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Highlands Geology Professor Part of Arctic Circle Geology Research Grant

New Mexico Highlands University geology professor Michael Petronis will join a scientific expedition to the Arctic Circle this summer to research the Snowball Earth Hypothesis.

The research field camp will be on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard region of Norway, an archipelago of islands north of mainland Norway approximately 110 kilometers from the North Pole. The scientists will set up a tent camp within a polar bear refuge, near the edge of a glacier.

The research team is led by scientists from the United Kingdom, including one Petronis collaborated with on past joint geology research projects in Scotland, Ireland and the Southwest United States. He helped write the grant proposal for the Snowball Earth research initiative, which is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the United Kingdom’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC).

The only other United States universities participating in the in the research project are Princeton University and Louisiana State University.

“The Snowball Earth Hypothesis describes a time period when glaciers covered the entire planet from pole to pole multiple times during the Neoproterozoic Era approximately 750 million years ago,” Petronis said. “The hypothesis remains contentious and is argued in the geologic literature. This new fundamental research will provide additional data to test various hypotheses.”
The research is being conducted from mid-July to late August this summer, when Arctic temperatures are relatively mild, ranging from 24 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with a constant chance of snow. During this time frame, Petronis will drill sedimentary rock samples using a modified chain saw with a diamond-tipped rock coring drill.

“The importance of this geological research is that the rocks we will be studying preserve a record of dramatic, rapid climate shifts, which caused a reverse greenhouse effect, meaning the Earth and its oceans froze,” Petronis said.

He said the study area for this new research was probably at the equator during the Neoproterozoic Era, and confirming that is a major part of the research. Since then, the tectonic plates of the Earth’s crust moved through the eons to their current configuration, placing the Svalbard region in the Arctic Circle.

Petronis will bring the samples back for analysis in the Highlands University paleomagnetic laboratory, which was funded through a grant Petronis and fellow geology professor Jennifer Lindline secured from the National Science Foundation in 2008.

Instruments in the paleomagnetism lab are used for studying magnetic properties of rocks and other Earth materials.

“The lab facilities will allow us to test the hypothesis that the sediments from the Svalbard area were near the equator when they formed in ancient times,” Petronis said. “This new data will provide one piece of the puzzle regarding the validity of the Snowball Earth Hypothesis.”

Petronis said geology students from the Highlands University will have opportunities to conduct lab research related to the project.

“The goal is for our geology students to present their lab research results at a national geosciences meeting, and maybe even an international meeting,” Petronis said.

“Scientifically, this is the biggest international research project I’ve ever been involved with, and it’s both humbling and exciting,” Petronis said. “Snowball Earth and its implications for global climate change are discussed globally, and not just in the scientific community.”

Petronis said that the U.K.’s National Environmental Research Council grant for the project calls for global dissemination of the findings. Some methods used will be a documentary filmed during the field work, findings posted on various academic Web sites, and short videos produced for You Tube.