Geology and geophysics professor Peter Doran has conducted over 20 field seasons in Antarctica as part of the McMurdo Long-term Ecological Research program. One of his most recent projects involved the first application of the SkyTEM, a geophysical survey instrument, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
Doran was introduced to conducting research in cold regions through field work in the Canadian High Arctic. In 1992, he traveled to Antarctica for the first time as part of his Ph.D. project.
Doran became a co-principal investigator on the McMurdo Long-term Ecological Research program in 1999. MCM LTER’s research has been funded in six-year cycles by the National Science Foundation since 1992. The project is one of 26 research sites within the LTER network, all of which conduct similar research on different ecosystems around the world.
Although Doran is no stranger to working in cold environments, he said working in the coldest and driest ecosystem in the LTER network is one of the most challenging parts of his research.
“I tell my students all the time that working in that environment is like trying to go up an escalator that’s going down,” Doran said. “You have to put in that extra effort or else it will just push you back. You’re always fighting against the environment and the environment’s always fighting against you.”
The McMurdo Dry Valleys form the largest ice-free area in Antarctica and exist under extreme environmental conditions, including low humidity and frigid temperatures. The area’s ecosystem closely resembles the ecosystem on Mars, which actually led to Doran’s participation in several astrobiology projects funded by NASA.
The MCM LTER team studies how changes in the climate affect the Dry Valley’s ecosystem. Doran’s work largely consists of gathering meteorological data and researching the permanently ice-covered lakes. To collect year-round weather data, 13 automatic weather stations were placed in the area. Researchers collect the data and change the solar powered batteries once a year.
However, field work is necessary for research in the lakes. Doran is currently focusing on the ice cover around the edges of the lakes, which they expect to disappear as warming occurs. Doran’s team is exploring the shallow water around the edges of the lakes through scuba diving and taking measurements.
In a separate project funded by the National Science Foundation, Doran determined how much water lies beneath the icy covers of the lakes. To do this, Doran used an instrument called the SkyTEM, an airborne electromagnetic device that mapped the area’s geology. This was the first application of the SkyTEM in the Dry Valleys.
Doran learned there was much more groundwater under the lake’s icy covers than anticipated. This discovery affected the team’s understanding of how much water lies beneath the glaciers in the area.
“When you have water underneath glaciers, that impacts how the glaciers flow,” Doran said. “We can use that in future modeling for how glacier ice will move to the ocean and start affecting sea level rise.”
Antarctica contains a large amount of water that’s stored above sea level. As the climate continues to warm and that water moves out into the ocean at a faster rate, the sea level rises. Large changes in sea level rise will eventually lead to flooding and the relocation of much of the world’s infrastructure that’s been established at or below sea level for hundreds of years.
Through his research, Doran understands how changes in climate affects the Dry Valleys’ ecosystem and the implications sea level rise can have. He believes that society must first acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change in order to work toward solutions.
“For my own part, I keep trying to explain to people how science works and how we know this is real,” Doran said. “Science has stopped debating whether climate change exists or not. It’s time to start responding.”