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ASU Department of Geology Professor Ellen Cowan to Study Earth Systems in the Gulf of Alaska

May 29, 2013. Geologist Ellen Cowan is part of an international team of scientists that will spend two months at sea studying climate change and earth systems in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Cowan, a professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Geology, is able to participate with funding from the U.S. Science Support Program, based at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

“I will be working with a team of 33 other scientists from all of the member countries of the Integrated Ocean Drilling program,” Cowan said. The team includes scientists from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Led by co-chiefs John Jaeger of the University of Florida and Sean Gulick of the University Texas at Austin, the team will collect and study sediments from five different locations along the continental margin and deep sea in the Gulf of Alaska. 

To better understand the relationship between the Earth’s dynamic geologic processes and climate history, the team will investigate the interactions between long-term global climate change, including the fluctuations of larger erosive glaciers, and the simultaneous growth of mountain belts, including the flux of eroded sediments from the mountains to the deep sea.

“The mountains of southern Alaska have the perfect combination of large glaciers and rapidly uplifting mountains to test these ideas,” Jaeger said. “Plus, we know very little about the long-term history of these glaciers, especially relative to what we know about other large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.”

Because glaciers can erode and transport large amounts of rock, they can dramatically alter the landscape. Also, by rapidly decreasing the overall mass of rock in the areas they scour, they can also affect the forces that create mountain ranges – sometimes in less than a million years.

“My particular interest is in the history of the ice sheet that covered Alaska during the past 2.6 million years,” Cowan said. “During this period, there have been cycles of glaciation and periods without glaciers known as interglacials. The record of these dramatic landscape changes are stored in sediment on the sea floor, which will be drilled in strategic places by the international drilling ship, the JOIDES Resolution.”

The JOIDES Resolution is a scientific research vessel supported by 26 countries and managed by the U.S. Implementing Organization of IODP (USIO).

In addition to her time at sea, Cowan will conduct follow-up research on the cores samples that will be collected during the expedition. The cores contain sediment and debris carried to sea by large glaciers that have eroded the land over time.

Other goals of the research expedition include gaining a better understanding of the timing of the advance and retreat of the Northern Cordilleran Ice Sheet relative to other global ice sheets, obtaining a record of magnetic field reversals in the Gulf of Alaska, and a taking a look at ocean circulation dynamics and their effect on the carbon cycle during transitions into and out of ice ages.

“I spent the early part of my research career working on modern glaciers that end in the sea in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  It is really rewarding to be accepted to sail with this IODP expedition to recover the glacial record from the past,” Cowan said.  

About IODP

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) is an international research program dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the Earth through drilling, coring, and monitoring the subseafloor.

IODP is supported by two lead agencies: the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Additional program support comes from the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD), the Australia-New Zealand IODP Consortium (ANZIC), India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences, the People’s Republic of China (Ministry of Science and Technology), the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, and Brazil’s Ministry of Education (CAPES).

For more information, click at www.iodp.org.