Photo Essay: Living on the Ice in Juneau, Alaska

by |July 26, 2019

By Elizabeth Case and Jonny Kingslake

In summer 2018, we travelled to the Juneau Icefield, Alaska, with funds from Columbia’s Lenfest Junior Faculty Development Fund. Our aim was to use radar to measure how quickly snow turns to ice.

Snow is gradually buried and compacted under its own weight. It is difficult and time-consuming to measure, so we are developing a technique using an ice-penetrating radar that could make it much easier and quicker to monitor this process. Compaction of snow (or technically, firn, which is Arctic snow that has survived more than one full year) is important because it impacts how we measure the mass of glaciers and ice sheets.

The view from Camp 18, which sits between two glaciers in Juneau, Alaska. We stayed here for three days before heading to the ice divide. (Jonny Kingslake & Elizabeth Case/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

Heading West

The first stage in the expedition was a flight to Juneau, AK, where we spent three days packing, re-packing, testing a drone, swimming at an Alaskan beach, and we even had time for a meal at a restaurant overlooked by some huge cruise ships!

To measure how quickly snow compacts we needed to find some snow. In the temperate climate of Juneau, Alaska in summer, this means flying a short distance inland to the top of the Juneau Icefield by helicopter.

Why don’t we just stay in NYC and wait for the winter, you may ask? Because in the upper reaches of glaciers and ice sheets, the snow never melts away completely and lasts for hundreds of years before turning into ice. This ‘firn’ behaves differently than the snow that falls in the winter and melts in the following summer. So we needed to find some firn and Juneau Icefield is one of the most easy-to-access places to do that.

We captured this image using the drone. Elizabeth is in front, in red, operating the remote. Jonny is in the back in blue. (Jonny Kingslake & Elizabeth Case/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

We flew up to the highest place on the ice field using a commercial helicopter company that usually runs sightseeing trips. This was all organized by the amazing Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP). They have been giving young people their first experience of geoscience and cold-region fieldwork for over 70 years. Every summer, they traverse the ice field on skis (75 miles!).

The helicopter ride took us up to Camp 18, perched on a rock between two beautiful glaciers flowing out from the ice field. We were met by the JIRP staff and students and eased into a few days of camp life, with chores, packing and preparing for the ski up to our field site. After three days we were ready to head to the ice divide.

On the Ice Divide

We set up camp on the ‘ice divide.’ This is where ice flows outwards in two directions: one southwards into the US and one northwards into Canada. We started by drilling several ice cores to measure the density of the snow, firn and ice. We brought up samples from up to 70 feet below the surface. This information is vital for interpreting our radar data.

photo on instagram

Check out the Earth Institute Instagram for more great photos from Jonny and Elizabeth.

For our 10 days at the divide we had incredible weather! This is not what we were expecting — it was a struggle to keep cool in a place where we usually have to work to stay warm. We had plenty of enthusiastic JIRP students to help with the drilling, and it went smoothly (mostly) until the very end, when we barely rescued one of the parts of the core.

When we weren’t drilling, we took radar measurements with plenty of help from the JIRP students. In small teams we drove around the surface of the ice on a snow machine pulling a sled, and made 182 radar measurements at 91 points over four days. As each measurement takes about two minutes, and involved a lot of standing around and talking about glaciers. Luckily, for most of the time we had incredible, sunny weather. Very unusual for this area. Eventually, the weather reverted to its usual fog and rain and treated us to a wet last day of radar. After that we were ski-towed back the Juneau Icefield Research Program Camp 18. After a few days we helicoptered back down to town.

Take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes photos in the slideshow below!

IMG_2236 IMG_2237 IMG_2253 IMG_2238 IMG_2247 packedvan IMG_2261 IMG_2262 IMG_2263 IMG_2312 IMG_2335 IMG_2346 jonny_billy arrive_at_divide IMG_8051 icelens snow_bench_core DCIM100MEDIADJI_0018.JPG coring brokencore DCIM100MEDIADJI_0009.JPG View_from_inside_a_sleep_tent_on_the_divide radar_glam_shot IMG_2363 IMG_2365 YBBM3871 last_pRES_point IMG_8063
An unprecedented streak of sunny weather allowed us to get a lot of science done over the two weeks we were on the ice. The radar we use is called a “phase-sensitive radio echo sounder.” The two white metal objects are antennae, and the center yellow box is the radar. JIRP staff and students helped us take 91 points of data in a 9 square kilometer grid.

Jonny Kingslake is an assistant professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Elizabeth Case is a graduate student at Lamont. Both are studying glaciers.

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