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SALT LAKE CITY — It may not be a typical school field trip, especially for a mathematician. But here's what's happened in the last month to University of Utah math professor Kenneth Golden and two students:
• Two of them were part of a team that rescued three scientists stranded on an ice floe off the coast of Antarctica.
• They're now on a ship that's ice-bound and barely able to move, although there's no apparent danger.
• They've had closeup encounters with seals, penguins and a whale just a few feet away.
Golden will definitely have plenty of stories to liven up his next mathematics lecture.
The trio is with a contingent of 50 scientists on an expedition called SIPEX-II, the Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment II. Its purpose is to examine the physics, chemistry and biology of the sea-ice zone surrounding the continent of Antarctica.
In an August interview on the University of Utah campus, Golden said his project involves using principles of mathematics to determine "how much fluid can flow through the sea-ice."
Student Christian Sampson said at that time that he was looking forward to the Antarctic expedition. "It's a little bit daunting," he said, "but it's also very exciting."
The sea-ice turned out to be more exciting than they expected.
Golden and Sampson, along with Utah engineering student David Lubbers, are living with expedition scientists on a ship called the Aurora Australis.
"Right now we are stuck in very heavy ice just off the coast," Golden said in emails to KSL and a phone call from the ship. He said there is no particular danger.
"It's par for the course," he said by satellite phone on his 15th expedition to polar regions. "The ice is very thick. We are slowly moving, making a bit of progress."
He expects changing weather conditions will eventually free the ship, which is currently about 60 miles off the coast of Antarctica and about 2,000 miles south-southwest of Hobart, Australia.
An earlier episode was considerably more alarming to Golden and other scientists as they began work near the ship on the surface of the sea-ice.
"Twenty Emperor penguins were with us on the ice," Golden said. "It was like ambassadors welcoming us to Antarctica. Or maybe they were warning us to get out."
Big ocean waves began moving under the sea-ice, creating considerable worry for the scientists.
"It was like the ice was breathing," Golden said, "undulating up and down a fair bit. I was not frightened, but I was definitely feeling uneasy."
Our experiments are going really well. We've seen so many amazing things: tons of penguins just a couple of feet away, pink icebergs at sunrise, frenetic seals running around our ice stations, an aurora, a whale surfacing just 15 feet in front of me.
–Professor Kenneth Golden
Safety experts sounded an alarm, warning the scientists to get back on the ship.
"Moments later the ice floe suddenly cracked in two places," according to the expedition's official blog. "Three people were separated on the other side of the crack, with about 3 meters of ocean between them and the main part of the floe."
Golden and Lubbers are part of a trained rescue team that swung into action to save the stranded scientists.
According to the expedition's blogger, "Members of this team promptly dispatched a quad bike carrying a 'rescue bridge' to the site. This bridge is essentially a large Thermarest (a type of camping mattress) which inflates to about 5 meters (16 feet) and is stable and strong enough for people to walk or crawl across."
"I was working behind the scenes and getting out of some of the equipment that was used in the rescue," Golden said.
The rescue operation had the desired outcome. "Within about 30 minutes of the drama unfolding, our three team members were safely back on the main ice floe," the blog reported.
Golden is upbeat about the science being conducted on the expedition.
"Our experiments are going really well," Golden wrote in an email. "We've seen so many amazing things: tons of penguins just a couple of feet away, pink icebergs at sunrise, frenetic seals running around our ice stations, an aurora, a whale surfacing just 15 feet in front of me."
By comparison, teaching math may seem a bit mundane. But Golden is upbeat about that as well. "I'll be teaching Calculus II in the spring," he said. "It will be less exciting. But I love being in the classroom and I love sharing these kinds of experiences."