David Pollard


David Pollard (photo)

April 2015

Pollard wins breakthrough of the year award.

David Pollard, a senior scientist with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, was honored Sunday for his pioneering work modeling glacial ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

Pollard received the Paul F. Robertson Award for Breakthrough of the Year at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ annual Wilson Awards Banquet.

Created in 2012 with support from a generous gift by EMS alumnus Paul F. Robertson, the award is given for breakthroughs in research or in the scholarship of teaching.

"Dave deserves this award because he is the preeminent person in the world who understands how to model ice sheets and ice shelves," said Susan L. Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and director of EESI. "His model is really the best model in terms of quantitatively predicting what happens to an ice sheet and ice shelves in terms of change, evolution over time. And we are really interested in this, because as the climate changes the ice sheet is melting and how that impacts sea level will really impact humans around the planet."

Pollard, who has worked at Penn State for 17 years, has developed a world-renowned model noted for its ability to run simulations over long-time frames quickly and without sacrificing accuracy. His recent work examines the grounding zone, the edges of an ice sheet where the ice becomes afloat on the ocean. The zone is a critical region that is projected to contribute to sea level rise as ice there melts, breaks and enters the ocean at an accelerating pace.

"Dave has picked out a very interesting way of putting the real physics of unstable grounding zones in between really fast pieces of his model on either side, so it does a good job of getting the grounding zone right, without bogging down the model so it can’t do the simulations you need," said Richard Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences and director of PSICE, who along with Brantley nominated Pollard for the award.

Pollard's model suggests there is a potential for self-accelerating, runaway retreat as more and more grounded ice in the West Antarctic interior is lost to the ocean. Changes in the ice are already contributing to sea level rise, and are expected to accelerate in the future.

"One of the primary reasons we study these big ice sheets is because of the potential effect on sea level," Pollard said. "There is so much water stored up in these big ice sheets that if substantial parts of them melt in the future, as they have in the past, that could change sea level."