Students present research at national forum

After numerous trips inside the Arctic Circle, Radford University Physics Professor Rhett Herman and his student researchers are inching closer to their goal.

"We now have what appears to be a powerful correlation between the temperature of the surface of the ice and the thickness of the ice," the professor explained. "We now just have to nail down the modeling parameters, and we might have a way to get the ice thickness over a large area in a very short time."

Once every two years, Herman, a group of Radford University geophysics and physics students, and a handful of high school students from the Southwest Virginia Governor's School dress in polar parkas, overalls and white U.S. Army "bunny boots" with 3-inch soles to brave bone-rattling temperatures and shivery Arctic winds at Barrow, Alaska, all in the name of science.

Herman and two of his student researchers, Alec Frazier and Andrew Vaccaro, presented their most up-to-date data last month in a more temperate climate: at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting in San Francisco.

"Alec and Andrew did very well in their presentation," Herman said. "They answered all the technical questions. I stayed back to let them have a chance to be at the forefront."

Frazier, a junior physics major, and Vaccaro, a senior at the Southwest Virginia Governor's School in Pulaski, were enrolled in Herman's arctic geophysics class in spring 2012. Both flew to Barrow last February and March, when temperatures with wind chill stood at 50 to 65 degrees below zero, to be among those participating in the ongoing research.

The annual AGU meeting brought together more than 20,000 earth and space scientists, educators and students. It gave Frazier and Vacarro an opportunity to present their work to a number of professionals, including one of the world's leading Arctic researchers, and to answer some tough, thought-provoking questions.

"Alec and Andrew are used to familiar people asking questions here at RU, where we don't have NASA written on our shirt pockets," said Herman, explaining the educational value of having his students face the experts. "The sheer depth of knowledge of the AGU participants about sea ice was the biggest thing. Here at RU, Alec and Andrew know more about the ice than most anyone else. But there, it was much more difficult to answer those questions."

Herman and Anne Jensen, a senior scientist at UIC Science in Barrow, presented at the AGU meeting a poster based on their 2011 collaborative research using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate burial sites of "Barrow's original human inhabitants," Herman said.

"This was the first time the GPR technology has been used successfully in this environment and will certainly lead to more such collaborations in the future," Herman said.

The professor and his students are scheduled to take to the polar ice again in spring 2014 to continue their research and, Herman hopes, move closer to establishing a correlation between ice surface temperature and ice thickness.

Jan 23, 2013
Chad Osborne
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