Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Photos courtesy of
Northern Illinois University
and the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst

NIU senior Ryan Cumpston spent a portion of his summer doing research at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, a Norwegian territory near the North Pole.

NIU’s Ross Powell (right), a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, selected Ryan Cumpston to take part in the research experience.

As part of his orientation, Ryan Cumpston had to learn how to swim in his "survival suit."

The region is filled with wildlife, and Ryan Cumpston said he got close enough to touch bearded seals, seen here lounging on the ice in Ny-Ålesund.

The ice face of this glacier is about 180 feet tall and more than a mile wide.

Researchers work in front of the glacier’s massive ice face.

Ryan Cumpston holds a sample of mud from the sea floor of the fjord. The sediments leave clues as to what processes are created by the glacier, which can then be used to see how the glacier has changed over the recent past.

Ryan Cumpston helps take a sample from an iceberg.

Researchers commonly use "grab samples" to collect sediments from the sea floor.

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News Release

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

August 17, 2005

NIU geology student spends summer
on top of the world

DeKalb, Ill. — When students return to campus this week and compare their summer highlights, Ryan Cumpston will have the coolest stories, hands down. The senior geology major from Crystal Lake traveled to a mountainous region near the North Pole, spent his days in a skiff at the edge of a massive glacier and rubbed elbows with some of the world's top polar scientists.

“It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen,” said Cumpston, who had never before traveled outside of the United States. “It was a learning experience far beyond any I could get in a classroom.”

Northern Illinois University Distinguished Research Professor Ross Powell selected Cumpston to take part in a pilot Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. REU programs aim to cultivate future scientists by involving students in ongoing research projects.

Powell and Cumpston spent three weeks in late July and early August in an old coal-mining settlement, now a prime Arctic research center, known as Ny-Ålesund, in the Norwegian island territory of Svalbard. Replete with glaciers and wildlife—including exotic birds, reindeer and Arctic ice seals—the islands are a bout midway between Norway and the North Pole. Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost settlement on the islands—and on the planet.

The settlement also is the site of a new marine research facility operated for the Norwegian government. The Norwegian Polar Institute and the Norwegian University Centre in Svalbard also provided support for NIU research efforts there.

As part of his orientation to Ny-Ålesund, Cumpston was given safety instruction in the use of a rifle and flare gun in the event of an encounter with a polar bear. Adept swimmers, the bears can pose a threat on land or at sea. He also had to learn how to swim in a bright orange survival suit, mandatory training for researchers on the Arctic Ocean, where seawater temperatures, even during the summer, are below freezing. The NIU student had little difficulty acclimating to the weather, with summer temperatures reaching above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. But he also had to cope with jet lag and adjust to 24 hours of daylight.

Cumpston spent most of his days aboard either a small aluminum skiff or rubber Zodiac boat. The scientists and students ventured into the waters of a fjord littered with chunks of ice that frequently break away, or calve, from the glacier.

The ice face of the glacier is about 180 feet tall and more than a mile wide. When icebergs calve, they plunge into the water, churning the sea. Cumpston said he watched as one large iceberg fractured from the glacier, producing a 30-foot-high wave.

“When the icebergs break off, t he small ones sound like gunshots, and the big ones like thunder,” he said. “You don't want to get too close to the glacier.”

The pilot REU working in the marine setting was part of a larger program that is concentrating on lake studies and being run through Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. The marine program was run in collaboration with Professor Julie Brigham-Grette at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who also had an undergraduate participant.

The students and scientists retrieved samples of sediment from the ocean floor and monitored the processes near the end of a glacier. As with most glaciers worldwide, those on Svalbard are retreating and shrinking because of global warming. The NIU research will help shed light on the physical processes during glacial retreat and the factors that influence the rate of retreat. That will help scientist better predict what will happen with glaciers in the future.

“The REU program must produce significant scientific results, but to complement those results, such programs must ultimately strive to interest more students in the geosciences by providing them with truly legitimate research experiences,” said Powell, a professor in the NIU Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. He and his University of Massachusetts colleague are among the world's top scientists studying global warming issues as they relate to the polar regions.

“We wanted to demonstrate that it's possible to work with students in the marine environment of Ny-Ålesund and will be applying to NSF to extend and expand the program,” Powell said. “I think we can justify having a larger number of participants, so we can bring more NIU students up there in the future. We also hope to collaborate and perhaps conduct an exchange with professors and students from the nearby University Centre in Svalbard.”

Sediment cores and water samples collected during the expedition are being shipped to DeKalb for further study. Cumpston said he plans to write a senior thesis based on his summer research experience. He will present his analysis at NIU and at a geological society meeting later this school year.

“I was honored that I was selected by Dr. Powell and that I got a chance to work with him in the field, basically one-on-one,” Cumpston said. “Ny-Ålesund is an international research center, so I also got to meet scientists from around the world doing projects. This was an opportunity that, as an undergraduate, you couldn't pass up.”