The Lab That Discovered Global Warming Has Good News and Bad News

Nestled in the forest behind a guard house just north of the border between New York and New Jersey off Route 9W is one of the world’s greatest meccas for climate change research.

Here, perched on the lip of the Palisades, a half-hour north of Manhattan, is a sylvan 180-acre campus where researchers have helped to untangle mystery after mystery about how our planet actually works. No other geoscience lab was as influential during the second half of the 20th century as Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It is where the very phrase “global warming” was coined.

“Columbia’s scientists are the Paul Reveres of climate change,” said Peter de Menocal, the director of the Center for Climate and Life at Lamont. “They have been ringing this bell loudly and with increasing urgency since the 1980s.”

Today, more than 300 researchers and graduate students work in almost monastic seclusion in a quirky mix of palatial homes, wooden cottages, machine shops and state-of-the-art scientific laboratories, which testifies to the long and disparate history of the place.

The land, originally a family estate, was given to Columbia by Florence Lamont after her husband, Thomas Lamont, a Wall Street banker, died in 1948. Maurice “Doc” Ewing, Lamont’s first director, moved the university’s seismograph there from its Manhattan campus, where it was being jostled by the nearby IRT subway. Other scientists followed. Gradually, the lab’s mission expanded beyond geology. Lamont-Doherty now has the largest concentration of earth scientists on earth. Half of them are working on projects related to climate change.

Or at least they were working on them until the coronavirus slowed research to a glacial crawl. It’s only the latest challenge they have faced. Even before the pandemic locked Lamont scientists out of their labs, the institution was struggling to compete with others for a steadily shrinking pot of federal dollars — particularly when confronted by a government hostile to the very subject it studied.

“The Trump administration has hugely diminished funding for climate research,” said Dr. de Menocal. “It has gotten to the point now where you can’t even use the word ‘climate.’ You have to say ‘air quality’ or some other aspect of the environment in your research proposal.”

He hopes that the virus crisis will, if nothing else, underscore the value of science. “The take-home for me is that you really do have to support scientific research and listen to what the scientists are telling you,” Dr. de Menocal said.

The crucial role the Lamont-Doherty lab plays in climate research all started with a brilliant and somewhat eccentric geologist named Wallace Broecker, who is credited as the first person to use the term “global warming” in a scientific paper — ‘Climatic Change: Are we on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?’— published in 1975, a year before global temperatures began a steady rise that has continued until today.

Dr. Broecker likened the climate system to “an angry beast” that humans were “poking with sticks.” Days before he died last year at 87, he warned that we are moving too slowly to cut greenhouse gas emissions. His suggestion for the future: Scientists should consider deploying a massive “solar shield” in Earth’s atmosphere to cool the planet by deflecting the sun’s rays.

Not everyone at the lab agrees, however, that massive, risky geoengineering schemes are the answer.

“Right now, we just don’t know enough about how the climate system behaves to give the beast another big poke,” cautioned Park Williams, a drought expert at the lab. “If we did something dramatic now, we might simply be adding fuel to the fire.”

It’s hardly the first time that Lamont scientists have disagreed. According to Robin Bell, a geophysicist who has studied polar ice sheets at Lamont since 1982, debates about how to preserve a livable planet (not to mention many more obscure scientific questions) were everyday affairs in the lab’s cavernous cafeteria, which earlier housed the estate’s swimming pool.

“That’s how science advances,” Dr. Bell said. “You are going to test my ideas, you are going to challenge me, ask me questions that will change how I look at something.”

One question that invariably generates a lively discussion is how rapidly climate change will progress. Some at the lab had argued that impacts would develop slowly over many decades, even centuries. But a spate of recent extreme weather events suggests that climate is changing much faster than scientists anywhere had previously anticipated.

Dr. Bell (who has a ridge named after her in Antarctica) is trying to figure out how quickly polar ice sheets will melt, a critical factor for determining rates of sea level rise that threaten coastal cities like New York.

Her work — like everything that they do at the lab, she said — is very much a team effort.

“You wouldn’t want a doctor who just worried about one part of you; you want somebody to look at your entire system,” Dr. Bell said. “Here you can find somebody who is thinking about the deep interior of the earth, the chemistry of the upper atmosphere and everything in between.”

The guiding principle ever since the lab was founded, Dr. Bell said, is that in order to predict the planet’s future, you need to understand its past.

Little was known about Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history until systematic field work began in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, Lamont scientists used data from the lab’s own pioneering expeditions to prove the theory of plate tectonics, which holds that the continents sit on massive geological plates that generate earthquakes and volcanic activity as they rub up against one another.

Much of that research was conducted by scientists on the research vessel Vema, a three-mast schooner that Columbia purchased in 1953. Until it was decommissioned in 1981, the Vema sailed more than a million nautical miles seeking knowledge of the planet’s last great frontier — the largely unexplored depths of the world’s oceans. The first-ever relief map of the sea floor was published by Lamont in 1977 from measurements taken in part on the Vema.

The crew of the Vema and other research vessels also brought back samples. “This is a library of mud,” said Nichole Anest, director of the Lamont Core Repository. She gestured toward high shelving walls bristling with more than 40 miles of sediment cores drilled during those expeditions, some of them from over a mile below the surface of the sea.

Fine-grained red, green and white clays spilled out from opened cores on a nearby display table. “The mud includes remains of millions of tiny foraminifera,” Ms. Anest said, referring to a marine organism that lives both in the water column of the ocean and also in the sediments on the sea floor. “By analyzing the chemistry of their shells, we can determine what the climate was like when they were formed.”

One crucial insight from the core analysis was that Earth’s climate system has been far more volatile than anyone previously thought. It turns out it has a disconcerting tendency to change swiftly and dramatically rather than gradually over time.

A study by Dr. de Menocal of sediments off the coast of Africa showed that the present-day Sahara transformed from a lush savanna teeming with hippos and elephants to a virtually rainless desert in the mere geological blink of an eye (roughly a century) because of a sudden shift in the regional monsoon.

Could something equally disruptive happen now? They are taking that possibility seriously at the tree-ring lab, a long, gable-roofed structure that resembles a museum inside, with maps and cross sections of trees pinned to the walls and sitting on work tables.

“Tree rings are the bar codes of climate,” Dr. Williams said as he entered a room stacked high with polished tree cores. “They show us that the past 20 years in the U.S. Southwest have been as dry as any 20-year period in the last millennium.” Those drought-like conditions have increased the risk of megafires, which have already radically transformed the landscape in large swaths of the West.

Earlier generations of Lamonters may have been content to engage in pure scientific research, without concern for its practical implications. But scientists like Dr. Williams are increasingly focused on helping communities actively prepare for climate change. He is currently using his knowledge of fire and climate to advise officials in California about where best to direct future fire prevention efforts.

Likewise for Radley Horton, a climatologist who served as the lead scientist for the New York City Panel on Climate Change. “What I like to do first is sit down with decision makers, infrastructure stewards, farmers, people in developing countries,” Dr. Horton said. “I ask them, ‘What are your current vulnerabilities to extreme weather events, what keeps you up at night?’”

One thing that keeps public health officials up at night: the deadly combination of extreme heat and humidity, which can push humans beyond our biological limit.

“There are places like the Persian Gulf, where we are already beginning to see these lethal combinations emerge, where it is thermodynamically impossible to sweat fast enough to stay cool,” Dr. Horton said. “Climate models need to be better designed to help communities around the world prepare for previously underappreciated risks like this.”

Dr. Horton is consulting with New York’s power company, Con Edison, which is upgrading its infrastructure to prepare for anticipated spikes in peak demand from air-conditioner use during the projected hotter summers ahead. He is also working with the city as it plans an eventual “managed retreat” from some low-lying neighborhoods like coastal Staten Island and the Rockaways, Queens.

Lamont scientists discovered that New York City (along with much of the Eastern Seaboard) is actually sinking nearly as quickly as the sea around it is rising — a double threat that suggests that America’s largest city will have a far different shoreline in the not-so-distant future.

In the past, climate scientists mostly steered clear of the political controversies that swirled around their work. Things have changed. “Fewer researchers,” Dr. Horton said, “are just sitting in the ivory tower.” The younger ones, in particular, are speaking publicly about the need to act, even challenging Columbia University to do more to curb its own emissions.

But just as Lamont scientists are feeling more energized, the lab continues losing the financial support of the government, which was once its largest source of financing.

“The existing federal funding model is not well suited to this unfolding disaster,” Dr. de Menocal said. “We need a vastly accelerated and vastly better-funded research program if we are going to find the answers in time to do something about it.”

“We’ve watched the Covid-19 situation unfold at incredible speed,” Dr. de Menocal said. He worries that environmental threats are not being felt as viscerally. “The climate crisis is playing out on a much slower time frame. We know roughly what to expect and when to expect it, and we should be preparing with the same level of urgency.”

There is little time to waste, he said, though he admitted that he had no idea when scientists might return to the laboratory itself. The virus, Dr. de Menocal said, has shown us how vulnerable we are as a society.

“The laws of nature don’t care whether we believe in them or not,” he said. “The tragedy and inconvenience we’ve seen from this pandemic pale in comparison to what’s in store from climate change. There is a much bigger crisis knocking on our door and we have to remember the big lesson from this pandemic: Science saves lives.”