Cold context

Through multiple expeditions to the planet’s most remote regions, renowned explorer Paul Mayewski has gained global and personal perspective.


Paul Mayewski:
I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although it’s a city, it’s a pretty remote region of Scotland. I was always excited about being outdoors, walking around, and seeing those sorts of barren landscapes.

So when we moved to the U.S., I still had that interest and started going to museums, got very excited about explorers, and read National Geographic and always wanted to be an explorer, somebody who went to remote regions.

I remember flying into Antarctica from New Zealand. First you fly over the ocean and of course it just gets colder and colder. You begin to see icebergs and then you see spectacular mountain ranges along the coast of Antarctica, that I was to spend the next few years of my life actually exploring.

It was, for me, an absolute dream come true. I was so excited to go to a place that was so remote, a place that basically didn’t have any people in it, and that was clearly very different than anything I had known. It was super exciting.

And that’s one of my big personal reasons for taking students into the field, because you get to see that excitement every single time, no matter where you take them. It could be the high mountains of the Himalayas or the Antarctic, but it’s really phenomenal to see the way it changes your perspective.

There are a lot of things that we don’t measure that often that have a tremendous impact on our health and ecosystem health. But we don’t necessarily have a way to say that the levels are higher today than the past, except through ice cores.

All of a sudden ice cores — from the very first one that I was involved in collecting in 1978 — we now find that there are tremendous opportunity to get perspective about how lead levels have changed in the atmosphere, how temperature has changed in the atmosphere, and a whole variety of other things.

So there is very little, in fact, that isn’t changing as a consequence of climate change. It doesn’t mean that you get the same kind of climate change everywhere. You don’t get the same magnitude. There are parts of the United States that haven’t experienced much of a temperature change yet, but the trends are all there when you look at the models, when you look at any of the information.

Then as we begin to think about the loss of glaciers, because glaciers are this tremendous resource by which we can actually understand how much of the planet is warming. There are many, many parts of the world where the glaciers are melting and those glaciers are the primary source of fresh water. And they are, in many cases, the primary source of energy in the form of hydroelectric power.

I think our most major discovery is probably the identification of the fact that wind systems, atmospheric circulation, can change its pattern very, very quickly.

And that leads to the second big discovery that we’ve worked on, that these rapid changes in climate, which we call abrupt climate change, can happen so fast that they can lead to the complete collapse of civilizations.

A third would be many, many different contributions to understanding how much the chemistry of the atmosphere has changed. We only know because of ice cores that this is not the way the natural world normally operates.

The Climate Change Institute is one of the oldest multidisciplinary climate research units in the world. Multidisciplinary is very important. We were founded by Hal Borns, our founding director, about 43, 44 years ago. That was the basis for the institute, was that we would be looking at physical, chemical, biological and social aspects of climate change.

And, if anything, we’ve become stronger at that. Climate change is something completely different today than it was from when I started. It’s something completely different than it was when I even came here as director in early 2000. It is so much a part of our lives that the institute needs to understand the direction that it’s changing.

We’re certainly not the only organization in the world that does this, but I think we are one of the most outstanding in terms of our multidisciplinary approach. When you add up all of the major findings that have come from the institute, we really have been a remarkable force.

I believe I have covered more unexplored territory, on the surface, than any other human. And I can go so far as to say that I probably have the world record for surface travel over Antarctica. I have about 100 first ascents, mountain ascents. Some very easy, some not so easy. Spent about four to five years of my life living in a tent.

[In the background: We might be getting ice that’s actually just formed.]

I’ve been very lucky in my career, because I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of things that most people never get to see, by going to these remote places. I’ve had the opportunity to follow one of my great passions, which was adventure. I have had the opportunity to see those things turn into something that actually had value to other people applied.

I’ve had the opportunity to start large programs and centers on my own. And I’m now in a center that was established without me, obviously, but to be able to work with a great group of people who are very talented and who are open minded about what we need to do for the future.