Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

September 28, 2015

Carolyn Dowling, an associate professor of geology, spent 90 days enduring powerful winds, frigid temperatures and sensory deprivation so she could study virtually untouched rocks and sediment.

Carolyn Dowling is back at Ball State University, but the geology professor still has vivid dreams of her 90-day stay in Antarctica—40 mile per hour winds, bone-chilling temperatures and sensory deprivation.

And that was summer.

Dowling spent three months contributing to the McMurdo Dry Valleys project, a National Science Foundation-funded, interdisciplinary study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in a cold desert region of Antarctica. Her team is researching how humans affect their local environments, using the uninhabited continent as a contrast, and how global climate change is impacting the region.

"It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life because Antarctica is so much different from any place on the planet," said Dowling, who is part of the research team with Ohio State University. "I was struck by how isolated you are at Antarctica. You are with a few other researchers and the full-time staff at the base. There are no visitors from out of town who pop in."

The only colors are brown, gray and white, set against a blue sky. The only sounds come from machines and the constant howling winds.

"Life at the station was more like living in a college dorm where all you do is eat and sleep," she said. "If you weren’t sleeping, you were working. I took just a few days off during the three months I was there. That included Christmas and a few days I was ill. The rest of the time, it was working around the clock.

"I didn’t realize the sensory deprivation until I got to New Zealand for my trip back to the United States. Suddenly it hit me how many colors I had been missing as well as the sounds of the birds, traffic and other people."

Strong winds create havoc for researchers

From December to February, Dowling was part of a research team working out of a permanent station at the McMurdo Dry Valleys, located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound. The area forms the largest relatively ice-free area on the continent.

Antarctica's inhospitable climate often led to exhausting days in the field for Carolyn Dowling and her colleagues.

Each field day, Dowling put on several layers of thermal clothing and took a helicopter to a research site where she and her team gathered what became 50 pounds of samples.

"There were many days we couldn’t fly out on the helos simply because the winds were too dangerous," she said. "The worst was when we flew in, hiked several miles to the dry bed site and started working as the winds rose to about 40 miles per hour.

"It was a hard because you simply struggled against the wind just to go a few meters. It took our team several hours to walk a little over a mile to cover all the sites in order to collect our samples. When we got back, we were completely exhausted. One researcher fell asleep on a bench, and I fell asleep on a wooden table—still wearing our red thermal jackets."

Continent has few ice-free areas

But the wind and cold were part of the deal as the ice-free areas she visited are a sharp contrast to most other ecosystems in the world.

"There are many debates going on right now on how man is impacting the change in the world’s climate. By studying Antarctica, which has little to no human impact, we can look back at what happened hundreds of thousands of years ago and compare to what is going on today."

Carolyn Dowling,
associate professor of geological sciences

The perennially ice-covered lakes, streams and areas of exposed soil within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited precipitation and salt accumulation.

"In other words, there is little to no human contamination," Dowling said. "There are many debates going on right now on how man is impacting the change in the world’s climate. By studying Antarctica, which has little to no human impact, we can look back at what happened hundreds of thousands of years ago and compare to what is going on today."

In the States, Dowling’s work continues. She and the Ohio State team will spend many months studying how chemicals break down rocks into sediment or glacier till.

"I hope to have a better understanding of how rock is broken down in an area free from human interaction or the types of plant- and animal-based chemicals we have in Indiana," she said.

Now in the third funding cycle of the project, researchers like Dowling are attempting to answer questions about biodiversity, the impact of climatic legacies, and ecosystem structure and function.

"While the streams run for only six to 10 weeks each summer, we have witnessed a huge amount of water since there has been a rise in the temps," Dowling said. "At one weather station on the peninsula, closest to Chile, it hit 63 freaking degrees (in Fahrenheit)—a very rare event."

"Because of the rise in temperatures—and it only takes a degree or two to make a real difference—we’ve seen glaciers melting at vastly fast rates and pouring into the lakes, which are also rising quickly. The difference from just 20 years ago is startling."

Explore Geology

Does traveling across the globe to study the effects of climate change—or glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and more—appeal to you? If so, learn more about Ball State's geology programs.