Mysteries in Ice: A Commemoration of Polar Science and Admiral Richard Byrd's Antarctic Expeditions


I have read through mountains of archive material on him and I can't say enough about both his integrity and his tenacity. He comes from an age of gentlemen. He carried his public persona with a great deal of respect and honor. As a genuine adventurer he was an American heroic figure, a role which he took as a public trust to uphold as an obligation and not for fame's sake. The letters you read in the archive whether they are to presidents or to school children are always heart warming, serious and genuine... 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.

-- Pamela Theodotou, Media Specialist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and director of the documentary feature, Byrd 1933

To most, when talking about climate science and polar research, a few different things come to mind: the debate about climate change, the health of polar ice caps, and images of scientists bundled in heavy gear braving a frozen and ice-covered wasteland.

What many don't think about is the origin of climate science and polar research, or that one of the most famous polar explorers, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, is the only individual in history to have had three ticker tape parades in New York City commemorating his accomplishments.

In fact, many people today have never even heard of Admiral Byrd, or even knew he existed.

Two different projects featuring Admiral Byrd, and one respected research center in particular, are seeking to change this, bringing attention to both the history of polar research and marking pointed and necessary attention to the science behind the often rancorous media debate.

One is an exhibition commemorating polar science, featuring artifacts from Byrd's expeditions, and the other is a documentary feature film, containing footage shot by Paramount cinematographers during Byrd's famous 1933-35 expedition to Antarctica, recently restored and masterfully pieced together by The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center's media specialist, artist and filmmaker Pamela Theodotou.

In terms of the exhibition, featuring content and artifacts from Byrd's polar expeditions, the point: to show that from the late 1800s on, there has been a dedication to climate science; this, despite misinformation (or disinformation according to many) is not a new area of discourse.

Further, the spirit of exploration and scientific research is alive and well, not in small measure because of extraordinary forebears who were noted heroes of their time, and who should very well be heroes even today for the dedication and passion to withstand, without today's technology, what many might think would have been impossible conditions.

The acquisition of Admiral Byrd's archive in 1985 was a seminal event for what was then known as the Institute of Polar Studies at The Ohio State University. Part of the successful bid was a willingness to rename the Institute in commemoration of Byrd, which was done in 1987, making it the Byrd Polar Research Center. The Polar Archives were then officially established in 1990. The exhibition and film are part of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Archives.

When asking the Center's Polar Curator, Laura Kissel, and its Director of Education and Outreach, Jason Cervenec, about Admiral Richard E. Byrd and the significance of the archive, a couple of things are clear: the necessity to educate about polar science and climate research in general, and giving necessary credit to Admiral Byrd for being a truly powerful polar explorer who not just captured the public imagination during his expeditions, but who also had a passionate dedication for science.

According to Kissel: "Byrd's career in polar exploration spanned decades, beginning with his expedition to Greenland in 1925, and ending with his fifth expedition to Antarctica 1955-1956. These explorations accounted for the discovery of hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory... [Byrd] personified the inception of the mechanical era of Antarctic exploration. No other person in Antarctic history has contributed more to the geographic discovery of the continent than Byrd."

Never mind, one who in addition to the rare honor of ticker tape parades in New York City, earned twenty-two citations and special commendations, including The Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, and those for bravery, with two "for extraordinary heroism in saving the lives of others."

"Byrd was certainly a hero in the eyes of the public during his time. There were ticker tape parades held, he sold books about his expeditions, and went on extensive lecture tours across the country."

On the importance of the 1933-35 expedition:

"Many branches of science were represented including biology, meteorology, geology, geography, aerial exploration, oceanography, seismology, and terrestrial magnetism. Many "firsts" in the history of Antarctic exploration were achieved by the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. While still reliant on dog sleds, this was the first Antarctic expedition on which long-distance automotive transport proved to be of practical use. The first radio broadcast from Antarctica to the rest of world was on February 1, 1934. This expedition was the first to make seismic investigations of Antarctica, providing evidence as to the extent of whether the Ross Ice Shelf is aground or afloat. Byrd's status as a national hero was reinforced upon the conclusion of [the expedition]."

Jason Cervenec:

Admiral Byrd was conducting his expeditions in a time period when funding of scientific research was much different. He needed to line up philanthropists and corporate donors to finance the expeditions.

He also travelled extensively, speaking to the public. This allowed him to share his findings and build excitement, but also raise funds from speaking engagements. Following World War II, the federal government began to invest in scientific research.

We are currently in a time when many areas of science, including the Earth sciences, is facing a decrease in real dollars available. Before scientific information is placed online for the public to read, a person or team had to conduct research that was peer reviewed and published in a journal.

Since the research process is far removed from the average citizen, it is easy to forget that investment in research is necessary to continue to learn new things. While there is still so much to learn, it is fascinating to think about how much we know.

Including how much we know because of Admiral Byrd, and the inspiration and passion he generated among his many public audiences, whether on the radio, or in public speaking engagements. Many of today's climate scientists and polar researchers owe a great deal to Byrd, including for the kinds of work they are even today able to accomplish.

In terms of the exhibition itself, some of that excitement exhibition curators are hoping to recreate by letting visitors put themselves both figuratively -- and literally -- in Byrd's place, if only to also inspire and spark curiosity regarding both climate science, as well the internationally-recognized research of the Center.

"It [is] difficult for the public to understand the beauty and majesty of the places our teams work. We hope that by showing the equipment, photos, videos, and allowing visitors to wear the gear and climb into the tent, they will have a greater appreciation for the research and be able to get a glimpse of the exciting work we are doing. We are very proud of the clothing worn by Admiral Byrd, the Guliya ice core from China, and the board game themed around Antarctic exploration," says Cervenec.

I think the two greatest challenges are providing a visitor with a full picture of the research that we conduct (because there are 10 teams) and helping them understand the conditions in which the teams work. What we have done is try to focus most of the center's programs on a subset of the teams based on the nature of the program offered and audience. For instance, when teachers call for a guest speaker or tour, I always ask them what they hope for their students to learn as part of the program. Based on the teacher's response, we select the team that has the best fit.

As an additional factor, and with increasingly more accessible, yet powerful technology, media is becoming increasingly important, not just for scientific education and outreach, but for the actual documentation of the research and research methods.

Regarding understanding field conditions, photos and video have been excellent tools. There are large print photos all around our center and our website is packed with video, much of it from the field. With equipment like GoPro cameras (the center now owns 4 and all 4 are often checked out simultaneously), teams are able to collect much more footage than in the past. The cameras are light, small, and rugged. In our exhibition at the library, we actually have a GoPro camera and memory card on display to contrast it with some of the large, heavy cameras and glass plates they had to bring into the field in the past.

Adds Pamela Theodotou:

We do two types of moving media currently, institutional/educational as well as documentary. So if you visit the Byrd website you can see both lectures from leading scholars as well as documentary and expeditionary films of our scientists in the field.

My projects at the BPCRC are always a documentary form focusing on field footage. In the two years I have been working on staff our department has generated over 100 videos for education as well as documentary films.

At any given time we have our film kit backpacks laden with cameras, batteries, memory cards and solar chargers traveling to both the Arctic and Antarctic, the Himalayas, the Alps, Greenland and the Andes. With technology so easily accessible it is simply a matter of [facilitating] our people to capture what they do.

In terms of efforts to document current projects:

A great example of that is sending cameras with a team lead by Dr. Lonnie Thompson to Tibet this fall where they expect to be drilling the oldest ice in the world on high altitude glaciers," says Theodotou.

"The project is considered among the scientists to be 'The Third Pole' and should yield very interesting and important data about earth's climate history. All of us at the BPCRC are very excited to see not only the samples and data they bring back but also the film footage of the entire expedition.

Film and media generated from the footage will allow the public to experience the high plateau, understand the process and the valuable nature of the work of these extraordinary scientists, as well as the results. Media allows the viewer to participate and care about a subject that pure data is hard pressed to do and it is unquestionably an invaluable tool to science.

Indeed, one of the legacies of both Admiral Byrd, and one of the greatest challenges for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, is making sure science trumps ignorance when it comes to both polar and climate issues.

Jason Cervenec:

We have individuals that arrive at our center for tours or attend our talks with various backgrounds and motivations. It is important in science to always keep an open mind but realize that claims are derived from evidence based on well-established principles. For who arrive willing to learn and ask questions, the experience is so much richer. The physics and chemistry of climate change are actually very straightforward and well established; in fact, the early research on the Greenhouse Effect is from the 1800s.

He continues:

The details of how climate change will impact the planet and its inhabitants, is much more complex and more difficult to describe to someone who does not have a background in science. Like any area of communications, clear analogies and great visuals help convey the message accurately.

I have found that it is fruitless to discuss climate change with individuals who are ideologically wedded to certain conclusions. In science, you must be willing to change your conclusion if new data does not support the original conclusion. If you are unwilling to change your conclusion, regardless of the data, then you are not reasoning scientifically and there is really no point in even discussing the data.

National Geographic had an excellent article last spring discussing our distrust of science in the US (think vaccines, GMO, climate change to name a few) even though we use the results of findings daily. I think that we need a more genuine conversation about science in this country to help the public understanding the complexity of research and how the scientific community establishes facts. I think that our center helps play a role in that conversation.

Additionally, perhaps exhibitions like the one commemorating the work of Admiral Byrd, and the Polar Archives, will help to both inspire and inform in a manner worthy of Byrd's own efforts in his lifetime, in that undertaking.

The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program (BPCRCAP) is a collaborative effort of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and The Ohio State University Libraries. Mysteries on Ice, the exhibition, is on display Thompson Library Gallery at the Ohio State University Main Library until January 3, 2016. For further information, please see

For more on Byrd 1933 and its world premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts, please see and