Climate Scientist, Volcanologist Elected to National Academy of Sciences


Terry Plank and Mark Cane

Terry Plank and Mark Cane (elected to NAS)

Mark Cane, an expert on the El Niño climate pattern, and Terry Plank, an authority on explosive volcanoes—both scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory--have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Membership in the National Academy, given for excellence in original scientific work, is one of the highest honors awarded to engineers and scientists in the United States.

Cane is perhaps best known for developing, with his student Stephen Zebiak, a computer model that could simulate the ocean and atmosphere interactions that drive El Niño, the cyclic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather in many parts of the world. The Cane-Zebiak model accurately predicted two El Niño events in a row, in 1986 and 1991, more than a year out. The ability to predict an El Niño has revolutionized seasonal and long-term climate forecasting, allowing people to prepare for drought or heavy rain depending on where they live.

Cane’s breakthrough led to the creation of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society in 1996, at Columbia, to put the improved climate forecasts to use in helping farmers, water managers, public health professionals and others prepare for short and long-term climate disruptions. More recently, Cane has explored the link between El Niño and conflict. In a 2011 study in Nature, he and a team of researchers found that arrival of El Niño-related droughts every three to seven years doubled the risk of civil war across dozens of tropical countries. Cane is already a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Plank is a geochemist who studies the workings of the deep earth and their influence on some of the world’s most explosive volcanoes, from Guatemala’s Volcán Fuego to Hawaii’s Kilauea. The world’s most destructive volcanoes are born where earth’s tectonic plates meet, as one plate dives beneath the other in a slow but violent recycling process called subduction. For most of her career, Plank has studied islands produced during subduction collisions: the Aleutians, off Alaska; the Marianas, off the Philippines; and the Tonga Islands, off New Zealand.

In her early work, Plank discovered that long-ago ocean sediments inching down a subduction zone matched the chemical fingerprint of magma spewed millions of years later and up to hundreds of miles away by an erupting volcano. Previously, scientists thought that the subducting sediments ended up in a sort of geological trash heap along the ocean floor where the two plates meet, near deep sea trenches.

More recently, Plank has developed a chemical proxy in magmas to measure how hot the top of the subducting plate gets beneath volcanoes. Her results suggest that subducting plate tops are hundreds of degrees hotter than many geophysical models predict. In her recent area of research, Plank studies how volcanoes become explosive, fueled by water drawn down a subduction zone and superheated and pressurized. With her students and post-doctoral researchers, Plank has journeyed around the Pacific Ring of Fire to find out how much water and carbon dioxide magmas contain before they erupt, in order to understand why some volcanoes become more explosive than others. She co-teaches the undergraduate course, Frontiers of Science, and is a 2012 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

Previous Earth Institute researchers elected to the National Academy include climate scientist Wallace Broecker, paleomagnetism researcher Dennis Kent, paleontologist Paul Olsen, marine geophysicist Walter Pitman, seismologist Lynn Sykes and experimental petrologist David Walker, all from Lamont-Doherty; Ruth DeFries, an ecologist who heads Columbia’s Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology department, James Hansen, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Sean Solomon, a geophysicist who is director of Lamont-Doherty and associate director of earth systems science at the Earth Institute, and Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist who heads the Earth Institute’s Agriculture and Food Security Center.

 The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit society of scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to furthering science and technology and using them for the general welfare. Established in 1863, it has served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.