Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork, 2016 and Beyond

February 2, 2016

Click on the image to see a map detailing our Earth science fieldwork.

On every continent and ocean, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory field researchers are studying the dynamics of climate, geology, natural hazards and ecology, and their practical applications to modern problems. Below are some of their expeditions in rough chronological order. Work in and around New York City and the U.S. Northeast is listed separately toward bottom. Use the interactive world map above to explore these projects.


SAMPLING A BARREN SEA: Chemistry research cruise, South Pacific, JAN 2016
Grad students Frankie Pavia and Sebastian Vivancos join in a cruise from Chile to New Zealand, across the most remote parts of the south Pacific. Here, the waters are clear and relatively barren of life, allowing light to penetrate deeply. They will study chemical elements in the water and how they get there, including inputs from floating dust and hydrothermal vents, to try and determine input and removal rates of metals and trace elements from the ocean. This is crucial to our understanding of ocean life and past climates. Because the region is so large and remote, it is likely one of the last places on earth to observe these processes without the complications of human influence.  Expedition blog

transantarcticSECRETS OF POLAR ROCKS: Geology research, Antarctica interior, JAN 2016
Antarctica is almost entirely covered with ice, but deep in the interior, the barren Transantarctic mountains rise above the frozen landscape. Geologists including Michael Kaplan have been camped in this forbidding territory since November 2015 in order to study the outcrops. Their main goal is to establish the history of ice retreat and resurgence in the continent’s interior by analyzing isotopes and other qualities of the rocks. This should help scientists understand how the continent may react to changing climate today. To access their field sites, the geologists travel long distances on foot and by snowmobile.

MELTING ECOSYSTEMS: Biology research, Antarctic Peninsula, JAN-FEB 2016
For nearly 40 years, scientists have monitored the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of earth’s fastest-warming regions. As part of a global network of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations, researchers have witnessed stunning changes: a sea-ice season now three months shorter; steep declines in krill production and penguin populations. Hugh Ducklo, a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty, is lead investigator of the LTER Project. With Lamont oceanographer Doug Martinson, Ducklow and others will spend six weeks on an icebreaker studying biota and the physical qualities of the water. Last year, the program added a new team, studying Antarctic whales.  Story on recent work on the peninsula / Recent team paper on ecological changes

MISSISSIPPI SINKING: Coring and ground monitoring, Louisiana delta, JAN-FEB 2016
The Mississippi River delta is sinking fast; every hour, a football field’s worth of land disappears under the Gulf of Mexico. Dams and levees now prevent upstream sediment from replenishing delta sediments, which naturally compact and sink, and ongoing sea-level rise worsens things. But scientists are still struggling to come up with accurate models of what will happen in the future. One question: To what extent is the earth’s underlying deeper crust itself sinking? In order to get a better picture, a team including Lamont-Doherty geophysicist Michael Steckler will drill four deep wells and install in them instruments to monitor the tiniest ground motions in real time. They will also drill out a 40-meter core of sediment to provide a record of past sinkage. The study is relevant to other sinking deltas, including in India and Bangladesh.  What Went Wrong With the Delta  

DEEP WATERS, DEEP HISTORY: Seafloor coring off southern Africa, JAN 31-MARCH 31, 2016
Scientists aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution will drill deep into the seabed at six sites off South Africa and Mozambique to collect sediments built up over the last 5 million years. The aim is to uncover the story of shifting African climate and its possible connection with global ocean circulation–a connection that may have influenced human evolution. Co-chief scientist Sidney Hemming will study layers blown or washed in from land, to try and understand changes in rainfall and runoff, and changes in the deep, powerful Agulhas Current that could be related. The cruise is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program.  Expedition web pages / Hemming’s blog

Recent work in densely populated Bangladesh has shown that geologic stresses  could cause huge earthquakes, tsunamis and sudden shifts in the courses of great rivers. To deepen understanding, seismologists Leonardo Seeber, Belle Philibosianand Paul Betka will map related faults and river sediments in adjoining mountainous areas of northeast India and western Myanmar, some of which may have been riven by past quakes. Meanwhile, along the Bangladesh coast, marine geologist Cecilia McHugh and colleagues will study evidence of a great 1762 earthquake and associated tsunami that they have discovered in earlier excavations.   Watch a documentary about the project / Project website / Project blog / Science magazine article

EXPLORING AN EXPLOSIVE MOUNTAIN: Geology studies, Quizapu volcano, Chile, FEB 9-19, 2016
Chile is to volcanoes what Wall Street is to finance; a tenth of the planet’s 1,500 active volcanoes are here. Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht leads a trip for American and Chilean students and researchers to Quizapu volcano, south of Santiago. The sprawling, largely barren 3,800-meter-high Quizapu complex has produced some of South America’s biggest eruptions of the last 100 years, and is home to a dazzling variety of volcanic landscapes: craters, hot springs, evolving ore deposits, and the remains of past big lava flows and explosions. The trip is aimed at both bringing back useful samples, and increasing collaboration between Columbia scientists and their Chilean counterparts. Travel will be on foot and horseback. Smithsonian page on Quizapu / Ruprecht paper on Quizapu

TROPICAL SUMMITS’ SHAPE-SHIFTING: Mapping and rock sampling, Costa Rica, EARLY FEB-LATE MAR 2016
Many tropical mountains have the same shape: steep slopes, capped by relatively flat summits. Graduate student Maxwell Cunningham and scientists Colin Stark and Mike Kaplan want to know if mountain glaciers during the last ice age helped to sculpt these summits. They have been trekking to Costa Rica’s highest peak, 12,000-foot Mount Chirripó, to help answer this question. Camped near the summit, where temperatures plunge to freezing at night, and days are often hot and damp, they are mapping the landscape on foot (frequent cloud cover makes satellite imaging difficult) and collecting rock samples. They plan to return to Chirripó and explore nearby peaks. Similar research may take place in Papua New Guinea, in August.   Photo Essay / Project blog

CO2 CAPTURE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA: Geologic fieldwork and drilling, Oman, FEB-MAR 2016
In the desert nation of Oman, masses of rock from earth’s mantle have been thrust to the surface—the Samail Ophiolite. Scientists have recognized that such rocks from the deep earth naturally take up large amounts of atmospheric carbon and convert it to solid minerals. A team is studying ways to pump excess man-made CO2 into such formations, to combat global warming. Geochemists Peter Kelemen and Juerg Matter have been mapping sites where natural carbonation can be seen on the desert floor, in canyons and in excavations. Next, they plan to drill several deep boreholes to further refine their understanding. Artificial injection and sequestration of carbon could eventually follow.  Video / Columbia Magazine feature / Oman Drilling Project webpages

LOST UNDERWATER CAVE WORLD: Excavations and tree-ring studies, western Belize, MAY 2016 (pending funding)
The lowlands of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula hold vast water-filled cave systems pricked at the surface by cenotes—caverns with collapsed roofs, leading to the depths below. The Maya used them as shrines, and many contain artifacts. The cenotes also preserve remains of ancient trees, extinct animals and other objects that have fallen in over the ages. Tree-ring scientist and diver Brendan Buckley will help explore cenotes in forested western Belize, in an expedition led by University of Illinois archeologist Lisa Lucero. Pools as deep as 200 feet may shed light on climates and environments of the distant past, as well as on disappeared civilizations. Buckley will later continue west to the Belize highlands, where he hopes to search for very old living conifers in remote forests. Buckley’s work on ancient southeast Asia / Lucero’s Cara Blanca blog / Video of dives / USA Today article on Cara Blanca

HSOUTHERN FORESTS ON THE THRESHOLD: Tree responses to climate, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, TBD
Bioclimatologist A. Park Williams and colleagues are studying the potential response to warming climate of forests in the Mississippi River Valley and Ozark mountains—among the continent’s richest and most diverse. This region has not seen the rapid warming and drying that is destroying forests further west, but climate change is expected to catch up soon, and these forests may be highly vulnerable. The researchers are using tree rings, field surveys and remote sensing to determine various species’ responses to past shifts, especially the extreme heat and drought of 2011-2012. If warming proceeds as anticipated, the composition of forests here could shift dramatically.  Article on Williams’s work in the U.S. Southwest / Williams talks to Rolling Stone on the fate of forests

ARCTIC ANIMALS ON THE MOVE: Tagging migratory birds and other animals, northern Alberta, APRIL 2016-18
North America’s boreal forests are warming three times faster than the global average, and the sudden change is devastating many trees. But little is known about the effects on wildlife. A consortium of U.S. and Canadian researchers has put satellite position trackers on widely migrating animals including eagles, caribou, wolves and bears, and is building a database of their movements in relation to wildfires, insect infestations, changing snow cover and presence of predators in these fast-changing landscapes. Ecologist Natalie Boelman is studying American robins; in April, she and a grad student head to the Slave Lake area of northern Alberta to capture and tag birds, then turn them loose to see where they go. It is thought that some may end up breeding as far away as Alaska and the Yukon. More birds will be tagged in succeeding years. RelatedBoelman’s tundra ecology work in Alaska

CREATURES OF THE DEEP: Mapping seafloor vents, South Pacific, APRIL 2016
Marine geologist Vicky Ferrini and a group of biologists will sail from Fiji to Tonga to study the western Pacific’s Lau Basin hydrothermal vent field. The field has some unusual geological features, and is home to deep-sea creatures not seen elsewhere. It has not been visited for 10 years, and the scientists hope to gather data about its long-term evolution and ecology. Ferrini will lead high-resolution mapping of the study area, using an ROV. Project carried out on the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor. Project description 

MYSTERIOUS ERUPTION: Geology fieldwork and fossil hunting, New Hampshire, MAY or JUNE/JULY 2016, and Bolivia, DEC-JAN 2016/2017
Unusual igneous rocks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains have been studied for years—yet geologists still disagree on how they formed, and when. Grad student Sean Kinney will make several transects on foot to collect specimens for analysis with newly precise dating methods that may help solve the puzzle. He believes they may be part of a vast series of eruptions that split what is now the western hemisphere from Europe and Africa some 200 million years ago—a catastrophe thought to have cleared the way for the dominance of dinosaurs. Paleontologist Paul Olsen will hunt for fossils in an apparent old volcanic crater lakebed that has never been prospected. In winter, Kinney and Olsen plan to sample what may be the southernmost exposure of these rocks, southwest of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which also may hold unexplored fossil beds.  Megavolcanoes and the dinosaurs

GIANT LANDSLIDES, HEARD BUT UNSEEN: Geology fieldwork, Alaska, MAY and AUGUST 2016
Seismologists Colin Stark and Goran Ekstrom have invented a new technique that uses seismic waves to detect landslides in remote areas where they might otherwise go unrecorded. On Oct. 17, 2015, they detected North America’s largest known non-volcanic slide—some 200 million tons of rock falling into Taan Fjord, Alaska. Satellite imagery later confirmed the slide and a resulting huge tsunami, but no one has yet visited. In concert with the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service, Stark and Ekstrom will visit and assess the slide’s impact. Traveling by foot, boat and aircraft, they will map the extent of slide deposits, areas scoured by the tsunami, and the newly altered bathymetry of the fjord. Climate change may be implicated; worldwide, nearly half the slides they have located were in fast-warming Alaska, where rapid melting of glaciers in fjords is removing the ice that once held up the steep rock walls.  Finding Landslides With Seismicity

HIGH IMPACT: Search for meteorite craters, western Russia, LATE MAY 2016, and Madagascar, SEPT 2016 (TBD)
A 2013 destructive meteor explosion over Russia was a wake-up call that big impacts may be more common than thought. Geologist Dallas Abbott travels the world looking for hidden craters; only about 170 are known, but she believes many more lie camouflaged. She has been working with Russian colleagues near the city of Nizhny Novgorod to explore several unusually deep elliptical lakes as possible candidates. Previously, the team surveyed topography and did excavations revealing fragmented rocks that may have been shocked by some great force, but so far evidence is inconclusive. In May, they will continue working here and possibly expand to other sites. In September, Abbott hopes to return to sites where she previously worked on the east coast of Madagascar. Here, gigantic dunes appear to preserve physical and geochemical evidence of a tsunami some 10,000 years ago that could have been set off by a meteorite striking the Indian Ocean. In the next phase, she hopes to look for transported boulders that would bolster her hypothesis.  Atlantic article on Abbott’s work / NY Times article on Abbott’s research off east Africa / National Geographic piece on recent Madagascar findings

85ARSENIC IN THE WATER: Geological and agricultural research, Bangladesh, MAY 2016; Vietnam, MAY-JUNE 2016; Utah, FALL 2016
Naturally occurring arsenic in well water is found across southeast Asia and parts of the United States. Despite efforts since the 1990s to address this, many people are still exposed. As part of a long-term project in  Bangladesh, in May geochemist Alexander van Geen and colleagues will visit farmers who have experimentally replaced arsenic-laced soils in their fields, to study the effects. In May-June, van Geen and geochemist Ben Bostick will conduct drilling near Hanoi, to study undergrond arsenic plumes drawing closer to the city water supply. In fall, the scientists hope to test out special coring tools in Utah, in conjunction with two dozen researchers visiting from the worst-hit Asian nations with whom they work.  Videos and story on Asian geological and health studies  / Arsenic pollution near Hanoi / U.S. wells tainted by arsenic

EVOLUTION ON THE PLAINS: Excavations and climate studies, southwest Kansas, JUNE 2016
Postdoctoral researcher Kevin Uno will head with colleagues to the fossil-rich Meade Basin in southwestern Kansas, at the edge of the High Plains. Here, in rocks spanning the last 5 million years, they are trying to understand what drove the evolution of western mammals. Did changes in climate or ecosystems play a role? Uno will dig out ancient river sediments and floodplain deposits from outcrop. From isotopic fingerprints in ancient plant matter, he can then reconstruct the basin’s past vegetation, and thus precipitation and temperatures. Other team members will collect additional geochemical indicators. Bob Martin, a paleontologist at Murray State University, will lead a search for small-rodent fossils. The team will also trap and release modern rodents to collect hair samples for comparative analysis in the lab.

UNDERBELLY OF AN ICE SHEET: Seismic studies, Greenland, JUNE 1-21, 2016
The rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet is being intensively studied, but scientists know almost nothing about the rock base on which it rests—a missing wild-card factor that could affect its behavior in any future scenario of sea-level rise. A team led by seismologist Meredith Nettles has planted instruments across the sheet, aimed at imaging the rocks far below, and listening  to “glacial earthquakes,” which are generated when the ice moves. Working from near the very top of Greenland, Nettles and a grad student will travel by aircraft to pick up instruments put out in previous years, and retrieve their data. Among the mysteries they hope to investigate: an apparent giant volcanic caldera whose heat may be hastening melting of the ice from below. Glacial earthquakes / Greenland Ice Sheet Monitoring Network

DE-ICING CENTRAL ASIA:  Altai mountains, western Mongolia, JULY 2016
Much of mountainous central Asia, where glaciers feed water to hundreds of millions of people, is warming faster than the rest of the world; thus it is important to understand how future climate may affect the ice. Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam (an adjunct professor at Lamont-Doherty and assistant professor at the University of Maine) will lead an expedition to the rugged Khoton Nuur region, at the foot of the Altai mountains, where landforms left by receding glaciers at the end of the last ice age are exceedingly well preserved. He and his team will chisel or blast off samples of boulders dropped by the ice for high-precision dating. By mapping out past positions of glaciers, he and colleagues hope to add to the understanding of how natural changes in earth’s orbit and carbon-dioxide levels influence climate. Done in conjunction with Mongolian colleagues; work in succeeding years will explore sites in the eastern Himalayas of China and Tibet.

FUTURE OF THE GREENLAND ICE: Sampling lakebeds and rock outcrops, southwest Greenland and Baffin Island, JULY-AUG 2016
The vast Greenland ice sheet appears to be melting—but temperature is only half of the climate equation. The other half is snowfall, and under some scenarios, snow could increase with warming, and eventually bolster the ice. In order to make better projections, a team including climate scientist Nicolás Young is starting a three-year project to study how temperature and precipitation combined have affected the ice sheet over the past 8,000 years. Young and colleagues will sample rocks and lakebed sediments around the ice sheet’s edges, and analyze them for signals that the ice advanced or retreated when times were colder or warmer. The team will access remote sites by helicopter, and camp in the field. In a related project, Young and glacial geologist Joerg Schaefer will study rocks on neighboring Baffin Island for signs of shorter-term shifts in the ice 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, when the climate was briefly similar to today.  Article on project

MELTDOWN IN EUROPE: Studies of glacial water supplies, France and Switzerland,  LATE SUMMER 2016
Half of France’s electricity depends on the flow of the Rhone River, which powers hydro dams and supplies coolant for nuclear plants. But Switzerland’s Rhone glacier, whose meltwater supplies almost all the warm-weather flow, is disappearing. Will this turn out the lights? Already, during heat waves in 2003 and 2006, lower water levels and higher water temperatures forced several nuclear plants to shut. A team including Lamont glacial geologist Joerg Schaefer and Columbia Water Center hydrologist Pierre Gentine is evaluating how the system may be affected. Their preliminary findings are gloomy: The glacier appears to be far more sensitive to changes in temperature than precipitation, and meltwater discharge has been declining for a century. The research is related to a similar project in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, which also taps glaciers for power.  Project web page

STOREHOUSE ON THE TUNDRA: Studies of bog vegetation, northern Alaska, JULY-AUG 2016
For thousands of years, plants that make up arctic peat bogs have soaked up vast amounts of carbon dioxide and stored it, as dead plant matter builds up. With warming climate, tundra vegetation types are shifting—but it is not clear whether the net effect will be more carbon storage, or less—a vital question for global climate projections. Paleoclimatologists Jonathan Nichols and Dorothy Peteet are studying both peat and living plants, and their ability to store carbon in climates past and present. This year’s fieldwork will focus mostly on sampling living plants near the Toolik Lake Field Station, on Alaska’s North Slope.  Video on bog project

TREELINE ON THE MOVE: Plant/soil/weather surveys, northern Alaska and Northwest Territories, JUNE and FALL 2016 and 2017
Across the fast-warming arctic and subarctic, tree seedlings are taking root and advancing the 13,400-kilometer-long treeline into open tundra. This portends huge changes in northern ecology, and the carbon budget of the planet. In a new project, scientists are trying to integrate remote-sensing data with observations on the ground to understand how microclimate, soil and other factors involved are influencing movement of the treeline in various locations. In early June, a team including plant physiologist Kevin Griffin and ecologist Natalie Boelman will make a wide variety of measurements in roadside plots along northern Alaska’s Dalton Highway. In fall, they will do similar work near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, at the edge of Canada’s central tundra. The field sites are all accessible by road and foot. In collaboration with the University of Idaho, Duke University and the Canadian Forest Service.  Project abstract / Tundra ecology website

australia coast 1A GLOBAL MAP OF PAST (AND FUTURE?) SEA LEVELS: Coastal geology, southeast Australia and Namibia, SUMMER 2016
In order to project how high seas may rise in the face of modern climate change, scientists must gauge what oceans did in past natural climate swings. But measurements of past sea levels may confounded by the fact that coastal land itself may have moved up or down over the eons. Geologist Maureen Raymo is co-leading a project to map ancient beaches across the world and adjust for such factors. Her team is focusing on a period some 3 million years ago, when CO2 levels were identical to those today. In June, Raymo and grad student Michael Sandstrom will investigate ancient marine terraces now on dry land along the southeast coast of Australia, taking precise measurements of beach positions and sampling fossils. A similar project is planned along the desert coast of Namibia, southern Africa, for later in the summer. Pliocene Maximum Sea Level (PLIOMAX) web page / How High Could the Tide Go? (New York Times) / NY Times slideshow on the research 

MOST ANCIENT LIFE: Surveys of stromatolites, Wyoming, AUG 2016
Stromatolites are masses of rock thought to be the built-up byproducts of ancient photosynthetic bacteria in shallow waters. Southern Wyoming’s Green River formation has some of the most spectacular, 30 million to 50 million years old, rising 30 to 60 feet above a deeply eroded landscape. Geochemist Sidney Hemming and colleagues will spend two weeks studying the formations to refine understanding of how they were laid down, and when. Camped in the field, the team will map strata and take samples for later lab analysis. The work may apply to oil exploration, since stromatolites may produce petroleum when buried below the surface. The researchers also hope that the research can be used as an analog in the search for life in Mars’s Gale Crater, where, if life did exist in the past, the remains might resemble stromatolites.

corals-linsleyMONITORING CORAL VITAL SIGNS: Panama, Galapagos Islands, Haiti and central Pacific Ocean, MARCH-AUG 2016
Geochemist Wade McGillis has designed instruments that monitor the metabolisms of coral reefs in real time. These are shedding light on how corals are reacting to rising sea temperatures, ocean acidity and pollutants. In March, he will work on western Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí reefs, near the coastal town of Pixvae, which has seen very warm water temperatures recently. In May, he will work in inland Haiti, finding and measuring water sources coming from mountain caves created from relict coral reefs. In July, he will study reefs off the Galapagos Islands’ Darwin Island (living mainly on a boat). In August, he visits one of the few systems not yet affected by humans, off the Pacific atoll of Palmyra. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has asked McGillis to look into manufacturing the instruments on a larger scale so they can be used to also monitor sea grass, mangroves and bottom mud in various places.  Line Islands Corals

CALIFORNIA’S MOUNTAIN WATER SOURCES: Studies of glacial geology and lake sediments, Sierra Nevada, AUG 2016
Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam and colleagues in hydrology and climate are working in the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California to collect samples of lake sediments and boulders showing past advances and retreats of glaciers. The goal is to establish the sensitivity of snow and ice to changes in temperature and precipitation, and how this may affect water supply at lower elevations. The studies apply directly to the ongoing California drought, and the mountains’ snowpack, recently declined to record low levels.  Declining snow threatens water supplies / Climate and the California Drought

LIFE AND DEATH BEFORE DINOSAURS: Geology and fossil hunting, China, APRIL 2016; United Kingdom, MAY 2016; Bolivia, FALL 2016
Lamont paleontologist Paul Olsen studies mass extinctions of the distant past. He is especially interested in farflung evidence of a drastic climate switch 200 million years ago that cleared the way for the rise of dinosaurs. In April, he will join an expedition with Chinese colleagues to the  Junngar Basin desert in northwest China to drill through fossil-rich rocks some 200 million years old. In May, he and paleomagnetism expert Dennis Kent will return to previous field sites in the exposed sea cliffs of western England and Wales, where they have found promising material. In September, Olsen hopes to visit upland Bolivia to explore a horizon of sedimentary rock wedged between two volcanic layers that has yet to be prospected for fossils.  Fieldwork in the United Kingdom / Fieldwork in Arizona

Central Mexico is strung with dangerous explosive volcanoes, but their magma sources are not fully understood. In 2016, geochemist Susanne Straub hopes to continue previous work of ascending active high peaks to collect samples of lava and tephra for analysis. At elevations up to 4,400 meters, sites prospectively include Malinche, Pico de Orizaba and Sierra Negra volcanoes. The collections are aimed at testing the idea that the volcanoes are fueled when parts of earth’s crust sink and mix with material from the mantle, further down. This may shed light on how explosive magmas form, move upward, and how long it takes to build to an eruption.  Smithsonian page on Volcano Popocatepetl

bhutan-rupper-300x225THREATENED ICE: Field geology and glaciology, Bhutan, LATE SPRING/FALL 2017
Many Himalayan glaciers are receding, endangering water supplies and hydropower for 1.3 billion people downstream. Big meltwater lakes are also  building behind leaky natural dams that may burst and kill people downstream. An interdisciplinary project seeks to predict future glacial dynamics and water flow in Bhutan. In 2017, a team including geochemist Joerg Schaefer will study rocks and landforms around glaciers to determine past climate conditions that have led to advances and retreats. This will be collated with other data including tree rings taken by Lamont dendrochronologist Edward Cook and colleagues at lower elevations. Work involves long-distance trekking over difficult terrain. New York Times blog from the 2012 expedition / Read an article about the project




DEEP IN A BOG: Coring of lakes, marshes and bogs, northern New Jersey and Catskill Mountains,   JAN-JUNE 2016
Paleoecologists Dorothy Peteet and Jonathan Nichols are creating a chronology of the New York region’s environment over the past 20,000 years, using cores of sediment from lake bottoms, marshes and bogs from northern New Jersey to the Catskills. The cores contain pollen, plant remains, charcoal and other clues to climate and vegetation since the end of the last ice age 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. This winter, they hope to core New Jersey’s Budd Lake, at the state’s highest point. In warmer weather, they will drill to bedrock through an ancient bog in the high Catskills near Maplecrest, N.Y. The work addresses questions about long-term natural climate change, as well as how farming, logging, industry and introduction of invasive plants in the last 400 years have affected the area. Article on Peteet’s work

The 1,320-square-mile Long Island Sound is heavily crisscrossed by vessels on its surface, and by energy and communications lines on its bottom—yet existing charts predate modern technology. A team including marine geologist Frank Nitsche has been mapping the seafloor and sub-seafloor in new detail over the last few years. The maps will give a newly detailed picture of both the topography and the makeup of the bottom tens of meters below the bed. This should improve the safety of navigation and management of natural habitats. The researchers will use sonar pulses to create images, and may also take cores from the bottom. Cruises on a University of Stony Brook vessel will last one to five days, concentrating this year on the eastern sound. Long Island Sound Seafloor Mapping website

POISONED BY ARSENIC: Testing of wells and behavioral/medical studies, northern New Jersey and Maine, ONGOING
Naturally occurring arsenic pollutes private wells serving as many as 3 million people in the United States, and the problem is not getting any better. This is in part due to nonexistent government regulation, and spotty efforts by homeowners to mitigate the problem. A team led by geochemist Yan Zheng is studying contamination and its implications in Maine and northern New Jersey, where arsenic is especially prevalent. Research includes studies of both geological and sociological factors. (Not surprisingly, lower-income people are less likely to be protected.)   An extensive program led by Columbia Professor Joseph Graziano has been studying the health effects, which may range from increased risk of cancer to lowered IQ in children.  Arsenic taints many U.S. wells 

BAD AIR AND BICYCLES: Real-time air quality monitoring via bikes, SPRING-FALL 2016 AND ONGOING
Biking is growing in New York City—but what are riders breathing in, and what are the health risks? In the first study of its kind, volunteer bikers are wearing sensors that measure soot, carbon monoxide and other pollutants bikers are inhaling in real time. Some will also wear heart-rate monitors and blood-pressure cuffs to measure short-term effects. In partnership with public radio station WNYC, the study is run by environmental health scientists Darby Jack and Patrick Kinney of the Mailman School for Public Health, and Steven Chillrud of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Some 150 bikers will carry sensors starting this spring. New Yorkers will soon be able to tap into a new smart-phone app that estimates air pollution in their current location.  What’s in the air as you cycle NYC? / NYC air quality phone app / Development of personal pollution monitors / Study on urban pollutants and asthma

bioswale2-199x300DOES GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE WORK? Monitoring water flow, Bronx streets and parks, ONGOING
New York has embarked on a $2.4 billion, 18-year program to install “green infrastructure” aimed at decreasing inflow to sewers, lowering summer temperatures and improving air quality; it may also increase biodiversity. It involves replacing impervious surfaces with vegetated “green” roofs, and street-side trees and plants. A team is monitoring results in the 4,160-acre Bronx River “sewershed,” one of 12 across the city. Students under project leader Patricia Culligan have installed instruments on newly vegetated streets to measure temperature, moisture and nutrients, from the lab via continuous signals, or through periodic site visits. Wade McGillis of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has put instruments into the Bronx River itself. Microbiologist Krista McGuire of Barnard College is studying fungi and other biota in soils. Columbia ecologist Matt Palmer is investigating plant and insect diversity. Other researchers are involved in the sociological, health and legal aspects.  Story on the Bronx green infrastructure project / Columbia magazine story

HUDSON RIVER SEWAGE: Water sampling by boat, ONGOING
In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, biologists are mapping the sources and fates of pathogenic sewage in the Hudson River. Sampling is done monthly using a small vessel, from Albany to New York harbor.  Water quality has improved dramatically in recent decades, but human waste still sweeps in, especially when rains swamp sewage-treatment systems. Tributaries with particular problems include New York City’s Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal; the Saw Mill River; Pocantico River; and the Sparkill, Roundout, Esopus and Catskill creeks. Investigators: Andrew Juhl, Greg O’MullanArticle on the project / Report on the project’s progress / Latest report on Hudson SewageArticle on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Hudson River

NEW YORK EARTHQUAKES: Seismometer installation and monitoring, ONGOING
From Central Park to the Canadian border, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory runs seismic instruments that monitor earthquakes in the U.S. Northeast. The region sees many small quakes (some 70 in 2015), and big ones may be an underappreciated threat to the New York metro area. The team monitors the network 24 hours a day, traveling frequently to repair and update instruments. Some newer ones have been installed near Albany, N.Y., where recent unusual tremors have been felt; and in the Adirondack Mountains, where quakes have long been routine. The Adirondacks’ crystalline rocks are extraordinarily good at transmitting seismicity, enabling the scientists to pick up earthquakes from across the world. Head of network: Won-Young KimLamont Cooperative Seismographic Network / Study on New York City earthquake risk / New York Times article on Albany tremors 

Excellent local oysters once populated New York City menus—but that was before waterways were overrun with pollution, shoreline construction and other depredations. The Billion Oyster Project is a long-term initiative to involve young New Yorkers in restoring New York’s marine environment by growing 1 billion oysters. Working with dozens of middle-school teachers, Lamont-Doherty scientist Bob Newton has designed protocols for monitoring oyster growth and marine conditions. Working at 32 shoreline sites, teachers and their students are now growing oysters on different kinds of substrates, and measuring water chemistry, wildlife and weather conditions, along with the oysters. A new cohort of teachers will be trained this February as the program expands. Program is in conjunction with a wide consortium of institutions.  Billion Oyster Project website



In northeast Pennsylvania, hydrofracking is dominating the landscape, and this could affect health. Off and on, geochemists Beizhan Yan and Steven Chillrud have been monitoring air in homes for volatiles, soot, metals and other substances, and sampling homeowners’ wells. Slideshow on the project / Columbia fracking experts

Spring 2016, seismologist Leonardo Seeber hopes to continue geological fieldwork in his native Calabria, where he and colleagues have been looking into how long-term tectonic stresses have contributed to the evolution of earthquake faults. Calabrian Arc blog

July-August 2016, oceanographers Andrew Juhl, Ajit Subramaniam and Andreas Thurnherr join a consortium of other researchers on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, as part of a larger long-term project to investigate the aftermath of the 2010 Macondo well explosion, along with the effects of natural oil seeps. Project website

Geologist Dennis Kent Kent may work with colleagues in China and Greece to date deposits relating to early migrations of proto-humans from Africa. Kent may also be involved in dating dispersal of dinosaurs into what is now east Greenland, and signs of a massive shift in earth’s polarity predating the dominance of dinosaurs, in Chile. Kent’s work to date on the earliest human tools

Indigenous people fear that a gold mine in the Enga province of Papua New Guinea is poisoning water and soil. Researchers from the  Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic have been documenting the problems. They hope to return this summer to advocate for national-level solutions. Led by AC4 director Joshua Fisher and Rights Clinic director Sarah Knuckey.  Story on the project

Paleoclimatologist Jonathan Nichols hopes later in the year to take cores from Borneo’s vast deposits of peat, to study how past El Niño cycles have affected carbon accumulation and wildfire there. In recent months, huge peat fires have broken out here and on neighboring islands, in part due to El Niño-linked dry weather, coating much of southeast Asia with smoke and sending greenhouse gases into the air.  El Niño resources

In May 2016, paleoclimatologist Pratigya Polissar may travel to Tibet to recover lake-sediment cores for analyses of how the Asian monsoon has varied over the past 15,000 years. In a related study, in June or July he may core lakes in the mountains of Colombia. 

August 2016, geomorphologist Colin Stark may travel to Papua New Guinea to investigate how glaciers have carved high-altitude peaks during the last ice age. Related to a similar project in Costa Rica, taking place in February-March.

The NASA-run Operation IceBridge uses aircraft flown at low levels over Greenland and Antarctica to observe how ice sheets are changing; plans still being made for 2016. Glaciologists Kirsty Tinto and Jim Cochran operate key instruments. NASA IceBridge website 

A team headed by Tinto, Robin Bell and Indrani Das is helping map west Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf as part of the three-year multi-institutional  ROSETTA project. The team is collecting data on the shelf, the ocean beneath and the seafloor at the shelf's base. This is aimed at understanding the ice shelf's sensitivity to ocean and atmospheric variability. Next flights are October/November 2016.  Ross Ice Shelf blog


Lamont-Doherty geologist/anthropologist Christopher Lepre works in the remote desert around northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, where many key fossils and artifacts related to human ancestry have been discovered. In 2015, he and colleagues announced they had found the world’s oldest known stone tools, dating back 3.5 million years.  World’s oldest stone tools

Tree-ring scientist Mathieu Levesque hopes to sample ancient oak and tulip trees in the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia in spring or summer 2016. These trees can be hundreds of years old, and hold valuable records of past regional rainfall and temperature, used in studies that put modern weather into perspective.  Southeast droughts in long-term context 

Polar scientist Marco Tedesco travels each summer to Greenland to investigate the changing qualities of the ice sheet’s surface, including snow-grain size, surface ice and dust or other impurities. These all can affect the sheet, which appears to be melting at an accelerating rate. Plans are still underway for the 2016 season. Article on Tedesco’s findings

Postdoctoral scientist David Porter has trained fishermen from a tiny village in Greenland’s Upernavik Islands to take profiles of water properties at the front of Alison glacier, which is actively surging forward and calving icebergs into the sea. The readings may help explain why the glacier is moving so fast. Porter hopes to return in summer 2016. Expedition blog

Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam may team up with Venezuelan scientists in summer 2017 to study the history of the country’s mountain glaciers. Some now fast-waning ice remains high up on 16,000-foot-plus peaks, but glaciers were once much more extensive. Past glacial advances have left boulders further downslope, which the scientists will sample and date to provide a long-term picture of climate since the last ice age in this rarely studied region.

A team including geologists Michael Steckler and Leonardo Seeber has been working for years with Turkish colleagues to map faults under the Marmara Sea that threaten to shake the great city of Istanbul. A 1999 quake along a related structure killed 30,000 people, and scientists fear this segment may be the next to go.  Project web page / US Geological Survey background

Geologist Enrico Bonatti and colleagues want to recover fragments of a bolide that exploded over the remote Siberian boreal forest in 1908—the largest known extraterrestrial impact in modern human times. It flattened many square miles of trees, but fragments of the object, if any survived, have never been found. They believe remains may lie in the beds of a series of lakes, and want to search by boat, pending funding.  2015 paper on the impact

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