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.

Photo Friday: Benchmark Glaciers in the USA

Glaciers contain about three quarters of the world’s fresh water and cover about 75,000 square kilometers of the U.S. The United States Geological Service (USGS) has been running the Benchmark Glacier program since the late 1950s to track glacier mass balance. Repeat measurements at four selected sites are used in conjunction with local meteorological and runoff data to measure the glaciers’ response to climate change.

Results from South Cascade Glacier in Washington and Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers in Alaska provide the longest continuous record of North American glacier mass balance. In 2005, Sperry Glacier in Montana was added to the program, allowing changes in glacier mass in the principal North American climate zones to be tracked.

South Cascade Glacier in Washington experiences some of the highest precipitation levels in the lower 48 states of the USA, exceeding 4500mm per annum in some places. Data was first collected from this glacier in 1959.


South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS)
South Cascade Glacier as seen in 1928 (left) and 2006 (right) (Source: USGS).


A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher collecting a snow core sample from South Cascade Glacier (Source: USGS).


Gulkana Glacier can be found along the southern flank of the eastern Alaska range. It experiences a continental climate, with large temperature ranges and precipitation that is more irregular and lighter than that experienced in coastal areas.


Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS)
Gulkana Glacier and surrounding peaks (Source: USGS).


Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Northern lights over the researchers’ cabin in 2014 (Source: USGS).


A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana glacier (Source: USGS)
A researcher measuring the thickness of the snow at Gulkana Glacier (Source: USGS).


Wolverine Glacier is also located in Alaska, but is found in the Kenai Mountains on the coast. The maritime climate has low temperature variability and regular, heavy precipitation. Data collection at both Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers began in 1966.


Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS)
Wolverine Glacier in 2014 (Source: USGS).


The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The weather station at the top of Wolverine Glacier in Alaska (Source: USGS).


The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier (Source: USGS)
The crevassed surface of Wolverine Glacier in the Kenai Mountains (Source: USGS).


Sperry Glacier is located in the Lewis Range of Glacier National Park in Montana. The climate of the region is influenced by both maritime and continental air masses, but Pacific storm systems dominate. These systems result in moderate temperatures and heavy precipitation, which vary strongly with altitude.


Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS)
Sperry Glacier in 1913 (top) and 2008 (bottom) (Source: USGS).


Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS)
Researchers inserting ablation stakes using a steam drill (Source: USGS).

Girls Breaking Ground on Ice

As a student, I had no idea that I ever wanted to study anything related to science- much less the “hard” sciences. Often, I was pointed in the direction of social science because of my writing ability and creativity. Although my high school days weren’t long ago, this experience is common among young women due to archaic stereotypes that have yet to be dismantled. Luckily, there are some female professionals in the hard sciences, such as Dr. Erin Pettit, glaciologist and founder of the Girls on Ice Program, who are trying new approaches to open corridors in science for young ladies.

(Photo: Facebook)
Young women who participate in the program represent a variety of backgrounds and geographic locations. (Photo: Facebook)


Sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Girls on Ice is a free science, mountaineering, and art wilderness program for young women ages 16-18. Each year, two teams of nine young women and three instructors spend twelve days on unforgettable expeditions: one trip explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in Washington, and the other trip allows the young women to experience the majesty of Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier. The young women selected for the teams explore these unique landscapes with professional mountaineers, ecologists, artists, and glaciologists, and all of the instructors are women.

GOI Poster


The program stretches the young women mentally and physically by prompting them to observe, to question, and to experiment while trekking through rough terrain. Although the focus is scientific research, the physical elements cannot be overlooked. “We don’t baby them. They have to set up tents, cook, do everything,” declared Dr. Pettit to the National Science Teachers Association. Over the course of the expedition, the girls are challenged to design and conduct a pinnacle experiment about the environment; during the 2009 expedition, one participant used time-lapse imagery to correlate local weather and glacial melt. She found that air temperature and sunshine have a direct effect on the melt rates of ice and snow cover, thus affecting the pace of water-flow in glacial streams. After the expedition, the young women are invited to synthesize their field research and present it to a public audience, which sometimes includes members from the local geoscience community.


The young women partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)
The young women partner with professionals in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of their new environment. (Photo: Facebook)


The young women on the Girls on Ice team gain both physical and intellectual confidence, leadership skills, and inspiration for future achievement. Yet, along with stimulating the minds of the young women, the program has benefits for society as it helps to close the gap between the numbers of women and men involved in science occupations. According to National Geographic, women make up a meager 26% of the individuals devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math occupations; although that number has been increasing slightly over the years, “gender bias has affected research outcomes.” Programs like Girls on Ice help to ameliorate these injustices by providing unique opportunities for girls to experience the grandeur and marvel inherent in scientific discovery. As stated by one of the participants, “I am inspired to do anything! In the van ride back I was looking out the window at the amazing scenery and the bright blue sky and I felt so great and excited for life.”

The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)
The program allows the young women to grow as scholars, but also allows personal reflection time. (Photo: Facebook)


Dr. Pettit stated in her feature in Smithsonian, “My goal is not to turn these girls into scientists. My goal is to provide the kind of critical-thinking skills that are necessary for science-and for everything else we do in life.” The aim is to inspire these young women to become not just scientists, but also “future teachers, journalists, lawyers, and businesswomen who are advocates for the scientific process.” Therefore, this program and other field science experiences for high school students offer a promising outlook on the importance of preserving glaciers and their magnificent environments. Not only are these areas important for their immediate ecosystems, but they have the potential to inspire the curiosity and achievement of many generations to come.