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Seligman awardee 2019

Doug MacAyeal

Douglas R. MacAyeal

Doug’s career has spanned an epic transformation of the science of glaciology, and his research path, in particular his contributions to computational glaciology, has paced its evolution. His interest in ice sheets—and flair for the dramatic—started early. As a physics undergraduate at Brown University in the US, Doug developed an ice-sheet-driven catastrophe model of paleoclimate. That work was impressive enough to get him hired on the spot by the equally pioneering Robert (Bob) Thomas at University of Maine, and was eventually published in the Journal of Glaciology. Doug moved to Maine and joined a major field campaign in the Antarctic, the Ross Ice Glaciology and Geophysics Survey (RIGGS). Bob later reported that Doug was an enthusiastic member of the field team who paid attention to both the big picture and the small details that ensured data quality. It was a massive, important array of field data sets, and Doug introduced new ideas about how it could be used. In his M.S. thesis with Bob and Professor Terry Hughes, Doug used in situ temperature profile measurements to construct a history of melting and freezing beneath the ice shelf.

Recognizing the importance of the RIGGS data set to supporting and testing new theories, Doug continued to use them after he moved on to pursue a PhD at Princeton. Working with Professor Kirk Bryan, he used the finite element ice shelf model he had developed at Maine to make rapid advances in the area of ice-ocean interaction — far ahead of the present focus on that topic. Completed in 1983, his PhD research centered on a numerical model of tidal circulation beneath the floating ice, connecting this with the patterns of melting he had studied as an MSc student and with patterns of ice thickness. This topic remains a central focus in ice sheet studies today. Even as his work turned toward the computational, Doug never lost his love of field work. He pioneered the adaptation of mathematical models of ice sheet physics to high performance computing at a time when doing so meant the scientist had to travel to the computer. In addition to honing his modelling skills, Doug was developing an intellectual fearlessness that continues characterize his approach to science.

Mathematical models allowed Doug to make connections between the rapidly expanding knowledge of ice sheet physics and his undergraduate interest in Earth’s past. Following completion of his PhD, Doug was appointed as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, perched on the sedimentary remnants of the southern lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. This connection to the glaciological past must have been a great inspiration. He worked with students there to adapt models developed to keep pace with modern observations on a number of questions in paleoclimatology: from methane trapped in frozen peat, to the production of North Atlantic Heinrich Layers (via growth and decay cycles of Hudson Bay’s region of the Laurentide Ice Sheet), to changes in atmospheric circulation in the aftermath of ice sheet collapse. These views of the past all built on his modelling studies of West Antarctic ice streams and they inspired others to renew their interest in the potential for rapid change in marine ice sheets, a topic that had been pioneered by Doug and his thesis advisers back at U. Maine.

Doug’s work during the 1990s helped to establish the unique nature of extremely large, low-driving-stress ice streams. He worked with colleagues and students at Chicago to improve the mathematical theory and computational treatment of ice streams and helped lead the small but growing global ice sheet modelling community as it developed the first model inter-comparison projects. He tailored geophysical inverse methods (‘control methods’) to ingest the large data sets that were becoming available thanks to new Earth observing satellites and created spatially comprehensive views of the mechanical connection between ice streams and the underlying bedrock or till.

Doug kept pace with the rapidly developing field of satellite remote sensing and through the late 1990s. His research increasingly incorporated this data, but not always in the most obvious ways. When the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed and the community was busy thinking about past climate forcing and future implications, Doug focused on the “now”. He saw physics in the high-resolution satellite view of the icebergs and built a mathematical model that considered the role of mechanical interactions among icebergs as an added energy source for rapid disintegration. As the use of radar interferometry grew, Doug created his own synthetic interferograms from models and used these to ask what the models were missing when it came to rift evolution near the fronts of the large ice shelves.

During the 2000s, icebergs and theories of ice shelf collapse led Doug back to the field. He tried new tools to track ice motion and kick-started what is now a growing interest in iceberg and ice shelf seismology. Professor Hughes wrote about this work:

“From my perspective, his greatest contribution to glaciology has been analyzing calving dynamics from ice shelves, including broad swells of Pacific Ocean water produced by earthquakes, tsunamis, and storm systems that travel toward the Southern Ocean and, in attenuated form, pass under the Ross Ice Shelf, enabling resonant frequencies to develop on the ice shelf with the potential of disrupting the ice shelf into fragments in a short period of time. Again, this invokes Doug's fascination with catastrophism theory that got him into glaciology in the first place.”

Continuing with this theme, only Doug would have looked at melt ponds from space and concluded that in addition to mathematical theory, analog experiments were an obvious way forward. He proposed making artificial lakes in order to study their mechanical effects up close and in person—as it happened, a natural lake was available and used instead. And this unique perspective led a game-changing series of studies with Alison Banwell on the mechanical interactions of meltwater lakes on floating ice shelves.

Doug was an early leader scientifically, again and again finding new treasures where few had looked before: on extreme geometry changes to the Laurentide Ice Sheet, on the tidally-driven details of iceberg drift, on transoceanic sound propagation of iceberg scuffing, on snow drift within ice shelf rifts, on tsunami-induced calving and auto-calving due to iceberg toppling.

Doug’s leadership has also embraced service to the community. He was the Chief Editor of Journal of Glaciology from 1991 to 1998 and has served in an editorial capacity for 6 issues of the Annals of Glaciology. He led the IGS as President of the Society from 2011 to 2017, during the transition to a new publishing model and a partnership with Cambridge University Press. Doug committed to attending nearly all IGS symposia and all side events during his Presidency and as many local branch meetings as he could manage.
Doug’s storytelling skills are legendary. His ability to explain, with wit and gentle charm, the complexities of ice shelf disintegration, or ice sheet collapse, or simply how glaciers work, make him a highly sought-after speaker, exemplified by his selection for the Nye Lecture in 2013. He is additionally a great commentator for the public. He has appeared on PBS, BBC Horizon, in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, and most recently on Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, each time presenting our science as engaging, important, and advanced.

Perhaps Doug’s greatest contribution has been his mentorship of early- and mid-career scientists. Doug has spent most of his professional career at the University of Chicago, where he teaches at all levels of the curriculum and has won awards for his creativity and focus on student success. His lab is both welcoming and exciting. He is a generous thinker who always has an idea to share (indeed, once you work with Doug the emails full of interesting observations, new code, and new ideas never stop coming) and he is always interested in the ideas of others.

Alison Banwell, who worked at Chicago as a postdoctoral scholar in 2012 and 2013, wrote about Doug’s particular approach to mentoring:
“One of Doug’s most important mentoring skills is to encourage early career scientists to follow their own ideas, rather than his. And now, almost five years on, although I am no longer physically based in Chicago, I consider Doug to be an extremely valuable colleague who is just as encouraging as ever through his responsive emails full of interesting thoughts and ideas.”.

Ralf Greve wrote about the decision to visit Chicago as an exchange student, and reminded us that Doug was an early adopter of the open access model:
“What mainly attracted me was Doug’s ground-breaking work on ‘binge-purge’ ice-sheet oscillations as a cause of the North Atlantic Heinrich Events, and we set up the dynamic/thermodynamic ice sheet model SICOPOLIS for a flowline through Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait to study this problem. The time at Doug’s lab was very inspiring for me as he is an enthusiastic mentor, and the work led to a joint publication in the Annals of Glaciology. We continued to work together on ice sheet modelling issues within the first EISMINT model inter-comparison exercise. In 1997, Doug published his famous Lessons in Ice-Sheet Modeling, a mighty and freely available 428-page manuscript that was influential for a whole generation of scientists interested in the matter.”

Doug is a geophysicist and mathematical modeler who approaches every new question like an expedition into the wild. Developing code can be a lonely journey, full of many more failures than successes. Doug does not, in our experience, view this as an engineer would, a sequence of steps that lead inevitably to a destination. In Doug’s worldview, new code or any new idea is more like an expedition into uncharted territory. Even if the maths are deterministic, the process isn’t. It’s in the attention paid to both the whole and the part, it’s in the focus on what didn’t go as expected, that the insight and the learning come. He cares about the journey and about who he’s travelling with along the way. He cares who his students and collaborators are as thinking individuals, supporting them to follow their own ideas, not his.

Way back in 1988, Bob Thomas said of Doug: “Doug MacAyeal is at the forefront of the small band of polar scientists who are transforming the study of ice sheet glaciology from a series of hairy expeditions to picturesque places… into a strategic attack on a set of problems that are highly relevant to the study of global change.” It’s as true today as it was back then.

On each of these bases, but above all for groundbreaking and inspirational science, we nominate Professor Douglas MacAyeal for the Seligman Crystal.

In view of each of these bases, but above all his groundbreaking and inspirational science, the Council of the International Glaciological Society has decided to award the Seligman Crystal to Douglas MacAyeal.

The Awards Committee of the International Glaciological Society