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Hooked on Glaciers

“I’m really a city boy who would prefer to be sitting in a coffee bar somewhere,” confesses Jack Kohler C’82. Instead, the 43-year-old Philadelphia native finds himself 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, probing glaciers, analyzing their contents, and pondering the implications for global warming.

Polar Lunch Break: Jack Kohler C’82 on the island of Svalbard.

The island of Svalbard is not a likely location for a Penn graduate to work, nor, perhaps, the most sought-after, but it offers rich opportunities for a glaciologist to research changes in the masses of ice and snow and to contribute to the knowledge of global climate change.

Kohler spends a month each year on Svalbard, midway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole. The rest of the time he lives with his wife, Elisabeth Isaksson —a Swedish glaciologist—and their two children in the Norwegian city of Tromso, itself almost 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Kohler works for the Norwegian Polar Institute, a government body that does
scientific and environmental research into the country’s arctic regions. He monitors recent changes in ice mass on three particular glaciers on Svalbard (known to the English-speaking world as Spitzbergen) and looks at longer-term changes in glaciers throughout the island.

His fieldwork involves drilling into glaciers to gauge ice depths and determine the layering of snow and ice. He also uses radar to produce images of the glacier.

To obtain the data Kohler and his colleagues trek across glaciers on foot or by snowmobile and stay the month in the world’s most northerly permanent
settlement, Ny-Alesund, which has a year-round population of about 30.

The parties, which number between two and six people, take care to minimize the hazards of glacier travel. Amid temperatures that fall as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius, they carry a Global Positioning System, walk roped together, and steer clear of known crevasses.

They also carry rifles to defend themselves against the polar bears that live on Svalbard and occasionally kill humans. The last fatal incident was about five years ago, when some unarmed tourists were attacked by a hungry two-year-old cub. Kohler has never seen a polar bear, “but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.”

Despite the danger posed by the bears, there are heavy fines for anyone who kills one unnecessarily. Anyone meeting a bear is only allowed to shoot directly at it if it gets too close, says Kohler. Until that time, the law states that you must fire into the air in the hope that the shots will frighten it away.

He welcomes efforts to reduce the dangers of glacier travel, because he’s there for the science and not for the “big adventure” of being in this harsh and remote environment.

His scientific findings don’t yet support the thesis that glaciers are melting faster in response to a warming global climate, or even that there is a general rise in temperature.

Although Svalbard’s glaciers have not yet yielded hard evidence of global warming, Kohler believes that the phenomenon is indeed taking place, and the world should reduce energy consumption to arrest that process.

Kohler’s passion for glaciers grew out of a Penn undergraduate course in geology, a subject that became his minor while he majored in Design of the Environ-ment, an architectural discipline.

After graduation, in 1982, he started taking classes to fulfill the basic requirements of a geology major, but ended up leaving Penn to do a Ph.D. in river mechanics at the University of Minnesota. The project was completed in 1992 with a thesis on the movement of water underneath a small valley glacier in northern Sweden.

It was during this period that he became “hooked on glaciers,” an addiction that was heightened by actually meeting his wife, Elisabeth, on a glacier during a field trip to Sweden. After conducting a long-distance relationship between Scandinavia and the United States, they married in 1990.

Their decision to move to northern Norway reflected the fact that a job for one glaciologist is hard enough to find, while jobs for two together are even rarer. The vacancies in Tromso, some 600 miles north of Oslo, arose because the country’s parliament decided to move the Polar Institute from the capital in 1999, causing some employees to decide against the move north.

Life in Tromso, which has a population of about 50,000, is slower paced and less stressful than in the United States, Kohler says. New parents get a year’s paid leave between them for each child and can take further leave, unlimited although unpaid, to look after children. Their jobs are protected during that time.

On the downside Tromso residents must endure the far-north winter, where it’s dark for all but five hours a day at the winter’s deepest point, and even those hours are more like twilight than real daylight.

Payback comes in the summer when Tromso is treated to two months of midnight sun. “It’s an indescribably joyous time,” says Kohler. “You wake up in the middle of the ‘night’ with light streaming in through the window to hear the seagulls fighting over who gets to sit on the neighbors’ chimney.” He and Elisabeth leave their curtains open during the summer.

As he nears his 10th anniversary as a resident of Norway, Kohler’s thoughts increasingly focus on how long he and Elisabeth want to remain expatriates, given that neither wants to move permanently to the other’s native country. “We know this isn’t where we want to die but we can’t agree on where that should happen,” he says. “So for now, this is the nearest thing we can find to neutral territory.”

Jon Hurdle

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03