A First Reflection

A First Reflection

Donovan Dennis, Occidental College

During an early lecture here at Camp 17, a visiting faculty (Jason Amundson) began his talk by noting that few believed John Muir when he hypothesized the mechanism of formation for the Yosemite Valley was a large glacial network. So, he came to somewhere he could see glaciers in action (Alaska), to support it.

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    View of Lemon Creek Glacier from Camp 17, morning of July 4. Photo by author.

View of Lemon Creek Glacier from Camp 17, morning of July 4. Photo by author.

I can’t fact check the story (no WiFi here on the Icefield), but regardless of its accuracy, it caught my attention about the double-edged sword that is “seeing to believe.” Many of us are here, arguably stranded on this icefield, interested in studying the science behind climate change. Unlike the five billion people who will never participate in JIRP, see the icefield and fall under its monochrome spell, we have the remarkable benefit of seeing to believe. We can see the terminus changes; the fresh rock never before exposed to the elements; the blue ice appearing higher and higher upglacier; and for those who stick around for more than one season, we can see the striking changes in mass balance or “glacial health” from year to year. 

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   Ptarmigan Glacier from Camp 17. Photo by author.

Ptarmigan Glacier from Camp 17. Photo by author.

On top of all these tangible changes, however, we supplement our experience living on the icefield with the clairvoyance of scientific research—quantitative analysis and theories—to round out our awareness. Others, those who aren’t intimately familiar with the changing state of global climate, don’t have the same emotional bond with the ice. They don’t make their livelihood from it, or as in the case of many JIRPers, live for it.

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   Story time with Alf Pinchak, on the ice since 1967. Photo by author.

Story time with Alf Pinchak, on the ice since 1967. Photo by author.

Because of our unparalleled experience on the ice, we have the responsibility to pass on our knowledge and understanding of the crisis at hand. I invite Senator  Inhofe to visit the Icefield and look us square in the face, or better yet square in the recessional termini, and try to tell us climate change is a hoax. No person who finds himself this in love with the Earth on a nunatak 5,000 feet above Juneau would believe him. Thus, it is the responsibility of those 32 students on that nunatak to take their message home—to spread out within their various fields of study and career and use science and experience, not political passion, to inspire others to find their own way to love and protect the world.

Tour de Alf

By Stanley Pinchak

For many years, JIRP has maintained year-round digital temperature measurement at several camps located across the Juneau Icefield.  Starting in 1986 with the first installation in the Camp 17 Metshelter, the program expanded in subsequent years to include six camps which range from the most coastal, Camp 17; the most mainland, Camp 26; the mildest, Camp 10; and the highest and coldest, Camps 8 and 25.  These camps string out along the route that the Program follows each summer, although not all students spend time at Camp 25 or Camp 8.

The original temperature loggers were graciously provided by long time JIRPer Robert Asher.  These Ryan Instruments TempMentor (RTM) devices provide the ability to collect temperature readings every other hour for over a year.  The RTM devices are sealed inside of hard plastic lunch boxes and after 1987 were modified with a sealed port for the external temperature probe.  These recording devices have been installed in the Stevenson Meteorologic Shelters (Metshelters) at the various camps alongside other meteorological instruments.

Robert Asher performing routine maintenance on RTM at Camp 8 in 1987.  Photographer unknown.

A newer series of temperature loggers from Pace Scientific have been donated by Robert Asher and Analytical Research Associates.  The standard Pocket Logger provides the ability to capture two years of hourly temperature recordings.  This provides the possibility of capturing usable data even if logistics or computer issues prevent data recovery the year following deployment.  Other benefits of the Pocket Logger include finer temperature resolution, the ability for pre-set deployment, a report format that  includes date/time information corresponding to a particular measurement, and the ability to interrogate the device to check status while in operation.

Camp 8 Metshelter housing temperature sensors.  Photo by Alf Pinchak

While many JIRPers have been involved in the installation, maintenance, and collection of data from the temperature loggers, Alfred Pinchak has been involved since the beginning and remains the primary force in making sure that the JIRP Temperature Project (JTP) continues to collect data.  He is instrumental in training JIRP students and staff who have accompanied him while he makes the tour of the camps each year.

Alf Pinchak at Camp 10 alongside one of his beloved Metshelters.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

Due to time constraints in recent years, Alf will often travel by snowmobile ahead of the main JIRP program to reach the more distant Camps 8, 25, and 26.  The blitzkrieg of the farther camps is a rather exhausting task.  Not only must last year’s data be downloaded and the loggers be deployed for the upcoming year, there are calibrations which must be performed and recorded, maintenance of the Metshelters, and preliminary camp opening tasks are also performed at this time.

Camp 17 Metshelter under repair.  Photo by Alf Pinchak

This year Alf was able to collect the data from Camps 17 and 10 while he traveled with the main Program.  He elected to send Scott McGee and Stanley Pinchak on to the remaining camps.  Scott and Jeff Kavanaugh had reported earlier in the summer that the Metshelter at Camp 18 had gone missing, and in order to ensure adequate time to locate or replace it, a two day trip was planned.  Weather permitting, Scott and Stanley would leave and perform their tasks at Camp 18, 8, and 25, sleeping at Camp 18 and then travel to Camp 26 the following morning.

On the day of departure, the weather was excellent for snowmobile travel and the plan was slightly altered.  After departing Camp 10, Scott and Stanley headed immediately to Camp 8 and had a rather uneventful time after Scott found safe passage across the crevasse that extends down the southern slope of Mt. Moore.  Machining off under a reddish late morning sun, the result of recent forest fires in the region around the Juneau Icefield, the two headed to Camp 18 to pick up additional gas and to make an initial survey of the area around the missing Metshelter, uninhibited by the whiteout which had made this impossible for Jeff and Scott just a week earlier.  While the legs of the Metshelter were thrown off their moorings, only a few splinters of the Metshelter could be located in this initial survey.

The Metshelter at Camp 8 with Mt.  Moore in the background.  Photo by Stanley Pinchak

With the gas having been procured, Scott directed the snowmobile past the 8-18 junction and the Blob on towards Mt. Nesslerode and Camp 25.  The initial Eastern approach was complicated by crevasses and blue ice which limited access to the base of the camp.  A wide swing around the crevasse field allowed an alternate approach from the Southwest.  The steep climb over rock that looked like fractured shale was complicated by soft sand, the result of weathering and erosion.  Each footstep was seemingly more treacherous than the last, every weight transfer the opportunity for the underlying media to give way a little or a lot.  From initial appearances, the Metshelter appeared to be in pretty good shape, despite still needing a good coat of flat white paint.  Upon opening, it was apparent that something was amiss.  There were two data loggers in the Metshelter, but only one probe was secured inside, the other sensor was missing.  Further investigation indicated that the plastic probe holder fatigued, failed, and fell, allowing the probe to slip through the ventilation holes in the bottom of the shelter, leaving it hanging, exposed to daytime solar radiation.

After the initial disappointment caused by this hardware failure that has possibly biased some unknown portion of the daytime data, the task of recovering, calibrating, and redeploying the Pocket Logger commenced.  All was going smoothly until it came time to change the batteries on this newer model Pocket Logger.  For reasons still unknown, the device would not communicate for redeployment and after a period of time spent in troubleshooting and testing with a backup device, it was decided to install the backup for the upcoming year.  Unfortunately, this would limit recording to every hour as compared to the newer device which was capable of recording every 15 minutes.  Additionally, deploying the backup recorder would leave Camp 18 without a logger in the event that the Metshelter or its contents could not be found.  Some small maintenance was performed on the Metshelter, including the installation of barrel latches to secure the door and re-installation of the temperature probe.

When they had completed their work at Camp 25, Scott and Stanley headed back toward the main branch of the Llewellyn Glacier and then Northward to Camp 26.  The mid-afternoon approach to Camp 26 was complicated by the swamp of super-glacial streams, blue ice, small patches of snow, and moraine material that dominate the glacier for the kilometer between the C-26 Ski Hill and Toby's Rock.  Scott managed to plot a course through this quagmire that brought the snowmobile to the base  of Toby's Rock.  The hike up and around to picturesque Camp 26 was punctuated by the songs of the marmots and accompanied by the burbling of mountain streams and occasional drone of flying insects.

Author Stanley Pinchak takes temperature readings from the swamp in super-glacial streams  en route to Camp 26.  Photo by Scott McGee

It was soon discovered  that all was not well with the Camp 26 Metshelter.  The door stood open, a securing bungie cord hanging loosely, longing for its missing companion, the data recorder.  In disbelief, Stanley and Scott wondered aloud what might have caused such a situation.  Was it vandals or thieves, or something more sinister like marmots?  No those did not make sense since there remained the second recorder unmolested.  It could only be the wind.  That cold, cruel force that seemed to be wreaking havoc across the Icefield this past year must be to blame.  Fortunately, the data logger was discovered about 10 meters down slope, protectively encased in its plastic lunchbox, merrily recording “LO” for who knows how long.  Its temperature probe was located nearby, severed and lacerated in a dozen places, the result of the fall on the rocks or of marmot teeth could not be ascertained.

The Metshelter at Camp 26 was left exposed to the beautiful views. Photo by Stanley Pinchak

After a hard day’s work the RTM is going nowhere in its home at the Metshelter of Camp 26.  Photo by Stanley Pinchak

After the RTM data was recovered, the probe replaced and the device calibrated and redeployed, work commenced on creating a more secure solution than the single bungie which had long since seen more elastic days.  A couple of new bungies were employed, securing the RTM to newly installed anchors.  The door to the Metshelter was also secured with some wire to prevent future wind related mishaps.

While at Camp 26 it was discovered that the newer Pocket Logger had decided to begin talking to the computer again.  With this welcome news, the plans for the next day changed slightly.  Before heading to Camp 18, another stop at Camp 25 was scheduled to recover the spare logger and install the device that regularly monitors that camp.  A warm night was followed by a sunny but again slightly hazy morning.  The marmots again performed as Scott and Stanley cleaned up the plywood explosion, handiwork of wind and marmot, before heading to the snowmobile.  On the way up and out of the glacial marsh, temperature data was collected at two small super-glacial streams in the hopes of gaining further insight into the characteristics of the water systems that permeate the temperate glaciers of the Juneau Icefield.

A long drive from the upper reaches of the Llewellyn ablation zone to Mt. Nesselrode was followed by a quick stop at Camp 25.  Swapping out the recorders allowed for another opportunity to play “don't drop the equipment” as Scott and Stanley negotiated the increasingly longer hike from the top of the glacier to the kitchen and Metshelter of Camp 25, a byproduct of years of negative mass balance since the creation of the camp.  The weather remained clear and the views from Camp 25 to Camp 18 were breathtaking.

Upon arrival at Camp 18, the search for the missing Metshelter began in earnest.  Initially the edges of the snowfield immediately South of the Metshelter were combed, then a larger sweep began when this proved unsuccessful.  Outhouses and other sheltered locations were checked in the event that researchers from the USGS had discovered the Metshelter and moved the equipment earlier in the season.  This too proved unfruitful.  As Scott worked the Western reaches of the Camp 18 outcropping, Stanley headed South.  Finally, it was heard from the South, “SCOTT, I've found it!”

Scott McGee searching for missing instruments at Camp 18.  Photo by Stanley Pinchak

The remains at Camp 18 after the wind had its way with the Metstation.  Photo by Stanley Pinchak

There they were, the splinters and pieces of a large Stevenson Metshelter, spread out vertically along perhaps 15 meters of stair stepping cliffs, which start with an initial four meter drop, and located Southward about 75 meters from the original location of the Metshelter.  Among these shattered remains were some of the instrument contents of the Metshelter and hints at the fate of the others.  Holders for the high/low thermometers were found along with cracked pieces of a blue pelican case, evidence of massive trauma with bare rock written on its surface, a bag of desiccant placed alongside the Pocket Logger in its case was found among the wooden splinters.  While the hopes for the Pocket Logger and its data were dashed, there was still hope for Scott's instrument.  Unfortunately, the search was called off after a thorough investigation of the rocks near the remains of the Metshelter and the edges of the snow field which extends below these rocks proved unsuccessful.

The temporary Metshelter at Camp 18 all rocked in to support it against harsh winds and marmots.  Photo by Stanley Pinchak

With the mystery of the missing Metshelter having been discovered, work began to install a new temporary Metshelter in preparation for a new recording year.  A new site was located and legs were rocked in, a temporary anchor until the Program arrives at Camp 18 and more permanent cable ties can be installed.  A smaller, more aerodynamic Metshelter was attached to these legs and readied for the upcoming year.  The only problem was that the Camp 18 Pocket Logger was missing, assumed destroyed in the catastrophic events of the previous year.  Worse, the weather resistant case was also missing and in any event, damaged heavily in the fall.  How could the JTP continue at Camp 18?

The spare Pocket Logger and a super-glacial stream temperature probe were the answer to the question posed by the first problem.  All that remained was the weather proof case.  A plastic peanut butter jar procured from the generator shed provided the weather proof case, the damaged probe taken from Camp 26 provided the sealed port for the new probe.  A little silicone here and there and the JTP was ready for another year at Camp 18.  After using the tired old bungie from Camp 26 to secure the door to the Metshelter, Scott and Stanley headed back to the Nunatak Chalet arriving just in time for dinner.  A tale of highs and lows, of beauty and exhilaration, of despair and hope completed.  Another Tour de Alf for the record books.

A new protective housing was FGERed out of a peanut butter jar to ensure the science continues!  Photo by Stanley Pinchak