October 11, 2016


Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor

The Challenge

One of the greatest challenges facing coastal economies and ecosystems is the rising sea level when temperatures warm and polar ice sheets melt. As sea levels rise, the water degrades coastlines, encroaches on cities, businesses, and homes, and affects the health and sustainability of economically valuable estuaries and coral reef ecosystems. For the first time, an institution is assembling a team of experts across the wide range of disciplines needed to understand holistically how sea level and coastlines changed in the past, what is driving the current ice sheet changes, and how fast sea level will rise in the future.

The Initiative

The goal of the Changing Ice, Changing Coastlines initiative is to understand how fast sea level will rise in the coming decades by quantifying the past, measuring the present, and forecasting the future so humanity has the knowledge it needs to prepare and respond. The initiative’s scientists will focus on determining how, why, and at what rate ice volume changed in the past; collecting critical data to better understand how ice sheets flow, deform, and melt, and how sea level responds; and using observations, historic data, and our understanding of modern processes to improve model projections of the magnitude and rate of future sea level rise and its impact on the coasts. Our teams of scientists and engineers will launch major expeditions to both poles, mapping changing ice and hidden terrains using aircraft, research vessels, and drones. They will deploy novel instruments to measure how ice is flowing and melting and how warm water is moving. With strategically placed ice cores and sediment cores, we will answer key questions about how fast and by how much the ice sheets changed the last time the planet warmed. Using high-performance computers, we can create models of the processes that control how the ice sheets work, as well as the response of ice sheets to warming and the geological coastal response triggered by rising seas, to provide long-term projections that can help coastal residents and communities plan.

What’s Needed

The initiative requires investment in cross-disciplinary projects, targeted hires, and new collaborative space that brings together a multidisciplinary group of scientists for engineering projects, offices, and meeting rooms. The recruitment of research and teaching scholars is underway. We are deepening our expertise in remote sensing, ice sheet modeling, and mantle-crustal geodynamics, as well as adding post-doctoral scientists and junior research faculty. The work also requires investment in instrumentation, infrastructure, and computing for new observing capacity to study how and why the ice sheets are changing, acquiring critical records of past sea level change, and developing the ice sheet and geologic coastal modeling capability necessary to build on paleo and process-based studies.

Why Lamont?

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was the first to map the complete ocean floor and the first to explain the role of ocean circulation in abrupt climate changes, and for over 65 years has combined multi-disciplinary expertise across Earth, oceans, ice, and atmosphere to advance understanding of global warming. It has the scientific expertise and data collection and analysis capabilities in sea ice, mountain glaciers, atmosphere, crust and mantle, oceans, and sea level to lead this global effort.