WISSARD PI Profile: Ross Powell

WISSARD PI Profile:  Ross Powell


The waiting game continues…no flight to SLW today because weather was poor at the site.  At this morning’s meeting someone said “We can’t miss you until you are gone.”  When we assemble for our morning meetings we keep seeing the WISSARD’s who should have left.  Meanwhile the traverse team is working to configure and set up the containers at the SLW site, groom a path out to the temporary runway for meeting the LC-130 Hercules planes, and prepare what they can before other personnel arrive.  The WISSARD team is hoping that weather will cooperate tomorrow for the flight to get our drillers, marine techs, and camp managers into the field.

Today I’d like to profile another one of the Lead Principal Investigators (PI’s) for the WISSARD Project.

Ross Powell is the Lead Principal Investigator of what is called the RAGES Project, another one of the three research components of the WISSARD integrated science project.  RAGES stands for Robotic Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science. Ross is also a PI for LISSARD (detailed in a previous post).  Ross is a professor in the Department of Geology at Northern Illinois University (NIU).

ross and NIU winch

RAGES will focus on the stability of the fast flowing Whillans Ice Stream that runs between Subglacial Lake Whillans and the ice stream grounding zone.  A grounding zone is an area where the ice, ocean waters, and sea floor interact (meet). It’s a place where the ice is being melted by or is freezing seawater, and where debris (bits and pieces of rock, sand, and mud) below and in the ice as well as in the streams, release their loads.  Ross explained this to me again today:  think of a mass of ice with debris in it.  When the debris drops out of the ice, then it is called sediments.  Grounding zones are seen as high priority targets to investigate because models indicate these are important areas that strongly influence ice sheet stability.

I first met Ross back in 1998, when we were both working with an international geologic drilling program called the Cape Roberts Project.  In 2006 Ross was one of the Co-Chief Scientists for the ANDRILL MIS (McMurdo Ice Shelf) Project, and I worked as part of the education and outreach team for ANDRILL.  Ross is dedicated to education and outreach as a key goal of science research projects, and his commitment to education has been an important link between us for many years.  Ross ‘ work close-by at NIU makes it a natural fit for him to visit my classroom, and partner with me for by participating at workshops and conferences in our greater Chicago geographic area.  I am here because of funding from Ross’ grant for RAGES, and because he believes I can be the eyes and ears of the WISSARD Project to highlight the work of scientists and promote STEM education. 

Ross shares the responsibility of running the WISSARD Project by helping to prepare a sampling plan and science procedures, making sure the plans are carried out, preparing budgets for the project, reporting back to NSF, and being responsible for my work in education and outreach as well as others involved in media.                 

Ross-Frosty Boy

Ross is originally from New Zealand.  He was very interested in math and science in high school and knew that he wanted to pursue science in college.  While attending Victoria University in Wellington he took a first year course in geology and loved it.  He had always enjoyed hiking around New Zealand…that fit with the field experiences which are a big part of geology.  Ross earned both his undergraduate and Master’s degrees in geology from Victoria.  He moved to the United States to complete his PhD in geology at Ohio State University.  For his doctoral work he focused on glacial marine sedimentation.  He got a teaching position at Northern Illinois University in 1980, where he splits his time between teaching and research.

Ross’ first Antarctic experience was in 1974 as part of the Dry Valley Drilling Project.  Since that time, he’s been involved in many different research projects in Antarctica.  As mentioned, one of those projects was the multi-national ANDRILL geologic drilling project.  This collaborative effort of not only different nations, but of various science discipline teams and drillers, was successful in reaching a record depth of 1284.87 meters below the sea floor through an access hole created in the 85-meter think McMurdo Ice Shelf.  This was the first time a drill rig has operated through an ice shelf floating over nearly 900 meters of water.  It also represents the deepest sub-bottom penetration a drill rig has ever reached the Antarctic region. 

This is the ANDRILL drilling rig, on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.


Below:  Ross and lead driller Tony Kingan….on the drilling platform.

Ross and TK

Drillers were responsible for recovery of more than 98% of the drilled sediment and rock.  The sediment and rock cores are an excellent geological history of the interaction between glacial and interglacial (a time of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years; it separates glacial periods within an ice age) climate variation in the past ~13 million years.  Here are some examples of the types of sediment/rock cores retrieved in the ANDRILL Project.

ANDRILL scientists have identified 3 different environmental cycles that indicate the advance and retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet many times over the past millions of years.


Far left, greenish core:  indicates the presence of diatoms (photosynthetic algae) which means it had to have been warmer, with little to no ice.

Middle core:  Laminated sediments and drop stones fallen from floating ice; similar to Antarctica today.

Core on the right:  diamictite…not sorted, mix of rock – indicating a grounded ice sheet and a much colder environment.

The three scenarios might look like the models below, made by Angie Fox.  This first one is an example of a period of warmer climate conditions with no ice cover and higher sea levels.

ANDRILL warmer

The second scenario represents a period similar to today with a floating ice shelf and sea ice.

Andrill today

A much colder time with a grounded ice sheet – ice frozen to the ocean floor in the spot where the drill was located.

ANDRILL colder

The boxes of core below are shown to give you an idea of what ANDRILL scientists like Ross were working on each day.


WISSARD is a project that involves many instruments which will be used to take samples and record data.  I’ve explained many of these in previous blogs.  Ross has several science objectives with the sampling at Subglacial Lake Whillans:

1)  His team will be looking at the sediment dynamics (behavior) under the ice.  This includes debris in the ice and at the bottom of the ice sheet (called basal ice).

2)  Ross and team will be looking at the sediments in the water of Lake Whillans.

3)  They will examine the sediment under the ice, at the edge of the lake and where it drains, which is till moved by the ice.

4)  The team will take sediment cores to read and interpret the geology related to the history of the lake and the ice sheet. 

Numbers 1-3 are related to modern processes in the Lake Whillans system.  Number 4 is related to the geologic and glacial history of the area. 

SLW diagram

Instruments such as the multi-corer will sample the top layer of lake sediments, which gives information on the history of the lake.  The percussion corer will sample down to 5 meters of the lake bottom, which gives more information on the history of the ice sheet.  Ross is shown with other members of his team, preparing to deploy instrumentation down the WISSARD test borehole.


Ross and team inside the command and control center, watching as data is being collected while instrumentation is in the borehole. 


Ross mentioned that challenges for WISSARD  have included the development of clean drilling and access (tools/instruments) components; the development of the hot water drilling system; and the short window of opportunity for science due to delays in weather and logistics. 

One of the newer projects Ross has worked on is developing an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) that will go underneath the Ross Ice Shelf.  Ross wants to investigate and gather data on when the grounding line (where the ice shelf starts to float) retreated back underneath the ice shelf.  He has designed an ROV that will be sent through a hole that’s melted in the ice shelf.  It is tethered to cables that control it from up above.  The ROV will take videos and photos, gather other information, and obtain short sediment cores which eventually get sent back up to the surface.  Ross has used ROV’s before…in Antarctica, Alaska, and Chile.  He is excited about new possibilities for research using this new model.

I used a model of the ROV (the ROV is called the Sub-Ice Rover…SIR) when doing presentations before coming to Antarctica on this research trip.  Here is an NIU grad student sharing the SIR with visitors at the STEMfest event at NIU in October, 2012.  The SIR will be deployed down the borehole in a vertical position, then move much like a Transformer to a horizontal instrument, taking samples, recording data, recording video and still photographs, and more.


I’m placing the SIR model back into its carrying case, after all of my presentations.


Ross’ research is not only in Antarctica though.  Research on Baffin Island in the Arctic has included the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which is the one that covered part of North America and came down into Illinois about 20,000 years ago.  Ross’s travels have also led him to South America where he studied the glacial marine processes of the San Rafael Glacier in Chile. 

Ross has teamed up with the Nature Conservancy for a very interesting project in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.  The National Park Service has habitat maps for national parks on land, and is currently developing the same type of maps for marine parks.  Ross and one of his students started mapping in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.  Tim (a graduate student here with WISSARD) finished that project and is now assisting with mapping in Puget Sound.  Geologic mapping shows how the habitat is controlled by the slope and makeup of the ocean floor.  They map out the bedrock, mud, sand, and water depth.

Ross is involved in ongoing research in on glacial marine processes in the Arctic on an island called Svalbard and in the southern part of the Gulf of Alaska. He gave me many great photos from Svalbard, which I’d like to share with you.  Svalbard is an archipelago (group of islands) in the Arctic.  It is governed by Norway, although it is 400 miles north of mainland Europe.  It is about halfway between the North Pole and Norway.


(Map retrieved from WorldAtlas.com)

Ross and his students fly into Longyearbyen, Svalbard named after an American man, Longyear, who started coal mining in this area.  “Byen” means town.  I love how the buildings are painted such bright colors, and the way those colors look in the long shadows in the wee hours of the morning in late summer.  Longyearbyen is the biggest town in Svalbard.


Ny Alesund (see map above) was once a coal mining town, and is now the research station. Different countries use old mining houses as their individual country’s stations. This area is the base for Ross’ operations/research in Svalbard.


Svalbard is the same latitude north as McMurdo is south.  Notice the huge difference though.  There is vegetation; grasses cover the lower levels of the mountains and areas near the coast.  Birds such as barnacle geese make their home in this region.


I’m not sure if you can spot the bird in the picture below, but it’s an Arctic tern.  Terns migrate from the Arctic to Antarctic regions. Terns have the longest migration on Earth.


It was from Ny Alesund where Roald Amundsend started his trans-North Pole flight in a zeppelin (that’s like the Goodyear blimp).


 In the photo below the view on the left is the Kronebreen Glacier (Krone=crown, breen=glacier)  and Kongsfjorden ( = King’s fjord).  A fjord is a place where the mountains come down sharply to the sea.  Ross and his students go into the fjords to study glaciers.  They motor up and down the coast each day.


This iceberg below calved off of the Kronebreen.  Ross samples the debris in the icebergs, looking at the glacial debris (remember, when it’s released from the ice, then it’s called sediment).

They document the icebergs with photographs as well.  Data shows that the icebergs show signs of melting from the fjord.  This one calved from the front of the glacier in the fjord and iceberg came up from under the water.  Scientists know this because of the blue color.  Icebergs that break off from the part of the glacier that’s above water will be white, because the ice has started to be melted by the air.


Looking up Kongsfjiorden at the Three Kings (the three mountains) and the Kronebreen Glacier from a vantage point in Ny Alesund.  Depending on weather and icebergs it would take about an hour to one and half hours to go by boat across the water, (20 miles).  This photograph was taken at 2:00 am, in either July or August.


Ross’ team is collecting sediment samples (below) with an instrument called a gravity corer.  It is a relatively small instrument, about a meter long.  (similar to the length of the multi-corer we have here…only ONE core at a time).  The gravity corer takes a sample of soft sediments at the top.  Operators use a hand winch with up to 300 meters of cable.


The research vessel…


This boat is owned by UNIS, the University of Longyearbyen; a Norwegian University on Svalbard.  The university is totally dedicated to Arctic studies.  American students can enroll to take both undergraduate and graduate courses. 

This is a nice view of the work area on deck.  The yellow object is Ross’ ROV.


The ROV has top and back thrusters, (the top one controls up/down movement) and lights on front.  There are two video cameras in front.  One films in black and white for lower light conditions; this camera does not move around.  The other video camera records in color.  It’s the one on the top front section of the ROV and it rotates. There is also one still camera.

Ross’ ROV is used to investigate the front of the glacier underwater.  It can measure the salinity, temperature of the water, take video footage, use a camera for still photos, measure currents, determine the amount of oxygen in the water, and take sediment samples.  It can also measure the concentration of sediments in the water.  This ROV is very similar to the new sub-ice rover, but the SIR is much larger in size.

Ross has used this ROV in Antarctica to look at glaciers coming into the Ross Sea.


Ross and Mike (from DOER; a company that makes many instruments and submersibles used by scientists) wanted you all to know that there are major differences between the following things:

An ROV has a tether and no people in it; it is used underwater and is a remotely operated vehicle.  That means someone has to control it.

A submarine is almost always something used in the military.  It is an underwater vessel that has no mother ship or boat it has to go back to.  It travels back and forth to ports.

A submersible has people in it.  It has to have a mother ship and is usually science-based or recreational (for people with lots of money).  A submersible is not tethered.

Wouldn’t this be a beautiful place to do scientific research? 


Ross told me that his favorite things about being a scientist are “finding out new things, discovery, and being creative.  People think of artistic people as being creative, but to be a good research scientist you have to be creative.  You have to formulate the right questions and conceptualize how to answer those questions and what technique you will use to get the data.”  Ross is very enthusiastic about the challenges of new things and says he’s “tended to go to new techniques and new environments where no one has been before.”  No doubt Ross will continue to search for new projects and research…and share that with educators, students, and people all over the world.






7 responses to “WISSARD PI Profile: Ross Powell

  1. Well, Betty, you certainly ARE doing your job of being the eyes and ears of the research team. I can’t help but be awed by the different people you’re introducing us to who are involved in this kind of work around the world – and awed by you, working alongside them. I didn’t know NIU had such a prestigious and international geology program. And I can’t help but ponder and respect what scientists (and their families) go through in their thirst for knowledge.

    • HI Ann,
      Thanks again for your positive feedback. I am learning so much from the people I meet here! Their interests cover a wide range of science disciplines, and it allows me to learn a lot to transfer to my students, but also to everyone else I “teach” through the blogs, and will meet during presentations when I leave the ice. Being a part of such an active and inspirational scientific community is truly a highlight of my educational experiences (and personal ones as well). Have a great day! 🙂

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