A Basic Introduction to the Juneau Icefield Research Program

Annie Boucher

JIRP Senior Staff and Faculty Member

Welcome to the Juneau Icefield Research Program blog! We’re gearing up for the new season: students will soon be connecting with staff mentors to navigate expedition preparation, staff are making plans for staff training week in June, and faculty are sketching out plans for student research projects.

At this time of year, when our new students are preparing for the field season, we know there are a lot of people getting to know JIRP (pronounced “jerp”) for the first time. In the coming weeks, we will use this blog to give you a taste of who will be involved in the expedition this summer, what all goes into expedition prep, and some background on a few of the returning JIRPers who make everything happen. Over the course of the field season - June through August - we will use the blog to post daily updates from the field about what we’re up to. Students will post photos, essays, drawings, and video clips covering both the science research and the day-to-day mechanics of moving more than 50 people across the Icefield.

We have a lot to look forward to! To start, though, here’s a quick and dirty overview of what’s about to happen.

What is JIRP?
JIRP is an expedition-based field science education program. Over two months, we traverse the Juneau Icefield in southeast Alaska and northwest British Columbia, moving between permanent camps while we teach a variety of field research and glacier science topics. Because we are living right on the glacier, JIRP students are immersed in their studies. They don’t just learn about glacier ice flow from a textbook, they go out onto the glacier and explore the real-life markers of flow dynamics from the ice surface, from inside crevasses, from under the ice in sub-glacial caves, and from the bird’s eye view atop nearby mountains. JIRP students spend every waking minute soaking up their surroundings; this leads to a deeper understanding of the environment than any student could get inside the classroom.

Faculty member Billy Armstrong (right, red jacket) holds an evening lecture on ice flow dynamics above the Gilkey Glacier.

Faculty member Billy Armstrong (right, red jacket) holds an evening lecture on ice flow dynamics above the Gilkey Glacier.

Who makes up the JIRP team?
There are three groups of people at JIRP: students, staff, and faculty. At any given time, there are 50-60 people participating in the expedition. Our students are mostly undergraduates, although we often have high schoolers, graduate students, and in-between-schools students as well. Our students come from schools across the U.S. and around the world. Everything that happens at JIRP revolves around student education. This summer we expect to have 32 students, all of whom will be part of the program for the whole field season.

Students Matty Miller (blue jacket) and Tai Rovzar (green jacket) repel into a crevasse and observe their surroundings.

Students Matty Miller (blue jacket) and Tai Rovzar (green jacket) repel into a crevasse and observe their surroundings.

Our staff facilitate field safety and expedition logistics. The Icefield-based field staff spend the first two weeks of the program teaching the students and new faculty required glacier safety skills. For the rest of the season they manage our camps and accompany every group that goes out onto the ice to oversee technical mountaineering challenges and take care of any first aid needs. The Juneau-based staff organize personnel, equipment, and groceries for our helicopters, as well as maintaining daily radio communication with the expedition. This summer JIRP has 12 staff members on the Icefield and two in Juneau, all of whom will work for the whole season.

Field staffer Kirsten Arnell (center, blue jacket) discusses setting routes for rope team travel on the Norris Icefall. The field staff works closely with the students every step of the traverse, teaching them the skills to travel safely through the terrain. Photo credit: Ibai Rico.

Field staffer Kirsten Arnell (center, blue jacket) discusses setting routes for rope team travel on the Norris Icefall. The field staff works closely with the students every step of the traverse, teaching them the skills to travel safely through the terrain. Photo credit: Ibai Rico.

Our faculty are researchers, professors, graduate students, journalists, medical doctors, and other professionals. While their backgrounds vary, they share a deep commitment to education and expertise in a field relevant to the Juneau Icefield. They are on the program primarily to teach and while they’re with the expedition all their work includes JIRP students. Faculty rotate throughout the summer; most weeks there are between 5 and 10 faculty members on the icefield.

Student Joel Gonzales-Santiago and faculty member Lindsey Nicholson download meteorological data from a weather station. Photo credit: Allen Pope.

When does JIRP happen?
JIRP is a summer program. Our team is in the field from mid-June through mid-August. The program has been running on this schedule every year since 1949. For more on the history of JIRP, check out our history page and stayed tuned for some JIRP legends to be posted to the blog this spring and throughout the summer.

On clear nights toward the end of the summer JIRPers often sleep outside. Everyone falls asleep around 11:00 pm when it’s getting dark, but it’s not uncommon to wake up three hours later to shouts of “Lights! Northern lights!” Photo credit: Brad Markle.

On clear nights toward the end of the summer JIRPers often sleep outside. Everyone falls asleep around 11:00 pm when it’s getting dark, but it’s not uncommon to wake up three hours later to shouts of “Lights! Northern lights!” Photo credit: Brad Markle.

Where are we working?
The Juneau Icefield is one of the largest icefields in North America at 3,700 square kilometers, covering an area a bit larger than the state of Rhode Island. An icefield is a collection of several contiguous glaciers that flow more or less outward from an area of high snow accumulation. The ice surface of an icefield is low enough that the glaciers flow around, not over, the highest mountains (distinguishing it from an ice cap). The Juneau Icefield straddles the border between southeast Alaska and northwest British Columbia. The western side of the Juneau Icefield abuts the city of Juneau, AK - our students begin their traverse hiking just beyond the Home Depot parking lot. In contrast to many icefields of a similar size, proximity to Juneau makes the logistics of JIRP relatively easy.

The hike down to camp for dinner. At the top of the rocky hilltop in the fore ground you can pick out the buildings of our largest camp. Beyond camp, Taku Glacier flows from right to left in front of the distant Taku Towers. Photo credit: Kenzie McAdams.

The hike down to camp for dinner. At the top of the rocky hilltop in the fore ground you can pick out the buildings of our largest camp. Beyond camp, Taku Glacier flows from right to left in front of the distant Taku Towers. Photo credit: Kenzie McAdams.

JIRP maintains several permanent camps across the Icefield; we are based out of these for most of the summer. Our large camps include bunk room housing for all 50-60 members of the expedition, cooking facilities, outhouses, generators, and lecture space. All permanent structures are built on the bare rocky hilltops above the flowing glaciers. The buildings are modest and space is sometimes tight, but it makes all the difference for us to be able to get out of the weather at the end of the day.

Our last large camp, near the divide between the U.S. and Canadian side of the icefield. Photo credit: Kenzie McAdams.

Our last large camp, near the divide between the U.S. and Canadian side of the icefield. Photo credit: Kenzie McAdams.

Why study the Juneau Icefield?
People study the Juneau Icefield for a host of reasons. Geologists seek information about the complicated tectonic and geologic history of Alaska. Biologists examine the flora and fauna of the rocky mountain islands isolated by the flowing ice. Physicists use seismic data to look into the ice itself to understand how the glaciers flow.

Students DJ Jarrin and Riley Wall set up the delicate gravimeter. The gravimeter measures tiny anomalies in the local gravity, which the students use to deduce information about the bedrock buried beneath almost a mile (1500 m) of ice. Photo credit: DJ Jarrin.

Students DJ Jarrin and Riley Wall set up the delicate gravimeter. The gravimeter measures tiny anomalies in the local gravity, which the students use to deduce information about the bedrock buried beneath almost a mile (1500 m) of ice. Photo credit: DJ Jarrin.

Glaciers are also a “hot topic” right now because of climate change. Glaciers form and flow in areas where annual snow accumulation is high enough that substantial snowpack survives the summer. Because they rely on the snowpack, glaciers are sensitive to two central pieces of climate: temperature and precipitation. Measuring and observing different aspects of glaciers can tell us about past and present trends in temperature and precipitation. Climate research is a central component of the JIRP curriculum, but it is far from the only topic we cover.

Students Kate Bollen, Kristen Lyda Rees, and Louise Borthwick measure the density of the snow accumulated over the past year. Even at the end of the summer the last year’s snow accumulation is often 4-6 m/13-20 ft. deep high on the icefield. Measurements of the each year’s snowfall are compared with a continuous dataset that stretches back to the 1940s. Photo credit: Victor Cabrera.

Students Kate Bollen, Kristen Lyda Rees, and Louise Borthwick measure the density of the snow accumulated over the past year. Even at the end of the summer the last year’s snow accumulation is often 4-6 m/13-20 ft. deep high on the icefield. Measurements of the each year’s snowfall are compared with a continuous dataset that stretches back to the 1940s. Photo credit: Victor Cabrera.

That’s all we’ve got for now. Blog posts will be published periodically this spring and almost daily during the summer on every aspect of working and living on the Juneau Icefield. In the meantime, we hope this gives new students, their friends and family a basic idea of what to expect in the coming months.


Unexpected Biogeochemistry Results, and How They Were Surprisingly Helpful

Molly Peek

Smith College

Sometimes, in field science, things do not go as planned, and you just have to make the best of it. While this is true for all of life at JIRP, this year’s biogeochemistry group received special lessons in planning and adaptation.

This was the first year of the biogeochemistry student research project (BGC for short); we needed to start with an exploratory study. With no prior fieldwork done in the area, we relied on related research to begin our study characterizing the chemistry of supraglacial streams in the ablation zone of the Llewellyn Glacier. Supraglacial streams are melt water streams that run along the top of exposed ice in glacier melt zones. Nutrients from nearby nunataks are blown onto the ice, where supraglacial streams transport them across the glacier, and eventually off the end of the glacier into the downstream fluvial system. We decided to focus our project on alkalinity, which is dissolved inorganic carbon, or bicarbonate, in the water. Bicarbonate can be weathered off rocks through water, and thus is a good starting point in characterizing the chemical makeup of water.

Team BGC crosses from the nunataks to the blue ice of the ablation zone for a day of fieldwork. Photo credit: Auri Clark

Team BGC crosses from the nunataks to the blue ice of the ablation zone for a day of fieldwork. Photo credit: Auri Clark

Team BGC headed down to the blue ice of the Llewellyn Glacier and Camp 26 to investigate alkalinity in the supraglacial streams carving the ice, armed with our relevant literature and our alkalinity titrator (a devise used to measure the concentration of bicarbonate in our water samples). After a long traverse over thin snow and a tricky crevasse field, we arrived to Camp 26 on the Llewellyn ready to take alkalinity measurements on 30 melt water streams. Using clean water sampling strategies, we donned plastic gloves and filled plenty of bottles to bring back to camp for titration, as well as recording measurements and observations on the character of the stream.

Chris Miele measures the dimensions of a supraglacial stream on the Llewellyn Glacier. Photo credit: Annie Zaccarin

Chris Miele measures the dimensions of a supraglacial stream on the Llewellyn Glacier. Photo credit: Annie Zaccarin

Back at camp with fresh samples, we excitedly began titration to test for bicarbonate. To titrate, we added a dark green indicator base to the water sample, followed by drops of acid that react to the base, turning the water bright pink. The number of drops of acid required to turn the water a vibrant pink indicates the alkalinity of the water—the more drops we needed to add, the more alkalinity in the water.

Based on previous research on similar glaciers and the nature of the Llewellyn’s geology, our group expected to find significant amounts of alkalinity in supraglacial streams, especially in those streams with visible debris along their beds.

So, where was all this alkalinity? Adding acid to our samples, we consistently found it only in low levels, with the water turning boldly pink after fewer than 10 drops of the acid, indicating our samples would have bigger error bars.

Did we do something wrong? Checking over our work, we realized that, no, we had done the process correctly; we just had results that were completely unexpected. What now?

We had committed a fatal flaw in science: becoming married to a hypothesis! What can I say, we were excited. Our first response was to laugh for a little while in some frustration, and then we decided to take this as a lesson, but make it a fun one in the end.

A supraglacial stream running over the blue the ice, which our testing showed carries surprisingly low levels of alkalinity. Photo credit: Auri Clark

A supraglacial stream running over the blue the ice, which our testing showed carries surprisingly low levels of alkalinity. Photo credit: Auri Clark

If we didn’t find alkalinity where we predicted, we wondered if we would find it anywhere else. As a group, we decided to use our extra bottles to collect samples from other places around Camp 26 and on our hike off the icefield. We collected water from basal streams found in ice caves and coming out near the terminus of Llewellyn Glacier, and at the Llewellyn Inlet on Atlin Lake.

A meltwater stream running over rock debris near the terminus of the Llewellyn Glacier. Although sampling this stream wasn’t part of our initial fieldwork plan, it proved to have high levels of alkalinity. Photo credit: Auri Clark

A meltwater stream running over rock debris near the terminus of the Llewellyn Glacier. Although sampling this stream wasn’t part of our initial fieldwork plan, it proved to have high levels of alkalinity. Photo credit: Auri Clark

Finally in Atlin, we broke open the alkalinity titrator kit for one final hurrah to test these “fun” (or, more professionally, “exploratory”) samples. Observing the water as we collected samples, most of these sites were more turbid, or cloudy with dissolved particles, than the supraglacial streams had been: a good sign for finding alkalinity derived from bedrock weathering. We added our indicator dye, and apprehensively began to add drops of acid. We started slowly, but became more excited as they passed the statistically significant threshold – we had found alkalinity!

Testing these samples was exciting purely because we found the results we had set our hearts on earlier. Even though we know this is a dangerous trap in which to fall in science, as this experiment proved, it was satisfying to find the sought-after alkalinity. Beyond that, though, these samples allowed us to ask more questions about our study, which we consider a successful outcome in an exploratory study.

Why was there far more alkalinity found in basal streams than in supraglacial streams? Where did the alkalinity in the basal streams come from? How do we characterize the supraglacial streams, knowing they have little bicarbonate? How does this differ from basal streams?

All in all, this year’s biogeochemistry project was a lesson in flexibility. When the route through the crevasse field doesn’t work, try again. When your hypothesis gets a little fuzzy, ask why. A ‘null result’ is still a result, and it allows us to build off the unexpected and ask new questions.


Communication and Toads

Riley Wall

Occidental College ’17

Blogging seems quite simple.  To blog one simply needs to communicate in an informal manner with one’s audience, but to be perfectly honest with you, blogging intimidates me.

When I write a blog I have a voice.  Not to say that I don’t usually have a voice; I mean writing a blog is like putting a megaphone in front of my mouth. My words can reach an audience far larger when written than when spoken.  I am intimidated. I am intimidated not because I find the process too difficult, but because I realize that if others are taking the time to read my words to better understand JIRP, that I have a responsibility to make those words representative of the experience and its impacts.  JIRP however, for me, has been so deeply impactful that I struggle with the question of how I could best attempt to communicate the myriad of ways that I have been changed by my experiences on the icefield and the myriad of landscapes that have contributed to those changes.  

I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite authors, Yann Martell, “words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field–but they’re all we have, ” and I know that I cannot communicate through my cold, muddy personal observations and senses what is most vital and important about JIRP.

I can describe the visual beauty of the enormous Gilkey Trench.  I can illustrate how it plunges 2,000 vertical feet down below JIRP’s Camp 18, how the curved ogives and enormous medial moraines create an unexpected symmetry in the ice until the canyon bends and carries them out of sight, how the glacier resembles a calm laminar flowing river several kilometers wide, and how the ice seems to light on fire as orange, pink, and purple clouds reflect down upon it at sunset.  I can effectively communicate what I see on the icefield, but I wonder if I can describe how the trench makes me small and insignificant before its grandeur, or how it can instill so much joy in me when I revel in its beauty one moment and so much sadness the next when I spot the engraved lines recording hundreds of feet of rapid glacial melting in the canyon walls, signaling that this mighty force before me is dying, and still I know that I cannot communicate how what I saw on the icefield changed me.  

The Gilkey Trench as seen from Camp 18. Photo by Riley Wall.

The Gilkey Trench as seen from Camp 18. Photo by Riley Wall.

I can describe the sounds that ice blocks larger than houses make when they tumble down the Vaughan Lewis Ice Fall.  I can convey how the noise that crumbling seracs make resembles the roar of distant thunder, how the crashes are often powerful enough to wake sleeping JIRPers, how the rumble that interjects forcefully into everyday life at random intervals never loses its novelty or ceases to cause excitement, and how one can’t help but hold his or her breath until each individual ice fall event terminates with an eerie thud.  I can effectively communicate what I hear on the icefield, but I wonder if I can communicate how these sounds indicate that despite the fact that the icefield seems static day to day, it is in a constant state of dynamic transformation, very much alive and susceptible to human actions, and still I know that I cannot communicate how what I heard on the icefield changed me.

The Vaughan Lewis Icefall. Photo by Allen Pope.

The Vaughan Lewis Icefall. Photo by Allen Pope.

I can describe the unexpected scents of the forget-me-not, heather, and fireweed blooms. I can express how tiny blue forget-me-nots conceal their fragrance during the day but unleash a powerful sweet aroma when the sun drops beneath the horizon, how the white, pink, and mountain heather release an earthy, herb-like smell that is reminiscent of the holiday season, and how expansive fields of deep purple fireweed draw passersby and bees alike with their citrus-honey like scent.  I can communicate what I smell on the icefield, but I wonder if I can communicate how these smells are more prevalent now than ever, how many of these plants are markers of change in the form of primary succession, how the hillsides now full of bright colors and smells used to be permanently white and scentless, how even though I enjoy the unexpected blooms, I can’t help but to feel a tinge of bitterness when encountering their aromas, and still I know that I cannot communicate how what I smelled on the icefield changed me.

Dwarf fireweed above Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by Riley Wall.

Dwarf fireweed above Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by Riley Wall.

I can describe the sensations caused by the ice of the Orphan Ice Caves.  I can explain how hands effortlessly slide across the walls as if they were greased with oil, how the ice’s surface is flawlessly smooth yet mere millimeters deeper within, billions of trapped bubbles resembling the cosmos crack and rearrange under the minimal pressure and heat of a fingertip, how the ridges of the inverted sun cups on the ceiling are as sharp as knife blades, and how the cave, warmed by the sun above, continually drips 0° C water, soaking clothing and causing moments of shock every time a drop touches exposed skin.  I can effectively communicate the feeling of what I touch on the icefield, but I wonder if I can communicate how lucky I feel to have walked through such an ephemeral feature of the landscape that morphs, stabilizes and destabilizes annually, ever-shrinking since changes in ice flow dynamics and rising temperatures permanently detached the caves from the larger glacier, bestowing on it the name Orphan, and still I know that I cannot communicate how what I felt on the icefield changed me.

Exploring the Orphan Ice Cave. Photo by Auri Clark.

Exploring the Orphan Ice Cave. Photo by Auri Clark.

I can describe even the flavor of the snow I ski across.  I can articulate how the finer snow is best for quenching one’s thirst because it melts most easily into refreshing water, how larger grained snow that has experienced melt and refreeze numerous times is best to provide a crunch in one’s PB&J sandwiches, and how concentrated Tang and Gatorade powder make the best snow-cone flavoring when carried out onto the icefield. I can even communicate what I taste on the icefield, but I wonder if I can communicate how I am constantly daydreaming about when the snow level was, on average, 8 meters (26 feet) above where I extract my cold treats now less than two decades ago, how I am terrified by the knowledge that many scientists estimate that the massive, seemingly unconquerable icefield I have been snacking on is already conquered and likely to completely disappear before 2200 (Ziemen et al., 2016), and still I know that I cannot communicate how even what I tasted on the icefield changed me.

Icefield trails. Photo by Riley Wall.

Icefield trails. Photo by Riley Wall.

The true value of JIRP comes from the realizations, revelations, and ideas that it inspires in its participants.  No amount of communication can describe the intangible elements of personal change that manifest from the first-hand icefield immersion of JIRP.  

Thus I am left with the conclusion that while one can gain an understanding of what JIRP and the icefield look like, sound like, smell like, feel like, and even taste like, the most important aspects, the impactful aspects, remain, for me, inexplicable…

Blogging perhaps intimidates me, therefore, not because I am incapable of communicating with readers, but because I am incapable of communicating what I feel needs to be communicated.  So my only remaining recourse is a plea to those truly interested in JIRP, glaciers, climate change, and the greater natural world: to embark on your own adventures, for you learn from your own personal experiences best, to foster any feelings of inspired motivation you find on those adventures, and to be a champion of the change you want to see. It is much easier to show people how you’ve changed than it is to describe it, trust me.   


Link TV: Juneau Icefield Expedition

By Matt Beedle

In 2013 JIRP was fortunate to have photographers and documentary film makers Jeffrey Barbee and Mira Dutschke as members of a great crew of staff and faculty.  In addition to their efforts to help JIRP run smoothly and safely Jeff and Mira produced two fantastic video episodes on the 'Juneau Icefield Expedition' for Link TV.  Enjoy!

Thank you, Jeff and Mira! 


By Sarah Bouckoms

“The boat is here” were the words I wrote in my diary as we watched the calm waters being broken by the bow of a small silver boat. In it contained the first person in two months we saw who was not a JIRPer. But it held so much more meaning than the weight of our Captain. It was a passageway to Atlin, BC. The final call that we were off the Icefield. The summer adventures were over. But there was still more work to be done. In Atlin we would be busy doing things like showering, laundry and eating ice cream. After those necessities were taken care of the students needed to busy themselves finalizing their presentations for the citizens of Atlin.  The students were divided into groups based on topic area to each talk about their work. Each student found it hard to pack a summer of research in 3 minutes, but with a bit of practice we pulled it off.  After the talks we enjoyed a cookie and a hot drink with the community. Earlier in the day, Mary Gianotti, Stephanie Streich and Christiane McCabe busied themselves in the kitchen making cookies. 400 of them. There were chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, shortbread and peanut butter with chocolate Hershey kisses. 

Yum Yum! Lots of cookie eating after the talks. Photo by Stephanie Streich.

Giving presentations in Atlin after completing the traverse has been a long-standing JIRP tradition. It gives the students a chance to work on their public speaking, but more importantly it is a social event in Atlin not to be missed. We were overwhelmed with the enthusiasm shown as we entered the shops or laundromat. No one cared that we were stinky since we had not showered yet. Everyone was just excited to hear how our summer went. 

The local shops were a novelty after waiting on helicopter deliveries all summer. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

Atlin was a great transition back into civilization. It was quite bizarre to see things such as cars and telephone poles, cute little shops and animals. Luckily for us, the streets were not so busy so it was not a problem that we treated the roads like a trail and took to walking down the center of the street. Atlin gave us a great welcome with its sunny days, warm water for swimming and clear nights for Aurora gazing. We joked that if we had been plopped down in New York City there would have been casualties in minutes.  Thank you citizens of Atlin for the warm welcome and hospitality you offered, we are all grateful for the easy transition.

[NOTE:  Click on any of the images below to open a slideshow with all photos and captions.]   

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. 

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

Glaciers 101

By Grayson Carlile

Since our arrival at Camp 10 we have shifted gears from safety and expedition training to science . Our time has been spent developing our individual research projects and receiving lectures from an exceptional group of faculty. We are beginning to delve into the details of how the icefield functions.

So before we begin filling the blog with our research and theirs, we thought it appropriate to give a brief explanation of what a glacier is - how snow is transformed into the spectacular rivers of ice that we are wandering among this summer.

The rivers of ice we know as glaciers form from the accumulation of enormous quantities of snow.  Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska.  Photo by Adam Taylor

It all starts with the same snow you might have falling in your backyard during the winter. Most of us, however, do not have glaciers in our backyards, so there must be a few other criteria. Here is where snow quantity and local climate come into play. There has to be enough snowfall that summer temperatures will not melt it all away before the snow returns. Some of the snow that has accumulated has to persist through the entire year.

Then the process has to repeat itself...over, and over, and over again. As time goes on, individual snowflakes begin to metamorphose – their delicate, spindly structures gradually breaking down through a combination of melting, refreezing, and pressure from overlying snow. The resulting products are rounded ice granules called

firn. In the final step on the journey to becoming glacial ice, these firn granules meld into larger ice crystals that fit together like pieces in a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The transformation of snow to glacial ice can take decades to centuries depending on the consistency (wet or dry) and quantity of snow that falls. Once the ice has formed, it can begin to take on the properties of a glacier. As mentioned above, glaciers are rivers of ice. By definition they are moving - pulled downhill by the force of gravity. So in order for the ice to become a glacier, something has to change within the ice in order for it to flow.

Once the ice is a few tens of meters thick, there is enough stress on the underlying ice that it begins to behave viscously - that is, similar to a fluid - and can finally deform and flow. To understand how this works, imagine a ball of silly putty. If you work it in your hands, applying pressure, you can get it to start stretching and slowly flowing. This is essentially what happens to the underlying ice in the 70 meters of accumulation. The pressure of the overlying ice brings it to a consistency that allows it to flow. Once it has reached this point, it begins to succumb to the force of gravity and flow down a valley or across a continent. In addition to this viscous flow, some glaciers such as those that exist in warmer climates, may also flow over the bedrock or sediments at their bases.

So while a reference to glaciers may conjure images of the Arctic or Antarctica in the minds of many, with the right conditions glaciers can form almost anywhere – from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, to the South Island of New Zealand, to the Cascade volcanoes of Washington State. However, glaciers can and do behave differently in these various locations. Some places, such as Southeast Alaska, where precipitation and cool temperatures are widespread and rampant, cater to more than just a single glacier, producing complex networks of glaciers such as the Juneau Icefield. Here the Coast Mountains receive more snow than almost any other place on Earth. The vast distribution of enormous quantities of snow has created nearly 1500 square miles of glaciated terrain that drains the rugged mountains – flowing east into British Columbia and west into the salty waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage.

JIRP is FINALLY Happening!

By Jamie Bradshaw

While writing this, I am sitting in The Cook Shack at Camp 17 listening to Pink Floyd while the cooks are planning lunch and our fearless leaders are setting the route for the Norris Cache, our first move to Camp 10. Once the route is set and the weather softens, the first trail party will hit the trail. Fortunately, I am in the first trail party and this time I will have first dibs on sleeping arrangements! I am really looking forward to seeing new sights and I am pumped to endure what I have been told is the most physically and mentally challenging part of the icefield traverse. Another reason why I am so excited to arrive at Camp 10 is because I know just how good the view is. Unlike the other students, Camp 10 is not a complete mystery to me. If you followed the 2012 JIRP blog, you may remember my post from last summer about my fortunate flight to Camp 10

Jamie and “Blue”, the trusty JIRP Suburban, on their way to Atlin, BC, Canada to continue JIRP logistics in 2012.  Photo:  Jamie Bradshaw

I first heard about the program nearly three years ago when enrolled in a Glacier Surveying Field Methods course offered by Mike Hekkers at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, Alaska. I was immediately intrigued. In 2011, I was lucky to be able to spend time with the JIRPers while they were in Juneau for a week. I hiked to Herbert Glacier with them and showed them our surveying sites on Mendenhall Glacier.  Last year, I saw the Logistics Agent position for JIRP was available. I decided to apply for the position because it would be a great way to support JIRP,  get involved and I figured it would give me a unique perspective of JIRP in hopes of participating as a student in the summer of 2013. You could say that I had the “JIRP bug”.

Nearly all of the JIRP mystery is removed for me because of my logistics position last summer. I understood how the food, supplies and mail get here, I knew what many of the camps look like and approximately how long we spend at each camp, I knew how meals work and how day and multi-day trips work and I knew of the joys of Atlin, BC. I also knew three of the students participating prior to JIRP, I knew the staff members and many of the guest lecturers from previous JIRP experiences. Most of the time I really appreciate my JIRP background because I can answer many questions that students have and I can prepare myself for upcoming events. Other times, this background takes some of the excitement of the unknown away from me that the other students have. Needless to say, I am very thankful to have this JIRP knowledge and to have the unknowns of the routes from camp to camp!

While coordinating logistics in Juneau last summer, I read the blogs, flew to Camps 10 and 18, and saw how close the students and staff grew. I was honored to be a part of the JIRP family, but I wanted to learn and grow with everyone on the ice. I knew that JIRP would be an amazing experience and I anxiously awaited the summer 2013 season to begin. On the hike up to Camp 17A, I kept saying to myself “ I can’t believe this is finally happening!”  So far, JIRP has been everything I have imagined it to be!

Jamie on the upper Lemon Creek Glacier overlooking the Dead Branch of Norris Glacier; where, after three years, JIRP is really happening!  Photo:  Jamie Bradshaw

Welcome to the new JIRP website

We are pleased to bring you a new Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) online presence starting in 2013! The site is still a work in progress, but we are excited to provide greater functionality and improved opportunities to learn about JIRP and engage with the JIRP community. 

We value your input on the new website and encourage you to give us your feedback on what you would like to see at juneauicefield.com.  Please make suggestions in the comments for this post (below).

Current efforts by JIRP (and its non-profit parent organization the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research) are focused on preparation for the 2013 expedition.  As we prepare we are continually motivated by the energy, excitement, and experience of past summer adventures on the Juneau Icefield.

To help keep the JIRP energy flowing in the off season have a look at the following short video by acclaimed film maker Chip Duncan.  Also, experience JIRP 2012 through the awesome blogging efforts of this past summer.  All 'Blogging From the Field 2012' posts are archived here.