University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Geology team completes Antarctic expedition

Jaakko Putkonen builds a snow shelter in Antarctica

Jaakko Putkonen builds a snow shelter in Antarctica

After two months in a remote valley of the world’s coldest and driest continent, geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen and his student team are back in Grand Forks. They successfully finished their second trip to Antarctica as part of a research project to discover how the wind shapes the barren landscape there.

It’s a big challenge just getting to the destination—a desolate dirt-covered valley in Antarctica’s Ong Valley and Moraine Canyon.

“I counted 17 individual connecting flights to get to our research site from Grand Forks and back,” said Putkonen, an experienced cold-climate researcher from Finland and assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering. Putkonen and his team set up data gathering equipment at their research site during their first expedition to Antarctica in late 2010; they traveled there again earlier this year to download data from their probes and gather up all the equipment they’d installed the previous year.

“It was a successful trip. We got everything done that we needed to,” Putkonen said. “The main difference this year was the weather: it was much worse. Of course, that’s subjective, but there were several days when we were effectively stalled because of storms, high winds, and extreme cold. One day, we traveled on our snowmobiles to the edge of the glacier, but the wind was so strong and the visibility so poor, that I decided to cancel our work for the day and return to our base camp. Even clothed in special Antarctic parkas, we were shivering.”

The camp was located on the side of a glacier near a cliff—a location chosen because it was somewhat sheltered from the wind. Still, Putkonen said, 60 mile-per-hour winds often kept the team up through the “night”—it’s summer in Antarctica now, so the sun shines 24 hours—for fear of being blown away.

“It was quite the process to get going every morning, fire up the snowmobiles, travel half an hour to the edge of the ice, then trek for two to three hours to our work site, and do the reverse at the end of the work day,” said Putkonen, who’s also done research in other harsh environments such as the Himalayas, Greenland, and in Finland’s Arctic region.

“But we still managed to get lots of work done on the good days,” Putkonen said.

The team recovered all six data loggers and the wind monitors that it set out during the 2010 expedition. The data loggers consisted of computers the size of laptops without the screens. The coldest air temperature recorded during the year at the research site was -48 degrees C or -49 degrees F. The highest recorded wind speed was 100 km/hr or 62 miles per hour. The team also collected samples of the surface material to analyze.

“Now comes the hard work,” Putkonen said. “It will take at least a year to get the data and samples processed. Once we get that done, then we can start speculating and building models that we hope will show how this environment is evolving.”

Putkonen, a well-established expert in polar and high-mountain landscapes, was accompanied on this trip by a hand-picked team of UND students: Ted Bibby, a PhD candidate in geology and an experienced cold-climate trekker; Collin Giusti, a UND undergrad who's going on his second Antarctic mission; and first-timer Erin Hoeft, a UND geology undergrad from Two Harbors, Minn., who jumped at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the expedition.

The purpose of their NSF-backed trip was to dig into the evolution of the Antarctic landscape in one of the continent’s remotest and least understood regions, an area not currently covered in snow and ice.

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-- Juan Miguel Pedraza, writer/editor, University Relations, 777-6571,

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