Lamont Weekly Report, April 17, 2020

    Results from this year’s National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship competition have been a topic in this report series for each of the last two weeks. This week, one more applicant to next year’s class of graduate students in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who received one of NSF’s fellowships announced that she has accepted the department’s offer of admission. Tess Jacobson, a physics major at Princeton who has conducted research at the Princeton Environmental Institute on the influence of volcanic eruptions on rainfall in the Sahel, plans to work at Lamont next year with Richard Seager.

    Richard had a noteworthy week for a second reason. He was interviewed by Adam Sobel for episode 5 of Deep Convection, Adam’s recent initiative to describe the lives and work of prominent climate scientists in their own words. In the posted conversation, more than an hour in length, Richard “talks about what will happen to the tropical Pacific under global warming (and why the climate models are wrong about that), about his passion for jazz and how it once led him to bike home at 1 am from Manchester to Liverpool after seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra, about the Green New Deal, the power of imagination, and combining science and art.”

    On Monday the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences posted online a paper coauthored by Park Williams and Sha Zhou on the influence of water availability on late-season photosynthesis in a warming climate. The paper, led by Yao Zhang from the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, argued on the basis of remote sensing and in situ observations that water availability is regulated by both soil water and mean annual temperature. Given the atmospheric warming and soil drying predicted by climate models for much of Earth’s surface, water availability will become increasingly important as a limiting factor for late-season photosynthesis, an important contributor to annual total carbon fixation.

    PNAS also published online, last week, a paper coauthored by Erin Black on how best to parameterize the depth dependence of the marine biological carbon pump (BCP), which governs carbon sequestration in the oceans. In contrast to the common practice of referencing particulate organic carbon (POC) flux to a fixed reference depth to estimate BCP efficiency, the paper’s authors – led by Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – showed on the basis of a new compilation of POC fluxes in the upper ocean that a more reliable reference level is the depth to the base of the sunlit euphotic zone. In particular, the fixed-depth approach underestimates BCP efficiency when the euphotic zone is confined to shallow depths, and the reverse is true for a deep euphotic zone. Adoption of this improved reference level will sharpen regional estimates of BCP efficiency and global carbon budgets.

    The April issue of Lab Manager magazine includes an article on the Lamont Core Repository. Filling three full pages and with multiple photographs, the article was written on the basis of an interview with and tour by repository curator Nichole Anest.

    The R/V Marcus Langseth stopped briefly in American Samoa on Tuesday to pick up provisions and several small shipments, and the ship sailed the same day to begin a three-week transit to Newport, Oregon. Sean Higgins reports that all onboard are in good health.

    On Wednesday, The Cryosphere published a paper led by Marco Tedesco on the unusual atmospheric conditions that contributed to record or near-record melting and mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet last summer. From a combination of remote sensing observations, regional climate models, and artificial neural networks, Marco and Xavier Fettweis from the University of Liége showed that the atmosphere over Greenland in the 2019 summer was marked by exceptionally persistent anticyclonic conditions that led to fewer than normal clouds, low snowfall, lower than normal surface albedo, and greater absorption of solar radiation by the ice sheet in the south; and favored the advection of warm-moist air and the formation of heat-trapping clouds in the north. This combination of conditions was unprecedented over the past 70 years of observations. A Sarah Fecht press release on the paper’s findings appears on our web page, and the story was carried by CNBC and other media.

    Yesterday morning, Art Lerner-Lam, Edie Miller, Karen Lai, and I joined Alex Halliday, Alison Miller, and Rafayel Nagdimov from the Earth Institute at a meeting with Interim Provost Ira Katznelson, Executive Vice President for Finance and Information Technology Anne Sullivan, Vice President for Budget and Financial Planning Nancy Johnson, and members of their staff. At the meeting we presented a financial and strategic overview of the Earth Institute and the Observatory, and we summarized budget projections for this fiscal year and next as well as the many financial challenges ahead, including those exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

    In today’s issue of Science magazine is a paper by Park Williams, Ed Cook, Jason Smerdon, Ben Cook, Kasey Bolles, Seung Baek, and colleagues on the current drought in southwestern North America. From hydrological modeling and a new record of summer soil moisture reconstructed from tree-ring observations, Park and his coauthors demonstrated that the period 2000-2018 was the second driest 19-year period for that region in the past 1200 years. (The driest was a megadrought in the late 1500s.) The current drought is in part a product of natural variability, but from an ensemble of climate models the authors concluded that approximately 50% of the drought severity has been the result of anthropogenic warming. In other words, global emissions of greenhouse gases pushed what would have been only a moderate drought into one of the worst megadroughts in the region in more than a millennium. A Kevin Krajick press release was posted yesterday, and the story was picked up by The New York Times and other media.

    A weekly e-mail alert from Eos today drew my attention to an article led by Ben Keisling that describes a graduate-student-led program, begun at the School of Earth Science and Sustainability and the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst two and a half years ago, to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion among seminar speakers invited to their campus. A group of our own grad students pushed for such a program last year, and in the fall we established a fund to cover the travel costs of speakers from underrepresented backgrounds and groups with marginalized identities to visit Lamont, meet with students, and give talks in each of our divisional seminar series. The coronavirus pandemic cut short those seminar series this year, but we will add the unutilized portion of those travel funds from this year to next year’s allotment of new funds to ensure that a vigorous program of diverse speakers will continue, once restrictions on travel and gathering in public spaces have been lifted.

    Also today is the traditional First-Year Symposium, a program of 15-minute presentations on the research interests of our first-year graduate students. The symposium, organized by Kevin Schwarzwald and Madankui Tao, is being run as a remote meeting via Zoom. In addition to Kevin and Madankui, presenters include Casey Ivanovich, Shannon Bohman, Celeste Pallone, Ingrid Izaguirre, Caroline Juang, Ludda Ludwig, Maria Rosabelle Ong, Andrew Hollyday, and Jingyi Zhuang.

    Wednesday of next week will be Earth Day and the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970. In anticipation of Earth Day, Lamont and the Earth Institute have posted short video interviews with a number of our scientists, and a series of virtual events before, on, and during Earth Day are planned. In particular, on Earth Day itself, Mo Raymo will be a speaker during a session starting at 10 am entitled Earth Day 50/50: Looking Back, Moving Forward; Laurel Zaima will be featured in an EI Live episode starting at 2 pm on Microplastics, Mega Impact; and Adam Sobel will be a speaker during a session starting at 4:30 pm entitled Climate, Environment, and the Politics of Public Trust.

    In the meantime, there will be a virtual Town Hall at 2 pm this afternoon to provide updates on the status of the campus and ongoing efforts to plan an eventual ramp-up of on-campus research activities. The session will be conducted as a Zoom webinar, and there will be ample time for participants to ask questions. I hope that many of you will be able to join the discussion.