Some days, Paul Mayewski’s commute to work is a 75-minute drive from his home in Brooklin, Maine.
Other days, it involves traversing a glacier on the planet’s coldest continent or making land on South Georgia after sailing the inhospitable Southern Ocean. On these days after work, Mayewski stands atop glaciers, gazes at thousands of stars and in the near absolute silence that’s only possible in Earth’s most isolated reaches, hears the pulsing of his heart.
From a multitude of remote high-altitude vantage points, the man dubbed the “Indiana Jones of climate research” also has admired the curvature of the Earth, witnessed flashes of nighttime gunfire during Soviet-Afghan skirmishes and been jolted awake in his tent by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake.
For decades — including on birthdays and holidays — the planet’s peaks and poles have been homes away from home for Mayewski, and teams of students and colleagues.
The extended expeditions that have yielded groundbreaking discoveries about the climate also have provided Mayewski with opportunities to better understand himself.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” says the director of the Climate Change Institute (CCI) at the University of Maine. “I get to see what the world was like hundreds of years ago and to be in situations that allow me to be in tune with the natural surroundings.”
Mayewski and colleagues at the world-renowned CCI seek to know what happened from one second ago to a hundred thousand years and even more than a million years ago.
To find out, they often go great distances, and to great heights and depths. Their discoveries about the past have illuminated possible future scenarios.
Mayewski’s journey began in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he loved being outside and he admired the barren landscape of the Highlands.
When he moved with his parents to New York City, he was riveted by dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. The Boy Scout pored over National Geographic magazines and dreamed of expeditions to remote regions.
He was a sophomore at the State University of New York at Buffalo when a professor showed him photographs of Antarctica. Mayewski was transfixed by the place that’s home to 90 percent of the ice on Earth.
He asked to accompany the professor on his next research trek to the continent, where the lowest temperature on Earth — a staggering minus 129.3 degrees F — had been recorded.
“I kept asking and taking courses. I really wanted to go,” says Mayewski, who was a field assistant on that expedition in 1968. “It was a dream come true.”
In the more than four decades since, Mayewski has led 55-plus expeditions, many to Antarctica. There, he’s said to be the first human to step foot in a number of locales.
It’s commonly held that he’s traversed more land miles on the continent than anyone else.
The Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names even dubbed one summit in the Saint Johns Range of Antarctica “Mayewski Peak” in honor of his glaciological and geological work there.
Mayewski has explored dozens of areas, including the Arctic, Canada, Central Andes, Chile, China, Greenland, Iceland, India, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, South Georgia and Tibet (Mount Everest).
For Mayewski, it’s a rush flying over the ocean toward Antarctica. The air becomes noticeably colder. Icebergs appear, then spectacular mountain ranges come into view. Inland, there are the vast — more than 5 million square miles — human and animal-free reaches of the Antarctic Plateau.
“It’s phenomenal to see the way it changes your perspective and your life,” he says.
In that frigid desert, researchers need to be independent and self-sufficient. “There’s no escaping,” he says. “You can’t just leave for the weekend.”
“At the beginning of my career, the thought was we couldn’t do anything to Mother Earth — but we’ve done a lot and we’ve done it fast. And the ramifications of those things are unbelievable.” Paul Mayewski
Due to logistics and high costs in the 1970s, researchers traveling to the fifth-largest continent were encouraged to stay as long as feasible.
“You’d get dropped off, traverse across the ice sheet on foot, skis and snowmobiles, and then get picked up three to four months later,” he recalls.
Mayewski says it generally takes a couple of weeks to adjust to the extreme conditions — the cold, snow and wind — and sleeping in unheated tents.
Plus, there’s the oxygen deprivation. There’s just 50 percent of the oxygen available at the altitudes Mayewski works — including the Himalayas and Andes — as there is at sea level.
Challenges come with the territory — from aggressive baboons in the jungle to being holed up 17 days in a tent due to snow and winds of 115 mph, when Mayewski and his team had to be vigilant about shoveling to keep from being buried.
During an early-career trip, a cooking stove flared, catching his tent on fire. Mayewski dove outside, taking time to snag a field notebook containing several months of data.
He also has pulled one of his teeth, stitched colleagues’ gashes and carried people with altitude sickness off mountains. During a particularly challenging trek getting to the Himalayas, Mayewski lost 35 pounds in 17 days.
On another excursion in the Indian Himalayas, he and colleagues went in one direction while their food supply went in another. For three days until they caught up with the food, the team subsisted on Mayewski’s birthday cake.
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, Mayewski was conducting research in northwest China. And in 2010, when a magnitude 8.8 earthquake that killed hundreds and displaced 800,000 struck at 3:30 a.m. off the coast of Chile, he was sleeping in a tent in the Central Andes.
While boulders crashed down around them, he and his teammates were safe on a plateau where they were camping.
He says one of his scariest nights in the field was a Christmas Eve in the mid-1970s in Antarctica. He and his assistant were caught in a blizzard away from the team camp. For several days, their clothes, sleeping bags and tent were drenched. Battling hypothermia, Mayewski and his colleague ultimately got the snowmobile started and made it back to the camp in blinding snow.
Less than a month later, he was at the University of New Hampshire for his first teaching appointment.
To train for excursions, Mayewski skis or walks up an inclined field while pulling an 80-pound sled. While physical training has been a constant during his decades of exploration, attitudes and technology have changed considerably.
Communication, for the most part, was once confined to those in the research party. Today, with satellite technology, explorers can connect with people on other continents, including with schoolchildren learning about their research.
Snowmobiles are far more powerful now and dogs are no longer allowed on Antarctic expeditions because they’re not indigenous. (There aren’t indigenous people there either, reminds Mayewski.)
In the ’60s, the attitude that humans should strive to conquer nature was pervasive. And many people, scientists included, thought the planet was so enormous that humans couldn’t permanently alter it, no matter what they did to it.
Antarctica, in particular, was believed to be timeless.
“At the beginning of my career, the thought was we couldn’t do anything to Mother Earth — but we’ve done a lot and we’ve done it fast,” he says. “And the ramifications of those things are unbelievable.”
By the late 1970s and ’80s, Mayewski’s team and many other scientists realized that glaciers were shrinking and that the climate that should have been naturally cooling was, instead, warming.
Researchers also recognized that human activity could — and was — impacting the planet. As examples, Mayewski cites the burning of fossil fuels that resulted in acid rain, as well as emission regulations that resulted in the subsequent reduction of acid rain, lead and other toxic substances.
Climate science has evolved and so has Mayewski.
“I started more for the adventure and travel, and I was driven by the opportunity to go to remote places,” says the Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences, School of Marine Sciences, School of Policy and International Affairs, and Maine Business School.
“Not until several years after I earned a Ph.D. would I consider myself a scientist.”
Others consider him a pioneer.
Maine magazine designated him one of the state’s 50 Bold Visionaries.
The European Geosciences Union awarded him the Hans Oeschger Medal for his ice core and climate research. And the World Ocean Observatory hailed him as a Citizen of the Ocean for his inspiring contributions to ocean knowledge and advocacy.
The International Glaciological Society gave Mayewski its highest honor — the Seligman Crystal — for his contributions to glaciology.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research awarded him the first Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research.
Mayewski is a fellow in numerous societies, including the Explorers Club (which presented him with the Lowell Thomas Award), as well as the Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union.
Three of his discoveries have been critical in advancing climate science.
One was that wind systems, or atmospheric circulation patterns, can change very quickly.
Wind, which transports heat, moisture, precipitation and pollutants, also affects sea surface currents and sea temperature.
Rapid change in wind patterns therefore can result in temperature changes of 10 degrees F in less than two years, he says.
Rapid changes in atmospheric circulation also can result in changes in frequency of storms and amount of precipitation. And these shifts can remain in place for decades, if not centuries, Mayewski says.
This paradigm shift is tied to a second game-changing discovery — abrupt climate change.
The climate system, says Mayewski, doesn’t operate in a slow or linear way. Abrupt climate change can happen faster than a political cycle and can lead to considerable challenges for communities or the collapse of civilizations.
Mayewski points to the eastern Arctic, where the temperature has risen 8 degrees F in the last five years.
“It is as big a change in climate, and as fast as the change that occurred during the remnants of the last ice age,” he says.
The Inuits who live, fish, trap and hunt in the Canadian Arctic are experiencing climate change firsthand. The results of rapid warming there are significantly altering the way they’ve lived for centuries.
Thirdly, through ice core analysis, Mayewski and colleagues have made numerous contributions to understanding the change in the chemistry of the atmosphere.
In the last half-century, Mayewski says human-produced toxic metals, radioactive materials and greenhouse gases have dramatically changed the chemistry of the atmosphere.
“The age of climate decision is here, and our actions will define the course of civilization, our health and the health of our planet.” Paul Mayewski
Ice core data indicate that “this is not the way the natural world works,” he says.
What will happen, he asks, to the already-troubling rates of asthma, autism, cancers and neurological diseases if we don’t stop putting pollutants into the atmosphere?
“If you had abundant clean air and water, there would be much less disease,” he says. “The human toll as a consequence of these things, of course, is tremendous. Even if you just want to think about it like a business person, the cost is phenomenal.”
Mayewski recently has been involved in a project with Michael McCormick, a Harvard University professor of history who’s creating a historical and scientific database of Europe’s climate from about 800 to 1500 AD.
McCormick and colleague Alex More have assimilated and analyzed an extensive collection of detailed written records and diaries that contain information about wars, weather events and food shortages in Europe.
Their analysis includes the approximate five-year period beginning in 1347, during which the bacteria Yersinia pestis — or Black Death — killed about 25 million people.
For that same time period, Mayewski and his CCI team have analyzed an ice core from the Colle Gnifetti glacier high in the Alps near the Swiss-Italian border.
The state-of-the-art W.M. Keck Laser Ice Facility at the Climate Change Institute allows for a season-by-season, even storm-by-storm, analysis of the core.
Ice cores, Mayewski says, are the most robust way of understanding past environment. And McCormick and More are interested in how environments impact human societies.
The researchers learned after matching the written records and ice core records that soon after the Black Death arrived in Europe, due to death and sickness, industrial mining temporarily and abruptly ended. Lead, arsenic and copper levels in the atmosphere dropped to nearly zero.
“Sadly, if you kill off half the population of Europe, everything stops,” Mayewski. “It’s tremendously important because it shows the impact of an abrupt disease event.”
About five years later, when the plague subsided and mining resumed, levels of lead and other toxic metals in the atmosphere increased substantially.
The findings are troublesome, Mayewski says.
Before this project, he says the natural level of lead in the atmosphere had not been documented.
Scientists had assumed that since environmental regulations had been instituted that the lead level in the atmosphere was about 100 times higher than the natural level. But the level of lead in ice cores over the last nearly 2,000 years — with the exception of during the Black Death — has been considerably higher than that.
What, Mayewski asks, are the health ramifications to this long-term high exposure?
This project with Harvard University is one example that reflects how the Climate Change Institute has broadened.
“Change is our middle name,” Mayewski says. “We embrace it.”
CCI is an interdisciplinary hub.
Researchers in archaeology, evolutionary ecology, forest soils, glaciology, marine ecology, paleoecology, renewable energy, volcanology and other fields contribute to the “understanding of the variability of Earth’s climate, the complex interconnections between climate, humans and the natural world, and the unique challenge of abrupt climate change.”
Their discoveries, according to the CCI website, “contribute to evidence-based solutions for pressing environmental problems and provide the basis for partnerships with diverse stakeholders to create pathways to a climate-resilient future.”
And they continue to push the boundaries of exploration with new initiatives, such as “Climate Futures” — a new way to predict climate.
Mayewski regularly shares his research, findings and projections. Mainers can frequently find him presenting in a library or hear him being interviewed on Maine Public.
CCI also hosted a recent forum for community planners to learn how to access and utilize online tools developed by UMaine researcher and state climatologist Sean Birkel.
City leaders considering building a cooling center can review projections for frequency of heat waves. Medical professionals can assess the potential for increase in Lyme disease, and community planners preparing to replace stormwater drains can examine projected precipitation.
Mayewski also frequently reaches larger audiences.
He has been published in more than 425 scientific journals and has penned The Ice Chronicles with Frank White and Journey Into Climate: Adventure, Exploration, and the Unmasking of Human Innocence with Michael Morrison.
He has been featured in media ranging from several appearances on CBS’ “60 Mintues” to the BBC. And he was highlighted in the Emmy Award-winning Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, produced starting in 2014 to showcase the impacts of climate change on people and the planet. Mayewski was filmed while collecting ice cores 20,000 feet atop a glacier next to a volcanic pond.
Since 2001, Earth has experienced 16 of the 17 warmest years on record, resulting, in part, in drought, the spread of diseases, worsening wildfires, water shortages, species extinctions and climate refugees.
“The age of climate decision is here, and our actions will define the course of civilization, our health and the health of our planet,” Mayewski has often said.
In court, cases are decided on evidence and facts. The same, Mayewski says, should be true with regard to climate policy.
Facts, he says, are not political. Health and the planet aren’t partisan, either.
“We can do without just about everything, except for water and air,” Mayewski says.
This fall, Mayewski and several students will again sail a portion of a route in the Southern Ocean that polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton made famous in 1914–16. During the 1,600-mile excursion, they’ll disembark on a remote South Atlantic island and retrieve more ice cores from yet another glacier.
Then there will be expeditions to the Andes and Greenland.
“There are still plenty of places to explore,” he says. “There are still important places to go and still students to train.”