Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

October 09, 2002

U of G wind research may provide clues about Mars

A University of Guelph geographer and his colleagues at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada have received a grant from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study wind erosion in some of the Earth’s most disparate places. The hope is the research will provide clues to conditions on Mars.

The project is headed by Nick Lancaster of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., and involves Guelph professor Bill Nickling and former Guelph Ph.D student Jack Gillies, now an associate research professor at the Desert Research Institute. It was one of only about 30 projects to approved by NASA’s Martian Studies Program. The agency will provide $330,000 over three years for the researchers’ work on wind transport of sediments. The project will take the scientists to California and Antarctica.

It might seem a far leap from the frigid windswept environs of Antarctica, to the sea spray of a California beach, and then to Mars, a planet shrouded in enormous clouds of red dust. But Nickling explains that understanding the effects of wind erosion in these locations may help scientists better understand dust storms kicked up on Mars. He anticipates that this will be useful information for the next probe that touches down there.

“I’m thrilled,” Nickling said of the NASA grant. His research also receives support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. As an aeolian geomorphologist, Nickling studies transport of wind-borne dust and sand and the effects of wind erosion on air quality and dust emissions.

He has worked as a consultant in studying the effects of off-road recreational vehicles on California deserts and, in a project headed by Gillies, helped the U.S. army mitigate the effects of dust kicked up by heavy vehicles at military installations. In a more recent project, Nickling worked with the city of Los Angeles on ideas for planting vegetation to stabilize a dried-out lakebed and prevent wind erosion from creating huge dust clouds that pose health and environmental risks. Besides working in such “natural wind tunnels,” Nickling runs experiments with the artificial wind tunnel in his basement lab in the Hutt Building. His is one of only two such sediment transport wind tunnels in Canada.

This latest research will include a follow-up trip to Antarctica early next year, where Lancaster and the other scientists have been studying the effects of wind erosion on the frozen continent, with support from the National Science Foundation. Using a variety of sensors, they collect information about what happens to the wind’s energy over the complex rocky terrain. How much is absorbed by the rocks and how much is left over to lift the sand and dust from between them?

“We picked Antarctica because the surface is very similar to that of Mars,” Nickling said. “It’s one of the biggest freeze-dried areas of the world.” Next summer, Nickling will begin a new project in California where he and others will carry out structured experiments on wind flow and erosion. Nickling said the West Coast offers ideal study conditions, including abundant controlled winds and sediments available for transport.

Through their studies in Antarctica and on a California beach, the researchers hope to build a model of surface wind dynamics that might ultimately help scientists operating any future robotic probe on Mars, whose characteristic red hue is caused by global dust storms.

Prof. Bill Nickling
Department of Geography
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 3529

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