The National Geographic Society has named University of Alaska Fairbanks geophysics assistant professor Erin Pettit as one of their Emerging Explorers for 2013.
She will be featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine for her unique approach to researching glaciers and for her outreach program that engages teenage girls in science. Pettit will also receive a $10,000 award to assist with her research and to aid further exploration.
National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports inspiring adventurers, scientists and innovators who are early in their careers, but already at the forefront of discovery. Pettit is one of 17 young scientists, innovators and adventurers that National Geographic named as an Emerging Explorer for 2013.
Pettit teaches and conducts research through the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. She also collaborates with a research group at the Geophysical Institute that studies glaciers and ice sheets.
Cheryl Zook, director of Explorer Programs for National Geographic, said that Pettit grabbed National Geographic Society’s attention because she developed a new way to explore glaciers by listening to them.
“Some people say the Earth has already been explored, but there are new ways to explore our planet and beyond through innovative technological approaches,” said Zook.
Zook said Pettit exemplifies this with her innovative research technique of using underwater instruments called hydrophones to “listen” to glaciers in Alaska and Antarctica. Part of Pettit's research focuses on tidewater glaciers, which are rivers of ice that move very slowly as they descend from mountains into the sea.
Whenever ice greets seawater, a noisy conversation follows as ice calves, or breaks off the glacier, and falls into the water to form icebergs. The fresh water also rushes out from underneath the glacier and bubbles rise, all adding to the glacier’s ramblings. Pettit listens to the sounds and deciphers what they have to say about sea level rise, climate change and how these changes will affect the ocean’s natural processes.
Pettit told National Geographic that getting outside her comfort zone helps her come up with new ideas and fuels her research.
“Curiosity and risk-taking drive many of the best scientific breakthroughs,” she said. “You may feel scared, be questioned or get cold before you learn how to keep warm, but the more you push yourself, the more discoveries you will make throughout life.”
Pettit also shares her love of exploration with others. She created the free wilderness science program, Girls on Ice, which brings high school girls on trips to glaciers to learn research techniques, survival skills and how to use challenge as a tool for discovery about themselves and the world.
The Emerging Explorers program does not take applications or unsolicited nominations. Zook said the program learns of candidates through research and a network of nominators. CNSM Dean Paul Layer said Pettit’s research and outreach is well known, appearing in major publications like the New York Times.
“It’s no wonder Erin came to National Geographic’s attention,” said Layer. “Erin is a true explorer. She challenges herself to think outside the box and inspires her students to do the same. This is what makes her a great researcher and a great teacher.”
“And it goes to show,” he added. “Good news can travel fast.”
PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Erin Pettit teaches and conducts research through the UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics and collaborates with the Snow, Ice & Permafrost research group at the Geophysical Institute. Photo courtesy of Girls On Ice.