State of the Planet

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Faculty Profile: Donna Shillington

For Donna Shillington, who combines a background in geology and journalism, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and the Earth Institute are exceptional places to conduct her research in a transdisciplinary environment. “What motivated me to come here,” she says, “was the opportunity to collaborate with excellent researchers who are interested in the same science questions.”

Shillington, who was recently appointed to the Earth Institute faculty as a junior member, works to better understand processes at plate tectonic boundaries, including faulting, earthquakes and the production of magma. Studies of the tectonics of earthquake-prone regions around the world can yield important information that can be used to better understand and mitigate hazards. Lamont is a world-class research institution in seismology. Shillington’s research here has led her to a deeper appreciation of the societal impacts on populations concentrated around the boundaries of plate tectonic hazards. “There is very much a need to understand fundamental processes at plate boundaries in order to better assess possible hazards and resources in these areas,” says Shillington.

Donna Shillington – offshore Alaska

One of her projects is the Alaska Langseth Experiment to Understand the megaThrust (ALEUT), which focuses on an area off the southern coast of Alaska that regularly produces large earthquakes, including the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded in 1964. This event produced a lethal tsunami that affected communities many thousands of miles away.  In the much more densely populated metropolitan area of Istanbul, Shillington and her colleagues are studying the North Anatolian Fault and other faults under the Sea of Marmara. Understanding how these faults evolve and interact is important because movement on them has caused large, destructive earthquake, such as the very damaging event in 1999.  Shillington and colleagues are also beginning a new, multidisciplinary study of continental rifting northern Lake Malawi.  The East Africa Rift causes earthquakes and volcanoes that pose a hazard to nearby communities. As much of the population and many natural resources are also focused along the rift, it is important to understand the underlying tectonics to develop strategies for sustainable development.

“The Earth Institute, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary work, has been instrumental in facilitating projects that connect research and people,” says Shillington. She and Jim Gaherty, a collaborator at LDEO, received support to study an unusual and unexpected sequence of earthquakes in Malawi that occurred in 2009 earthquakes in northern Malawi. “This was an extremely memorable project for me,” recalls Shillington. “The Earth Institute provided the support that was needed for Jim and I to travel to Malawi and deploy seismometers  in the immediate aftermath of the Earthquakes.” Through this experience, Shillington was able to interact directly with those affected by the earthquakes and strengthen partnerships with the geological survey in Malawi.

Donna Shillington received a Bachelor of Science in geology and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Georgia in 1998. She was awarded a PhD in geophysics from the University of Wyoming in 2004, where she wrote her thesis titled “The Formation and Rupturing of Continents” under Steven Holbrook. She was a researcher and lecturer at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, United Kingdom from 2004-2007. Shillington became a Doherty Associate Research Scientist in 2007 and a Lamont Assistant Research Professor in 2010.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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