Accelerating Climate Solutions Through Novel Research

June 28, 2019

By Rebecca Fowler

The Center for Climate and Life supports novel, risky research that leads to climate action. Based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and representing nearly 120 climate and ocean scientists, the center directs philanthropic support to fund promising, impactful science.

Through its Fellows Program, the center mobilizes Columbia researchers across disciplines, institutes, and ranks to conduct research that advances understanding of how climate impacts food, water, shelter, health, and energy. Fellows are selected competitively and receive funding at the level of one-third their annual salary for up to three years, with additional funding for research travel and fieldwork.

Between 2016 and 2018, the Center for Climate and Life awarded $2.1 million in funding to 10 leading scientists who are bringing a fresh perspective to one of the most pressing issues of our times.

The 10 Center for Climate and Life Fellows appointed between 2016 and 2018.

Michael Puma, a NASA GISS scientist and one of the center’s first Fellows, said of the program: “In my view, the Fellows Program is one of the most important and effective climate-related programs at Columbia. The fellowship I received has been transformative for my career. I’ve been able to make substantial advances in our understanding of the structure of the global food system and key vulnerabilities, from groundwater depletion to unanticipated trade restrictions.”

Here are some of the other ways our fellows are providing new insights into the impacts of climate change.

Improving Tropical Cyclone Risk Assessment

Chia-Ying Lee, an atmospheric scientist at Lamont, studies tropical cyclones to learn more about their structure and intensity evolution, and how these are influenced by natural and anthropogenic climate change. Lee is examining how wind field asymmetries and variability impact tropical cyclone risk and how these can be included in risk models. Her research will result in improved understanding of tropical cyclone risk, allowing societies to better plan for the impacts of tropical cyclones and minimize losses.

Exploring Tropical Forests in a Warming World

Research by scientists like Laia Andreu-Hayles, a tree-ring scientist and Center for Climate and Life Fellow, is helping us understand and respond to climate change. (Photo: Kevin Anchukaitis)

Laia Andreu-Hayles, a Lamont tree-ring scientist, received funding from the Center for Climate and Life to collect and develop tree-ring records for tropical forests in Bolivia and Peru. Her project will provide much-needed observational climate data for the region and information about the climate sensitivity of tropical tree species. It will also improve insight into how highly vulnerable tropical ecosystems are changing, and how these changes may affect ecosystem services and water resources on local and global scales.

“Despite the unknowns about what we might find, we know our results will be interesting and it’s going to add a lot of information to what we know about trees in the tropics, so I’m grateful to receive funding from the Center for Climate and Life for this research,” Andreau-Hayles said.

Understanding Earth’s Geologic History

Pratigya Polissar, a Lamont organic geochemist, is mapping vegetation history using molecular fossils to examine how climate shapes Earth’s ecosystems. As part of the project, he’ll compare recent vegetation histories with existing records of climate to illuminate the contributing factors to particular vegetation transitions. The likely culprits for these defining events were a combination of changing temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and the distribution of rainfall—all parameters being altered today due to greenhouse warming. His findings will help map out how ecosystems and human food supplies may be affected in the near future.

Bridging the Gap Between Weather and Climate

Andrew Robertson is a climate scientist and head of the Climate Group at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. He’s creating a real-time forecasting system, sub-seasonal to seasonal (S2S), that can predict sub-seasonal weather and climate fluctuations for the time period of about a week to a month ahead. The forecast will be issued each week in a probability format relevant to the risk of floods, droughts, heat and cold waves, and other societal impacts. Being able to forecast this range will provide essential early warnings that can help societies adapt to and become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

“The funding from the Center for Climate and Life has helped me greatly by allowing me to devote more energy to advancing my work on S2S forecasting. It helps me fulfill my role as co-chair of the World Weather & World Climate Research Programmes’ S2S project, an effort that has stimulated a lot of research activity in this new forecasting range in the past few years,” Robertson said.

Illuminating Greenland Ice Sheet Instability

Eastern Greenland. (Photo: NASA IceBridge/Jefferson Beck and Maria-José Viñas)

Joerg Schaefer and Gisela Winckler, Lamont geochemists, are developing a more detailed picture of the past, present, and future of the Greenland ice sheet. The goals of their project are to produce the first comprehensive direct record of the past dynamics of the Greenland ice sheet, an update on sea level predictions and the first analysis of its impact on societies. This project builds on their recent research, which indicates that Greenland was nearly de-glaciated for extended periods of time around two million years ago and makes the case that the Greenland ice sheet is highly vulnerable to climate change.

“It’s really important that frameworks like the Center for Climate and Life exist right now. Climate change is a completely interdisciplinary problem. The older and more experienced you get as a scientist, the more interested you become in actually connecting to the solutions side. The center helps us do that,” Schaefer said.

Using Tree Ring Records to Decode Earth’s Climate History

Ed Cook is one of the founding directors of the Lamont Tree-Ring Laboratory. During his 43 years at Lamont, Cook has used tree rings to decode past climate patterns and advance understanding of drought. Part of his work is devoted to developing “drought atlases” or extensive, centuries-long records of wet and dry periods for a given region, derived from the data contained in tree rings. He and his colleagues published the first of these, the North American Drought Atlas, in 2004, followed by the Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas, published in 2010, and the Old World Drought Atlas and Eastern Australia and New Zealand Drought Atlas, both published in 2015.

Cook received funding from the Center for Climate and Life to develop a more comprehensive Northern Hemisphere Drought Atlas, which will add to what we know about the causes of drought, how it impacted people and the environment in the past, and what its impacts might be in the future.

Visit the Center for Climate and Life website to meet each of our Fellows. Read more about recent highlights from the Center for Climate and Life in our 2016-2018 Biennial Report.