Cryospheric Sciences


Image of The Week – Ice Flows!

Image of The Week – Ice Flows!

Portraying ice sheets and shelves to the general public can be tricky. They are in remote locations, meaning the majority of people will never have seen them. They also change over timescales that are often hard to represent without showing dramatic images of more unusual events such as the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf.  However, an app launched in the summer at the SCAR (Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference in Kuala Lumpur set out to change this through a game. Developed by Anne Le Brocq from the University of Exeter, this game is aptly named – Ice Flows!

The game in a nutshell!

Ice Flows is a game that allows the player to control various variables of an ice shelf (floating portion of an ice sheet) environment, such as ocean temperature and snowfall, and see the changes that these cause. For example, increasing the amount of snowfall increases the ice thickness but increasing the ocean temperature causes thinning of the ice shelf. The aim of the game is to help penguins feed by altering the variables to create ice shelf conditions which give them access to the ocean. Although the game is based around penguins, importantly, it is changing the ice shelf environment that the player controls, this allows a player to investigate how changing environmental conditions affect the ice. Our Image of the week shows a still from the game, where the player has created ice conditions which allow the penguins to dive down and catch fish.

What is the educational message?

The polar regions are constantly changing and assigning these changes to either natural cycles or anthropogenic (human induced) climate change can be tricky. Ice shelves tend to only hit the news when large changes happen, such as the recent development of the Larsen C rift which is thought to be unrelated to the warming climate of the region but may still have catastrophic consequences for the ice shelf. Understanding that changes like these can sometimes be part of a natural process can seem conflicting with the many stories about changes caused by warming. That’s why ice flows is a great way to demonstrate the ways in which ice shelves can change and the various factors that can lead to these changes. And the bonus chance to do this with penguins is never going to be a bad thing!

The game allows players to visualise the transformation of ice sheet to ice shelf to iceberg. This is an especially important educational point given the confusing ways that various types of ice can be portrayed by the media; reports, even if factually correct, will often jump from sea ice to ice shelves and back (see this example). It is also common for reports to cloud the climate change narrative by connecting processes thought to be due to natural causes (such as the Larsen C rift) to a warming climate (such as this piece). This confusion is something I often see reflected in people’s understanding of the cryosphere. In my own outreach work I start by explicitly explaining the difference between ice shelves and sea ice (my work is based on ice shelves). Even so, I can usually guarantee that many people will ask me questions about sea ice at the end of my talk.

Xue Long the Snow Dragon Penguin [Credit: Ice Flows game ]

Despite the messages that it is trying to convey, the app doesn’t come across as pushing the educational side too much. There is plenty of information available but the game also has genuinely fun elements. For example, you can earn rewards and save these to upgrade your penguins to some extravagant characters (my favourite has to be Xue Long – the snow dragon penguin!) Although the focus may be drawn towards catching the fish for the penguins while you’re actually playing, it would be hard for anyone to play the game and walk away without gaining an understanding of the basic structure of an ice shelf and how various changing environmental factors can affect it.

Developing the game…

The game was developed by Anne Le Broq in collaboration with games developers Inhouse Visual and Questionable Quality, using funding from the Natural Environment Research Council. Of course, many scientific researchers were also involved to ensure that the game was as scientifically accurate as possible whilst still remaining fun to play.

A key challenge in developing the game was modelling the ice flow. In order to be used in the app, the ice flow model needed to represent scientific understanding as well as being reactive enough to allow the game to be playable. This required some compromise, as one of the scientists involved in the development, Steph Cornford (CPOM, University of Bristol), explains on the CPOM Blog:

On one hand, we wanted the model to reflect contemporary understanding well enough for students to learn about ice sheets, ice shelves, and Antarctica in particular. On the other, the game had to be playable, so that any calculations needed to be carried out quickly enough that the animation appeared smooth, and changing any of the parameters (for example, the accumulation rate) had to lead to a new steady state within seconds, to make the link between cause and effect clear.

— Steph Cornford

The resulting model works really well, creating a fun, challenging and educational game! See for yourself by downloading the free to play game from your app store, or online at!

Further reading

  • Find out more about the game on the University of Exeter website or visit the game’s own website here.
  • You can read in more detail about Steph’s modelling here.

Edited by Emma Smith

Sammie Buzzard has recently submitted her PhD thesis where she has developed a model of ice shelf surface melt, focusing on the Larsen C Ice Shelf. She is based at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling within the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology. She blogs about her work and PhD life in general at and tweets as @treacherousbuzz.

Ice on fire at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Ice on fire at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (RSSSE) is a free public event 4-10th July 2016 in London. This is a yearly event that is made up of 22 exhibits, selected in a competitive process, featuring cutting edge science and research undertaken right now across the UK. The scientists will be on their stands ready to share discoveries, show you amazing technologies and with hands-on interactive activities for everyone! The Royal Society has historic origins – going back to the 1660s and today it is the UK’s national science academy working to promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. If you can get yourself down to London this week then it is definitely worth a look!

The Royal Society Summer Science Festival Exhibit Hall. Photo Credit: Thorbjörg Águstsdóttir

The Royal Society Summer Science Festival Exhibit Hall. Photo Credit: Jenny Woods

What is there to see?

This year there are a number of ice-related exhibits. The “4D science” exhibit uses X-ray computer tomography to look inside ice cream and the “Explosive Earth” exhibit showcases ice-volcano interactions in Iceland using earthquakes. The Summer Science Exhibition yearly attracts around 12,000 visitors. This is a unique opportunity to meet cutting edge scientists, discover their research and try out fun and engaging activities for yourself.

Left: The Explosive Earth presented by the Cambridge University Volcano Seismology Group. Left: 4D Science: Diamond Light Source, University of Manchester and University of Liverpool - Looking inside materials through time

Left: The Explosive Earth presented by the Cambridge University Volcano Seismology Group. Right: 4D Science: Diamond Light Source, University of Manchester and University of Liverpool – Looking inside materials through time. Photo Credit: Jenny Woods

Explosive Earth!

The Explosive Earth exhibit has been put together by the Cambridge Volcano Seismology group. They explore many applications of volcano seismology, from what we can learn about movement of molten rock (magma at more than 1000°C) in the Earth’s crust and rift zone dynamics, to the very structure of the earth itself. They currently focus their research in central Iceland where they operate an extensive seismic network in and around some very active volcanoes, many of which are under Europe’s largest ice cap Vatnajökull. The seismic network detects tiny earthquakes caused by the movement of magma beneath the surface, which often occurs under volcanoes prior to eruption. By studying these seismic events, they hope to be able to predict volcanic activity better in the future. Their exhibit at RSSSE showcases current research in this explosive field of volcano seismology.


Eyjafjallajökull – 2010: an explosive eruption that disrupted air traffic

The 2010 eruption at Eyjafjallajökull (image at the top of the page) occurred beneath a glacier, which caused a highly explosive eruption. When hot magma comes into contact with ice the magma cools and contracts and the ice turns to steam and rapidly expands. This shatters the solidifying magma and produces ash. The explosivity of the interaction, and the pressure of all the rising magma underground, blows the mixture of ash, volcanic gases and steam high into the air, creating an eruptive plume. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption produced an ash plume that reached up to 10 km (35,000 feet). The fine ash was then carried 1000’s of km by the wind towards Europe where it grounded over 100,000 flights.

Installing seismometers in a variety of locations around Iceland to monitor tiny earthquakes from magma movement under the surface

Installing seismometers in a variety of locations around Iceland to monitor tiny earthquakes from magma movement under the surface. Photo Credits – Left: Rob Green, Right: Ágúst Þór Gunnlaugsson


Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun – 2014: a gentle eruption that affected air quality

In 2014 a completely different kind of eruption happened in central Iceland, also originating from a volcano under the ice. Magma flowed underground from Bárðarbunga volcano, beneath Vatnajökull ice cap, fracturing a pathway so far from the volcano that when it erupted there was no ice at the surface. Without the magma-ice interaction, the eruption was comparatively gentle and the molten rock simply fountained out of the ground, reaching heights of over 150 m. No ash was produced, only steam and sulphur-dioxide. The amount of magma erupted was much greater than in 2010 (an order of magnitude higher), but there was no impact on air travel because there was no ash plume. The Explosive Earth team are investigating the 30,000 earthquakes that led up to this spectacular six-month eruption in Iceland, to try and find out more about what happened and why. The earthquakes tracked the progress of the molten rock as it moved underground, away from Bárðarbunga volcano to the eventual eruption site at Holuhraun, 46 km away.

The fountains of lava accompanied by clouds of steam and sulphur-dioxide. The magma flowed 46 km underground from Bárðarbunga volcano to the eventual eruption site at Holuhraun, where it erupted continuously for 6 months. Photo Credit: Tobias Löfstrand

The fountains of lava accompanied by clouds of steam and sulphur-dioxide. The magma flowed 46 km underground from Bárðarbunga volcano to the eventual eruption site at Holuhraun, where it erupted continuously for 6 months. Photo Credit: Tobias Löfstrand

Cambridge Volcano seismology group in front of the fissure eruption on the first day of the 2014-15 Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun eruption.

Cambridge Volcano seismology group in front of the fissure eruption on the first day of the 2014-15 Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun eruption. Photo Credit: Thorbjörg Águstsdóttir

What can monitoring these earthquakes tell us?

Monitoring volcanic regions in Iceland is important because eruptions are frequent and have wide-range impacts:

  • Explosive eruptions under ice can cause rapid and destructive flooding of inhabited areas downstream, and can propel huge ash clouds into the atmosphere, disrupting air travel around the globe.

  • Gentle eruptions, producing large lava flows, can release millions of tones of harmful gases, affecting the local population and in some cases the global climate.

Studying earthquakes helps to understand the physical processes that occur in volcanic systems, such as how molten rock intrudes through the Earth’s crust and how the centre of a volcano collapses. The more we understand about the behaviour of these systems, the better we can forecast eruptions.

“Explosive Earth” exhibits earthquakes and eruptions in Iceland in a fun interactive way. You can find out more details of the science behind why and how these eruptions happen and how it is possible to monitor volcanic activity in Iceland using earthquakes. As a taster of what you can see, try entering your postcode into their lava flow game to see how big the Holuhraun lava flow is and how far it travelled underground prior to erupting. Other interactive activities include making your own earthquake and testing your reaction times with an earthquake location game.


(Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger)

tobba_headshot.jpgThorbjörg Águstsdóttir (Tobba) is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge studying volcano seismology. Her research focuses on the seismicity accompanying the 2014 Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun intrusion and the co- and post-eruptive activity. She tweets as @fencingtobba, for more information about her work see her website.

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…


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.

From the Poles to Paris — An interview with Erlend Moster Knudsen

From the Poles to Paris — An interview with Erlend Moster Knudsen

What do polar bears and emperor penguins have to do with the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame? Pole to Paris has the answer.


Erlend, the Northern runner, in the Norwegian mountains. (credit : Varegg Fleridrett.)

Erlend, the Northern runner, in the Norwegian mountains. (credit : Varegg Fleridrett.)

Erlend Moster Knudsen earned his PhD in climate dynamics after four years of research from the University of Bergen, Colorado State University and University of Alaska Fairbanks on Arctic sea ice and its interaction with atmospheric circulation. He took some time to answer a few questions about the project he started with Daniel Price, a fellow polar climate researcher and PhD in Antarctic sea ice . The project is called Pole to Paris.





What is Pole to Paris?

Pole to Paris is a climate awareness campaign and outreach project ahead of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris this year. This December in Paris, the United Nations will meet to negotiate a “climate deal” to pave the way toward a global carbon free future by reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If we plan to curb our emissions, it is of paramount importance that a consensus is reached under COP21.

The aim of Pole to Paris is to raise the understanding on climate changes in general and the importance of COP21 in particular. The campaign follows two journeys from the poles to Paris – by bike and running shoes.


Map roughly showing the route of the 17,000 km-long Southern Cycle and 3000 km-long Northern Run

Map roughly showing the route of the 17,000 km-long Southern Cycle and 3000 km-long Northern Run (credit: Pole To Paris)


Could you tell us a bit more about these biking and running journeys?

The 17,000 km Southern Cycle has gotten off to a good start. Carrying with him a flag from the Antarctic continent, Daniel has already biked across Australia and Indonesia, and is now biking through Malaysia. His next stops will be Thailand, Bangladesh and China, where he will spend weeks documenting stories on sea level rise, glacial melt and pollution.

Later this year, I will start the 3000 km-long Northern Run from Tromsø, running with a flag from the North Pole. After 2000 km through Norway, I will team up with other environmental scientists from Edinburgh to bring the flag to Paris. There we will meet up with the cyclists from the south.

What drives you, a PhD in sea ice, to put on your running shoes and run across Europe?

As we were going toward the end of our PhDs, Daniel (Pole to Paris director) and I (Pole to Paris deputy director) realized more and more that people generally are unaware of the clear results of climate science. There is a large gap in the understanding between academia and the general public. We want to bridge this gap by doing something as crazy as biking and running across half of the globe to raise awareness of climate change, document climate change and bring personal stories of climate change from the corners of the world to COP21.

Running and biking, we interact with people who we meet and who join us along the way, we give school presentations and take part in open climate events. As biking and running climate scientists, we are closer to the group of people science should serve: the general public.

Why are you starting from the Poles?

 Pole to Paris flag at the North Pole

Pole to Paris friend Seamus Donaghue at the North Pole. On an expedition there, Seamus and his team mate Eric Philips brought the Pole to Paris flag to the northernmost point for his scientific colleagues of Pole to Paris. Erlend will bring this flag on from Tromsø. (credit: Eric Philips)


The starting points of the two routes are chosen deliberately. Being arguably the regions with the fastest signs of climate change, the Antarctic and the Arctic are changing in front of our eyes. Not that many of us go to the two poles. But the ones who do repeatedly are overwhelmed with unprecedented facts.

My friend Will Steger is one of them. Having been the first to reach the North Pole by dogsled unsupported and the first to cross the whole Antarctic continent by dogsled with an international team of five in the late 80’s and early 90’s, his team of explorers were the first also to cross the Arctic Ocean by dogsled in 1995. More than that, they are most likely the last ones to have done so, due to rapid sea-ice melt.

The melting of the Arctic sea ice is indeed alarming. The Arctic Ocean is loosing its lid – fast. In addition to the enhanced heat fluxes into the cooler atmosphere in most of the year, the ice-albedo, lapse-rate and Planck feedbacks each accelerate the warming in positive feedback mechanisms. Additionally, a melting Arctic also causes changes in the oceanic and atmospheric circulations, with alterations in poleward transports of heat and moisture.

The interaction between atmospheric circulation and the melting Greenland ice sheet and Arctic sea ice was the topic of my PhD. Associated with these melts, we found high-latitude storminess to decrease in summer (Knudsen et al. 2015). Instead, cyclones generally tracked more zonally, giving wetter, cooler and stormier summers in north-western Europe and around the Sea of Okhotsk. Coincidentally, unusually warm conditions have prevailed in a wide region from the Mediterranean to East Asia during summer months of anomalous high Arctic sea ice melt. These are areas of already high temperatures climatologically.

A stronger link between Arctic sea ice melt and mid-latitude extreme weather was first put forward by Francis and Vavrus (2012). They linked the Arctic amplification (the enhanced warming in the Arctic compared to the average warming across the globe) to a wavier the jet stream, where more stationary weather systems increase the risk of extreme weather conditions in midlatitudes. Since then, the theory has been and is still heavily discussed within the scientific community. Nevertheless, if their hypothesis should hold, a large fraction of the global population would need to reconsider the Arctic climate changes as too distant to reflect upon.

Of course, an even more alarming scenario is if the entire Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely. This would result in a sea level rise of over 60m. This will probably not happen within our lifetime, but enough ice has already melted to cause severe troubles for many Pacific Islands.

(credit: Pole to Paris)

How do you plan to do climate outreach along the two journeys?

Along the routes, we document climate changes and personal stories of environmental changes seen throughout their lifetime, but also the positive means by which action toward a more sustainable future is made. We give school and community presentations, arrange open climate events and unite people across a wide range of backgrounds. We speak up about climate change, knowing that we must work hard to stay objective in a politicized world.

How is your experience with Pole to Paris so far?

Oria Jamar de Bolsée (EU and Indonesia coordinator in Pole to Paris), Beate Trankmann (head of UNDP Indonesia), Daniel Price (director of Pole to Paris), Toto Sugito (leader of Bike to Work Indonesia) and Erlend Moster Knudsen (deputy director of Pole to Paris) from car-free Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia

From left to right: Oria Jamar de Bolsée (EU and Indonesia coordinator in Pole to Paris), Beate Trankmann (head of UNDP Indonesia), Daniel Price (director of Pole to Paris), Toto Sugito (leader of Bike to Work Indonesia) and Erlend Moster Knudsen (deputy director of Pole to Paris) from car-free Sunday in Jakarta, Indonesia (credit: UNDP Indonesia)

Pole to Paris has gotten off to a really good start. We got a lot of attention on Indonesia, a key country for bridging the demands of developing and developed countries under COP21 negotiations. There, Daniel (the cyclist), Oria Jamar de Bolsée (EU and Indonesia coordinator) and I (the main runner) worked to raise the awareness of climate changes. This brought us from rural places to megacities, from preschools to high schools and talking with people from farmers to ministers. It has been very engaging.

While climate change is something distant for many of my fellow Norwegians, many Indonesians depend on the land and its resources. While human activities, such as deforestation, overfishing or lack of waste management, are the main source for this environmental degradation, climate change is also appearing in front of their eyes.

So perhaps it is not that far from the Arctic and the Antarctic to Indonesia after all? The Polar Regions are indeed shaping the coast of the archipelago, through sea level rise and erosion.

What do you expect from Paris and COP21?

The French capital is the arena for the most important climate summit this far – COP21. Pole to Paris is using bike, running shoes and our background in environmental sciences to raise awareness about the importance of this meeting.

While there, we will work with partners to arrange open events and share stories from all the corners of the world we have biked or run through. The stories of the farmers and the fishermen, the stories of the Antarctic and Arctic – all are important to remember when our global leaders will make their decision this December.

To conclude is there something you would like to say to your fellow environmental scientists?

In my mind, funded by society, scientists have a responsibility to speak up about our research. Research on climate change is too vital and pressing to keep within academia.

As environmental scientists, we have the knowledge and the tools. One of the latter is our voice. We want to hear yours too.


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