On the ice: Looking back with Carolyn Branecky


By Vicky Diaz-Camacho
Spring 2014

Carolyn Branecky on the ice last year. | Photo courtesy of Branecky

In this interview, we’re catching up with Carolyn Branecky, a former student intern from the 2012 CReSIS REU Program at the University of Kansas. Branecky worked with Leigh Stearns, Ph.D.,  a professor in the Geology Department studying glaciology-related research. During her internship, Branecky embarked on a field study that placed her on the ice doing hands-on research.

Let’s hear what the young researcher had to say about her adventure with CReSIS on the ice.

What was/is your affiliation with CReSIS?
I was a student intern of the CReSIS REU program in summer 2012.

Tell me about being on the ice with John and the CReSIS team. How was it?
I was on the same flight with many of the CReSIS folk from New Zealand to Antarctica.  A few of us were also on the same Happy Camper training, the program to learn how to live on the ice with one night of camping.  I got to know members of the group much better through that experience.  The training program was really fun and entirely new to me, as I had never even done winter camping before.  When we had been out on the ice a few weeks the camping became routine. 

I wouldn't call the experience scary, but you really feel the level of commitment you've made to the project when the plane drops you on the ice and you know you won't be off of the ice for at least a month.  The landscape was surreal, partly because of the monotony of color and topography (completely flat).  I was happy that we had a view of the Transantarctic Mountains by which to orient ourselves.  Because the CReSIS team was much larger than our group (only six of us for the first couple weeks), it was fun to be around their camp, especially when we all gathered in a large tent for meals.

How old are you and could you tell us where you studied?
I am 23 and am in my first year of a PhD in Earth Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.  I graduated college last year from Rice University with degrees in Earth Science and Philosophy.  At Rice I became interested in glaciology my sophomore year and got involved with a project using glacial marine sediments from Antarctica.

What was the purpose of the research?
I went out in the field with Slawek Tulaczyk, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and my advisor, as part of the WISSARD project.  WISSARD stands for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling and is a multi-year, multi-million dollar project to drill to the base of the ice sheet and investigate the physical conditions in connection with ice stream dynamics and microbiology. 

Last year, the team drilled into a subglacial lake beneath the Whillans Ice Stream and discovered microbes.  I was not yet part of the team at that point.  This year due to the shutdown the project was scaled back to doing geophysical studies on the Whillans Ice Stream.  This did include drilling four holes in the ice using a hot water drill, but was not accompanied by all the technology needed to access the subglacial environment.  Another drilling season is scheduled for next winter, but I will likely not be involved in that field work.

When was the last time you were on the field? Was it a similar mission?
The last time I was in the field was with Slawek's group in Iceland.  In both Antarctica and Iceland we were installing seismometers on the ice, so there was that in common.  However, in Iceland the ice was rapidly melting, and our goal was to pick up that signal.  Of course, in Antarctica it is too cold to melt the ice.

Where were you for this mission?
The location of the Whillans Ice Stream is east of McMurdo Station roughly 300 km.  The CReSIS team was based very close to the WISSARD drill site for the first year of the project.  They groomed a runway there, which was used both by the CReSIS group and us.  We spent some time at the beginning gathering equipment from last year's drill site and brought in the New Year with the CReSIS team.  Our remote camp was located some 30+ km from the CReSIS group and moved around between several sites where we set up instruments and drilled four boreholes.

Carolyn Branecky keeps moving forward, accruing work experiences from fieldwork, events, and personal research. She said this year would be a busy one, full of hopes for returning to the ice this winter for the final season of the WISSARD drilling project and works involving the effects of ice loading on the deep earth. She will also host an event this year bringing together scholars and activists to discuss geologic change and human response.

“I see my work as part of the project of deepening understandings of geologic change,” Branecky said. “…In the future I want to do more to make these understandings inform the way we live in the world.”


Carolyn Branecky in the field. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Branecky.