Faculty Q&A: Arthur Lerner-Lam

Interview by Bridget O'Brian
vol. 36, no. 11

Geology is all about timing.

Art Lerner-Lam’s was perfect. As an undergraduate at Princeton, he took a geology course and was “overwhelmed”, he said, by how it combined his interest in physics and love of the outdoors. He arrived in the field just as the theory of continental drift was maturing into plate tectonics—the notion that the Earth’s crust is a jigsaw puzzle of thin rigid plates carrying continents and oceans over a hot, viscous and mobile interior. The plate tectonic revolution promised to transform earth sciences much as Einstein’s theory of relativity transformed physics, or Darwin’s theory of evolution changed, well, everything.

Arthur Lerner-Lam (Image credit: Eileen Barroso)
Arthur Lerner-Lam
Image credit: Eileen Barroso

“The word paradigm shift is overused, but it does apply to this,” said Lerner-Lam, who has spent 25 years as a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 20 of them as associate director. He is now the interim director, filling in for former director Mike Purdy, who was recently appointed the University’s executive vice president of research. “It not only provided a way to explain the dynamics of earth history—earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, paleontology—but it shifted your way of thinking about the Earth itself. It was a new way to conceptualize the Earth as a system, and there were plenty of open problems to explore.”

It was also extremely accessible to undergraduates. “It appealed to one’s creativity, and also to a sense of order in the planet, that the Earth was not just a chaotic assemblage of bits of biology and geology,” he said. “I was just suckered…Every time you turned around, there was a new discovery or new way of linking discoveries.”

In recent years, Lamont-Doherty scientists have been at the forefront of some of the biggest stories of the day, from the BP oil spill, where a Lamont professor was among the first to accurately nail down the amount of oil spilled, to the debate over climate change. In the broadest sense, these scientists study how man-made disasters affect the natural world, and how natural disasters have far-reaching consequences for humanity.

Lerner-Lam’s own discoveries center on a timely topic: earthquakes. His most recent work has dealt with how societies handle the aftermath of earthquakes and other natural disasters—matters that require a broad, interdisciplinary approach. His early research focused on the thickness of continental plates; by analyzing a special type of seismic wave produced by deep earthquakes, he demonstrated that continental plates were thicker than oceanic plates, a finding that supported alternative models of continental evolution.

Q. How did you get into earthquake science?

People ask me all the time, “Why are you in New York if you’re so interested in earthquakes?” My stock answer is they are rare here, I’m safe. But in reality, earth science is global. What matters is who you are working with, not where you are. And we’re lucky in working with the best scientists at a worldclass university. Lamont’s research is truly global. We have a research ship that explores the dynamics of the deep-sea floor. We’ve been operating research ships since 1953, and two have gone more than a million miles. Right now, the R/V Langseth is off the coast of Costa Rica looking at the seismic zones that have the potential to generate huge earthquakes.

Q. The recent earthquakes make one wonder whether such disasters are more frequent, or are we simply more aware of them?

Earthquakes are a geological inevitability, and we are more aware of them now that we have better tools to measure them. What is especially troubling today is that more people than ever live in big cities on or near earthquake zones, and consequently there’s a greater chance for a quake to turn into a disaster. So, while earthquakes may be more dangerous we are also getting better at understanding what really makes them tick. Little earthquakes have easily defined characteristics: a crack in the earth, a rupture along the fault. We now think that really big earthquakes are a different beast.

We have developed very sophisticated instrumentation that’s positioned globally and we are starting to pull apart big earthquakes in new ways. The science is absolutely fascinating: It’s telling us that big earthquakes may be much more complicated than we thought. It’s possible that a change in the regional stress field in the Earth’s crust can trigger earthquakes on adjacent segments. If it happens quickly enough, small earthquakes are triggered almost simultaneously and converge, like crowd sourcing, and you get a boomer. We think that may be what happened in Japan.

Three recent earthquakes have dramatically changed our perspective. Until the 2004 quake in Sumatra, tsunamis were considered a sideshow to earthquakes. But this ocean-size tsunami that killed 200,000 people changed our thinking. So did the Haiti earthquake last year, with its extraordinary damage that has threatened the country’s very existence. Finally, the quake in Japan earlier this year showed us how vulnerable critical infrastructure, like nuclear power plants, can be. Our built environment is so interconnected that a small set of minor problems can cascade into a major industrial disaster.

Q. What is Lamont’s mission at Columbia?

We combine observations with modeling and lab work to get a holistic picture of the Earth’s processes. Or to put it another way, to investigate the Earth in all its glory. Lamont’s strength is its scale and breadth. Because of our relatively small size, virtually everything that our researchers do is interdisciplinary. Our scientists realized very early that we can’t study the Earth with just physics, chemistry or biology. We have to bring it all together. Additionally, Lamont was founded on the belief that observations matter. Everywhere you are in the world you can pick up a fossil, or a rock, or measure something, that tells you something new. We follow where the evidence leads us. Collecting data and examining it from all angles, that’s the Lamont culture.

Q. Are there new ways of looking at Earth science?

We’re putting new emphasis on biogeochemistry, or how geological processes and plants and animals interact in the oceans, atmosphere and on land from the microscopic level to whole ecosystems. In the last few years, we have started to build our expertise in this area.

We can’t simply talk about Earth processes; we have to talk about their effect on people. This is especially important for natural hazards and climate change. Look at what happened in Haiti, where poverty greatly amplified the earthquake’s devastation. To understand this relationship you need credible, interdisciplinary research. With climate change we have to talk about adaptation, and finding a way to convert the best science into good advice.

Q. Why is Lamont 16 miles away from Columbia’s main campus?

We moved here in 1949, partly because Columbia’s Morningside campus was too noisy for the sensitive instruments we needed to use. For a long time, we were kind of a monastery, perfectly happy on our cliff top figuring things out about the Earth. Over the last 15 years or so, that has changed significantly, after we joined in the formation of Columbia’s Earth Institute in 1995 and began to develop an even more integrated view of planet Earth, one that emphasizes human experience. We have found looking at cultural influences, the relationship between population growth and earth sciences, to be not just intellectually fruitful and exciting, but fundamental to what we do. We’re beginning to explore core intellectual questions that span the social sciences, engineering, humanities and earth sciences. Really, nobody is going in that direction with the core capability Lamont provides.

Q. What’s an example of that?

Take the discipline of decision-making under uncertainty. That’s Professor Elke Weber, who runs the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Her group looks at decision theory, at the intersection of psychology and economics; it looks at the intellectual feedback among people who must make major decisions, and the oceanograpers and atmospheric scientists who spend their days forecasting climate. We have this famous saying that geology is inevitable; there will be earthquakes, storms. But how do you communicate a sense of urgency to people making important decisions in the next election cycle or fiscal year? We have to make geological processes relevant in the time scales and distances in which society makes decisions. That’s a core intellectual endeavor. We’re not going to survive as a planet if we can’t do that.

Q. Climate change doubters question what is an entire research discipline at Lamont, and indeed Columbia. What can scientists in your position do to change such perceptions?

Continue making good science, communicating this work to the public and to our undergraduates. Lamont-Doherty contributes heavily to Columbia’s Frontiers of Science program, which makes scientific literacy a core part of the undergraduate curriculum. But beyond education, we need to be involved in the public debate, carefully, and in a way that allows us to maintain our scientific credibility. You can’t do that if you think of yourself as a monastery. We have to get out there to convey the wonderment of the Earth and its fundamental beauty. It’s the same thing that attracted me to this field. If you go out and look at the world, you are seeing a planet that is dynamic and changing almost before your eyes. To understand this is to experience a sense of awe. That’s what we are trying to convey.

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