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NDSU faculty awarded grant for research in Antarctica

More NDSU students will be able to conduct research in Antarctica thanks to grants from the National Science Foundation. NDSU geology professors Adam R. Lewis and Ken Lepper received $292,568 grant funding and Jane Willenbring, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, received an additional $287,416 to conduct field research in Antarctica in late 2011 and to support as many as seven graduate and undergraduate students as research continues through 2014.

The research team that will journey to Antarctica in November includes Lewis, NDSU senior Ashley Steffen of Bismarck, N.D., and graduate student Felix Zamora, Brighton, Colo. The field expedition team includes Willenbring of the University of Pennsylvania, who is a 1999 NDSU graduate from Bismarck-Mandan. A McNair scholar, Willenbring completed her undergraduate degree in geological sciences at NDSU, advised by Allan Ashworth, Distinguished University Professor and veteran Antarctic researcher.

The NDSU research team will spend approximately eight weeks tent-camping in Antarctica from early November to early January in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The goal of the group’s research is to provide a new paleoclimate record that helps resolve the frequency and rate of melting along margins of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during times of past warmth. This will help address some fundamental questions in Antarctic science and also will provide specific benefits to allied research in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.

The research group will work with K-12 schools in North Dakota and Pennsylvania, conducting interviews and webcasts from Antarctica. In addition, they will share their research with K-12 classrooms upon their return. Participating schools may include Casselton Elementary, Ben Franklin Middle School and Kindred High School in North Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt and Elizabeth D. Gillespie Middle Schools in Philadelphia.

The group’s research, titled “Collaborative Research: Activation of high-elevation alluvial fans in the Transantarctic Mountains - a proxy for Plio-Pleistocene warmth along East Antarctic ice margins,” focuses on using fans of sand and gravel deposited along mountain slopes as a record for melt-water production, which in turn is a proxy for inland warmth. These relatively young fans, channels and debris-flow levees stand out as highly visible evidence for the presence of melt water in an otherwise frozen landscape. Limited data from terrestrial ice margins and significant unknowns regarding regional climate mean that Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise during past warm phases is unknown.

“It’s too cold today for ice or snow to melt, so there are no modern streams running down hillsides,” said Lewis. “We are trying to build a geologic record of when melting occurred in Antarctica. Early results suggest it happens about every 50,000 years, which correlates well with the earth’s orbital cycles.”

This study is expected to produce a unique record of inland melting from sites adjacent to ice sheet margins and at similar elevations. Results can be compared to models of orbital forcing, and marine and ice core records to help determine what controls regional climate along margins of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The research team expects to return from Antarctica with approximately 500 pounds of rock and sediment to be analyzed. NDSU students will concentrate on geomorphology, sedimentology and stratigraphy of the deposits under the direction of Lewis and determine the age of the sediments under the direction of Lepper. Students at the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Willenbring, will take the lead in the cosmogenic dating of the sediments.

Additionally, Douglas Kowalewski, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, will provide climate modeling support and Tibor Dunai, University of Edinburgh, will conduct sample analysis as part of the research team.

Lewis will present “Neogene ice-marginal climate from terrestrial records in the Transantarctic Mountains” and Ashworth will present “The Early Miocene paleoclimate of the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica” at the 11th International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Sciences, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 10-15. For more information, visit

Lewis’s ongoing research in Antarctica was featured in a NOVA television production titled “Secrets Beneath the Ice” on PBS. To view, visit

NDSU students have participated in the Antarctic expeditions during the past three years. Previous fieldwork in Antarctica by Lewis and Ashworth has been featured in “Ice People,” a documentary by Emmy-winning director Anne Aghion ( The film was shown at festivals around the world and has been broadcast on European and American television.

For more information:

Adam R. Lewis, NDSU

“Ice People” documentary  

International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Sciences

National Science Foundation Antarctic fossils paint a picture of a much warmer continent

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“Secrets Beneath the Ice” NOVA on PBS

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.

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