Professor explores global warming effect at the ends of the Earth

September 18 2006

Indiana State University Professor Tony Rathburn travels literally to the ends of the Earth in the name of research, and to help give his students a better understanding of oceanography and global warming.

Since joining Indiana State in 2001 from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, where he remains an associate research scientist, Rathburn has taken part in expeditions in Alaska, Australia, Chile, Italy and California, often taking ISU students with him.

This year, Rathburn, assistant professor of geology, took part in a month-long research expedition off the Antarctic Peninsula, an area where the 2002 collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf provided access to a portion of the sea floor that had previously been inaccessible.

That collapse opened to researchers an area of the sea floor that had been blocked by ice for nearly 10,000 years. In 2005, scientists discovered a huge eco-system beneath the collapsed ice shelf and located the first active methane seep to be detected in the Antarctic.

The discovery could help uncover evidence that may provide a better understanding of the biological and climate history of the Antarctic ice shelf region, which covers nearly 580,000 square miles of sea floor, an area more than twice the size of Texas.

[me ] While the primary focus of the month-long expedition was the geologic and biological history of the area, significant research was also conducted into global warming, Rathburn noted.

Extending northward off the western part of Antarctica, the peninsula has experienced an increase in mean annual temperature of approximately 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 60 years, one of the most significant rates of warming in the world.

"Global warming is right there staring you in the face," Rathburn said. "I hadn't seen it anywhere else as dramatically evident as in this sector of the Antarctic. Areas that only two months ago were completely covered with ice, and had been covered with ice for thousands of years, were now open with large sections of the shelf ice system just breaking off."

Rathburn specializes in the study of benthic foraminifera, tiny marine animals that are especially sensitive to environmental changes, such as those caused by global warming. While he could not take students to Antarctica and he was unable to bring back foraminifera samples from the sea floor as he has done in connection with previous research expeditions, he did return to Indiana with pictures and videos that graphically illustrate for students the effects of global warming.

[me ] Rathburn and his fellow researchers not only saw the effects of global warming, they experienced them firsthand on the ship. It was occasionally stuck for short periods of time as it tried to break a path through areas of thick sea ice and around large ice bergs created by calving ice shelves. At one point, research equipment was damaged and lost, when a section of a nearby ice shelf broke off into an open area of water, causing a large wave that rocked the ship.

"Students seem to be more receptive to someone who's actually been there and seen these things than just reading it out of a book and seeing one or two pictures. You can say, 'Well, at this spot this is what was happening and this is the picture that I took when I was there,'" he said. "Even more dramatically, I've used pictures from Alaska, Venice and California that ISU students have taken. [Other students] respond very favorably to that."

While acknowledging debate over the causes of global warming, Rathburn said there is no debate that it is occurring and the effects can be monumental.

"It's not just leading to increases in sea levels but also to changes in climate - dramatic changes: Changes in where we'll be able to live; changes in where we'll be able to grow crops. All of those things come as a consequence of climate change."

Led by faculty from Hamilton College, and financed by a more than $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, the three-year study of the Antarctic ice shelf region is now in its final year. Based on results from this recent expedition, new research in the region is planned, including an international effort that will provide more clues about the changes taking place near the world?s southernmost continent.

Contact: Tony Rathburn, assistant professor, geology, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2269 or arathburn@indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

Tony Rathburn, a veteran of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, has been introducing Midwestern students to the field of oceanography since coming to Indiana State in 2001. This year his travels included a research expedition to Antartica, where he saw first hand the effects of global warming.

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