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James Fastook

Computer scientist James Fastook developed the University of Maine Ice Sheet Model, which helps climate scientists gain a better understanding of the glaciological processes that have shaped Earth and Mars.

Though Fastook has long had a scientific interest in Mars, his work modeling ice sheets there didn’t begin in earnest until about five years ago, at the request of James Head, a planetary geologist at Brown University. Head studies the processes that form and modify the surfaces, crusts and lithospheres of planets over time. He also focuses on the climate history of Mars, mapping out the distribution of ice and water deposits as clues to the changing climate. He works in the field in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the most Mars-like environment on Earth.

The theory is that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it is now, and Head and his team are trying to figure out if there’s evidence to support that. After mapping images of the surface of Mars and simulating a variety of climate models, Head wondered whether it was possible to get “tropical mountain glaciers” on Mars. Photos show that there is ice at the poles, but Head wanted to know what past conditions could’ve driven that ice into the atmosphere and redeposited it at the planet’s equator.

Early in his career, Head was inspired by the work of UMaine glacial geologist George Denton. He continues to collaborate with Denton’s colleagues and students, particularly David Marchant, a Climate Change Institute alumnus now on the faculty at Boston University. When he told Marchant about his interest in ice sheet modeling on Mars, he recommended Fastook.

“Jim was able to help us figure out what would happen to ice that was deposited on the side of the huge equatorial volcanoes,” Head says. “He showed that extremely large, 160,000-square-kilometer ice sheets would form and flow downhill, producing the types of features that we saw in the images. This helped to confirm that during periods of high obliquity on Mars, indeed tropical mountain glaciers could form.”

Head was impressed with Fastook’s enthusiasm and his ability to explain the complexities of basic physics to other scientists in a way that was easy to understand. Fastook has since received an adjunct appointment at Brown and is actively involved in Head’s research group.

“His ability to communicate in simple, straightforward terms is really important in bridging fields and making very significant research connections,” Head says. “He has inspired and influenced many of my undergraduate and graduate students through his visits to Brown and he has made a huge impact in the field of Mars climate change through this work.”

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