Tag Archives: Columbia University

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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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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For Rio+20, a Call to Preserve Biodiversity

First posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on June 6, 2012.

Deforestation, biodiversity

Deforestation.

An estimated 9 million species of living things inhabit the Earth — plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms such as algae and bacteria. But those species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and this loss of biodiversity appears to be a major driver of environmental changes that can affect the biological and chemical processes that humans rely on, according to a new paper in the journal Nature.

“No one can agree on what exactly will happen when an ecosystem loses a species, but most of us agree that it’s not going to be good. And we agree that if ecosystems lose most of their species, it will be a disaster,” said Shahid Naeem of Columbia University, who was one of 17 scientists from around the world who worked on the paper, a review of 20 years of ecological research published this week.

The 7 billion people living on the planet now depend on those ecosystems, and the diverse array of life that comprise them, for our own existence: for food, water, fertile soil, fuel, clean air and protection from pests and disease. The ways that those organisms absorb, utilize and recycle nutrients also play a key role in our climate.

“There is now unequivocal evidence that biodiversity loss reduces the efficiency by which ecological communities capture biologically essential resources, produce biomass, decompose and recycle biologically essential nutrients,” the authors write in the paper, “Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity.”

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