Vashon Island scientist's lifelong love affair with glaciers

VASHON ISLAND — Austin Post first felt the pull of glaciers as a young boy thinning apples beneath the blazing sun on his father's orchard at Lake Chelan.

To him, the distant icy peaks of the North Cascades promised coolness, calm and safety from school-ground bullies.

In the mountains, it wouldn't matter that he was a country boy, partially crippled by polio, that he was shy, had few friends and was tongue-tied around girls.

Those days spent worshiping ice from afar were the beginning of a lifelong passion that's led the reclusive 82-year-old Vashon Island scientist to international prominence in the field of glacier research.

Though he did not attend college or even finish high school, Post's pioneering aerial photography and his theory for predicting why glaciers break into icebergs earned him an honorary doctorate in May from the University of Alaska.

Scientists from around the world wrote the university expressing sentiments similar to those of State University of New York's Professor Jay Fleisher, who said that Post's "genius is unique and extraordinary; his contributions are monumental, his reputation is revered and his human kindness is unparalleled."

"From a humble beginning and an unorthodox development he is now an intellectual leader among colleagues of global reputation," Fleisher wrote.

Uncomfortable in crowds, Post declined to attend the commencement ceremony in Fairbanks. But his more outgoing wife decided it was such an honor that, like it or not, he was going to accept.

The university's chancellor came to Post's secluded two-story home here on Vashon where, surrounded by a few close friends and family, Post donned a black cap and gown and received his diploma. Afterward, he celebrated with cake and dinner at a local restaurant.

A small, wiry man with wild gray hair and beard, Post spends his days taking photographs, studying maps, and reading scientific journals and emails from colleagues. In September he hopes to hike into the Sawtooth Wilderness of the Methow Valley with geologists who will take samples of wood, lichen and rocks to be carbon dated for clues about the climatic history of the area.

Post has testified before admirals and led research expeditions from Alaska to Patagonia on the tip of Argentina. As he sat in his office, flanked by maps he's made and large photos he's taken of glaciers, he talked of the thundering sound moving glaciers make, of ice that can be blue or green and the dangers of glaciers calving — breaking off in chunks — into icebergs.

As part of his surveying and map-making in the Northwest, he has named a number of familiar peaks and glaciers, including Glacier Peak in Whatcom County, Mount Bigelow in Okanogan County and Dark Mountain in Snohomish County, the latter two in honor of U.S. Forest Service employees.

Love of nature

His life's work was the product of a childhood in which feeling safe often meant being alone.

A small farm kid recovering from polio, he was bused into Wenatchee to school during the Depression. He was an easy target for bullies and was severely beaten several times. He grew to love nature, feeling protected amid its gentle golden hills.

One of his first jobs was in 1939 at the Horton Butte Fire Lookout in Chelan County, where lightning storms were sparking fires in the dark, dry, cheat-grass hills.

Although he was only 15, he slept near a woodstove under a rat-chewed blanket, hauled water from a stream and when he ran out of food, killed ptarmigan with rocks, all the while watching the tops of the trees for faint whiffs of smoke.

"I was so glad to be up there that I would have put up with about anything," Post said. "The wonder of being in the wilderness amid so much beauty and being alone, away from people with my own thoughts and all of nature for company.

"To me it was a profoundly wonderful experience."

Then one day that same summer over the static-filled radio waves at the lookout station he heard a fragment of a dispatch — the words "choppy seas" — perhaps from a vessel on the Columbia River, and he began to think about ships and oceans.

After scoring highest in the school on an IQ test, he received permission from teachers and his parents to drop out of Chelan High School in his senior year.

But, despite his intellect, it was the mountains and later the sea and its icebergs — not universities — that lured him out of apple country.

Career in glaciology

He joined the Navy in 1942. After serving during World War II in the South Pacific, Post eventually went back to work for the U.S. Forest Service, building trails in the North Cascades.

One day a scientist from Massachusetts named Lawrence Nielsen stumbled into camp. Nielsen's mountain-climbing party had tired of rain and insects and had headed back to the city. Post agreed to climb with him, and they became friends.

After several years of exchanging letters and aerial photographs of mountains — the Columbia Glacier in Alaska among them — Nielsen, employed by Monsanto Research — hired Post as a surveyor studying Alaska's Taku Glacier in 1953.

It was the beginning of Post's career in glaciology. He was to become among the first in his field to use aerial photos to provide visual data.

Stephen Porter, University of Washington professor emeritus, recalled seeing Post in a small plane in the 1960s, perched near the open door without a safety harness, clicking frame after frame of an Alaskan ice field. By 1973, Post had a collection of photos that proved some of Alaska's tidewater glaciers were advancing and others retreating — a puzzle to scientists at the time.

He developed a theory that factored in water depth at a glacier's terminus, instead of just climate, to determine when a glacier might calve into icebergs. He and a colleague, Mark Meier, presented their theory to governmental officials in Washington, D.C., only to be ridiculed, at least one admiral telling that waves from the ship's bow could easily brush aside such icebergs.

It is now recognized among glaciologists that had officials taken the risks seriously in Prince William Sound, and placed restraining cables along the edge of the Columbia Glacier to prevent icebergs from moving into shipping lanes, there may not have been a free-floating one in the path of the Exxon Valdez, which went aground in the Sound in 1989.

The tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil, the catastrophe attributed to a skipper who steered outside the shipping lanes to try to avoid an iceberg.

Post's theory on the causes of glacial movements — or surges — also was not readily accepted, a paper he wrote on the subject rejected by Science magazine in the 1960s. It would be 20 years later before a California Institute of Technology professor would substantiate his claims.

"Life is hard for pioneers and original thinkers," said Will Harrison, a professor at the University of Alaska.

In the 1980s, Post became the skipper of the converted Navy utility boat, Growler, based out of Tacoma. With a crew of eight, he spent seven years gathering valuable data, including depth soundings in the Alaskan fjords.

Married almost 20 years

While at ease in his world of ice and science, Post remained uncomfortable around women.

He didn't date until he was 27. He later married and had three sons, then divorced, remarried and divorced again.

While on the Growler, he answered a personal ad in a Seattle newspaper, placed by a member of the Seattle Symphony Choral. Roberta, 73, is now his wife.

"I thought, 'This man talks my language.' He writes a beautiful letter.' We started talking and we never quit."

They've been married 20 years this month. She helps him type manuscripts, combs and braids his hair each morning and helps him communicate with others when a loss of hearing he began experiencing over the past 10 years becomes an obstacle.

She prods him when he is determined to avoid people — yet understands when he says he's a mountain man at heart who'd just as soon be living in the hills.

While Post's memories of human names and faces quickly fade, that's not true of the changing lines and shadows of a glacier's face. That, he said, "I can remember forever."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

Natural features that Post named

On his research trips, Austin Post often discovered unnamed natural features. To map them, he had to name them, and he did so sometimes humorously for 150 places in Alaska, 20 in Washington and 40 in British Columbia.

In Alaska

Grizzly Bar, at Norris Glacier, 15 miles northeast of Juneau.

Brassiere Hills, 18 miles from Juneau.

Zipper Creek, which divides Brassiere Hills.

In Washington

Glacier Peak (Whatcom County)

Mount Bigelow, (Okanogan County, named for George Bigelow, a U.S. Forest Service employee)

North Guardian Glacier, (Snohomish County)

Dark Peak and Dark Glacier, (Snohomish County)

Richardson Glacier (Chelan County, named for J.B. Richardson, longtime outdoorsman)

Pilz Glacier (Chelan County), named for a pioneer Chelan family.

Post's glacier photographs are available in "Glacier Ice," a book co-written with Edward R. LaChapelle, (revised edition, University of Washington Press, 2000).

Source: Austin Post, US Board on Geographic Names.