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Under the Ice and Above the Treeline: The Thrills and Chills of Glacial Geology

Date: Aug. 27, 2001
By: Chris Curran
Photos by Chris Curran
Contact: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Archive: Research News

With just one week left in the University of Cincinnati Glacial Field Methods course, the scenery and weather are changing quickly.

After several days in the relative warmth of the coastal areas near Whittier and Anchorage and the arid Wrangell Mountains near McCarthy and Kennicott, UC geology Professor Thomas Lowell headed the group north on the Richardson Highway to Fielding Lake. The lake is high up in the Alaska Range, about 200 miles north of Valdez.

"We're higher now than when we hiked up Exit Glacier," said Lowell, emphasizing the abrupt shift in elevation and weather.

The difference in conditions was striking with a nearly constant wind gushing through the valley, and the tents camped well above the tree line with little vegetation to break the gusts.

But Fielding Lake became the base of operations day after day as the students struggled to put what they had learned in the early part of the trip into action.

Could they actually compare the retreat patterns of two neighboring glaciers after just two weeks of glacial field methods training?

More important (to a few of the participants), would they be able to survive yet another week without Arby's and chimichangas?

"We're shifting gears," warned Lowell as the group settled into its new base camp. "This is a very different beast."

The miles added up, both on foot and in the two vans hauling the geologists around south central Alaska. "We've come 1,000 miles in search of glaciers," notes Lowell during a drive on Sunday, August 19th.

After two days of hiking up and around the giant moraines and hills in the valleys below Gulkana and College glaciers, the students' frustration begins to mount. They've seen a lot, but they now have more questions and no answer in sight.

"Covering every square inch of ground is not as productive as an overview," hints Lowell to a group that spent a full day hiking their heels off.

On Monday, Lowell explains to the group "I could tell you what to do and you'd be done this afternoon, but if you discover it on your own, it's a far more valuable lesson."

So, Tuesday morning as dark clouds swarm above the mountains and the serious cold-weather gear comes out of the packs, it's time for another picnic table pep talk.

"This is where it gets exciting," said Lowell as the last of the oatmeal and hot chocolate is consumed for the day. "You're actually going to get the data you need to sort out the chronology."

The day ended with considerably more data in hand and the foundation for completing the field work on Wednesday. It also ended with a windy rainstorm that left more than one tent soaking wet and the campers grateful for yet another hot cup of soup. Read about the students on the trip.

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