BY ERIN LAUGHLIN
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong
Dr. Erin Whitney, Executive Director of the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), spoke at the Forest Service’s long running Fireside Lecture Series on Feb. 3 at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center.
JIRP is an eight-week immersion in the wilderness of the Juneau Icefield, which manages the longest running study of any glacier in the world. During the program, high school and college students navigate from Juneau, Alaska, to Atlin, British Columbia. During this trek, students collaborate with staff on research projects that will be presented at the conclusion of the program. JIRP is described amongst participants as “the greatest earth science classroom in the world.”
The research program began in 1948, when founding father Maynard Miller lead a small group of explorers onto the Juneau Icefield. Their purpose for the expedition was to investigate the icefield’s potential for climate research and the possibility of establishing a long-term glaciological research program.
Now in its 7th decade, JIRP continues to attract students and scientists from around the world.
JIRP Director of Academics and Research, Dr. Matthew Beedle describes what makes the program unique: “the immersion of students in the rugged environment of the northern Coast Mountains that makes JIRP so special, I don’t know of another experience for undergraduates that is of that duration in such an amazing landscape.
“As such, the team forms incredibly strong bonds each year and the community that develops during the summer is really special, an inclusive, supportive, caring community that really is idealistic, each cohort becomes a tightly-knit family and life-long memories and friendships are formed.”
Scientists propose potential project ideas to JIRP, which then decides what topics will serve its students best. Projects tend to vary from year to year. Some of the projects have been running since the 1940s, including glacier mass balance, GPS survey work, and survey of the Taku Glacier. Other project topics include botany with plant succession, geophysics by probing glacier depth, biogeochemistry and the chemical signatures in water, and one of the more recent topics isotope chemistry.
“UAS applications were dramatically up last year, largely due (I think) to the joint scholarship offered by JIRP and UAS to cover the full tuition of one UAS student. It was the most Alaskan applicants we’ve had in some time, and certainly the most participants” according to Beedle. Mo Michels was the recipient of this and will be returning as a staff member in 2017.
Laurie Craig, Lead Naturalist at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, coordinates the Fireside Lecture Series. Craig says the Forest Service’s goal by hosting the series is to, “Educate and provide opportunity to share information from scientists to the community, and provide Juneau residents the opportunity to socialize.”
Selecting JIRP was an effortless choice for the Series since it “plays an integral role in glacier research and the entire Juneau community,” according to Craig.
Whitney says, when looking toward the program’s future, “we want more involvement with local organizations, further development in our science communication studies, scholarships for Alaskan students, and continued updates and maintenances of facilities and equipment.”
The diversity in the majors of the students who participate in the program varies greatly from geology, glaciology, pre-med, public policy, to sociology. Whitney urges, “the major should not limit potential applicants.”
The Fireside Lectures Series continues until March 24 for more information contact Laurie Craig by phone (907) 789-6635 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.