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UW-River Falls professor working at South Pole with undergrad

UW-River Falls Physics Professor Suruj Seunarine (left) and University of Chicago undergraduate Lindsay Berkhout walk back to the South Pole station from the IceCube Laboratory. Photo by Martin Rongen, IceCube/NSF.1 / 2
UW-River Falls Physics Professor Suruj Seunarine (left) and University of Chicago undergraduate Lindsay Berkhout at the geographic South Pole. Photo by Martin Rongen, IceCube/NSF.2 / 2

What's it like to live and work at one of the most extreme places on earth? University of Wisconsin Physics Professor Suruj Seunarine and University of Chicago undergraduate Lindsay Berkhout can now tell you. They are working on a National Science Foundation project studying solar storms using detectors at the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole.

The research centers on trying to better understand some interesting extreme behavior of the sun. Occasionally, solar storms create continuous, invisible streams of high-energy particles known as cosmic rays. They can damage electronics and even disable the electrical grid. The Antarctic team is researching the solar spasms and seeing if the measurements they make with the neutron monitors can provide early alerts.

Seunarine and Berkhout's travel to the South Pole was far from routine. It started with commercial flights to Christchurch, New Zealand. The following day, they got their cold weather gear to keep them warm on the "ice," the nickname seasoned travelers use for Antarctica. Multiple weather delays kept them first in New Zealand, and then at McMurdo, the U.S. station on the Antarctic coast, for more than a week. They arrived at the South Pole station almost two weeks after leaving home.

This was Seunarine's second trip to the South Pole, but he was still overwhelmed by the experience.

"This has been an amazing adventure in travel and science," Seunarine said. "I imagine it's the closest I would get to understanding what it might be like living on another planet."

While at the South Pole, they performed maintenance work on the neutron monitors.

"One of the coolest parts of this trip was being able to see the experiments we were working on firsthand," said Berkhout, who spent summer 2017 working on astrophysics research at UW-River Falls. "Traveling to the South Pole is an adventure that I will never forget."

Seunarine and Berkhout's posts about their trip can be found at https://i3uwrf.wordpress.com/.

This is the fourth season that UW-River Falls has brought students to Antarctica for the neutron monitor project. Jim Madsen, chair of the UWRF Physics Department, has brought a total of five students with him on prior trips. Madsen and Seunarine also work on the international IceCube project, icecube.wisc.edu, at the South Pole.

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