News from the Columbia Climate School

A Journalist’s Guide to Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork

(Last updated Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011)   Earth Institute researchers work on every continent and every ocean; journalists are welcome to cover projects in the field or otherwise contact scientists.  Below: selected expeditions worldwide, in rough chronological order. (New York/Hudson Valley is listed separately.)  Journalists or employers must pay travel expenses. Photos, blogs and phone/email from field sites will be available in many cases.  Blogs are hosted on the State of the Planet site. This page is regularly updated here. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

For more info, contact researchers listed below; Kevin Krajick 212-854-9729; or Kim Martineau  845-365-8708.


BENEATH BANGLADESH: THE NEXT GREAT QUAKE?  Assessing Risk Nationwide     2011 thru 2015

After recent great quakes in Japan, Haiti and Sumatra, scientists are looking hard at the nation where some believe the gravest threat lies: Bangladesh, the most crowded place on earth. With more than 160 million people living on earth’s biggest river delta, close to sea level and surrounded by major tectonic boundaries, a big quake here could dwarf these other recent tragedies. There are signs that major quakes have taken place in the past, as well as evidence that tectonic forces have caused the mighty rivers that drain the Himalayas, which terminate here, to shift course suddenly and drown great swaths of land.  An ambitious new U.S.-funded five-year project led by seismologists at Lamont-Doherty Observatory and Dhaka University aims to understand the hazards–and possible hidden links among them.  The scientists are using multiple methods.  Lamont-Doherty seismologist Leonardo Seeber  has been traveling with Bangladeshi and Indian geologists to survey surface geology  in the seismically active Himalayan foothills. Further south, Lamont seismologist and overall leader Michael Steckler has installed advanced underground instruments to bolster GPS installations measuring surface movements. Team member Steven Goodbred (Vanderbilt University), who studies Bangladesh’s rivers, has started a program to hand-bore some 250 wells across the country, whose sediments should reveal hidden faults and records of past river movements and earthquakes. (For one thing, it is believed that huge sheets of water moving across the surface in rainy season could trigger earthquakes. For another, it appears that parts of Bangladesh, already severely endangered by climate-induced sea-level rise, are actually sinking faster than the sea is rising—a phenomenon that may quickly displace millions.) Improved seismic instruments and computers have been installed nationwide to pick up tiny tremors that should reveal the locations of faults buried under as much as 12 miles of delta sand and mud; Lamont seismologist Won-Young Kim periodically travels to service instruments and train technicians. Other future plans include boat surveys of riverbanks, and imaging of river bottoms using sound pulses from research vessels. Most fieldwork is done in dry season (spring), but team members are available year round. University of Dhaka contact: Syed Humayun Akhter,

Watch a documentary about the project

Project website

Science magazine article on the threat

Dhaka University seismology pages

ECOLOGY OF MENINGITIS   Air and Epidemiology Studies  Niger, Ghana, Senegal  FEB-MAR 2011

Some 400 million people living in the “meningitis belt” below the Sahara suffer infection rates 20 times those of other regions, devastating economies and families. Outbreaks come with dry, dusty spring weather, but no one knows exactly why. Research scientist Sylwia Trzaska of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and colleagues will try to get at this mystery by sampling air in three cities. Automatic sensors to be installed will make continuous records of atmospheric dust, humidity and other parameters; Trzaska will also visit clinics and health professionals on the front lines. Part of the larger multi-institution MERIT project to battle meningitis. Trzaska  is in Niamey, Niger, Feb. 11-18; Navrongo, Ghana , Feb.21-Mar. 2; and Niakhar, Senegal, Mar. 3-10.

Project description

Video on climate and health in Africa

Meningitis Environmental Risk Information Technologies (MERIT) sit


High alpine tropical ecosystems are very vulnerable to climate change because of their fragmented geography, fragile nature and fast-rising temperatures. Since 2004, a group spearheaded by Colombia’s Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia has worked in Los Nevados Natural Park, several hours from Medellin, at 4,000-4,500 meters, compiling weather data from ground sensors; sampling plants and trees; observing water and landscape changes; and recording fires. Such páramo regions, lying between treeline and receding glaciers, hold unique plants and creatures, and supply water to major cities. Work thus far suggests that clouds and humidity are thinning water bodies drying, and wildfires increasing; stressed-out plants and other biota may be moving toward summits, and thus facing extinction. The Earth Institute portion is led by Daniel Ruiz Carrascal of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Among other associates, dendrochronologist Laia Andreu is studying trees that grow just below the alpine zone. One-week trips go out about every three months (roughly February; May; August; October). Participants must acclimate to extreme elevations, and be ready to endure inclement weather. Future collaborations will help assess high-elevation biodiversity changes in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, under leadership of IRI Latin America director Walter Baethgen.

Watch a slideshow on the project

Los Nevados flora catalog/image gallery

Project blog post

TURNING CO2 TO STONE  Startup of Carbon-Sequestration Plant, Reykjavik, Iceland   MAR-DEC 2011

 Many scientists are working on schemes to capture and store carbon-dioxide emissions underground, but most so far would leave it there in liquid form, which some critics fear could eventually leak. Seeking a foolproof method, the Earth Institute and cooperating institutions are running the CarbFix project, now set to do the world’s first test of a system to turn excess CO2 into solid mineral, using natural chemical reactions underground. A geothermal power plant run by Reykjavik Energy will pump CO2 from its operations into a massive volcanic basalt formation below, where reactions with the rock are predicted to turn it into a carbonate, similar to limestone. Lamont-Doherty geochemist Wallace Broecker is one of the project’s originators; Lamont geochemists Juerg Matter and Martin Stute will be on hand for the startup, planned for early March. They will also be on hand for tests in succeeding months during spring and summer.

CarbFix project website

ARCTIC SCIENCE BY SUBMARINE Undersea Instruments Operated by the U.S. Navy  MAR 2011-ON

Civilian researchers and the Navy are reviving a long-dormant program using military resources including nuclear subs to study the fast-changing Arctic Ocean in areas that otherwise are inaccessible. In the 1990s, subs cruising below the sea ice provided much of the original data on the seabed and ice cover that formed our basic understanding of geology and ice trends there. The program languished after the end of the Cold War, but with sea ice now waning faster than ever and competitive claims to the seabed possibly opening, the SCICEX program (Science Ice Exercise) is being revived. Lamont-Doherty scientists, who helped run the original SCICEX, will help prepare researchers with the Navy’s Arctic Submarine Laboratory to take surface and underwater samples, and process the information. Geochemists Ray Sambrotto and Bill Smethie will coordinate sampling for nutrients, microbial abundance, oxygen and other biological and geochemical markers. They hope to learn about biological productivity and how it is changing in response to reduced summer ice cover, and to study the circulation and mixing of Arctic water masses, which are influenced by climate. As a first step, Naval researchers will set up on the sea ice north of Alaska in March to test instruments. Some parts of this operation are classified.

ClimateWire story on the project


Lamont-Doherty SCICEX site

DESIGNING WATER STORAGE FOR ARID AREAS Underground Storage, Koraro, Ethiopia   APRIL 2011

People in arid northern Ethiopia depend on scant rains for farming and drinking water.  In Koraro (pop. 55,000), researchers from the Columbia Water Center (CWC) have designed an innovative rainwater harvesting system that catches and stores water underground instead of letting it evaporate in traditional aboveground ponds. It has a network of small dams and a trench system to recharge aquifers by directing water to infiltrate the ground in strategic places. It appears to have already raised the local water table, which is being tapped for irrigation. In April, researchers from CWC and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) visit the project to do assessments and discuss with the community further work. Contact Dan Stellar (CWC) or Paul Block (IRI).  Koraro is part of the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project.

Program description

IRI video on the project

IS THE SOUTHWEST DRYING UP?   Geology/Paleontology Studies in Utah Caves   MAY 12-19, 2011
During cooler times, much of Utah was covered by a giant lake—now gone, leaving the forbidding Bonneville salt flats. What made the region dry? And is the booming Southwest already at the start of a catastrophic downturn in water supply due to climate change, as many scientists suspect? To understand the history and possible future, researchers will descend into a half-dozen caves to sample mineral deposits left by the previous lake waters, and correlate the ups and downs of water with past climate trends.  They will also analyze stalagmites, which record past rainfall patterns, and consider other evidence including old animal bones and archeological features. Visits will include well-known Cathedral Cave, Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park, and some lesser-known caverns further north. Carried out by Lamont geochemist David McGee <> , University of Arizona paleoclimatologist Jay Quade <> , and archeologist David Madsen of the University of Texas.  Some caving skills and equipment may be required.
Project web page <>
Read about the drying of the Southwest <>

FATE OF NORTHERN SEA ICE   Aircraft Landings and Sampling, Arctic Ocean   APRIL 25-MAY 20

Arctic summer sea ice is declining rapidly—a trend with enormous implications for global weather and climate. The multiyear Arctic Switchyard project, done in conjunction with the University of Washington and other institutions, is tracking the Arctic seascape all the way to the North Pole, and trying to distinguish the effects of natural climate variability from those of human-induced climate change. Scientists flying from the Canadian military base at Alert, Ellesmere Island, land on the ice by helicopter or ski plane to drill holes, deploy instruments and retrieve water samples. They measure the water’s temperature, salt content and levels of dissolved oxygen, and natural and manmade trace substances. A major aim is to reveal how much fresh water is entering the system—a flow that could alter ocean currents much further south. Lamont staff include William Smethie,  Ronny Friedrich and Dale Chayes.

Arctic Switchyard page

2010 expedition blog

SOUTHERN ITALY’S ORIGINS    Field  Geology, Apennine Mountains,  Calabria   MAY 2011

Lamont-Doherty geologists Leonardo Seeber and Meg Reitz will traverse the spectacular steep landscapes of northern Calabria, Italy, where the Apennine mountains are rising fast—the product of a complex collision of tectonic plates. Southern Italy is a good place to study the violent upheavals that have taken place in and around the Mediterranean over the last 12 million years, and which continue to plague the region via earthquakes and volcanoes.  The researchers will travel on foot, mapping features of the uplift, and collecting rocks. Part of long-term Calabrian Arc project, aimed at understanding the wider geologic history of the region.

2010 field season blog

Calabrian arc web page

Regional earthquake study page

Corriere della Sera interview with Seeber (in Italian)


DID A METEORITE BRING THE RISE OF DINOSAURS? Sampling of ancient rocks, Britain, Northern Ireland, Morocco  MAY 2-27, 2011/OCTOBER 2011

Some 200 million years ago, half of all species on earth died off—one of the greatest mass extinctions in planetary history, ushering in the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs arose from the ashes to rule the earth. Many scientists blame massive volcanic eruptions. Lamont geologists Paul Olsen and Dennis Kent go further, hypothesizing that the eruptions may have been triggered by a huge meteorite strike in what is now southwestern France. They are trying to nail down the so called Triassic-Jurassic Extinction by investigating rocks from the period in the UK, Morocco and the United States. This will involve fieldwork including collecting fossils and drilling out samples of stone to look for traces of iridium (a telltale element borne by meteorites). The UK part of the work takes place along various sites on the spectacular, fossil-rich cliffs of the Bristol Channel, and near Larne, Northern Ireland. (Some of the areas originally studied by early geologists then coming to grips with modern theories of time and evolution—but still holding much to be discovered, says Olsen.) After two weeks, Olsen goes to Morocco to sample similar rocks interlayered with giant tongues of lava, around Marrakesh, and the Oujda, along the Algerian border, with Moroccan colleagues. (He may return in September.) The team continues to study several sites in North America, including in the New York metropolitan area, where related clues have been found.

Recent paper on related research around New York

Rutgers U. press release on the research

Background on the Triassic-Jurassic Extinction

CLIMATE CHANGE AND TUNDRA LIFE  Surveys of Alaskan Plants, Insects, Birds   MAY 1-AUG 5, 2011

Ecologist Natalie Boelman is leading a five-year project on the North Slope of Alaska to study how warming climate may influence links among vegetation, insects and birds.  As climate warms, shrubs are taking over areas covered by low-lying plants, and life cycles of associated insects may be shifting, potentially affecting the many birds that breed here.  In May, working from the Toolik Lake research station, researchers will set up cameras to record snowmelt. As birds arrive in early June, they will count species; capture individuals to take blood samples and other data; study diet; and record nesting activities, as well as the abundance and life stages of plants and insects. A network of automated microphones will record abundance of songbirds via their calls–what Boelman calls a “bioacoustic network.” In a separate study, plant physiologist Kevin Griffin has a continuing project each June nearby to study various species’ response to different levels of CO2, temperature and soil nutrients, using experimental plots. He and colleagues have been using leaf samples, and chambers that measure respiration in living plants.  In another project running June-July, paleoecologists Dorothy Peteet and Jon Nichols pull up core samples of peat, in which pollen, seeds and isotopes show the ecology of past environments. In the longer term, they hope to cover the last 25,000 years by coring permafrost for fragments of ancient DNA. Other team members come from the University of California, Davis; and University of Texas, Arlington. Boelman will blog from the field.

Project website

Q&A with Boelman

Boelman’s field blog for The New York Times

Kevin Griffin on Whether Climate Is Changing Forests and Plants

CLIMATE AND THE FUTURE OF ANDEAN GLACIERS  Geologic fieldwork, southern Peru,  JUNE-JULY 2011 and 2012

Andean glaciers are the main source of water and hydropower for more than 30 million people, including those in the largest cities of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador–and like others worldwide, many seem to be pulling back due to warming climate. But here, glaciers’ responses seem complicated by localized factors including topography, moisture and clouds; and in part due to remoteness, the histories of Andean glaciers s are little known. Thus scientists are struggling to make realistic projections for what they may do in coming years. In order to understand how glaciers have responded to past climates and make practical predictions, Lamont-Doherty postdoc Gordon Bromley and colleagues are mapping, collecting and studying rocks from glacial moraines below the glaciated peaks of Coropuna and Allinccapac, in southern Peru. The geology is in conjunction with archeological fieldwork by Kurt Rademaker of the University of Maine, who is studying related effects of climate on human inhabitants in this region, which contains important high-elevation sites of the Inca and other civilizations. In conjunction with Lamont geochemists Gisela Winckler and Joerg Schaefer, Bromley will use newly precise techniques for dating times when ice cover pulled back and exposed rock to create cosmogenic isotopes of beryllium and helium. Further analysis of potential effects on water resources will be done in conjunction with the Columbia Water Center. Fieldwork will be carried out over about six weeks at elevations of about 15,000 feet, and may involve extensive hiking; weekly resupply trips are made to Arequipa. Bromley has been working here for years. (The Lamont glacial geology/cosmogenic dating group also works in many other places including New Zealand, the European Alps, Patagonia and Antarctica.)

Read the project blog

FAR NORTHERN CLIMATE AND TREES Tree Ring Study, Arctic Natl. Wildlife Refuge,  JULY-AUG 2011

With Alaska being one of the fastest-warming places on the globe, interior forests are suffering attacks of disease and insects, while the northern treeline may be advancing . This expedition takes scientists to the edge of the tundra, where they will study some of the northernmost trees on the continent. Researchers led by  Kevin Anchukaitis of the Lamont-Doherty Tree Ring Lab will sample rings from white spruces along the Firth and Sheenjak rivers in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This continues a project begun last year, when the researchers traveled the Alaska oil pipeline’s Haul Road north from Fairbanks to collect tree ring samples from the interior boreal forest. Combined with weather data, satellite observations and rings collected by others, the work should allow them to assess how trees are responding to recent warming-induced season changes; distinguish between manmade warming and natural warm events of the past; and see how changes in tree growth might influence the arctic and global environments in the future. Data is expected to span 1,000 years or more. Travel will be by aircraft; camping in the field required.

Read preliminary results of the study

Tree Ring Lab pages

ALASKA EARTHQUAKE HAZARD    Imaging a Major Undersea Fault by Land and Sea    JUNE 17-AUG 10 2011

Similar to the recent quake in Japan, a 1964 earthquake in southern Alaska shook the ground over a wide area, toppling buildings and triggering landslides and tsunamis that killed 128 people–at magnitude 9.2, the second-largest quake ever recorded. It came from a rapidly moving undersea subduction zone spanning Alaska to Russia, part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. In this project, seismologists aboard the seismic research vessel Marcus G. Langseth will create images of the fault and try to understand its potential for other giant quakes and tsunamis. The cruise will concentrate on an area that last ruptured in 1938—now believed to be well along in the cycle of building up enough strain to culminate in another dangerous quake. The expedition starts when scientists fly in to nine remote communities along the Alaskan Peninsula to place temporary seismometers, June 17-24. The cruise runs June 28-Aug 4, with a stop around July 12 at Kodiak. The ship works by sending pulses of sound into the seabed, and reading the echoes; the land instruments will also pick up the pulses. Aug. 5-10, the team returns to the peninsula to retrieve the seismic instruments. Led by Lamont seismologists Donna Shillington and Spahr Webb, and scientists from Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University.

Cruise plan

Aleutian Megathrust Experiment web page

Read the project blog

THE GULF OIL SPILL A YEAR LATER   Cruises to Test the Waters  July 2-14/July 14-27, 2011

Following the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, researchers return to see how the ecosystem is recovering. A range of activities will be carried out, led by principal investigators Joseph Montoya (Georgia Tech) and Tracy Villareal (University of Texas). Lamont-Doherty oceanographer Ajit Subramaniam specializes in understanding phytoplankton—the base of the food chain—and their interactions with ocean chemistry. He sampled the area last year, and hopes to draw key comparisons by repeating transects where he and colleagues found underwater plumes of oil and natural gas, and their degraded products, and depleted oxygen. Among other things, they hope to determine whether some of these products came from natural seabed oil seeps or fertilizers washed into the Gulf by the Mississippi River, rather than from the spill. Aboard the research vessel Endeavor, Subramaniam will collect and process water samples. A second ship, the Cape Hatteras, will sail nearby, scouting sampling locations. The larger focus of the cruise is nitrogen dynamics in the Gulf; nitrogen-fixing bacteria grow in abundance at the edge of the Gulf’s chronic “dead zone,” where excess fertilizer washed down by the Mississippi feeds huge oxygen-depleting plankton blooms. The ships start their first leg from Gulfport, Miss. starting July 2; they will dock at Gulfport July 14 to resupply, then leave the same day until July 27.

Read the Earth Institute’s Gulf Oil Spill Blog

FIRE HISTORY OF MONGOLIA   Studies of Old Trees, Ecology and Changing Climate AUGUST  2011

An interdisciplinary team of American and Mongolian scientists is unraveling the history of fires over the past 400 years across the steppes and taiga of Mongolia, and how this might relate to climate. Mongolia has suffered a rising incidence of wildfire, and heavy pressure on its grasslands from a growing population of herders. Many scientists project that warming climate may cause increased wildfires here and elsewhere in the world, but evidence is needed. The researchers will travel wide areas to collect tree rings and fire-scarred wood, and thus reconstruct wildfire occurrence and severity and identify climatic conditions that cause landscapes to change, driving fires and possibly other ecological shifts. This will supply practical information for land managers here and in related ecosystems across Asia facing similar challenges.  Lead investigator for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Tree Ring Lab is Neil Pederson.  Others come from West Virginia University, Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research and the National University of Mongolia.

Project website

The project’s Mongolian Climate, Ecology & Culture blog

AMAZONIA BURNING    Fire, Changing Land Use and Climate in Lowland Peru  AUGUST-SEPT. 2011

(Conference, Aug. 19-22, Lima/Pucallpa, Peru)

Researchers are tracking human-set fires in the Peruvian Amazon’s “burning season” in real time, using satellite images, local sources and their own eyes. They then go to the fires to study factors that determine why fires rage out of control and how big they get. Traditional small farmers here have used fire to clear land for centuries; but in recent years, escaped fires have become a major problem, destroying homes and farms.  This has happened as migrants flood the region, and humid forests are cleared for small farms and large-scale plantations of biofuels. If changing climate makes the Amazon drier, as projected, it will become worse; already two unusual droughts have been seen in the last five years. The study has wider implications, for the pattern seems to be being repeated in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere, and last year saw catastrophic fires from Russia to California. The work, done in the countryside around the frontier city of Pucallpa, involves walking in and around live fires, interviewing farmers, and doing transects of surrounding plant and forest communities. Based at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, field team includes  Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez; and Victor Guitierrez-Velez;  other team members are   Ruth deFries; Katia Fernandez; Walter Baethgen. In addition to fieldwork, this year the team and dozens of researchers from other institutions gather for a conference, “Fires in Western Amazonia,” Aug. 19-22, starting in Lima and ending in Pucallpa.

Documentary package on the issue, and the project

Fires in Western Amazon website

Aug. 19-22 conference agenda 

Read about wildfires and climate

Read about Amazon deforestation and fire

VOLCANOES, QUAKES AND ULTRA-DEEP ROCKS  Seismology/Geology, Papua New Guinea    AUG/SEPT-OCT 2011

Southeastern Papua New Guinea contains some of the most unusual–and dangerous–geology in the world: metamorphic rocks formed 100 kilometers or more below the surface, brought intact to the surface.Rich in gold and other minerals, these rocks are geologically young (about 8 million years) and still emerging. The processses conected to their exhumation comes along with abundant volcanism and small earthquakes. To understand the unusual deep-earth processes and the human risk,in 2010 seismologists set out about 30 temporary seismometers under the sea, along the coasts, and on islands, designed to register small quakes in great detail. This is allowing the scientists to “see” into the earth, and image active faults and boundaries between rock units. The scientists will be recovering the instruments this year, traveling by boat or helicopter. At the same time, a small team including volcano expert Phillipp Ruprecht will be collecting hardened lavas from volcanoes that have erupted in recent geologic time. With these samples, they hope to analyze chemistry that will tell them about the melting conditions far below, and shed light on the overall dynamic processes of this part of the world.  Chief scientist: Geoff Abers. Also participating: Jim Gaherty, Roger Buck, Terry Plank, and colleagues from the University of Papua New Guinea and the national geological survey.

Project web page 

Project fact sheet

WIRING A GIANT QUAKE ZONE  Deep-Sea Seismometers, U.S. Pacific Northwest  JULY-NOV 2011

The undersea Cascadia subduction zone produced a giant earthquake and tsunami in 1700, and another is expected some day–yet, it remains sparsely studied. Researchers will now for the first time place ocean-bottom seismometers along the zone off northern California, Washington and Oregon. The 70 instruments, developed and built by the Lamont-Doherty Ocean Bottom Seismology Lab, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will be dropped in waters up to a kilometer deep, and transmit data in real time to shore. The Lamont instruments—specially designed to resist damage inflicted by fishing trawlers on similar instruments in the past—will go out via vessel starting in July. During spring, final tests on them will be done at an old stone quarry in Suffern, N.Y., and off Long Island.

Ocean Bottom Seismograph Instrument Pool / Cascadia Initiative

Story in Nature

ANCIENT TREES AND MODERN DROUGHTS    Tree-Ring Studies, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky    FALL  2011
Old-growth trees are exceedingly rare in the eastern United States, but the few that exist are scientific treasures: they harbor rings that record temperature and precipitation year by year, and thus shed light on past climate trends. Diligent searches by the Tree Ring Lab at Lamont-Doherty Observatory have turned up specimen predating Columbus, from upstate New York to the southern states, on inaccessible cliffs, swamps, and protected forestlands. Their studies are showing important shifts. One major finding already: the U.S. east has experienced much larger droughts in the past than recorded in modern times, and should these return, the now huge population would suffer major shortages. In the latest work, Neil Pederson will take samples from many at Mammoth Cave National Park, in south-central Kentucky. Home to the world’s most extensive known cavern system, Mammoth Cave has some aboveground areas where old trees have survived in high, rocky areas, where they grow very slowly under harsh conditions, thus masking their true ages. Among those that are probably the oldest: chinquapin oaks, tulip poplars, black walnuts and red cedars. Samples are taken using coring tools that do not harm the trees; lab work to analyze the rings will follow.
Read about Pederson’s recent drought findings

Science magazine article on ancient East Coast trees

Tree Ring Lab web pages

Picture gallery of Mammoth Cave trees

OMAN: LOCKING CO2 INTO ROCK     Geologic Fieldwork, Test Boring      NOV 2011 or JAN 2012

The desert nation of Oman is home to spectacular natural carbonate mineral formations—a clue, some scientists believe, to how people may artificially remove excess carbon dioxide from the air and turn it to stone. Oman is underlain by peridotite, a normally deep-earth rock that here lies near the surface, and which reacts rapidly with water and CO2, causing it to form solid minerals.  Geochemists Peter Kelemen and Juerg Matter are exploring the resulting deposits and underlying rocks at springs, road cuts, irrigation tunnels and other sites, to understand better how the natural process works, and how it might be harnessed to lock in manmade CO2. In cooperation with Petroleum Development of Oman, they hope to pump pressurized hot water and CO2 into boreholes, creating a reaction that would mimic nature. but speeded a million times over. In coming months they will lower instruments into existing water wells to measure rock characteristics, and collect mineral and rock samples from widespread sites on the surface. Previously taken samples can be seen at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Earth Institute article on the project

Living on Earth podcast with Juerg Matter


WHAT IS REALLY UNDER THE SEAFLOOR?   Surveys of the deep ocean bed, south of Hawaii   DECEMBER 2011

Scientists have built detailed pictures of how the ocean floor behaves at stress points – subducting tectonic plates, and mid-ocean ridges, where earthquakes and volcanoes cluster. But what about the mysterious great in-between – the vast areas of volcanic rock forming much of the planet’s ocean beds? Models of how they should be structured do not match observations; for instance, scientists predict that the rock below the sea should gradually get softer with depth, due to heating—but seismic images suggest that this does not hold true. Instead, there seems to be a sharp cutoff 70 or 80 kilometers down that defines the boundary between the so-called lithosphere (solid rock) and the asthenosphere (softer, more pliable rock). What chemical, physical or other properties create this boundary—and is it indeed the boundary we think it is, or something else?  Dubbed project NoMELT, this cruise will plumb the mystery by employing seismic signals sent from the ship, seismometers set on the ocean bottom and magnetic instruments. Lamont-Doherty seismologist James Gaherty will head the cruise aboard the research vessel Marcus G. Langseth, with partners from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Brown University.

Cruise web page

100 MILLION YEARS OF CRISES ON EARTH    Deep Coring of the Colorado Plateau      2011-2016 (Dependent on funding)

The Four Corners area of the American West is a paradise for geologists and paleontologists, with its spectacular rock formations, canyons (including the Grand Canyon), and rich fossil beds. However, many layers remain largely inaccessible on sheer cliffs or deeply buried. To assemble a more conclusive record of the region’s vast history, Lamont geologist Paul Olsen and colleagues are leading the Colorado Plateau Coring Project , to drill cores as much as 1.5 kilometers deep from a half-dozen sites. This is expected to provide the big picture from 250 million to 145 million years ago, representing key crises in earth’s history: the ascent of dinosaurs, origins of modern ecosystems, and several sudden extinctions of much life. Among other things, the cores should help scientists grasp possible links between climate changes, extinctions and major evolutionary events. Related field investigations will be done by experts from a wide variety of disciplines and institutions. The first site is in Petrified Forest National Park, Az., tentatively April through July. At the same time, Olsen and others will also do extensive exploration by vehicle and on foot in the desert region to scope out the next drill site. The project will take five years.

Project website


Tree Ring Sampling: Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Vietnam, Australia, Other Nations     ONGOING

Scientists in many disciplines are studying whether climate change could alter the cycles that drive the Asian monsoon, the seasonal rains that feed half the world’s population. Because past cycles may be keys to the future, researchers at Lamont’s Tree Ring Lab are trying to unravel the past workings of the monsoon via core samples of yearly growth rings from ancient trees.  Currently led by Brendan Buckley (based part-time in Chiangmai, Thailand), they have tracked down specimens at scores of remote sites across Asia; founded new tree-ring labs at universities in several countries; and started the Greater Mekong Basin project, a five-year initiative to study the human effects of changing climate in Southeast Asia. In a new project, researchers from the Columbia Water Center and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society led by Andrew Robertson will analyze data to predict future stream flow in two other major basins: the Yangtze River of China, and the Bhakra Beas reservoir system of India. Some upcoming field activities:

April 2011 Forestry staff from Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, in the south-central  highlands of Vietnam, will visit the Lamont campus in Palisades, N.Y., for advanced training. The park has already yielded cores from 1,000-year-old cypresses, and hosts instruments recording current tree growth.

Aug-Sept 2011  Buckley and Chinese dendrochronologist Fan Zexin sample old trees along the upper Mekong River, in southern China’s Yunan province.

Oct-Nov 2011 Edward Cook and Neil Pederson travel to Bhutan to take tree-ring samples, and train Bhutanese students how to do analyses that relate to the ecology of an area over time.Pederson also travels to mountainous southern China along its border with North Korea to scout with Chinese researchers for future research locations.

Nov 2011 Buckley goes to the remote Cardamom mountains of southern Cambodia, where ancient burials in coffins made of whole logs have been found in cliffside caves. Small samples of the well-preserved coffins, done in conjunction with an archeologist, might help extend tree-ring records far back before the times of now-living trees.

January 2012-on  Further trips to sample trees in north and central Vietnam.

Current: In the lab, researchers led by Rosanne D’Arrigo are analyzing archeological wood samples taken last year in Myanmar from teak logs used in the Kanbawzathadi Palace, built 1553 and excavated in the 1990s,outside the city of Yangon.)

Tree Ring Lab web pages

Audio slideshow on the work

The Asian drought atlas

Study on the fall of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat

Mekong River Commission

MAPPING AFRICA’S SOILS   Fieldwork to Create Digital Information for Farming   ONGOING

Knowledge of soil conditions and trends is essential for sustainable agricultural development, but information for Africa is highly fragmented and dated. The Africa Soil Information Service is a new project involving many African scientists and other partners to create the first digital soil map of sub-Saharan Africa.  Coinciding with the development of new smartphone and sensor technologies that allow accurate collection and prediction of soil properties, it will provide data at 100 times current resolution, setting a baseline for monitoring changes, and providing options for land managers, farmers, scientists and policy makers. Teams are sampling soils in 60 sites across Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Ghana and other nations. Contact: Alison Rose. Project leader: Markus Walsh of the Tropical Agriculture Program, in cooperation with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network and International Center for Tropical Agriculture-Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (lead partner).

Project description

Africa Soil Information Service website

Science magazine article on the project

HAITI REGENERATION INITIATIVE     Agriculture, Water, Natural Hazards, Climate Studies    ONGOING

Long before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti suffered environmental degradation and vulnerability to natural hazards due to deforestation, soil erosion, political instability and poverty. The Haiti Regeneration Initiative, a partnership of the UN Environment Program, Earth Institute, and Haitian nongovernmental organizations, was started in 2009 to address problems in a holistic way. As part of a 20-year initiative for the southwestern coast, Earth Institute teams have begun baseline assessments for designing watershed management for river basins. They are mapping soils and hydrologic characteristics, and preparing to help communities organize themselves to restore degraded systems. Ongoing research includes health and nutrition, education, energy demand and supply, and ecosystem services. Coming projects include analysis of flood-control  structures, sustainable forestry, and optimization of cropping systems. Led by political scientist Marc Levy of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). Some other centers involved: the Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program; Center for Research on Environmental Decisions; the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity.

Haiti Regeneration Initiative website

CIESIN Haiti website

National Geographic  piece on the initiative

INDIA’S WATER CRISIS   Designing Sustainable Farming Methods     ONGOING

India’s northern breadbasket is running the world’s largest water-mining operation—one that cannot be sustained, as farmers pump out far more water than comes in through rainfall. In some areas, water tables have dropped hundreds of feet, and salt water is polluting aquifers. In an effort to avert a crisis, teams from the Columbia Water Center and its partners are working to design ways for farmers to grow crops with less water, and encourage government conservation policies. In the Punjab region, this January through May, they will recruit 5,000 farmers for initiatives including installation of moisture-measuring instruments designed to limit irrigation of wheat and potatoes to essential amounts; new methods of planting water-intensive crops like rice; and introduction of crops that use less water. Community meetings will be held through May to explain the projects, and field workers will visit farms to demonstrate and supervise instrument installation and new seeding methods. Contact: Julia Apland-Hitz or Kamal Vatta of Punjab Agricultural University (

Punjab project description

Blog posts on the project

Article about related work in Gujarat

AFRICA RIFTING      Geology/ Seismology fieldwork, Afar desert region, Ethiopia      TBD   2011

In 2005, a long section of the remote desert Afar region of Ethiopia began splitting open with a series of dramatic fissure openings, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Scientists have been observing intensely ever since. It is one of only two places on earth where a mid-ocean ridge emerges on land (the other is Iceland), and this is the first time scientists can observe an active rift with modern instruments. By directly watching these processes, normally hidden in the deep sea, they hope to unlock secrets of how earth’s crust forms. This landscape is rugged and dominated by armed nomadic clans—but scientists hope to install seismometers and other specialized instruments, designed to be buried. These are currently being built at Lamont. Team members also hope to inspect newly visible fault traces and active volcanic spots. Trip will probably involve strenuous foot travel. Lamont scientists, working with Ethiopian, American, British and French, colleagues, include Scott Nooner and Roger Buck.

Project page (University of Leeds)

EVOLUTION OF THE GALAPAGOS MANTLE PLUME   Geologic fieldwork, Costa Rica, Panama TBD 2011

Like the deep “hotspots” that formed the Hawaiian islands, Yellowstone, and other volcanic landmarks, the Galápagos Islands are made of lava erupting from a moveable region of upwelling magma from the mantle. The hotspot has been migrating westward, and previously formed parts of central and South America. This not only played a key role in continent-building, but in global biological evolution and climate; the eruptions formed the first land bridge between South and North America during the time of the dinosaurs, bringing about major changes in their evolution, and again joined the continents some 15 million years ago, changing the course of mammal evolution. The land bridge is also linked to vast changes in global climate, because it halted circulation of water between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Petrologist Esteban Gazel, a specialist in the plume and its implications, has found that it is cooling—possibly part of a long-term life-and-death cycle of such phenomena. He will examine rock outcrops, take samples and make other geologic studies in parts of Costa Rica, Panama and Curacao.

Gazel paper in Nature


TRAPPING CARBON DIOXIDE UNDERGROUND    Experimental Drilling, Pilot Tests, NY Metro Area   APRIL-DEC 2011

Government grants of $10 million have paved the way for researchers to determine if a 200 million-year-old deeply buried geologic formation underlying parts of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania could eventually support permanent storage of industry-produced carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The research will include drilling up to three investigatory boreholes in Rockland County, N.Y., to study the deep strata of the so-called “Newark Basin,”  which is composed of layered sedimentary and volcanic rocks. The work is being carried out by the multi-institutional TriCarb Consortium for Carbon Sequestration. Lamont scientists David Goldberg, Dennis Kent and Paul Olsen are participating; one hole will be drilled at Lamont itself around June. Separately, at the Lamont borehole, in late April/early May Lamont researchers will conduct pilot tests to see how the chemistry and biology of the subsurface might react to large-scale carbon-dioxide injection, using small-scale pumping of soda water and tracer substances. (No actual large-scale carbon sequestration is planned for any of these boreholes.) Visitors are welcome at the sites.

Lamont research into East Coast carbon storage

TriCarb website

Lamont Borehole Research Group

HUDSON RIVER SEWAGE POLLUTION    Water/Sediment Sampling by Boat     APRIL-NOV 2011

In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, Lamont biological oceanographers have for several years been mapping the sources and fates of sewage by sampling up and down the river from a small vessel on a monthly basis. Sampling ranges from above Albany to New York harbor; all parts of the river have been shown to have intermittent problems. This year, the project expands from surface waters into samples of deep water and sediments, to look for hidden sources of pathogens. The team will target tributaries with particular problems, including Newtown Creek, Gowanus Canal, Saw Mill River, Sparkill Creek, Pocantico River, Roundout Creek, Esopus Creek and Catskill Creek. A key finding to date: many tributaries have more frequent problems than the main body of the river, and are therefore net sources of sewage to the Hudson. Investigators: Andrew Juhl, Greg O’Mullan

Article on the project

Riverkeeper project pages

THE STRENGTH OF EARTHQUAKE FAULTS   Field geology, Lake Champlain, Vermont   JUNE/ JULY 2011

Seismologists understand remarkably little about what happens when large earthquake faults slip. Geologist Pratigya Polissar and seismologist Heather Savage will try to better understand the mechanics of currently active faults by exploring an ancient one: the Champlain Thrust, a gigantic structure running from southern Quebec to the Hudson Valley, last active hundreds of millions of years ago. It is exposed near Burlington, Vt., along Lake Champlain. The scientists will take rock samples for analysis and make measurements. The project is aimed at getting a handle on how strong the fault was—that is, how much stress built up in between earthquakes—which might in turn yield the strength of the quakes. They hope to measure this by detecting the degree to which rocks heated up during slippages; higher temperatures would signal greater friction, and thus a more sudden, violent movement. The Champlain is one of a series of faults researchers are working at to understand earthquake mechanics and threats.


TEACHERS, STUDENTS, SCIENTISTS   Fieldwork in the Hudson River Estuary  JULY-AUG 2011

Oceanographer Bob Newton oversees a program to improve science education in New York City schools by having teachers and students do real fieldwork alongside Lamont-Doherty scientists. This summer, along Staten Island’s heavily industrialized Arthur Kill, they will sample juvenile fish, chlorophyll and plants along the banks, to establish an ecological baseline for later studies. On the former military base at Governor’s Island, they will measure the efficiency of oysters in filtering algae and heavy metals from the water. Students will also continue a long-term study of Piermont Marsh , 10 miles north of Manhattan. Here, they will survey fish, measure spread of an invasive marsh grass, assess water quality, soil carbon content and changes in the marsh’s elevation. The work is designed to produce new scientific knowledge, plus give teachers tools to impart the creativity of science to students.

Piermont Marsh Research Project web page

DROUGHTS, PAST AND FUTURE  Coring Local Marshes and Lakes  JULY-AUGUST 2011

The Hudson Valley may face water shortages if population keeps growing, and changing climate makes rainfall more erratic, as projections suggest. The degree to which droughts have already afflicted the regions is being revealed in research by paleoecologists Dorothy Peteet and Jon Nichols. They have been studying cores of sediments taken from bogs and lakes that hold pollen, charcoal and other materials indicative of past climates for the past millennium. This summer, they will work in the Hudson Valley’s Black Rock Forest and High Point State Park, and along New York City’s Jamaica Bay. In combination with tree-ring records and river deposits, cores have suggested that droughts such as one running roughly 850-1350 AD were felt strongly by the Hudson Valley forests; upland lakes contain sand layers that point to erosion, and marshes indicate corresponding deposition.

Earth Institute article on Peteet’s work

 NEW YORK’S EVOLVING GREEN SPACES    Surveys of Forests, Parks and Wetlands    SUMMER 2011

Lamont remote-sensing scientist Chris Small, who specializes in mapping human relationships with the natural landscape, has two long-term New York City projects. As part of a new U.S. program to study the ecology of cities, he and researchers from New York City Parks and the U.S. Forest Service are investigating changes in the city’s forests and other green spaces—whether they are growing or declining, and resulting impacts on the city’s ecology and weather. Includes visits to parks and neighborhoods to ground-truth satellite imagery.  Another team led by Gareth Russell of the New Jersey Institute of Technology will investigate ecological aspects.  In a separate study, Small maps New York’s pervious surfaces—anything that has not been paved over—to help understand the flow of rainwater to the sewers, and how pervious surfaces may mitigate pressure on the system. As part of this, he and Parks researchers will visit wetlands this summer to ground-truth new satellite data.

Read an article about the project nationwide


With warming climate, it is projected that by 2100, the Hudson Valley region could resemble the Carolinas; ecosystems would undergo changes accordingly. Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin is trying to unravel various species’ response to changing CO2 levels, temperature and availability of soil nutrients. He and colleagues have been studying responses of trees in the Black Rock Forest, about 50 miles north of New York City. The Hudson Valley is a good place to study climate, since it hosts many trees and plants growing at both the northern and southern extremes of their ranges. Regional temperatures have been steadily rising, and historical data suggest that forest compositions may already be changing, with northern tree species moving out, and southern ones moving in. The work involves measurements of plant physiology, tending of forest plots, and experiments in Lamont’s greenhouse.

See Griffin speak on trees, plants and climate.

NEW YORK EARTHQUAKES      Seismometer Installation, Monitoring       ONGOING

The New York area sees a surprising number of small earthquakes, and has potential for much larger, damaging ones. Scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory run the network of dozens of seismometers that records quakes, providing the data on which assessments of risk are based.  One recent study found that the risk to New York City is greater than previously recognized; and recently, a series of small, mysterious tremors shook an area southwest of Albany, N.Y. Through September 2011, the seismology team will upgrade and expand the network, ranging from Manhattan’s Central Park to the Adirondack mountains. If tremors resume around Albany, they will place temporary seismometers there to try and understand the mechanism.  Current plans call for new permanent stations in Thacher State Park near Albany, and inside the memorial arch at Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Visitors are welcome at Lamont, where the network is monitored 24 hours a day. There is also a new museum of historic seismic instruments used throughout the world to study earthquakes, nuclear-bomb tests and the interior of the earth. Head of the network is Won-Young Kim.

Lamont Cooperative Seismographic Network web pages

Study on New York City earthquake risk

New York Times article on the Albany tremors

GREEN ROOFS IN NEW YORK CITY    Cooling the Urban ‘Heat Island’   ONGOING

New York City has some 40 square miles of rooftops—mostly dark surfaces that absorb heat and help make the city hotter in summer than rural areas—the so-called “heat island” effect. Recently, the idea of covering roofs with plants or reflective material, to cool the city, improve air quality and reduce runoff into sewers, has taken hold, and there is a growing number of experimental sites. Scientists Stuart GaffinPatricia Culligan and Wade McGillis have been making measurements on a half-dozen planted rooftops at Columbia, a Bronx school, and a Con Edison building in Queens. Earth Institute ecologist Matt Palmer has led a city parks project to plant 10 rooftops with native grasses designed to mimic native meadow habitat.  In another study, student Melanie Smith has been collecting insects from the green roof on the US Postal Service’s 9th Avenue sorting facility, the city’s largest, to assess  effects on biodiversity.  Currently, Gaffin and colleagues are assessing a new city program to install reflective white roofs, using instruments to measure temperature, reflectivity and other parameters. The first equipment was scheduled to go onto a Museum of Modern Art building in Queens in February.

New York City Coolroofs website

Earth Institute article on green roofs


Miniature personal air-pollution samplers carried by New York city workers, students and others measure secondhand smoke, steel dust and other substances in real time. Developed and deployed by Lamont-Doherty for a variety of ongoing studies. Project web pages. Contact: Steve Chillrud.

A growing network of sensors in schools, parks and other sites in the New York area monitors atmospheric carbon dioxide in real time, for a variety of studies on urban climate, weather and ecology. Few such local networks exist in the world. Project web pages Contact: Wade McGillis.


Flights over Greenland and Antarctica using geophysical instruments to detect changes in the ice sheets. Part of NASA’s long-term Operation Ice Bridge. See the 2010 season blog. Geophysicists Jim Cochran, Robin Bell. Greenland: March 2011. Antarctica; fall 2011.


Long-term studies with Chinese collaborators and New York Botanical Garden of how the ethnic Miao minority of Guizhou province manage forests for subsistence living, and the effects on biodiversity. Earth Institute article on the collaboration. Contact: Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez.  


Cruise through the Phillipines’ Lamon Bay, eastern Luzon, to investigate reasons for high biological productivity.  Oceanographer Arnold Gordon and Philippine researchers. May 2011.


Tree-ring researcher Brendan Buckley samples trees in the mountains near Logan, Utah, for climate and ecophysiological studies. June 2011


Visits with farmers in the arid Elqui River basin, Chile, to assess water-management practices in face of long-term climate variability. Paul Block, International Research Institute for Climate and Society. July 2011.


Possible boat, foot and instrument survey of Lake Cheko, Siberia, and surrounding areas in search of possible meteorite fragments from the 1909 Tunguska extraterrestrial impact. Geologist Enrico Bonatti and Italian colleagues.  July 2011.


Cruise in the Indian Ocean to measure water and air patterns of the Madden-Julian Oscillation, a cycle that affects weather across a wide region on monthly scales. Oceanographers Arnold Gordon, Chris Zappa, Adam Sobel. Oct 2011. Project web page


Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin studies responses of trees in Australia and New Zealand to changing climate, using specialized instruments, and sampling isotopes. In Australia, this includes mountain ash, a eucalyptus rivaling California’s redwoods. Trips usually made Nov-Jan.


Cruise off northern Haiti to investigate undersea faults and signs of past earthquakes, via drilling of deep cores. Follows a cruise after the great 2010 quake that collected shallow cores and images of seabed faulting. Lamont/Queens College seismologist Cecilia McHugh.  January 2012.


Ongoing studies of adaptation to rising seas in small Pacific island states. Center for Climate Change Law. Contact: Greg Wannier.  Planning for sea-level rise and bringing renewable energy including solar and tidal to the Maldives, Lareef Zubair, International Research Institute for Climate and Society.



Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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