United States
Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research

W. Berry Lyons

W. Berry Lyons

Professor & University Scholar
School of Earth Sciences

The Ohio State University

Your work involves studying the geochemistry of streams, lakes, subglacial aquatic environments, as well as soils and dust in Antarctica. How did you become interested in your field of study?

Well, it is a real story of serendipity in terms of how I ended up going down this path. I had arrived at the University of New Hampshire as a postdoc. About the same time I arrived, my department hired a young glacial geologist named Paul Mayewski (now at University of Maine), whose doctoral dissertation was focused on work in the Antarctic. We became very good friends, and around a year into our friendship Paul learned that one of his NSF proposals to go back to Antarctica was funded. One day he knocked on my door and said, “Hey Lyons, do you want to go to Antarctica with me?”. I was a chemical oceanographer, and my dissertation focused on work in the coastal zone. Even though I used chemical tools to look at water, I didn’t know anything about Antarctica or ice in general. Being born andf raised in Florida made it even more bizarre that somebody should ask me to go to Antarctica, so I said, “Sure, why not?”. The following field season – sometime in the early 80s – Paul and I and a few students went to Antarctica, and I got hooked. I remember Paul telling me that only two types of people come back from Antarctica: a type that never wants to go back and another that returns year after year

I can relate to that. Someone once told me the expression, “You never go to Antarctica twice.” In the 15 plus years you’ve been to Antarctica, what would you say are some of your most memorable experiences?

"Every time I go into the Dry Valleys, I have to pinch myself because the beauty of the landscape is just unbelievable."

Every time I go into the Dry Valleys, I have to pinch myself because the beauty of the landscape is just unbelievable. Being on the ice sheet for the first time, having never thought about ice sheets – let alone imagine being on one – was really a memorable experience. I think about the first humans to ever walk in those valleys were Scott’s expedition in 1903. I also think about how few people in the world have ever had the opportunity to see such a landscape, and it is kind of mind-boggling to me. But even though the beauty and harshness of the landscape left an impression, I’d say the people that I’ve worked with over the years have been the real highlight. Having collaborators and colleagues and people you can talk science with that you’re really close to personally is really important to me. Not just my association with Paul, but I’ve been a part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) group that continues to function. There are five of us from the initial group that are some of the closest friends in the world.

LTER group photo from 2002. The group is standing on the Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Kneeling left is Ross Virginia, Dartmouth College, left to right standing, John Priscu, Montana State University, Berry Lyons, The Ohio State University, Diane McKnight, University of Colorado, and Diana Wall, Colorado State University, and kneeling right, is Andrew Fountain, Portland State University.

I can imagine. I know how close you can get to your team over the course of one field season. It must be really special to have a cohort to continue going back with over the years. You mentioned the LTER program or the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Program. You’ve been involved with this program since the beginning, and have served as the Lead Principal Investigator. Can you tell me more about how the program came about and your involvement?

Over the period of working with Paul in Antarctica, I got to meet a lot of the Antarctic community, and I met a fella named Bob Wharton. He was an ecologist at the Desert Research Institute at Reno who had done a lot of work on lake systems in the Taylor Valley. He was putting together a group of people to develop an LTER, a Long-Term Ecological Research project in the Dry Valleys. Because I had done geochemistry on ice and snow and have a background in water-related work, he approached me about getting involved with the LTER proposal. Our first proposal failed but was funded the following year. The first field season of the Dry Valleys LTER was in 1992-93, but some of the work is still being funded today. I worked on it for the first 24 years and helped with the first four proposals to continue funding the program. We’ve monitored mainly the Taylor Valley; although we work everywhere from Wright Valley, further south into Garwood, and into Miers as well.

The LTER is a relatively large interdisciplinary program to study this one region. I feel like there are two models for research projects. You often have large projects where lots of scientists from different backgrounds are working on the same problem, and then you have smaller individual projects where a particular group will hone in on their own expertise and focused scientific question. Is there a particular one of these models that you like more?

I really like when people get together to try to work on one or two things. For example, the LTER is involved in trying to understand how our changing climate, which manifests itself in many ways, affects the structure and function of the ecosystem. That’s not by definition an explicit geochemical problem. I like getting together with this larger group to try and integrate and synthesize our ideas on how to approach the same problem from different points of view. That’s not disparaging smaller individual projects, but I like the larger interdisciplinary projects the best.

A U.S. Antarctic Program participant explores Taylor Valley in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the very few regions in Antarctica largely devoid of ice. Taken January 24, 2014. Photo credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF.

Have you experienced any barriers working with scientists from different fields or academic backgrounds?

Absolutely. I think there are issues such as language, culture, timescale of interest, and approach. If you go back and look at our publication record from the LTER program, it took a number of years before PIs from different backgrounds co-authored the same paper. It takes time to learn the language. Because the LTER is an ecologically driven program. I had to figure out how I could best help the ecologists and the microbiologists better understand what they were interested in. I think it takes some patience, and I think it’s something that not everybody is cut out to do. I think you need the personality that is conducive to wanting to collaborate and work together, and you have to understand that you’re not going to have success overnight. It’s going to take some time and energy.

Let’s dive into some of the specifics of your recent work. Lately, you’ve been involved with the SALSA or Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access project. How long has this project been going on, and how did you get involved with it?

John Priscu, my colleague from Montana State who has also been a part of the LTER project, reached out to me about getting involved with SALSA. He had participated in a previous program called WISSARD or the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project, which studied some of the subglacial lakes of Whillans Ice Stream. SALSA has three components: the hydrology/ice sheet component, a paleo climate/geology component, and a microbial/biology/chemistry component. John asked me and my group to get involved with the geochemical measurements. The field season was from December of 2018 to January of 2019. I wasn’t in the field, but Chris Gardner, a research scientist in my group, was part of the field team studying the geochemistry of the subglacial water system beneath the Mercer Ice Stream. Our contribution has been primarily to help with the overall geochemistry, and specifically to look at chemicals and constituents that would aid weathering and trying to understand the resident time of the lake waters and what’s going on with rock/water or water/till interactions.

So, SALSA is kind of an offset of the Whillans/ WISSARD work? Why did this project switch over and study the subglacial lake under the Mercer Ice Stream?

I can tell you what I know. The Whillans/ WISSARD work was studying the central hydrological basin of that particular ice stream; I believe they wanted to work in a more active hydrological area, so they went to the neighboring Mercer Ice Stream. Helen Fricker (University of California, San Diego) and her students and collaborators have been using laser altimetry to observe the ice sheet fluctuating up and down. We know from their GPS measurements that this is a very active system. The subglacial lakes fill and then rapidly release water which moves downstream.

Ok, and then your work focuses on the geochemistry side. Your colleague Chris Gardner was in the field and collected water samples. Can you tell me a bit more about the drilling and water collection process?

They have a hot water drill and a system where they sterilize everything that goes down the hole, so they drill very quickly down to the base of the ice sheet. Then they are able to drop samplers down through the hole into the lake. They collect water and sediment samples for the geological component of the study. They also collected pore fluids from the sediments. Time is of the essence for this sort of thing; the glacier’s moving and refreezing, and so while I wasn’t there, it was an efficient operation and amazingly, smoothly run. The samples that were needed were collected, and the drillers, support staff, and scientists were really up to the task. John deserves a lot of credit for his organizational skills as well as a lot of other great scientists involved.

Dr. Chris Gardner, Ohio State representative in the field for SALSA, standing next to the hot water drill.

So, this field season took place in 2018/2019, which is fairly recent, and of course, there’s been a pandemic. I’m guessing the work is still ongoing.

Yes, you know the pandemic has taken its toll. Normally we would get together as a group because everybody’s got pieces of the puzzle we want to spend time integrating. We’ve tried doing that via Zoom calls and things, but it’s not really the same, so there’s still work to be done to synthesize and integrate all of the information. But we’re still finalizing things on the microbiology and geochemistry end.

Another one of your recent projects was in the Taylor Valley. You and the LTER have been studying this area for over 20 years, but your research group has focused on findings from recent field seasons in the last few years, is that right?

Yes, this was a project that was led by Chris. We’re very interested in the input of iron into the Southern Ocean. As you’re probably aware, the Southern Ocean is one of these unusual places in the ocean that has an abundant amount of nitrogen and phosphorous, but it doesn’t have substantial chlorophyll. In other words, it appears that something other than nitrogen and phosphorous is the limiting growth to primary production. John Martin in 1990 suggested it could be iron. There’s been a lot of work trying to understand the iron limitation to phytoplankton growth in the Southern Ocean. And if there were changes climatologically, would there be increases or decreases in iron put into the Southern Ocean? So, one of the things we started looking at a number of years ago was the concentration of iron in the streams in the Taylor Valley. We published a paper that looked at iron in all the streams. There are actually only a couple of streams in Taylor Valley that actually flow into the ocean, so I had a master’s student who did some work looking at these two streams and found relatively high iron concentrations. We speculated that if the climate was changing, we would get more glacier melt that would flow into the McMurdo Sound, and this might be important to phytoplankton growth. This work was published a couple years back in JGR Biogeosciences. So, the project that Chris is leading is going further, looking at the physio-chemical form of the iron – whether it be bioavailable to plants and general – and trying to understand where it’s coming from in the stream-glacier system. That fieldwork was done in January of 2020. Of course, we got down and back before COVID really hit, but we couldn’t get into our lab at Ohio State to analyze the samples, so we’re a bit behind schedule. But you’re right in that this project really came out of some of the initial work that I was involved with in the LTER. I think the LTER has spawned a lot of really interesting things. It’s work that has developed from basic monitoring and experimental work that is really what drives the LTER science. It’s really a monitoring program where we go back to the same locations every year and take the same samples. We try to understand how both the physical and ecological environment is changing.

That’s really interesting. Just a few clarifying questions. In terms of where the iron is coming from in the weathering process, do you know exactly where it is produced?

We think it is coming from weathering of the stream bed and stream channel, the hyporheic zone, which is part of the stream channel that’s inundated with water. And so, we’re trying to understand exactly where it’s coming from and what the geochemical mechanism is that’s supporting its introduction. We are collaborating with colleagues at Penn State and the National University of Ireland, Galway to better understand the sources and physicochemical forms of the iron.

So, you’re trying to get a longer-term understanding of the timing of iron input into the Southern Ocean and its effect on phytoplankton. How are you piecing together future projections?

We’re thinking about the future of not just the Dry Valleys area, and we’ll probably draw information from the Antarctic Peninsula as well. But we’re thinking about glacial retreat in the future, the exposure of ice-free areas, and the production of water. I think we’ll try to do some sort of back-of-the-envelope calculations of what kind of additions one might expect 10 or 20 years from now based on what we know about the process and the fluxes we have determined from our study area.

Is there oceanographic evidence of the Southern Ocean changing over time in the area of McMurdo Sound?

Oh wow, that’s a good question. I think there has been some work done to look from glacial to interglacial periods where people have looked at proxies for production in the Southern Ocean sediments. I’m not as familiar with the work perhaps as I should be, but I think people have been very interested in that. Right now, we think that one of the biggest sources of iron in the system is dust; the other is probably iceberg melt. But as the winds and the dust burdens were higher during the last glacial maximum, maybe that was a major factor in drawing down CO2. So yeah, people in the oceanographic and paleoclimate community have thought about this a lot.

I can see there are a lot of interesting processes that must make studying this quite tricky. I had one more targeted question about the focus of your research. You received the 2020 SCAR Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research. The announcement highlighted your work on geochemical weathering of polar environments. This particular topic was – I don’t want to say controversial – but wasn’t always believed to be an important process in these regions. How has your work helped shift our way of thinking?

"...we were shocked when we started with the LTER because we found pretty high dissolved silica concentrations in a lot of these streams."

I think it probably was controversial. If you go to a geomorphology textbook, you’ll always see a plot of temperature versus precipitation, and it’ll go over the major processes controlling these environments. As you get into deserts and cold regions, chemical weathering was thought to be not very important or not happening at all. So, we were shocked when we started with the LTER because we found pretty high dissolved silica concentrations in a lot of these streams. The only way you can get dissolved silica is by weathering aluminum silicate minerals. I guess you could weather biogenic silica as well. So, we scratched our heads a little bit because it was not what we expected. I collaborated with Diane McKnight at CU Boulder and one of her former students, Mike Gooseff (also at University of Colorado Boulder), who’s now the leader of the LTER. We started to look at these hyporheic zones, and it was clear that the stream banks and channel settlements were really where the action was going on. That’s where the weathering is taking place. So even though one wouldn’t surmise that you would see high weathering in a polar desert, we do as long as there is liquid water and hyporheic interaction. Of course, this is probably aided by freeze-thaw processes as well, but the focus of the weathering is happening in the hyporheic zones. The weathering rates are really, really substantial. If you look at the Taylor Valley as a whole, there’s only liquid water in a small area of the valley, and so that’s where the weathering is going on. There’s probably not much of any weathering going on in the soils that don’t have liquid water, so it was kind of controversial, but I think everybody’s come to understand it when you think about it.

If you had to pick one science discovery during your time at Ohio State that you thought was the most interesting, what would you choose?

"...if you look at the chemistry of all of the streams, they are as diverse as the chemistry you see in rivers around the world. So, we’re looking at kind of a microcosm of chemical differences over a very small system."

Oh gee, you know there are so many. There have been so many I have really loved. Working with the biologists and the ecologists and thinking about how the chemistry I use can help them. I’ve been doing some work with Byron Adams (Brigham Young University) and Diana Wall (Colorado State University), looking at the chemistry of soils and trying to tie it to their ideas of what habitat suitability is. Can we use chemistry, maybe even to predict where you might find soil organisms? Melisa Diaz (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), who just finished her Ph.D. with me, worked on that project, and it's really been a great joy to try and understand biogeography by intertwining the chemistry of the soil with the distribution of both invertebrates and microbes. That’s been really fascinating and fun. The other thing I guess we found throughout our work in Taylor valley is, if you look at the chemistry of all of the streams, they are as diverse as the chemistry you see in rivers around the world. So, we’re looking at kind of a microcosm of chemical differences over a very small system. If you’re not a geochemist, you might not find it exciting, but to me that was mind-boggling.

You’ve been involved with SCAR since the 1980s. How did you first get involved?

"The other beauty of SCAR is you get to meet scientists from all over the world."

I had gone to at least one SCAR meeting, probably in the 1980s. When I became the lead PI of the LTER, the SCAR Life Science Group was having regular symposia. In the late 1990s, Polly Penhale, our NSF program manager, thought it would be wise to get more involved with the international ecological groups. She supported me to go to one of the SCAR meetings I was invited to in order to talk about the LTER. So that started me down the path of getting more involved. I got interested in the Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments (SALE) group and got more and more involved in the Geosciences Science Group. Eventually, I was elected the chief officer. At some point in this timeline I’m giving you, SCAR decided in a stroke of brilliance to have their Open Science Conferences. I think the first one was in the early 2000s, which I missed, but I’ve been to every one of them since. They’re my favorite meeting for a whole bunch of reasons. One is you get to find out what every nation that has an Antarctic program is doing. Plus, it suits my personality, right? I can go to a geology session, a glaciology session, an ecological session, and I can kind of pick and choose what kind of discipline I’m interested in and bounce back and forth. The other beauty of SCAR is you get to meet scientists from all over the world. I’ve been involved in the Open Science Conferences since the beginning, and I find them very useful scientifically, but I also like the sense of community they generate and continue to build.

I haven’t been to a SCAR meeting yet, but I definitely want to go. To bring things full circle, I really connected with your answer to the first question about serendipity and ending up in your field of research somewhat by chance; I have a serendipitous story of my own, and I feel really fortunate to be able to study glaciology in Antarctica. What advice would you give to early-career scientists just getting into the game if they want to get involved in Antarctic research?

"I often tell my students not to plan their futures too far in advance because you never know what opportunities will come up and misdirect you somewhere else."

Many students, when they’re 21-22 years old, have no idea what they want to do--or think they do, but they don’t. My advice is probably not very profound, but I would do some homework to sort out what your interests are. Find out what kind of work is going on in the Antarctic and who’s doing that work. Then I would start to make inquiries directly. Be bold; try to make contact and figure out who might be looking for students or looking for a field hand. And you know, sometimes it's not going to play out well, but other times it may. I think it's a hard area to get into because the community is small, and the number of people who would love to have the opportunity to go is relatively large. But I think you’ve got to try to make contact with the people who are going to be able to provide you with that opportunity, and like I said, that involves doing some homework and reaching out. I’d also say not to be discouraged if it doesn’t originally pan out. If you want to be a polar scientist but you don’t have the opportunity right away, continue down your path in whatever scientific discipline you're interested in. I often tell my students not to plan their futures too far in advance because you never know what opportunities will come up and misdirect you somewhere else.