Ohio: Home to Arctic Explorer Legacies & World Class Climate Science Researchers

By Pamela I. Theodotou, Media Specialist at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center in Columbus, Ohio

Admiral Richard E. Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett before their historic attempt to reach the North Pole by air on May 9, 1926. (Photo courtesy of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.)

The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center

In May 1926, Richard E. Byrd, an American naval officer from Virginia who had developed a passion for aviation and navigation during the first World War, and Floyd Bennett, a pilot from New York, were racing to be the first to fly over the North Pole.

Renowned Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was mounting his own attempt to reach the pole via a dirigible airship, the Norge, when Byrd and his team arrived in Spitsbergen on the Arctic island of Svalbard in Norway, the launch point of their expedition. Unable to disembark from their ship because a gun ship was moored from the only dock, they dangerously loaded their tri-motor monoplane, the Josephine Ford (named after the daughter of industrialist Edsel Ford, the financier of their expedition)onto a precarious flotilla of smaller craft and guided her to shore.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd: First Flight over the North Pole. (May 9, 1926) (Video courtesy of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.)

As those familiar with the history of Arctic exploration are aware, Byrd and Bennett were able to get the Josephine Ford airborne, fly to the North Pole, circle it, and come back to the same airfield before their competitors. Their record-breaking flight of 1535 miles lasted nearly 16 hours, and not only allowed them to claim the pole first, but established Byrd’s legacy as a daring polar adventurer. *

In 1929, Byrd went on to be the first person to fly over the South Pole. He would spend the rest of his career deeply engaged in bringing the American people an understanding of distant places through prolonged scientific expeditions to Antarctica and working tirelessly to instill an enduring interest in exploration of the polar regions.

Today, Byrd’s legacy is intertwined with that of the research institution that is his namesake. The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University is a polar, alpine, and climate research center founded in 1960, but the world class research institution was well known long before its affiliations with Admiral Byrd.

U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp, speaks at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center during a visit in 2016. (Photo credit: BPCRC)

Established in 1960 as the Institute of Polar Studies, the Center is the oldest research center on campus. In the mid-1980s, The Ohio State University submitted a proposal to acquire the expeditionary records, personal papers, and other memorabilia of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd from the estate of Marie A. Byrd, the late wife of the admiral. The bid was successful, due in part to the university’s ongoing commitment to polar research as evidenced by the accomplishments of members of the Institute. The purchase of these papers provided the nucleus for the establishment of the Polar Archival Program, a collaborative venture of the Center and The Ohio State University Libraries/Archives.

Three Ohio State University (OSU) alumni show their OSU enthusiasm by offering an Arctic take on the university’s popular trend of spelling out O-H-I-O. (Image credit: Pavithra Joshi)

The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center’s archives and collections

The BPCRC is multi-faceted in its connection to Arctic history, culture, and science. The corner stone of the Polar Archival Program is the Richard E. Byrd Papers, a collection that contains not only the written documentation of Byrd’s expeditions, but also includes artifacts, an enormous image collection, and original films. The Polar Archives has established itself as a repository for polar history, including collections of other famous explorers such as Sir George Hubert Wilkins and the records of the Frederick A. Cook Society, as well as a rich polar oral history collection.

What people may not realize is that the pursuit of science was a main objective of Byrd’s expeditions. In fact, Byrd was interviewed often and always acknowledged the scientists who traveled with him who represented more than 22 different scientific disciplines.

Byrd was a pioneer of polar aviation and tested various navigational equipment, some of his own design, in extreme climates. At the time of the 1926 flight, the major accomplishment of the expedition was actually the getting there — proving that flight was a viable means of travel in subzero conditions. Byrd was known for his attention to detail and meticulous planning. He was also an excellent promoter, signing contracts with newspapers and film companies to provide first-hand news reports, which would subsequently generate some of the funding he would need to continue his life’s ambition as a polar explorer.

What people don’t realize is how the pursuit of science was a main purpose behind his expeditions. In many of his interviews he proudly acknowledged the scientists who traveled with him that served 22 different branches of science.
Take a virtual tour of “Mysteries In Ice” exhibition celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program at Thompson Library, The Ohio State University October 2015 — January 2016. (Video courtesy of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.)

The BPCRC’s resources are vast. Along with the archive, The Goldthwait Polar Library at the BPCRC has an extensive published collection on the history of polar exploration, as well as works on contemporary glaciology, polar meteorology, glacial geology, remote sensing, and paleoclimatology. The library holds more than 1,000 maps of the polar regions and other important collections on public display, including a collection of Inuit carvings donated by Kenneth and Rosalie Drake.

The Golthwait Library has a unique collection of Inuit carvings donated by Ken and Rosalie Drake. (Photo credit: Pamela Theodotou)

The Center’s facility also houses the Polar Rock Repository. This unique collection of geological samples is a national facility, funded by the National Science Foundation, that contains 42,000 rock samples obtained from portions of the Arctic and every corner of Antarctica by U.S. scientists over more than 60 years.

The Polar Rock Repository is one of the world’s largest collection of rock samples from the Arctic and Antarctica, which are available to researchers from across the globe. (Photo: Pamela Theodotou)

The BPCRC as a leading climate research institution helping to guide our understanding of a complex planet

Led for the past seven years by Director Dr. Ellen Mosley-Thompson, the BPCRC and its scientists are on the cutting edge of science, helping to answer some of the most critical scientific questions about our planet’s dynamic systems. With nine research groups covering a wide range of topics — including environmental geochemistry, glacier dynamics, glacier environmental change, ice core paleoclimatology, paleoceanography, polar meteorology, and satellite hydrology — they, like their namesake Byrd, are pioneers in the Earth sciences and engineering.

BPCRC Director and Researcher Dr. Ellen Mosely Thompson and Researcher Dr. Lonnie Thompson discussing Climate Change with Christiane Amanpour (courtesy of CNN)

As an example, the Ice Core Paleoclimatology Group, guided by National Academy of Science members Drs. Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson, has an unparalleled collection of ice cores drilled during 64 expeditions around the world, including locations not typically associated with ice such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, the Andes of Peru, and island of Indonesia (even near the equator, glaciers can be found in the mountains at high elevations). On site at the BPCRC, large freezers hold approximately 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) of ice cores at a staggeringly cold -30 degrees Fahrenheit. These cores preserve millennia of climate histories captured in ice.

(L) Senior Research Associate Don Kenny pulls a core segment for testing in the BPCRC’s clean room. (R) Ice cores collected from the slowly disappearing glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Kenya in 2000. (Photo credit: Photos Pamela Theodotou)

The Center’s Paleooceanography Group, led by Dr. Leonid Polyak, logs many hours on research ships in the far northern waters of the globe, drilling deep sea cores from the floor of the Arctic Ocean. Many meters of these sediment cores are held in BPCRC cold storage facilities for study on site. The group’s research focuses heavily in the Chukchi Sea and the group works to better understand the Arctic Ocean’s history during the past several million years, including its coverage of sea ice.

The Environmental Geochemistry Group is another team collecting valuable data to help society navigate our climate future. Dr. Joel Barker’s research focuses on sampling unique, mummified plants preserved in the permafrost 3 million years ago, which are now being exposed as Arctic glaciers recede. These plant remains, including entire trees, were preserved beneath glaciers and are considered mummified rather than fossilized because the wood remains intact rather than having been mineralized. In fact, the wood is so well preserved that it will burn like a modern log. Dr. Barker’s research is painting a picture of what the atmospheric composition and biodiversity of plant species inhabiting the Arctic may look like in the near future.

The Glacier Dynamics Group, led by Dr. Ian Howat, monitors critical ice fields on the planet. Of particular interest has been Greenland, with its vast stores of ice and recently enhanced melting. Scientists maintain constant vigil on the conditions of these glaciers with satellites that capture imagery and sensors that track movements. These tools alert scientists to the host of changes occurring over time.

Deployment of GPS rovers on the Jakobshavn Glacier, Greenland via helicopter (Video courtesy of Ian Howat and Santiago de la Pena.)

Climate questions are also addressed through the use of powerful models running on super computers at The Ohio State University. Dr. David Bromwich leads the Polar Meteorology Group whose members process large amounts of data using computer programs, many of which they write, to understand complex interactions between the land, ocean, ice, and atmosphere in the Arctic during the present and recent past.

Display of weather research and forecasting output in 3D (Image courtesy of the BPCRC Polar Meteorology Group.)

As anchors to our dynamic oceans and atmosphere, the poles dramatically affect our weather. They also are harbingers of larger changes the planet is undergoing and, therefore, provide critical information in preparing for and responding to our new climate reality. As a dynamic institution for education and research, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center while continually engaging in cutting edge research, also offers outreach programs, tours of its facilities, teaching tools for schools, science speakers, and an online repository of informative videos to share our new understanding of earth. The center is a collaborative community of professionals illuminating the planet’s dynamic systems and assisting our global community to navigate our future decisions through the best scientific information available.

*In modern times, analysis of the atmospheric conditions the day of the flight and abilities of the aircraft have led scholars to conclude that while Byrd and Bennett would have been able to see the pole, unbeknownst to them, they fell short of circling it.

You can see more about our work and research groups at www.BPCRC.OSU.edu.

About the Author: Pamela I. Theodotou is a Media Specialist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC) where she produces films and media. Ms. Theodotou holds a Bachelors of Science Degree in Biology, a Law Degree, and a Masters in Fine Art. Her work with the BPCRC has focused on communicating cutting-edge research, educating the public about climate change, and exploring the nexus between art and science. Additionally, she produces her own documentary, fictional and historical works via her film company, NYXFILM (www.NYXFILM.com). Ms. Theodotou most recently worked with the BPCRC Archival Program and curator, Laura Kissel, to direct and produce the documentary feature Byrd 1933, which premiered at the Wexner Center for the Arts in autumn 2015. The film utilized exclusively original 35 mm film captured in 1928 and 1933 by Admiral Byrd and Paramount Studios during Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica. Information about the film can be found at www.Byrd1933.com. You can reach her at: Theodotou.2@osu.edu or through her website at www.Nyxfilm.com.

With Special Thanks to:

Laura Kissel, Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program Curator, and Jason Cervenec, the Director of Education and Outreach at the BPCRC.

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