Montana State University

MSU alum wins Fulbright Scholarship to research glaciers in New Zealand

November 7, 2016 -- By Evelyn Boswell for the MSU News Service

Karsten Lorentz, a 2015 MSU graduate, has won a Fulbright Scholarship that will send him to New Zealand to investigate two of the world's most renowned glaciers. Photo courtesy of Karsten Lorentz.

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BOZEMAN — Whether he's taking a 5,000-mile road trip or installing a tower ahead of a typhoon, Karsten Lorentz says his life has been one grand adventure.

Now the 2015 Montana State University graduate has received a Fulbright Scholarship that will send him to New Zealand to investigate two of the world's most renowned glaciers.

Starting in February, the geology major from the MSU College of Letters and Science who also graduated in the MSU Honors College, will spend a year conducting research with scientists at Victoria University of Wellington. His work with Kevin Norton of the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and Brian Anderson of the Antarctic Research Centre will form the basis for his master's degree and eventual Ph.D.

Among other things, he wants to better understand how bedrock turns into soil at the base of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, Lorentz said. After advancing rapidly in the 1980s, the glaciers are now rapidly retreating. They are retreating so quickly, in fact, that tourists are no longer allowed to walk on them because of the danger. For the first time ever, the bedrock in their wake is being exposed to solar radiation.

To understand what's happening on a microscopic level, Lorentz will go to the glaciers and take rock samples, then use Victoria's highly sophisticated instruments to analyze how they reflect the earliest stages of weathering and soil formation.

"I'm incredibly excited," Lorentz said. "It's going to be an amazing experience that I honestly didn't expect I would have. It's going to be tremendous."

MSU assistant professor Jean Dixon, one of Lorentz's mentors and a world expert in chemical weathering, said Lorentz's research will address several important questions. Among other things, it will provide insight into two lasting debates in geomorphology -- one regarding the importance of glaciation and another on whether mountain belts contribute significantly to global weathering. Lorentz's research will focus on whether glaciers enhance chemical weathering, the dissolving away of rock.

"We know glaciers grind up rocks, but do they enhance chemical weathering?" said Dixon, a geologist in the MSU College of Letters and Science’s Department of Earth Sciences. "The reason we care is because the chemical weathering on the Earth's surface is probably what draws down carbon dioxide over time. This topic is highly debated, and trying to better understand it is a huge frontier in Earth science."

New Zealand is a spectacular place to study chemical weathering because it has some of the most rapidly uplifting and dramatic mountains in the world, and the mountains contain both modern and ancient glaciers, Dixon said.

She met Lorentz in 2013 when he took her geomorphology class, and he made an immediate and lasting impression on her, Dixon said.

"I never met a student who was more excited," she said. "Absolutely infectious enthusiasm."

Lorentz soon asked Dixon if he could conduct an independent study research project. When he later wanted to apply for a Fulbright, he talked to Dixon, who contacted Norton. The two had been postdoctoral researchers together in Germany. Dixon said Norton is a "fabulous scientist" and a "fabulous adviser who would get fired up in the same way that Karsten does."

Lorentz -- the son of an anthropologist and fruit researcher from Wenatchee, Washington, the "Apple Capital of the World" -- said he might have majored in mechanical engineering at MSU. Fixing things comes naturally to him, and he does a lot of automotive work. He designs, engineers and builds automobiles in his spare time. From 2011 to 2014, he was head mechanic for the ASMSU Outdoor Recreation Program.

But he was so fascinated by learning that he had six different majors before landing on geology, Lorentz said. Going on to become MSU's top senior in geology in 2015, he said one reason he selected the field is because it encompasses everything from the microscopic to the global.

"Ever since I was little, I was fascinated with how things work. By working with geology, I can slowly learn about the largest and most complex thing there is -- the Earth itself," Lorentz said when he was a sophomore on his way to South America and the Galapagos Islands through an Honors College Great Expeditions Course.

Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of MSU's Honors College, said that Lorentz's love of learning and other qualities prompted her to encourage him to apply for a Fulbright. She particularly noted "his excellent academic and undergraduate research record, combined with his love for travel and gift for engaging with people in order to truly immerse himself in different cultures and languages.

"He will truly be an outstanding ambassador of MSU and the United States while abroad," Lee said. "Karsten is fluent in English and Spanish and is presently learning French and Polish."

Lorentz -- whose sister, Natasza, also graduated from MSU and the Honors College -- said his passion for travel and spirit of adventure began early.

"With my family, it has always been a trend that nearly every moment after you walk out the door in the morning (and occasionally before), life is a grand adventure," Lorentz said. "So far, that has granted me at the very least, a lifetime full of exciting stories to tell."

With their anthropological bent and passion for exploring, his family traveled for weeks at a time and stayed in tents rather than hotels as they immersed themselves in different cultures, Lorentz said. He visited Mexico in 2003 and 2014; France, Spain and Switzerland in 2004, England in 2006 and Ecuador in 2013.

In the past few months, Lorentz visited Norway, Scotland and Ireland and assisted with the 120-mile version of the Bigfoot ultramarathon around Mount St. Helens. His current job as a tower coordinator and instrumentation analyst for Renewable Energy Systems-Americas has taken him to areas so remote that he has been "65 miles from the nearest sandwich." Based out of Denver and erecting weather stations to measure wind and solar energy, he works an "incredibly unpredictable" schedule, Lorentz said. He has discovered that even flat Texas and Kansas have views when he's swaying 300 feet in the air.

"Karsten is an extremely unique and bright student," Dixon said. "I was very lucky to meet him my very first year as a professor. It will be very hard to come across a student like him the rest of my career."

Contact: Jean Dixon, (406) 994-3342 or jean.dixon@montana.edu; or Ilse-Mari Lee, (406) 994-4689 or ilselee@montana.edu