How and Why: Geomorphology, Surface processes, Quaternary Climate Change

We are interested in how land surfaces change over time. This is controlled by many factors including climate,local rock/soil types, and topography amongst many more, all of which vary greatly depending on where you are in the world. Our research takes us to the coldest, windiest, and driest place on Earth to see how remote glacial valleys (and coldest deserts) erode and change unlike anywhere else. Little research has been done in this area of earth science due to the difficulty of accessing Antarctica and the rarity of such conditions on Earth. A better understanding of the processes on our own planet will aid us in interpreting conditions and processes on other planets such as Mars which have similarities to our own field sites in the Southern Transantarctic Mountains. It is generally thought that erosion (the process that shapes the land around us) in our field area occurs on the order of meters per million years, while other deserts of the world change on the order of centimeters per year. This extremely slow process can preserve ancient landforms such as glacial moraines which tell us the extent of ice coverage on Antarctica throughout millions of years.

We will employ a variety of methods to track current and past changes in the environment/ climate. Soil traps at ground level and retrieved the following year estimate how much sediment is moving in the area. Climate stations at each field site monitor daily local wind and temperature conditions throughout the year. Soil and rock samples collected from landscape features in each valley determine erosion rates and exposure ages of the area. Exposure age dating utilizes isotopes produced by high energy atomic particles moving through space and bombarding Earth. Be10 and Al26 ratios are prepared at the University of North Dakota’s cosmogenic isotope lab. More detailed information on this aspect of our research can be found in our previous work within the Dry Valleys of the Transantarctic Mountains near McMurdo Sound (Putkonen et al., Quaternary Research 69, 2008).

View from Wright Valley, Antarctica

For information on previous expeditions, please click here.