Bulletin: Ice Bound

photograph by Andrew Christ

Ice Bound

For more than a quarter century, David Marchant has led teams of researchers deep into the heart of Antarctica.

Bundled in fire-engine–red parkas, a handful of researchers pick their way across a parched, high-altitude Antarctic valley swept by howling winds. Beneath their puffy white boots, the oldest ice on Earth lies buried under boulders and sand.

Led by David Marchant, a geologist who directs Boston University’s (BU) Antarctic Research Group, they take photographs, collect samples of volcanic ash, and search for sites where ice unchanged for millions of years lies near the surface. Some carry spades to expose the ice, and then use specialized drills to retrieve ice cores for analysis back in Marchant’s lab.

The scientific prize they’re after is bubbles of atmospheric gases that were trapped within the ice cores during the Pliocene epoch several million years ago, when the Earth was warmer and sea levels were 30 to 300 feet higher than they are now. Marchant explains that measuring carbon dioxide levels in the bubbles could help predict global responses to today’s rising CO2 levels and temperatures.

This frigid scene is displayed on wall-sized monitors in the comfort of Marchant’s BU lab. This and other expedition videos are also posted online. Marchant, who became an HHMI professor in 2014, places a high priority on public outreach as part of a curriculum he created for undergraduates to “seed a cultural change in STEM education” by emphasizing early and consistent research, communication, and education.

Experience the windswept Arctic landscape that forms the cornerstone of David Marchant’s research program.

Marchant has a genial manner and the look of an outdoorsman – bearded and tanned from 20 polar expeditions since being “captivated” by his first trip some 25 years ago. “It’s cold and it’s hard and it’s physically demanding,” he says. “And trying to ‘read’ the dynamic landscape is a mental challenge.” But he’s driven by the thrill of discovery. “We know we can find things in a single excavation pit that have global significance,” he says.

Marchant’s group is preparing for another field excursion, from November 2015 through January 2016, the Antarctic summer. Three undergraduates will join the expedition for up to three months’ work on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has been melting so rapidly that recent scientific reports warn it may be doomed to complete disintegration, raising sea levels by several feet. The team will map geological features that mark the ice sheet’s changing margins over the past 18,000 years. Their aim is to develop a long-term glacial and atmospheric record “that can tell us what to expect in the future,” says Marchant.

Students remaining at the BU lab will use high-resolution photos and videos to create “virtual field trips” and analyze landscape patterns, and will perform geochemical analyses of the volcanic and ice samples. They’ll also work with middle-school teachers to translate lab results into lesson plans and produce communication materials for the public.

For those who travel with Marchant to Antarctica, he says, the experience will have a lasting impact. “When the first storm hits, the new people will wonder if they’re going to make it through the night,” Marchant says with a grin. But the fast pace and steep learning curve transforms students into confident researchers in a few short weeks, he says. “You can see it when they’re back on campus, too. There’s nothing you can give them after this experience that they’ll fail at. They’ll just keep trying until they get it.”