We have drilled 2,600 feet below the sea floor and in another 500 feet, will reach the crystalline igneous basalt of the ocean crust. Though finding the age of the basalt is our main aim, the thick sediments that overly the crust also have a story to tell. As the sediments build up over time, they record the geological and climate history of the region.
There are the muds, silts, and sands, shaken loose from shallower depths and transported by gravity down-slope to the deep basin, where our first drill site is located. Ultimately, these sediments come from erosion of the surrounding land, and in this tectonically active part of the world, there is a lot of erosion going on. The island of Taiwan, for example, is being tectonically uplifted at a rate of about 0.2 inches per year, and is being eroded at about the same rate. This may not sound like much uplift, but imagine a world without erosion, Taiwan would stand 12 miles high after 4 million years. All that eroded rock ends up on the seabed, and some of it may find its way to our site.
There are the tiny shells of foraminifera and coccolithophores (familiar to us as chalk, in their pure rock form). They form a continual rain from the sea surface, and build up slowly but steadily on the seabed. The overturn of marker species shows us the age of the sediments, and their chemistry carries a record of ocean temperatures in the past.
Finally, there are volcanic sediments – from thin ash layers from distant volcanoes, to thick beds containing coarse chunks of rock exploded from nearby volcanoes. The close volcanoes are no longer active, and some have sunk beneath the sea to become seamounts. We will know from the depth of these beds in the sediment succession when the volcanoes erupted and for how long they were active.
This diversity means there is always something new and interesting to see in each 33-foot-long core that comes up from the sea bed, each another chapter in the geological history of the South China Sea. Among the 32 scientists on board, we have specialists in sedimentology, micropaleontology, volcanology and other fields. We are an international group; about half of us hail from China, a quarter from the U.S, and the rest from Australia, Brazil, France, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines (so there’s a good mix of music in the core laboratory – very nice). And that’s just the science party – the ship’s crew is almost as diverse.
Five days after leaving Hong Kong, the JOIDES Resolution is on site and drilling into the muds and silts of the South China Sea. The expedition’s main objectives are tectonic in nature, and I’m not really a tectonicist (I’m on board for the borehole logging), so for me this cruise is a crash course in the geological history of this area.
The origin of the ocean crust under the South China Sea is enigmatic, and there is ongoing scientific debate about which tectonic forces pulled apart the crust here to form the basin. In one hypothesis, the collision of India into Asia that built the Himalayas and pushed out Indochina to the southeast had the collateral effect of causing extension to form the South China Sea. The leading rival hypothesis says that the extension resulted from slab-pull from subduction at the southern edge of the basin (Borneo and Padawan). Of course, there are theories that mix the two, as well as minor-party candidates (plumes!).
The expedition aims to test the competing hypotheses by dating the earliest ocean crust (at the northern edge of the basin) and the youngest ocean crust (close to the now-inactive spreading center). If the age interval of sea floor spreading matches the age of the extrusion of Indochina (lets say 35 to 16 million years ago), then the Indochina extrusion hypothesis gains support; but if we find different ages, other hypotheses will move up the leader board. The debate and this expedition add to our understanding of the basic forces that shape the Earth’s surface.
Until now, the dating and interpretations rely on magnetic sea floor anomalies and other geophysical surveys. We will date the rocks directly for the first time, by argon-argon dating of the basalt that forms the ocean crust, and by the age of the sediments sitting on the basalt. The tricky part is that the basalt lies under 950 meters of sediments at the first site, and under 1850 meters at the second. To drill to this depth and bring back 100 meters of basalt is challenging to say the least, but there is a highly experienced drilling crew on board, so we are in with a shot. I’ll let you know how we get on!
This week, we are launching a test of “IceTracker”—a tool that allows users to see the trajectories of Arctic sea ice forward or backward from any day between 1981 and 2012, as well as other data including sea-ice speed, air temperature, water depth and the age of the sea ice along the track. We think IceTracker will be useful not only for Arctic research and policy, but for bringing the Arctic sea ice alive for students and the general public.
Researchers interested in climate and arctic dynamics will be able to assess the origin and melt location of sea ice, and seasonal and year-to-year variations in drift trajectories from specific locations. They will also be able to look into the transport of sediment or contaminants on or in the ice; this might for instance shed light on potential trajectories of oil spilled in ice-covered waters, or habitat changes that might affect the foraging patterns of polar bears or other creatures.
The IceTracker might eventually be used to consider future management options in the Arctic. Among these: projecting where declining sea ice is likely to persist, providing future potential refuge for threatened arctic creatures (an idea that got a lot of attention at AGU in 2010). It can even be used to recreate historical events; we used it to figure out where Fridtjof Nansen and his crew would have drifted had they frozen their ship into the ice today, rather than during their famous 1893-1896 trans-Arctic drift.
IceTracker is an excellent inquiry-driven research environment for any student with access to a computer. Teachers can use the IceTracker in guided exercises, or let students work on their own to learn about ice dynamics, interannual variability and climate change. For instance, we have set up team competitions where students can vie to be the first to reach the North Pole by drifting with the ice, or to make it out alive through Fram Strait. By exploring the Arctic in this way, the IceTracker lets students do their own sampling of a real-world non-linear system. They can see how diminished ice cover has changed ice speed, and demonstrate for themselves how initial conditions can affect ice movements much farther down the line.
Others might use IceTracker to consider historical conditions in planning adventure expeditions, or to visualize changing conditions for Arctic wildlife.
We will present IceTracker at AGU on Friday, Dec. 13, at the Moscone South poster hall (look for abstract number C15A-0490). You can also try running trajectories yourself at our beta testing web site: www.thepolarhub.org. We would appreciate ideas on how to make it better. Send feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The project has received funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Some further resources:
Fowler, C. and M. Tschudi. 2003. Polar Pathfinder Daily 25 km EASE-Grid Sea Ice Motion
Vectors. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA DAAC at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Pfirman, S., G.G.Campbell,B. Tremblay, R. Newton, W. Meier. New IceTracker Tool Depicts Forward and Backward Arctic Sea Ice Trajectories AGU San Francisco, December 2013. C51A-0490.
Pfirman, S., C. Fowler, B. Tremblay, R. Newton, 2009a. The Last Arctic Sea Ice Refuge. The Circle, 4:6-8. http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/publications/the_circle/?183741/The-Circle-0409
Pfirman, S., B. Tremblay, C. Fowler, 2009b. Going with the Floe: An analysis of the epic expeditions of Fridtjof Nansen and Sir Ernest Shackleton. American Scientist, 97: 484-493.
Stephanie Pfirman is Hirschorn professor of environmental science at Barnard College, and an adjunct senior scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Are you attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting this week in San Francisco? Are you interested in hearing from social scientists about Natural Hazards? The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) will be there to answer your questions. Below is a schedule of sessions that CRED researchers are speaking at or convening.
We hope to see you there. If you can’t be at AGU in person we encourage you to livestream the sessions here.
Katherine Thompson, CRED PhD candidate, “The Problem with Probability: Why rare hazards feel even rarer”
Tuesday December 10, 1:55-2:10 PM PST, 2000 (Moscone West)
Session: Why Should We Talk About What We Don’t Know? Implications of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty II
How is probability of natural hazards events actually used by decision makers? The presentation will make recommendations on presenting probabilistic information to best take advantage of people’s tendencies to either amplify risk or ignore it, as well as recent findings that may shed light on ways that the negative effects of uncertainty can be mitigated.
David H. Krantz, CRED co-director, “Coordination of Individual and Organizational Planning for Natural Hazards”
Thursday December 12, 1:40-1:55 PM PST, 3002 (Moscone West)
Session: Climate Change Effects on Natural Hazards: Science, Communication and Policy I
Dave Krantz will explore the four different kinds of decision aids needed to improve natural hazard planning: mechanisms that support horizontal dissemination of plans, mechanisms that support vertical dissemination, mechanisms for examining goal conflicts and reducing these through plans that take others’ goals into account, and mechanisms for examining belief conflicts.
The Marcus G. Langseth, a research vessel operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, traverses the world’s oceans conducting marine seismic studies that contribute to new understanding of Earth systems. The ship typically spends half the year or more on research expeditions led by Lamont-Doherty scientists and colleagues from other research institutes.
Mentions of cruises may conjure up images of mammoth floating hotels and lounge chairs, but the cruises undertaken by earth scientists involve neither of those. Researchers who examine the seismic activity taking place beneath the sea can spend many weeks each year aboard ships deploying instruments and collecting data; these cruises often involve long days working in all manner of sea conditions.
At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting, now taking place in San Francisco, scientists and students who use the Langseth for research expeditions, the ship’s operators and administers from Lamont-Doherty and the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), and National Science Foundation program managers, met on Dec. 8 for the Marcus Langseth Science Oversight Committee annual community meeting.
At AGU, the oversight committee’s goal was to review results of the ship’s recent expeditions and discuss future research cruises. This year, for the first time, the meeting included a young career scientists workshop, where graduate students and early career investigators who have worked aboard the Langseth gave short talks about their research. Lamont-Doherty presenters included graduate students Natalie Accardo, James Gibson and Shuoshuo Han; postdoctoral researcher Nathan Miller; associate research scientist Angela Slagle; and alum Danielle Sumy (Ph.D. ’11).
Their talks were followed by presentations by scientists on the Langseth’s recent and upcoming cruise activities. Highlights included a talk by paleoclimatologist Pratigya Polissar, who discussed his May 2012 cruise near the Line Islands in the central equatorial Pacific. Scientists on this cruise collected nearly 500 feet of sediment cores, which are being analyzed and used to gain new insight into the alternating El Niño and La Niña weather patterns that affect much of the globe. The oldest core recovered on Polissar’s expedition dates back more than 400,000 years, covering the last three glacial cycles.
Marine geophysicist Fernando Martinez (Ph.D. ’88) from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa reported on a cruise that he led to the Reykjanes Ridge in the North Atlantic Ocean in August 2013. The goal of the month-long cruise was to collect multibeam, magnetics and gravity data that will inform understanding of the evolution of the Reykjanes Ridge, a segment of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge just south of Iceland. This data will be used to test competing theories about what’s happening in this geologically fascinating area, with important implications for our understanding of geodynamic processes in the Earth.
Marine geophysicist Donna Shillington described a new research initiative that will use the Langseth to acquire large geophysical datasets in Atlantic waters as part of the Geodynamic Processes at Rifting and Subducting Margins (GeoPRISMS) project. The ultimate goal of GeoPRIMS is to investigate the coupled geodynamics, earth surface processes and climate interactions that build and modify continental margins over a wide range of timescales. The data Shillington and her group obtain during an upcoming cruise aboard the Langseth will be made available to the scientific community for various studies of the deep structure of the Eastern North Atlantic Margin. The project is also unique in that it features a large education and outreach component, which will train students and early career scientists to acquire and analyze seismic data.
The Langseth is scheduled to undergo maintenance in early 2014 before spending the remainder of the year on expeditions in the North Atlantic, including the GeoPRISMS cruise.
Visit the Marine Operations section of the Lamont-Doherty website to learn more about the R/V Langseth and the Observatory’s long history of seagoing exploration and discovery.
(Updated Dec. 10, 2013. James Hansen’s Frontiers of Geophysics talk has been RESCHEDULED to Wednesday, Dec. 11)
Scientists from Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important research results and special events at the Dec. 9-13 San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Here is a guide in rough chronological order. Unless otherwise stated, presenters are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Abstracts of talks and posters are on the AGU meeting program. Reporters may contact scientists directly, or press officers: Kevin Krajick, email@example.com 917-361-7766 or Kim Martineau, firstname.lastname@example.org 646-717-0134
# # # # #
The $5,000 ‘Dark Data’ Contest Award
As part of an initiative to save data in danger of dying within old floppy disks, tape drives or paper archives, judges will award a trophy and $5,000 to the team that has done the best job of finding and preserving such “dark data.” The International Data Rescue Competition is sponsored by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Integrated Earth Data Applications project (which works to preserve dark data), and scientific publisher Elsevier. Sixteen teams from across the world have submitted entries. One group of seismologists has digitized Soviet magnetic recordings of Cold War nuclear tests in hopes of improving modern test-verification procedures. Another is a volunteer group that is digitizing handwritten weather observations from ship logs dating back hundreds of years.
Dark Data Talk: Monday, Dec. 9, 10:50-11:05 a.m., 2020 Moscone West. IN12A-03.
Award Ceremony: Monday, Dec. 9, 7-8:30 p.m., Twin Peaks Room, Intercontinental Hotel, 888 Howard St.
International Data Rescue Competition website and submissions
Drying of the Mediterranean and Mideast
Richard Seager email@example.com
Nations surrounding the Mediterranean have been getting drier in the last decades, bringing record droughts to some places. Seager, a climate modeler, links drying in North Africa and Europe mainly to natural variability—but says there is evidence that drying of the Mideast is linked to overall climate warming. Further, based on changes in atmospheric circulation over the Mediterranean, he projects that the entire region from Spain through the Mideast may suffer increasing aridity in coming decades. This could happen not only during the usually dry summer, but during the crucial wintertime, when most rains now come in many places.
Monday, Dec. 9, 11:50 a.m.-12:05 p.m., 3003 Moscone West. GC12A-06 (Invited)
Climate Change: Spark of the Syrian Civil War?
Colin Kelley firstname.lastname@example.org
From 2005-2010, Syria suffered its worst drought on record. Kelley and four colleagues say that natural weather variability played a role, but the root cause was probably a long-term shift in rainfall and heat caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. They say long-term atmospheric circulation changes increased the likelihood of drought in 2011 eight times over—and that increased warmth itself has directly caused drying of soils. While the causes of the war itself are complex, the drought brought food shortages, unemployment and disruption of rural social structures, driving some 1.5 million refugees from the countryside to the peripheries of cities, where discontent exploded into the ongoing bloodbath.
Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC13A-1047
Global Farm Yields, Future Climate, and Conflict
More researchers are exploring the potential for swings in weather and climate to drive armed conflicts, often through crop failures that lead to violence. Looking at data from 1961-2008, Rising and Cane find that during times of high crop yields, conflicts have been less likely to break out. They plan to use this baseline information, along with data on crop varieties that grow in varying conditions, future climate scenarios, and economic and political conditions, to project future conflicts in different parts of the globe.
Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC13B-1069
(Related: Growing Susceptibility of the Global Food-Trade Network to Climate. Michael Puma, email@example.com. Monday, Dec. 9, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC11D-1038)
Scientists, Activism and the Impacts of Climate Change
James Hansen firstname.lastname@example.org
James Hansen, the outspoken former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now leads a new policy-oriented climate-change program at the Earth Institute. Known for his efforts to turn science into action, he and colleagues recently made headlines with a study contending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has vastly underestimated how quickly CO2 emissions must be slowed. Hansen will give three high-profile talks. On Tuesday, he presents the Union Frontiers of Geophysics lecture. On Thursday, he will speak on “Minimizing Irreversible Impacts of Human-Made Climate Change.” On Friday, his talk challenges the research community on “Communicating the Need to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change.” Among other things, he will discuss his past, present and planned efforts to get information to the public and to the highest levels of government.
RESCHEDULED TO: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 12:30-1:30 p.m., Hall E 134-135 Moscone North. U22C (Union Lecture)
Thursday, Dec. 12, 5:30-6 p.m., 104 Moscone South. GC44A-06 (Invited)
Friday, Dec. 13, 11:35 a.m.-12:05 p.m., 102 Moscone South. U52A-04
Climate Models! The Pinup Calendar
Co-creators: Rebecca Fowler email@example.com
Francesco Fiondella (International Research Institute for Climate and Society) firstname.lastname@example.org
Now you no longer have to dig through boring journal papers to learn all about your favorite climate scientists; just feast your eyes on the new 2014 Climate Models Calendar. Eye-popping portraits of 13 top Columbia University climate researchers in full regalia amid their natural habitat were conceived by bestselling photographer Jordan Matter (Dancers Among Us) and shot by fashion portraitist Charlie Naebeck. Calendar includes tasty inside info on the researcher of the month, such as favorite dataset or climate phenomenon. Individual dates are marked with famous climate/weather events, scientific meetings and other useful items. (There are 13 models because January 2015 comes as a bonus.) Models will be on hand to autograph calendars. (On sale through the Climate Models Calendar website, and at the Columbia M.A. in Climate and Society Program booth, no. 1329 in the Exhibit Hall.
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. ED23B-0725
Did a 6th Century Comet Bring Global Famine?
Dallas Abbott, email@example.com
Evidence from tree rings and ice cores suggest that parts of Europe, Asia and North America saw protracted cooling in the 530s, which has been linked to drought and famine. Some scientists hypothesize that Halley’s Comet may have caused this, by leaving a dust trail that the Earth later intercepted during its orbit. Dust in the air could have blocked the sun’s rays. Abbott finds evidence in ice cores drilled from Greenland: as much as 10 times more dust is found in the layer corresponding to 533 A.D. than at other intervals, she says. This dust is rich in markers of extraterrestrial origins such as nickel and iron oxide spherules. She finds that neither volcanism nor solar cycles can fully explain the cooling seen in various records during this decade. Furthermore, spikes of the ice-core dust appear to match the timing of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, known to be triggered by Halley.
Wednesday, Dec. 11, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. PP31B-1869
Burying CO2 in the Newark Basin: Are There Earthquake Risks?
Natalia Zakharova firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2011, a consortium drilled a 1.5-mile deep hole off the New York State Thruway to study the rocks of the Newark Basin, which underlie parts of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Their goal: to understand the potential to store industrial carbon emissions, and the possible stresses on earthquake faults. Scientists are now analyzing data from this, and a second hole drilled this summer on the campus of nearby Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Zakharova presents early results from the Thruway borehole; these suggest that shallow reservoirs contain critically stressed faults and are not good for injection; injecting fluids 1.2 kilometers or below may be safer.
Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. S33D-2472
Bangladesh: Shaking and Sinking
Michael Steckler email@example.com
For the past four years, a team from several universities has been studying the intertwined natural hazards of earthquakes, sea-level rise and sudden changes in river courses in Bangladesh, earth’s most densely populated nation. Now, detailed portraits of the forces driving these hazards are emerging. Principal investigator Michael Steckler gives an overview of how yearly loads of Himalayan sediment and water are interacting with rising sea level and a maze of underlying tectonic boundaries to create a system of dangers that could be set off by any number of triggers. Posters in a separate session paint a picture of hidden active faults around the capital of Dhaka, and how the delta on which Bangladesh sits is being twisted and squeezed by moving watery sediments and tectonic boundaries.
Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1:40-1:55 p.m., 2005 Moscone West. EP33D-01 (Invited)
Related posters: Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. T13D-2565 & T13D-2567
Megadroughts: Signposts of the Past
Benjamin Cook firstname.lastname@example.org
Edward Cook email@example.com
Dendrochronologist Edward Cook has documented drought history in North America, monsoon Asia, and parts of Europe, North Africa and the Mideast. Tree rings going back many centuries before instrumental records reveal megadroughts covering vast regions and sometimes lasting more than 100 years—greater than anything seen in modern times. Such droughts were more common in the naturally warm period 600 to 1,000 years ago, he says. This suggests that greater warmth can push large climate systems into long-term aridity, raising the specter of megadroughts in the near future as climate warms. In a related talk, climate modeler Benjamin Cook (Edward’s son) delves into North America, starting with the devastating pan-continental drought of 2012. Similar to his father, he finds that droughts like this are rare, but not unprecedented, and occur most commonly during warmer times.
Ben Cook: Monday, Dec. 9, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C, Moscone South. GC11A-0956
Ed Cook: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 4:45-5:05 p.m., 102 Moscone South. U34A-03
Turning CO2 to Stone
Juerg Matter firstname.lastname@example.org
Some scientists say human-induced climate change could be mitigated by pumping industrial carbon dioxide underground; however, the fear of leaks is a major stumbling block. Matter’s group has been working on ways to turn pumped-down CO2 into a harmless limestone-like solid by harnessing natural chemical reactions underground. In the first field results from a pilot injection outside Reykjavik, Iceland, they have shown that the process can indeed work. The CarbFix project is dissolving CO2 in water and pumping it 500 to 800 meters down into a formation of basalt. Chemical monitoring shows that 85% of the CO2 reacts with the basalt within a year—a rate well beyond initial expectations. Scientists continue to monitor the storage reservoir.
Thursday, Dec. 12, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. V41A-2753
Four scientists and one PhD student from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) are attending the 2013 American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. Below are links to Q&As with each of the presenters and the schedule of their posters and presentations. For additional information about the scientists’ work, search the conference program for their names here.
The IRI is a research center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute dedicated to enhancing society’s capability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate in order to improve human welfare and the environment, especially in developing countries.Pietro Ceccato Q&A
Poster: Development and Implementation of Flood Risk Mapping, Water Bodies Monitoring and Climate Information for Human Health (EP53A-0754)
Session: Earth and Planetary Surface Processes General Contributions Posters
Friday, Dec. 13
1:40 – 6 p.m.
Hall A-C (Moscone South)
Poster: Long-lead ENSO Predictability from CMIP5 Decadal Hindcasts (GC43D-1090)
Session: How Reliable and Accurate are CMIP5 Climate Simulations?
Thursday, Dec. 12
1:40 – 6 p.m.
Hall A-C (Moscone South)
Presentation: Climate scenarios for driving AgMIP models (GC31D-06)
Session: Improving the Understanding of climate Variability and Change in Agriculture: AgMIP, Tropical Farm Adaptation and Related Research
Wednesday, Dec. 11
9:15 – 9:30 a.m.
3001 Moscone West
Poster: Sahel rainfall variability as simulated by the CAM4 model and its associated atmospheric dynamics (A11G-0136)
Session: West African Monsoon and Its Modeling
Monday, Dec. 9
8 a.m. – 12:20 p.m.
Hall A-C (Moscone South)
Presentation: Experiences in the New York Academy of Sciences STEM Mentoring Program (PA42A-08)
Session: Communicating the Relationship Between Policy Sciences, Natural Hazards, and Global Environmental Change
Thursday, Dec. 12
12:05 – 12:20 p.m.
2020 (Moscone West)
Session (convener): Subseasonal to Seasonal Prediction: Bridging the Gap Between Weather and Climate
Monday, Dec. 9
8 – 10 a.m.
3010 (Moscone West)
Poster: Diagnostics of Interannual-to-Interdecadal Climate and Streamflow Variability: Applications to Reservoir Management over NW India (GC11A-0960)
Session: Paleoclimate, Observations, and Models: Water Resource Management Under Climate Variability and Change
Monday, Dec. 9
8 a.m. – 12:20 p.m.
Hall A-C (Moscone South)
Poster: Evaluation of Sub-monthly Forecast Skill from Global Ensemble Prediction Systems (A13E-0259)
Session: Subseasonal to Seasonal Prediction: Bridging the Gap Between Weather and Climate II Posters
Monday, Dec. 9
1:40 – 6 p.m.
Hall A-C (Moscone South)
I walked out of the house Thursday morning when my nose detected it – a forest fire! Having worked for two years in the piney woods of southwest Georgia, I had become accustomed to and, actually, come to love forest fires. That classic line kept coming into my mind, “the scent of fire in the morning reminds me of healthy forests.” The scent can be better than a campfire. It can be a little sweeter. That morning, it filled the entire town. Firefighters were just beginning to quench the fire. As of Saturday night, it had burned about 40 ha (ca 100 acres), but was still uncontained on its northern end. I might have been one of the few people to be thrilled to be in a smoke-filled town. It reminded me that we lived in a heavily forested area, and an active ecological event was playing out just up the hill.
It was fascinating to see the coverage of this fire. There were many resources thrown at it. It is understandable. Clausland Mountain is beautiful, beautiful enough that it is ringed by expensive houses. Twenty-six fire units, composed of about 150 firefighters, were actively fighting the fire (about one fire unit for every 1.5 hectares (3.8 acres)). Two helicopters were brought in to douse the flames. The breathless words of the reporter are fascinating as well, “remote areas” and “extremely dangerous.”
The large response is what happens in the wildland-urban interface, especially outside of one of the largest cities in the world. The conflict between humans and ecological processes has been on the rise as we move out into natural areas and as we become more aware of important ecological processes that maintain ecosystems and the services they provide for humanity. Fire is one of these processes.
So, Sunday we went on a hike to see the impact of the fire. Bushwhacking, we went into the northern end where the fire was still smoldering (though the fire took care of many bushes). It is steep and the ash makes the slope a bit slippery. Much of the leaf litter was consumed, though not completely. In some places, logs were consumed down to the mineral soil. Death shadows are evident. The potentially severe rainstorms approaching from the west should put out the fire. (Update: they did.)
It will be interesting to see how the forest responds. Fire is an important ecological process. It reduces the disease and pest load in an ecosystem; it is an antiseptic in a way. It favors some plants more than others. Like me, fire favors blueberries! Oak trees in the eastern United States do not seem to be regenerating very well over the last 40-50 years. The re-introduction of fire is today’s response to a lack of oak regeneration. Much money is being spent on prescribed fires and education about fire. The lack of oak regeneration seems complex. It is said that the rise of mesophytic species, the species “taking the place” of oak, is changing the forest in such a way that it ecologically dampens the forest, making it hard for fire to take hold. However, the re-introduction of fire doesn’t seem to be having its hypothesized impact – oaks still do not seem to be regenerating in experiments employing fire, while mesophytic species seem to be handling the fire pretty well. Important for the context of this ecological scenario, many changes have occurred in the forest over the last 50-100 years, all of which could be a factor of a reduction in oak regeneration – increased deer populations, loss of important megafauna, and changing land-use and cultural patterns (Hello Smoky Bear!). And, climate change might be playing a direct role in the “mesophication” of the East.
One physical mechanism has been detected – flammability of and differential drying of forest fuels (leaves). Fire is a very physical process. The variation in forest fuels, especially the finer fuels that carry fire in wetter regions, plays an important role in flammability. Thinner leaves absorb moisture more easily. Large, curling leaves, especially lobed leaves, dry faster. Curling leaves make the duff (or “litter”*), the fuel layer, fluffier, allowing better oxygenation of fire, to literally fuel the fire even more. One hypothesis for why eastern forests burn less is the loss of the great American icon, the American chestnut tree. Research by Morgan Varner supports this hypothesis.
It will be especially interesting to see how the Clausland forest responds to this fire. It is getting much wetter in this part of the world. Deer populations are high because of the high human density and the amount of forest preserve in the county (there is no hunting in the area, and deer have learned home gardens are a smörgåsbord). And, the diversity in this little patch of woods is pretty amazing. On our 0.5-mile hike, if that (our 2-year-old doesn’t hike great yet), I spotted 13 major broadleaf tree species, one conifer, the fading eastern hemlock, and two small tree species (I wasn’t even trying to seek out species; there must be more). Amazingly, yellow birch, a boreal species more common to the Adirondacks, New England and southeastern Canada, is mixed in with pignut hickory and sweet birch, species more common to Virginia.
The understory might respond a little differently, though in the little patch we hiked, the wineberry looked just fine. Guess we’ll have to go back out and hike a little more next spring. Shucks.
A pictorial of the aftermath of the November 2013 Clausland Mountain fire.
We met a colleague and his wife on the trail. They were out to check out the fire. They live near the burn and watched the fire grow and the efforts to stop the fire. She noted that it was like a ring of fire. Absolutely!
* = really? Can we get rid of the term “litter”? Fallen leaves, twigs, branches, bud scales, etc., enrich the soil by returning nutrients back to the Earth and increasing the soil’s ability to retain moisture. If that is “litter,” call me trash.
It was midday. It was dark. It was June! It was pouring. We were sitting in my folk’s cabin in the Adirondacks when my dad groaned, “This is depressing”. Later on that same day, a hometown friend made a similar exclamation. Elizabeth’s update triggered a deluge of similar sentiments. During that discussion, she made reference to The Long Rain. It was the perfect comparison. Judging from the sentiment in our cabin, in the newspapers, and on Facebook, Central New York was on the edge of insanity because of the unrelenting rain.
It was too early in the season to write this post. Predicting future rainfall is like trying to predict Dennis Rodman’s next career move: It will move in a new direction, but no one can pinpoint the trajectory. But now, as Cortland and Macoun apples grace us with their presence, we can now safely say that summer is over (I do not care what the tilt of the Earth says. It is apple season!). In fact, the Northeast Regional Climate Center and NOAA have completed an early overview of this past summer’s climate. Their conclusion regarding precipitation in the Northeastern US? The Pluvial continues.
Actually, these overviews typically discuss climate of just the most recent month or season year or versus the “climate normal.” While useful, these summaries do not paint the full picture. Consider this: A climate normal is often based on a recent 30-year period, like 1970-2000. Now consider this: Instrumental records for the Northeastern U.S. (below) and analyses for the Catskills region and southern New York State, here and here, indicate that since the 1960s drought, the region has seen a substantial increase in precipitation; in fact, hydroclimate seems quite unusual since 2000. Now really consider this: A tree-ring reconstruction of moisture availability indicates that the recent wetting comes at the end of a 120-180 year trend (and maybe longer). So, the daily comparisons on TV or other media sources are typically based upon recent climate and ignore the past. Thus, based upon paleo records, the full picture indicates that we are sitting in one of the more unusually wet periods of the last 500 years.
I return to this topic because of: 1) the many implications of this climatic shift and, most importantly, 2) what seems to be a limited amount of public awareness of how wet it has become in recent decades (though this awareness is growing). The substantial change in moisture across the Northeastern U.S. (the draft of the 2013 3rd assessment is here) is more commonly known in the scientific literature, but it seems to be less well-known outside of that community. For example, under the tab “Climate Change” on the Northeast Regional Climate Center’s excellent web resource, one can only find minimum and maximum temperatures when seeking to understand how much the climate has changed. An increasing trend in precipitation just doesn’t seem to grip the attention of most people like an intense heat wave or drought. In fact, an editor remarked to a freelance writer that they’d only do a story on the change in precipitation in the NYC region if “they were painting the lawns green on Staten Island.”
For the people in Vermont, the Catskills, Mohawk Valley, and those wishing to use beaches in the summer along the coast, this seems a bit short-sighted. Excess rain is costly. It costs the people still trying to rebuild in the Catskills from the flooding of 2011 (and it isn’t just the two tropical storms that triggered the flooding – new research indicates that because the soils were saturated, the impact of Irene and Lee were worse than they might have been in other times). It costs people in Vermont wanting to rebuild their cultural heritage. It will cost all of us in NY State if tax breaks are given to expand flood relief measures in five counties and restoration and reconstruction of managed water systems; climatic change disregards political boundaries. It might cost us if we are managing forests for a long-gone climatic era. It further erodes trust between country and city folk as well as citizens and their government. Tragically, it costs lives.
So, as we become aware of the impacts of additional rainfall (and certainly there are additional costly impacts than what is listed above), we need to know that precipitation is likely to increase over the coming century. Model projections indicate it is likely that the Northeast will get wetter and have more extreme rain events. This doesn’t mean we will not experience droughts in the future, nor does it mean each summer will be like 2011 or 2013. And, these model projections could be wrong. But, our state of knowledge indicates that these Long Rain conditions could become more common.
This shouldn’t be viewed as more environmental doom and gloom. Humans have enormous brains and know how to use them! See: Klaus Jacob. We have the ability to prepare for potential adversity. And, if it isn’t clear by now, humans are one of the more adaptable and flexible animals on the planet. Heck, we might even celebrate wetter conditions with some enormous fun. And, from my Broadleaf perspective, the Northeast could become a temperate rainforest with bigger trees and a denser forest.* Folks spend enormous money to experience such things.
* unless future warming overwhelms our rain wealth and stunts the future forest…. apologies. It is hard to avoid all of the potential doom and gloom…
Ideally, seismic stations are sited in remote, quiet locations away from any possible cultural noise, especially people, who are very noisy (even if they are not New Yorkers). But other considerations besides peace and quiet are important for a good station, particularly security. As a result, we placed most of our stations in towns near schools, hospitals or town halls, where people could keep an eye on them.
We often attract crowds while installing our exotic seismic gear. Field work with an audience has pros and cons. It’s certainly somewhat distracting to labor and sweat under the sun, tinkering with wires and programming equipment with a big crowd in attendance. Some of the sites are in relatively tight spots, so the curious onlookers occupied much of our working space, making for very close quarters. Several days ago, we installed a station next to the village hall in Ndalisi as a small crowd looked on and an animated town meeting took place next door. Loud passionate speeches inside were matched by loud banging outside as we mounted a solar panel for our station on the roof.
But there are very big upsides. People from the villages where we deployed stations have provided an enormous amount of help with building our sites. We have also had abundant opportunities to tell people what we hope to learn about the active tectonic environment where they live. Continental rifting here gives rise to geohazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. Because we have tried to locate many of our sites near schools, we particularly hope to communicate our science to students and teachers. At the Matema Beach High School, students peppered us with questions as we installed our gear. Their school is just a stone’s throw from the Livingstone Mountains, the surface expression of a major rift fault that has caused large earthquakes. But our seismic installations admittedly may not be entirely positive; today at Kifule Secondary School, students took a long math exam inside while we were making a racket outside. But hopefully the pros out weigh the cons… Even at Kifule, students burst out of classroom after the test all smiles, so apparently we were not too disruptive.
Driving around the Rungwe volcanic province in the southern East Africa Rift installing seismometers, we have the chance to observe first hand how geological processes in action create the most dramatic forms at Earth’s surface. Looming volcanoes flanked by cinder cones lie along the rift valley, often very close to rift faults. The Livingstone Mountains, the surface expression of a major fault system that bounds the rift to the east in this area, soar over 1.5 km over the valley below, including Lake Malawi (Nyasa).
The remarkable geological structures evident above ground motivate us to look deeper in the earth. We see volcanoes in particular places at the surface, but where are magmas located at depth below the volcanoes and the rift? Likewise, we see dramatic faults that are helping to thin and break the crust at the surface, but how do they relate to stretching of the entire crust and lithosphere beneath this part of the East Africa rift? And how are the magmas and faults related to one another? These are the core scientific questions motivating our study of the rift around northern Lake Malawi (Nyasa). We hope to use data collected during this program, including the 15 seismic stations that we are deploying now around the Rungwe province, to answer these big questions.
The last time we visited the southern part of the East Africa Rift, we were responding to an unusual series of earthquakes in December 2009 that shook northern Malawi. The faults responsible for these events had not produced any earthquakes historically, and thus caught everyone by surprise. The unexpected occurrence of earthquakes on these faults highlights our poor overall understanding of how the African continent is slowly stretching and breaking apart.
This time, we return to this part of the rift system as a part of a more comprehensive effort to understand the underpinnings of this continental rift using a spectrum of geological and geophysical tools and involving a big international team of scientists from the U.S., Tanzania and Malawi. In the coming three weeks, we plan to deploy ~15 seismometers in southwest Tanzania around the Rungwe volcanic province, the southernmost volcanism in the East Africa Rift system. These stations will record small local earthquakes associated with active shifting of faults and moving of magmas at depth. They will also record distant earthquakes that can be used to create images of structures beneath Earth’s surface and map the faults and magmas.
144 miles separates Kangerlussuaq from Raven Camp. Not far really, just 144 miles – like traveling from the southern tip of New York City up to Albany. Flying at 270 knots we can be there in about half an hour, no time at all, and yet to the casual observer they seem worlds apart.
Kanger sits nestled in the arm of Sondrestrom Fjord, where over the years Russell Glacier has found the soft belly in the rock base, wearing the surface down flat and pushing the rock flour out to sea. Currently the tip of Russell Glacier is a full 20 kms (14 mi) up the fjord. In the summer months, as research teams move through the village, glacial meltwater fills the carved channel that borders the small town.
Meltwater Rushing Behind Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
“Summer meltwater from Russell Glacier rushes around the edge of Kangerlussuaq.”
Although modest in size by our standards, Kangerlussuaq is a transportation hub for Greenland, and has a steady year-round population of ~500 residents.
Raven Camp sits high up on the Greenland Ice Sheet on a frozen bed of ice, almost 2 kms thick (~1 mi) and millions of years in the making. At almost 7,000 feet of elevation, no seasonal change will bring a rushing river or a population to match that of Kangerlussuaq, but summer research does bring an influx of summer scientists, swelling the population beyond the posted total of 2. With a handful of tents and collapsible housing structures, Raven Camp is a “summer town.”
Today we fly to Raven Camp to complete a survey grid over the ice landing strip. A year ago the camp staff detected several cracks (crevasses) in the ice running perpendicular to the airstrip. Crevasses are to be expected around the edges of an ice sheet, where the ice is faster flowing, however, at this elevation and this far inland it is more unusual. Published data for ice movement in this area shows at the base the ice is moving about 2.5 cm a day, while at the surface ice is moving closer to 7 cm a day. It is no surprise that the ice at the base moves more slowly, a result of the increased friction at the bed causing the ice to stick and slow.
Currently measuring only 10 cms across, it certainly doesn’t seem that this could cause much trouble. But if the crevasses are deep and continue to widen, they will threaten the landing strip. A team of scientists has been collecting measurements on the ground to see if these rates are changing (2013 polarfield blog1); our job is to survey the area with our instruments. The Shallow Ice Radar and the infrared camera collect the depth of the cracks and the temperature differences as the cracks move deeper into the ice. Pulling all this data together will help us understand what is happening to the ice in this area.
Our flight grid will be flown low, at 1,000 ft. above the ice surface, one third our normal survey elevation. Two East/West lines are flown perpendicular to the landing strip at 600 meters apart. Then three tie lines are flown parallel to the runway at 100 meters apart.
Once the grid is complete, we land on the airstrip, testing the seal on the pod door and collecting some camp cargo. The landing is smooth.
Temperatures today at Raven are a warm 1°C. The snow has lost some of the crispness we had experienced when we had landed in April to install a GPS on the ice. The pod is inspected. The camp looks all but abandoned, yet a snow vehicle appears with cargo that is stashed and secured for transit. While the cargo is loaded, we snap a quick IcePod team photo.
The new eight-bladed propellers on Skier 92 do their job and the take-off is smooth for our return to Kangerlussuaq, just 144 miles, 30 minutes of transit, and yet seemingly worlds apart.
1 For more on the science being collected on the ground on ice movement: http://www.polarfield.com/blog/tag/greenland-ice-cap/
For more on IcePod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu
This is an example of the data we have collected. Right is to the East and left is to the West. This is a cross section of the Earth about 65 km long. The blue is water. The water depth here is about 5 km. The red and gray colors are a cross section of the rocks below the water. The flat layers are sedimentary rocks. The lumpy bumps (that is a technical term!) consist of blocks of continental crust and of the mantle.
Thank you to the Science Party. We had a total of 20 scientists, including undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, researchers, and professors. On Leg 1 we had 14 scientists and on Leg 2 we had 10 scientists. Four scientists weathered both legs. Six joined us for Leg 2. I am very grateful for all your efforts on behalf of the Galicia 3D science. I hope that you learned a lot, had a good time, and met other scientists for the first time. I suspect that we will meet one another many times in the future.I look forward to that!
This is the Technical team and the Science team for Langseth Leg 2.
radar as well as all the speed controls. There are two smaller control panels
on the port and starboard sides of the bridge for work that
involves careful maneuvering e.g. picking up OBS's.