Mendenhall Glacier, near Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, is one of the most visited and oft-photographed glaciers in the United States. Kevin Lyons, an Alaska-based adventurer, uses his lens to offer a fresh angle on Mendenhall. Lyons is a self-described “photography enthusiast with a passion for travel and the outdoors.”
Dirt and cryoconite deposits on the ice surface inhibit the glacier’s ability to reflect solar radiation. Melt pools form on the ice surface, accelerating ablation by creating pores that allow water to penetrate the glacier.
Mendenhall’s retreat is well-documented, partly thanks to time lapse imagery provided by scientific cameras, like the one pictured below. The 2012 film, Chasing Ice, highlighted Mendenhall’s retreat to effect of global warming on the planet’s glaciers.
Mendenhall’s famous ice caves, pictured below, have collapsed since Lyons visited in 2014. A Frequently Asked Question on the U.S. Forest Service website addresses the rumor that ice caves exist at Mendenhall: “There have been several ice caves in past years, but the cave that appears in many recent internet photos has collapsed and disappeared. It was located along the west flank of the glacier but the ice has completely melted out of that area and no other caves are present.”
An indirect benefit for visitors and residents of Juneau is Lake Mendenhall, which did not exist prior to 1930. The lake formed due to excessive melt. The tongue of the glacier is expected to retreat to the point where it no longer terminates in the lake itself. According to Lyons, when the ice surface freezes just right “the hockey games out there are epic.”
A new study published in the journal Isis details a decades-old conflict between early glacier researchers in Alaska, a conflict that remains relevant today. The controversy, known as the Miller–Beckey dispute, started at the Juneau Icefield in the late 1940s when a scientist-climber named MaynardMiller clashed with fellow mountaineer Friedrich Beckey. Beckey discounted Miller’s scientific research due to Miller’s secondary role as a mountaineer, suggesting that because Miller was a sportsman, he could not also be a serious scientist. The dispute took place at a time when North American glaciology was a nascent geophysical science.
The Background of the Conflict
The Juneau Icefield Research Project (JIRP), which brought both men to the ice, was one of the first programs of glaciology in North America, according to the article’s author, Danielle Inkpen. It was an on-site, long-term study of the Taku glacier, an outlet glacier of the Juneau Icefield. Intensive field observations like those made at JIRP required researchers to live on the ice for extended periods of time. Dangers such as hidden crevasses and snow blindness required the traditional skill set of a mountaineer. As a result, JIRP drew many fieldworkers from elite mountaineering circles.
Miller, founder and long-time director of JIRP, was one of these early adventurers. Inkpen writes that Miller was a skilled climber, having joined America’s first Mt. Everest expedition in 1963. But he was also an educated scientist who studied geology and glaciology, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees from Harvard and Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Miller’s dual roles as both an active mountaineer and scientific researcher prompted his rival Beckey to cast doubt on his scientific credibility. Nicknamed “lone wolf,” Beckey was a legendary American rock climber and an Alpine-style mountaineer. He is known to many from the documentary, “The Legend of Fred Beckey,” for having completed more first ascents than any other North American climber.
Miller was first introduced to the Alaskan glacier as a member of an expedition which first summited Mount Bertha, led by Bradford Washburn, his geography instructor at Harvard. Miller and Washburn built a sense of camaraderie when they were roped up together during a climb while both part of the Harvard Mountaineering Club (HMC). Later, Washburn recommended Miller as the field assistant for glacier research in Alaska in 1941 with William Field, one of the founders of the HMC and also a leading mountaineer, photographer and geologist in the 1920s with a number of first ascents to his credit. These men all came to glaciology through mountaineering. Miller’s passion for scientific fieldwork in Alaska originated in his desire to explore the climbing potential in southern Alaska.
The Conflict Develops
Miller returned to Alaska in 1947 for JIRP. The project’s primary funder was the Office of Scientific Research and Development of the American military. Inkpen explains that investment in glaciology was made possible by the United States military, which increased expenditures during the Cold War amidst national security concerns. The Polar region was a major geopolitical hotspot at the height of the conflict, and launching missiles from secret bases under ice caps was considered a possibility. Observations of Alaskan glacier fluctuations during this time triggered further investigations into the relationship between glaciers and climate. In order for JIRP to avoid a misunderstanding about their primary commitment to science, it had to keep its professional image as a glacial science organization, Inkpen notes. Other glaciological expeditions at the time, like Snow Cornice, were supported by private funders. As JIRP’s military sponsor said, ‘‘No funds could be provided for mountaineering.”
As a result of this policy, Miller did no climbing during the first summer of research at Juneau. However, he was reportedly located close to the attractive spire, Devil’s Paw. He also wrote an article about the mountaineering possibilities at Juneau Icefield for HMC’s Bulletin; according to Inkpen, Miller believed that this piece would go unnoticed by his funder. She quotes his article as stating that the 1949 season would bring “many interesting ascents of the magnificent granite and metamorphic rock peaks which protrude out of the ice and snow in this glacial-alpine paradise.”
Miller and Beckey had an unpleasant history before their confrontation in Juneau. Inkpen explains that as climbing partners, they failed to reach the summit of the Nooksack Tower in North Cascades National Park, in Washington State. However, Miller would later try a second time with another team, excluding Beckey. Then, in 1948, when Miller became field leader at the Juneau Icefield, he wrote a letter to Beckey telling him to stay away, Inkpen reports. She further notes that Miller claimed he was afraid that the press attention from Beckey’s first ascent would undermine JIRP’s reputation, especially at a time when the organization needed funding. However, the true purpose of the letter remains unknown. Inkpen indicates that it cannot be ruled out that Miller merged private affairs into public ones, wanting to save the first ascent for himself. Beckey followed Miller’s request for a time, but in 1949 he marched to Juneau unexpectedly and successfully conquered the Devil’s Paw.
The Consequences of the Conflict
Reverberations continued for Beckey and Miller after Beckey wrote to American Alpine Club (AAC) condemning Miller for practicing pseudoscience and using science as a cover for his mountaineering ambitions. Beckey further accused Miller of violating the codes of sharing information with fellow mountaineers. Certain gentlemanly rules inherited from the Victorian golden age of climbing governed first ascent. Using climbing information from other climbers to reach the summit was regarded as improper. Beckey even claimed that Miller had besmirched him and broke his climbing buddy’s arm during a visit.
Instead of declaring the scientific importance of his research to defend himself and the JIRP, Miller hit back as a mountaineer, reportedly stating, “That is the most unfortunate [and] uncalled for situation that has ever arisen to besmirch the name of the HMC and the AAC.” He asked the mountaineering community to ban Beckey’s actions and questioned Beckey’s integrity for deliberately concealing his climbing routes. As a result, the AAC convened a three-person committee to investigate this Miller-Beckey dispute. According to the article, the committee concluded the matter as an attack on Miller’s professional credibility in order to encourage the club members to work with scientific expeditions. Their judgment had a profound influence on interweaving scientific research with mountaineering, Inkpen reports.
As GlacierHub learned from ErinPettit, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska who conducts research and teaches at JIRP, the conflict between mountaineers and scientific research is still relevant today. “There certainly is a challenge when ego comes into play,” Pettit said. “If someone on a field team has more of a mountaineering ego, he/she wants to summit a mountain and put the science as a lower priority, that may be their choice. However, if it affects the goals of the entire field research team, then that is an issue. Similarly, a team of mountaineers might have the goal of achieving a new route on a mountain. If one of them is also a scientist and gets too distracted by science to support the goals of the mountaineering team, then the team will suffer.” Teamwork relies on having everyone on board with the goals of the team, she said. This involves each team member knowing what their role is on the team.
In the end, the Miller–Beckey dispute revealed a conflict between scientific and recreational values. It shows how pride and a competitive spirit can undermine the teamwork that is required for new accomplishments in the field, a topic of significance even today.
Do you need to cool off from the stifling August heat?
Video of the Week is just what you need! This week we explore the melting ice caves of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. Currently about 13 miles long, Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating for hundreds of years, and its melt rate has increased in modern times due to climate change. This melting, paired with failing ice dams, has put Juneau residents at risk for flooding as Mendenhall Lake’s water levels continue to rise.
This has not stopped thousands of people from visiting the glacier every year, however. The Mendenhall glacier is a popular tourist destination that flows from the Juneau Icefield all the way to Mendenhall Lake. In fact, the tourist-accessible features of the glacier are in the planning stages of being redone to incorporate new facilities and trails. Unfortunately, the ice caves featured in the video are not as easily accessible to visitors who want to make the adventure themselves. Mendenhall Glacier’s ice caves typically form and melt away quickly, so this video might have to suffice for now to help you escape this summer’s temperatures.
To learn about how Mendenhall Glacier helps teach about climate change, check out one of our articles from earlier this year.
Visiting Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska is a memorable experience for about 575,000 visitors each year. A top attraction, the glacier stretches 13 miles across the Juneau Ice Field, terminating on the far side of Mendenhall Lake. Surrounded by 38 other glacial remnants of the last ice age, it remains one of the most visited and visible of Alaska’s glaciers.
A trip to Mendenhall offers the opportunity to hike on top of a glacier, drink from a cool stream and talk with other tourists from around the world. Visitors may also interact in the deglaciated landscape with plants, wildlife and birds on one of the trails leading through the Mendenhall Valley and the Tongass National Forest. Most importantly, visitors can witness firsthand the glacial retreat that has visibly altered the Alaskan landscape. U.S. Forest Service Rangers have learned to tell Mendenhall’s tale, a story about the effects of climate change and consequences of a warming planet.
A visit to Mendenhall comes with an upsetting observation: glaciers in Alaska are retreating at an alarming rate. The Mendenhall Glacier has receded more than a mile and a half in the last half century, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Unfortunately, glacial retreat will only likely continue due to our warming planet, impacting tourism and the surrounding ecosystem. Animals such as the mountain goat, black bear, porcupine, bald eagle, and beaver, as well as countless plants that grow in the area, will all be affected. That is why the staff of the U.S. Forest Service and John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, are using the Mendenhall Glacier to educate visitors about climate change.
“In 1982, the glacier was just another glacier because I didn’t have the experience of watching it disappear over time,” John Neary explained to GlacierHub. “Now that I have watched it quickly shrink, I’m alarmed and feel it should be used to demonstrate how our world is dramatically changing.”
For his part, Neary relies on his own experience with the glacier when talking to visitors about climate change. He tells them about the time he was out hiking on a steep trail beside the glacier and his dog fell 90 feet onto the ice. When Visitor Center was opened in 1962 it was just a quarter mile from the glacial face. In 1982, when he first saw it, the face had retreated another half mile. Most recently, he has been watching the glacier retreat further, leaving the lake that it had once reached.
Neary works with a team of 25 Forest Service staff to explain these effects to the tourists every day. At the visitor center, visitors can learn about Mendenhall’s glacial retreat through art exhibits, a 15-minute film, and guided walks. With a window facing the glacier, the rangers talk regularly about the effects of climate change.
“We describe the mechanics of glaciation, the value of glaciers and the worrisome scale of their disappearance,” says Neary. “But we hope to do much more with this subject in the future.”
The glacial retreat of Mendenhall can be easily observed by visitors in photographs at the visitor center or witnessed by repelling deep into the ice caves that are formed when the glacier melts and erodes. Adam DiPietro, a tourist who was exploring one of the ice caves at Mendenhall, described the experience to GlacierHub: “My friend and I discovered the moulin [hole] a couple of weeks ago and came back with gear to descend into it. We repelled 70′ to the bottom and crawled through a small hole at the base…The cave is not continuous yet, but someday it will be since the glacier keeps retreating.”
According to Neary, most visitors he encounters acknowledge climate change, but not all. Some attribute the glacier’s shrinking to a “natural cycle,” not one accelerated by greenhouse gases. “It’s hard to judge how many doubters we are changing because people tend to be very set in their beliefs,” he says. “But we feel we are introducing them to different ways of thinking about the climate and the effects.”
This involves promoting and demonstrating sustainability like low-carbon electric transit and renewable energy. “We want to communicate an irresistibly positive vision about what can be achieved when a community has the will to be more sustainable,” says Neary. “We hope to do it in ways that people love. In fact, our slogan is ‘Love Your Glacier.'”
As director of the visitor center, Neary has supported the restoration of a historic hydropower project and the development of a sustainable building that uses clean energy and produces little waste. This would allow the Forest Service to be energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Exploration of the site by foot, paddle, cycle or by non-motorized boats is also being promoted where appropriate. The goal, according to Neary, is to connect people to nature through their direct experience with practical, sustainable solutions to everyday challenges. Neary’s efforts have paid off: the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center has gained national attention because of its use in climate change education for tourists and fellows.
Neary seized on the opportunity to awaken a global audience to the relationship between carbon emitting devices and shrinking glaciers. The climate change perspective of the visitor center is unique, with the center standing in front of a rapidly deteriorating glacier that sends a compelling message about global changes and our responsibility to consider sustainable lifestyles.
“Glaciers are rapidly disappearing from around the globe and people want to see them, to walk on them, to touch them while they still can,” says Neary. “Alaska remains a beautiful and safe destination, but we suspect there may be more driving this interest in glaciers and wildlife. It’s possibly what some have called ‘Last Chance Tourism,’ which is when people want to ‘see it before it’s gone.'”
Neary’s job is not an easy one, but he never stops making the effort to convince visitors that climate change is real and that we can all take action to address its effects. He attempts to convince visitors to alter their lifestyles to help fight off global warming. It may seem scary to some people to give up cars and oil heaters, but Neary, for one, believes Mendenhall proves that the sacrifice is well worth it.
Dancing to the tune of a melting glacier: CoMotion tackles climate change
“If someone suggested you watch artists perform an hour-long dance about climate change, you might shoot them your best ‘have-you-lost-your-mind’ look. But your curiosity level might be raised, too.
When Karen Kaufmann’s phone rang in February 2015 and the caller asked her about putting together just such a production, her reaction, although certainly not the same, at least followed a similar arc.
‘I grappled with it,’ says Kaufmann, artistic director at the University of Montana’s CoMotion Dance Project. ‘The topic overwhelmed me. It was not immediately intuitive how one would go about choreographing climate change.'”
Read more about CoMotion’s production of “Changing Balance/Balancing Change” here.
Visitors To A Shrinking Alaskan Glacier Get A Lesson On Climate Change
“John Neary, director of the visitor center for [Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska], wants the more than 500,000 people who visit the Mendenhall Glacier each year to know that it’s rapidly retreating due to climate change.
‘It became our central topic really just in the last few years,’ Neary says.”
Read about Neary’s programming efforts to teach visitors about the effects of climate change here.
The Tiny World of Glacier Microbes Has an Outsized Impact on Global Climate
“The ability to tinker with our planet’s climate isn’t isolated to Arctic puddles. Microbes within these small pools, and nestled in lakebed sediments buried miles beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, could harbor the ability to seriously alter the global carbon cycle, as well as the climate. And researchers have only recently begun to navigate these minuscule worlds[….] Scientists once thought these holes were devoid of life. But researchers are now finding that they actually contain complex ecosystems of microbes like bacteria, algae and viruses.”
Read more about a researcher’s three-week efforts to monitor the ability of puddles and the life contained in them to manipulate Earth’s climate here.