The melancholy Juneau summer of blue ice

Part of the mass balance group skiing to their pit located behind Emperor Peak. (Photo by Julian Cross, courtesy Juneau Icefield Research Program)

For many first-time visitors, the Juneau Icefield is a surreal and sublime experience.

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“I’m completely in love with it. I cried when we hiked off the glacier the last day,”  Hannah Perrine Mode laughed.

Mode’s originally from Boston and had never been to Alaska before this summer. Mode served as the first-ever, artist-in-residence for the Juneau Icefield Research Program, or JIRP, a summer research and training program focusing on the ice and snow, ecology and weather and climate of the icefield above downtown Juneau.

The program started in 1946 under the direction of Maynard Miller as the Juneau Icefield Research Project.

During the eight weeks she was on the icefield, Mode painted in watercolors and made cyanotype photographs. Using her medium format camera, she made long 12-hour exposures on paper painted with light-sensitive chemicals that are used for creating blueprints.

Mode would fix or set the images using meltwater from the glaciers.

“The blue ice to me is like incredibly magical and beautiful, and it’s also a little bit melancholic in thinking about loss in that way,” Mode said.

Hannah Perrine Mode describes how she created her art inspired by the Juneau Icefield and created with cyanotype and watercolors. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Mode, who is currently studying for an masters of fine arts at Mills College in Oakland, California, spearheaded the artist-in-residence program this year. In addition to making art, she served as mentor and held workshops for students and faculty. She also attended lectures and went along on the expeditions helping students with their scientific research.

“Part of why I wanted to do JIRP and to have this experience is because I was really excited to learn about the science,” Mode said. “It was really this wonderful exchange in which I was able to learn so much about this realm in that I don’t have experience in.”

“I think I was able to contribute and bring some students into a different way of a thinking about science communication, teach some workshops and do a lecture have a mentoring role in a different way,” Mode said. “But still learning a lot in the way the students were learning.”

Over 30 undergraduate and graduate students from as far away as Germany and Singapore participated in the icefield research program this year.

Skidmore College senior Ann Hill, from Minneapolis, is studying geosciences. She was part of the team that used precise GPS equipment to measure changes in a glacier’s flow and elevation to an inch or less.

“A lot of the glaciers are dropping in elevation,” Hill said. “They’re losing a lot of mass and, ultimately, the surface is a lot lower than it used to be. You can see this even just by walking out on the glaciers because a lot more of the rock is exposed than it used to be.”

Taku Glacier was unique among other glaciers on the icefield because it was not losing mass or retreating. The Taku had been advancing over the last few decades, but Hill said their latest measurements indicate it may now be in a stagnant phase.

“That leads us to think that, potentially in the future, it could start to retreat,” Hill said. “Hopefully, with our measures we’ll be able to determine where in the Taku cycle it currently is. Is it currently still advancing a little bit? Is it perfectly stagnant? Or, can we already see signs of retreat?”

The Taku is the icefield’s largest glacier and features a tidewater terminus.

Students Zach Gianotti, Theresa Westhaver and Ilana Casarez crossing the blue ice at the terminus of the Lemon Creek Glacier before a hike up Nugget Ridge. (Photo by Bryn Huxley-Reicher, courtesy Juneau Icefield Research Program)

“It’s a really great experience,” Tristan Walker-Andrews, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, said. He was part of the ecology team that surveyed the diversity and abundance of lichen and plants at different elevations and locations on the icefield.

Walker-Andrews was one of three Juneau residents who participated this summer. It’s fairly rare for an Alaskan to sign up for the program, much less for a Juneau student.

“Any Juneau students from the university or even either of the high schools who are interested in getting out in nature and exploring what is basically our backyard and getting an idea of what is going on up there that will be affecting a lot of people downstream in Juneau and other places in Alaska, I really encourage them to apply to the program and try to get involved in other ways,” Walker-Andrews said. “It’s really a great program.”

Although he’s not sure yet which field, Walker-Andrews said he’s interested in pursuing a science career, likely something connected to nature or the natural world.

Students explained their research during an August 17 open house at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.