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Face-to-face with climate change: Q&A with University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall

March 27, 2012

Diana Wall's collection of penguins includes a bumper sticker with the penguin crossed out and the words "Refrigerate, do not freeze" underneath.

It’s a nod to her important research on climate change and the affect that change is already having on Antarctic species. Wall, a terrestrial ecologist, has worked in the most extreme ecosystem on earth, the Antarctic Dry Valleys, for more than 20 field seasons.

“Wall Valley” was designated in her honor. A University Distinguished Professor at CSU, she recently returned from a visit to the Antarctic’s Palmer Station as one of only three scientists chosen for a White House Blue Ribbon Panel to evaluate the future of U.S. research in Antarctica.

While she was gone, she received word that she had received the 2012 SCAR President’s Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research – an interdisciplinary committee of the prestigious International Council for Science. She will receive the award, which is presented once every three years, this summer at the 2012 Meeting of the SCAR Open Science Conference.

“Getting recognized by your peers for the quality of your research is the best,” Wall said. “Particularly because Antarctica is a continent set aside for international scientific study and the award signifies recognition of my contributions by numerous outstanding Antarctic researchers – glaciologists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, oceanographers.”

Today@Colorado State talked with Wall about the award and her recent trip to Antarctica.

Q: What did you learn from your most recent trip in February?

A: I was face to face with climate change. The place I went to in Antarctica is the fastest warming place on the planet: the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed 4.5°F. We went to one island near there where there had been 900 pairs of Adelie penguins 10 years ago and there are eleven pairs now. Their food lives beneath the ice, but the ice that once surrounded their island has melted and moved far away. The parents are having to swim further and further for their food, and when they return, they don’t have as much food to give their chicks. Additionally, the climate patterns have changed and there is more snow: when that snow melts, the eggs get wet. They just don’t survive.

Q: Members of your Blue Ribbon Panel visited Antarctica to evaluate the logistics involved with U.S. research. What did you find?

A: Our charge is to conduct an independent review of the U.S. Antarctic Program to ensure that the nation is pursuing the best 20-year plan for conducting science and diplomacy in Antarctica - a plan that is environmentally sound, safe, innovative, sustainable and consistent with the Antarctic Treaty. We’re looking at everything - from how much energy we are using at U.S. stations and on ships, to alternative energies, more efficient wastewater handling, transfer of data from the field, water efficiency use., shipping, transportation and housing. We’re looking at more remote sensing of data, when to use ships and when to use planes.

Q: What did you observe about international partnerships?

A: We are going to increase our collaborations internationally. At Palmer Peninsula there are a large number of international stations – Chile, Argentina, Korea, Russia, China and Brazil were all located within a space the size of our campus in Fort Collins.

Antarctica needs an international observation system that’s collaborative and interdisciplinary to see how fast the ice is melting with climate change, and how the ocean and terrestrial life is responding, so we need to have everybody’s input. All the nations around the Arctic Circle are already collaborating on an observation network of how the land is changing and the sea ice is changing, but there isn’t a similar network for Antarctica.

Q: When will the report be published?

A: We have one more meeting in late April and the chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel (Norm Augustine - retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin) expects the report will be finished by late May or early June. It was really great working with him.

Q: Did you have fun on the trip?

A: Yes! Going across the Drake Passage can be horrible and I was lucky I didn’t get seasick. We had a delay coming back – we just had another day on the ship. Weather delays are common.

Q: What was the coolest thing you learned?

A: I think the coolest thing I learned was about the impact climate change is having on animals we take for granted: Adelie penguin populations declining after 600 years in one spot and now they’re gone. We have seen soil invertebrates decline with changing climate in the most extreme region of Antarctica where I work, the Dry Valleys also. Antarctica, like the Arctic, is changing quickly in our lifetime. That’s an amazing story.

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336