Adapted from a story in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory 2021 Annual Report.
Glaciology was not an obvious career path for Italian-born Marco Tedesco. Growing up in his hometown of Avellino, on the mountainside near Naples, his parents had very different expectations for him. Get your degree, get a job. Tedesco found himself with other plans. Today, Tedesco is among the most well-respected and quoted polar experts in the world, having traveled to Greenland eleven times and twice to Antarctica (not to count the many times he has visited mountain regions); authored a book, The Hidden Life of Ice: Dispatches from a Disappearing World (a National Geographic and Washington Post Best Travel Book of 2020); and published almost 150 peer-reviewed research papers.
He frames his passion for studying snow and ice as a kind of love story. His father was a construction supervisor, working 10 hours a day in every type of weather. While Tedesco studied electrical engineering at the University of Naples and was on a path his parents assumed would lead to an industry job with a good salary, he found himself drawn to a life of research.
“I was always attracted to science and an academic career. Nobody in my family has done that, so there is no history. I applied for a PhD in Florence. I didn’t get in at first.” He decided to prepare to apply again, but a month later, his university advisor called him. “My advisor said, ‘Look, we have a project on snow. Are you interested?’ I said yes. And that was my key. I started to work on snow; I fell in love with the work. I went into the mountains and basically married this medium.”
Ultimately, he received his PhD in Italy from the Italian National Research Council in Florence, focusing on the interaction of electromagnetic waves and snow particles for satellite applications.
“My first day of PhD, my advisor came to me with three books totaling about 1,000 pages and told me to come back to him once I had finished absorbing them. I only had a desk and a lamp, not even a computer.” Three months later, Tedesco went to his advisor, having finished the books and with a draft of a first paper.
In 2002, Tedesco began a research appointment at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, left Avelino, and moved to Washington, D.C.
“I had one thousand dollars in my pocket, and my wife was pregnant with our first daughter,” said Tedesco. He also had a one-way hour-and-a-half commute across the city each day. He used the time on the train and bus to read and study, learning to speak and write better English.
In 2008, Tedesco moved to the City College of New York (CCNY) as an assistant professor, where he was promoted to associate professor in 2012. At CCNY, he founded and directed the Cryosphere Processes Laboratory and was a rotating program manager at the National Science Foundation between 2013 and 2015. In January 2016, Tedesco joined Lamont. Here, he continues researching the dynamics of seasonal snowpack and ice sheet surface properties and pursues fieldwork exploring exoplanetary biology on icy surfaces and global climate change and its implications on the economy, real estate, and socially vulnerable populations.
Much of Tedesco’s work and writings have focused on the remarkable decline of Arctic ice. During the summer of 2021, Tedesco and other climate scientists recorded daily melt rates seven times higher than usual.
A mid-August heatwave led to the first-ever recorded rainfall at Summit Camp, at the ice sheet’s highest point. Seven billion tons of water fell on the ice sheet. Tedesco called the rain event unique and alarming.
“Never in my life did I think I would see rain on Summit. It is called the dry snow zone of Greenland for a reason,” he said. “The imbalance of the Arctic system is screaming that there is substantial change going on, characterized by multiple events rather than a single snapshot. It’s consistent with what we were expecting to see based on models and our understanding of the physical processes. There is very little hope that things will be reversed because the processes we know are driving the acceleration of melting in Greenland and Antarctica have been there a while and cannot be easily stopped without drastic intervention on CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.”
Tedesco observes the speed at which projected changes to polar ice are materializing with great concern.
“Changes are happening even faster than the most dire predictions are suggesting.”
Of particular concern, the injustice of climate change consequences. Too often, the communities that generate the lowest amounts of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming are the people who suffer the most severe climate consequences.
During the summer of 2021, Tedesco and colleagues published The Socio-Economic Physical Housing Eviction Risk (SEPHER) dataset. It integrates socio-economic information with risk from wildfires, drought, coastal and riverine flooding, and other hazards, plus financial information from real estate databases and ethnicity, race, and gender data. The goal is to account for the economic vulnerability associated with the housing market that accounts for racial, gender, and ethnicity factors so that stakeholders can take appropriate action to protect vulnerable populations. SEPHER covers the entire United States, and Tedesco has made one of the pillars of this project that all data must be publicly accessible.
“The tool is aiming at quantifying objective analysis of the role of climate impacts in social and racial injustice, as in the case of climate gentrification and displacement or climate injustice.”
Tedesco will take his next expedition to Greenland in 2022, when he and Lamont paleoclimatologist Brendan Buckley go to a forest in southern Greenland to take tree ring samples to work on climate reconstruction of Greenland back to the 1800s.
“We want to know what happened before we were able to measure things,” he said. Since trees can live for hundreds—and sometimes even thousands—of years, a tree can experience various environmental conditions: wet years, dry years, cold years, hot years, early frosts, forest fires, and more. Tree rings can indicate how old the tree is and what the weather was like during each year of the tree’s life. “The plan is to reach the only forest in Greenland, a patch of land no more than six miles, close to the place where Erik the Red arrived and named Greenland as we know it today. It is going to be an exciting trip!”
The pandemic forced a delay of this field study, which was slated for last year. The pandemic and its many restrictions also illuminated something for Tedesco, something disturbing, considering the kind of global collaboration required to cut greenhouse gas emissions and stave off some of the most catastrophic future climate consequences.
“As a species, we were not able to come together with masks and vaccines. If we can’t come together with such a great and imminent threat [as COVID-19], how can we convince people that we need to take action for future generations? In this regard, the pandemic has given way to questions about the world around me.”
However, Tedesco remains optimistic, especially when he thinks about the power of new generations, and the ability to adopt a lifestyle that considers economic aspects as well as sustainability and moral and ethical values.