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.
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.
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The 125 million people of the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico region are highly exposed to hurricanes, floods and landslides–and it is not only because of bad weather. Increasing numbers of the poor are crowding into confined areas that are most prone to destruction–low-lying flood plains, too-steep hillsides, and the like. Robert Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), will describe this alarming trend in an AGU talk on Friday, the last day of the meeting.
CIESIN specializes in creating maps that show humans’ interaction with the natural environment. Ones for this region show deadly combinations of poverty and physical vulnerability to weather. (Blues signal low numbers; greens moderate; yellow to red, progressively more.) Hotspots are clustered across Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Along the coast of Latin America are wide swaths of danger spanning Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Not surprisingly, low-lying parts of Texas, Louisiana and southern Florida also stand out.
Many scientists believe climate change will worsen extremes of weather. The CIESIN research suggest that even if this never happens, as the population of dangerous areas grows, these hotspots will continue to get more dangerous.
All day long a flood of thousands scientists and students ebbs and flows across San Francisco’s 4th Street and Howard Avenue, coursing between the cavernous Moscone West and Moscone South convention buildings. The AGU is like a supercomputer of earth science, with human currents of data swapping information, heading from one talk to another, processing what they’ve heard, who they’ve met, what’s coming next.
What’s coming next in New York City, sooner or later, is a long dry spell, according to research by Lamont-Doherty’s Neil Pederson. The city has seen repeated shortages of water over the past 20 years — even though the climate has been relatively wet over the past few decades, and despite a decline in overall water use. Pederson says the water system emergencies of recent years suggest that “maybe the system is not in tune with the climate.”
Ultimately, he said in a talk today at AGU, New York City “is not prepared for the next significant drought.”
Pederson and his colleagues looked at 12 species of trees along the Hudson River Valley and, combined with research by Ed Cook, director of Lamont’s Lamont’s Tree Ring Lab, and others, constructed a record of rain and drought going back into the 1500s. There are still a few trees around who’ve seen four or more centuries pass, Pederson said, including on in the Hudson Valley dating to the early 1500s. Additional records researched by Cook come from the beams cut for now-historic homes built in the 18th century, Pederson added.
The use of 12 species has expanded the accuracy of the chronology, Pederson believes, though it’s hard to gauge by how much just yet. He found that the region has suffered severe droughts in every century through the 1800s. But except for a short period in the 1960s, the dry periods over the past 120 years have been relatively minor. Is the New York City region due for another paleo-scale drought?
David Walker, a professor of geochemistry at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will be honored tonight by colleagues at the American Geophysical Union for decades of groundbreaking work to understand the early formation of the moon and Earth. Walker will receive the AGU’s Harry H. Hess Medal, awarded for “outstanding achievements in research of the constitution and evolution of Earth and other planets.”
Walker began his career as a student at Harvard University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as samples of the moon were being returned by the Apollo space missions. Walker was into experimental petrology, a field in which lab scientists try to re-create and understand the conditions under which natural rocks form. With the aid of the moon samples, Walker helped helped piece together much of the story of lunar history accepted today. “Much of what we now take for granted about the formation of the lunar crust and mantle came out of the Harvard experimental petrology lab in the 1970s, clearly with Dave Walker’s intellectual stamp on it,” said Carl B. Agee, a planetary geologist at the University of New Mexico who wrote the citation for the award.
After coming to Lamont a few years later, Walker began working on questions about Earth, including its early separation into chemically distinct layers, and the genesis of magmas that flow out at mid-ocean ridges to form the seafloors. He is currently working on experimental studies to elucidate the formation of earth’s core, and its interaction with the overlying mantle.
Walker also played a key role in developing devices that could duplicate the extreme high-pressure conditions found deep within planets, simplifying designs so that any decent machine shop could turn out the equipment cheaply. “Walker-type” anvils, used to compress experimental solutions to these extreme pressures, are now standard in labs across the world.
Along the way, Walker also has found time to become a popular teacher who has helped students explore topics as diverse as alternative energy sources; radioactive waste, and mineralogy. Agee wrote that Walker “is a true leader in experimental petrology, in both designing and improving experimental equipment, and pioneering new ideas of the evolution of the Earth, Moon and planets.”
India is running “the largest water-mining project in the world”–and it cannot be sustained much longer, Columbia Water Center researcher Shama Perveen told an audience on Monday. That is mainly because farmers, who depend heavily on irrigation water drawn from underground aquifers, are using far more water than rainfall can replenish. Perveen’s talk, “Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India,” contained a series of daunting statistics:
–India’s northern breadbasket region, home to 600 million people, lost about 60 cubic kilometers of water from its groundwater aquifers in 2002-2008.
–Farmers who used to pump water from five or 10 feet below the surface are now sometimes drilling down 200 or 300 feet.
–Unlike the United States and Australia, which have dams that can store up to 6,000 cubic meters of water for each person, India has a dismal storage capacity of 200 cubic meters per capita.
Perveen says that building dams will not suffice, because of the extreme imbalance between rains and usage; in some regions, dams would have to hold five years’ worth of rainfall just to keep up. In the future, India will have to make irrigation far more efficient, and switch from water-intensive crops like rice, she said.
Navigating the ocean of AGU requires patience. For a newcomer, parsing the inch-thick spiral-bound notebook of presentations, with pages of maps of the enormous Moscone Center, is a bit like finding your way around a city in a foreign language (at least there’s a nice crossword puzzle on Page 31).
You need the right tools to understand what’s going on, and to get where you need to go. Columbia researchers have been looking for the right tools to navigate another complicated place: The gap between what climate science tells us, and how a lot of the public hears that information, and what policymakers are prepared to do about it. They’re giving a couple of talks on the subject at AGU.
On Wednesday, Mary-Elena Carr will join colleagues from the Columbia Climate Center Lamont-Doherty to talk about “Climate Information and Misinformation: Getting the Message Out.” With researchers from Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors, they looked at three ways to address climate change skepticism: blogging about it, talking to people in discussion groups, and writing a report.
“As scientists, I think we sometimes come at it in a very naïve way,” Carr says. If you just give people the facts, they should be able to figure it out. That didn’t work when they blogged: Pushing the climate hot button led down a rabbit hole of contention and suspicion. The discussion group left participants hungry for more information.
The conclusion: That using a single report – like one Carr prepared for Deutsche Bank in 2009 – is the best way to address the skeptics. Ultimately, Carr says, you need a variety of sources talking about climate change, including political and religious leaders – and people the audience can identify with.
On Thursday, Sabine Marx of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions will speak on “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” She has studied how different groups of people think about climate, and how to use that information to talk about the science.
“For most people abstract information does not translate into powerful vivid images that would trigger action,” Marx wrote. “Furthermore, we have found that people’s interpretation of scientific uncertainty can get in the way of using forecasts and projections. Other barriers include public risk perceptions and attitudes, cultural values, and myopia, as well as the importance that people place on self-interest/economic goals vs. collective interest/social goals.”
But, Marx says, there are ways to overcome these barriers. For instance, you can start with a good story.
Like dirt swept under the carpet, some of the human-made heat produced over the last century has been getting soaked up by the world’s oceans, and sinking into deep waters. Now, it is coming back to haunt the surface, in a very sensitive place: western Antarctica, where vast ice sheets meet the ocean. The result appears to be that ice is rapidly being eaten from the bottom, says Douglas Martinson, a polar scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who presented the findings Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Martinson said that heat stored in deep waters far from Antarctica is being pushed southward and becoming entrained in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a vast, wind-driven water mass that constantly circles the frozen continent. The evidence comes from 18 years of Antarctic voyages Martinson has made to measure water temperature, salinity and other qualities at different depths. He called the increases in ocean heat in the past few decades “jaw dropping.” Temperatures have risen only a few degrees above the melting point–but that is all it takes to cut at the ice front. “This is like a huge freight of hot coals–fresh, hot water being delivered right to the the front door,” he said.
This raises the specter of sea-level rise driven by melting in this region–but there is a larger implication, said Martinson. Even if all sources of human-produced carbon dioxide in the air were cut off, the built-up heat will remain in the ocean for many years to come. “Pretend your brains out that the politicians did something to stop global warming tomorrow. Even if they did, we will still have decades and decades of upwelling of that warmed water eating ice,” he said.
Read a Discovery News article about Martinson’s talk.
This week marks the world’s largest annual gathering of earth and space scientists: the five-day December meeting of the American Geophysical Union. There will be about 18,000 of them, spread across two giant San Francisco convention halls giving talks and discussing the latest in their fields. Scores of researchers from the Earth Institute will be involved. Among many other things, they will give presentations on the destruction of Antarctic ice by warming oceans (from Douglas Martinson, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory); clues contained in ancient trees as to how climate change may affect New York City (Neil Pederson of Lamont); an examination of India’s water crisis (Shama Perveen of the Columbia Water Center); and fast-growing “hotspots” of potential weather-related disasters in the Caribbean” (Bob Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network).
On brighter notes, William Ryan and colleagues at Lamont will demo a new mobile app called Earth Observer, scheduled to be released this week at the Apple iTunes store, which gives the general public access to fabulous graphics and information about the earth previously tapped mainly by scientists. There is also the traditional Lamont-Doherty alumni party, held every year on Tuesday night at AGU—a gathering that reunites top scientists from across the world who studied at Lamont.
In early May, Scott Nooner and I returned to Malawi to retrieve our seismic equipment and finally lay eyes on the data recorded over the last 4 months. Picking them up was vastly easier than putting them out. In contrast to the days studying out-dated maps and driving down dirt roads looking for sites, and hours of hard labor under the hot African sun digging holes and constructing vaults, recovery required only minutes at each site to shut down the equipment and safely stow it in plastic cases in the back of our rented truck. It took us about a day to recover all the equipment that we spent a week installing. Since we recovered the seismic equipment so quickly, we had time to collect new GPS data, too.
Although retrieving the seismic equipment proved easy, transporting numerous 50-lb boxes from one side of the world to the other is not trivial, as we discovered during the deployment. Our hasty departure in January prevented us from obtaining US customs documentation that would have simplified the export/import process, and our seismic equipment had to return from Malawi the way it came in – as checked luggage. We wrested ten ~50-lb pieces of baggage to the check-in counter at the Lilongwe airport, and handed over all of our remaining dollars plus a fistful of Malawi Kwacha for excess baggage fees. Checking in for each subsequent leg of the trip, we braced ourselves to part with more money. Even for the few pieces of equipment that we transported back to the US via a commercial shipper, we faced interesting challenges. The Karonga DHL office lacks a scale, so shipping agents and our Geological Survey colleagues made competing guesses as to the weight of our boxes and compromised on the average when charging us shipping fees.
Far and away the best part of recovering instruments is the chance to take a first look at the data, and our new dataset from Malawi did not disappoint. While sipping complementary wine on the long flight from Johannesburg to Atlanta, I perused the recordings from our seismometers. While (thankfully) there were no recurrences of the damaging events from December, to my delight I saw that we have recorded a remarkably persistent series of aftershocks. For our purposes, the more aftershocks, the merrier! We plan to determine the location of each aftershock to map out the structures below Earth’s surface that caused the large sequence of earthquakes in December. Stay tuned…..
While installing our seismic network in Malawi, we interacted with everyone from scientists to schoolteachers, and journalists to villagers. The opportunity to provide information and education to Malawians has been the most rewarding aspect of our effort. We trained local scientists and technicians on seismic equipment and data analysis, and educated the public on earthquakes and earthquake monitoring both in person and via media interviews. The Malawi Geological Survey Department (MGSD) prompted our visit by requesting assistance in monitoring aftershocks, and we hope that this temporary seismic deployment will empower them to obtain resources and training for a permanent seismic network.
Because we deployed our seismic stations near schools, clinics and other centers of village life, we met a wide spectrum of Malawians. Everyone we spoke with expressed interest in our undertaking and wanted to know more about the chindindindis (earthquakes in Tumbuka). In the village of Mpata, 5 miles west of Karonga, a crowd gathered around a laptop balanced on the hood of our 4×4 as Jim showed them aftershocks in newly downloaded data; the audience peppered him with pertinent questions about the East African Rift and earthquakes beneath Lake Malawi. Curious policeman looked on as I retrieved seismic records from a station positioned near a checkpoint ~10 miles north of Karonga, inquiring when and where the next earthquake would occur. Science teachers in Mlare helped us install a station near their school and received an impromptu lesson in plate tectonics and seismology.
Journalists from newspapers, radio stations and national TV programs also interviewed us during our visit, which allowed us to communicate with a larger audience about possible causes of the earthquakes and the benefits of monitoring them.
We worked side by side with scientists and technicians from the MGSD every day of our visit. They taught us local geology, local customs, and local language, and made our joint endeavor possible by facilitating contacts with national and regional officials. In return, we brought them seismic monitoring equipment, helped them deploy it, and taught them new techniques for analyzing the resulting data. Although the MGSD is charged with monitoring earthquakes within the Malawi rift valley, their efforts are severely hampered by paucity of data and lack of training. Only two seismic stations exist in Malawi (provided by Africa Array), and university-level courses in seismology are almost non-existent. The data and training of MGSD employees provided by our temporary deployment following the Karonga earthquakes will help mitigate these problems in the short term; we hope that this experience will equip the MGSD with the ammunition to argue for more national and international resources for seismic monitoring in Malawi over the longer term.
A rapid technical response to the damaging earthquakes in Malawi produces both humanitarian and scientific benefits, and we hoped that both scientific and international assistance agencies would support our effort. Our seismic field effort serves two purposes: (1) to provide badly needed seismic equipment and technical training to the Malawi Geological Survey department (MGSD); and (2) to obtain unique data from very close to the earthquake sources to develop a better scientific understanding of faulting in the East African Rift. Funding has proven difficult, however, and our experience suggests that a technical component to earthquake response often falls through the cracks of the broader relief effort.
The Malawi earthquake sequence spawned a modest international response by several organizations with complementary and overlapping goals. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), through the Office of Foreign Disaster Relief (OFDA), and international organizations (e.g., Red Cross) provided direct humanitarian response: food, water, shelter, and other necessities for the displaced people of Karonga. Two scientists from the US Geological Survey (USGS), with support from USAID, provided a post-earthquake assessment based on field observations of damage and faulting, which constituted the official US government technical response.
Our technical response parallels those efforts, and is typical for the US academic community; individual scientists with existing contacts in and working knowledge of the effected region provide seismological field equipment, analysis, and training. Responding to the earthquakes in a timely manner required an almost instantaneous commitment on our part. Within two days after the largest event, IRIS had mobilized instruments and the funding necessary to ship them to the field. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the Earth Institute (EI), both at Columbia University, promised to “backstop” our effort – in other words, cover our travel and field expenses while we sought external funding for our effort. Both have strong and long-standing commitments to mitigating earthquakes, hazards, and human suffering worldwide, including in East Africa and Malawi. The project would have immediately stalled without this support.
With the LDEO and EI backstop in hand, we sought external funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and USAID, highlighting the unique scientific and outreach opportunities offered by a rapid response to these earthquakes (read our proposal here). USAID characterized the activity as too scientific to be in their purview and declined to fund us. NSF acknowledged a modest scientific benefit, but they described the effort as primarily a humanitarian and outreach response. While NSF agreed to provide some support, the amount available for such short-turnaround projects (via the RAPID program) is very small – enough only to return and recover our instruments.
Technical responses such as this one provide scientific and humanitarian benefits alike and strongly complement the larger response effort. The breadth of the impact should increase their fundability – more bang for the buck. But because of the splintered nature of the US response and funding mechanisms, this breadth can be a detriment to obtaining funding – too scientific to be humanitarian, but too humanitarian to be scientific. In our case, we overcame this quandary only with the strong financial support of our home institution. How many technical response efforts never get off the ground because of this funding uncertainty?
The ideal spot for a seismic station is dry, quiet and safe from vandals and thieves. Seismometers record slight ground motions, allowing them to hear distant (and not so distant) earthquakes. But cars or even kids playing near a seismic station can produce ground vibrations that overwhelm the subtle sounds of earthquakes. Seismic stations include plenty of expensive, high-tech instruments that are worthless to the average person. But they also contain mundane items that can be useful, such as 12-volt batteries and insulated wiring, making theft a problem. And water is the enemy.
Malawi presented novel challenges for siting our stations. Our first priority was to find dry, secure locations to prevent damage and loss. As we drove into the Karonga region for the first time, our hearts sank; the epicentral region is low-lying and wet, small villages surrounded by rice paddies. Our arrival during the rainy season did not help.
But with a little hunting, we were able to find high and dry spots for most of our stations. We bumped along narrow village tracks in our rented 4×4, occasionally getting stuck on particularly muddy sections. Most of the dirt roads did not appear on our outdated maps, so we stopped regularly to ask for directions. When our Malawi colleagues explained that we were there to learn about the chindindindis (Tumbuka for earthquakes), they were eager to help!
In many parts of the world, safety and quiet can be achieved simultaneously simply by deploying stations in the middle of nowhere. This is not an option in densely populated Malawi, where one farming village abuts another. Main thoroughfares and small dirt roads alike were crowded with kids walking to school, villagers biking to town, and farmers grazing their goats and sheep. Instead, we sought out village police, teachers, and other officials for help finding safe spots. In some cases we hired guards to look after them.
We spent hours driving, inspecting sites and waiting to meet with officials. We normally skipped lunch, fueling ourselves instead on passion fruit-flavored Fantas and “puffs” (kids junk food akin to cheese doodles). But these efforts paid off – we found good sites for our equipment and started listening.
Within two days, we located ten seismometers: eight from the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), and two from Cindy Ebinger, a seismologist at University of Rochester in upstate New York. Cindy offered to send us her instruments, which we would carry on the plane with us. IRIS planned to ship their instruments directly to Malawi. On Christmas Eve, as we headed home to our families, everything seemed to be in order. We purchased plane tickets for Dec. 30, and planned to celebrate New Year´s Eve in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, with a couple of Carlsberg Specials at the Diplomat Pub. From there, we would head north to the epicenter.
Not all of it happened as planned. Shipments were canceled. Boxes went missing. Flights were changed. Shipping the IRIS equipment directly to Malawi required two weeks in transit, minimum. We considered wild back-up plans: “Let’s truck everything from Johannesburg to Malawi!” Just as quickly we rejected them: Johannesburg is 1,000 miles away, and would have required four border crossings.
More or less everything that could go wrong, did. The delays and false-starts were particularly frustrating since the clock was ticking; the rate of aftershocks declines steadily following a major earthquake. Each day of delay meant less information about the origin of the big earthquakes.
After two days of arranging and rearranging, hair pulling and hand wringing, we departed New York on New Year’s Day with equipment for five seismic stations, all of it packed into our checked luggage. We even crammed two seismometers into our carry-on backpacks; they passed through security at JFK apparently unnoticed. Eighteen hours later our eight 50-lb bags arrived at the VIP customs lounge in Lilongwe. Leonard helped speed us and our equipment through customs. Within an hour, we were in a 4×4 speeding towards Karonga. Almost nothing went right prior to our departure from JFK; from that point forward, nothing really went wrong.