Backstory: Science's glacial strides
A master of expeditionary research teaches how to take giant leaps for bits of knowledge.
(Page 2 of 2)
***Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.)