“San Diego’s most polluted areas - San Diego Reader” plus 1 more

“San Diego’s most polluted areas - San Diego Reader” plus 1 more

San Diego’s most polluted areas - San Diego Reader

Posted: 19 Nov 2014 12:00 AM PST

Beginning our tour of San Diego's most befouled spots (air, land, or water), we stop first for three summer holidays — Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day — when local beaches turn from sun havens into trash dumps. When party-hardy masses overrun Mission Beach, west of Belmont Park, they leave behind swaths of crap. There, at dawn, Cathy Ives, in her sandals and sun visor, surveys the carnage. She's a citizen trash-trawler, she and her little red wagon, holiday or not, scour the beach for the non-biodegradable: styrofoam and booze bottles (though both are banned); plastic water bottles; torn Mylar balloons; boogie boards that crumble into foam beads, becoming bird or fish "food"; fast-food wrappers for sandwiches; cardboard boxes for pizza; and those little packets of hot sauce. (Predacious gulls pick through the piles or hungrily eye human junk-haulers.) Top finds in a year (from Ives's website): bottle caps (20,000), broken toys (4000), whole toys (2142), 1/2 flip-flops (500), pairs of shoes (397), socks (343), plus T-shirts, cigarette butts (the nicotine and tar they release can be toxic to sea life) underwear, plastic bags, straws, cup lids, lighters, tennis balls, and Frisbees. Ives piles the goodies she can't recycle behind her home, encouraging people to make trash projects of them, like flip-flop art.

Cathy Ives

One peculiarity of the American need to trash is its treasure: there's a market for picking up stuff, not only for Cathy Ives — she recycles or donates $10,000 to $20,000 worth of goods to the Encanto Boys and Girls Club each year — but also for the metal-detector sweepers who scan the sand for coins, jewelry, and cell phones.

Then there're city workers, who arrive, post-holiday, at 4 a.m., bucketing, bagging, and front-loading in headlighted trucks hillocks of sandy trash for the dump. (July 5th, I arrived at 6 a.m., two hours late to get the full trash Monty. That weekend, city crews took out 1700 pounds of crap and 15,000 cigarette butts.) Workers earlier stationed refrigerator-size boxes to make recycling obvious. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, San Diego spends $14.1 million per year to "stop litter from becoming pollution."


Cathy Ives talks about Mission Beach pollution

Mission Beach is one of San Diego's most polluted areas. Cathy Ives discusses the origins and consequences of trash at the beach and shows off her remarkable collection.

Mission Beach is one of San Diego's most polluted areas. Cathy Ives discusses the origins and consequences of trash at the beach and shows off her remarkable collection.

You'd think beachgoers would want to take care of Southern California's most precious natural resources — the ocean's welcome mat — beach and breaking wave. But with scavengers, city workers, and pollution activists like Ives or volunteer groups like Surfrider, who regularly vacuum up our coastal waste, there's little incentive to remove the garbage you bring in.

I don't get it. Is there something about paradise or national holidays that requires tourists and locals to litter the beach? Don't tourists value our usually pristine shores? Isn't it common sense to think that others are coming after you? Don't locals, especially in beach communities, want people to sun and surf for the sake of the economy? What part of this don't we get?

Chatham Brothers Barrel Yard

The Escondido barrel yard opened in the 1940s, a stockpile of industrial waste oil and chlorinated solvents from Southern California businesses. On the five-acre site, workers stored leaky barrels and buried them as well as dumped liquids into ponds. They sprayed used motor oil over the site to keep the dust down. Over decades, the toxic waste dribbled into the groundwater.

An underground plume has traveled 1 mile from its source in Escondido. It is 1800 feet and as as deep as 120 feet.

Though the operation ceased in 1981, the result has been a plume, in this case an underground, water-fueled cloud of toxic vapor and/or liquid that continues to spread. Fenced in 1984, the yard was designated a State Superfund Site in 1985; by 1990, 208 surface and 10 buried drums as well as 11,430 tons of soil had been removed; the cost, $30 million.

Today, the plume is a mile long, up to 1800 feet wide, and down 120 feet, though it is deeper in spots. It is migrating south, east, and west, largely under Felicita Park as well as seeping up into Felicita Creek, which ambles and pools through the park. In September, the San Diego Water Quality Control Board reported to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control that the discharge into the creek "is causing the direct exposure of human and ecological receptors to waste constituents that originate from the Site," a violation of "discharge prohibitions."

Doreen Reagle, a spokeswoman with Escondido Neighbors United who are fighting the plume, and two organic gardeners who live above it, take me on a walking tour of the park and a drive-by of the barrel yard. Reagle's love of the area and its acre-minimum plots sparks her preservationist instinct: so many Escondidans moved in, she says, "because of the rural character, the animals, the mature trees, the twisty, tiny roads."

The three produce a map of the underground blotch, ringed and measured by several private and state-run monitoring wells. These wells, at 50- and 100-foot depths, test for — and find — contaminated water.

Another potential problem is that a developer has proposed the 65-home Oak Creek housing cluster, which sits next door to the park on 42 acres of contaminated soil. Vegetable farmers have used pesticides on the site for decades. These chemicals are also prone to wash into the creek or the groundwater, fouling it further.

The main groundwater threats are the volatile organic compounds — dioxane, tetrachlorethylene, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — that can "volatilize," or percolate into homes as vapor. Exposure puts pregnant women and very young children at risk. Home testing is expensive and, advocates say, should be paid for by the 56 "Potentially Responsible Parties" who signed a consent decree in 1999 to clean up the plume. Twelve million gallons of contaminated groundwater at the yard site have been extracted or treated. The plume is still being treated, according to Toxic Substances Control.

Even before the scheduled five-year remedy review, Reagle and neighbors want signs posted warning parents and kids about unsafe creek water, homes sitting atop the plume tested, and an accelerated extraction — before the bad water spreads to Lake Hodges toward which they believe the plume is inexorably creeping. A spokesman for Toxic Substances Control says the plume "will never reach" the lake. The agency maintains the plume "does not appear to be advancing," and that warnings are unnecessary, though all parties "are in the process of evaluating ways to inform park visitors" of any contamination.

Kinder Morgan, owner of the industrial tanks just north of Qualcomm Stadium, has spent $60 million since 1998 cleaning up the gasoline plume under the stadium. Escondido Neighbors would like the same effort on their buried mess.

These fine-particle airborne chemicals come from solvents, metals, smoke, dust, and soot. Chart indicates number of unhealthy particulate days per year as a weighted average.

Environmental Health Coalition members in front of BP oil terminal on Harbor Drive in Barrio Logan

Bad Air Days

That's what Barrio Logan has — a lot of them. It's because of a concentrated haze of particulate matter, diesel fumes from trucks, cars, and ported ships a few blocks either side of East Harbor Drive. While better than a generation ago, the air still gets dirty on hot days and can be tough to breathe, especially for kids outdoors. So reports Joy Williams, Research Director of San Diego's Environmental Health Coalition, which has been studying this over-industrialized site since the mid-1980s. The problem is, our noses can't filter out the fine particles in air-born chemicals from solvents, metals, smoke, dust, and soot. Air saturated with such gunk may cause shortness of breath by reducing the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen.

Mega-spewers include General Dynamics-NASCCO, CP Kelco, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, BP's oil terminal, BAE Systems Ship Repair facility, the I-5 freeway, and legions of diesel trucks from Los Angeles and Mexico that hump cargo in and out. These cough-inducing, short-haul trucks and their engines have been cleaned up, legislatively, at least, by the state. They are checked for compliance before entering the Port's cargo terminals. (Rivaling Barrio Logan's poor air quality is that of the Otay Mesa crossing and the cities of El Cajon and Escondido where, as anyone living there will tell you, the breezeless valleys trap the air. At least Barrio Logan gets a gust from the ocean every now and again.)

In four of the last five years, the Barrio Logan air-quality monitoring station has failed to meet the EPA standard for particulate matter. It's not easy to comply with these standards as the EPA keeps raising the bar. In part because the consequences can be deadly.

Barrio Logan is the second worst area in the county (the first is in and around Encanto) where people are hospitalized for respiratory illnesses, asthma, in particular. The California Office of Statewide Planning and Development shows that children in both communities visit emergency rooms with asthma-related conditions nearly three times the county average.

The core problem, Williams says, is the concentration of businesses in Barrio Logan's narrow strip: the feds and the state can regulate a company's emissions, but the state can't say where the company locates its facilities. Thus, such industries often buckle-in next to each other, like Asian restaurants in a mini-mall, and the air surrounding East Harbor Drive can quickly be pickled with pollutants.

Williams says things are improving. One example: the coalition and the city banned diesel trucks on Cesar Chavez Parkway, through the heart of Barrio Logan. These days, trucks, achingly slow and noisy, must lumber south down Harbor Drive to 28th or 32nd streets to get on I-5.

Still, children whose lungs take in more air than the lungs of adults are most vulnerable. Persisting in poor neighborhoods through which heavy traffic rumbles is "near-road" pollution; some schools suffer because they were built before cars became so numerous. In a study of San Diego County's traffic pollution, Paul English found that between 1993 and 1999 "those residing near high traffic flows (measured at the nearest street) were more likely than those residing near lower traffic flows to have two or more medical care visits for asthma than to have only one visit for asthma during the year."

Thick with Ozone

As everyone knows, the smoggiest days in San Diego come during Santa Ana–fueled fires. Remember the firenadoes of last May? In inland valley "hotspots," the worst days are in the summer, when particulates mix with ozone, a gas beneficial to the earth's atmosphere but hazardous to children and exercising adults when breathed. Human-made ozone, mostly from burning fossil fuels, is regulated by the Clean Air Act and the State of California.

Burning fossil fuels is the main culprit. Chart indicates number of unhealthy ozone days per year as a weighted average.

The American Lung Association consistently gives San Diego County an annual grade of "F" for ozone pollution. Though the number of yearly crappy air days has fallen from 60 to 11 in the past 15 years, people in Escondido, El Cajon, and Alpine get choked up easily in summer with some 34 "orange days," defined as "unhealthful for sensitive groups."

Bill Brick, senior meteorologist with the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, tells me that the dirtiest day of the year is January 1. Why? "People staying up late," the night before, "their fireplaces going — and the fireworks." Throw in night and morning low clouds, and on that day it's unwise to run a 10K.

Brick, who grew up in Encinitas and thinks the air today is much improved from the coughing-and-retching days of his baseball youth, is all too familiar with San Diego's "F." The county is not in compliance with the current federal eight-hour ozone standard. That's true, he notes. The EPA, he says, allows for a bad ozone day "once in a while," he says, but "the American Lung Association doesn't see it that way." He believes San Diego (and his agency) doesn't deserve an "F." "We think we deserve an A for effort."

Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Association notes the "F" is based on federal standards and bad ozone days are "spread throughout the county." I point out that our county's average of unhealthful-for-the-sensitive days (34) is ten times better than Riverside County's (234). Her reply: "We don't grade on a curve." Apparently, it's a high "F." Despite the grading flap, the California Air Resources Board estimates 580 premature air-pollution-related deaths occur every year in San Diego.

Ongoing dredging in San Diego Bay to remove copper (from boat-hull paint), mercury, pesticides, zinc, PCBs, trash (especially cigarette butts and plastic), and pathogens

Stirring Up the Sediment

Our next stop on the San Diego pollution tour takes us to the bay just off Barrio Logan and the nearby bay-floor sediment. You wouldn't know it by looking, but the bay, water and soil below, has been befouled for decades. Chief chemical offenders: copper (leaching out of boat-hull paints); mercury (mixing with bay-bottom bacteria as methylmercury); pesticides (diazinon and chlorphrifos, now banned but washed in via Chollas Creek); zinc, chlordane, and PCBs; trash, especially cigarette butts and plastic; and, the most toxic, pathogens (disease-harboring and human-sick-making microorganisms). The Water Quality Control Board has stipulated that the dredging include sand-fills, providing "coverage under existing piers and placement of a ridge or blanket of protective rock material adjacent to destabilized structures," obviously those upset by the dredging process itself.

The two biggest polluters of the bay are National Steel and Shipbuilding Company and Southwest Marine, now BAE Systems. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered BAE "to improve their storm water pollution prevention practices," finding "the company liable for $799,000" in "permit violations." Since then, the San Diego Bay Environmental Restoration Trust has been dredging sediment between September and March (to allow the California least tern to forage during the other months).

According to San Diego Bay Cleanup, the southern part of the project (next to National Steel) processed 1.1 million gallons of "decanted water" and removed 28,000 cubic yards, taken in 2000 truckloads to the Otay Mesa landfill. The next phase, underway this fall, will restore the north side, next to BAE: a much bigger operation, the dredge volume is estimated at 105,000 cubic yards. These two sites, while huge, are just two of 30 locations in San Diego Bay where either the water or the sediment is unhygienic.

Should you eat the fish that inhabit the bay?

Fish advisories abound. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment publishes its ironically titled "Healthy Guide" to eating fish from the bay. People should not eat the shiner perch and the topsmelt; and all, excepting pregnant women and children, should go easy on the croaker, the leopard shark, the basses, the mackerel, the stingray, the guitarfish, the lizardfish, and the turbot. (Mission Bay is slightly less restrictive: check out the website.) The threat is real: there's a chance of brain damage for unborn babies and cancer for the rest of us.

Legacy Pollution at Camp Pendleton

The amount of toxic waste dumped and groundwater and soil polluted from 1942 to today and the costs to assess, remove, and treat the mess at the 125,000-acre Marine base are staggering. Costs first: in 2005, $250 million, from the Environmental Protection Agency, to scope the problem; today, another $278 million, from the Pentagon, via the Department of the Navy, to initiate the decades' long cleanup.

The number of toxic calamities on the base, first described in a 2004 agency report, was 208. In addition, 250 underground fuel tanks were leaking. The current site-count is 74, of which 58 "have been cleaned up and/or closed," a Pendleton spokesman says. Sixteen sites are "in different phases" of cleanup.

In 1980, the multi-billion-dollar Superfund was passed by Congress to clean up toxic sites that threaten (or have damaged) public health. Pendleton's problems are detailed on the Environmental Protection Agency website: groundwater and soils "contaminated with volatile organic compounds, spent oils, fuels, PCBs, pesticides, metals, and herbicides." Tainted water remains in landfills, "surface impoundments," and the Santa Margarita River, which runs into the Pacific Ocean and which many Marines and their families have drunk for years.

The surface soils seem hardest hit. Crews have trucked out 14,000 cubic yards of dirt, which contain trichloroethane and petroleum hydrocarbons. Another 37,000 yards came out, packed with pesticides such as DDT. The earth was dumped off-site, in Arizona and Nevada.

Over the years, officials have compiled a litany of pollution events: the pipes that once carried drinking water had dangerously high levels of lead and copper (these pipes have been repaired, Pendleton says); the liner for a base landfill broke and leaked radioactive runoff, called leachate; large bladders, housing 300,000 gallons of leachate, are contaminated with tritium, a radioactive chemical; one lawsuit claimed a young girl on the base suffered "mental impairment" from breathing thallium, a toxic metal used in rat poison; and plumes of chlorinated solvents keep migrating, like those from Chatham barrel yard, to wells on-site and community-close. One of these wells abuts Oceanside; from it, 650,000 gallons of groundwater have been siphoned. "More work," a Navy report says, "needs to be done."

Site #22/23 is a major industrial dump, its groundwater intermingling with the Santa Margarita River. Under its 425 acres are five plumes of dirtied groundwater, shallow at 7–14 feet. A classic of Naval bureaucratese, the cleanup mandate states: "Long-term monitoring and land use controls that limit exposure to contaminated groundwater by setting limits on activities, use, or access, will make sure that this solution is effective." This single $18.2 million restoration project will take 30 years.

Algae depletes oxygen and kills fish at Oceanside's Loma Alta Slough. Summer heat and sun, and fertilizer from irrigation runoff combine with still water to grow algae.

Most of the algae, like an iceberg, is underwater.

Oceanside's Loma Alta Slough

The algae covering much of the Loma Alta Slough in Oceanside looks like a mat of green slime, a soiled, floating cotton quilt. As the creek works its seven-mile run, much via a concrete-lined channel, from Vista to the sea, the bloom, efflorescing in summer, is caused by urban stream syndrome, also known as "urban drool." This polluted runoff includes pet waste, fertilizer nitrates, soaps, pesticides, motor oil, brake-pad dust, and effluent from the occasional cracked sewer line.

Engineering geologist Barry Pulver, with the Water Quality Control Board, explains two problems associated with the slough. We're walking beside the creek, where egrets catch and gobble the swarming gambusia, or mosquito fish, while ducks mosey by oblivious. The first public health problem is fecal bacteria, E. coli, which often cause beach, bay, or creek closures. Beside Buccaneer Park, we spot "No Swimming" signs and this, "Caution: Storm drain water may pose an increased risk of illness. Avoid contact near outlet." It's a hot day, and families sunbathe nearby.

The very young and the elderly who contract E. coli are bedeviled by diarrhea and dehydration. Infections may worsen with blood disorders, kidney failure, and severely compromised immune systems.

Second, an environmental problem, is eutrophic pollution. Because the slough's flow does not reach the sea, except briefly in winter, the algae, with heat and sunlight, stagnates and accrues heavy concentrations. The result: the water's oxygen is severely reduced. Fish and mollusks as well as underwater plants, the benthic community, die. As the algae withers in cooler weather, it sinks and wreaks more damage on the bed below. The slough then sports a rusty tint, made by phytoplankton, also known as red tide. In August, Toledo, Ohio, was hit with a monster algae bloom that contaminated the drinking water for days.

I ask Mo Lahsaie, Oceanside's environmental officer, why Loma Alta and the sea aren't kept connected. He says that once, before 1940, there was a natural estuary there. Over time, the creek channel has been squeezed by housing, boulevards, and malls, and by sandbars brought on from winter storms. In the rainy season, the channel may flood and break an opening to the sea. "But even if the city dredged" a culvert or a floodgate, Lahsaie says, the ocean-deposited sands of winter "will just close it up again."

The worst bloom is the blue-green algae, a cyanobacteria outbreak that can be deadly to animals and humans. Pulver's seen it here before; "that can be bad," he says. And yet, overall, he's sanguine about the region's cleanup campaign, developing much stakeholder and citizen awareness, which, via education, reminds people to stop polluting the neighborhood. Be careful: a plan's afoot to have city meter-readers report you if your irrigation water runs off into the street. Cease and desist — and pay the fine.

The Least Acknowledged Threat

It's called "dirty electricity" or EMF (electromagnetic field) pollution. A subset is ELF, or extremely low frequency. The sources of these flesh-piercing waves include appliances, power lines, and building wiring, at work and at home: transmission (the Cyclopean towers bounding through the backcountry) and distribution lines (telephone poles) disseminate magnetic fields. Your hair dryer and your microwave oven (from which it's wise to stand back) emit concentrated electrical pollution.

The evidence that it harms us is uncertain or, better, understudied. And yet I read this in an email from Dr. Samuel Milham, physician-epidemiologist and author of Dirty Electricity: "Every high rise in San Diego and in every major city in the world has high levels of electrical pollution. I measured the 11th floor offices of Thorsnes, Bartolotta and McGuire at 2250 5th Avenue, 11th floor. Most offices have computers, wireless routers, copy machines and compact fluorescent lights, all of which generate electrical pollution. In addition, the upper floors have pollution from the microwave towers on the roof. I was there in a futile attempt to get the firm to take a school cancer cluster case. The readings I made were not requested. However, every office building I've measured has the same problem. As a consequence, office workers and secretaries have high cancer rates. Schools have the same problem, and teachers have high mortality rates."

Ouch! Really? Every high-rise in San Diego? Do electromagnetic concentrations become "cancer clusters"? How worried should we be? Thorsnes, Bartolotta did not respond to my query.

California ended its electromagnetic field program in the mid-2000s. The state maintains a website with a fact sheet and a "risk evaluation report," concluding that with electromagnetic fields there's "some degree of risk of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, and miscarriage." Experts in the agency parted company, citing a dividing line between those "believing" and those "not believing."

It seems San Diego Gas & Electric is taking this seriously. Prompted by warnings from the World Health Organization, the utility acknowledges health "questions" surrounding electromagnetic transmissions, "found everywhere you have electric power." Their advice? Move electric devices away from the head of the bed; limit time with hair dryers, electric razors, heating pads, and electric blankets. And this: "If you feel reducing your EMF exposure would be beneficial, you can increase your distance" from its sources.

The other worrisome polluter is the cell phone.

The World Health Organization classifies radio-frequency fields produced by phones "as possibly carcinogenic to humans." Cheery news. They also say that "to date, no adverse health effects have been established" from mobile phones. Cheerier but not a consensus, in part, because cancers from electromagnetic transmission are slow growing. A generation of users is needed to evince a link. But isn't that what was said about tobacco and lung cancer? We weren't sure — and then we were, after hundreds of thousands started dying of the disease.

Tijuana River Estuary

The odd thing about the Tijuana Estuary is that most people think it's our border with Mexico. It's not. Immediately north of Border Field State Park, the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, the National Estuarine, and the County Open Space Preserve are on American soil. The estuary is southwest of Interstate 5, so it's rarely seen by those who drive across the border every day. The pollution problem is hidden in the riparian thickets, which in summer smell of pesticides, horse stables, and moving dust, while in winter the whole thing's a churning heap of sewage and debris — one watcher says trash flows can be as high as 15 feet — lumbering its way down some 28 canyons, including Goat Canyon and Smuggler's Gulch, from the city of 1.7 million.

How bad can it get?

One of the highest measurements for bacteria in contaminated sewage runoff (a sloshy murk of human and animal waste) at the mouth of the Tijuana Estuary ever recorded occurred on May 7, 2013: a total coliform of 3 million, 300 hundred times the "safe" standard (10,000 organisms per 100 milliliter), and fecal coliforms of 800,000, or 2000 times the "safe" standard (400 organisms per 100 milliliter). Such spikes of coliform mean that pathogenic bacteria and viruses — microorganisms that make people sick with gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, dysentery, diarrhea, infectious hepatitis, and cholera—are present. That May 7th spill got beach closure signs up in a flash. Coastal and bay warnings, advisories, and closures have lasted between three and sixteen days.

The good news in the summer is that a recently built wastewater-treatment plant, to which the river has been diverted, handles 30 million gallons of sewage a day.

Winter downpours bring the maximum stress. Plants are choked by the hundreds of millions of gallons of Tijuana rainwater-cum-effluent; spills embrown the slough and the ocean, closing beaches from the border to Imperial Beach. In 2013, the Tijuana River at mouth and border was closed for rain advisories, bacterial and other precautions, some 204 days. It was restricted 7 more days for sanitary sewer overflows.

Surfers can see the chocolaty water in winter and smell the shit. Many get hepatitis A vaccines, though this doesn't stop the skin rashes, digestive disorders, and ear and eye infections.

Worst of the Known Unknowns

Top honors for the most worrisome pollution goes to the King of Trash: ocean debris.

A minuscule portion of the northern Pacific garbage patch

According to I Love a Clean San Diego, 80 percent of the crap floating and sinking in the Pacific "comes from land-based sources." This means that, before it gets to the ocean, four of five trash piles travel through San Diego's (or any other coastal city's) vast watershed system. The ocean pulls the junk far out to sea, where the plastic bits and pieces swirl into eddies. The Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific is the planet's worst.

One estimate puts this gyre at 5.8 million square miles, twice the size of the land mass of the United States. (It should be noted there's little agreement as to its actual size because of its dynamic nature.) The vilest pollutants: glass bottles (decomposition rate: undetermined), fishing line (600 years), disposable diapers (450 years), and plastic bottles (450 years).

Every hour, one study notes, 100,000 plastic bottles wash into the world's oceans. As most anti-pollution websites remind us, every piece of plastic ever produced anywhere on the globe still exists.

I should stop before this gets more awful than it already is.

Thanks to the Environmental Health Coalition, inaccuracies in "Bad Air Days," about air quality, polluters, and the percentage of asthma cases in Barrio Logan, have been corrected.

Upcoming Scientific Fieldwork: 2019 and Beyond - State of the Planet

Posted: 24 Jan 2019 12:00 AM PST

Photo of the Fieldguide map

[LAST UPDATED APRIL 11, 2019] On every continent and every ocean, Earth Institute researchers are studying climate, geology, natural hazards and other dynamics of the planet. Below, a list of projects in rough chronological order. When logistically feasible, journalists are encouraged to cover expeditions. Work in the U.S. Northeast is listed separately toward bottom. Unless otherwise stated, projects originate with our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. More information: contact senior science editor Kevin Krajick: kkrajick@ei.columbia.edu, 212-854-9729.


SEA ICE AND NATIVE CULTURE | Drone flights off northwest Alaska | JANUARY and APRIL-MAY 2019
In the first project of its kind, geophysicist Chris Zappa and colleagues are studying the decline of sea ice off northwest Alaska, using a combination of high-tech drones and knowledge from local aboriginal people. Working out of the coastal Chukchi Sea community of Kotzebue, scientists are incorporating local knowledge of water currents, seasonal weather and wildlife into their research. Instrument-equipped drones are recording sea-surface temperatures, ice topography and thickness, changes in algae biomass and other qualities. This is expected to open new insights into how climate change is altering both physical and biological properties of northern sea ice.  Article on the project / Exploring earth in real time

DEEP-EARTH DESERT | Geologic fieldwork, Oman | EARLY MARCH 2019
In the desert nation of Oman, rocks from earth's mantle, usually inaccessible to humans, have been thrust to the surface in the mountainous Samail Ophiolite. Among other rare qualities, these rocks naturally take up vast amounts of atmospheric carbon and convert it to solid carbonate. In the first project of its kind, an international team has drilled out deep cores and is performing experiments in the drill holes to assess the possibility of injecting CO2 emissions. Geochemist Peter Kelemen leads some 40 researchers from many nations. His next trip to Oman will be early March, to measure fluxes of chemicals in the drill holes. Video, photo essay, story on the Oman project / Oman Drilling Project webpages

HURRICANE MARIA, TREES AND CLIMATE CHANGE | Post-Hurricane forest surveys, Puerto Rico | ONGOING
Beyond devastating Puerto Rico's infrastructure and killing people, Hurricane Maria destroyed or severely damaged a quarter for the island's big trees. Forest ecologist Maria Uriarte is working throughout the island to assess the damage and its prospective environmental effects. In the long term, she and colleagues want to project how global warming and resulting more intense storms could affect the makeup of forests across the tropics and subtropics, and maybe even magnify climate change. Uriarte works frequently in Luquillo Experimental Forest, near San Juan, and in forests plots throughout the island. Story, video, slideshow on the project 

VOYAGE TO ICEBERG ALLEY | Ocean coring, Scotia Sea | March 20-May 20, 2019 Climatologist Maureen Raymo will be co-chief scientist on a cruise to study how changing climate has affected Antarctica over long stretches of time. The vessel JOIDES Resolution will drill a half-dozen cores from the deep ocean bed in a rarely visited region between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula—so-called Iceberg Alley, where giant tabular icebergs peel off the frozen continent into the Southern Ocean. Cores will be examined for climate-related changes in iceberg discharge 16 million to 11 million years ago, and shifts in water circulation, sea ice and dust drifting in from land. The expedition will also gather data on past sea levels and waterborne nutrients. International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 382

SOUTHERN OCEAN DEEPS | Ocean coring, west of Drake Passage | MAY 20-JULY 20, 2019
Directly following the Scotia Sea cruise, the JOIDES Resolution will stop at Punta Arenas, Chile, then head west to take seven deep cores in the largely unexplored far southeast Pacific. Co-chief scientist will be geochemist Gisela Winckler. Researchers hope to understand how long-term climate shifts have affected winds and water movements within the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the Southern Ocean, which stores more human-produced heat and carbon dioxide than any other latitude. This fast-changing region has a powerful effect on planetary climate, but scientists still don't understand many basic processes at work. International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 383

FERTILE WATERS | Studies of ocean nutrients, Atlantic Ocean off Georgia | MARCH 31-APRIL 12, 2019
Oceanographers led by Solange Duhamel will investigate the abundance and availability of various forms of phosphorus, a vital nutrient that controls photosynthesis in the ocean.  The investigators will perform experiments to determine how different phosphorus compounds affect the growth of microbes, and their ability to take in carbon from the air. The cruise is expected to advance knowledge of the activity and distribution of microbial species in the oceans, and their role in the climate system. Project web page

SOUNDS OF A CHANGING ARCTIC | Bioacoustic/camera wildlife studies, Alaska/Yukon | APRIL 2019, continuing to 2024
With Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge about to open to fossil-fuel exploration, ecologist Natalie Boelman and colleagues from several institutions will assess the effects of human intrusion on wildlife, from caribou to birds. Using bioacoustic sensors and camera traps at 90 locations, they will compare three areas: Alaska's already heavily industrialized Prudhoe Bay region; the National Wildlife Refuge, which will probably see new intrusions soon; and Canada's Ivvavik National Park, which is protected from development. Acoustic sensors will pick up everything from bird calls to mosquitoes buzzing, along with human-produced noise. Using artificial intelligence, sounds will be combined with camera images to analyze the abundance and activities of animals at each site. Project will run for 5 years.

SOUNDS OR SILENCE? | Bioacoustic recording, central and south India | MAY 2019-DEC 2020
Project Dhvani (Sanskrit for "sound") will place sound recorders in the dry tropical forests of central India, and the country's mountainous, misty Western Ghats, both hotspots of biodiversity. Using newly developed algorithms, researchers will use recordings to plot out the presence and abundance of a wide variety of creatures that communicate with sound, including insects, amphibians, birds and mammals, and how human presence is affecting them. In some cases, sounds will be transmitted in real time, enabling researchers and to pick up signs of poaching or illegal logging. The team aims to engage the global public with sounds posted on an interactive website. Project overseen by Earth Institute professor Ruth DeFriesProject Dhvani website

HIDDEN MINING DANGERS | Testing for lead pollution, Peru | SPRING 2019
In cooperation with Peru's Center for Environmental Health Research, geochemist Alexander van Geen and grad student Franziska Landes will aid with testing of soils for lead contamination in towns where heavy-metal mining and processing are taking place. Team members will work with local high school students to take samples, and will integrate lead-testing technology into science classes. Center for Environmental Health website 

TUNDRA ON FIRE | Lake coring, northern Alaska | SPRING 2019
On the tundra of Alaska's North Slope, once-rare wildfires sparked by lightning are multiplying in response to hotter, drier summers. A team including paleoclimatologist Benjamin Gaglioti is investigating the fires and their effects on vegetation and underlying permafrost. This spring they will travel by snow machine from the Dalton Highway to remote Ahaliorak Lake to core sediments, which they hope will provide a 35,000-year record of tundra fires.

MAPPING UNDERWATER MOUNTAINS | Research cruise, northwest Pacific | APRIL 19-JUNE 21, 2019
The Hawaiian islands are only the most visible part of a 3,600-mile chain of mostly subsea volcanoes that span much of the Pacific. A two-month cruise heading northwest out of Hawaii will map many submerged mountains in unprecedented detail, using acoustics and other methods. The research applies to basic questions about how the chain formed, and also to natural hazards including faults that may cause earthquakes, and steep slopes on which submarine landslides may trigger tsunamis. Voyage will take place on the Lamont-Doherty operated research vessel Langseth. Chief scientist: Donna Shillington. Project web page

ABOUT TO BLOW? | Imaging Merapi volcano, Indonesia | JUNE-JULY 2019
Some volcanoes effuse lava slowly, giving people time to escape eruptions; others suddenly explode, killing everything around. Indonesia's Merapi, on the island of Java, can do both, and that makes it unpredictably dangerous. It has been acting up lately. Volcanologist Brett Carr and colleagues have been studying it from the ground and with drones, to understand how lava domes grow, and when they may become unstable enough to collapse and explode. Carr will return this year to continue drone work. The observations may be applied to similar volcanoes in Japan, Mexico, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Done in conjunction with Indonesian researchers

ANCIENT GREEKS AND EARTHQUAKES| Geologic fieldwork, southwest Turkey | JUNE 2019
The ancients who built the coastal city of Ephesus long before Christ struggled for centuries not only to endure earthquakes, but to fend off natural siltation filling up their prized harbor, at the mouth of the Meander River. Engineering projects probably only made things worse; Ephesus and other once-coastal cities in this area were long ago stranded far inland by silt, abandoned but exquisitely preserved. For seismologists, the silt is a treasure. Archaeology and ancient writings provide a record of the earthquakes, but it is incomplete. The silt, built year by year, has preserved a fine record of seismic activity, and the faults that drive it.  Geophysicist Michael Steckler and Turkish colleagues are investigating the stratigraphy of silt deposits in and around Ephesus, and up the river and the Bay of Kusadasi, in order to determine the area's true earthquake history and future risk. Article on the region's ruins 

VIKING TIMES | Lake coring, archaeological work, Lofoten Islands, northern Norway | SPRING or SUMMER 2019
Paleoclimate scientists William D'Andrea and Nicholas Balascio are examining natural factors that may have influenced the rise and falloff  the Vikings, ca. 500 BC to 1100 AD. The arctic Lofoten Islands, where many key Viking sites have been excavated, may hold clues. The islands were marginal for farming, so inhabitants were susceptible to small temperature swings, as well as changes in sea level. How did the Vikings influence the land, and vice versa? D'Andrea and Balascio have taken cores from the bottoms of deep lakes surrounding a major chieftain's domain, and are analyzing them for changes in vegetation, livestock and use of fire. With Norwegian researchers, they are also mining previously untapped archaeological archives from digs dating to the 1980s. Story, video, slideshow on the project

SINKING CONTINENT | Geologic fieldwork, central Australia | SUMMER 2019
In central Australia, geodynamicist Jacqueline Austermann and postdoc Mark Hoggard of Harvard will investigate a series of sedimentary basins that formed 850 million to 400 million years ago. The region is a prime example of cratonic basin–an ancient continental interior that for unknown reasons has sagged, then filled with sediment. These features cover more than 10 percent of the continents, including North America, and form major reservoirs of hydrocarbons, minerals and freshwater aquifers. The researchers will examine the thickness, age and other qualities of the basins, and use powerful computers to try and understand how they formed.  Results should have implications for resource exploration, and understanding of plate tectonics and variations in global sea levels.

FROZEN OCEAN | Geologic fieldwork, south Australia | SUMMER 2019
The period 720 million to 540 million years ago was marked by violent swings in climate, including ice ages that glaciated most or all of the planet, and marine evolution of the first complex organisms. Geologists Nicholas Christie-Blick and Sarah Giles will sample rocks and examine carbon isotopes in ancient sea bottoms from this time in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, to help chart the ocean's hospitability to life. Rocks about 580 million years old in one formation may be key, as they contain deposits ranging from the onetime sea level to more than a kilometer below it, along with deposits of volcanic ash that may aid in telling precisely how old various layers are.

LIFE AMONG THE MANGROVES | Community censuses, Liberia/Guinea | ONGOING THRU SEPT 2019
In the coastal mangrove swamps of west Africa, researchers are censusing isolated, largely invisible communities reachable only boat. The purpose is to put these people on the map for potential disaster response, and for projects to help inhabitants adapt to ongoing sea-level rise. Sylwia Trzaska of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network  is visiting communities in Liberia and Guinea. On-the-ground counts will be combined with fine-scale satellite imagery to model populations over wider areas there and in coastal Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Ghana. The project is in conjunction with Facebook, which is supplying computing power, and Wetlands International, which is working to restore degraded mangrove areas.  CIESIN Teams With Facebook

TEAM VOLE | Small-mammal studies, northern Alaska | JULY 2019, continuing through 2021
Researchers have been studying the effects of warming climate on tundra plants for nearly three decades, but little is known about small animals that eat them, and their role in tundra ecosystems. Plant physiologist Kevin Griffin and ecologist Natalie Boelman will study rodents in relation to plant communities at plots near Nome, Alaska, the northern foothills of Alaska's Brooks Range, the southerly Seward Peninsula and the northwestern coastal village of Barrow. The five-year project aims to project small-mammal populations and plant growth over the next 50 to 100 years. Story, video and slideshow on related tree line project  / Tundra ecology website

EARLIEST HUMANITY | Archaeology, soil surveys, Kenya |  SUMMER 2019 and 2020
The remote desert region around northwest Kenya's Lake Turkana is the source of many key early human fossils and artifacts. Geologist and paleomagnetism expert Christopher Lepre works regularly in this area. This year he will analyze soils 2.5 million to 3 million years old, when intense periodic glaciation took hold much farther north. Lepre will be looking for minerals that might indicate whether the onset of the ice age affected rainfall in the region. In the past, he helped date the oldest stone tools ever found. Story/video/photos of Turkana work

1,000 YEARS OF WEATHER | Tree-ring sampling |Peru, Bolivia, MAY 24-JUNE 28. Continuing 2020
As part of a five-year project to reconstruct weather patterns and extremes over the past millennium, Lamont scientists led by Laia Andreu-Hayles will sample rings from ancient trees in Peru and Bolivia. Work will extend from 15,000 feet in the Andes into lower elevations of the western Amazon. Data will be merged with separate studies of cave formations and old tree trunks washed into caves and preserved, to yield a long-term picture of climate variations in this region. Among other places, the researchers will sample around Tacna in southern Peru, and in Bolivia's Madidi National Park. Project is led out of the State University of New York, Albany.

WARMING NORTH | Tree studies, Labrador | JULY or AUG/ SEPT. 2019
A team led by dendrochronologist Brendan Buckley will travel inland from bays and inlets along the remote coast of Labrador to continue a long-term study of North Atlantic climate, using observations of old trees. Along with coring tree rings and measuring living trees that may be hundreds of years old, they hope to locate dead but well preserved trunks on high hilltops and buried in sand dunes that may have been growing during Medieval times, when regional climate was probably quite warm. Pushed by modern climate change, this area has been warming rapidly in recent decades. By looking at the past, the team hopes to put this into context, and help project what the future might bring. Travel will likely be by chartered boat, then to the interior by kayak and foot.  Buckley's work on ancient trees of Vietnam

REVISITING OLD TREES | Tree ring collection, northern Alaska |  JULY/AUG 2019 or 2020
Researchers Laia Andreu Hayles and Benjamin Gaglioti plan to fly by bush plane to remote areas in northern Alaska to revisit slow-growing trees first studied by Lamont scientists some 30 years ago. Through the use of cores and onsite measurements, the study is aimed at discovering how trees have fared under the warming climate. In some places, forests are thought to be greening and growing faster, while in others, heat stress may cause them to die. The work will take place in the jagged granite Arrigetch Peaks region of the Brooks Range. Principal investigator: Rosanne D'Arrigo.

TREES ON ICE | Tree physiology studies, La Perouse Glacier, southeastern Alaska | AUGUST 2019
The past couple of years, researchers including paleoclimatologist Benjamin Gaglioti have studied ancient "ghost forests" recently exposed by melting ice at Alaska's La Perouse Glacier. They have now turned their attention to intact living forests adjacent to the glacier, whose growth they believe may have been slowed by the chilling effects of the nearby ice during times when the glacier was growing, and speeded when the ice waned. In addition to sampling tree rings from these forests, last year they deployed sensors to take the temperatures of some trees every two hours. In August, they will return to collect the sensors, and their data.  The team will land by bush plane and camp on a remote beach.

FIRED UP | Post-burn surveys of boreal forests, interior Alaska | AUGUST 2019
Largely due to warming climate, each summer in recent years, millions of acres of Alaska's spruce-dominated boreal forests burn, often to be replaced by deciduous trees. This may eventually cause profound physical and ecological shifts regionally, and maybe continent-wide. Wildfire scientist Winslow Hansen will survey scores of post-fire plots to better understand how tree succession plays out, and whether transitions to deciduous trees are permanent. Among other things, he will census trees, measure canopy cover and examine soils. Study plots range from 15 to 75 years post-fire. The data will be used to improve interpretations of satellite imagery, and model what forests might look like 150 years after burning. 

DISASTER PLANS | Field visits, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan | JULY-SEPT 2019
Disaster-planning expert Andrew Kruczkiewicz of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society will visit central Asian countries to consult with officials and NGOs on how to incorporate medium-term (weeks to months) climate forecasts into planning for disasters including flash floods, mudslides, and heat and cold waves. Visits will include meeting residents of high-hazard areas to discuss their perceptions of risk, and what might most help them. Visits to each country will last 6-10 days.

SINKING INTO THE SEA | Studies of farmland, SOUTHWEST BANGLADESH | FEB 2019, FALL/WINTER 2019 and ONGOING thru 2020
In the 1960s and 1970s, large swaths of low-lying southwest Bangladesh were walled off with elaborate levees to prevent flooding and improve agriculture. Since then, sea levels have risen, and the land is sinking due to natural compaction of sediments. As a result, water is breaching embankments. Geophysicists Michael Steckler and Christopher Small and colleagues will study sediment cores and take ongoing measurements from GPS stations to precisely measure the levels of these areas, and project their positions 25, 50 and 100 years from now, in order to help design programs to build and maintain sustainable levees. In conjunction with a $400 million World Bank program to repair damaged embankments.  Watch a documentary  / Project blog

EYE ON GREAT ALASKAN EARTHQUAKES | Sea/land instrument deployments, Alaska Peninsula | AUGUST 2019
The subduction zone along the Alaska Peninsula is capable of generating some of the world's biggest earthquakes and tsunamis, and recent research suggests the threat is greater than previously thought. Seismologists including Spahr Webb last year dropped dozens of seismometers to the sea bottom. On land, seismologist Donna Shillington and colleagues installed seismometers across Kodiak Island. This August, the team will retrieve the instruments, with their data. On the same cruise, electromagnetics expert Kerry Key and colleagues will map out the fluid content at the offshore tectonic plate boundary, which may influence how and when the boundary slips.  Alaska Seafloor Presents Tsunami Danger / Article on the project / Alaska Seafloor Images Suggest High Tsunami Danger

PACIFIC STORM SIGNS | Aircraft flights, deployments of weather instruments, Costa Rica | AUG-SEPT 2019
In an effort to understand the atmospheric circulation patterns that bring heavy rains to the equatorial Pacific and southwestern Caribbean, meteorologists including Adam Sobel will conduct regular flights over this region, taking measurements and dropping parachute-equipped instruments along the way. They will also regularly send up weather balloons from the Colorado Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Costa Rica, among other places. This large-scale project will be conducted in cooperation with researchers on the ground in Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Project web page

AFRICAN SMOG | Air pollution monitoring, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo | SUMMER or FALL 2019
Many of Africa's fast-growing megacities suffer from drastic air pollution, often from sources not present in developed countries; as many as 700,000 people may die prematurely each year as a result. Few nations are able to even measure the pollution, much less come up with remedies. As a first step, atmospheric scientist Dan Westervelt will set up a network of 15-some monitoring devices in sprawling Kinshasa and neighboring Brazzaville. These will allow scientists and authorities to chart soot, ozone and other substances produced by a multiplicity of sources: residential burning of wood and charcoal for cooking; emissions from poorly maintained vehicles using low-quality fuel; diesel soot from private generators used during frequent power outages; and burning of garbage due to a lack of refuse collection. The project may expand to other cities.

OCEAN INVADERS| Studies of harmful plankton, Oman | FEB. 2019 and ONGOING
It's part plant, part animal, and it's taking over, with devastating effects. It's Noctiluca scintillans, a floating organism that forms thick, slimy mats on the ocean, feeding on everything from sunlight to fish eggs. It is thriving in the Arabian Sea, where climate change has created the right conditions; in Oman, Noctiluca are hurting fishing and aquaculture, clogging water intakes of oil refineries and desalination plants, and hurting tourism. Oceanographer Joaquim Goes is leading a multi-institutional to study the organism and how to deal with it. He and colleagues are working at sea to understand the forces that drive its life cycle, and how Oman can adapt. The creatures are also spreading off southeast Asia and India, and may eventually reach other areas.  Studying Bioluminescent Blooms in the Arabian Sea

WARMING ANDES ECOSYSTEMS | Mountain surveys, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru | ONGOING
The páramo regions of the Andes are unglaciated areas above the treeline, that harbor unique ecosystems and provide water to major cities. But climate change is thinning clouds, drying land and increasing wildfires there, stressing plants and other biota. Since 2004, scientists led by Colombia-based Daniel Ruiz Carrascal of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society have worked to study sites at Los Nevados Natural Park, near Medellin. The team also conducts several expeditions a year to collect data in the Colombian Andes on the El Ruiz-Tolima volcanic massif; the El Angel-El Golondrinas reserve, along the Colombia-Ecuador border; and the Madidi-Apolobomba protected areas of Bolivia and Peru. Watch a slideshow on the project / 2010 story on the project / 2018 story on the project

RESCUING SLAG AND CO2 | Steelworks recycling, northern China | ONGOING
Researchers from the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy are working with Baotou Steel in Inner Mongolia to design and install a revolutionary new plant that will simultaneously recycle slag and waste CO2 into raw materials used in paper, plastic, paint, plastic, cement, and the oil and gas industries. Construction should be done by end of January 2019, and the plant operating by June. The project to create so-called "green ores" is led by Lenfest director Ah-Hyung (Alissa) ParkArticle on the project

SLIDING INTO THE SEA | Geophysical measurements on, over and under Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica | FEB-MARCH 2019 and 2020
West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is wasting at a quickening pace, already contributing 4 percent of current global sea-level rise. In one of the biggest international Antarctic collaborations ever, some 100 scientists from seven countries will study every aspect of the glacier. Among them, geophysicist Jonathan Kingslake will camp on the ice for a total of four months to collect data on the properties of rocks and sediments beneath the glacier, and how ice slides over them. In the air, glaciologist David Porter will join a team flying over the ice in a Twin Otter aircraft equipped with airborne radar, gravity, magnetics, and lidar instruments, to collect data on the ice thickness and sea-bed depth. At sea, oceanographer Frank Nitsche will be part of a team studying the ocean adjoining the glacier's ice shelf, where warm water may be eating away ice. Story on the project / Project web page

WATCHING THE ROCKS ERODE | Geologic fieldwork, McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica | NOV 2018-FEB 2019 and FALL 2019
Using innovative new instruments, geochemist Jennifer Lamp and colleagues are measuring erosion of rocks in Antarctica's cold, windy McMurdo Dry Valleys, Earth's best analog to Mars. It may take millions of years for visible erosion to take place, but the instruments pick up minute acoustic emissions that signal openings of tiny cracks; from these, scientists may be able to extrapolate erosion rates. The work is expected to open new vistas onto the evolution of the surfaces of both Earth and Mars. The researchers will leave their instruments behind during their initial trip, and return in fall 2019 to retrieve them, and the data they have collected.

MELTING CONTINENT | Physical/biological oceanography, Antarctic Peninsula | JAN-FEB 2020
For nearly 40 years, scientists have monitored the effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, one of earth's fastest-warming regions, as part of a global network of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations. They have documented major declines in sea ice, and dramatic shifts in wildlife populations, including penguins. Hugh Ducklow, a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty, is lead investigator. He and colleagues will spend a month on the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer cruising the peninsula's west coast to study its creatures and collect physical data on ocean waters. Recently the program added a new team, studying Antarctic whales. Story on recent work on the peninsula / Team paper on ecological changes

GONE GLACIERS | Geologic fieldwork,southern Chile | ONGOING thru 2021
Geologists Mike Kaplan and Joerg Schaefer, and colleagues at Chilean institutions are working in Patagonia to investigate how changing climate has affected glaciers in the past. There are strong indications that climate patterns in the southern hemisphere glaciers are out of step with those in the north; understanding why will help scientists project the effects of modern climate change. The work will involve mapping features carved by past glaciers, and collecting samples of rock left by retreating ice. Fieldwork will take place intermittently over coming years.

GETTING KIDS OUT OF HARM'S WAY | Disaster planning, Puerto Rico and North Carolina | ONGOING
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness is working to prepare communities to deal with the specific needs of children after disasters, in New Hanover County, North Carolina, and multiple areas of Puerto Rico. The program aims to put coalitions and resources in place by developing relationships among local agencies, state/territory and federal government, and legislators. In Puerto Rico, the program is expected to cover 75 percent of children on the island.  Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative

RURAL HEALTH | Innovative lab and health services, Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia | ONGOING
The Center for Sustainable Development has launched a series of programs in rural Africa to bring diagnostic and health services to people who otherwise would have to travel long distances for care. The 1 Million Community Health Workers program in Ghana seeks to achieve universal health care with large numbers of workers who can carry out basic tasks. The Tropical Lab Initiative, headed by CSD executive director Yanis Ben Amor, scales down the traditional diagnostic laboratory to make available on the household level commonly needed tests for ailments including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  1mCHW Campaign / Tropical Lab Initiative


SEASIDE FORESTS | Tree-ring sampling, coastal NY/NJ |SPRING/SUMMER 2019 and ONGOING
A few rare stands of old-growth forest have survived in coastal parklands in the New York metro area. Researchers including paleoclimatologist Nicole Davi are sampling rings from these trees, dating to the early 1800s, to see if they have recorded past climate events including large storms that would have battered the trees or inundated them with salt water. (Many were killed during Hurricane Sandy.) The project is aimed at teasing out the weather history of the coastal area, at a time when big Sandy-like storms are expected to increase and sea levels to rise. Work will take place at New Jersey's Sandy Hook; Fire Island; and Montauk.

GOTHAM GREENHOUSE | Tracking New York City's emissions | SPRING 2019 and ONGOING
New York has committed to radically cutting production of greenhouse gases. A first step: figuring out how much the city is already producing. Usually, such estimates are made "bottom-up," by measuring or modeling emissions at the scale of individual sources such as roads, buildings and landfills, then extrapolating to larger scales.  Atmospheric scientist Roisin Commane and colleagues are developing a new "top down" approach, by building a network of sensors to directly measure concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane around the city. Data will be combined with maps of pollution sources and local wind dynamics, to form a comprehensive picture. Initial instruments will be set up in spring 2019, to be followed by others; measurements may also be taken from aircraft.  This is expected to be a long-term effort.

MERCURY IN THE SYSTEM | Forest monitoring, western Massachusetts 2019/ Costa Rica 2020
To the alarm of many, the federal government is moving to weaken controls on coal-burning power plants that emit mercury, a neurotoxin permeating the global environment. Recently, it was found that a major route for pollution comes when plants take up gaseous mercury from the air, then transfer it to soils when they die off or shed leaves; outwash then goes into rivers, lakes and oceans. Atmospheric scientist Roisin Commane and colleagues aim for the first time to directly measure and understand how  the process works in vegetation by placing instruments in western Massachusetts' Harvard Forest above and below the canopy. Measurements will run through 2019. In 2020, the experiment will move to Soltis Research Center in Costa Rica. In collaboration with Harvard and Texas A&M universities.

RESURRECTED SPRINGS | Studies of 1800s spas, Northeast states | SPRING/SUMMER 2019
Many commercial warm springs popular in the 19th century have been left to decay or been demolished; locations of some have been lost altogether. Geologists Dallas Abbott and Bill Menke are searching out sites in New England and New York state to study how subterranean conditions may be evolving. They will compare century-old temperature readings with new ones to judge whether possible subtle rises could indicate if climate change has affected underground waters. Also, brand-new geophysical maps of the deep earth under the region show that some parts are hotter and more fractured than normal; this could signal coming volcanism (albeit millions of years off). Could some of the hotter springs be tapping these depths? Abbott and Menke will work with local historians to relocate some sites. Volcanoes Under the Northeast U.S.?

HUDSON SEWAGE | Water sampling by boat | SPRING-FALL 2019
In cooperation with the environmental group Riverkeeper, biologists are mapping the sources and fates of sewage in the Hudson River with periodic sampling by boat. Biologist Andrew Juhl has sailed from Troy to New York harbor. Water quality has improved  in recent decades, but human waste still sweeps in during heavy rains and may persist in sediments. Tributaries with particular problems include outfalls at Kingston, Orangetown, New York City's Newtown Creek, and the upstate the Sparkill, Roundout and Esopus creeks. Article on the project / Article on bacteria in bottom sludge / Article on pharmaceuticals in the river

VANISHING MARSHES | Coring of wetlands, coastal Connecticut| SPRING-SUMMER 2019
Paleoecologist Dorothy Peteet is studying the East Coast environment, using cores of sediment from lake bottoms, marshes and bogs. Her latest project focuses on how human pressures are affecting the tidal marshes of Long Island Sound. This year, she and colleagues will drill into marshes around the Connecticut River to see how human alterations of  terrestrial and aquatic landscapes have changed the extent of marshes and their plant communities, and the nutrients and organic matter in surrounding waters. She also hopes to core marshes near historic Batsto Village in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and swamps near South Carolina's Wateree River, to understand how early settlers affected wetlands. Article on Peteet's work

AIR SENSORS ON WHEELS | Real-time air monitoring via bikes, New York City | MARCH-NOV 2019
In an ongoing citizen-science project, volunteer bikers are wearing sensors that measure soot, carbon monoxide and other pollutants as they ride, giving a real-time picture of what they are inhaling. Some will also wear heart-rate monitors and blood-pressure cuffs to measure short-term effects. In partnership with public radio station WNYC, the study is run by environmental health scientist Darby Jack and geochemist Steven Chillrud. This year, 60-plus bike commuters will wear instruments over a 2- to 3-week time period each. Results should be out by early 2020. What's in the air for cyclists? / NYC air quality phone app / New personal pollution monitors

TINY PLASTICS | Sampling for microbeads, studies of organisms in New York area waters| SPRING/SUMMER 2019 and ONGOING
Microbeads, tiny plastic spheres commonly used in shampoos, soaps, cleaning supplies and cosmetics, are entering New York area waters in vast quantities. Using a newly developed method, oceanographer Joaquim Goes and geochemists Beizhan Yan and Wade McGillis are sampling New York area waters to map microbead quantities. At the same time, a local high-school teacher and her students are using Lamont labs to study local fish and other organisms for the presence of absorbed plastics. This summer, McGillis will continue with sampling of the Hudson River. Yan may sample Van Cortlandt Lake in the Bronx or other urban lakes. Article on the project / Earth Institute article on microbeads

RE-CREATING GLACIERS | High-pressure lab experiments, New York City | SPRING/SUMMER 2019
Lamont geophysicist Christine McCarthy has teamed with geotechnical engineer Liming Li in experiments to re-create what happens when a mile of ice moves over bedrock. In the first experiments of their kind, they will operate a centrifuge loaded with material intended to duplicate the extreme forces at the base of a glacier. Experiments are aimed at understanding what makes glaciers either stick in place or slide forward—a key but little understood issue at the heart of future projections of sea-level rise. The scientists are particularly interested in how water and subglacial debris may interact to abrade bedrock and form meltwater channels. The work is being done at Columbia Engineering School.

DOES 'GREEN' INFRASTRUCTURE WORK? | Monitoring Bronx streets and parks | ONGOINGbioswale2-199x300
New York has embarked on a $2.4 billion, 18-year program to install "green infrastructure," consisting of vegetation to replace impermeable surfaces. It is aimed at decreasing water inflow to sewers, lowering summer temperatures and improving air quality. A team headed by Patricia Culligan is monitoring results in the 4,160-acre Bronx River "sewershed."  They have installed instruments to measure temperature, moisture, nutrients and other parameters remotely and through periodic site visits. Microbiologist Krista McGuire of Barnard College is studying fungi and other biota in soils. Ecologist Matt Palmer is investigating plant and insect diversity. Others are involved in the sociological, health and legal aspects. One surprise so far: vegetated areas are increasing flows of nutrients into city waterways, which is not good. Story on the Bronx green infrastructure project / Columbia magazine story

DIARY OF A TREE | Real-time forest monitoring, Hudson Valley and New York City | ONGOING
In New York's Hudson Valley, the extreme ranges of many southern tree species intersect those of northern species. With warming climate, some northerners such as sugar maples and beeches may already be getting edged out, as oaks and hickories move in. In order to study the possible effects on forests, plant physiologist Kevin Griffin  has wired trees in the lower Hudson Valley's Black Rock Forest with instruments that transmit daily changes in growth to his lab. The network may soon expand to suburban Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the main Columbia campus, in Manhattan. Griffin plans frequent field trips with students to examine forest ecology in both urban and natural settings. Black Rock Forest Real-Time Growth Page  /  How Climate Affects New York Plants and Animals Urban Trees of the Future

POISONED GARDENS | Testing soil for lead, Brooklyn, Pelham, N.Y. | ONGOING
Lead has long been banned from paint and other common products, but still lurks in urban soils, presenting a danger. PhD candidate Franziska Landes has developed a fast-results test kit, which she and collaborators including Brian Mailloux of Barnard College are using to test backyards, gardens and parkland around heavily industrialized Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and other areas. They are also working this summer with high-school students in suburban Pelham, N.Y., to test both soil and water for lead. Article on the project

NEUROSCIENCE AND VOLCANOES | Experiments with artificial lava in a biomedical lab | ONGOING
Lava is a complex combination of solids, liquids and gases. In part for this reason, predicting volcanic eruptions, and whether they will ooze harmlessly or explode lethally has vexed scientists. Volcanologist Einat Levs is teaming with biomedical researcher Elizabeth Hillman to capture 3D images of evolving artificial lavas in real time, using a microscopy system normally used to investigate blood flow in the brain. Creating "lavas" from oil, acetone, glass beads and silicon, they are investigating how different mixtures act under varying conditions. By applying cutting-edge biomedical techniques to geology, they hope to open a new window onto lava dynamics. Video about the project | Multimedia: Lev's study of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano

NEW YORK EARTHQUAKES | Seismometer installation, monitoring | ONGOING
From Central Park to the Canadian border, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory runs seismic instruments to monitor earthquakes in the U.S. Northeast. The region sees a surprising number of small quakes, and recent research shows that the prospect of big ones are an underappreciated threat. The team monitors the network 24 hours a day, and travels off and on to repair and update instruments. New ones have been installed near Albany, N.Y., where recent unusual tremors have been felt, and in the Adirondack Mountains, where quakes have long been routine. Head of network: Won-Young KimLamont Cooperative Seismographic Network / Study on New York City earthquake risk / New York Times article on Albany tremors

CITIZEN SNOWFLAKE | Studies of snow, New York area | WINTER 2019-2020
Polar scientist Marco Tedesco is starting up X-Snow, a crowdsourced citizen-science project in which volunteers in the New York metro area and beyond will sample snow at many locations to contribute data on snowflake granularity, snowpack density and other parameters. In part, the project is aimed at understanding how climate may affect the temperature and shape of snowflakes in the Northeast–a factor that could deeply affect regional water supplies and recreation. On a wider scale, it is aimed at ground-truthing satellite imagery being used to study snow and ice over much bigger regions including the poles. Study participants will be equipped with simple devices that utilize their cell phones, and a bit of training. Public radio station WNYC will help recruit volunteers, starting with high-school students.  Story on the program | X-Snow website


In late July/early August glaciologist Marco Tedesco and colleagues will visit Alaska's Juneau icefield to take measurements of the surface's reflectivity and other qualities. This is part of a larger-scale project to correlate satellite imagery with ground measurements in widespread locations, including Greenland the Rocky Mountains and other regions. Story, video, slideshow on Tedesco's Greenland work

Seismologists Leonardo Seeber  and Marie-Helene Cormier are looking into performing marine surveys of an earthquake-prone transform fault bordering southern Cuba–one of the most dramatic submarine scarps on the planet. The project, still in discussion stages, would involve work both on land and at sea with Cuban colleagues.

Anthropologist Benjamin Orlove hopes to travel to mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to examine the effects of fast-waning glaciers on rural herders and farmers. Glacial meltwater has long provided seasonal resources to many areas, but climate change is causing the ice to collapse. Orlove has done similar studies in Peru, Bhutan and Washington state.

An interdisciplinary team of microbiologists and ecologists plans deep DNA sequencing of a core of permafrost from Alaska's North Slope built up over the last 12,000 years. They hope to use new methods to understand how bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants and animals have changed in response to shifting environmental conditions. The Arctic is rapidly warming, causing acute changes to ecosystems; this study should shed light on how this might proceed in the near future. Members include Jeffrey Shaman, director of the Earth Institute's Climate and Health Program; ecologist Jonathan Nichols ; and others.

In summer 2019, the yearly Piermont Marsh Secondary School Programs will pick up again. High-school students work in marshland along the Hudson River at Piermont, N.Y., to collect data on carbon flux, nutrients, sediment accumulation, heavy metal contamination and wildlife, for a long-term study on the marsh's health and evolution in the face of sea-level rise and other forces. Program head: Robert Newton.

Environmental health scientist Steven Chillrud is developing air sensors for several groups studying pediatric asthma. The sensors are designed to be worn by test subjects to measure real-time exposure to pollutants. Pilots will take place this year in New York City, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. In conjunction with Matthew Perzanowski of Mailman School of Public Health.

The Columbia Water Center has signed an agreement to help the Mexican city of Monterrey investigate how to improve its hard-pressed water system. Up to a third of the water supply may be siphoned off by thieves or otherwise lost. The Water Center, led by director Upmanu Lall, will consult on the possibility of recycling water; rainwater harvesting; defending against climatic variability; and dealing with social and economic issues among users.

Naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride in groundwater are major problems in wells across southeast Asia. Geochemists Alexander van Geen and Ben Bostick are studying the causes and possible mitigation measures, working across Bangladesh, India, Vietnam and other countries. Van Geen will next be in Bangladesh in March 2019, to study how arsenic gets into water. He is also working with a student to test wells in Madhya Pradesh, India, for fluoride. The team has also studied wells in the United States vulnerable to these problems.  Videos and story on Asian geological and health studies  / Arsenic pollution near HanoiU.S. wells tainted by arsenic

Soil scientist Benjamin Bostick is working with Oglala Lakota high-school students at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation to test soils for mercury and other toxins produced by coal-burning power plants. In summer 2019, Bostick hopes to bring New York City high-school students to work with their peers on the reservation.

Geochemists Sidney Hemming and Stephen Cox hope to travel to the Lake Turkana region of northwest Kenya to study the evolution of the East African Rift, which has been slowly splitting the continent for the last 30 million years. By dating old volcanic deposits in this key area for human evolution, they hope to help with analysis of the events that led up to early humans and their precursors.   Cox's blog from Turkana

Biological oceanographer Ajit Subramaniam co-leads a cruise to investigate the impact on the marine food web of the huge plume of nutrients that flows from the Amazon River into the tropical Atlantic Ocean. At times, the plume extends more than 2,000 kilometers offshore and covers more than 1 million square kilometers. Cruise departs and returns to Barbados, June 12-July 8, 2019.

Geochemist Wade McGillis is watching coral reefs and marine grasses for the effects of global warming and pollution, using instruments that monitor the metabolisms of the organisms in real time. This year he plans to visit Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Corpus Christi Bay, Texas; and the Mediterranean island of Corsica. McGillis also works in reefs off Florida, Puerto Rico and the Galapagos Islands.

In spring 2019, a team from the Advanced Consortium for Conflict, Cooperation and Complexity will be in the Comuna 5 neighborhood of Medellin, Colombia, to bring together youth leaders, private businesses and government to work together to preserve peace in this sometimes violent area. Youth, Peace and Security Program

Researchers from eight institutions including glaciologist Marco Tedesco are planning a three- to four-year project to investigate the dynamics at the front of the Helheim Glacier, one of east Greenland's largest, as it pushes out a fjord and into the ocean. From a ship, they will collect data on the atmosphere, land and water abutting the ice, subsurface drainage and iceberg calving. Scheduled to begin summer 2019.

Disaster expert Andrew Kruczkiewicz of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is looking into incorporating medium-term (weeks to months) climate forecasts into decisions about running Bangladesh refugee camps to which hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been driven from neighboring Myanmar.

Geochemist Peter Kelemen is looking into working with the DeBeers diamond company to use mine tailings in South Africa and Canada to lock up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Diamond ore, from the deep earth, readily combines with the greenhouse gas, a process that could possibly be hastened through engineering. The project could also extend to tailings of platinum, chromium and nickel mines in southern Africa, which have similar qualities. Article on the DeBeers project





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