AGU 2013: Key Events From the Earth Institute

Scientists from Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important research results and special events at the Dec. 9-13 San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Here is a guide in rough chronological order.

Kevin Krajick
December 06, 2013

(Updated Dec. 10, 2013. James Hansen’s Frontiers of Geophysics talk has been RESCHEDULED to Wednesday, Dec. 11)

Scientists from Columbia University’s Earth Institute will present important research results and special events at the Dec. 9-13 San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. Here is a guide in rough chronological order. Unless otherwise stated, presenters are at our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Abstracts of talks and posters are on the AGU meeting program.  Reporters may contact scientists directly, or press officers: Kevin Krajick, [email protected] 917-361-7766 or Kim Martineau, [email protected] 646-717-0134

# # # # #

The $5,000 ‘Dark Data’ Contest Award

Kerstin Lehnert, [email protected]Leslie Hsu [email protected]

As part of an initiative to save data in danger of dying within old floppy disks, tape drives or paper archives, judges will award a trophy and $5,000 to the team that has done the best job of finding and preserving such “dark data.” The International Data Rescue Competition is sponsored by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s Integrated Earth Data Applications project (which works to preserve dark data), and scientific publisher Elsevier. Sixteen teams from across the world have submitted entries. One group of seismologists has digitized Soviet magnetic recordings of Cold War nuclear tests in hopes of improving modern test-verification procedures. Another is a volunteer group that is digitizing handwritten weather observations from ship logs dating back hundreds of years.

Dark Data Talk: Monday, Dec. 9, 10:50–11:05 a.m., 2020 Moscone West. IN12A-03.

Award Ceremony: Monday, Dec. 9, 7–8:30 p.m., Twin Peaks Room, Intercontinental Hotel, 888 Howard St.

Read more about the contest

International Data Rescue Competition website and submissions

Integrated Earth Data Applications website 



Drying of the Mediterranean and Mideast

Richard Seager [email protected]

Nations surrounding the Mediterranean have been getting drier in the last decades, bringing record droughts to some places. Seager, a climate modeler, links drying in North Africa and Europe mainly to natural variability—but says there is evidence that drying of the Mideast is linked to overall climate warming. Further, based on changes in atmospheric circulation over the Mediterranean, he projects that the entire region from Spain through the Mideast may suffer increasing aridity in coming decades. This could happen not only during the usually dry summer, but during the crucial wintertime, when most rains now come in many places.

Monday, Dec. 9, 11:50 a.m.–12:05 p.m., 3003 Moscone West. GC12A-06 (Invited)


Climate Change: Spark of the Syrian Civil War?

Colin Kelley [email protected]

From 2005-2010, Syria suffered its worst drought on record. Kelley and four colleagues say that natural weather variability played a role, but the root cause was probably a long-term shift in rainfall and heat caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. They say long-term atmospheric circulation changes increased the likelihood of drought in 2011 eight times over—and that increased warmth itself has directly caused drying of soils. While the causes of the war itself are complex, the drought brought food shortages, unemployment and disruption of rural social structures, driving some 1.5 million refugees from the countryside to the peripheries of cities, where discontent exploded into the ongoing bloodbath.

Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC13A-1047


Global Farm Yields, Future Climate, and Conflict

James Rising [email protected], Mark Cane [email protected]

More researchers are exploring the potential for swings in weather and climate to drive armed conflicts, often through crop failures that lead to violence. Looking at data from 1961-2008, Rising and Cane find that during times of high crop yields, conflicts have been less likely to break out. They plan to use this baseline information, along with data on crop varieties that grow in varying conditions, future climate scenarios, and economic and political conditions, to project future conflicts in different parts of the globe.  

Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC13B-1069

(Related: Growing Susceptibility of the Global Food-Trade Network to Climate. Michael Puma, [email protected]. Monday, Dec. 9, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. GC11D-1038)


Scientists, Activism and the Impacts of Climate Change


James Hansen [email protected]

James Hansen, the outspoken former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, now leads a new policy-oriented climate-change program at the Earth Institute. Known for his efforts to turn science into action, he and colleagues recently made headlines with a study contending that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has vastly underestimated how quickly CO2 emissions must be slowed. Hansen will give three high-profile talks. On Tuesday, he presents the Union Frontiers of Geophysics lecture. On Thursday, he will speak on “Minimizing Irreversible Impacts of Human-Made Climate Change.” On Friday, his talk challenges the research community on “Communicating the Need to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change.” Among other things, he will discuss his past, present and planned efforts to get information to the public and to the highest levels of government.

RESCHEDULED TO: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 12:30-1:30 p.m., Hall E 134-135 Moscone North. U22C (Union Lecture)

Thursday, Dec. 12, 5:30-6 p.m., 104 Moscone South. GC44A-06 (Invited)

Friday, Dec. 13, 11:35 a.m.-12:05 p.m., 102 Moscone South. U52A-04

Earth Institute Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions


Climate Models! The Pinup Calendar

Co-creators: Rebecca Fowler [email protected]

Francesco Fiondella (International Research Institute for Climate and Society) [email protected]

Now you no longer have to dig through boring journal papers to learn all about your favorite climate scientists; just feast your eyes on the new 2014 Climate Models Calendar. Eye-popping portraits of 13 top Columbia University climate researchers in full regalia amid their natural habitat were conceived by bestselling photographer Jordan Matter (Dancers Among Us) and shot by fashion portraitist Charlie Naebeck. Calendar includes tasty inside info on the researcher of the month, such as favorite dataset or climate phenomenon. Individual dates are marked with famous climate/weather events, scientific meetings and other useful items. (There are 13 models because January 2015 comes as a bonus.) Models will be on hand to autograph calendars. (On sale through the Climate Models Calendar website, and at the Columbia M.A. in Climate and Society Program booth, no. 1329 in the Exhibit Hall.

Tuesday, Dec. 10, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. ED23B-0725

Climate Models Calendar website


Did a 6th Century Comet Bring Global Famine?

Dallas Abbott, [email protected]

Evidence from tree rings and ice cores suggest that parts of Europe, Asia and North America saw protracted cooling in the 530s, which has been linked to drought and famine. Some scientists hypothesize that Halley’s Comet may have caused this, by leaving a dust trail that the Earth later intercepted during its orbit. Dust in the air could have blocked the sun’s rays. Abbott finds evidence in ice cores drilled from Greenland: as much as 10 times more dust is found in the layer corresponding to 533 A.D. than at other intervals, she says. This dust is rich in markers of extraterrestrial origins such as nickel and iron oxide spherules. She finds that neither volcanism nor solar cycles can fully explain the cooling seen in various records during this decade. Furthermore, spikes of the ice-core dust appear to match the timing of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, known to be triggered by Halley. 

Wednesday, Dec. 11, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. PP31B-1869


Burying CO2 in the Newark Basin:  Are There Earthquake Risks?

Natalia Zakharova [email protected]

 In 2011, a consortium drilled a 1.5-mile deep hole off the New York State Thruway to study the rocks of the Newark Basin, which underlie parts of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Their goal: to understand the potential to store industrial carbon emissions, and the possible stresses on earthquake faults. Scientists are now analyzing data from this, and a second hole drilled this summer on the campus of nearby Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Zakharova presents early results from the Thruway borehole; these suggest that shallow reservoirs contain critically stressed faults and are not good for injection; injecting fluids 1.2 kilometers or below may be safer.

Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. S33D-2472


Bangladesh: Shaking and Sinking

Michael Steckler [email protected]

For the past four years, a team from several universities has been studying the intertwined natural hazards of earthquakes, sea-level rise and sudden changes in river courses in Bangladesh, earth’s most densely populated nation. Now, detailed portraits of the forces driving these hazards are emerging. Principal investigator Michael Steckler gives an overview of how yearly loads of Himalayan sediment and water are interacting with rising sea level and a maze of underlying tectonic boundaries to create a system of dangers that could be set off by any number of triggers. Posters in a separate session paint a picture of hidden active faults around the capital of Dhaka, and how the delta on which Bangladesh sits is being twisted and squeezed by moving watery sediments and tectonic boundaries. 

Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1:40-1:55 p.m., 2005 Moscone West. EP33D-01 (Invited)

Related posters: Monday, Dec. 9, 1:40-6 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. T13D-2565 & T13D-2567

Short film on the project


Megadroughts: Signposts of the Past

Benjamin Cook [email protected]

Edward Cook [email protected]

Dendrochronologist Edward Cook has documented drought history in North America, monsoon Asia, and parts of Europe, North Africa and the Mideast. Tree rings going back many centuries before instrumental records reveal megadroughts covering vast regions and sometimes lasting more than 100 years—greater than anything seen in modern times. Such droughts were more common in the naturally warm period 600 to 1,000 years ago, he says. This suggests that greater warmth can push large climate systems into long-term aridity, raising the specter of megadroughts in the near future as climate warms. In a related talk, climate modeler Benjamin Cook (Edward’s son) delves into North America, starting with the devastating pan-continental drought of 2012. Similar to his father, he finds that droughts like this are rare, but not unprecedented, and occur most commonly during warmer times.  

Ben Cook: Monday, Dec. 9, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C, Moscone South. GC11A-0956

Ed Cook: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 4:45-5:05 p.m., 102 Moscone South. U34A-03


Turning CO2 to Stone

Juerg Matter [email protected]

Some scientists say human-induced climate change could be mitigated by pumping industrial carbon dioxide underground; however, the fear of leaks is a major stumbling block. Matter’s group has been working on ways to turn pumped-down CO2 into a harmless limestone-like solid by harnessing natural chemical reactions underground. In the first field results from a pilot injection outside Reykjavik, Iceland, they have shown that the process can indeed work. The CarbFix project is dissolving CO2 in water and pumping it 500 to 800 meters down into a formation of basalt. Chemical monitoring shows that 85% of the CO2 reacts with the basalt within a year—a rate well beyond initial expectations. Scientists continue to monitor the storage reservoir.

Thursday, Dec. 12, 8 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Posters A-C Moscone South. V41A-2753

CarbFix website