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.
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.
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.”
(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.
(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:
This post was first published on Dec. 6, 2013, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. It was updated on Oct. 14, 2014 (see below).
Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.
Ali picks a spot, hefts his shovel and begins clawing into the slope, raising puffs of dust, searching for a missing page in that sediment history: something higher upslope, evidence of the stream that would have fed the prehistoric lake: a layer of gravel. He finds only sand – perhaps an ancient beach. He moves across the slope, lifts and plunges his shovel back into the soft hillside.
By studying stream bed sediments, Guleed Ali tries to build a history of how water levels have changed at Mono Lake. Photo: D. Funkhouser
He is digging for dates, looking back tens of thousands of years into the last ice age: When was the lake higher? When did it shrink, and grow again? How does that chronology correspond with the advance and retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America? And how did the lake’s levels respond to changing climate?
Understanding that past will help scientists like Ali, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, project what might happen in the future as the world warms up. This is no esoteric question for Los Angeles, whose nearly 4 million people depend in part on Mono Lake’s watershed for drinking water, green lawns, agriculture and industry.
This story was first posted on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog on Feb. 15, 2013.
The drought that afflicts the U.S. Southwest has been going on for more than a decade, but if the distant past is any guide, the region could be in for much worse.
Extreme weather and climate-related events already have cost the United States billions of dollars. Speakers at a symposium Friday focused on the hard facts of what we know and don’t know about the causes, and how changing climate affects agriculture, water supplies, wildlife and our economy. The panel was part of the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, being held in Boston.
The drought offers an example of how difficult is can be to tease out the impacts of human-induced climate change from those of natural climate variations.
Filed under Climate, Stories