The Search For Ancient Ice

Understanding what happened to the climate millions of years ago may tell us a lot about what will happen next

By Sara Rimer and Devin Hahn

Researcher walks in Antarctica

High in the Transantarctic Mountains, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are the largest part of Antarctica not covered with ice. Instead, a seemingly endless carpet of boulders and rocks flows into networks of steep cliffs and valleys—some over a mile deep, recalling the canyons of the American Southwest, but unimaginably more vast. Almost nothing lives there. There are no people around for hundreds of miles. This is Earth’s most ancient landscape, frozen in time for millions of years.

For more than a quarter-century, David Marchant, a Boston University professor of earth and environment and head of the BU Antarctic Research Group, has been exploring the Transantarctic Mountains, methodically piecing together the story of the landscape and past climate change and what it has to tell us about the future of our warming planet. As a graduate student in geology years ago, Marchant would spend up to 100 days at a stretch in the Dry Valleys, living in an unheated tent during what passes for summer in Antarctica, learning to read the landscape by walking and asking himself questions: How did that boulder get there? What about the sandstone? What do those cracks in the rocks mean—what caused them?

Since then, Marchant has led research expeditions into the Transantarctic Mountains nearly every year. He has made major discoveries that have upended long-standing scientific views about the age, environment, and climate of the region. Seeing things that earlier geologists had missed, he is widely regarded as a pioneering leader in the field of Antarctic geomorphology, a science that strives to add the “why” to how a landscape looks. As passionate about teaching as he is about research, Marchant is now training the next generation of geomorphologists, imparting to his students his knowledge of how to understand the origin and evolution of this landscape.

This article originally appeared in BU Today on 2/2/15.

For more information, visit the BU RECS website and attend their Fall 2015 lecture series.

All events take place at 4-5pm in Room 226 in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Monday, October 5 – Dr. Douglas Zook,  Director, Global Ecology Education Initiative, SED, BU

Earth-centered ethics: Imperative for climate change education

Dr. Zook founded and directs the Global Ecology Education Initiative within Boston University’s Science Education effort based at the School of Education. His expertise in various science-themes is widely known with invited presentations around the world, including most recently via Fulbright awards and programs of the European Union. He has organized and led trips to remote regions of the northwest Amazon and New Zealand, served for ten years as elected President of the International Symbiosis Society, and overseen the science teacher development of more than three hundred Boston University students while he headed the Masters of Arts in Science Education program in past years. He is also an accomplished nature photography artist, with his “Earth Gazes Back” exhibits in Boston and overseas focused on reflections off of window panes. He received his PhD in Biology from Clark University and has a Masters in Botany and undergraduate degrees in Public Communication and Biology.

Monday, October 19 – Dr. Richard Primack,  Professor of Biology, CAS, BU

Using the plants and animals of Thoreau’s Concord to communicate climate change research to a wider audience

Henry David Thoreau, the author of the ground breaking book Walden, was a climate change scientist! For the past 14 years, Professor Richard Primack (Boston University) and his team have been using Thoreau’s records from the 1850s and other data sources to document the dramatically earlier flowering and leafing out times of plants, the earlier ice out at Walden Pond, and the more variable response of migratory birds. And most noteworthy, plants in Concord are also changing in abundance due to a warming climate.  While primarily a scientific study, Primack’s talk will be supported by beautiful photos and insightful quotes from Thoreau.

This work has received exceptional wide attention in the popular media (,New York Times and Science, and demonstrates the relevance of Thoreau’s legacy to contemporary issues. Prof. Primack has recently written a popular book about his work: Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods.

Monday, November 2 – Dr. Cutler Cleveland, Professor of Earth and Environment, CAS, BU

Climate Change and the Transition to Sustainable Energy

Energy is central to any discussion of the human condition because it is central to the three pillars of sustainability.  In the economic dimension, energy is clearly an important motor of macroeconomic growth. In the environmental dimension, fossil fuel energy systems are major sources of environmental stress at global as well as local levels; the most notable example is climate change. In the social dimension, energy is a prerequisite for the fulfillment of many basic human needs and services, and inequities in energy provision and quality often manifest themselves as issues of social justice.  Greenhouse gas emissions can be substantially reduced only by replacing fossil fuels with some combination of renewable energy, nuclear energy, and improvements in the efficiency of energy use. How do we do that?  This talk explores the importance of energy in our lives and in climate change, and the barriers and opportunities in the transition to low-carbon energy system.

Monday, November 16 – Dr. Les Kaufman, Professor of Biology, CAS, BU

Handmaiden to Extinction: Climate Change and Massive Loss of Ecosystem Services in Coral Reefs, Tropical Great Lakes, and Global Fisheries

Monday, December 7 – Bud Ris, Senior Climate Advisor, Barr Foundation

Preparing Boston for Climate Change

Boston is one of the most vulnerable cities in the United States to the effects of climate change. In collaboration with the Green Ribbon Commission, the City is launching a multi-year initiative to identify the neighborhoods and infrastructure that face the greatest risks. A diverse array of solution strategies will be developed for each of these areas. Mr. Ris will review the rationale and anticipated outcomes for this project.

Thursday, December 10 – More Information Coming

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