A summer working on thin ice

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For his summer vacation, Whitman College senior Theodore Barnhart enjoyed sunny skies and warm temperatures. Although the sunshine lasted 24 hours a day, and the "warmth" hovered close to 45 degrees.

Barnhart, a Seattle native who is studying geology and environmental studies at Whitman, traveled to a mountainous region near the North Pole on his summer break to conduct research off a massive glacier.

Chasing a long-standing interest in backpacking and mountaineering that took root in his home state, Barnhart brought with him a long-standing interest in glaciers.

"Growing up climbing and being on glaciers got me interested to study them later in life," the 22-year-old student said.

Through a student research program, Barnhart traveled to Svalbard, a Norwegian island territory, and was based out of Ny-lesund, an old coal-mining settlement considered by specialists to be a prime Arctic research center.

Svalbard’s exact location is about 10 degrees from the North Pole, with Ny-lesund as the northernmost settlement on the islands.

Barnhart said the locale draws researchers from throughout the world, particularly Europe, in part because of the rich surroundings in an established research location.

"It’s basically the highest latitude permanent settlement in the world," Barnhart explained.

Barnhart spent five weeks in late July and early August as part of a team of about six students from across the country. The students were chosen to collaborate with seasoned researchers as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Applicants were chosen based on solid academic background, and who could demonstrate genuine interest in arctic studies or climate change.

The REU program is described as aiming to cultivate future scientists by involving students in ongoing research projects. Its ultimate goal is to interest more students in pursuing careers in the earth sciences, especially in the polar regions.

Barnhart participated with a team that called itself "TUSK," or Training Undergraduate Scientists in Kongsfjorden. Kongsfjorden, or Kings Bay, is the inlet of the Arctic Ocean where Svalbard is located.

Barnhart and his team members received training specific to the region, like learning how to swim in orange survival suits, a mandatory step for researchers on the Arctic Ocean. Barnhart also learned some rifle and flare gun safety, in the case of a polar bear encounter.

Polar bears, however, did not present themselves.

"Luckily, we did not run into a polar bear, although secretly all of us wanted to," he said.

The continuous daylight did take some adjusting.

"It was quite a change," he said. "You inadvertently stay up until two in the morning."

Barnhart spent most of his days on waters littered with ice that is continuously breaking away from the glacier. The glacier itself rises about 180 feet, but continues another 180 feet down to its grounding line on the sea floor. It stretches for more than a mile across.

"The sheer size of it was not something that I had anticipated," Barnhart said of the glacier. "It was literally like a wall of ice that was some two kilometers wide."

Large chunks of ice, as big as houses and at times bigger, would periodically sever from the glacier’s face. The process, called calving, end with the ice chunks churning into the sea, and producing waves that can reach 30 feet high. Each ice piece breaks off loudly, smaller ones sounding like gunfire and larger ones like thunder rumbling, Barnhart explained.

Like other glaciers worldwide, those on Svalbard are visibly shrinking. Much of the research Barnhart supported will look at how glaciers change with time. The study is meant to help scientists better predict what will happen with glaciers in the future. Barnhart will produce a senior thesis based on his summer research experience.

Barnhart explained how studying climate changes through regions like those in Svalbard can help scientists understand how climate change may impact other regions.

"The idea is we’ll be able to see it up there more clearly than we will down here at 45 degrees," he said.

Without getting too deep into the global warming debate, Barnhart pointed out that weather is undoubtedly changing.

"Patterns will become more accentuated in one way or another," he said. "Places like Seattle could actually receive more moisture. It’s a real phenomena."

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