Kaitlin Starr and Maddie Happ

Kaitlin Starr and Maddie Happ

Major: Geology

Kaitlin Starr and Maddie Happ made a troubling, but not surprising observation while conducting research for their Senior Independent Study project (The College of Wooster’s nationally acclaimed senior capstone experience) in Alaska’s Prince William Sound this past summer.

Working collaboratively with support from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society, Starr and Happ discovered that Columbia Glacier, a massive iceberg-calving glacier that is contributing to a global rise in sea level, had retreated almost seven kilometers since the last group of Wooster students conducted research there in 2001.

The two geology majors collected samples from trees that were flattened by the glacier between 1000 and 200 years ago but later exposed by the rapidly receding ice sheet. They are now back in the lab at Wooster, recording and processing those samples in an effort to develop millennial-scale records of past temperature fluctuation and glacial movement in the North Pacific.

Starr has been managing a growing tree-ring database that is documenting the advance and killing of an extensive forest over a 20-kilometer expanse of the recently deglaciated (last 30 years) Columbia Bay. “Columbia Glacier is an important model for tidewater glaciers,” says Starr. “We’re looking at the ice dynamics of the glacier by analyzing the tree-ring samples.”

Happ is working alongside collaborators at St. Andrews in Scotland and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University to date a modern-growth forest using blue intensity technology (blue light that is absorbed by lignin, an organic substance found in the cell wall of wood), which acts as a surrogate for Maximum Latewood Density and provides a strong proxy of summer temperatures. “We’re not sure exactly what it will tell us,” says Happ, “but we know it will produce new climate information from tree rings along the Gulf of Alaska that can be spatially analyzed and provide further insight into climate change in the North Pacific.”

Having spent much of the fall semester in the lab, Starr and Happ also discovered something else — the intrinsic value of undergraduate research. “This experience has given me a good feel for what type of work is required in field research,” says Starr. “Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to grad school, but after working with Dr. Wiles, my eyes have been opened to a range of possibilities.”

Happ concurred, saying that her field experience “put a lot of meaning” into what she was doing. “Standing beside these massive glaciers reveals the impact of climate change right before your eyes,” she says. “This part of the country is very sensitive to change in climate patterns, and it is interesting to observe what is going on from a scientific perspective.”

Starr and Happ also agree about the value of their Wooster education. “I feel like my experience here has taught me to strive for whatever I want to do,” says Starr. “Dr. Wiles has really encouraged me and made me feel more confident in my abilities.”

Happ says her time at Wooster has been “absolutely incredible,” adding that “having the opportunity to work closely with the faculty and be exposed to mentored undergraduate research were things I could not have done at most other schools. Wooster offers so much more outside of the classroom."

Wiles characterized Starr and Happ as wonderful collaborators. “During our time in the field, we encountered severe weather and in the lab the usual frustrations,” he says, “but they have both persevered and are leading others working on similar projects in geology.”  

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