Research News from 2013

38 news release for this year.

  • December 12, 2013
    Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.

     

  • December 05, 2013

    The jury is still out on how tropical storms will change as climate warms, but rising sea levels will almost certainly place more coastal property at risk of flooding, says a team of scientists writing in the journal Nature.

  • December 02, 2013

    The public is bombarded by information about Earth’s changing climate almost daily, but the people studying the climate system are rarely seen. The Climate Models wall calendar, which provides a unique look behind the science, intends to change that in 2014.

  • November 25, 2013

    Two longtime oceanographers at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Arnold Gordon and Walter Pitman, have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and will be formally recognized at the association’s annual meeting in Chicago in February.

  • November 18, 2013

    U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) received the Science Coalition’s Champion of Science Award on Monday in recognition of her commitment to funding the basic research that keeps the United States and New York at the forefront of innovation in science, medicine and technology.  The award was presented jointly by officials from three Science Coalition universities, Columbia, NYU, and Pace, at an event at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

  • November 11, 2013

    Tourists flock to Italy to see Michelangelo’s David and other iconic hunks of Renaissance stone, but in a trip over spring break, a group of Columbia students got to visit rocks that have shaped the world in even more profound ways. In the limestone outcrops of Italy’s Apennine Mountains, geologist Walter Alvarez collected some of the earliest evidence that a massive fireball falling from space some 66 million years ago was responsible for killing off the dinosaurs. Geologists have trekked to the region since then to study that catastrophic event as well as others imprinted in these rocks.

     

  • November 08, 2013

    The Sahara wasn’t always a desert. Trees and grasslands dominated the landscape from roughly 10,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago. Then, abruptly, the climate changed, and north Africa began to dry out.

    Previous research has suggested that the end of the African Humid Period came gradually, over thousands of years, but a study published last month in Science says it took just a few hundred. The shift was initially triggered by more sunlight falling on Earth’s northern hemisphere, as Earth’s cyclic orientation toward the sun changed. But how that orbital change caused North Africa to dry out so fast–in 100 to 200 years, says the study–is a matter of debate.

  • November 07, 2013

    Most earthquakes erupt suddenly from faults near Earth’s surface, and the big ones can topple cities. But miles below, rocks heated to the consistency of wax moving over thousands to millions of years may be the driving force behind some of these events.

  • October 28, 2013

    A recent slowdown in global warming has led some skeptics to renew their claims that industrial carbon emissions are not causing a century-long rise in Earth’s surface temperatures. But rather than letting humans off the hook, a new study in the leading journal Science adds support to the idea that the oceans are taking up some of the excess heat, at least for the moment. In a reconstruction of Pacific Ocean temperatures in the last 10,000 years, researchers have found that its middle depths have warmed 15 times faster in the last 60 years than they did during apparent natural warming cycles in the previous 10,000. 

  • October 11, 2013

    The small town of Barrow, Alaska is perched on a point of land 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, where stark, flat tundra stretches in one direction and a vast expanse of Arctic Ocean extends to the horizon in the other. For most of the year a thick layer of sea ice covers this entire ocean. Even during the height of summer, a partial covering of ice remains, and the ocean temperature doesn’t rise above 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite these seemingly inhospitable conditions, tiny marine organisms thrive in this frigid environment.

  • September 23, 2013

    As humans continue to heat the planet, a northward shift of Earth’s wind and rain belts could make a broad swath of regions drier, including the Middle East, American West and Amazonia, while making Monsoon Asia and equatorial Africa wetter, says a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

     

     

  • September 11, 2013

    Naturally occurring arsenic pollutes wells across the world, especially in south and southeast Asia, where an estimated 100 million people are exposed to levels that can cause heart, liver and kidney problems, diabetes and cancer. Now, scientists working in Vietnam have shown that massive pumping of groundwater from a clean aquifer is slowly but surely drawing the poison into the water. The study, done near the capital city of Hanoi, confirms suspicions that booming water usage there and elsewhere could eventually threaten millions more people. The study appears in the current issue of the leading journal Nature

     

     

  • September 10, 2013

    A massive landslide in Alaska’s snowy Wrangell-St. Elias mountain range in July may have been caused by a summer heat wave making some slopes more vulnerable to collapse, says the scientist who first discovered the avalanche.

  • August 08, 2013

    In the northern hemisphere, ice sheets ebb and flow in 100,000-year cycles, driven by varying amounts of sunlight falling on Earth’s surface as its orbit and orientation toward the sun changes. But astronomical variations alone cannot explain why ice ages develop gradually but end quickly, in a few thousand years. Though the last ice age saw several peak-periods of sunlight, it was the last one—about 10,000 years ago—that caused the ice to withdraw from much of Europe and North America.

  • August 06, 2013

    The global treaty that headed off destruction of earth’s protective ozone layer has also prevented major disruption of global rainfall patterns, even though that was not a motivation for the treaty, according to a new study in the Journal of Climate.

  • July 31, 2013

    If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica’s Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica’s largest stratovolcano was triggered by magma rising from the mantle over a few short months, rather than thousands of years or more, as many scientists have thought. The study is the latest to suggest that deep, hot magma can set off an eruption fairly quickly, potentially providing an extra tool for detecting an oncoming volcanic disaster.

     

     

  • July 22, 2013
    The East Antarctic Ice Sheet repeatedly melted back several hundred miles inland during several warming periods 3 million to 5 million years ago in the Pliocene Epoch, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience.
     
  • July 17, 2013

    The risk of catching some nasty germ in the Hudson River just started looking nastier.  Disease-causing microbes have long been found swimming there, but now researchers have documented antibiotic-resistant strains in specific spots, from the Tappan Zee Bridge to lower Manhattan. The microbes identified are resistant to ampicillin and tetracycline, drugs commonly used to treat ear infections, pneumonia, salmonella and other ailments. The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Water and Health.

     

  • July 11, 2013

    Large earthquakes from distant parts of the globe are setting off tremors around waste-fluid injection wells in the central United States, says a new study. Furthermore, such triggering of minor quakes by distant events could be precursors to larger events at sites where pressure from waste injection has pushed faults close to failure, say researchers.

  • July 10, 2013

    The desert sultanate of Oman is home to some of the weirdest—and possibly most useful—rocks on earth. The stark Hajar mountains, near the border with Saudi Arabia, contain a chunk of earth’s mantle—a zone that makes up most of earth’s mass, but normally lies inaccessible to humans, far below the surface. Here, though, a sliver of mantle has made its way up to where we can see and touch it. The outcrop has drawn scientists looking for clues to the dynamics of the deep earth; the origins of life; and, most recently, ways to fight climate change.

  • July 09, 2013

    A new study in the journal Nature provides fresh insight into deep-earth processes driving apart huge sections of the earth’s crust. The process, called rifting, mostly takes place on seabeds, but can be seen in a few places on land—nowhere more visibly than in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. (See the slideshow below.) Here, earthquakes and volcanoes have rent the surface over some 30 million years, forming part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. What causes this, and does it resemble the processes on the seafloor, as many geologists think?

     

     

  • July 01, 2013

    Nearly 25 years after an international ban was placed on ivory, African elephants are being slaughtered at a rate that could bring about their extinction this century. By allowing the trade of ivory acquired before 1989 to continue, the ban put the burden on law enforcement to distinguish between legal ivory and poached. Now, a new method for dating elephant tusks, described in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could make it easier to enforce the ivory ban and save the African elephant from extermination say researchers. The method might also be applied to endangered rhinoceroses and other wildlife.

  • June 11, 2013

    Smaller than a speck of dust, Emiliania huxleyi plays an outsized role in the world’s seas. Ranging from the polar oceans to the tropics, these free-floating photosynthetic algae remove carbon dioxide from the air, help supply the oxygen that we breathe, and form the base of marine food chains. When they proliferate, their massive turquoise blooms are visible from space.

    Now scientists have discovered one of the keys to E. huxleyi’s success. A seven-year effort by 75 researchers from 12 countries to map its genome has revealed a set of core genes that mix and match with a set of variable genes that likely allows E. huxleyi, orEhux, to adapt to different environments. Their results are described in the latest issue of Nature.

     

     

  • June 06, 2013

    Twice humans have witnessed the wasting of snow and ice from Peru’s tallest volcano, Nevado Coropuna—In the waning of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, and today, as industrial carbon dioxide in the air raises temperatures again. As in the past, Coropuna’s retreating glaciers figure prominently in the lives of people below.

     

  • May 29, 2013

    During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped.  But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

  • May 13, 2013

    Eight hundred years ago, relatively small armies of mounted warriors suddenly exploded outward from the cold, arid high-elevation grasslands of Mongolia, and conquered the largest contiguous empire in history. Led by Genghis Khan and his sons and grandsons, the Mongols briefly ruled most of modern-day Russia, China, Korea, southeast Asia, Persia, India, the Middle East and eastern Europe. They reshaped world geography, culture and history in ways that still resound today. How did they do it? Among the forces at work: the Mongols’ fast horses and brilliant cavalry tactics; their openness to new technologies; and the political genius of Genghis himself. Now, a research group is looking into a possible other factor: climate change. The idea may have implications not only for our understanding of history, but for modern Mongolia and the wider world.

  • May 07, 2013

    After John Diebold, an enormously popular and influential marine scientist, died suddenly in summer 2010, friends and family resolved to erect a memorial to him.

    During a long career at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Diebold had spent seven or so of his 66 years at sea on all the world’s oceans, and many more preparing for cruises and writing up results. Those who cared about him settled on a handmade bench, made of red oak carved to look like driftwood, joined with salvaged nautical-looking pieces of iron, all weighing about a ton.

  • May 01, 2013

    Mark Cane, an expert on the El Niño climate pattern, and Terry Plank, an authority on explosive volcanoes—both scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory--have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Membership in the National Academy, given for excellence in original scientific work, is one of the highest honors awarded to engineers and scientists in the United States.

  • April 22, 2013
    Fueled by industrial greenhouse gas emissions, Earth’s climate warmed more between 1971 and 2000 than during any other three-decade interval in the last 1,400 years, according new regional temperature reconstructions covering all seven continents.  This period of manmade global warming, which continues today, reversed a natural cooling trend that lasted several hundred years, according to results published in the journal Nature Geoscience by more than 80 scientists from 24 nations analyzing climate data from tree rings, pollen, cave formations, ice cores, lake and ocean sediments, and historical records from around the world.
  • March 26, 2013

    A new study in the journal Geology is the latest to tie a string of unusual earthquakes, in this case, in central Oklahoma, to the injection of wastewater deep underground. Researchers now say that the magnitude 5.7 earthquake near Prague, Okla., on Nov. 6, 2011, may also be the largest ever linked to wastewater injection. Felt as far away as Milwaukee, more than 800 miles away, the quake—the biggest ever recorded in Oklahoma--destroyed 14 homes, buckled a federal highway and left two people injured. Small earthquakes continue to be recorded in the area.

  • March 20, 2013

    Scientists examining evidence across the world from New Jersey to North Africa say they have linked the abrupt disappearance of half of earth’s species 200 million years ago to a precisely dated set of gigantic volcanic eruptions. The eruptions may have caused climate changes so sudden that many creatures were unable to adapt—possibly on a pace similar to that of human-influenced climate warming today. The extinction opened the way for dinosaurs to evolve and dominate the planet for the next 135 million years, before they, too, were wiped out in a later planetary cataclysm.

  • March 11, 2013

    A delay in the summer monsoon rains that fall over the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico is expected in the coming decades according to a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research.  The North American monsoon delivers as much as 70 percent of the region’s annual rainfall, watering crops and rangelands for an estimated 20 million people.

  • February 27, 2013

    Earth Institute research expeditions investigating the dynamics of the planet on all levels take place on every continent and every ocean. Below: selected projects in rough chronological order, and resources to learn more about them. Work in and around New York City is listed separately at bottom. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our main research center,  Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and are often run in collaboration with other institutions. For expedition blogs written from the field, see our Features archive.

  • February 12, 2013

    A nuclear test explosion set off last night by North Korea was far larger—perhaps by three or four times—than the country’s last known blast, say seismologists who have examined seismic waves coming from the site. The estimate suggests that the North Koreans are making steady progress toward building more forceful weapons.

  • January 31, 2013

    An oceanographer who has painstakingly collected measurements from each of the world’s oceans to understand how the oceans move heat and freshwater around the planet to influence climate is the winner of the 2013 Prince Albert 1 Medal for outstanding contributions to oceanography, given by the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Ocean (IAPSO).

  • January 16, 2013

    Louise Rosen, a senior manager in Columbia University’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations, has been named director of a new office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that will oversee fundraising, communications, education and strategic initiatives. She will start the new position on Feb. 11.

  • January 14, 2013
    An American atmospheric chemist who led efforts to identify the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole and a French geochemist who extracted the longest-yet climate record from polar ice cores have won the prestigious Vetlesen Prize. Susan Solomon and Jean Jouzel will share the $250,000 award, considered to be the earth sciences’ equivalent of a Nobel.
     
  • January 09, 2013

    As earth’s climate warms, scientists have tried to understand why the poles are heating up two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. Airborne dust, it turns out, may play a key role.

    In a new study in Nature Climate Change, researchers show that at the peak of the last ice age, some 21,000 years ago, the poles were 10 times dustier than today, while areas closer to the equator had twice as much dust. During this time of extreme cold, New York City was under two miles of ice and up to 12 degrees F colder than today while Greenland was about 45 degrees F colder. The study’s authors suggest that higher atmospheric dust concentrations at the poles during the last ice age helped to cool earth’s surface and prevent snow and sea ice from melting during summer.
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