Water in a Frozen Land

By Ann Hill, Skidmore College

Ever since high school, I have been very conscious of how water resources vary throughout the world. Of all the water on Earth, three percent is fresh, but two percent is trapped in glaciers, unavailable for human use. The remaining one percent sustains all of humanity, and making sure everyone has access to this resource is a huge global challenge. Growing up, I never struggled to access freshwater, but on the Juneau Icefield, acquiring freshwater requires more strategic planning.

The amount of effort we invest in collecting water is ironic, since we are surrounded by huge stores of it. Everyday we ski over, conduct research on, and live next to the Juneau Icefield, comprised of many interconnected glaciers. Southeast Alaska experiences a high amount of precipitation annually, and yet its frozen form makes it difficult to access. Consequently, each day we spend hours of human labor managing our water supply.

All of our water is sourced from melting snow. At Camp 17, we shoveled water onto blue plastic tarps, which slowly melted into large trash barrels. At Camp 10 the snow melt drains into a tarp-lined pond. However, currently the clean snow supply is dwindling, requiring the additional use of tarps and trash barrels. Once it’s melted, we use buckets to haul large quantities of water into the kitchen where more large trash barrels sit for use while cooking meals. We heat a small amount for warm hand washing water.  

The water supply at Camp 17 is shown above, displaying the tarps onto which we shovel snow from the patch just off the bottom of the photo. A piece of white gutter connects the tarp to the trash barrel, into which the melted water drains. A sauce pan can be seen on the side of the barrel on the right, used to scoop water into buckets for transport. Photo credit: Ann Hill.

The water supply at Camp 17 is shown above, displaying the tarps onto which we shovel snow from the patch just off the bottom of the photo. A piece of white gutter connects the tarp to the trash barrel, into which the melted water drains. A sauce pan can be seen on the side of the barrel on the right, used to scoop water into buckets for transport. Photo credit: Ann Hill.

The water is never filtered or sterilized before consumption, making it imperative that strict measures are taken to keep our water sources clean. Water bottles and cooking pans must never directly touch the water supply. Instead, we use sauce pans to dip into the barrel, and only the handle may be touched so no hands ever come into contact with the water supply. The pan must only be set in its proper place, never on a counter as it will become contaminated. While initially these rules seemed rather overbearing, they are essential in limiting the spread of germs through camp.

Each day a student is assigned the job of Camp Assistant. Their job largely consists of shoveling snow from the source to the tarps, hauling water to the kitchen, and filling the hand washing station. This takes a lot of time, and proves physically demanding. For personal tasks, such as doing laundry or taking a shower, snow must be melted in large metal buckets instead of on a stove because the phase change from solid to liquid requires a lot of energy, and it is expensive to bring fuel to the Icefield.

At home, we also rely on a complex set of processes to obtain this valuable resource, but they take place mostly behind the scenes. People have jobs that involve pumping water up from the ground, or managing treatment facilities to make water available at the turn of a faucet. Today’s infrastructure places distance between us and the technology behind our tap water, but here on the Icefield that distance disappears.

The above photo shows the water supply system set up at Camp 10. The pond acts as the main water source, and additional tarps have been set up to drain water into the pond, as the snow directly surrounding the pond has melted. Photo credit: Ann Hill.

The above photo shows the water supply system set up at Camp 10. The pond acts as the main water source, and additional tarps have been set up to drain water into the pond, as the snow directly surrounding the pond has melted. Photo credit: Ann Hill.