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Senior Thesis on Ice is Hot Topic in Science

Date: June 6, 2002
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photos courtesy: Janelle Sikorski and Thomas Lowell, UC geology
Archive: Research News

Geology major Janelle Sikorski's senior thesis took her about as far away from Cincinnati as you can get, but she felt right at home. She's a self-professed "glacier addict."

Janelle Sikorski in New Zealand

Sikorski spent two months in New Zealand working with UC geology professor Thomas Lowell and an international team of researchers trying to understand one of the most complex problems in science - global climate change. The group is focused on the trails left behind by glaciers, especially the record of climate change during a period known as the Little Ice Age.

"Europe has good climate records going back to 1100," explained Sikorski. "In New Zealand, the earliest records are in the 1800s. So, it's not clear what glaciers have been doing in the Southern Hemisphere. Our project was looking at glacial stratigraphy there. We hope to compare it to European record and see if they're responding the same."

Sikorski had attended a field camp in Alaska last summer run by the University of Alaska - Fairbanks and was a student in Lowell's Glacial Field Methods course which took her to 14 Alaskan glaciers last summer.

Faraday Glacier in New Zealand

Her interest in glaciers and growing abilities at fieldwork drew Lowell's attention and earned her an invitation to continue her glacier studies overseas. "After I got back, he asked would I mind going out of the country for two months? I said I was game, and that was it."

Her research project in New Zealand became the focus of her senior thesis , but the project also helped prepare her for her next big step - graduate school.

"I got a sense of what the research world is like. Field camp is 'Here is how you do it.' This is 'Go do it, and report back and tell us what you found."

Janelle Sikorski on flooded highway in New Zealand

If you can reach your field sites, that is! Sikorski and the other geologists discovered their road was blocked by high water after some rough weather early in the trip.

And if driving was impossible at times, walking wasn't much easier as the group hiked over rubble known as ice-cored debris.

"It was tough to keep up," admitted Sikorski. "I had to adjust to the demand of hiking across the rough terrain which was a pile of unstable sharp rocks. After the third or fourth day, I caught on."

For much of the trip, Sikorski worked alongside University of Maine graduate student Colby Smith who was trying to map the advance of several glaciers. They literally beat the bushes to get to their field sites.

Colby Smith, University of Maine

"The bushes are called Spaniards. They have these spiky needles that draw blood. They're evil."

The geologists worked primarily in the Mt. Cook area, covering the Hooker, Mueller and Murchison glaciers. Former UC graduate student Katie Schoenenberger did her master's research in the same area, using lichen sizes to develop a chronology of glacial advances and retreats. Sikorski was trying a different method that focused on quartz veins in rocks on the moraines built up by glacial advances. The wider the vein, the longer the rock has been exposed, providing some information about when the glaciers retreated.

After a rapid sweep of the area that Sikorski called a "quartz commando operation," she found clear differences in the rocks. "There was no smooth gradation. They jumped from millimeter veins to 3 millimeter veins farther away. That suggests that there's a difference in the age of those rocks."

rocks with quartz veins

What Sikorski can't say is exactly how old the rocks are. That will take further study, but her work might answer a key question about the moraines. There is a big debate on whether they were all formed at once a few hundred years ago - something known as the "short chronology" or whether some moraines are a few thousand years old. That's the so-called "long chronology."

"We were trying to see who's right," said Sikorski. "The geology was not cake. We had to walk away for awhile."

In addition to her fieldwork, Sikorski was also able to attend a special meeting on abrupt climate change supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The meeting brought in some of the world's top researchers who are trying to see how Earth's climate has changed and how much man's current activities are affecting climate change.

"Just being there was incredible. You read your papers. I'm sitting there, and they accepted me. That meant a lot."

She also got to enjoy nearly two months of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, day and night. "The best part was seeing the Milky Way stretched across the sky above my tent every night."

On a personal level, Sikorski said her travels have helped her get a better understanding of other cultures, especially how they view Americans and American women.

Sikorski in New Zealand

"There were people from many different cultures together one evening, and they were comparing each one. They think we're very opinionated ... all feminists like Hillary Clinton. I thought that was funny."

The only downside to the trip was the travel arrangements. Sikorski left Cincinnati Dec. 30. With the long plane ride and the International Date Line in the way she laments, "I totally missed New Year's Eve."

No problem. Next year, Sikorski will be celebrating not only a Happy New Year, but a new opportunity to study the glaciers she loves. She'll be back in Alaska doing fieldwork as a new graduate student at Northern Arizona University.

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