Montclair State Professors Research Environmental Changes in Antarctica

Two Montclair State University professors will be spending a good part of the winter conducting research where the temperature almost always remains below freezing, yet rarely snows. Both environment scientists and professors from Montclair State's College of Science and Mathematics, Sandra Passchier and Stephanie Brachfeld are heading to Antarctica where they will be working to help answer important questions that will help scientists better understand environmental changes—past, present and future—on this ice-covered continent.

Both Passchier and Brachfeld will be recovering sediment samples from beneath the seafloor, but they will be on separate excursions on opposite coasts.

Dr. Stefanie Brachfeld, who is making her seventh visit to Antarctica, is aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer as part of a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) and International Polar Year (IPY)-funded excursion examining abrupt environmental change in the Larsen Ice Shelf system. The vast ice-breaking ship departed from Punta Arenas, Chile on Dec. 27. Moving at only 15 nautical miles per hour, it took approximately 5 days to arrive at their destination, where they will spend approximately two months at sea. Brachfeld and the team will recover sediment samples from the seafloor beneath a body of water where the Larsen Ice Shelf existed before collapsing in 2002. This is Brachfeld's fourth visit to the Larsen Ice Shelf and the first visit under this IPY grant. She plans to return for another excursion in 2012.  
Dr. Sandra Passchier headed out Jan. 2 to Wellington, New Zealand where she and a team of international scientists boarded the JOIDES Resolution, an Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) research-drilling vessel. With funding from the NSF and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, the researchers made the seven-day journey to the Wilkes Land margin off Antarctica's Eastern coast. This is Passchier's fifth excursion to Antarctica.

While Brachfeld’s team is "coring" for sediment, a process used to recover long cylinders of soft mud, Passchier’s team will be drilling 1,150 meters through the harder surface beneath the Wilkes Land margin. Both will recover sediments that will be analyzed to provide insight into how and when and why the environment has changed and predictors of what is to come.

By drilling the Wilkes Land margin, the scientists hope to obtain information from sedimentary archives that will be help them determine, among other things, the timing and nature of the onset of glaciation at the margin. Passchier said it is believed that the transition from greenhouse to icehouse took place nearly 33 million years ago, impacting global sea level and oceanographic and biotic evolution, among other changes. "By drilling back in time," she said, "we hope to uncover rocks that represent that time in Antarctica. This will help us correlate with other things that happened in the world at that time.

"We believe it’s all linked to ice growth in Antarctica. Now we need to find the evidence to prove it." Passchier said others have tried unsuccessfully to prove this theory, but she believes the drilling at the Wilkes Land margin, which has not been done before, will uncover the sedimentary archives they are seeking. (Readers can follow the expedition’s progress on Passchier’s blog at

Across the continent, Brachfeld will be at the Larsen Ice Shelf. She explained that two sections completely collapsed in the mid-1990s and another part, which was about the size of Connecticut, collapsed in 2002. One piece of the shelf still remains. "We will use sedimentary records to establish 'normal' patterns of variability, determine if these ice shelves have collapsed in the past, and understand what causes ice shelves to collapse," she said. "We cannot reverse what is currently taking place, but understanding the behavior and history of ice shelves may help us predict what the Antarctic Ice Sheet will do in the future in response to global warming."

Brachfeld said preliminary analysis will be done on the ship, but most of the archives will be sent to the Antarctica Marine Geology Research Facility at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and sub-samples will be brought back to Montclair State where they will take months to analyze. Passchier will return to Montclair State and analyze the sediment samples she recovered in a lab on campus.

And while two months at sea is a long time, Brachfeld and Passchier may find solace in knowing that they have a Montclair State colleague right across the continent.

Read an article about the professors in The Star-Ledger.