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UAF graduate student traverses Juneau Icefield in name of science

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:34 am, Fri Feb 8, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Kristin Timm spent six weeks skiing 75 miles across the Juneau Icefield last summer and loved every second of it.

“There were days where I felt so fortunate to be able to be out there skiing around in shorts in the middle of the summer,” she said. “It was definitely an awesome experience. It’s really a spectacular landscape. The whole area was just incredible.”

A 31-year-old graduate student in science communication at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Timm was part of a research team studying the “mass balance” of the glacier, i.e. whether or not glaciers in the icefield are shrinking because of climate change. The researchers skied between a series of base camps they set up up on the icefield, stopping to take snow measurements and collect other data along the way.

In the course of six weeks in July and August, they skied a total of 75 miles from Juneau to Atlin, British Columbia. For Timm, it was an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve done a lot of skiing and backcountry trips in the Interior but I had never done any glacier travel before,” Timm said. “It was definitely a learning experience for me.

“There were definitely sections of the traverse that were more technical, where we were roping up and traveling through crevasses, but for most part when you’re on the icefield you’re on top of this huge, snowy field surrounded by these incredible peaks,” she said.

Timm, who kept a blog and produced videos during her time on the ice, will give a presentation on Saturday at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center at 2:30 p.m.

The Juneau Icefield Research Program, of which Timm was a part, has been examining the mass balance of the Juneau Icefield since 1946, making it the longest running mass balance program in North America.

Mass balance on a glacier is the difference between snow accumulation and snow melting and evaporating over a period of time. Accumulation is the resulting snowfall that remains after a season of melt, and it is important beca use glacial ice is formed from snow being compressed into ice, rather than water freezing to form ice, Timm wrote in an email. Ablation occurs when glacial ice melts, calves away at it’s terminus, or sublimates, Timm said. Researchers dug holes in the snow pack to determine how much snow fell in the past year and examined the density of ice.

“It’s basically a way of getting a sense of the health of a glacier,” Timm said. “It kind of gives you an overall sense of whether glacier is gaining enough snowfall to be adding ice.”

The fifth-largest icefield in the western hemisphere, the Juneau Icefield is the source of many glaciers, almost all of which are retreating, with the exception of the Taku Glacier.

 The data collected each summer is submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service — an organization that looks at mass balance trends world-wide, Timm said.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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