Category Archives: Science

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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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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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?

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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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