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Sailing Through Thick Ice

MelanieAt first glance, the corner of a shared office on the Texas A&M campus seems an unlikely setting for Antarctic research. But consider it a metaphorical home port for significant research being conducted thousands of miles away.

This is where environmental geosciences senior Melanie Thornton comes in. From her desk in the office she shares with three oceanography graduate students, Thornton sifts through data on the computer to help oceanographer Dr. Alejandro Orsi, which keeps her on dry land for now.

Thornton participates in the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, called an REU in academic circles. The program promotes undergraduate participation in research projects, giving students class credit to work on research, and provides funding to help professors involve students in their projects. “It’s a beneficial program for undergraduates to connect with other researchers and get exposed to the scientific field,” Thornton says.

Orsi and his team have spent years measuring the vital signs of the water off Antarctica’s shore in the Southern Ocean, where orange buoys tethered to the sea floor with cables bob in the icy waters. About every 200 meters along these cables are instruments gathering data every 30 minutes. Each sensor collects different data: some measure temperature, some pressure and others salinity, Thornton says. Researchers deploy these sensor moorings and retrieve them a year later to download data.

Once the data are downloaded and sent to College Station it all needs to be calibrated. “We start with the raw data and save it in folders during each step,” Thornton says. “That way other researchers can see everything we’ve done.” This process is time and labor intensive, Thornton says. “Most people don’t understand the time spent preparing your data.”

Thornton’s work begins after the data are cleaned up. She uses a numerical computing program called MATLAB to see if temperature, salinity and pressure data from the Southern Ocean change in a cyclical manner over seasons, years or decades. “I’m looking at thousands, maybe millions, of data points,” she says.

Melting Antarctic ice might be affecting the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and because it feeds into ocean circulation all over the world, changes in the Antarctica can affect global climate. Orsi’s team is hoping to get a better understanding of how much fresh water is flowing into the sea and where it is happening. By testing temperature and salinity data, Thornton is working on a small part of that puzzle.

Thornton’s work is highly technical, which makes explaining it to her friends and family—something she enjoys doing—difficult. Her parents’ background in business makes explaining her research a little difficult, but Thornton enjoys talking with them about it. “All of the information I have shared with my parents is new to them,” she says.

Thornton, a third-generation Aggie, began her college career as a general studies major. “I was young and clueless.” A friend majoring in environmental studies brought her some articles on environmental issues to read, and sparked her interest in climate change. Her work on the Antarctic steered her toward physical oceanography, a field that Thornton compares to meteorology in the ocean.

Since she is an undergraduate, Thornton can’t get enough time away from her classes to do field work. “My teachers would kill me,” she says. After she graduates in May, Thornton plans to continue studying physical oceanography and spend time at sea. But for now, her work will keep her in front of a computer or reading more about the field. “I’m fully immersed in learning about the Southern Ocean,” she says.

While it has kindled her interest in physical oceanography and will give her an edge when applying to graduate school, the long-term goal of the research Thornton is working on is to better understand the Southern Ocean’s role in climate. “I feel that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face today,” Thornton says. “I want to have the scientific understanding to face the challenge and get something done.”

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