Background Image

News & Events

11-02-2006

Clarkson Researchers Will Use Blog to Share Antarctica Experience

The fall season may be in full swing in Potsdam, New York, but near the South Pole -- destination for three members of a Clarkson University research team -- it is spring break time. John P. Dempsey, professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering; graduate student Ogugwa E. Uzorka; and John E. Bean, a Clarkson doctoral student and associate professor of Surveying and Geographical Information Systems at Paul Smith's College, departed Upstate New York last week headed for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, to do research on how sea ice breaks up. En route they will stop in New Zealand where they will be joined by Geoff Morley, who will serve as the "Team Mountaineer."

The team of scientists will study how first-year Antarctic sea ice cover responds to stresses applied by wind, ocean waves and temperature, in short, its breakup process. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation to expand fundamental knowledge of the region. The trio hopes to shed new scientific light into the underlying mechanisms of ice breakup. Their findings will significantly improve the understanding of and ability to model the deformation and fracture of Antarctic sea ice around the globe. The research could be invaluable to climatologists and other scientists preparing global climate models.

Sea ice begins the breakup process by first forming cracks, known as "leads." It was these leads that the submarine crew was looking for in the movie "Ice Station Zebra" so they could surface. However, instead of searching for cracks in the sea ice, Dempsey and his team will be creating them. "A lot of heat transfer takes place through cracks in ice," remarks Dempsey, the research team's leader. "We know that large ice floes are affected by microstructural anisotropies, but do not fracture in the same way as small ones do. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out experiments on the scale of tens of meters in order to validly extrapolate the fracture process to the larger scales that have applications to climate models and engineering problems of breaking ice." The team will use a specially constructed ice cutting saw, mounted on tracks to carve giant blocks of ice. The machine, essentially a chain saw on steroids, can cut through ice up to seven-feet thick.

The Clarkson team hopes they won't have to cut through ice that thick, however. They would like thinner ice because the experiments are easier to carry out. "Thinner ice is easier to work with and will allow us to conduct many more experiments," said Dempsey. Unfortunately, pieces of the Ross shelf have been breaking off in recent years and dropping into McMurdo Sound, freezing it in. In addition to hindering Dempsey's research, the freezing of McMurdo Sound requires Antarctic's penguins to travel 70 additional miles to reach open water.

The sea ice in Antarctica breaks up in a very regular way and that makes it a must site for ice researchers. There are a lot of events associated with ice breaking up which scientists, environmental activists and others cite as examples of global warming. "The problem," Dempsey says, "is we don't really understand how sea ice and the glaciers break up. Scientists would like to have a better handle on how it happens so we can see if it is anomalously indicative of global climate change or simply the weather pattern here."

During their stay, Dempsey, Bean and Uzorka may not have beach weather -- the temperatures will range from minus 20 to 0 degrees Celsius -- but they will be bathed in sunshine. The region receives 24 hours of daylight this time of year. Each member had to pack two pairs of 100% ultraviolet filtering sun goggles. "The intense sun and reflection from the snow can cause severe eye pain and even burn the inside of your nostrils," warns Dempsey. This is his fourth trip to Antarctica but the first for his two companions.

The global reach of the Internet and another NSF grant will allow area 7th to 9th grade students to make a virtual trip to Antarctica with the Clarkson team. The K-12 Project-Based Learning Partnership Program is directed by Clarkson professor and associate dean of Clarkson's School of Engineering, Susan E. Powers.

Bean and other Clarkson graduate students have been working with teachers and students at eight area schools to use the Antarctica research experience to bring additional relevance into middle and high school earth science classes. Early classes have introduced students to the geography, topography and climate in Antarctica. Classes will continue through the Internet blog, which Bean will try to update every other day to give students a feel for what it is like in the Antarctic and at the McMurdo Research Station. Bean will post interviews with support workers and scientists, as well as photos and research progress on the Web site.

In addition to helping secure the funding for the GK-12 NSF project, Powers' role is to know the teachers and the earth science curriculum. "I have to make certain we meet the educational needs and stimulate the curiosity of the students," Powers says. "John brought the importance of ice and ice breakup in climate change modeling and the adventure of Antarctic research to 7th to 9th grade students with this project."

Powers and Bean brought earth science teachers from the eight schools onto Clarkson's campus last week for training on how to access the Internet site and blog. Students and teachers will be encouraged to contact the researchers with their questions and to share the experiments they are doing in class. They also prepared school flags which the Clarkson team will "fly" over the ice at the McMurdo Research Station and give back to the schools upon their return. You can view the flags and learn more about the research expedition at http://www.clarkson.edu/projects/antarctica.

The research team arrived in Christ Church, New Zealand, on October 28 and are preparing for the last leg of their journey. They will return from Antarctica in December.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

Calendar View the full calendar >>

Full Calendar RSS Feed