Shining on a Glacier: Girls on Ice

The team fords a glacial stream to access basecamp (Source: Alexandra Ravelo).

One day last June, something rare took place on Interior Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier— a dance party. As a treat for the final day of Girls on Ice, a glacier-based science education program for teenage girls, instructors lowered each of the nine girls into a crevasse, two at a time, and they used ice axes and crampons to climb out. The day was chilly and the winds were picking up, and the girls started dancing to keep warm. “They were dancing and laughing and shining,” said glaciologist and Girls on Ice instructor Aurora Roth. “I want to hang on to that forever. That’s why I do what I do, to see girls shining in the outdoors.”

Girls on Ice began in 1999 when a team of two instructors and five teenage girls spent a week exploring the South Cascade Glacier in Washington. In 2012, a group of graduate students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks decided to adapt the program to Alaska. Each June, eight or nine girls join up with female mountain guides, scientists, and artists to spend a week on the Gulkana Glacier studying glacial processes, creating art, and exploring themes from climate change to socially-prescribed gender roles. “The wilderness setting and single gender field team inspires young women’s interest in science and provides a challenging environment that increases their physical and intellectual self-confidence,” states the program’s mission statement.

Pervasive and dangerous gender imbalances in the geosciences necessitate this focus on girls’ physical and intellectual self-confidence. M Jackson, a glaciologist and environmental educator, is troubled by gender dynamics in the sciences today. “While there are women in glaciology, it is not simply an issue of metrics, the number of women in the field, or the number of women-authored publications. I can tell you from personal experience that out in the field on glaciers, in years past, I have almost always been the only woman on the team. This is changing today,” she said.

Joanna Young, one of the founders of the Alaska Girls on Ice program, seeks to instill a diverse skill set in each girl she teaches, and show them that there are many ways to view the world. A typical day for the girls might include monitoring a snowmelt experiment near camp, a painting lesson from a visiting artist, and practicing the technical skills that allow the girls to travel in rope teams through crevassed areas. “At the end, we want to look at one landscape and see it through many lenses— as a mountaineer, assessing how to get from Point A to Point B, and what gear she’ll need; an artist, seeing color and texture; and a scientist, asking, how did these mountains come to be? Why is this rock different from that rock?”

The girls take in a lesson on the Gulkana Glacier (Source: Aurora Roth).

This interdisciplinary approach resonated with Emma Apitzsch, a 2017 Girls on Ice student who lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, and is training to be a bush pilot and mechanic. Emma reflected, “Before Girls on Ice, I had never stopped and really looked at something from an artistic perspective. Through our different activities, I got to explore new ideas and possibilities to interpret what I was seeing.”

The place-based science curriculum at the core of Girls on Ice also changed Emma’s perspective. “Already, I look at a mountain, the trees, a small plant…anything! I look at it a slight differently. I think and observe the ground I stand on a little differently too. What will it all look like in hundreds of thousands of years? Where will all of this be?” she said. “Looking through a science lens has made me question and have a special appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me.”

Jackson thinks that it’s crucial for girls to have the types of experiences like Emma and her peers did in June. “When I was a little girl, I did not even know that being a glaciologist was an option for me as a career path. I did not see female glaciologists. It is this example that makes programs such as Girls on Ice so critical— we need more programs that take girls and other marginalized peoples out into spaces that empower them,” Jackson told GlacierHub.

Glaciers are a traditionally male space, adds Roth, and that has implications for the science of glaciology. “Historically, glaciologists have been men, coinciding with the outdoors as a male space,” she observed. “There has been the introduction of a broader perspective that art and science can be same, that observations from art are equally valid for science, and these observations often overlap. I see more women utilizing this connection in glaciology.”

Honing observational skills by creating art also makes the girls better mountaineers and scientists (Source: Aurora Roth).

A recent study from the University of Oregon entitled “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” explored the cultural lenses that have shaped glaciology. “We do a lot of modeling and study satellite images, but what if we look at literature, at art, at drawings and recordings of glaciers?” wondered historian Mark Carey, one of the authors. “We need to be looking at the cultural lenses on how people describe and talk about their landscape.”

One of the most important and nearly-unexplored lenses is gender. In light of the traditional masculinist history of glacier research, the authors propose a “feminist glaciology,” stating that “the feminist lens is crucial given the historical marginalization of women, the importance of gender in glacier-related knowledges, and the ways in which systems of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy co-constituted gendered science.”

Just as a feminist perspective is needed to shape the future of glaciology, Roth and Young believe that each student’s time in a glacial landscape will shape her as she moves through the rest of her life. Though some former students have gone on to careers in glaciology, producing geoscientists isn’t the ultimate the goal of Girls on Ice. “If none of them becomes glaciologists, that’s fine. I want them to do what they want to do and have confidence in it,” Roth said. “When faced with a challenge, they’ll be able to say ‘I can do this, I spent a week on a glacier, I know what I can do.’”

The girls gear up to travel in rope teams across crevassed areas (Source: Joanna Young).

Some students from rural Alaska, Young says, have never been away from their village before. This year, a girl from California took her first flight to join the program. For all the girls, the intimate and remote setting of the glacier forces them to trust and encourage one another, and recognize the contributions each individual brings to the team. “By leaving their comfort zone, they see that they can thrive,” said Young.

Not only do girls need glaciers, but glaciers need girls. Robin Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, feels the urgency of climate change. “Ice on our planet is changing fast. We need all hands on deck to get up close and personal with the ice change,” she told GlacierHub.

Girls on Ice is doing its part— founder Erin Petitt started an umbrella organization, spurred by dozens of women who have written her over the years about starting their own programs after her model. Inspiring Girls Expeditions facilitates a fjord exploration by kayak, a glacier program in the Swiss Alps, and has more, including a rock climbing program, in the works. At a time when all hands are needed on deck, these programs will help girls lead the way.

Please follow and like us:

Share your thoughts