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Research Team Studies Antarctica’s Climate Past

Some middle school students will get a unique perspective on research conducted more than 9,000 miles away by a team that includes a veteran of Antarctic expeditions.

A five-member team from North Dakota State University’s Department of Geosciences heads to Antarctica this October to conduct research on Antarctica’s climate history.

The team, whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation, includes Allan Ashworth, distinguished professor of geosciences; Adam Lewis, assistant professor of geosciences; geology undergraduate students Michael Ginsbach and Chad Crotty, and Alex Smith, graduate student in environmental and conservation sciences.

The team will divide their efforts between mapping glacial deposits and collecting fossils of tundra plants and animals from which they will derive estimates of summer temperatures. Smith will focus his graduate research on using deposits of volcanic ash to precisely date the ancient glacial deposits. Initial work suggests the fossils are more than 19 million years old, suggesting they date from a time before the continent was buried beneath the massive ice sheet of today.

The team flies to New Zealand to be supplied with cold-weather gear before heading to McMurdo Station, the U.S. National Science Foundation's base of Antarctic operations. From McMurdo, the NDSU team will establish a helicopter-supported tent camp in the Dry Valleys region and later will move by ski-equipped aircraft to Oliver Bluffs, some 300 miles from the South Pole. Work at Oliver Bluffs presents unique challenges. Long supply routes complicate logistics and the terrain includes glacier ice, loose rocky soils and near-vertical cliff faces. The team will spend seven weeks in the field before returning to Fargo in late December.

To encourage K-12 students’ interest in science, the NDSU team will make weekly contact with several elementary and middle school classrooms in the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., area using a satellite phone system. Ginsbach, who is pursuing a second major in education, is coordinating communications through Ben Franklin Middle School, Fargo, N.D. The group plans to relay weekly research goals to participating classrooms, with follow-up conversations to discuss successes and setbacks.

The areas of Antarctica that the NDSU field team will conduct research are areas where Ashworth started his Antarctic research 15 years ago. As Ashworth expects this to be his last research expedition to Antarctica, he says his many expeditions to the frozen continent and the rewards of the research have been a “totally uplifting experience not to have been missed.”

Previously, an international team of scientists including NDSU’s Ashworth and Lewis, and David Marchant, an earth scientist at Boston University, combined evidence from glacial geology, paleoecology, dating of volcanic ashes and computer modeling, to report a major climate change centered on 14 million years ago. The earlier discovery of fossilized ostracods received global interest.

Ashworth and Lewis, along with then NDSU students Andrew Podoll and Kelly Gorz, were featured in the documentary, “Ice People,” by Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Anne Aghion. The film has been screened at science museums and film festivals in Australia, Vancouver, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Jerusalem and Fargo.

The Ashworth Glacier within the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica has been named after Dr. Ashworth, honoring his significant contribution to science (palaenontology and stratigraphy) in Antarctica. Discoveries by Ashworth and his teams in Oliver Bluffs in the Beardmore region include the first fossil beetles and a fossil fly from Antarctica, as well as fossil mosses and seeds showing that Antarctica was not always the cold, icy place that it is today.

Ashworth currently serves as chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Union for Quaternary Research and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of Quaternary Science.

The research described here is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation’s Polar Programs.

For more information:
Dr. Allan Ashworth, North Dakota State University
Dr. Adam R. Lewis, North Dakota State University
National Science Foundation
Antarctic fossils paint a picture of a much warmer continent
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Ice People
Science Magazine
“Freeze-Dried Findings Support a Tale of Two Ancient Climates”

Dr. Allan Ashworth | Newswise Science News
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