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Remembering Dr. Maynard 'Mal' Miller

Mentor to thousands, contributed wealth of knowledge on climate change, glacial health

Posted: February 14, 2014 - 12:01am
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A group of students depart from Camp 18 for the 17-mile ski to Camp 26 on a past trek on the Juneau Icefield.   Courtesy of Scott McGee
Courtesy of Scott McGee
A group of students depart from Camp 18 for the 17-mile ski to Camp 26 on a past trek on the Juneau Icefield.

Maynard Malcolm “Mal” Miller started one of the longest-running icefield studies in the world, performing paradigm-shifting research that contributed significantly to the world’s understanding of climate change and glacial health. He was a scientist and climber on America’s first Mount Everest expedition; he made a first ascent of Mount Bertha, and a first American and first east ridge ascent of Mount St. Elias.

But friends, family and colleagues say his main legacy is the thousands of young people of whom he asked “What is nature telling you?”

JIRP, RESEARCH

Along with William O. Field, Miller founded the Juneau Icefield Research Program in 1946. The eight-week summer program has brought students and researchers from around the world to the Juneau Icefield since 1948. Miller served as director, with his wife, Joan, from the early 1960s until a few years ago, making his last visit to the icefield in 2009, when he was well into his 80s.

After serving in the Navy in World War II, Miller got governmental funding to research, from the Juneau Icefield, how climactic changes might affect missiles launched from the Arctic, his son Lance Miller said. Much of the early glacier research funding was motivated by Cold War fears.

It didn’t take long for Maynard Miller to see that there was a better way to measure climactic change.

“Prior to 1948 … the vast bulk of glaciological work was done at the termini of glaciers — surveying position and length change, making measurements of flow at the terminus, taking repeat photographs and monitoring general behavior (advance or retreat),” Matt Beedle said.

Beedle is the vice president of the Foundation for Glacier and Environmental Research (the Juneau Icefield Research Program’s parent organization).

“He was one of the first to make detailed studies of the accumulation areas (upper elevations) of glaciers,” he said.

Miller began studying mass balance, generally understood as the annual “health” of the glacier, Beedle said. Mass balance compares records of ice lost from lower elevations and snow accumulation in higher elevations to understand whether the glacier is gaining or losing mass overall. Beedle said Lemon Creek and Taku Glacier’s records are “two of the longest annual records on earth.”

“Mal’s work definitely helped document the awareness of climate change, and that was by using, as he called it, this very very sensitive barometer of the Juneau Icefield and the coastal glaciers in Alaska that show much more rapidly the effects of atmospheric changes on snow accumulation or lack thereof than the polar systems,” Al Clough, a mentee and close family friend, said.

When son Ross Miller was born, his father was unable to meet him for a month and a half. He spent six weeks on the upper Taku Glacier, stuck in winter snows so heavy they buried an Air Force rescue plane, Ross Miller said.

He said the “predictable, and unpredictable, precipitation” was one of the things his father loved about Juneau, and about the icefield.

“Nothing is more exciting to a glaciologist than miserable harsh weather conditions,” Ross Miller said. “The Juneau Icefield is in this way a perfect place.”

Miller’s sons spent a lot of time on the icefield with their father while growing up. Once, they, the astronaut Bill Anders, their father and three others were “sardined in a space that was slightly smaller than the bed of a pickup truck” on an overnight trip to Devil’s Paw.

“So there we were, stuffed together trying not to complain and Bill started describing to us how this was really much more rugged, and how we were much more squeezed together than he had been on the Apollo moon mission ... Not only that but in outer space without gravity, there is much more usable interior space!” Lance Miller wrote in an email. “You could sit on the walls or roll around and sit on the ceiling if needed. As kids this all seemed like a great idea.”

They didn’t end up climbing Devil’s Paw that trip — whiteout conditions were too heavy to even tell how close they were.

“Looking back we appreciate such unique experiences that we had with our Dad,” Lance Miller wrote.

LASTING LEGACY

Maynard and Joan Miller never lived in Juneau — he received degrees from Harvard University, Columbia University and Cambridge University, and was a professor at the University of Idaho — but they were fixtures for decades, eventually serving as grand marshals in a Fourth of a July parade in the 1990s. The parades were how University of Alaska Southeast Professor of Geology Cathy Connor first became aware of the JIRP.

“He (Miller) was not only a good trainer of future climate scientists, but he also really taught faculty how to teach well,” Connor said. “He was an incredible storyteller and really got that you bring students into the environment and show them what’s going on. They experience it viscerally and hungrily.”

She said working with Miller on the icefield was an “aha! moment” for her.

“You just see it working, you see students transformed,” she said. “That was the legacy he left with me — how to be a really extraordinary teacher, which he was. But he was a character, no doubt about it.”

Along those lines, JIRP staff member Scott McGee, who first met Miller as a program participant in 1988, remembers Miller’s practical joker side.

“He was always in a happy mood at the camps — always smiling and joking with people, and playing pranks on people,” McGee said.

After decades of Red Rose tea consumption, the camps have amassed a large number of the ceramic figurines that come in the boxes. Miller would slip them into someone’s mashed potatoes, or tea. “He always got a big kick out of watching someone find this little figurine,” McGee said. “Especially on days it was raining, windy, a whiteout and you were stuck inside… Mal was really conscious of keeping morale boosted by doing silly stuff like that.”

Clough said Miller had the biggest impact on his life of anyone besides his parents.

He was a student at Marie Drake Middle School in 1968 when he first met Miller and developed an interest in geological sciences.

He spent summers in high school working as a field assistant on the program. Later, he was a board member for the FGER and a graduate student under Miller at the University of Idaho. He’s currently the Southeast Regional Director of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

“He basically inspired me to take up a career in earth sciences and challenged me … to let your motivation guide you,” Clough said. “Be willing to keep moving ahead. Don’t be afraid to think; don’t be afraid to challenge opinions; don’t be afraid to excel.”

Andrew Nicholson was a junior in high school in Lubbock, Texas, when he applied to the Juneau Icefield Research program. He met Miller on the ferry to Juneau. Miller pulled him aside, pointed at a bare spot on a mountain, and asked “What is nature telling you?”

Nicholson, who has a PhD in Chemistry and is now a Senior Managing Scientist at Integral Consulting, said the program taught him self-reliance.

“If you’d done something twice you were an expert on the icefield. If you’d dug two snow pits, you could be a leader on the third one. It was a real learning experience … It taught me how to solve problems both now and in my career,” he said. “That came from the atmosphere created by Maynard. You solved the problem in front of you, and you may be totally out of your depth, but it was possible … he was just a real profound influence on my life. And I think there’s my story a thousand times. I don’t think that I’m unique.”

“At any given glaciological conference there is always a large number of those (whose) careers were inspired by Dr. Miller and the Juneau Icefield Research Program,” Beedle said.

That’s something JIRP participants and FGER members say is still going strong.

“His whole career was really dedicated to trying to identify, educate and motivate young scientists, and at the same time his own research interest in the Juneau Icefield was almost secondary to that goal of getting young people to embrace earth sciences,” Clough said. “He had that childlike excitement of new things, and doing things, and motivating and exciting people, and that is a very rare commodity.”

• Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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