On the west side of The Ohio State University campus lies Scott Hall, an unassuming yellow-brick building that looks much like other nearby structures. Yet, Scott Hall’s unimposing appearance belies the work that goes on there under the auspices of The Byrd Polar Research Center, one of the world’s premier polar and alpine research centers.
The Byrd Center, which also includes the Goldthwait Polar Library and the U.S. Polar Rock Repository, was founded in 1960 as the Institute for Polar Studies. The name was changed in 1987 after the center acquired the papers and memorabilia of explorer Richard E. Byrd.
Since its inception, the center has taken a leading role in the study of climate change, often by examining ice cores taken from high-elevation and high-latitude tropical glaciers. Stored at -30° F, more than 7,000 ice cores are used to detect changes over millennia in atmospheric temperature, chemical composition, volcanic activity, dust, precipitation, vegetation and human-generated emissions during glacial and post-glacial periods.
In the late 1970s, a researcher at the center, John Mercer, published a paper predicting, quite accurately, that one of the first indications of global warming would be seen at the Antarctic Peninsula. The Center’s Polar Meteorology Group has used the NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) community climate model to project how precipitation over the Antarctic ice sheet is likely to change during global warming. The Ice Core Paleoclimatology Group pioneered ice core sampling beyond the polar regions, extending it to the world’s highest glaciers. And David Elliot of the center’s Geology Group discovered the first fossil ever found in Antarctica.
Among other areas of study, center director Ellen Mosley-Thompson and husband Lonnie Thompson, professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a world-renowned Byrd Center researcher, are examining changing climate patterns that seem to have occurred abruptly 5,200 years ago – patterns that may have triggered social change as well.
“One of the most interesting (aspects) is that Hindu calendars and the Mayan long-count calendar all started around 5,200 years ago,” Mosley-Thompson said. “Something happened that suddenly made it important for ancient people to begin keeping track of time. It’s a fascinating puzzle that we will be working on for a long time.”
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