Monthly Archives: July 2015

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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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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Ice Loss in West Antarctic is Speeding Up

Glaciers seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge research flight to West Antarctica on Oct. 29, 2014. Photo: NASA/Michael Studinger

Glaciers seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge research flight to West Antarctica on Oct. 29, 2014. Photo: NASA/Michael Studinger

Glaciers in one part of West Antarctica are melting at triple the rate of a decade ago and have become the most significant contributor to sea level rise in that region, a new study says.

The study found that the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica have shrunk by an average of 83 gigatons a year for two decades—the equivalent of the weight of Mount Everest every two years. And the loss rate is accelerating: The scientists estimate ice loss at 102 gigatons per year for 2003-2011.

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Study: NASA Sites Vulnerable to Climate Change

Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA

Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been at the forefront of climate science, launching satellites that take the pulse of Earth’s land, oceans and atmospheric systems, gathering data on climate, weather and natural hazards. But the agency is increasingly vulnerable itself to the effects of a changing climate.

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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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