Midway down the Southeast panhandle is LeConte Glacier, 25 miles of sinuous ice flowing from the Stikine Icefield into a narrow, twisting inlet. Historically, the Petersburg fishing fleet used ice calved from the glacier to pack their catch. LeConte offers a different opportunity today—a coveted slot in the cadre of high school students who survey the glacier’s position each year.
This study, started in 1983 by math teacher Paul Bowen, is one of the longest running citizen science projects in the United States. It reaches far beyond Petersburg, attracting researchers hoping to solve mysteries of ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica.
Paul Bowen graduated in geology from Berkeley in 1955 and knew the name LeConte well. After surveying for Standard Oil in the American West and Alaska, Bowen moved to Petersburg in 1962 to teach high school math. Beyond the basics, he wanted to teach employable skills and instill a strong work ethic. “One day in geology class I asked how many students had been over to LeConte,” Bowen, now in his 90s and still living in Petersburg, says. “A couple kids raised their hands out of 18 or 20. I was shocked! I thought, my gosh it would be wonderful as part of science education to have some practical experiences in their own environment.”
With help from surveying friends and the community, Bowen gathered equipment and applied for grants. He received a special permit from the Forest Service to fly by helicopter to the rocky cliffs overlooking LeConte. In the spring of 1983, his first group of students surveyed the glacier. “What was so neat is the students got firsthand practical experience,” Bowen says, clearly as enthusiastic today as he was almost 40 years ago. “But instead of just surveying roads and grades and percentages, we could measure something living and moving and changing with the climate right in front of our eyes!”
Bowen retired in 1996, handing off the survey to his successor, Victor Trautman. The next year, Trautman had to move the surveying monuments up the inlet because the glacier had retreated so far. Trautman retired in 2019, and Tom Thompson, a Petersburg graduate himself, took over.
Today, interested students write a letter reviewed by local engineers and surveyors. The top applicants join a group of 10 kids, mostly juniors and seniors. Once a week, they spend their lunch practicing with theodolites and studying math. Seniors coach the younger students on how to use the theodolites, which are still the original 1977 instruments. The kids practice on flat ground, then stairs, then outside triangulating. “Once you get them enthused, their energy is just like they are with sports,” Bowen states. “They excel, and they want to find out more.” Suddenly, kids discover a purpose for math, a practical application for their years of homework.
“It’s really cool being involved in research on something that I go see and is part of my life,” senior Rose Quitslund says. “It’s something that impacts our town.”
When surveying day arrives, Temsco Helicopters pilot Wally O’Brocta, 25-year veteran of the LeConte survey, flies the students to the glacier, dropping them on opposite sides of the inlet. The students shoot specific points on the glacier’s face from spectacular vantages high on the cliffs. “It is an epic thing for these kids,” says Thompson. “They come back and say, ‘best day of school ever!’ And I think wow, better than Southeast basketball tournament or regional volleyball or graduation? And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, best day ever!’”
With the surveying complete, the group plots LeConte on a map. Their data shows the glacier in retreat from 1983 to 2018 with stabilization the last few years. Though some students have gone on to study geology and become professional surveyors, Trautman is quick to point out that “more importantly, many of these students went on to be successful in life. The type of students who participated in the program went on to be successful in whatever direction they chose.”
The surveying project has garnered attention beyond Petersburg. Early in the study, glaciologist Roman Motyka, now retired professor emeritus from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, got involved. Occasionally he brought his students to join the high school kids, piggybacking on their helicopter permit to conduct his own research.
In the past few years, Motyka and researchers from University of Oregon and Oregon State University have visited LeConte to better understand tidewater glacier melting and find ways to calculate submarine melt. Predicting ice melt is important for the world’s largest glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, whose freshwater input will be responsible for significant future sea level rise. At LeConte, scientists pioneered new data gathering techniques and found melting is happening 10 times faster than theoretical models predicted. These techniques are now being proposed to study submarine melting in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Today, Petersburg students practice for their day at LeConte, excited to participate in the decades-long study at a time when climate change is hitting Alaska’s glaciers hard. “When you can take something very academic like surveying out in the field into that environment that they love, it makes the learning more worthwhile,” Thompson says. “It gets them excited about doing something more than sitting at a desk. Any kind of authentic learning is good, and this is as good as it gets.”