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Physics Professor, Students Trekking to Alaska to Study Polar Ice

RADFORD – On a cold, mid-February day in which the wind makes the temperature outside feel like zero degrees, Radford University physics professor Rhett Herman is busy in his cozy office packing and poring over the necessary details for a two-week journey to Barrow, Alaska, where, when he and a group of students step off a 727 jet airliner, they will be invaded by minus 40 degree temperatures and wind chills in the minus 60 range.

If you think it’s cold in Radford, this small Alaska town that sits just 330 miles above the Arctic Circle may not be the place you want to spend spring break.

“It’s a different world there,” Herman says of Barrow, a place he’s been three times before and will revisit over spring break and another week to further collect data of the area’s polar ice. The physics professor began the research in Barrow in 2006, always taking a handful of RU students along.

This latest journey will be no different. As part of the university’s Physics 450 class, eight RU students, including three who are dual-enrolled at the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School, will make the trip to continue previous research to measure the thickness and structure of the sea ice in Alaska’s northern-most city.

To conduct this important research, the group will walk over large sections of sea ice, dragging on the ground behind them a device that measures the electrical properties of the ice. They also will put into use ground-penetrating radar and tiny thermochrons to measure ice surface temperature. The effort is ultimately to contribute to the overall knowledge toward determining the rate the polar ice cap is melting each year.

“We are looking to see if there is a correlation between the ice thickness and the temperature at the surface of the ice with the warm ocean below the ice,” Herman said. “We also want to see if we can establish a way to determine the ice thickness over a large area quickly.”

Dan Blake also is making the trip to Barrow. Blake is a 2005 RU graduate who now serves as an adjunct physics professor at RU and the physics teacher for the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School students who are trekking to Barrow. Blake made the maiden trip to the polar regions with Herman, along with student Daniel Hansen, in April 2003 when Blake was an RU student. “We were at the north pole itself for about 23 hours,” Herman noted.

The purpose of the ‘03 trip was to perform a preliminary geophysical study of the North Pole ice cap and establish a long-term study of the thickness of the polar ice cap in order to better understand how the volume of the ice may be changing over time.

Herman, Blake and Hansen were part of a research team in ‘03 from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Michigan State University, Bay Mills Community College (Michigan), Yale University and the U. S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratories (CRREL).

On this year’s trip, Herman and RU students, Susan Christopher, Jonathan Haines, Jason McLarty, Jeremy McLaughlin, Mythianne Shelton and Laura Sweat, will fly to Barrow and stay for two weeks, furthering the efforts that began seven years earlier.

Blake and his three students, Gaven Burnette, Ashley Taylor and Biyuan Zhao, will join the group for a week before returning to Virginia.

When in Barrow, Herman and the students will spend their days surveying the ice with electrical resistivity equipment and ground-penetrating radar. The group will spend its evenings hunkered in Hut 163 on the grounds of the Naval Arctic Research Labs (NARL), analyzing the data they collected hours earlier.

Dealing with the sub-zero temperatures and wind chills presents numerous challenges for the researches and the equipment, Herman said. The severe cold can render the electronic devices useless, and the liquid crystals in the equipments LED screens can freeze, causing the screens to shatter. However, Herman takes great precaution to protect the valuable equipment, packing plenty of insulators, such as bubble wrap and Gorilla tape. “See this,” Herman asks, holding up a roll of duct tape. “It’s too cold in Barrow for this to stick.”

And, of course, the researches have to bundle up themselves in such dangerous, freezing conditions. Before the trip, all the students must purchase a polar outfit, Herman said, which includes a parka, gloves designed for ice climbing, heavily-insulated bib overalls, a turtle neck and boots with soles at least an inch to an inch and a half thick for walking on the ice all day.

Purchasing all the necessary equipment is expensive. The cost is one reason Herman hopes to use the collected data toward a National Science Foundation proposal to “make this a regular research program so that we don’t have to scrounge for funds,” the professor said. Currently, funds for the trip come from donations to the university. “Right now, the students have to pay for their own polar outfits and plane tickets,” Herman said.

Herman and his students also put a rush on analyzing the data so to quickly prepare it for the RU Undergraduate/Graduate Student Engagement Forum in April. “The forum forces us to get the data processed quickly and have it all together,” Herman said.

Processing the data means combining all of the information gathered by the electrical resistivity equipment, ground-penetrating radar and thermochrons, plus an accurate reading of the snow ice, and a GPS unit that will allow the researchers to see small motions in the ice pack from day to day and hour to hour.

“Once we get all of this data together, I think we can characterize the ice better than anyone else,” Herman said.

Feb. 25, 2010
Contact: Chad Osborne (; 540-831-7761)

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