Juneau Icefield Research Project participants at a snow pit near the Mendenhall and Taku Glacier divide dug to the 2008 snow layer at 4.2 meters. (photo courtesy of Juneau Icefield Research Project)
The JIRP 2009 group. Back Row: Andrew Siliski (Mass.), Kyal Burrill (British Columbia), Chris McNeil (Mass.), Ryan Cassotto (N.H.), Alexander Stwertka (N.Y.). Front Row: Melanie Kunz (Switzerland), Florence Vauden (Switzerland), Candace Burnette, (Ore.). JIRP faculty (not pictured) are Toby Dittrich (Ore.), Scott McGee (Anchorage), Matt Heavner (UAS Juneau), and Cathy Connor (UAS Juneau). (photo courtesy of Juneau Icefield Research Project)
Story last updated at 8/19/2009 - 5:58 pm
JUNEAU - Most Alaskans spend their summers soaking up as much of the seasonal warmth as possible, but since 1946 crews of icefield researchers have been doing just the opposite. The Juneau Icefield Research Project (JIRP), begun under the direction of Dr. Maynard Miller, has given students from all over the world the opportunity to study glacier sciences in nature's classroom while trekking across the pristine landscape of the Juneau Icefield. Today, JIRP continues to train many of the world's leading glacier researchers.
Cathy Connor, professor of Geology at the University of Alaska Southeast, has been a part of JIRP since 1994. The link between glaciology and geology makes JIRP an excellent program for geology students. According to Connor, the folding and shearing that occurs in a glacier is a "real time" example of what rocks do over longer periods of time.
"I've always been one who has recognized the value of putting people into the environment they're studying rather than having them looking at it vicariously through pictures," Connor said.
The icefield is also a great research area for those studying physics. This summer, Portland physics professor Toby Dittrich, a 1969 JIRP student, is participating in the program in celebration the 40th anniversary of his first year on the icefield. Dittrich is joined by a group of students, faculty and staff who have come from as close Juneau and as far as Zurich, Switzerland, to continue the summer tradition of studying the Juneau Icefield. They are led by Scott McGee, this year's survey team leader who is spending his 21st summer on the icefield.
Miller directed JIRP for over 60 years. He is now 88 and a retired emeritus faculty of the University of Idaho. In 2009 the JIRP Program's acting director torch was passed to Bruce Molnia, a 1968 JIRP student and U.S. Geological Survey research geologist. The JIRP Program is organized and supported by the board of directors of the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research, its members spread across the country. Many of them were JIRP students in past years.
Molnia and the board now face the challenge of successfully planning for a sustainable future for JIRP. Molnia hopes that can be accomplished by organizing a long-term agreement with a university sponsor, partnerships JIRP has previously had only in the short-term. The University of Alaska is naturally the most likely option due to proximity, though other universities are also being considered, Molnia said.
"We need to rebuild the strong academic connection that previously existed," Molnia said.
Once a partnership is established, JIRP will undergo a process of elevating the its level of technology, including digitizing data records, developing geospatial information files to share with the worldwide science community, upgrading weather stations and accessing satellite imagery.
"When the program started, there were no computers," Molnia said. "We are now in a new century and we need to take advantage of all the opportunities that modern technology provides us."
Depending on the level of funding that is available each summer, there may be as many as 50 JIRP participants on the icefield at any time during the program. Of all the JIRP participants, Alaskans have been in the minority.
Molnia recalled faculty from Peru and Norway during the summer of 1968.
"The program is a very effective mechanism for training not only American students, but people from all over the world," Molnia said.
"It's such a marvelous experience for young people," Connor said. "It's one of those programs that needs to be on the planet."
For more information about JIRP, visit juneauicefield.com.