Frontiers

The Big Thaw

Geologist Doug Jerolmack and students track landscape degradation in Alaska.
March 2010

Last summer Doug Jerolmack, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science, traveled deep into the wilderness of northwest Alaska with Ph.D. student Colin Phillips and undergrad Patrick Kneeland. Jerolmack combines field studies and lab experiments with mathematical modeling to understand sedimentary systems—how granules and boulders, from river-bottom sand ripples to continental shelves, get distributed in patterns over a period of minutes or over eons (not only on Earth but also on other planetary surfaces).

"The challenge is, can we demonstrate that these changes in the landscape are in fact a departure from what would be expected from a natural background trend?" – Doug Jerolmack

Over several decades, longtime residents of Alaska's Baldwin Peninsula and scientists who'd been visiting there have noticed distressing and unprecedented changes in the rivers, along coastlines and across the landscape. "The challenge is," Jerolmack says, "can we demonstrate that these changes in the landscape are in fact a departure from what would be expected from a natural background trend? To do this, we have to collect a lot of data."

Using standard and not-so-standard geologist tools, Jerolmack and his team began the painstaking task of surveying thousands of topographic points and planting scientific instruments to monitor changes and forces over the long arctic winter. "We're going to keep going back each year to measure how rapidly the landscape is eroding," he says. Eventually, he'll use the data to build theoretical models that explain and predict "with some degree of certainty" what arctic communities can expect from collapsing lands and flooding rivers as global temperatures rise.