You Had Me at Glacial Cycles

Blog by Meghan King, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Me in front of a glacially carved U-shaped valley in the Maroon Bells Wilderness in Colorado.

Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, it was inevitable that my life would be shaped by water and sediment. As a child I wandered the rocky beach near my house with my magnifying glass for hours on end, examining everything from sand grains to boulders. In the fourth grade I learned how my little island came to be: a product of repeated glacial advances and retreats that created terminal moraines and outwash plains. At nine years old I became obsessed with understanding Earth’s history through sedimentary deposits, so it’s no surprise that I ended up at Oregon State for a Ph.D. in the field of stratigraphy!

Stratigraphy: it’s all about the layers

Stratigraphy is a branch of geology that studies the order of layered sedimentary rocks (strata) and their relationship to each other and the geologic time scale. Stratigraphy is fascinating because it is essentially an archive of Earth’s history at a specific geographic location. Some more well-known examples are the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, both of which were covered by an ancient shallow sea during the Paleozoic (542-251 Ma). The strata were originally deposited horizontally within that shallow sea and are different from each other in color, composition, grain size, etc.

The Grand Canyon was eventually carved over a short period of time by the Colorado River. Photo credit: Meghan King

Death Valley stratigraphy has since been uplifted and tilted. Photo credit: Meghan King

My love of water, sediment, and large changes in Earth’s climate converge in my Ph.D. research. The strata in shallow marine environments (like those pictured) physically record how sea level fluctuated in response to glacial-interglacial periods. This is because sea level alters the type and characteristics of deposited sediments. Sea-level response to ice sheet change is typically thought of in the form of a “bathtub” model: When ice starts to melt, the water in the ocean will rise uniformly everywhere like a bathtub. However, this isn’t the whole picture of global sea level.

As ice sheets grow during a glacial period, they push down on the crust beneath them and create a raised bulge around the periphery, just like sitting on a mattress. The opposite happens during the intervals between ice ages. This concept is called glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA). GIA causes sea level to vary at different points on the Earth such that sea level doesn’t change at the same rate/magnitude everywhere. A few other processes contribute to this phenomenon as well. For example, ice sheets are large enough that they exert a gravitational pull on the oceans and draw water towards them, causing sea level to be higher near the ice sheets!

modeling, but for the rocks

What I’m most interested in for my Ph.D. is how GIA alters the stratigraphic preservation of glacial-interglacial cycles. Is there a geographic pattern to this alteration? If so, can we disentangle the signal of GIA from the rest of the stratigraphic record? While we have other records of glacial-interglacial cycles, they tend to exist for only a portion of recent Earth history, so for older deposits, stratigraphy offers consistent insight.  

How have I approached this problem? Modeling! The rich history of field and lab work in the geosciences tends to get a lot of the attention (a lot of cool examples in previous blog posts though), but recently models have become an equally important tool! Modeling may not be as exciting to some, but it’s really fascinating to think about all the questions we can begin to answer with just a few – or in my case – a lot of lines of code!

A photo of me in front of my computer with MATLAB open isn’t as exciting, so here I am with my rock hammer while TA’ing GEO 495 last summer.

Over the past three years I’ve developed some programs in MATLAB which allow me to combine sea level histories and sedimentation histories to build projected stratigraphic records from scratch. The output ends up looking something like the pictures above. I can then correlate, or compare, these records across space to help us understand how GIA is affecting the preservation of glacial-interglacial signals inputted into the models.

I’ve already completed a project using these models on Quaternary (2.6 Ma – present) glacial-interglacial cycles for the West Coast, and now I’m working on expanding the project in a variety of directions. I’ll be incorporating other inputs to make the models more robust. For example, I can vary the model’s ice histories, earth models and tectonic histories, and apply the model to more globally distributed locations in the Pliocene (5.3 – 2.6 Ma).

There is more to understand about sea-level change in the face of our warming climate, so I hope that these models can be altered and applied to a range of other projects as well. Maybe the next generation of inquisitive nine-year-olds hold the key?

Measuring the breaths of rocks

Blog by Layla Ghazi, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Twitter: @biogeoghazi

Layla Ghazi, PhD Student at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, Oregon.

Biogeochemistry is the study of how matter moves through the biological and physical world. The field focuses especially on the biologically interlinked chemical cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. During the spring semester of my junior year of college, I stumbled into the field of biogeochemistry, and I have not looked back. My research questions continue to expand, but they relate most directly to the carbon cycle. What is so sweet about the subject is that I can follow the questions that may develop along the way and end up in an entirely different biogeochemical cycle (ask me about my nitrogen cycle to molybdenum cycle rabbit hole).

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. It occurs in many natural forms, ranging from gases like methane (CH4), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and carbon dioxide (CO2) to solids like a diamond or the graphite at the tip of a pencil. Carbon is necessary to keep life as we know it on Earth going, but I’ll give credit for maintenance of the universe as a whole to hydrogen and helium.

A range of processes govern the movement (cycling) of carbon, which is heavily intertwined with Earth’s living and non-living worlds, including volcanic activity (which is rad). I’m most interested in a particular part of the carbon cycle that focuses on the oxidation of old organic carbon stored in sedimentary rocks (also known as petrogenic organic carbon, or OCpetro) in a process called geologic respiration or georespiration. Yes, rocks can “breathe.”

Maybe that prefix of “petro” is familiar? Like petroleum? Petro is the Greek prefix for rock, so petrogenic organic carbon is organic carbon that is released from rocks. The precise way the organic carbon is released through the rocks remains unclear, but some preliminary work shows that the main controls on georespiration are the processes of weathering (chemical or physical breakdown of material) and erosion (removal of material from one place to another). 

How can you begin to measure how much CO2 is released from a rock that is being exposed to oxygen? The scale of that work would be absurd! Enter the trace element, rhenium (Re), which has become an important player in helping to quantify georespiration in certain rivers around the world. Re is believed to mostly be associated with the petrogenic organic carbon in sedimentary rocks through some sweet, sweet organic carbon-metal bonds. When ample oxygen is present, those bonds break, and two products are created synchronously: CO2 and Re. The CO2 is released once the petrogenic carbon meets oxygen, and Re is released from rock to solution phase as a soluble, negatively charged ion.

If you are wondering how this big question of “how do rocks breathe?” gets answered in real time with real data, the key places to look are in the rivers, in the bedrock, in the soils, in the rainwater, and anything else in between. What that means for me is that for the first time in my life, I get to conduct field work. I study georespiration in the Umpqua River of southwestern Oregon and the Eel River of northwestern California, which means my study sites are located in some of the most sublime scenery in the United States. The amount of material that the Eel and Umpqua each transport from the land to the ocean annually are also typical of small mountainous rivers all over the world, which makes what we learn about georespiration from them likely applicable at a global scale.

One of the sampling stations along the Eel River (Credit: Miguel Goñi, Brian Haley, or Julie Pett-Ridge).

This photo was taken this past summer in an additional sampling campaign in the Umpqua River to collect erosion rates. 

Identifying the chemical composition of the bedrock, the soil, the weathered materials, the sediment in the river water, and the petrogenic organic carbon is important to be able to paint a complete picture of the environment we are using to measure georespiration, which means I also work in a wet chemistry lab. As I begin my third year, I’ll be conducting a new (to me) kind of analytical chemistry work to further constrain the chemical and geological identity of the material in the Eel and Umpqua Rivers. These measurements will be combined with previous data of the river water chemistry to evaluate and refine Re as a way to quantify georespiration in the Eel and Umpqua Rivers.

This is one of the multi-collector inductively coupled mass spectrometers (MC-ICP-MS) housed within CEOAS at the Keck Collaboratory. My advisor, Julie Pett-Ridge, is a part of the advisory committee of this world-class analytical geochemical facility.

One of the analyses I’m conducting is on the isotopic composition of the solid materials, like bedrock, soil, sediment, to understand their origin. These columns are used to extract the strontium from a solution, and it can later be analyzed by MC-ICP-MS.

Column chemistry is like following a cooking recipe. Here, I am probably adding some deionized water to the columns while I’m trying to remove some waste before collecting the strontium.

Here, I am using a hot plate for two different tasks at the same time. I’m drying down some river water samples to switch the acid they are in for a different type of analysis, and I am concentrating five beakers of rainwater into one.

Roger that, we are currently enamored

Blog by Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Figures by Dawn Barlow, PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Note: Rachel originally wrote this blog entry while at sea on a research cruise in the Northern California Current system in May and June 2021. It was originally published on the GEMM Lab blog at

Hello from the R/V Bell M. Shimada! We are currently sampling at an inshore station on the Heceta Head Line, which begins just south of Newport and heads out 45 nautical miles west into the Pacific Ocean. We’ll spend 10 days total at sea, which have so far been full of great weather, long days of observing, and lots of whales.

Dawn (left) and Rachel (right) in matching, many-layered outfits, 125 miles offshore on the flying bridge of the RV Bell M. Shimada.

Run by NOAA, this Northern California Current (NCC) cruise takes place three times per year. It is fabulously interdisciplinary, with teams concurrently conducting research on phytoplankton, zooplankton, seabirds and more. The GEMM Lab will use the whale survey and the krill and oceanographic data to fuel species distribution models as part of Project OPAL. I’ll be working with this data for my Ph.D. with Dr. Leigh Torres and Dr. Kim Bernard, and it’s great to be getting to know the region, study system and sampling processes.

I’ve been to sea a number of times and always really enjoyed it, but this is my first time as part of a marine mammal survey. The type and timing of this work is so different from the many other types of oceanographic science that take place on a typical research cruise. While everyone else is scurrying around deploying instruments and collecting samples at a “station” (a geographic waypoint in the ocean that is sampled repeatedly over time), we– the marine mammal team– are taking a break because we can only survey when the boat is moving. While everyone else is sleeping or relaxing during a long transit between stations, we’re hard at work up on the flying bridge of the ship, scanning the horizon for animals.

Top left: marine mammal survey effort (black lines), and oceanographic sampling stations (red diamonds). Top right: humpback whale sighting locations. Bottom left: fin whale sighting locations. Bottom right: pacific white-sided dolphin sighting locations.

During each “on effort” survey period, Dawn Barlow and I cover separate quadrants of ocean, each manning either the port or starboard side. We continuously scan the horizon for signs of whale blows or bodies, alternating between our eyes and binoculars. During long transits, we work in chunks – forty minutes on effort, and twenty minutes off effort. Staring at the sea all day is surprisingly tiring, and so our breaks often involve “going to the eye spa,” which entails pulling a neck gaiter or hat over your eyes and basking in the darkness.  

Dawn has been joining these NCC cruises for the past four years, and her wealth of knowledge has been a great resource as I learn how to survey and identify marine mammals. Beyond learning the telltale signs of separate species, one of the biggest challenges has been learning how to read the sea better, to judge the difference between a frothy whitecap and a whale blow, or a distant dark wavelet and a dorsal fin. Other times, when conditions are amazing and it feels like we’re surrounded by whales, the trick is to try to predict the positions and trajectory of each whale so we don’t double-count them.

Over the last week, all our scanning has been amply rewarded. We’ve seen pods of dolphins play in our wake, and spotted Dall’s porpoises bounding alongside the ship. Here on the Heceta Line, we’ve seen a diversity of pinnipeds, including Northern fur seals, Stellar sea lions, and California sea lions. We’ve been surprised by several groups of fin whales, farther offshore than expected, and traveled alongside a pod of about 12 orcas for several minutes, which is exactly as magical as it sounds.

Killer whales traveling alongside the Bell M. Shimada, putting on a show for the NCC science team and ship crew. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

Notably, we’ve also seen dozens of humpbacks, including along what Dawn termed “the humpback highway” during our transit offshore of southern Oregon. One humpback put on a huge show just 200 meters from the ship, demonstrating fluke slapping behavior for several minutes. We wanted to be sure that everyone onboard could see the spectacle, so we radioed the news to the bridge, where the officers control the ship. They responded with my new favorite radio call ever: “Roger that, we are currently enamored.”

A group of humpbacks traveling along the humpback highway. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

A humpback whale fluke slapping. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

SpeciesNumber of sightingsTotal number observed
California Sea Lion26
Dall’s Porpoise325
Fin Whale1118
Humpback Whale140218
Killer Whale321
Northern Fur Seal99
Northern Right Whale Dolphin28
Pacific White-sided Dolphin13145
Steller Sea Lion33
Unidentified Baleen Whale104127
Unidentified Dolphin628
Unidentified Whale22

Even with long days and tired eyes, we are still constantly enamored as well. It has been such a rewarding cruise so far, and it’s hard to think of returning back to “real life” next week. For now, we’re wishing you the same things we’re enjoying – great weather, unlimited coffee, and lots of whales!

From Lab to Sea – Conducting Research on the Water

by Nicole Coffey, Ph.D. Student in Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences

When I tell people that I study chemistry, often they imagine me standing over bubbling beakers in a lab. However, I study chemistry in the ocean, which means that my approaches need to break from that stereotype. What happens when the work you want to do can’t be done from a land-based lab? What if you have to go out to sea to do get the samples that you need?

Preparing to go to Sea

My advisor (Dr. Rene Boiteau), our collaborators at USC and UCLA, and I are interested in iron transport off the Oregon shelf. Iron is important in the oceans – it plays a role in chemical reactions in the water, and is required for key functions of marine organisms, such as photosynthesis. However, there is not a lot of iron available to critters in the ocean, since iron does not like to be dissolved in seawater and organisms cannot use iron unless it is dissolved. We wanted to investigate how iron moves throughout the ecosystem off the Oregon coast, and how organisms might be using the small amount of iron that is dissolved in the water. We can’t do this work from land – we needed water samples from offshore. So, we set sail on R/V Oceanus at the end of March on a scientific adventure!

Science can be tricky to do on land – and only gets more challenging when you go out to sea. For me, one of the most stressful parts of a research expedition is packing. On land, if you run out of supplies, you may be able to quickly borrow some from a neighboring lab, or buy more and have them delivered within a few days. At sea, if you run out of supplies you can’t get more. Your science has to stop. It’s very important that you pack everything you need (and not a bad idea to bring more than what you think you need, if you have the space to pack it). Packing for this trip involved a lot of spreadsheets and lists developed with my advisor, and triple-checking every box to make sure we had everything we would need out at sea.

We pack far in advance of a cruise to allow us time to figure out if we are missing any supplies. To be as safe as possible for this cruise, everyone going on the ship had to quarantine for two weeks, so we had to be ready to go even earlier. It was a lot of work, but everyone was prepared to board the ship and get set up to do some science at sea the day we reached R/V Oceanus!

Setting up Aboard R/V Oceanus and Science at Sea

R/V Oceanus in port in Newport, OR

Loading a ship with supplies for a successful cruise can be difficult. But we don’t have to carry every piece of equipment up the gangplank by hand. We use a crane to lift all of gear from the dock, assisted by the helpful ship’s crew. Once the gear was onboard, we spent the rest of the day organizing our spaces and setting up our equipment. Having our gear organized, and boxes labelled with their contents, helped this go smoothly! Out on the water, the ship rocks with the waves, meaning anything not held in place may slide around. To avoid an unsafe workspace, all of our gear had to be tied down or screwed into place. I secured the bottles and pump I would use to filter particles from my water samples to a benchtop with bungee cords and ratchet straps while other graduate students built a “bubble” of plastic sheeting to keep their workspace free from dust or potential contaminants. After a hard day’s work, we were all ready to leave port the next morning and get started collecting our samples.

Sample processing setup aboard R/V Oceanus; samples were filtered from the bottles on the left into bottles on the right, then loaded onto solid phase extraction (SPE) columns (in front of bottles on the left).

Once we left port and arrived at our first sampling site, we used a piece of equipment called a CTD (which measures conductivity (to help determine salinity), temperature, and depth) to profile the water from the surface to near-bottom. We also measured how much oxygen was in the water. This information helped us to choose what depths we wanted to sample water from. As the CTD returned to the surface, we used a computer to tell bottles attached to the instrument to close, bringing us water from below the surface. Once the CTD was back on board, it was a flurry of action to collect our samples and get to work in the lab! First, we filter our samples to remove particles. Then, we use a technique called solid phase extraction (SPE) to remove salts and concentrate the sample. The samples are analyzed back on land.

In our downtime, we sometimes would go out on deck to take in the sight of water all around us. Sometimes, we had some visitors – over the course of the trip, we saw sea lions, albatross, gray whales, and dolphins! You never know what you’ll see when you’re out on the water (though fantastic sunsets are always a given).

Dolphins swimming near R/V Oceanus along the Newport Hydrographic Line

A life preserver aboard R/V Oceanus at sunset.

After about a week on board, R/V Oceanus began to have some mechanical problems, and we were forced to return to port. It was disappointing to leave some objectives unfinished, but it was better to be safe rather than risk having worse problems down the line. Though our cruise was cut short, we collected some great samples during our time at sea. We’re all looking forward to analyzing the data to see what we might have found, and for our follow-up trip in July to learn more about iron dynamics on the Oregon shelf.

Follow Nicole on Twitter: @ChemNicoleOcean

See content from this cruise and our upcoming trip with this hashtag on Twitter: #FeTSh2021

Destiny and Perseverance

A scientific conference attended by Giancarlo and colleagues pre-pandemic. From right to left: Giancarlo, Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli (my advisor), Dr. Caren Barcelo, and Jennifer Wong-Ala (lab mate).

by Giancarlo M. Correa, PhD Student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Have you ever thought about how you got to where you are now academically? In my case, three clear events got me to where I am. I think every outcome is a product of something, and that something might be destiny or it might be perseverance.

Finding an ideal career by chance

When I was in school I loved math, and honestly, I was pretty good at it. I participated in many regional math competitions and I succeeded in some of them. I assumed that studying anything related to engineering after school would be the right path for me, and I left my amazing school life with that thought in mind. In Peru, where I was born and raised, there is a very competitive exam students need to take in order to be admitted into the very few good (and free) public universities, so applicants typically take classes at special centers (popularly called “academies”) after school during some months to be prepared to take that exam. I signed up in a center called Pamer to study for exams allowing me to apply to the industrial engineering program at San Marcos National University, the oldest university in America.

By then, I needed to review math and verbal concepts, but also subjects such as chemistry, biology (which I hated), and physics. So, one sunny Saturday, I made a mistake and I attended a biology class to which I was not assigned. The professor was renowned in Pamer for his way of teaching. And here is when destiny, for the first time, played a role in my academic formation. That Saturday I fell in love with biology in just two hours of class. The way this professor taught biology was extremely engaging and thought-provoking; I never realized how interesting biology was until that moment. I did not need to think twice — I knew at that moment that biology was going to be my future career. A few months later I was admitted to San Marcos National University to study biological sciences, and that was one of the best decisions of my life.

As a student in biological sciences, I had to travel a lot around my country. I will never forget the amazing places and people that I met. This is the most famous waterfall in Peru: Gocta, located in the Amazonas region.
My first opportunity in research

The first months of my undergraduate life were difficult for me, as adapting to university life was not immediate and I needed some time to adjust to working on my own and not having a professor pushing me. I wanted to specialize in molecular biology, which was a popular choice among most students by then, and I was quite good at my molecular biology classes. In the fourth year of study, every student must select a specialization to follow during the last two years, and there were three choices: zoology, botany, and hydrobiology and fisheries. I was unsure which path to take. Most students took zoology or botany since there were more professors and researchers to work with in those disciplines. However, I do not usually follow the herd so I chose hydrobiology and fisheries, beginning my fourth year at the university somewhat unsure about this decision.

A year later, I needed to look for a laboratory or institution in which to get mandatory research experience, and to do an undergraduate thesis. That was a critical moment in my academic life. I asked one of my professors about internship opportunities at the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE), and she introduced me to the leader of the Population Dynamics and Stock Assessment Unit, who accepted me to do a research internship for a few months (that was the plan at the beginning, but those months became years). Then came the second crucial moment in my academic life: I started to study the population dynamics of fish populations using statistical and mathematical methods, an amazing field that I am still in love with.

The first scientific survey I participated in taught me how hard and enjoyable can be working onboard. An unforgettable experience. This is one of the main research vessels of the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE): the BIC Jose Olaya Balandra.
An international jump

I worked for almost five years at IMARPE, gaining invaluable knowledge and experience. During that time, I undertook a master’s program in applied math, I participated in my first research cruise, and I published my first paper. I also participated in international conferences and met great scientists in Peru and abroad, and some of them were the source of inspiration for my next big step: pursuing a doctoral degree abroad.

Applying to American universities is not an easy task for international students; it demands time and money, but I was determined. I researched all the requirements, and soon identified the most important ones: passing the TOELF exam (to prove that I am proficient in English), taking the GRE, finding an academic advisor and getting funding. I passed the TOELF exam with a score that was good enough. Next I took the GRE, and I got an outstanding score in the math section, a not-bad verbal score, and a quite bad score in the written part. However, I struggled to find an academic advisor. I made a list of all the professors that I would have liked to work with, and I emailed them asking for opportunities. Sixty percent did not reply, 20% were not accepting new students at that time, 15% did not have funding sources, and 5% (one professor) invited me for an interview and ended up supporting my application to Oregon State University, although funding was not guaranteed. And here is the third crucial moment in my academic life: I only applied to one university and I was admitted. Was I lucky? Who knows, but this outcome was a consequence of perseverance and I am proud of it. Since fall 2018, I live in a small city in the Pacific Northwest (Corvallis), working with Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli on projects related to population dynamics of the Pacific cod in the eastern Bering Sea. I have no words to describe how much I have learned during the last years and how beautiful is this area of the world.

When I applied to Oregon State University, I was not aware of how astonishing the Pacific Northwest is. I am truly lucky of living in this area. Here is a viewpoint in Newport, a city relatively close to Corvallis.
What about you?

Have you thought about the crucial moments that brought you to where you are now? Were they products of destiny or perseverance? Identify them and be thankful and proud of them. There is no better or worse place to be, there is only the right one, where you are now. Are you excited about which events will define your academic life? I am, and I have no doubt that I will make the right decision. Enjoy this moment and do not stop persisting to achieve your academic and life goals. Destiny might play an important role at some point, but it will need to be complemented by your perseverance.  

A Search for the Planet’s Oldest Ice

Jenna Epifanio, Ph.D. student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Jenna in the field. Credit: Ian Van Coller

What would you see if you looked into a time capsule from 1.5 million years ago? If the time capsule contained air before it was sealed up, you would find out a lot about the Earth’s climate. Between October and January of last year, I had the opportunity to join a team of researchers to go find some of that air, trapped in a natural time capsule: An Antarctic ice sheet.

using ice to understand earth’s past

Ice on our planet’s polar ice sheets has been preserving records of climate for hundreds of thousands of years, and in the case of Antarctica, a lot longer than that. Antarctica is thought to have first become covered in ice about 30 million years ago, which means if we sample ice at the correct locations on the continent, we might be able to discover some of that extremely old ice.

Bubbly ice from the Allan Hills, Antarctica

What makes polar ice a great archive for climate science is the direct nature of what it preserves. Not only do the water chemistry and particles trapped in the ice tell us about the past climate, but ice also collects tiny air bubbles that preserve an undisturbed record of the Earth’s atmosphere. Because ice is formed by layers and layers of snow that become packed down over thousands of years, all of the bubbles that are trapped in the ice sheet are preserved in chronological order – the deeper down in the ice sheet, the older the ice and the air trapped in it. Climate scientists can drill a long ice core and analyze it to determine the chemistry of the ice as well as the composition of atmospheric air in the ice bubbles.

Even though Antarctica glaciated over 30 million years ago, we probably won’t ever find ice that old on the continent. Because ice moves quickly (geologically speaking) and is subject to stress, melting and flow, most of the extremely old ice in Antarctica has already been destroyed. Currently, the oldest record of past climate contained in an ice core goes back 800,000 years. Recently, however, there has been a push to identify ice older than this because of an interesting question about the climate system that we want to answer.

Between 1.2 million and about 900,000 years ago, the Earth went through a dramatic shift in ice age cycles. During what’s known as the Mid Pleistocene Transition (MPT), the Earth changed from having ice ages every 40,000 years to having much colder and longer ice ages every 100,000 years. We know this from ocean sediment records of climate that contain indirect clues – proxies – describing climate conditions. However, an ice core record that covers that period would be invaluable: Instead of using proxy records of climate recorded in the ocean sediments, we would have a sample of the atmosphere itself to measure and answer questions about the climate from that period.

A visible layer of volcanic ash trapped in the ice sheet, near the Allan Hills, Antarctica.

Recently, scientists collected ice that was dated to be 1.5 million to about 2.7 million years old at a location in Antarctica called the Allan Hills. Situated about 140 miles from the U.S Antarctic base, McMurdo station, the Allan Hills is known as a “blue ice area,” and when you see it for the first time, there is no question as to why it bears the name. Blue ice areas (BIAs) are created when winds scour the ice sheet, removing the top layer of uncompressed snow and exposing the blue ice. At the Allan Hills, this process is combined with other physical factors that allow very old ice to be found near the surface. That extremely old ice near the surface is what I, and a few wonderful people from around the country, were there to sample.

The primary goal of the field season was to re-drill an ice core at a location that had been identified to have ice that is 2.7 million years old. The original ice core, collected a few years ago, was fairly small, and has mostly been consumed as samples were chipped off of it in the process of understanding its age. One secondary goal of the expedition was to drill some reconnaissance samples in locations that were good candidates for old ice. Over the seven weeks, we successfully drilled three 150-m ice cores, one of which will very likely contain ice that is 2.7 million years old.

Field work at the bottom of the world

Just arriving in Antarctica is an ordeal. A commercial flight to Christchurch, New Zealand takes about 18 hours. I was the only representative from Oregon State University on the team, so meeting some new and also some familiar faces was the first order of business when I arrived. Along with the other researchers, I met our camp manager, Anna, an impressive and ferocious mountaineering woman on her tenth season in Antarctica. I also met Elizabeth (‘E’) and Tanner, both professional ice core drillers (yep, that’s a real job!), who have a ridiculous amount of experience between the two of them. These tough-as-nails people would teach me how to drill ice cores in one of the most extreme places on the planet. To get from New Zealand to the icy continent, the team and dozens of other researchers and personnel boarded a US Air Force C-17, a gigantic military plane. The trip took five loud, and quite cramped hours, until we landed on the airfield located on the ice near McMurdo station.

Drilling 2.7 million-year-old ice with the Blue Ice Drill.

We spent ten days at McMurdo Station collecting camp gear, planning meals and food needs, and training in snow survival skills, and then we flew to our remote field site. Multiple Twin Otter flights from McMurdo Station to the Allan Hills were needed to deliver nine people, two ice core drilling rigs, and all of our camping gear. Two other researchers and I were on the last flight, which was delayed due to high winds and poor visibility at the Allan Hills.

The first order of business was to finish setting up camp, and begin setting up our drilling equipment. The next few days were grueling work, lugging gear to different drill sites, drilling anchors in the ice to secure our tents and equipment, and testing the electrical generators that would power the blue ice drill, a 9.5-inch diameter ice core drill that we would use to extract literal TONS of ice over the next seven weeks. The exhaustion that set in at the end of each very long day made sleeping in a tent during 24 hours of daylight some of the easiest sleeping I’d ever done.

Scott tents and living quarters on a beautiful day at the Allan Hills, Antarctica.

It is amazing how quickly you can adapt to harsh conditions. Our team was in the field for seven weeks. That’s seven weeks of waking up in a tent every morning to freezing temperatures, getting dressed, grabbing some warm tea and a quick breakfast, then heading out to our drill sites to continue the drilling from the day before. Drinking water was made by melting ice that we chipped out of the ice sheet at a special “sterile” location. There were no showers, and all my baby-wipes were frozen into a solid block of ice before I got to my tent that first night in the field. The sun never set, and if the wind would stop howling in the middle of the night, I would wake up, disturbed by the sudden change. Those nights were special, though, because you could hear the ice sheet cracking. Loud pops echoed across the ice sheet and reminded you of how incredible it was that you were there.

Science during a pandemic

I should be in Antarctica right now, sleeping in a Scott tent, enjoying the company of some amazing scientists and ice core drillers. The Allan Hills ice core drilling project was funded for two field seasons. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field work has been delayed, and I’m sitting in Corvallis, Oregon, remembering that dramatic place. I don’t feel sorry for myself for missing out on a second season; being there once was the experience of a lifetime, and I’m grateful to have had it. Living through this pandemic does highlight how dramatically nature can change our lives, giving a little bit of perspective as to why understanding climate change is important. Understanding what is natural, normal, and possible for the Earth’s climate system is key to understanding how it will change in the future. Understanding the nature of that change can prepare us for what comes next.

Most of the team at the Allan Hills ice core drilling project.

Follow Jenna on Twitter @sciencejenna

A Kriller Antarctic Winter

By Kirsten Steinke, Ph.D. student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Kirsten Steinke

I wake up and rub my eyes as my 5:45 alarm goes off in the morning.  Still pitch black out my window, I quickly throw on my workout clothes, grab my yoga mat and head to the lounge for 6 am group yoga. After spending thirty minutes waking up my muscles, I head to the gym for my morning workout routine with my buddy Ken: a three-mile run on the treadmill while watching an episode of Rick and Morty. Sufficiently sweaty, I head to the girl’s bathroom (which is way nicer than the one I have at home) and take a quick shower. Finally awake, I head back to my room and get my stuff together for the long day of work. I look out my window again and the sun is just starting to rise behind the glacier. I stop what I’m doing and take a minute to just watch. I can hardly believe that this is the view I get to start my day with every morning.

The sunrise at Palmer Station, Antarctica

After the winter solstice on June 22, the sun started returning rapidly to our region of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (wAP). The sunrise is a welcome site as in the dead of winter we were only getting about 3-4 hours of sunlight every day. In total, our OSU research team spent about six months conducting research and living at one of the Antarctic research stations owned by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP): Palmer Station. Palmer is situated on Anvers Island in the northern part of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The smallest of the three research stations run by USAP, Palmer looks out over the Southern Ocean and the vast mountain ranges that are typical of the Antarctic Peninsula. The setting is spectacular: We watch icebergs float in and out of the surrounding bays and listen to the earth-shattering eruptions of the glacier calving nearby. One iceberg, dubbed Old Faithful, got stuck in the bay and stays with us all season. It is comforting in a way to see it standing faithfully by each day as we begin our field work.

Old Faithful, our most loyal iceberg

“Why on Earth are you going to Antarctica in the middle of winter?” was a common question that I, and the rest of my research team, got asked. Believe it or not, the changes that occur in Antarctic ecosystems during the winter are poorly understood. Our team of krill researchers sought to fill some of these knowledge gaps as we conducted experiments on the overwintering of arguably the most important keystone species in Antarctic ecosystems: Antarctic krill. These tiny crustaceans, about as big as the length of your pinky as adults, support most of the top predators in the Antarctic ecosystem. Whales, penguins, seals, fish and other seabirds rely on krill as their primary food source.

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba. Photo credit: Australian Antarctic Program

Our research project was designed by my advisor, Dr. Kim Bernard. She’s interested in how the warming at the northern wAP affects the food available to krill throughout the autumn and winter. The northern wAP is warming quicker than most other places on Earth, which has altered the food web dynamics at the northern WAP. Krill feed primarily on diatoms (microscopic algae) and copepods (microscopic zooplankton). The warming temperatures have resulted in declines in diatoms but more copepods at the northern wAP. Winter is a critical life history stage for young krill as food availability decreases in response to lower light levels. We wanted to know how this climate-induced change in food availability, compounded by the overall lower levels of food availability, affects the physiology of young krill. Hence, six months of Antarctic research collecting, observing, and learning from our kriller friends.

Out collecting food for our krill

While these six months may have been the most demanding of my Ph.D. career, they were also some of the best months of my life. We worked long hours in the lab and out in the field six days a week, making sure we had enough resources to support our long-term feeding experiment and to carry out our physiological experiments. Similar to the krill, we learned how to adapt to the extreme winter conditions. We got used to working in complete darkness, learned which path to take to work when winds were blowing over 100 knots and discovered that the quickest way to warm our fingers and toes after a long day of field work was to hold them directly against the small space heater in our office.

The sunset reflecting off the newly formed sea ice
Palmer Station welcoming the evening light

Our long field season at Palmer Station, Antarctica finally came to an end in the middle of October. In addition to the hundreds of samples that we successfully obtained from our research project, we left Palmer with new memories, incredible stories and 17 new friends that we were lucky enough to call our polar family. This experience was truly one of the greatest of my life and I cannot wait until our next field season starts in February 2021. It’s going to be kriller.

The 2019 Antarctic research team. OSU CEOAS graduate Julia Fontana (left), OSU CEOAS Associate Professor Dr. Kim Bernard (Center), OSU CEOAS PhD Student Kirsten Steinke (right)