Pictures from an Expedition

By Jan Senn

Carls in Antarctica

It doesn’t get any more Carleton than this: Three Carleton-educated scientists aboard the  Laurence M. Gould working—and playing—together at the end of the world

And you thought Minnesota winters were rough. Antarctica is the coldest and iciest place on Earth. Yet this desolate land of extremes is also stunningly beautiful.

“You could close your eyes and take pictures and they’d turn out great,” says Kendra Murray ’07, who spent four weeks last winter traveling along the coast of Antarctica aboard the Laurence M. Gould, a research and supply vessel that makes regular runs between South America and Antarctica.

Murray and her Carleton classmate Willy Guenthner ’07 (now both graduate students at the University of Arizona) were members of a four-person field team led by chief scientist Dave Barbeau ’97, a geology professor at the University of South Carolina, who used his Carleton connections to assemble his team.

Aboard the Laurence M. Gould 

Above: “We spent a lot of our downtime on the bow of the Gould, watching the scenery and looking for penguins,” says field team member Kendra Murray ’07. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

As part of a three-year project funded primarily by the Antarctic Earth Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, the team used the Gould for lodging and transportation as they gathered rocks from various locations in the northern Antarctic Peninsula and adjacent islands. Now they’re studying the rocks to test a hypothesis about why ice formed initially on Antarctica. Read on to view the scenery and learn about the science behind the trip.

(Click any of the smaller photos in the story for a larger view.)


The Laurence M. Gould

Above: The Laurence M. Gould, a research and supply vessel chartered by the National Science Foundation, was built in 1997 and named after Laurence McKinley Gould, who was president of Carleton from 1945 to 1962. Gould was second-in-command of Admiral Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition (1928–30). The 230-foot-long ship, which can accommodate 26 research scientists for missions up to 75 days, has first-class facilities—including a lounge stocked with more than 150 movies to watch when bad weather halts scientific pursuits. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

Iceberg 

PenguinAbove: The Gould keeps its distance from icebergs like this one. Only a small fraction of an iceberg—a large mass of floating ice, more than five meters above sea level, that has broken away from a glacier—is above water. When an iceberg calves (breaks apart), the whole thing can bounce around and cause huge waves. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

At right: A gentoo penguin comes to investigate Willy Guenthner ’07 on Livingston Island, part of the South Shetland archipelago. While team members are told not to approach the penguins, this friendly gentoo must not have received the memo. Guenthner is carrying a three-gallon bucket of metasedimentary rocks, some of the more than 1,000 pounds of rocks collected by the team on this trip. [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

Dave Barbeau's beardsiclesLeft: Showing off his beardsicles while he refuels on gorp after a long day in the field, Dave Barbeau ’97 hit the jackpot on Seymour Island. There, at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, he collected sandstones from the Eocene age, a type of rock seldom found in this part of the Antarctic. [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

gathering rock samplesRight: Kendra Murray ’07 wields a sledgehammer to gather granite samples from this outcrop. The intense blue of the ice behind her indicates a lack of air bubbles in the ice. Ice is named according to its size. Pictured here is brash ice, floating ice fragments not more than 2 meters across; beyond it are bergy bits, floating ice less than 5 meters above sea level and not more than about 10 meters across. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

“A fine day of sampling was capped off by an evening viewing of The Thing. Premise: Research scientists in Antarctica get attacked by a shape-shifting alien that has been buried under the ice for thousands of years.”
—Willy Guenthner ’07 

Antarctican mountain 

iceAbove: This photo of a mountain on the Antarctic Peninsula was taken from a rock outcropping across a bay, not from aboard the ship. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

At left: Guenthner (left) and Dave Gombosi (one of Dave Barbeau’s graduate students) show off a fine specimen of “bar” ice, so named because the icy souvenir is used to chill drinks. While alcohol consumption isn’t permitted on the Gould, there’s always a party when the vessel comes into port at Palmer Station on Anvers Island, one of the three U.S. research stations located in Antarctica. The ship’s Chef Bobby stuck this piece of ice in the ship’s freezer to keep it until an appropriate time. [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

The Big Chill

Earth’s climate has alternated between warm and cold periods over the past billion years.  According to the geologic record, a major shift occurred about 33 million years ago (the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs): The climate began to cool from what’s been called a “hothouse” to one similar to today’s. Records also indicate that permanent ice formed for the first time on Antarctica during this transition period. In order to explain the change in Antarctica’s environment, scientists have proposed numerous hypotheses, including an increase in volcanic activity, the high-velocity impact of meteoroids or asteroids crashing into Earth, a decrease in the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, and changes to ocean circulation patterns.

University of South Carolina geology professor Dave Barbeau’s Antarctic research focuses on the geologic record of changes in global ocean circulation. A fast, cold, deep-ocean current (the Antarctic Circumpolar Current) flows around Antarctica, thermally isolating it from warm tropical waters. It wasn’t always this way, though. Similar geology on the Antarctic Peninsula and in the southern Andes has led scientists to believe that Antarctica and South America were connected once. But they don’t know when the two continents broke apart.

Several years ago, Barbeau ’97 collected preliminary rock samples in Tierra del Fuego (a group of islands belonging to Argentina and Chile) with the help of another Carleton alumnus, Nick Swanson-Hysell ’05. Some of those samples helped him get National Science Foundation funding for the current three-year project, which began in 2007. Barbeau and his fellow scientists are collecting additional rock samples throughout the Antarctic Peninsula, the Scotia Sea, and southernmost South America. By extracting and analyzing minerals from the various rocks, they will learn how old the rocks are. (Some of this testing is being done in a lab run by yet another Carl, Peter Reiners ’91, a geosciences professor at the University of Arizona.) That age information will help them determine how and when Antarctica and South America separated.

The scientists hypothesize that if Antarctica and South America separated during the significant transition period (the Eocene/Oligocene boundary), the resultant opening or gateway could have affected ocean circulation patterns. This gap (currently formed by the Drake Passage and the Scotia Sea) would have allowed for the development of a circumpolar current that isolated Antarctica from warmer ocean currents and may have caused it to become covered with ice. Or not. While the ocean circulation hypothesis seems plausible, so far there isn’t enough geologic evidence to clearly support it.

“One of the challenges of climate science is that there are so many variables,” says Kendra Murray ’07, a graduate student in geology at the University of Arizona who is assisting Barbeau with his research. “If our data indicate that the separation happened much earlier, then we’ll say it looks like it didn’t affect [Antarctica’s] climate. Maybe carbon dioxide or one of the other factors did instead.”

Exploring how Earth’s climate has changed in the past can help scientists understand how it’s going to behave in the future. “If we find out that this gateway was important for the glaciation of Antarctica, that understanding can help us figure out what we might do to modify what’s going on [with climate change] now,” says Murray.

Obviously, scientists can’t move continents around, but they may be able to control other factors that affect ocean circulation, such as the amount of salt in the ocean. (Deep ocean currents occur when colder, saltier water sinks and displaces water that is warmer and less dense.) Because of water’s large heat capacity, changes in global ocean circulation can have a dramatic impact on regional and global climates. As Al Gore noted in An Inconvenient Truth, changes in ocean circulation caused by melting polar ice caps could trigger cooling in northern Europe. And no one wants England to challenge Antarctica for the title of coldest place on Earth.

Sunset 

Above: “Sunset was the only time of day when things weren’t blue and black and white,” says Murray. [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

“Ignore a few things and this place is what I imagine Mars or the moon feels like. It is the most surreal place I have ever been.”
—Dave Barbeau ’97

Zodiac 

mapAbove: The Gould’s marine technicians navigate Zodiacs (small inflatable boats) close to shore so team members can scout for promising locations like this one off Andvord Bay. To save gas going to and from the Gould, the selfless Zodiac crew often bobbed in icy waters along the shore for hours while waiting for the field team’s pickup signal. [Photo: Dave Barbeau ’97]

graniteLeft: Barbeau and marine technician Toby Koffman (who happens to be the brother of Bess Koffman ’04) consult a British Antarctic Survey map. These geologic maps are basically like topographic maps except that each color represents a different rock type. “Some of the preliminary mapping had been done through binoculars,” says Murray, “so we probably stepped onto places no one had ever been to before.” [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

Right: Guenthner hammers fist-sized chunks of granite from this outcrop in order to know exactly where they came from. (The team wouldn’t collect stones strewn on a beach, because the stones could have come from another location.) To document the location of every sampling site, team members used GPS devices, made field notes, and took lots of photos. [Photo: Kendra Murray ’07]

Web Extra: Learn more about the project.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)