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Ice Ages and Climate Changes - Lecture recap

Report on “Ice Ages and Climate Changes” event, June 20, 2015 (by Russ Dobler)

Just when you thought we were finally through with winter in New York, paleoclimatologist Athanasios Koutavas just had to open his lecture with a slide depicting our fair city under almost two miles of ice. One June 20, the day before summer, no less!


But hey, that was 21,000 years ago. A lot of that ice has since melted into the ocean – more than past trends might have predicted – and instead of bundling up, Koutavas began by wondering “how far up the mountain I should buy my property.”

Well, maybe everyone would be safe if we all moved to Greenland. As the Lamont-Doherty and CUNY Staten Island researcher told the New York City Skeptics audience at his “Ice Ages and Climate Changes” presentation, that’s the one place still covered by a bit of the Laurentide ice sheet. If it’s all but gone, how do we even know it was here?

“Glaciers act almost like conveyer belts,” Koutavas said. In doing so, the material stuck on the bottom carves great grooves, called striations, into the rock beneath them. Central Park’s Umpire Rock is a famous example of this phenomenon.


Umpire Rock, from

Large, out-of-place-looking boulders called erratics are also clear tip-offs of glaciation, Koutavas told the crowd. These strangers are carried on top of the ice sheet as it flows south, and are deposited in unfamiliar territory when it recedes.

“Basically, these are the calling cards of the glacier,” Koutavas said.



Moving east, Long Island is known not for material that came from underneath or on top of a glacier, but for the accumulation of stuff that was pushed along the leading edge as it advanced. The Ronkonkoma and Harbor Hill moraines stand 400 feet above sea level as reminders of how powerful a lump of ice can really be.

“Of course they also created some very expensive real estate,” Koutavas said.

Koutavas explained that glaciation of the Earth’s northern hemisphere is cyclical, and while New York is currently uncovered, the massive ice blocks will eventually, undoubtedly, return. The only question is when.


“How long would we have to wait for natural forces to bring us back into the next Ice Age?” Koutavas asked.  If we can’t answer that, he said, we don’t understand natural dynamics as well as we think we do. Of course, it doesn’t help that the results of human activity are now superimposed onto these natural cycles.

Koutavas believes that we began to enter the next great period of glaciation around the year 1300, at the beginning of what’s sometimes called the “Little Ice Age.” During that time period, England’s Thames River would freeze often enough to have Frost Fairs in the 1600s, and there are even reports of New Yorkers being able to walk across the ice from Manhattan to Staten Island in the 1870s.


Etching of the frozen East River, 1867

At that point, though, the world strangely began to warm again, pushing back against the apparent natural forces. Koutavas observed this is about when the Industrial Revolution began, but stopped short of singling out the technological shift as the main culprit.

To close, Koutavas noted something else unexpected, the so-called “global warming hiatus,” a period of worldwide temperature “flattening” which contradicts the continual increase predicted by most climate models. The anomaly began around 1998, but in 2015, at least one study has suggested the trend may be an artifact that doesn’t really represent reality.

Either way, the simple fact that these discussions take place out in the open should be enough to show climate change conspiracy theorists that the field’s experts are not united in lockstep, pressing an agenda. But then again, thanks to the coming El Niño, most do agree that 2015 will be the hottest year in recorded history.






public lecture: Athanasios Koutavas

Dr. Athanasios Koutavas on Ice Ages and Climate Change

When: Saturday June 20, 2015 @ 2PM
 Where: Baruch Performing Arts Center, 17 Lexington Ave., Room 306 (The "Skylight Room")


Earth’s climate is incredibly dynamic. Over geologic time it has repeatedly gone into and out of major Ice Ages, which buried New York under kilometers of ice. The last Big Ice Age occurred twenty thousand years ago, and a smaller cold spell known as the Little Ice Age ended just 150 years ago. We are currently living within a brief and precarious warm period – an interglacial – that is part of the natural cycle of Ice Ages. At the same time humanity is now affecting climate in unprecedented ways by torching up large quantities of carbon fuels to power civilization. How will natural and human forces shape Earth’s climate in the future? In this talk I will discuss what we can learn about our own climate from the geologic record of the Ice Ages.

Dr. Athanasios Koutavas is Associate Professor of Geology at CUNY/College of Staten Island, and Adjunct Research Scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. His area of specialization is Paleoceanography, the study of past ocean change. His research investigates how the oceans warm and cool during Ice Ages, how ocean currents shift through time, and how modern ocean phenomena like El Niño operated through the ages. He holds a Master’s degree from NYU, a PhD from Columbia University, and has previously held post-doctoral research appointments at Columbia University and MIT. 

Suggested donation: $10




By Russ Dobler

Yes, it happened. The Dutch really did buy Manhattan for $24. Or, at least, $24 worth of goods. Not adjusted for inflation.

That was one of the few “mostly true” tall tales about the Big Apple recounted by official Manhattan historian Michael Miscione on Saturday, May 2. Miscione had returned to Baruch College, his alma mater, to take part in the New York City Skeptics’ monthly lecture series, where he spoke to a standing-room only audience of about 70. With a talk named “New York City’s Greatest Myths, Hoaxes and Urban Legends,” he expected a tough crowd.

Miscione needn’t have feared, though, no more than anyone should have worried over the fictional Central Park Zoo escape he described, the narrative of which the New York Herald published in 1874. True, false or even deliberately misleading, it’s hard for anyone to not enjoy a yarn that starts with a shocking rhino/elephant team-up and ends with Mayor John A. Dix shooting a tiger dead at the corner of 34th Street and Madison Avenue.

The Herald owned up to its fabrication at the very end of the 10,000-word article, but that didn’t stop armed Manhattanites from showing up at police stations, offering their amateur animal control services for the containment effort. But that was over a hundred years ago. Surely the modern public couldn’t be taken in by such a ruse.

“If you think these kinds of newspaper hoaxes couldn’t happen today,” Miscione said, “au contraire!”

The professional tour guide and native New Yorker reminded the crowd of 2008’s “hoax that would make The Onion proud,” when the satirical activist duo called the Yes Men printed 80,000 copies of a fake New York Times issue that reported the announcement of a maximum wage for corporate CEOs, along with then-President George W. Bush’s stunning accusation that he himself had committed treason. So many people bought into the special edition that the Times was forced to issue a statement:  “We’re looking into it.”


Ever heard that Broadway began its life as an Indian trail? Not exactly. Only the blue segments coincide.

Altogether, Miscione told about a dozen hard-to-swallow stories, from the folklore of Mose the Fireman to the science fiction of the moon men observed (but not really) by astronomer John Herschel. Although some were harmful, like the famous panics brought on by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, one hoax at least launched the career of Washington Irving and gave New Yorkers the term “knickerbocker.” 

Miscione saved his favorite (probably true) myth for last, one that’s so dear to his heart that he campaigns for February 9 to officially be named “Alligators in the Sewer Day.” That was the date in 1935, so the New York Times reported, that several teenagers hauled a 125-lb. gator from a storm sewer on E. 123rd Street.

That seems pretty far-fetched, until you consider there were mail-order services in the 1920s that would actually send you baby alligators through the post office. Why no one considered what would happen when they grew up is unclear, but maybe it had something to do with the marketing slogan that Miscione showed:

“Do you want a baby alligator? You bet you do. What boy wouldn’t?”