rock samples on table

Next Stop Antarctica

Professor embarks on historic scientific expedition to Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Posted in: Faculty

Joides Resolution docked

As a pioneering polar scientist in the field of internationally coordinated Antarctic research, Earth and Environmental Studies Professor Sandra Passchier has completed five expeditions to Antarctica. On January 23, she will set sail from Punta Arenas, Chile, on drillship JOIDES Resolution on her sixth Antarctic expedition and her third with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP).

Passchier, along with fellow members of IODP Expedition 379’s international team of scientists and crew, will make history by drilling for sedimentary records in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of Antarctica in order to reconstruct full cycles of ice growth and melt over hundreds of thousands of years – and predict climate change. “No ship has ever drilled deep into the seabed in this area,” says Passchier. “Hence, we know very little about its history.”

According to Passchier, the Amundsen Sea is the focal point of ice discharge from West Antarctica into the ocean. “Since 2012 an area of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet the size of California has been losing ice mass so rapidly that scientists are questioning whether a full or partial collapse is imminent,” she says. “The long drillcores that we will collect are expected to show us when – and under what conditions – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet last experienced a full or partial collapse.”

While the IODP is funded by the National Science Foundation and its international partners, Passchier’s participation in the expedition is funded through a subcontract with the IODP’s U.S. Science Support Program at Columbia University. For two months – from January 23 to March 20 – she will be living on the drillship, where she says she will have “no opportunity to get off.”

The 470-foot drillship sleeps two people per cabin, with one person on the night shift and one on the day shift, so that the scientists technically have the small cabins to themselves when off shift. The ship is outfitted with a pantry, dining room, movie room and a gym. “Try running on a treadmill when the floor is going up and down and rocking sideways as the ship moves around in potentially stormy seas dodging icebergs and floes,” Passchier says.

She is eager to work with top scientists from the United States and other countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Japan, China, India, France and New Zealand who share her interests. “It’s a privilege to be able to focus on science 12 hours a day,” she notes. “This is an enormous opportunity for faculty professional development that will also indirectly benefit Montclair State students. I’m looking forward to taking this experience into the classroom and to bring back samples for student research projects.”

Passchier also relishes the exploratory nature of Expedition 379. “We won’t know exactly what we’ll find in advance because this is the first ever deep-sea drilling in the Amundsen Sea – so we may discover buried secrets we haven’t anticipated,” she explains. “For example, we know very little about the geology of West Antarctica because it’s covered in a thick sheet of ice. We may recover rocks eroded by glaciers and transported by icebergs offshore that can tell us something about the land buried beneath the ice.”

While cell phones won’t work on board the JOIDES Resolution, Passchier intends to access the internet from lab workstations, where she will be blogging and tweeting as time and limited bandwidth at some drill sites will permit. Follow her journey of discovery on or @earthmontclair#Exp379.