(All Photos courtesy of Big Chill Adventures)
Back in 2012, Dr. Sarah Aciego, a 30-something professor at University of Michigan in Glaciology, pioneered a new way to determine the age of dust trapped in glacial ice and was awarded a $875,000 “genius” grant.
Not too shabby. Now she’s taking on a new challenge, launching an adventure tour company of Greenland, called Big Chill Adventures, alongside her professional photographer mother.
The inaugural 12-day/11-night photo-hiking tour of West Greenland took place in August and they have six trips planned for the coming year. We took some time to chat with Aciego about traveling to Greenland, working as an ice scientist and starting a company with her mom.
Yahoo Travel: How did you get the idea to start a tour company in the first place?
Sarah Aciego: I know it is weird, but I travel a lot with my mother. She’s been our official photographer for a couple of expeditions; we work so hard at collecting samples we have a hard time documenting at the same time. We’ve also traveled for fun and we know each other pretty well on the road. So when we were in Greenland, we started talking about how incredible it would be to bring people to the places that I like to go for research. Right up to the ice face, to the incredible blues of the supra glacial lakes that ultimately drive the ecosystems (and subsequently the economy) of Greenland, Alaska, Canada…. When you are searching for the best sampling spot, sometimes you find something else, like the places that Muscox like to rub their bellies to relieve the burden of their winter underfur or remote ice caves with ptarmigan clucking in front.
Anyway, we talked about it for a year, trying to bring people closer to places that seem inaccessible, to talk as much (or as little) science as the audience wants to hear. Because I’m a little rugged and push myself physically but my mom, Mindy, is older (and wiser) and a little slower, we felt like we were a good combination to provide an opportunity for a range of physical fitness levels.
YT: Tell us a little bit about your background. How does one even think about becoming a Glaciologist?
SA: I grew up in a town of 300 people in rural New Hampshire (one room school house), and went to undergrad at Cornell University in the College of Engineering. It was there that I caught the Geology bug. I realized I could be stuck at a desk designing bridges or outside investigating how the Earth works, peaking under the hood of a volcano or glacier to see what made it tick. I was lucky to be part of a Geology department at Cornell that encouraged field work in remote locations and I was able to spend 8 weeks in Argentina for intensive geology field courses before graduating and moving on to UC Berkeley for my PhD.
As a graduate student at Berkeley, I combined my love of geochemistry with two field sites: the volcanoes of Hawaii and the glaciers of Antarctica. In order to collect samples for my graduate work, I camped for two months on a glacier in East Antarctica, and trundled through the rainforests and deserts of the Big Island of Hawaii.
After graduate school, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the prestigious Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich, where I worked on developing new geochemical techniques to investigate dust found within ice cores collected from the high ice plateaus of Greenland and Antarctica. This work became the basis for my current research and ultimately led to my being offered a tenure-track position at the University of Michigan.
For the last five years I have developed new research directions that have led to field work in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, Greenland and Antarctica. I teach undergraduate students and mentor graduate students. One of my favorite aspects of my job is experiential learning: bringing people to places to see things that are in textbooks: touching ice that is almost a million years old, walking on lava that erupted only recently. And seeing how communities develop around the natural world. Humans exploit natural resources, but we also adapt and I want to bring cultures together to see how normal it is to navigate icebergs and yet still check the news on your smart phone.
YT: You bring an enormous amount of scientific knowledge to your adventure tours. How does that make the trip different from other tours of Greenland?
SA: Scientifically, I can answer the “why” and “how” questions: Why is the lake that color? Why are there so many fish around the icebergs? How do supra glacial lakes form? How will climate change this landscape, what will be revealed? If you go deeper into the ice cave, why does it get bluer?
In addition, my experience in planning expeditions to these locations means that I know the destinations intimately and I’ve developed local connections that allow us to travel off the beaten path. We get outside of the 40-person bus. Our experience in these locations allows us to provide not just a destination, but also the knowledge of when you will need your wellies and when you will need your parka.
YT: Starting a tour company is way different from planning a field expedition. What are the unique challenges?
SA: Honestly, the biggest challenge is stuffing everything that I want to do into less than two weeks. I’m used to planning multi-month field seasons where you have the opportunity to see changing seasons and with that changes in snow, ice, wildlife and human activities. So trying to capture the breadth of a destination in less than two weeks is difficult.
YT: Why start a tour company at all?
SA: Ultimately, we are doing this because we like people. We like to interact with people who are curious about the world, that read “Furthest North” or “Motorcycle Diaries” and want to see whales frolicking in fjords or jungles fed by snowcapped volcanic peaks. I am doing this because these kinds of experiences aren’t only for students in their twenties or expert outdoorsmen, these locations can be accessible and edifying to anyone.
YT: What is the most rewarding thing about it?
SA: This will sound cheesy, but for me it is about building memories. Spending some physical capital to hike around the corner and up the hill and get to the place where the ice intersects the ground, and realize that the maps don’t lie - the ice covers the whole continent except for a small strip of land. That the crazy shapes that ice cubes make in your glass are found in icebergs that are the size of a small town. When the people I’ve brought to these places still talk about those experiences with awe one, two, five years later, is incredibly rewarding.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.