Jaakko Putkonen takes the classroom to Antarctica in search of climate clues for Earth, beyond
In an era soaked in a digital deluge where online is the place to be, Jaakko Putkonen and his student teams blaze — or let's say freeze — a totally different path.
This University of North Dakota geomorphologist, a native of Finland, spends most of his field time in Antarctica and other frigid remote places.
Most recently, Putkonen took himself and a team of UND graduate and undergraduate students to a remote interior desert — an ice-free valley — along the largest mountain range in Antarctica. They were chasing clues to how and why landscapes change. They also retrieved vital "data loggers" placed in that Antarctic desert by Putkonen and another student team a year earlier.
"We wanted to collect data and more samples and to go to places this time that we couldn't get the last time we were there (in December 2010 to January 2011)," said Putkonen. He's conducted research in several of the remotest, highest and coldest locations in the world, including Antarctica, Greenland, Spitsbergen, Lapland, and in the Himalaya Mountains.
"It's a physically punishing trip because you're working 2,500 meters above sea level in a truly rough landscape. And when I say rough, I mean boulders on top of boulders. After most days, we were mentally exhausted just because we had to plan every step, jumping from boulder to boulder, as falling down is not really an option in a location where the nearest medical help is 1,000 miles and several days away."
The data loggers and sensors were placed at various locations in the desert to gather a year's worth of information.
"All that equipment had to go through an Antarctic winter, which can be truly brutal," Putkonen said. "We set all the sensors and data loggers up on plumbing-grade zinc pipe anchored with boulders."
Rocks of ages
Putkonen and one of his Ph.D. students, Theodore Bibby, are extracting scientifically usable information from the piles of data and samples they gathered. Part of that work is being done in a unique lab at the Harold Hamm School of Geology & Geological Engineering, part of the College of Engineering & Mines.
It's basically about dating rocks.
"We're trying to understand how the Antarctic landscape evolved over both short and long time periods," Putkonen said. "We ask some straightforward questions, such as how is the dirt moving around there like it does here (in North Dakota) in a big rainstorm or with North Dakota's famous winds. The dirt that's being eroded somewhere is being deposited somewhere else — the landscape changes."
Extracting usable data from all the samples requires using an analytical method that measures the rare radioactive isotopes in each specially prepared rock sample.
"We know that rocks that are buried, for example, deep below the ice sheet don't get bombarded by high-energy particles, and we can detect that," Putkonen said.
Rocks that are exposed on the Earth's surface, on the other hand, accumulate rare isotopes as a result of particle bombardments from outer space. The isotopes' effects can be studied in Putkonen's lab.
"We can measure the amount of the isotope and back-calculate how long that particular rock has been sitting there out in the open," Putkonen said. "Some rocks from deep below the surface that are millions of years old have never been to the surface, but when a glacier plucks them up and then the ice melts, those rocks are exposed at the Earth's surface."
The cosmogenic isotope analysis is a lot like the radio carbon-14 dating system that is routinely used to determine ages for old wood products such as furniture, paintings, old buildings and other man-made structures.
"But the isotope analysis allows us to go much further back in time — millions of years — than can carbon-14 dating, which only goes back about 50,000 years," Putkonen said.
This National Science Foundation-backed research aims to describe changes in the Antarctic landscape over time, but it has also detected natural changes in climate. This could help scientists understand more about human-generated climate change, which also is impacting landscapes around the world in ways that aren't clearly known.
Putkonen's research also extends to planetary studies.
"When we look at Mars, for example, there are areas that look very similar to where we were recently in Antarctica," Putkonen said. "And it turns out that it is much cheaper to go to Antarctica than Mars. We are building insights about the Martian environment by doing field research in Antarctica.
"It is funny how basic research often works. The payoffs may not be obvious when you start, but eventually they come to light in a surprising and unexpected way."
Last summer, Putkonen took UND students on a three-week trip to Nepal for a course on the basics of field geology high in the Himalayas.
"To learn geology you have to go where the geology is, which is in the field," said Putkonen, who started doing science trips to Nepal during his postdoctoral work.
But Putkonen doesn't discount the work he does in the traditional classroom.
"My task is not just to deliver facts for the students in preparation for a skillful workforce," he said. "My task is to unleash the imagination, and motivate the students to innovate and to become leaders instead of followers."
Juan Miguel Pedraza
University & Public Affairs writer