The Juneau Icefield Research Program – America’s Largest Climate Classroom

The Juneau Icefield Research Program

North America’s Largest Climate Classroom

Jeffrey Barbee interviews JIRP Alumni, Christine McCabe.

The Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) has kept a continuous scientific eye on one of the largest source areas for glaciers in North America for more than sixty years. It is the longest running glacial-climate record in the western hemisphere, and because of that a valuable place for understanding climate change. The project brings university students and faculty face to face with expeditionary field science, nature, and ultimately themselves.

The Gilkey Trench near Camp 18.

Every northern summer from June to August a group of students and staff hike and ski across this vast source area of glaciers 180 km to Canada.  They carry their own gear, they struggle, and they learn how glaciers work and understand what field science is all about. The program is renowned globally for producing top-notch field researchers and expedition members.

The re-creation of the hole in wall glacier and the Taku glacier image from Nat Geo 1967, in Taku Inlet, Alaska in summer 2013.

Christine McCabe joined the program as an undergraduate student in 2014 and is now working on her Master’s degree at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  Journalist Jeffrey Barbee, an alumnus of the program and former staff member caught up with her on an internet chat.

Students examine the ecology of the Camp 18 Nunantak (rock outcrop) above the Gilkey Glacier

So what is your biggest lesson from the program?

JIRP taught me I was capable of doing pretty much whatever I set my mind to. It introduced me to new cold alpine environments that allowed me to hold my own wandering around on the glaciers of Svalbard, Norway.

But not everything about JIRP is related to geology or arctic/alpine environments.

Through JIRP I found comfort in remoteness; something that has opened many career opportunities. It has also provided me with a track record of subsisting on some pretty basic food, something I think helped win me my next position as a teacher on a remote island in Micronesia.

JIRPmas, on the 25 of July, is the day when program members gather at the Camp 10 cookshack to exchange gifts at the height of midsummer.
The safety staff of JIRP 2013, left to right, Adam Toolanen, Stanley Pinchak, Kate Baustian, Annie Boucher, and Matt Pickart

What advice would you give other young people who are thinking about working in a career in field science related to climate change?

This is something I was told many times, particularly on JIRP, but I didn’t take seriously, and it came back to bite me in the bum many times…take more math early on in your academic career. I would also suggest computer programming…but more math is key.

I was always one of those people who were terrified of math and delved into field science to avoid it, but I have come to realize it is actually not impossible. If you sit down and practice it, you will eventually be able to do it.

Some of the 2013 JIRP Mass Balance crew with Dr. Jason Amundson in an igloo made from the blocks of a mass balance test pit on the Southwest Branch of the Taku Glacier.

Why is math so important?

It opens up endless opportunities and interdisciplinary versatilities in your work. It also opens up new ways to look at the data, and the larger world.

University of Colorado student Brooke Stamper works with the University of Alaska, Southeast Adjunct Professor Dr. Jason Amundson, to set up a GPS transceiver powered with solar energy on the Taku Glacier on the Juneau Icefield.  This system tracks the glacier’s movement in 3 dimensions in real-time

Any other thoughts about how the JIRP program changed or influenced you?

I have been on many adventures in my life, from traveling to Antarctica to living in a sailboat amongst the polar bears in the high Arctic, but JIRP represents my proudest accomplishment. When I am sitting at the Explorers Club and someone asks me what I have done to qualify me to be there, JIRP always gets mentioned before Antarctica. That’s how proud I am of the program.

This program is where I honed the key life skills of self-reliance, perseverance, and ingenuity. I cannot recommend it enough. Anyone who is willing to put in the physical effort to cross the Juneau Ice-field will reap endless rewards in their personal and scientific development.

Crossing Nugget Ridge on their way to Camp 10.  This is one of the most dangerous parts of the traverse.  Students are trained to ski on a safety rope and negotiate the crevasse field in any weather.

Learn more or apply for the Juneau Ice-field Research Program here.

Watch the two-part TV series about the project produced by Jeffrey Barbee and Mira Dutschke: Episode 1 and Episode 2