Friday, October 4, 2013

Geography student worked on Iceland glacier during summer break

Ayshe Yeager was happy to visit and assist archaeology friends in northern Iceland, near Sauðárkrókur.
Ayshe Yeager in the field at Jökulsárlón in a channel carved by the retreating Breiðamerkurjökull. (Breiðamerkurjökull means Broad Forest Glacier, hence not adding “glacier” to the sentence)

Geography and Japanese Studies student Ayshe Yeager spent part of her summer conducting research in Iceland. It wasn’t an entirely new experience.

As a teen, Yeager spent three summers helping on an archaeological dig led by John Steinberg of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Yeager’s step-father, now a retired anthropologist, was invited to join the project and bring his family.

“I got very good at troweling and carrying buckets,” Yeager said.

Studying geography presents so many opportunities, Yeager said, and she knew she wanted to work in another country for the summer; with her family’s connections it proved easy to get the gig. She worked at Jokulsarlon on Breiðamerkurjökull , literally translated as “broad forest glacier,” from July 8 to Aug. 5. “I mostly collected stuff,” she said.

Yeager was fascinated with the history of the place. “Maybe the Vikings were farming there,” she said. Because of the glacial foreground and its eroding edges along the newly-forming fjord, this “dig” didn’t really require digging. “We could go along the edge and pick out samples of glacier vomit,” Yeager explained. “I got to walk in an area where only three or four people have walked in modern history.”

Her job was to find continuous layers of biomass and take samples. “I looked for patterns to see what the flow rate was. I was following a layer of reddish orange.

"When you find volcanic ash you can safely tell that organic matter was there before a certain date,” she said. After gathering samples and taking notes in the field, Yeager’s work moved to a lab where she studied the amount of biomass in each layer from an area 1.5-kilometers long.

Back at the lab in Reykjavik, Yeager took out portions of the samples and dehydrated them for 24 hours, then burned them for four hours. She also sifted through the remainder of the samples and took data on how much material there was of specific sizes. “I found that peat doesn’t want to go through the screen,” she said.

The principal investigators will write two papers, one about the historical biology and another about the physical history of the valley, with Yeager as a co-author and she is anxious to read them. She will always remember spending the night on the glacier. “I would fall asleep to the sound of the icebergs rolling over.”

The best way the entire experience will contribute to her education is how she learned to work with people. In addition, she was very interested in Iceland’s political system because they have hundreds of political parties. The region is experiencing a massive tourism boom centered around its recent volcanic eruptions. “Iceland is pretty much like Alaska but there are no moose, no bears and no mosquitoes.”

Yeager is already looking for money for next summer’s travels. She might study in Japan for spring semester and hopes to work on an organic farm or on research in Glacier Bay National Park next summer. There is also a possibility of Yeager returning to Iceland and continuing work with her new colleagues, who have already applied for funding for Yeager to return in the future.

Her goals are to help save the world and create understanding between humans and nature. “That’s why I love geography,” she said. Whales and dirt are particular obsessions for her.

In her free time, Yeager practices Aikido (martial arts). She is an officer in the UAF Aikido) Club and is active in the Latin Dance Club and the UAF Honors Program. She also loves to read.

 And of course travel. “I want international travel to be part of my career,” she said. “Travel has always been part of my life. It opens your mind to new experiences and different ways of thought.”

Ayshe Yeager preparing to collect a sample from Site 05, while the GPS device collects up to 50 points for precision on the shores of Jökulsárlón.
John Steinberg of UMass Boston walks with a CMD Explorer with Brian in tow. They are using remote sensing to figure out the layout of an old Viking meeting hall, where chiefs from across northern Iceland would convene regularly. Check out 65°43'49.04"N 19°27'57.32"W on GoogleEarth and you can see the walls of old buildings with an eye elevation of 1500ft! Ayse visited and assisted them in their survey work near Sauðárkrókur one weekend off of lab work down in Reykjavik.
The geography/geology/biology building, Askja, on the University of Iceland campus in Reykjavik, Iceland. This was where Ayshe Yeager spent many hours, usually on the night shift because she needed to share the only furnace with one other person, and who wants the shift that requires getting up at 5 a.m.?

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