Best Open House

Even for those with horrible memories of earth science class, a trip to this month’s Open House at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where scientists work to unlock the mysteries of our planet, will be an eye-opening- and even fun- experience.

Best Open House


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Lamont-Doherty Earth Ob­ser­va­tory Palisades, Rockland County Expect lots of mind-opening moments if you attend Open House Day at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) on October 9. A dozen tents crammed with the yields of globe-girdling explorations will offer an enriching interface between LDEO’s scientific pioneers and Hudson Valley homebodies. This tent show, which annually draws thousands, will engage all ages, with plenty of enigmas solved before your eyes.


Lamont-Doherty’s 130 scientists and the 60-some students earning Ph.D.s while working on its projects — 300 are currently under way, ranging from global warming to marine mammal protection — are deployed on every continent and ocean, seeking knowledge from within the earth’s molten core, its deepest geological strata, and its maritime sediments. Using an annual budget of $45 million to sense the earth from satellites, planes, balloons, oceanographic vessels, submersible explorers, and sonar, LDEO’s biologists, geologists, seismologists, geochemists, and meteorologists are busy drafting the paragraphs for tomorrow’s earth science textbooks.


Open House Day provides a welcome challenge for them. “It’s exhausting speaking to so many people. But it’s a nice exhaustion,” admits one post-doctoral fellow studying ocean circulation. “Some visitors are scared to ask us questions. You have to make them lose that fear — after all, questions are what drive scientific effort.

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“How do I explain, on a level normal people can understand, the very complex work we have been doing?” he continues. “First, we must help our Open House visitors learn that through understanding ocean currents we can build a computer program that will model how climate will likely change over a 10-year period. Then they will become quite interested in the details.”


Speaking with LDEO’s director, Michael Purdy, you quickly sense the pride he takes in his colleagues’ keen interests. An oceanographer with years of at-sea experience, Purdy is quick to note that “Lamont-Doherty is the only major institution that studies all aspects of the earth’s dynamics: its oceans, atmosphere, and geology.” Since 1949, it has been a key earth science player, credited with the description of El Niño, the perfection of radiocarbon dating, and the validation of con­ti­nental drift theories.


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Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientist there, is a world-renowned seismologist who has spent more than 20 years analyzing the Pacific Rim earthquake zone — especially the coastal regions of Alaska. But he has also been active in researching the earthquakes that occasionally remind metropolitan New Yorkers that we, too, sit atop the living mantle that enfolds the earth’s volatile magma.


In fact, Jacob explains, the Atlantic Ocean is currently widening at the rate of a few inches per year. He chuckles a bit as he makes geologic time comprehensible. “That’s the rate fingernails grow, but the pressure created is enormous. It activates some of the ancient faults in the lower Hudson Valley-greater New York City area.”


Jacob has been one of the key players in a 12-year campaign to upgrade metro-New York building codes and disaster planning. “Yes, the East Coast has a relatively low rate of seismic incidents, but it has large and valuable assets sitting on the earth,” he says. “New York has the fourth-highest earthquake-risk exposure in the nation after Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, and Seattle. In the last 400 years, there have been three major earthquakes in the region measuring 5.2 on the Richter Scale. The latest occurred in 1884 — offshore. It was felt from New England to Baltimore and out into Ohio. It toppled chimneys and parapets, but nobody died. The same shake today would produce $1 billion to $5 billion

in damages.”


Rusty Lotti-Bond is curator of LDEO’s Deep-Sea Sample Repository, the Fort Knox of knowledge about the last 40,000 years of sedimentary deposits on the world’s ocean bottoms. With 18,000 cores (many of them wet and stored in coolers) available for analysis and re-analysis, LDEO is able to support ongoing scientific inquiry worldwide.

For example, Lotti-Bond and her husband, Gerard Bond, recently collaborated with eight other researchers from the U.S., Germany, and Switzerland to investigate “Persistent Solar Influence on North Atlantic Climate During the Holocene.” Simply put, by examining some of LDEO’s North Atlantic cores with the help of radiocarbon dating, scanning electron microscopes, and other high-tech gadgetry, the team was able to describe climate fluctuations over the last 12,000 years. Their research implied that even minimal variations in the energy output of the sun could affect the amount of drift ice flowing into the sub-polar North Atlantic, and that cyclical ocean cooling could be linked directly to extended droughts in the Middle East.


Some of LDEO’s important 25-foot core specimens — the entire collection represents 13,000 sites throughout the world — will be on display on Open House Day. Pick up the handout What Are Cores? and you will learn how vital they are to understanding the Earth’s past. Deep-sea sediments contain microscopic fossils of marine animals (important time and environmental indicators) and volcanic glass (which record geological events). “Sands,” states the brochure, “can indicate the presence of ocean currents, tell of ancient shorelines, reveal a past dust storm, or record submarine slides which might indicate…earthquakes.”


The best description of what’s going on under the Hudson River’s surface comes from Robin Bell, director of LDEO’s Center for Rivers and Estuaries. Using ultra-sophisticated side-scanning sonar to map every inch of the river’s floor, Bell’s project (funded by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation) has provided a complete guide to the river’s “benthic habitats” — the places where fish live and breed.

Taking this visitor to her lab window atop the Palisades, oceanographer Bell points outside: “It’s 400 feet straight down to the river, then there is 50 feet of water and 400 feet or more of sediment until you get to bedrock. During the summer, with the river surface at Albany only four feet higher than it is here at Palisades, it can take a parcel of water 120 days to get from Albany to the Verrazano Bridge — it just sloshes back and forth with the tides.”



That sloshing is recorded beneath the water. “You can see the currents’ wakes in the river bottom,” Bell explains. “Sometimes the flood tide creates a sediment wake on the west side of the river, while the ebb tide creates a sediment wake on the east side, so that the river bottom registers water flowing in both directions.” The history of the Hudson’s sediments is of critical importance for plans to dredge toxic chemicals (like PCBs) from the river. It’s crucial to know which sediments are new — and potentially hazardous-waste laden — and which are old.


In the course of her research, Bell has also discovered underwater treasure, including a 10-mile stretch of river bottom that contains some three dozen shipwrecks (one a beautiful 150-foot schoon­er). As we pored over minutely detailed sonar chartings of the river bottom, her hand indicated an enigma lying beneath Peekskill Bay — ghostly sedimentary patterns that looked like gigantic sardines facing each other in orderly rows, two by two. There are acres and acres of a submarine Stonehenge, undeciphered for years.


After a day of having all of my questions answered, I cheerily found myself providing an answer. “Those have to be the underwater ghosts of the mothballed Liberty Ship fleet that was moored across from Peekskill for some 20 years after World War II.” After a week of phone calls confirming my lead, Bell had new puzzles to research. Since the fleet was electrified, allegedly to protect the hulls from encrusting with rust and barnacles (and to stop rats intent on raiding wheat stockpiled in the ships’ holds), a new batch of environmental impact questions had arisen.


At Open House Day, Bell’s team might well provide “the rest of the Peekskill Bay story.” — Ted Spiegel

For more information about LDEO’s Open House Day, log onto its Web site,

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