Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs


News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

October 7, 2004

$2.5 million will help NIU geologists
advance study of global climate, environment

New instrumentation will include submarine for Antarctic exploration

DeKalb, Ill. — The geology department at Northern Illinois University has received a congressional appropriation of $2.5 million through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to boost research into global climate and environmental change.

The funding will allow NIU to purchase state-of-the-art equipment—including a remotely operated submarine for exploration underneath the Antarctic ice sheet—and to establish the Analytical Center for Climate and Environmental Change. The center will be located in Davis Hall.

NIU President John Peters credited U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert for his work on behalf of the university.

"We’re grateful to Speaker Hastert for championing this appropriation," Peters said. "The establishment of the center is a stepping stone that will lead to important discoveries, as well as the expansion of our expertise and research interests."

Dating back decades, the university’s geology department has had a strong contingent of faculty members specializing in research on the climate and environment. Faculty and students alike are involved in a wide range of theoretical and applied research and have active investigations throughout the world.

"NIU scientists have been at the forefront of research into global climate and environmental change," Hastert said. "Now, NIU will have equipment and facilities needed to take the program to an even higher level. The research of these NIU faculty members is of vital interest not only to the American public but to people across the world."

Jonathan Berg, chair of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, initiated and coordinated the effort to secure the grant. He said the funding will provide faculty and students with the tools to do pioneering research.

"Our facilities will improve by a quantum leap," Berg said, adding that the new equipment probably will begin to arrive early next year. "This provides a tremendous boost to nearly everyone in our department. It will quite literally take our scientists in geology to new frontiers."

More than half of the funding will be used to give NIU researchers access to one of the few unexplored regions of our planet—the underside of the gigantic Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

The geology department intends to purchase a hot-water drilling system and remotely operated submarine equipped with high-tech instrumentation to study the ice sheet. The drill, or melting system, would carve through some 900 meters of ice, allowing scientists to explore the underside of the glacier using the submarine.

"It’s important to investigate what’s going on under the ice shelf and on the sea floor," said NIU Professor Ross Powell. Powell and Professor Reed Scherer have worked extensively in the Antarctic and are considered top experts on climate change issues.

"The Ross Ice Shelf is the world’s biggest," Powell added. "We believe this is one of the critical areas controlling the stability of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The consequence of the loss of an ice shelf this size would be a potential rapid sea-level rise."

The NIU geology department also is purchasing three new mass spectrometers that will enable researchers to measure the chemical composition of almost any material found in the environment. The equipment can trace an organic compound—such as a pesticide, herbicide or pharmaceutical—to its original source and determine the rate at which the compounds are being broken down in the environment. The spectrometers also can help scientists identify organisms that might have occupied a location thousands of years ago, providing further clues to regional climate histories.

"The instruments are really cutting-edge. In fact, one of the mass spectrometers only came out on the market this year," said Professor Melissa Lenczewski, an organic geochemist whose research focuses on identifying and tracing contaminants in the environment.

"Having this equipment on campus will open up new research avenues," she said. "And in terms of attracting more research dollars and publishing our findings, this gives NIU faculty a significant advantage."

Professor Paul Loubere, an international authority on the role of oceans in climate change, said he expects NIU researchers in such fields as anthropology and electrical engineering to also benefit.

"The establishment of our new center really represents a major expansion of the university’s overall analytical facilities," Loubere said. "Its benefits will be far-reaching."

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This release was prepared by NIU Public Affairs under award NA04OAR4600167 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U. S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Department of Commerce.