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Released October 7, 2004

At the top of the world, Southern Miss' Andy Reese lives life on the edge
By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - As a geography professor, Dr. Carl "Andy" Reese has scaled ice-covered mountains, dangled over gaping crevasses hundreds of feet in the air, faced bone-numbing, limb-deadening cold. He's suffered altitude sickness, watched his face swell to twice its normal size and spent a week in Peru fighting a life-threatening infection.

So much for living in an ivory tower.

That is, unless, you count the three snow-capped mountains in South America that Reese has risked his life traversing to gather research for his award-winning dissertation, considered the best in the nation by fellow geographers.

At the 100th annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers this spring, the Missouri native won the prestigious Nystrom Award, given to the most outstanding recent Ph.D. dissertation. Reese's research chronicled his travels to the Andes, where he climbed high atop these ice caps to collect surface and ice-core pollen samples. From these samples, Reese has reconstructed the vegetation and climate history of the central Andes over the last 25,000 years.

What makes Reese's dissertation so novel is not how, but where he conducted his studies. Other researchers have studied pollen in Arctic areas, like Greenland, but because the Polar Regions are so far removed from significant amounts of vegetation, those results have been called into question. Quite simply, before Reese came along, very few scientists had traveled to the arduous Andes for fear of risking their lives.

"Until now, no one's really looked at pollen in the tropics because no one has been stupid enough to climb the ice caps and do the research," Reese says with a self-deprecating grin that frames his youthfulness. At 28 and fresh out of Louisiana State University's Ph.D. program, Reese is one of the youngest professors on campus. However, his research is already blazing trails through the academic world - both literally and figuratively.

Pollen found in ice cores is an important indicator of past environmental condition. But Reese's dissertation, "Pollen Dispersal and Deposition in the High-Central Andes, South America," also noted the importance of understanding the physical factors that deliver and deposit the pollen on the ice caps .

Dr. Jerry Griffith, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, said that The University of Southern Mississippi scored a "coup" by landing Reese as a faculty member. "Basically, we've just hired a new professor whose dissertation was considered to be the best in the country," Griffith said, cutting to the chase. "Usually, winners of the Nystrom Award are at a big program that offers a Ph.D. in geography, like Penn State, Arizona State or Wisconsin. Andy's research is very thorough, and it's adventurous and exciting."

To say the least. Over the last five years, Reese has at least five trips to three different mountains in the Andes. He also recently received a grant from National Geographic to return to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Southern Peru, a place Reese calls "about as remote as anyone would want to get."

At an altitude of 18,600 feet, the mountain is so tall, Reese says, it's like "being at the top of the Continental Divide in the Rockies and looking up another mile into the air." The highest peak Reese has researched was Mt. Sajama in western Bolivia, which reaches an altitude of 22,000 feet. He has also done research on Bolivia's Mount Parincota (20,833 ft.), which lies on the Chilean border.

Along with his colleague, Dr. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State -- "the only guy in the world who drills tropical ice caps" - Reese and a team of researchers lug tons of equipment up the mountainside while battling everything from snowstorms to frostbite.

It's a Herculean task - one Reese approaches with caution, preparation and respect. Still, regardless of the time spent planning, it's the unexpected that makes the Andes so dangerous.

Like the first time Reese ever ascended a summit. Halfway up the mountain, Reese noticed his vision starting to blur. Shaking it off, Reese continued his climb, but the problem kept getting worse. Soon, he discovered the culprit - his face had swollen so badly from the altitude change he couldn't see straight.

"At altitude, some people retain water in their arms and legs. For me, it's my face," Reese says.

But the dangers don't stop with the cosmetic. Reese says the lack of oxygen at extreme altitudes can cause all sorts of problems. At extreme elevations, he says, the body is in a "constant state of dying." "Altitude sickness is one of the great unknowns right now, mostly because there aren't that many people who spend a great deal of time at that height for doctors to study."

All of these challenges must be overcome while enduring a grueling trek across miles of broken, treacherous ground. Reese collects samples from all over the ice cap, making the trip much tougher than one a recreational mountain climber might take.

"We don't put our feet on the summit and say, 'I'm done, let's go home.' We have to stay until we get the job done," he says.

Trim and well-built from cross-training, Reese gets his physical and mental toughness from his father, a college football coach who's had stops at Texas and LSU. Still, as fit as Reese must stay to "hop across caps," he has succumbed to the elements. "I've passed out up there before."

He's also escaped more than his share of tragedy, like the time - June 24, 2001 to be exact - that he was on the south dome of Quelccaya and an 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit 180 kilometers away in Peru.

"People from the U.S. were freaking out because we were up there at 18,000 feet and no one could reach us. But we didn't even feel the ground move," Reese says. Regardless, threats of aftershocks canceled the rest of the trip.

Reese admits he "loves the adventure" his research permits, but he's no thrill-seeker. "Those people who climb mountains for fun are insane," he jests. "To me, mountain climbing is something fun to talk about in the comfort of an air conditioned building, but when you're up on the mountain, it's pure hell."

Reese returned to the Andes in July, and he hopes future trips will reveal more data about the past. "The good thing about (studying) pollen is that it takes a lot of the guess work out of reconstructing past vegetation change. Fossil pollen provides us with a direct link to past vegetation; giving us concrete evidence about the past, the finding from which may have implications for the future.

"Ultimately, that's what we're trying to do. We want to get a handle on the past so we can predict what may befall us climate-wise in the future," Reese says.


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November 23, 2004 9:23 AM