AUSTIN (KXAN) — University of Texas researcher Ian Dalziel will be honored later this summer at Buckingham Palace. The medal is awarded by the British Royal Family to scientists who have spent significant time in the Antarctic Circle.

“I got an email, which apologized, first of all, for the vulgarity of communicating in such a way,” Dalziel said.

Dalziel has visited the icy continent more than fifty times since the late 1960s.

“I was interested in looking over the horizon, Dalziel said. “I wanted to know the relationship between the rocks of this mountain range and the rocks of that mountain range,” Dalziel said.

The geologist joined the University of Texas in the late 1980s. His work with the Jackson School of Geosciences has contributed to research on Pangea, the ancient supercontinent that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.

“The contribution that I helped make, to understanding earlier supercontinents, was connecting the Pacific margins of North America and Antarctica,” Dalziel said.

Ian Dalziel has been teaching with the University of Texas since the late 1980’s (Credit: University of Texas/Ian Dalziel)

Living a life of adventure

Ian Dalziel, pronounced dee-el, grew up in Scotland. His parents were both actors who took him into the Scottish Highlands for summer vacations.

“I grew up in a diet of sort of really wild places that I fell in love with,” Dalziel said.

His career as a geologist took him to America. On New Year’s Day in 1969, he took his first trip to the Antarctic Circle. “At that time we were working in the South Shetland Islands, which are islands off the Antarctic Peninsula,” Dalziel said.

According to Dalziel, he wanted to understand the island of South Georgia. The island has similar characteristics to Hawaii, which formed by volcanic eruption.

However, there were no active volcanoes in the area. Dalziel discovered the island was actually a fragment of South America, left behind as the continents shifted over millions of years.

“That led me around the islands of the Scotia Arc, and that led to the interior one, wanting to know about the interior of West Antarctica,” Dalziel said.

Into the icy desert of Antarctica

More than a decade after his initial trip, Dalziel journeyed into the interior of the seventh continent. Few people had traveled to where he had before.

“At most, there had been one party maybe 25 years before the party from the US Geological Survey,” Dalziel said. He would occasionally find artifacts from the previous travels, like a hammer he now keeps in his office.

“There is just no sign of any human occupation at all,” Dalizel said. “Just nothing but the beautiful ridges and colors in the snow and the ice.”

Ian Dalziel research tracked rock samples across multiple continents. (Credits: University of Texas/Ian Dalziel)

Getting around was challenging. Usually, people would fly to the coast and trek into the interior of the continent.

Dalziel and his teamed devised a plan to have Americans ship in aircraft fuel while the British would ship in smaller aircraft. This enabled them to bring helicopters and small planes with them and travel further.

“At times, I can remember, many times sitting out of an evening, after dinner, when there was no wind,” Dalziel said. “You can’t help but be impressed by places where few, if any, people have ever been to before.”

A lifetime in the Antarctic Circle

Dalziel joined the University of Texas in the late 1980s because of its focus on expeditionary science. He has led student and faculty trips all around the world as part of the university.

He has traveled at least 50 times to Antarctica. He stopped counting awhile ago.

Climate change, he says, is very obvious in the Arctic. His most recent trip in 2014 highlighted some of the changes.

“There are glaciers that I used to have to climb over to get from one beach to another,” Dalziel said. “Now those have retreated significantly, and you can just walk around the snow to the ice from one beach to the other.”

Larger planes, Dalziel said, are having a harder time landing as well. The crushed ice runways are melting due to heat.

As part of his research, Dalziel planted the first GPS devices in Antarctica, which are used to track ice flow. Dalziel said that readings from those devices have shown ice melting significantly in recent years.

What’s next for the Antarctica explorer?

In 2021, Dalziel was given the Penrose Medal by the Geological Society of America. He called that honor the greatest, as it came from his peers.

He hopes to return to the islands surrounding Antarctica in the near future. He suspects that heading into the interior at his age would be challenging.

Landing planes in Antarctica has become more challenging as a result of climate change. (Credit: University of Texas/Ian Dalziel)

After a lifetime of study, his one major piece of advice for everyone is simple.

“Follow your curiosity,” Dalziel said. “Try to pick the important places to work that are going to really tell you something.”