Monthly Archives: April 2012

Seismometer Puts Earthquakes Online at Kent School

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Dec. 2, 2011

seismograph, Kent School, Connecticut

The latest station in the Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network, at the Kent School in Connecticut, in its new home. Photo: D. Funkhouser

A well-traveled seismometer sits tucked inside a concrete chamber behind the Kent School chapel in Northwest Connecticut, recording earthquakes. The latest event was on Nov. 28 – a minor shake of magnitude 2.0 just north of Medina, N.Y.

Scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory installed the seismograph at Kent in early November – the latest addition to the 40-year-old Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network, which tracks earthquakes around the Northeast. Scores of small earthquakes, mostly unfelt by people, send elastic waves coursing through the ground in the Northeast each year. They’re recorded by more than 40 stations operated by the network, and by other stations that make up a national grid of seismographic sensors.

Now and then comes a larger one – like the 5.8 quake centered in rural Virginia that shook up and down the East Coast. But large or small, they all add to our knowledge of the geology underlying our region, and eventually, perhaps, to a better understanding of the how and why of earthquakes.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Science, Stories

Power Play: an Energy Map of New York City

First posted Feb. 13, 2012 on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

New York City, energy map, energy usage

Midtown Manhattan is red hot; Greenpoint a cool yellow and beige. It’s all a matter of energy: A new interactive, color-coded map created by a team at Columbia’s engineering school allows viewers to pinpoint and compare estimated energy usage, building lot by building lot, throughout New York City.

The researchers, working under Professor Vijay Modi of the Earth Engineering Center, a center of the Earth Institute, hope the new map will encourage city planners and building owners to seek more efficient ways to produce and use energy by using cogeneration, conservation and alternative energy systems. The map was created by the Modi Research Group.

“The simplest thing we learned [from the map] was that there are possibilities for doing lots of things which are hard to see when you don’t look at the big picture,” Modi said. For instance, neighboring buildings with large energy demands could team up to install cogeneration systems, which use heat generated from electricity to heat the buildings, cutting energy use.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Projects, Stories

Scientists Drill 2 Miles Down to Ancient Lake Vostok

First posted Feb. 9, 2012 on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

Antarctica, Lake Vostok

A satellite photo of Antarctica showing (red oval) the location of Lake Vostok. Photo: NASA-GISS

Russian scientists this week finished penetrating more than two miles through the Antarctic ice sheet to Lake Vostok, a huge freshwater lake that has been buried under the ice for millions of years. The feat has taken two decades to accomplish, but the scientists won’t know what they’ve found until next year — the team quickly exited the research station, located in the middle of the continent 800 miles from the South Pole, to avoid increasingly harsh polar conditions.

When the drilling reached the lake, 3,769 meters (12,366 feet) down, water, under great pressure from the ice above it, shot up the bore hole and froze. The Russians say this kept the chemicals used in the drilling process from entering the lake. They will return during the next Antarctic summer to retrieve the sample of frozen lake water.

“It would be the first sampling of a subglacial lake, of the biggest subglacial lake,” said Robin E. Bell, a research professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory whose work has helped map Vostok and other such lakes under the Antarctic ice. Bell said Vostok was “discovered” by a pilot flying over the area who noticed a distinct flat region on the ice surface – marking the vast lake far below. Bell and colleagues undertook the first systematic survey to determine how much water was in the lake more than a decade ago. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Environment, Science, Stories

Opening the Door to More Rooftop Farming?

First posted Feb. 3, 2012 on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

Urban Design Lab, green roofs, New York City

Suitable rooftops (blue and yellow) could provide some 3,200 acres. (Graphic: Urban Design Lab)

The New York City Department of City Planning has proposed changes in zoning rules to make it easier to construct and retrofit buildings for energy efficiency – including a provision on rooftop greenhouses.

The zoning law amendments propose a number of new rules to encourage more energy efficient building practices. These include exemptions to building size and height restrictions, with limits, to allow:

= Building rooftop greenhouses on non-residential buildings, up to 25 feet in height.

= Installing wind turbines, both on roofs up to 55 feet above the rooftop, and freestanding ones in commercial and manufacturing areas on waterfront blocks.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Stories

From Distant Past, Lessons on Ocean Acidification

First posted Dec. 8, 2011 on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

foraminifera, Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, extinction

A core section shows shells of foraminifera, and reduced carbonate preservation, at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. During the period, researchers believe up to half of deep-sea benthic foraminifer species suffered extinction. Photo: Laura Foster, University of Bristol

Oceans turned more acidic during a period of great warming some 56 million years ago, leading to an extinction of bottom-dwelling marine species known as foraminifera, a scenario that could be repeated as a result of human-induced global warming today, only much more quickly.

To better understand what could happen in the near future, geochemist Bärbel Hönisch of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a few colleagues studied ocean acidity events over the past 250 million years to confirm whether acidification took place during periods of global warming. The conditions of one period in particular – the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum — were similar to the worst-case scenarios scientists project for future climate change.

“The earlier changes affected the biology, so we’d expect that would happen today,” Hönisch said. She doesn’t like to speculate on precisely what the impact might be; some creatures may disappear, others may adapt.

“I don’t think it will destroy the earth — the earth will cope with us,” she said. “We may not like what happens.” Hönisch gave a talk on her research today at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, as part of a broader discussion there of findings related to ocean acidification.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Environment, Science

Where Continents Divide, and Rocks Rise from the Deep

First posted Dec. 6, 2011 on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

Papua New Guinea, seismometer, earthquakes

A typical seismometer installation on Goodenough Island, Papua New Guinea, from an earlier expedition in 1999. Photo: CDPapua project.

Along the Woodlark Rift, a long break in the earth’s crust in eastern Papua New Guinea, continents are breaking apart, “like a snake opening its mouth.” Geologic processes that are still a mystery are actively stretching the crust and pushing huge masses of rock, formed under immense pressures as deep as 100 kilometers below, to the surface. Offshore, the ocean floor is spreading.

The setting offers a unique opportunity for scientists to study the powerful forces reshaping the surface of the earth, responsible for the movement of continents and creation of oceans.

Papua New Guinea, seismometers, earthquakes

Map shows locations of seismometers deployed to study movements of the earth around eastern Papua New Guinea. Image: CDPapua project.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Science, Stories

From Sendai to Rio: A Call for Action

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on April 13, 2012

Sendai, Japan 2011 tsunami

A house swept to sea by the 2011 tsunami that struck northern Japan. Photo: U.S. Navy

The people living on the northeast coast of Japan had learned to expect large earthquakes. But despite being one of the best-prepared nations, they were caught off-guard by the force of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that devastated their coastline and led to the meltdown of reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Many areas of the world are far less prepared, and the effects of major earthquakes, hurricanes and floods can be even more far-reaching than they have been in Japan. But there are measures we can take to lessen the impacts of such events. A worldwide effort is underway to improve resilience against the forces of nature, and to link that effort to sustainable economic development.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Stories

Did Climate Change Shape Human Evolution?

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on April 20, 2012

Homo erectus, Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Thomas Roche/San Francisco.

Homo erectus, Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor, Mich. Photo: Thomas Roche/San Francisco.

As human ancestors rose on two feet in Africa and began their migrations across the world, the climate around them got warmer, and colder, wetter and drier. The plants and animals they competed with and relied upon for food changed. Did the shifting climate play a direct role in human evolution?

The evidence so far is thin, said Richard Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist who joined a score of scientists delivering their findings at a conference on climate change and human evolution held on April 19 at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“Is there evidence for a direct connection between changing climate and human evolution?” Leakey asked during a keynote address Thursday. “The answer so far is no. I don’t see it yet.”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Stories

Unsettled by Climate Change

First published on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Oct. 27, 2011.

severe drought, Horn of Africa

Short rainfall from October to December of 2005 caused Kenyans to experience a severe drought throughout early 2006. Drought over the past two years is once again causing displacement in the Horn of Africa, and now leading to famine in parts of Somalia. Photo: (c) Beatrice Spadacini/CARE

Climate change already laps at the edges of some communities, disrupting local economies and habitat, and forcing resettlement. But a new study says that any efforts to offset the effects of shifting climate could lead to even more displacement and disruption for many people, particularly the poor.

The new analysis by an international team of researchers argues that while climate change will force even more people to move, it’s unclear how many people will be affected, where they will come from and where they will go. And, they say, researchers have yet to sort out the relative role of climate versus other factors that induce migration, such as economic uncertainty and political unrest. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Climate, Science, Stories

Undersea Clues to Haiti’s Earthquake History

First published July 21, 2011, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

Mud core, Haiti

After an earthquake, heavier sand set loose in landslides settles first, while water is still sloshing around, forming recognizable patterns; thicker layers of mud settle on top in calmer waters over a longer time. This core was taken from the sea floor in the Canal de Sud, off the coast of Hispaniola. (McHugh et al., 2011)

For all of its violent destruction, the earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, hardly scratched the surface of the island. But scientists now say they have found some of the best clues to understanding the quake under water.

The deadly quake also shook loose an enormous amount of sediment, sending large volumes of earth sliding into the sea from the shore and also downslope from shallower to deeper portions of the Canal de Sud, adjacent to the southern prong of the island of Hispaniola. That caused water to slosh back and forth in the basin, like in a bathtub, and generated a small tsunami that killed several people.

The toll was miniscule compared to the hundreds of thousands believed to have been killed in and around Port-au-Prince. But the landslides bore important fruit for a team of scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other institutions, including Queens College of the City University of New York, who came to study this part of the region immediately after the earthquake.

Within weeks of the disaster they were out on a research vessel studying the water column and drilling out long cylinders of mud and sand from deep in the Canal de Sud. They found that as some of the sediment unleashed in the landslides settled, it left patterns that reflected the water sloshing back and forth in the Canal de Sud. They were able to identify similar imprints further down in the sediment that were likely caused by landslides triggered by several previous quakes.

Their work, described in a paper published in the journal Geology, gives scientists another way to decode the seismic history of this and other regions, and to better assess the risks posed by future earthquakes.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Science, Stories