By Pat Brown Correspondent
Students in several New River Valley classrooms are receiving interactive Internet phone calls and pictures from area scientists and scholars who are currently doing research in the Arctic.
During this, the warmest local winter in memory, two professors, a high school teacher, two student teachers, seven other Radford University students and three high school kids have opted to spend some of their winter in a part of the world where they can expect temperatures of 20 to 40 degrees below zero.
Using equipment developed by NASA that borrows some of its technology from the medical field, they will be measuring the structure and thickness of the ice along Alaskan beaches.
“There are many misconceptions about sea ice,” Rhett Herman said before he left for the Arctic. A Radford University physics professor; he has made four trips to Barrow in the past decade. He said many people think sea ice is very thick, but the area his team is studying is more like four to five meters thick. That equates to only about 4.4 to 5.5 yards.
Herman is leading an entourage of researchers who range in age from high school students to adults. They have traveled to Alaska’s northernmost “city,” Barrow, population 4,400. One group left last weekend and others will follow this weekend.
Three area students who split their day between their community schools and the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School of Math, Science and Technology are on the trip. Madonna Yoder (Eastern Montgomery High School), Andrew Vaccaro, (Radford High School) and Megan Lacey (George Wythe High School) are traveling with their science teacher, Dan Blake.
Blake was formerly Herman’s student and accompanied him on the first Barrow research trip in 2003.
Mythianne Shelton, an adjunct physic professor and mentor of Radford student teachers, arranged to include classroom contacts so that area students can hear directly from scientists working on the project.
“Some of my teacher friends wanted to Skype with me to share with their students what life is like in Barrow,” Shelton wrote in an email. This is her second trip to measure ice.
“At Radford University the preservice (student) teachers typically do not have any research experience. Yet, they are expected to teach about the scientific method and the importance of research in schools,” she wrote just hours before departing for Alaska. “I’m hoping this experience will change how they go about teaching and how they view research.”
The videophone calls will also help public school students make a stronger connection to their own potential, Shelton said.
“This experience…gives them a chance to talk with scientists and college students. This may spark an interest in a young student to want to attend RU or be a scientist someday. It is about creating curiosity and encouraging students to ask questions,” she wrote.
Belview, Prices Fork and Belle Heth elementary schools, plus biology classes at Radford High School will be getting video calls from the scientific team. Two schools in Henry County are also participating.
Brooke Myers, a student teacher at Radford High School, went to Barrow last week and will be back in front of her students by next week. Haley Lee, a student teacher at Prices Fork Elementary, started her journey to Barrow this weekend.
Myers, who works under supervision of Jeff Brown at Radford High, has set up a blog that students can access. In addition, she has been getting up very early to make calls back to Brown’s biology classes.
Students had plenty of questions during Brown’s fourth and fifth periods on Wednesday as they watched Myers’ image on a large screen in the front of the room.
“Can you feel the ice moving?” asked Robert Swing. “Does the ice smell?” Justin Revin wanted to know.
Myers told her students it has to be a very windy day with temperatures of negative 50 to close schools in Barrow. She said it does not snow heavily there, but she admitted she has already slipped and fallen on the ice.
The students heard about another fall. Soon after researchers began work, RHS senior Vaccaro fell through snow into a crack in the ice and was up to his waist. Myers explained that the snow hides the ice crack from view, making walking across the ice tricky.
This year the weather is the coldest Herman’s teams have ever experienced, Myers said. Ice forms on her eyelashes and eyebrows when she goes outside. The equipment the team is using gets so cold you cannot touch it with bare hands.
One of the students visiting Barrow put a carabineer in his mouth and ripped his tongue. “When he pulled it out, it had a chunk of tongue on it,” Myers explained.
Local Barrow high school students attend a school smaller than RHS, Myers told them, and many of them arrive at school on snowmobiles.
Eastern Montgomery student Madonna Yoder was the next person to appear on the screen.
“It’s been perfectly clear weather,” she said in response to one student, “not much precipitation.” But she noted that the team’s equipment has not been working very well in the frigid temperatures.
Emily Robinette wanted to know why the research is important. “The ice caps are shrinking,” said Yoder. “We’re using air temperature and ice thickness to see if any sort of predictions are possible.”
Radford students wanted to know about wildlife sightings. The researchers said they had seen tracks of polar bears and foxes, but had not encountered either.
Beautiful moonrises and sunrises
Alexis Finley asked Myers to name the coolest thing she has seen so far.
“The moonrises and sunrises are really pretty here,” Myers said, and she promised pictures and a homework assignment on that subject when she returns to their classroom next week.
Will Alderman wanted to know if the cold was worse than they expected.
“When we first got off the plane it wasn’t so bad,” Myers said, but when she took her first breath, she knew she was in trouble. During the 15-minute Skype conversation, Myers said her co-workers had been continuously getting dressed in multiple layers to work in the frigid air.
“Let’s go outside,” Myers said, and she took her own laptop outside to show the students a line of Quonset huts set against a white landscape and clear blue sky.
“We feel like we’ve been there,” biology teacher Jeff Brown said when the call was finished. When Myers returns to RHS, she will Skype with students she has met at Barrow High School’s science fair.
For the past few months the team journeying to Alaska begged, borrowed, and traded for gear that will keep them warm in their harsh temporary home.
Herman said 13 boxes of equipment made the trip to Alaska before any of the scientific team left the New River Valley.
They are staying on the grounds of a World War II naval research and warning station. They prepare some of their own food and eat some meals in the cafeteria of Barrow’s small community college nearby.
“If I don’t bring them back exhausted, I haven’t done my job,” said Herman of his scientific team.
Coming home from Barrow, however, will not signal the end of their work. Herman will ask some participants to make presentations at next winter’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
“Because they have taken the data themselves, hands-on,” he explained, they will have the confidence to present at the prestigious conference which Herman called the “world’s largest scientific gathering”.
Herman commented on the value of his team’s research.
“NASA can determine the lateral extent of the ice,” Herman said. Pictures from space have already informed scientists of visible, measurable changes in the size and shape of ice fields and glaciers, but more information on the thickness of ice is needed.
To do this, Herman and his team are using an “ohmMapper,” which he said “looks like a long tail with sensors attached.” As his team members drag it across the ice, it will take a CT scan-like picture of the ice’s thickness. The team is able to create “an electrical cross section of what we are walking over,” Herman said.
Another tool they will use will be ground penetrating radar, the same kind that helps law enforcement officers search for buried evidence.
“We need to know how much ice is up there,” said Herman. “Sea levels come up with global warming.”
“As polar ice melts, it will add fresh water to the ocean. Because of the differences in weight of salt water and fresh water, such changes can alter the ocean’s currents,” he explained.
“We’re trying to figure out how that will mess around with things,” he said.