On the hunt for wetlands, retreating glaciers and climate-change knowledge

Kimberly Del Bright
October 08, 2016

Clutching large research instruments, they made their way across sphagnum moss, dense sedges, low shrubs and fallen trees trunks. Deep in the temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska, 12 undergraduates from Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Science, along with faculty, navigated boot-sucking muskegs to collect methane and peat samples that will provide carbon storage and emission information about wetlands in landscapes with retreating glaciers. The students were on the front lines researching climate change this summer as part of the college’s 2016 Center for Advanced Undergraduate Studies (CAUSE) course.

“I always thought of science as taking place in a sterile lab with white coats,” said Daniel Guarracino, an environmental systems engineering major. “I’d like to go to law school after graduation and practice environmental law, but first I want to understand the science behind the laws.”

Denice Wardrop, director of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute and professor of geography and ecology, wants to “build a different kind of capacity” in students. She worked closely with Michael Nassry, who completed his graduate research on glacial meltwater streams in southeast Alaska before joining the Department of Geography’s wetland research center — Riparia — as a research associate. They envisioned a CAUSE course that contrasted two landscapes characterized by wetlands and influenced by climate change. In May, students traveled to the high altitude mountain glaciers and wetlands of Peru to collect samples. In August they traveled to Alaska for the second leg of their journey.

Wardrop explained her life’s work as “trying to get humans and aquatic systems to bring out the best in each other.” She encourages her students to see both the mechanical and the artistic aspect of science. “I’m not giving students a list to check off," she said. "I want them to have navigation tools to read each situation and break it down into systems. I want them to ask questions such as 'Where is the water sitting? What is the primary source of water? How do you pick a representative site? And what assumptions are you making?'”

Students’ lessons included ones that could not be garnered from a book.

“I learned that you have to be mentally and physically flexible in the field,” said Andrew Angle, a geography major who is interested in the interactions of physical climate processes and business activities.

“You have to be patient because things don’t always happen exactly like they’re supposed to,” said Alyssa Menzel, a junior studying energy engineering who had taken to duct-taping her boots after discovering they weren’t as waterproof as she had hoped.

“And it’s always easy to introduce error into the collection process,” said Sara Tomko who had the experience of extricating herself from a fall into waist-deep water during an intense field session.

“Another big part is getting students to understand how to talk about classification, which is always contested in wetlands,” said Wardrop. This classification issue was illustrated when students spoke with David D’Amore, a research soil scientist working in Juneau, Alaska, for the U.S. Forest Service. Terms such as bog, fen and muskeg are common to those working in Alaska, but not used uniformly in other parts of the United States.

“I think it was an additional challenge because of different terms being used,” said Cecilia Cullen, a geosciences major. “This was a barrier to communication.”

When students speak about their CAUSE experience, a common theme is learning through personal experience.

“I feel more confident in my ability to process information. I’m so used to reading for classes, but recently when I spoke to students about joining Eco-Reps (Penn State student sustainability leaders), I used my own photos and information from my experience. I feel like this can have more impact,” said Brandon Rothrock, a dual major in meteorology and geography.

Amanda Krolczyk agreed. “We all talk about climate change, but I feel like I saw it," she said. "As a petroleum and natural gas engineering major, it’s going to be easier for me to talk about climate change to people in my industry.”

“People who are likely to be impacted the most contribute to it the least; I had heard this before, but now I’ve seen it,” said Austin Jordan, an energy business and finance major, who is interested in working with weather and climate risk, possibly in the renewable energy sector.

“I didn’t know people relied so heavily on the natural resources that they live near,” said Isabelle Gordon, a materials science and engineering major. "But seeing people in Peru and Alaska so dependent on farming, fishing and tourism helped me see the connection each of these places has to each other and also to climate change.”

Part of the Alaska experience included hiking to a Mendenhall Glacier ice cave, and speaking to U.S. Forest Service scientists to discuss land and resource management of the glacier and surrounding areas.

Mendenhall ice cave

The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Center for Advanced Undergraduate Studies (CAUSE) class enters the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves.

IMAGE: Penn State

“Actually seeing the ice melt and seeing one after another cairns marking the retreat of glacial ice was sobering for everyone, including me," said Kimberly Del Bright, the college's Giles Writer-In-Residence, who traveled with the CAUSE class to help develop students' science communication skills using digital storytelling.


Rock cairns along the West Glacier Trail mark the extent of the Mendenhall Glacier at 13 points over the last 40 years.

IMAGE: Penn State

“When I saw the markers and the rate of change, a lot of what we’ve been talking about made sense to me,” said Andrew Brown, a geography major who served five years in the U.S. Coast Guard before coming to Penn State. “I’m interested in understanding the role age plays in someone’s perspective on climate change.”

“It shocked me how the landscape changes year to year. What we’re seeing, we’re never going to see again,” said geography and women’s studies major Sonia Kaufman.

Over the course of the 10-day Alaska excursion, students also visited local points of interest and businesses.

At the Alaska State Museum, docent Mary Irvine discussed the history of Alaska’s native populations and explained many of the cultural items still in use by indigenous peoples. On display was a magnificent crest hat of the Kiks.ádi clan of Sitka in the shape of a frog with abalone shell decoration used in the clan’s funeral rituals.

A tour of the Alaskan Brewing Company gave students lessons on sustainable business practices that contribute to entrepreneurial success. The students were able to view the mash filter press, spent grain steam broiler, and carbon dioxide reclamation system designed to reduce water and energy use and minimize greenhouse gas production. In an extraordinary bit of serendipity, one of the tour guides at the company was Ryland Bueller, a Penn State 2011 energy engineering graduate.

Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography at MIT and former member of Penn State’s faculty traveled with the group and provided insightful social science viewpoints. Students also received expert on-the-spot geology lectures from Rick Wardrop, who received a master’s degree in geology from Penn State in 1988 and is a member of the college’s Obelisk Society, and GIS instruction from Joe Bishop, a former research associate with Riparia.

Developing intellectual curiosity to stay aware is a valuable lesson at any age. In the lingua franca of youth, Lydia Scheel, who is studying energy business and finance, said, "Being in the sphere of all these diverse places and people emphasizes that you need to stay ‘woke.’”

Plans are currently underway for CAUSE 2017. Please visit http://www.ems.psu.edu/CAUSE to learn more about the program.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 20, 2019