John H. Mercer, shown in Antarctica in 1965, predicted the impending collapse of ice sheets in 1978.
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COLUMBUS — Thirty-six years after catching flak for one of the most bold and dire predictions about global warming, former Ohio State University glaciologist John H. Mercer is being hailed as a visionary.
Mr. Mercer was hardly the first to sound an alarm about greenhouse gases: Scientists were well on their way by the late 1950s toward connecting mankind’s burning of fossil fuels to Earth’s changing climate.
But Mr. Mercer made a groundbreaking contribution with a peer-reviewed research paper about West Antarctica’s instability he got published on Jan. 26, 1978, in the scientific journal Nature.
In it, he warned the world that West Antarctica’s massive ice sheet — one of Earth’s largest and most important — would eventually melt from beneath, become dislodged, and cause global sea levels to rise 5 meters, the equivalent of nearly 16.5 feet.
That, in turn, would result in mass flooding and chaos across the globe.
“I contend that a major disaster — a rapid 5-meter rise in sea level, caused by deglaciation of West Antarctica — may be imminent or in progress after atmospheric CO2 [carbon dioxide] content has only doubled. This concentration of CO2 will be reached within about 50 years if fossil fuel continues to be consumed at its recent accelerating rate, or within about 200 years if consumption is held constant at today’s level,” Mr. Mercer wrote in his paper.
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Mr. Mercer’s forecast was largely validated recently by evidence presented in two major scientific papers published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.
Those papers show the breakup of West Antarctica has already begun, and that the pending disaster Mr. Mercer warned about in 1978 is now virtually unstoppable.
About the only thing mankind can do is slow down the rate of melting through greenhouse gas reductions, according to the latest research.
Mr. Mercer alluded to that in his 1978 paper too, when he said the industrialized world needs “to make the changeover from fossil fuels to other sources of energy.”
A brilliant enigma
Those who knew Mr. Mercer paint a picture of him as a brilliant man, a mild-mannered native of Great Britain, and an independent thinker.
He was a bit of an enigma too.
Mr. Mercer was neither a conventional academic nor a conformist.
Mr. Mercer liked working alone but wasn’t a loner.
He wasn’t one to engage in idle chitchat.
Mr. Mercer was driven by science but did little to promote himself.
He had a wry wit and a dry sense of humor. Some people mistook that as indifference. But friends said he was a funny man, once you got to know him.
Though comfortable making presentations before large groups of scientists, Mr. Mercer disliked teaching. He eventually gave up trying, even after learning that would affect his university compensation package.
He loved southeast Ohio’s Hocking Hills. One of his favorite sites there became the backdrop for his memorial service after he died.
Mr. Mercer was an eccentric down to how he dressed, walked, and talked.
He almost always had a family dog, with a preference for border collies.
Friends said the brain cancer that killed him in 1987 might have evolved from a melanoma tumor on one of his legs, which some people believe might have been caused by exposure to radiation at high altitudes and his insistence on wearing shorts in the field.
“Some people have an intuitive intelligence about them that allows them to see through the mist and see the answers. That was John,” said George Denton, a professor in the University of Maine’s school of Earth and climate sciences and member of its Climate Change Institute who considered Mr. Mercer a close friend.
“He was just shy. He was not arrogant. He was not aloof. He was a heck of a nice person,” Mr. Denton said. “I tell you, the guy was never wrong.”
‘A true scientist’
Mr. Mercer was part of OSU’s Institute of Polar Studies, renamed the Byrd Polar Research Center years ago.
The center, established in 1960, is one of OSU’s oldest centers and houses one of America’s most valuable collections of ice core samples drawn from glaciers across the globe.
David Elliot, a retired geology professor, was the center’s director when Mr. Mercer wrote his now-famous Antarctica paper.
He said Mr. Mercer “was good company in the field.”
“He was someone, in my view, who was a true scientist in that he really thought deeply about what he was studying,” said Mr. Elliot, who spent time with him in the Patagonia region of Chile. “He wasn’t aloof at all. It’s just that he was misunderstood.”
Mr. Mercer was so focused on his research that he was less concerned about material things in life, such as his attire, almost to a comical degree.
His favorite shirt, according to Mr. Denton, was a Mickey Mouse shirt.
One of his best friends, Keith Mountain, associate professor and chairman of the University of Louisville’s geography and geosciences department, recalled one particular gaudy pair of red-and-white canvas tennis shoes that were obviously too large for him.
Mr. Mercer told people he liked them because he caught a deal on them “and the price was right,” Mr. Mountain said.
Mr. Mercer had a large office at OSU, but it was notoriously full of clutter. Piles of papers were stacked everywhere.
“John discarded nothing,” Mr. Mountain said. “But he seemed to know where everything was. It was impressive.”
Scientists respected Mr. Mercer for his mind.
“John was not a man to be taken lightly in terms of his science. He presented very cogent, coherent arguments at the time,” Mr. Mountain said.
Allan Ashworth, a North Dakota State University geology professor who went on at least five expeditions with Mr. Mercer, mostly in Chile and Argentina, agreed that Mr. Mercer “wasn’t necessarily the easiest person to work with” but was a brilliant, forward thinker.
“He had more original ideas — that guy — than anybody I ever knew,” said Mr. Ashworth, who was asked by the National Science Foundation to finish Mr. Mercer’s final research project after he died.
As a member of the Merchant Marines, Mr. Mercer was on three vessels that sank during World War II. He also once hiked across a large stretch of the Patagonia ice sheet and survived, even after getting caught in a blizzard.
“He was a great explorer,” Mr. Ashworth said.
Two of OSU’s most famous scientists, Lonnie Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley Thompson, studied under Mr. Mercer while earning their master’s and doctoral degrees.
The two founded the center’s ice core paleoclimatology unit, and have pulled ice core samples from numerous glaciers.
The ice, they said, yields clues to the Earth’s environmental history. They said Mr. Mercer’s views were hard for some scientists to accept in the late 1970s.
The conventional wisdom was that Antarctica was anchored. But Mrs. Thompson, who has been there many times, said advancements in underwater photography have shown the continent’s huge west shelf is melting from beneath from warmer ocean water, as well as from warmer air above.
“He was labeled an alarmist,” her husband said. “He had difficulty getting funded [after his paper]. And yet the science he did will last a lot longer than the science by others who have been much better funded. There were even glaciologists here who argued [West Antarctica] was stable at the time.”
According to Mr. Denton, the journal Science didn’t want to publish Mr. Mercer’s Antarctica paper, saying it “read like a Grade B movie.”
And, according to Mr. Elliot, the journal Nature originally rejected it as “junk science.”
“I hope he’s looking down on this,” Mr. Denton said. “I thought he was right all along.”
‘Baptism by fire’
Mr. Thompson said his first experience with Mr. Mercer was his “baptism by fire.”
While working on his master’s degree in 1974, Mr. Thompson accompanied him to Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap.
Mr. Thompson’s greatest adventure, though, was getting home.
Mr. Mercer was robbed on a train, leaving both scientists with hardly any money.
But rather than rearranging his schedule, Mr. Mercer stuck to his original plan and left his student behind, alone in a foreign country, for four to five days to haul back the gear.
Broke, without money and unable to speak Spanish, Mr. Thompson was at least fortunate enough to have a return ticket in hand and a proprietor who understood enough of what had happened to him. He was willing to put him up cheap.
Mr. Thompson said he arrived in Miami with about a quarter in his pocket.
“I guess I should be thankful. It taught me how to be resourceful,” Mr. Thompson said.
The experience showed Mr. Mercer that he also had an occasional stroke of bad luck, something Mr. Thompson can now laugh about.
Mr. Mercer was “ahead of his time,” Mr. Thompson said.
“It’s obvious to see things when they are happening in front of you. It’s much harder to see things that are going to happen in the future, and be able to use logical reasoning and come to those conclusions,” Mr. Thompson said. “I think we often forget, as scientists, our whole legacies are built on the shoulders of others who’ve come along before us. That’s the way science works. It always has.”
Mrs. Thompson, OSU’s Byrd Polar Research Center director since 2009, never went into the field with Mr. Mercer.
She said he didn’t get a lot of papers published. But those he did had impact.
The Thompsons and others continue to exchange Christmas cards with Mr. Mercer’s surviving family members, his wife, Judy, and his daughter, Jane.
One of Mrs. Thompson’s fondest memories was when Mr. Mercer was near the end of his life, in a hospital bed the family had set up for him in their living room.
Jane was sitting on a couch, reading a book in dim light.
He admonished her for not wearing her glasses, reminding her — as a father — she shouldn’t strain her eyes.
“Truly a father to the end,” Mrs. Thompson said. “Here’s someone dying of brain cancer and worried about his daughter. He was just a very interesting character.”
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.
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