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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
July 3, 2007
DeKalb, Ill. — Reed Scherer has traveled many times to New Zealand, a jumping off point for his research expeditions to the Antarctic. Next year, however, the Northern Illinois University geologist will make the kiwi country his destination.
Scherer, of west-suburban Elburn, has been named a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar to New Zealand. He’ll spend most of the spring 2008 term at Victoria University of Wellington, while conducting research along the New Zealand coastline.
Scherer’s Fulbright grant is related to his work as a key member of the international Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program, which concluded its first field season in January. About 150 scientists are participating in the two-season effort to recover geologic rock cores from beneath the frozen Antarctic Ross Sea.
The unprecedented project aims to help scientists unravel Antarctica’s climate history and ultimately shed light on global warming trends.
Antarctica serves as a bellwether of global climate. Core samples taken from below the Antarctic seabed provide a layered climate record, allowing researchers to peer deeply into past periods of time when the continent was warmer.
The warm periods are of keen interest to scientists. Accelerated industrialization and exponential growth in the burning of fossil fuels has raised the global concentration of carbon dioxide to levels not seen in many millions of years, when global ice volume was much lower and sea-level much higher than today.
Some scientists believe the Antarctic’s floating ice shelves act to buttress interior ice, and that if the ice shelves retreat, flow of interior ice will accelerate, resulting in collapse of grounded interior ice and a rapid global sea-level rise.
ANDRILL scientists have determined that frequent climate fluctuations in Antarctica were so extreme over the past 5 million years that the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating slab of ice the size of France, oscillated in size dramatically and might have even disappeared for periods of time.
Scherer is among the researchers now working to determine how much of the massive, land-based Antarctic ice sheet retreated during these warm periods. He specializes in the study of diatoms—rapidly evolving microscopic single-celled algae that live near the ocean surface. Their glass-like fossils accumulate on the ocean floor in the trillions, and provide the evidence for climate change in ANDRILL’s recovered rock core.
During his Fulbright research period, Scherer will compare ANDRILL data to the geologic record in the Wanganui Basin, a section of exposed geologic features along the southern coast of New Zealand’s north island. The geologic record there shows evidence of sea-level and climate change.
“I’ll be comparing some of the geologic events recorded by Andrill with geologic sections representing the same time periods in New Zealand,” Scherer said. “This will allow us to see how climate events in the Antarctic influenced climate across the Southern Ocean.
“This is particularly important because we are lacking in climate records for the Southern Hemisphere,” Scherer added. He and New Zealand collaborators will focus on periods in the geologic past that were warmer than present in order to help calibrate global climate models that aim to predict future climates.
Scherer will spend a total of three months in New Zealand. “We anticipate continued collaboration and student exchanges after I return to NIU,” he said.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright program was established in 1946 to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries.
Award recipients are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement and because they have demonstrated extraordinary leadership potential in their fields.