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Backstory: Crevasses and cocoa on Juneau's icefields

Nature's laboratory can be both fearsome and mundane.

By Michelle NijhuisContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2006


Fueled by hasty mouthfuls of chocolate and leftover pork chops, we push our skis across the fresh snow of the Juneau Icefield. The late-afternoon snowstorm is thickening, and the shifting, growling crevasses of the Vaughan Lewis Icefall threaten to swallow us if we lose sight of our marked path.

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We've skied seven hours and run out of energy to talk. All we can do is pant inside our hooded parkas, and slide our blistered feet forward.

Suddenly a startling "whoop!" ahead of me breaks the serious mood. Our leader has seen a dark shape in the mist: It's the steel drum that serves as an emergency fuel depot for snowmobiles, and the last landmark before Camp 18.

Three miles later, we slide down the gentle slope that leads to camp and stagger gratefully into the kitchen shack for cocoa and a seat near the wood stove. Our clothes will take days to dry, but our body temperatures soon return to normal. To the dozen Juneau Icefield Research Program students and staff members already settled at camp, our adventure in the weather is nothing remarkable: Long, clammy ski trips in the rain are just part of life here.

Such uncomfortable journeys are often quests for data. For 60 years, program founder and director Maynard Miller has recruited a corps of glaciologists, geologists, medical doctors, and others as volunteer faculty. Many conduct their own research on the glaciers and pass on lessons in persistence to their students.

Soon after our arrival at Camp 18, photographer Jeff Barbee and I see these lessons put to work. We accompany students to the head of a glacier, where they're studying the annual balance between snow accumulation and melt. Collecting these simple statistics requires no small effort: To assess the past year of snowfall, the students must dig a smooth-sided pit 15 feet deep, hurling shovelful after shovelful of snow to the surface. It's a long struggle in the name of science, but it's by no means the longest.

Two days later, the crew tackles another pit, and returns after nightfall to report that more work remains. "The pit won the battle," crew leader Kevin Volkening announces the next morning, grinning at his tired companions. "But we're going to go back out there and win the war."

Decades of toil by young researchers like Mr. Volkening, who's about to start his freshman year at Montana State University, help show that as global temperatures rise, almost all the icefield glaciers are thinning and retreating. Longtime staff also point to anecdotal evidence of change: bare cliffs that were covered with ice just a decade ago or icy fissures prematurely exposed by early snowmelt.

Findings here corroborate the work of other scientists around the world, showing that global warming, driven by human activities, is melting the planet's glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost.

But, suggests expedition mechanic Andy Young, "the real value of the program is in training the next generation of scientists."

Mr. Young served for several years as field science support manager for the US Antarctic Program where, he says, "every year, 15 to 20 people come in who have been through this program, and they tend to be way ahead of their counterparts. They not only know how to set up camp and melt snow for water, but also how to deal with people of different skill levels in a really isolated environment."