Monthly Archives: September 2014

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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Climate Change or Public Health: Which Matters More?

(First posted on Aug. 1, 2014, on State of the Planet.)

Political leanings unquestionably influence how many people hear the conversation over climate change. The political polarization of the discussion has made it difficult to reach agreement on changes in environmental policy.

Might more people be persuaded to act if the issue was framed in terms of public health?


This chart shows the effect of political orientation on selecting health vs. climate as a compelling reason for fossil fuel reduction. Source: N. Petrovic et al., Climatic Change, July 2014

A new study by Earth Institute researchers suggests that talking about the human health impacts of air pollution related to burning fossil fuels might make a more convincing argument for action among conservatives, who are generally more skeptical of the scientific evidence for climate change.

In a series of surveys, the researchers asked people in the United States a series of questions about their beliefs and level of concern about the burning of fossil fuels, as well as air pollution more generally, and their willingness to take action to mitigate the effects. They tried to assess how political orientation – from very liberal to very conservative – affected the outcome.

The researchers found that people who identified themselves as conservative find public health to be a more compelling reason for supporting fossil fuel reduction compared to climate change.

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Clock is Ticking in West Antarctic

The leading edge of the floating ice tongue of the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Photo: M. Wolovick

The leading edge of the floating ice tongue of the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Photo: M. Wolovick

(First posted May 23, 2014 on State of the Planet.)

Reports that a portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun to irretrievably collapse, threatening a 4-foot rise in sea levels over the next couple of centuries, surged through the news media last week. But many are asking if even this dramatic news will alter the policy conversation over what to do about climate change.

Glaciers like the ones that were the focus of two new studies move at, well, a glacial pace. Researchers are used to contemplating changes that happen over many thousands of years.

This time, however, we’re talking hundreds of years, perhaps — something that can be understood in comparison to recent history, a timescale of several human generations. In that time, the papers’ authors suggest, melting ice could raise sea levels enough to inundate or at least threaten the shorelines where tens of millions of people live.

“The high-resolution records that we’re getting and the high-resolution models we’re able to make now are sort of moving the questions a little bit closer into human, understandable time frames,” said Kirsty Tinto, a researcher from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has spent a decade studying the Antarctic.

“We’re still not saying things are going to happen this year or next year. But it’s easier to grasp [a couple of hundred years] than the time scales we’re used to looking at.”

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Why Do We Run Hot and Cold on Climate Change?

Credit: Climate Central

Credit: Climate Central

(First posted on State of the Planet Jan. 12, 2014.)

How cold was it last Tuesday? Cold enough to convince a lot of people global warming isn’t happening. Or at least confirm their belief that it isn’t.

But wait a minute: When the temperature hit 71 degrees in New York City on Dec, 22, that got a lot of people thinking that global warming IS happening.

Studies have shown that today’s temperature—our direct sensory experience—can affect our beliefs about climate. Poll numbers of those who believe in manmade global warming tend to shift upward when it gets hot, and downward when it gets cold.  Climate really is all about long-term trends—lots of data, some of it pretty messy. Neither the individual extremely warm day, nor the extremely cold day, are especially significant.

Nonetheless, people’s views on climate seem easily swayed, or in some cases manipulated, by daily weather. The onslaught of snarky, “I told you so” comments in the media and the blogosphere after last week’s deep freeze—from Rush Limbaugh ranting about a “polar vortex” conspiracy to Donald Trump calling climate change a hoax on the Fox News Channel—seem to confirm this.

In a study out today in Nature Climate Change, researchers from the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions drilled into what goes on in people’s minds when they respond to these smaller-scale stimuli. In a series of surveys, they found that people tend to latch onto the most accessible and immediate information—temperature or otherwise—that they are presented with, and this often trumps deeper knowledge.

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2013 Ranks in Top 10 Warmest Years

(First posted on State of the Planet Jan. 22, 2014.)

Last year was one of the warmest on record, according to separate analyses of global temperature data by NASA and NOAA. Though they differ in ranking, both federal agencies placed 2013 among the top 10 warmest years since records began in 1880, continuing a longer-term trend of global warming. (The NASA animation above shows temperature variations from average from 1950-2013.)

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Crossing 400ppm: Welcome to the Pliocene

(Post first published on State of the Planet April 22, 2014.)

“Right now, we’re living in a world of a Pliocene atmosphere,” scientist Maureen Raymo of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory tells the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. “But the whole rest of the climate system — the oceans are trying to catch-up, the ice sheets are waning, and everything is trying to catch up to this Pliocene atmosphere.”

CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit the 400 parts per million mark last spring, and scientists expect we will hit that level for all of the month of April and possibly into July this year. The last time CO2 levels were that high was about 3 million years ago – in the Pliocene.

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Join the Earth Institute for Climate Week NYC 2014

STATUE IN WATER SIMPLIFIED(First posted on State of the Planet Sept. 15, 2014.)

From heads of state to ordinary citizens, thousands of people will gather for more than 100 events during Climate Week NYC. They’ll be talking and debating the rights of nature, corporate leadership, the threat from rising seas, innovations for social good and innumerable other topics. The activities in and around Climate Week — officially Sept. 22-28 — are meant to engage people in tackling the problems posed by worldwide climate change, and to encourage leaders to take concrete steps toward finding solutions.

Two major events will punctuate all the days of panel discussions, screenings, art exhibits and educational activities: a “People’s Climate March” on Sunday, Sept. 21, and the United Nations Summit on Climate on Sept. 23 (more on these below).

The Earth Institute and its centers will be engaged in several events:

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