Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Melissa Lenczewski
Melissa Lenczewski

Ross Powell
Ross Powell

Reed Scherer
Reed Scherer

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News Release

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

November 2, 2005

More NIU scientists named
to Antarctic geologic drilling program

DeKalb, Ill. — Two additional Northern Illinois University professors have been selected to participate in the $30 million drilling project known as ANDRILL, an international effort to recover geologic records buried beneath the Antarctic sea in order to gain a better understanding of contemporary global warming trends.

Professors Reed Scherer and Melissa Lenczewski in the NIU Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences will join their NIU colleague, Ross Powell, as participating scientists on the project. Powell is co-leader of the U.S. contingent of ANDRILL scientists.

NIU Ph.D. student Matt Olney and NIU research associates Stefan Vogel and Charlotte Sjunneskog also were named to the ANDRILL team. Powell said the NIU scientists are seeking funding for three additional graduate- and undergraduate-level participants from NIU.

All told, about 150 researchers from the United States, New Zealand, Italy and Germany were selected this month to join the ANDRILL team. The project is expected to be a focal point during International Polar Year (2007-09), a worldwide campaign of polar research and education.

“ANDRILL presents a great opportunity for our university and is one of the launching pads for our new Analytical Center for Climate and Environmental Change, which was formed last year at NIU,” Powell said. The geology department's center aims to support, expand and add visibility to the important global climate and environmental change research already being conducted at the university.

“In the past, faculty members typically worked on their own individual projects. This gives us the opportunity to establish the research center model, where a core group of scientists tackle a major research question from different angles,” Powell said. “We hope to get students involved as well, so they feel the excitement of being part of a research team.”

NIU and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln are ANDRILL's lead U.S. universities, with David Harwood at UNL serving as co-chief U.S. scientist along with Powell. Other institutions making up the American half of the ANDRILL program are Florida State University in Tallahassee, Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

During the fall seasons of 2006 and 2007, ANDRILL scientists will use a powerful new drilling system partially owned by NIU and UNL to recover rock cores from the seabed in the McMurdo Sound area in the southwestern Ross Sea (off the Antarctic coast directly south of New Zealand), using floating ice as a drilling platform. By studying the cores, scientists will be able to develop a detailed history of the Antarctic climate and the expansion and contraction of the area's ice sheets over the past 20 million years.

Powell and Tim Naish of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences in New Zealand will lead the 2006 effort, drilling from the McMurdo Ice Shelf south of Ross Island. In the second drilling season, a team led by Harwood and Fabio Florindo of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology will drill from a site west of Ross Island.

Powell likens the Antarctic to a “global thermostat.” The continent's massive ice sheet interacts with the world's atmosphere and oceans to help maintain worldwide temperature distributions. The Antarctic region also appears to be quite sensitive to climate change. When global temperatures warm past critical thresholds, the ice sheet melts, accelerating the warming effect. When global temperatures cool, the ice sheet expands, accelerating the cooling effect.

Core samples provide a layered sedimentary record that scientists can read like a history book to infer past glacial and climatic changes. “The samples contain fossils and sediment left behind during repeated advances and retreats of the ice sheet,” Powell said.

Antarctica is about 1 ˝ times the size of the United States. The continent is almost totally covered by ice that is nearly three miles thick in places. Although Antarctica has had an ice sheet present for more than 35 million years, the current extremely cold climate has existed for only 3 million years. Through most of its history, the continent has been ice-free.

Today the ice cap accounts for some 60 percent of the world's freshwater. If it were to entirely melt, it would raise the level of the world's oceans by nearly 200 feet.

No one expects a catastrophe of that magnitude to happen in the foreseeable future. However, there is concern about the future of the western portion of the Antarctic ice sheet, which is grounded well below sea level and is considered unstable. Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise global sea levels by about 20 feet, and NIU's Reed Scherer has shown that this portion of the ice sheet disappeared and then reformed within the past million years.

Scherer for the past two years has served as a member of the scientific steering committee for the U.S. ANDRILL program. Now as a participating scientist for ANDRILL, he will travel to the Antarctic for the first stage of drilling, which aims to capture geologic records that will shed light on the behavior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet over the past 5 million years.

Scherer is an expert in the study of fossil diatoms (single-celled algae). The microscopic organisms live in surface or shallow waters, evolve rapidly and are eventually deposited on the ocean floor.

“The variety of diatoms is linked to water temperature,” Scherer said. “So we can track changes in water temperature based on the different species of diatom fossils that we find in the layers of sediment from the rock cores. In essence, they provide a record of climate and environmental change in the region through time.”

NIU's Melissa Lenczewski is an organic geochemist whose research focuses on identifying and tracing contaminants in the environment. She will examine whether the drilling process itself causes any contamination of core samples.

“We also want to ensure that what we are examining in the core is actually from the core and not from the drilling mud, which is used to lubricate the drilling system,” she said.