Lawrentians head north to research on ice field

Dylan Reed-Maxfield

Last year’s long and bracing winter may have had some of us pining for the warmth of summer. But Emily Thiem (’08), Ben Kraemer (’08) and Andrew Siliski (’09) were unfazed — they decided to spend nine weeks, from late June to late August, on a glacier. The trio of Lawrentians participated in the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), which has monitored the Juneau Icefield in Alaska and British Columbia since 1946.
Every summer, JIRP sends 70-100 students, professors and professional scientists on a 150-mile trip across the Western Hemisphere’s fifth largest ice field. In addition to contributing research to the 60-year-old database maintained by the program, the students attend lectures and complete coursework on a wide range of related subjects including geology, glaciology, meteorology, geophysics, geobotany and surveying.
After a week of orientation and safety training in Juneau, the students hiked to the first in a series of generator-powered cabins that served as their camps, lecture halls and research facilities. From then on, the group cross-country skied between camps, which were located anywhere from 17 to 22 miles apart. At the end of the summer, they hiked out into Atlin, BC, which is 150 miles from any other town. A bus and then a ferry carried them back to Juneau.
Siliski worked on a team that took mass balance readings, which compare amounts of melting to precipitation levels to determine at what rate a glacier is growing or shrinking. Much of the work for the mass balance team included skiing several miles to sites where they would dig pits up to 6.5 meters deep and four meters across. The pits were needed to calculate the meters of water equivalency, or total precipitation, that had fallen over winter.
Beside research, students were also responsible for a number of their own field projects – Siliski described mapping an ice cave that ran through the bottom of a glacier.
Siliski felt he learned a lot scientifically from JIRP, but was also moved simply by the remoteness of the area in which he had the chance to study. “I was standing in a place not many people have ever been,” he said. “These were places people would expect to see on the Discovery Channel. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, I’m actually here.’ It’s a whole different experience going there and doing and seeing it yourself.