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On Alaska’s Glaciers, Life Is Harsh—and So Is the Reality of Climate Change | The Brink

On Alaska’s Glaciers, Life Is Harsh—and So Is the Reality of Climate Change | The Brink

photo of BU student Anne Randall being lowered into a crevasse, held up by an anchor system built into the snow. A haul team then hoisted her up, one of the skills taught to students during the safety training weeks at JIRP.

Anne Randall, a BU undergraduate researcher spent three months living on the ice while tracking how glaciers are melting

Anne Randall (CAS’22) was accepted to the Juneau Icefield Research Program in the summer of 2021. Echo Glacier is where she is skiing. It is a spot between the glacier, and a mountain where ice has melted around its sides. Anne Randall.

Climate Science

Anne Randall, a BU undergraduate researcher, spent three months on the ice and monitoring how glaciers melt.

Imagine spending three months living on a glacier in a wilderness area for three months. That’s exactly what BU undergraduate student Anne Randall did over the summer of 2021 in order to collect ice samples, study the shifting landscape of Alaska’s icefields, and learn how climate change is impacting the world’s glaciers. 

As one of the 35 students from the United States participating in the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), Randall, a senior in BU’s College of Arts & Sciences, and her peers had a steep learning curve to adjust to life on the ice. She did not know how to ski before arriving in Alaska and traveling to the glacial area on Juneau’s outskirts—or how to safely traverse miles of snow-covered mountains and glaciers pocketed with crevasses and other dangers, for that matter. Randall was able to survive in extreme environments despite many blisters from her worn-out ski boots. 

“It’s very different to read about [glaciers]More than [it is] to see them in real life,” says Randall, who is an earth and environmental science major on the climate track. On a trip to Norway in 2019, she became fascinated with the cryosphere—areas of Earth covered in ice—after she saw a glacier for the first time. She watched as a large chunk fell off the glacier and crashed into the ocean from the deck of her boat. Shortly after returning from Norway, she searched for undergraduate research programs to study glaciers—and was then accepted into JIRP.

photo of BU student Anne Randall being lowered into a crevasse, held up by an anchor system built into the snow. A haul team then hoisted her up, one of the skills taught to students during the safety training weeks at JIRP.
Randall is being dropped into a crevasse and held up with an anchor system made into the snow. The haul team lifted Randall up, one of many skills that students learned during safety training at JIRP. Photo courtesy Anne Randall

She says that life on the icefield was filled with moments of natural wonderment, beauty, and even bitter cold. Professors in the JIRP group would often pause their lectures to allow students to see spectacular sunsets. The group was climbing past the tree line to reach Camp 17 and they saw bald Eagles circling in valleys below. 

“Full disclosure, I am not a rock climber,” Randall says. “It was absolutely incredible to break the tree line for the first time and start walking on this ridgeline of rock.” 

To prepare for the many miles of climbing and hiking—the first trek gained 6,000 feet in altitude over 7 miles—Randall, who is originally from Pennsylvania, trained by running up and down large staircases in Brookline during the months prior to the trip, and followed a training program JIRP leaders suggested to accepted students. 

The JIRP program lasted from early June to mid-August, and the majority of Randall’s time was spent between three glaciers: Lemon Creek Glacier, Vaughan Lewis Glacier, and Taku Glacier, which is the deepest and thickest temperate glacier in the world. 

Glaciers are often called “The Icebergs”. rivers of iceThese glaciers are made up of tons snow, which is compressed and transformed into thick ice over hundreds to thousands of years. Because of their huge size and weight, glaciers slowly creep along Earth’s surface, sculpting landscapes as they move. (Boston was once, thousands years ago, covered by a thick layer glacial ice. created places like Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.) 

Randall (Left), is located in a crevasse near Camp 18, a JIRP field camp. Students had the opportunity to repel down into this crevasse. (Right) Randall, Randall and Joshua were part of a research team that measured the position of stakes on the Little Vaughan Lewis Glacier. Photo credit to Joshua Kelly

Scientists have used glaciers to gain deeper understanding of Earth’s climatic history, and as global temperatures rise from human activity, changes in the world’s glaciers serve as crucial indicators for understanding the current pace of global warming. The melting glaciers are the biggest cause of sea level riseExperts have known for more than 30 years that glaciers are losing ice rather than growing as a result of higher temperatures. 

Professors and students from all over the country participate in the annual research trip at JIRP to contribute to the growing body research on how these glaciers change. Randall’s class was the first one to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon arrival, the researchers separated into groups of three to quarantine for the first two weeks, test for COVID-19, and ensure that each team member was in good health before setting out for their research sites on icefield—only accessible by a helicopter that could take seven days to arrive depending on the weather. As part of their introductory lessons, the students learned navigational skills, backcountry safety and mountaineering. 

“It gets eerie the farther you move into the icefield,” Randall says. “Because there’s nothing to support life out there…it feels almost otherworldly.” Despite the harsh and desolate environment, to Randall’s surprise, delicate and iridescently plumed hummingbirds would occasionally fly by on their southward migration paths. 

A remote camp on the Icefield. Anne Randall.

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Yearly mean sea-level values of Dublin Port, with Arklow and Howth Harbour for comparison. Graphic: Hamilton Institute and ICARUS Climate Research Centre

“It’s incredible to see the organisms that have adapted to survive there,” she says, such as the heather plants, types of shrubs that grow in the rocky soil between the ice sheets, able to survive being completely covered in snow. And over the months of being isolated from anyone else, Randall and the group had bonded over the various challenges—like digging a hole into the ice to expose a layer of granular ice called firn—and all there is to learn when living in an unfamiliar place. 

Randall and the JIRP crew quickly grew to be comfortable on skis or hiking in ski boots. Ice picks were often handy for fieldwork and scrambling. Randall spent a lot of her summer setting up stakes using GPS locators to track the location of the glacier, document ice losses, and monitor snow accumulation on specific glaciers. 

“The glaciers in Alaska are going to be affected by climate change very, very rapidly, and so the rate of melting is really important to understand,” she says. Randall explains how remote sensing technology is used to measure the velocity of glacier movement. Part of the project was to ensure that the stakes on land matched the satellite data. 

This is one among many glacial lakes Randall, the JIRP crew, found on the glaciers. All sizes and depths varied, and some lakes even contained icebergs. Photo courtesy Anne Randall.

Randall recalled seeing a lot of active glacier ice fall at the last camp where they spent time. This was a thrilling part about the JIRP experience. “The sound of the glacier cracking and breaking was a lot like thunder,” she says. “I would sit on the rocks and watch the ice fall.” 

Randall will be spending her final year at BU studying eelgrass bed along the coast Massachusetts. Eelgrass, a type of seaweed, buffers flooding and provides shelter for small marine animals. Randall is earning a minor in marine biologyHowever, he hopes to one day return to the cryosphere to see other glaciers that are threatened by climate change. 

Despite the fact that most people live far away from Arctic icefields, “there’s a lot that we do that directly impacts the glaciers and influences global warming,” says Randall. 

One of the biggest lessons she took away from the JIRP experience was the importance of communicating the urgency of climate science to people who don’t understand its complexities. “It’s difficult to try to get across this complex, long history of changes in the environment and how we’re deviating from what is normal, and also to get people to believe you.” But we have to try, she says. 

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