IGERT Students Experience "Big Science"


by Lee McDavid, Program Manager, Institute of Arctic Studies

Photos by Courtney Hammond '11

Five Dartmouth graduate students in engineering, earth sciences, and ecology are bundled into puffy parkas and insulated pants standing on a layer of ice a mile thick marveling at a panoramic 360-degree blanket of white. "It makes me feel so small. It's humbling," says earth sciences graduate student Lee Corbett. Tonight it will be near zero and she'll be sleeping in a tent.

Welcome to the Greenland Ice Sheet, the first leg of the annual Dartmouth IGERT field seminar for graduate students in the polar environmental change program.

Only a matter of hours earlier, it was in the high 70s as she and the other IGERT students were boarding a C-130 Hercules transport plane at the Air National Guard base in Scotia, New York, for their flight to Kangerlussuaq, the site of an international science center at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. After a cold, cramped flight on a plane designed for cargo, not human comfort, they touched down in Kangerlussuaq, excited already by their glimpses of Greenland from the air. "Most of the scientists on the flight huddled around the two windows in the tail, pointing and yelling over the roar of the engines," Corbett posted on the IGERT student blog.

After a short break and quick reshuffling of gear, they took off again for Summit Station, a research center at the apex of the ice sheet. Their first day "on the ice" is spent acclimating to the 10,000 foot altitude before cautiously beginning to hand dig snow pits, drill ice cores, and study the composition of the snow and firn (snow from past seasons), which can reveal changes due to climate change.

"You have to take it easy at Summit at first because of the possibility of altitude sickness," says environmental studies professor Ross Virginia, Director of the Dickey Center's Institute of Arctic Studies and PI of the Dartmouth IGERT program. "But the physical challenge of being there is balanced by the amazing experience of seeing where 'big science' on climate change is being done."

The Greenland Field Seminar is one of the defining pieces of the Dartmouth IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), which is a program of the Dickey Center's Institute of Arctic Studies. It's one of the flagship interdisciplinary initiatives of the National Science Foundation.

The Dartmouth IGERT is training a new generation of scientists and engineers to work across disciplines on the effects of rapid climate change in polar regions. After five weeks in Greenland, Dartmouth IGERT students return with knowledge and experience few can match at this point in their academic careers.

After spending months in the basement of Thayer's McClean Engineering Science Building handling firn cores from Greenland, engineering IGERT Stephanie Gregory is finally standing on the ice sheet for the first time. "It's amazing to be up on the ice walking on the firn!" she exclaims.

"Coming to the site of the GISP2 ice core, which was the core where scientists first realized that climate could change in less than ten years, is exciting," says Thayer engineering professor Mary Albert, Executive Director of NSF's Ice Core Drilling Program and co-PI of the Dartmouth IGERT.

She and the IGERT students have arrived during a rare period of widespread melting from unusally high temperatures. For Summit, 17 degrees F is warm. Ice core research being done by another IGERT student, Kaitlin Keegan, who completed her field seminar in 2010, indicates that the last time such a significant melt happened was almost 125 years ago.

"Being here now to witness a new change and to measure its effects--the first significant melt at this high-altitude site in over a hundred years--shows the opportunities and excitement of working in polar science in a time of changing climate," says Albert.

The students in last year's field seminar helped with yet another important research project. A few months after the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear disaster, they were on hand at Summit to collect snow samples for Erich Osterberg, a Dartmouth research assistant professor in earth sciences, who is measuring the extend of the fallout.

The students leave Summit after all too brief a visit. They fly back to Kangerlussuaq to study terrestrial systems and then on to the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, where they'll present their research at the Katuaq Cultural Centre and listen to the local community's concerns about climate change. Towards the end of August, they'll return to the states in the same cramped cargo plane feeling like seasoned polar researchers.

"It's exciting to be in a place I've spent countless hours reading about. Just being here reinforces the significance of the research in which I participate at Dartmouth," concludes earth sciences IGERT Ali Giese.