On Deep Ice

Satelite image of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. Photo Credit: Robert Simmon

Since 1993, Berry Lyons has been involved with a group of researchers who study the McMurdo Dry Valleys. “McMurdo is the largest ice-free area of the continent,” he said. “This allows us to look at the impact of climate change on the ecosystem.” Photo Credit: Robert Simmon

Few of us will ever travel to a place on Earth that many have said is the closest thing to Mars—Antarctica. Fewer still make repeat trips.

Who better to tell us what it’s like than William “Berry” Lyons, professor and director of the School of Earth Sciences, who has made multiple trips that began in 1981. His most recent coincided with Ohio’s polar vortex. “It was a strange feeling to know that I was warmer in Antarctica than my colleagues in Columbus; I couldn’t have timed it better,” he said.

Lyons confesses he has lost count of the exact number of trips “down south,” but estimates “15 or so.”

He does remember the exact moment he got interested in working in Antarctica.

“I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Hampshire where my department had just hired a young glaciologist, an Ohio State PhD named Paul Mayewski. He ran a summer course and took undergrads to Alberta to work in the ice/snow fields there. All the students had to do a project; one of the students, interested in geochemistry, came to me and we set up a project for her that turned out very well.

“The next year Mayewski received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to continue his work in Antarctica and asked me if I was interested in joining his team. I jumped at the opportunity; and, of course, as the cliché goes, the rest is history. I tell my own students not to plan their research futures too far ahead as serendipity can change one’s career direction.”

Since 1993, Lyons has been involved with a group of researchers who study the McMurdo Dry Valleys. He recently stepped down as the lead investigator of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, one of two Antarctic LTER sites funded
by the NSF.

“McMurdo is the largest ice-free area of the continent,” he said. “This allows us to look at the impact of climate change on the ecosystem.

“The ecosystem we study is mainly microorganisms—there are no vascular plants or vertebrates, due to the very extreme environment—we’re looking at soils and streams, which flow only 4-8 weeks a year.”

Lyons studies the biogeochemistry of Antarctic terrestrial/aquatic ecosystems and how they respond to climate change. “We are seeing lake levels rise, more melt from the surrounding glaciers, and more aquatic ecosystems replacing soil-based ecosystems.

"All global climate models predict a warming in the Antarctic and a decrease in sea ice along its margins. This will have a great impact on both the glacial dynamics of the continent and its fragile marine and terrestrial ecosystems."

For now, Antarctica remains one of the last, great places to do research on a variety of critical questions.

“The place is as pristine as exists on the planet,” Lyons said. “Except for the ice-free areas, which only make up two percent of the continent, everywhere else you look you see white/blue; white/gray—an ice sheet-landscape. It is an astonishingly beautiful place.

“The area with its ice-covered lakes is like a vast polar desert; it is extraordinarily dry. It is like being in Arizona, except it is very, very cold!

“Nothing exists for scale or context, so it’s difficult to be able to assess true distances. And it does affect your senses.

“The first thing I notice when I get back to New Zealand is the smell of grass—it is intense and it strikes me the most.”

Since Lyons first started working there in the early ’80s, he has seen substantial changes at the McMurdo site itself—in logistics, personnel and facilities.

“The site is now run by civilian contractors, instead of the military. There are as many as 1,000 people in ‘summer,’ and a much higher percentage of women—in all aspects of Antarctic research and logistics.

“Perhaps the most significant changes are the upgrades in lab facilities, communications, living quarters—all the modern conveniences. The modern age has moved to Antarctica. Unless you looked out the window—or happened to be outside, you could be anywhere else on the planet."

Lyons is a U.S. representative on the Geosciences Scientific Group of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR), and a former Director of Ohio State’s Byrd Polar Research Center. “Ohio State has a special place in Antarctic science,” Lyons said. “A map at Byrd Polar shows all the places and names of faulty and students who have studied there.”