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Earth Scientists Scan World from New York Observatory

A short distance north of New York City, on a wooded bluff overlooking the Hudson River, sits Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The observatory is used by more than 200 research scientists who seek to unlock the secrets of the natural world.

From the study of earthquakes and volcanoes to the tracking of global climate changes, scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory scrutinize the planet Earth from its deepest core to the outer reaches of space, on every continent and in every ocean.

The work of one of the world's leading earth science institutes has been far-reaching. For example, it was a team of Lamont scientists who first developed sophisticated instruments that could reliably tell the difference between nuclear explosions and natural earthquakes.

G. Michael Purdy, the observatory's director, says that scientific discovery changed the course of relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

"This was a very important development because during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was using the active earthquake-prone parts of its country as locations for nuclear tests," said G. Michael Purdy. "So the ability to be able to distinguish between earthquakes and nuclear explosions, in fact allowed the development of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty because it allowed there to be verification and has contributed substantially to the stability of the modern world."

Two Lamont scientists also developed the first computer model to predict the El Nino phenomenon, which is the cyclical warming of seawater temperatures off the western coast of South America. This traditionally unpredictable warming pattern can result in significant global changes in weather.

In early 2004, scientists successfully mapped the past 150 years of El Nino. The observatory's Mike Purdy says the landmark computer modeling has enabled scientists to accurately track climate changes.

But he admits that the challenge has been turning research findings into practical help for farmers.

"If we know that the average rainfall in Western Africa next year is going to be half of what it was the previous year, how can we get the information to the farmers who can change their planting schedules, who can make plans for irrigation, who can respond in meaningful ways to that information," he asked.

Always in search of creative solutions to conventional problems, Lamont scientists established the Climate Prediction Institute. The new institute brings together people from developing countries with economists and social scientists to help them understand how climate prediction can help them in their agricultural industries.

Lamont scientists do not just sit behind their laptop computers and desks. They comb the planet in search of answers to Earth's natural mysteries. Dr. Robin Bell says her three-year stint in Antarctica helped her understand first-hand how the continents ripped apart and how molten material came up to make new ocean basins. She spent thousands of hours aboard a tiny propeller plane using radar to find out what surprises lay beneath the two-mile deep ice sheets.

"We started to find things like volcanoes underneath the ice sheet or melting holes, probably lubricating that whole flowing of the ice into the ocean," said Robin Bell. "We used the same technique to study the lakes underneath the ice sheet. The lakes are the size of Lake Ontario. They are big and they are deep, but they are under two miles of ice. And there is water going into that lake. We know that water fell as snow two million years ago."

The observatory also operates a 73-meter research ship called the Maurice Ewing, named after the Columbia University earthquake researcher who helped establish the observatory 50 years ago.

The ship, based near Singapore, has enabled Lamont researchers to collect samples from every ocean and sea to study currents, salinity and marine life. The ship also has the capability to map the ocean floors with sonar, which transmits sound waves in water and registers the vibrations.

Dr. Mark Spiegelman, a geologist at the Observatory who studies the large-scale motions of the earth, says the observatory's mix of fieldwork and cutting-edge research is what makes it stand out.

"The data that I use to understand what the Earth is doing comes from all over," said Mark Spiegelman. "I have been to Hawaii, I have been to Oman on the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, which is a brilliant place where a piece of the oceanic crust has actually been placed on land, turned sideways, planed off and it is as if you could walk into the Earth 20 or 30 kilometers, and you can see it all there, and that is rare, so these are the places we go."

Dr. Bell says all of her colleagues are driven to monitor and decipher the complex dynamics of the Earth.

"Everybody here thinks about how the Earth works," she said. "Not just what it looks like, but how things happen."

Lamont-Doherty runs major ocean-drilling expeditions, and operates a number of seismic networks on the East Coast as well as in remote places around the world. It is fully equipped to dispatch portable seismometers in the immediate aftermath of earthquakes.