Glacier Research History: The Beginnings of the Juneau Icefield Research Program

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By Matt Beedle

[NOTE:  A revised version of this post appeared on the JIRP blog.]

In August and September of 1941, a team that included William O. Field, Jr. and Maynard M. Miller (amongst others) studied the glacier termini of Glacier Bay and the inlets and fjords near Juneau, Alaska (Field, 1942).  Field and Miller would later recall that it was during this expedition of the 1940s that it began to become apparent that it was necessary to study the upper reaches of these Alaska glaciers to understand their disparate behavior (Field and Miller, 1950).

The terminus of Taku Glacier photographed by W. O. Field during the expedition of 1941 (Field, 1941).

Until the 1940s the vast bulk of scientific observation of Alaska glaciers was of their termini, with many hundreds of stations established for repeat photography and surveying of glacier length change.  What was apparent – and what dominated as the key ‘problem’ in the glaciology of southeast Alaska at the time – was how some glaciers (most notably those of Glacier Bay) were receding dramatically, while others (such as Taku Glacier) were advancing vigorously.  What was the cause of this dichotomy?  Field and Miller were being drawn to the upper reaches of these glaciers as the best place to uncover what was driving the terminus changes that had been observed for decades.  However, these upper reaches – the massive icefields of the Coast Mountains  – were still, for the most part, unexplored:

“Taku Glacier heads far back in the mountains, no one knows where . . .”

–Israel Russell, Glaciers of North America, 1897

At the American Geographical Society in 1946 Field and Miller began to collaborate on what would become the Juneau Icefield Research Project (Field, 2004).  In 1948, with American Geographic Society funding, Field and Miller initiated which was envisioned then as:

“ . . . a program for which would initiate over a period of years comprehensive studies not only of the Juneau Ice Field but on other representative ice masses in both North and South America . . .”

–Field and Miller, The Juneau Icefield Research Project, 1950

Juneau Icefield Research Project (JIRP) work on the icefield began in the summer of 1948 with a reconnaissance party in search of routes to access the accumulation area of the Juneau Icefield and to begin to determine the gear and logistics necessary to carry out thorough investigations.  Over the course of three weeks a team of six carried out this early reconnaissance and also initiated glaciological, geological, botanical and meteorological studies.

Following the early, more exploratory years of JIRP in the late-1940s, extensive field research in the 1950s was led by a host of collaborators, including Calvin Heusser, Art Gilkey, Ed LaChappelle, and Larry Nielson along with Field and Miller.  These early years of JIRP are brilliantly chronicled in a retrospective by Calvin Heusser, complete with wonderful journal entries from the early expeditions on the Juneau Icefield (Heusser, 2007).

1995 Landsat image of the Juneau Icefield

From 1948 to 1952 JIRP research focused on the Taku Glacier, but in 1953 research efforts expanded to include the smaller, more accessible Lemon Creek Glacier.   Studies from 1953 to 1958 focused on detailed micrometeorology and mass balance of Lemon Creek Glacier and continued – yet with a reduced focus – study of Taku Glacier mapping, mass balance and meteorology.  Geobotanical studies to reconstruct historical glacier positions were made on a more limited basis, with small teams exploring more distant outlet glaciers of the Juneau Icefield such as the Gilkey and Tulsequah glaciers (Heusser, 2007).

In the late-1950s and early-1960s JIRP the ‘Project’ became JIRP the ‘Program’.  This transition, and subsequent half-century of JIRP, was lead by the husband-and-wife team of Maynard and Joan Miller.  During this time JIRP became an annual eight-week expedition across the Juneau Icefield from Juneau to Atlin, BC.  Each year high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, along with staff and faculty, traverse the Coast Mountains.  Along the way they continue the annual monitoring of the glaciers of the Juneau Icefield, participate in new research, and collaborate on the operations of a large-scale expedition.

While this post only scrapes the surface of an incredible history of glacier research, one of the lasting legacies of JIRP has been its role in inspiring young scientists, explorers and artists.   Another class of JIRPers has yet again embarked on this transformative experience, with the 2013 cohort of 25 students leaving Juneau last week for the first leg of the journey across the Juneau Icefield.

Now under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Kavanaugh (U. Alberta), JIRP has embarked on a new adventure with regular blogging from the icefield. was privileged to host the first year of JIRP blogging during the 2012 expedition, and you can follow the 2013 journey on the blog of the new JIRP website.


Field, W. O. 1941 Taku Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. Digital media.

Field, W. O.  1942.  Glacier Studies in Alaska, 1941, Geographical Review , 31, 1, 154-155.

Field, W. O.  2004.  With a Camera in my Hands:  William O. Field, Pioneer Glaciologist:  A Life History as Told to C. Suzanne Brown, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 184 pp.

Field, W. O. and Miller, M. M.  1950.  The Juneau Ice Field Research Project, Geographical Review , 40, 2, 179-190.

Heusser, C. J.  2007.  Juneau Icefield Research Project (1949-1958):  A Retrospective, Developments in Quaternary Sciences, 8, 232 pp.

Russell, I. C.  1897.  Glaciers of North America, Ginn and Co., Boston, 220 pp.


Juneau Icefield Research Program


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