From Radford to Alaska

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Nolan McGrady, Jamal Bowman and Jake Clary get ready to collect data with the microclimate sled in Barrow, Alaska.

After a voyage of more than 3,500 miles, Radford University students are in Alaska braving chilling temperatures and shivery arctic winds, all in the name of research. View the photo galleries being updated daily of their journey.

Between February 27 and March 12, eight Radford University undergraduate students, three Southwest Virginia Governor’s School students and two faculty members, are traveling to Barrow, Alaska. The team represents Radford University undergraduate students from a variety of majors including, physics, geology, biology and math. The team is led by Professor of Physics Dr. Rhett Herman and is continuing a legacy of more than a dozen years of Radford University research into Arctic sea ice.

Throughout the course of the trip the team will be studying Arctic sea ice first-hand, living and working in a remote location with no connecting roads and an average temperate of -6 degrees Fahrenheit. They will use equipment, some developed by. Herman specifically for the trip, including a microclimate sensor sled, OhmMapper, ground-penetrating radar, and ice drill.

While this research expedition is different from past visits, it will build upon previous ice trips, while incorporating some of the same equipment in new ways that have never been tried before. “It is an evolution of what’s come before,” Herman said.

The research conducted has implications beyond the Arctic with the potential to contribute to further understanding of our global climate. “Our research is a contributor to the methodology of studying the thermal balance of our planet. The goal of this trip is to investigate parts of the thermal balance and properties of the arctic sea ice, and to develop a methodology for such studies. The microclimate sled is the key,” Herman said.

Another aspect of this year’s trip will also emphasize electrical resistivity. “We’re going to try something with the OhmMapper that’s not been done before. It’s complicated, but it involves using parts of the OhmMapper…and the goal of this is to see if there are conditions under which electrical resistivity can give an accurate reading of the depth of the ice,” Herman said.

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The student researchers recently visited the Barrow Observatory Global Monitoring Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Barrow, Alaska.

Innovative Collaborations

The research team is joining researchers from all over the world at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, which was given by the Navy to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1980s. The NSF administers it specifically for research operations. This is the same site at which Radford University has conducted research previously. “It’s a good thing to be in the same place for comparison and for the experience from previous trips,” Herman said. However, unlike previous trips the researchers may be venturing further out onto the ice than they have ever done before for data collection.

While in Alaska, the team will deploy Thermachron sensors for Dorothy Hall at the University of Maryland, Emeritus Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. These sensors will allow the research to continue even after the team has returned home through comparisons of on-ice temperature readings to Hall’s satellite data.

By collaborating with the Governor’s School, a magnet high school, a wide range of ages and backgrounds are able to contribute to the research. The research team will be applying a Governor’s School student’s hypothesis and will alter the length of certain equipment to potentially provide alternative data. To be eligible to join, the Governor’s School’s students had to complete a rigorous and competitive review process before being invited to join the team of undergraduate researchers.

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With all the research happening, the student researchers and their instructor Dr. Rhett Herman took a moment for a little fun. From left, Rhett Herman, Jordan Eagle, Jake Clary, Sam Mogen, Jamal Bowman, Ross Robertson, Katie Mankowski, Rudy Soltesz, Krista Stith, Abdullah Zulfiqar and Nolan McGrady show just how warm it can get in Barrow, Alaska.

Beyond the Classroom

The Alaska research trip is a crucial supplement to classroom instruction, providing Radford University undergraduate students with opportunities to explore practical studies, something Radford University values.

For Rudy Soltesz, a senior majoring in physics with a concentration in earth and space science, this is his first time to Alaska. Soltesz, who previously studied musical theatre at a community college in Arizona prior to beginning his studies at Radford University, was never exposed to research, especially hands-on work in the field.

“As nice as it is to sit and learn new things in class, the goal is to try and use what we’ve learned out in the world. For me the ultimate goal of the Alaska trip is to walk away with some real experience under my belt,” Soltesz said.

Beyond the scientific research, the trip exposes students to Inupiat and Alaskan culture.

It is also Abdullah Zulfiqar’s first time participating in the Alaska research trip. Zulifiqar is a junior double majoring in geology and physics. He has been voluntarily assisting Herman to complete the microclimate sensor sled. Zulifiqar even has an idea that the research team is going to investigate with the OhmMapper. They will use it in a non-traditional way in the hopes of learning something more about measuring ice thickness accurately. It could lead to a better method on the 2018 trip to Alaska.

Just like previous trips, and the same holds true for this one, members of the research team will attend the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, CA. It is the world’s largest meeting of earth and space scientists including many NASA and NOAA representatives among its 23,000 attendees.

Radford University student researchers will have the opportunity to gain valuable experience presenting their work and networking with professionals. “It’s all building on earlier work – no direct repetitions since we have those answers,” said Herman.

The Alaska research trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone. As the students go outside of the classroom and contribute to scientific research they know that they are taking part in an experience that will help guide future Radford University student researchers and could even have an enduring impact on the climate of our world.