The Beauty of the North

Deirdre Collins

Georgetown University

On August 5, Camp 18 echoed with rumors that the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, would make an appearance later that night. The clear and starry night sky enclosed us and appeared faintly green, exciting onlookers with fantasies of one of the Earth’s most impressive phenomena. Determined not to miss the twisting and twirling lights that would dance through the night, my friends and I decided to sleep on the north side of camp and set alarms every hour to inspect the sky. By half past midnight, my excitement had kept me up way past my normal bedtime. The sky glowed light green, indicating that the Aurora had started and foreshadowing the curtains of light that would soon appear above me. Constellations like the Big Dipper were sprinkled delicately across the vast expanse of space above. Without quite realizing it, I soon drifted off to sleep, hoping that my next conscious moments would be under the Aurora. 

At 2 am, I was awoken by my friends who wore faces of pure wonderment and admiration. As my eyes adjusted to the light above me, I saw it — curtains of lime green light meandering and moving quickly through the sky. Streaks of violet and white radiated from the snaking luminance that occupied our astonished minds. The lights twisted and turned rapidly around each other and we tried not to blink for fear that we would miss a second of something so spectacular. Shooting stars cut through the Aurora every now and then, appearing to pierce through the light that moved so rapidly through the sky. Curled up in our sleeping bags under the show, we lay there contemplating the power and beauty of nature and as scientists, questioning the mechanisms that could produce such magnificence. The scientific understanding that underlay the beauty of the Aurora is what truly captivated me that night on the Camp 18 nunatak above the Juneau Icefield.

Storm Range at Camp 18 under the Aurora Borealis. Photo Credit: Deirdre Collins

Storm Range at Camp 18 under the Aurora Borealis. Photo Credit: Deirdre Collins

The Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere, and the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere, result from solar storms. Large amounts of highly charged particles from the sun travel towards the Earth and interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. These charged particles travel along the Earth’s magnetic field to the planet’s north and south poles. Entering the Earth’s upper atmosphere, roughly 100-200 km above the surface, these highly charged particles excite various gases. When these gases return to a resting state — their electrons moving back down an orbital or energy level — releasing visible radiation (light!). According to the American Geophysical Union’s Earth & Space Science News, the Aurora is most prominent 2-3 days after outbursts of high solar activity. The type of gas and the difference in energy between the gas’s excited and resting states determine the wavelength of light released and, therefore, the color we see in the night sky. The greens and yellows we observe in the Aurora result from the release of radiation from one gas, whereas the purples we see result from release of radiation from another gas. The excitement of atmospheric gases by the interaction of highly charged particles from the sun with the Earth’s magnetic field produce one of the most spectacular wonders observed by man. It was both the exquisiteness of the Northern Lights and their intriguing scientific explanation that captivated me as I lay on a nunatak on the Icefield that night following the colorful lights as they danced throughout the sky. 

Mountains above the Gilkey Trench under the Aurora Borealis. Photo Credit: Deirdre Collins

Mountains above the Gilkey Trench under the Aurora Borealis. Photo Credit: Deirdre Collins



The Traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin

By Sarah Cooley

The final traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin Lake was definitely an epic and exciting way to end our trip across the Juneau Icefield. With the constantly changing scenery and gradual descent into greenery, it is a favorite of many of the returning staff and faculty. Though we were all sad to leave the Icefield, there was definitely excitement in the air when we set off in the morning. We did the traverse in three groups: two the first day followed by one final group the next day. I was in the second group, so we set off at 9 am, two hours after the first group’s 7 am departure. After seeing them off and eating a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and pilot bread, we packed up, attached our skis to our packs and headed down the nunatak to the ablation zone of the Llewellyn Glacier. Once we hit the glacier, we began an easy few hours down the ice on the side of the medial moraine. After weeks in the accumulation zone, it was amazing yet very strange to be on bare ice, walking amongst melt channels, crevasses and the occasional moulin. We were all fascinated with these ablation zone features, and many pictures were taken as we reminisced about our summer while hiking across the ice. As the crevasses grew deeper and larger, we needed to put on crampons so we all could have a little bit more stability. Traversing the crevasses was slow, and we all worked together to get ourselves through the toughest parts, cutting steps and providing support to each other as we maneuvered through each ice bridge. A few hours later, we all were extremely relieved to be able to take off the crampons and return to flatter ice.

JIRPers hike down the lower Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the toe of Red Mountain.  After scouting a route, we left the ice for a quick climb to the top of the ridge followed by a long and difficult descent through scree and alders. The combination of tired legs, heavy packs and unwieldy skis added a significant challenge to the hike down, and again we all pitched in to help each other down the steep and slippery sections. When we had finally reached the bottom of the hill, we were somewhat tired, scraped, bruised and covered in mud, but all in good spirits, telling lots of jokes and stories as we waited for our trail party leaders Jeff and Kate to scout a route onto the ice. Once we had successfully gotten back onto the Llewellyn Glacier, slippery ice meant crampons became quite necessary, so we spent one last hour in our crampons before finally exiting the glacier for the last time. Leaving the icefield after seven weeks of amazing experience was quite emotional for everyone, and we took a few last pictures, filled up our water bottles with one last gulp of pure glacial water and put our feet onto dry land. I think we all are still struggling to process leaving the glacier, but in the moment we had no choice but to keep our goodbyes quick and continue the long hike to the inlet.

Approaching the Red Mountain Ridge on the lower Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

The next part of our hike included a beautiful segment known as the Ball-Bearing Highway. With the sun setting over the Llewellyn Glacier behind us, we followed the lake at the terminus until we hit the trail exactly as we lost daylight. After a quick break to get out our headlamps, we continued our hike around the lake in darkness. The surrounding trees and greenery were a welcome change after two months without large plants, and the smells of the flora overwhelmed us. Above us were some of the most beautiful stars I had ever seen, and our journey through the unfamiliar woods in darkness was almost magical. After two hours without much rest, we took one final break at midnight, exhausted but still in good spirits and excited to reach Llewellyn Inlet. As we all sat on our packs, contemplating attacking the remaining few miles after such a long day, the sky suddenly lit up with a fantastic display of aurora borealis. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, turning our headlamps off, all amazed at the wondrous timing of the first aurora of the summer. After searching all summer (and in summers past), it was the first northern lights I had ever seen, and combined with the emotion of leaving the amazing icefield, it was a really poignant and unforgettable moment. With the northern lights in front of us and shooting stars sweeping across the sky above us, we all felt prepared and excited to tackle the final few miles.

The final stretch of the trail includes multiple swamp crossings and some bush-whacking. Bush-whacking with skis on is, well, interesting, and for many of the parts we all assumed what we called ‘narwhal position’ which entailed squatting and bending over so that your skis come to a point a few feet in front of your head. It was tiring, but it was quite successful. With sore backs and our legs and feet wet up to our knees, we all sang and talked up the final hill towards camp, screaming and laughing at 1:30 am when we finally reached the inlet. Given the lateness of our arrival and the presence of another tired trail party who had arrived a few hours before us and were already asleep, we opted not to jump in the lake as is JIRP tradition, unlike the two other trail parties. However, despite the exhaustion, we all began to process the fact that we had completed the entire traverse of the Juneau Icefield, and our sense of personal accomplishment was palpable. We quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and all laid down right on the beach, just a few feet from the water. As we laid there in silence, the aurora reappeared, even more magnificent than before. The green lights curled with columns shooting upwards towards the stars, and with one last glimpse at the incredible sky, we all quickly fell asleep.

Awaiting the early-morning boat shuttle across Atlin Lake from Llewellyn Inlet to Atlin, BC. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

After barely three hours of sleep, we were awakened the next morning by the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who checked each of our passports and allowed us to officially enter Canada, despite the fact that we had crossed the border days before. The first trail party then promptly left for Atlin via boat. We returned to our sleeping bags for an hour or so, then cooked ourselves a breakfast of beans and Spam over the fire as we waited for the second boat to come pick us up. When it finally arrived, we quickly loaded up and headed for Atlin. The boat ride was fantastically beautiful but also quite emotional as we watched the high ice of our beloved Juneau Icefield slowly slip out of view. The excitement of trees, waterfalls and islands kept our attention as we moved closer to Atlin. After such a long journey, we were so excited to finally reach the small town on such a beautiful sunny day. 

Aurora Hunters

By Sarah Bouckoms

For the first seven nights at Camp 18 I did not sleep under a roof. We were blessed with fabulous weather that left most of us retreating inside a building only for an hour or two during our daily lectures.  As the sun set, we all wandered around the rocks, looking for the best sleeping site we could find. Armed with bed rolls or sleeping pads, we knew we could tolerate a few bumps and rolls of rocks but the flatter the spot, the better. This of course could all be compromised for the view or proximity to the icefalls. Yes, we were lulled to sleep by the sounds of the calving Vaughan Lewis Icefall under the clear night skies of Alaska. It sounds so wild and remote that sometimes I feel as if I am dreaming before I have even fallen asleep. 

Armed with a book for a pillow the Vaughan-Lewis Icefall can lull anyone to sleep. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

We do our best to avoid sleeping and spend time finding constellations and hunting for aurora. I am familiar with the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere so it is a joy to see some old friends that have gone missing with the extended daylight hours this close to the Arctic Circle. An even greater joy comes when I am able to point out the constellations to the students. I have to explain the first fundamental rule to be an astronomer -  having an overactive imagination. That, yes, this square over here is completely different from that square over there. Clearly one is Hercules, the brave warrior, the other is Pegasus, proudly soaring through the sky. The Summer Triangle also greets us shinning forth from the stars Vega, Altair and Deneb. Not to be forgotten is the slightly dimmer star Polaris which is near the North Celestial Pole, the special point that marks the axis around which the stars appear to rotate.  It can easily be found by extending the distance between the last two stars in the Big Dipper. Surely every good Alaskan must know this group of stars since it is represented on the state flag. But did you know that it is not actually a constellation? Yes it is true. As Pluto is not a planet, nor is the Big Dipper a constellation. Have no fear though, for the group of stars that we know well as the Big Dipper resides in another constellation, Ursa Major. The Latin name translates to Big Bear.  Another key ingredient to being a good astronomer is imagination. For the handle of the Big Dipper is actually the elongated tail of a bear and the four stars of the cup are the rear end and back of the bear. Further stars contribute to the face along with stars in groups of three to make up the paws. It is much easier to see the constellations when there is less light pollution, such as we are lucky to avoid on the Juneau Icefield. It seems a shame that the light from the stars should travel light years through outer space only to be dimmed out by the man-made light in the lower parts of the atmosphere just before it reaches our eyes. Thus is life in a world where we are no longer ruled by the solar cycle but a 9 – 5 workday. If you can manage to escape out to the country or turn the lights off in your house, you will be amazed at the glory of the stars and the white band that is the Milky Way.

A group sleeping outside wakes to morning views of the Gilkey Trench. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

While stars are pretty, that is not what we outside slumberers dream to see. What we really want to see are the solar particles colliding above Earth’s atmosphere attracted by the magnetic field. This fantastic display of collisions is responsible for the light that we call the Aurora Borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and the Aurora Australis in the Southern Hemisphere.  The different colors are dependent on the type of particles interacting and the altitude. The sun emits electrons which interact with either Nitrogen or Oxygen. The collisions (and hence the aurora) are most prominent closer to the poles as this is where the magnetic fields converge, creating the greatest pull for the electrically charged particles emitted from the Sun.

So if you are a good aurora hunter, what do you have to look for? The probability of the collisions happening in the winter is no greater than in the summer. The largest difference is that during the winter you have 12 + hours of darkness, which gives you a greater chance of observing the light show. We are only just creeping into true darkness as we enter August, so the Sun, which is ironically the source of the particles, is also producing light which is brighter than the light of the aurora.  The Sun has decided to help us out though! The Sun is climbing out of its 11 year cycle from a solar minimum – or minimum amount of solar activity. As the Sun becomes more active, it will send more particles into the Solar System, increasing the chance of an interaction in Earth’s atmosphere. So if the stars alight for us and we get a clear night, with high solar activity, we may be lucky enough to see this dazzling display of lights. Keep your fingers crossed readers and you two will get to vicariously live through the wonder of the aurora in another blog post full of aurora pictures or videos.

While I have watched with enthusiasm as the faces of my students light up when I show them YouTube videos of aurora, I hope that I may be lucky enough to record my own video or describe the lights personally back in the classroom. I love teaching physics, as I find that knowing the science behind the phenomena of the natural world only makes it more beautiful.

Taken straight from the sleeping bag. The beautiful sunrise over Atlin Lake welcomes us to the day when we return to civilization. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

While the Sun wakes me up earlier than I would like at times, watching it lighting up the glaciers as they drip off the jagged mountain peeks from the comfort of my toasty sleeping bag, I have a quiet moment in the morning to myself thinking I must have done something right to wake up to this view. Then the hustle and bustle of the day on the Juneau Icefield begins and we wait for nightfall when the aurora hunters emerge again.