Keeping Her Balance on the Ice: CRREL Researcher Takes Polar Passion Into Retirement

  • Jackie Richter-Menge, of Hanover, retired in January after 35 years at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory where she was a research engineer studying arctic sea ice cover. She was appointed to the Arctic Research Commission in 2016 by President Obama. Photographed in Hanover, N.H., June 2, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The certificate of Jackie Richter-Menge's appointment to the Arctic Research Commission, signed by Secretery of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama, hangs in her Hanover home, Friday, June 2, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jackie Richter-Menge pets her dog Rosie at home in Hanover, N.H., Friday, June 2, 2017. Richter-Menge retired last January from CRREL where she was a research engineer studying arctic sea ice cover. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Research civil engineer Jackie Richter-Menge is bundled up for work in the Arctic near Barrow, Ala., in 2014. Richter-Menge, of Hanover, N.H., recently retired after a 36-year career at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. (Naval Research Laboratory - David Hebert)

  • Research civil engineer Jackie Richter-Menge, of Hanover, N.H., installs instrumentation designed and built at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., to continuously monitor changes in the thickness of the Arctic sea ice cover and relay the information back to the lab via satellite in 2007. At right is Richter-Menge's CRREL colleague, Bruce Elder, of Plainfield, N.H. (Art Howard photograph)

  • Research civil engineer Jackie Richter-Menge, of Hanover, N.H., takes notes on the condition of the Arctic sea ice cover during a 2013 IceBridge airborne mission. Its goal is to monitor changes in the thickness of the polar ice covers, including sea ice and glacial ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica. Richter-Menge recently retired after a 36-year career at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. (Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center - Sinead Farrell)

  • Research civil engineer Jackie Richter-Menge, of Hanover, N.H., takes a detailed ice thickness measurement of deformed sea ice while stationed in a drifting ice camp in the Beaufort Sea in 2007. Richter-Menge recently retired after a 36-year career at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. (Art Howard photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, June 04, 2017

Hanover — The national conversation on the elusive — some say illusory — career-family balance for women is intense, and the search for success stories has focused on briefcase-toting moms holding their own in male-dominated boardrooms. Had anyone thought to look north — way north — they would have found one in Jackie Richter-Menge, a gun-toting mom more than holding her own in male-dominated arctic research camps.

Richter-Menge’s 36-year career as a research civil engineer at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory — a career capped in 2016 by a presidential appointment to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and an honorary doctorate of science degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks — is impressive in its own right. Before retiring earlier this year, Richter-Menge contributed to scores of scholarly publications; collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others; rose through the ranks to principal investigator and branch chief; participated in nearly two dozen arctic expeditions; and earned international respect as an expert in sea ice dynamics.

“Like Bono, she has one-name status,” said CRREL geophysicist Don Perovich. In arctic science circles, “all you have to say is ‘Jackie.’ She has a tremendous amount of respect.”

The recognition and respect are due in part to Richter-Menge’s adaptive application of her research findings. Over the decades, she applied the engineering properties of ice cover to reduce impacts of arctic oil and gas extraction, to inform Cold War-era naval operations and, most recently, to understand and forecast climate change.

All the while, Richter-Menge, 59, raised two daughters — her eldest was just 4 months old when Richter-Menge left for a two-month trip to the arctic.

“I’m sure she felt pressure to go. You can’t do arctic research and not go to the arctic,” said Nancy Liston, who recently retired from her 40-year career at CRREL, most recently as head of the Technical Information and Analysis Center. “Her girls are certainly no worse for the wear. It’s just what their mom did. It could have been making movies in Hollywood, but it was research in the arctic.”

Like her blond curls, Richter-Menge was buoyant and uninhibited during an interview in the living room of her Hanover home. Her charisma and lank frame suggest that Liston’s Hollywood reference could have been more than arbitrary.

Richter-Menge was neither apologetic nor overly political about her choice to have children and a career. Rather, she spoke gratefully about her opportunities and passionately about her interests.

In adolescence, Richter-Menge’s focus evolved from archeology to bridges before settling on engineering.

“I thought it was fascinating that everything around me was touched by an engineer,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to be a pure scientist or mathematician because I’m just not that gifted in math or science, but I was comfortable enough with the application.”

The Delaware native earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Delaware, where she attended — admittedly for the free food — a guest lecture by a CRREL engineer. Upon graduation in 1981, Richter-Menge applied to CRREL.

Unbeknownst to her, the laboratory was promising ground for female applicants, thanks to affirmative action executive orders issued by the Johnson administration. Part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, CRREL was beholden to quotas for hiring qualified women and racial minorities.

Liston, a pioneer in her own right, was one of just two professional women at the laboratory in 1972 when she was made the laboratory’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer and charged with enforcing federal affirmative action mandates.

“I had modern thoughts,” Liston recalled. “They thought I was a bra-burner.”

Liston took the position and purpose seriously. By the time Richter-Menge arrived for her interview, Liston had made a spot for herself on the applicant interview committee. “I was looking for women. Jackie was articulate, funny and had the credentials. She wasn’t a tough sell, but being a tall, blond woman, she had to prove herself.”

Richter-Menge readily credits affirmative action with the opportunity to prove herself at CRREL. She didn’t squander the opportunity.

“Because I stuck out in the crowd, I knew I had to do my job well. If I screwed up, I could set things back. I did feel that burden,” said Richter-Menge. “CRREL is a sink-or-swim kind of place. You have to have initiative.”

Upon her hiring, in August of 1981, Richter-Menge was handed a book on ice physics. “It was horrible. I couldn’t get through the first five pages let alone think of anything I wanted to do with it,” she laughed. Knowing she had to find a niche, she approached a CRREL engineer whose work on ice mechanics was not unlike research she’d enjoyed in college on soil mechanics. He took her on, and in April of 1982, Richter-Menge touched down in the arctic for the first time.

Thirty-five years later, her awe of the arctic is undiminished. “It’s fascinating,” she said. “It was immediately super special to think I would be working in this environment and helping people to understand it. I was absolutely hooked.”

Hooked — and anomalous.

The only woman in camp, Richter-Menge’s reception was icy. “It was ‘Oh God, we’ve got a female in camp and have to make special accommodations for her.’ ”

Lacking precedent, she forged the way for herself and for other women. She took firearm training to protect herself and her colleagues from polar bears, frequent visitors to camp. She learned to construct plywood “tents” with materials dropped by helicopter. Battling layers of clothing, not to mention propriety, she relieved herself on open ice in temperatures of minus 40 degrees. “Celsius or Fahrenheit, it doesn’t matter,” she said — a witticism and a point of fact as minus 40 is the same on both scales.

If proving herself (and, incidentally, women’s potential) amid men and extreme conditions was a challenge, Richter-Menge hid it well. “She’s in her element there,” said Perovich, who’s worked alongside her in the arctic. “She is extremely competent in the field and completely adapts.”

According to Richter-Menge, the men eventually liked having her in camp. “They didn’t have to be as macho. And, by and large, I think the men I worked with respected me as researcher and as a person. There was a pecking order, but it wasn’t different for men and women. You had to realize you had a lot to learn. I never put on airs, and I earned my place,” she said.

“I’d like to think I made it easier for other women.”

A necessary part of Richter-Menge’s ability to adapt to the field was her ability to adapt to separation from her daughters, Jennifer and Katherine, now a teacher and engineer, respectively. Passionate about her work and confident in the care her daughters received, Richter-Menge is neither regretful nor apologetic about those separations.

“My parents were hugely supportive. When the girls were young, my parents would take them to their home in Delaware. The girls loved it, but they came back spoiled,” Richter-Menge recalled. “It was tough to leave them, and I think they missed me at times, but not to the point of being stressed.”

When the girls were old enough for school, they stayed home with their father, Richard Menge, public works director for the town of Hartford and “maple sugar maker extraordinaire” for the family’s Maple Leaf Farm in Lyme. Between school, child care providers and friends, they made it work. When Richter-Menge wasn’t traveling, which was the vast majority of the time, they were, “very much a family, eating dinners together, and going to the girls’ games.”

Richter-Menge’s professional success and career-family balance were not lost on her daughters. “It’s clear to me they’re very proud of what I’ve done,” she said. “They saw it’s not easy to do, but with the right support system, it’s possible.”

While Richter-Menge harbors no regrets, she recognizes she would have earned a doctorate had she not had children. “I couldn’t make that sacrifice for them. I was already so busy,” she said. “I’m really appreciative that CRREL allowed me to evolve, rather than pigeonhole me because I didn’t have one.”

In retirement, Richter-Menge hopes to travel, fly fish, and possibly work, as her daughter does, in the field of health care engineering. To stay abreast of trends and issues she’ll remain editor of NOAA’s Arctic Report Card, an annual, widely read compilation of peer-reviewed research. The prominent position will lend her “street cred” in her work on the Arctic Research Commission. Assuming the commission survives the current administration, Richter-Menge plans to leverage her appointment to improve communication between arctic researchers and native communities, whose cultures she reveres. Additionally, she hopes to improve forecasting methods to inform responsible arctic activities and initiatives to address climate change, for which she feels a sense of urgency.

Richter-Menge has had a front row seat to what research has convinced her is human-induced climate change, literally watching the ice cover contract and thin over her long career. With characteristic pragmatism she asked, “What’s the downside to taking better care of the planet? Really? Renewable energies are proving economical and creating jobs. At the end of the day, it’s just general stewardship.”

But, in pulling out of the Paris climate agreement last week, it seems the Trump administration shares neither her pragmatism nor her evidence-based perspective.

“Though not surprised, I am deeply disappointed in the president’s decision,” Richter-Menge wrote via email. “Mr. Trump has effectively removed the U.S. from an opportunity to participate — even lead — this unique global forum to address a critical global challenge. Of even more concern is that this choice reflects the president’s choices on the federal level; choices which show a blatant disregard for scientific facts and economic ramifications.”

While discouraged by the ceding of leadership and disregard of science, Richter-Menge isn’t disempowered. “I do believe small things add up, like drops in a bucket. So, I’m going to do my part.”

That means continuing to work with NOAA and on the Arctic Research Commission, accepting invitations for speaking engagements from CRREL and others, and continuing in her service as board chair of the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon. “I strongly believe our best hope for addressing climate warming … lies in the education of students.”

Though no longer toting a bear gun in a ice-bound camp at the top of the world, Richter-Menge is well-armed to contribute with the scientific insight, exuberant oratory and unapologetic passion for the arctic that have served her, and others, so well.

“She’s an energizer,” Liston said, pausing before continuing, “I won’t say ‘bunny.’ That’s too feminizing.”