Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork, 2016 and Beyond

by |February 2, 2016

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


12On every continent and ocean, Earth Institute field researchers are studying the dynamics of climate, geology, natural hazards and ecology, and their practical applications to modern problems. Below, a list of expeditions in rough chronological order. Work in and around New York City and the U.S. Northeast is listed separately toward bottom. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Whenever logistically feasible, journalists may join expeditions; remote coverage is also welcome. We keep this list continuously updated, and can provide video and still images for many projects. Above, check out our interactive world map[Last updated June 29, 2016]


SAMPLING A BARREN SEA  Chemistry research cruise, South Pacific JAN 2016
Grad students Frankie Pavia and Sebastian Vivancos join in a cruise from Chile to New Zealand, across the remotest partsCruisetrack of the south Pacific. Here, the waters are clear and relatively barren of life, allowing light to penetrate deeply. They will study chemical elements in the water and how they get there, including inputs from floating dust and hydrothermal vents, to try and determine input and removal rates of metals and trace elements from the ocean. This is crucial to our understanding of ocean life and past climates. 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.  Expedition blog

SECRETS OF POLAR ROCKS  Geology research, Antarctica interior  JAN 2016
transantarcticAntarctica is almost entirely covered with ice, but deep in the interior, the barren Transantarctic mountains rise above the frozen landscape. Geologists including Michael Kaplan have been camped in this forbidding territory since November 2015 in order to study the outcrops. Their main goal is to establish the history of ice retreat and resurgence in the continent’s interior by analyzing isotopes and other qualities of the rocks. This should help scientists understand how the continent may react to changing climate today. To access their field sites, the geologists travel long distances on foot and by snowmobile. 2011 expedition blog 

MELTING ECOSYSTEMS  Biology research, Antarctic Peninsula JAN-FEB 2016
For nearly 40 years, scientists have monitored the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of earth’s fastest-warming regions. As part of a global network of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations, researchers have witnessed stunning changes: a sea-ice season now three months shorter; steep declines in krill production and penguin populations. Hugh Ducklow, a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty, is lead investigator of the LTER Project. With Lamont oceanographer Doug Martinson, Ducklow and others will spend six weeks on an icebreaker studying biota and the physical qualities of the water. Last year, the program added a new team, studying Antarctic whales.  Story on recent work on the peninsula / Recent team paper on ecological changes

MISSISSIPPI SINKING  Coring, ground monitoring, Louisiana delta  JAN-FEB 2016
The Mississippi River delta is sinking fast; every hour, a football field’s worth of land disappears under the Gulf of Mexico. Dams and levees now prevent upstream sediment from replenishing delta sediments, which naturally compact and sink, and ongoing sea-level rise worsens things. But scientists are still struggling to come up with accurate models of what will happen in the future. One question: To what extent is the earth’s underlying deeper crust itself sinking? In order to get a better picture, a team including Lamont-Doherty geophysicist Michael Steckler will drill four deep wells and install in them instruments to monitor the tiniest ground motions in real time. They will also drill out a 40-meter core of sediment to provide a record of past sinkage. The study is relevant to other sinking deltas, including in India and Bangladesh.  What Went Wrong With the Delta  

DEEP WATERS, DEEP HISTORY   Seabottom coring off southern Africa  JAN 31-MARCH 31, 2016
Scientists aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution will drill deep into the seabed at six sites off South Africa and Mozambique to collect sediments built up over the last 5 million years. The aim is to uncover the story of shifting African climate and its possible connection with global ocean circulation–a connection that may have influenced human evolution. Co-chief scientist Sidney Hemming will study layers blown or washed in from land, to try and understand changes in rainfall and runoff, and changes in the deep, powerful Agulhas Current that could be related. The cruise is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program.  Expedition web pages / Hemming’s blog

Recent work in densely populated Bangladesh has shown that geologic stresses  could cause huge earthquakes, tsunamis and sudden shifts in the courses of great rivers. To deepen understanding, seismologists Leonardo Seeber, Belle Philibosian and Paul Betka will map related faults and river sediments in adjoining mountainous areas of northeast India and western Myanmar, some of which may have been riven by past quakes. Meanwhile, along the Bangladesh coast, marine geologist Cecilia McHugh and colleagues will study evidence of a great 1762 earthquake and associated tsunami that they have discovered in earlier excavations.   Watch a documentary about the project / Project website / Project blog / Science magazine article

EXPLORING AN EXPLOSIVE MOUNTAIN  Geology studies, Quizapu volcano, Chile  FEB 9-19, 2016
Chile is to volcanoes what Wall Street is to finance; a tenth of the planet’s 1,500 active volcanoes are here. Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht leads a trip for American and Chilean students and researchers to Quizapu volcano, south of Santiago. The sprawling, largely barren 3,800-meter-high Quizapu complex 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. The trip is aimed at both bringing back useful samples, and increasing collaboration between Columbia scientists and their Chilean counterparts. Travel will be on foot and horseback. Smithsonian page on Quizapu / Ruprecht paper on Quizapu

REVIVING CUBA’S FARMS   Agriculture studies, Cuba  FEB 2016 and ONGOINGpedro's farm
Pedro Sanchez, a native of Cuba, was in college in the United States when his family lost their farm and went into exile. Now a world-renowned agronomist, he heads the Earth Institute’s Agriculture and Food Security Center. With improving U.S. relations, Cuba’s government has asked him to help revitalize the country’s ailing farm sector. Cuba has fertile soils and fine weather; yet yields are low, much farmland lies idle,  and the country imports 70 percent of its food—the result in part of increasing urbanization and poor centralized management. Sanchez says that improved seed production and soil technology, along with making farming more attractive to young people, could once again make Cuba an agricultural powerhouse. On his most recent trip, he was able to visit his childhood farm.

TROPICAL SUMMITS’ SHAPE-SHIFTING  Mapping, rock sampling, Costa Rica  EARLY FEB-LATE MAR 2016
Many tropical mountains have the same shape: steep slopes, 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. They have been trekking to Costa Rica’s highest peak, 12,000-foot Mount Chirripó, to help answer this question. Camped near the summit, where temperatures plunge to freezing at night, and days are often hot and damp, they are mapping the landscape on foot (frequent cloud cover makes satellite imaging difficult) and collecting rock samples. They plan to return to Chirripó and explore nearby peaks. Similar research may take place in Papua New Guinea, in August.  Photo Essay / Project blog

CO2 CAPTURE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA  Geologic fieldwork/drilling, Oman  FEB-MAR 2016
In the desert nation of Oman, masses of rock from earth’s mantle have been thrust to the surface—the Samail Ophiolite. 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, 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. Next, they plan to drill several deep boreholes to further refine their understanding. Artificial injection and sequestration of carbon could eventually follow.  Earth Institute video, photo essay and story on the project / Columbia Magazine feature / Oman Drilling Project webpages

CLIMATE AND CONSERVATION  Planning for agriculture and protected areas, Myanmar, Bhutan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, other nations  FEB-MAY 2016 and ONGOING
The World Wildlife Fund and the Center for Climate Systems Research just launched a collaboration to work climate data into planning for conservation projects across the world.  The team, led by Radley Horton, is already working in Myanmar, where they are helping the government inventory its “natural capital” of habitats. They will return in April or May. Studies include a proposed major road whose effects may be complicated by sea-level rise and extreme weather. In March, they will present a workshop to officials in Bhutan as part of a project to help manage national parks with climate change in mind. In March or April, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, they will discuss preserving coastal mangroves that may offer a buffer against rising seas. In late February through early March, team members will be in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to look into how high-mountain herders can deal with increased droughts, floods and landslides as glaciers melt. Other future projects in Paraguay, Mozambique and Tanzania will focus on agricultural issues. Article on the project

LOST UNDERWATER CAVE WORLD  Excavations, tree-ring studies, western Belize MAY 2016** (Now postponed to 2017, pending funding)
The lowlands of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula hold vast water-filled cave systems pricked at the surface by cenotes—caverns with collapsed roofs, leading to the depths below. The Maya used them as shrines, and many contain artifacts. The cenotes also preserve remains of ancient trees, extinct animals and other objects that have fallen in over the ages. Tree-ring scientist and diver Brendan Buckley will help explore cenotes in forested western Belize, in an expedition led by University of Illinois archeologist Lisa Lucero. Pools as deep as 200 feet may shed light on climates and environments of the distant past, as well as on disappeared civilizations. Buckley will later continue west to the Belize highlands, where he hopes to search for very old living conifers in remote forests. Buckley’s work on ancient southeast Asia / Lucero’s Cara Blanca blog / Video of dives / USA Today article on Cara Blanca

HSOUTHERN FORESTS ON THE THRESHOLD  Studies of tree responses to climate, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma   TBD
Bioclimatologist A. Park Williams and colleagues are studying the potential response to warming climate of forests in the Mississippi River Valley and Ozark mountains—among the continent’s richest and most diverse. This region has not seen the rapid warming and drying that is destroying forests further west, but climate change is expected to catch up soon, and these forests may be highly vulnerable. The researchers are using tree rings, field surveys and remote sensing to determine various species’ responses to past shifts, especially the extreme heat and drought of 2011-2012. If warming proceeds as anticipated, the composition of forests here could shift dramatically.  Story, video and slide show on the project / Article on Williams’s work in the U.S. Southwest / Williams talks to Rolling Stone

FENDING OFF RISING SEAS  Coastal ecology studies, Sierra Leone, FEB-JULY 2016
As in many other low-lying areas, the still largely rural coast of Sierra Leone is threatened by rising sea levels and the rapid destruction of natural defenses like mangrove habitats for development. Alex deSherbinin and Sylwia Trzaska of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network will help assess the state of mangroves just south of the capital of Freetown, and what economic or sociological factors it might take for local communities to help preserve them.  Organization starts in February; fieldwork in March. Sponsored by USAID.

FATE OF THE ROBIN (AND OTHER CREATURES)   Tagging migratory birds, northern Alberta   APRIL 10-23, 2016, continuing 2017/2018
North America’s boreal forests are warming  faster than the global average, and the sudden change is devastating many trees. But little is known about effects on wildlife. A consortium of U.S. and Canadian researchers is now starting a 10-year campaign to study boreal ecosystems under climate change. Among other things, they are putting satellite trackers on animals including eagles, caribou, wolves and bears, to observe their behavior in relation to fires, insect populations, water availability and other factors. Ecologist Natalie Boelman is in charge of one common creature: the American robin. In April, she and a grad student head to northern Alberta to mist-net three dozen robins on their way to their breeding grounds, tag them, and set them free. Courtesy of Boelman and a new app, 4th- and 5th grade students at Rockland County’s Cottage Lane Elementary School will name each bird, and watch in real time where they go. She will tag more birds in succeeding years.  Expedition Blog / Overall project website / Animals on the Move / Boelman’s tundra ecology work in Alaska / Article on changing ecology in the north 

THE PLANET’S LIGHTNING HOTSPOT  Meteorology studies, northwest Venezuela  FALL 2016
catatumboThe mouth of Venezuela’s Catatumbo River at Lake Maracaibo sees more lightning than anywhere on earth—during parts of the year, up to 10 hours a day, hundreds of times per hour. It is spectacular—and dangerous for people and animals in this remote, swampy area. Working from small boats and on the ground, a team headed by Angel Muñoz of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is investigating the lightning’s causes by deploying and recovering weather balloons. Some say it is caused by methane emissions from land, or uranium in surrounding mountains. Muñoz and others think it has more to do with large-scale weather patterns, including El Niño, and storm-stirring collisions of warm Caribbean air with cold Andes air. Muñoz’s team just came up with a system for predicting when the lightning will wax and wane—important in an area where fishermen and others live highly exposed, and where oil and gas exploitation is taking hold.

CLIMATE DATA AT WORK   Increasing African technical capacity  ONGOING
Many African countries lack the ability to collect and harness weather and climate data for practical purposes such as agricultural planning and public health. Remi Cousin and others from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society are working with many countries to improve this. Starting in April, they travel to Niger, Sudan and Uganda. Another team led by Andrew Kruczkiewicz will visit Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia, to discuss with governments and NGOs how to respond to seasonal weather forecasts. In March or April, Francesco Fiondella will visit Rwanda to examine how the launch of a climate-data service there helped reclaim two decades of data almost lost during the genocide. Article on the work

CREATURES OF THE DEEP  Mapping seafloor vents, south Pacific  APRIL 2016
Marine geologist Vicky Ferrini and a group of biologists will sail from Fiji to Tonga to study the western Pacific’s Lau Basin hydrothermal vent field. The field has some unusual geological features, and is home to deep-sea creatures not seen elsewhere. It has not been visited for 10 years, and the scientists hope to gather data about its long-term evolution and ecology. Ferrini will lead high-resolution mapping of the study area, using an ROV. Project carried out on the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor. Project description / Expedition blog

MYSTERIOUS ERUPTION  Geology fieldwork/fossil hunting, New Hampshire  MAY or JUNE/JULY 2016  and Bolivia  DEC-JAN 2016/2017
Unusual igneous rocks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains have been studied for years—yet geologists still disagree on how they formed, and when. Grad student Sean Kinney will make several transects on foot to collect specimens for analysis with newly precise dating methods that may help solve the puzzle. He believes they may be part of a vast series of eruptions that split what is now the western hemisphere from Europe and Africa some 200 million years ago—a catastrophe thought to have cleared the way for the dominance of dinosaurs. Paleontologist Paul Olsen will hunt for fossils in an apparent old volcanic crater lakebed that has never been prospected. In winter, Kinney and Olsen plan to sample what may be the southernmost exposure of these rocks, southwest of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which also may hold unexplored fossil beds.  Megavolcanoes and the dinosaurs

GIANT LANDSLIDES AND CLIMATE  Geology fieldwork, Alaska, MAY and AUGUST 2016
Seismologists Colin Stark and Goran Ekstrom have invented a new technique using seismic waves to detect landslides in remote areas where they might otherwise go unrecorded. On Oct. 17, 2015, they zeroed in on one of North America’s largest ever known slides—200 million tons of rock cascading into Taan Fjord, Alaska. Satellite imagery later confirmed the slide, and resulting tsunami, but no one has actually been there yet. With the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service, Stark and Ekstrom will travel in by boat and aircraft to study the causes and effects. Climate change is implicated; worldwide, nearly half the slides observed by the team are in fast-warming Alaska, where rapid pullbacks of glaciers from fjords is removing ice that once buttressed massive vertical walls. Similar processes appear to be underway in the Himalayas, possibly creating a new kind of natural hazard.  Finding Landslides With Seismicity / Investigating July 2016 slide in Glacier Bay, Alaska

HIGH IMPACT  Search for meteorite craters, western Russia  MAY 10-24, 2016;  Madagascar SEPT 2016 (TBD) Videos & Photos by Alexei Kiselev 090
A 2013 destructive meteor explosion over Russia was a wake-up call that big impacts may be more common than thought. Geologist Dallas Abbott travels the world looking for hidden craters; only about 170 are known, but she believes many more lie camouflaged. She has been working with Russian colleagues near the city of Nizhny Novgorod to explore several unusually deep elliptical lakes as possible candidates. Previously, the team surveyed topography and did excavations revealing fragmented rocks that may have been shocked by some great force, but so far evidence is inconclusive. In May, they will continue working here and possibly expand to other sites. In September, Abbott hopes to return to sites where she previously worked on the east coast of Madagascar. Here, gigantic dunes appear to preserve physical and geochemical evidence of a tsunami some 10,000 years ago that could have been set off by a meteorite striking the Indian Ocean. In the next phase, she hopes to look for transported boulders that would bolster her hypothesis.  Atlantic article on Abbott’s work / NY Times article on Abbott’s research off east Africa / National Geographic piece on recent Madagascar findings

MAKING WAY FOR TIGERS  Studies of resettlement, wildlife-human conflicts, Madhya Pradesh, India  APRIL/MAY, JULY/AUG, DEC 2016
Expansion of parks and other protected areas in recent decades may have helped the survival of rare species—but few have studied the literally millions of resettled people displaced from these areas. Amrita Neelakantan, a PhD. student in the lab of Earth Institute Professor Ruth deFries, is surveying 850 households displaced since 2009 from the iconic Kanha Tiger Reserve (said to be the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book). She and a local team will visit homes of people resettled outside the park to learn about how the move has affected their food security, interactions with wildlife outside park boundaries and other aspects of their lives. Aside from the human issues involved, some scientists question whether resettlement actually achieves the conservation goals intended inside parks, and whether it adversely affects wildlife outside the parks, which receive less protection. The study will also get at some of these issues.

ARSENIC IN THE WATER   Geological and agricultural research, Bangladesh MAY 2016;  Vietnam MID-MAY and AUTUMN 2016; Utah AUTUMN 2016
Naturally occurring arsenic in well water is found across southeast Asia and parts of the United States. Despite efforts since the 1990s to address this, many people are still exposed. As part of a long-term project in  Bangladesh, in May geochemist Alexander van Geen and colleagues will visit farmers who have experimentally replaced arsenic-laced soils in their fields, to study the effects. In May-June, van Geen and geochemist Ben Bostick will conduct drilling near Hanoi, to study undergrond arsenic plumes drawing closer to the city water supply. In fall, the scientists hope to test out special coring tools in Utah, in conjunction with two dozen researchers visiting from the worst-hit Asian nations with whom they work.  Videos and story on Asian geological and health studies  / Arsenic pollution near Hanoi / U.S. wells tainted by arsenic

HOW DO FORESTS REGROW? Tree physiology studies, Puerto Rico SPRING/EARLY SUMMER 2016
At least half the world’s tropical and subtropical forests are products of human disturbance—regrown after farming, logging or fires—but these areas are rarely studied, in favor of so-called virgin forests. This may skew calculations of future climate change, as second-growth forests may take up carbon differently from “natural” ones. Forest ecologist Maria Uriarte specializes in the dynamics of second growth, and its implications for biodiversity, climate and water. Puerto Rico was almost completely deforested 50 years ago, but is now again 60 percent trees. In its northeast, Uriarte and collaborators are working in Luquillo Experimental Forest, where scientists from many disciplines have studied plots for decades. She is documenting which species take hold, how fast they grow, and how they react to changing weather and other factors. Work involves clambering over hilly, densely vegetated terrain to census trees and install instruments. Uriarte research pages / Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research

UNDERBELLY OF AN ICE SHEET  Seismic studies, Greenland JUNE 1-21, 2016
The rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet is being intensively studied, but scientists know almost nothing about the rock base on which it rests—a missing wild-card factor that could affect its behavior in any future scenario of sea-level rise. A team led by seismologist Meredith Nettles has planted instruments across the sheet, aimed at imaging the rocks far below, and listening  to “glacial earthquakes,” which are generated when the ice moves. Working from near the very top of Greenland, Nettles and a grad student will travel by aircraft to pick up instruments put out in previous years, and retrieve their data. Among the mysteries they hope to investigate: an apparent giant volcanic caldera whose heat may be hastening melting of the ice from below. Glacial earthquakes / Greenland Ice Sheet Monitoring Network

A large EF-5 Wedge tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. The tornado had the distinction of being the widest recorded, with EF1 winds to a diameter of 2.6 miles. Sadly, the storm took 4 storm chasers lives. Southeast of El Reno, 5/31/2013

ON THE TORNADO TRAIL Storm chasing, U.S. High Plains LATE MAY-JUNE 2016
Three two-person teams including extreme-weather researcher John Allen of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society will work closely together to chase and observe tornadoes across the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. Working from their vehicles (and trying to maintain safe distances and escape routes), they will use high-definition video cameras and other instruments to collect data to better understand the dynamics of deadly storms. Recent research by colleagues suggests that outbreaks of extreme tornadoes are becoming more common, and this could be driven in part by shifting climate. Among other things, Allen and colleagues are hoping to develop reliable seasonal forecasts months out. Related: Extreme tornado outbreaks are growing / Forecasting tornado seasons / Allen’s account of the El Reno tornado

DE-ICING CENTRAL ASIA  Altai mountains, western Mongolia  JULY 2016
Much of mountainous central Asia, where glaciers feed water to hundreds of millions of people, is warming faster than the rest of the world; thus it is important to understand how future climate may affect the ice. Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam (an adjunct professor at Lamont-Doherty and assistant professor at the University of Maine) 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 high-precision dating. By mapping out past positions of glaciers, he and colleagues hope to add to the understanding of how natural changes in earth’s orbit and carbon-dioxide levels influence climate. Done in conjunction with Mongolian colleagues; work in succeeding years will explore sites in the eastern Himalayas of China and Tibet.

FUTURE OF THE GREENLAND ICE  Sampling lakebeds, rock outcrops, southwest Greenland, Baffin Island  JULY-AUG 2016
The vast Greenland ice sheet is melting, but temperature is only part of the equation. Another part is snowfall, which under some climate scenarios, could increase with warming, and bolster the ice. A team including climate scientist Nicolás Young is starting a three-year project to study how temperature and precipitation have combined to affect the ice sheet over the past 8,000 years, and thus make better projections. Working by helicopter and camping in the field, they will sample rocks and lakebed sediments around the ice edges, and later analyze them for signals of ice advances and retreats. In a related project, Young and glacial geologist Joerg Schaefer will study rocks on neighboring Baffin Island for signs of shorter-term weather shifts 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, when the climate was briefly similar to today.  Article on project

Veg-vendor-p.mondal-fieldwork-indiaFARM TO TABLE  Research on diets of small farmers, India  SUMMER 2016-2017
Small farmers produce some 80 percent of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, yet they often lack sufficient nutritious food. Researcher Pinki Mondal of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network and Earth Institute professor Ruth DeFries are leading an interdisciplinary team of geographers, nutritionists and economists to examine the diets of small farmers with a variety of income levels. Collaborating with Indian researchers, they will dive into the issues of accessibility and affordability to nutritious food in rural India. Data collection starts summer 2016 and continues for three seasons (summer, monsoon, winter) over the next two years.

MELTDOWN IN EUROPE?  Studies of glacial water supply. France, Switzerland  LATE SUMMER 2016
Half of France’s electricity depends on the flow of the Rhone River, which both powers hydro dams and supplies coolant for nuclear plants. But Switzerland’s Rhone glacier, whose meltwater supplies almost all the river’s warm-weather flow, is disappearing. Will the lights eventually go out? Already, during heat waves in 2003 and 2006, lower water levels and higher water temperatures forced several nuclear plants to shut. A team including Lamont glacial geologist Joerg Schaefer and Columbia Water Center hydrologist Pierre Gentine is evaluating the glacial system, and its effects on the human one. Their preliminary findings are gloomy: The glacier appears to be highly sensitive to fast-rising temperatures–not so much to precipitation–and they can show that meltwater discharge has been declining for a century. The research is related to a similar project in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, which also taps glaciers for power.  Project web page

STOREHOUSE ON THE TUNDRA  Studies of bog vegetation, northern Alaska  LATE JULY/EARLY AUGUST 2016
For thousands of years, plants that make up arctic peat bogs have soaked up vast amounts of carbon dioxide and stored it, as dead plant matter builds up. With warming climate, tundra vegetation types are shifting—but it is not clear whether the net effect will be more carbon storage, or less—a vital question for global climate projections. Paleoclimatologists Jonathan Nichols and Dorothy Peteet are studying both peat and living plants, and their ability to store carbon in climates past and present. This year’s fieldwork will focus mostly on sampling living plants near the Toolik Lake Field Station, on Alaska’s North Slope.  Video on bog project

TREELINE ON THE MOVE  Plant/soil/weather surveys, northern Alaska and Northwest Territories  EARLY JUNE, FALL 2016 and 2017
Across the fast-warming arctic and subarctic, tree seedlings are taking root and advancing the 13,400-kilometer-long treeline into open tundra. This portends huge changes in northern ecology, and perhaps the carbon budget of the planet. In a new project, scientists are integrating remote-sensing data with observations on the ground to tease out how microclimate, soil and other factors are playing into the forest/tundra intersection. In early June, a team including plant physiologist Kevin Griffin and ecologist Natalie Boelman will study plots along northern Alaska’s Dalton Highway. In fall, they will work near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. The sites are all accessible by road and foot. In collaboration with the University of Idaho, Duke University and the Canadian Forest Service.  Project abstract / Tundra ecology website / Article on changing ecology of treeline

australia coast 1A GLOBAL MAP OF PAST (AND FUTURE?) SEA LEVELS   Coastal geology, southeast Australia and Namibia  SUMMER 2016
In order to project how high climate change may drive the sea levels, scientists are working to gauge what oceans did during past natural climate swings. But measurements of the past are confounded by the rise and fall of land itself, driven by tectonic forces over the eons. Geologist Maureen Raymo is co-leading a global project to map ancient beaches across the world and adjust for such factors, focusing on a period some 3 million years ago, when CO2 levels were identical to those today. In June, Raymo and grad student Michael Sandstrom will map out ancient marine terraces now on dry land along the remotes coasts of northwest Australia. Making precise measurements and sampling fossils, they  will feed their observations into their growing database from other trips, ranging from southern Africa to the Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast. A prospective trip is also planned for the desert coast of Namibia, later in summer. Pliocene Maximum Sea Level (PLIOMAX) web page / How High Could the Tide Go? (New York Times) / NY Times slideshow on the research 

MOST ANCIENT LIFE  Surveys of stromatolites, Wyoming  LATE JULY/EARLY AUG 2016
Stromatolites are masses of rock thought to be the built-up byproducts of ancient photosynthetic bacteria in shallow waters. Southern Wyoming’s Green River formation has some of the most spectacular, 30 million to 50 million years old, rising 30 to 60 feet above a deeply eroded landscape. Geochemist Sidney Hemming and colleagues will spend two weeks studying the formations to refine understanding of how they were laid down, and when. Camped in the field, the team will map strata and take samples for later lab analysis. The work may apply to oil exploration, since stromatolites may produce petroleum when buried below the surface. The researchers also hope that the research can be used as an analog in the search for life in Mars’s Gale Crater, where, if life did exist in the past, the remains might resemble stromatolites.

MONITORING CORAL VITAL SIGNS  Panama, Galapagos Islands, Haiti, central corals-linsleyPacific Ocean  MARCH-AUGUST 2016
Geochemist Wade McGillis has designed new instruments that monitor the metabolisms of coral reefs in real time. These are now shedding light on how corals are reacting to rising sea temperatures, ocean acidity and pollutants. In March, he will work on western Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí reefs, near the coastal town of Pixvae, which has seen very warm water temperatures recently. In May, he will work in inland Haiti, finding and measuring water sources coming from mountain caves created from relict coral reefs. In July, he will study reefs off the Galapagos Islands’ Darwin Island. In August, he visits one of the few systems not yet affected by humans, off the Pacific atoll of Palmyra. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has asked McGillis 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.  Line Islands Corals

CALIFORNIA’S MOUNTAIN WATER SOURCES  Studies of glacial geology, lake sediments, Sierra Nevada Mts.  LATE AUGUST 2016
Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam and colleagues in hydrology and climate are working in the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California to collect samples of lake sediments and boulders showing past advances and retreats of glaciers. The goal is to establish the sensitivity of snow and ice to changes in temperature and precipitation, and how this may affect water supply at lower elevations. The studies apply directly to the ongoing California drought, and the mountains’ snowpack, recently declined to record low levels.  Declining snow threatens water supplies / Climate and the California Drought

LIFE AND DEATH BEFORE DINOSAURS  Geology, fossil hunting, China APRIL 2016; United Kingdom MAY 2016; Bolivia FALL 2016
Lamont paleontologist Paul Olsen studies mass extinctions of the distant past. He is especially interested in farflung evidence of a drastic climate switch 200 million years ago that cleared the way for the rise of dinosaurs. In April, he will join an expedition with Chinese colleagues to the Junngar Basin desert in northwest China to drill through fossil-rich rocks some 200 million years old. In May, he and paleomagnetism expert Dennis Kent will return to previous field sites in the exposed sea cliffs of western England and Wales, where they have found promising material. In September, OIsen hopes to visit upland Bolivia to explore a horizon of sedimentary rock wedged between two volcanic layers that has yet to be prospected for fossils.  Fieldwork in the United Kingdom / Fieldwork in Arizona

Central Mexico is strung with dangerous explosive volcanoes, but their magma sources are not fully understood. In 2016, geochemist Susanne Straub hopes to continue previous work of ascending active high peaks to collect samples of lava and tephra for analysis. At elevations up to 4,400 meters, sites prospectively include Malinche, Pico de Orizaba and Sierra Negra volcanoes. The collections are aimed at testing the idea that the volcanoes are fueled when parts of earth’s crust sink and mix with material from the mantle, further down. This may shed light on how explosive magmas form, move upward, and how long it takes to build to an eruption.  Smithsonian page on Volcan Popocatepetl

ANDES ECOLOGY AND CLIMATE  Mountain surveys, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru  ONGOING
The paramo regions of the Andes–high elevation ecosystems above the treeline, but below the glaciers–hold many unique creatures, and provide water to major cities below. But climate change is 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 to understand what is going on. They have shown that clouds and humidity are thinning, water bodies drying, and wildfires increasing. This has stressed plants and other biota, which may be moving toward summits. One-week surveys of biota and collections of data from instruments are done about every three months. Carrascal and colleagues are also working in the El Angel-El Golondrinas reserve, along the Colombia-Ecuador border; and in the Madidi-Apolobomba protected area of Bolivia and Peru.  Watch a slideshow on the project / Project blog post / Video on related study of Andean glaciers / Catalog of high Andean flora

THE LAST FARM FRONTIER  Development planning, eastern Colombia  ONGOING
The Colombian department of Vichada is one of Latin America’s last regions where development could potentially create a new, robust farm economy. It is far out on the eastern plains, with only 70,000 small landholders on some 40,000 square miles; now, big corporations are eyeing the largely roadless land for soybean and palm-oil projects. This could displace locals and disrupt ecosystems. Agricultural experts including Walter Baethgen of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society are working with the department’s governor and Colombia’s von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute on a long-term development plan that is sustainable environmentally, economically and socially, and which includes the livestock herders who are the region’s backbone. The team is looking at factors including climate, road planning, rules of land ownership and management of fire in this often very dry, hot region. Farming and fires in Latin America

INDIA’S WATER CRISIS  Sustainable irrigation, water storage in mines  ONGOING
In India’s key agricultural regions, farmers are pumping out groundwater so fast, water tables have dropped hundreds of feet in places. The Columbia Water Center has been promoting more efficient farming and water storage. In the state of Haryana, economist Katya Vasilaky is testing whether farmers can be convinced to take collective action to curb use. In the state of Jharkhand, postdoc Katherine Alfredo is studying 80-some abandoned mines for potential water storage; she is also studying natural fluoride pollution in water, and ways to mitigate it.  Watch a video / Haryana project

SURFER SCIENCE  Citizen surveys of coral health, worldwide  ONGOING
Coral reefs around the world are threatened by climate change and pollution; scientists are studying them to understand their prospects for survival, but researchers can’t be everywhere.  So, Lamont-Doherty marine scientists have partnered with the World Surf League and GoFlow on a global project for surfers, divers and other ocean enthusiasts to directly gather data from reefs wherever they are. Participants are entering GPS-tagged images and observations on coral health via an app that sends the data to the scientists, who will be analyzing it continuously for the foreseeable future. Oceanographer Jesse Farmer and seismologist Bruce Shaw are two of the principals of the Bleach Patrol team, named for the bleaching effect that warming water exerts on coral.  Article on the project | Bleach Patrol website

THREATENED ICE  Field geology, glaciology, Bhutan LATE SPRING/FALL 2017
Many Himalayan glaciers are receding, endangering water supplies and hydropower for 1.3 billion people downstream. Big meltwater lakes are also  building behind leaky natural dams that may burst and kill people downstream. An interdisciplinary project seeks to predict future glacial dynamics and water flow in Bhutan. In 2017, a team including geochemist Joerg Schaefer will study rocks and landforms around glaciers to determine past climate conditions that have led to advances and retreats. This will be collated with other data including tree rings taken by Lamont dendrochronologist Edward Cook and colleagues at lower elevations. Work involves long-distance trekking over difficult terrain. New York Times blog from the 2012 expedition / Read an article about the project


DEEP IN A BOG  Coring of lakes, marshes and bogs, northern New Jersey and Catskill Mountains   JAN-JUNE 2016
Paleoecologists Dorothy Peteet and Jonathan Nichols are creating a chronology of the New York region’s environment over the past 20,000 years, using cores of sediment from lake bottoms, marshes and bogs from northern New Jersey to the Catskills. The cores contain pollen, plant remains, charcoal and other clues to climate and vegetation since the end of the last ice age 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. This winter, they hope to core New Jersey’s Budd Lake, at the state’s highest point. In warmer weather, they will drill to bedrock through an ancient bog in the high Catskills near Maplecrest, N.Y. The work addresses questions about long-term natural climate change, as well as how farming, logging, industry and introduction of invasive plants in the last 400 years have affected the area.  Earth Institute article on Peteet’s work

The 1,320-square-mile Long Island Sound is heavily crisscrossed by vessels on its surface, and by energy and communications lines on its bottom—yet existing charts predate modern technology. A team including marine geologist Frank Nitsche has been mapping the seafloor and sub-seafloor in new detail over the last few years. The maps will give a newly detailed picture of both the topography and the makeup of the bottom tens of meters below the bed. This should improve the safety of navigation and management of natural habitats. The researchers will use sonar pulses to create images, and may also take cores from the bottom. Cruises on a University of Stony Brook vessel will last one to five days, concentrating this year on the eastern sound.  Long Island Sound Seafloor Mapping website

POISONED BY ARSENIC  Testing of wells, behavioral/medical studies, northern New Jersey and Maine  ONGOING
Naturally occurring arsenic pollutes private wells serving as many as 3 million people in the United States, and the problem is not getting any better. This is in part due to nonexistent government regulation, and spotty efforts by homeowners to mitigate the problem. A team led by geochemist Yan Zheng is studying contamination and its implications in Maine and northern New Jersey, where arsenic is especially prevalent. Research includes studies of both geological and sociological factors. (Not surprisingly, lower-income people are less likely to be protected.)  An extensive program led by Earth Institute Professor Joseph Graziano has been studying the health effects, which may range from increased risk of cancer to lowered IQ in children.  Arsenic taints many U.S. wells 

BAD AIR AND BICYCLES  Real-time air quality monitoring via bikes  SPRING-FALL 2016, AND ONGOING
Biking is growing in New York City—but what are riders breathing in, and what are the health risks? In the first study of its kind, volunteer bikers are wearing sensors that measure soot, carbon monoxide and other pollutants bikers are inhaling in real time. Some will also wear heart-rate monitors and blood-pressure cuffs to measure short-term effects. In partnership with public radio station WNYC, the study is run by environmental health scientists Darby Jack and Patrick Kinney of the Mailman School for Public Health, and Steven Chillrud of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Some 150 bikers will carry sensors starting this spring. New Yorkers will soon be able to tap into a new smart-phone app that estimates air pollution in their current location.  What’s in the air as you cycle NYC? / NYC air quality phone app / Development of personal pollution monitors / Study on urban pollutants and asthma

DOES GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE WORK?  Monitoring water flow, Bronx streets and parks ONGOINGbioswale2-199x300
New York has embarked on a $2.4 billion, 18-year program to install “green infrastructure” aimed at decreasing inflow to sewers, lowering summer temperatures and improving air quality; it may also increase biodiversity. It involves replacing impervious surfaces with vegetated “green” roofs, and street-side trees and plants. A team is monitoring results in the 4,160-acre Bronx River “sewershed,” one of 12 across the city. Students under project leader Patricia Culligan have installed instruments on newly vegetated streets to measure temperature, moisture and nutrients, from the lab via continuous signals, or through periodic site visits. Wade McGillis of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has put instruments into the Bronx River itself. Microbiologist Krista McGuire of Barnard College is studying 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.  Story on the Bronx green infrastructure project / Columbia magazine story

HUDSON RIVER SEWAGE  Water sampling by boat  ONGOING
In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, biologists are mapping the sources and fates of pathogenic sewage in the Hudson River. Sampling is done monthly using a small vessel, from Albany to New York harbor.  Water quality has improved dramatically in recent decades, but human waste still sweeps in, especially when rains swamp sewage-treatment systems. Tributaries with particular problems include New York City’s Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal; the Saw Mill River; Pocantico River; and the Sparkill, Roundout, Esopus and Catskill creeks. Investigators: Andrew Juhl, Greg O’MullanArticle 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 ONGOING
From Central Park to the Canadian border, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory runs seismic instruments that monitor earthquakes in the U.S. Northeast. The region sees many small quakes (some 70 in 2015), and big ones may be an underappreciated threat to the New York metro area. The team monitors the network 24 hours a day, traveling frequently to repair and update instruments. Some newer ones have been installed near Albany, N.Y., where recent unusual tremors have been felt; and in the Adirondack Mountains, where quakes have long been routine. The Adirondacks’ crystalline rocks are extraordinarily good at transmitting seismicity, enabling the scientists to pick up earthquakes from across the world. Head of network: Won-Young KimLamont Cooperative Seismographic Network / Study on New York City earthquake risk / New York Times article on Albany tremors / Sonic booms mistaken for earthquakes

Excellent local oysters once populated New York City menus—but that was before waterways were overrun with pollution, shoreline construction and other depredations. The Billion Oyster Project is a long-term initiative to involve young New Yorkers in restoring New York’s marine environment by growing 1 billion oysters. Working with dozens of middle-school teachers, Lamont-Doherty scientist Bob Newton has designed protocols for monitoring oyster growth and marine conditions. Working at 32 shoreline sites, teachers and their students are now growing oysters on different kinds of substrates, and measuring water chemistry, wildlife and weather conditions, along with the oysters. A new cohort of teachers will be trained this February as the program expands. Program is in conjunction with a wide consortium of institutions.  Billion Oyster Project website


An unused military installation in France is being converted into the base for a 50-kilometer-square “Climate City,” where scientists will intensively monitor temperature, precipitation and other parameters, to better understand the local effects of changing climate on urban areas. An international team will deploy instrument-laden drones, balloons and ground sensors to gather data. Related centers are planned for Saudi Arabia and Brazil. The team includes scientists from three Earth Institute centers: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society; and the Columbia Water Center. Story on the project

In northeast Pennsylvania, hydrofracking is dominating the landscape, and this could affect health. Off and on, geochemists Beizhan Yan and Steven Chillrud have been monitoring air in homes for volatiles, soot, metals and other substances, and sampling homeowners’ wells. Slideshow on the project / Earth Institute fracking experts

Ecologist/epidemiologist Maria Diuk-Wasser and her students are studying the environmental factors influencing transmission of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, including climate and human disturbance of the landscape. Warm-weather fieldwork involves trapping small mammals to collect blood and tissues, and collecting ticks in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The Sustainable Engineering Lab, headed by Vijay Modi, is bringing solar-powered irrigation pumps to rural Senegal; the first few farmers in a pilot project have been pumping groundwater since last year, and the team is now evaluating the results, with an eye to expanding the program. Lab homepage 

Spring 2016, seismologist Leonardo Seeber hopes to 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

July-August 2016, oceanographers Andrew Juhl, Ajit Subramaniam and Andreas Thurnherr join a consortium of other researchers on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, as part of a larger long-term project to investigate the aftermath of the 2010 Macondo well explosion, along with the effects of natural oil seeps. Project website

Geologist Dennis Kent Kent may work with colleagues in China and Greece to date deposits relating to early migrations of proto-humans from Africa. Kent may also be involved in dating dispersal of dinosaurs into what is now east Greenland, and signs of a massive shift in earth’s polarity predating the dominance of dinosaurs, in Chile. Kent’s work to date on the earliest human tools

Anthropologist Benjamin Orlove of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions is working with small mountainous countries to form a coalition of glacier nations facing common threats from climate change. At the 2015 Paris climate summit, he met with scientists from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Kyrgyzstan and Nepal. Top issues: hydropower, water resources and potential outbursts of glacial lakes.

Indigenous people fear that a gold mine in the Enga province of Papua New Guinea is poisoning water and soil. Researchers from the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic have been documenting the problems. They hope to return this summer to advocate for national-level solutions. Led by AC4 director Joshua Fisher and Rights Clinic director Sarah Knuckey.  Story on the project

Paleoclimatologist Jonathan Nichols hopes later in the year to take cores from Borneo’s vast deposits of peat, to study how past El Niño cycles have affected carbon accumulation and wildfire there. In recent months, huge peat fires have broken out here and on neighboring islands, in part due to El Niño-linked dry weather, coating much of southeast Asia with smoke and sending greenhouse gases into the air.  Earth Institute El Niño resources

In May 2016, paleoclimatologist Pratigya Polissar may travel 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 may core lakes in the mountains of Colombia. 

August 2016, geomorphologist Colin Stark may travel to Papua New Guinea to investigate how glaciers have carved high-altitude peaks during the last ice age. Related to a similar project in Costa Rica, taking place in February-March.

The NASA-run Operation IceBridge uses aircraft flown at low levels over Greenland and Antarctica to observe how ice sheets are changing; plans still being made for 2016. Glaciologists Kirsty Tinto and Jim Cochran operate key instruments. NASA IceBridge website

A team headed by Tinto, Robin Bell and Indrani Das is helping map west Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf as part of the three-year multi-institutional  ROSETTA project. The team is collecting data on the shelf, the ocean
beneath and the seafloor at the shelf’s base. This is aimed at understanding the ice shelf’s sensitivity to ocean and atmospheric variability. Next flights are October/November 2016. 
 Ross Ice Shelf blog

Lamont-Doherty geologist/anthropologist Christopher Lepre works in the remote desert around northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana, where many key fossils and artifacts related to human ancestry have been discovered. In 2015, he and colleagues announced they had found the world’s oldest known stone tools, dating back 3.5 million years. World’s oldest stone tools

Tree-ring scientist Mathieu Levesque hopes to sample ancient oak and tulip trees in the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia in spring or summer 2016. These trees can be hundreds of years old, and hold valuable records of past regional rainfall and temperature, used in studies that put modern weather into perspective.  Southeast droughts in long-term context 

Polar scientist Marco Tedesco travels each summer to Greenland to investigate the changing qualities of the ice sheet’s surface, including snow-grain size, surface ice and dust or other impurities. These all can affect the sheet, which appears to be melting at an accelerating rate. Plans are still underway for the 2016 season. Article on Tedesco’s findings

Postdoctoral scientist David Porter has trained fishermen from a tiny village in Greenland’s Upernavik Islands to take profiles of water properties 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 moving so fast. Porter hopes to return in summer 2016. Expedition blog

Glacial geologist Aaron Putnam may team up with Venezuelan scientists in summer 2017 to study the history of the country’s mountain glaciers. Some now fast-waning ice remains high up on 16,000-foot-plus peaks, but glaciers were once much more extensive. Past glacial advances have left boulders further downslope, which the scientists will sample and date to provide a long-term picture of climate since the last ice age in this rarely studied region.

A team including geologists Michael Steckler and Leonardo Seeber has been working for years with Turkish colleagues to map faults under the Marmara Sea that threaten to shake the great city of Istanbul. A 1999 quake along a related structure killed 30,000 people, and scientists fear this segment may be the next to go.  Project web page / US Geological Survey background

Geologist Enrico Bonatti and colleagues want to recover fragments of a bolide that exploded over the remote Siberian boreal forest in 1908—the largest known extraterrestrial impact in modern human times. It flattened many square miles of trees, but fragments of the object, if any survived, have never been found. They believe remains may lie in the beds of a series of lakes, and want to search by boat, pending funding.  2015 paper on the impact

 Volcanologist Einat Lev and her graduate students are studying the dynamics of lava lakes. At any one time, only about a half-dozen such features are active, in which roiling ponds of molten material are exposed to the air within volcanic craters. The latest is a lake that appeared near the summit of Nicaragua’s Masaya volcano in early 2016, and is still active. Grad student Yoni Goldsmith visited Masaya in June 2016, and the team may return. Other currently active features include lakes in the Congo’s Nyiragongo, Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus, and Hawaii’s Kilauea (where Lev has also visited).  Feature on Kilauea study / Article on Masaya study (in Spanish)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *