Science is Complicated

Science is Complicated

Austin Carter, University of Michigan

I’ve always thought of science as a simple, routine-like discipline: sample data, analyze data, and report data. However, there are a multitude of obstacles that make it more difficult, and I’ve come to understand this through my experience with JIRP.  For my individual research project, I’ve decided to collect rainwater samples, measure the isotopic concentration of those samples, and compare this to the temperature at which the rain fell. The idea is to create a relationship specific to the Juneau Icefield between stable water isotopes and temperature (for more information about isotopes see Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant’s blog entry). My project originally sounded like a piece of cake because all I had to do was collect rainwater and measure temperature. How hard could that be? However, it became much more involved than I expected and although I’ve hit many “speed bumps” during my research, I’ve learned from each experience and grown as a young earth scientist. Here are a few skills I’ve learned so far:

Author collecting rainwater samples at Camp-10. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Author collecting rainwater samples at Camp-10. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Slow Down and Think First. When I first decided what I wanted to research, I became extremely excited and wanted to start immediately. During the first rainfall, I quickly threw on my rain jacket and rain pants, found a nice spot outside, and set out my first sample bottle around a pile of rocks. I waited hours, checking on it regularly, to see how much water I’d gathered. To my surprise, I had collected very little water; that is to say not enough to be considered a “sample.” Because I rushed into my project without thinking first, I didn’t consider using something with a bigger surface area to collect more water to pour into my small sample bottles. Having learned from this mistake, I now use a big silver bowl to capture a greater amount of water and have more appreciation for thinking ideas through before executing them.

Be Creative. The “teeth” on the zipper of my $300 waterproof Arc’teryx rain jacket fell off, rendering it useless because I couldn’t zip it together. Considering that my project meant I needed to be outside every time it rained in order to collect samples, I would get really wet without a proper rain jacket. When it did rain, I got creative and wore a fashionable black garbage bag over my body to keep me dry and, unexpectedly, it kept me rather insulated too.  Even if a substantial amount of planning is made on selecting quality equipment, I now know that problems can still arise and it’s always a great decision to try to think outside the box to solve any issue that occurs. Luckily, my mother shipped a replacement jacket to me that arrived by helicopter fairly quickly so I retired the garbage bag for good.

Be Patient. I’m probably one of the few students on this program who gets incredibly thrilled when it rains. Most people dislike it because it means they’re going to be both wet and cold, but for me a storm means I get to collect more rainwater and ultimately acquire more data. However, weather can be unpredictable, especially when you’re on top of a mountain. Most days I find myself waiting for the gloomy weather to flow in before I can continue with my project; it’s unfortunate but that’s necessary for my project. Data collection isn’t always instantaneous and sometimes waiting for the right moment is all that one can do.

Analyzing rainwater samples using a water isotope analyzer. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Analyzing rainwater samples using a water isotope analyzer. Photo by Blaire Slavin.

Since getting to the Juneau Icefield, I’ve learned an incredible amount about remote field work and how to be a better earth science researcher. Because of JIRP, I’ve gained and will continue to gain valuable scientific skills that I will utilize on future research projects. For now however, I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice as I continue to figure out the results of my rainwater analysis.

Stable Water Isotope Science on the Juneau Icefield

Stable Water Isotope Science on the Juneau Icefield

Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant, Yukon College

Here at Camp 10 we are now frantically working on group and personal science projects.  I am a member of the group studying the stable isotopic composition of the water, snow and ice here on the Juneau Icefield.

 Sampling at various depths in snow pit on the Taku Glacier.  (photo credit Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant)

 Sampling at various depths in snow pit on the Taku Glacier.  (photo credit Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant)

We have collected and will continue to collect samples from various locations as we traverse from Juneau, Alaska to Atlin, British Columbia.  Some of the samples we have collected will be bottled, sealed and sent by helicopter to be analyzed at various labs at a later date, while we will analyze other samples right here at Camp 10 with the Los Gatos laser water isotope analyzer fondly known as “Steve, the Isotopolizer”.

 

 

At this point some readers may be asking “what is a stable water isotope and why are you studying them?”  I am happy to share a little bit of what I have learned so far…

 

Water, which is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, contains two stable oxygen isotopes- 18O and 16O.  Isotopes are variations of the same element that are of a slightly different mass, with 18O having two more neutrons than 16O.  18O is often referred to as the “heavy isotope” and 16O as the “light isotope”. 

 

Once the isotopic composition of a sample is determined, the ratio of heavy and light oxygen isotopes in the collected sample is compared to the ratio of a “known standard sample”, one being Vienna-Standard Mean Ocean Water or VSMOW.  The manner in which the samples differ from VSMOW can be used to determine the source(s) of the water, the temperature at which it fell as precipitation, and even how long the water has separated from the atmosphere.

 

While isotopic science has been used in many fields, only recently has the science been heavily applied to glaciology.  In his often cited 1953 paper, W. Dansgaard observed that precipitation in mid- and high latitude regions has a stable isotopic composition that relates to the air temperature at the site of precipitation (Dansgaard 1953).  In a 1970 paper T. Dincer et al. expanded on this by using the stable isotopes in water to observe water flowpaths and water age.  Fast forward to the present and glaciologists are now using stable water isotopes as an “isotopic thermometer” to calculate past temperatures based on the isotopic composition of snow and ice.

Austin C. with ice core samples from snow pit on the Taku Glacier. (photo credit Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant)

Austin C. with ice core samples from snow pit on the Taku Glacier. (photo credit Jutta Hopkins-LeCheminant)

One of the interesting processes that JIRP students will be studying is how stable water isotopes are related to local hydrologic patterns. The timing and amount of precipitation in the Icefield environment are responsible for the presence of glaciers on the Juneau Icefield.  The cycle begins with the clouds that form over the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan Coast, as water evaporates from the ocean and forms clouds that contain more light isotopes than heavy isotopes relative to the ocean water.  The latitude and location at which the Alaskan Coast clouds form impart a unique isotopic composition to the water vapor within the clouds when compared to those formed at lower latitudes or over inland water bodies.

Same Icefield, Different Memories

Same Icefield, Different Memories

Blaire Slavin, The Benjamin School


I’ve been thinking a lot about following in the footsteps of others. This concept is meaningful to me because I would not be here if I didn’t follow the footsteps of my father (’73), brother (’11) and sister (’12) who all went to JIRP when they turned seventeen. Growing up I would always listen to all of their incredible JIRP stories hoping that when I turned seventeen I would be able to do the exact same. Finally, my turn has arrived. Wearing my sister’s hat and my brother’s jacket (which is way too big for me but I still love it), I perched myself on a rock overlooking the breathtaking Taku Towers just as they did. 

Me, finally completing the Slavin family JIRP wall. Happy belated Birthday Dad! (Photo by Aaron Chesler)

Me, finally completing the Slavin family JIRP wall. Happy belated Birthday Dad! (Photo by Aaron Chesler)

However, following in people’s footsteps doesn’t just pertain to me, but to every JIRPer…both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, on traverses from one camp to the next, trail parties follow the tracks of the teams that traversed just days before them. The procedures required to record annual mass balance were established in the early 50s and are still used today. The shelf I sleep on is covered in signatures of JIRPers ranging from the 60s to just last year. The snow machine and sled that Seth, Tadhg and I used to drag our GPR (ground- penetrating radar) equipment up and down the Taku glacier was from 1995. Even some of the outhouses we use, as gross as it is to think about, were built in the late 40s and have been there for almost every JIRPer since. These examples, among many others, serve as constant reminders that we owe all that JIRP is today to the contributions of all JIRPers who came before us.  

Seth, Tadhg, and I having a blast dragging our GPR equipment in the old sled. (Photo by author)

Seth, Tadhg, and I having a blast dragging our GPR equipment in the old sled. (Photo by author)

Although I’ve been focusing on the idea of following other people’s footsteps, every JIRPer creates their own unique path. When I go home and show my family pictures of Camp 17 or Camp 10, they will bring back memories that are entirely different for each of us.

Ultimately, all JIRPers have been to the same camps, skied the same terrain, and eaten the same tasty cans of SPAM, but the Icefield has changed each individual in a slightly different way. What JIRP has done for me might not be what it has done for others. For example Annika, a former student and current staff member says JIRP has “inspired [her] to pursue connections between people, place, and climate change—in the hope of creating ripples of positive change. Also [she] has never laughed more in her life.” Jeff, a current student, says JIRP has “changed [his] perception of science from something that is done in a lab or read in a textbook to something that applies to the real world”. Alf who first started coming in 67’ says “[he] married JIRP first”. What I’ve learned from the JIRPers around me, both past and present, is that JIRP doesn’t end when we step off the ice. The calluses, blisters, and inner nostril sunburns that we’ve earned will remind us of the many places we’ve been, knowledge we’ve gained and wonderful people we’ve met. 

A Brief Introduction to Igneous Petrology

A Brief Introduction to Igneous Petrology

Mickey MacKie, Harvard University

I study geology because I need to know Earth’s past in order to understand my place in the universe. I love being able to walk around and use clues from rock formations to read their past. The world is an open history book, or so I thought.

As it turns out, my understanding of geology was limited to sedimentary rock. There are also igneous and metamorphic rocks, which are formed by varying conditions of heat and pressure. These unfamiliar rock types have surrounded me since I arrived in Juneau. I was reminded of my ignorance every single day. It drove me nuts. I couldn’t read this landscape. Juneau Icefield, what was your history?

Then came Jen Witter, an igneous petrologist from Alaska Pacific University. Here was my chance at enlightenment. The rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and a few other students and I accompanied Jen on a hike up Taku B, the peak above Camp 10. We scrambled over beautiful, glorious igneous and metamorphic rock that I couldn’t understand.  Jen explained some of the formations and minerals, and I began to grasp the events that had created the terrain. We saw amphibolite, granodiorite, and various intrusions of molten rock.

Mafic inclusions in a felsic melt (photo: Mickey MacKie)

Mafic inclusions in a felsic melt (photo: Mickey MacKie)

We worked our way to the top. The weather was happy enough to make up for its previous rage. I stood on top of the world and looked down. The Taku Glacier was sprawled far beneath our feet. I could see the gleam of sunshine on metal from camp down below. To our left lay the dirty depression of a drained glacial lake. Jen collected samples. Seth found a bottle of Tums with a pencil and notebook inside. It held the signatures of JIRPers before us. We added our own and lorded over our kingdom for a while before heading down.

View of the drained lake next to Camp 10 (photo: Mickey MacKie)

View of the drained lake next to Camp 10 (photo: Mickey MacKie)

Mickey on top of Taku B (photo: Katie Popyack)

Mickey on top of Taku B (photo: Katie Popyack)

The crew on top of Taku B (photo: Aaron Chesler)

The crew on top of Taku B (photo: Aaron Chesler)

Jen told me that over 100 million years ago, the Pacific plate was pushed, or subducted under another plate. This created melting in the subduction zone and caused a plume of magma to form and rise within Earth’s crust. This plate was simultaneously subducting under the North American plate and caused melt to occur there as well. Eventually, that plate became almost entirely subducted so that the Pacific and North American Plates began to collide. This caused a thickening in the crust and an increase in temperature at depth, generating a melt that mixed with and altered rocks on the surface. These are some of the rocks seen south of Camp 10. Thanks to Jen’s sampling, the rocks on Taku B will soon be analyzed to determine their place in Juneau Icefield’s history. 

Water Through Ice

Water Through Ice

Andrew Hollyday, Middlebury College

How does water move through ice?  I hadn’t considered this question before a recent lecture we had in the library of Camp 17.  In fact, I didn’t even know there was liquid water flowing through what seemed to be very solid ice.  To my surprise and excitement, there’s a whole field within hydrology that explores this phenomenon.  Kiya Riverman, a PhD candidate at Pennsylvania State University, is here at JIRP on faculty this summer.  I met her while hiking up to Camp 17 from Juneau.  As our trail party climbed up the vertical swamp, a steep and wet section of the trail, she shared with us her adventures in Svalbard where she first dove into glaciology and hydrology as an undergraduate.  She’s been studying glacial hydrology in graduate school and is here now excited to share her knowledge with students and apply it to the Juneau Icefield.  As we entered the Ptarmigan Valley, a recently deglaciated cathedral of stone, on our hike up to 17, I examined the evidence of fluvial geomorphology (rivers changing over time) of the stream that flowed through the valley and assumed a similar process when contained within a glacier: the same ox bow cutoffs and meandering curves.  I assumed the water to run along the surface of the ice in small streams just before draining from the glacier.  Kiya’s work is centered on how water moves through ice.  Her eyes lit up as she told us about the intricately beautiful channels through ice that water flows through when draining from a glacier.  It turns out that glaciers, especially those in mountain environments, have complex systems of channels that drain meltwater.  

Kiya giving her glaciohydrology lab in the C-17 library. Photograph by Tadgh Moore.

Kiya giving her glaciohydrology lab in the C-17 library. Photograph by Tadgh Moore.

After arriving at Camp 17, Kiya gave a talk about her research mapping channels through ice, which included inspiring photographs of sub-glacial streams.  There are a few different ways to understand and investigate the channels inside of glaciers; one is climbing through them.  During the presentation, we saw photographs from Iceland in which Kiya, ice axe in hand, was crawling through narrow ice channels.  She showed us images of kickpoints, which are waterfalls contained within glaciers.  

Rappelling into a glacial moulin.  (Photograph by Alexis Fagnoni)

Rappelling into a glacial moulin.  (Photograph by Alexis Fagnoni)

She also diagramed on the whiteboard how small cavities on the surface of a glacier create initially complex stream systems that mold into direct and efficient channels.  She explained how the surface below the glacier, either sediment or bedrock, also influences the formation of glacial streams.  Interestingly, Kiya included an explanation of Cut and Closure streams that erode vertically to the ground and are closed off at the surface over time, creating tear drop-shaped channel profiles.  Furthermore, and less technically, she told us how hydrologists in Greenland had put rubber duckies in these drainage channels and observed them spit out into the ocean, evidence of the connectivity of glacial water systems. 

                Yesterday, while on a traverse on the Lemon Creek Glacier below Camp 17, we skied from areas of thick snow where the initial signals of seasonal drainage are becoming evident (i.e. tree-like networks of depressions descending into the valley) to the ablation zone, where the majority of melt takes place lower on the glacier.  There, wide streams of deep blue water flowed over the ice and down the glacier.  In some places, the channels were deep, undergoing the process of surface closure that Kiya explained in the library.  Water that had traveled the length of the glacier collected here.  Perhaps this place’s dynamic movement compensates for the still white vastness above.  The white vastness of the snowfield condenses into blue streams rushing over dirty blue ice.

According to Kiya, glacial hydrology is an emerging field that has significant impacts on glacier health and dynamics.  Looking out from the cliffs down to the Icefield, she explained to me how she thought Lake Linda, a super-glacial lake below Camp 17, was draining to the south through an unsorted Moraine (deposition of sediment at the margins of a glacier).  I can tell she is always reading landscape through the lens of how water moves through it.  It’s clear she has put her full self into her work and is curious about it.  It is a yearning for this sort of curiosity in something that I believe drew me to a place like the Juneau Icefield.  Considering questions that have never been asked before is an ingrained part of JIRP.  Asking questions that spark more question-asking seems to be fundamental to science—fundamental to explaining how water moves through ice and fundamental to this experience crossing over the icefield to Canada.  

Supraglacial water seen in the ablation zone of the Lemon Creek Glacier. (Photograph by Joel Wilner)

Supraglacial water seen in the ablation zone of the Lemon Creek Glacier. (Photograph by Joel Wilner)