Skip to main content

Lamont-Doherty Researchers Make Their Mark on the Map

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Ted Rabinowitz

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory researchers have mapped large swaths of the planet in their quest to understand its history and development. That work has led to many of the world’s mountains, islands, peninsulas and undersea features being named for its faculty and scientists. From Diebold Knoll, a guitar-shaped undersea mountain off the Oregon coast named for marine scientist and musician John Diebold, to the milelong Bell Buttress, named for polar researcher Robin Bell, and the nine-mile Antarctic island honoring founding director William Maurice “Doc” Ewing, Lamont- Doherty’s namesakes reach across the globe.

The observatory’s presence on the world map reflects the global nature of its research into the origin, evolution and future of the natural world. “Our observatory is rooted in the notion that our planet is complicated, and that to understand all the linkages behind the phenomena we study— from earthquakes to sea-level rises, to storms and droughts—our observations must be global,” said Sean Solomon, Lamont-Doherty’s director.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names decides what names are given to natural features on official government maps. Naming authorities exist in other countries, too, but for the most part their names match U.S. designations. In the continental United States, natural-feature names are restricted to people who have been dead at least five years. In Antarctica and on the vast seafloor, the rules are a bit looser and many features bear the names of living scientists.

Sometimes the naming happens in recognition of a body of work, such as the Brenner Seamounts, which acknowledges the achievements of Carl Brenner, a Lamont marine geologist who mapped the South Atlantic seafloor in the 1970s and ’80s using only sonar data. Today, the job is done with supercomputers and satellite imaging that allow cartographers to observe the floor directly. Brenner, who now works at Lamont’s Borehole Research Group focusing on measurements that reveal the Earth’s physical properties, wasn’t quite as successful at naming things himself: His choice of Nelson Mandela for a seafloor feature in 1981 was rejected as “too political.”

A name may also recognize innovation. Ryan Canyon, a giant undersea valley carved out of the continental shelf some 130 miles southeast of New York, is named for William B. F. Ryan, a Lamont marine geologist who helped develop a side-looking sonar in the 1980s. That technology is the basis for the sonar being used to search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, believed to have disappeared in the Indian Ocean on March 8, and was used by Lamont-Doherty and the U.S. Geological Survey to map the east coast of the United States. “To be parked next to the Hudson Canyon [the valley formed by the Hudson River] is a real treat,” Ryan said of the honor.
Lamont-Doherty researchers have traveled extraordinary lengths for their research. In 1992, earth scientist Marcus Langseth—whose name adorns one of the largest underwater mountains in the Arctic as well as the research vessel the observatory operates with the National Science Foundation—organized a series of Arctic research voyages using U.S. Navy attack subs. At the height of the Cold War, geophysicist Ken Hunkins spent months on drifting Arctic ice floes, conducting experiments while Russian and U.S. forces maneuvered around him. His data later led one of his doctoral students, John K. Hall, to a number of uncharted undersea mountains in the Arctic. Hall named one, Hunkins Seamount, after the Lamont scientist.

Stan Jacobs, a Lamont oceanographer whose namesake Jacobs Peninsula juts out from under the Ross Ice Shelf into the surrounding waters, plays down the honor of having his name on the map. “For me it is more a matter of satisfaction that one can, over time, identify cycles and trends in the way the ocean and ice are changing,” he says.

Of course, there’s still a lot of room left on the map for new names. “If you want the same mapping detail on the ocean floor that we have for the moon or Mars,” says Ryan, “we’re 20 percent there. If you’re talking about Google Maps, we’re maybe 1 percent.” And there is still the moon, where Lamont-Doherty’s founder, Doc Ewing, has already made his mark—Dorsa Ewing, a low, wavy ridge in the satellite’s Ocean of Storms is named after him.