In Minus-60 Wind Chill, Research Is No Breeze


Making one last attempt to score data after two weeks of combing the icy beaches of Barrow, Alaska, Radford University Professor Rhett Herman forgot, just for a few moments, about his hands. He had slipped off his heavy-duty gloves, and only thin liners covered his hands, offering little protection from the bitter wind chills.

"I lost feeling in my two fingers," Herman said. "I didn't realize it. I could still move my fingers, but I lost feeling." He quickly stuffed his hand inside his polar parka in the hope of preventing frostbite.

Research is not easy, particularly when 60-below-zero wind chills are trying to kill you and you have to be on the lookout for polar bears.     

"We were desperate to get the data," Herman said. "We got it, but then I thought, 'I'm in danger.' If you lose feeling and you lose motion, you're probably going to lose those fingers."

Herman still has his fingers, though his nose was peeling from frostbite last week as he recalled the journey following his return to his cozy Reed Hall office.

Every other year, Herman takes a group of Radford University geology and physics students and a handful of high school kids from the Southwest Virginia Governor's School to brave the Arctic in the name of science. The required dress code is polar parkas, heavily-insulated overalls and white U.S. Army "bunny boots" with 2-inch soles. 

Since 2003, Herman has been trekking to Barrow to collect data to prove there is a direct correlation between the temperature at the surface of the sea ice there and the ice's thickness. In addition to collecting data that could someday be applied to studies of global climate change, the trip is a valuable out-of-the-classroom, beyond-the-textbook lesson on the difficulties and frustrations of conducting research in extreme conditions.

Much of the frustration on the latest trip resulted from wind chills 30 to 40 degrees below zero the first week and minus 60 in the second week. In short, Herman said, "It was brutal."

RU freshman researcher Alec Frazier confirmed that. "If you didn't have anything covering your mouth, you really couldn't breathe through your mouth because you just ended up coughing," he said. "And when I breathed through my nose, I could feel my sinuses freeze up. It's a really weird feeling."

The student researchers quickly became a team bent on completing the research mission and ensuring one another's safety.

"You have to watch each other's face, because if you see the skin turn beyond red to pure white, then the blood is out of the skin, and it's in danger of frostbite," Herman said. "Every once in a while, someone would have to go inside because they just couldn't get warm on the ice."

Because of the extreme cold, the researchers could stay outside for only two or three hours at a time, sometimes less. The same was true for the team's arsenal of equipment, which consisted of ground-penetrating radar, an electrical resistivity device called an OhmMapper, an infrared thermal sensor and a backpack GPS unit.

"You sometimes have one or two hours out on the ice before you fail and the equipment fails," Herman said.

Barrow's piercing cold caused plenty of equipment failures during the trip, particularly during the second week. Just as the team had finished using the ground-penetrating radar, it was time to begin collecting data with the OhmMapper, which the researchers dragged behind them like the tail of a diplodocus.

The tail of Ohmy, as Herman and the students over the years have nicknamed the device, contains five receivers. On Day 1 of its use, one of those receivers shattered in the extraordinary cold. Wind chills dipped to minus 55 degrees that day, according to the RU Physics Professor Mythianne Shelton, the team's official temperature tracker.

When the receiver shattered, it caused electrical problems. The next day, a second receiver "started acting crazy," Herman said, and the team was down to three. Later, the researchers discovered they were collecting data from only two of those. That's when the frustration began to set in.

"The equipment breaking was quite stressful," said Maxell Collignon, a sophomore physics major from Antwerp, Belgium. "I could see that Dr. Herman was about to pull out his hair, but he doesn't really have that much hair."

Triple threat Dan Blake – he's a Radford University alumnus, adjunct physics professor and a teacher at the Southwest Virginia Governor's School – experienced a number of unexpected problems with the infrared thermal sensor, a device he spent months building.

"The rough jostling of cables just from moving around, along with trying to unplug the cables in the cold was too much for the device," Blake said. "I actually had the plastic housing on one of the cables crack when it was outside for about 30 minutes. So I knew it was really cold."

Despite the weather and resulting mishaps, the mission was a huge success. "On the fifth day it was relatively warm," Herman said. "We got the data we needed at 5:05 p.m. on the last day we were on the ice. We think we now have a strong correlation between the temperature at the surface of the sea ice and the thickness of the sea ice."

Herman and Blake will present their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting this fall in San Francisco and prepare it for peer-reviewed journals.

As for the students, the journey to Barrow gave them a rare opportunity to feel the pain and frustrations of real-world research, Herman said. "They really learned that doing research in an extreme environment like Barrow was absolutely and totally different from anything else they'll ever do."

Apr 4, 2012
Chad Osborne