Research News from 2015

32 news release for this year.

  • September 02, 2015

    Two solar farms will soon be powering 75 percent of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, whose high-tech laboratories are home to some of the world’s leading Earth and climate scientists. The new power sources are expected to cut the campus’s electricity bill by 20 percent and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by half.

  • September 01, 2015

    The Amazon Rainforest sprawls across more than 2 million square miles of South America, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen as “the lungs of the planet.” When they’re healthy, the world’s tropical forests and vegetation absorb up to 30 percent of the CO2 produced by human activities, but during droughts, that capacity falls off. To understand what that will mean as global warming produces more intense and frequent droughts, we need to understand the water and carbon cycles of the Amazon and how those cycles interact.

  • August 24, 2015

    Geochemist Yaakov Weiss deals in diamonds. Not the brilliant jewelry-store kind, but the flawed, dirty-looking ones used more for industry than decoration. Gem-grade diamonds are generally pure crystallized carbon, but many lower-grade stones contain so-called inclusions–chemical intruders bottled up inside the crystal. Inclusions lower the stone’s value; but they contain worlds of information about the deep, inaccessible regions where diamonds come from. Their compositions speak to not only how diamonds form (and maybe how to find them), but other basic processes below. “They are the most pristine samples we can get from underlying depths,” says Weiss, who works at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “After a diamond captures something, from that moment until millions of years later in my lab, that material stays the same. We can look at diamonds as time capsules, as messengers from a place we have no other way of seeing.” Some of his recent studies are providing new insights to these regions.

  • August 24, 2015

    People have been finding loose diamonds across the United States and Canada since the early 1800s, but for the most part, no one knows where they came from. It was not until the 1990s that geologists tracked down the first commercial deposits, on the remote tundra of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Yaakov Weiss, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is investigating the origins of these rich diamond mines. He also hopes to explore the mysteries of the much rarer loose stones found in places like the U.S. Rockies and rural Arkansas. Will prospectors ever make a big strike closer to civilization? Here, a brief pictorial look at the history and science of North American diamonds. It is based on the book Barren Lands: An Epic Search for Diamonds in the North American Arctic.

  • August 21, 2015

    Trees can record centuries of history in their rings – changes in rainfall and temperatures, even evidence of fires sweeping through a region or the climatic impacts of volcanic eruptions. Annual rings are common in trees that experience seasonal climate variability and dormancy, but in the tropics, these records are rare. Now, for the first time, scientists have documented consistent annual tree rings in a native species on Hawai’i. The history recorded in the ring widths could improve our understanding of the climate in the eastern tropical Pacific,  a region where much of the variability of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) originates.

  • August 20, 2015

    A new study says that global warming has measurably worsened the ongoing California drought. While scientists largely agree that natural weather variations have caused a lack of rain, an emerging consensus says that rising temperatures may be making things worse by driving moisture from plants and soil into the air. The new study is the first to estimate how much worse: as much as a quarter. The findings suggest that within a few decades, continually increasing temperatures and resulting moisture losses will push California into even more persistent aridity. The study appears this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

  • August 19, 2015

    The New Jersey shoreline that sea birds wandered during the last ice age is about 90 miles east of today’s beaches, tens of meters beneath the sea floor. As the ice melted, sea level gradually rose and flooded the coastal terrain, and sedimentation carried out its relentless burial of things past.

    This summer, a group of scientists spent several weeks aboard the R/V Marcus G. Langseth looking into that past. Using sound waves, they collected data that will be used to build 3D images of the sediment beneath the ocean floor. They hope to be able to peel back layers of the 3D images to see how coastal landscapes responded to rising sea levels and hurricanes through history.

  • August 18, 2015

    In the D’Entrecasteaux Islands off Papua New Guinea, the rocks are giving rise to new ideas about the ways in which mountain chains form. A new scientific model inspired by data from the islands shows how the seemingly opposite processes of tectonic compression and extension can take place in the same region.  It also shows how sections of earth’s crust that have been pushed deep under the surface can reverse course and rise in what in the geological time scale would be an instant. The model has implications for the understanding of how many mountain belts form.

  • August 17, 2015

    If you’re ever lost in a marsh and need to build a battery that can power LED lights, these teens can help you out. They can show you how to track the flow of nutrients into and out of a marsh, and how to take sediment samples and analyze them for carbon, methane or metals. They can also show you how to rehabilitate a marsh that has been overrun by invasive species – they just spent the summer working with scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Piermont Marsh putting all of these projects and their own hypotheses to the test.

  • August 11, 2015

    Dennis E. Hayes was a marine geophysicist who advanced mapping of the world’s ocean floors over five decades at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He died Aug. 6 at the age of 86.

     

  • August 10, 2015
    In his new book The Disaster Profiteers, Lamont-Doherty professor John Mutter argues that natural disasters can devastate the poor – while the rich may profit.

     

  • August 05, 2015

    It is only recently that scientists learned of the existence of glacial earthquakes–measurable seismic rumblings produced as massive chunks fall off the fronts of advancing glaciers into the ocean. In Greenland, these quakes have grown sevenfold over the last two decades and they are advancing northward, suggesting that ice loss is increasing as climate warms. But exactly what drives the quakes has been poorly understood. Now, a new study elucidating the quakes’ mechanics may give scientists a way to measure ice loss remotely, and thus refine predictions of future sea-level rise. The study appears this week in the early online edition of the leading journal Science.

  • July 17, 2015

    The climate over the tropical Pacific is in an extreme state at the moment. That explains some of the extreme anomalies affecting the United States right now. It also gives us a window through which we can glimpse how even more dramatic and long-term climates of the distant past might have worked, and – in the most radical scenarios, unlikely but impossible to rule out entirely – how much more extreme future climate changes could occur.

  • July 16, 2015

    People living in areas of Pennsylvania where hydraulic fracturing is booming are suffering increasing rates of hospitalization, a new study says. The study is one of a small but growing number suggesting that the practice could be affecting human health. It appears this week in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

  • July 13, 2015

    International health experts have called it the largest mass poisoning in history, and it is still underway. Some 100 million people in southeast Asia have been drinking from shallow wells originally drilled to provide germ-free water; but many turned out to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic.

  • July 01, 2015

    Stephen Sparks, one of the world’s foremost experts on volcanoes, received the Vetlesen Prize for his groundbreaking scientific work at a ceremony held June 24 at Columbia University. Two-hundred-fifty people attended the formal gathering in the Low Library Rotunda.

  • June 11, 2015

    A new study of tree rings from Mongolia dating back more than 1,000 years confirms that recent warming in central Asia has no parallel in any known record. In recent decades, temperatures have been ascending more rapidly here than in much of the world, but scientists have lacked much evidence to put the trend into a long-term context. The study does not explicitly raise the issue of human-induced warming, but is sure to be seen as one more piece of evidence that it is at work. The study appears in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

  • June 11, 2015

    Climate change has become fertile ground for both scientists and artists, with its potential to reshape landscapes as well as human civilization itself.

    Two women investigating climate change from different perspectives—Christine McCarthy, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Denise Iris, a multimedia artist from Brooklyn—had a chance to spend several days together recently. In the Rock Mechanics Lab at Lamont, where McCarthy works, and a nearby “cold room” chilled to the climate of an industrial freezer, they exchanged notes on two ways of looking at ice.

  • May 26, 2015

    H. James Simpson, a geochemist who pioneered important studies of water pollutants in the Hudson River and abroad, died May 10. He had been affiliated with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory for 50 years. The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said his family; he was 72.

  • May 20, 2015

    Scientists working in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya have found stone tools dating back 3.3 million years, long before the advent of modern humans, and by far the oldest such artifacts yet discovered. The tools, whose makers may or may not have been some sort of human ancestor, push the known date of such tools back by 700,000 years; they also may challenge the notion that our own most direct ancestors were the first to bang two rocks together to create a new technology.

  • May 20, 2015

    Since the late 1990s, global warming has stabilized, even as greenhouse gases have risen. That defies simple models that say the temperature should keep going up. Many scientists think the so-called “hiatus” is taking place in part because much of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being soaked up and stored by the oceans–at least for now. The Pacific is believed to play an especially powerful role, with winds in its eastern regions sweeping heat into its depths, like dirt getting swept under the rug. The problem is, scientists checking under the rug by measuring subsurface temperatures have not necessarily found the predicted increases in heat. This has come to be known as the riddle of the “missing heat.” A team of oceanographers now says they know where it went: It has been exported from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Their study, out this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, finds that this movement may account for more than 70 percent of all heat absorbed by the entire upper world ocean in the past decade.

  • May 18, 2015

    Any researcher can attest to the fact that a scientific figure is worth more than a thousand words. A single figure can encompass years of work: arduous treks across the open ocean or to the far corners of the earth, hours toiling in the lab, more hours fussing in front of Adobe Illustrator. Those figures are the backbones of scientific publications, they’re projected on big screens at conferences and dissected at journal clubs, but rarely do we take a step back to consider the inherent artistry in the figures created to convey the science.

     

     

  • May 14, 2015

    Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for every living organism, well known for its role in fueling everything from the human body to farm fields. But up to now, surprisingly little has been known about how the element cycles through the oceans. A new study has broken through some of this mystery, by showing the hidden role that the oceans’ tiniest creatures play. The study appears this week in the leading journal Science.

  • May 12, 2015

    A new study shows that ozone pollution in the western United States can be increased by La Niña, a natural weather cycle at the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Scientists have come to recognize that La Niña and its opposite phase, El Niño, affect various kinds of weather around the world; the ozone finding is first to show that it also directly affects pollution. The study appears in the current issue of the journal Nature Communications.

  • April 27, 2015

    Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has signed a $35 million, five-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to manage scientific support services for U.S. scientists studying the world’s ocean floors. Lamont will use the award to manage U.S. scientific support services for the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), a 26-nation collaboration that explores earth’s geologic history and dynamics via the seafloors. The award, the result of a national competition conducted by NSF, was announced today at a press conference by Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester/Rockland counties), and top Lamont staff.

  • April 14, 2015

    Tiny Iceland is a prime exemplar of the complexities wrought by warming climate. It is 11 percent covered by ice, but it is basically also one very large, very active volcanic system. The island has seen fast-increasing temperatures since the 1970s, and glaciers–a big source of tourism and runoff for hydropower–are visibly receding. This cuts various ways. Iceland gets almost all its electricity and heat from hydropower and geothermal wells. Increased glacial runoff means increased generation potential; on the other hand, in 50 or 100 years, Iceland may be mostly land and very little ice, and the runoff could dry up.

  • March 06, 2015
    A Toronto-based company has been convicted of selling illegal ivory in the first case to use a technique for dating ivory developed by a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in collaboration with other colleagues.
     
  • February 12, 2015

    During the second half of the 21st century, the U.S. Southwest and Great Plains will face persistent drought worse than anything seen in times ancient or modern, with the drying conditions “driven primarily” by human-induced global warming, a new study predicts.

  • February 05, 2015

    Vast ranges of volcanoes hidden under the oceans are presumed by scientists to be the gentle giants of the planet, oozing lava at slow, steady rates along mid-ocean ridges. But a new study shows that they flare up on strikingly regular cycles, ranging from two weeks to 100,000 years—and, that they erupt almost exclusively during the first six months of each year. The pulses—apparently tied to short- and long-term changes in earth’s orbit, and to sea levels--may help trigger natural climate swings. Scientists have already speculated that volcanic cycles on land emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide might influence climate; but up to now there was no evidence from submarine volcanoes. The findings suggest that models of earth’s natural climate dynamics, and by extension human-influenced climate change, may have to be adjusted. The study appears this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

  • January 30, 2015

    Naturally occurring arsenic in private wells threatens people in many U.S. states and parts of Canada, according to a package of a dozen scientific papers to be published next week. The studies, focused mainly on New England but applicable elsewhere, say private wells present continuing risks due to almost nonexistent regulation in most states, homeowner inaction and inadequate mitigation measures. The reports also shed new light on the geologic mechanisms behind the contamination. The studies come amid new evidence that even low doses of arsenic may reduce IQ in children, in addition to well documented risks of heart disease, cancer and reduced lung function. The reports comprise a special section in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

  • January 28, 2015

    Ice ages come and go. So do pulses of volcanic eruptions on land and at sea, maybe, on roughly the same time scale. Could the two be related? A recent two-week oceanographic expedition aimed to find out. The overarching hypothesis: As water accumulates on land in the form of massive ice sheets, the pressure of the overlying ice puts a lid on volcanoes. A corresponding drop in sea level allows volcanic vents on the seafloor to let loose. Then, when the planet warms, causing ice to melt and sea levels to rise, hydrothermal venting is suppressed, while volcanoes on land become more active.

  • January 20, 2015

    Volcanoes can have multiple personalities, peaceful one minute, explosive the next. A geologist who has untangled these complicated states on land and at sea, improving our ability to see deadly eruptions coming, will receive the 2015 Vetlesen Prize. Stephen Sparks, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol, will be awarded a medal and $250,000 at a ceremony in New York in June.

 

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