gear together, making wood ‘rock boxes’ (see photo) for storing our geologic samples after we collect them, choosing our tents, food, and other things we are taking. We need to make sure we have two of many things, such as stoves, for safety. Just planning our food for when we are working takes all afternoon and half the evening.

Mike Kaplan putting together a wood 'rock box' to transport collected rocks back to Lamont

Mike K and Nicole are also starting to learn their way around McMurdo Sound, which is a really interesting place. It is like a small town with a library, general store, three gyms, a coffee shop and wine bar. We all room in dormitories like we are students again. Of course, Kathy and Mike R are old hats here. McMurdo is the base for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). During out time here, we can see planes and helicopters coming and going, as they take supplies and scientists to various places, including the South Pole. We all eat in one big cafeteria for everyone, buffet style. Fortunately, for Mike K, they are two ice cream machines, in case one breaks down!

Kathy and Mike

Gearing up in New Zealand

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Sat, 12/25/2010 - 14:07

After months of waiting, we leave Los Angeles on a non stop 12 hour flight to New Zealand. We ‘are’ Mike Kaplan at Lamont Doherty, Kathy Licht a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Nicole Bader a student from St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Nicole is finishing her undergraduate at St. Norbert but will be doing her Master’s thesis research with Kathy starting in the fall. Her project will focus on what we do in Antarctica.


Nicole Bader trying on extreme cold weather clothing for the camping trip to Antarctica at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, New Zealand

It is hot and humid when we landed in Auckland. We went through customs and had the customary 15 minute walk to the domestic terminal. We noticed the heat and humidity not just because we just came from the ‘winter’ in the United States, but we are soon to go to the coldest part of the planet.

We stayed in Christchurch a day. This is to get our gear at the CDC (clothing distribution center). All the extreme cold weather clothing is issued here. We try things on, ask for more (and more!) clothing, and pack everything for our trip. We wait, and walk around Christchurch, including their beautiful Botanical Gardens, have a great Thai meal – knowing thesis will be the last of such sights and greenery (and hay fever!) we will see for a month. We also meet Mike Roberts here, a New Zealander originally, who is our mountaineering guide and new companion. He will be an integral part of our field season and our team and we are happy to meet him finally.

Mike, Kathy and Nicole

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

AGU 2010 - Wed, 12/22/2010 - 12:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ram Fishman explains his poster to other interested researchers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia Water Center AGU 2010 resources page here.

Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

Antarctica’s Secrets

Using Rocks to Decode Antarctic Climate - Sun, 12/19/2010 - 00:53

A major factor in predicting future climate change and its impact on the planet is the response of the Earth’s ice sheets to warming temperatures. Understanding the historical context and dynamics of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is critical for modeling future changes that have the potential to impact the globe, including significant contributions to sea level rise.

Satellite image of the study region at the edge of the Transantarctic mountains. Click to enlarge the image.

Michael Kaplan and Gisela Winckler, two climate scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with Kathy Licht and Jeff Swope from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, have recently started a new project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to study the timing and extent of advances of the East Antarctic ice sheet in the past. Integrating field work, geochemical analyses and cutting-edge isotope-based dating tools will allow the scientists to develop a record of fluctuations in the East Antarctic ice sheet and to identify past changes in both ice sheet flow direction and bedrock composition.

On December 13th, Kathy Licht and Mike Kaplan, along with Tim Flood and undergraduate Nicole Bader, both from St. Norbert College, left for their exciting trip to the East Antarctic plateau to collect samples to address these research objectives. Their route will take them via Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Antarctic station McMurdo and on to the East Antarctic ice sheet. It will take them about two weeks to get to the field site.

Aerial photograph of Mt. Howe taken from the window of a Twin Otter. Photo by K. Licht.

Accompanied by mountaineer Mike Roberts, they will work from two remote field camps at the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. The satellite image shows the study region with the major outlet glaciers from East Antarctica crossing the Transantarctic Mountains and flowing northeastward into the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The sites noted in purple will be the location of the two small field camps where the group will be collecting samples. The blue star shows the location of a large field camp, which will be the jumping off point for transport to the smaller camps.  The green and yellow dots show the locations of samples collected during two previous expeditions to the region. Over the course of a month, the team will sample boulders and glacial sediments that have accumulated on the ice sheet surface over thousands of years.

Kathy and Mike will report from their adventurous trip on this blog while I will facilitate communication with the field camp and answer questions about the laboratory side of the project.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ask. I will field questions and send them over to Antarctica from where Kathy and Mike will, whenever possible, send back answers.

Stay tuned for exciting dispatches from Antarctica.

The Last Arctic Sea Ice Refuge

AGU 2010 - Fri, 12/17/2010 - 12:24

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the press conference

Read the news reports in:


Discovery News

The Christian Science Monitor

Associated Press

USA Today



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