First Person: Sandra Passchier

Photo: Mike Peters

Sandra Passchier

It all started with a family vacation in Norway. Every summer, my parents, my sister and I would embark on a four-week road trip to some interesting place in Europe from our hometown in the Netherlands. The car would be packed with tents and supplies for maximum mobility and flexibility so that we could visit even the most remote areas. One summer, my parents had decided we would visit Norway. On that trip, we explored the Jostedalsbreen ice cap and my father had arranged for a hike with a guide on the ice. I was 14 years old and I had just experienced my first lessons in geology and what fascinated me the most were volcanoes and plate tectonics. The trip would change everything.

As we were driving up the valley, I could see a dome of ice sticking out above the mountains. We passed a large moraine—a mound of debris left by a melting glacier—and behind it was a large blue lake. Further up the valley, at the foot of the Nygardsbreen outlet glacier, we got out of the car and continued on foot with the guide. We were given crampons so we could walk on the slippery ice. The guide took us onto the ice, past gushing meltwater streams and moulins, holes in the surface of the glacier where meltwater disappeared into the depths below. The ice was sky blue in these places and I found it all fascinating. Looking down the valley, I saw the moraine with the lake behind it—the outline of the former footprint of the glacier. It really left an impression on me; what was going on here? Why did the glacier melt? From then on, my volcano and tectonics books began collecting dust as I read one book after another about snow and ice.

Twenty-five years later, I have completed five field seasons studying the  ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. On my first trip to the Arctic in 1992, our objective was to study the effect of global warming on the mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet.

My most recent trip to Antarctica took place in the fall of 2007. I participated in a multi-national drilling program with scientists from four nations: Italy, New Zealand, Germany and the United States. We are studying the response of the Antarctic ice sheet to a past episode of global warming approximately 14 million years ago.

I spent two months in a research station in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica. With a team of seven other scientists, I was describing and interpreting drill core samples that were brought in from the drill site out on the sea ice of the McMurdo Sound. After enduring temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit—without the wind chill—while camping out on the ice during survival training, we were allowed to take a helicopter trip to survey some of the rock outcrops in the Transantarctic Mountains. Antarctic weather is incredibly unpredictable and we almost got stranded on the edge of the mountains in blowing snow and low-hanging clouds. It was all worth it. Only a few hundred geologists are studying a continent almost twice the size of the United States. I am thankful that I can be part of that group and I hope to inspire students to follow in my footsteps and to help advance the frontiers of science and exploration.


Sandra Passchier, Ph.D., is assistant professor of earth and environmental studies and an expert on sediment core samples.  Her most recent field work was in 2007 with ANDRILL, the international drilling program based at the McMurdo Station research base in Antarctica.