Nestled at the end of a 60 mile dirt road, 120 miles from the nearest gas station in the town of Glennallen and 12 hours from Fairbanks lies McCarthy, AK. A vestige of the 1910s – 1930s copper boom in up-valley Kennicott, AK, McCarthy still possesses the character of a former era. When Kennicott was the biggest town in Alaska and was turning out high-grade copper 363 days per year (totaling 4.6 million tons of ore over the life of the mines), McCarthy was the town where the train turned around and also the place where alcohol was permitted. This early 20th century party town is experiencing recent revitalization as a center for tourism as well as natural science education.
The Wrangell Mountains Center (WMC), based out of McCarthy’s Old Hardware Store, exemplifies sustainable living at its best: the water is unfiltered rain and glacier melt, what minimal electricity is used is powered by solar panels, the restrooms are outhouses, the vegetables and herbs are from the garden out back, and all prepared meals are vegetarian. The center takes advantage of its location adjacent to the Nation’s largest national park and is dedicated to fostering: “appreciation, understanding, and stewardship of wildlands and mountain culture in Alaska through scientific and artistic inquiry in the Wrangell Mountains.” Programs at this experiential learning center include writers workshops, science lectures, wildlands field research for undergraduates, artists in residence, sketching and journaling seminars, and day programs. On June 10, 2012, 37 glaciologists from all over the world descended upon McCarthy for the second WMC-hosted International Summer School in Glaciology.
McCarthy’s Old Hardware Store, where the Wrangell Mountains Center is based. We ate all of our meals and completed our group work in this building.*
The Wrangell Mountain Center’s recently acquired second building, Porphyry Place, where we attended lectures. The building was a cabin formerly owned by Ed LaChapelle, an American glaciologist well-known for his avalanche research and photography in “Glacier Ice” (2000).*
The summer school is an intensive, 8-day course drawing 27 glaciology graduate students from not only the U.S. but also Australia, Denmark, Brazil, France, Belgium, and other countries. Eleven countries were represented in total, with only 15 of the 27 students from various U.S. institutions. The 10 instructors are prominent figures in the field and hailed mostly from University of Alaska at Fairbanks (the organizing university) but also from CU Boulder, Clark University, and University of Manchester, U.K. The course goal was to provide students with a “comprehensive overview of the physics of glaciers and current research frontiers in glaciology” through formal lectures, group work, advised projects, and interactions with scientists researching a diverse range of glaciological questions.
We drove 12 hours from Fairbanks, many of us having arrived only the evening before, and were surprised when dropped off at a footbridge. McCarthy is not accessible by public road, and the residents want to keep it that way. We loaded up dollies with our belongings: everything from computers and posters to tents and crampons, and pulled them across the river. Once on the other side, staff from the WMC arrived in vehicles (which they pay $350/yr to drive into and out of town on private land) for transporting the academic materials to town. Some of the staff stayed behind to show the students to their home for the week (“tent city”) and provide instructions on how to avoid attracting the resident grizzlies and black bears to our tents.
Tent city is about a 10 minute’s walk from town, which has a few private homes, a hotel, hostel, bar, coffee shop, general store, and the two buildings of the WMC. Every morning for the 8-day course, we’d arrive at the Old Hardware Store for a prepared breakfast at 7:45 and start lecture promptly at 8:30. After 4 hours of class, we ate lunch and, on most days, spent the afternoon completing exercises to reinforce the morning’s teaching. The glaciological topics covered during the course ranged from the remote sensing of glaciers through satellite data to climate change impacts on glaciers, from ice sheet modeling to research frontiers in the field.
Learning virtually all of these topics in a traditional setting was new for me. I completed an independent study in glacier physics as an undergraduate and attended the Juneau Icefield Research Program, but course offerings in glaciology have been essentially nonexistent at my undergraduate institution as well as at Dartmouth (actually, Dartmouth has an undergraduate-level glaciology course, but even that won’t be offered again until 2015). The McCarthy summer school was, for me, a unique opportunity to engage in glaciology coursework.
Perhaps even more valuable than the lectures themselves, however, were the interactions with the instructors who took 10 days out of their busy schedules to live with and teach graduate students. They didn’t show up, lecture, and then leave. Instead, they ate with us, some camped with us, and they socialized with us in the evenings, often around a bonfire engrossed in conversations that inevitably—but organically—returned to science.
Each instructor advised one or more student projects, which had been assigned according to preference prior to the start of the course. I was assigned to the project that had been my first choice: “Ice flow over a bumpy bed.” Ice sheet models, which use a standard “shallow ice approximation,” poorly approximate the decrease in ice surface velocity when ice flows over significant relief. A simple but effective way of accounting for the velocity change is achieved through a “correction factor.” However, the calculation of the correction factor hasn’t been explored in much depth, and my partner (a grad student from Simon Fraser University) and I were tasked with the following: model the ice velocity decrease over a bump, determine the best “averaging window” with which to calculate the correction factor, and assess how well our derived factor improves the shallow ice approximation. Our adviser was Dr. Ed Bueler of UAF, one of the creators of the Parallel Ice Sheet Model (PISM) that is used in many studies of climate’s impact on ice sheets, sea level rise, and properties of ice.
In addition to direct contact with esteemed faculty (who were all, I should add, engaging lecturers as well as accomplished scientists), we had formal opportunities to connect with our fellow students on an academic level. We were required to bring a poster summarizing our current research and, on one of the first days, had a poster session during which we learned about each other’s work, practiced communicating about our own, and gave and received feedback. I felt fortunate to be part of a group of such compelling individuals committed to their research. I imagine I will maintain contact with many of them through collaborations and future conferences.
You might be wondering by now why we drove 12 hours to sit in a lecture hall, albeit beautifully crafted and of historical value. While not specifically a “field course,” the summer school did, indeed, have designated time for exploring the nearby glaciers. Some of the group projects involved photogrammetric or radar measurements of the ice, but one and a half days were devoted to exploring the Kennicott glacier and its tributary, the Root glacier, as a group. Dr. Bob Anderson of CU Boulder conducts much of his research on the drainage conduits of the Kennicott glacier within and underneath the ice, and he gave us a tour on the ice and around the sediment at its terminus. In a drained lake located a few hours’ hike over the ice, he collected his water pressure gauge and downloaded a time lapse video of lake fluctuations from May to the present. He also showed us the runoff stream whose level and properties he records during rapid drainage events.
Of course, we did some exploring, too, and in the afternoon I ended up in a winding tunnel/canyon of ice with my crampons on. When Bob Anderson gave a public lecture for the WMC, he began by talking about why scientists study glaciers. Yes, they’re important for understanding and predicting the effects of climate change. Yes, they affect water and agricultural resources. But most of all, we study them because they’re cool.
Standing in a chasm of ice that was a deep, almost haunting shade of blue found nowhere else in nature, I found myself marveling, as I often do on glaciers, at the sheer size, might, and breathtaking beauty of these bodies of ice and, in doing so, realized that I was reaffirming my dedication to understanding them.
– Alexandra Giese
Acknowledgements: I wish to thank the Institute of Arctic Studies at the Dickey Center for providing my tuition for the course.
Photo credits: *Andy Aschwanden, **Flavien Beaud