State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


2020: A Year of Discovery at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

researcher with a mask works on sediment core
Research in the time of COVID. Photo: Jane Nisselson/School of Engineering

Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is dedicated to the study of Earth and climate. This year, despite the pandemic that in March paused all fieldwork, the observatory stayed true to form, adding new knowledge about the planet, its inner workings, and its future changes. Here are a few highlights.

In January, a study linking climate change to the diminished production of wine caught much media interest. The study found that if temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, the regions of the world that are suitable for growing wine grapes could shrink by as much as 56 percent. With 4 degrees of warming, 85 percent of those lands would no longer be able to produce good wines. “In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” said Lamont co-author Benjamin Cook.

Also in January, Lamont climate scientists Lorenzo Polvani, Mike Previdi, Karen Smith, and collaborators published a study on the contribution of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere to Arctic warming over the second half of the twentieth century. From ensembles of models of Earth’s climate over the period 1955–2005, Polvani and his colleagues showed that ozone-depleting substances caused about half of the Arctic warming and sea ice loss during that period.

In early March, a Lamont-led study shed new light on the geologic characteristics that made the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9 earthquake which struck under the seabed off Japan trigger a tsunami three or four times bigger than expected. The waves reached an extraordinary 125 to 130 feet high in places and devastated much of Japan’s populous coastline, caused three nuclear reactors to melt down, and killed close to 20,000 people. The research looks at the mechanism of how the fault developed.

Later in March, after much of the country shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Lamont researchers began tracking the impact on the atmosphere. Róisín Commane, an atmospheric chemist at Lamont, had been monitoring pollutant levels from instruments attached to a building on the City College of New York campus at 135 St. and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. Commane said that starting on March 17, the monitor has shown 10 percent drops in carbon dioxide and methane, and an astounding 50 percent drop in carbon monoxide. Commane was quick to add perspective to this positive news. There may be short-term health benefits around here, but it won’t last. “Soon as business ramps up again, everything will go back to normal,” she said. “This shows we can reduce emissions. But in the future, we’re going to have to do it in a more controlled way, where half the people don’t lose their jobs.”

In April, Lamont bioclimatologists Park Williams, Ed Cook, Jason Smerdon, Ben Cook, Kasey Bolles, Seung Baek, and colleagues derived deeper understanding of the severity of the drought in southwestern North America. The research demonstrated that the period 2000-2018 was the second driest 19-year period for that region in the past 1200 years. (The driest was a megadrought in the late 1500s.) In September, Williams added to his outstanding body of work when he published another landmark study of the link between global warming and rampant forest fires.

robin in hands with tiny backpack
Small GPS ‘backpacks’ allowed researchers to track the environmental factors that influence American robin migratory behavior. Credit: Ruth Oliver

Also in April, Lamont ecosystem ecologist Natalie Boelman co-authored a study demonstrating that climate change is disrupting the American robin’s seasonal rhythms as springtime is arriving earlier in many parts of the Arctic. Together with lead author Lamont doctoral student Ruth Oliver, the scientists found that robin migration is beginning earlier by about five days each decade. To track the pattern, Boelman and Oliver attached tiny data-collecting GPS “backpacks” onto 55 birds.

In May, Lamont oceanographer Joaquim Goes published research linking algal bloom outbreaks that are disrupting food chains, fisheries, and desalination plants around the Arabian Sea to disappearing snow in the Himalayan-Tibetan mountains. This uniquely resilient organism, Noctiluca scintillans (also known as sea sparkle), has an extraordinary capacity to survive, thrive, and force out diatoms, the photosynthesizing planktonic species that have traditionally supported the Arabian Sea food web.

“This is probably one of the most dramatic changes that we have seen that’s related to climate change,” said Goes, who, along with Lamont researcher Helga do Rosario Gomes, has been studying the rapid rise of this organism for more than 18 years.

satellite image of noctiluca blooms in arabian sea
Noctiluca blooms in the Arabian Sea, as seen from space. (Norman Kuring/NASA)

Also in May, Lamont-led research produced evidence that Earth will experience combinations of heat and humidity so severe as to ravage economies and possibly surpass the physiological limits of human survival. The research, authored by Colin Raymond, who performed the work while studying for a Lamont, and Lamont climate scientist Radley Horton, builds upon an earlier study that had predicted such conditions to escalate in the latter part of the century. This latest study shows that such conditions are already appearing in some coastal subtropical locations, that the rate of incidence of such events has doubled since 1979, and that global maximum sea-surface temperatures have recently exceeded this threshold as well.

In June, experts predicted an unusually active hurricane season. Climate scientist Suzana Camargo weighed-in on the modeling that charted the season. In the end, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active and the seventh costliest on record.

The summer of 2020 brought change to Lamont. On July 1, Lamont director Sean C. Solomon stepped down, returning to his research in geophysics, and paleoclimatologist Maureen E. Raymo became Lamont’s interim director. She is the first woman and the first climate scientist to lead the observatory. Also in July, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger announced the formation of the Columbia Climate School, the university’s first new school in 25 years. The school is designed to coalesce and activate Columbia’s mighty collection of climate-focused divisions. Lamont is forming the new school’s scientific core.

In November, the discovery of an ancient lake bed beneath Greenland’s ice terrain drew great interest and broadened humanity’s understanding of the history of this polar region. As Kevin Krajick wrote in his story, scientists consider such data vital to understanding what the Greenland ice sheet may do in coming years as Earth’s climate warms, and thus the site makes a tantalizing target for drilling to extract sediments that could reveal more details.

Taken together, from the studies of diminishing wine production to the models that illuminate the risks that loom in the future, near and far, Lamont’s body of work for 2020 continued to build upon the observatory’s legacy of bold explorations and Lamont’s signature ingenuity.

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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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