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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 25, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 9
Geologists to Gather at Johns Hopkins to Plan Antarctic Trek

Professor Bruce Marsh and postdoctoral fellow Adam Simon

By Lisa de Nike

An international team of 27 geologists will gather this weekend at Johns Hopkins to plan its January expedition to the windswept, arid Dry Valleys of Antarctica to collect and analyze thousands of pounds of rocks that will ultimately help scientists learn more about how the Earth's crust was formed.

The expedition, headed by Bruce Marsh, professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins, is being funded by a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant aimed at bringing together experts from disparate geological fields to delve further into Marsh's controversial theory that one of geology's most widely accepted teachings — that the Earth's outer layer formed when crystal-free molten rock called magma oozed to the surface from giant, subterranean chambers — is fundamentally flawed. Instead, Marsh posits that our planet's internal plumbing comprises a system of smaller, vertical columns of interconnected sheetlike chambers that transport "magmatic mush" replete with crystals previously formed and constantly recycled.

The trip will mark the seventh time that Marsh has traveled to the continent under the terms of an NSF grant to further explore the systems that transport magma to the Earth's crust. Though his research has taken him to Iceland, Africa, the Aleutians, Canada and the ridges of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica is the only known place on the planet that offers a so-called "walk-in" view of geologic history.

"Nowhere else on Earth that we know of is the plumbing system exposed in quite this way," said Adam Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in Earth and Planetary Sciences and the program administrator for Marsh's NSF grant. "In Antarctica, a person can stand on shelves of solidified lava that were deposited by magmatic activity 180 million years ago. You can then walk a ways and see the plumbing system through which the magma ascended from its source to its final resting place on the Earth's surface. Other scientists study smaller areas and infer what went on as a whole. We don't have to. In the Dry Valleys, bands of magma are frozen in time in spectacular cliffs. We can see the whole system in all of its beauty, fully exposed and ready for study."

The geologists joining Marsh and Simon on this expedition — from universities throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom — are experts in one of four areas: magma dynamics, igneous layering, geochemistry and the mechanics of intrusions. The Oct. 23-25 conference is not only an opportunity for these diverse individuals to meet and to "gel" as a group (after all, they will be living in close quarters for three weeks in the Dry Valleys and at Antarctica's McMurdo Station) but also to formulate a focused plan for their individual and collective studies.

The conference also is a chance for participants to try on specialized survival gear designed and manufactured by Raytheon Polar Services and to learn about the practical training they will receive once they are on-site. The training covers everything from snow-blindness avoidance and methods of managing altitude sickness to how to construct an emergency igloo.

"This is probably the first time in the history of geology that experts in so many areas will come together to bring their disparate expertise and knowledge to bear collectively," Marsh said. "The conference is just the first step in getting them to work cohesively, as a team. They have to be able to arrive in Antarctica ready to work together effectively."

Once the researchers arrive in Antarctica, they will be divided into two groups, one of which will travel by helicopter 100 miles to Bull Pass, a remote field camp located in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains in the Dry Valleys. The second group will remain at McMurdo Station, a relatively comfortable lodge complete with a bowling alley. Over the course of the expedition, the groups will switch places three times.

The teams will spend the three weeks of continuous daylight (January is summertime in Antarctica) collecting thousands of samples of rocks, which will be shaved into sections as thin as sheets of paper in preparation for analysis with polarizing light microscopes at McMurdo Station. Though the scientists will have the opportunity to collect samples to take back to their individual research programs, most specimens will be returned to Johns Hopkins as part of Marsh's research program.

"The National Science Foundation has never done anything quite like this, taking a large group of world leaders in this area of science to conduct real-time research in the most remote part of the world," Marsh said. "Coordinating things so that everyone can see and study the rocks that will offer the critical evidence to shape their careers is a huge challenge. Even more impressive, however, is the trip's potential to influence the building and dissolution of theories that will affect a century of science on how planets were formed and how they work."


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