Science in Extreme Environments: Juneau Icefield, Alaska

By Anna Fatta

Each summer, students from universities across the world join the Juneau Icefield Research Program to undertake research on Juneau Icefield, Alaska. This fieldwork means living on the Icefield for several months at a time, working with scientists to undertake a program of glaciological, geological and climatological measurements. Here, Anna Fatta describes what this fieldwork involves.

Juneau icefield
Location of Juneau Icefield in Alaska/British Columbia. Map produced by Bethan Davies.
Skiing across Juneau Icefield. Credit: Anna Fatta

Skiing across Juneau Icefield

On my first ski traverse day, we woke at 01:30, ready to take on a 10-mile day over highly varied terrain. Even though I had never attempted anything like this before, I felt confident.

That confidence was premature. The day involved skiing, skinning, bootpacking, cramponing, bootpack rope teams, and ski rope teams. By the time we reached our camp atop the Norris Icefall, I was exhausted in all ways.

Yet, after only a few weeks, half marathon ski days were the norm, and I hardly registered them. It was as simple as hopping in the car or taking the bus: this was our commute to work, and I was always anxious to arrive.

Skiing to Camp 10, Juneau Icefield, Alaska. Credit: Anna Fatta

Geological fieldwork

The first major project I worked on involved a quick twelve-mile ski to a recently deglaciated valley. We camped on the glacier’s edge a few days’ and collected samples and data.

Remote field camp. Credit: Bethan Davies

More accurately, we chiseled chunks of rock from enormous boulders in hopes that we would get enough rock for cosmogenic nuclide analysis. In this technique, rock samples are analyzed for a certain beryllium isotope (10Be), which is only produced by the collision of cosmogenic rays, specific radiation from space, with the silicon dioxide in quartz. Cosmogenic rays only penetrate the immediate surface of rock, so the beryllium can only be produced if the rock is not covered by ice. The amount of beryllium present in the rock can be correlated to the last time the rock was covered by ice.

As I chemist, I was fascinated by the principles and the lab techniques associated with this method and spent long hours discussing them with my peers over camp quesadillas. But more immediately, we needed rock samples, and so we began our journey.

The scientific sampling was our focus. But we spent a great deal of energy making that sampling possible. Every person on the team needed to be able to physically arrive at the sampling site and camp there several days. We needed to be able to transport many kilograms of rock back across the glacier with us. Food, tents, bathroom supplies, everything down to the last pair of socks had to be transported either on one snow machine sled or on our backs. I brought six granola bars for the ski alone. Despite wanting my pack to be as light as possible, I almost always found myself with little room to spare on these expeditions.

Water, funnily enough, was the easiest part of our logistics. Just add snow to your bottle, or at camp, add snow to a dark tarp, and either way, you’ll have liquid water fairly soon.

Melting snow in the sunshine for drinking water

Getting the samples

Once we arrived at our sampling site, work began. We popped out of our skis, set up camp, and prepared to collect chunks of rock. We practiced our chiseling techniques on nearby stones and collectively learned which rocks are the best for sampling in a classroom made of rock and snow. At this remote camp, benches of snow supported everything from cookstoves to Schmidt hammers, and we cooked our first meal while planning for the next day. I ate my dinner on a rock and watched the sun’s setting rays play over a nearby hanging glacier.

Scrambling down the mountain

In the morning, we hiked off the glacier and scrambled down, steep rocky terrain. The valley, nearly 2000 feet below us, was a perfect U shape, a sure sign of its glaciated past. Hints of glaciers peek out here and there: a calving face just in view at the mouth of the valley, a disconnected piece of ice barely visible under the clouds obscuring the nearby mountains.

But we were looking for more subtle traces of these massive ice formations. We focused on a few sequential moraines, or large, semi conglomerated debris piles left behind by the glaciers of the past, not unlike gargantuan footprints. We chiseled away at enormous boulders on each moraine, passing the tool from person to person and finally cheering when a piece cracked off. All of our academic training and complex planning had made this possible: hammering carefully chosen rocks for hours.

Collecting cosmogenic nuclide samples. Credit: Bethan Davies

We slept well in our tents on the snow and awoke with aching shoulders. At this point, any normal job would probably give a day off. Instead, we packed up our entire camp and began our twelve-mile ski commute back to the main field camp. The endeavor took three days, and it is quite representative of the entire summer.

Teamwork makes the Dream Work

Characterizing an icefield is no small undertaking. In this case, a great deal of scientific knowledge about glacial geomorphology, cosmogenic nuclides, and sedimentology was necessary to design the project. Knowledgeable students and staff were crucial to collecting the correct samples, and all of the people involved needed remarkable physical abilities to make it out to the sampling valley. Doing science in extreme places meant working dawn-to-dusk days that required everything from me: a sharp mind, a strong body, a knack for groupwork, and a passion for my environment, and I loved it.

About the author

Anna Fatta

My name is Anna Fatta, and I was a student this summer on the Juneau Icefield Research Program. As a recent graduate from the University of Kentucky with a degree in biochemistry, I was eager to apply my academic knowledge to glaciology. As an avid climber, backpacker, and adventurer, I was thrilled by the prospect of traversing the Juneau Icefield. But most importantly, I was most excited to join my scientific interests with my exploratory hobbies. JIRP turned out to be a superb combination of ski mountaineering and glaciological research, introducing me to the world of science in extreme environments.

Further reading

Read more about our work on Juneau Icefield here.

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