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Ice Man Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Steve Nadis

Paul Mayewski reads the story of the Earth and its inhabitants in strands of frozen water

[image] Paul Mayewski displays one of hundreds of ice cores stored in the freezer and core processing facility at the University of Maine's Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies (Courtesy University of Maine) [LARGER IMAGE]

Paul Mayewski, having served for a decade as chief scientist for the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), is one of the world's leading experts on interpreting ice core data and seeing how humans have been affected throughout history by climate change. Drilling in the Greenland ice sheet ended in 1993, but the fruits of those efforts--both GISP2 and the European-led Greenland Ice Core Program (GRIP) collaboration--"still stand as the best dated, most highly resolved paleoclimate record ever obtained," says Mayewski.

Joining the University of Maine faculty a year ago, after a 25-year stint as director of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, Mayewski now co-directs the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies, coordinating research that engages geologists, oceanographers, environmental scientists, and archaeologists. "I love putting together large, interdisciplinary programs," he says. "I get pleasure not only from combining data from diverse sources, but also by getting a variety of experts to attack common problems from different perspectives."

The Greenland ice cores encapsulate 250,000 years of the planet's history. Annual layers have been identified for the past 110,000 years, albeit with some uncertainty. Over the last several hundred years, resolution is good enough to ascribe events to specific seasons. Such resolution offers unique opportunities to archaeologists concerned with the influence of climate on the populations they study.

[image] Mayewski and crew cut through ice layers then weigh and measure the core, left, before shipping it to the lab in Maine. They wear plastic suits and masks, right, when taking samples from walls of snow pits in Antarctica. (Courtesy University of Maine) [LARGER IMAGE] [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

One of the biggest surprises to emerge from GISP2 is the discovery of rapid climate shifts, taking place within a matter of years or decades. "We have found eight abrupt changes in climate during the last 10,000 years that coincide with changes in civilization," Mayewski says. Such climate changes, he adds, can put people living on the edge--in cold or arid environments--at risk. "If you live in a marginal area, a slight change in temperature or moisture can put you out of business."

How important is a temperature shift of just a few degrees? Mayewski has teamed up with archaeologists in an attempt to answer that question, studying whether minor climatic variations can have major consequences for human societies. Some interesting projects involving Inuit, Norse, Maya, and Near East prehistory, among others, are well under way.

"Most people think that human civilization evolved under a stable, benign climate, but that's not true," he says. "Seeing how humans have coped, or not coped, with climate change in the past will be instructive as we enter a more complicated period of both natural and human-induced change."

Paul Mayewski's adventures in procuring ice samples and unlocking their secrets are detailed in The Ice Chronicles, a book he published this year with co-author Frank White.

Steve Nadis is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America