Looking at Climate from All the Angles

Earth’s cloud cover. Photo: NASA

(First published on Dec. 16, 2016, on State of the Planet.)

After record-setting warmth this year, winter is upon us. That means it’s summer in Antarctica, and the Earth Institute has scientists camped there working on two projects that will help us understand what’s going on in this climate-changing world.

Margie Turrin of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is filing dispatches and stunning photos from the IceBridge project. Researchers are studying polar ice (a similar program operates in northern summers in Greenland). Flying back and forth across the Antarctic Peninsula, they’re using sensitive instruments to measure the stability of the ice sheets and the tongues of ice shelves that stretch out over the ocean. A second team working on the ROSETTA project is looking at sea temperature and its effects on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Meanwhile, back in the northern hemisphere, the Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the global average, with impacts that will reach far beyond the far north. The melting season in some areas of Greenland is 30 to 40 days longer than in recent decades, said Lamont scientist Marco Tedesco, who helped write the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2016 Arctic Report Card. The report was presented this week at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. (For more on that key meeting of scientists and the Earth Institute’s role, look here.)

“In other places, going from 75 F to 80 F might not make such a great difference,” Tedesco told NPR. “But if you cross the melting point, you are basically stepping into a completely new world.”

Greenland’s ice sheet holds enough fresh water to raise sea levels 20 or more feet, if it were to melt.

By looking into Greenland’s distant past, Lamont scientists have discovered that the ice sheet there is less stable than previously thought, and nearly disappeared during the past million years or so. The work suggests that global warming today could cause the ice to melt even faster than has so far been projected. Still another project in the far north will employ aerial drones to gather data on changes in sea ice in the Arctic.

The ice in these regions has the potential to add substantially to sea level rise over the coming decades—Greenland alone holds enough to raise sea levels 20 or more feet. This will generate huge impacts in coastal areas around the world. The more we understand about how this is happening, and how quickly, the better we’ll be able to prepare and adapt.

“As our planet warms, the polar regions are warming faster than anywhere else on our planet, and the ice sheets are changing. They’re melting and sliding faster toward the ocean, and global sea level is going up, and we expect that to go up faster as more of the ice melts,” said geophysicist Robin Bell, who leads the Lamont team involved in ROSETTA.

How can we best understand humans’ influence on climate, natural climate variability and the history of past climate? What are the likely economic and social impacts of climate change, and what can we do to forestall the worst effects? How will we adapt to sea level rise along our coastlines, to changing patterns of rainfall and drought, to increasingly severe storms or heat waves? And what are the most effective ways to communicate all of this?

New Jersey coastline after Superstorm Sandy. Photo: US Coast Guard

The scientific research conducted across the Earth Institute is crucial to answering these questions. It will inform what we should do about it, too, from engineering solutions for new energy systems, controlling our output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, adapting our communities to change and addressing the social and legal challenges ahead.

Since its founding in 1996, the Earth Institute has worked to address the complexity of global environmental challenges by pulling together people with expertise across many disciplines and from many corners of the university. Twenty years later, the institute offers a model for the collaboration of faculty and researchers in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, law, public health, engineering, architecture and urban planning that is unique in its reach and effectiveness.

With over two dozen centers and programs and over 750 scientists, postdoctoral fellows and staff, the Earth Institute has undertaken research projects that address many aspects of the climate change challenge.

Our scientists refine models of climate systems to predict what’s ahead; they help cities share what they’re doing to help curb emissions and adapt; they create alternative energy systems to bring power to developing countries and reduce the growth of fossil fuel use. They design insurance programs to help farmers manage the risks they face from droughts and floods. They study ways to capture and store carbon, improve the performance of alternative energies, and convert sunlight into fuel. They examine the legal and policy issues around sea level rise, pollution from mining operations, sustainable use of resources, and the impact of climate change on civil conflict. They help communities learn how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

We highlight our centers and programs and a few of their stories below, and provide links to their websites, where you can learn more about the work they do.

Natalie Boelman of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory studies climate impacts on ecosystems of the far north.

Scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have been gathering data on the climate for seven decades, examining the geological record, pulling up sediment cores from the deep-sea bottom, sampling coral reefs and growth rings in trees, measuring ice sheets, ocean currents and how carbon moves around the system. They look at the earth’s physical and chemical processes, the interactions between oceans, atmosphere and land, and the impacts on us. One of them, Wally Broecker, whose work has proved fundamental to understanding our climate system, coined the term “global warming” in 1975.

Today the hundreds of Lamont researchers spread out across the globe. They study sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought in the American Southwest, changing forests in the Midwest and New England, melting ice sheets and vanishing glaciers. They look at ancient climate patterns for clues to the present. They help refine climate models, and work on processes to store CO2 by turning it into stone.

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society was founded to apply the best science to create practical solutions for society. It researches ways to model and forecast climate, and creates real-time global seasonal climate forecasts. It works with experts in health, water resources, agriculture and disaster management to identify areas in which climate information can be used for decision making and planning.

  • Read here for a report from the institute’s conference that focused on the impacts of climate on health.

New Songdo City, South Korea. Photo: angspud.blogspot.com

The Center for Climate Systems Research, which is closely affiliated with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, works to provide an enhanced understanding of the Earth’s climate sensitivity and variability, and the forcing and feedback mechanisms that control them. The center focuses on long-term climate changes that have the potential to impact human populations and environmental stability. It’s also home base for the Urban Climate Change Research Network, a worldwide consortium of scientists that provides cities with the latest scientific data on climate and helps them develop ways to adapt.

The Columbia Climate Center integrates basic and applied research to develop strategies for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, while communicating the science and impacts of climate change to society and providing policy analysis and advising to stakeholders and decision makers.

  • A Climate Center researcher completed a cradle-to-grave analysis of the carbon footprint for 1,100 products.
  • And the center delivered a briefing paper on climate in the Arctic to the White House in September 2016.

The Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy works to develop innovative technologies that provide sustainable energy while maintaining the stability of the Earth’s natural systems. Researchers focus on the development of new scientific understandings, theories, models, novel materials and technologies related to various aspects of sustainable energy.

The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions studies individual and group decision-making in the face of climate uncertainty and environmental risk. The center promotes improved communication and increased use of scientific information on climate variability and change.

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network specializes in online data and information management, spatial data integration and training, and interdisciplinary research related to human interactions in the environment.  CIESIN leads research on coastal climate resilience through vulnerability mapping and assessments, as well as gathering and integrating diverse data in water, health and coastal zone management.

  • CIESIN teamed up with a center in India to create a communications tool that will help communities gather helpful climate change information, inform the public and respond to climate challenges.

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, a joint center with the Columbia Law School, develops legal techniques to fight climate change, trains students and lawyers in their use, and provides up-to-date resources on key topics in climate law and regulation.

Photo: Save the Children

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness incorporates climate impacts and vulnerabilities in its work on planning for, responding to and recovering from disasters. Center researchers study what makes a community resilient in the face of a disaster: Why are some individuals, households and places quicker to recover than others? Its research seeks to create a knowledge base that will guide government, foundations and others as they work to build resilient communities.

  • The center has been tracking the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. In this interview on the Real News Network, Deputy Director Jeff Schlegelmilch talks about what we’ve learned.

The Quadracci Sustainable Engineering Lab at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences uses engineering and software solutions for smarter sustainable energy systems planning, and to improve energy delivery in the developing world.

The Columbia Water Center tackles challenges where water and climate interact with food, energy, ecosystems and urbanization. The center, in collaboration with other Earth Institute units and external partners, investigates the impact of climate variability on water supplies.

  • The center’s America’s Water project is taking a national perspective on the state of America’s water use, resources and infrastructure, and developing ways to project and prepare for future water challenges, including the impact of climate change.

The Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management analyzes sustainability strategies and initiatives, and examines methods of valuing sustainability practices. It seeks to facilitate the integration of sustainability principles—with climate change and sustainable energy at the center—in the management of organizations.

The Columbia Climate and Health Program at the Mailman School of Public Health fosters cross-disciplinary scholarship on the human health dimensions of climate change. The program works to identify impacts, mechanisms and policy levers, and to build a new workforce of well-trained professionals who can translate science into action.

The Columbia Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate is focused on understanding the risks to human life and property from extreme weather events, and on developing solutions to mitigate those risks.

  • Beyond the weather forecast, the initiative seeks out the methods we can use to predict extreme events such as hurricanes and tornadoes weeks in advance.

The Urban Design Lab looks at climate change from the perspective of urban design, coastal city resilience and adaptation, socioeconomic justice, information politics, psychological reactions, information technologies and the responsibility of enterprises.

  • The lab has ongoing work on how urban green infrastructure—green roofs, sidewalk plantings, more trees—can help reduce coastal zone pollution.

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