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UMass Lowell student does research in Antarctica

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News

Swanger’s Team Embarks on Two-Month Expedition to the Frozen Continent

Student in Antarctica
Myles Danforth ’15 collects rock samples during the 2014 field visit to Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys.

10/16/2015
By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers led by Asst. Prof. Kate Swanger of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS) is spending two months in Antarctica to study the history of rock glaciers and buried glacial ice in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region, which contains the longest climate record on the continent. The research is funded by a three-year, $331,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Due to current climate trends and the high probability that average global temperatures will continue to rise, it is important to the scientific community and to society to understand how Antarctica’s massive ice deposits have responded to climate change in the past.

“We will focus on rock glaciers, which are flowing mixtures of ice and sediments commonly found throughout the alpine and high-latitude regions on Earth as well as on the planet Mars,” says Swanger, who is the project’s principal investigator.

“Our research aims to address such questions as: ‘What environmental and climatological conditions foster long-term preservation of rock glaciers in Antarctica?’ ‘What role do rock glaciers play in the evolution of the Antarctic landscape and the local water cycle?’ and ‘What can rock glaciers reveal about the extent and timing of previous advances of glaciers?’ ” she explains.

The project includes two separate field visits to the Dry Valleys. The first one, which lasted from Dec. 3, 2014 to Jan.15, 2015, included Swanger and EEAS graduate student Seth Roberts and senior Myles Danforth as well as a researcher from East Carolina University.

Joining Swanger for this year’s visit, from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15, is UMass Lowell postdoctoral researcher Kelsey Winsor. Also with them are a Ph.D. student from the University of Pennsylvania, a research scientist from Brown University and a ground-penetrating radar expert from Alaska. 

A Trip of a Lifetime

“Last year’s trip was actually my first to Antarctica and my very first trip outside the U.S.,” says Danforth, who graduated in May.

“It was a great experience. I got to see a bit of Christchurch, New Zealand, our jumping off point to Antarctica, which was cool. The views of the frozen continent are amazing! With no trees or buildings for perspective, distances and sizes across the barren landscape can be deceiving. Things look a lot closer, and smaller, than they really are. For example, I look across the valley at a rock and think, huh, that’s a good-sized boulder, only to walk to it and find it’s almost the size of a house!” he says.

What kind of challenges did he encounter there?

Sleeping in tents for weeks with no shower was rough, he says. “We wiped ourselves down with baby towelettes every day to try and stay clean. Also going to the bathroom — an outside bucket — was tough. The constant wind and subfreezing temperatures made it a less-than-enjoyable experience,” he recalls. 

But the Antarctica trip did help open doors of opportunity for him. “My experience in field work is the main reason why I have a job today working for Hager GeoScience in Woburn, Mass. The company does a lot of GPR work, which we conducted down in Antarctica.”

With no Starbucks, TV, radio or Internet, how do the researches spend their free time, if any, on the continent? 

“I read a lot of sci-fi books. We also sat around and talked a lot after dinner,” says Danforth. 

To see photos of Antarctica from the previous visit, go to the university’s Photo Gallery. You can also follow the current adventures of Swanger and her team via this blog.