Courtesy of the National Science Foundation Using a specially designed hot-water drill to cleanly bore…
It’s a continent of extremes, boasting the driest, harshest, windiest and coldest spots on Earth.
And for three NIU graduate students in geology who will spend time conducting research in Antarctica in January, it will be the opportunity of a lifetime—and an experience like no other.
Because it’s summertime in the Antarctic, the sun won’t set on the endless and austere white landscape. And the cold should be tolerable—with temperatures occasionally reaching 30 degrees Fahrenheit or even slightly above.
Still, it’s an environment not for the faint of heart. When in the “deep field,” the young scientists will sleep in tents atop ice nearly a half mile thick, like camping on another planet.
“This is my research dream, so it’s a pretty big deal for me,” says 25-year-old Rebecca Puttkammer of Sugar Grove, who has never before traveled overseas.
Puttkammer earned her bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University. While there, she took some geology classes and realized science was her calling. She came to NIU for graduate school to study with geology Professors Ross Powell and Reed Scherer, both veterans of Antarctic science and leading participants in the coming expedition.
The National Science Foundation is supporting the drilling effort, part of a multi-year project known as WISSARD, for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling. The research involves scientists and students from about a dozen universities – with NIU, Montana State University and the University of California Santa Cruz serving as lead institutions. Powell is the project’s chief scientist.
The team intends to drill through the thick ice and examine the hidden shoreline beneath, where the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet atop land meets the Ross Sea. It will be the first scientific exploration of the ice sheet’s “grounding zone,” considered an important piece of the puzzle for scientists working to predict the effect of climate change on rising seawaters, which threaten coastal cities worldwide.
“It’s an exceptional opportunity for students, who get to travel internationally and work with a wide spectrum of top scientists,” Powell says. “They learn how to collaborate on a large scientific team, and how the information they help gather can be linked to different disciplines. It helps them mature significantly in terms of their careers.
“And the science is unique,” he adds. “No one has explored this area before. So students can come up with highly significant research.”
Data collected during the expedition will likely result in numerous scientific publications, including students’ theses and dissertations.
“I can’t wait to actually get down there and start the research,” Puttkammer says. “I’m also looking forward to the openness and the view you’ll see every morning, surrounded by ice. I think I’ll miss the sunset and sunrise, but it will be worth it.”
Jason Coenen, a 25-year-old graduate student who came to NIU to study with Professor Scherer, says he’s primed for the adventure and unconcerned about sleeping on the ice. While earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, he supported himself by working for UPS, unloading semi-trailers in the middle of the night, the temperature sometimes reaching -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The cold is not a super big factor for me, and I don’t mind sleeping in a tent,” Coenen says.
“It’s exciting to be a part of the next generation of scientists involved in this type of geologic drilling exploration in the Antarctic. Hopefully we’ll be able to better understand the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet and be better equipped to predict what’s going to happen in the future, given the state of the climate change.”
Coenen will work with Scherer deciphering the geologic history and ongoing changes in the ice sheets by studying fossils known as diatoms, collected by coring into the seafloor. These microscopic single-celled algae live in shallow seawater and are deposited on the ocean floor, leaving behind beautifully ornate glass-like shells. Because different types of diatoms correlate with different water temperatures, they can reveal a detailed tale of climate change over time. Geologists need to understand the past to predict the future.
Most of the members of the NIU team depart will depart Dec. 26, for New Zealand. After being issued their Antarctic gear, they’ll travel by cargo plane to McMurdo Station in the Antarctic, where hundreds of scientists from across the world make their base during the austral summer.
At McMurdo, they will undergo survival training, known as Happy Camper School. Built atop bare volcanic rock, McMurdo visitors also typically do some hiking and sightseeing near the station, which resembles a bustling old mining town, complete with several taverns. Common wildlife in the area include Emperor and Adelie penguins, Weddell seals and the ubiquitous skua, a seagull-like scavenger bird.
By mid-January, most of the team will have departed by plane for the drilling site in the Antarctic wilderness, a frozen and literal desert painted in hues of white and silver.
“It’s the definition of desolate, but it puts you right in your element,” says Tim Hodson, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student in geology at NIU. “We spend years building up to these moments. So when you’re there, you have a mission. You work as many hours a day as you can.”
Hodson was part of the 2012-13 WISSARD expedition, which discovered abundant and viable microbial life in subglacial Lake Whillans, a body of water trapped beneath the ice sheet. This season the scientists have moved downstream to investigate what is believed to be an integrated subglacial hydrological system connecting the lake to the sea.
Hodson will use data from the two seasons for his dissertation, examining the geologic processes at the bed of the ice sheet and the behavior of ice streams as they flow to the ocean. These streams of ice can move at a rate of thousands of feet per year.
“More than anything, this is discovery-driven science,” Hodson says. ““We’re interested in the stability of the ice streams and how they affect sea-level rise, but we recognize that we don’t know much about this environment beneath the ice. So we’re very curious about the seawater temperature and its salinity—things that affect ice-melt rates. In our opinion, the questions we are addressing this season are very relevant to society as whole.”
Having spent four months working in Antarctica during the first season, Hodson knows what to expect.
The deep field is “like camping in an industrial work site,” he says, adding that he prefers the tents to hammock-equipped trailers at the site. “The sunlight beating on the tents warms them to a comfortable 30 degrees or so. As days pass, you start to melt a hole on the ice where you’ve slept that conforms to your body, so it’s pretty comfortable.”
Still, leaving the warm sleeping bag after a solid rest “can be brutal for the first five minutes.”
This season, the 29-year-old Hodson is packing extra long johns—he will spend nearly a month in the deep field. He and an engineer will travel ahead of most of the team to set up scientific instrumentation and heavy equipment at the drill site. Contractors who work with the scientific team keep safety a priority.
Once the site is set up, personnel from McMurdo will arrive to cook for the scientists. Because the window of time is brief for actual collection of data from beneath the ice, the work is nonstop.
“There’s plenty of grind that goes into it, but you do get a sense of adventure,” Hodson says. “It’s not your nine-to-five job.”
More information on NIU’s role in the WISSARD project is available here.