Saturday, 1 February 2014

Some like the cold... then there's me :)

When I tell people what I do, it's generally met with a interesting mixture of "that's cool" or "did you say gynecologist??".  While the latter is obviously a very closely related subject, most of the time I have to repeat it and say that I hang around on large masses of ice that can vary in size from a small housing estate to the size of small countries.  And I really enjoy saying what I study... glaciology... I feel its something a bit different....even spell checker doesn't recognise the word (it gave gynecology as an alternative). But of course saying it's unique is a load of crap, considering that there are and have been thousands of wonderful and smart people immersing themselves in various aspects of the glaciers we see (and no longer see) on our planet.  From those looking at the water moving through the glacier, under it, out of it, melting from it and generally doing 'cool' stuff to those looking at the impacts of climate change and temperature on the rate of it's disappearance (That's me!!!).  Nevertheless it gives me a feeling of great satisfaction to say that i'm one of those people.

I feel very fortunate to have experienced some of these amazing features of our world, but for me, the experience only really started a year and a half ago on a research trip to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard (Norway).  It was there where I experienced my first glacier walk with a pair of awful outdoor shoes worth a tenner that kept my feet lovely and wet (and cold) for the entire month I was there.  Even so, I fell in love with the whole glacier thing straight away... I fell in love with Svalbard and will likely be for a long time to come.  The thing that surprised me was that I had reached the age of 22 without experiencing anything like that at all before.  I had never been on skiing holidays and never thought about hiking across ice before.  Even though I was (and still am) very much interested in climate change and the way glaciers provide an amazing visual response to it, I had never been to see one.... why!???.

Just to demonstrate some of the amazing changes of glaciers......

These images are just two selected from many to demonstrate the point.  The top image shows the retreat of the Muir Glacier (and Riggs, not seen) in Alaska between 1941 and 2004.  The bottom image shows the retreat of the Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies between 1917 and 2005.
However without some sense of scale... these images may not seem as impacting.

A wonderful demonstration of a glacier terminating into the ocean and breaking off (termed 'calving') can be seen by a clip from Chasing Ice, a documentary film from nature photographer James Balog.  This clip filmed at Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland, sums up the awesome scale of some of these calving events!

At the other end of the world, at the end of last year, a Singapore sized iceberg broke off from the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica and now poses as a potential threat to shipping lanes.  Estimated at a size of 700 square km, I wouldn't want to wake up one morning to find that hovering toward my shore.... though I would secretly be excited.  BBC news report here:

While there are several factors at play here, the rate of change witnessed from the Chasing Ice example demonstrates how a changing climate is creating a more rapid response of these glacier systems.  While human influence has very likely shaped the fate for these giant ice masses, there are also the natural cycles over far greater timescales to consider (a debate for another time I think).  Even so, the rate at which our glaciers are disappearing is very important for many because it can largely impact the availability of water into the future..... That's where I come into things.

The reason I've been ranting about how amazing glaciers are for the last 36 lines or so is that I have recently started a PhD at Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK) to study the effect of temperature variations over glaciers when they are melting over the spring/summer period.  By understanding how exactly glaciers respond to temperature increases (and fluctuations) we can aim to better predict how much water we will have in the year... 2050 or whatever (if they will even last that long).  Essentially I created this blog to provide a general overview to what I will be studying, how I will study it and all the processes and problems involved.  I feel this is a good way to try to explain some of the phenomena I have briefly thrown on the page right now, also providing my own views (from a researcher's perspective rather than a news page) and an idea what a PhD in physical geography involves.  I am very far from having all the answers, especially only 2 months into my research... but then again, we are all guessing really, aren't we??

I will try and update this blog as often as possible and as often is there actually something reasonable to write.  As this is my first blog, I have likely clicked the wrong button and/or it looks a mess or not quite what I wanted with Blogger presets and all..... blah blah blah...


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