Big Melt in Frontierland: Alaska’s Lessons in Global Warming

Seward, Alaska

Sailing out from Seward.

Note: The following story was reported and written in 2007, for The Hartford Courant. Editors there declined to run it. I like the story anyway, and pretty much everything it says has been repeatedly validated by subsequent scientific research. It’s still going on – even in Connecticut. I’ve added a couple of notes in brackets in the text where updates seemed appropriate. — DF

SEWARD, Alaska — The Glacier Express chugged out of Resurrection Bay, and the blowing rain turned to sleet that lashed across the upper deck. White clouds shrouded the dark gray mountains that drop steeply into the sea.

This had been one of Alaska’s coldest and wettest summers. As they headed toward Kenai Fjords National Park, passengers aboard the sightseeing boat, some wrapped in fleece and rain gear in mid-August, had good reason to wonder what had happened to global warming.

But Alaska, frontierland of huge landscapes and volatile weather, is indeed warming. In the past 50 years, the state’s annual average temperature is up as much as 5.5 degrees. Overall, the Arctic region has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The greenhouse gas problem fueled by our crowded and busy civilization affects this remote region now, directly and in many ways — including fading sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and changes in habitats that have been the same for thousands of years.

But this is not Alaska’s problem alone. The effects of warming in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic will reverberate all over the globe.

Even in Connecticut.

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Battling ‘the Largest Mass Poisoning in History’

By Kevin Krajick and David Funkhouser

International health experts have called it the largest mass poisoning in history, and it is still underway. Some 100 million people in southeast Asia have been drinking from shallow wells originally drilled to provide germ-free water; but many turned out to be contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic.

Despite efforts to understand the natural processes at work, and provide safer water, many are still being poisoned, due to scant resources, poor information at local levels, and the sheer numbers of people and wells involved. The result: a slow-burning epidemic of heart disease, cancers, lung problems and compromised child development.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Mailman School of Public Health have been on the front lines of the issue since 2000. They are currently leading a wide range of initiatives, including long-term health programs, continued drilling of safer wells, education and continuing investigations into the geology of arsenic contamination.

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The Rest of the Columbia Geology Tour

The tour is a seven-part series, in which Columbia Professor David Walker takes us around the campus to explore the geological history embedded in Columbia’s architecture. (First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog in September and October 2014.)

Part 1, posted previously, is here: http://bit.ly/1CE7YFM

2: Building blocks from the Mississippian Sea

3: At the corner of Mudd Hall, the secret of blue quartz

4: Seeing red: the great oxygenation event

5: Orogenous zones: how rock flows

6: Watch your step: the alpha predator of the Ordovician

7: Alma Mater’s other secret: a way forward on climate

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The Columbia Geology Tour: Stories in the Stones

Story by Kim Martineau, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; video series by David Funkhouser & Kim Martineau

The hunt for interesting rocks can lead up rugged mountains and through twisting streams. Sometimes it can also lead to urban college campuses.

David Walker

David Walker

For the last decade or so, Columbia University geologist David Walker has led students and colleagues on a tour of the geologic gems hiding within Columbia’s McKim, Mead and White campus in Morningside Heights. The tour starts at Schermerhorn Hall, home of Columbia’s Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. “Speak to the Earth and it shall teach thee,” Walker intones, reading the Biblical words inscribed over Schermerhorn’s door. From there, the tour winds past Alma Mater, up the steps of St. Paul’s Chapel, into the Burden room of Low Library and over to the stairwell in Lewisohn Hall for a glimpse of an extinct alpha predator. Along the way, Walker points to evidence of how life on earth and the planet itself has physically evolved over its 4.5 billion year history.

Walker has focused his own career on more distant sites. Early on, he studied rocks brought back from NASA’s Apollo mission to the moon for clues about its origins. Later, he trained his sights on work in the lab to understand how earth’s core, 1,800 miles beneath our feet, evolved. A professor and research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory since 1982, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and recipient of numerous awards, including the 2010 American Geophysical Union’s Harry Hess Medal for outstanding research on the makeup and evolution of Earth and other planets.

This series of videos begins today with a look into the Burden Room, a Victorian inner sanctum deep inside Low Library. There we learn about fossil corals from the Devonian period, 400 million years ago, when the moon orbited a bit closer, and a day on Earth lasted just 21 hours.

Stay tuned next Monday for Part 2: How life etched its patterns into the stones of St. Paul’s Chapel. (You can watch all of the videos on YouTube here.)

(Story first posted on State of the Planet Sept. 15, 2014.)

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Water Supply, Drought and Climate Change at Mono Lake

This post was first published on Dec. 6, 2013, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. It was updated on Oct. 14, 2014 (see below).

Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.

Ali picks a spot, hefts his shovel and begins clawing into the slope, raising puffs of dust, searching for a missing page in that sediment history: something higher upslope, evidence of the stream that would have fed the prehistoric lake: a layer of gravel. He finds only sand – perhaps an ancient beach. He moves across the slope, lifts and plunges his shovel back into the soft hillside.

Mono Lake, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Guleed Ali

By studying stream bed sediments, Guleed Ali tries to build a history of how water levels have changed at Mono Lake. Photo: D. Funkhouser

He is digging for dates, looking back tens of thousands of years into the last ice age: When was the lake higher? When did it shrink, and grow again? How does that chronology correspond with the advance and retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America? And how did the lake’s levels respond to changing climate?

Understanding that past will help scientists like Ali, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, project what might happen in the future as the world warms up. This is no esoteric question for Los Angeles, whose nearly 4 million people depend in part on Mono Lake’s watershed for drinking water, green lawns, agriculture and industry.

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What the World Thinks of Climate Change

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on July 27, 2015.

We know that climate change can generate great debate in the United States. But what about the rest of the world?

Using data collected by the Gallup World Poll in 2007 and 2008, researchers at Columbia and Yale took an unprecedented look at public opinion in 119 countries, representing 90 percent of the world’s population, to investigate what factors most influence peoples’ awareness of climate change and their perception of its risks. The research was published July 27 in Nature Climate Change.

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A Dire Warning on Rapid Climate Change

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on July 24, 2015.

Iceberg off Antarctica. Photo: NOAA

Iceberg off Antarctica. Photo: NOAA

Sea level rise from melting ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland threatens catastrophe for coastal cities within decades unless strong measures are taken to reduce CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels, argues climate scientist James Hansen.

Hansen’s warnings about the dangers of climate change are not new, but a new paper written by him and 16 other scientists offers some new lines of inquiry on the subject. They studied and modeled climate evidence from the Eemian period—modeling climate changes going on about 120,000 years ago during the last interglacial period, when temperatures were warmer than today. They conclude that the warming going on today risks setting off “feedbacks” in the climate system—changes in ocean circulation and the speed at which ice sheets may collapse—that portend irreversible changes, including rapid sea level rise and more severe storms.

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Creating a ‘Safe Space’ for Iconic Ecosystems

While the Brazilian government has dramatically curtailed deforestation, further efforts to slow the damage from logging would make the forest more resilient to another threat: climate change. Photo: David Funkhouser

While the Brazilian government has dramatically curtailed deforestation, further efforts to slow the damage from logging would make the forest more resilient to another threat: climate change. Photo: David Funkhouser

Important global ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Great Barrier Reef are in danger of breaking down because of a combination of local pressures and climate change, but better local management could help make these areas more resilient, say the authors of a paper published by Science.

Ecosystems may show only a slight response to changing climate until they hit a tipping point, when even small changes could bring about a collapse. The paper’s authors contend that improving local conditions could forestall the impacts of climate change, perhaps more effectively than global efforts to curb the greenhouse gas emissions driving the warming.

While local governments have made some progress in protecting important ecosystems, the areas are still under increasing threats from development, land-clearing, overfishing and fertilizer pollution. The authors say that local stewardship of the areas “is at risk of failing.”

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Science Nabs Illegal Ivory Sellers

Carved elephant tusks seized in Canada were determined to be illegal using a radiocarbon test developed by Kevin Uno of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Photos: Todd Kish, Environment Canada

Carved elephant tusks seized in Canada were determined to be illegal using a radiocarbon test developed by Kevin Uno of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Photos: Todd Kish, Environment Canada

A Toronto-based company has been convicted of selling illegal ivory in the first case to use a technique for dating ivory developed by a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in collaboration with other colleagues.

Five Star Auctions and Appraisals, and its director, Mrs. Chun Al Jin, were charged after testing revealed two carved elephant tusks they were offering for sale had come from animals – possibly the same elephant — killed in late 1977 or early 1978. Under Canadian law, sellers must be able to prove ivory came from an animal taken from the wild before July 3, 1975, and that it was legally imported to Canada.

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Study Finds Genetic Clues to How Plants Adapt to Climate

Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant frequently studied by biologists, has climate-sensitive genes whose expression was found to evolve. Photo: Penn State

Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant frequently studied by biologists, has climate-sensitive genes whose expression was found to evolve. Photo: Penn State

Using supercomputers to analyze hundreds of thousands of genetic markers in a thousand plant samples, scientists say they have found how a common weed uses its genetic code to adapt to changes in its environment such as cold temperatures and drought.

The findings add to our knowledge of how plant life evolves, and could be used to help breed crops that are more adaptable to climate change, the researchers say.

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