When satellite images revealed rapid collapse of several ice shelves in Antarctica in early 2008, it triggered warning bells for Robert Chen. “My first scientific paper as a graduate student, published in 1980 and co-authored with climatologist Steve Schneider, was about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet,” says Chen. “Many believed that weakening of the ice shelves around the West Antarctic would be an early danger signal. Although a collapse was considered very unlikely, its consequences could be enormous. So I spent a summer analyzing topographic maps by hand to assess the risks to the U.S. coast if sea levels were to rise 5 to 8 meters.”
“Now, nearly 30 years later,” says Chen, “glacial retreat seems to be accelerating not only in the Antarctic but also in Greenland and mountain glaciers worldwide. It is vital that we figure out both how to limit future climate changes and how best to adapt to those already under way.”
That research project was the first of many interdisciplinary studies in Chen’s career. He contributed to several early assessments of climate change and its impacts and, as a faculty member at Brown University, explored innovative ways to reduce hunger.
“Shortly after I joined CIESIN in 1993, I helped the distinguished geographer Waldo Tobler develop the first global population density dataset, drawing on new geographic information system tools,” Chen recalls. The Gridded Population of the World dataset, now in its third version, remains one of CIESIN’s flagship data products, used in many different areas of science, policy and education. Chen also led data integration efforts for the State Failure Task Force established by then Vice President Al Gore and initiated many other award-winning datasets and online services such as the Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators database and several interactive mapping tools.
"Using advanced information technologies to support research and policy has been a major CIESIN focus since its founding in 1989,” Chen notes. In 1994, he helped establish the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), a NASA data center operated by CIESIN that today continues to develop and distribute socioeconomic, environmental and integrated datasets that complement satellite data and imagery.
Since becoming an Earth Institute center in 1998, CIESIN has expanded its portfolio of interdisciplinary research in areas such as disaster risk management, environment-health interactions, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, and environment and security.
“CIESIN is proud of its diverse collaborations across Columbia,” says Chen. He notes that CIESIN provides data management support for the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project and is developing information systems for the Africa Soil Information Service. CIESIN staff work with Columbia health experts on AIDS and malaria in Africa, arsenic contamination in Bangladesh and the U.S., and cardiovascular disease trends in China. CIESIN is collaborating with the Columbia Libraries on long-term data stewardship and leads a Columbia team addressing ecological restoration in Haiti.
Chen himself has co-led several interdisciplinary studies on natural hazards, including an award-winning assessment of natural disaster risk “hotspots” with the World Bank and other partners. One current project is a transatlantic seminar series on multiple risks in the context of sustainable development sponsored by the Alliance Program, involving scholars and students from Columbia and three Parisian universities: École Polytechnique, Sciences Po and Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.
Chen also works with many different international organizations. He has contributed to activities of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for more than a decade and is an ex officio member of the IPCC Task Group on Data and Scenario Support for Impacts and Climate Analysis. He is currently secretary-general of the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) of the International Council for Science. He is contributing to implementation of the Data Sharing Principles for the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) and to the establishment of a Polar Information Commons to enhance long-term stewardship of data about the Earth’s polar regions.
“Working at CIESIN, and being part of the Earth Institute, has allowed me to expand what I started as a graduate student,” says Chen. “Integrating natural, social and health science data from around the world remains vital to better understanding of human-environment interactions and to successful management of the major risks now facing everyone on Earth.”
Chen is an ex officio member of the Earth Institute faculty and a member of its Practice Subcommittee. He is also on the faculty steering committee for the Columbia Global Center | Beijing and served on the University’s E-Science Task Force. He received his B.S. and two master’s degrees from MIT and earned a Ph.D. in geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.