Department of Geology
Pre-eminent polar explorer
In 1974, Ross Powell, then a graduate student in his native New Zealand, boarded a military aircraft bound for Antarctica. Dressed in a survival suit, he traveled eight hours before the plane glided to a landing on a gleaming runway made of ice.
Powell remembers that day as clearly as a blue-skied Antarctic morning. In a sense, his first research expedition “on the ice” provided a glimpse into his future as a polar scientist. It was also his initial exposure to NIU students, who were participating in the continent’s first geologic drilling effort.
Today Powell is a veteran NIU professor and world-renowned geologist. Whereas most people read books to learn about history, Powell reads rocks. He has gone to great lengths – from Arctic fjords to the bottom of the Antarctic sea – to recover sediments that he and other scientists use to interpret how ice sheets behaved millions of years ago and how they will react to global climate change in the future.
“Ross has put NIU on the map and has kept it there,” NIU colleague Reed Scherer says. “He recognized the importance of studying polar records of climate change long before climate change took its place at the forefront of critical research.”
Powell’s groundbreaking work early in his career on Arctic and Alaskan glacial marine environments is now cited in textbooks on the topic. He currently serves as co-chief scientist of the $30 million international Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program, which involves more than 100 researchers.
In recent years, ANDRILL scientists drilled into the Antarctic seabed, retrieving sediment cores that hold a wealth of information about past ice sheet behavior during periods of warmer world climate. The information is vital to predicting how ice sheets and sea levels will respond to projected warmer temperatures in the future, and the project’s results have attracted worldwide media attention, from the Chicago Tribune’s front page to an upcoming NOVA special.
“The drill core record is regarded as the most important scientific discovery from Antarctica in 30 years,” says Tim Naish, director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Naish serves with Powell as an ANDRILL co-chief scientist.
“Ross’s passion has always been in understanding how ice sheets and glaciers are influenced by global climate, and he has a strong commitment to communicating to the public and policymakers the likely impacts. Without doubt, he is pre-eminent in his field.”
Powell’s work attracts millions of dollars in research funding. Just this past fall, the National Science Foundation awarded NIU $2.5 million for his lead role in a new project that will investigate ice sheet melting using a 24-foot-long robotic submarine.
Powell has made nearly 250 presentations at scientific meetings and published more than a hundred major research articles in premier journals, including one of Nature’s top-cited geosciences papers in the last two years. He serves on a dizzying array of national and international scientific steering committees.
Equally important is his mentoring of students, from undergraduates to post-docs. Many have accompanied their professor on research expeditions.
“The opportunity to work one-on-one with someone at the top of his field completely changed my whole educational experience,” says geology alumnus Ryan Cumpston, who as an undergraduate traveled with Powell on a 2005 research expedition to arctic Norway.
“You learn about something in a classroom, but to see and learn from someone who can do it so fluidly in the field takes it to a new level. It was inspiring.”