“You can’t protect what you don’t know.”
– Lars-Eric Lindblad, Swedish-American entrepreneur and explorer who led the first tourist expedition to Antarctica in 1966
Dr. Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, has explored more regions of the Antarctic than anyone else in the world. Over the last four decades, he has led dozens of scientific expeditions to this most pristine of continents that serves as an early warning system for greenhouse gas warming. Known worldwide for his global scale collection and analysis of ice core samples, he has demonstrated the existence of abrupt changes in climates of the past and the impact of humans on the climate, and has made important predictions about the future.
Last January, Paul returned to Antarctica – this time as an expert scientist with a group of 90 tourists as part of an 11-day cruise organized jointly by the University of Maine Office of Development and Travel Dynamics International (NYC). The travelers – including 15 adventurous UMaine alumni and friends – were eager to experience the dramatic beauty of the “white continent” and gain a better understanding of how climate change is affecting our environment.
Aboard the 297-foot Corinthian II, a luxury cruise ship ice-strengthened for voyages into Antarctic waters, Paul presented lectures and seminars to the enthusiastic travelers who hailed from all parts of the U.S., as well as from Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, England and Australia. Utilizing the fleet of Zodiac inflatable crafts, he, with the expedition staff, conducted shore landings and excursions so the group could explore the unspoiled wilderness of the islands, visit scientists at weather and research stations, and enjoy up-close encounters with penguins, seals, whales and icebergs.
Departing from Ushuaia, Argentina, sometimes referred to as Fin del Mundo (End of the World), the travelers began their adventure by crossing the Drake Passage and entering the Southern Ocean which surrounds Antarctica and is a key region in determining global climate. As the ship made its way through scenic waterways, passengers were treated to a panorama of icebergs, glaciers and snowcapped mountains.
“It was really an outstanding trip,” said Dan Churchill ’63, a retired businessman who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Betty. “Paul’s lectures were a major contribution to our experience. We came away with an increased understanding of climate change as well as a better appreciation of the vibrant beauty of Antarctica. It was a wonderful opportunity to observe such abundant wildlife in this beautiful and unique part of the world and to realize how very vulnerable it is to changes man is making to the environment.”
The Churchills, who have been associated with the Climate Change Institute for many years through their support of graduate research, said Paul has a knack for making complex scientific information understandable and interesting. He offered a fascinating look at how Antarctica is being affected by climate change and explained the implications this has on the rest of the world.
The Antarctic is changing rapidly because human activities have led to greenhouse gas warming of the lower atmosphere and ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere, according to Paul. “When we first started working there we thought of it as absolutely timeless. But it is beginning to show dramatic changes. The edges of the ice are melting and contributing thus far to a small amount of sea level rise. We’re seeing the early effects of human source pollutants and we’re seeing stronger winds because of ozone depletion.” People can help mitigate climate change and its impact at the local level by driving more fuel efficient cars, building energy efficient homes, and buying locally grown foods, he told the group.
On the forays ashore, he provided much-needed perspective on global warming as the group toured the Vernadsky Research Station where scientists discovered and now track the Antarctic Ozone hole that is the direct consequence of humanly engineered CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) that are so efficient at destroying the ozone that protects Antarctica from solar radiation.
“He provided a great deal of information on climate history and on the increases in the principal greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane which are now driving this change,” said Dan. “We had many opportunities to ask questions, observe, and learn throughout the trip.”
The Churchills agreed that the shore expeditions were the highlights of the voyage. “The Antarctic Peninsula has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We were lucky to have such great visibility,” said Betty, noting the sunny days and 30- to 40-degree temperatures typical of the Antarctic summer during which the sun rises at 5 a.m. and sets at 11 p.m.
One minute the voyagers were gazing in awe at craggy peaks and rocky precipices, massive glaciers and spectacular ice formations both above and in the polar waters. The next found them marveling at the diverse marine life and laughing as hundreds of inquisitive Adelie penguins descended upon them, grunting and barking.
“The penguins really are very endearing,” Dan said. “Both the adults and juveniles are curious and without any natural fear of man…they come up and peck at your clothing and gaze at you in a very studious manner. We saw many different seals including a large leopard seal which put on quite a show, investigating us and tasting our Zodiac before porpoising through the sea in pursuit of a penguin which successfully fled for its life.”
Paul, who calls himself “truly passionate about translating science to the public,” said cruise ship expeditions are particularly valuable in helping people become aware of the impact of climate change.
“They are an opportunity to spend several days with people who are excited about the Antarctic and who can become ambassadors and tell others about the importance and beauty of this region,” he said. “This is a place very few get to visit. Once you see a place, it’s easier to appreciate it. Antarctica has the cleanest air on the planet so you can see long, long distances. And the only thing you can hear is the sound of the natural system – nothing else. There’s no other continent on the planet about which you can say that.”
Sustaining our quality of life requires some effect on the environment, he said. But once people see the Antarctic’s dramatic beauty and learn how it has been altered by human activity, “they will have a better idea of what we’re trading off and how much we’re willing to trade off.”
The cruise created an important link between UMaine and supporters, according to Pat Cummings ’89,’44H, director of development for the College of Engineering. Serving as the university’s representative on the voyage, Pat said the Development Office’s first-ever sponsored trip “highlighted the Climate Change Institute – one of UMaine’s Centers of Excellence – and gave people a chance to get to know Dr. Paul Mayewski, one of our premier researchers, and see the impact of what he does.”
In addition to the Antarctic, Paul has led scientific expeditions to many remote places including the Arctic and the Himalayas. Through his groundbreaking research, he has observed the historic impact of humans on climate, reconstructed past atmospheric conditions, and demonstrated associations between climate and disruptions to civilization. He has received numerous awards and citations for his seminal contributions to the understanding of climate change.
|Author of “The Ice Chronicles,” which was published in 2002 and documents 100,000 years of climate history, Paul speaks to hundreds around the world each year and has appeared on CBS 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, Fox News and NOVA and been interviewed by more than 350 newspapers including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, as well as by National Public Radio.|
As director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, he coordinates more than 50 faculty/staff members and researchers plus nearly 30 graduate students who are experts in the fields of climatology, archaeology, glaciology, geochemistry, ecology, history and marine geology. He founded and currently leads a 21-nation program called the International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE), whose goal is to understand the climate change of the last 200-1000 years in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean.
For Paul, it was as important to educate travelers about the strides UMaine has made in climate change research as it was to educate them about climate change. The university “has been one of the primary sources of researchers working in the Antarctic in the country if not the world,” he said. “We have made a name for ourselves – not just because of the numbers of people and expeditions that UMaine and the CCI have sent to Antarctica, but because of our discoveries.”
UMaine researchers have demonstrated the existence of abrupt climate change, contributed to the understanding of humans’ impact on the climate system through burning fossil fuels and polluting with toxic metals, determined what parts of the Antarctic ice sheet are susceptible to rapid melting, and provided a long term perspective on how the climate is changing, Paul said.
Christopher Stobart, a London businessman who took the cruise along with his wife Diana, said he came away wowed by UMaine’s accomplishments. “I was impressed by the extent of their efforts and the amount of traveling which Paul and others do to collect fresh samples from distant parts of the world. It was very impressive and interesting to see the conclusions and predictions which they derived from their analyses – for example that global temperatures can jump two-three degrees in two-ten years. This was something quite new and startling to me.”
Calling Paul “a knowledgeable and charming man – quite modest as well,” Chris said climate change is a subject most everyone’s concerned about. “It was a great treat and a privilege to speak to someone who is really dedicating his life to finding some serious answers.”
Chris said he enjoyed the Black Bear spirit that was evident throughout the voyage. UMaine alumni and friends regaled their fellow travelers with the Stein Song, one of the most recognized collegiate songs in the U.S. Even those not affiliated with UMaine happily joined in. A game of Maine trivia was met with the same enthusiasm. Answers to such questions as what is Maine’s highest peak, what is the name of Maine’s national park, and who is UMaine’s most famous alumnus (author Stephen King) were accompanied by plenty of laughter and prizes. Flagship pins, Maine Ice Age Trail Maps, and blue and white M & M candies –representing UMaine’s colors – were handed out to everyone.
For their part, the Churchills are grateful for the unique opportunity to help raise awareness about the Antarctic and its vulnerability to human activity. They said the UMaine trip helped them nurture a deep sense of environmental responsibility and that they have indeed been inspired to talk to others. They know they are educating people every time they share pictures and stories about their adventures.
“People really do become ambassadors for the Antarctic once they appreciate the beauty and the vulnerability of the region and understand the risks of climate change,” said Dan.
March 17, 2009