Physics group studies in Alaska

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Photo Courtesy of Jason YontsPhoto Courtesy of Jason Yonts

Lauren Spencer


While most RU students fled campus to travel to sunny shorelines over spring break, several students in the physics department embarked on a trip to Barrow, Alaska instead. Dr. Rhett Herman, RU professor of physics and geology, and Mythianne Shelton, RU professor of physics, lead several students on this expedition to Barrow. While both Herman and Shelton have visited Barrow, Alaska numerous times over the past few years, this year brought new openings in research for the professors and students as they set out to gauge the thickness of the ocean ice in relevance to the Arctic temperatures.

According to Herman, research in this field is always evolving and in order to conduct thorough and accurate research, the group needed to visit a place with sea ice. Therefore, Barrow served as an ideal location to collect this particular type of research. Since Barrow is situated along the Arctic Ocean and is the northernmost city in the United States, the best temperatures for their research occur in February and early March. Herman also mentions that the below-zero temperatures are essential to their research which is why Barrow proves to be an appropriate place to accomplish research.

Although Herman and Shelton stayed in Barrow for two weeks, both professors were accompanied by two small groups of students. Herman was able to accommodate 10 students, who had enrolled in his PHYS 450: Arctic Geophysics Research class, while Shelton was able to bring one student teacher for each week of the trip. Five students conducted research alongside Herman the week of Feb. 28 to March 3, and another five students visited Alaska during RU’s official spring break, March 3 to March 10. Shelton had two student teachers over the two-week time frame; one student teacher attended the trip during each of the weeks they were gone.

Herman mentioned that “this was the coldest trip to Alaska so far” and temperatures in Barrow were usually somewhere between 20 to 30 degrees below-zero. However, due to the wind chill, -20 to -30 degrees seemed to feel more like -40 to -50 degrees. On one occasion, the weather fell to 55 degrees below-zero, which made it very difficult for the group to perform their research.

Herman revealed that the OhmMapper device was very successful in capturing images of the sea ice, but the group had to suspend their work because of the arctic temperatures on several instances. At one point, pieces of the OhmMapper shattered because it was so cold and the group had to use what was left of the device to conduct their research.

While the research class kept busy with their work, Shelton and the student teachers were able to sight see and visit different places throughout Barrow. The group was able to visit a nearby school once a week and stayed in a Quonset hut built by the U.S. Navy when they established the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) in 1947.

During their time in Barrow, the group also saw the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, on several nights. The aurora borealis is seen only around the polar regions, and these vivid lights are said to be caused by gases from the atmosphere as they interrelate with solar particles, which ultimately form incredible bands or waves of colorful light.

While there were opportunities for new experiences, Herman explains that the trip to Alaska is always a working research trip and students spent nearly all of their time on Alaska’s sea ice. However, during the nights, Herman said the research class would be working on processing the data with specific equipment and software. The group even had to fix the equipment on occasion due to problems caused by the below-zero temperatures in Barrow.

Herman said the purpose of the trip was “to research the properties of the sea ice and to work out the details of a possible new technique to measure the thickness of the arctic ice over a large area quickly.” Herman also said that because the arctic ice changes on an everyday basis, it is impossible to drill into the ice. What is even more surprising, Herman said, is that the results of their research show that the sea ice is not indicative of the thickness of all of the ice of the north polar cap, but it does illustrate that the thickness of the whole north polar ice cap is only a few meters thick.

Nevertheless, the results of the research group proves to show a strong correlation between the temperature at the surface of the ice and the thickness of the ice, Herman said. The group concluded, that the thicker ice should be colder since the relatively warm seawater below (at -1.9 degrees Celsius) is further from the far below freezing air above. According to the data from the OhmMapper, the group believes that the new thermal sensor seems to correspond well with the ice thickness.

While the group hopes to present their data to NASA, their examination may offer a significant break-through in geophysical research as it allows physicists to measure very large areas of ice, and the depth of the ice, in a very short amount of time. At this point in time, Herman is currently working with the research students on how to effectively present their extensive results to the undergraduate/graduate forum which will be held in mid-April.