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NDSU Students Help Researchers Working to Establish New Climate Record for Antarctica

Fargo, N.D. – Some students will literally go to the end of the earth for their studies. Such is the case for NDSU graduate student Felix Zamora and senior Ashley Steffen, who recently journeyed to Antarctica for an unforgettable academic experience. The students accompanied Adam Lewis, assistant professor of geosciences, to the Dry Valleys region of the frigid continent to try to establish a new climate record for that part of the world.

“It was great to learn and work in such a unique, extreme environment,” said Zamora, who is studying for his master’s degree in environmental and conservation sciences.

The Dry Valleys are set within the Transantarctic Mountains located in southern Victoria Land on the western edge of McMurdo Sound. The Dry Valleys, listed among the world’s most arid deserts, are the largest ice-free region in Antarctica.

“Where we were, it almost never gets warm enough to produce melt-water. It snows, but it sublimates before it melts,” Lewis explained, noting the research group took rock and soil samples at elevations about 4,000 feet above the valley floor. “But, there are little channels running down the mountainsides, so once in a while water trickles down and makes a little mud flow. It seems there hasn’t been water in the channels for centuries and they actually have frost cracks going across them. We wanted to more accurately date the channels to know the last time it was warm enough to produce melt water.”

Preliminary dating from previous trips indicates one high-elevation channel most recently carried water about 10,000 years ago. This research effort, with laboratory analysis by Ken Lepper, associate professor of geosciences, hopes to accurately pinpoint the date about a dozen channels were last active, which could indicate a regional warming event.

The expedition was a collaborative effort with Jane Willenbring, an NDSU alumna who is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science. Funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the group was in the field from Nov. 18 to Dec. 22.

The students learned first hand that field research can be difficult. Living in a helicopter-supported tent encampment, using baby wipes to keep clean and having daytime high temperatures near 15 degrees is not usually seen as an enjoyable time. “It was a terrific experience, and it really wasn’t that bad,” said Steffen, who is a native of Bismarck, N.D. “I got to learn how to take samples and conduct research. We tried to stay relaxed and have fun, but at the same time, we had a mission.”

That mission was to collect about 650 pounds of sample material that is being shipped back to campus and will be dated using Lepper’s expertise. The group hopes to have results this summer.

“I get to prepare students for adventure,” said Lewis, who journeyed to Antarctica for the 11th time. “When the helicopter drops us off, I tell them to take a look around. It’s really fun for me to see their mouths drop open and feel their sense of awe.”

The students said it was difficult to put into words how they felt looking across the barren landscape. They knew no other human being had ever set foot in some of the spots they took samples. “Standing at the top the Olympus Range, you get a great view of everything. Off in the distance you see glaciers and icecaps, and at the same time, you see igneous spikes and beautiful sandstone buttes,” said Zamora, who grew up in Brighton, Colo. “There was an overwhelming sense of rugged beauty. I felt so enthusiastic for my course of study.”

Zamora and Steffen both say they would love to go back. “It’s terrific to have the opportunity to go to a place like the Dry Valleys, where very few people get to go,” Steffen said. “It’s nice to participate in geology research first hand, and it makes our studies hit home harder. It was pretty cool.”

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