Transmissions from the Ice Sheet

This November, Logan Mitchell will spend two months working at the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide research station in Antarctica, along with 45 other scientist, students and technicians from across the United States. The NSF-funded project aims to collect a 3.5 kilometer-long ice core over three summer seasons, with the intention of providing Antarctic records of environmental change for the last 100,000 years. Portions of that core will ultimately end up in Ed Brook’s lab at OSU.

Mitchell, whose funding also comes from the NSF, faces a lengthy journey. He must first get to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he will board a military plane bound for McMurdo Station — a miniature polar city capable of housing 1,200 people — on the Antarctic coast. There, he’ll undergo a week of survival training for conditions that, even in the Antarctic summer, where temperatures average -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). He’ll learn simple mountaineering and how to deal with a crevasse, a crack in the ice that can swallow a person. And then he’ll head 1,000 miles northwest to the WAIS station. Because it is so remote, Mitchell underwent the most extensive physical evaluation he’d ever experienced. As a precaution, people visiting the WAIS must have their wisdom teeth removed. The knee-length parka Mitchell will wear is bright red; if he’s injured, it’ll make him easy to spot on the flat, white landscape.

Although he’ll have limited access by satellite to the Internet at the WAIS outpost, Mitchell is planning on filling in the OSU community on his day-to-day life, from his work as a core handler to the things, like the “ice Olympics,” polar researchers do for fun.

Check out his blog at:

Ed Brook and Logan Mitchell
Ed Brook and Logan Mitchell

Studying ice cores gives Ed Brook and Logan Mitchell a picture of climate change.

For most, a polar landscape conjures a feeling of otherworldly barrenness and unrelenting cold. But for geosciences professor Ed Brook and Ph.D. student Logan Mitchell, the most far-flung, inhospitable places on the planet — the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the Greenland Ice Sheet, the
Siple Coast of Antarctica, to name a few — are fruitful grounds for research. They hold the keys to understanding the history of the Earth’s climate, as well as its future.

Brook and Mitchell study the tiny air bubbles that are trapped in ancient polar ice. Measuring greenhouse gases — methane and carbon dioxide — in those bubbles helps them reconstruct climate changes throughout the past 800,000 years. “Ice cores are unique,” says Mitchell. “The bubbles in the ice core are the actual atmosphere from that time. It’s not a proxy. We’re studying the real deal.” Brook’s lab is one of the few throughout the world that can work with a high quantity of ice core samples, enabling his team to continually draw more refined pictures of past climate changes.

As a mentor, Brook helps Mitchell make connections in other ways, as well. “He’s really good about letting me take ownership of ideas,” says Mitchell. “He lets me struggle and come to conclusions myself and provides feedback that’s constructive. He doesn’t just tell me the answers.”

Not only that, Brook encourages students like Mitchell to take advantage of as many opportunities to engage in their field as possible. Brook wants his students to branch out, to go to meetings and contact researchers at other universities, which is essential in an interdisciplinary field like ice-core research. Brook and Mitchell need to know, for example, how droughts and fires are related to greenhouse gases on a global scale. They need to understand hydrology and glaciology to help put their research into context.

“For me, the most important thing is that students should be colleagues,” says Brook. “This was done for me when I was a student. It helps them get involved in the field, and it gives them responsibility. It can be hard work. Logan was one of the most responsible students I taught. He took things a little further than most.”

Mitchell’s focus on ice-core research emerged from a longstanding love of the outdoors, hiking and colder environments. When he started thinking of the places he visited with a scientific perspective, he realized he had the potential to work in a relevant and valuable field. Brook was available when Mitchell needed advice about applying to OSU and choosing a lab, and the work piqued Mitchell’s interest.

“The science is exciting,” says Mitchell, “And Ed really has a gift for making me motivated about the research.”

OSU, Brook says, is a good place to be for anyone interested in climate change research. “There’s a lot happening here,” he says. “We all gain a lot — the students in particular — because of what’s happening on this campus.”

Marco Clark traveled to southwest China to study the effects of dam construction.

Marco Clark
Marco Clark

Marco Clark’s expedition to the Nu River Valley in southwestern China was off to a difficult start. Checkpoints lined the highway, blocking access to villages near the Nu, where there are plans to construct as many as thirteen dams. Even though Clark needed to get to the villages to do his research, he was reluctant to approach the checkpoints.

This challenge came as no surprise to Clark; his prior experiences in China had taught him to expect the unexpected. Still, he was nervous about the sensitivity of his research topic: human behavior in the face of an immediate environmental threat. But Clark continued to trek — mostly by bus or foot — approximately 230 miles up the Nu River Valley in search of an accessible village.

Clark’s research is associated with a cross-disciplinary project at OSU that unites the departments of Biological and Ecological Engineering, Anthropology, and Geosciences in order to examine the social, economic and ecological effects of dams on the Nu and Upper Mekong Rivers in China. Currently, China is the international leader in dam construction, and the project is being developed with the intent of assisting China in their quest for renewable energy. Clark’s interviews with villagers and political leaders will provide a better understanding of the effects of dam construction on people and the environment.

As an undergraduate studying political science at OSU, Clark developed an interest in human behavior. “I wanted to study how people feel about their environment and how they respond when that environment is threatened,” Clark says. Clark had visited China three times while pursuing an International Degree and was inspired to return. Currently in his second year of graduate study in anthropology, Clark was able to conduct more fieldwork in China with the help of a generous grant from the Institute for Water and Watersheds (IWW).

“Marco has done a great job of treading lightly and making good relationships,” says Bryan Tilt, Clark’s academic adviser and assistant professor of anthropology. “He was able to create connections in the area of his fieldwork through his excellent people skills.”

Clark improvised as he neared the Tibetan border, hiking two hours from the main road until he happened upon a privately owned dam under the support of the provincial government. The dam, near the village Dimaluo, was still undergoing construction when Clark came upon it. “The community was very removed and felt more secure,” Clark says. “It felt like a suitable place to be.” Dimaluo was where Clark would conduct his research.

While in Dimaluo, Clark was greeted warmly by the community. He formed a lasting friendship with a man named Aluo, who invited Clark into his home to stay with his family. Aluo assisted Clark with his interviews in exchange for English instruction and help translating for foreign guests.

Clark hopes that his research will help other scientists and policymakers better understand the potential impacts of dam construction, including the displacement and resettlement of villagers.

Clark is still deciding what to do after he receives his degree from OSU in 2009. He is thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. in order to teach and continue researching at a university. He is also thinking of continuing developmental work for either a governmental or non-governmental organization.

“Both of these paths will keep me involved in research in developing countries,” Clark says. “By completing assessments on the needs of small communities I hope to continue to help improve others’ quality of life.”