CORVALLIS, Ore. – After serving for more than two years as the National Science Foundation’s first program director for integrated Antarctic research, Kelly Falkner tried to get out of her own going-away party.
Now the Oregon State University oceanographer is glad she attended.
Her colleagues in Washington, D.C., presented her with a framed photo of a coastal glacier in Antarctica, which they had named after her in recognition of her efforts to coordinate and broaden Antarctic research. “Falkner Glacier” is an east-flowing valley glacier stretching four miles long through the Mountaineer Range in Victoria Land.
“I was stunned,” she said. “One tradition for the Antarctic program appointments is to get a white boot signed by people in the office – just before they ‘boot you’ out. That’s what I expected, a boot. Instead, I got a glacier.”
The glacier officially was named by the United States Board on Geographic Names, following the recommendation of the advisory committee on Antarctic names in 2009.
A citation included in a framed photo of the glacier reads: “Dr. Falkner’s leadership, working with the community and with NSF, was critical to developing and implementing plans for this new research program that has significantly broadened the scientific opportunities within the U.S. Antarctic Program.”
In 2007, Falkner, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, was appointed the first program director of the “Antarctic Integrated System Science Program” in the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs. The irony is that Falkner, who essentially was on a two-year “loan” from OSU to the agency, is an expert on the Arctic Ocean, not Antarctica.
“I considered directing in the Arctic program or the Antarctic, and there would have been more of a conflict of interest doing the Arctic because of all my connections and those of other OSU researchers,” she pointed out. “Even though I had a steep learning curve with Antarctica, it brought a whole new realm to my understanding of polar science that I found fascinating.”
Her job as first director of integrated research was essentially to look at the literally hundreds of different research projects involving Antarctica and see what was being done right – and what was missing. What she found was that although many of the projects had some interdisciplinary components, few went far enough – or were broad enough – to begin answering questions about large-scale issues such as climate change or the causes and mechanisms behind the melting of sea ice.
As part of her duties, she went to Antarctica for a familiarization visit at the beginning of her appointment, and then later spent six weeks at the McMurdo base coordinating the science programs. In her final year, she traveled to the United States station on the Palmer Peninsula to assist with science and gain first-hand experience with U.S. Antarctic ship operations.
“It was truly an international experience,” she said. “I had to draw on every language skill I have.”
During her appointment she briefed the National Science Board on the latest research involving levels of sea ice, which have retreated dramatically in the Arctic, yet are comparatively stable in Antarctica. The difference, Falkner said, seems to be in how the ozone hole and atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide are affecting atmosphere and ocean circulation in the southern hemisphere.
“For now, these factors are promoting a longer season and larger geographic area where a fresh layer in the ocean surface, from increased precipitation, insulates the ice from the heat below,” Falkner said.
Now back at OSU, Falkner has returned her attention to the Arctic, where she has a five-year grant to continue studies at the North Pole Environmental Observatory. The focus of her research in that program is how various sources of water entering the Arctic contribute to ocean circulation – and how changing circulation patterns relate to the other major environmental changes in the north.
Falkner said she would like to return to Antarctica some day, knowing that a piece of it bears her name. Two years ago, en route to McMurdo from New Zealand, Falkner flew over the vast ice-covered expanse that is Antarctica. And though she didn’t know it at the time, at one point she was directly over Falkner Glacier.
“It’s not immediately accessible to anyone from land and, in fact, you’d have to mount quite an expedition to get to it,” she said. “It is an amazing place and I am incredibly honored that it’s named after me. But the odds are, I’ll never get to go there.”