Dr. Chill’s Arctic Adventureby Russell Alston
Jenna Hill, known as “Dr. Chill,” has been to some pretty interesting and exotic places on the planet: South Africa, Australia, Chile, Papua New Guinea, Iceland and the Arctic Ocean. In fact, she recently visited the Arctic Circle for the third time, from Aug. 18 to Sept. 7.
Hill, an assistant professor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University, spent three weeks aboard the U.S. Coast Guard research icebreaker the USCGC HEALY, a 4,200-square-foot research vessel equipped with numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches and accommodations for 138 people.
Neal Driscoll, Hill’s former faculty adviser and the director of the Geosciences of the Earth, Oceans, and Planets (GEO) Program at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography in San Diego, invited her aboard for the HEALY’s late summer excursion. The two go back more than 11 years, to when Hill was earning a Ph.D. in earth sciences from Scripps. As part of her studies in 2002, the two spent time aboard the HEALY on a research mission to study past changes in the Arctic sea level and the history of the Bering Land Bridge. Inviting Hill along for the ride in 2013 made scientific sense in view of her expertise in past Arctic climate change.
Based on her research on the causes of past climate changes, Hill aided HEALY researchers in exploring how the climate might change in the future by studying the melting of large ice sheets and changes in ocean circulation associated with abrupt changes in the climate in the past.
By examining sediment cores, Hill says you get a “layer by layer” chemistry of microscopic shells to study from organisms that once lived in the oceans. Scientists can use the chemistry of these shells to reconstruct what the climate was like in the past, which in turn provides a glimpse into future climate shifts. Some of the core samples collected sediment from layers of the sub bottom that may be more than 10,000 years old.
“We were always on the boat for research purposes, mapping and collecting sediment cores from the sea floor,” she says. “When you’re on the boat, you’re out there to do a job.”
Hill’s hours were from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., sometimes during days when the sun would shine for 24-hours straight.
“It’s wild,” she says. “It takes some getting used to. It’ll be 1 a.m., and you don’t feel tired because it’s bright and sunny out. It messes with your circadian rhythm.”
As a military vessel, the USCG HEALY was outfitted with some amenities, like a library, a gym and a ship store. Movies were shown on occasion, and the crew even had themed dinner nights. Hill spent most of her leisure time in the ship’s wheelhouse, taking photographs of the ice and watching out for polar bears and other wildlife.
The scientists got off the boat once for a snowball fight and skating around on the sea ice. “There were more than 100 people on the ship, so most everybody got off. Some had a snowball fight and others were running around the ice doing other things.”
Originally from Atlanta, Hill says she was always interested in geology. She chose Oberlin College in Ohio because of its “great environmental program,” and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and environmental studies. While working toward her bachelor’s degree, Hill interned at the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Mass. It’s work she still researches today, hence her third trip to the Arctic Ocean. Hill says she won’t see the results of her most recent work for a couple of years, though.
“I’m not working directly with the research as it wasn’t my project; I was along to help collect data. I will eventually work on some of it, but until then I’m teaching and working on my own projects,” she says.
One of her projects is researching the potential for submarine landslides south along the South Carolina coast. The other involves searching for evidence that large icebergs once drifted off the South Carolina coast. Hill also teaches five marine biology classes as well: marine geology, origin and evolution of the marine environment, sedimentary geology and two classes she created since beginning at CCU in 2007, an applied coastal geophysics lab and a course on long-term climate change.
Hill’s plans for the future are linked with CCU in important ways. On Nov.15, she took part in the christening of the Coastal Explorer, CCU’s new 54-foot research vessel equipped with state-of-the-art geophysical instrumentation for water/sediment sampling, underwater video, seafloor mapping and sub-seafloor sampling. She is looking forward to working on the vessel to advance her research.