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Arctic Research Trip Demonstrates Challenges of Research in a Hostile Climate

By Brendan O'Hallarn

In a unique collaborative trip to the Arctic, two Old Dominion University faculty members gained valuable insight into each other's research challenges. And the information gleaned on the week-long trip could help make climate change research more affordable and efficient.

Old Dominion University oceanographer Victoria Hill was accompanied by Petros Katsioloudis, chair of the Department of STEM and Professional Studies, on her recent research expedition to the Arctic. Katsioloudis, who is from Cyprus, truly gained an understanding of the challenges of doing research in such a frigid climate.

"It's really hard to describe to people who haven't been what it's going to be like," said Hill, whose National Science Foundation-funded project involves using precision buoys to take continuous readings of temperature, salinity and various spectrums of light in the Arctic Ocean.

"People don't really even know how we collect our data."

This was Hill's seventh Arctic research trip, but the first for Katsioloudis, who is from ODU's Darden College of Education. A precision manufacturer who tested a prototype sensor that Hill will use to take climate readings, Katsioloudis discovered for himself that simple tasks like affixing screws are a tremendous challenge when it's minus 50.

"Being there and experiencing this will make me a better designer," he said. "It was awesome."

The Warming and Irradiance Measurement (WARM) buoys that Hill placed in the Arctic Ocean, north of Alaska, send back satellite readings every hour, which can be used to track changes in ice cover and water temperature and salinity over time.

The problem is, the devices eventually get destroyed in the harsh Arctic climate, so they need to be replaced almost once a year. Katsioloudis got involved in the project designing and manufacturing a version of the light sensor used to take the measurements at a fraction of the cost it can be purchased commercially.

The trip, from March 4 to 11, included the opportunity to test the prototype. If the tests prove successful, the light sensors installed on research buoys that Hill and other researchers deployed in remote climates could be reduced in price by almost 90 percent.

"Going in the early spring allows us to fly to where the buoys are deployed before the ice begins to break up," Hill said, noting that the temperature is marginally warmer by mid-March. "We got above zero Fahrenheit by the end of the week."

The ODU team, which this year included an ODU videographer, met a colleague from the University of Washington and a polar bear guard from Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation Barrow to deploy the buoys via fixed wing aircraft between 100 and 200 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Katsioloudis said Hill "put us to shame" with her ability to adapt to the cold. "She was fixing a dial on the sensor and taking off her glove, and we were there freezing," he said, laughing.

The trip included some experiences. The researchers saw a polar bear from the airplane, and Katsioloudis said he saw two seals playfully fighting on the ice at one stop.

This was no tourist trip, however.

Hill's study relies on continued observations using buoys placed in the ice or floating in the ocean. The WARM buoy collects measurements of light, temperature, salinity and phytoplankton under the Arctic sea ice.

Thinning and reduction of the seasonal extent of the ice pack has resulted in changes in the amount of sunlight penetrating to the ocean beneath, impacting natural processes such as warming, photosynthesis and photochemistry.

The project was a continuation of an Arctic Observing Network project to measure the penetration of solar radiation, temperature and biological characteristics beneath first-year pack ice during ice covered, melting and open water phases.

The Arctic trip also included an outreach visit to a school in remote Barrow, Alaska, where the researchers talked about climate change and STEM technology with a group of elementary and high school students.

The project is funded for two more years. Hill has applied for additional funding to do ship-based research to look at some of the emerging patterns in more depth.

"You can sign me up right now. I would love to go again, for sure," Katsioloudis said.

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