FACES: Jaakko Putkonen returns from fifth expedition to Antarctica
Jaakko Putkonen likes being left out in the cold -- and biting winds, ice and snow. Putkonen, a UND cold-climate researcher, returned earlier this month from his fifth expedition to Antarctica. The UND Geology and Geological Engineering Departmen...
Jaakko Putkonen likes being left out in the cold -- and biting winds, ice and snow.
Putkonen, a UND cold-climate researcher, returned earlier this month from his fifth expedition to Antarctica. The UND Geology and Geological Engineering Department assistant professor led a team of three UND students and a Vanderbilt University professor on the two-month expedition. Putkonen and the UND students downloaded data from probes that they had left there a year earlier and gathered up the equipment to take home.
The researchers studied how the wind shapes the Antarctic landscape.
"What I do is geomorphology, trying to understand what is going at the earth's surface." Wind is an important factor in Antarctica, Putkonen noted. He and his team conducted the research in the Moraine Canyon and Ong Valley in Antarctica. It took 17 connecting flights to get to, and return from, Antarctica.
Putkonen, a native of Helsinki, Finland, worked on a farm as a boy and spent a lot of time outdoors hiking, he said. Just as space exploration is in the forefront, now, so was Antarctic and Arctic research when he was growing up, Putkonen said, recalling that he read several books about the expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott.
After high school, Putkonen pursued bachelor's and master's degrees in Finland and then moved to Seattle where he earned his doctorate at the University of Washington.
"When I was at the University of Washington, my adviser offered me an opportunity to go to an Antarctica so I went with him."
"Lots of my work has been in the cold lands, but I've also done work in the Sierra Nevada and North Dakota." Besides conducting research there, Putkonen also has made expeditions to the Arctic, the Scandinavian Arctic and Greenland.
One of the reasons he chooses to do his research in Antarctica is that he likes the physical and mental challenge, he said.
"It's tough stuff. It's not only that you go there and do the research, but you have to thrive and go where the science takes you. You're not just hunkering down in the tent." The team's camp was on the side of a glacier near a cliff, which was relatively sheltered from the wind.
One night, though, 60 mph winds nearly unanchored their tents.
"The wind was so strong I thought the Ski-Doos would blow away, so we tied them to the side of the glacier," Putkonen said.
He runs, skis and lifts weight to condition for his expeditions.
"The physical conditioning is a key part. You have to be in shape."
Besides the physical challenge, another thing that Putkonen likes about going to Antarctica is the opportunity to see landscape that is untouched by humans. Instead of driving their snowmobiles to research sites and doing the work beside where they park the machines, Putkonen and his team hike an additional 10 miles.
"We go to places almost nobody has ever been to," Putkonen said, noting that more people have been to the moon than have been to the places he and his team has been to in Antarctica.
"When we go there, it is the most pristine place on earth you can find.... That's one of the really interesting things, you don't know what you're going to find."
The ice under the floor of the valley where they conducted research varied from a few inches to 3 feet deep.
"Those different expansions of the ice sheet tell us the history of the area and the climate."
Meanwhile, the rocks that the team gathered while they were in Antarctica will be shipped to UND where the members will conduct research on them.
"The key is to pull out the rare isotopes." The isotopes will give them information about things such as erosion rates, Putkonen said.
Putkonen hopes to return to Antarctica for a sixth expedition. He enjoys the personal challenge and wants to continue his research into the area's geomorphology.
"It is a great place to go."
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