Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork: 2020 and Beyond

by |February 4, 2020

Photo of the Fieldguide map

[THIS LIST WAS LAST UPDATED JUNE 18, 2020. NOTE: MANY EXPEDITIONS SCHEDULED FOR 2020 MAY BE DELAYED OR CANCELED DUE TO THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC. CHECK WITH INDIVIDUAL RESEARCHERS REGARDING THEIR PLANS.}

Earth Institute researchers are in the field studying the dynamics of the planet on every continent and every ocean. Below, a list of projects. When logistically feasible, journalists may join and cover expeditions. Projects are in rough chronological order; work in the U.S. Northeast is listed separately toward the bottom. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. More information: senior science editor Kevin Krajick: kkrajick@ei.columbia.edu, 212-854-9729.

 U.S. AND INTERNATIONAL

DEEP-EARTH DESERT | Geologic fieldwork, Oman | FEBRUARY 2020
In the desert nation of Oman, rocks from earth’s mantle, usually inaccessible, have been thrust to the surface in the mountainous Samail Ophiolite region. Among other rare qualities, these rocks naturally take up vast amounts of atmospheric carbon and convert it to solid carbonate. In the first project of its kind, an international team has drilled out deep cores and is performing experiments in the drill holes to assess the possibility of injecting CO2 emissions. In February, project leader Peter Kelemen will return to measure the natural flux of CO2 into the rocks, and the emission of byproducts from these reactions. Measurements will take place at boreholes and alkaline springs. Video, photo essay, story on the Oman project / Oman Drilling Project webpages

MELTING CONTINENT | Physical/biological oceanography, Antarctic Peninsula | JAN-MARCH 2020
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. They have documented major declines in sea ice, and dramatic shifts in wildlife including penguins. Hugh Ducklow, a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty, is lead investigator. His team will spend a month on the icebreaker LM Gould cruising the peninsula’s west coast to study its creatures and collect physical data on ocean waters. The LTER team also works on a variety of projects in the immediate coastal zone at Palmer Station from October through March each year. Story on recent work on the peninsula / Team paper on ecological changes

SLIDING INTO THE SEA | Geophysical measurements on, over and under Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica | FEB-MARCH 2020
West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier is wasting at a quickening pace, already contributing 4 percent of current global sea-level rise. In one of the biggest international Antarctic collaborations ever, some 100 scientists from seven countries are studying every aspect of the glacier. Among them, geophysicist Jonathan Kingslake will camp on the ice for a total of four months to collect data on the properties of rocks and sediments beneath the glacier. In the air, a team flying over the ice will be equipped with airborne radar, gravity, magnetics and lidar instruments, to collect data on ice thickness and sea-bed depth. At sea, geophysicist Frank Nitsche will join a team studying the ocean adjoining the ice. Story on the project / Project web page

COFFEE SOURCE | Community visits, interviews, Vietnam| MARCH 2020
In Vietnam’s central highlands, coffee is an important crop, especially for poorer farmers. But it is highly vulnerable to climate conditions, from drought to flood-induced diseases. Dannie Dinh and John Furlow of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society will meet with farmers, agricultural extension workers, provincial officers and community leaders as part of an effort to provide medium-term climate forecasts tailored to the specific needs and geographical locations of coffee growers. Part of a Columbia World Project, Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday), the effort is supporting Vietnam’s national meteorological agency to incorporate a better understanding of the climate challenges faced by farmers and the kinds of forecast products and services they need. ACToday website | The Future of Food Security in Vietnam

WESTERN WATER, AND VOLCANOES | Geologic fieldwork, Mono Basin, California | March 14-20, 2020
Focusing on the area around Mono Lake, one of the United States’ oldest lakes, researchers Sidney Hemming and Guleed Ali are investigating past water levels in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada. By studying geologic samples and comparing how lake levels responded to previous climate shifts, they hope to inform projections of California’s water future. They will sample volcanic ash layers interwoven with lake sediments laid down following the last ice age, and attempt to precisely date the sediments by analyzing radioisotopes in the ash. Dating of the ash layers will also aid in judging the hazards of the nearby Mono Craters volcanic field, which is thought to have erupted frequently as recently as 600 years ago. Story/video on Mono Lake fieldwork

SUSTAINING PEACE | Field interviews/workshops, Mauritius, Costa Rica |MARCH-JUNE 2020
While most research frames peace within the context of conflict and war, social psychologist Peter Coleman and colleagues from the Advanced Consortium on Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity are studying the factors that contribute to intergroup harmony in societies that are outstandingly peaceful. Working with local partners in Mauritius and Costa Rica, researchers will conduct interviews, focus groups and surveys to better understand the factors that lead to peace and challenge it, and ways of responding to challenges. The Sustainable Peace Project | Researchers Study How Mauritius Achieves Peace

OPEN SKY | Rainwater harvesting project, southern Ethiopia | April 2020 and ONGOING THRU 2022
Staff members of the Columbia Water Center led by Paulina Concha Larrauri are working to increase water supplies in arid Dara Woreda, southern Ethiopia, by designing and implementing systems to harvest and store rainfall. She will next visit in April 2020 to assess how to implement and repair harvesting systems in six health centers, to recruit local partners, and to train health-center personnel to manage the systems. Work will continue over the next two years. The center has been working on rainwater systems also in Mexico City, and across the United States. CWC rainwater harvesting web page

ISLANDS RISING | Geologic fieldwork, northern Bahamas | LATE SPRING 2020
To improve forecasts of future sea level rise, scientists are turning to coastlines that have preserved geologic markers of sea levels during times when the planet warmed rapidly. A prime target: the last interglacial period, about 116,000 to 128,000 years ago, when temperatures rose slightly higher than they are today. But a major obstacle is the limited understanding of how the land itself may have risen or fallen in the interim, and thus confounded calculations of what the ocean did. Geologist Maureen Raymo and geodynamicist Jacqueline Austermann will sample and measure formations along coastlines in the northern Bahamas in order to get at this question. Photo gallery of past Bahamas workStory on related research in Barbados

WINDS OF CHANGE | Geologic mapping, sampling, Gobi Desert | MAY-JUNE 2020
The barren Hami Basin in China’s far western Xinjiang province is one of the hottest, windiest places on earth; frequent gusts can max out at 120 miles per hour, blowing trains off their tracks. The winds have actually scoured the surface of pretty much all loose dust or soil over the past few million years, leaving mostly bare stone. Grad student Jordan Abell will travel there to find out how it got that way, and whether the evolution of such landscapes can affect the climate regionally or globally (or vice versa). Abell and colleagues will visit other Gobi sites as well. The work may open windows onto the evolution of similar deserts in Iran, Australia or even Mars. Earlier work in the Hami Basin

1,000 YEARS OF WEATHER | Tree-ring sampling |Peru, Bolivia, MAY-JUNE 2020
As part of a five-year project to reconstruct weather patterns and extremes over the past millennium, Lamont scientists led by Laia Andreu-Hayles will sample rings from ancient trees in Peru and possibly Bolivia. Work will extend from 15,000 feet in the Andes into lower elevations of the western Amazon. The team will merge the data with separate studies of cave formations and old tree trunks washed into caves, to yield a long-term picture of climate variations in this region. Among other places, the researchers may sample around Tacna in southern Peru, and in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Project is led out of the State University of New York, Albany. Abstract of the research

GOING WITH THE FLOW | Studies of fresh lava, Hawaii | FALL 2020
In 2018, lava from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano destroyed whole neighborhoods. Whenever the volcano erupts again, the question will be: Where will the lava go, and how fast? Volcanologist Einat Lev and colleagues are trying to answer these questions by sampling the 2018 flows, and analyzing drone footage that documented their movements—the first time such a visual record has been made. Lava can start, stop, speed up, slow down or change direction based not only on topography, but chemical composition, temperature, viscosity, and the formation of bubbles or crystals. The team will try to disentangle these factors to better prepare communities for future eruptions. Story, video, slideshow on Lev’s past work at Kilauea

BIRTH OF THE AMAZON | Seafloor drilling, Western Atlantic | APRIL 26-JUNE 26, 2020
The International Ocean Discovery will investigate the tectonic and climate conditions offshore South America from before the Amazon River was born until today. Researchers will drill two deep boreholes in the sediment fan of the Amazon River to take samples dating back some 70 million years. Data should provide new information about how the Atlantic basin developed, give clues to how the neotropical rainforests of South America evolved, and outline the history of ocean conditions in the western equatorial Atlantic. Lamont petrophysicist Will Fortin will help analyze the cores. Ship departs from Barbados, docks at Fortaleza, Brazil. | IODP Expedition 387 web pages

HIGH-ALTITUDE FORESTS | Tree-ring collections, Colombian Andes| APRIL/JULY-AUGUST 2020
Tree rings are essential to understanding the long-term response of ecosystems to climate change, but such studies in South America are lagging behind most other areas of the world. This is particularly true in Colombia, due to long-running civil war and political unrest that only recently have abated. Based out of Medellin, Colombia, paleoclimatologist Nicole Davi will study and core Polylepsis and other high-altitude tree species. The data will also be used to study the effects of repeated ocean/atmosphere cycles including the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which greatly affects weather in this region. Davi will also work with Medellin graduate and undergraduate students in the laboratory.

NAVIGATING THE NEW ARCTIC | Mapping Greenland’s coastal waters | JUNE-JULY 2020
Sea levels in most of the world are rising, but paradoxically, levels in Greenland may well drop. This is in part because Greenland is losing so much ice, the land itself is rebounding, in some places as much as an inch a year. This threatens to literally strand many coastal communities, which depend on already shallow waters for navigation. In conjunction with local people, a group led by polar scientist Robin Bell will map coastal waters near four communities in detail, and install tide gauges and other instruments to understand in real time how they are changing, and might change in the future. Mostly roadless Greenland depends on its coastal waters for everything from transport to fishing, so data from the project will be vital for planning for the future. Work will take place in the towns of Kullorsuaq, Aasiaat, Tasilaq, and the capital, Nuuk. Story on the project | Story, video, slideshow on the melting of Greenland

THE NEXT TSUNAMI | Seismic imaging off Pacific Northwest | JUNE-JULY 2020
In 1700, the undersea Cascadia Suduction Zone, off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, produced a giant earthquake and tsunami on the scale of what devastated Japan in 2011. Scientists monitoring it mainly from land have found it suspiciously quiet; there may be a 30 percent chance that a repeat could come within the next 50 years. In order to get a closer look, U.S. and Canadian scientists will join on a cruise to better understand the depth, roughness and thickness of the suspect fault system. Seismometers dropped to the ocean floor will detect natural seismicity, along with echoes from acoustic pulses from the research vessel. This will allow scientists to create a 3D picture of the system, and hopefully better understand the threat level. Cruise will be led by geophysicist Suzanne CarbotteProject web page

FAR NORTH FOREST | Tree ring coring, microplastic sampling, southern Greenland | JULY 2-12, 2020
Climate scientist Marco Tedesco will lead an expedition to Greenland’s only natural forest, in the remote Qinngua Valley. The forest, nestled  in an unusual protected area, hosts slow-growing trees probably hundred of years old; tree rings may contain uniquely valuable information about how Greenland’s climate has changed, and the potential for trees and other vegetation to take over as Greenland continues to warm. The team plans to spend a few days coring living trees; they may also try to locate logs that have recently melted out of nearby glacial ice, which could potentially extend the tree-ring record back much further. They will reach the forest by sailing up a fjord in a small vessel; on the way, they will sample the waters for the presence of microplastics, which have been found in farflung places including the Arctic.  Greenland Once Had Lush Forests How Climate Change May Green Greenland

TEAM VOLE | Small-mammal studies, northern Alaska | JULY 2020, continuing through 2021
Researchers have been studying the effects of warming climate on tundra plants for nearly three decades, but little is known about the small animals that eat them, and their role in tundra ecosystems. Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin and ecologist Natalie Boelman will study rodents in relation to plant communities at plots near Nome, Alaska, the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range, the southerly Seward Peninsula, and the northwestern coastal village of Barrow. The five-year project aims to project trends in small-mammal populations and plant growth over the next 50 to 100 years. Story, video and slideshow on related tree line project / Tundra ecology website

WOMEN LEADERS | Workshops on peace and security, Nairobi | JULY 2020
Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee of the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity will be in Nairobi, Kenya, leading a workshop on peace and social change as part of a fellowship offered to African women. The fellowship is for change makers from grassroots organizations around the continent; it aims to generate knowledge, build skills, strengthen relationships, exchange strategies and amplify the possibilities generated by frontline advocates and organizers working on issues of social change, justice and, more broadly, security for all people.  Women, Peace and Security Program

END OF AN ICE SHEET? | Glacial geology, Baffin Island, Canada | JULY-AUG 2020
The Barnes Ice Cap, located on Canada’s Arctic Baffin Island, is one of the last remnants of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which once covered North America as far south as New York and New Jersey. It is receding, and recent modeling suggests it could disappear by 2200. But are the current dimensions of the sheet and the prospect of its disappearance unprecedented? Geologists and geochemists including Nicolás Young, Joerg Schafer and Gisela Winckler will travel to the edge of the ice cap to collect samples from bedrock that has emerged from under the ice in the last decade. The team will later measure rare cosmogenic nuclides that form in the rock only when it is exposed; the amount present will help determine if this remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet has completely disappeared in the recent geologic past, or not. Abstract of the project

SINKING CONTINENT | Geologic fieldwork, central Australia | SUMMER 2020
Australia is sagging in the middle. This is a prime example of a cratonic basin, an ancient continental interior that has, for unknown reasons, slowly sunk, then filled in with sediments. Such features cover more than 10 percent of the continents, including North America, and form homes for major reservoirs of hydrocarbons, minerals and fresh water. Geodynamicist Jacqueline Austermann and postdoc Mark Hoggard of Harvard will investigate a series of sedimentary basins that formed 850 million to 400 million years ago, examining their thickness, age and other qualities, in an effort to understand how they formed. Results should have implications for resource exploration, variations in global sea level and basic understanding of basic plate-tectonic processes.

CO2-HUNGRY ROCKS | Geologic fieldwork, California, Nevada, British Columbia | SUMMER 2020
Geochemist Peter Kelemen will scope out sites where rocks may be naturally turning atmospheric carbon to solid minerals. The aim is to find sites to conduct experiments on methods to speed up the natural processes so they can be used to capture and store human CO2 emissions on a large scale. Some sites may lie near geothermal plants, similar to a plant in Iceland that is now capturing its emissions and pumping them underground to be turned into solid form. However, the rock type Kelemen is investigating is unlike the volcanic basalt used in Iceland; instead, it is peridotite, a rock formed in the deep earth and rarely seen at the surface. He is carrying out similar, more advanced work on peridotitic rocks in the Mideast nation of Oman. Video, photo essay, story on the Iceland project | Video, photo essay, story on the Oman project

FIRED UP | Post-burn surveys of boreal forests, northern Alaska | SUMMER 2020
Largely due to warming climate, in recent summers millions of acres of Alaska’s spruce-dominated boreal forests burn, often to be replaced by deciduous trees. This may eventually cause profound physical and ecological shifts over vast areas. Wildfire scientist Winslow Hansen will survey scores of post-fire plots to better understand how tree succession plays out, and whether transitions to deciduous trees are permanent. Among other things, he will census trees, measure canopy cover and examine soils. Study plots range from 15 to 75 years post-fire. The data will be used to improve interpretations of satellite imagery, and model what forests might look like 150 years after burning. 

FROM SINK TO SOURCE | Measuring natural greenhouse-gas emissions, southwest Alaska | SUMMER 2020
The Arctic has long taken in and stored vast amounts of carbon in soil and permafrost—at this point, about twice as much as in the entire atmosphere. But rapid warming and resulting thawing of the ground has reversed the equation; microorganisms are now releasing stored CO2 and methane back to the air, turning the far northern lands from a storehouse of greenhouse gases to a source. Grad student Sarah Ludwig and colleagues are studying the flux in the Yukon-Kuskowim river delta of southwest Alaska, using measurements from instruments on the ground and in the air. The planned result is an improved map of what is happening at the atmospheric interfaces of tundra, wetlands and small ponds. The picture is complex, as the researchers are finding that there are hot spots not necessarily being spotted by remote imagery. Project web page 

ANCIENT MEGAQUAKES  |  Ocean-bottom coring off Japan | SUMMER 2020
The offshore quake that sent a catastrophic tsunami to Japan in 2011 was thought to be impossible—until it happened. The problem: scientists generally do not have good records of past earthquakes going back more than a few hundred years. Researchers with the International Ocean Discovery Program will drill a series of 120-foot-long sediment cores from the ocean bed off Japan in the quake zone to determine how often these kinds of quakes have occurred over the past 100,000-plus years. (Such quakes leave disturbances in sediments that can be sorted out and dated.) The work will extend the record back 10 or 15 times from what is available now from shorter cores. Drilling will take place aboard the research vessel Kaimei; initial analysis aboard a separate vessel docked along the coast. Participants will include geologists Cecilia McHugh and Susann StraubIODP Expedition 386 web pages

DYING ICE | Land, sea, air investigations of Helheim Glacier, Greenland | SUMMERS 2020-2022
Studying a single glacier in fast-melting Greenland in unprecedented detail, researchers from eight institutions including glaciologist Marco Tedesco embarked last year on a four-year project to investigate all aspects of the Helheim Glacier, one of east Greenland’s largest. The glacier, which meets ocean waters in a fjord, has been shrinking rapidly since 2001. The team is using drones both above the glacier and underwater, as well seismometers and lasers to map movements of the ice, reactions between meltwater and marine waters, and other dynamics. The investigation should open windows onto processes at other glaciers, and the implications for 21st-century sea level rise. Account of the 2019 expedition | Article on the project

WARNING SIGNS | Experimental volcano monitoring, Aleutian Islands | SUMMER 2020-2024
There are 80 to 90 volcanoes around the planet threatening to erupt at any one time, but scientists can almost never accurately predict what will happen and when. Volcanologists Terry Plank and Einat Lev and colleagues aim to change this by developing a system of instruments and protocols that could monitor all the world’s volcanoes. To start, they are placing unprecedented arrays of instruments on the active Cleveland and Okmok volcanoes in the Aleutian Islands. Using helicopters and drones, and hiking on foot, the team will deploy sensors to detect gas emissions; seismometers to detect the slightest shaking; GPS instruments to measure inflation or deflation of the surface; and infrasound detectors to detect rising lava. Data will be transmitted continuously in real time via satellite. The hope is that the arrays will allow the team to develop reliable algorithms that presage eruptions. These would be used to develop similar arrays that can be deployed cheaply and quickly on other volcanoes worldwide. 2020 will be spent mainly on reconnaissance; 2021 will see large-scale deployment, and 2022-24 maintenance of the instruments. The team is also looking into developing an interdisciplinary Volcano Institute at Columbia that would include earth scientists, social scientists and disaster specialist to minimize the risks of eruptions.

SOUNDS OF A CHANGING ARCTIC | Bioacoustic/camera wildlife studies, Alaska/Yukon | SUMMERS THRU 2024
With Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge about to open to fossil fuel exploration, ecologist Natalie Boelman and colleagues from several institutions will assess the effects of human intrusion on wildlife, from caribou to birds. Using bioacoustic sensors and camera traps at 90 locations, they will compare three areas: Alaska’s already heavily industrialized Prudhoe Bay region; the Wildlife Refuge, which may see intrusions soon; and Canada’s Ivvavik National Park, which is protected from development. Acoustic sensors will pick up everything from bird calls to mosquitoes buzzing, along with human-produced noise. Using artificial intelligence, sounds will be combined with camera images to analyze the abundance and activities of animals at each site, and their reactions to disturbance. Boelman hopes to recruit volunteers to help count animals in the camera images.

STONE-AGE LIVESTOCK | Archaeology, geochemistry, central Turkey | AUG-SEPT 2020
Exactly how and when humans evolved from hunters of animals to herders is a source of ongoing work, especially at the Neolithic settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey. Grad student Jordan Abell and colleagues have shown that the switch probably happened there quite rapidly about 10,000 years ago, using an unusual marker: the density of urine salts left in soils by people and animals. Abell described the technique and results in a paper last year. He will return to the site to work alongside geomorphologists, zooarchaeologists and archaeologists. He will sample newly excavated hearths, floors, walls and alleyways for their chemistry, and in particular try to refine techniques of paleo-urine analysis. Switch From Hunting to Herding Recorded in Ancient Pee

SOUTHERN WINDS  ARE SHIFTING | Bog coring, New Zealand | OCTOBER 2020
Warming climate has caused dramatic changes on New Zealand’s South Island, pushing winds and storm tracks far southward, into the open ocean. This has decreased rain some 40 percent in the last 30 years; it has also affected lands in the same latitudes as far east as Chile. The southward shift is also roiling waters in the Southern Ocean, which may be releasing more carbon dioxide into the air as a result. Paleoclimate researcher Jonathan Nichols and colleagues will core ancient peat bogs on the island to study how the winds have varied over the past 100,000-plus years, in an effort to understand what is happening today. As much as 30 feet deep, the bogs contain chemical tracers and remains of plants and animals that should enable the researchers to chart changes in the winds and resulting precipitation and temperature on a fine scale, over great stretches of time. Smithsonian article on Nichols’ bog work

DEEP BIOSPHERE | Seafloor drilling, South Atlantic Ocean | OCT 5-DEC 5, 2020
The International Ocean Discovery Program will collect subseafloor cores along the western flank of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, at sites where the crust is 7 million to 60 million years old.  Scientists will investigate low-temperature hydrothermal interactions between the aging volcanic basalt that comprises the crust, and overlying sediments. These zones contain a largely unexplored world of microbial ecosystems; the drilling will bring new insights into this deep biosphere, as well as how the oceans have evolved during past intervals of rapid climate change. Ship will traverse from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, The crew will include Lamont researchers Michael Kaplan and Angela Slagle.  | IODP Expedition 390 web pages

OUT OF PHASE? | Glacial geology and tree-ring studies, New Zealand | JAN-FEB 2020 and JAN-FEB 2021
A team including glacial geologists Aaron Putnam and Joerg Schaefer, and tree-ring scientist Edward Cook will travel through New Zealand’s glaciated Southern Alps to explore what appears to be a disconnect between advances and retreats of glaciers in the southern hemisphere and those of the north. The geologists will trace changes in the ice over the last 10,000 years by sampling and analyzing radioisotopes in rocks near current glacier fronts. Forests are growing on nearby moraines, and rings from trees there will be sampled to more finely date changes in temperature during more recent centuries. The team will also scour the landscape for ancient pieces of wood or other organic matter that may have been covered up and later released by ice. The findings will be compared to the much better studied dynamics of glaciers in the European Alps. Expedition involves strenuous hiking. Previous research on New Zealand glaciers

SINKING INTO THE SEA | Studies of  Bangladesh coastal areas| ONGOING THRU 2021
In the 1960s and 1970s, large swaths of river delta in low-lying southwest Bangladesh were walled off with elaborate levees to prevent flooding and improve agriculture. Since then, sea levels have risen, and at the same time, the land is sinking, due to natural compaction of sediments. As a result, the water is breaching some embankments. Geophysicist Michael Steckler and colleagues are studying the forces at work with precise measurements of land levels. This is aimed at helping design programs to build and maintain sustainable levees as part of a $400 million World Bank program. Watch a documentary / Project blog

SLOW EROSION. VERY SLOW. | Geologic fieldwork, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica | JANUARY 2020 and 2021
Using innovative new instruments, geochemist Jennifer Lamp and colleagues are measuring erosion of rocks in Antarctica’s cold, windy McMurdo Dry Valleys, Earth’s best analog to Mars. It may take millions of years for visible erosion to take place here, but the instruments pick up minute acoustic emissions that signal openings of tiny cracks; from these, scientists may be able to extrapolate erosion rates. The work is expected to open new vistas onto the evolution of the surfaces of both planets. Project blog

HIDDEN RESERVOIRS | Search for coastal aquifers, Bangladesh | FEB 2021
Last year, researchers revealed the existence of a vast system of fresh-water undersea aquifers in sediments off the U.S. East Coast—the first discovery of its kind. If other coastal areas worldwide host such aquifers, they could provide a major resource for fast-growing, water-starved regions. Geophysicist Kerry Key, who led the U.S. discovery, will spend a month on a vessel along the coast of Bangladesh, towing electromagnetic instruments along sinuous delta waterways, which can detect fresh water possibly trapped below this estuary. The research will take them into the Sundarbans, the greatest remaining coastal mangrove forest in the world. Scientists Map Huge Undersea Fresh-Water Aquifer Off Eastern U.S.  

PLUNGING CANYONS | Geologic fieldwork, south Australia | MAY-JUNE 2021
The period 720 million to 540 million years ago was marked by violent swings in climate, including ice ages that glaciated most or all of the planet, and evolution of the first complex organisms. Geologists Nicholas Christie-Blick and Sarah Giles will sample rocks and examine carbon isotopes from this time in the dramatic deep canyons of the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. The canyons were once under water, and it has been thought that they formed there, and thus may hold evidence of how marine life evolved over long stretches of time. However, the researchers will also examine new evidence suggesting they were cut by rivers during a brief but extreme drawdown of sea levels. Initial foray will last May 23-June 7. Expedition may involve strenuous hiking.

METEORITE ON ICE | Drilling an impact crater, Greenland |SUMMER 2021
In 2018, scientists announced the discovery of an apparent 19-mile-wide meteorite crater under a kilometer of ice within northern Greenland’s Hiawatha Glacier—the first time such a feature has been spotted under an ice sheet. Much about it is still a mystery, as it has only been imaged by geophysical instruments. Pending funding, a team including geochemist Sidney Hemming hopes to drill through the ice and take geologic samples. Some think the crater could be as young as 12,000 years, and could be linked to a sudden climate shift that wiped out many species around that time. There is some evidence that it could be older. In any case, it appears to be one of the 25 biggest known impacts on the earth, and must have had consequences regionally or globally. Article on the impact discovery

AFRICAN SMOG | Air pollution monitoring, in sub-Saharan Africa | ONGOING
Many of Africa’s fast-growing megacities suffer from drastic air pollution, caused largely by drastic poverty. As a result, dirty air may kill as many as 700,000 people a year. Most cities cannot even measure the pollution, much less do anything about it. As a first step, atmospheric scientist Dan Westervelt is working to set up networks of air-monitoring devices in seven cities. These will help chart soot, ozone and other substances produced by residential burning of wood and charcoal for cooking; emissions from poorly maintained vehicles using low-quality fuel; diesel soot from private generators used during frequent power outages; and burning of garbage due to a lack of refuse collection. Westervelt will be in Accra (Ghana) Feb 17-28, collecting and analyzing data; Lomé (Togo), Feb. 29-March 3; and Kigali (Rwanda) and Nairobi (Kenya) March 9-13. Fall 2020 will see fieldwork in Kinshasa, DRC. Bridging the Air-Pollution Data Gap in Sub-Saharan Africa 

OCEAN INVADERS| Studies of harmful plankton, Oman | ONGOING
It’s part plant, part animal, and it’s taking over. It’s Noctiluca scintillans, a floating organism that forms thick, slimy mats on the ocean, feeding on everything from sunlight to fish eggs. It is thriving in the Arabian Sea, where climate change has created the right conditions. Off Oman, Noctiluca are hurting fishing and aquaculture, clogging water intakes of oil refineries and desalination plants, and hurting tourism. Oceanographer Joaquim Goes is leading a multi-institutional study of the organism and how to deal with it, working at sea to understand the forces that drive its life cycle, and how Oman can adapt. The creatures are now spreading off southeast Asia and India, and may eventually reach other areas. Studying Bioluminescent Blooms in the Arabian Sea

WARMING ANDES ECOSYSTEMS | Mountain surveys, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru | ONGOING
The páramos of the Andes, the unglaciated areas above the tree line, harbor unique ecosystems and provide water to major cities. But climate change is thinning clouds, drying land and increasing wildfires there, stressing plants and other biota. Since 2004, scientists led by Colombia-based Daniel Ruiz Carrascal of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society have been regularly visiting sites at Los Nevados Natural Park, near Medellin. The team also conducts several expeditions a year to collect data in the Colombian Andes on the El Ruiz-Tolima volcanic massif; the El Angel-El Golondrinas reserve, along the Colombia-Ecuador border; and the Madidi-Apolobomba protected areas of Bolivia and Peru. Watch a slideshow on the project / 2010 story on the project / 2018 story on the project

RESCUING SLAG AND CO2 | Steelworks recycling, northern China | ONGOING
Researchers from the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy are working with Baotou Steel in Inner Mongolia to run a revolutionary new plant that will recycle slag and waste CO2 into raw materials used in paper, plastic, paint, plastic, cement, and the oil and gas industries. A pilot run has been completed; as researchers analyze the data, the team is moving forward with a phase-2 demonstration, which is near commercial scale. This project to create so-called “green ores” is led by Lenfest director Ah-Hyung (Alissa) ParkArticle on the project

GONE GLACIERS | Geologic fieldwork, southern Chile | ONGOING thru 2021
Geologists Mike Kaplan and Joerg Schaefer and colleagues at Chilean institutions are working in Patagonia to investigate how changing climate has affected glaciers in the past. There are strong indications that climate patterns in the southern hemisphere glaciers are out of step with those in the north; understanding why will help scientists project the effects of modern climate change. The work involves mapping features carved by past glaciers, and collecting samples of rock left by retreating ice. Fieldwork will take place intermittently over coming years.

SOUNDS OR SILENCE? | Bioacoustic recording, central and south India | ONGOING
Project Dhvani (Sanskrit for “sound”) is placing recorders in the dry tropical forests of central India, including the famous Kanha Tiger Reserve, and in the country’s mountainous, misty Western Ghats, both hotspots of biodiversity. Using newly developed algorithms, researchers will plot the presence and abundance of a wide variety of creatures that communicate with sound, including insects, amphibians, birds and mammals. The aim is to study how human presence is affecting them, and how different approaches to restoring degraded landscapes affect wildlife. In some cases, sounds will be transmitted in real time, enabling researchers and to pick up signs of poaching or illegal logging. The team aims to engage the global public with sounds posted on an interactive website. Project overseen by Earth Institute professor Ruth DeFriesProject Dhvani website Western Ghats site

TROPICAL TREES AND CLIMATE | Forest surveys, Puerto Rico | ONGOING
Beyond devastating Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and killing people, Hurricane Maria destroyed or severely damaged a quarter for the island’s big trees. Forest ecologist Maria Uriarte has been working throughout the island to assess the damage and its prospective environmental effects. In the longer term, she and colleagues are characterizing how trees of different species may react to changing climate, and how this might affect the makeup of forests here and elsewhere in the subtropics. Story, video, slideshow on Uriarte’s work

FLUSH AND FORGET | Affordable wastewater services, rural Alabama | ONGOING 2020-2024
In some rural U.S. communities, poverty, soil conditions and lack of local expertise mean that raw sewage ends up in groundwater; the result is rampant intestinal infections. The problem is particularly acute in central Alabama, where many residents who can’t afford septic systems simply run a sewage pipe to a nearby pit, ditch or stream. A new Columbia World Project aims to build 15 modular small-scale wastewater systems, each serving about 20 households. Such systems are already used by the military, but have so far found only limited civilian use. The project is a pilot; if successful, such systems could be built to serve much wider areas elsewhere. Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, will co-lead the project with environmental engineers from universities in Alabama and Georgia.

COFFEE TIME | Helping farmers adapt to climate, Colombia, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Vietnam, other countries | ONGOING
 J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera and Diego Pons of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society are working to help farmers deal with climate variability and change, with a focus on smallholder coffee growers. In one project, they are developing a digital advisory tool that integrates economic-sustainability assessment and seasonal climate forecasts. Another project aims to improve the design of index insurance, which pays farmers for losses based on adverse weather rather than documented losses. Product design is usually done through top-down data from remote sensing or weather-stations; the researchers aim to instead put farmers at the center of data generation and insurance design. Part of Columbia’s ACToday projectQ&A with Hernandez-Aguilera

NEW YORK CITY/NORTHEAST U.S.

CITIZEN SNOWFLAKE | Studies of snow and microplastics, New York area | ONGOING DURING WINTER
Polar scientist Marco Tedesco is starting up X-Snow, a crowdsourced citizen-science project in which volunteers in the New York metro area and beyond will sample snow at many locations. Volunteers will contribute data on snowflake granularity, snowpack density and other parameters. The project is aimed at understanding how warming climate may affect the temperature and shape of snowflakes—factors that could affect regional water supplies and recreation. It will also help ground-truth satellite imagery used to study snow and ice over wider regions including the poles. Starting in January 2020, volunteers will also collect data on the quantity of microplastics in snow, recently shown to have a widespread presence.  Story on the X-Snow program | Story on microplastics in snow | X-Snow website

SEASIDE FORESTS | Tree-ring sampling, coastal NY/NJ  |  ONGOING
A few rare stands of old-growth forest that have survived in coastal parklands in the New York metro area are under threat from rising sea levels and powerful storms whipped up by climate change. Paleoclimatologist Nicole Davi is sampling rings from these trees, dating to the early 1800s, to see if they have recorded past events including large storms that battered them with salt water. (Many died after Hurricane Sandy.) The project is aimed at teasing out the weather history of the region, and helping forecast the future. Work will take place at New Jersey’s Sandy Hook peninsula, Fire Island, and Montauk. Story and slideshow on Sandy Hook’s ancient forest

LYME TIME | Studies of human/tick interactions, Staten Island | SUMMER 2020
In the first such effort in an urban green space, researchers will carry out a multidisciplinary project to map where and how residents of Staten Island are being exposed to Lyme disease-carrying ticks. Researchers will track the movements of deer who potentially carry ticks, via radio tags; survey parks and private yards near parks for the presence of ticks; and characterize which landscape features most encourage the arrival and survival of ticks. A smartphone app will provide information on residents’ movements and exposure risk. The team will also conduct surveys to assess people’s knowledge, attitudes and practices regarding tick-borne diseases. The goal is to develop optimum strategies to reduce the incidence of infections. Project led by epidemiologist Maria Diuk-Wasser and Earth Institute postdoc Maria del Pilar FernandezProject description | Project webpages

SIDEWALK GREENERY | Ethnographic research on street trees, New York City |ONGOING THRU JULY 2021
Earth Institute postdoctoral fellow Megan Maurer is investigating how residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood interact with the trees on their sidewalks. Research includes photographic surveys of street trees, informal street interviews, formal interviews with residents who take care of street trees, and participant observation in tree stewardship activities. The goal is to understand what motivates city residents to interact (or not) with street trees as they do, and how the trees fare as a result. The study will be used to make recommendations regarding tree planting, tree-bed design, and tree care.

GOTHAM GREENHOUSE | Tracking New York’s CO2 and methane emissions|  ONGOING
New York has committed to cutting greenhouse gases and other pollution, but how much the city emits is probably only a rough estimate. Atmospheric scientist Roisin Commane and colleagues are developing a network of sensors to measure carbon dioxide and methane emissions around New York City, and wider sites around the metro area and New York state. In 2020, they will measure levels at ground level and higher up by driving and flying portable instruments in the New York metro area, Albany and Rochester. Fixed sensors were recently set up at the City University of New York campus in Manhattan, and others are planned. Some New York City buses may eventually carry sensors. The CCNY instruments quickly proved their worth by measuring a substantial drop in CO2 and CO at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Article on the project | Commane group web pages

MERCURY IN THE SYSTEM | Forest monitoring, western Massachusetts SUMMER 2020 / Costa Rica FALL 2020
To the alarm of many, the federal government is moving to weaken controls on coal-burning power plants that emit mercury, a neurotoxin permeating the global environment. Recently, it was found that a major route for pollution comes when plants take up gaseous mercury from the air, then transfer it to soils when they die or shed leaves; outwash then goes into rivers, lakes and oceans. Atmospheric scientist Roisin Commane and colleagues aim for the first time to directly measure and understand how the process works in trees and ground vegetation by placing instruments at various levels in western Massachusetts’ Harvard Forest. In fall, the experiment will move to Soltis Research Center in Costa Rica. In collaboration with Harvard and Texas A&M universities.

RESURRECTED SPRINGS | Studies of 1800s spas, Northeast states | ONGOING
Many commercial warm springs popular in the 19th century have been left to decay or been demolished; locations of some have been lost altogether. Geologists Dallas Abbott and Bill Menke are searching out sites in New England and New York state to study how subterranean conditions may be evolving. They will compare century-old temperature readings with new ones to judge whether possible subtle rises could indicate if climate change has affected underground waters. Also, brand-new geophysical maps of the deep earth under the region show that some parts are hotter and more fractured than normal; this could signal coming volcanism (albeit millions of years off). Abbott and Menke will work with local historians to locate some sites. Volcanoes Under the Northeast U.S.?

HUDSON SEWAGE | Water sampling by boat | SPRING-FALL 2020
In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, biologists are mapping the sources and fates of sewage in the Hudson River with monthly water sampling by boat. Biologist Andrew Juhl has sailed from Troy to New York harbor. Water quality has improved in recent decades, but human waste still sweeps in during heavy rains and may persist in sediments. Tributaries with particular problems include outfalls at Kingston, Orangetown, New York City’s Newtown Creek, and the Sparkill, Roundout and Esopus creeks. Article on the project / Article on bacteria in bottom sludge / Article on pharmaceuticals in the river

TRIASSIC TRIP| Fine-scale geologic mapping, Maryland, southern Pennsylvania | MARCH-AUGUST 2020, 2021 & 2022
The 200-million-year-old Gettysburg sedimentary formation, spanning several counties of Pennsylvania and neighboring Maryland, was first mapped in 1929, when its dimensions and various layers could only be roughed out. Relatively new tools including lidar now make it possible to form a much finer picture of this complex basin of sandstones, conglomerates and shales. Geologist Paul Olsen and colleagues will map the formation in much greater detail, working with a combination of remote sensing, paleomagnetism and old-fashioned foot travel. The project is expected to yield insights into natural planetary climate cycles that influenced formation of the rocks. It also has practical applications for pinpointing deposits of valuable rare earths used in electronics, and for mapping areas vulnerable to natural groundwater contamination. Tracking Other Planets’ Effects on Earth’s Climate 

VANISHING MARSHES | Wetland coring, New York, New Jersey Connecticut| ONGOING
Paleoecologist Dorothy Peteet studies the changing environment of the U.S. East Coast in real time and extending back more than 10,000 years, using cores of sediment drilled from lake bottoms, marshes and bogs. Shifting climate, sea levels, fire histories and more lie hidden in these sediments. Work this year will be done in Connecticut in marshes on the Housatonic, Quinnipiac and Connecticut rivers; in New York in the Iona and Piermont marshes along the Hudson River, and bogs in the eastern Catskill Mountains; and in bogs in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Article on Peteet’s work

TINY PLASTICS | Sampling for microbeads, studies of organisms in New York area waters| ONGOING
Microbeads, tiny plastic spheres commonly used in shampoos, soaps, cleaning supplies and cosmetics, are entering New York area waters in vast quantities. Using a newly developed method, oceanographer Joaquim Goes and geochemists Beizhan Yan and Wade McGillis are sampling waters to map their abundance. At the same time, a local high-school teacher and her students are using Lamont labs to study local fish and other organisms for the presence of absorbed plastics; they have found large amounts of the stuff. Article on the project / Earth Institute article on microbeads

RE-CREATING GLACIERS | High-pressure lab experiments, New York City | 2020
Lamont geophysicist Christine McCarthy has teamed with geotechnical engineer Liming Li in experiments to re-create what happens when a mile of ice moves over bedrock. In the first experiments of their kind, they will operate a centrifuge loaded with material intended to duplicate the extreme forces at the base of a glacier. Experiments are aimed at understanding what makes glaciers either stick in place or slide forward—a key but little understood issue at the heart of future projections of sea level rise. The scientists are particularly interested in how water and subglacial debris may interact to abrade bedrock and form meltwater channels. The work is being done at Columbia Engineering School.

DIARY OF A TREE | Real-time forest monitoring, Hudson Valley, New York City | ONGOING
Biologist Kevin Griffin is assembling a far-flung network of advanced instruments in the New York suburbs to monitor the daily physiological functions of trees, and transmit the data in real time back to the lab. He has some 60 trees wired at various sites in the lower Hudson Valley, and several more in Southampton, Long Island. Other prospective sites include Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The instruments are revealing not only how tree growth responds to daily weather shifts, but suggests how they may respond in the long run to changing climate. Earth Institute article on the research  / New Yorker article on the research / Black Rock Forest Real-Time Growth Page  / Urban Trees of the Future 

END OF THE LINE | Exploring coal-facility shutdowns, upstate New York and central Alberta | ONGOING
Earth Institute postdoc Liv Yoon is documenting the social, political and economic effects on communities where coal-related facilities have been or will be shut down. In Tonawanda, N.Y., a coal-fired power plant was shuttered in 2016, and a coke-manufacturing facility in 2018. In Parkland County, Alberta, where six coal-fired plants and a coal mine are situated, all are slated to close by 2030. Her end product will be a documentary film, with strong input from community members. Using a theoretical framework called Just Transition, she hopes to develop a hopeful narrative showing how these communities can switch from an extractive economy to a regenerative one, with good results.  Just Transition 

DANGEROUS WELLS | Testing for fluoride, community outreach, Madhya Pradesh, India | ONGOING
Beneficial in small quantities in water supplies, fluoride is dangerous in greater ones, causing a range of health problems. In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, some wells carry naturally high levels of the substance. Led by researcher Radhika Iyengar of the Center for Sustainable Development, college students are fanning out on a regular basis to test wells and inform communities which ones are safe or unsafe. The effort has been given a boost with the development of a fast-results test kit developed by geochemist Alexander van Geen. The team also studies vulnerable wells in the United States.  Article on the project

POISONED GARDENS | Testing soil for lead, Brooklyn, Pelham, N.Y. | ONGOING
Lead has long been banned from paint and other common products, but still lurks in urban soils. Geochemist Alexander van Geen and colleagues are using a fast-results test kit to test backyards, gardens and parkland around heavily industrialized Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and other areas. They are also working this summer with high-school students in suburban Pelham, N.Y., to test both soil and water for lead. Article on the project

NORTHEAST U.S. EARTHQUAKES | Seismometer monitoring | ONGOING
From Central Park to the Canadian border and from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has long coordinated a network of over 40 seismic instruments that monitor earthquakes in the U.S. Northeast. The region sees a surprising number of small ones, and recent research shows that the prospect of big events are an underappreciated threat, especially in the New York City area. A cut in federal funding taking effect this January means that the network may shrink, but for now, it will continue to operate on a shoestring budget. Head of network: Won-Young KimLamont Cooperative Seismographic Network / Study on New York City earthquake risk / New York Times article on Albany tremors

MORE POTENTIAL RESEARCH: DETAILS WHEN AVAILABLE

Volcanologist Yves Moussallam will be part of a team visiting Ecuador’s highly active Reventador volcano in December 2020. Situated in a remote area of the western Amazon basin, the volcano has been throwing off ash, lava, incandescent blocks and poisonous gases almost continuously since 2008. Moussallam’s specialty is collecting and analyzing gases; team members from other institutions will study other aspects.  Smithsonian web pages on Reventador

Paleoclimate scientist William D’Andrea hopes to mount an expedition to northern Greenland’s Peary Land in July 2020. Because of its dry weather, this little-visited peninsula contains the most northerly ice-free region in the world. D’Andrea and colleagues would drill cores from the bottoms of lakes to determine climates of the distant past. Due to the unique conditions here, they may get data from much farther back than is available anywhere else in the Arctic. Story, video, slideshow on D’Andrea’s work in Arctic Norway

Oceanographer Joaquim Goes and colleagues are investigating the environmental health of the 1,300-square-mile Long Island Sound. Under intense pressure from surrounding populous areas, the Sound is periodically stressed by excess nutrients, algal blooms and low oxygen levels. Scientists and students will be taking water samples from a research vessel and collating these with satellite images, to help government agencies better manage the area. The project will run through spring 2021. Article on the project 

Hydrologist Martin Stute and colleagues are working on a method to tell how much precipitation fell in any one area during the past, using isotopes of noble gases dissolved in groundwater. Due to gravity, these gases settle at a predictable rate from shallow recharge areas in the unsaturated zone into saturated aquifers below; this means the aquifer carries a signal of how the water table has fluctuated, going back thousands of years. Samples taken in Maryland in spring 2020 will be compared with those from the Mojave Desert. Nature paper on the work

Paleoclimatologist Kevin Uno hopes to participate in archaeological digs and investigate the climate context for the emergence of early stone tools in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge and northern China’s Nihewan Basin, sometime in 2021.

Geologist Leonardo Seeber has long been working in Calabria with various colleagues to understand the long-term tectonic history of southern Italy and the surrounding region. Complex movements there have created seabeds, thrown up mountain ranges, fired volcanoes and shaken the land with great earthquakes. Evidence for much of this is exposed right at the surface in his study area. Blog of earlier explorations

A team from the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity continues working in Medellin, Colombia, to bring together youth leaders, private businesses and government in a collaboration to preserve peace in this sometimes violent area. Visits in February, summer and October 2020. Youth Build a Safer Future for Colombia 

The Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity is conducting research on the connection between conservation and peace building, and developing conflict-resolutions strategies in the Peruvian Amazon (May 2020); Brazil (July 2020); and ongoing in Colombia, Paraguay, Somalia and Pakistan.  Environment, Peace and Sustainability Program

A team of microbiologists and ecologists plans deep DNA sequencing of a core of permafrost from Alaska’s North Slope built up over the last 12,000 years. They hope to use new methods to understand how bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and animals have changed in response to shifting environmental conditions. With the Arctic now rapidly warming, this study should shed light on how ecosystems might change in the near future. Members include Jeffrey Shaman, director of the Earth Institute’s Climate and Health Program, and ecologist Jonathan Nichols.

The Teachers College Initiative for Sustainable Futures is working with New York City’s Department of Education to have students and staff engage with sustainability and environmental education in a holistic way. Initiative leader Oren Pizmony-Levy is focusing on professionalizing the work of the sustainability coordinators in 1,800 public schools, through focus groups, interviews and surveys, and translation of findings into training and professional development programs.  Teachers College Initiative for Sustainable Futures  |  Improving Sustainability Education Through Research

In summer 2020, the yearly Piermont Marsh Secondary School Programs will pick up again. High-school students work in marshland along the Hudson River at Piermont, N.Y., to collect data on carbon flux, nutrients, sediment accumulation, heavy metal contamination and wildlife, for a long-term study on the marsh’s health and evolution in the face of sea level rise and other forces. Program head: Robert Newton.

Naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride in groundwater are major problems in wells across much of Asia. Geochemists Alexander van Geen and Ben Bostick are studying the causes and possible mitigation measures for arsenic, working across Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Cambodia and western China. Videos and story on Asian geological and health studies  / Arsenic pollution near HanoiU.S. wells tainted by arsenic

Geochemist Benjamin Bostick is working with Oglala Lakota high school students at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and other Sioux lands to test soils for mercury and other toxins produced by coal-burning power plants.

Some time in 2020, geologist Paul Olsen and colleagues will do reconnaissance in the Four Corners area of Colorado, Arizona and Utah in order to plan the next phase of the Colorado Plateau Coring Project, which is aimed at better understanding the planetary climate from about 200 million to 180 million years ago. A large part of the work will be looking at rock sequences in conjunction with the Navajo Nation.  Related drilling project at Petrified Forest National Park

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