Science on ice -- literally

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Engineering & Mines


National research publication reports on UND geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen’s discovery of million-year-old ice under Antarctic dirt

Bottom line up front:

Who: University of North Dakota geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen, director of the UND Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering, part of the College of Engineering & Mines

What: Publication about his research team’s discovery of million-year-old ice in dusty, dry, hard-to-access Antarctic valley in the latest issue of American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters

Where: Research conducted at several sites in Antarctica


This is about science on ice.

And as science goes, the headline in the latest issue of the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters triggers excitement: “Million year old ice found under meter-thick debris layer in Antarctica.”

It’s a report from research conducted by University of North Dakota geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen, director of the UND Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering, and a team that included one of his former graduate students, Theodore Bibby, now a Ph.D. who’s teaching and researching part-time for UND.

Newsworthy? You bet!

The team’s serendipitous discovery of previously unknown ice beneath a thick layer of dirt captured attention beyond the scientific community.

The BBC, one of the world’s leading broadcasting companies, called Putkonen this week, wanting to know lots more about his team’s discovery in Antarctica’s dirt-covered Ong Valley and Moraine Canyon, one of the continent’s remotest—and ostensibly “ice free”—areas.

Putkonen’s research team used a seriously high-tech tool to make their buried ancient ice discovery: a shovel.

Putkonen, an expert in polar and high-mountain landscapes, stated earlier that the original goal of this particular research was to collect more data and more samples. The project aimed 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 as we;; as landscapes on Mars.

“As geomorphologists, our aim is to understand how the Earth’s surface evolves over time,” says Putkonen. But the team’s discovery of a buried ice layer has led to more questions about the Earth’s climatic evolution.

“This glacial ice was buried under a two- to three-foot-thick layer of dirt, essentially rubble,” Putkonen said. “The ice contains bubbles of air, dust particles, pollen, and because it’s preserved under the layer of dirt, it doesn’t melt like the other ice in Antarctica, which, exposed to solar radiation, can melt at the rate of three to four inches in a year.”

Mars connection:

“We’re beginning to get an understanding of the Martian landscape,” Putkonen said. “And it appears that there is quite a bit of buried ice on Mars, similar to what we see in Antarctica. There’s no way to directly study those buried Martian glaciers at this point. But here on Earth we can gain an understanding of the geological processes by studying buried glaciers in Antarctica, which are the closest terrestrial analogs to those of Mars.”