Contact

Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service
785-864-8855

Research will boost knowledge of melting Antarctic glaciers and sea-level rise

Thu, 03/06/2014

LAWRENCE — Sea-level rise is likely to be among the harshest consequences of global climate change. Higher oceans would spell catastrophe for coastal habitats and hundreds of millions of people around the world.

But the rate and extent of sea-level rise are challenging for researchers to gauge. The science of measuring and predicting the behavior of glaciers and polar ice sheets — one driver of rising oceans — is complex.

“Over the past 15 years, glaciologists have done a much better job measuring the current contribution of ice sheets and glaciers to sea level rise,” said Leigh Stearns, assistant professor of geology at the University of Kansas. “However, there are large uncertainties when it comes to predicting how glaciers will behave in the future. We still have a lot to figure out in terms of how and why glaciers change in different climates.”

Now Stearns has won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development award from the National Science Foundation to better understand the dynamics of glaciers in Antarctica and how they will contribute to sea-level rise in different climates. She is studying the glaciers using an interactive numerical flowline model.

“A numerical flowline model is a relatively simple mathematical model that is based on conservation laws,” said Stearns. “These models are based on physical process but allow us to explore what happens under different climate scenarios. For example, we can measure how glacier speed will change if air temperatures increases by specific amounts.”

Stearns said that glacier response to environmental conditions vary across the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and her research using a numerical flowline model should shed light upon the reasons for this.

“It will allow us to better understand how glaciers change over time,” she said. “In particular, we’re interested in understanding why some glaciers are very sensitive to climate changes and others don't seem to be.”

The KU researcher’s focus will encompass glaciers across the continent.

“We're interested in almost all Antarctic glaciers, because we want to know what dictates their unique behavior,” said Stearns. “In terms of sea level rise, glaciers that are currently moving the fastest and have the largest catchment basins are important ones to understand first.”

Following her training as a geologist, Stearns quickly became interested in glacier dynamics and ice sheet mass balance. To better study and understand Antarctic glacier dynamics, Stearns has trekked to the continent nearly 15 times in the past 15 years.

“Glaciology is a rapidly growing field and allows me to do interdisciplinary research on a societally-relevant topic,” she said.

The NSF grant will allow Stearns to educate a new cohort of researchers entering the study of ice-sheet dynamics. Her team will build a Dynamic Antarctic Model that will be an online version of the flowline model. According to the grant proposal, students will gain an increased “comprehension of glacier dynamics, numerical models and applied mathematics by allowing users to manipulate model parameters and rapidly observe the effects.”

“We want to give students the opportunity to use real data and models to explore how glaciers change,” said Stearns.



KU in the news
The Daily MailSat, 04/25/2015
CNNMon, 04/13/2015
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here: http://bit.ly/1awodaa
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@NYTimes columnist @WCRhoden will speak at a symposium about race and sports April 23. http://t.co/UiKA9MYNv0 http://t.co/PHwCOHqcfD
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times