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Backstory: Science's glacial strides

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"When he was 80, he was strong enough to put 20-year-olds to shame on the icefield," says Guy Adema, a former Miller student and longtime icefield program staffer. "In the evenings, he'd start lectures at 7:30 and sometimes finish up at midnight."

Miller's dedication to the icefield, and to training students in the ways of science and survival, has produced generations of researchers and outdoor leaders. It's also given him an unusual firsthand perspective on climate change, because most of the Juneau glaciers, like others around the world, are shrinking dramatically as the globe warms.

Miller, who served several terms as an Idaho Republican state legislator, started speaking publicly about these changes and their causes nearly 20 years ago. "It was clear even then that something was awry," he says, describing the rising winter temperatures on the icefield. For Miller, global warming remains a scientific, political, and very personal issue.

While Miller's single-minded passion for the ice has sustained the nonprofit Juneau Icefield Research Program,many staff members observe that it has made him reluctant to groom a new director. With no successor, and Miller's prodigious energy waning, the future of the program is uncertain. Indeed, Miller, who is mourning the recent death of his wife and colleague Joan, spends less time on the glaciers now. Instead, he stays largely in Juneau during the summer, monitoring radio reports from his staff and students.

But Miller's legendary toughness still defines the program's attitude. While he and I load up my questionable gear and leave for my appointment at the heliport, the radio crackles with news: "It's one of those rare, fantastically beautiful days here on the Juneau Icefield," a young staff member says, his grin audible over the airwaves. Today, nature is subdued. Yet as Miller knows – and I'll find out – her screams are never distant.

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