Observational Science

By: Mariah Radue

July 7, 2014

At Camp 17, I have found a kindred spirit in John Muir. From the JIRP recommended reading list I was introduced to his book, Travels in Alaska, and decided to bring it along with me as a break from lectures and articles. I knew his reputation as a mountaineer, adventurer, environmentalist, and nature lover and I was eager to read his perspective on the Alaskan landscape.

John Muir began his career as an explorer in the Sierras in California at the end of the 1800s. He was awestruck by the majesty of the sloping granite peaks and giant Sequoias. In his wanderings around Yosemite he convinced himself that glaciers were the only natural force that could have formed the deep U-shaped valleys. His main motivation in traveling to Alaska was to better understand glacial processes and relate them back to his beloved Yosemite.

Though not as rugged or adventurous, my path to Alaska somewhat mirrors Muir’s journey. I first learned about glaciers in a college geomorphology course in Northfield, Minnesota. During the last glacial maximum, SE Minnesota marked the margin of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which blanketed most of North American. As a result, the landscape around Northfield is not flat as many accuse the Mid-West to be but rather it is full of vestiges of a dynamic glacial system. In the class we mapped eskers (subglacial river deposits), kames (supra glacial lakes), and glacial outwash river plains. Imaging the power of ice on the landscape ignited my fascination with glaciers and drove me to Alaska and JIRP to better understand how glaciers work and to marvel at the blue glacial ice.

I have enjoyed reading Muir’s perspective as he discovers coastal Alaska because of his intense powers of observations. Muir describes the landscape of southeast Alaska poetically through colorful descriptions of fast flowing glacial streams and sharp mountain peaks. He also includes exact values that must the result of painstaking notes like calculated temperature averages and thickness of glacial deposits. His writing offers an insight to his field methods and field notebooks—how you need both numbers and language to describe a landscape effectively.

During JIRP, I am striving to see Alaska much like Muir would, quantifying my observations scientifically and reflecting on the extreme beauty that is around me. I think that this is the natural way to immerse ourselves in the Icefield. For the past two evenings, we have been graced with stunning sunsets from our vantage point at Camp 17. We talk about the orientation of the sun relative to the Earth, the path of the sun in the sky, the changes in length of day, and the rate that the sun moves. In addition to understanding the sunset scientifically, none of us can deny the depth and beauty of a sunset behind the Chilkats and the Fairweather Ranges. The colors in the sky range from deep purple to magenta to rose pink and mist in the mountain valleys captures the rosy pink light, spreading it across valley floor. The water of Gastineau Channel reflects pockets of the fading sun light creating a patchwork of yellow and deep blue. It is impossible to comprehend all of the mountain profiles as they extend inexhaustibly into the distance. We find ourselves lost in the splendor of the landscape.

As earth scientists we try to understand the natural world through numbers and equations, creating models to predict changes through time. The beauty of JIRP is that we are immersed in the landscape and experience the Icefield through snow pits, isotopes, and geophysical measurements and breathtaking sunset. We also get to appreciate the magnificence of the Alaskan landscape giving us a greater reason to try and understand how it works.