For twenty years, Robin Elizabeth Bell has worked alongside a team of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory geophysics senior scientists and engineers to coordinate nine major aero-geophysical expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland in order to study ice sheet collapse. On these adventures, Bell’s discoveries have included a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, several large lakes locked beneath two miles of ice, and most recently evidence that the ice sheet can thicken from below. Bell was a leading proponent of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year, and has chaired the National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board. Her work examines the implications of climate change on the poles and involves adapting scientific instruments to produce imaginative new insights into the Polar Regions.
When asked about her attraction to the polar regions, Bell responded, “One of the reasons I was driven to the poles is that it’s a place where I thought studying the Earth had ramifications for society; we’re all driven to understand how our planet works, and this felt like societally relevant research. The poles are also one of the final frontiers on Earth.”
Bell was instrumental in launching a major multinational effort to study the polar regions of our planet for International Polar Year in 2007 and 2009, during which some 60,000 scientists from over 63 different nations worked together to study rapidly changing elements of our planet. Bell led a major expedition to Antarctica to explore the Gamburtsev, a mountain range larger than the Alps, and the last unfamiliar mountain range on Earth completely covered with ice.
“The poles are frequently off the map,” Bell explained, “but they are also the regions that are changing the most rapidly. It’s incumbent on us, the polar science community, to make sure they don’t fall off the edge – that we really strive to understand the processes that are going on in the poles so we can help society understand how the planet changes.”
In addition to her polar work, Bell conducts research closer to her New York home. Beginning in 1998, she led the Hudson River Estuary Project team, mapping over 160 miles of the Hudson River, from Staten Island to Albany, in order to define crucial habitats and contaminated deposits. Bell and her team of scientists from Queens College and the State University of New York at Stony Brook discovered dozens of sunken ships and Revolutionary War artifacts. Bell’s team was the first to map the Hudson in over 50 years. Together, they uncovered a dynamic riverbed, with large dunes of sand and gravel, banks of oysters, and important archaeological antiquities. Under Bell’s leadership, the research team found that sediment movement affected the movement of pollutants such as Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs). The success of their research led the grant to be renewed and Bell’s team mapped the river from the Battery district to Troy, New York, including the first mapping of landslides triggered by the torrential rains of Hurricane Floyd that left scars far into the river.
Robin Bell received her undergraduate degree in Geology from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1980 and her Ph.D. in Geophysics from Columbia University in 1989. She received an honorary degree from Middlebury College in 2006. She has been part of the research staff at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory since 1989 and is a member of the Earth Institute faculty. As the Palisades Geophysical Institute Lamont Research Professor, Bell directs research programs in Antarctica and Greenland, and focuses on developing new technologies to monitor our rapidly changing planet. Bell has published over 50 peer reviewed articles and more than 30 other publications, and continues to pursue new directions in her field to meet the challenges presented by climate change in the polar regions.