Professor Studies Climate, Glacier Fluctuations at the Bottom of the World

Research Is Supported by NSF Grant

Asst. Prof. Kate Swanger poses next to the meteorological station at Mullins Glacier in Antarctica in this photo by Douglas Kowalewski of UMass Amherst.

Asst. Prof. Kate Swanger poses next to the meteorological station at Mullins Glacier in Antarctica in this photo by Douglas Kowalewski of UMass Amherst.

04/13/2012
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Antarctica is one of the most pristine wilderness regions on Earth, barely touched by human civilization. Covering an area of 5.4 million square miles, it is the coldest, driest and windiest of all the continents. Such a harsh, desolate environment helps preserve a record of the planet’s geological and climatological history.

Each year, teams of scientists spend months on Antarctica at research stations scattered across the frozen landmass. Among them is Asst. Prof. Kate Swanger of the Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS) Department, who stayed for two months on the continent during the 2011–12 Antarctic summer conducting field work.

“My research focuses on understanding the history of Antarctic climate and glacier fluctuations as well as quantifying cold-desert weathering processes and their effects on cosmogenic radionuclide-dating techniques,” says Swanger, who joined the UMass Lowell faculty last September.

Cosmogenic radionuclide dating is a method for estimating the length of time a rock sample has been exposed at or near the Earth’s surface. It is useful for dating advances and retreats of glaciers as well as measuring the erosion rates of bedrocks.

“Our study combines cutting-edge multi-nuclide approach, field-based experiments and numerical climate modeling,” she says. “It is also an interdisciplinary collaboration that involves geochemists and geomorphologists from Columbia University, Boston University, UMass Lowell and UMass Amherst.”

The project is supported by a three-year $124,070 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), with Swanger as principal investigator.

An Analog to Mars

“My colleagues and I spent a week at McMurdo Station on Ross Island at the beginning and at the end of the trip,” says Swanger. “But for six straight weeks we conducted field studies, sleeping in tents in 10 to 20 degrees F temperatures. Our only connections to the outside world were periodic calls home on the satellite phone and our weekly resupply of food and equipment by helicopter, which also brought much-needed care packages from friends and family.”

She says the team’s goal is to shed light on the climatic history of the Transantarctic Mountains, specifically the response of alpine and outlet glaciers to warmer-than-present climate intervals.

“A secondary goal is to better understand how rocks weather in extremely cold, dry conditions. These weathering studies can potentially be used as a terrestrial analog for studying surface processes on Mars,” she explains.

The data will also quantify the errors and complications of dating multimillion-year-old glacial deposits using cosmogenic radionuclides, she says.

“In light of human population growth, climate change and rising sea levels, we need a better understanding of how ice sheets and glaciers respond to natural climate change, especially during recent warm intervals such as the last interglacial period about 125,000 years ago and the mid-Pliocene Climatic Optimum about 3 million years ago,” says Swanger.  

She says their research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, the continent’s largest ice-free region, will allow them to better predict how this section of Antarctica might respond to global warming and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and therefore help climate modelers to forecast sea-level fluctuations.

Engaging Students and the Community

“I plan to advise undergraduate geology students during summer research projects, hopefully inviting one or two of them to join me on my expedition to Antarctica next year,” says Swanger.

“I also plan to initiate outreach programs with the local community college and high schools to educate students about climate research and what they can do to utilize Earth’s resources better,” she says.