In April 2011, James Bockheim led a small team of researchers to a rocky spit of land called Cierva Point, a habitat protected by the Antarctic Treaty as a “site of special scientific interest.” Home to breeding colonies of bird species like Gentoo penguins, as well as a remarkably verdant cover of maritime plants, Cierva Point is also one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.
Bockheim and his crew were beginning another field season on the Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of rock and ice that snakes past Palmer Station, the United States’ northernmost Antarctic research station, and curls out in the Southern Ocean (see map, page 25). They’d been deposited onshore, along with their gear, by the Laurence M. Gould, a research vessel that wouldn’t return until late May. As the ship sailed back into the frigid sea, Bockheim turned his attention not to penguins or polar grasses, but to the ground beneath his feet.
Every year there was more and more of that ground as glaciers drained into the Southern Ocean, revealing soils and bedrock that had been covered in ice for millennia. Bockheim wanted to know what was going on underneath the newly exposed surface and had brought along a soil and bedrock coring tool, a device that looks like a cartoonishly oversized power drill, to get to the bottom of it.
His crew fitted the drill with its two-meter-long impact hammer bit. Graduate student Kelly Wilhelm pointed the drill at the ground and pulled the trigger.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Antarctica caught Bockheim by surprise. Bockheim, a CALS professor of soil science, has spent his career studying polar and alpine soils. From field sites north of the Arctic Circle to mountain passes in the Andes and the dry valleys of Antarctica, Bockheim has worked to classify and understand how soils are formed in the Earth’s coldest climates.
Bockheim first set foot on Antarctic soil in 1969 as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. Although his dissertation was on alpine soils in the Cascades, his advising professor had a project in Antarctica and invited him to come along.
“And that was it,” Bockheim recalls. “It just got in my blood.” Startled by the “peace, solitude and stark beauty,” he knew he would have to return.
Six years after that first trip, Bockheim got his chance. He had recently accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when a call came in asking if he’d like to join a glacial geologist from the University of Maine on a multiyear research project in Antarctica’s dry valleys. Bockheim’s reply was succinct: “Absolutely.”
To continue reading this story, go to the Fall 2014 issue of Grow magazine.