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Research

Trek to the Bottom of the World Inspires Synergy

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Professor Bruce Marsh (back row, far right) led an international team of geologists to Antartica in January. Postdoctoral fellow Adam Simon stands next to Marsh.


On New Year's Eve, two Johns Hopkins scientists stepped out of their plane after a 23-hour flight and into what one of them described simply as "a world of white."

"It was like being on a different planet entirely," says Adam Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, of his first moments on the windswept, aptly named Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

Simon traveled to the bottom of the globe in January with professor Bruce Marsh and an international team of 27 geologists to collect and analyze thousands of pounds of rocks that will ultimately help scientists understand more about how the Earth's crust formed.

Funded by a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the expedition was the first-ever 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 was formed when crystal-free molten rock oozed to the surface from giant, subterranean chambers-is fundamentally inaccurate. Instead, Marsh believes that the planet's internal plumbing is made up of a system of smaller, vertical columns of interconnected, sheet-like chambers that constantly recycle crystal-filled "magmatic mush."

Marsh chose the Dry Valleys as the site for his research for a simple reason: It is the only known place on the planet where human beings can stand on shelves of solidified lava that were deposited by magmatic activity 180 million years ago. A "walk-in view of geologic history," Marsh and Simon call it.

"You can stand there and walk a ways and see the plumbing system through which the magma ascended to its final resting place on the Earth's surface," Simon says. "In the Dry Valleys, bands of magma are frozen in time in spectacular cliffs. The whole system, in all its beauty, is there before you, fully exposed and ready for study."

American, Canadian, and British scientists joined Marsh and Simon in the expedition. Each specialized in one of four areas: magmatic dynamics, igneous layering, geochemistry, and the mechanics of intrusions. To ensure that participants would "gel" as a group and be able to work efficiently under the less-than-luxurious conditions present at Antarctica's McMurdo Station, Marsh and Simon invited them to a conference on the Homewood campus last October.

Simon says a majority of the team came away from the expedition in broad agreement with Marsh's hypotheses and its relation to the evolution of the Earth's crust. Perhaps a more important outcome of the trip, though, was that it prompted team members to embark upon further study.

"The purpose of the expedition was to bring together experts from diverse areas of geology and to expose them to an area that none had seen before, in hopes that synergistic science would arise, and that happened, beyond our wildest hopes," Simon says.

For Simon, the expedition was life-changing, especially the moment when he visited the hut left behind by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, who spent time there between 1902 and 1904.

"It's preserved exactly as it was left 100 years ago," Simon says. "Walking through the hut, I realized how easy we have it today with our Gortex parkas, our triple-knit wool socks, waterproof gloves, polarized sunglasses, and so on. We want for nothing. Yet here was a group of men-real men-who went with Scott on a wooden boat to the bottom of the world. They had no GPS; they had no radios to call for help. They had no one looking out for them in case of danger. But still, they went in search of the South Pole ... Antarctica. She's a beautiful place. Relatively untouched. Still largely unexplored. And I hope she stays that way forever."

—Lisa De Nike

 

 

SPRING/SUMMER 2005
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