Arctic Research

There are many ways to get students involved in science, one of the most exciting is through experiential learning. I had the opportunity as a student in high school and college to be a part of quite a few experiential learning trips that helped shape who I am today. As such, I found it important to offer opportunities to do field research to students while I was a teacher. I was lucky to help create an Arctic research program and get many students involved in it over the years.

The idea started in the year 2003 when I had a unique opportunity to join a group of scientists and teachers who where going to the arctic to research the polar ice cap. The primary goal was to do conduct ice thickness surveys and produce a series of web casts from the geographic north pole. I was lucky to be able to go on the trip with Dr. Rhett Herman (Radford University) and one other student. We flew from the U.S.A. to Svalbard (specifically landing in Longyearbyen) and boarded a Russian AN-74 plane that landed on the north polar ice cap on an ice runway. For this initial trip, we were attempting to estimate the thickness of the sea ice with an EM-31. However, the unit that Radford University owned was broken in transit, and the brand new backup unit did not function in the extreme cold we experienced.

You have not lived until you take a deep breath when you step off a plane standing on the north polar ice cap

coincidentally, this is a terrible idea as your lungs can freeze

Although our primary method to research did not provide any data, it did cause Dr. Herman to create an arctic research program for Radford University. He was able to set up a more affordable trip to the arctic in 2006 by going with one student and a Geometric OhmMapper to Barrow, Alaska. This trip set in motion the idea of using a resistivity array to estimate ice thickness based on the difference between the highly resistive sea ice and the low resistance sea water. With successful results from this initial trip, Dr. Herman was able to return in 2008 with a group of 6 students and an expanded OhmMapper array in an attempt to use what was learned on the first trip to collect more and better data.

When I returned to Southwest Virginia in 2009, I partnered with Dr. Herman to bring high school students into the arctic as full members of the research team. I was able to select 3 students from a group of 15 applicants to be part of the trip in 2010. As part of this, the students were required to help design experiments, learn how to use industry standard geophysics equipment, and conduct field research in an extreme and beautiful environment. In 2010, the students worked to develop a thermal research project that attempted to correlate the thickness of the sea ice to its surface temperature. To do this, multiple thermochrons were deployed across the ice in an attempt to collect data along a 100m survey line. Unfortunately, thermochrons are tiny and many did not survive the trip and were lost to the arctic. The other issue that became apparent was that they had to be moved, but were VERY sensitive. This resulted in needing to leave them in one location for nearly 30 minutes after each move, causing the data to be very difficult to reconstruct. However, after hours of data processing it was decided (and presented at the 2011 AGU meeting) that there could be a correlation!

This gave reason to rethink the data collection process, and determine a better way to collect thermal data. This resulted in my development of a project for the 2012 trip that I named Therma. Therma consisted of an Arduino ProMini, a thermistor, an OpenLog, and most importantly a Melexis MLX90614 non-contact thermal sensor. By using a non-contact thermal sensor, data was collected at a much higher rate, with higher accuracy, and no need to let the sensor come to equilibrium at each point. This proved to be a vast improvement over the thermochrons, however it still had some issues. Distance calibration was done based on marker flags and time, so data had to be adjusted based on the speed the instrument was moving at (which was based on a human walking on uneven snow and ice). Several changes to the code and hardware had to be made while in Alaska, a switch was added to stop data collection and the location of the units battery had to be moved after a USB cable and RJ-45 cable both snapped due to the cold. Overall this method was far superior and could be processed roughly with a few hours of work (whereas the thermochrons took months to pick through the data to make a graph). Again, the data showed a lose correlation with the resistivity data which was presented at the 2013 AGU meeting.

Before the 2014 trip, the issues from Therma were discussed as a group and a new project named Whistler was conceived. Whistler was based on the same ideas as Therma, however many improvements were made. The MLX-90614, Arduino ProMini, and OpenLog were still at the heart of the unit, however the thermistor was replaced with a TMP36 (which was more accurate) and a US1881 Hall Sensor was used to determine distance. The other main change was with the code. Vast improvements were made to improve accuracy of the data, and allow for both distance based and time based data collection. The end result was a much more reliable, better constructed device that corrected many of the jerry–rigged parts from Therma. When deployed in Alaska, Whistler preformed admirably, was easier to handle and provided excellent data. In addition, the TMP36 showed the possibility of detecting micro-climates above the ice which will be a project for the 2016 Alaska trip.

From the start in 2003, the arctic research project has evolved greatly. By 2010, when I first brought students, the trip had evolved into a two week research trip with three high school students, three professors, and 12 college students. In 2012, the program added the opportunity for two education majors to not just conduct field research, but also to video chat back with elementary, middle, and high schools around the country. This continued in 2014, and has now become a much sought after opportunity because it not only allowed students to conduct real field research, but it also was a cultural exchange as the students would visit the local schools and present to the community and scientists at the school yard talks held weekly at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC).

This trip is an ever evolving experiential learning opportunity for students. I am glad that I have been a part of it and know that it will give many students the chance to experience science in a new way. It also gives a unique view on the world around us and is a life changing trip for everyone who participates!

To see the 2014 research trip home page follow this link to Radford University’s website: Arctic Research

To read some more details about Whistler and how it evolved read “On the Origin of Thermal Sensors