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UW-River Falls student part of NSF Antarctic research team

February 19, 2016

While many students dream of heading south for a break from the long, cold dark Wisconsin winters, University of Wisconsin-River Falls physics student Laura Moon, of River Falls, and Northern Illinois University College of Engineering student Robert Zill got the opportunity to trade it for the continuous sunlight of an Antarctic summer.

They joined UW-River Falls Physics Department chair and Professor Jim Madsen for a month-long research adventure that included nearly three weeks in Antarctica. The group was part of a National Science Foundation project studying solar storms using detectors at McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica, and the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole.

The UW-River Falls project counts neutrons using detectors based on designs that go back more than 50 years. The neutron monitor at McMurdo is the longest continuously running experiment in Antarctica. It started collecting data in 1961, and hasn’t stopped since. Occasionally, the sun goes into spasms and produces a burst of high energy particles. These extreme solar storms create continuous, invisible streams of high-energy particles, known as cosmic rays and can damage electronics, and even disable the electrical grid. The Antarctic research team is trying to understand how this happens, and if they can determine a way to provide an early alert.

The trip, that began January 1, lasted nearly four weeks. Madsen, who works on the Antarctic research with UWRF colleague and Assistant Professor Suruj Seunarine and University of Delaware Professor Paul Evenson, was excited to bring students to the “ice,” the nickname for the frozen continent.

“We experienced almost every delay possible for Antarctica air travel, including the dreaded boomerang, a weather change during the flight that required us to return to New Zealand,” said Madsen. “Despite the travel trials, the students kept a firm focus on the goals for the trip.”

“What an amazing research experience in such an incredible place! It might be cold, windy, and dry, but it’s really the people and the culture that makes it so special,” Moon said, summing up the trip.

Zill, who decided to stay another month in New Zealand after returning from the ice, said “I knew we were going to a different continent, but it was more like going to a different planet!”

This is the fourth deployment for Madsen, who also took a student to the Antarctic’s McMurdo Station last season. The Antarctic project is expected to continue for at least two more years. For more information, email james.madsen@uwrf.edu.