Featured Expert: Ellen Mosley-Thompson

Ellen Mosley-Thompson

Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Professor, Department of Geography

Studying Polar Ice Cores for Climate History and Projections

Ellen Mosley-Thompson could easily be described as a pioneer woman.

But it wasn’t a canvas of wind-swept grasslands where she blazed early trails; rather, it was the bone-chilling, hostile high latitude of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

In 1982, as an atmospheric science graduate student at The Ohio State University, Mosley-Thompson joined a multinational research team on an ice-core drilling project at South Pole Station. It was the first of many such trips to follow, but in those days, few women worked in these fields.

“There were only three women on station, and we all had to live under the dome so the station manager could keep an eye on us,” says Mosley-Thompson, now the director of Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and a professor in the Department of Geography. “Women had not really had the opportunity to go out into the open field, and our work was restricted to permanent stations.”

It was a unique venture for the young scholar who found herself working next to “some of the giants” in the field of ice core research in those early days. The experience shaped her destiny.

“From that point on, I had the Antarctic bug,” Mosley-Thompson remembers. “I’ve had multiple other field projects in Antarctica, and in 1988 I had the opportunity to take my first trip to Greenland. Subsequently, I’ve been there five or six times on field projects.”

She and her husband, renowned paleoclimate researcher Lonnie Thompson, established the Ice Core Paleoclimate Research Group at Ohio State. Both were recipients of the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Medal, annually awarded by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.

Mosley-Thompson’s research focuses on extracting and analyzing the chemical and physical properties preserved in ice cores taken from glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets from around the world. These ice core properties provide a picture of the regional climate and its variability stretching back thousands of years.

“Then we take those multiple records and put them together with an overall goal of trying to better understand how Earth’s climate system works,” she says. “If we are going to make accurate projections of what Earth’s climate is likely to be 50 or 100 years from now, we really have to have a solid grounding in the physics of how the system works.”

It was physics and mathematics that intrigued Mosley-Thompson in her early university days, and she earned an undergraduate degree in both from Marshall University. After beginning graduate school in physics at Miami University, she gained a new appreciation for applied science, so she transferred to Ohio State for a fellowship in atmospheric science.

Early in her career, much of the fieldwork was conducted in the few parts of Antarctica that had prepared runways so that the expensive, ski-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft could land safely. But that presented a problem for scientists.

“If you really want to collect ice core records, and hence the climate records that come from them that characterize a continent like Antarctica — the size of the United States and Mexico combined — you really need to go to more than two or three locations,” she says.

At the time, Mosley-Thompson was on the National Science Foundation Polar Program Advisory Committee — likely because she was one of the few women working in Antarctica — and she pushed hard to expand research locations. Pilots came to Ohio State to discuss the possibilities and limitations of open field landings. She presented convincing arguments.

“The next year we had a project where six of us were dropped off in central east Antarctica in a place near Antarctica’s ‘Pole of Inaccessibility,’” she remembers. “We spent 21 days there and drilled two ice cores, each to 200 meters. From those cores we reconstructed a 4,000-year climate history, the first such history from that part of Antarctica.”

The continuous gathering of evidence from ice cores around the globe has opened eyes and changed scientific minds about the elements of climate change.

“Our vision of it 40 years ago was much more simplistic than it is today,” Mosley-Thompson says. “Today we understand the number of systems that interact and the complexity of those interactions.”

Indeed, mapping out the global climate system is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle, and each ice core adds other segments, she says.

“Each core brings some new pieces and some understanding, or often you can get new information that turns your thinking upside down,” Mosley-Thompson says. “Suddenly, something you thought was so obvious is not obvious at all.”

Her most recent project is the interpretation and publication of results from an ice core she and her team drilled in 2010 on the Bruce Plateau in the Antarctic Peninsula. This core has provided an annual climate history for the region extending back 800 years, and the record extends further back, likely as much as 10,000 years, but with lower time resolution.

Mosley-Thompson studies the past, but she’s also looking ahead. She is considering submitting a proposal to drill an ice core on Ellesmere Island, part of the high Canadian Arctic. It’s well known that the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic is diminishing, and she believes the island is perfectly positioned to tell researchers to what extent this has occurred in the past.

“There are projections that maybe by 2025 or 2030 the Arctic Ocean could be ice free at its summer maximum,” she says. “But for paleoclimatologists, the questions always arise: ‘Have we seen this happen in the past? Is what is happening now unique?’ This is where paleoclimatology can provide a longer time frame from which you can make that evaluation.”

Mosley-Thompson says she has seen what she “would almost call a sea change” in the way the world regards global climate changes. Major events like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 certainly focus attention on these issues, she says.

“The average person, non-scientist, connected very strongly to Sandy as a result of global climate change,” Mosley-Thompson says. “The connection they would draw is much stronger probably than the connection I would draw. Such events, when considered individually, are considered by people in my (scientific) community to be weather phenomena. If we begin to see more frequent extreme weather events, as climate models tell us we should expect under warmer conditions, then the link to global climate change must be further considered and explored.

“Global climate change is in the common vernacular now, and that is a good thing,” she says. “It will force the discussions that we have to have if we are to make progress on addressing this critical issue that affects each of us in one way or another.”

Mosley-Thompson Research Fact Sheet

On the web:

Ellen Mosley-Thompson:  http://bprc.osu.edu/Icecore/people.php#ellenmosleythompson

Ice Core Paleoclimate Research Group:  http://bprc.osu.edu/Icecore/

email: thompson.4@osu.edu