CCU student has lifetime of memories from Antarctic

A Coastal Carolina University grad student has just returned from the experience of a lifetime. The marine science student did groundbreaking research on global warming while surrounded by penguins and icebergs.

Leigha Peterson, who's pursuing a masters degree in coastal marine and wetland studies, grew up in Maryland and had never experienced anything like Antarctica.

"I think in a dream once. That's it," Peterson said.

But last December, Peterson found herself on a research vessel headed toward the bottom of the world. That's where she took part in a project to study groundwater.

For eight weeks, Peterson measured the amount of iron in the water on the world's coldest continent and how that can effect the production of plankton in the ocean.

It's research that may someday lead to a way to reduce greenhouse gases and thus, global warming.

"Plankton photosynthesize just like trees, plants, grasses do on land, so what they do is take in carbon dioxide, CO2, greenhouse gas, and they produce oxygen in the photosynthetic process," Peterson explained.

While she was on Antarctica, Peterson often interacted with native wildlife, like penguins that don't have any natural land-based predators, making them amazingly approachable and curious about humans.

"We had to chase penguins and seals off the equipment at times because we couldn't do the work we were there to do, because it was play time for those animals."

Before she went to the Antarctic, Peterson says she studied up on the environment and tried to prepare for the living conditions, but the reality of life near the South Pole was not at all what she had expected.

"Experiencing is way different than trying to plan for it and in theory actually in practice, it was remarkable, incredible to say the least."

Peterson says the work she did was important and helped convince her of the impact of climate change, not just on the basis of the science she was doing, but because she witnessed the ice melting on the continent with her own eyes.

"We sample directly from a glacier that's got a waterfall spitting out the side. You can visually see this freshwater that's leaving," said Peterson.

Peterson uses words like remarkable and incredible to describe her time on the continent. She says even as cold as it was down there - the average temperature is 32 degrees in summer - she loved every minute.

"I'm hoping to return. We'll see what happens there, but I'd certainly love to help out if there's help that's needed."