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At the forefront

Byrd Polar Research Center evolves with the times

Many of the professors and scientists associated with the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University will concede that few of the university’s 52,000 students are aware that OSU is home to one of the premiere polar research institutions in the country.

But Mike Willis knew about the extraordinary work scientists at Byrd Polar have been doing in Antarctica and the Arctic, as well as in high alpine regions throughout the world. He had e-mailed two of the center’s preeminent scientists in 1996 — Ian Whillans and Gordon Hamilton — about joining the university’s graduate program in glaciology, with an eye toward fieldwork in Antarctica.

That was while Willis was still living in his native Scotland, attesting to the center’s international reputation. Today he’s a post-doctoral fellow with his own office at Scott Hall, a nondescript building on the far western outreaches of OSU’s sprawling main campus in Columbus, which houses the Byrd Polar Research Center (BPRC) and its facilities, which include a library, its own ice core storeroom and the U.S. Polar Rock Repository.

He says there are many advantages to being under the BPRC aegis. “The respect you get when you say you’re from the Byrd Polar Research Center,” he counts as one. “This is probably the best research center for polar studies in the nation.”

The center’s history dates back to the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a coordinated scientific campaign that began in 1957 to study the world in unprecedented detail, with particular focus on the polar regions. Richard Goldthwait, a geologist from OSU, had conducted research in Antarctica since the 1930s and participated in IGY. The university later served as the processing center for all the IGY data collected.

In 1960, Goldthwait helped establish the Institute of Polar Studies and became its first director. In 1987, after the institute acquired the papers and memorabilia of famed polar explorer Adm. Richard E. Byrd, it changed its named to the Byrd Polar Research Center.

More than just the name has changed in the last five decades, according to BPRC’s current director, Berry Lyons.

“As the science has changed, the tools have changed, and we have evolved with those changes and tools,” says Lyons, who is only the sixth director in the center’s 48-year history. “Also, some of the questions to be asked changed as well. I think one of the things that provides the glue is that most of us here are interested in how the Earth changes, how the climate changes.”

The concept of climate change may seem relatively new given the long-term memory lapses of today’s culture, but scientists at BPRC took notice of the changes at the poles at least 40 years ago. That’s when John Mercer, a glaciologist at OSU, first suggested that the West Antarctic ice sheet might be unstable.

That legacy lives on today. “We’re interested in climate change because one of the obvious manifestations of climate change is seeing ice go away,” Lyons says. “With such an emphasis here on glaciology and glaciers, it’s clear that we should be a leader on the disappearance of ice around the world. That’s one of our strengths.”

It took time to build up that muscle. Larry Krissek, an associate professor of earth sciences, arrived at OSU in 1982 before the polar institute changed its name. He recalls that the majority of the staff was classic land-based geologists then.

“At that time it was really easy for someone from the geology side to get involved [in Antarctica] because there were lots of people here with lots of experience,” says Krissek, whose Antarctic-related research has included the deep-sediment-coring projects for Cape Roberts in the1990s, and more recently ANDRILL.

“The Byrd center has really diversified now, which is a good thing for the health of the Byrd center, and also for the science that needs to be done,” he adds.

The center boasts eight research groups now, including polar meteorology, ice core paleoclimatology, oceanography, glacier dynamics, geology, the polar rock repository, environmental geochemistry and remote sensing.

“We have faculty, staff and students from three different colleges in the university, so we’re very interdisciplinary,” Lyons notes. “We’ve been around for a long time, and to do that we’ve had to be successful. We’ve had a lot of really talented scientists, students, post-docs and staff people over the last 48 years that have made this place what it is.”

Among the big fish swimming in that pool of talent are Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, colleagues and spouses, who developed the ice core paleoclimate team in the 1970s.

If science had superstars like the NFL, the Thompsons would qualify. In February, the duo received the Dan David Prize, a $1 million award given annually by Tel Aviv University in Israel to each of three recipients for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact in the world. They’ve been featured in books, and Lonnie Thompson’s high-altitude exploits to recover ice cores from some of the world’s most inhospitable places have even landed him in pop culture magazine “Rolling Stone.”

Yet the Thompsons have remained at Byrd Polar for most of its existence and their entire careers. Other offers have likely come their way, but they see no reason to leave.

“We have not found anything that we wanted to do that we couldn’t do out of Ohio State. There’s never a need to go somewhere else, because we’ve always been able to do what we wanted to do from this platform,” says Mosley-Thompson, a university distinguished scholar in the Department of Geography.

“We’re rewarding their loyalty to us with our loyalty to the institution,” she adds.

Her academic roots at OSU run deep: One of Mosley-Thompson’s mentors was Goldthwait, BPRC’s first director. “I have these links back to the founding fathers of the institution. I have always felt very well supported by the institution,” she says. “I think timing is really important. I think we were here at a critical time when polar research was of a broad interest.”

Longevity, as well as loyalty, seems a hallmark at BPRC. Terry Wilson, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences, came to OSU in 1985, though she was not originally drawn to the university to do polar science. Her groundbreaking work in Antarctica studying crustal deformation and other geological processes might not have happened without the presence of BPRC.

A first trip to Antarctica can be intimidating logistically, Wilson explains, so she was happy to have a wealth of experience at hand. “I could go right down the hall and ask person A, B and C if they had aerial photographs or maps,” says Wilson, who has made 15 trips to the Ice. “All of these resources made it possible for me to get started, and it would have been a much greater barrier for a first-time person to put that together.”

Ken Jezek had already been to Antarctica a number of times before coming to BPRC in 1989 to serve as its fifth director, a position he held for 10 years. He still works at the research center, heading its remote sensing group, which uses radar and satellites to study ice sheet dynamics.

“It’s very satisfying,” he says of the near 20-year relationship with Byrd Polar. “I think the best part of it is that when you look around and see all of the top scientists in this field, and realize how many of them have been affiliated in one way or another … with the Byrd center, [that] has been a great deal of satisfaction.”

Some 75 people are affiliated with the BPRC in one way or another. About a third are graduate students, and as many as 20 people are investigators engaged in research thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA or NOAA, according to Lyons.

“We have people in the field all of the time. It’s not a huge operation by any stretch, but it is a dynamic and active one,” he says.

With the various problems and challenges posed by climate change, it seems that operation will only grow. “The work here has become even more relevant to society,” Lyons agrees. “We’re at the forefront of understanding how the cryosphere, the ice of the planet, is responding to the climate.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs