The Lyrical Landscape of Lamont

A look at the Lamont Observatory and all it can do for you

By Casey Davis

Every academic department complains about needing more space, whether that be for labs, classrooms, or offices. One department at Columbia does not have that issue. 15 miles north of Manhattan in the Palisades is a 157-acre campus dedicated to Environmental Science research. Established in 1949, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is a space for professors from Columbia to perform cutting-edge environmental research alongside post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Lamont even has its own boat, a 235-foot research vessel christened RV Marcus Langseth. It can carry 55 people, including 20 crew members, in order to conduct marine investigations all over the world—even being able to handle Antarctic waters. This boat has the seismic capability to create 2D and 3D maps of the structure of the Earth even miles below the seafloor. It can also deploy remotely operated vehicles to study submarine volcanos.

Illustration by Kristine Dunn

Upon one visit, Barnard Professor Martin Stute showed me his lab. Gesturing proudly at a machine which tests concentrations of dissolved noble gases in groundwater that he built himself, he mentioned that if he ever wanted to sell it the machine would fetch a price of nearly a million dollars. Each professor is working on similarly impressive projects. This research includes injecting carbon dioxide into aquifers in an attempt to limit the emission of CO2 in the atmosphere, experimenting on the microbial ecology in the Hudson River, and forecasting how much sea ice there will be in the Antarctic in the future. Lamont is home to the world’s largest collection of deep-sea and ocean sediment cores, with over 13,000 collected from every ocean and sea in the world. This collection may seem boring, but Peter deMonocal, a marine geologist at Columbia, would disagree. In 2001, deMenocal took cores from the Indian Ocean for Lamont. Climate investigations in the region had been suspended weeks earlier due to pirate activity and a nearby research vessel had just been attacked with rocket propelled grenades. deMonocal and crew received emergency faxes saying that the ships around them were being attacked, but amazingly their vessel wasn’t attacked once. They were the last research vessel to make it out of the Gulf of Aden unscathed. The cores they collected ended up providing valuable information on just how the east Sahara became a desert.

Although most of the work done at Lamont does not involve pirates, its labs have been home to several scientific breakthroughs. Notably, in 1966 Ph.D. student Walter Pitman (Lehigh, 1956) was spending a late night in the lab examining seafloor data. He noticed symmetric patterns in the data and shared them with other scientists at Lamont. Pitman’s work ended up proving the theory of seafloor spreading, a huge breakthrough. Before his discovery, most people believed that the Earth’s crust was fixed in place.

Just a half hour bus ride away, Lamont seems hours away from the city with its fresh air, rose garden, and beautiful views. The shuttles to Lamont run every hour during the week, once in the morning, and once at night on Saturday. There are paths from the campus that lead directly to the Palisade cliffs and have beautiful hiking. If you ever need to get away from campus for a few hours, either to examine groundbreaking scientific research or to go on a scenic walk above the Hudson, try taking a trip to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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