Centennial grad headed to Antarctica


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For the next six weeks, Centennial High School alum Tim Hodson will be camping out in the middle of West Antarctica.

The 2003 Centennial grad isn't worried about the weather though. The National Science Foundation dresses him pretty well, he said.

"We will be working really long days in really harsh conditions, but you have to have a sense of adventure. That's what I look forward to most," he said.

The Champaign native earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin, a master's in geology from Northern Illinois University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at NIU.

"I have always loved being outdoors and have always been interested in understanding the natural world," he said. "I started off college as an engineering student, but then I took a 100-level geology course and it changed everything."

He was chosen to work alongside top researchers in the glacial tundra of West Antarctica mostly because of his impressive resume.

While earning his master's degree at NIU, Hodson worked on several different mapping projects: one in Washington State's Puget Sound and another in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Last year he visited Antarctica for the first time, collecting samples from a subglacial lake with a team of researchers. This summer he spent three weeks mapping never-before-seen sea mounts in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, with $10 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, Hodson returned to the ice Friday to work on the foundation's WISSARD project, a multi-year ice drilling exploration. Accompanied by a team of NIU professors, master's students and several other scientists from across the country, Hodson will explore uncharted territory below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a mass of glacial ice next to the Ross Sea. The team plans to collect water and sediment samples from the grounding zone of the Whillans Ice Stream, which is the area below the glacier where the ice sheet meets the coast line.

"Ice streams are fast flowing corridors of ice and a grounding zone is where the ice sheet transitions into a floating ice shelf. Once it crosses this threshold, the ice will inevitably be lost to the ocean," Hodson said.

Scientists are curious about life around the ice stream because it may help them understand the impact climate change will have on rising sea levels. Hodson and his team will be the first ever to take a direct look at the grounding zone of a West Antarctic ice stream. The only thing separating the NIU researchers from the specimen they hope to collect? About 2,500 feet of pure ice.

Hodson and his team will use a hot water drill to probe a hole through the ice, which will allow them to lower instruments to the grounding zone to collect samples.

Only eight days of the six weeks Hodson spends in Antarctica will be spent doing science, and they could "lose that time pretty quickly depending on weather," he said.

When he arrives in Antarctica he will spend two weeks training at the United States' McMurdo Station, learning how to use the drill and other instruments, as well as how to work and survive in the harsh environment.

Once training is over, the researchers will be flown out to the deep field, where they will stay until their work is complete. Because the group is working during January, which is summertime in that region, the sun will never set and the work will not end until the project is complete.

"We will have tents out there, but there won't be a whole lot of sleeping," Hodson said. "Which is all right by me. We've spent two years building up to this season with the WISSARD project. There were a lot of logistics that went into planning, a lot of teleconferences and a lot of the really boring parts of science."

Many researchers have hypothesized about what goes on in the environment below Antarctic ice sheets, according to Hodson, but "it is our hope that our work will help prove or disprove some of the theories that have been put forward," he said.

Much of the day-to-day work will be tedious, but that's science, Hodson said, predicting the entire trip will be a long, intense "grind."

"Working in that adverse, remote environment really challenges you, but you get to discover things no one has seen before," he said. "I'm excited to get to the deep field because I enjoy problem solving. There's all kinds of unexpected challenges thrown at you every day out there."