Backstory: Science's glacial strides

A master of expeditionary research teaches how to take giant leaps for bits of knowledge.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Professor Maynard Miller doesn't mince words. "This isn't a trip to Jamaica!" he growls. "This is an expedition!"

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.

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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.

***

The helicopter lifts off the asphalt like a toy on a string, angling quickly over Juneau toward the steep, thickly forested mountain slopes behind the city. In moments, we're on the far side of the mountain ridge, looking not at subdivisions and spruce trees but at rock and ice.

The Juneau Icefield covers an area half-again the size of Rhode Island, and its huge vistas confuse the eye and mind. Nearly 40 major glaciers fill the valleys of the Coast Mountains, and converge and grind downhill like so many rivers. Granite ridges and peaks rise between the frozen channels, forming nunataks (Inuit for "islands of rock").

The pilot gestures toward a narrow ridge in the distance, and a cluster of small, corrugated-steel-sided buildings becomes visible on the rock. This is Camp 10 – the "Nunatak Chalet" – and this week, it houses a dozen students and staff of the research program.

Life on the icefield, it turns out, is a complicated mixture of high adventure and drudgery. While one group of students might strike out on snowmobiles to survey the depth and movement of a glacier on the Canadian border, another might stay in camp to cook or – horrors! – clean outhouses. But these future field scientists will spend their careers coping with the fearsome and the mundane – and especially with what Miller calls "that four-letter word – the weather."

Less than 24 hours after my arrival, the wispy clouds on the horizon gather and thicken, and in the space of a few hours the blue sky disappears. For photographer Jeff Barbee, my colleague and a former icefield student and staff member, this is a familiar scene. "We're going inside the ping-pong ball," he says. And, as the white clouds drop toward the white snow, I know exactly what he means.

But the weather rarely deters this expedition. On the morning we're scheduled to ski from Camp 10 to Camp 18 – nearly 18 miles – rain drums on the steel roofs of the bunkhouses, and I awake under the pleasant illusion that our plans would be postponed. No such luck: Just after breakfast, seven of us strap on cross-country skis, packs, and ice axes, and head toward an invisible horizon.

Though I've skied and hiked most of my life, this trip requires an unfamiliar level of endurance. Within an hour, parkas are saturated, and most of us are too wet to rest. Pausing only for sips of melted glacier from our water bottles, and for a few bites of sweet snacks, we keep skiing just to stay warm.

Despite the safety training delivered by Miller and his staff, the radio and global-positioning device we carry, and the trailmarker stakes, the Juneau Icefield remains a dangerous place. The hairline crevasses across our path – delicate but sinister shadows in the snow – remind us that we're moving over ice thousands of feet thick. Larger fissures are often unseen, disguised by unreliable bridges of new snow.

By early afternoon, the rain turns to snow, and visibility deteriorates until it's difficult to see the leader of our group. Our chatter slows, and we put the miles behind us in silence. If the faint track left by previous skiers fills in, it's not hard to imagine how we could wander off course – no small disaster in these conditions. Our GPS unit shows our destination, but not our route, and we know that somewhere between us and the next camp is a glacier that flows over a steep cliff – the Vaughan Lewis Icefall.

Next: The risky tedium of science. (Travel for the reporter and photographer was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. See more icefield reporting at www.pulitzercenter.org/alaska.htm.)

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