Richer in data and experience, RU polar sea ice team returns

Geoff Caroll takes Andrew Cohen, Sarah Montgomery, and Jessi Basham on a dog sled ride.

Geoff Caroll takes Andrew Cohen, Sarah Montgomery, and Jessi Basham on a dog sled ride.

A glow from a potential 'Eureka' moment and tired, but with a trove of data and a raft of experience earned in the Arctic's harsh, demanding environment, the entire polar ice expedition is back at Radford University. 

The 18-person team, led by Physics Professor Rhett Herman, was measuring ice depth and surface ice temperature on the Chukchi Sea near Barrow, Alaska since Feb. 28.

Herman described the 'Eureka' moment in the expedition's crowded quarters on Wednesday, March 12.

"We were all working at the time. I just happened to notice what Andrew had done and everything clicked.  That’s when I got the others to gather a bit and take a look."

He and the team were processing part of the day's data from the ice floes a quarter mile from their base in the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. Andrew Cohen, a sophomore physics major from Newport News, Va., asked Herman to look at the results of his particular analysis.

"It was late and my eyes were tired, but there it was - a picture showing a trend line of thermal data that corresponded to ice depth we had measured. It was a picture of ice surface temperature that showed that thick ice was cold and thin ice was warm," said Herman.

members of the Barrow Alaska research group

Members of the Barrow Alaska research group

That potential correlation and a protocol to accumulate data to establish it were key objectives of the expedition that is part of Physics 450—Arctic Geophysics, a physics class in the College of Science and Technology.

"It was pretty awesome. We went there to find a correlation and we saw it," said Cohen, who battled flight delays in Newark, N.J., and car problems before finally making it back to campus somewhat belatedly. He called the trip his introduction to fieldwork and said it confirmed his desire to continue on toward becoming an experimental physicist. 

"One of the things you always hope is that a class like this will go smoothly," said Herman. "Well, it didn't. The team faced problems with equipment, ice depth and the cold. They had a lot to overcome and they did it in the best type of learning environment possible, the real world -where things don't go smoothly - not a lab setting where things can be controlled."

The members of the team, who worked on the ice for week-long stints in temperatures as low as 20 below with even colder wind chill temperatures, included RU undergraduate physics, geology and computer science students and faculty and students and faculty from the Southwest Virginia Governor's School of Math, Science and Technology (SWVGS.) The team also included two student teachers from RU's School of Teacher Education and Leadership, led by Instructor of Science Education Mythianne Shelton from the physics department. The student teachers used video conferencing technology to provide live science lessons to K-12 classrooms in Southwest Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland on the research and the challenge of science. They also shared the unique experiential learning opportunity in the Arctic with two physical science classes, populated by future teachers; the Roanoke and New River Valleys through live interviews on local television news broadcasts by WSLS and WDBJ and a video conference briefing with President Penelope W. Kyle. 

"It is hard to work in that environment," said Cohen. "The equipment had issues with the cold and everything we carried felt heavier.  Up there it felt like you had been out four or five hours, when we were out only two."

Upon his return to Radford, Corey Roadcap, a senior physics and computer science major from New Market, Va., said, "It's funny to think that the temperature here is 100 degrees warmer than what I dealt with last week. That alone makes it a little easier to wake up in the mornings. I'll catch up on sleep eventually."

Cohen, also looking ahead, said, "I am going to have to somewhat get focused again. I have a lot of classes that I need to direct my attention to now."

Members of the class will detail both the experience and its scientific aspects at the 2014 Student Engagement Forum April 22 – 24, the 23rd annual convocation of RU student/faculty research collaboration. Seven arctic geophysics teams and two education leadership teams will present various aspects of the class' research into the basic characteristics, structure and dynamics of polar sea ice. Herman added that team members will also collaborate through the next six months to prepare a presentation for the 2014 Fall American Geophysical Union Meeting, December 15-19, in San Francisco.

Accompanying the expedition was Jaslyn Gilbert, multi-media producer for the RU Office of Web Strategy and Interactive Media, who chronicled the expedition's research activities here. The team's efforts are also on display on the CSAT Facebook page.

Mar 19, 2014