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:
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.”