News & Events

May 2nd, 2000

Undergraduate research program takes CU student to the top of the world

In November 1999, CU-Boulder senior Sarah Blakeslee found herself in a place she never would have imagined. She was standing atop 18,900-foot Antisana Peak in Ecuador, part of an international science team studying a retreating South American glacier.

To get there, she and several CU-Boulder graduate students and faculty members flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador, then took a nine-hour van ride to a 15,600-foot base camp on Antisana. There, members of the international team began ferrying hundreds of pounds of equipment to the summit.

Because of physiological acclimation problems at high altitudes and the extreme technical difficulty of climbing Antisana, Blakeslee spent several days practicing with colleagues for the ascent by scaling two adjoining peaks that are higher but less difficult--19,700-foot Cotopaxi and 20,000-foot Chimborazo. Then, she and other team members began inching up Antisana, using ropes to climb a nearly vertical icefall while carrying backpacks weighing up to 100 pounds.

"It was pretty scary on the icefall," she said. "And because we were so high in elevation, it was really tiring." Nevertheless, they successfully reached the summit, set up camp and dug a four-foot-square snow pit in preparation for drilling.

Blakeslee found herself atop Antisana as a result of CU-Boulder's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which provides funding for students to work closely with faculty on a variety of research projects in the sciences, arts and humanities. Her mentor, geography Associate Professor Mark Williams, was studying the glacial retreat on Antisana to determine if the disappearing ice was correlated with El Nino or La Nina weather events and whether there were any chemical signals of biomass burning in the Amazon basin tucked away in the ice.

The plan was to dig into the ice with a hand-powered, auger-like device and pull up a 5.5-inch-diameter, 16-meter ice core for study in hopes of understanding why this and other tropical glaciers were undergoing such extreme retreats. For three days and nights, the team members camped and took turns turning the T-shaped handle of the coring device, bringing the ice up in one-meter segments.

The ice eventually was bagged up and shipped back to Boulder for study. "It was hard work at that altitude," she said. "The equatorial sun was so intense that even with a T-shirt on, I could barely stand the heat on the summit."

"Tropical glaciers are undergoing massive and unprecedented rates of retreat," said Williams, who is also a fellow at CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. "Ice core records have the potential to provide a large amount of climate information on the causes of these retreats."

Antisana has been getting more snow at the summit in the past few years, but it is melting faster at the bottom because of increasing air temperatures, said Williams. "The overall effect is that this particular glacier and others in Bolivia and Peru are moving faster."

Blakeslee was charged with operating a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, which gathered signals from overflying satellites to pinpoint arcs of rock rubble that marked the glacierÍs lurching retreat over the past several centuries. "Instead of being in a classroom, I was standing on top of a very high mountain in South America, doing my part to contribute to real science, said Blakeslee, a native of Steamboat Springs, Colo. "It's an experience I never will forget."

Blakeslee is one of more than 3,700 students who have been awarded a total of nearly $3 million dollars in stipends and expense allowances since UROP was begun by CU-Boulder in 1986.

Other UROP projects currently underway include a DNA study of great white sharks to determine their population structure, research on the inner workings of DNA and RNA, an analysis of the political conflict in Chiapas, Mexico, ecological research on Mexican reef systems and archaeological surveys of ancient Southwest Pueblo sites.

An additional $25,000 in funding annually from the Office of Academic Affairs beginning in fall 1996 has allowed several hundred more freshmen and sophomores to participate, said UROP coordinator Larry Boehm. "The idea is to get students involved in doing interesting research as early as possible," he said.