Professors lead Antarctic research projects

    Two Portland State University glacier research teams have left for Antarctica in the last three weeks.

    Working with PSU Professor of Geography and Geology Andrew Fountain, the first group left without Fountain on Oct. 26 to study the mass, motion and meltoff of glaciers in Antarctica’s Taylor Valley and Kukri Hills. Another team, led by Assistant Professor of Geology Christina Hulbe, left Nov. 6 to analyze flow from the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest floating ice sheet in the Antarctic.

    The Taylor Valley researchers, Hassan Basagic and Matt Hoffman, are measuring accumulation and meltoff of snow packs, and experimenting with modeling the amount of water flowing from the glaciers.    

    Hulbe and graduate researcher Amie Lamb are currently en route to the Ross Ice Shelf. Ross is 600 feet thick and about 600 miles long – more or less the size of France.

    Their research is part of a larger ecosystem project, Fountain said. Multiple research teams are working in Taylor Valley, named after 20th-century geologist Griffith Taylor, to see how growth or shrinkage of glacier melt water feeds plants and animals in Antarctica’s lakes.

    Fountain, who will head to Antarctica in January, said that the larger scope of the research is to investigate climate change. He said that glaciers are not only the most sensitive indicator of climate change, but also the most recognizable result of climate change for average citizens.

    "It’s less arcane work because glacial change is something everybody can understand, be attracted to, and ask questions about," he said.

Fountain was drawn to glaciology through an interest in ice – he originally studied lake ice, then snowflakes. He said the interest in climate change had fueled a resurgence of interest in the field, recently sparked by Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth.

    "Gore’s movie deepened the discussion, especially the discussion of processes – the reasons climate change is happening," he said. "The basic message is that climate change is reversible – we have the tools and we’ve done it before with the ozone layer."

    The researchers’ southward voyage starts with layovers in Los Angeles, Auckland and Christchurch, New Zealand. In Christchurch, the researchers will pick up warm gear, like long underwear, down coats, and boots, before boarding a southbound military flight.

    McMurdo Station, a large logistical base located on the southern tip of Antarctica’s Ross Island, is their first stop. After passing through McMurdo, the teams will deploy in helicopters to their respective research sites.

    Basagic, a graduate student in geology, wrote that the trip was going well so far in an e-mail from Lake Hoare, Antarctica. Basagic said that the team had arrived in Taylor Valley Saturday and was already making measurements.

    "I’d like to continue working down here on this project,” Basagic wrote about his plans after graduation. “This project is a dream job."

    Fountain said that it was unusual for a university to have one glaciologist, and that the fact that PSU has two researchers is a rarity.    

    "At international glaciologist meetings there are two or three hundred scientists," he said. "We all know each other – we’re all ‘internationally famous.’"

    When they are not in Antarctica, many of PSU’s glacier researchers work on the website, a clearinghouse for information about the glaciers of the American West.

    While much glacier-related information was previously scattered around the country’s libraries, is an attempt to gather that data and make it accessible online, Fountain said.

    The Journal of Glaciology will publish an article about the PSU glacier mass experiments some time in 2007.

    Other research projects in the Department of Geology include investigations into magma, tsunamis, meteorites, low temperature geochemistry, geology education and life in extreme environments, according to Nancy Eriksson, the geology’s department’s office coordinator.