PSU Graduate Student Works to Understand Antarctica

April 12th, 2007 by Adam

The cold, barren and uninhabited Antarctic continent is hardly the place you’d expect to find a PSU student, but Jennifer Horsman believes it offers a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

Horsman recently returned from an expedition in Antarctica, where she gained invaluable knowledge and experience in studying glacial geology with ground-penetrating radar (GPR), global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and geographic information system (GIS)-based mapping. Horsman received her bachelor’s in geophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. Jennifer then started work on a master’s at UNH, focusing on global climate change and atmospheric chemistry.

“I was working toward a degree for which I was studying atmospheric chemistry as preserved in ice cores,” said Horsman. When her original advisor left UNH, she started to work with her current advisor, Dr. Michael Prentice. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Prentice accepted a position at PSU and Jennifer decided to finish her master’s degree in Plymouth.

“Plymouth State University worked with me so that I could transfer some of my credits from UNH to complete my program of study,” said Horsman. “My graduate advisor, Dr. Michael Prentice, was teaching a glacial geology course in the fall of 2006. It was decided that I would complete that class while in Antarctica. Antarctica is the perfect ‘laboratory’ for learning glacial geology and geomorphology, especially in the McMurdo Dry Valleys where glaciers spill down from the 6000 foot high mountains onto the valley floors at sea level.”

Horsman prepared for the Antarctic coursework with a practicum much closer to home, at Squam Lake. Horsman was joined by a GPR expert, Dr. Steve Arcone, of the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL) in Hanover. The practicum provided experience in using GPR to detect the character of sediments on the lake bottom.

Horsman flew to Antarctica in November 2006 with another CRREL GPR expert, Allan Delaney as well as a twosome who came from the University of Washington in Seattle. The goal, according to Prentice, of the six person Plymouth team was to figure out how certain controversial glacial deposits formed, based on the geometry of internal sediment structures. “The deposits were transported to this valley by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that today is 600 miles distant from the study area and only a shadow of its former size. The scale of and reasons for the last collapse of this ice sheet are written in the deposits we were standing on. No one has looked into the deposits before using radar. The information gives insights into the vulnerabilities of the ice sheet and, consequently, will impact predictions for how the remnant ice sheet will respond to global warming.”

While the work was physically grueling in inhospitable conditions, Horsman enjoyed the adventure on one of the planet’s last frontiers.

“The scenery was awe inspiring,” said Horsman. “We woke every morning to a view of Canada Glacier and the Matterhorn peak. We had a week of temperatures reaching 45 degrees F. and we never had temperatures below about 17 degrees F. The sun is always up, but also always low on the horizon.”

Because of the relatively long distances the team had to travel, they were often assisted by modern technology.

“One of the most incredible ‘benefits’ or a luxury of this work was being able to fly in helicopters frequently,” said Horsman. “We used helicopters as transportation more than 50% of the time we were there. This enabled us to work at several remote sites with the GPR equipment that is generally too bulky to carry more than a mile. Mostly, we rode in a Bell 212 helicopter, also known as a Huey.”

Despite the harsh conditions, Horsman is quick to add the scenery of the Antarctic continent is spectacular, and she had one favorite spot where the scene was awe-inspiring.

“It is near where the toe of Taylor Glacier and the toe of Rhone Glacier are very close. It is possible to see quite a ways down the valley from there, and by climbing up higher, you can get a good view up the valley of the Beacon Sandstone formations; it is truly beautiful.”

Horsman will graduate in May and encourages other graduate students seeking adventure and practical scientific research experience to consider Plymouth State University, adding, “PSU has a great program in Environmental Science and Policy and some good people willing to support our work.”

For more information about this release, contact PSU Media Relations Mgr. Bruce Lyndes, (603) 535-2775 or