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UMD researcher 'rocks' online science magazine

UMD geologist John Goodge describes how he came upon the granite rock named TNQ during an interview in July 2008. (2008 file / News Tribune)

University of Minnesota Duluth researcher John Goodge's work in Antarctica and with rock samples from the frozen continent is receiving national exposure.

An article titled "Antarctica Rocks!" and accompanying video were posted Monday on the National Science Foundation's online magazine Science Nation.

"It's gratifying," Goodge said of the attention on his team's work to understand how Antarctica has formed and changed over time. "I think there is a lot of interest in things that are going on in Antarctica, whether it is related to climate issues or the idea of being in remote places doing interesting things."

"It's not just an inhospitable wasteland," he said of Antarctica. "It is definitely severe, but it's an interesting place to be and sort of a canary-in-a-coal mine continent because it is telling us so much" about environmental changes.

"Antarctica Rocks!" was the weekly Science Nation's 107th episode profiling NSF-funded research at more than 70 universities.

"The ideal story is one that is accessible to the general viewing public, that they feel is relevant to them, and it needs to be visually engaging and, ideally, something that the researcher can show us or demonstrate for us," Science Nation executive producer Kate Tobin said.

Cheryl Reitan, interim director of UMD public relations, sold the idea that UMD had several ideal stories to the National Science Foundation.

"I talked to someone I know at NSF and said, 'Do you know that UMD has 32 National Science Foundation grants and that we do research all over the world and making world news?'" she said. "They liked what I was talking about."

Reitan's team then put together a 50-page proposal for the foundation. The result was Science Nation producer Marsha Walton coming to Duluth for several days this summer to shoot four separate stories.

"I have never done four stories for a university before," Walton said at the time. "It was a great week at UMD."

In addition to her story on Goodge, Walton filmed stories on the Large Lakes Observatory; education professor Mary Hermes' work documenting Chippewa conversation; and ecologist Cindy Hale's work on non-native earthworms. The story on Hale ran in September; the other two haven't appeared yet.

Monday's video on Goodge's work includes footage shot on his last trip to Antarctica.

"One of my colleagues brought a video camera along, so we had lots of good footage from the field," Goodge said. "It's really a challenge for people to imagine what it's like to be in Antarctica. It's nice to be able to show that in a video."

Goodge, a UMD geology professor, has visited Antarctica 11 times since 1985, trying to piece together the geologic history of the frozen continent by examining exposed rocks or rocks that glaciers have dug up. His most recent trip - the subject of Monday's article and video -- spanned several weeks late last year and early this year during the Antarctic summer. Temperatures were usually between zero and 20 degrees -- pleasant, until strong winds began blowing.

The team lost several days pinned down by high winds and low visibilities. The winds packed snow so tightly into their snowmobiles it had to be removed with spoons.

Despite spells of bad weather, the team reached all of its sampling sites along 1,200 miles of the Transantarctic Mountains by helicopter or plane, collecting 2,500 pounds of rocks.

"Now we have a lot of material to work with," said Goodge, who is traveling to Washington State University next week to work with geologist and Grand Marais native Jeff Vervoort on dating the rocks.

A chunk of granite Goodge collected in 2005 was the same age -- 1.4 billion years -- and the same chemical, textural, mineral and isotopic characteristics as a belt of rocks in North America stretching between California and Newfoundland. Its find in Antarctica indicate that parts of that continent and North America were joined 1.4 billion years ago.

Goodge's most recent trip was the first part of a three-year research project funded by a $455,358 National Science Foundation grant. The grant didn't cover the costs of the Antarctica trip itself, for which the NSF logistic office provided food, tents, geologic field equipment, camping gear, snowmobiles, planes and helicopters.

Goodge won't return to Antarctica for this project, but he plans to return for other work.

"I'm always cooking up ideas," he said. "I have a couple of ideas for proposals that hopefully will go in the coming year."