Backstory: Science's glacial strides
A master of expeditionary research teaches how to take giant leaps for bits of knowledge.
Professor Maynard Miller doesn't mince words. "This isn't a trip to Jamaica!" he growls. "This is an expedition!"Skip to next paragraph
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I'm about to board a helicopter bound for the Juneau Icefield, the enormous glacial mass that abuts the Alaskan capital. Dr. Miller, who knows the icefield better than anyone, is looking dubiously at my borrowed glacier gear, and his attitude suggests little faith in my longevity.
Sixty summers ago, when Miller was an ambitious young geologist just a few years out of Harvard, he and several companions began exploring the glaciers northeast of Juneau, navigating icy fissures and granite precipices in the name of science. He's returned to the icefield every summer since, leading as many as 52 college and high school science students on a 90-mile trek across the ice.
During their seven-week journey from rainy Juneau to western British Columbia, the students of the Juneau Icefield Research Program use crampons and climbing gear to cross yawning crevasses. They immerse themselves in glaciology, meteorology, and emergency medicine, and dedicate brawn and brains to ongoing research. They discover that even the most incremental scientific progress often requires immense effort and risk, and nearly superhuman patience.
"They're learning from nature screaming at them," Miller says of his students, his own voice rising in emphasis. "They're getting up in the morning, putting on their gear, and working until they're soaked through – until what they're learning begins to be real."
The screams of nature have long been a part of daily life for Miller. The University of Idaho professor emeritus is an accomplished alpinist – he was part of the 1963 team that put the first American atop Mount Everest – and he's known for feats of physical and intellectual endurance.
"When he was 80, he was strong enough to put 20-year-olds to shame on the icefield," says Guy Adema, a former Miller student and longtime icefield program staffer. "In the evenings, he'd start lectures at 7:30 and sometimes finish up at midnight."
Miller's dedication to the icefield, and to training students in the ways of science and survival, has produced generations of researchers and outdoor leaders. It's also given him an unusual firsthand perspective on climate change, because most of the Juneau glaciers, like others around the world, are shrinking dramatically as the globe warms.
Miller, who served several terms as an Idaho Republican state legislator, started speaking publicly about these changes and their causes nearly 20 years ago. "It was clear even then that something was awry," he says, describing the rising winter temperatures on the icefield. For Miller, global warming remains a scientific, political, and very personal issue.
While Miller's single-minded passion for the ice has sustained the nonprofit Juneau Icefield Research Program,many staff members observe that it has made him reluctant to groom a new director. With no successor, and Miller's prodigious energy waning, the future of the program is uncertain. Indeed, Miller, who is mourning the recent death of his wife and colleague Joan, spends less time on the glaciers now. Instead, he stays largely in Juneau during the summer, monitoring radio reports from his staff and students.
But Miller's legendary toughness still defines the program's attitude. While he and I load up my questionable gear and leave for my appointment at the heliport, the radio crackles with news: "It's one of those rare, fantastically beautiful days here on the Juneau Icefield," a young staff member says, his grin audible over the airwaves. Today, nature is subdued. Yet as Miller knows – and I'll find out – her screams are never distant.