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UD researchers mark International Polar Year

The bow of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker 'Polar Sea' easily pushes its way through the sea ice channel to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. An icebreaker is required each year to carve a clear path from the sea ice edge to the station for visiting fuel and supply vessels. Photo by Peter Rejcek, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

4:45 p.m., March 2, 2007--The world is marking the fourth International Polar Year from March 2007 to March 2008, providing a time to reflect on the importance of the frozen reaches in the Arctic and the Antarctic to the health of the planet and to consider the implications that the changing climate in those regions may have around the globe.

The University of Delaware has strong links to the International Polar Year, with a history steeped in polar research and status today as a leading polar science center, as will be demonstrated in a series of UDaily articles over the next year that will show the breadth and depth of work under way on campus.

This is the fourth International Polar Year, and celebrates the 125th anniversary of the first event in 1882-83, the era of great adventure as explorers made their way into the Earth's icy climes. Subsequent events were held in 1932-33 and 1957-58, the latter in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year and a time when the baton was passed from the explorers to those interested in the hard science of the cold regions.

The fourth International Polar Year officially kicked off Thursday, March 1, in Paris. Through the program, the United States and more than 60 other nations are cooperating to deploy an estimated 50,000 researchers in a campaign to improve understanding of the role of the polar regions in the global ecosystem.

The event was established by the International Council for Science in cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization. The National Academy of Sciences' Polar Research Board has set research and education goals for American participation and the National Science Foundation has been named the lead federal agency for coordinating U.S. activities. NSF proposes to spend more than $60 million in International Polar Year research projects in 2007.

With that support, scientists will investigate and refine knowledge of the role of the polar ice sheets as regulators of global climate and repositories of climate history, a project that includes UD researchers, and will probe the depths of the Arctic Ocean to better understand its role in ocean circulation and map a landscape that is less known than the surface of the moon. They also will study microscopic life in such unlikely places as the ultra-saline and frigid lakes of Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys to discover the extreme tolerances of life in such unearthly places.

A group of Emperor penguins, the largest of all penguins. They stand nearly 3 feet tall and can weigh over 80 pounds. They are the most southerly of all penguin species, living and breeding on the Antarctic ice. Photo by Josh Landis, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.
Projects will include Alaskan and other Native peoples as active participants in setting the research agenda and many research projects will include education components to help build a legacy of scientific literacy.

The University's interest in cold regions research extends back more than half a century, according to Frederick E. Nelson, professor of geography, who directs the world-renowned UD Permafrost Group and has a special interest in William Samuel Carlson, president of UD from 1946-50.

While doing historical research about the geography program at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, Nelson discovered that Carlson studied there under the famous geographer-glaciologist, William Herbert Hobbs.

While at Michigan, Carlson went on an expedition to Greenland in 1932-33, at the time of the second International Polar Year. Carlson described his experiences in the book Lifelines through the Arctic.

Later, as a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Carlson helped to develop several of the military's most important strategic and logistical programs in the Arctic region during World War II.

UD's geography program was created by Carlson in 1949, and one of the first seminars offered was titled “Problems in Polar Research.” Ever since, faculty in the geography department have been active in cold regions research, including the late Russ Mather, founder of the department's graduate program and its long-term chairperson. With his mentor, C.W. Thornthwaite, Mather conducted climate research in northern Alaska in the 1950s.

The department has long specialized in climatology, and also has strengths in complementary areas involving biological and geomorphic processes at the boundary between the land surface and atmosphere. Nelson said the unit offers the most comprehensive departmental research and teaching expertise in cryospheric science in the United States.

In 2005, UD became an institutional member of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS), with Nelson and Andreas Muenchow of the College of Marine and Earth Studies serving as the University's delegates to ARCUS.

Today, UD cold regions research includes researchers from many departments and colleges involved in dozens of projects. Antarctica even figured into the University's renowned Study Abroad program, with 16 undergraduates visiting the ice-covered continent in 2003 in a photojournalism project under the direction of Ralph Begleiter, Edward and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Communication and Distinguished Journalist in Residence at UD, and Jon Cox, a photography instructor.

A person stands underneath a natural arch in a glacier at Norsel Point, Anvers Island, Antarctica. Photo by Glenn Grant, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.
Following is a list that outlines some of UD's cold regions research:


David L. Kirchman, professor of marine and earth studies, has been awarded a $406,762 National Science Foundation IPY grant to examine whether chemolithotrophic microbes are common in Arctic waters and the relationship between those microbes and high levels of ammonium and methane found in those coastal waters. The interdisciplinary work will involve environmental genomics, microbial ecology and biogeochemistry, and will be conducted in Barrow, Alaska.

Craig Cary, professor of marine and earth studies, has been awarded a $121,859 NSF IPY grant has been awarded to for work in the Antarctic on ecosystems dominated by microorganisms adapt to conditions of continuous cold and dark over evolutionarily and geologically relevant time scales. The work will be conducted at Lake Vostok, buried for at least 15 million years beneath approximately 4 kilometers of ice that has prevented any contact with the external environment for as much as 1.5 million years.

David A. Hutchins, professor of marine and earth studies, is conducting NSF-funded work on Antarctic biology, investigating the controls on the large-scale distribution and production of the two major bloom-forming phytoplankton taxa in the Southern Ocean, diatoms and Phaeocystis Antarctica.

Adam G. Marsh, associate professor of marine and earth studies, received a 2003 NFS Faculty Early Career Development Award to support his research on marine life in Antarctica. He is interested in how the sea urchin and sea star can grow and develop in the frigid waters.

Barbara J. Campbell and Thomas E. Hanson, both assistant professors of marine and earth studies, have received NSF funding to understand how changes in temperature and nitrogen deposition affect tundra ecosystems. They have done extensive work on microbial communities at Toolik Lake in Alaska.

Andreas K. Muenchow, associate professor of marine and earth studies, is a physical oceanographer who has conducted research in the Arctic off Greenland, Ellesmere Island, Alaska, and Siberia. He has interest in the effects of freshwater flow from the Arctic on global climate.


Blood Falls seeps from the end of the Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney in the Antarctic. The tent at left provides a sense of scale for just how big the phenomenon is. Scientists believe a buried saltwater reservoir is partly responsible for the discoloration, which is a form of reduced iron. Photo by Peter Rejcek, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.
Tracy Deliberty
, associate professor of geography, with associate research professor Cathleen Geiger and several graduate students in geography, is engaged in work on Antarctic sea ice, with a strong thematic emphasis on remote sensing and geographic information science.

Cathleen Geiger, associate research professor, is part of an Arctic sea ice project to be held in conjunction with the start of the International Polar Year. The project is dubbed SEDNA, for Sea-ice Experiment: Dynamic Nature of the Arctic, with Sedna also being the name of an Inuit goddess of the Arctic. It is funded by a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant and includes UD alumna Jacqueline Richter-Menge, '79, '81M, in a team that will be living in an ice camp.

David R. Legates, associate professor of geography, has been heavily involved in the creation of climate data sets for the Arctic, and works closely with researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Cort J. Willmott, professor of geography, is widely acclaimed for his work in creating climatological data for the Arctic region. He also works collaboratively with researchers at the University of New Hampshire on projects focusing on pan-Arctic hydrology.

Michael A. O'Neal, assistant professor of geography, is a glacial geomorphologist who has done extensive work in Greenland and other cold regions.

Daniel J. Leathers, professor of geography, is a climatologist specializing in snow science.

Brian Hanson, professor of geography and interim chairperson of the Department of Geography, is a well-known glaciologist with extensive field experience in northern Scandinavia and elsewhere.

Delphis F. Levia Jr., assistant professor of geography, is a field-oriented physical geographer who frequently works on problems involving snow science.

Tom Meierding, professor emeritus of geography, is a climatic geomorphologist who worked extensively on problems involving the distribution of glaciers, the climatic signals that can be interpreted from patterns of glaciation, and on relict cold climate landforms in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in southern Victoria Land, comes from glacial meltwater from the Canada Glacier and other smaller glaciers. The freshwater stays on top of the lake and freezes, sealing in briny water below. Photo by Joe Mastroianni, courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

Thomas K. Gaisser, Martin A. Pomerantz Chair of Physics and Astronomy at UD's Bartol Research Institute, has worked extensively in cooperation with an international team of scientists led by the University of Wisconsin Madison on the creation of a massive neutrino telescope at the South Pole. The $272 million telescope is called IceCube, with UD the lead institution for an array of detectors on the surface called IceTop. Gaisser said the IceTop surface array will detect and study events produced by high-energy cosmic-ray particles interacting in the atmosphere above IceCube. Such downward events produce the main background in the deep neutrino telescope so tagging them with the surface array will improve the signal to background ratio of the instrument. Events detected in coincidence by both the surface and the deep detectors also carry information about the origin of the cosmic rays of very high energy. This information will be complementary to that obtained from the upward events in the neutrino telescope.


Chandra Kambhamettu, associate professor of computer and information sciences, is conducting studies of Arctic sea ice movement at the Video Image Modeling and Synthesis Laboratory at UD. The project is associated with the SEDNA project, noted above, and will receive $525,000 in National Science Foundation funding.


Lidia Rejto, professor of statistics and director of the Statistical Laboratory in the Department of Food and Resource Economics, said StatLab is working with Craig Cary and Thomas E. Hanson of the College of Marine and Earth Studies on cold regions research. StatLab collaborates with UD scientists to enhance research with appropriate statistical modeling and analysis.

Article by Neil Thomas

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