Category Archives: Environment

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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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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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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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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Cities Are Where the Action Is, Post-Rio

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Aug. 16, 2012

Rio, sustainable development

Rio has undertaken a major renovation of its port to create a sustainable development, encompassing residential, commercial and industrial uses, along with improved public transportation, green spaces and other public services. Photo: City of Rio

Two months after the UN’s landmark conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, has anything changed?

For many, the official document that was a principal outcome of “Rio+20” is an extreme disappointment – little more than a reaffirmation of the problems and desires stated at the first Earth Summit in Rio 20 years ago, with no firm commitments, no tangible goals and no timetables.

Its defenders note that the document, titled The Future We Want,” sets the stage for further deliberations on a set of sustainable development goals, and that it makes important statements about protecting oceans, providing people access to energy, and establishing human rights to food, safe drinking water and sanitation. In the midst of financial crisis, they say, it’s too much to expect 190 nations with often diverging economic interests to agree on what to do – but at least, those nations are still talking.

And indeed, the UN secretary general has appointed a special panel to begin the debate over sustainable development goals, and launched a new project, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, to focus research worldwide on solutions to some of the daunting social, environmental and economic problems we face. Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs will lead that effort.

The real bright spots in Rio, however, had more to with what happened outside the formal UN conference June 20-22, in meetings of ordinary citizens, corporations, non-governmental organizations and local government groups. There, the sense of urgency about the world’s social and environmental problems resolved into action, including a long list of voluntary commitments.

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