John Walsh ’70 is one the world’s most prominent Arctic scientists, and his journey to the top of the globe started 4,500 miles away as an undergraduate at Dartmouth.
Now the chief scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbank’s International Arctic Research Center, Walsh was recently named the recipient of the 2016 International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) Medal for his “exceptional and sustained contributions to the understanding of the Arctic.” He will be presented with the award during Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks, which begins March 12.
While Walsh focuses on documenting the change, he has also studied adaptation strategies for Arctic communities affected in diverse ways by their new climate. Walsh stresses that the challenges for coastal communities, which are dealing with erosion and flooding, are different from inland communities, which may be dealing with a lack of fresh water. “Solutions need to have a sharp focus on a specific sector—they can’t be applied to all of the Arctic,” he says.
Ross Virginia, director of Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies and the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science, says Walsh is highly deserving of the recognition. “IASC is the major international organization dealing with Arctic science and science logistics, and this is their highest honor for scientific achievement,” he says. “John Walsh’s work on climate modeling and climate prediction has been central to understanding relationships between temperature change, snow, and sea ice change.”
Walsh says it’s hard to believe the changes he’s observed in his nearly 40-year research career. “In terms of the big picture, back in the early 1970s, the Arctic was actually cooling, but in the 1980s the turnaround in temperatures had occurred and really started to accelerate,” he says. “By volume we’ve lost more than half of sea ice since the 1990s, and I think that really drives home the acceleration of the change.”
Walsh says the Arctic is the “poster child” for climate change because of the pervasive nature of the warming. “In all components of the Arctic system—not just the atmosphere but the ocean, the sea ice, the glaciers retreating, permafrost thawing—we’ve seen a change that’s been systemic,” he says. “This complete system-wide manifestation of the change really stands out—that’s what separates the Arctic from other parts of earth system science.”
In conferences and through fieldwork, Walsh has worked with scientists at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory located in Hanover, as well as at Dartmouth, where students and faculty such as Virginia are studying the Arctic in a variety of ways including through a new academic cluster, Arctic Engineering in a Period of Climate Change. “The Arctic was more of a curiosity when I was at Dartmouth in the 60s—nothing like now,” says Walsh.
Nevertheless, Walsh says that his mathematics major and Dartmouth’s liberal arts education, which included courses in the new field of computer science, prepared him well for his career. Even his inspiration to study the Arctic came at Dartmouth when a polar pioneer named Bill Campbell visited to teach a course on sea ice. “Bill came through and really impressed me, and hooked me into this field,” says Walsh.
His peers are certainly glad he got hooked. “John is highly regarded as a mentor and teacher and for his generous service to the science and policy communities,” says Virginia. “He embodies the academic excellence that Dartmouth strives to provide to all of our students through the liberal arts experience.”