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October / November 2001

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The Ice Man

Photo by Michele Stapleton

The Ice Man
Paul Mayewski, a world leader in the collection and analysis of ice cores, has changed our understanding of climate

About the Photo: A new ice core storage facility at UMaine provides access to "a type of historical library."


Global Initiatives
The University of Maine Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies has expanded the scope of its activities and put an increased emphasis on climate research.

Links Related to this Story

For some people, it's a persuasive mentor or a flash of insight that propels them into a scientific career.

For Paul Mayewski, it was a photograph.

During his sophomore year studying geological sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a picture taken in Antarctica of snowfields and jagged mountain peaks caught his eye and led to his participation in a research expedition that changed his life.

"I saw the photograph and talked to the person who took it. I said I wanted to go there, and by the time I graduated, he had a project funded and off I went," says Mayewski, who was 22 when he made his first trip to Antarctica.

Today, Mayewski says, "it's the kind of thing that happens here at The University of Maine on a regular basis," noting the many opportunities UMaine students have to work with researchers in the field — even if that field is an ice sheet in Antarctica.

Mayewski founded the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He came to UMaine in 2000, where he is co-director of the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies.

Mayewski is a world leader in the collection and analysis of ice cores, and the study of changes in climate and atmospheric chemistry. He has organized major scientific activities that have changed our understanding of climate.

Since his first trip to Antarctica in 1968, Mayewski has led more than 35 Antarctic, Arctic and high-mountain expeditions, and accumulated a treasure trove of ice cores from around the world. Clues locked in the ice, some of which is stored in a –12 degrees C storage facility on the UMaine campus, are helping scientists to understand how the Earth's climate works.

Mayewski Highlights:

• Organized and coordinated the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 involving 25 U.S. institutions. The data changed the way we view natural climate variability.

• Organized the International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition, involving 15 countries, to study change in climate and the chemistry of the atmosphere. Led 10 U.S. institutions on traverses of Antarctica.

• Organized and co-organized several multinational expeditions to Asia.

• Identified major significance of natural climate variability.

• Identified human source emissions of pollutants in remote regions of the atmosphere.

• Contributed to understanding that climate is driven by several factors instead of one primary force.

In fall 2001, New England Press will release a new book written by Mayewski and Frank White of the Harvard Development Corp. The Ice Chronicles describes changes in climate and the atmosphere as recorded in ice cores. The book also relates adventures leading to the recovery of cores from remote regions of the globe.

Mayewski's scientific travels have taken him to the Tibetan plateau, the Himalayas, Iceland and the Greenland ice sheet. Along the way, he has come to appreciate the role of science in informing people about the world in which they live.

"We can say unequivocally that humans have had a dramatic effect on the environment," Mayewski says. "We know that we've made unprecedented changes, notably in air and water quality.

"You may expect things to stay the same, but when you start adding in things — dramatically higher greenhouse gases and new chemicals that have never been there before — you're in for a big surprise."

It was in Antarctica that Mayewski first understood he could make a difference by doing science.

"I had occasion to show around a U.S. senator from Georgia. He said that within 25 years, if I stayed with it, what I was doing would be of significant value to people. That had an immense effect on me. I was beginning to realize that, as scientists, we have this fantastic opportunity and that we need to return something."

To Mayewski, that meant gathering accurate data and interpreting it in a way that scientists and non-scientists could understand and appreciate. Over the years, the job has become more important to people in and out of the scientific community.

"Fifteen years ago, I would probably have had to pay a university for the right to come and talk about what I wanted to do," he says. "Now it's something that people are very interested in. I take the greatest satisfaction in being able to provide information to colleagues in fields from mathematics to solar physics to computer science, music, atmospheric chemistry and archeology."

To get that information, Mayewski uses ice cores, an average of 100 meters long, taken from below the Earth's surface. Ice cores are made of layers of ancient snow. As snow falls and accumulates, it retains a record of the environmental conditions in which it was created. Chemicals and dust offer clues about the source of moisture, the temperature of the air and the direction of the wind.

Those layers are like chapters in a book. By putting the chapters together, scientists create a story of how the atmosphere behaved in the region over hundreds and thousands of years.

"If I had to put my research in one word, it would be ‘time.' We're stepping back in time in many ways. Our world changes second-by-second over time and you have to envision all of these different pictures. The question is, how do you put them together in any reasonable sequence?" Mayewski says.

That has been a primary challenge for geologists, chemists, physicists and other scientists working on climate. In the near future, Mayewski expects a highly reliable picture to emerge of how the climate system works on large scales.

"I think we're really close on scales of several hundred years and greater," he says.

However, shorter periods are more relevant to people living today. For example, when governments plan large construction projects, they have to anticipate changes in the environment over decades. Policies related to agriculture, forestry or fisheries need to account for how plants and animals may respond to changing temperatures or moisture patterns. Ironically, it is more difficult to predict climate over such short periods.

"Understanding of the climate system year to year or decade to decade will happen in the next 10 to 20 years," says Mayewski. "Even if we don't get there completely, just understanding the dynamic range — how changeable climate is, understanding what controls climate — is already a giant step forward in the last 10 years."

Getting to this point has taken Mayewski and his colleagues to the most inhospitable places on the planet. For its beauty and pristine condition, Antarctica has become one of his favorite places, despite a few unpleasant experiences there, such as being pinned down in a tent for three days by winds blowing up to 120 miles per hour.

All his life, Mayewski has treasured the opportunity to see clearly across long distances and to breathe air that is clean. As a young boy in Scotland, his parents took him on walks in the countryside. The scenery was open to the horizon and the conversation turned occasionally to the Asian steppes or to the sands of North Africa, where his father served during World War II.

Faraway lands are a natural part of Mayewski's heritage. Unlocking their secrets is his life's work.

by Nick Houtman
October-November, 2001

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