New Market resident studies Alaska’s changing ice

By Josette Keelor

It was zero degrees the first day of Corey Roadcap’s spring break north of the Arctic Circle. During his two-week stay, that was about the warmest it got.

On the Arctic Ocean where he worked with an 18-person polar ice research team from Radford University, the New Market resident measured the effects of surface temperature on the thickness of polar sea ice in northern Alaska.

What he found is pretty scary, he said.

“Just from what we have looked at, there seems to be a correlation,” he said. The team could see how their readings differed from those that another Radford team found two years ago.

And the results from 10 years ago were even more striking. In 2004, the open water by Barrow, Alaska — 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle — started about eight miles out from the land. Now, it starts at a mile and a half, Roadcap said.

“For the most part, they have noticed a large climate change from a decade ago,” he said.

A senior double majoring in computer science and physics at Radford, Roadcap, 22, has been looking forward to the trip he said the school has offered every two years for the last decade.

Under the direction of his physics advisor, Dr. Rhett Herman, it’s “a unique opportunity to travel to the Arctic Circle,” Roadcap said.

“It was beautiful. Everything was covered with ice. If it wasn’t ice, it was permafrost.”

Unlike other parts of Alaska, there were no mountains. “It was very flat,” he remembered. “Obviously it was very cold.”

In Barrow the hours of light and dark are about equal this time of year, but Roadcap said the sun doesn’t travel the way it does here.

The sky starts to lighten at 7 a.m., but the sun doesn’t make its appearance over the horizon for at least two more hours.

“So dawn and dusk are really elongated,” he said.

With a population of about 4,000, Barrow features raised homes that look like beach houses. And the roads, he said, “They’re ice roads, for the most part.”

“During the summer, all the ice melts and it just turns into a bunch of pot holes,” he said. When it’s warm enough, the residents can drive out of town, but in general, they travel by plane.

Roadcap stayed with 10 other people in a three-bedroom, furnished hut in an old Navy research facility built after WWII and donated to the National Science Foundation. Most of his team came for either the first week or the second, but he and two other students stayed for the duration with their professors.

On the Arctic Ocean where their research was focused on drilling into the ice, it was negative 47 degrees.

Asked how he dressed, he said, “Um, thick.” — Wool socks, sweatpants, undershirt, “and my negative-40 gear on top of that,” which he rented from the school.

To avoid misreading the ice thickness in places of shade, the team learned to trek out onto the ice early in the morning before the sun rose.

While there they met other researchers — a member of the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research Engineering Labs, one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a faculty member from the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory and students from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., doing the same sort of tests Roadcap was doing.

“The first day we went out and drilled in a few spots just to get an idea of how deep the ice was and found it was only a meter or a meter and a half thick. It was a lot thinner than we expected,” Roadcap said.

Scary enough for researchers, he said Barrow residents offered a different perspective on the ocean’s receding ice.

“That was very surprising, and the locals we talked to, this is the closest they’ve seen the open water at this time of year,” he said. The team members returned from Alaska on March 16 and will start analysis on their data.

Planning to pursue physics or another career field related to science after graduating in May, Roadcap said he’s glad for this experience.

“I wish we never left. It was great. I had a blast,” he said. “I definitely want to work, maybe not that far north, but I wouldn’t mind working with ice again. That would be cool.”

To learn more about or view photos of Radford University’s 2014 trip to Barrow, Alaska, visit www.radford.edu/content/alaska/home.html/

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com