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UMaine Today Magazine

The Next Generation of Explorers
Back to On the Brink-]

Alice Doughty, Aaron Putnam, Sean Birkel and Sam Kelley
Alice Doughty, Aaron Putnam, Sam Kelley and Sean Birkel

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In the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, more than 50 faculty members and research staff in disciplines from anthropology, glaciology and paleoecology to geoarchaeology and numerical modeling collaborate to gain perspective on the past in order to make better predictions for the future. Conducting research throughout the world in conjunction with those faculty are more than 25 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as a handful of undergraduates — the next generation of explorers.

UMaine Today magazine asked four of the young explorers from Maine — Alice Doughty, Aaron Putnam, Sean Birkel and Sam Kelley — what attracted them to research in such remote locations as New Zealand, Antarctica, Patagonia and Iceland. They describe the challenge and the questions yet to be answered.

Sean Birkel of Bangor is a third-year Ph.D. student in Quaternary geology and glaciology whose fieldwork has taken him to Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland and the Western United States

Birkel studies ice sheets and how they interact with the global climate system. His dissertation examines the formation and evolution of the Laurentide Ice Sheet over North America, and the mechanisms by which that ice sheet disappeared.

"The most exciting thing to me is visiting pristine landscapes not yet spoiled by us humans," says Birkel, talking about what excites him about his area of research. "As a science educator, I hope to impress upon students that we belong to the Earth more so than the Earth belongs to us. The survival of our civilization is dependent upon this basic understanding."

Aaron Putnam is a second-year Ph.D. student from Chapman who is using glacial geology and a geochemical technique called beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating to reconstruct the history of ice ages and abrupt climate changes on a near-global scale.

"One of the fundamental questions in Earth sciences is: What causes ice ages?" says Putnam, who conducts fieldwork in the New Zealand Southern Alps, the Patagonian Andes in southern Argentina and the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. "The ice ages are the most distinct climate oscillations to affect the globe over the last 2,500,000 years, yet scientists still do not understand why they occur. Perhaps even more important, we cannot explain why the great ice ages ended so abruptly."

Through his research, Putnam hopes to shed light on what causes and ends glacial cycles, which is fundamental to our understanding of climate dynamics, and is important for improving models used to predict future climate behavior in response to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. He is working with others at UMaine and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University to develop a global stratigraphic model of climate by reconstructing the history of the great ice age glaciers from the geological features they left behind.

Alice Doughty of Sebago is a second-year master’s student in glacial geology who also has done field work in Wyoming, as well as Antarctica and New Zealand. Her research investigates a period about 20,000 years ago when temperatures were colder and large ice sheets occurred. The questions to be answered: What caused the cooling and was it a global event?

One of the leading theories of glacial cycles suggests that the ice ages were out of sync between the two polar hemispheres, but field results do not support this, says Doughty. She has found that the timing of the ice advance in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres was relatively concurrent, which means the glaciers likely responded to a global signal.

"It is exciting to work with the leaders of the climate change field, and to contribute to the scientific community," Doughty says. "I hope to continue working on these types of problems and perhaps make some significant advances in the field."

Sam Kelley of Orono is in the first year of his master’s work in Quaternary geology and geomorphology. In his research area on the eastern shore of Lake Pukaki on the South Island of New Zealand, Kelley is using a technique called terrestrial cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating to determine when glaciers deposited boulders on the moraines.

Because glaciers are very sensitive to even the smallest climatic changes, maps of past glacier positions can be used to better understand what the past climate was like.

Data from New Zealand can be compared to various other climate data worldwide in an effort to understand which mechanisms affect the Earth's climate, and on what timescales they can act.

"I really enjoy seeing the parts of the puzzle coming together," Kelley says. "For instance, one set of moraines in my field area appears to correlate well with glaciers in North America and Europe.

"In science, my work forms a part of a larger project, which is working to find the cause of the end of the most recent major glaciation on Earth," he says. "This question is probably one of the most important to climate scientists today, as understanding why ice ages end will go a long way in understanding what mechanisms cause ice ages and allow them to persist."

by Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2008


UMaine Today Magazine
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