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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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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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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