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Going to extremes to model the effects of climate change

Dec. 15, 2014

By Elizabeth Persico, Keysight Technologies*

In my younger days, field trips were always a great adventure. As a grad student, traveling to a national conference involved a midnight train to Boston, an early flight to Raleigh, NC, and a shuttle ride to Chapel Hill. As a first grader, the bus ride from our small elementary school to the big city zoo seemed like a journey to the moon.

Those trips pale in comparison to the amazing expeditions conducted by the University of Utah: faculty leaders and student assistants have made multiple treks to the Arctic and Antarctic. Down south, winds blasted them with needle-like snow. In the north, they were accompanied by a rifle-toting guard hired to ward off polar bears.

The team’s purpose was to study sea ice and determine which variables can be measured to better understand climate change and predict its effect on the environment. The leaders were Dr. Ken Golden, professor of mathematics, and Dr. Cynthia Furse, associate vice president for research and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Golden and Furse have focused some of their research on the effects of melt ponds, which are formed when the spring sun warms frozen sea ice. When seawater freezes, pure water solidifies first, leaving extremely salty brine in small pockets throughout the ice. As the ice melts, tiny incursions link up and create channels of brine. When large, interconnected channels form, water from melt ponds can percolate down to the ocean and gradually drain away.

The Utah team used two methods to measure brine channels. One was a direct measurement of fluid flow to characterize ice permeability. The other measured the electrical properties of ice. Because the brine phase has higher conductivity than pure ice, researchers can correlate electrical measurements with the percolation properties of ice and estimate how quickly a melt pond might drain.

A variety of test instruments helped capture a wealth of data. One was Keysight’s durable FieldFox handheld analyzer, which was used to measure the electromagnetic properties of ice samples. Four-wire measurements were made by inserting nails into cores that were 1 m long and 9 cm in diameter. The key measurements were low-frequency AC impedance (magnitude and phase) and complex permittivity, which is the high-frequency equivalent of resistance.

Today, Dr. Furse and her colleagues are analyzing the vast amounts of data collected in the Polar Regions. Dr. Golden is continuing to develop mathematical models that will improve predictions of how sea ice will respond to planetary warming.

Their adventures almost make me want to go back to school—almost. But without the polar bears.

Get the full story on Keysight’s web page

*Keysight Technologies Inc. was formerly the Agilent Technologies electronic measurement business.

About the Author

Rick Nelson | Contributing Editor

Rick is currently Contributing Technical Editor. He was Executive Editor for EE in 2011-2018. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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