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South Pole Dome Construction
Photo Credit: John Perry/Antarctic Photo Library
Navy Seabees constructed the South Pole Dome Station in the 1970s, during which time a 100-meter-long ice core was extracted from the site. Researcher Ellen Mosley-Thompson used the core to reconstruct a 900-year climate record, using the dust content and isotope analysis.

Dusting up

Mosley-Thompson helped pioneer ice core research in the polar regions

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It’s strangely dusty in the polar regions, if you know where to look. For more than three decades, Ellen Mosley-Thompson has followed the dusty trail through ice cores taken from Antarctica and Greenland, learning much about the past climate of the planet — and possibly something of its future.

She and her colleague, Lonnie Thompson, are among the world’s leading experts on dust in ice cores, pioneering the field in the 1970s while still graduate students at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio External Non-U.S. government site.

At the time, such research focused on deep cores with climate histories of tens of thousands of years, according to Mosley-Thompson. No one really thought that dust could be a key narrator in the climate story, particularly in the most recent epoch, the Holocene, which began about 11,500 years ago.

Why dust? When snow forms, it crystallizes around tiny, atmospheric particles, which fall to the ground with the snow. The type and amount of trapped particles, such as dust or volcanic ash, tell scientists about the climate and environmental conditions when the snow formed. They can chemically analyze the dust to find out where it came from, so that the amount and location of the particulate reveal information about wind patterns and strength at the time the particles fell with the snow.

The Thompsons, using ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, demonstrated that elevated dust found in ice sheets was a key indicator of glacial stage ice versus interglacial stage ice, because the former is quite dusty while the latter much cleaner.

A glacial period involves colder temperatures and advancing glaciers, while interglacials, such as the current Holocene, are periods of warmer temperatures and less ice. During an ice age, the climate alternates between glacial and interglacial stages as Earth’s ice cover advances and recedes.

“That was the early focus of our work. That was really our first contribution,” said Mosley-Thompson, who hasn’t lost her West Virginia accent all these years later as she discusses her career and future projects. “That dust has to come from somewhere. ... That dust isn’t coming from Antarctica; it’s coming from other places.”

Ellen Mosley-Thompson 
Ellen Mosley-Thompson

For her PhD at OSU, Mosley-Thompson interpreted the physical and chemical characteristics of a 100-meter-long ice core drilled at the South Pole in 1974 where the iconic dome now sits, though operations have moved to a new building. Analyzing the dust content and comparing oxygen isotope ratios, she reconstructed a 900-year record that revealed increased dust deposition — meaning a colder glacial period — during the so-called “Little Ice Age” period from about 1450 to about 1880. 

Then, integrating the South Pole data with more recent ice cores from Siple Station in West Antarctica, the Dyer Plateau in the Antarctic Peninsula and from Plateau Remote in East Antarctica, Mosley-Thompson found that an inverse relationship exists climatologically between different parts of the continent.

Essentially, the cores told her and colleagues that when atmospheric conditions were cold and dusty over East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula was warmer. Scientists are still studying that relationship, especially considering the rapid warming under way in the peninsula area.

“This is a pattern that we find existed pre-anthropogenically,” Mosley-Thompson said, meaning before human-induced activities began warming up the planet. “It’s what you expect from a meteorological perspective.”

Today, the Thompsons lead the ice core paleoclimate team at OSU’s Byrd Polar Research Center External Non-U.S. government site. Thompson mostly tackles mountainous areas in the tropics and subtropics to collect ice cores, while Mosley-Thompson usually spends her time swinging between the polar regions for her research. (For more about Lonnie Thompson's research, see related story: Science goes to new heights.)

Mosley-Thompson’s interests continue to be on atmospheric dust and volcanic ash, but have expanded to included atmospheric chemical composition, and evidence for past, abrupt environmental changes — and their possible effects on human civilization. At age 60, she shows no signs of slowing down, with two field expeditions planned for next year: one to Greenland and the second to the Antarctic Peninsula for the first science cruise of her career.

The latter project is called LARISSA External Non-U.S. government site, for LARsen Ice Shelf System Antarctica, which will bring together some of the premiere polar researchers of the day, including Mosley-Thompson, Eugene Domack with Hamilton College in New York External Non-U.S. government site, Ted Scambos at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. External Non-U.S. government site, and Maria Vernet with Scripps Institution of Oceanography External Non-U.S. government site, among others.

“The thing that’s really exciting is that it’s real interdisciplinary,” Mosley-Thompson said of the collaborative project. “The idea is we’re going to bring all of our knowledge and tools to bear on the Antarctic Peninsula.”

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