Antarctica’s unique climate enticed UNC Charlotte earth sciences researcher Martha Cary Eppes and her research colleagues to spend weeks camping in a tent in sub-zero temperatures, in order to literally monitor and listen to rocks as they fracture. They are studying how rocks alter and erode in one of the most extreme environments on the planet.

Eppes has just returned to UNC Charlotte from Beacon Valley, Antarctica, and is now poring through photographs and data collected during the extreme explorations, funded by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs.

“To accurately interpret any geologic feature or phenomenon, we must understand how and why it changes through time,” Eppes said. “In particular, in the Dry Valleys, we have a poor understanding of the rates and causes of one of Earth’s most fundamental geologic processes, physical rock breakdown. For example, the Dry Valleys lack moisture, which is thought to play a key role in rock cracking in most other locations on the planet. We need to better understand what causes rocks to fracture in this seemingly inert environment.”

Studying how rocks break down is important to more accurately understand the paleoclimates and landscapes of Antarctica, elsewhere on Earth, and possibly even Mars. Measurements on the samples gathered will allow the researchers to see how quickly rocks break down and how their characteristics change over geologic time.

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Originally published Feb. 20, 2019.