Abby Watts, a college student from Juneau, Alaska, is standing on a nunatak—an exposed ridge above an icefield. All around her are enormous boulders in varying shades of gray.
She picks up a small rock and rolls it in her hand. “Semi-rounded, freckled,” she announces. Fabienne Meier, a student from Zurich, Switzerland, records the data in a waterproof yellow notebook, along with the rock’s measurements in centimeters: 5.1, 7.7, 3.6. Watts sets the rock back where she found it, beside a patch of purple and yellow wildflowers, and picks up another one.
Watts and Meier are taking part in the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), the longest-running glacier research project in North America. In the 1940s, a team of explorers headed by pioneering glaciologist William B. Osgood Field Jr. began surveying the Juneau Icefield, a 1,500-square-mile expanse of ice, snow and rock straddling the border between Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. One of Field’s mentees, Maynard Miller, founded JIRP and led it for more than half a century.
Today, the unique expedition is run by the University of Maine, with support from the University of Alaska Southeast. The 30 to 40 students who come each year from all over the world are mostly undergrads, though high school and graduate students can be found in the mix.
At the beginning of each summer, the JIRP attendees arrive in Juneau, where they learn high alpine travel skills and do team building exercises. After a week, they hike from sea level onto the edge of the icefield at 4,500 feet. Every 10 to 14 days, they move to a new camp by foot or skis.
On this particular day, the students are collecting data above the shimmering compound of metal-clad buildings that make up Camp 10. Beyond the camp is the white expanse of the upper Taku and Matthes Glaciers. The students wear thin layers with long sleeves and hoods, their faces pale with zinc to protect them from the summer sun.
The hum of a drone grows quieter as it moves uphill. Faculty member Bethan Davies, a glaciologist from Newcastle University in England, acts as spotter while Camryn Kluetmeier, a recent college graduate from Madison, Wisconsin, controls the drone using an app on a smartphone.
At the top of a nearby boulder, Anna Fatta, a student from Parkersburg, West Virginia, uses a rubber-headed mallet and a chisel to chip small flakes of granite. This boulder was dragged here by a glacier thousands of years ago. The friction between ice and bedrock smoothed the rock’s edges.
Two other students collect stray chips of granite from the ground. The samples will be sent to a lab for cosmogenic nuclide analysis, a process that can date how long a rock has been exposed to the atmosphere without being covered by ice. One of the students labels the bag of granite chips with the site location and the date: Taku A, July 3, 2022.
Glaciers are massive bodies of perennial ice, snow and sediment that cover about 11 percent of the land on earth. When a glacier is heavy enough, it slides slowly downhill, picking up sediment and reshaping the landscape as it moves.
When Miller began his research in the 1940s, he was especially intrigued by the Taku Glacier, one of the largest glaciers on the Juneau Icefield. After 1750, most glaciers in Alaska started thinning and retreating. But by the 1890s, the Taku was moving forward again, even while other glaciers around it continued to shrink and retreat. “How can the advance of the Taku be explained?” wondered Field and Miller in a 1950 article.
JIRP set out to answer that question. Until then, no one in North America had collected decades of ongoing data about a glacier’s mass balance—that is, the difference between how much melts or evaporates and how much accumulates from snow, ice and freezing rain. Now, measurements from JIRP are helping geophysicists understand why the Taku might be following such a different trend from other glaciers on the same icefield.
One explanation, proposed in a 2020 paper, has to do with the Taku’s structure. Compared with its neighbors, the Taku has more of its mass at elevations above 5,000 feet. Its highest point is about 7,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures are colder up there, which means a larger portion of the glacier can resist melting throughout the year. It also helps that the Taku Glacier has built up a thick sediment shoal on its front end, which buffers it from warmer tidewaters.
The Taku finally started a sustained trend of shrinking and retreating around 2019. The climate has warmed so much that the snowline—where snow accumulation balances out melting and evaporation—is getting higher on the glacier.
Christopher McNeil, the lead author of the 2020 paper, participated in JIRP as a student in 2009. Today he’s an Alaska-based geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey. His team goes out and takes its own annual measurements, but the glaciers they study are much smaller than the Taku. The adjacent Lemon Creek Glacier, for instance, is less than four square miles, and even that is a major hassle for a small team to monitor. “You have to carry your coring equipment and bring big metal poles to measure the snow and ice levels, your GPS, all that stuff—it’s a ton of work,” McNeil says. Collecting similar measurements of the Taku—a glacier with an area of about 280 square miles—would be out of the question for the few researchers on a typical expedition.
Yet because of JIRP, the Taku has the longest data records of any glacier in North America. “That can only be accomplished by the fact that we have this small army of students,” he says. “They make it feasible.” More than 1,000 reports and publications have come out of data gathered by JIRP participants.
Every week or two, a new group of instructors skis or helicopters into JIRP’s camps to run research groups, give lectures and work one-on-one with students. Their expertise covers subjects such as mass balance, glacial dynamics, geology, isotopes, glacial bed mapping and the biology of the surrounding ecosystem. There are also sessions on visual arts, where students learn to slow down and really see the light, shadows, shapes and colors of the landscape in ways that can enrich their experience and inform their research. Many students carry journals where they make watercolors and contour drawings.
“I missed out on building relationships with professors at my home university,” says Megan Stewart from Vancouver, British Columbia, who spent critical college time learning remotely because of the pandemic. “Eating meals, going on long skis, then attending lectures and fieldwork with the same faculty—I’ve really appreciated how unique an experience this is.”
In a few days, the students working near Camp 10 will ski 18 miles north to Camp 18, the last permanent camp on the American side of the border. They’ll leave behind the Taku Glacier and the vast white expanse of the icefield’s interior for dramatic icefalls, crevasses and blue ice. Then they’ll ski across the border into Canada for a short stay at Camp 26, maneuvering the slippery ice of the Llewellyn Glacier. Boats will bring them to the small mining town of Atlin, British Columbia, and a chartered bus will take them to Skagway, Alaska, where they’ll catch the ferry back to Juneau.
By the time they head home, the students will know they’ve not only added to more than 75 years of research but also joined what McNeil calls the “scientific family tree” of mentors and students. “This lineage arguably extends back to John Muir,” McNeil says, recalling the naturalist’s 1879 voyage to Glacier Bay, where he explored Southeast Alaska with the help of Indigenous Tlingit guides. “And through me and my peers of today, the lineage is passed on to the scientists of tomorrow.”