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NIU students and professors to join research team this winter in Antarctica

A group of Illinois teachers and students will embark on journey to find new life at the center of the earth. Well... almost.

The group, from Northern Illinois University, are part of a research team that will study climate change in Antarctica this winter, where scientists say the ice sheets are melting because of warming ocean waters.

Reed Scherer is part of the research team and is a Professor of Micro Paleontology and Biostratigraphy at NIU.

He pointed to the unprecedented coastal flooding of Hurricane Sandy as an example of what could happen if the ice sheet continues to melt.

“My mother lives in Brooklyn at Sheepshead Bay and she just got her power back a couple of days ago after a storm surge raised the local sea level by 14 feet, which was well above what it had ever been seen before,” Scherer said.

The team will study a large ice sheet that sits below sea level, named the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which measures up to be bigger than the size of Mexico.

He said long-term melting of the ice sheet could raise sea levels ten to twenty feet. While this may not affect Illinois directly, Scherer said the indirect effect could hit the local economy.

“It’s all part of a global system,” he said.  

Scientists have speculated that carbon dioxide is a possible cause for the collapse of ice sheets, as posited by research published in “Nature” in 1978 by Ohio State Professor, John Mercer.

“Everything that he said in that paper in ‘78 has been shown to be pretty much correct, but they’re very, very difficult hypotheses to test,” Scherer said. “We still don’t know the details of what the stability of the ice sheet is at the bottom of it.”

Reed Scherer, NIU Professor of Micro Paleontology and Biostratigraphy (NIU)
Scherer said knowing that is critical in determining how stable the sheet is as a whole. It also explains why the research team is also interested in looking at the biological communities living underneath the ice sheet, an “unknown environment” as Scherer called it.
Scherer said back in the 1970s, the first hole was drilled into this sheet of ice. Scientists didn’t expect to find anything living down there, but he said they discovered fish and other organisms living below the ice, surviving far from solar radiation and nutrients coming from the surface.  

“There have been some preliminary estimates that there’s a very large community of bacterial kind of life that’s living there,” Scherer said. “That’s something that contributes to the global carbon cycle in a way that we don’t have very well constrained.”

Scherer said he will be leaving on Monday to join other team members that are already in Antarctica setting up. A total of five people from NIU will be apart of the research team including one other professor, a doctoral student, a research associate and an undergraduate student.

So how does this all relate to us?

It might not at all. Scherer said Professor Mercer coined the term “catastrophic collapse" in the 1970s, but never really defined it. Scherer said his catastrophic scenario wouldn't affect us, it would affect future generations. He described the ice sheet as massive and unlikely to disappear in the next twenty five years.

“It very well may happen in less than several hundred years,” he said. “If we want to consider the future of our world and our children and grandchildren... you know geologists tend to take a long view, and the sorts of changes that we’re talking about, to a geologist, are exceedingly fast.”


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