October 28, 2005

SIUC geologist picked for Antarctic research effort

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- A Southern Illinois University Carbondale scientist will explore the future of the planet as he looks for bits of its past buried in undersea sediment.

Scott E. Ishman, associate professor in the Department of Geology at SIUC, will make his eighth trip to the bottom of the world when he joins an elite, international team studying climate change and its impact on Antarctica and the world.

He has been visiting the frozen landscape since he was a graduate student. During a recent trip, Ishman's research prompted him to co-author an article arguing global warming is a recent, human-made phenomenon. In 2004, he joined a team that discovered an undersea volcano in the Antarctic Sound.

Andrill recently notified Ishman of his selection for its Antarctic Drilling Program, a multinational scientific research effort aimed at recovering core samples from the sea floors around the region. With more than 150 scientists from countries including New Zealand, Italy and the United Kingdom, Andrill investigates Antarctica's role in global environmental change during the past 65 million years to better understand the continent's future response to climate changes.

Ishman, whose areas of interest involve paleoclimatology among others, will serve on a team of scientists operating on an ice shelf over the Ross Sea, which stretches along the shore of the continent. The trip is set for November-January, 2007-2008.

"We want to look at sediment that records climate change and the tectonic evolution of the Ross Sea for the last 50 million years," Ishman said. "My group's job is to evaluate the core material as it is recovered."

Ishman's team will look for clues to the core samples' age by examining the fossils found in the sediment. He will use a technique called biostratigraphy, which examines the depths at which plant and animal fossils are found, to accomplish this mission.

"It's pretty exciting," Ishman said.

What Ishman finds exciting, however, some might find daunting. He'll spend months in one of the harshest environments on Earth, battling extreme cold and weather so volatile he will take a two-day survival course when he arrives.

And he'll be going during the "warm" season.

"It is an extreme environment. It can be 30 degrees during the day and maybe 10- or 15-below at night," Ishman said. "It's one of the driest places on Earth. It's like a polar desert. But it's also spectacular. The scenery is really breathtaking. It's one of the places where we're still making discoveries. One of the last places that's not fully explored."

He helped unravel such mysteries before.

As one of about a dozen top Antarctica researchers in the United States, Ishman co-authored a cover story published last summer in the scientific journal Nature. The research outlined in the article argued that human activity is causing global warming, which in turn may cause the collapse and melting of massive ice shelves in the planet's polar regions.

The authors reached those conclusions by using much the same coring methods as Ishman will use with Andrill. This time around, researchers hope to examine what role the Antarctic cryosphere – its ice shelves, ice sheets and sea ice – plays in the global climate system and how it might respond to further warming.

To figure that out, they need to understand the cryosphere's history, the keys to which lie in the core samples they aim to recover.

"Antarctica is an area that is extremely sensitive to paleoclimatic change," Ishman said. "It's important to understand how ice sheets behave. With global warming we face sea level rise, and that's a global impact."

Ishman will be on site about eight weeks, with the actual length depending on the weather and other factors.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.