Backstory: Crevasses and cocoa on Juneau's icefields

Nature's laboratory can be both fearsome and mundane.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

Recommended: Default

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."

Program alumni, whose signatures festoon the rafters of each camp, now number over 2,000, and include outdoor leaders and scientists of nearly every description. Eric Reynolds and Dave Huntley, students in the early 70s, were part of a group of young icefield mountaineers called the "Marmot Club," a name the pair revived when they founded the high-end outdoor gear company Marmot.

The icefield even inspires its graduates, such as Steven Squyres, to strike out for new worlds. An astronomy professor at Cornell University and the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Rover project, Mr. Squyres says, "I spent a good chunk of the summer going places and seeing things no one had ever seen before, and it left a very deep impression on me. The icefield was my very first exposure to professional scientists and to hard-core, expedition-style science. It was my first experience with science as it's actually done."

***

During my week on the icefield, I join photographer Barbee and a trio of researchers, including program director Miller, on a helicopter flight across the Taku Glacier.

Unlike most glaciers, it is advancing, not retreating. Since Miller began exploring here in 1946, the Taku has expanded about two miles. The phenomenon is at least partly an accident of topography: The Taku originates at a higher elevation than its neighbors on the icefield, so it has been slower to respond to rising temperatures. Yet studies show that since 1990, the mass of the Taku has slowly diminished, suggesting that this glacier, too, will eventually begin to retreat.

Our pilot touches down where the glacier snout pushes into a coastal inlet. Cold breezes rush down the ice, mixing with the relatively balmy sea air. It's an exhilarating place for Miller, who has spent most of the two months since his wife's death at the project base in Juneau.Unhesitatingly, he scales rock ridges pushed up by the moving ice, and yodels across lupine and fireweed.

"Do you feel like you're at home now?" he asks former student and longtime staffer Guy Adema.

"I do," Mr. Adema smiles.

"I do, too," says Miller.

Adema, chief of physical resources at Denali National Park, has spent time on the icefield every summer since the mid-90s. "It's just so nice up there," he sighs.

Nice isn't the first word that comes to mind after a week on the icefield, during which I've been cold, soggy, filthy, and often exhausted. But after a second or two, I'm nodding in agreement. Life on the glaciers is wonderfully simple: There's little to do but carry out daily tasks of survival, enjoy the pleasures of fellowship, and absorb the lessons of the grim, gorgeous, and inexorably changing landscape. What's more, after a week of freezing rain and whiteouts, you might be rewarded with crystalline skies and the spectacular green shimmer of the Northern Lights.

Over dinner in Juneau, the night before my departure for the Lower 48, Miller warms up for another of his famous lectures.

"It's so important what we do out there," he says. Then he pauses for a few moments, and a smile creases his face. "It's also a pleasure, and a joy, and a whole lot of fun. As long as you don't get yourself killed."

Part 1 appeared in Monday's Monitor.

(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 .)

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...