Science at the top of the world

Published November 26, 2013

Geology professor studies glaciers and sediment cores during his Arctic adventures, opening up new research vistas for his students

“As part of our strategic plan for growth, UB is committed to hiring outstanding faculty members who, in addition to being tremendous teachers, are also world-class researchers who are building lasting partnerships in Western New York and beyond”
Alexander Cartwright, Vice President for research and economic development
University at Buffalo

Jason Briner knew it was dangerous to camp on the coast of Baffin Island, one of Canada’s most northern points, during the summer. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing eight years ago.

Briner, who had recently accepted a job teaching geology at UB, was no stranger to the Arctic. He’d spent time in Alaska and Iceland, and he made several previous trips to Baffin Island while earning his doctorate. He had the appropriate equipment and knowledge, plus the advantage of youth—at the time, in his early 30s—to make camping at one of Earth’s coldest spots a relatively ho-hum affair. He also had a loaded shotgun.

The average annual temperature on Baffin Island, most of which lies above the Arctic Circle, is roughly 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice surrounds it most of the year. Beneath the ice swim seals, walruses, beluga whales and other marine animals. The ice melts every summer, sending another Arctic resident—the polar bear—back to shore. The world’s largest carnivore, the polar bear retreats to land only when food is scarce and when hungry.

Briner had seen a few before, mostly from a great distance, however. Even then, there was no mistaking them. Males can be nearly 10 feet tall and weigh up to 1,500 pounds. They move across snow, ice and open water with ease. Their range encompasses the entire Arctic but most live in North America. More specifically, most live in and around Baffin Island. The last known fatal attack on a human in North America occurred in 1999 in Rankin Inlet, which, like Baffin Island, is part of Canada’s vast Nunavut Territory. Encountering polar bears was—and continues to be—an occupational hazard for Briner.

Briner grew up near Seattle, where he earned a bachelor’s of science in geology at the University at Washington in 1996. He went on to Utah State University, making several trips as a research assistant to southwest Alaska to study glaciers, while earning a master’s degree. The time in Alaska left an impression on him.

“I had always been intrigued by glaciers,” Briner said in a January interview. “But it was those trips to Alaska that really solidified that passion.”

Briner first visited Baffin Island as a PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He returned several times and wrote his doctoral thesis on the evolution of the island’s glaciers. In 2005, he accepted an offer as an associate professor at UB, a position that would allow him to continue to study the Arctic region.

Sandwiched between Hudson Bay and Greenland, Baffin Island is the fifth largest island in the world. With mountainous glaciers and pristine lakes, it’s the type of place shown in National Geographic documentaries. Its largest city and capital, Iqaluit, built on a former World War II airbase, is home to roughly 6,200 people.

Each summer, glaciers melt, creating streams of water that carry sediment consisting of sand, minerals, silt and other materials to lake bottoms. Using a drill and other tools, Briner extracts sediment cores—they can be three to 15 feet long— that are essentially tubes of mud. When analyzed at UB and elsewhere, they provide clues into what the climate was like as far back as 12,000 years ago.

Additionally, the cores are a yardstick against other climate studies, such as conclusions drawn from polar ice cores. They also help improve models to predict future climate change and its effects, such as rising sea levels, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes and other extreme events, says Briner.

Briner recently co-authored a paper published in the journal Science concerning a brief cold snap about 8,200 years ago that caused the island’s glaciers to expand rapidly. The discovery backs the prevailing thought among climate scientists that ice sheets reacted rapidly in the past to cooling or warming, raising concerns that they might again do so as the Earth heats up.

“One of the questions scientists have been asking is how long it takes for these huge chunks of ice to respond to a global climate phenomenon,” Briner elaborates. “People don’t know whether glaciers can respond quickly enough to matter to our grandchildren, and we’re trying to answer this from a geological perspective, by looking at Earth’s history.”

Briner’s colleagues on the study included lead author Nicolas E. Young, PhD ’12 & MA ’08, who participated as part of his PhD at UB and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

While many animals struggle to adapt to climate change, polar bears are among the most threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific groups. They hunt seals from sea ice. But because the ice is melting at an alarming rate (it was at its lowest recorded level in 2012, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center), polar bears have less time to hunt and build up fat reserves. As a result, many are malnourished or, worse, starving.

That could have been the case eight years ago as Briner, on a research expedition with a field assistant, walked out of the kitchen tent and spotted a polar bear.

“It was about 100 yards away, squatting and staring at us,” he recalls.

They quickly armed themselves and watched as the bear slinked toward them. Rather than trying to kill it, they fired several flares in its direction. The bright light and searing heat spooked the bear, which had advanced within 40 yards. It veered off in another direction.

Briner breathed a sigh of relief. The threat had been averted, but polar bears don’t give up that easily.

It soon returned from another direction. Rather than fire more flares, Briner and the field assistant took their guns and other essential supplies and dashed away on all-terrain vehicles. They drove to a safe distance and watched the bear approach the camp. Using its paws, it tore a few holes in their tents and rummaged around before walking off.

With the bear out of sight, they drove back to the camp, packed all their belongings and left for safer ground. Briner has never had another close encounter.

Sitting in Hochstetter Hall on UB’s North Campus, Briner doesn’t look like a swashbuckling Arctic adventurer. He is more mild-mannered scientist than Bear Grylls. His office is neat and unadorned except for a battered map of Canada tacked to the wall above his desk and a bulletin board with pictures of him and his students. Director of the geology department’s undergraduate studies, Briner each semester teaches an introductory course as well as advanced classes. Students say his influence extends beyond the classroom.

“Jason is a very meticulous scientist,” Sam Kelley, a PhD candidate in geology who grew up in Maine, writes in an email. “I’ve greatly benefited [from observing Briner] by learning to be more patient when working on scientific problems.”

Other UB researchers are doing this kind of work. Beata Csatho, also an associate geology professor, studies Greenland’s ice sheets to better understand climate change. Additional researchers leading similarly far-reaching investigations could be on the way, as UB hires 250 faculty members university-wide during the next five years to improve its position among the nation’s leading public research universities. Alexander Cartwright, UB vice president for research and economic development, says Csatho and Briner exemplify the type of researcher the university is seeking.

“As part of our strategic plan for growth, UB is committed to hiring outstanding faculty members who, in addition to being tremendous teachers, are also world-class researchers who are building lasting partnerships in Western New York and beyond,” Cartwright says.

In addition to Baffin Island, Briner has conducted research on Greenland (Kelley has gone there with him twice), Norway and Tibet. Occasionally he’ll travel to places like Montreal or San Francisco to attend academic conferences. The running joke is that he should work in Antarctica, where the seasons are opposite from the northern hemisphere. Briner could avoid Buffalo’s winter by studying in the South Pole and finally enjoy a summer in Western New York instead of spending them in the Arctic, as he has done for the past 10 years.

“I get those jokes all the time,” Briner says, adding that he has no plans to work in Antarctica.

Briner’s research trips take on dimension with avid photography of his locales. He documents each research trip with his photographs posted on his website. Some illustrate an endless expanse of ice and snow. But others, including pictures last summer from Brooks Range, a collection of mountains in northern Alaska, show a more diverse landscape. Craggy, gray cliffs give way to sloping green fields that are scattered with the occasional purple, pink and yellow wildflowers. Students wearing knee-high rubber boots and colorful tuques gleefully mug for the camera. Among them is Simon Pendleton, a New Hampshire native who is enrolled in UB’s graduate program for geology.  “Basically I spent the summer camped out with Dr. Briner on the Alaska tundra, hiking many miles every day, surviving the bugs and doing some incredible science!” Pendleton recalls in an email. “Coming from a family with a passion for the outdoors and wild places, being able to do research in some of the most remote places on the planet is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Standing atop a moraine looking across the Arctic tundra provides the opportunity to really see the big picture.” The big picture, at least for Pendleton, did not include polar bears. He quickly points out, though, that he did see a juvenile grizzly bear.

Despite what happened eight years ago on Baffin Island, most of Briner’s research trips are uneventful—that is, if you put aside the helicopter rides, dogsleds, lakes full of icebergs and other jaw-dropping vistas. In any case, his students are well-prepared and well-equipped to spend weeks camping outside in the Arctic, he says. “There is an element of uncertainty associated with field research, no matter the location,” Briner points out.