December 11, 2009

Craig Kochel, left, and Jeff Trop, right, stand next to a helicopter in Alaska

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Geology Professor Craig Kochel was standing in a colleague's office at Bucknell University three years ago when he noticed something that reminded him of the planet Mars.

A photograph of the Wrangell Mountains in Alaska, displayed on Jeff Trop's computer screen, showed an unusual geological formation, similar to formations found on the surface of the Red Planet.

The serendipitous discovery led to a long-term collaboration between Kochel, a geomorphologist who has been studying water-related features on Mars since graduate school, and Trop, an associate professor of geology who examines environmental change and tectonics in Alaska.||See related video.

Trop and Kochel traveled to Alaska in 2006 to learn more about the so-called icy debris fans, which form when snow, ice and sediment fall from upper-level ice-caps. In 2008, they received international recognition after publishing in the journal Icaris the finding that Alaska's terrain may help scientists better understand Mars.

"We were amazed how active the area is," Kochel said. "As a result of warming, there is melting at the highest level. The ice-cap is collapsing above the cliff, which is producing avalanches and icy-debris flows."

National Geographic grant
Kochel and Trop recently received a $15,000 National Geographic grant to continue their research in Alaska, and they plan to return there to install a solar-powered time-lapse camera to record geological events and changes. The camera will take pictures every 10 minutes during the entire melting season. They also plan to conduct field study in New Zealand, where Kochel discovered similar landforms and processes during a trip to Mount Cook last summer.

The icy debris fans in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska were so similar to features Kochel had studied in Mars - starting in graduate school when a professor suggested he trace with a pencil and translucent paper satellite photographs of Mars - that the team concluded the fan formations must indicate the past presence of water and ice on the Red Planet. Kochel determined through his previous research that channels, hills and other erosional features were consistent with waterfalls, rivers and catastrophic flooding on Mars. 

Indications of 'Wet Mars'

In 2007, at a lunar planetary science meeting, Trop and Kochel gave a poster presentation on their preliminary research and conclusions about icy debris fans. Kochel gave a talk at a Geological Society of America meeting the following fall. The researchers suggested that if a High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras targeted specific areas of Mars, it would capture images of avalanches.

Their prediction came true in February 2008. The Mars Global Surveyor System showed on the North Pole of Mars, Chasme Borale, evidence of ice caps, layered ice and sediment, and triangular landforms made of water and ice at base of polar escarpments.||See related story.

"It was the first avalanche caught in motion on another planet," Kochel recalled. "It was very similar to what's happening in Alaska."

On Mars, wind activity brings dust and snow, which leaves sedimentary layers that may be annual like tree rings, Kochel said.

"On Mars, a lot of water is sub-surface. The sequence of events we observed in Alaska is driven by precipitation," he said.

A better look
Trop and Kochel will go back to Alaska to get a better look and to record the evolutionary process with a time-lapse camera over the summer.

"We want to see how the surface erosional process changes," Kochel said. "There is a whole watershed down below that may be implicated with sediment loading and flooding downstream. There is an increased risk of avalanches. We will have a better idea of how the earth will respond to retreating ice."

Trop and Kochel believe that with continued arctic warming, icy debris fans will become more common.

In fact, while on sabbatical in New Zealand this past summer, Kochel observed triangular features and icy debris fans in the Mueller Glacier of Mount Cook, similar to those on Mars and in Alaska. Kochel compared recent photographs to a 25-year-old map and saw that glaciers had become detached with warming, showing that geological events due to climate change are happening at low and high latitudes alike.

Primitive conditions
The field work in Alaska was done in fairly primitive conditions. The team traveled to the site via helicopter, camped at the base of the glacier and carried a satellite phone for communication. They collected rock samples which they transported by helicopter to a post office in Alaska and mailed back to their lab at Bucknell.

The researchers learned that the events, which occurred six or seven times a day between July 7 and 12 and included small, thunderous snow avalanches, rock falls, outburst floods and debris flows, were prompted by a heavy rainstorm in the mountains a few days before they arrived.

"While we were there, there were 289 events," Kochel said. "The events released ice and debris that formed into these weird little triangular shaped features. It rained three inches, and then over the next couple of days, water started shooting through the ice cap, and the water got into the valley and produced mudslides. These are not just ordinary debris flows; they are icy debris flows, a process that is not well-documented."

NSF grant
In addition to Mars-Earth analog studies with Kochel, Trop, who has been conducting research in Alaska since 1992, continues to look at how continental crust forms over time and how past environmental change has shaped Alaska. The latest research could have implications for identifying seismic hazards while also showing how environments such as ancient lakes and streams responded to past episodes of global warming.

Trop and researchers at Purdue and Lehigh universities have received a two-year, $290,000 collaborative grant, including about $87,000 for Bucknell researchers, to study the effects of spreading ridge subduction in South Alaska. Christine Kassab, Class of '09, is a collaborator at Purdue.

Tyler Szwarc and Cullen Kortyna, both Class of '11, will travel to Alaska with Trop this summer to conduct the NSF-supported research. Kortyna traveled with Trop to Alaska in 2007 and 2008 to conduct preliminary research for the NSF grant and presented initial findings at the Geological Society of America conference in October.

"Much research is focused on the melting of glaciers and ice caps, few studies are evaluating the changes in surface processes directly in front of the retreating ice," Trop said. "The ongoing changes taking place in Alaska provide insight on processes that will likely become increasingly common in alpine environments worldwide."

Contact: Division of Communications

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