State of the Planet

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Climate Change Innovator Elected to National Academy

Peter K
Peter Kelemen, newly elected to the National Academy of Sciences, has been mapping the rocks of Oman to explore their potential for storing away excess carbon dioxide from the air. (Kevin Krajick)

Peter Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who studies rocks from the deep earth and, recently, their possible uses in battling climate change, has been elected to the National Academy of SciencesMembership in the National Academy, given for excellence in original scientific work, is one of the highest honors awarded to engineers and scientists in the United States.

Much of Kelemen’s recent research has focused on Oman, an oil-rich sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula. In Oman’s Hajar Mountainsbordering Saudi Arabia, a chunk of earth’s mantle has wormed its way to the surface, exposing rocks normally buried miles below ground to the atmosphere. In contact with the air and nearby groundwater, these rocks react naturally with carbon dioxide to form carbonate, a solid, limestone-like material that locks carbon away forever.
Recent studies by Kelemen and colleagues show that these outcrops, covering an area the size of Massachusetts, have been rapidly socking away more carbon dioxide than previously thought — about 100,000 tons of carbon each year. “This rock from the earth’s interior is out of equilibrium with our atmosphere, and hungry for carbon dioxide,” Kelemen told Columbia Magazine in a recent profile. “We want to take advantage of that. This is chemical potential energy, as a geochemist would say. It’s there to be harnessed on a massive scale, if we can learn how to do it.” Kelemen and his colleague Juerg Matter, an adjunct scientist at Lamont-Doherty, are looking into the potential for drilling boreholes into Oman’s rocks and pumping large amounts of CO2-laced water underground. If the many economic and engineering hurdles can be overcome, it might be possible to lock away as much as 10 percent of the CO2 humans are now producing, says Kelemen. Photos and video from a recent research expedition to Oman can be viewed in this feature: Ancient Rocks, Modern Purpose.
Previous Earth Institute researchers elected to the National Academy include El Niño expert Mark Cane, volcanologist Terry Plank, climate scientist Wallace Broecker, paleomagnetism researcher Dennis Kent, paleontologist Paul Olsen, marine geophysicist Walter Pitman, seismologist Lynn Sykes and experimental petrologist David Walker, all from Lamont-Doherty; Ruth DeFries, an ecologist who heads Columbia’s Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology department, James Hansen, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Sean Solomon, a geophysicist who is director of Lamont-Doherty and associate director of earth systems science at the Earth Institute, and Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist who heads the Earth Institute’s Agriculture and Food Security Center.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit society of scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to furthering science and technology and using them for the general welfare. Established in 1863, it has served to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

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