Things Go Awry


by Elizabeth Perera, DePaul University

2 August 2015

Being a part of JIRP has taught me many skills, including mountaineering and crevasse safety, and how to be part of an expedition, working for the good of the group. We have also been learning about what makes science, “science.” Perhaps one of the most important things, for me, is that especially in a sub-polar environment, science isn’t predictable or may not lead you to where you originally thought it would.

I learned this first through my research question for this program. I am usually a qualitative thinker, but with science I tend to start with a hypothesis, as many do. I had often heard of experiments gone wrong or accidental discoveries throughout history, but never personally experienced this in any of my classes. My original project focus was going to be focusing on snow grain size and seeing if the Juneau Icefield had a higher liquid water content than my reference study, where the authors found that the liquid content of new Sierra Nevada snow was quite low and did not affect the albedo. My plan was to find out whether or not that higher liquid water content would affect the reflectance and albedo of our samples. However, it turns out that with the high levels of precipitation we have here on the Taku, the snow is mostly homogenous. This means I can’t make many inferences about how different snow grain size affects the overall albedo of snow samples. Additionally, measuring liquid water content is difficult to do because we are not adequately equipped with the right tools. Shad O’Neel, one of the faculty at Camp 10, described to me both ways of measuring liquid water content, neither of which are geared towards the specific temperate glacier environment we occupy.

As much as I realized that good science can be done even if it’s not an answer to my original question, this was a frustrating realization. It is, as Shad suggested, a question I will keep in mind to continue trying to tackle in the future, instead. Around this time, I also came to the complete understanding that as much as JIRP focuses on academics, we were now in the expedition and fieldwork pieces of the program, and this means continuing to be adaptable and flexible with my plans.

This realization came again today, when Katherine and I went out to take more albedo measurements. In the last blog post about albedo, there was a general description of our projects. Katherine and I went out to find samples of dirty snow for Adrian, red algae-covered snow for Katherine, clean snow for myself, and blue ice and firn for Lara.

Our instrument wasn’t working properly—for some reason it wouldn’t give us the control measurements we needed. We got about three good snow samples before the computer stopped showing us anything. This did not deter us—we tried changing angles, waiting for different cloud cover, and changing who was taking measurements. When it definitely wasn’t working, we instead decided to take what measurements we could, and note them down for a later analysis. After that, Katherine also went out and gathered more samples for ground-truth data, so we would still have some more data to analyze, even if it has to be done differently.

In the end, neither of us was too frustrated. We felt that we could still move forward, just in a different way. This albedo project is new as we are learning, is all about contingency plans. In the midst of an expedition, an important part is the experience we gain, and learning from this journey. It is amazing to have the privilege of studying these glaciers; and even having these problems and needing to deal with them is something most people are unable to do, so we are quite lucky.

Katherine with her new snow samples! Photo by author.

Katherine with her new snow samples! Photo by author.