Cryospheric Sciences


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European Space Agency Living Planet Symposium 2016

European Space Agency Living Planet Symposium 2016

Living Planet Symposium

Between the 9th and 13th May, Prague played host to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) fourth Living Planet Symposium. The event, the largest in its history with over 3300 attendees, brought together the earth observation community across multiple disciplines to discuss significant scientific results and the future developments of earth observation missions. Earth Observation  of the Cryosphere over the last few decades has revolutionised our understanding of these regions, allowing us to monitor and assess ice sheet dynamics at unprecedented spatial and temporal scales.

ESA & Observation of the Cryosphere

The role of Earth Observation in Cryospheric sciences is set to increase further thanks to the European Commission and ESA Copernicus program; a series of satellites called Sentinels which all feature different sensor instrumentation, allowing researchers to monitor various aspects of the Earth System. The program will consist of 6 separate sentinel missions and will allow us to measure various Ice Sheet and Glacier dynamics continuously at a high temporal resolution. In addition, the Earth Explorer mission CryoSat-2 has been transforming our knowledge of the polar regions since it’s launch in 2010.

As a result, the conference had a wide range of exciting scientific results related to the Cryosphere from these missions; ranging from data products to be used by the community to the exploitation of mission data to further our knowledge of key processes and outstanding scientific questions.

Don’t worry if you weren’t able to make the symposium, as this post will highlight a selection of interesting results and the impact they will have on Cryospheric research!

CryoSat-2: Transforming Knowledge of the Cryosphere

CryoSat-2, an ESA Earth Explorer satellite that carries onboard a radar altimeter to measure ice elevation (Credit : ESA – P. Carril)

CryoSat-2, an ESA Earth Explorer satellite that carries onboard a radar altimeter to measure ice elevation (Credit : ESA – P. Carril)

CryoSat-2 is the ESA Earth Explorer radar altimetry mission dedicated to monitoring changes in surface elevation of earth’s ice sheets, sea-ice thickness and extent; which it has been routinely monitoring since November 2010. The combination of its unique polar orbital characteristics and novel dual antenna interferometric mode of operation has allowed it to overcome  many of the issues associated with previous altimetry missions over ice sheets.

Major results from CryoSat-2 included the application of swath processing techniques to the interferometric data to dramatically increase the number of surface elevation measurements available to researchers (Gray et al, 2013). Traditionally, the radar instrumentation would record a single elevation measurement at the point of closest approach (POCA) to the satellite. However, this technique analyses the whole radar return to produce measurements across the satellite footprint. By exploiting this increased data density it allows researchers to investigate ice sheet changes at much finer spatial and temporal resolution, allowing for an increase in the range of scientific questions the satellite is able to address. Examples of this include glacier thinning as a result of surging events that have previously occurred on time scales not possible to be captured by the satellite. It will also allow us to get a more complete picture of mass balance using the altimetry method.

Ice-shelf thickness in Antarctica

Furthermore, a contemporary continental ice shelf thickness dataset (Chuter and Bamber, 2015) derived from CryoSat-2 was presented; which provides large accuracy improvements over the previous ERS-1 derived dataset (Griggs and Bamber, 2011), particularly in the grounding zone, a key region for monitoring ice sheet stability. The results from this work will allow the community to improve accuracy in mass balance estimations from the input-output method, sub-ice shelf ocean modelling and for parameterisations in ice sheet models.


Antarctic ice shelf thickness Derived from CryoSat-2 radar altimetry (Credit: subset of fig S1 from Chuter and Bamber, 2015). 

Monitoring sea ice

Sea ice monitoring is also a key mission objective, with the satellite already delivering on these aims through studies of continuous monitoring of the Arctic Sea Ice over the past five years.  Work presented at the symposium by Rachel Tilling (CPOM/University College London) makes use of the Near Real Time data products from ESA to deliver knowledge of sea ice thickness and extent as quick as two days after data acquisition, providing benefits to the shipping industry in addition to aiding arctic climate predictions (see also Tilling et al, 2015).

Antarctic mass balance

For the Antarctic ice sheet, mass balance estimates obtained from altimetry, gravimetry, and mass-budget methods can yield conflicting results with error bars that do not always overlap.

Some of these techniques use models to isolate and remove the effects of glacio-isostatic adjustment and surface mass balance (SMB) processes,  introducing another source of uncertainty which is hard to quantify.

a) Estimates of mass balance for the Amundsen Sea Embayment (ASE) sector in Antarctica from different techniques, including estimates from the RATES project. b) Estimates of the mass loss due to ice dynamics (red) and SMB (blue) for the ASE, compared with modeled values from RACMO2.3 (red dots) and ice discharge (blue line) (Credit: fig 9a from Martín-Español, et al. 2016)

a) Estimates of mass balance for the Amundsen Sea Embayment sector in West Antarctica from different techniques, including estimates from the RATES project. [IOM = Input-Output Method] b) Estimates of the mass loss due to ice dynamics (red) and Surface Mass Balance (SMB — blue) for the Amundsen Sea Sector, compared with modeled values from RACMO2.3 (red dots) and ice discharge (D — blue line) (Credit: fig 9 from Martín-Español et al. 2016)

To address both these issues, the RATES project presented a statistical modelling approach to the problem (Martin-Español et al., 2016). They combined the observational data (including satellite altimetry, GRACE, GPS and InSAR), and used prior information to separate out the mass balance signal into its main components.  For instance, we know that the glacio-isostatic adjustment has a large spatial length-scale, but  changes in ice dynamics may vary from one glacier to the next. We thus can `look’ for these components within the data and attribute them to the correct process. For the period 2003-2013, they estimated a mean mass balance rate of -82±23 Gt/yr with a sustained negative mean trend of dynamic imbalance to which West Antarctica is the largest contributor, mainly triggered by high thinning rates of glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea Embayment. The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced a dramatic increase in mass loss in the last decade following the destabilization of the Southern Antarctic Peninsula. The total mass loss is partly compensated by a significant mass gain in East Antarctica due to a positive trend of SMB anomalies.

4th Cryosat User workshop

In addition to major scientific results and products, the conference combined with the 4th CryoSat User Workshop, bringing together users from all cryospheric disciplines to discuss a variety of issues such as: Product Calibration and Validation campaigns, future data product releases and further serving the needs of the scientific community. In addition, with the satellite currently being operated beyond in it’s initial commissioning timespan, initial discussions were held regarding whether there would be the possibility of a follow up and the form it could possibly take.

Sentinel 1A/B – A New Era for Ice sheet Velocity Mapping


Sentinel 1A/B is the Copernicus Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mission, providing global radar imagery currently at a 12 day repeat period, free from the limitations posed by multispectral imagery such as cloud cover. The launch of Sentinel 1B on the 25th April this year to join in constellation with 1A will reduce this repeat period to 6 days. This will allow for continuous, long term monitoring of the Earth’s Cryosphere at a high temporal resolution.

Sentinel 1 results presented at the conference exemplified the transformative power this mission will have on Cryospheric sciences. Firstly, it will allow us to produce continental velocity maps for both Greenland and Antarctica at sub-annual resolution. This will allow for monitoring of seasonal velocity changes in outlet glaciers, better estimations of mass balance and improved parameterisations of conditions in ice sheet models.  Additionally, the mission is now providing researchers with a near real time data stream of ice velocities for key outlets of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, allowing them to track changes and investigate changes in behaviour at 12-day scale (reducing to 6 days with 1B) (Hogg et al, 2016).

Ice Sheet velocity across the Antarctic peninsula derived from Sentinel 1 data from December 2014 to March 2016. Image Credit ESA and ENVEO:

Ice Sheet velocity across the Antarctic peninsula derived from Sentinel 1 data from December 2014 to March 2016. (Credit: ESA and ENVEO)

The grounding line is a key region of the ice sheet to monitor due to it’s ability to indicate changes in the dynamics of the inland Ice Sheet and it’s potential instability. SAR missions allow us to map the grounding line with high accuracy by analysing the differences in vertical tidal displacement of the ice shelves between images via the formation of interferograms. Previously there has been discontinuous temporal coverage from various SAR missions; however with the advent of Sentinel 1 mission, it will possibly to routinely monitor grounding line flux position for an extended period of time, improving our understanding of key ice sheet processes and inland grounded ice stability.

Final Thoughts

The conference showed us the combined power offered by the new Sentinel missions and the continuation of CryoSat-2 in allowing us to monitor the Cryosphere at scales not previously possible, thus shedding more light on the dynamics of these key earth system regions. The new satellites have allowed researchers to produce new and improved datasets open for use by the scientific community, helping to accelerate and enable future discoveries. Additionally, when these datasets are used in combination, they can help us to better answer some of the subject’s biggest questions; such as the mass balance of the Ice Sheets and its changes over time. As a result, these missions promise for exciting times ahead in terms of greatly forwarding our understanding of the Cryosphere.

 With the new sentinel missions and the continuation of CryoSat-2 exciting times are ahead for remote sensers of the cryosphere

Aside from the Conference – City of Prague

Prague offered many sights and opportunities to explore during the downtime of the conference. Highlights of the City included the Charles Bridge built in 1390 and the old Town Square which hosts the famous astronomical clock. All of this is set to the backdrop of Prague Castle, the largest ancient castle in the world and residence of the President of the Czech Republic. The City also has a famous classical music and opera scene and offers some of the world’s best beer, providing the perfect opportunity to network and make contacts!


  • Chuter, S. J., and J. L. Bamber (2015), Antarctic ice shelf thickness from CryoSat-2 radar altimetry, Geophys. Res. Lett., 42(24), 10,721–10,729, doi:10.1002/2015GL066515.
  • Gray, L, D Burgess, L Copland, R Cullen, N Galin, R Hawley, and V Helm. 2013. “Interferometric Swath Processing of Cryosat Data for Glacial Ice Topography.” The Cryosphere 7 (6). Copernicus GmbH: 1857–67.
  • Griggs, J.A., and J.L. Bamber. 2011. “Antarctic Ice-Shelf Thickness from Satellite Radar Altimetry.” Journal of Glaciology 57 (203). International Glaciological Society: 485–98. doi:10.3189/002214311796905659.
  • Hogg, A., A. Shepherd, N. Gourmelen (2015) A first look at the performance of Sentinel-1 over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, FRINGE 2015, Frascati, Italy, 23-27 March 2015.
  • Martín-Español, A. et al. (2016), Spatial and temporal Antarctic Ice Sheet mass trends, glacio-isostatic adjustment and surface processes from a joint inversion of satellite altimeter, gravity and GPS data, J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf., 120, 1–18, doi:10.1002/2015JF003550.
  • Tilling, R. L., A. Ridout, A. Shepherd, and D. J. Wingham (2015), Increased Arctic sea ice volume after anomalously low melting in 2013 – supplementary Information, Nat. Geosci., 8(8), 643–646, doi:10.1038/ngeo2489.

Edited by Sophie Berger


Stephen Chuter is a PhD Student at the University of Bristol, UK. He  Investigates the dynamics of the Antarctic Ice Shelves and grounding zone using the ESA CryoSat-2 satellite. The unique orbital characteristics and novel SARIn mode of operation allow us to study these areas in much greater detail than possible from previous radar altimetry missions, therefore allowing us to greater ascertain its role in ice sheet stability. He tweets as @StephenChuter.
Contact Email:


From Hot to Cold – Volcanology Meets the Cryosphere

From Hot to Cold – Volcanology Meets the Cryosphere

Hello again, I’m Kathi Unglert, and you’re about to read my third and final post as a student reporter at EGU 2016. Today I am writing about my experience in the cryosphere sessions from my volcanology perspective.

In preparation for the conference I kept thinking about what sort of research I would see in the cryosphere sessions. I had never really attended any specific conferences or meetings on the topic, so most of what I knew was from work that friends of mine do, which is mainly ice stream modelling. I am wondering whether similar tools (for example, analytical or numerical methods) can be used to model ice streams and lava flows?


A Tale of Ice and Fire

Thinking about the differences between ice streams/glaciers and lava, another potential overlap between cryospheric sciences and volcanology jumps out; In places like Iceland, volcanoes sometimes sit underneath large ice sheets. Similarly, tall volcanoes – particularly those in high mountain ranges – are often covered in snow and have small glaciers in their craters or on their summits. It is important to understand the interactions between the warm volcano, the hot lava, and the cold ice. For example, to forecast catastrophic floods that often occur when a subglacial volcanic eruption melts parts of the overlying ice and snow (so-called “jökulhlaups”). There is even a commission on “glaciovolcanism”, and it turns out that astrogeologists are quite interested in the topic to learn more about potential volcano-ice interactions on Mars. I had no idea how interdisciplinary this field of research was. It would definitely be useful for volcanologists to poke their heads into cryosphere meetings once in a while, and vice versa. Throw a little bit of planetary science in the mix, and you have a textbook example of interdisciplinary research!

Lava meets snow: Lava flowing into a canyon at the snow covered Eyjafjallajökull during an eruption in 2010 - one of the many examples where volcanology and cryospheric sciences meet. Photo credit: Martin Hensch (Imaggeo)

Lava meets snow: Lava flowing into a canyon at the snow covered Eyjafjallajökull during an eruption in 2010 – one of the many examples where volcanology and cryospheric sciences meet. Photo credit: Martin Hensch (Imaggeo)

The methods that we use in the different fields can also be quite similar: Resistivity measurements can be used to determine the extent of permafrost in the subsurface in Artic regions, but also to detect high temperature bodies beneath volcanic edifices that may be storing magma. I also saw a PICO presentation at the conference last week that uses cosmic rays to image the bed of a glacier in the Swiss Alps, a technique that volcanologists have tested to detect magma reservoirs and conduits on volcanoes!

In terms of the bigger picture, volcanological and cryospheric research overlap a lot in climatology. Erupting volcanoes emit gases and increase aerosols in the atmosphere, which can affect the climate locally, regionally, or even globally. The traces of such volcanic eruptions can sometimes be found in ice cores, where volcanic ash gets trapped and preserved for centuries or more. For a long time, it has been known that at least one big volcanic eruption in the 6th century – the traces of which have been found in ice cores – caused strong changes in climate for a few years, and some studies suggest that these effects may have contributed to political and societal instability in the Maya civilization in Central America at the same time. There was even a press conference about it at the EGU 2016 meeting. Other questions that we could ask might be “Does wide spread glaciation change the frequency or nature of volcanic eruptions?”, “How do volcanic eruptions affect the climate and ice stream or glacier dynamics?”, or “What can we learn about glacier dynamics by analyzing the locations of volcanic deposits in ice?”

So you know how they say “go big or go home”? Let’s put our minds together and get interdisciplinary! At the very least it’s going to be fun to think in slightly different terms for a while, and who knows where it may lead!


The EGU Student Reporter Experience

All in all, it’s been really great taking part in the Student Reporter Programme, and peeking into a totally different field. Seeing overlap between the different disciplines was a good experience, and one that was made possible by being a student reporter. Sometimes we get so stuck in our individual little niche that there is no room for anything else, despite the fact that other disciplines might have come across the same problems, struggled with the same methods, and maybe found a solution. I was lucky that the session schedule worked out ok – most days when things were a bit slow volcanology-wise I was able to go a cryosphere session. However, that way it was a very busy week, there was rarely ever any downtime, or time away from the conference. During the few quiet moments I spent time in the press office, doing some background research for my posts, editing work from the other reporters, or going to a press conference. I have to say, the press office was a new, but very cool experience. There were always interesting people around, both scientists presenting their latest results and journalists trying to find a new story. I’ve been into science writing for a while, so meeting some of the people whose work I read was a really cool bonus to the whole programme! If you enjoy writing, don’t mind a faster pace, and are curious about science at EGU outside your field I would highly recommend the Student Reporter Programme. If there is no blog in your discipline (like it was the case for me) that might even be a good thing, and you’ll get to learn some new and unexpected things!

(Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger)


profile_highres_EarthMatters_lightKathi Unglert is a PhD student in volcanology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Her work looks at volcanic tremor, a special type of earthquake that tends to happen just before or during volcanic eruptions. She uses pattern recognition algorithms to compare tremor from many volcanoes to identify systematic similarities or differences. This comparison may help to determine the mechanisms causing this type earthquake, and could contribute to improved eruption forecasting. You can find her on Twitter (@volcanokathi) or read her volcano blog.


Careers at the European Space Agency – How and Why?

Careers at the European Space Agency – How and Why?

As the pace of modern life speeds up and job competition becomes even more fierce, it is good to have a focused plan of where you would like to be in the future. The European Space Agency (ESA) offers traineeships and research positions to young scientists on a regular basis. They may be a springboard into your chosen career path, but how do you go about bagging one of these valuable opportunities? Below, two Research Fellows with ESA share their experiences of successfully arriving at their dream jobs. First, however, you might want to consider how you get the all-necessary experience in remote sensing in the first place. Fortunately, we are about to tell you just that: Apply for the ESA summer schools and training courses! Especially if you have a keen interest in all things icy, you should check out the upcoming ESA Advanced Training on Remote Sensing of the Cryosphere! More about this at the end.

Two (and a half) ways to join the European Space Agency as an early career Polar scientist

For most of scientists setting out on a career means completing a masters, getting a PhD, finding a post-doc. The attitude is that the jigsaw will just fall into place; perusing the job advertisements and hoping that somewhere out there, there will be that perfect project which you are not only extremely interested in, but moreover for which you tick all the right skills boxes. This simple approach may perhaps come to fruition but you stand a much greater chance if you actually draw up a plan early on in your career. The roadmap to success is knowing your goals and understanding your own limits.

One scientist with a plan is Anna Hogg. During her Geography degree at the University of Edinburgh, Anna discovered satellite data for monitoring the cryosphere. She realised she not only liked the subject but was rather good at solving computational challenges. Deciding to explore the technical side of remote sensing, Anna went on to do a masters in Space Studies at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. After an internship with the German Space Agency (DLR) she started her PhD at the University of Leeds which she combined with an ESA Young Graduate Trainee position during her first year at graduate school.

Route 1: The ESA Young Graduate Traineeship (YGT)

If you have just finished your masters degree or even are a PhD student who has the flexibility to take up a one-year research secondment (N.B. subject to your University’s rules), you can apply to join ESA’s Young Graduate Traineeship programme. Like all jobs, Young Graduate Traineeship are advertised, but they pop up regularly and are a great way to get an insight into the mechanisms of the space agency and, in Anna’s case, its Earth Observation programme.

Anna Maria Trofaier, also an alumna of the University of Edinburgh, sidestepped into her career. After completing her physics degree, she returned to her hometown of Vienna, where she first came across Arctic issues. She had always been interested in Space, and had worked with satellites at an ESA summer school – albeit for planetary science. At this stage however, having enrolled  in a masters degree programme in Environmental Technology, she discovered satellite remote sensing for environmental monitoring. She contacted the Institute of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing of the Vienna University of Technology, asking to join and work for them on an ESA project; a step that would shape her future for good. When she returned to the UK to do her PhD in Polar Studies at the University of Cambridge she made sure to keep the links to her Viennese colleagues and the project active. Working for ESA had always been her ambition; it was the realisation that this would have to happen through the Earth Observation programme that gave her the focus to acquire the appropriate skills for a job with ESA. And sure enough, when she was called for interview with the ESA Climate Office she felt she had arrived.

I really enjoyed my time working at ESA’s Earth Observation centre, ESRIN, just outside Rome. The Young Graduate Traineeship position I applied for had a large research component so I was able to design my own science project using data from the Earth Explorer satellite missions, like CryoSat-2. This was a great opportunity as it tied in really well with the PhD position I was awarded at the University of Leeds. There has been a lot of hard work (and fun!) along the way, but I am rewarded every day by working on an incredibly interesting topic with a network of great colleagues, (Anna Hogg).

Route 2: The ESA Internal Research Fellowship

The ESA Research Fellowship is a post-doctoral research programme that enables young scientists and engineers to undertake cutting-edge research outside of a university environment. Research Fellows usually propose their research topic within the framework of the advertised position. They are independent researchers, but they also contribute to their team’s activities. This way they get a glimpse of science management within ESA.

‘It’s been a fantastic experience! I’ve been given almost free hand to shape my own research, but it’s not just been me and my computer. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of a team that coordinates research projects across Europe (the Climate Office’s main brief is the ESA Climate Change Initiative programme). I was also encouraged to get involved in the recent ESA GlobPermafrost project – working with some familiar faces but this time I’m on the ESA side of the project. We’ve been joking about how the tables have turned. It’s such a great feeling when colleagues become friends,’ (Anna Maria Trofaier).

Route 2.5: The ESA Living Planet Fellowship

There is another way to do research with ESA which is as a Living Planet Fellow (LPF). LPF’s are a traditional post-doctoral research associate (PDRA) at their own institutions, with the slight difference that part of their funding will come from ESA. Like ESA internal research fellows, LPF’s also have to propose an interesting 2 year research project, ideally with a link to other ESA science programmes. Having contributed to the ESA Climate Change Initiative (CCI) programme’s Ice Sheets project during her PhD, Anna Hogg is now a LPF at the University of Leeds. Her involvement in ESA CCI boosted her possibilities and enabled her to be successful in obtaining one of the much sought after Living Planet Fellowships.

So how will these stories help you find that perfect job (with ESA)?

  1. Keep checking the job openings. Certainly, the element of luck is always present – jobs need to be advertised in order for you to apply.
  1. Meanwhile, be outgoing and pro-active. To arrive at that ideal job you need experience. Apply for an internship or volunteer to work on a project where you will gain those all-important skills and make new contacts. And don’t underestimate the importance of networking – knowing people in your field and finding at least one person you can call a mentor will give you the support you need to successfully develop your scientific skills and securing that ideal position.
  1. Never give up. There might be times when you are uncertain whether you are fit to do the job – we all experience that nagging self-doubt. Just don’t give in to it!
  1. But do be self-aware. Of course you should always aim high and present yourself in the best light, but there is no point claiming you are good at something when in fact you have only peripherally come in contact with the subject. Understanding your limits will allow you to highlight all the things you are really good at, and if you realise you are lacking the necessary experience for the job, make sure you find a way to gain some.

Figuring out what it is you want to achieve in your professional life is half the battle. Tailoring your skills to be more in line with those goals will put you in the best position once that research or work opportunity comes along.

So what are you waiting for? Just go for it, apply and get those additional skills that will put you ahead of the game!


ESA Advanced Training on Remote Sensing of the Cryosphere

Thanks to our fantastic teaching team made up of experts from all over the world, we have put together an exciting course program covering thematic areas such as sea-ice, mountain glaciers, ice sheets and snow; and Earth Observation techniques such as altimetry, gravimetry and interferometry. The ESA course, which is co-sponsored by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and UK Catapult centre, will take place at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at the University of Leeds in September 2016. It already looks set to be a really interesting week, so if you have any questions about applying for a place on the course get in touch. Both Anna’s are on the organising committee and are happy to help.

Time series of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Credit: ESA.

Time series of Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica composed of 29 image pairs from Sentinel-1. The top image shows the surface velocity in colours, and the bottom image is the velocity along a line starting at the grounding line and going inland. Get the data here . Credit: ESA.

(Edited by Nanna Karlsson, Sophie Berger and Emma Smith)

Image of the Week – Storing water in Antarctica to delay sea-level rise

Image of the Week – Storing water in Antarctica to delay sea-level rise


Sea level rise

Sea-level rise is one of the main impacts of the current global warming and its rate has dramatically increased in the last decades (the current rate is about 3 mm per year). Even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped today, sea level would continue to rise due to the slow Earth climate system response (IPCC, 2013, chap. 13). It is therefore a considerable threat for populations living close to the coastlines with the big cities most at risk.

Storing water in Antarctica


Modelling water storage

In order to face sea-level rise, many adaptations measures have been planned and already taken (e.g. building barriers and dikes, broadening dunes). In a recent study, Frieler et al. (2016) investigated the possible pumping of sea water from the Southern Ocean and its storage as ice in Antarctica in order to delay sea-level rise. Once on top of the ice sheet, this water would freeze to solid ice. The authors used the Parallel Ice Sheet Model (PISM) to estimate the ice sheet response’s to different ice addition scenarios starting from an equilibrium state. In the experiments, ice was continuously added for 100 years, then this addition was stopped and the model was run for 1000 years to quantify the subsequent ice loss through discharge to the ocean.

What would happen?

One of the key results is that the distance from the coast at which the water is added to the ice sheet strongly controls the ice loss 1000 years after the forcing ends. When the ice is added 200 km from the coastline, 10 to 15% of the added ice is already lost after 100 years and most of it is lost 1000 years after the end of the forcing, contributing to sea-level rise. When the distance is 800 km from the coastline, the ice-sheet contribution to sea-level rise is strongly delayed and a broad ice gain persists after 1000 years (see figure).

Practical considerations

Even if pumping water onto Antarctica could delay future sea-level rise, this solution would need to overcome technical difficulties. For example, the energy needed to pump water onto the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet would be about 7% of the current global primary energy supply! In order not to enhance further the current global warming, this energy would need to be generated from renewable sources, e.g. from wind farms installed on the Antarctic continent.

Food for thoughts…

This original study finally raises the question: do we value the uninhabited Antarctica more than we value our populated coastlines? It does not provide an answer but gives some insights. The impact of such a solution on the environment and the global economy would need to be further investigated. Even if this adaptation measure would delay sea-level rise, future generations would pay the price when the ice addition is stopped. Therefore, carbon emission mitigation measures are currently the safest way of not deteriorating our environment.


Frieler K., Mengel M., Levermann A. (2016). Delaying future sea-level rise by storing water in Antarctica, Earth System Dynamics, 7, 203-210, doi: 10.5194/esd-7-203-2016.

(Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith)

David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

When Cryospheric Research Transforms Lives

When Cryospheric Research Transforms Lives

My name is Kathi Unglert, and I’m reporting from the EGU 2016 General Assembly as part of the EGU student reporter programme. Below is my second contribution to the Cryosphere Blog – this time about how cryosphere research can have a real impact on people’s lives.

Antoni Lewkowicz – he’s famous, according to a comment I overheard in Tuesday’s PICO session on applied geophysics in cryosphere research. I’m a volcanologist, so I guess I wouldn’t know. But what I do know is that he’s a passionate scientist. His PICO presentation got my curiosity, but what really grabbed my attention is a small statement he made during the subsequent discussion of his PICO poster. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few days is that cryospheric research can have a big impact on people’s lives. Antoni’s work is part of a project on the effects of a changing environment in Northern Canada, and on adaptation to climate change. The Yukon is Canada’s northwestern most territory, right on the border to Alaska. It’s about twice the size of the UK, but with just under 40,000 people its population is lower than 0.1% of the UK’s population. You can imagine the vast wilderness in the Yukon. Yet, for the people living in this part of the world, climate change is happening right now. Permafrost is disappearing (see the blog Image of The Week from last Friday), and the thawed ground is the foundation of now wonky houses. Among others, the Kluane First Nation and their territory are threatened by the disappearance of frozen ground. They have teamed up with various universities and research institutes for Antoni’s climate change adaption and hazard mapping project to identify regions where future construction is less likely to be affected by thawing permafrost. The project reveals that on previously burnt ground, where the permafrost has already thawed, the shallow ground is less likely to move and settle any further, so it’s safer for buildings.

An old building in Dawson, Yukon, warped by thawing permafrost. Photo credit: Antoni Lewkowicz

An old building in Dawson, Yukon, warped by thawing permafrost. Photo credit: Antoni Lewkowicz

Ludovic Ravanel also studies permafrost. The researcher and mountain guide has set up a network of observers – fellow guides, hut keepers, cable car operators and more – to monitor rockfalls at Aiguille du Midi, a peak at over 3,800 m altitude in the Mont Blanc Massif in France. Even a small chunk of rock that tumbles down the steep slopes of the Massif can be fatal. Ludovic’s records show that during heat waves such as the one that happened in the summer of 2015, there are many more rockfalls than during colder years. During that year, at least one person lost their life because of crumbling parts of the mountain. On the poster in the permafrost open session on Wednesday, Ludovic and colleagues summarize the results from years of monitoring, and conclude that the rockfalls can clearly be attributed to thawing permafrost. This is bad news. The good news is that the observer network works well to alert the community of increased rockfall activity. Climbing routes can be closed, and protective measures can be introduced to keep falling rocks from getting to areas where people are, or from hitting important infrastructure.

Steep peak in the Mont Blanc Massif. Thawing permafrost can cause fatal rockfalls. Photo credit: Christian Massari (Imaggeo)

Steep peak in the Mont Blanc Massif. Thawing permafrost can cause fatal rockfalls. Photo credit: Christian Massari (Imaggeo)

The results from both studies are extremely important and have the potential to reduce costs to the community as well as transform and even save people’s lives. During Antoni’s presentation, the comment that led to this article was that the Kluane First Nation decided not to follow Antoni’s and his colleagues’ recommendation for where to build new homes. As Antoni says, people are people after all, and who wouldn’t like to build their house next to some nice trees, instead of burnt ground with some small shrubs. In contrast, Ludovic is happy with the actions taken at Aiguille du Midi following his research. However, in a comment concluding our conversation he admits that things might look different if he wasn’t local to Chamonix and if he wasn’t a mountain guide. In other words, his work has such a positive impact partly because he is very much part of the community and enjoys a level of trust that one might not be able to gain as an “outsider”.

Read more about the Yukon Hazard Mapping project in one of their reports here, or about the effect of thawing permafrost on the Mont Blanc Massif in this paper, published in The Cryosphere.

(Edited by Emma Smith)


Kathi Unglert is a PhD student in volcanology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Her work looks at volcanic tremor, a special type of earthquake that tends to happen just before or during volcanic eruptions. She uses pattern recognition algorithms to compare tremor from many volcanoes to identify systematic similarities or differences. This comparison may help to determine the mechanisms causing this type earthquake, and could contribute to improved eruption forecasting. You can find her on Twitter (@volcanokathi) or read her volcano blog.

The art of surviving a week of conferencing

The art of surviving a week of conferencing

Hello everyone! My name is Kathi Unglert and I’m a PhD student in volcanology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I will be reporting for the Cryospheric Sciences blog during the upcoming EGU General Assembly as part of the “Student Reporter Programme”. With the meeting only a few days away, I thought I’d put together a quick guide how to make the most out of a whole week of conferencing. Hopefully you’ll find it useful! So here we go:


Usually I would tell you to start your conference preparation way before the conference. Many conferences have a short course/field trip/professional development program around the actual conference dates. These things fill up fast, so look at the program and decide what you want to do early on (and sign up!). Often these events have discounts if you sign up early, so that’s another bonus. However, given that it’s only 3 days before the meeting starts I guess we’ll skip this step. So here’s what’s next:

Decide on a theme

Conferences are really bad for people like me, who sometimes try to do everything. There are so many opportunities and interesting things going that it’s usually impossible to take advantage of everything. The first step can be to choose a few sessions and sit all the way through them, instead of picking individual talks. You avoid running around trying to find rooms at the last minute, missing half of the talk you really wanted to see because the previous one in a different room ran late, and often the talks with the least appealing titles turn out to be the best. It can also help to identify a theme for the conference. For example for this EGU General Assembly my theme will be – you guessed it – science communication! I will leave my usual field (volcanology) and try out the mostly unknown, cold waters of cryospheric sciences. I am hoping to learn lots of new concepts that may apply to my own field. I will also do my best to view everything from a reporter’s perspective and relay anything I deem cool or fun or important to you! I might try to get into a few press conferences, and go to some of the “Meet the Editor” meetings. So much to do! Of course your “theme decision” doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything outside of the theme, it just helps to focus your attention and time. Need some inspiration to decide on your theme for EGU? Why not check out this early career guide, or some of the short courses!

Do some pre-conference research

There might be a person attending the conference with exactly the kind of job you could see yourself in. Or the researcher who came up with this awesome method that you’ve been using already, but that you still have some questions about. Or your friend from your undergrad who now lives on a different continent and whom you haven’t seen in 3 years. There are lots of reasons to look at the conference program ahead of time. When you see somebody in the program that you would like to meet, get in touch with them before the conference, and maybe you can arrange a meeting over a coffee, in a specific session, or over dinner (see Have fun).

Check for volunteering options

Some conferences give students the opportunity to get involved. That could for example be a contribution to the planning of the actual meeting, or some student or social events around it, which of course works well if the meeting is happening close to where you live. Another option is to volunteer your time during the conference. At EGU, my reporter role is a voluntary gig that I was more than happy to apply for. I’ve been interested in science communication for a while, so it seemed like a great opportunity to try out what it’s like being an “actual” reporter, and write about things way outside of my field. Plus, I might meet some famous reporters and bug them with lots of questions if I can – what’s not to like? The networking aspect opens up another topic:

Bring business cards

You might think that as a student why would I need a business card? Turns out it’s maybe even more important as a student than at a later stage (despite the fact that you don’t have a business…). Networking is all about being interested in other people, them being interested in you, and most importantly to leave a lasting impression. You never know when you might meet a person again, and in what situation. That doesn’t just apply to professionals in your field who are higher up the food chain, but even more so to your fellow students. They will be your future colleagues, and relationships between colleagues – even in different disciplines – can go a long way. I’ve been to many conferences before, and never thought about the business card thing. Man, do I wish I had. How many times have you been at a conference, awkwardly scribbling down somebody’s email address on a random piece of paper, only to lose it or to be unable to read your own writing after the fact? Business cards are a simple, tidy way to keep track of all the people you meet over the course of a conference, and a great way for them to remember you, too.

Wear your name badge somewhere easily visible

When I went to my first conference as a wee Master’s student, I thought it was maybe not super fashionable how everyone runs around with a badge around their neck. Turns out it’s actually super important. You want people you meet to have a visual of your name, to help you to leave a potentially lasting impression. That applies even more when you have somewhat complicated/foreign/rare name (I can’t expect non-German speakers to automatically make the connection from the spoken “Ka-tee” to the written “Kathi”, but I also refuse to anglicize my name. The name tag does help…). Also, for the slightly not so tall ones among us, it’s good to tie a knot into the lanyard or pin your badge to the side of your scarf or the collar of your shirt. Nothing more awkward than somebody having to bent down in front of your crotch to read your name…

Follow up

That one is a simple one – when you meet somebody interesting make sure to follow up with a short email on the day, just to refresh their memory. Following up, of course, requires some time in the evening set aside for that purpose, which leads to this:

Say no

Sometimes you’ll have to say no. There are so many things going on at conferences, from project meetings through evening receptions and dinners/drinks with old and new friends. Once in a while it’s good to say no. Set aside 1-2 hours in the evening to be able to wind down, process all the awesome experiences, and follow up on anything that the day brought (see Follow up).

Say yes

 Sometimes you’ll have to say yes. There will always be surprises, opportunities you didn’t expect. Show your face at the reception you’ve been invited to, even if it’s only for an hour or so. Go to sessions that you wouldn’t usually go to because it’s completely out of your field. I went to a lunchtime presentation about Spacecraft Landing Site Identification on Mars at a conference a few years ago, and learned that they use some of the same methodology that I use, despite a complete lack of overlap of my research with theirs. How cool is that? For this EGU, I highly recommend socializing with some fellow early career cryosphere people at our “Icy Outing” (more info here)!

Last but not least, the most important thing:

Have fun!

Yes, the conference is the reason why your supervisor paid for your flight, your hotel, and your food. But that doesn’t mean that you have to exhaust yourself to the point of collapse by day 3, when the conference lasts for another 2 days. Instead, pick a morning or afternoon with somewhat less relevant sessions and explore Vienna. Go to a museum. Take in all the history. Walk in Empress Sisi’s footsteps. Or do some shopping for the upcoming summer. Sit down in one of the many amazing coffee shops and enjoy your obligatory “Wiener Melange”. Use some time to catch up with old friends at a “Heuriger” or grab some food. If you don’t know what any of these words mean, look them up right now! Another great thing to do is spending some time getting to know new people. At a conference a few years ago, I went to a tweet-up, for example. Someone had booked a table at a pub close to the convention center, and invited fellow science-y social media people to meet up, where people only knew each other from Twitter or their respective blogs.

Doing all these things is a great way to wind down a bit (see Say no), to be refreshed after a little break and to take in more science in the following sessions. Conferences are so much more fun if you put a little bit of effort into spending time away from the meeting itself! I can’t wait to learn about more exciting science, meet fascinating people, and catch up with old and new friends during EGU!­

(Modified from a post originally published on Oct 26, 2014 on

Edited by Sophie Berger, Emma Smith and Nanna Karlsson

Kathi Unglert is a PhD student in volcanology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Her work looks at volcanic tremor, a special type of earthquake that tends to happen just before or during volcanic eruptions. She uses pattern recognition algorithms to compare tremor from many volcanoes to identify systematic similarities or differences. This comparison may help to determine the mechanisms causing this type earthquake, and could contribute to improved eruption forecasting. You can find her on Twitter (@volcanokathi) or read her volcano blog.profile_highres_EarthMatters_light

Image of The Week – When Glaciers Fertilize Oceans

Image of The Week – When Glaciers Fertilize Oceans

Today’s Image of the Week shows meltwaters originating from Leverett Glacier pouring over a waterfall in southwest Greenland. We have previously reported on how meItwater is of interest to Glaciologist (e.g. here) but today we are going to delve into how and why Biologists also study these meltwaters and how the cryosphere interacts with biogeochemical cycles in our oceans.

Figure 2: Location of Leverett Glacier. The glacier drains an area of 600 km2 of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Adapated from Hawkings et al. (2014) .


Leverett Glacier of the Greenland ice sheet (Fig. 2) discharges around 2 km3 of water a year from its 600 km2 catchment area. This single meltwater river has previously reached 800 m3 sec-1 at peak flow in the summer (in 2012; for contrast the Danube average flow is roughly 2000 m3 sec-1 as it passes through Budapest). These meltwaters are sediment rich and occur not just at Leverett but at hundreds of glaciers across the Greenland ice sheet, dumping a total of more than 400 billion tons of water in the oceans each year; a number than has risen steeply in recent years due to the rapidly warming Arctic climate. Relatively little is known about how this large seasonal input of glacial water may impact ocean life.


Over the past few years fieldwork teams have visited Leverett Glacier each season to give us an insight into the importance of the Greenland ice sheet in supplying ecosystems with nutrients. To address this question they collect lots of water and sediment samples to analyse (using special instrument back in labs at The Universities of Bristol, Southampton and Leeds) and install semi-permanent sensors to see what’s happening to the river in real time (Fig 3).

These sensors record water temperature, depth, sediment concentrations and the amount of dissolved solids. This comprehensive dataset has provided a really nice picture of the system and the changes occurring at a high temporal resolution. They have also been testing cutting edge sensor technologies to measure things like nitrate and methane in the water more recently and, of course, they took some great drone footage of their work.

Figure 3: Semi-permanent sensor monitoring water temperature, depth, sediment concentrations and the amount of dissolved solids in glacial meltwaters from Leverett Glacier, Greenland (credit: Jon Hawkings).

Figure 3: Semi-permanent sensor monitoring water temperature, depth, sediment concentrations and the amount of dissolved solids in glacial meltwaters from Leverett Glacier, Greenland (credit: Jon Hawkings).

What’s Happening?

These studies have found that glaciated regions, such as Greenland, are likely to be dumping large quantities of nutrients such as phosphorus, iron and silica into the polar oceans, feeding life at the bottom of the food chain and contributing to ecosystem health. This challenges the traditional view that ice sheets are relatively unimportant in biogeochemical cycles compared to other terrestrial environments.

Glaciers are like giant bulldozers crushing rock into finely ground rock dust as they move – it is this dust that give glacial meltwaters their milky colour. Water flowing below the ice, dissolves the minerals in the freshly crushed rock and transports them out into the oceans. These minerals provide nutrients that act as a fertilizer for ocean life – phytoplankton, the microscopic plants of the ocean, need rock derived nutrients to grow. These little guys are really important for the health of our planet. They form the base of the ocean food chain, and photosynthesise thus potentially capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. As glaciated regions like Greenland dump more meltwater into the oceans it is possible more nutrients could also be delivered, although more research needs to be conducted to ascertain if this is the case.

Want to find out more?

  • Hawkings et al. (2014) Ice sheets as a significant source of highly reactive nanoparticulate iron to the oceans, Nature Communications, 5.
  • Lawson et al. (2014) Greenland Ice Sheet exports labile organic carbon to the Arctic oceans, Biogeosciences, 11(14): 4015-4028.
  • Hawkings et al. (2015) The effect of warming climate on nutrient and solute export from the Greenland Ice Sheet, Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 1: 94-104
  • Hawkings et al. (2016) The Greenland Ice Sheet as a hotspot of phosphorus weathering and export in the Arctic, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 30: 191-210

Edited by Emma Smith

About Jon Hawkings:

Jon Hawkings is a post-doctoral research associate at the School of Geographical Sciences, in the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the biogeochemistry of the coldest areas of our planet. Specifically he is looking at the impact that melting ice sheets may be having on downstream and marine ecosystems. He enjoys working in some of the most inhospitable and challenging environments – pretty much all of his data stems from samples collected in the field. He tweets as @jonnyhawkings.

Sunshine, ice cores, buckets and ALE: Antarctic Fieldwork

Sunshine, ice cores, buckets and ALE: Antarctic Fieldwork

My Antarctic adventure started from Punta Arenas at the bottom of Chile, opposite Tierra del Fuego, on New Years Eve 2014 after a long journey from Heathrow via São Paulo and Santiago.

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is even quieter than usual on New Year's Day. (Credit: M. Millman)

Punta Arenas is even quieter than usual on New Year’s Day. (Credit: M. Millman)

Punta Arenas is where Shackleton organised the rescue of his men from Elephant Island after his voyage to South Georgia in the James Caird. It is also where I met my PhD supervisors Chris Fogwill and Chris Turney for the first time, along with ancient-DNA expert Alan Cooper. Punta is the base for Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), who are part funding my PhD and supporting me and my supervisors in the field.

Off to Antarctica…

Arriving at Union Glacier on the Ilyushin. (Credit: H. Millman)

Arriving at Union Glacier on the Ilyushin. (Credit: H. Millman)

After a couple of days in Punta Arenas, when the weather was right, we boarded an Ilyushin and flew the 4.5 hours to ALE’s base at Union Glacier in the Ellsworth Mountains. The Ilyushin is a big, rough-and-ready Russian transport plane equipped with an emergency rope instead of inflatable slides. We sat in the front half of the cabin and the back was packed with fuel and supplies for the base.

Union Glacier is a hub for an assortment of mountaineers, explorers, tourists and scientists. By Antarctic standards the base is very luxurious, with toilet blocks and even showers. Our bags were taken from the Ilyushin and were waiting for us outside our clamshell tent: “Scott”. All the tents are named after polar explorers and they have proper camp beds and solid floors inside. With regular Ilyushin flights, there is plenty of fresh food and the chefs cook fabulous breakfasts, lunches and suppers. The mix of people coming and going means that there are plenty of interesting stories to hear at mealtimes.

Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

There was an American military man who had parachuted out of an Ilyushin to the North Pole, a cancer survivor who was trekking to the pole to raise millions of pounds for Cancer Research and lots of people who had climbed six of the seven summits and were in Antarctica to climb Mt Vinson, the last of the seven.

The fieldwork

Map showing the Patriot Hills and Union Glacier. It took about 20 minutes for the Twin Otter to reach the Patriot Hills from Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

Map showing the Patriot Hills and Union Glacier. It took about 20 minutes for the Twin Otter to reach the Patriot Hills from Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

Good weather meant that we couldn’t enjoy Union Glacier for long and soon the Twin Otter was loaded with all our equipment and the four of us were flown out to our field site: the Patriot Hills in the Horseshoe Valley.

The deep blue colour of the ice is visible looking down the core hole. (Credit: H. Millman)

The deep blue colour of the ice is visible looking down the core hole. (Credit: H. Millman)

The Horseshoe Valley is at the end of the Heritage Range, close to the grounding line in the Weddell Sea. Katabatic winds blowing down the side of the Patriot Hills have caused a blue ice area to form. The chance to sample the old ice, which comes to the surface in these areas, is what brought us to Antarctica. Over the next few weeks we drilled a snow/firn core, and ice cores in the blue ice area. Surface samples were collected by Professor Chris Turney, crawling 1.6 km on his knees as though trying to appease the God of the Glacier, with a cordless drill from a DIY store.

Once we get back to the lab, the samples will be analysed for trace gases, isotopes, tephra and ancient DNA. From this data we are hoping to extract a climate record reaching back to the Last Interglacial (~135 – 116 ka). I will then use this record, along with other proxy records and GCM outputs, to drive the PISM-PIK ice sheet model. This will help to answer the main question of my PhD, which is: What was the Antarctic contribution to sea level rise during the Last Interglacial? Global average temperatures during the Last Interglacial were 1-2°C warmer than pre-industrial times. As we move into a similar climate today, the past can be used as a process analogue for what might happen in the coming decades.

Drilling using a Kovacs corer. Here I'm wearing 3 coats: a light down jacket, a soft windproof shell, and my big down jacket on the top. I'm also wearing down trousers over my salopettes. It's quite windy on the blue ice, so it can feel very cold. (Credit: H. Millman)

Drilling using a Kovacs corer. Here I’m wearing 3 coats: a light down jacket, a soft windproof shell, and my big down jacket on the top. I’m also wearing down trousers over my salopettes. It’s quite windy on the blue ice, so it can feel very cold. (Credit: H. Millman)

A digression on “everyday” life in Antarctica…

Our small camp in the Horseshoe Valley. (Credit: H. Millman)

Our small camp in the Horseshoe Valley. (Credit: H. Millman)

We set up our camp a little way away from the blue ice to avoid the worst of the katabatic winds. Camp consisted of a big mess tent and 3 sleeping tents. Fogwill and me had our own tents, but Turney and Cooper had to share. Turney and Cooper were struck down with colds and we took extra care to disinfect or quarantine anything the infected had touched because having a cold in Antarctica is a thoroughly miserable experience. Fortunately, we had lots of hot, hearty meals because ALE had sent us off with excellent frozen meals cooked by their chefs. We had curries, lasagna, stews, bread rolls and cake, and we only had to eat de-hy for lunch. The only food I missed was raw carrots.

Women - Pee here! (Credit: H. Millman)

Women – Pee here! (Credit: H. Millman)

For obvious reasons, snow for drinking water was collected up-glacier of the camp, and the latrine was located down-glacier. We took it in turns to collect and melt snow for drinking water. Our toilet tent had about 3 or 4 different incarnations as storms buried our previous efforts. By the end, we found the best design was dug down about 1 m, with snow blocks and fuel barrels around it supporting a wooden board and a sheet of tarpaulin. This stopped snow getting in during a storm, but the tarpaulin could also be wrapped around your neck so that one’s body could appreciate the warmth rising up from the latrine, while keeping one’s nose out in the fresh air. All waste is collected in containers so that it can be flown out to Chile on the next Ilyushin- all human waste has to be removed from Antarctica. Since the men have the advantage of being able to wee straight into the pee barrel, ALE kindly supplied me with my very own wee bucket, which I was extremely grateful for, particularly after an unpleasant incident with a SheWee at 3am, during a storm.

The good weather meant that we were able to work most days. We had a couple of stormy days which allowed us to rest, read, listen to music, tidy down the camp, and recharge our batteries (literally). Electrical things aren’t at their happiest in the Antarctic cold. My iPod wiped itself in the last week and we had to hug our laptops inside our jackets to keep them warm enough to hold some charge.

…back to reality

Once we’d collected all of our samples, it was time to leave the Patriot Hills and return to Union Glacier. We started packing things away while we were waiting for the Iridium call from the base, not knowing whether the Twin Otter would arrive that afternoon or tomorrow or the day after, or the day after that. We got the call and the Twin Otter was already on its way. A mad rush followed as we had to quickly but carefully dig out all of our tents from weeks’ worth of icy snow and pack them away. The plane landed less than 30 minutes later with the ALE guides who were going to take our skidoos back. With their help, we soon had everything loaded onto the plane, with just enough room for the four of us to squeeze in like sardines.

Quickly packing up our camp because the Twin Otter has just arrived to take us back to Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

Quickly packing up our camp because the Twin Otter has just arrived to take us back to Union Glacier base. (Credit: H. Millman)

Returning to the civilisation of Union Glacier was very exciting, especially seeing other people for the first time. I’m usually quite a shy and quiet person, but all reserve vanished in my first hours back on the base as I enthusiastically bounded up to strangers and asked to hear their life stories. The first wash was also fantastic. My hair had been a solid greasy mass of nastiness for weeks and having it back to its fluffy state was a joy. While we waited for a weather window so that the Ilyushin could come and collect us, we sub-sampled our snow/firm core, mended our tents and organised which equipment would be staying in Antarctica and what we’d be taking back. While we were doing this, ALE were starting to pack away Union Glacier base for the winter.

We flew back to Punta on the penultimate Ilyushin of the season, so most of the other passengers were the staff. Everyone was sad to leave, but looking forward to seeing family and friends at home after months away. On returning from Antarctica, even the quiet town of Punta was an assault on the senses. The only smells in Antarctica are cooking, skidoo fumes and the latrine, so when we arrived back the smell of soil and vegetation seemed really strong. It took a few days to readjust to cars, dark nights, proper beds, baths, flushing toilets, running water, central heating, mobile signal, internet, televisions and unlimited electricity. Leaving civilisation was easier than returning to it.

Ice cores waiting for check-in at Punta Arenas airport. We wouldn't see them again until we landed in Sydney. (Credit: H. Millman)

Ice cores waiting for check-in at Punta Arenas airport. We wouldn’t see them again until we landed in Sydney. (Credit: H. Millman)

Our ice cores were stored in a refrigerated lorry back until our flight to Sydney via Santiago and Auckland. Although the cores were in special insulated boxes, the long flight with connections to the heat of a Sydney summer was very stressful. The previous season a box had been left behind at Auckland airport, resulting in a very expensive puddle. This year we were lucky and all boxes arrived at the other end and the unscathed cores were transferred to the freezers at UNSW. Now the hard work begins!

Chris Turney at the end of the 1.6 km transect. (Credit: H. Millman)

Chris Turney at the end of the 1.6 km transect. (Credit: H. Millman)

More information:

Project website:

Short videos from the field can be viewed on Chris Turney’s Vine page:

Edited by Sophie Berger and Nanna Karlsson

About Helen Millman: 
After completing a BSc in Geography at Swansea University and a Glaciology MSc at Aberystwyth University, Helen moved from her native Devon in south-west England to Australia to start her PhD at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Her research focuses on modelling Antarctic ice sheet dynamics during the Last Interglacial using data from ice cores, as well as outputs from the CSIRO Mk3L GCM to drive the Potsdam Parallel Ice Sheet Model (PISM-PIK). She is supervised by Chris Fogwill and Chris Turney at UNSW, Steven Phipps at the University of Tasmania and Nick Golledge at Victoria University in Wellington. You can follow Helen on Twitter @helenmillman (

Filling the Gap between Science and Politics

Have you ever wondered how results from scientific studies make their way into policy and influence government decisions? Read about the experiences of Sammie Buzzard, University of Reading, who spent her summer working for a government body in Westminster, London, UK.

This summer I had the opportunity to take some time away from my usual Ph.D. work and spend 3 months working for the Government Office for Science in London, or ‘GO Science’ as it is known. My placement was made possible by a scheme set up by the UK research councils that allows PhD researchers to spend some time in a policy organisation. Through this, researchers can gain an insight into how science fits into policy and pick up new skills in areas such as communication and managing multiple tasks. In return, the policy organisations get some insight into how academics think and some of the cutting edge science that is currently going on.

View from my window: Westminster Abbey. Credit: S. Buzzard.

View from my window: Westminster Abbey. Credit: S. Buzzard.

What is the Government Office for Science?

Based in Westminster in the heart of London’s political centre, GO Science exists to ensure that the UK Government’s policies and decisions are informed by the best scientific evidence. It is headed up by Sir Mark Walport, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, whose role is to advise the Prime Minister and Cabinet. GO Science works to ensure and improve the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice in government. They also provide scientific advice in the case of emergencies, through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). This includes international emergencies, such as advising the government on their response to the ebola crisis for example.

Becoming a specialist whether you want to or not…

One thing that really surprised me about GO Science was the number of people with a scientific background who work there. There were many people with PhDs and several who had done post-doctoral positions before joining the GO Science. This combination of scientific thinkers and those who had come from many different backgrounds, including career civil servants, means that there are a great range of skills available. If you find that you are not so good at something or are nervous about writing a briefing, there will always be someone who will be willing to go through it with you. It also means that with the number of contacts that the office have, both in academia and industry, expert advice can be found on virtually any area.

It also means though that if you have a scientific specialism then you have to be prepared to be asked all about it. The Chief Scientific Adviser had recently been in Svalbard and this led to me being asked a whole range of questions from whether or not he has to have an armed guard when in the Arctic to the state of the sea ice. The fact I do mainly care (at least for now) about the South Pole did not matter!

Sammie Buzzard in her more usual surroundings as a sea ice scientist. Credit: S. Buzzard.

Sammie Buzzard in her more usual surroundings as a glaciologist. Credit: S. Buzzard.

Fortunately, I was also given the opportunity to present my own work on the surface melt lakes on the Larsen C Ice Shelf to my colleagues. For me, this was a hugely valuable opportunity to communicate my research to a mixed audience and get some unexpected questions from the fresh viewpoints that those from outside of glaciology can provide.

… a specialist in many subjects!

One of the main differences I found from my normal day job as a PhD researcher was the variety of topics and responsibilities. My work covered subjects as diverse as finance, biological materials and technologies of the future. I had the chance to experience several different areas of work, from writing briefing notes for the chief scientist, to helping check facts for a presentation on energy that he was giving to the public. It was very different to PhD life in that I would often have several pieces of work ongoing in completely different areas and often for different people, so it involved a lot more juggling of tasks than my average day buried in Matlab code.

Although it was a challenge to have to learn so much about subjects I knew very little about very quickly but one which I enjoyed and a useful skill that I will take away with me. I particularly enjoyed the chance to work for the Council for Science and Technology, a group of hugely influential people who provide high level advice to the Prime Minister. The group consists of university vice chancellors, business leaders and the heads of learned societies and seeing the ways in which they work and make decisions was fascinating.

An additional thing that I found very different to academia was the level of accountability for my work. If my PhD work goes wrong then ultimately it is my responsibility but at GO Science often more than one person would check a piece I wrote before it was passed on or sent out. This did make me feel much more confident in my work knowing I was not going to put anything completely ridiculous in front of chief scientific adviser, but I did begin to miss being able to choose and have responsibility for the direction of my own work in the way that I have with my PhD.

What is next?

I would highly recommend opportunities like this for other PhD students, or scientists at any stage in their career. Knowing where the work that we do ultimately is going and what policy makers care about is incredibly useful. Researchers can also work in Parliament and non-government organisations such as the British Library and the Royal Society. The scheme has recently recruited for next year’s interns and applications normally open each summer for the next year’s intake.

Although I plan to continue in research after I finish my PhD the skills I gained from my time out will definitely be useful far beyond writing up, which I now really must get back to…

Edited by Nanna Karlsson

Sammie Buzzard is a PhD student in the department of Meteorology at the University of Reading. After completing a Master’s degree in mathematics she is now researching surface melt on the Larsen C Ice Shelf. She blogs about polar science, life as a PhD student and cake (because cake is essential for research) at Ice and Icing and can be found tweeting at @treacherousbuzz.

Riding the Storm: The Arctic Circle Traverse 2015

Riding the Storm: The Arctic Circle Traverse 2015

In the morning on the 19th of May, we – the Arctic Circle Traverse 2015 – found ourselves in a great dilemma; to stay or to go? On our check-in conversation with the KISS crew, we were informed that an east front from Kulusuk was expected to hit our location up on the ice sheet sometime in the afternoon. The relatively low winds that we were experiencing would get stronger, and the visibility would reduce even more. The past couple of days at Saddle, we had experienced nothing but strong winds and snow drift. First, it had been a warm front from the west. The next day we were hit by a cold front from southeast. The orientation of our camp did not matter anymore; everything was snowed in. Having completed all our tasks at Saddle, our second-to-last location, we were ready to traverse to Dye-2, our final stop. We had a few more tasks to complete there, before we return to Kangerlussuaq and after a total of three weeks traversing the ice sheet.

Evening hours after our arrival at Saddle on the 16th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Evening hours after our arrival at Saddle on the 16th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

The advantages of traversing that day were plenty: We would reach our final destination, while keep being ahead of schedule. Setting camp next to the airway at Dye-2 meant that even if that forecasted east front was to last for days, we would be able once it passes to complete our work, and get off of the ice sheet with the first flight out. Shane and I were also planning to drill one extra firn core about 30 kilometers northeast from Dye-2, and the sooner we reached the old radar station, the better the odds for performing the drilling. Also, Achim’s commercial flight back to Europe was booked for the 26th of May, and missing that was not an option. The disadvantages? Just one really: There was a front coming.

After weighing all the above, we decided to take advantage of this small window of opportunity, and attempt the 100 kilometer traverse. Considering the northeast heading until Dye-2, we would have the frontal activity on our backs. Perhaps we would even arrive there before the storm. We finished with our breakfast and started packing the camp for our last traverse. After about three hours of intense shoveling, disassembling and packing everything on the sleds, we were ready to go.

It was early afternoon when our thumbs hit the throttles of our ski-doos. Everybody made sure to be dressed up warmly. Our outfits had to be as airtight as possible, allowing only a few holes to breathe from. Max was leading our convoy into the fog, with visibility being about 50 meters of field overview. We decided to keep close to one another, with our speed regulated to 25 kilometers per hour. It would take us about 4.5 hours until Dye-2, including two 15-minute stops. Having the wind on our backs made the journey comfortable, enjoyable even. On our first stop for a snack, 30 kilometers in, the enthusiasm was apparent on everyone’s face. So far, so good.

Traversing from EKT (FirnCover project) to NASA-SE (GC-Net) on the 10th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Traversing from EKT (FirnCover project) to NASA-SE (GC-Net) on the 10th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Continuing the traverse, I was still riding on the back seat of the “Euro-Ski-Doo”. Achim was always the one to begin a traverse and I would take over halfway through. It was not more than five kilometers since our first stop when I felt a huge wind gust from my right side. And then another. And another. Soon enough, it was just a constant force on my side that I had to struggle against. Max was dragging two sleds with his ski-doo. I could now only see the very last one, just a few meters away.

We kept the pace through the wind, and about 35 kilometers away from our destination, we had the second break. I stopped the ski-doo and smoked a cigarette while the rest had a snack and some water. It looked as if the atmosphere got a bit clearer, giving the illusion that this might have been it. I finished the smoke, grabbed a couple of biscuits, and jumped again on the driver’s seat. Contrary to what we had hoped, the wind got even stronger. Snow storm was now hitting us and the visibility was terrible.

You enter some sort of trance when riding the storm. The reality around you becomes a vail so thick that it minimizes your perception and challenges your comfort zone, but curiously enough without suffocating you. Soon, however – provided the cold is not getting to you – the snow and wind becomes what can only be described as a “white dream”. All you have to or can do is float in it. I found myself being concentrated on small details for prolonged periods, the trembling speedometer, and the sound of the engine or the shallow beam of my headlights. These details become somehow important once there is nothing else out there. I tried to stimulate my thoughts by keeping an eye on Shane and Mike’s sled, whenever I could see it, make sure nothing falls off. It felt almost like waking up when Achim knocked my shoulder. The cold got him. We switched seats again.

Darren pushing forward: Departure from KAN_U (PROMICE network) 6th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Darren pushing forward: Departure from KAN_U (PROMICE network) 6th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

It was not the first time I had arrived at Dye-2, but it was definitely the most peculiar one. This huge construction in the middle of the ice sheet is usually visible from tens of kilometers distance. This time, we were less than two kilometers away and I could not see it. Somewhere inside the distorted from the storm atmosphere, we could see another camp, another group of researchers, possibly. We wasted no time with setting our tents as we were eager to take shelter after the long hours in the storm. The teamwork that had gotten us so far these past two weeks peaked in a remarkable way, with Max leading the efforts. After an hour or so, while finishing with our camp, two researchers from the other camp came to greet us. They were bundled up and wore masks. I recognized one from his eyes, as I had met with him in Kangerlussuaq three weeks before. They said they hoped to catch the next flight out of the ice.

Our stay at Dye-2 was again very successful. All scheduled tasks were completed within 12 hours the second day after our arrival, and we even got to retrieve and log one extra firn core. That day, the other science group departed for Kangerlussuaq. On the evening of the third day, after logging the last core, we were able to relax a bit and visit the old radar station. It felt good to be there again. Shane and Mike managed to enter the side-dome. I was just glad to get to enjoy the view from the top once again.

Setting the last tent – the latrine tent – at Dye-2 on the 20th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Setting the last tent – the latrine tent – at Dye-2 on the 20th of May. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Back in Kangerlussuaq, we were excited to find ourselves minutes away from a nice, long shower. We got a bit disappointed when Kathy Young told us that the local market was closed – being White Monday and all – and we could not buy beer. She asked us how everything went. We replied that we were really successful, completing more than our scheduled tasks, and that we were really surprised with how smooth everything went finally. We definitely had favorable weather most of the time, and we managed to take advantage of it. She laughed a bit, and said that we definitely impressed with our performance. We didn’t get it, and then she explained that the other science group from Dye-2 kept talking about our arrival in the middle of the storm and our casual camp establishment, like there’s nothing going on, while they had been in the tents due to the weather for days. We felt quite flattered by that, however we didn’t really have a choice. It didn’t feel casual either.

Two days later, we were on the move again, this time with an icelandic Twin Otter, visiting for one more week the northern locations of the FirnCover project. We established the remaining firn compaction stations, and retrieved several more firn cores. Favorable weather conditions were instrumental for the success of this year’s Arctic Circle Traverse. After all, that’s the most important factor up on the ice sheet. A skillful team, with which you can always push some more is the other. I am glad I was one sixth of it.

Arctic Circle Traverse 2015. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Arctic Circle Traverse 2015. Credit: Babis Charalampidis.

Edited by Nanna Karlsson and Sophie Berger

Babis Charalampidis (GEUS/Uppsala University) is an Uppsala University PhD student within the SVALI project, based at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and supervised by Dirk van As. He is interested in the Greenland ice sheet’s mass budget, particularly the link between energy balance and subsurface processes such as percolation and refreezing. He studies the changes of the lower accumulation area of the southwest of the ice sheet in a warming climate, based on in situ observations.

Read Babis’s story of his fieldwork last year here.


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