OMAHA, Neb. - Neil Tabor has embarked upon a journey to the geographic end of the world to study a past end of the world (of sorts) in hopes of preventing a future end of the world.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate — now a Dallas-based geologist and professor at Southern Methodist University — is bound for Antarctica on a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
He’ll be stationed for about 2½ months in a tent camp on the frozen continent’s east side studying rocks so old they predate the dinosaurs and even the existence of the planet’s formation of the seven continents as we know them.
His job in Antarctica won’t be measuring glacier shrinkage or other modern-day signs of how Earth’s climate is changing before our eyes. His purpose, instead, will be to peer into the distant, distant past to help our understanding of what to do as our planet jolts through the effects of rapid environmental change.
“It’s an analog for the current conditions,” he said. “It can help us try to brace ourselves and try to understand how ecosystems and organisms living in them respond.”
A mass extinction, called the “Great Dying,” wiped out nearly all marine and most animal life 250 million years ago, and major climate change was a factor. One difference between then and now, Tabor said, is that the climate change he’s studying happened over a long period of time at a much slower pace than the change being recorded now. The scientists will also seek the answer to this question: How did life rebound?
Tabor has a grant from the National Science Foundation, and he will be working with a team of six paleontologists on the project.
Tabor travels the world piecing together clues left behind in these ancient rocks. He has climbed mountains on five continents studying the stories left in the rocks. Antarctica will make his sixth.
It’s a humbling venture to go to a place so inhospitable. The first order of business, once he arrives this week, is a weeklong “Ice School.”
“They train you in survival techniques, train you well enough so you can survive 24 hours if you’re stranded,” he said.
Tabor, 43, is leaving behind his wife, Meredith, and two sons — Omaha, age 11, and Caspian, age 9. Omaha owes his name to where Tabor grew up and got into geology (earth sciences class, Lewis and Clark Junior High). It’s also where he and Meredith, who went to UNL, decided to date (the Dubliner pub). Caspian, 9, is named for the sea. Just because.
After Antarctica’s Ice School, Tabor is off to the Shackleton Glacier, where he’ll work in temperatures ranging from 0 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit — summer paradise there in a place that can average 70 below zero in the winter, he said. He will sleep in his own tent. Repeat: He is sleeping in a tent.
In the Antarctic summer, Tabor will enjoy daylight 24/7. But where he’s going, the Internet sun doesn’t shine.
He’s allowed to bring 85 pounds of gear, and taking up precious space is David Foster Wallace’s 1,088-page novel “Infinite Jest.” No books on Antarctica’s heroic explorers, including the glacier’s namesake, Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton’s three expeditions for Great Britain were celebrated in no small part because Shackleton managed to save most of his crew when his ship froze in the ice off Antarctica’s coast and sank. (Shackleton braved open seas in a lifeboat and walked for 36 hours for help. That was before “Ice School.”)
Shackleton’s story is best read, say, from the comfort of any of the six other continents.
Tabor is nervous, of course: The time away from home, the distance, the being out of touch except for a few minutes each week to call home by satellite phone.
He is also, as the Irish-born Shackleton purportedly said, “super-excited.”
“I’ve never been on an ice sheet before,” Tabor said. “The scale of it is amazing. Most of us on the planet have never seen anything like it.”
Antarctica is bigger than the continental United States. Most of it is covered by ice at least a mile deep. Countries share it and have agreed by treaty not to mine there or conduct military activities. Humanity’s role at this end of the world is strictly scientific.
Tabor was born in Washington state and remembers a major geological event there: when the Mount St. Helens volcano blew in 1980. Later that year the family moved to Omaha because Tabor’s father, who was in the Navy, got stationed at the Strategic Air Command. Tabor graduated from Central in 1992 and UNL in 1996. He earned his doctorate from the University of California, Davis.
Tabor is a specialist in sediment — the tiny rocks that are broken and carried by water and wind to some permanent place where they eventually turn to stone.
The stone tells stories, which he calls “the rock record.” Tabor’s training is to read those stories. The story that most compels him began about 250 million years ago, during that giant extinction. Scientists have theories but no answers yet to why so many living things died.
Tabor rattled off all the places where he’s conducted field work: the American West, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Morocco, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, western China, France, England and Scotland.
Once in Zambia, while sleeping (in a tent, naturally), he was awakened by the piercing trumpet of an elephant cow leading her calf through the camp. He feared he’d be trampled.
“I didn’t budge, to be honest with you,” he said.
Another time, in Kenya, he, a colleague and a guide stumbled into a tussle over cattle involving AK-47s. Gunfire rained. Some people were killed. This marked a turning point.
“I came to this realization I can’t be a cowboy with research anymore. I can really die out here,” he said.
He feels safe going to Antarctica. His project was six years in the works.
The hardest part is being out of touch.
But maybe there’s an upside. It’s been a rough year for scientists. The political climate has been inhospitable to the issues around the changing climate.
At least the end of the world — geographically speaking — offers a quiet place.
Here, this rock-listener can really hear the stories the ancient rocks are telling him.
And then he can return to tell us.