BUFFALO, N.Y. – After one of the snowiest winters in
recent history, William Philipps will forego the beach to spend the
summer studying glaciers at the world’s northernmost
The University at Buffalo geology graduate student and
self-proclaimed “nerd who likes rocks” will travel to
the University Centre on Svalbard (UNIS) in Norway to collect data
that proves the Svalbard-Barents Sea Ice-Sheet’s (SBSIS) time
of deglaciation – the point when the ice began to melt
– is older than its suggested age of 12,000 years.
Philipps, an Amherst native, will travel to Svalbard on July 12
through the UNIS’s Icebound Project, which seeks to improve
understanding of the region for petroleum exploration. He will
spend three months completing a mix of courses and research on
global climate change.
The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is not the average study
abroad or research experience. Philipps will visit during the
region’s midnight sun season, a period when the sun is
visible 24 hours a day. He will also undergo survival
training that includes strapping on an insulated suit and learning
to withstand the chilly artic water.
Fortunately, Philipps is familiar with the experience. A member
of the paleoclimatology research group under Jason Briner, PhD,
associate professor in the UB Department of Geology in the UB
College of Arts and Sciences, he conducted similar research in
Greenland as an undergraduate.
“I am incredibly fortunate to be where I am in
life,” says Philipps. “I get to work in the most
breathtaking settings in the world on complex scientific problems
and learn from some of the foremost research scientists in my
At their maximum extent, as long ago as 25,000 years ago, the
SBSIS and other ice sheets – some over a mile thick –
engulfed the northern hemisphere. But over time, the ice eroded,
transporting pieces of rock, known as glacial erratics, up to
hundreds of miles into different geologic areas.
Once the ice melted, the rocks were exposed to the sun and
bombarded with cosmic radiation, causing a nuclear chemical
reaction that produces beryllium. Through cosmogenic exposure
dating, researchers measure the ratios of beryllium to determine
the time of deglaciation.
The material used to date the SBSIS’s deglaciation were
pieces of driftwood found on Kongsøya and Hopen, two of
Svalbard’s eastern most islands. However, the conditions for
the wood to be deposited on the islands indicate that the time
between the ice beginning to drift and when the wood was deposited
may be thousands of years off, says Philipps.
After collecting samples from several locations that are
fractions of a gram in weight and about the size of a pinhead, the
researchers will send the erratics to a mass spectrometer facility
to measure their age.
The study’s results will increase the understanding of the
SBSIS’s behavior and can potentially help predict the future
behavior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Determining the age of the erratics will also improve
constraints of glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) values for the
region, which detail the rise of land masses that were suppressed
by the weight of ice sheets during a glacial period, says
The Icebound Project is funded by the ConocoPhillips and Lundin
Petroleum arctic research program.