Seeing is believing: Iceland melts geosciences student’s preconceptions

Caroline Rosini
February 15, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While standing on rocky glacial till at the foot of the Sólheimajökull glacier in Southern Iceland, the sharp crampons — or ice cleats — attached to Penn State student Zach Czuprynski’s hiking boots felt foreign, unnatural even. But, as soon as he took his first steps onto the ancient ice, he was thankful for the contraptions that kept him steady as he hiked with nearly 40 other college-aged students.

Lunging over rippled ice, every step moved Czuprynski, a senior studying geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, farther away from the enormous toe of the glacier. His red-bearded Icelandic guide, Ólafur, led him through the first of many spectacular sights: an 18-foot high arch entirely made of blue ice, dimpled as if with a basketball-sized melon baller.

Tour guide shows students through the blur, dimpled ice tunnel.

Tour guide shows students through the dimpled blue ice tunnel.

IMAGE: Zach Czuprynski

As he ascended at least 1000 feet, Czuprynski stopped periodically to crouch or “spiderman” on the ice to slurp crystal-clear glacial meltwater that was too cold to sip from cupped hands. When he finally reached the top, a storm was forming at his back as he took in the view.

Thanks to the many Penn State geosciences courses he’d taken, Czuprynski could immediately identify the carved rock signature that the glacier created as it receded, about a half a mile into the distance in the valley below. He estimated the signatures took thousands of years to reveal themselves — emerging slowly following the last Ice Age which ended approximately 12,000 years ago. His guides informed him, though, that the glacier had rapidly receded to expose the signatures only within the past few decades.

The January temperature, which typically hovers around freezing, held steady at 40 degrees with a slight but chilly wind rolling down from the top of Sólheimajökull. Just three months later, the arch made of blue dimpled ice would completely melt away — an atypical occurrence.

“My program in Iceland taught me that experience is the most powerful educational tool,” Czuprynski said. “There’s something about the experiential process that you just can’t teach, and it’s something I feel every student needs.”

The hands-on experience Czuprynski had in Iceland was with the GREEN Program, a short-term travel abroad experience with an embedded curriculum focused on appreciating and learning to tackle environmental sustainability challenges.

“My program in Iceland taught me that experience is the most powerful educational tool,” Czuprynski said. “There’s something about the experiential process that you just can’t teach, and it’s something I feel every student needs.”

Though Iceland was his most recent overseas adventure, Zach grew up experiencing nature face-to-face in his own backyard.

As a child in the rural Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, Czuprynski witnessed the spectacle of late summer lightning dancing through the cornfields outside of his living room windows, often followed by walls of rain and booming thunder.

“As a kid, I was scared of lightning because I knew it could strike people and hurt them, though I did not really understand the mere probability of that at the time,” Czuprynski said.

He explored the kinder side of nature, too, on Pennsylvanian hiking trails and the banks of fishing creeks.

By the time he decided to come to Penn State, his initial fear for the destructive capability of Mother Nature had matured to a deep appreciation for the power of earth systems — from plate tectonics to natural disasters. When deciding on a major, he knew his interests were in the natural sciences. He gave meteorology and astronomy a test-run before landing in geosciences, where he enjoys field excursions while practicing earth science.

“It’s like being a kid again and doing science at the same time,” Czuprynski said.

After Czuprynski learned of the Icelandic glacier’s rapid retreat and its impacts, he was inspired to research more about the astonishing changes he observed. As a result of his out-of-the-classroom research, he discovered new passions for sustainability and geothermal energy. His experience in Iceland helped him gain a new perspective on the environmental challenges that face the world, and he hopes to educate the next generation as a teacher in his own classroom after his graduation from Penn State in May 2018.

“One of the coolest things that I think is going to be a powerful tool in education is virtual reality, and I’d love to infuse that in the classroom setting,” Czuprynski said.

Last Updated February 16, 2018