CGP Community Stories

Jay Fleisher, November 3, 2017


Jay Fleisher, November 3, 2017


Glacial Geology
Bering Glacier
Civil Rights
Climate change
SUNY Oneonta


Dr. P. Jay Fleisher was born in 1937 in Liberty, New York. He is a Distinguished Teaching Professor, Emeritus at the State University of New York, College at Oneonta, where he taught Glacial Geology and Geomorphology. He has been involved with the JUNEAU Icefield Research Program (JIRP) since 1968 when he participated with 15 other post-docs, and again on multiple occasions as a volunteer faculty member. Fleisher served as JIRP’s Interim Director from 2010 through 2011, then returned to Camp-10 as a teaching faculty member in 2013. He has several publications about glaciers.

This interview took place in November 2017, in the lounge area at IT Services at SUNY Oneonta. After the interview, Dr. Fleisher met with other students. He was very interested in what direction the interview would go in the meeting before this interview, so I gave him general subjects. This interview is about his career, and how he decided to study geology. Some of the most interesting moments of the interview regard Fleisher’s memories of North Carolina and New Mexico on the subject of civil rights, and how he felt about it in that period. He decided to settle down in Oneonta because the town and the college provided a friendly and familiar environment. He is a very active person and has a lot of experience planning field trips to Alaska and Iceland. The interview provides information about his academic life at SUNY, his teaching experience, and his research. At the end of the interview he talked about how climate change can affect glaciers.

Some of the repeated phrases were edited out to make for more fluent reading of the transcript.


Viridiana Choy


Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York - College at Oneonta




Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY






Oral History




Viridiana Choy


Jay Fleisher


SUNY Oneonta
IT Services, Faculty Lounge


Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2017

JF = Jay Fleisher
VC = Viridiana Choy

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

Today is November 3, 2017, and I am with Dr. Fleisher and I’m going to interview him. We are in SUNY Oneonta’s IT Services [faculty area]. Right now it is twelve o’clock and we are going to start interviewing. Thank you very much for accepting this interview.

Thank you for inviting me. I look forward to this.

Could you please talk about your background?

Sure. I was born in Liberty, New York, in 1937. I lived there only briefly in my early youth. I grew up through to my ten years in southern New York, in the town of Suffern, New York and as a teenager I went to the public school. I think I was pretty much an average student in the school system. Of course we motivate ourselves to do things, concentrate on some things more than others, and as teenager, I probably spent more time thinking about athletics than I thought about academics, but it’s very fortunate that the counselor in our school recognized that I had more academic potential than I was demonstrating and advised me to go to college and suggested a college; that was Saint Lawrence University in northern New York State. I applied, was accepted. Unlike the common procedure now where students visit many colleges with their parents before they make a decision, back in the mid 50s when this was happening, when my exposure to college first began, people didn’t do that, they applied to a few colleges, got accepted to some, and then went off and had their college experience.

Mine at Saint Lawrence University was an enlightenment for me. I think it was not until I arrived at Saint Lawrence and was exposed to a purely academic environment, with professors and friends and associates who were very, very much focused on the academic goals and objectives, that I realized that studying and being a good student could be a lot of fun and very rewarding. I thought I wanted to be a civil engineer, so I enrolled in the courses that would prepare me for that curriculum. One of those courses in the first semester was a course in Introduction to Geology. I had never taken a geology class before, I’d never had Earth Science in high school before. It was my first exposure. It was taught by a dynamic, very articulate, a very caring professor, his name was Dr. Robert O. Bloomer. He presented in his introductory lectures to a class of 30 or 40 students, the standard kind of introduction to the subject, but he did it in such an appealing manner, that it seems like everything he talked about was important to pay attention to. I was riveted to his lectures. What I discovered was, much of what he was lecturing about, and the subject of geology and the concepts and the principles he was introducing us to, seemed very, very familiar to me, although I had never had any background in this before, and when I read the textbook, it was as if I was being reminded of things that I already knew. I knew that was impossible, but that’s what was happening and I accepted it. I thought, “This is so terrific! I’m going to follow up on this, I’m enjoying this so much.” The learning procedure was so gratifying and rewarding, I stuck with it.

[TRACK 1, 5:03] I took the next semester course in geology. That too was an exposure that opened up a whole new world of things for me, all of which were appealing and attractive. That’s when I decided that if Dr. Bloomer would accept me as a geology major in his department then that’s what I would do, and not pursue civil engineering.

Dr. Bloomer was, as it turned out, rather selective in the individuals who he allowed to major in geology. This may sound strange in today’s day and age where students have complete and full choice of what they might do, and nobody oversees that, they are free to exercise that choice as they wish—to the contrary at that time, Dr. Bloomer was carefully monitoring all of his students, and knew in his mind which ones had the best potential to be geologists. I felt gratified that he was favorably disposed to allow me to continue studying geology.

As it turned out, the geology curriculum there, as it is in many colleges and universities today, required courses in addition to geology. There was: Chemistry and Physics, and Calculus, and all of that background, subject matter, and it all seemed to tie together, all seemed to make much so much sense. I felt very comfortable in that major. I did very well. Actually, don’t want to sound that I’m bragging, but I did make the Dean’s List as a geology major at Saint Lawrence. I found out in my senior year that Dr. Bloomer’s expectation of his geology majors was that they would go to graduate school. This thought had never crossed my mind, until one day he walked up to me, and sort of put his arm on my shoulder and said: “Tell me boy…” He was from the South, and referring to young men as boy just seemed to be part of his frame of reference, and he said to me: “Tell me boy, what graduate school are you going to?” I didn’t know how to answer because I hadn’t applied to any graduate schools. When he found out he said: “We are going to fix this,” and directed me in such a way that applications went out. I ended up accepting a graduate teaching position, a graduate teaching assistantship at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, that was a big university, compared to little Saint Lawrence, where there were eighteen hundred to two thousand students. The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill had fifteen to eighteen thousand students, which at that time was a big university. I realize by today's standards that’s relatively small, but it too has grown to be a mega university like so many of the others. At the time it was so much bigger and dynamic in its campus [than] Saint Lawrence was that I was overwhelmed. I felt like a little country boy in this intellectual university city. I recognized that this was no longer the caring, personal environment of the small liberal arts college I went to school in as an undergraduate, that this was a major university where performance was the primary objective and measure of every individual. That’s where I learned how to apply what I had learned as an undergraduate to the graduate level courses that I was taking, all of which was very gratifying.
I enjoyed very much learning, I enjoyed very much being exposed to new faculty, a new region. At that time North Carolina was in such contrast to [the] northeastern United States and Upstate New York, and the southern culture was an education in its own right. And also I might say that that was at a time when the civil rights movement was just getting under way. Coming from Upstate New York, and growing up in New York, I’d never been exposed to “prejudice.” The fact that some people were considered second-class students, or second-class citizens, which seemed to be the attitude in the South. I had never been exposed to that before. I shared an office with a young man from India, [Rander Gard] was his name. Terrific little guy, great student, a real competitor, but he had dark skin, and he was not allowed to enter certain establishments in the village of Chapel Hill. He was thought to be a “Negro,” which incensed him, because he was Indian and yet he was absorbing some of the prejudice of the time. I remember distinctly one day him coming back to the office—we shared an office—he was boiling hot mad. He came back to the office to get his turban, because he wanted to demonstrate that he was an Indian, an Indian, and not a black American.

[TRACK 1, 11:29] It was also during that time that the civil rights demonstrations began, and I recall being shocked standing on the Main Street of Chapel Hill watching a small parade of fifty people walk down the street, all holding a lit candle, and every time they came to a business establishment that was segregated and would not accept anybody but white individuals, this group would stop in silence and just point at that establishment. All of this was opening up a whole new realm of what America was like in places other than where I grew up and the rather limited exposure I had had growing up in a small town and going to a relatively small liberal arts college in the Northeast. It was a real eye opener.

The University of North Carolina was a place where I felt I could grow; they were challenging me. My teaching assistantship was one that required me to teach Intro Geology laboratory sections, that’s when I found out I really enjoyed sharing the geologic information that I was very familiar with with individuals who were newly exposed to the subject. It was very gratifying and very rewarding. I found my associates of other graduate students who were also teaching assistants put a lot of energy and effort into what they were doing. The whole environment was one concentrated on intellectual accomplishment and concentrating on presenting information to students, which was a first-time exposure for me. I found that to be gratifying, very gratifying, and that’s when I got the sense and the feeling that maybe this is what I should do with my education.

[TRACK 1, 13:50] At that same time—this was now late 50s, early 60s—the oil industry was growing by leaps and bounds, all the major oil companies were interviewing graduate students at all the major universities, because there were many jobs to be had. I was interviewed by several, and at the time thought: “This could be a lot of fun, I think I want to be a petroleum geologist,” or at least work in the petroleum industry.

I accepted a position with a company called Pan American Petroleum, with the position title of “junior geophysicist,” which meant I was going to be part of a team of six or eight individuals, I might point out that all of whom were males, all of the graduate students in geology in Chapel Hill were males, all of the geology majors in Saint Lawrence were males—this was a male science, so different from what it is today where there are as many women in the science as there are men, but at that time it was considered to be a male science. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think not just geology but the other sciences as well were not attracting many women, as I said. I don’t know why, but I’m glad it changed for many reasons, one being that one of my daughters is a Ph. D. scientist and that’s very, very gratifying for me. My other daughter—I have two daughters—Sarah who is on the faculty at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is the Ph. D. in science, and her sister Evelyn is a special education teacher in Brunswick, Maine. I’m so proud of them. I’m just so proud.

I accepted this position as a junior geophysicist with Pan American Petroleum. When I finished my obligations at the University of North Carolina, I went off to my assigned location: Farmington, New Mexico. I had never been west of the Appalachian Mountains before. I remember reading the frontispiece of a textbook as a student at Saint Lawrence in a course dealing with the origin of igneous and metamorphic rocks. The title of the book simply was Metamorphism. The author [was] H. H. Reed, and the frontispiece of that book said, “The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks,” and I thought, here’s my opportunity to see the Southwest.

[TRACK 1, 16:53] It was a whole new world opened to me when I left the Northeast and went to the Southeast. I anticipated that this was going to be such an exciting new experience in New Mexico, which it turned out it was. Pan American Petroleum trained me to do the basic fundamental work of searching for oil in rocks, rocks at depth below the surface of the earth, in rocks that were distorted and deformed in such ways as to trap that oil. Oil exploration I found out was really not looking for oil, but looking for oil traps. We did this using seismology, a subject that I had studied at North Carolina [and] thought I knew something about until I got into the field and started to apply it in a manner that had a targeted goal of seeing what was below the surface as potential traps for oil. I was having the greatest time, I enjoyed that work so much. The oil company would send me out in the field with a team of four or five other individuals to do the fieldwork we were assigned to do, and they would always give me an air conditioned car, a credit card, and a little roll of cash with a rubber band around it, and they’d send me off to a site perhaps for three or four or five days, to perform the tests that we were involved with. The instructions I got from the district geophysicist was: “We expect the car back and we expect the credit card, but because we are sending you away from your family, we expect that you are going to treat yourself well, so we don’t want you return any of that cash,” so I thought, “That’s great.”

[TRACK 1, 19:01] At the time I was a family man. My oldest daughter Evelyn was born in Farmington, New Mexico, which was a short distance, ten miles away from the edge of the Navajo reservation. It was a real eye opener to be exposed to the culture of the Southwest, and how the white people at the time felt about the Native Americans, the Navajo and Hopi Indians who had reservations nearby. That’s when I realized that there was prejudice there as well. Coming from this naïve Northeast background, and seeing the prejudice of the Southeast against some members of our society, and then the prejudice against other members of society who were in fact the first people on this continent and yet they were being treated in a second-class manner, all of that got filed away in my mind. It was objectionable to me, but I felt powerless to do anything about it. There was no movement of any sort that I could identify with or join to try and rectify any of this. It was just part of what was to be accepted, at least that’s the way it appeared.

My daughter Evelyn was born in Farmington, New Mexico; that was a real revelation, a turning point of my life, because when I looked into the nursery at the hospital where my little daughter Evelyn, wrapped in a pink blanket, was in a bassinet next to five little Navajo babies, and I thought: “Oh my goodness, what kind of world is Evelyn going to grow up in?” I need to know more about the lifestyle of an exploration geophysicist, because I was concerned that there might not be enough continuity in this little girl’s education in life. She needed something more permanent than mobility. Which it turns out, exploration geophysics were transferred every three or four years, and even as you moved up in the company you got transferred every seven or eight years. The district geophysicists has been transferred every seven or eight years, and I thought that’s too much mobility for this little child.

I’m going to go back to graduate school, get a Ph. D. which would then qualify me to work in the research branch of the oil industry, that was much more stable. There were research locations where you could settle in. I remembered H. H. Reed’s comment and decided I’m going to go back to graduate school in the Pacific Northwest. I want to see the rocks there, so I got accepted at Washington State University with a teaching assistantship there. [I] went off to study the origin of sedimentary rocks, in particular limestone, which is related to petroleum development, and I had these high hopes and ambitions of answering questions that had been lingering in the oil industry for decades, about how the earth makes oil and gas. I wanted to discover this, so I went back to graduate school to study sedimentary geology, called it sedimentary petrology as a subject. I enrolled in the courses that would support that, got a research director, had a committee established, identified my dissertation research topic, and to fill in a course that semester, I had never had a course in glacial geology, and there was one available so I thought I’ll do that just to fill out my background. As it turned out, the course in glacial geology was engrossing; the professor was this young energetic individual, who just exuded so much enthusiasm. He reminded me a little bit of how enthusiastic Dr. Bloomer was at Saint Lawrence, and it definitely had an influence on me, exposing me to this new subject.

We went off on a weekend field trip, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, to the Wallowa Mountains of northern Oregon, and that weekend was my first exposure to the alpine glacial environment and the effects of alpine glaciation to the mountainous areas. I was just blown away by what I had seen and the whole exposure, the subject, the location, the thin air of twelve thousand feet in the mountains, it all [was] just so impressive. I came back from that field trip and talked to my research advisor. I said to him, Frank, “I just got exposed to alpine glacial geology, I think maybe that’s where I should do my research,” and explained how I felt about it, and he looked at me and he said: “Jay, follow your bliss.” He helped me find a new committee, establish a new committee, and find a new research topic. That changed my life. There seem to be these pivotal times in my life, where things came to a place where I could go left or right and I ended up in whatever direction I went in, and it took me to a whole new lifestyle, and a whole new professional and intellectual goal.

I studied alpine glacial geology. I did this in the Sierra Mountains of California, Sierra Nevada of California. My advisor who was also a pilot, had a small plane, a little Piper J3, single engine plane, tandem plane, the most basic airplane you can have. He flew me down to the Sierra Nevada to scout out a region where I would do my dissertation field work. We identified a place near Bishop, California, that had not been worked on before. It was 120 square miles in the mountains with one dirt road that went in to one part of it and it went from four thousand feet on the floor of the valley to fourteen thousand plus feet to the crest of the sierra. I thought “Wow, this is going to be phenomenal. I’m going to map the glacial geology here.” At the time I was smoking cigarettes, and after we did our scouting mission to identify this location and its scale, its scope, its change in elevation, and what physical demands there would be of me doing the mapping, which meant I had to walk this whole terrain. We landed that airplane after seeing that terrain. I took a pack of Pall Malls out of my breast pocket, crumpled them up in my hand, threw them in the trash, and never smoked a cigarette since, thinking: “I would never be able to do this fieldwork, if I kept smoking.” That’s when I realized fear can be a real motivator. I would never be able to finish my degree if I kept smoking, so that was that.

At the time at Washington State University there were twelve or fifteen Ph.D. students, working toward degrees that would lead to employment, most of these people—they were all guys, by the way, again male science—and most of them were married, several of them had children. Everybody was focused on what sort of a career is this going to lead to, what kind of job am I going to get when I leave? At the time the oil companies were still actively hiring, this was now in the mid to late 60s, and most of my friends were interested in going back to the oil industry and earning significant salaries. I had had that experience and I knew that they would pay well, but I didn’t like the lifestyle. What did appeal to me was the lifestyle of the faculty, and I decided I’m going to look when I finish my degree for a teaching position at a university or college, granted at a much lower salary than the oil industry was willing to pay, but it was the lifestyle that I felt was far more important than the money. Especially since at that time, my second daughter Sarah was born in Pullman, Washington where I was a graduate student. Now I had one child, three [years old], and one child, brand new fresh baby, and I had to be thinking about what sort of an environment are they going to grow up in, and decided I will look for a teaching position.

My specialty was glacial geology. At the time, academic institutions were hiring faculty based on what they needed to have taught in their curriculum, so the job openings for me were at the colleges and universities that needed a glacial geologist. Glacial geology is under the realm of what’s called geomorphology, the study of the forms of the earth’s surface, and glacial geology is one aspect of that. There were several universities that

[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00] needed a geomorphologist, and that was what I was qualified in. One of those was SUNY Oneonta, another was in Texas, and another one was in Oregon. SUNY Oneonta at the time, under Governor Rockefeller, was growing by leaps and bounds. He wanted the State University of New York to be the biggest and best university in the country, and he was in heavy competition with California. He was allowing campuses to grow. I came here for a job interview. I met the faculty who were teaching. At that time, all the sciences and mathematics were in one division of the college. We had not departmentalized into Chemistry, Physics, Geology, and so on. I met all of the faculty who were teaching the Earth Sciences classes, which included geology, meteorology, oceanography and astronomy. All of them were males; the theme of this is constant, it’s a male science. Well, I really liked the faculty who were teaching in the earth sciences. I liked all the faculty actually; they were young, vigorous, most of them were right out of graduate school, most of them were enthusiastic, exactly the same position I was in, young and growing families. It felt very comfortable, so I accepted the position. As I finished the first year of teaching, which was an all-consuming job, and I loved it. I just worked hard to make sure my courses were not only full of the right information, but interesting to my students. I wanted to be a good professor, like Dr. Bloomer was a good professor. He was my mentor early, still is to this day although he’s gone and I’m retired; he is still there.

I enjoyed the first year but I started to think about what it might be like at a Ph.D. granting institution. SUNY Oneonta offered master’s degrees in certain curricula, but not geology. Maybe I should be at a Ph.D. granting institution in geology where I could focus on research. So I decided that I would sample it by taking summer positions at major universities, Ph.D. granting universities. [The] first summer I took a job at Oregon State University, got exposed to their system, size of their department, the program they had, the politics of the department, the politics of the university, how the scale of it all was different from SUNY Oneonta. Great experience, but I enjoyed coming back to SUNY Oneonta at the end of the summer. I went through my second year of teaching here and wanted to test the waters again, so I took a summer teaching position at the University of British Columbia. At the time it was the biggest geoscience department in North America. I thought I’ll get a view from the other side of the desk, Ph.D. program and all. I went to Vancouver and all of this time I took my family with me, so they had exposure to all of this too. I liked Vancouver. I liked the university, but I didn’t like the size and the somewhat less personal nature that faculty seemed to have about their position, and their departments, and their college, more of an individual concentration of thought as opposed to being part of a team. I returned to Oneonta. I liked the college, the department, liked the guys who I was working with. We still were not an earth sciences department. I liked the town. Oneonta was a great place to raise children. And I liked the region, the terrain, the glacial geology here had never been worked out before; it was perfect. So I decided, “Ok, you’ve looked and you’ve sampled, Oneonta is going to be where you make your career.” I found that when departmentalization occurred and the faculty teaching earth science classes were set aside to run their own affairs, their own department, chemistry had theirs, physics theirs, bio theirs, mathematic sciences theirs, all of the faculty in the Earth Sciences department were eager, enthusiastic, hard working, genuinely honest, sincere individuals. It was just a pleasure to be with these guys. And they all had their oars in the water and they were all pulling in the right direction, the same direction. There was no interdepartmental politics and backbiting. It was just great; we got along terrific together. I made the formal commitment that this is where I’m going to be, I’m going to make my career here, and my family will grow up here. I’m so gratified that that went well for them too. As my older daughter said when she and her husband were looking for a place to settle in, she said, “Dad we’re looking for a town like the one I grew up in,” so I took that as an indication that I made the right decision from her perspective as well. Certainly from mine.

[TRACK 2, 6:33] The college was growing fast. The potential for advancement was excellent, probably at a greater rate than is currently going on. I really have been retired for ten years, so I don’t know a lot of the details of what’s going on now. I get the impression that, back in the 70s and 80s, people moved faster through the ranks and got promoted perhaps a little faster than they’re being promoted today. I don’t know that for sure but I get that feeling. I was gratified and rewarded by promotions, by discretionary awards in salary, by being nominated for one award or another, and I was nominated for the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and I was so gratified not only to be nominated but to receive that. Probably the aspect of my teaching career related to rank and advancement that was the most significant event was when I was promoted to the rank of distinguished teaching professor, a rank within the SUNY system that’s above the full professor rank. That was so gratifying and rewarding.

A few years after that, I was recommended by the faculty in earth sciences to the administration that I would be chair of the department, which is also very gratifying. I did become chair. I served as the chair for sixteen years, and always felt that my job was to provide for the faculty the most enriching teaching environment, which meant have them teach the courses they wanted to teach, have them teach not only when they wanted to teach, what time of day, what days of the week, but at times that were well coordinated and distributed through the day and the week, so that it was convenient for students to major in geology without internal conflicts of courses. Make sure we didn’t conflict with Chemistry or Physics or Math, because we required those courses of our students. All of the faculty were very agreeable in scheduling their classes and they just, as I said they were all pulling in the right direction, same direction.
I enjoyed being chair of the department to a point. The things that sort of took me away from it a bit was when SUNY Central decided that it was necessary for every academic department, and every curriculum within each department, to be assessed. And they were to be assessed in a manner and by a mechanism that would be dictated by SUNY Central. The assessment meant you were going to determine if the courses were thorough, served the purpose of the curriculum, were well taught, had students in consideration, put the students first, and so on. The guys in my department, and again it was an all-male department, but the guys in my department were already doing that. They were already teaching well, they were already cooperative, they already had an open door policy for students. There was a great rapport within our department for our majors. In other words, SUNY Central didn’t really need to say to me, “Make sure your faculty are doing their job.” I knew they were doing their job. I sensed that at that time the whole administrative governance structure was being dictated from SUNY Central, and things were changing, and the role of the chair became more one of policing a department as opposed to leading a department, and that’s when I decided I really didn’t want to be chair anymore.

That turned out to be not only a very gratifying decision on my part, but it was one that permitted me to give more time to my own personal interests in geology and research. Through the 70s, I concentrated entirely on putting together courses that were well organized, had the right content for the students who were going to use that science in the future, made sure it was taught well, made sure the students had a good experience. Geology is a field science; make sure they go on field trips. [I] worked very hard through the 70s to make that happen. Actually it was in ’74 that I hooked up with a plant ecologist in the biology department, Gary [Holloway], and the two of us began doing summer three, four week field trips to the Rockies and Southwest. These were camping field trips, and when you spend that much time in the field with a group of students, you really get to know them well, they get to know you well, and I must admit some of the alumni with whom I have the continued best relationships now even after retirement are with the students who were on, not only the trip in ’74, but we did it every even numbered year from then on, through the 80s, and into the early 90s; very gratifying, wonderful experience.
Geology being a field science required that students be exposed to the field. H.H. Reed, “the best geologist has seen the most rocks,” kept echoing, so I made sure that my students and the students who took the geology classes while I was chair had lots of exposure to field science. It was through the 80s that I was approached by the New York State Geologic Survey to be involved in a project of mapping the glacial deposits of New York State. I felt honored to be asked to be involved in this. There were six of us who were invited, six glacial geologists from different parts of New York State, each of which had expertise in their particular part of New York and could apply that expertise to other parts of New York, so we worked as a team through the 80s.
Every summer for about a month, or six weeks, we’d be out mapping the glacial geology of New York State, and that toward the end of the 80s led to a threshold event. Working with very well qualified glacial geologists in this program to map the glacial geology in New York State, we encountered [a] field situation in western New York, south of Batavia, that posed to us a problem. We could not as a team explain how glaciers could possibly have produced what we happened to be mapping at the time. It wasn’t in the books, it wasn’t in the journals, there was no way to explain this. I presented the results of this work at a geologic conference and a friend and colleague from Lehigh University came up to me after I presented and said, “Jay, if you want to answer the questions that you just posed from your mapping in New York, you need a modern analogue. You have to go to a place where a glacier is doing now what the glacier, the ice sheet did when it was retreating from New York State.” So I said, this is a great idea. Identify a modern analogue.

Well to make a long story short, I studied the aerial photographs done by the US Geologic Survey of the glaciers of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and found a glacier in Alaska, the Bering Glacier, named for Vitus Bering, that had all the right characteristics to present environments in which the materials we saw in western New York State would be forming today. So I put together a team consisting of some of those guys who we worked with in New York State on that project and one my students, a graduate student at the time, because we were offering a master’s degree in earth sciences, and we went off to the Bering Glacier on a reconnaissance, two-week exploration. Found it to be perfect; it was exactly the place we needed to go back to, so from then on, for the next twenty years, I organized pretty much the same group of faculty, or researchers from New York State, plus a few new guys who got peppered in because they expressed interest and could complement what the rest of us were doing, but the research team never got any bigger than, well one summer it got to ten and it was too big, scaled it back to six or eight, and every summer I took two students from the Earth Sciences department with me, for a two or three or four week field experience in a total glacial wilderness in Alaska, where we would assemble in this little fishing village on Prince William Sound called Cordova, we would gather our scientific gear, gather supplies, get our camping stuff together, our own personal stuff together, load up on little airplanes on floats, take off from a lake in Cordova, land an hour later on a lake in front of the Bering Glacier, taxi up to the glacier, unload, and the airplanes would leave and be told to come back and get us in three weeks. Be sure you tell somebody where were we are, because it’s a total glacial wilderness. That whole project was so engrossing and it was so involving that after the first five years [I] decided, we’ve learned a lot from this glacier, maybe we should find another glacier that could supplement what we haven’t seen here, and we’ll go back to the Bering Glacier to wrap up what we’ve been doing for the last five years, now this is 1993, we arrived back and the Bering Glacier was in the process of surging forward at a rate of about thirty feet a day. The front of the glacier was moving forward about thirty feet a day. Biggest alpine glacier in North America was in the process of doing what we refer to as “surging.” Of the ten thousand glaciers in Alaska, there are only about two hundred of them that have ever surged and here’s one that is surging now, so you can’t walk away from the opportunity to study a glacier in the process of surging.

That research continued through the remainder of the 90s. The surge ended two years later in 1995. The glacier then had overridden part of the terrain we had worked on before and was then in the process in 95 of retreating from that terrain, so here was an opportunity to study the effects of overriding ice, surging ice, so we had to return and we kept going back every year until 2009. Every year I have two of my students with me. On a couple of those, several of those occasions, I had two West Point cadets with me because one of the faculty I added into the research of this was a colonel in the army who had taught at West Point, so we engaged them as well. This research project continued until 2009. I had retired in 2007, and in doing so took myself out of some funding loops. You can’t do research in the glacial wilderness without having significant funding, and over the years I had been funded by the National Science foundation, by National Geographic Society, the SUNY Oneonta Foundation supported the students who I took, that was very gratifying, it was great for them to do that. The whole thing blossomed into this wonderful research environment and opportunity. When I retired in 2007, and took myself out of some of these funding loops, I really couldn’t afford to fund this research on my own, but I continued for two more years, because of the connection with West Point and through mechanisms that I won’t get into here, we were able to fund the research as long I had one of the West Point faculty, and two of their cadets with me, which was fine, it worked out well, but then that was it, the funding totally dried up in 2009.

[TRACK 2, 22:00] That’s when I got a phone call from a member of the board of directors of the JUNEAU Icefield Research Program, asking me if I’d be willing to step in as director of the program, because the existing director [who had] started the program 30 years earlier was in his late 80s and really was losing control of the program. It meant I had to give up my retirement to take on this job, but I told them I would do that for two years to keep the program on track and then help find my replacement. So I did I have a wonderful experience with directing the JUNEAU Icefield Research Program, a program that I benefited from. After one full year of teaching at Oneonta, I was supported by NSF [the National Science Foundation] to go to the JUNEAU Icefield Research Program, for an eight-week exposure on the ice field in the glacial environment, did things that were so gratifying, so rewarding, taught me as much about myself as it did about glaciers and the glacial environment. Very, very rewarding experience. Anyway, I directed that program for two years and then finally helped them find my replacement. Since then, 2013, I’ve been modeling my retirement in such a way as to allow me to take some of my professional interests and expertise with me, but not having it be my full-time job. One of the things I really enjoy doing in my retirement is travel. Judy and I have traveled to some wonderful destinations in North America, South America, Asia, Europe all of which are icons of geology and keeps me engaged, but it’s also a vacation. But then again, there is something else that keeps me engaged.

Gary [Holloway] and I did field trips for undergraduates for twenty years together, and the last few years of that, every even numbered year we took students out West and every odd numbered year starting in 89 we began to due field trips which were considered to be informed holidays for community members, and that experience has been continuing since the early 90s. Every odd numbered year, Gary and I would take a group of community adults somewhere on a field excursion, two-week field excursion, Pacific Northwest, Alaska five times, Mexico, the Sierra Madre, Baja Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canadian Rockies, British Columbia, a whole series of these. And then, I guess it was 2000, one of the fellows who traveled on these adult trips, came up to me and said: “You know Jay, if you don’t take me to Iceland, I’ll never get there.” Oh my God! He’s just told me that he has always wanted to go to Iceland, and now I need to. So I put a trip together for Iceland. Gary went on that, but it was clear that he wasn’t nearly as connected to Iceland as he had been to North America. Anyway I’ve been doing trips for community individuals, I refer to them as real people trips, to distinguish them from student field trips. I hope that’s not taken as a derogatory comment but the real people trips have really taken on an identity of their own. I’ve done these in retirement in 2014, 2012, I did one to Iceland for community people, and then in 2014, 2015 the Geological Society of America asked me to do trips to Iceland, two-week trips which I did. This past summer, 2017, I took a group of community people who wanted to go to Iceland and that all started when a friend who was in a physician at Bassett Hospital called and said “Jay, I want to put a trip together to Iceland for the Bassett people,” so I worked on that, and they had a great experience last summer. One of the things they said before they all left Iceland was: “Where are we going next?” Some of them want to go to Alaska, so this is not part of what I’m involved in too. Also in the last two years, I’ve been involved with a project that’s under the direction of the US Geologic Survey and Department of Environmental Conservation in New York State, to define the groundwater potential in different parts of New York State, and because virtually all of the major aquifers in New York State are within glacial gravel deposits of the last fourteen to eighteen thousand years ago, glacial gravels provide the largest quantity of groundwater for the biggest communities in Upstate New York, and since I did the glacial mapping in this part of Central New York, I’ve been engaged in a project with the USGS in helping define the aquifers of this region in New York. And that’s also part of the gratifying professional involvement that I continue to have. And I still go to Geologic Society meetings, to keep my hand and know what the science is up to, what people are doing, and what the new research is. It’s all very gratifying. That is a thumbnail sketch of P. Jay Fleisher, from undergraduate school to this very moment.

I’m glad because most of my questions they were in that direction. But I want to ask you this one that is very important to me. How do you think the US should address the climate change?

Unfortunately, within the last decade, so many issues of concern to Americans have become politicized. That now has begun to affect how scientists are thinking about their science, and how much of a political influence there’s been on the scientific work that’s being done, this is serious concern to me. Politics are beginning to dictate what the everyday citizen knows about science through the work of scientists, and conveying that information to the media to be distributed to the public. Scientists publish in journals, the everyday citizen doesn’t read the journals, can’t read the journals, they don’t have the expertise, so it’s necessary to put our science into a language, a manner for everyday citizens to be able to absorb and utilize. Unfortunately, this issue of climate change, which very much is related to the science that I’ve been researching for years—I’m not an atmospheric scientist, I’m not a climatologist, I’m not a meteorologist, but I have studied glaciers that react to the climate, and I do know about that. Unfortunately, much of what the science community has been able to share gets warped and distorted to fit the political environment. Right now, we have part of our society, probably two thirds of our society, who do not believe...

[START OF TRACK 3, 0:00] ...that the climate is changing and a third not only believe it, but believe that human influence is involved. The science says that the effects of human activity, primarily the pollutants we put in the atmosphere, have influenced our climate the last several decades. There are many ramifications to this. My take on it is that every decade, we know more about any given science than we knew for the previous century in that science, and now we’re learning things within the last three or four years that we didn’t know ten years ago; things about the atmosphere, things about the ocean, things about heat transfer, and how the environment is being influenced by the heat transfer from the atmosphere to the oceans, and how all of this is being influenced by natural factors. Then trying to tease out how much of those changes are related to factors that humans have an influence on. There is a concept in chemistry that applies to so many things including many things in geology, as well as the atmosphere and climate change, and that is a system in equilibrium, this is the [Shakley Hayes Principle] in chemistry, a system in equilibrium consisting of many different components, will remain in equilibrium with each of the individual components experiencing changes, but every change is offset by some change another component has and all of this allows the equilibrium to be maintained. So internally the system changes but the equilibrium continues. Now to apply this to climate change, our atmosphere, as our climate has changed over the last several hundred million years, due to a number of factors that I won't get involved with here, but there have been periods of times when we have had ice ages, and times when we haven’t had ice ages. Glaciers form, advance, reach a maximum position, retreat, deteriorate. We go into a non-glacial time, then the glaciers form again, and we go back to a glacial period again; and there have been cyclic changes throughout geologic time going back hundreds of million of years. And we know there have been cyclic changes in the last hundred thousand years that the details of which are better known, because the more recent the event, the more clear the evidence and the more specific we can be about what we’ve learned from that. Well, if there were no humans on this planet, I’m certain that we would eventually through natural cycles go back into an ice age, and where you and I are sitting today doing this interview will be overridden by a glacier that may be ten thousand years in advance from now. But that glacier will melt and retreat, and it’s a natural cycle. My concern is to what degree are humans influencing the rate at which those changes will occur, and I think the scientific data are clear, humans are causing a greater rate of change. They are not causing the change, they are causing a greater rate of change than if they weren’t there. The cycles of change in the past can be graphed, and we know the rates at which these changes took place. Now we see changes happening at a rate faster than anything that’s happened before, and I believe this is partly the influence of human activity, and how we are contaminating our atmosphere. There’s so much more to it, but I better stop there.

Just one last question. Why, for geologists, are glaciers important at this moment?

Why are glaciers important at this moment?

What is important to study about the subject?

Glaciers form when more snow falls in any decade than melts during that decade. Eventually if we have residual left over at the end of every winter, so next year there’s more snow on old snow, and the next year more new snow on the older snow, and keeps accumulating like this over a period of decades, not even as long as a century, but decades, there’ll be enough residual snow piled up so that the snow at the bottom of the pile is changed to ice, and as that pile gets thick enough the ice is under enough pressure to begin to move. Once it moves, it’s a glacier. A glacier is a body of moving snow and ice. The size of the glacier will depend on how much new snow falls, balanced against how much glacier melts at the terminus, so it’s a balancing act. It’s like your bank account, you put more in then you take out, and your balance grows, you take out more than you put in, and your balance diminishes. Glaciers get bigger as the climate provides greater precipitation of snow and less melting, and they get smaller with more melting and less addition of new snow. As a result, glaciers are an indicator of how the climate is changing over a long period of time, over not only decades, but centuries. Right now, the vast majority of glaciers on Earth are retreating, including the ice caps at the poles, the other glaciers are in the mountains, so there are alpine glaciers and there are polar glaciers. They are all getting smaller, except for a few which happen to reach high enough into the atmosphere, where they get enough snow, so they have a positive budget. Whereas all the other ones have a negative budget, but by far virtually of the glaciers have a negative budget and are retreating, and they are getting smaller, because the climate isn’t providing conditions that permit them to exist at their previous budget, and that’s why they are getting smaller. Climate influences the size of glaciers, studying the glaciers tells you that the climate is changing. In the research that I’ve done, we measured how fast glaciers, Bering Glacier and a few others, how fast they retreated, and also how fast they are thinning, and this is field data that can be then used by the scientists who do computer modeling of how these effects might translate in the future for changes in climate. So, I didn’t study how climate is changing, I studied the factors that produce the data that allow the climate scientist to model the influence of climate in the future.

Thank you very much.


29:59 Track 1
29:59 Track 2
08:38 Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

Track 1 Early life
Track 1 11:29 Civil Rights
Track 2 SUNY Oneonta
Track 3 Climate change, glaciers



Viridiana Choy, “Jay Fleisher, November 3, 2017,” CGP Community Stories, accessed May 21, 2019,