One adventurous ECE Ph.D. student is studying space weather at the world's northern-most university | ECE | Virginia Tech


One adventurous ECE Ph.D. student is studying space weather at the world's northern-most university

One adventurous ECE Ph.D. student is studying space weather at the world's northern-most university

=The University Center in Svalbard (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

The University Center in Svalbard has about 350 students.

Nathaniel Frissell is studying at The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), which is located on the Svalbard archipelago, well north of the Arctic Circle.

Svalbard is the only place on earth that is reasonable for habitation and allows you to observe dayside aurora optically.

Svalbard is separated from mainland Europe by several hundred miles of the Barents Sea. It is a land of few inhabitants and no trees but an incredible view of auroras and night-shining (noctilucent) clouds that are the visible effects of space weather.

=Nathaniel Frissell (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

Nathaniell Frissell in Svalbard.

Space weather is the interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere. Scientists and engineers are studying space weather because it can interfere with communications and GPS systems, generate electromagnetic impulses that disrupt the power grids, increase atmospheric drag on spacecraft and radiation damage to spacecraft electronics and increase radiation doses on transpolar airline flights.

The Center for Space Science and Engineering Research (Space@VT) uses satellites, rockets, magnetometers, and radar to study the various aspects of space weather, including the deposition of auroral energy, the motion and redistribution of ionospheric plasma, the formation of irregularities, and other disturbance effects. Tech is the lead U.S. institution on a series of radars that look toward the poles from auroral latitudes.

=Skiing (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

Skiing during the first week the sun was visible.

The Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) high-frequency coherent scatter radars is an international collaboration that continually maps plasma convection. The specialized facilities at Svalbard include high-power incoherent scatter radar, auroral imagers, an ionospheric heater, and a rocket range. In addition, two SuperDARN radars located in Finland and Iceland have fields-of-view that overlook Svalbard. These tools are necessary to gain a global-scale view of upper atmospheric processes and Frissell has been sent to Svalbard to learn more. His is the first of what his advisors Joseph Baker and Mike Ruohoniemi hope will be many student exchanges between UNIS and Virginia Tech.

=Aurora (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

Aurora as seen by Frissell.

Taking two courses and conducting research with Svalbard's facilities, Frissell is gaining expertise not available anywhere else. Before he could begin his studies, however, he had to complete required arctic survival training that included avalanche rescue and polar bear safety. Roughly 3,000 polar bears live in Svalbard, and one or two enter the town limits of Longyearbyen each year, at which point, writes Frissell in his blog "they often become offerings on the menus of local restaurants. Safety regulations require that no one leaves the city without the protection of a big-game rifle."

In Svalbard, Frissell is working with UNIS Professor Kjellmar Oksavik, investigating pulsations in the electromagnetic field associated with the onset of magnetospheric substorms. "A magnetospheric substorm is the process that causes the explosive brightening of the aurora," he explains. The team uses data from SuperDARN, satellites, and magnetometers located around the world.

=Miridian Scanning Photometer (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

The Meridian Scanning Photometer observes the intensity of various colors at different points in the sky.

"The research is...exciting because you develop a much deeper understanding of an extremely beautiful and exotic natural phenomenon (the aurora), as well as the fact that this work could have a direct impact on life on Earth. The processes and phenomena we are studying affect the operation of communications and GPS satellites, as well as the safety of transpolar flights."

Frissell is taking two courses: one on Radar Diagnostics of Space Plasma and another on the Upper Polar Atmosphere. Instead of being taught by a single professor, a new guest lecturer arrives every couple weeks, allowing students to learn from some of the foremost experts in the field.

=MSP Chart (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

Data from the Meridian Scanning Photometer

As part of his coursework, Frissell spent a week doing fieldwork at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO). The KHO is more than 1500ft. above sea level and is usually accessible only by belt wagon (a large snow vehicle). "The KHO is home to many different instruments, almost all of which can be thought of as very specialized cameras," writes Frissell. The class helped calibrate three of the instruments. Splitting into two teams, plus a third for a polar bear watch, the students were fortunate to have a night with no moon and little aurora, which would negatively affect the calibration measurements. It was a tricky operation that took nine hours from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. Even the simple task of putting a power supply inside one of the instrument huts was unexpectedly difficult: the door lock had frozen shut and the ice had to be melted with a heat gun.

=Snowscooter (Photograph courtesy of Nathaniel Frissell)

A snoscooter expedition

Frissell reports that the cold weather makes life easier in Svalbard. "The weather finally decided to turn cold again today; the temperature is currently -14C 6.8F and the sky is clear," he says one day in his blog. "This makes people much happier, for no one likes warm weather around here.Warm weather means lots of sliding around, difficulty walking, rain, wetness, avalanches, and very limited outdoor activity.With the cold weather, people will return to skiing, snow scootering and the like."

As Frissell says, Svalbard is "the only place on earth that is reasonable for habitation and allows you to observe dayside aurora optically," making it an important research destination for engineers and scientists from all over the world. He writes that the globally diverse group at UNIS "made watching the Olympics a great deal of was the first time I have ever watched the games with people from so many different countries."

Sval Blog

Read about auroras, calibrating equipment in frozen temperatures, and polar bears in Nathaniel Frissell's blog, kept during his Arctic semester.


Frissell is a graduate researcher in the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, which investigates space weather and its interactions with the Earth.


SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) is a network of high-frequency coherent scatter radars. The international network continually maps plasma convection and is used to study space weather.


The UNIS-University Center in Svalbard is the northernmost university in the world. Frissell's ECE advisors hope that his study-abroad is the first of many at UNIS.