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K2 basecamp
Colorful Tents - The tents of the UNO/UNMC researchers add a dash of color to an otherwise white and gray mountain landscape.  photo by Jack Shroder

In-Your-Face Geology

by Tim Fitzgerald

Rocks, lots of rocks, are scattered around geography-geology professor Jack Shroder's office in the Durham Science Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO).  When he takes a trip, instead of mailing postcards back to his office, he ships hundreds of pounds of rocks.

Last June, Dr. Shroder and colleague Michael Bishop, an associate professor of geography-geology at UNO, ventured to Pakistan to collect rocks and conduct research in one of the most beautiful mountainous regions of the world.  The two members of the UNO Department of Geography-Geology were working on grants from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.  The purpose of the grants is to investigate the growth of the Himalaya mountain chain.

"The Himalayas are rising at about 1/4 inch per year, which is very, very fast geologically, and the question is 'how come?'" Dr. Shroder said.

Scenery near K2
Postcard Perfect Settings - The snow covered Himalayas provided a spectacular view to wake up to.  photo by Jack Shroder

Dr. Bishop said the purpose of their trip was to collect field data for use in numerical models that are designed to test their landscape evolution hypothesis.  "We want to find out which surface processes are producing some of the most extreme relief in the Himalayas.  For example, is it glaciers or rivers or mass movement such as landslides?  We have some theories as to what is responsible, but we need to collect field data.  Geologically, this is probably one of the most active places on the planet," he said.

In order to answer their questions, the UNO researchers, along with a group of doctors and medical personnel from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, began a long, strenuous and high trek into the mountains of Pakistan near K2, the second tallest peak in the world.

Locally, the group traveled by four-wheel drive vehicle for as far as they could drive, then set out on foot to establish three different base camps, using as many as 400 local porters to carry supplies.  It took seven to 10 days just to get to the area where the fieldwork was to be conducted.  Dr. Bishop said it was one of the most difficult field experiences faced by the UNO team – very arduous, climbing over glaciers and steep terrain while carrying packs.  "We even needed porters to carry the provisions of the porters," he said.

Scenery near K2
Himalaya Heights - A massive block of stone rises from the Pakistan valley floor.  photo by Jack Shroder

The locale for their research lies amidst some of the most beautiful mountain scenery near K2.  "This was some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever seen, and it blows your mind that these mountain peaks are right outside your tent," Dr. Shroder said. 

Dr. Bishop said the scenery was absolutely phenomenal and that a lot of snow produced frequent avalanches, which sounded like jet planes flying over every 15 to 20 minutes.  "It's a very, very dynamic environment that also includes the sights and sounds of the local culture and how they deal with the harsh environment," he said.

"Because of the potential for terrorist activity, we have been delaying the Pakistan trip for several years," Dr. Shroder said.  "Two years ago, the Pakistani government put the terrorists under great pressure and drove them near the Afghan border, so we felt safe last summer."

Dr. Shroder has been a frequent visitor to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but last summer was his first trip back in seven years.  "I travel there frequently because geology is happening right in your face, and I get great data.  Climatic warming is making new lakes, which then produce floods downstream," he said.

Dr. Bishop said major climate changes have been known to take place in the area over the past 100 thousand years.  "The surface processes there, like glaciers and landslides, are operating at the extreme end of the geologic spectrum – they're high magnitude events and change the landscape significantly.  The Earth (under the Himalayas) is uplifting at a very rapid rate because of all this, and the result is one of the most dynamic landscapes on the Earth," he said.

Data collected by Drs. Shroder and Bishop will be used in data simulations.  Models will be run and tested against field data to see if their hypotheses are plausible.

And why were all of those rocks shipped back to UNO?  "We want to be able to assess the entire glacier surface using satellite imagery.  In order to do that, we need to get an idea of the materials on top of and inside the glacier and test the hardness of the rocks for erosion," Dr. Bishop said.

This spring, the research duo will head back to Pakistan and India to conduct a workshop for a related glacier project funded by NASA in India.

Tim Fitzgerald is manager of photography at UNO. He can be reached at tfitzgerald@mail.unomaha.edu.

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