Impacting me to the Core: Ice

A glacier carves out a valley near Seward, AK.
A glacier carves out a valley near Seward, AK.

As I looked down from 30,000 feet upon a massive river of ice seeming to rest between two mountain ranges, I was overcome by an emotion I had yet to experience in my 35 years on this Earth. Never had I felt such a pull toward something before. It was as if gravity was literally tugging on me. I could actually feel a sensation as if real weights were strapped to my feet and at the same time pulling at my soul. During the minute I was able to look down at the miles of slow-flowing glacier, observing a period in time where nature itself is sculpting the landscape, I felt locked in time. It was me and the ice and this internal yet physical draw. Nothing else existed.

Holgate Glacier near Seward, AK.
Holgate Glacier near Seward, AK.

James Balog, a Boulder-based photographer, was the first to bring my attention to ice. Roughly 4 months prior he had spoken at the University where I work and I had gone to see if I could learn something about taking pictures from this master photographer of animals and ecosystems. Watching his still images become real before my eyes, and hearing about his most recent project, the Extreme Ice Survey, I had never been so emotionally drawn to, nor did I know it was possible to be consumed by, images. I left in a daze and continued to be both haunted and stimulated by the photos for days and weeks and then months.

Glacier advancing toward the ocean near Seward, AK.
Glacier advancing toward the ocean near Seward, AK.

Prior to July 2012, I had never witnessed anything so powerful that it brought tears to my eyes, as seeing glaciers face-to- face did. The experience dug at my core and shook me to a state of complete awareness. It brought all of the knowledge I have gained through my outdoor experiences, my education, and my work in environmental science together. As I felt the cold air flowing off Holgate Glacier, heard the cracking and popping of ice on the move, and watched massive flakes of ice fall into the ocean, it all came together for me, and I fully understood this system that we are part of, called planet Earth. It is a system that is ever-changing, causing its own changes and changing as a result of the forced changes created by its inhabitants. Looking at glaciers, I knew my place within the system, I felt connected to the system, and I knew that I, one little human just 5 foot 3 inches tall, have a major impact on it.

Glacial calving occurred where the "dent" in the ice is seen. Holgate Glacier.
Glacial calving occurred where the “dent” in the ice is seen. Holgate Glacier.

So what does one do with this knowledge? I impact everything around me, living and non-living. Every living and non-living thing around me impacts my life. How am I impacting it? Is my impact positive or negative, and who or what determines this? Ask questions. Pay attention. Be a healthy part of the system. Those are my current answers to these questions, which will change over time, just like the current landscape being carved by glaciers that will melt away leaving new territory to be explored as it too erodes away and changes form.

Glacier retreating into the Pacific Ocean near Seward, AK.
Glacier retreating into the Pacific Ocean near Seward, AK.

I highly recommend watching the 2012 film, Chasing Ice, which features James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey. To learn more about climate science, visit and for information on why glaciers matter, visit Link to the Extreme Ice Survey:


Bear Glacier, one of Alaska’a largest, retreats into the Pacific Ocean.

Ten Days on the Tundra (4)

I am the luckiest girl in the world, of this I am certain.  On days like these I cannot imagine my life any different, nor would I ever want it to be…

Rescuing a Short-Eared owl chick from the roadside.

At 8:30am I hopped into a truck and headed north on the Dalton with 2 other workers to join them for the day.  We spent the day hiking across the tundra and working alongside the Kuparuk  River.  This is one of the many rivers that begins in the Brooks Mountain Range and empties into the Arctic Ocean.  Our task was to remove sticky traps used to capture insects that live above and alongside the river and replace them with fresh new traps.  Lacey is the graduate student who is studying the aquatic invertebrates that live along the river and she is hoping to correlate these to the birds that live along the river, or use the river as a food source in the fall (which is now, the end of July).  We spent much of our day changing out traps with the beautiful backdrop of the mountains behind us.

Hiking out to the sample site.

After this work was done, we traveled further north up to Oksrukuyik  Creek where we wandered across tundra to the riparian area.  Here we attempted to do a bird census (count) but didn’t hear or see a single bird in the tall willows.  After giving up on that, we walked up the creek turning over rocks looking for mayfly larvae.  We were unsuccessful at that as well but were not concerned as we had seen several mayflies on the sticky traps earlier in the day.  Lacey was very interested in this because the mayflies apparently should not be hatching this early and they most definitely are.


Traveling between sites, we happened upon a number of wildlife sightings.  There are no herds of caribou here yet but we did encounter caribou hunters who have come to set up camp and scout the area since the season starts soon.  I keep forgetting that it is early fall here, as it is confusing when I see Golden Plover chicks in downy plumage and unable to fly.  One only has to look around at the vegetation to tell that it is changing color right now.  The blueberries and salmon berries are ripe for picking, their leaves already turning shades of yellow and red.  The summer flowers have all gone to seed but the fireweed persists, adding brilliant pink to the still green landscape.

Fireweed grows on disturbed areas near the Alaskan pipeline providing a burst of color.
Working diligently to replace sticky traps.

Ten Days on the Tundra (1)

“So why are you coming to Alaska?”

Two teenage faces stared at me, waiting patiently for an answer as I racked my brain for words that I could use to explain the next 2 weeks to a 14 and 15-year-old. I remembered a workshop I attended for fun at my university last year where scientists and graduate students packed a room for a morning and made painfully slow progress at putting together a 2 minute summary about their research that could be understood by their grandmother, someone from the media, or even their significant other. Communicating Your Science the series was called. I needed to communicate science.

Our conversation took place en route to Anchorage where I was headed in order to meet 8 middle and high school teachers who are flying in on Sunday from Maryland, Michigan, and Colorado. My boss and 2 other researchers will also come and when our team has arrived, we will fly to the Arctic Circle, north of the Brooks Mountain Range. Once there we’ll stay at a research station with about 100 other research scientists and their lab folks, all of whom are collecting data on everything from birds to soil microbes. Our team will be working on soil sampling, sorting and identifying. For two weeks we will have our faces toward the ground, in the field and in tent-like labs. The goal is to better understand what lives in the tundra environment, and what changes are currently happening with the permafrost thawing as our planet warms.

Much to my surprise, the boys’ eyes lit up and I was bombarded with question after question for much of the 5 hour flight. These kids were sharp! And educated well in salmon, whales, migratory birds, and bears. They told me everything they knew about these animals, native Alaskan culture, and described to me how their part of the planet rotates around the sun in an attempt to increase my understanding about 23 hours of daylight in mid-July. After giving me tips on where to see migrating birds, they proceeded to pick apart my working life, probing for details about wildlife research and education experiences I have had. I don’t believe I have ever had a more captive audience or have held anyone’s attention for so long.

The older teen was watching me with my face glued to the airplane window for an hour as we raced above mountain peaks poking through a thick blanket of clouds. Behind me I heard a child ask his father if what he looking at was snow or clouds. A long, snake-like glacier appeared below us, flanked by the two new mountain ranges it was creating, and feeling its power brought tears to my eyes. I turned to look at the teenage boy sitting next to me. He looked steadily at me and with a tiny smile said, “It’s pretty amazing, huh?” Our eyes met and I nodded, unable to communicate what this experience was already making me feel.