Juneau in July: Penn State researchers part of summer program in Alaska

This summer, the students Don Voigt is working with are arriving to class on their skis.

Voigt, a senior research assistant in the Department of Geosciences, along with doctoral student Kiya Riverman, are conducting research on the Juneau ice fields using seismic methods as part of their work with Penn State’s Ice and Climate Exploration Team (PSICE). While on the glacier, they're helping teach classes for the Juneau Icefield Research Program.

“I said, ‘Sure, of course I want to go to Alaska. When do we go?” Voigt said before he and Riverman packed up to fly to Camp 10.

Riverman, talking on the phone from a spot between the glaciers, said she was excited about the opportunity to teach the students and to show them the type of research done at Penn State.

“It’s great to interact with the students here and design a project and get them excited about glaciology,” she said. “It’s awesome to be here.”

The summer program is giving students an opportunity to learn about the physical properties of ice sheets, how to conduct field research in general and how scientists use seismology to study ice.

Voigt and Riverman are well-versed in conducting that type of research. They’re part of PSICE in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, whose researchers have been studying the behavior of ice sheets in the Antarctic, particularly the impact rising ocean temperatures can have on them.

About 35 students are participating in the program, which runs through mid-August. Voigt said the students will rack up about 100 miles skiing to the sites that are part of the 400-level ecology course that integrates hydrology, meteorology, glaciology and geology, with faculty from various disciplines. The mobile class ends in British Columbia.

While the students were on skis, Voigt and Riverman flew to the camp to get ready for the classes, including about 400 pounds of equipment such as geophones that measure how the ice vibrates when energy is pushed into it. The students will learn what the sedimentation conditions are like beneath the glacier and how they’re changing. Scientists use that type of information to create maps of the ice and water beneath it and gain insight into what is going on there.

“We’re going to set up the seismic equipment,” Voigt said. “We’ll get a reflection of the bed of the ice glacier and show them how we use seismology in the field to get information about the ice and bed underneath.”

Voigt said the students will also learn about how all the parts of the ecosystem — including the area’s conifer trees, bogs and ice — relate.

“There is a lot of learning about how you collect data in the field, about making observations in the field, taking careful notes so you have all the information you need when you walk away from a site, how to organize your thinking when you’re making all these observations and relating it to the bigger picture,” Voigt said.

“It’s great to have all these courses as undergrads. But at some point you have to be able to put it all together.”

Doing field work also gives the students a chance to learn if they like working outside — regardless of whether the sun is shining or rain is falling.

Said Voigt: “If you don’t love being outside, you probably need to find another line of work.”

Last Updated July 30, 2014