by Donn Swaby


The Passionate Scientist

How One Climatologist Is Making a Difference


When the average U.S. citizen thinks of global warming, they most likely think of former Vice-president Al Gore as he rode up a mechanical lift to reach the upper regions of a projected carbon dioxide emissions chart in his Academy Award winning documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. Most may not be able to name the scientists involved in the drilling of ice cores that Gore talks about in the film, but that may change in the years to come as these scientists and their work continue to earn more well-deserved recognition.

Such a scientist would be Professor Ellen Mosley-Thompson, who recently received the coveted Dan David Prize this past May, along with her husband and research partner Professor Lonnie Thompson, for their work in seeking to reconstruct Earth's climate history. They do this by analyzing the chemical and physical properties preserved in glaciers around the world.

According to the Dan David Prize web site, the Dan David Foundation, named after a pioneer in the field of industrial photography (David invented the automatic photo booth) and headquartered at Tel Aviv University, Israel, “annually awards three prizes of one million dollars each for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural, or social impact on our world…it covers three dimensions of time: past, present, and future that represent realms of human achievement.” Prof. Mosley-Thompson was honored for the profound impact her research will have on future generations and the conservation of the planet.

Yet, this is not the first time Prof. Mosely-Thompson, who teaches Geography and Atmospheric Science in OSU's Dept. of Geography, has been recognized for her accomplishments. In 2001, Discovery Magazine named the work of the Ohio State Ice Core Paleoclimatology Research Group at the Byrd Polar Research Center (formerly the Polar Studies Institute), where she and Prof. Thompson have their research laboratories, as one of the fifty greatest discoveries of that year. In 2003, she was inducted into the Ohio Women's hall of Fame by Ohio Governor Bob Taft and received OSU‘s Distinguished Scholar Award. In 2005, she was given OSU's Distinguished Service Award. As the concern of global warming continues to grow into a conscious reality for many around the world, I suspect more people will take notice of the very important work Prof. Mosley-Thompson has done and continues to do in this area of research.


I recently had the wonderful opportunity to engage in a lively, passionate phone interview with the honored scientist laureate:

Donn Swaby: First, I would like to congratulate you for receiving the Dan David Prize for your work.  

Prof. Ellen Mosley-Thompson: Thank you.

DS: So how did you come to study ice cores?

PEMT: Well, I had received a bachelor's in physics from Marshall University in West Virginia. My goal then was to be a High Energy Physicist.

DS: High energy as in…

PEMT: As in nuclear energy. However, I discovered there were few jobs in physics at that time (1971). That's when I saw an ad to study atmospheric science at Ohio State. I filled it out and eventually got a fellowship to study at Ohio State. I received a doctorate in Geography with a focus on climatology.

DS: For the environmental-science challenged members of our audience, can you briefly explain what climatology is?

PEMT: As an atmospheric scientist, I study the earth's climate history. We drill ice cores from glaciers around the world, not just in the Arctic or in Antarctica, but also in more tropical locations like Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, North Africa, the Himalyas in Asia, the Andes Mountains in South America, and the tropics. We then bring them back to the Byrd Polar Research Center for analysis and interpretation.

DS: What exactly are you looking for?

PEMT: We analyze the cores for stable chemical isotopes such as those of oxygen and hydrogen. We analyze the concentrations of ions such as nitrate, sulfate, and chloride, just to name a few. We also measure the amount of insoluble dust. If insoluble dust is abundant, we might deduce that there was a drought at that time and the other information from the core will help us determine why there was a drought. The data we collect allows us to piece together a general picture of how Earth's surface temperature has changed over hundreds to thousands of years. We also get a better understanding of the mechanisms that create variability in climate and how they have changed over time.

DS: Are there other ways to conduct this type of research?

PEMT: As scientists we have to be knowledgeable about other research tools used to explore Earth‘s climate histories. For example, scientists can collect stalagmites in cave deposits which may shed light on high resolution climate histories. My PhD student is using the concentration of sulfate preserved in a core from the west side of the Greenland ice sheet to extract a regional, as well as global volcanic history. If you can combine the proxy histories from lake sediments, tree rings, and ice cores all together, you get a much better sense of the changes in the global climate system.

DS: How long are you actually out in the field?

PEMT: It varies from one to three months.

DS: What do you enjoy most about your research?

PEMT: I enjoy working with other scientists. But what truly motivates me is gaining new knowledge. When I begin to explore a new area of interest my knowledge base is likely pretty limited, but after reading, studying, and then collecting and analyzing data, I would develop an hypothesis and then construct new experiments or look at other data to prove myself wrong. As scientists we cannot say that our hypothesis is accurate and credible unless we go through this rigorous process of testing and re-testing, until all attempts to disprove it have been made.

DS: How did you start teaching?

PEMT: I realized I was collecting a lot of knowledge and I wanted to share that. Plus, because I was being offered a position at OSU, where I was already doing research, I didn't have to move.

DS: How do you feel about the work Al Gore has done on the issue of global warming?

PEMT: I could give lectures on the basic science of global climate change and never reach the diverse audience he has been able to touch. Gore is providing a wonderful service by presenting the work of scientists and making it palpable to the public.

DS: What would you say to those who may try to discredit the concept of global warming by saying that the earth sea levels have risen before when human being's footprint was considerably less?

PEMT: Sea levels have risen and fallen many times over Earth's history. For example, at the end of the last ice age, 15,000 - 13,000 years ago, the continental ice sheets melted in pulses and sea levels rose at least twenty feet, so that by 10,000 - 6,000 years ago sea level was close to its current value. At this time North Africa received more rainfall than today and what is now the Sahara Desert was covered with vegetation. About 5,000 years ago the region began to dry out and eventually became a desert. Scientists are still trying to figure out what processes were responsible for this desertification. As for rising sea levels today, this is due to increasing concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide that trap outgoing long wave radiation (this process is called the enhanced greenhouse effect). The records show that within the last fifty years, Earth's globally average temperatures have exceeded the natural range of variability for at least the last 2000 years. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the highest they have been in at least the last million years.

DS: What is it like working with your husband in the same field?

PEMT: Lonnie and I have worked together since 1973, but rarely in the field together. Over this time, we have slowly and methodically expanded our team that now includes six PhD level scientists, several post-docs and five graduate students. The size of our group necessitates that one remain in Columbus to deal with day to day issues, while the other one leads the field project. We did both work on the Quelccaya ice caps in the Peruvian Andes in 2004, but that was a rare event.

DS: Any upcoming projects?

PEMT: We have a team leaving this month for a month in Peru. I am currently catching up on all the scientific research that has been published recently about the Antarctica Peninsula, where I will be next year for three months in 2009.

DS: Exciting!

PEMT: It's the best part of the job!

DS: How do you hope to influence your students and the world?

PEMT: I encourage them to learn as much as they can about the climate system and to think about how they spend their money and how they vote. I don't tell them what to spend their money on or who to vote for, but I do ask them to seriously consider how those things make an impact on the world in which they live. As a scientist, I continue to publish papers in the hopes that it will be a building block and excite other people to explore the issue more deeply. But once your work is in the peer reviewed literature, it's out of your control. Your work can be misused and misrepresented.

DS: What is your assessment of the current global warming situation?

PEMT: (Energy) Conservation is the fist step. At present 64% of electricity generated is immediately wasted by the time it reaches our homes and offices. In addition to investing in energy efficiency, we also need to invest heavily in the research, development, and implementation of renewable and clean technologies. We can't rely solely on hydro and wind, but we will also need to explore the possibilities of clean coal and hopefully make carbon removal and permanent sequestration a reality. Private sector investments tend to follow the government and this type of change may have to come from the bottom up- from the general public demanding that governments take the issue seriously.




© Melt Magazine 2008