Cumpston Research

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Ryan Cumpston N. Illinois University


When students returned to campus last fall and compared summer highlights, Ryan Cumpston had them all beat, hands down. The senior geology and environmental geosciences major from Crystal Lake traveled to a mountainous region near the North Pole, spent his days in a skiff at the edge of a massive glacier and rubbed elbows with some of the world’s top polar scientists.


“It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” says Cumpston, who had never before traveled outside of the United States. Geology Professor Ross Powell selected Cumpston to take part in a pilot Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation.


Powell and Cumpston spent three weeks in Ny-Ålesund, in the Norwegian island territory of Svalbard. Replete with glaciers and wildlife—including reindeer, Arctic ice seals and polar

bears—Ny-Ålesund is the planet’s northernmost settlement. Cumpston was given safety instruction in the use of a rifle and flare gun in the event of an encounter with a polar bear. He learned to swim in a bright orange survival suit, mandatory apparel for researchers on the Arctic Ocean.Most of his days were spent aboard a small aluminum skiff or rubber Zodiac boat, monitoring glacial processes with Powell and Professor Julie Brigham-Grette and student Luke Trusel from the University of Massachusetts.

The work required researchers to venture into the waters of a fjord littered with chunks of ice that frequently calve from the glacier, which rises about 180 feet above the sea and is more than

a mile wide. Cumpston recalls watching as one large iceberg plunged into the water, producing a 30-foot-high wave. “When the icebergs break off, the small ones sound like gunshots, and the big ones like thunder,” he says. “You don’t want to get too close.” The pilot was part of a larger program being run through Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and might be expanded in the

future. Says Cumpston, “It was a learning experience far beyond any Icould get in a classroom.” plus photograph of Ryan