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Cool student research? This is downright cold

December 11, 2012
Brian Guthrie

Brian Guthrie

For someone who isn’t fond of cold weather, Brian Guthrie sure seems excited about the prospect of working in one of the coldest, driest and most remote environments on the planet.

A senior geology major at Northern Illinois University, Guthrie definitely has an adventurous side. He sports a Mohawk, zips to classes via skateboard and once worked a summer internship as a mud-logging technician on a Texas oil rig.

But now the 23-year old St. Charles native is in for the adventure of a lifetime.

On Jan. 5, he’ll begin his journey to the Antarctic. Once there, he will join an NIU team and work for more than a month on a major scientific research project that aims to shed light on ice sheet stability and the future ramifications of climate change.

“When I first heard about the opportunity to go to the Antarctic, I just jumped on it,” Guthrie says. “I don’t handle the cold very well, but I’ll tough it out for something like this.”

It will be his first trip to another continent and the farthest he has ever been from home.

“I actually think it’s about as far as you can get,” he says. “My mom was a little nervous, but I get my adventurous side from my dad, and he was ecstatic. Some of my friends think I’m crazy; most of my geology friends are a little jealous.”

Doctoral student Timothy Hodson, a Champaign native, left for the Antarctic in early November. Now, having spent some time in the icy white desert, he says he misses something most people take for granted: plants.

“We’re still connected by Facebook and email, but real life seems a world away,” Hodson says.

Veterans of Antarctic science

Ross Powell

Ross Powell

NIU geologists and Board of Trustees Professors Ross Powell and Reed Scherer also are already in Antarctica, along with computer science research associate John Winans and adjunct professor Betty Trummel, a Crystal Lake elementary school teacher and education outreach specialist.

This is the sixth trip to “the ice” for Scherer; the 14th trip for Powell. Often, the geologists have had NIU students in tow.

“There’s nothing like this type of hands-on learning for students,” Powell says. Both he and Scherer personally know the value.

In 1974, while Powell was a graduate student in his native New Zealand, he made his first trip to Antarctica. That also turned out to be his first exposure to NIU students, who also were there on a drilling expedition. (In fact, NIU helped lead the first scientific drilling effort on the continent in 1972.)

“To conduct research in the Antarctic is a special opportunity for students,” Powell says. “It’s a huge learning experience, often a life-altering one, but they are also needed. Accomplishing our research goals requires a lot of work, both physically in the field and in research back at NIU once field work is done.”

Adds Scherer: “Antarctica is a very special place: an entire continent set aside for research and environmental conservation, with a long-term view. And it’s a place that keeps drawing you back. I was trained by Peter Webb, a former NIU professor who first traveled to Antarctica as an undergraduate student in 1956. I had my first trip as a new graduate student at The Ohio State University in 1986. Whether or not Brian and Tim remain in polar research, this opportunity will alter their views of the world.”

NSF-funded WISSARD project

Tim Hodson

Tim Hodson

The National Science Foundation has provided $10 million in science funding for the research project, known as WISSARD, for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling. In addition to the NIU contingent, colleagues from nine other major universities are involved. The team will drill through a half mile of ice to penetrate Subglacial Lake Whillans, sometime in January.

Exactly what the scientists will find is a mystery.

The ancient ice-covered lake could hold unknown micro-organisms deriving their energy from some method other than photosynthesis. The scientists also believe the lake and water system under the ice will shed important light on West Antarctic Ice Sheet dynamics. They already know the lake fills with water and then drains every five to 10 years, so what happens to the ice as it goes through these cycles is an important question in terms of its flow into the sea and ice sheet stability.

“Additionally, we will look for any evidence of when the ice sheet was last absent in the Ross Sea area, a critical question to those of us who study and model climate change,” Powell says.

Life on ‘the ice’

For project members, the first stop in Antarctica is the U.S. base known as McMurdo Station, which might be likened to an old frontier town. All project members spend time off the base undergoing survival training, known as Happy Camper School.

Thankfully, it is summertime in the Antarctic, when temperatures usually aren’t so brutal, typically hovering around freezing. High winds can make it feel much colder, however: Watch the Betty Trummel video.

And the summer sun; well, it never sets.

“Never-ending daylight provides a non-stop view of the incredibly beautiful Antarctic scenery,” says Winans, who is providing key computer support for WISSARD.

“Being responsible for the software and computers that are collecting scientific data, I can’t stop thinking about the cold dry climate’s tendency to breed static electricity, which is not a welcomed guest by the computers. So far, so good.”

Hodson says many of the natural rhythms of normal life are missing. “I have trouble keeping track of days when the sun doesn’t set, and we work seven days a week,” he says.

The ‘deep field’

Reed Scherer

Reed Scherer

Braving potential crevasses, an operations team, using 13 giant Caterpillar and Challenger tractors, will pull sleds about 600 miles across the Ross Ice Shelf, before setting up camp at the drill site on the ice above Subglacial Lake Whillans.

The sleds will be loaded with fuel and more than 20 shipping containers (each 20 or 40 feet in length) full of food, supplies, computers, science laboratories and a $3 million hot-water drill. Also in tow will be NIU’s suite of sophisticated oceanographic equipment custom-made to squeeze down a 1-foot-wide drill hole and take precise scientific measurements and samples from beneath the ice.

The NIU contingent will travel by plane to the “deep field” site.

“Going to the deep field seems totally surreal,” Hodson says. “We have a lot of experienced folks in the project, but we face logistical constraints and an unforgiving environment. And, of course, none of this has exactly been done before.”

Jumping in

Guthrie says he was more nervous about the required pre-trip physical than he is working in the Antarctic. But he’s not sure exactly what to expect.

“My responsibilities are general help,” he says. “One day I might be working a video camera, another day I might be helping pull core out of the lake floor. I’m just going to be jumping in with both feet and doing whatever they tell me to do.”

The NIU team members will return to DeKalb in mid- to late February. Guthrie says he’s “very thankful” for the Antarctic opportunity. Polar science could be in his long-term future, but he’s keeping his options open.

“I’d like to try to use geology to see the world,” he says.

He is getting a good start.