Summer Intern Christoph Suhr ’19 Studies Glaciers at the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research in Juneau, AK

This summer, the Whitman Student Engagement Center and its Whitman Internship Grant made it possible for me to study glaciers with the Juneau, Alaska based Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research. Through the Foundation, I participated in their Juneau Icefield Research Program, an intensive eight-week opportunity to work with specialists in the field of glaciology to study glacier change, and more specifically how these changes relate to our changing global climate.

To explore glacier change this summer, I participated predominantly in two areas of study – the mass balance and the geomatics evaluations. The mass balance method of analysis aims to evaluate how a glacier system is changing by examining total inputs and outputs of water-mass to a glacier, to determine net change in mass of snow and ice contained in a glacier over time. This net mass change can be calculated roughly from the differencing of yearly snowfall measurements and the yearly melt of ice on the glacier. To better explain this element of my research, I’ve included a brief piece I wrote over the summer about a mass balance research trip that I participated on.

One method that scientists use to evaluate the health of glaciers is by digging holes into the glacier surface. On the Juneau Icefield Research Program, students and scientists use this method – known as mass balance – to determine the total amount of water in the form of ice and snow that has accumulated at pre-determined points on the Juneau Icefield in the past year. These measures have been collected since 1948, forming the second longest lasting mass balance record in the world. Recently, fifteen student researchers, faculty, and staff embarked on a three-day expedition to the Northwest Branch of Taku Glacier to carry on a part of this long-term survey.

To reach the pits on the Northwest Branch of Taku Glacier, our group skied approximately thirteen kilometers from Camp 10 (one of our permanent camps for the summer), and established an overnight basecamp complete with dug-out tent platforms, latrines, sheltered gear trenches, and a cook tent. The second day of the expedition consisted of digging the mass balance pits higher up the NW Branch of Taku Glacier, too far afield to access in a day trip from any permanent JIRP camp. On the third and final day of the expedition we awoke to sunny skies, packed up our camp, and enjoyed the beautiful weather for our ski back to Camp 10.

To conduct the mass balance research, on each day of the expedition the fifteen participants would split into three groups, and head from basecamp to different locations to dig their mass balance pits. To document the health of the glacier, the students and scientists dug tirelessly down to the previous summer’s surface, sometimes having to dig over four meters into the snowpack! By reaching the previous summer’s surface, the students could sample the snow that fell in the past year, weigh it, and from those data calculate the total mass of ice and snow that was added to that part of Taku Glacier by snowfall in that year. With this information, total mass of snow and ice added in the winter can be compared with the mass of ice lost to summer melt. This comparison can be thought of as ‘balancing the glaciers checkbook,’ and can be used to evaluate the glacier’s health.

Additionally, the other major focus of my summer was assisting the geomatics research group, assisting this group by taking survey-grade GPS measurements on transects of glacier surfaces. These data points could then be uploaded to computers, and evaluated to examine a series of elements of glacier change, including flow velocities, establishing flow divides (the line on the glacier surface where two separate glacier systems are divided), and most importantly the elevation of the glacier’s surface. Similar to the mass balance approach of research, the geodetic method of measuring surface elevation change can be used to effectively explain the central focus of evaluating glacier change, and can be used to explain the relationship between glacier change and our changing global climate.

Experiences like Christoph’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff.

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