Groundbreaking student-faculty research profiled on Icelandic national news
by MaryAlice Bitts Jackson
January 16, 2012
Rebecca Rossi '13 planks on an Icelandic glacier during a summer 2011 research trip to Iceland. There, she and Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Ben Edwards worked with an international research team to study deposits from a historic volcanic eruption and made a discovery that landed them on national news.
Rebecca Rossi ’13 earned a unique distinction last summer when she joined a team of international scientists, helped unearth new phenomena and appeared on Iceland’s national news.
A double major in earth sciences and archaeology, Rossi had traveled to Iceland with Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Ben Edwards to study deposits from a news-making volcanic eruption that had altered European weather and air-traffic patterns in 2010. “I’d learned how to do the measurements and take field notes [in the classroom], but it’s a completely different experience to actually be there in the lava fields and help discover something new,” Rossi recalls.
Planking the glacier
The trip covered familiar territory for Edwards, a volcanism expert who had led his first research expedition to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano a month after its infamous eruption. For safety reasons, he and geology major James Haklar ’11 studied the volcano from afar, flying overhead in a small aircraft. A year later, Edwards returned to Iceland with Rossi, and they examined the eruption’s fresh lava and ash deposits at close range.
During the four-day trip, they four-wheeled through glacial rivers to a place called Fimmvörðuháls, where they collected samples of lava flow. They also flew by helicopter to the Gigjökull glacier, where lava spurting from the main Eyja summit had flowed into canyons of ice. One day, while Edwards worked at another site, Rossi and some of the international researchers packed into a snowcat and were pulled to the top of the ash-blanketed summit, where they collected fresh samples of volcanic ash.
“It was a great experience, hands-down,” says Rossi, the only undergraduate in the group.
Rossi and the University of Iceland’s Björn Oddsson are believed to have been the first researchers to visit all three deposits from the 2010 eruption. “And Becca was almost assuredly the first to plank on the end of the lava,” Edwards notes.
Because the eruption was so recent, the fragile, hardened lava was pristine. This gave the researchers a rare view of the immediate aftereffects of lava that travels over and through snow and ice.
What they found had, to their knowledge, never been documented before: trachyandesite pillow lavas, distinctly shaped clusters that formed while lava flowed in water-filled tunnels inside the ice. They also confirmed that lava flows did tunnel down the side of the glacier to form temporary lakes.
“This gives us new and better ideas of what happens when lava flows move alongside or beneath glaciers, and how much damage it can do to the surrounding ice when it melts,” said Edwards, who plans to publish a paper describing the lava flows. He explains that this information may be able to help scientists identify ancient, ice-capped lava flows—and ultimately, may help them understand the two million years of climate changes that have created the earth’s present climatic cycle.
Word of the discoveries spread when Oddsson sent video of the research expedition—and the spectacular views it offered—to a local television station. The station quickly submitted footage for national broadcast, and Oddsson, Rossi and Edwards each appeared in the segment that aired throughout Iceland.
A distinguished student career
In Rossi’s short time at Dickinson, she has researched on three continents, interned for two departments and co-presented research on Williamsburg, Va. gravesites at a national conference. She hopes to co-publish and co-present her most recent student-faculty research findings within the year.
Meanwhile, Rossi is channeling her newfound knowledge. Her senior project will focus on volcanism, and she’s currently completing research on Vikings for an archaeology class. Rossi also works with GIS Specialist James Ciarrocca to create geographic-information-system (GIS) projects for faculty members and administrators and help GIS lab visitors learn the ropes.
Despite her many interests, Rossi’s wealth of experiences at Dickinson have helped her pinpoint where she wants to go, she says. This became clear to her during a free day in Iceland, while hiking along a well-known glacial river, beneath hundreds of waterfalls.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly what I want to study. This is what I want to do,’ ” she recalls. “Now, I know.’”