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Released August 25, 2003


STENNIS SPACE CENTER -- A marine science professor from The University of Southern Mississippi is taking one of his students on the ride of a lifetime to the Alaskan wilderness to apply his knowledge as a geochemist on the front lines of environmental research.

Dr. Alan Shiller, professor of marine science specializing in geochemistry, is taking graduate student Peter van Erp on a research expedition Aug. 21 to the Yukon River to sample water along the pristine river and its tributaries with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Begun in October 2000, the USGS project has sampled water flowing through and from the Yukon several times each year to determine the effects of global warming on the sensitive arctic environment.

"It's a remote area about which little is known," Shiller said. This five-year project conducted by the USGS will help answer a number of questions. Will global warming affect the water quality of the Yukon River and the adjacent Bering Sea? How does this change the carbon cycle, and how does that feed back into global warming?

"I'm looking forward to seeing Alaska," van Erp said. "I've never been there, though I've heard a lot about it." Van Erp's interactions with the USGS team on this expedition will give him hands-on experience and provide important contacts for the future.

"I'm looking at it as a possible networking opportunity," van Erp said, adding that he was looking forward to meeting Robert Hirsch, chief hydrologist of the USGS, who will be along for this excursion. In the meantime, he's busy making preparations that include looking up background information on the Yukon River basin, getting his wife and four children settled for his absence, gathering his gear and reviewing the trip itinerary with Shiller.

The packing list for a trip to the Yukon includes such items as suitable clothing for temperatures ranging from below freezing to the mid-80s, rain gear, waders, a personal floatation device, a good knife, bug spray and bear pepper spray.

A veteran of several trips to the Yukon, Shiller is also a proponent of face netting in addition to insect repellant for the long boat ride in the wilderness.

Previous expeditions have covered the Alaskan section of the Yukon from the Canadian border to "the bridge," where the Alaskan oil pipeline crosses the river.

"This year, we're going from the bridge to St. Mary's," Shiller said, covering roughly 932 miles over 11 days.

However, Shiller and van Erp will begin their fieldwork before reaching the Yukon. On Aug. 22, they will sample water coming off a glacier about three hours south of Fairbanks. When the three aluminum-frame USGS boats set out from the bridge on Aug. 24, Shiller will be in the open boat and van Erp will be working in a lab in Fairbanks processing water samples shipped back from each stop along the river. On Aug. 28, Shiller and van Erp will trade places, with van Erp flying to meet the boats in Galena, Alaska, and Shiller flying back to Fairbanks.

"I want to give Peter experience in the field," Shiller said. "He'll be working with the USGS professionals and will find out what's involved on major field projects."

As for Shiller's part in the research, he plans to present a paper in December offering preliminary results of his observations on the Yukon.

The Southern Miss Department of Marine Science is strategically located at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, home to the world's largest population of oceanographers and hydrographers. The department offers both master's and doctoral degrees in marine science and a master's degree in hydrographic science.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM