Title

Geomorphologist and student team head to Antarctica

Authors

Juan Pedrazza

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

11-22-2011

Abstract

Geomorphologist and student team head to Antarctica

Completing work they began last November, University of North Dakota geomorphologist Dr. Jaakko Putkonen and a student team soon head again to one of Antarctica’s remotest ice free valleys. The expedition is funded by the National Science Foundation. They leave Wednesday and will be in Antarctica for about two months.

Putkonen, a well-established expert in polar and high-mountain landscapes, will be accompanied on this trip by a hand-picked team of UND students: Ted Bibby, a PhD candidate in geology and an experienced cold-climate trekker; Collin Gi, a UND undergrad who’s going on his second Antarctic mission; and first-timer Erin Hoeft, a UND geology undergrad from Two Harbors, Minn., who jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the expedition.

“Our mission this time is to collect more data and more samples and to go to places where we couldn’t get the last time we were there (in December 2010-January 2011),” Putkonen, who’s conducted research in several of the world’s remotest, coldest locations, including Antarctica and Greenland.

The research aims to describe changes in the Antarctic landscape over time; some of that may reflect natural climate change while other indicators may help scientists understand more about human-generated climate change.

Interesting twist

“We’ll have to use a tortuous, cumbersome route to the field site,” Putkonen said. “Since we don’t have helicopters there this year, we will have to go there in a small airplane and land on the ice sheet, and hike quite a bit farther to our various sites; it’s real strenuous work.”

“It’s a physically punishing trip because you’re working 2500 meters above sea level in a truly rough landscape,” said Putkonen, whose previous research missions include time in the high Arctic and in the Himalayas.

“We all have to prepare physically for several months for this expedition, using stationary bikes and weights at the UND Wellness Center,” said Putkonen, who has stayed fit for all of his professional career so that he can accomplish his rigorous field research. “I test the people I choose to join the team before accepting them—they have to at least be able to keep up with me. I tell students, ‘if you are in good shape, things are much more fun, if you’re in bad shape, you don’t get things done.’ I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I don’t or can’t do myself. We share all the work.”

Covering tracks

“We also have to recover all the data-gathering instruments we set in place last year—we cannot leave any traces of anything there,” Putkonen said. “Everything we bring in—including all of our garbage and human waste—we have to take back out when the research mission is completed.”

During last year’s expedition, Putkonen and his team set up several data loggers and sensors that were left there to gather information over the year; those will be recovered during the coming two-month expedition.

Putkonen hopes to find all his data gathering equipment intact.

“But there’s no guarantee of that,” Putkonen said. “Everything we left there had to go through the brutal Antarctic winter. So we’ll see if they all survived. We overbuilt everything, including setting all the sensors and data loggers up on plumbing-grade zinc pipe anchored with boulders—you might say it’s ‘bomb proof’, but we don’t really know what to expect until we get there.”

The group will again be digging in the dirt, a three-foot layer of rough, rocky soil that sits atop an even deeper continent-scale layer of ice. This is the last field phase of the project, which runs another year or so while Putkonen and his students analyze the data they’ve collected.

“Some scientists only need to walk across the street to the Core & Sample Library to collect data, we have to go to Antarctica to collect ours,” Putkonen quipped.

Juan Miguel Pedrazza

Writer/Editor with University Relations

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