Peter Doran at the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica Courtesy of Peter Doran
Earth scientist Peter Doran splits his time between Antarctica, where he is a co-primary investigator of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Project (LTER), and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In January 2002, Doran published a paper in Nature asserting that the majority of Antarctica had cooled between 1966 and 2000. Climate change skeptics and newspaper editorials cited the study as evidence against global warming: Shortly after the publication in Nature, Joseph Perkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune sarcastically wrote, “Oh dear. What will the doomsayers say now?” More recently, Michael Crichton referenced Doran’s study in his 2004 novel State of Fear, and Ann Coulter hailed the paper in her 2006 book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. (Scientists have overwhelmingly criticized both books.)
Doran grew frustrated, and on July 27, 2006, he published an op-ed in The New York Times calling climate change skeptics on their misuse of his research. He also asked that his name be “removed from the list of scientists who dispute global warming.”
Today, Doran’s research at McMurdo focuses on Antarctic lakes—specifically the manner in which climate affects their ecology.
Why do your field work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys?
The Dry Valleys are one of the coldest and driest land-based ecosystems on earth. You can’t really go much colder and drier and expect to find anything living, so it’s looking at life on the edge, essentially.
The idea is to try to document why and how the ecosystem there survives, what the long-term changes are—as climate changes, how does it respond?—and try to tie that into what’s going on elsewhere on Earth.
How have these extreme conditions affected life in the Dry Valleys?
The big thing is that there are no animals. There are no bears or ducks wandering around. The highest order of organism is soil nematodes that are a millimeter long. So our studies, just because of that, are very different, because we don’t have a lot of external influence from these larger animals. Mostly, we’re living off of past events. We have a very strong legacy in our ecosystem—a resource legacy where the microbes are living off of energy inputs that were delivered years ago.
What have you learned about this ecosystem?
One of the things we found is that our ecosystem responds very rapidly to climate change. It’s much more able to take these extremes in climate because it’s already living at the edge. The quickness of the response to the changing climate, amongst global ecosystems, is pretty remarkable.
And yet the other side is this legacy where impacts can go on for thousands of years. These long-term resources hang around and drive the ecosystem, but you also get rapid shifts back and forth in the make-up of the ecosystem.
How has the climate been changing in Antarctica?
In our 2002 Nature paper, we talked about the trends over the last 14 years in the Dry Valleys. It showed a cooling in the Dry Valleys, which is still going on today. With the cooling you get dropping lake levels and thicker ice covers, and with thicker ice covers there’s less sunlight going into the lakes, so the productivity goes down.
In the soil environment, there was a decrease in the numbers of nematodes, and that’s still going on today as well. It’s kind of mysterious.
We also went out and looked at what’s been going on continent-wide. We teamed up with John Walsh, now at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who does more large-scale climate measurements, and we showed that the entire continent—about 60 percent of it—has, over the previous 30 years, been cooling.
How do you explain the cooling trend?
One of the theories is that there’s an ozone hole over Antarctica, and it’s causing the cooler temperatures, because ozone is a greenhouse gas. If you have a hole over Antarctica, you have a cooling up high in the stratosphere, and that cooling is propagated to the ground.
There have actually been some models showing that to be the case. And as the hole heals because we’ve been eliminating CFCs and things that destroy ozone, Antarctica will start to kick in and warm. The models show that 50 years from now, Antarctica will be warming more than the global average. It will start to contribute its part to global warming.
How will these changes in temperature shape Antarctica?
One thing we’re starting to realize is that episodic events are really important. We had one really warm summer in 2002—we call it the “flood year”—that created all this stream flow. When you look at the climate trend, it’s still generally cooling through that whole period, but we had this one warm period in the summer that created havoc.
It pointed out to us that the long-term trends are not necessarily as important as these episodic, quick warming events. One summer’s warming wiped out 14 years of lake level decrease. And you can’t go the other way—you can’t drop the lake levels in one summer.
That warm summer was around the same time that our paper in Nature came out about the cooling. So everyone was saying, “What cooling? It’s warm as hell down here.” It turns out it was just that one summer.
Are these episodic events human-induced?
That’s hard to separate. Most scientists today support the idea that the globe is warming on average. There is some argument amongst the fringe players that it’s human induced, but the consensus is that it is. It’s just hard to identify single events as being human induced.
What are other groups researching in the Dry Valleys?
The other avenue of research is “exobiology” or “astrobiology.” The [National Science Foundation] funds the LTER, which looks at the basic ecosystem functioning as a terrestrial ecosystem. And then NASA sometimes kicks in some money to look at the ecosystem as a model for what might have existed on Mars in the past, when there was more water and the climate there was warmer than it is today. We’re looking at what could be models of the last aquatic ecosystems on Mars as it cooled.
Now, astrobiology funding is taking some really serious hits—the NASA budget is getting re-prioritized and astrobiology took a 50 percent budget cut this year. That’s got everyone re-thinking their priorities in where they want to do their research, because there’s not a lot of money to go around anymore. Everything is re-focusing on the new Bush administration plan to go to the moon, Mars, and beyond, but it’s all focusing on exploration, and the science is getting cut.
So does it seem like politics is taking priority over science?
Yeah. It’s really kind of short sighted. It’s putting everything on exploration: sending people out there just for the sake of sending people out, rovers just for the sake of sending rovers out. But what are you sending rovers out to look at? You need to figure out from a scientific point of view what you’re looking at and what the significance is. That’s what the science end is trying to do, but they’re really cutting that to bare bones, and I think it’s a dangerous thing to do.
How much longer do you think the McMurdo project will last?
So long as we continue to do good science and get well reviewed, which we have so far, then it will continue. NSF wants to keep these things going because they’ve now created nice long-term data sets that people can use. We make the data publicly available, so for instance, if someone wants to go and access our climate data from the Dry Valleys, it’s right there on the Web site. It’s a pretty valuable resource to have these long-term data sets out there.
What are some of the major questions you hope the LTER will answer in the next five or 10 years?
The big thing now is diversity and the impact of climate on diversity. As you turn the temperature down, are we reducing diversity? As you turn it up, do we cause more species to proliferate? [We’re] trying to tie in these basic ecological theories into more of a global picture. How does everything fit into common ecological principles elsewhere on Earth?
Originally published September 26, 2006