Decades of toil by young researchers like Mr. Volkening, who's about to start his freshman year at Montana State University, help show that as global temperatures rise, almost all the icefield glaciers are thinning and retreating. Longtime staff also point to anecdotal evidence of change: bare cliffs that were covered with ice just a decade ago or icy fissures prematurely exposed by early snowmelt.
Findings here corroborate the work of other scientists around the world, showing that global warming, driven by human activities, is melting the planet's glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost.
But, suggests expedition mechanic Andy Young, "the real value of the program is in training the next generation of scientists."
Mr. Young served for several years as field science support manager for the US Antarctic Program where, he says, "every year, 15 to 20 people come in who have been through this program, and they tend to be way ahead of their counterparts. They not only know how to set up camp and melt snow for water, but also how to deal with people of different skill levels in a really isolated environment."
Program alumni, whose signatures festoon the rafters of each camp, now number over 2,000, and include outdoor leaders and scientists of nearly every description. Eric Reynolds and Dave Huntley, students in the early 70s, were part of a group of young icefield mountaineers called the "Marmot Club," a name the pair revived when they founded the high-end outdoor gear company Marmot.
The icefield even inspires its graduates, such as Steven Squyres, to strike out for new worlds. An astronomy professor at Cornell University and the scientific principal investigator for the Mars Rover project, Mr. Squyres says, "I spent a good chunk of the summer going places and seeing things no one had ever seen before, and it left a very deep impression on me. The icefield was my very first exposure to professional scientists and to hard-core, expedition-style science. It was my first experience with science as it's actually done."
During my week on the icefield, I join photographer Barbee and a trio of researchers, including program director Miller, on a helicopter flight across the Taku Glacier.