March 18, 2010

Explorer goes to cold sites in 'The Age of Warming'

— It's a long way from Maine to the South Pole.

But the very bottom of the Earth is by no means the most remote place on the planet.

Ask Paul Mayewski. The University of Maine professor has earned a global reputation, for himself and the school, by going to some very cold and isolated places and coming home with discoveries about the planet and its atmosphere.

''There are plenty of places on Earth where we were the first team to ever go there,'' Mayewski said. ''You get the chance to be on the forefront of adventure exploration, and also scientific exploration, by doing this stuff.''

The director of UMaine's Climate Change Institute spoke this week during a brief break in Orono between his latest Antarctic expedition and a global gathering of scientists in England.

Mayewski is studying the planet's environment as it existed anywhere from 200 to 100,000 years ago. Over the past 40 years of adventures, Mayewski has pioneered the use of ice cores drilled from ancient glaciers to determine what the climate and the environment were like around the world long before there were thermometers.

''The ice cores are like buried meteorological stations and buried atmospheric stations. They give you so much information about the environment,'' he said.

Mayewski and the Orono-based institute were the first to raise evidence of abrupt climate changes from deep in the Earth's historical record, a finding that influences climate science worldwide.

There's a mountain named after him in Antarctica. He received the Explorers Club Citation of Merit in 1995 and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research in 2006.

Mayewski also is known for his charisma, in a lecture hall or in front of a TV camera. He has been featured in two climate-change segments on the CBS news show ''60 Minutes,'' once in Antarctica and once in the Arctic.

Both segments will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday, during a CBS special called ''The Age of Warming.''

Mayewski came to the university in 2000, and his appointment attracted several other adventurer scientists, including Gordon Hamilton, a glaciologist who was on the recent Antarctic expedition.

''He's well-known both in the U.S. program and across the world,'' Hamilton said.

So is the University of Maine's institute, which has been sending researchers to Antarctica for decades. The work is funded by federal grants, including from the National Science Foundation, and the research teams always include students.

''The University of Maine has sent more students and faculty to the Antarctic than just about any other university in the United States,'' Hamilton said.

Mayewski's travels and his readings of the ice cores have convinced him that the Earth is changing fast.

While there has been a lot of focus on the faster-than-expected melting of glaciers in Greenland -- something also documented by UMaine researchers -- Antarctica is often seen as unchangeable, mostly because it's so big and so cold.

It doesn't look that way to Mayewski, who has likely traversed more miles across the ice there than anyone, and who may be the only man to lead two expeditions to the South Pole from different sides of the frozen continent.

''The Antarctic has some of the most dramatic warming anywhere on the planet,'' he said. That has led to dramatic change along the coast, including huge icebergs that break away and fall into the Southern Ocean.

But Antarctica's vast interior is well above sea level, and cold. It was 13 to 50 degrees below zero during the recent expedition -- and it's summertime down there.

''You still have this giant ice cube that is able to maintain its own climate because of its sheer size,'' Mayewski said. ''The question is, how long can those effects (of warming) be warded off by the sheer size of the Antarctic itself?''

The rate of ice melting at the poles and the projected rise in sea levels around the world are hot topics of debate in the scientific community, and clearly important questions for coastal states like Maine. While the International Panel on Climate Change has projected as much as a 2-foot sea level rise during this century, many scientists, including Mayewski, are now saying that the rise could be at least twice that.

''Those of us who are involved in this field would have a far more radical view of what sea level change can be in the next century,'' he said.

The 12 members of Mayewski's latest expedition covered a total of 750 miles of ice and reached the South Pole on Christmas Eve.

Mayewski started the trips in 1968 on skis and later graduated to snowmobiles. Now, he and the other researchers have two short ''trains'' that include mobile laboratories and living quarters. The modules are pulled by large tractors, which are led by a smaller vehicle that detects crevasses and weakness in the ice.

The modules are the equivalent of research ships, collecting scientific data as they criss-cross a continent that's one and a half times the size of the United States.

Reaching the South Pole doesn't mean what it did when Sir Edmund Hillary did it in the 1950s. There's now a permanent research station there with 250 people, Mayewski said. ''It's far from remote.''

Mayewski has collected ice cores from the Arctic, the Antarctic mountain range, Mount Everest, and Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, among other places. He has spent months traveling to remote mountain locations in India and Nepal, places with no people and no way to communicate with the world. That's remote, he said.

''If you don't like the adventure and the exploration part, you probably wouldn't do it as much as we do,'' Mayewski said. And, ''the science that comes from this stuff is extremely exciting.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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