COLUMBUS – In a rare renaming of a glacial feature, the Advisory Committee for Antarctic Names has designated Ice Stream B in the western portion of Antarctica as the Whillans Ice Stream, in honor of late Ohio State University glaciologist Ian Whillans.
Whillans died May 9, 2001, after 32 years of service to the university and 38 years of service to polar science. A native of Toronto, Ontario, Whillans was born Feb. 25, 1944, and earned his doctorate in geology and mineralogy from Ohio State in 1975.
Julie Palais, glaciology program manager at the National Science Foundation and member of the committee, said in her official announcement that the choice of Ice Stream B was especially appropriate. “Whillans was a major figure in the study of West Antarctic ice streams, particularly this one,” she wrote, “and he had a central role in recognizing from the earliest years that these ice streams hold the key to determining the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.”
W. Berry Lyons, professor of geological sciences and director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State, confirmed that Whillans was “one of the world’s leaders” in trying to unravel the dynamics of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Understanding the environmental factors that cause the ice sheet to expand – or melt away – is a matter of “great societal importance,” he said.
Unstable ice sheet. Unlike the ice in East Antarctica, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered unstable because a large portion of it floats on water above the sea floor. For this reason, scientists suspect that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is particularly sensitive to global climate change, and they have long debated whether global warming would cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse. The break-off from the ice sheet of huge, tabular icebergs in recent years has increased those suspicions.
If so much ice melted into the oceans at once, sea levels could rise as high as 20 feet all over the world, within a single century. The results would be catastrophic to life on earth, and change the faces of the continents as we know them.
Though he did much of his work in Antarctica, Whillans studied ice flows in the Arctic as well, reveling in the adventure kindled in his mind as a child, when he read books about the great polar explorers.
In a brief autobiographical sketch for an educational Web site at Rice University (http://glacier.rice.edu), Whillans wrote that his boyhood fascination with the poles grew into an adult profession when he “became challenged by puzzling things out.” He set about findings ways to study whether polar ice was growing or shrinking, including drilling long ice cores from the frozen polar surface to measure annual growth layers.
He wrote with a great deal of humor about his exploits on the ice, including the late 1960s, when he won an MD – Macho Driller – degree. The all-male drilling expeditions of the time were very macho, he explained, and the men awarded an MD to the team who could drill the longest ice core in the shortest time.
“A team mate and I held the record for drilling 18 meters of ice in five hours,” he wrote. “That’s really something isn’t it? And then that record was taken over, and as far as I know, is still held, by two women who drilled 18 meters of ice in three hours! Well, they did have good weather … but more important is that they thought of a way to do it much faster! The days of pure brawn are over, it is more important to think things out!”
Innovative. Over his career, Whillans employed some innovative scientific strategies. He pioneered the “coffee can method” for measuring whether the ice was thickening or thinning. He and his colleagues planted empty coffee cans in the ice, and tracked their movements over many years as the ice flowed out to sea. Today, scientists use special wires to take this measurement, but the technique is still referred to as the coffee can method.
With his special understanding of glacial dynamics, Whillans helped the United States Antarctic Program find a safe route for heavy tractor trains to travel between its main base at McMurdo Station and the South Pole. And when a band of ice opened near the McMurdo airstrip, causing fears that a dangerous ice crevasse was forming, Whillans led the expeditions that determined the new feature was a benign one – probably caused by sea water percolating up from deep within the ice.
The effort to rename an Antarctic feature after Whillans began days after his death, when Ken Jezek, professor of geological sciences and former director of the Byrd Polar Research Center, started an e-mail campaign that he says “quickly took on a life of its own, thanks to the good wishes of the glaciological community.”
Unusual renaming. Normally, the Advisory Committee for Antarctic Names assigns designations to only unnamed features. According to the committee guidelines, features are to be named after “the representatives of many nations, who, by their heroic efforts to broaden man’s knowledge of this land of ice and snow, have fully demonstrated the international nature of the world of science.”
Though Whillans fit that description, the committee’s Palais commented that it is highly unusual for a feature to be renamed once it already has an established name which is in common use, as was the case with Ice Stream B.
On Oct. 28, 2000, during the third Byrd Polar Colloquy, Whillans received the Goldthwait Polar Medal, the Byrd Polar Research Center’s most prestigious award, which is given in recognition of outstanding contributions to polar research and national and international collaborations.