Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork, 2015 and Beyond

by |March 10, 2015


Click on the image to see a map detailing Earth Institute fieldwork.


2On every continent and ocean, Earth Institute field researchers study the dynamics of climate, geology, ecology, human history and more. Many projects have practical applications, from agriculture and water supplies to climate adaptation and natural hazards. Below is a list of expeditions in rough chronological order. Work in and around New York City is listed separately toward bottom. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Whenever logistically feasible, journalists may join expeditions. The Earth Institute press office keeps this list continuously updated, and can provide video and still images for many projects. To see where our scientists work, check out our interactive world map. Last updated: Sept 11, 2015


HAZARDOUS BANGLADESH  Studies of rivers, earthquake faults, sediments JAN-MARCH 2015 and ONGOING
Recent fieldwork in Bangladesh, earth’s most crowded nation, shows that it is surrounded by great faults, and has in the past has been subject to catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis and sudden shifts in the courses of the great rivers that dominate its low-lying landscape. To deepen understanding of these grave risks, seismologist Leonardo Seeber will travel for several weeks with colleagues through parts of adjoining India and Myanmar to survey signs of faulting that could contribute, and will look into installing an array of seismic instruments that would allow scientists to image structures far below the surface. Along the Bangladesh coast, marine geologist Cecilia McHugh and colleagues will continue to study evidence of a great 1762 earthquake and associated tsunami revealed by earlier excavations. This time, they will sample the heads of old corals for dating and analysis, and measure boulders and beds of shells apparently washed inland when the tsunami hit. Lamont geophysicist Michael Steckler will visit in March to monitor instruments recording natural sinkage and other movements of the surface.  Related: Watch a documentary about the project / Project website / Project blog / Science magazine article

TINY CREATURES, WIDE OCEAN  Studies of marine bacteria, Pacific Ocean FEB 20-APRIL 8, 2015
talking ocean bacteriaCountless tiny photosynthetic bacteria floating in the oceans are the basis of marine life, and affect the chemistry of the air and water; they probably also play a role in regulating climate. During a 45-day cruise from New Caledonia to Tahiti, scientists will sample bacteria colonies and perform a variety of shipboard experiments to understand how they work. Lamont grad student Kyle Frischkorn will work on Trichodesmium, a colonial cyanobacterium that plays a key role in nutrient-poor waters by fixing carbon dioxide and nitrogen into forms that other marine life can use. He will also blog from the ship. Meanwhile, oceanographer Solange Duhamel will work on another variety of microbe, trying to understand how it interacts with varying levels of light to produce organic matter. The research is part of a French-led initiative, involving many other scientists aboard the ship. RelatedWork on other key ocean microbes / Cruise website / Frischkorn’s blog

IN A VOLCANO’S PATH  Studies of lava physics, Hawaii  MAR 15-20, 2015
Volcanologist Einat Lev will travel to the Hawaii’s Kilauea, one of the world’s largest and most active lava-producing volcanoes, to begin a multifaceted study of how lava erupts, and where it flows. At the volcano’s summit, where an active lava lake is roiling, she will begin testing a technique that uses different kinds of cameras to measure the factors that cause lava to bubble, overturn, fountain, or overflow. Further down on the flanks of the great volcano, she will visit locales where a subsidiary structure, the Puu Oo spatter cone, has been erupting, threatening the town of Pahoa and the surrounding area (past flows nearby have already wiped out some neighborhoods). There she will begin a study of the complex factors that may cause lava to flow one way or the other in different channels, and of the effectiveness of berms and other obstacles that locals have put up in order to divert lava from utility lines, homes and other infrastructure. The work is meant to be directly applicable to predicting lava eruptions, and to dealing with them when they come. Lev is also doing experiments with artificially made lavas at the University of Syracuse. Related:  Puu Oo Wikipedia page  /  Lev discusses lab experiments with lava

HELPING URBAN YOUTH PREVENT VIOLENCE  Community organizing, training, Medellin, Colombia  MAY 3-9, 2015
Driven in part by poor education and lack of employment, cities like Medellin have been riven by gang violence for decades. Researchers with the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity have identified young leaders trying to bring positive changes in their neighborhoods, and are working with them to magnify their efforts. The Urban Violence Prevention project seeks to train these leaders to be more effective in using the arts and sports to stem violence, and to provide them with skills to do fundraising through crowdsourcing. The team, led by Aldo Civico and Beth Fisher-Yoshida, will hold a series of workshops and meetings over a week. The project is expected to continue over two years. It is paired with the similarly violent city of Newark, N.J.. Related: Urban Violence Prevention web page 

SEABORNE THREATS TO THE SOUTHERN ICE SHEET  Ocean-bottom mapping, East Antarctic coast  MAR 15-MAY 30, 2015
The East Antarctic ice sheet covers two thirds of the vast continent a mile deep, and would raise global sea levels more than 150 feet if it melted. So far, it appears relatively stable compared to rapidly deteriorating ice in the west—but lately there have been signs that it, too, is thinning at the edges and speeding its journey to the sea. A cruise on the icebreaker N.B. Palmer will try to determine whether it is vulnerable to warm ocean water that could erode it from underneath—a process already probably taking place in the west. Oceanographers Frank Nitsche, Bruce Huber and colleagues will use sonar to map the ocean bottom where the ice sheet meets the sea, to see if there are troughs under the ice through which warm ocean waters may find paths deep into the interior, and devour the ice sheet from the bottom. They will also study water temperatures, currents and other parameters to see if this might already be happening. Researchers from the University of Tasmania will also use aerial drones and underwater vehicles to investigate ocean conditions including sea ice. A schoolteacher aboard will write a blog.  Related: Project web page / Project blog

HOW C02 AFFECTS THE SEAS  Scuba diving, culturing of organisms, Puerto Rico  MID-MARCH – MID-MAY 2015
Tiny marine organisms take up vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, playing a key role in regulating climate; but due to man-made carbon emissions, the chemistry of the oceans is changing rapidly, and this may change the organisms. In an effort to understand the effects, geochemist Bärbel Hönisch will dive every other day to collect samples of single-cell plankton that are sensitive to such changes. The collections will take place in deep water 8 miles off Isla Magueyes. The organisms will then be cultured in the marine labs of the University of Puerto Rico on Isla Magueyes, under conditions believed to have existed some 60 million years ago, when the world underwent a rapid natural increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that could be analogous to today. Their responses will help scientists refine their understanding of the past, and projections of how the seas will be affected in the future. Hönisch’s studies on the effects of current carbon have already shown that today’s rate of ocean acidification may exceed anything in the past. She will be joined by biological oceanographer Joaquim Goes.

FRACKING RISKS  Air pollution, groundwater tests, northeast Pennsylvania ONGOING
The national boom in hydraulic fracturing has raised concerns about the effects on groundwater and air. Earth Institute researchers are testing groundwater and air in heavily fracked areas of northeastern Pennsylvania, before, during and after fracking operations. Recent reports suggest that volatile chemicals used in fracking can reach the air during drilling and production; there are also concerns about diesel engines, flaring of excess gas, and release of natural underground radioactive elements. Geochemists Beizhan Yan and Steven Chillrud will use portable and stationary air monitors to measure individuals’ exposure levels to volatiles, soot, silicon, metals and other substances in 10 to 15 homes in adjoining Susquehanna and Bradford counties, Pennsylvania. The team will also continue ongoing monitoring of groundwater near wells. Done in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. RelatedSlideshow on the project  Earth Institute fracking experts

EAST AFRICA RIFTING  Seismology studies, Malawi, Tanzania  MARCH-APRIL 2015
In 2009, a series of earthquakes shook northern Malawi, leaving thousands homeless—a reminder that the region sits atop the 2,400-mile long East Africa Rift, along which the continent has been tearing apart for 25 million years. The process is slow, but the associated strain and upwelling of magma have created strings of volcanoes and quake zones that threaten millions. A team of Americans and Africans is studying the rift’s long-term evolution, and its real-time hazards. A team led by Lamont scientists Donna Shillington and James Gaherty has deployed dozens of seismometers and GPS instruments across northern Malawi and neighboring southern Tanzania to measure the subtle seismicity and spreading motion. This year, the team will use a Malawi Fisheries vessel to drop seismometers to the bottom of huge Lake Malawi, which separates the two countries (and is a direct product of the rift, as the land pulls apart and sinks). The team will then use a separate vessel to send sound pulses into the lake bottom, to create an ultrasound-type image of the structures below. Related: Researchers’ blog from Malawi

SHIELDING SMALL FARMERS  Developing new crop-insurance models, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Senegal, Honduras  MARCH-APRIL 2015
Index insurance is an innovative new product that pays out claims based solely on weather conditions–not claims of actual damages–and is more affordable and effective for small farmers than traditional insurance. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society is working to improve and expand its use in many countries. A team led by economist Dan Osgood will visit Ethiopia’s Tigray region to get feedback from farmers and local partners on the accuracy of satellite-based vegetation estimates there; Ghana to better integrate women into its index-insurance design; Malawi, Zambia and Honduras to train farmers in preparation for testing a prototype system during the 2015 cropping season; and Senegal to investigate how to design a system there. Related: Article on index insurance successes

SOUTHERN FORESTS ON THE THRESHOLD  Studies of tree responses to climate, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma  APRIL 9-21, 2015
A team led by bioclimatologist A. Park Williams will study responses to shifting climate by forests in the Mississippi River Valley and Ozark mountains—possibly the most vulnerable in the Northern Hemisphere to global warming. Forests further west and north are already suffering visible damage and mortality from greater heat; this is the one region that has not yet seen much of the long-term warming experienced elsewhere, but that is expected to change rapidly in coming years. In order to project how trees might respond, the researchers will use tree rings, field surveys and remote sensing to determine various species’ responses to past short-term climate shifts, especially the extreme heat and drought of 2011-2012, which may have killed many trees. If warming proceeds as anticipated, the composition of forests here could shift dramatically. Williams will be joined by tree-ring scientists Neil Pederson of Harvard Forest and David Stahle of the University of Arkansas.  Related: Article on Williams’s work in the U.S. Southwest / Williams talks to Rolling Stone on the fate of forests

ARCTIC ICE: A DRONE’S-EYE VIEW  Flights over sea ice, Svalbard, Norway APRIL 2015
Scientists will deploy drones for the first time on a wide scale to study the melting of Arctic sea ice. Oceanographer Chris Zappa and colleagues have developed specialized instruments that they’ll mount onto ski-bag size drones that will skim the edges where arctic sea ice meets open ocean. The drones will employ infrared cameras and other techniques to measure ice thickness, water temperatures, melt water coming off the ice and other parameters. These should give a much finer view than can be provided by traditional ships or satellites, and thus advance understanding of the forces driving the fast-moving recession of northern sea ice. The team is also developing buoys with instruments that the drones can drop into the ocean. The drones will be initially deployed near the Arctic research station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway. The study, involving NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is part of an international collaboration to study the ocean, ice, and atmospheric processes between Greenland and Norway. Researchers will travel by snowmobile, each with a rifle to guard against polar bears. Related: NYT article about scientific use of drones

ORIGINS AND HAZARDS OF THE U.S. EAST COAST  Seafloor imaging, U.S. Southeast  MARC 26-APRIL 8,2015
Along the U.S. East Coast, a team is looking into long-term geologic history, and the potential for modern earthquakes and tsunamis. Some 200 million years ago, the supercontinent of Pangaea was splitting apart, and the Atlantic Ocean opened, leaving many potentially active faults and weak zones scattered on the seafloor. To map the rift margin, last year a team placed 30 seismometers on the seafloor off North Carolina and on Cape Hatteras that have been recording small earthquakes, to generate ultrasound-like images of earth’s mantle. The scientists will retrieve the seismometers in April 2015. In addition to looking for hidden faults, the scientists are interested in steep slopes off Virginia and North Carolina where many cubic miles of sediment, perhaps jarred by quakes, have slid down in past ages. Such submarine landslides can generate tsunamis, and the project aims to better understand the threat. Other institutions involved: the University of Texas, University of Memphis, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, Yale, Woods Hold Oceanographic Institution and The College of New Jersey. This project is related to a land-based seismic study in Georgia this spring, also looking at the breakup of Pangaea (see below). Related:  Project blog / Study of East Coast submarine slides / The 1886 Charleston quake

FOSSILS, BEFORE THE DINOSAURS  Paleontological surveys, Germany  APRIL 31-MAY 3, 2015
Paleontologist Paul Olsen has been traveling the world to investigate the time of a great mass extinction about 200 million years ago that led to the rise of the dinosaurs. With German colleagues, he will inspect a newly opened quarry near Bonenburg, Germany, that has revealed an unprecedented trove of fossils from just before this time, both terrestrial and marine. These include giant amphibians, ichthyosaurs, and the only known articulated skeleton of a Triassic-age plesiosaur. He plans to compare strata in this site to others he has been studying in the United Kingdom, and the northeast and southwest United States. Among other things, it may help reveal how periodic changes in Earth’s orbit may bring about abrupt changes in the climate and environment that affect ecosystems. Related:   Olsen’s work in Arizona and the UK

REDUCING ASIAN ARSENIC  Well testing, investigations of human exposure, Bangladesh  MAY 2015/JAN 2016 and ONGOING
Naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater has been found across southeast Asia, and is a particular problem in Bangladesh, where it may cause as many as one in five deaths. Despite efforts since the 1990s to address the problem, many people are still exposed. In projects across Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and Myanmar, geochemist Alexander van Geen and colleagues are analyzing the geologic factors that put arsenic into water, and developing innovative ways to address the problem. Led by Earth Institute professor Joseph Graziano, Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health is doing a long-term study of arsenic’s effects in Araihazar, just east of the capital of Dhaka. The group is also expanding testing for the tens of millions of wells across south Asia. Most recently, van Geen has started working with Bangladeshi rice farmers to remove contaminated soil from irrigated fields; he will do the next phase of this study in May. Parts of the team are also working in the United States, where many private wells are contaminated by arsenic, especially in New England. Related: Watch videos and read a story about ongoing geological research and health studies / Columbia’s arsenic research / Arsenic pollution near Hanoi / van Geen’s work in southeast Asia / U.S. wells tainted by arsenic

HOW FORESTS REGROW Studies of tree communities, northeast Puerto Rico SPRING/EARLY SUMMER 2015
Half or more of the world’s tropical and subtropical forests are products of human disturbance—regrown after cultivation, logging or fires. Forest ecologist Maria Uriarte seeks to understand the dynamics of second-growth forests. They have important implications for biodiversity, climate and water resources, but scientists have neglected them compared to mature “natural” forests. Uriarte, her students and collaborators have been working in Luquillo Experimental Forest in northeast Puerto Rico, where scientists from many disciplines from hydrology to herpetology have been working for decades. Luquillo is typical of many places in Puerto Rico, which was almost completely deforested 50 years ago, but is now again 60 percent covered with trees. Among other things, the team is documenting which tree species are growing, how fast they build biomass, and how different species react to weather patterns and other factors. The work involves clambering over hilly, densely vegetated terrain to census trees and install instruments to measure growth. The findings may be especially important in studies of global climate change, as studies of how trees take up carbon in more mature forests may not apply to the understudied secondary forests. Uriarte is also working on related studies at the La Selva research station in the central lowlands of Costa Rica. Related: Uriarte research pages / Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research

DRYING OF THE WEST COAST Sampling of dry lakebeds, California/Oregon SPRING/FALL 2015
Mono-Lake-Saturday-022-300x198The ongoing drought in California raises serious questions about the sustainability of this region; there is a pressing need to understand how it fits with past climate patterns, and with global warming. The region used to be much wetter, and since 2013, researchers have been working to plot past rainfall at now largely dried up lake beds in northern California and southern Oregon. To plot lake levels back as far as 27,000 years, PhD. candidate Guleed Ali and geochemist Sidney Hemming have sampled deep layers of sediments far above the current shorelines. In spring, they will explore the remains of Oregon’s onetime Lake Chewaucan—now shrunk to much smaller Abert Lake, Oregon’s only salt lake. In fall, they will go to the Surprise Valley, along the Oregon-California border, to investigate a similar disappearing lake. On foot, Hemming and Ali will map sediments and remove samples by hand. In the lab, new techniques will enable them to date layers with great accuracy.The work should allow them to plot how storm tracks have shifted over millennia. Related: Watch a video and read a story about the project / Story on drying of Lake Abert / Megadrought predicted for the West

EVOLUTION AND CLIMATE ON THE HIGH PLAINS  Excavations, paleoenvironment studies, southwest Kansas  LATE MAY-EARLY JUNE 2015
Paleoenvironment researcher Pratigya Polissar and postdoctoral researcher Kevin Uno will head with colleagues to the fossil-rich Meade Basin in southwestern Kansas. Here at the edge of the High Plains, in rocks spanning 5 million years, they will try to understand past climates, and what drove the evolution of western mammals such as the wood rat and grasshopper mouse. Did changes in climate and ecosystem play a decisive role? To get at this, Polissar and Uno will isolate ancient leaf waxes from river sediments and floodplain deposits. From isotopic fingerprints in the wax, they can reconstruct the basin’s past vegetation, and thus past precipitation and temperatures. Camping near a ranch where fieldwork will take place, Uno and Polissar will dig into outcrops to get fresh, unweathered sediments. Other team members will collect calcium carbonate nodules for use in estimating past temperatures. Bob Martin, a paleontologist at Murray State University, will lead a search for small-rodent fossils. The team will also trap and release modern rodents to collect hair samples for comparative analysis in the lab.

bush meatBUSHMEAT  Studies of for-profit wildlife hunters, China, Laos, Gabon, Cameroon, Congo ONGOING
Hunting has long been an important source of food for people in tropical forests of Asia, Africa and Latin America. But in recent years, “bushmeat” has also increasingly become a commodity for sale, leading to unsustainable levels of harvesting. This may be affecting forest ecosystems—not just animal populations, but seed dispersal and vegetation. Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability is the scientific coordinator for a global team exploring how communities hunt and use bush meat in the Amazon, Congo and Mekong River basins. The project is under the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Researchers may travel to Laos or southern China this year to investigate harvesting of bushmeat for markets in China, including a range of animals from large mammals to snails. Others are investigating bushmeat markets in Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo. The multi-year program aims to develop management tools to improve the sustainability of harvesting. Related: CIFOR information on bushmeat

DARK UNDERBELLY OF AN ICE SHEET  Seismometer deployments, northern Greenland JUNE 2015
The rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet—a potential wild card in future sea-level rise—is being intensively studied via satellites and ice-penetrating geophysical instruments. However, scientists know almost nothing about the rock base on which the sheet rests—a missing factor that could greatly affect its behavior. A team led by seismologist Meredith Nettles has planted seismic instruments across the sheet, aimed at imaging the rocks far below. Working from the Summit scientific station at the very top of Greenland, Nettles and a grad student will travel by Twin Otter airplane to check on instruments put out during the last two years. Among the mysteries they and colleagues hope to investigate: an apparent giant volcanic caldera in the north whose heat may be hastening melting of the ice sheet from below. No one knows the extent of this volcanism, nor how long it has been active. The scientists should also get a clearer picture of how the crust and the mantle beneath the ice have evolved over long periods, and how sinking or rising of the rocks during various time periods could skew interpretation of satellite measurements. Nettles has already done pioneering work in Greenland, including the discovery of glacial earthquakes, generated when ice moves. Related: Glacial earthquakes / Greenland Ice Sheet Monitoring Network

ON THE TORNADO TRAIL  Storm chasing, U.S. High Plains JUNE 2015
Extreme-weather researcher John Allen analyzes computer data to better forecast tornadoes, and gets up close to study the real thing whenever possible. During the spring Rapid Developmenttornado season in the U.S. High Plains, Allen, a postdoctoral researcher at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, will chase brewing tornadoes across eastern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. Using computer models, satellite imagery charts and his own weather observations, he heads by car daily to the most likely spots (while trying to keep a safe distance, and carefully planning escape routes). If he can get in close, he hopes to test video technology that would potentially allow researchers to measure wind velocities inside tornadoes on a much finer scale than with currently available radar technology. Allen and colleagues are also studying large-scale weather patterns that might precede especially bad tornado seasons, in hopes of developing reliable forecasts out to months. Related: Earth Institute research on tornadoes / Allen’s account of the El Reno tornado

DESERTIFICATION AT THE GOBI’S EDGE  Field surveys of shrublands, northern China  TBD 2015
In northern China, the desert is expanding and adjoining shrublands are shrinking, probably due to warming climate and increased animal grazing, plus road building, mining and firewood gathering. To help land-use managers, Chinese and American researchers will use remote sensing and on-the-ground mapping to understand better what is driving ecological changes. Led by plant physiologist Kevin Griffin, scientists from the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability will work with researchers from Beijing’s Minzu University and the University of Idaho. One key to the system is probably the once dominant—now endangered—shrub A. mongolicus. Researchers will gather data on plant physiology, animal diversity and microclimates, among other things. The western United States and other regions hold similar shrublands that may undergo similar changes, so results could be more widely applicable. Some work has already been done at the Ejina National Nature Reserve, an oasis where a rare form of poplar survives.

DATING AFRICA’S FIRST TOOLMAKERS  Geologic fieldwork, northern Kenya  JUNE 1-30, 2015
Some of the most important fossils and artifacts related to human ancestry come from the dry, remote region around northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, dug by the Leakey family and others. But accurate dating here—the key to understanding the remains—remains a continuing challenge. Lamont-Doherty geologists Dennis Kent and Christopher Lepre are working with paleontologists to date finds of tools and other artifacts using advanced techniques that track periodic reversals in earth’s magnetic field recorded in rock layers. Lepre is working on the northern shores with a French team. In 2011, he and Kent used paleomagnetism to date the earliest sophisticated tools yet found—1.8 million years, or 300,000 years earlier than previously thought. Now, they hope to probe the deeper past—3.5 million to 4 million years ago, when the human precursor Australopithecus is thought to have lived. The Turkana region, inaccessible by road, is important for wildlife as well as paleontology. Related: Read about dating of the earliest tools / West Turkana Archaeological Project

FLOOD WARNING  Mapping of risks, forecast models, Malawi  JUNE/JULY 2015
In January 2015, floods displaced some 250,000 people in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, increasing the risks of disease and malnutrition. Scientists from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and the Red Cross/Red Crescent are working with authorities to improve early-warning systems. They will travel the country to visit communities hit by the floods, and will map out the impacts, types of flooding and actions taken. Combined with remote sensing, this will allow them to create detailed maps to help authorities respond better in the future. The work will involve consultations with the Malawi Meteorological Services and other agencies to review protocols around forecasting of floods, flood monitoring and issuance of warnings. Led by remote-sensing specialist Andrew Kruczkiewicz.

THE DE-ICING OF CENTRAL ASIA  Altai mountains, western Mongolia  MID-JUNE – MID-JULY 2015
Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam will lead an expedition to the rugged Khoton Nuur region, at the foot of the Altai mountains, where landforms left by receding glaciers at the end of the last ice age are exceedingly well preserved. He and his team will chisel or blast off samples of boulders dropped by the ice, for later high-precision dating in Lamont’s labs, where new techniques have enabled researchers to tell when ice receded within as little as 10 years. By mapping out the past positions of glaciers, he hopes to develop a greater understanding of how natural changes in earth’s orbit and carbon-dioxide levels have influenced past climate. This in turn should help inform models of how manmade climate change may affect central Asia—significant here, because glaciers now feed water supplies for hundreds of millions of people. The work will be done in conjunction with Mongolian colleagues, and will include an educational opportunity for high-school and graduate journalism students from Chicago, who will act as part of the team. Putnam hopes also to date nearby ancient rock art, and thus add a human historical component. Work in succeeding years will explore sites in the eastern Himalayas of China and Tibet.

When did early human ancestors first enter Europe? Some specialists argue it was as long ago as 1.8 million years ago; others as recently as 850,000 years. Geologist Dennis Kent is working with colleagues to resolve the question by dating fossils, using periodic reversals in earth’s magnetic field. Along with stratigrapher Giovanni Muttoni of the University of Milan, Kent will visit sites at a quarry in the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece. They hope to date the layers associated with fossils of elephants and other animals that may have accompanied human migrants by drilling out rock samples that record periodic reversals in earth’s magnetic field. Greek experts in the local geology will work with Kent and Muttoni.  Related: Read about Kent’s work to date the earliest human tools

DISAPPEARING TUNDRA  Plant surveys, northern Alaska  JULY 9-17, 2015
Across the far north, as climate warms, shrubs appear to be slowly moving into previously open tundra. Researchers working from the Toolik Lake station on Alaska’s North Slope have been studying the same plots for decades now, and have one of the world’s best records or how ecology is changing. Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin is running a project in which LIDAR (light detection and ranging—a fine-scaled radar-type system) is being used to measure subtle changes in the height of plant cover. The researchers mount the instruments above the surface to survey plants year after year. The project is related to a wider-scale ecological study that is looking at how bird and insect life is also changing in response to changes in vegetation. Related: Tundra ecology websiteGriffin on how climate affects trees and plants

BREAKUP OF THE SUPERCONTINENT  3D earth imaging, Georgia USA  JULY 29-AUG 15 2015
To investigate the evolution of North America, scientists and students will set off a series of underground explosions and monitor them with hundreds of seismometers in order to image the rocks far below southern Georgia. Some 200 million years ago saw the breakup of Pangaea, the single giant continent comprising most land on earth, and an outpouring of magma that formed the ocean rift now separating North America from Europe and Africa. A detailed record of the cataclysms may be preserved beneath Georgia. Led by seismologist Donna Shillington, and colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Texas, the SUwanee Suture and GA Rift Basin experiment (SUGAR) will dig 100-foot deep holes and set off underground charges in them; these will be recorded by 1,200 portable seismometers deployed by Georgia students along 300-kilometer transects. Among other things, the project may shed light on the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, which brought the rise of dinosaurs. The project should also help characterize rocks suitable for future underground storage of industrial carbon dioxide. Fieldwork will involve up to 60 students, and a broad public outreach program. Related: SUGAR project website

ASSESSING A GOLD MINE’S EFFECTS  Air, soil, water, food sampling, health studies, Papua New Guinea  JULY/AUG 2015DCIM100GOPROGOPR0159.
Indigenous people living near the Porgera gold mine in the remote Enga province fear that the mine is reducing crop yields and causing health problems. In a cross-disciplinary project, researchers are responding to the community’s request for an independent assessment. Earlier this year, a team from the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) and the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic interviewed residents, and sampled soil, water, crops and fish for analysis. They will return this summer to present results to the community, do more sampling, and set up a health study among the local population. In the initial investigation, they found families living alongside waste dumps and apparently polluted streams, suggesting that poisonous heavy metals may be traveling through the environment. The project is led by AC4 director Joshua Fisher and Human Rights Clinic director Sarah Knuckey. Related: Story on the project

END OF THE TRIASSIC, RISE OF THE DINOSAURS  Geologic reconnaissance/sampling, Arizona and New Mexico  SUMMER 2015
The Four Corners area of the American West is a paradise for geologists and paleontologists, with its spectacular rock formations, canyons and rich fossil beds. However, many layers remain inaccessible on sheer cliffs, or deeply buried. To assemble a conclusive timeline, Lamont geologist Paul Olsen, paleomagnetics expert Dennis Kent and colleagues are leading the Colorado Plateau Coring Project, aimed at drilling cores as much as 1.5 kilometers deep from a half-dozen sites. These were laid down from 250 million to 145 million years ago, a time that saw the ascent of dinosaurs and repeated extinctions of much life on earth. The first cores were taken in November-December 2013 at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Among other things, the cores are expected to illuminate how large natural climate swings may have caused massive ecological disruptions. This summer, Olsen and others will return to Petrified Forest to sample outcrops by hand, and explore terrain in western New Mexico for the next drill site. Related: Multimedia package on the project / CPCP website / Related fieldwork in the United Kingdom / Article in Nature about the project / Discover magazine visits the project

ANCIENT LIFE FORMS UP CLOSE  Studies of stromatolites, southern Wyoming  EARLY AUG 2015
Stromatolites are debris piles thought to be left by some of the planet’s earliest life forms, going back billions of years—great masses of photosynthetic bacteria living in shallow waters, who over eons stacked up byproducts from their metabolic processes. Southern Wyoming’s Green River formation has some of the most spectacular, rising 30 to 60 feet high, within what used to be ancient lake beds. Geochemists Guleed Ali and Sidney Hemming will spend two weeks studying formations 30 to 50 million years old, with the aim of refining the understanding of how they were laid down, and dating them far more precisely than before, using uranium-lead radiometric dating. Camped in the field, the team will map strata and take samples; dating will be done later in the lab. Their findings should help scientists better date sedimentary rocks in general. The work may also apply to oil exploration, since such deposits are important sources of petroleum when buried below the surface. Finally, the researchers hope that the knowledge they generate can be used as an analog in the search for life in an apparent former sea in Mars’s ancient Gale Crater, where, if life did exist in the past, the remains might be preserved in stromatolites.

HIGH IMPACT  Search for meteorite craters, western Russia  AUGUST 4-19, 2015
A 2013 destructive meteor explosion over Russia was a wake-up call that large extraterrestrial impacts may be more common that previously thought. Geophysicist/geologist Dallas Abbott travels the world looking for hidden craters. Only about 170 have been positively identified on earth, but due to the difficulty of spotting them, she believes there may be many more. This August she will continue work with Russian colleagues near the city of Nizhny Novgorod on several unusually deep elliptical lakes with raised rims that have been identified as possible candidates. Last year the team surveyed topography and did excavations that revealed signs of rocks that may have been shocked by some enormous force, but so far the evidence is not conclusive. They will continue working on three candidate lakes, and look into others nearby. Related: Atlantic article on Abbott’s work / NY Times article on Abbott’s research off east Africa / Article on Abbott’s comet hypothesis

TURKEY’S NEXT GREAT QUAKE?  Mapping faults, shore of Marmara Sea  AUG 2015
 In 1999, an earthquake along a great fault killed some 30,000 people in western Turkey—possible precursor to a much worse event that could hit densely populated Istanbul. In recent years, scientists have been studying another section of the fault where it runs under the Marmara Sea, near Istanbul—the segment considered most likely to erupt next. Geologist Leonardo Seeber plans to join Turkish colleagues to follow and map out what look like side structures that run up onto land on the southern shore of the sea. Some say these structures are ancient, inactive remnants, but Seeber thinks they may show signs of more recent movement. This mapping will be combined with previous work done by seismologists Michael Steckler, Donna Shillington and Turkish colleagues to image the fault and overlying sediments offshore. Related: Project web page / Background from US Geological Survey

ALASKA’S ARC OF FIRE   Studies of active volcanoes, Aleutian Islands  AUG 8 – SEPT 7, 2015
Alaska’s Aleutian Islands contain dozens of volcanoes, many active. Teams traveling by ship and helicopter will study this remote area for lessons useful in other parts of the world. One group led volcanologist Terry Plank will sample lavas from seven volcanoes, including Cleveland and Shishaldin, both of which are active now. The chemistry of the rocks should help understanding of how underground water affects where, and for how long, magma is stored in earth’s crust–critical for forecasting of eruptions. They will also put seismometers on volcanoes to listen in on processes below. Separately, a team led by geologist Peter Kelemen will study plutonic rocks–those formed below the surface, but now exposed on seabeds or on land. The Aleutians have the world’s most extensive such exposures. Plutonic rocks are believed to be the basis of much new continental crust, so studies should lead to better understanding of earth’s evolution. The team will sample sites by ship, and later on the islands of Unalaska and Unmak. The studies are part of the GeoPRISMS project, which involves researchers from 10 other institutions.  National Science Foundation story on GeoPRISMS

TRACE ELEMENTS IN THE OCEANS  Seawater sampling, Arctic Ocean  AUG 17-OCT 22, 2015
Researchers including geochemist Timothy Kenna will embark for a two-month cruise by icebreaker to remote stretches of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. The object is to study the composition of trace elements in the water, some of which are key to biological and physical processes in the ocean, and others of which are contaminants. (Iron, for instance, is necessary for photosynthesis by algae, but is very limited here and elsewhere.) The expedition will also study human contaminants, which make their way to the Arctic in surprising quantities; Kenna’s speciality is radioactive elements, including from the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster. It is part of the worldwide GEOTRACES project, which seeks to map trace elements in all the world’s oceans. The sources of trace elements and how they travel the oceans are poorly known, especially in the Arctic. The cruise will pass through the Bering Strait and work its way above Alaska to the pole, then back again.  Related: GEOTRACES website / Expedition blog

MONITORING CORAL VITAL SIGNS  Haiti, Belize, Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico, Panama  ONGOING
Geochemist Wade McGillis has designed instruments that monitor the metabolisms of coral reefs in real time, and installed them in a far-flung network. With coral instrumentmany reefs threatened by rising sea temperatures and ocean acidity, these instruments are giving a snapshot of how reefs are doing. McGillis travels frequently to monitor the instruments, and to place new ones. Sites so far include La Parguera Bay, Puerto Rico; southern Haiti; Cheecha Rocks reef in the Florida Keys; Darwin and Floreana Islands, in Ecuador’s Galapagos chain; Uva and Sabago islands, off eastern Panama; atolls off Belize; Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay; and the Pacific atoll of Palmyra, part of the Line Islands, some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Among other things, McGillis can measure the rates at which corals build their skeletons vs. the rates at which the skeletons dissolve. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has asked him to look into manufacturing the instruments on a larger scale so they can be used to also monitor sea grass, mangroves and bottom mud in various places. Related: Line Islands Corals

ANDES ECOLOGY AND CLIMATE  Mountain surveys, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru  ONGOING
The high Andes hold some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, and provide water to major cities below; but climate change may be destabilizing them. Since 2004, scientists led by Colombia-based Daniel Ruiz Carrascal of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society have worked in Los Nevados Natural Park, near Medellin, at 4,000-4,500 meters. There, clouds and humidity are thinning, water bodies drying, and wildfires increasing; stressed plants and other biota may be moving toward summits. One-week surveys of biota and collections of data from a network of permanent instruments are done about every three months. In northwest Bolivia, between the towns of Antiquilla (4,600 meters) and San Jose (5,200 meters) temperature/humidity loggers have also been installed, and surveys are conducted periodically. In Los Nevados, along the Colombia-Ecuador border, and in the Madidi-Apolobomba protected area of Bolivia and Peru, Lamont tree-ring scientist Laia Andreu Hayles hopes to work with Carrascal to develop chronologies of past climate using high-elevation trees and woody plants. Related: Watch a slideshow on the project / Los Nevados flora catalog, image gallery (Spanish) / Project blog post / Video on related study of Andean glaciers

ARCTIC WEATHER DRIVERS  Lake coring, Faroe Islands  SEPT 2015
The Faroe Islands, halfway between Iceland and Norway, are thought to be very sensitive to Arctic patterns that drive weather much further south. With the aim of understanding how the cycles work and what the future might hold, a team including climate scientist William D’Andrea will collect cores of lake sediments going back 10,000 years. They will  drive to sites, then deploy coring equipment via inflatable rafts. Analyses of molecular remnants of algae and other living matter will allow the team to reconstruct the past, and, they hope, advance understanding of a cyclic seesaw change in air pressure between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes—the Arctic Oscillation—that can mean relatively mild, dry winters or colder, snowier ones in Europe and the eastern United States. Done in conjunction with Ray Bradley of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This continues similar earlier work done in Norway’s far northerly Svalbard archipelago.Story on D’Andrea’s previous work in Svalbard

TROPICAL SUMMITS AND THE LAST ICE AGE  Mapping, rock sampling, Costa Rica  JAN 2016
Many tropical mountains have the same shape; from Costa Rica to East Africa, Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, steep slopes are often capped by relatively flat summits. Graduate student Maxwell Cunningham and scientists Colin Stark and Mike Kaplan want to know if mountain glaciers during the last ice age helped to sculpt these summits. To help answer the question, the researchers have trekked to the top of Costa Rica’s highest peak, 12,000-foot Mount Chirripó. Camped near the summit, where temperatures plunge to freezing at night, and days are often hot and damp, they have mapped the landscape on foot (frequent cloud cover over Chirripó has made satellite imaging difficult) and collected rock samples. Cunningham plans to return to Chirripo and also explore nearby peaks in January 2016. Photo Essay / Project blog

MELTING ANTARCTIC ECOSYSTEMS  Long-term research, Antarctic Peninsula JAN-FEB 2016
For nearly 40 years, U.S. scientists have been monitoring the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula—the part of the continent that extends the farthest north, and which has been hit by skyrocketing temperatures. From Palmer Station, an island outpost and part of a global network of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations, researchers have witnessed stunning changes: a sea-ice season that is now three months shorter, and a steep drop in phytoplankton in some places that in turn has led to declines in krill production and penguin populations. Hugh Ducklow, a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty, is the lead principal investigator of the LTER Project at Palmer Station. With Lamont oceanographer Doug Martinson, Ducklow and other colleagues will spend two months aboard an icebreaker taking measurements of biota and the physical qualities of the water, and collecting samples on land and at sea. At Palmer Station itself, associated scientists will study penguins and do other studies related to the shipborne expedition. Last year, the program added a new team that is studying Antarctic whales. RelatedRecent team paper on ecological changes

CO2 CAPTURE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA  Geologic fieldwork/drilling, Oman  JAN 2016
In the desert nation of Oman, mountains of rock from earth’s mantle have been thrust to the surface—the Samail Ophiolite. Recently, scientists have recognized that such rocks from the deep earth naturally take up large amounts of atmospheric carbon and convert it to solid minerals. A team is studying ways to pump excess man-made CO2 into such formations, where these natural processes would be harnessed and speeded up a thousand times, to combat global warming. Geochemists Peter Kelemen and Juerg Matter have been mapping sites where natural carbonation can be seen on the desert floor, in canyons and in excavations. In January 2016, they plan to drill a series of deep boreholes into the rocks to further refine their understanding. Artificial injection and sequestration of carbon cold eventually follow. Related: Earth Institute video, photo essay and story on the project / Columbia Magazine feature / Oman Drilling Project webpages / Earth Institute article on the project

SOUTHERN GLACIER HISTORY  Rock sampling and mapping, south New Zealand MID-JAN – MID-FEB 2016
Past advances and retreats of glaciers contain vital clues about the workings of the global climate system. In the glaciated mountains of southern New Zealand, a team has been collecting rock samples and drawing maps that show past positions of ice there in great detail over the past 13,000 years. Team members including Aaron Putnam travel by foot and helicopter from base camps in the Ben Ohau range to collect samples for surface-exposure dating, from boulders left by moving ice. Among other things, their studies show that advances and retreats closely track surface temperatures of the Southern Ocean as well as air concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But wind patterns and other factors may affect the system, causing some regions to react faster or slower to CO2—perhaps a useful lesson for today. Related: Watch a movie on the team’s exploits / Nature study on New Zealand glaciers

VISIT TO THE VOLCANO  Field workshop, Quizapu volcano, Chile  FEB 2016
Chile is to volcanoes what Wall Street is to finance; a tenth of the planet’s 1,500 volcanoes known to have erupted in the last 10,000 years are here. Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht will lead a three-day workshop for American and Chilean students at the University of Santiago, then a five- to six-day trip to Quizapu volcano, south of the city. The 3,800-meter high Quizapu has produced some of South America’s biggest eruptions of the last 100 years, and is home to a dazzling variety of volcanic landscapes: craters, hot springs, evolving ore deposits, and the remains of past big lava flows and explosions. Ruprecht has worked here repeatedly. The workshop is aimed at increasing collaborations between Columbia scientists and their Chilean counterparts.  Related: Smithsonian page on Quizapu / Ruprecht paper on Quizapu

SOURCES OF EXPLOSIVE VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS  Lava sampling, central Mexico FEB 17-28, 2016
Central Mexico is strung with dangerous explosive volcanoes, but their sources are not fully understood. In early 2016, geochemist Susanne Straub hopes to continue her work of ascending active high peaks to collect samples of  lava and tephra for analysis. At elevations up to 4,400 meters, the trip prospectively includes Malinche, Pico de Orizaba and Sierra Negra volcanoes. Minerals in the debris may allow Straub and colleagues to test their idea that the volcanoes are fueled when material from earth’s crust sinks and mixes with material from the mantle, further down. The mechanism may shed light on how potentially explosive magmas form, how they move upward, and how long it takes for pressure to build into a catastrophic eruption. The research should also shed light on how such volcanoes influence long-term ocean chemistry and climate. Related: Smithsonian page on Volcan Popocatepetl

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY FOR ALL  Power projects, Africa, Asia, New York City  ONGOING
The Earth Institute’s Sustainable Engineering Lab is working in developing nations to engineer solutions for better health, communications, and access to water and energy. A major initiative is bringing power to underserved rural areas. The lab has done large-scale geospatial analyses of energy infrastructure and recommended paths to growth for Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Liberia and Indonesia; it is currently is working on analyses in Nigeria and Myanmar. The group has also designed a solar-powered water pumping system for Senegal that ties “pay as you go” solar technology with a smart metering system. Funded by USAID, the system allows farmers to buy water as a service, instead of investing themselves in the high capital costs of solar technology themselves; it also saves on the cost of conventional fuel. The group has also been working with Xylem, a maker of HVAC equipment, to retrofit a large commercial/residential New York City building with variable water-flow technologies and controls. Monitoring will continue after the retrofit. The lab is headed by engineer Vijay Modi. Related: Lab homepage 

REIMAGINING NAIROBI  Mapping urban transport and infrastructure, Nairobi, Kenya  ONGOING
As in much of the developing world. the main form of transport in this city of 3.5 million is an unorganized network of private minibuses, called matatus. Up to now, there has been no map of their routes or timetables. Enter the Digital Matatus project, aimed at making developing-world transport more efficient and accessible. Jacqueline Klopp of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development and colleagues from the University of Nairobi, MIT and others collect and standardize data on the matatus, making it open and available to the public for the first time. They have developed and deployed purpose-built mobile phone apps to collect data, using the information gathered through crowd sourcing to produce standardized bus routes for the city. The group is continuing to refine, expand and improve the system. Next step is to expand the tools and methodology to the global scale. In a separate project, Klopp is working with community-based organizations in Mathare, a Nairobi slum, to enlist children from poor, informal schools to help redesign neighborhoods to make them safer, friendlier and more suited to their needs. Could illegal dumps be transformed into badly needed open public spaces and playgrounds? Could roads that are increasingly being built in slums, including near schools, be made safer through these processes? Related: Digital Matatus website  / Children design their own neighborhoods

Across sub-Saharan Africa, fertilizer application is very low compared to other regions, but is poised to increase as governments and NGOs promote it. Cereal yields may double or even triple when basic fertilizers are used along with improved seed varieties. But more nitrogen in particular may come with environmental consequences; elsewhere it has caused eutrophication of estuaries and high greenhouse gas emission rates. In order to understand how this might work in the African context, biogeochemists Kate Tully and Jonathan Hickman have established trials in Yala, Kenya, and Tumbi, Tanzania, to explore the fate of added nitrogen. They track it as it moves in soils, plants, water and air. Their research suggests that soil type plays a primary role in determining where nitrogen goes and how efficiently it is used. In a separate project, researchers are investigating the conundrum of why yields on some farms fail to improve, despite fertilizer additions. Working on some 90 smallholders farms in DR Congo, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania, they are diagnosing soil processes and trying to come up with improved procedures for specific soils, including additions of trace elements and management of acidity. The research is closely tied to the Africa Soil Information Service, a multi-institutional effort to map all of Africa’s soils, and improve productivity for small farmers while lowering their ecological footprint.  Related: Agriculture and Food Security Center / Africa Soil Information Service website / Science magazine article on the project

Vital Signs is an integrated system for monitoring farming results, ecosystems services and human well-being in agricultural landscapes. Measurements are made at all scales relevant to agricultural decision making—from household to farm, landscape and nation. Scientists from the Agriculture and Food Security Center are focusing on soil health, agricultural intensification, income, food security and nutrition. To date, the system has been implemented in Tanzania, Ghana and Uganda, and is expected to be  expanded. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-led by Conservation International. This year, Vital Signs is working on ensuring that data collected from these three countries is synthesized and made publicly available. Related: Vital Signs website

Long before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti suffered poverty, environmental degradation and vulnerability to natural hazards. Various Earth Institute centers have been active here since 2009, and are continuing research under the Haiti Research and Policy Program. This includes a project for the Haitian government  to document every government office. Enumerators are traveling the entire country—from police stations to ministries, small towns to large cities—to photograph and collect GPS data points and other attribute information, with the goal an interactive online national registry of Haiti’s official infrastructure. Other activity includes working with partners to monitor the impact of development projects in Ille de la Gonave, an island northwest of Port-au-Prince. Contact: Alex Fischer of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. Related: Haiti Research and Policy website / CIESIN Haiti Geo-Portal / Blog posts on Haiti projects

INDIA’S WATER CRISIS  Sustainable irrigation, water storage in mines, erosion control  ONGOING
In India’s key agricultural regions, farmers are pumping out far more groundwater than comes in; in places, water tables have dropped hundreds of feet. With Punjab Agricultural University and others, the Columbia Water Center is promoting more efficient farming and water storage. The team is working with thousands of farmers in Punjab and Gujarat to demonstrate and test water-saving technologies, including soil-moisture measuring devices that allow farmers to irrigate more precisely. In a new initiative, Water Center scientists will study 80-some abandoned mines in the rural state of Jharkhand for potential water storage. They will assess the safety of water already being stored; how to harvest rainwater for mine storage; and the potential for solar-powered pumps to get the water out. In the flood-prone northeastern state of Assam, hydrology experts are providing the state disaster-management authority with a flood forecasting system to improve response and recovery from flood and erosion events. Another initiative is the study of natural fluoride pollution in water, and ways to mitigate it.  In 2016, postdoc Katherine Alfredo will be based in Nagpur to continue many of these projects. Related: Watch a video / Punjab project description / Story on measuring soil moisture


ANCIENT HISTORY, PRESERVED IN MUD  Deep coring of lake and marsh sediments  MAR-AUG 2015
Paleoecologist Dorothy Peteet is creating a chronology of the New York area’s environment over the past 20,000 years, by drilling into lake bottoms and marshes. Here, she and colleagues collect pollen, remains of plants, charcoal and other clues. This winter, she and postdoc Jon Nichols will core high-elevation frozen lakes in Putman County, N.Y., to collect probably the earliest remains of plants after the end of the last ice age; this is aimed at resolving controversy over exactly when deglaciation took place here. (Estimates range from 22,000 years ago, to 16,000). In the summer, they plan to core northern New Jersey’s High Point Bog and Budd Lake, which sit at the state’s highest spot. They will also continue a long-term project to study how European settlement affected the region over the last 400 years, via agriculture, logging, industry and introduction of invasive plant species, via coring of marshes and bogs from the lower Hudson Valley up into the Catskill Mountains. Related: Earth Institute article on Peteet’s work

BAD AIR AND BICYCLES  Real-time air pollution studies via bicycle  SPRING 2015
New York City has tried to encourage more biking; but what are bikers breathing on city streets, and what are the health risks? In the first study of its kind, volunteer bikers will wear sensors that measure in real time the amount of soot, carbon monoxide and other pollutants they inhale. As the study progresses, some will also wear heart-rate monitors and blood-pressure cuffs, to measure the short-term effects of pollutants. Public radio station WNYC has agreed to help solicit volunteers on air. This spring, volunteers will do initial tests of the equipment. The study is run by environmental health scientists Darby Jack and Patrick Kinney of the Mailman School for Public Health. The small air sensors are developed by Steven Chillrud of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who has used similar instruments in groundbreaking studies in city subways, apartments and other locations.  Related: Development of personal pollution monitors / Previous study of subway air / Previous study on urban pollutants and asthma

DOES GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE WORK?  Instrument monitoring, NYC streets and parks  APRIL-NOV 2015 and ONGOINGbioswale2-199x300
New York City has embarked on a $2.4 billion, 18-year program to install “green infrastructure” aimed at decreasing inflow to sewer systems and mitigating coastal pollution; it may also help lower summer temperatures, improve air quality and increase biodiversity. The project includes replacing impervious surfaces with vegetated “green” roofs, more street trees and vegetated areas to soak up rainfall. A team from many centers is monitoring the 4,160-acre Bronx River sewershed—one of 12 across the city. Students under project leader Patricia Culligan of the university’s engineering school have already installed instruments on newly vegetated “green streets,” measuring temperature, moisture and nutrients. Some sites are monitored remotely from the lab via continuous signals, while others involve periodic collection of samples. Wade McGillis of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has added instruments to the Bronx River to monitor water quality. Microbiologist Krista McGuire of Barnard College is studying the composition of fungi and other biota in soils. Earth Institute ecologist Matt Palmer is investigating plant and insect diversity. Other researchers are involved in the sociological, health and legal aspects. This study could have implications for coastal cities around the world. Related: Story on the Bronx green infrastructure project / Columbia magazine story

RISING SEAS AT THE JERSEY SHORE  Sub-seafloor imaging, off southern New Jersey  SUMMER 2015
Sea levels along the northeastern United States are rising faster than the global average, and are expected to continue going up as climate warms. With the dangers made apparent by Hurricane Sandy, researchers will study past sea levels, with an eye to better understand what the future might hold. Some 30 miles from Atlantic City, a team aboard the Lamont-operated R/V Langseth will send pulses of sound to the seafloor to map the structure of the sediments as much as 3.5 kilometers (11,500 feet) under the bottom. This is aimed at documenting how levels fluctuated from about 24 million to 12 million years ago—a time of huge climate swings, when seas surged as much as 50 miles inland or 75 miles seaward from the current shore. During this time, New Jersey may have looked something like the mouth of the Mississippi, with rivers dumping vast amounts of debris into the Atlantic to form a delta of sand ridges, beaches, lagoons, stream channels and other features. Their remains will act as markers for the past ebb and flow of Jersey shores. This cruise will complement a 2009 seafloor drilling cruise by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Co-chief is geologist Greg Mountain, who has co-appointments at Lamont and Rutgers University. Project website / R/V Langseth / 2009 drilling program

MAPPING THE HEAT ISLAND  Measuring NYC heat with infrared cameras JUNE-AUG 2015
Dense cities tend to be much hotter than surrounding countryside, because pavement and roofs soak up heat from the sun—the so-called  “heat island effect.” Earth Institute physicist Stuart Gaffin studies the effect by mapping how heat varies across the city using infrared cameras. This summer, as temperatures rise, he and colleagues will take to the streets to measure what kinds of landscapes get hotter than others. In part, the research is aimed at measuring the ability of newly planted green spaces to reduce the heat island effect. The cameras may be set up on curbs or pointed out windows for a few hours, depending on the landscape. Some of the work will be done as part of a wider $3 million Earth Institute study of green infrastructure projects in the Bronx sewershed (see above). Related: The Bronx green infrastructure program / Earth Institute article on green roofs / Q&A on green roofs

HUDSON RIVER SEWAGE  Water sampling by boat  MAY-NOV 2015
In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, biologists are mapping the sources and fates of sewage entering the Hudson River. Sampling is done monthly from a small vessel, from above Albany to New York harbor. All parts of the river have been shown to have intermittent problems, especially when big rainstorms swamp sewage-treatment systems. The team has targeted tributaries with particular problems, including New York City’s Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal; and further up, the Saw Mill River, Pocantico River, and the Sparkill, Roundout, Esopus and Catskill creeks. Investigators: Andrew Juhl, Greg O’Mullan. Related: Article on the project / Report on the project’s progress / Latest report on Hudson SewageArticle on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Hudson River

NEW YORK EARTHQUAKES  Seismometer installation, monitoring, Adirondack Mts.  SUMMER 2015
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory runs the network of seismometers from Central Park to the Canadian border that monitors earthquakes in much of the U.S. northeast. The network records a surprising number of small events, and a recent study based on its data says highly destructive ones are probably more of a danger than previously thought. The team is continually expanding the network. This summer, they will install new stations in the eastern Adirondacks towns of Clifton and Fine, a rural area that sees numerous quakes. These installations will complete an unusually dense network of 12 seismometers in the Adirondacks, which sit on crystalline rocks that are extraordinarily good at transmitting quake signals. The density of the network in this area will not only allow scientists to study regional earthquakes in great detail, but also pick up signals from across the world useful for studying the interior of the deep earth. At Lamont, the entire network is monitored 24 hours a day; there is also a museum of historic seismic instruments from around the world. Head of network: Won-Young Kim. Related: Lamont Cooperative Seismographic Network web pages / Study on New York City earthquake risk / New York Times article on Albany tremors / Earth Institute story on the project

The Billion Oyster Project is a long-term initiative to restore a billion live oysters to the harbor over 20 years, and in the process educate young New Yorkers about the ecology and economy of the city’s marine environment. Lamont-Doherty scientists including Bob Newton are acting as scientific advisors to the city Board of Education, as a curriculum is developed. Students will be studying what are good and bad environments for marine creatures, monitoring water quality and performing other research. In an initial phase, Lamont is developing protocols for students to study what grows on three kinds of habitat: shoreside riprap, steel pipes and wooden piers. The project is in conjunction with a wide consortium of institutions, with funding from the city, National Science Foundation and EPA. Related: Billion Oyster Project website


In May 2015, tree-ring scientists Rosanne D’Arrigo and Brendan Buckley may travel to China’s southwestern Yunnan province, along its border with northern Myanmar. The mountainous, little-developed region is of interest because it may contain some very old trees whose rings hold valuable climate records of the past; the scientists would hunt for such trees, and take core samples. 

Geologist Maureen Raymo is sampling the remains of ancient shorelines worldwide to determine in greater precision past fluctuations in sea level. Research this year will be done in Bermuda (March), and later in the year, in the Bahamas. Pliocene Maximum Sea Level (PLIOMAX) web page / How High Could the Tide Go? (New York Times) / NY Times slideshow on the research 

Summer 2015, seismologist Leonardo Seeber will continue geological fieldwork in his native Calabria, where he and colleagues have been looking into how long-term tectonic stresses have contributed to the evolution of earthquake faults. Calabrian Arc blog

Sandra Baptista and John Scialdone of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network are working on a geospatial map of water quality in New York’s Jamaica Bay.

Anna Oursler and Elizabeth Marcello of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development  are studying the deterioration of buildings in Kenya’s Lamu Old Town, dating to the 12th century and the oldest functioning Swahili settlement in East Africa. The decay has reached such a point that the area is in danger of losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

In September or October 2015, paleontologist Paul Olsen will join an expedition to the remote Junngar Basin desert in northwest China to drill through rocks some 200 million years old. The project is related to sites of similar age Olsen is studying in Arizona, the UK and Germany; it may shed light on how earth’s orbit has varied in the past, affecting climate. In a related project, in summer 2016, he hopes to collaborate with Danish colleagues to drill a deep borehole into the similar-aged, fossil-rich rocks of Jameson Land, in eastern Greenland. Multimedia package on related work

Oceanography grad students Frankie Pavia and Sebastian Vivancos will join other scientists in a cruise across the remotest part of the south Pacific, whose waters are clear and relatively barren of life. They will study chemical elements in the water and how they get there, including inputs from floating dust and hydrothermal vents. Because the region is so large and remote, it is likely one of the last places on earth to observe these processes without the complications of human influence. Cruise goes Dec. 17, 2015-January 28, 2016, from Chile to New Zealand.

The International Ocean Discovery Program will do deep-sea drilling off southern Africa in February-March 2016, in order to gather evidence of climates past; led by geochemist Sidney Hemming.

Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam hopes to mount an expedition in 2016 to the little-studied glaciated areas atop Venezuela’s highest peaks. He may also return to southernmost Chile and Argentina to continue previous work there.

In May 2016, paleoclimatologist Pratigya Polissar travels to Tibet to recover lake-sediment cores for analyses of how the Asian monsoon has varied over the past 15,000 years. In a related study, in June or July he will take lake-bottom cores in the mountains of Colombia to understand the nature of abrupt past changes in rainfall. 

In summer 2016, climate scientist William D’Andrea hopes to collaborate with Norwegian colleagues to study past changes in climate along the coastal edges of the fast-waning Greenland ice sheet. Traveling by vessel, the team will land on the west and east coasts to take cores from the bottoms of lakes to analyze traces of ancient vegetation, indicative of past climates. D’Andrea may also work next winter on lakes in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. 

Scientists including marine geologist Frank Nitsche are mapping the bottom and sub-bottom of Long Island Sound in unprecedented detail. Work is ongoing, and should resume in summer 2016. Long Island Sound Seafloor Mapping website

The NASA-run Operation IceBridge runs yearly operations using aircraft flown at low levels over Greenland and Antarctica to observe how their ice sheets are changing. Glaciologists Kirsty Tinto and Jim Cochran operate instruments that measure ice thickness and underlying bedrock. Lamont’s IceBridge website / NASA IceBridge website / Greenland expedition blog / Antarctica expedition blog

Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin will travel to Vietnam’s Bidoup Nui Ba national park in the central highlands to study the factors that allow certain kinds of conifers to live over wide ranges. January 2016. Previous research on Bidoup Nui Ba’s ancient trees

Postdoctoral scientist David Porter has trained fishermen from a tiny village in Greenland’s Upernavik Islands to take profiles of water at different depths at the front of Alison glacier, which is actively surging forward and calving icebergs into the sea. The readings may help explain why the glacier is melting so fast. Porter hopes to return in summer 2016. Expedition blog

From November 2015 to January 2016, glacial geologist Michael Kaplan and colleagues will return to the Transantarctic Mountains, where they have been sampling some of the continent’s few exposed rocks, in order to study past advances of the East Antarctic ice sheet.  See their 2011 expedition blog 

Researchers with the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) are working to reduce conflicts between conservation managers and freelance gold miners in the ecologically sensitive old-growth forests of Madre de Dios area in the Peruvian Amazon. They also expect to work in the forested Vichada region of eastern Colombia, where expansion of large-scale agribusiness is clashing with local people and critical ecosystems, and guerrilla rebels are active.  AC4 website

Naturally occurring arsenic pollutes many private wells across the United States, and recent research show the problem is not getting any better. Teams led by geochemist Yan Zheng and others have been studying the geological factors at work. Separately, an extensive program led by Earth Institute professor Joseph Graziano is studying health effects. Work has been concentrated so far largely in Maine, where the problem is especially acute. Arsenic in U.S. wells 

Environmental health researcher Patrick Kinney is helping lead a project in Ghana that is studying the effects of providing efficient, clean-burning cookstoves to pregnant women. In a nation where open-fire cooking is common, the project seeks to reduce exposure to soot and other substances thought to be harmful to fetuses and small children.


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