Until the Next Ice…

It seems like yesterday that we all came together from all over the world for this International Summer School in Glaciology. The village of McCarthy and the Wrangell Mountains Center have been gracious and amazing hosts, and many thanks go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center, in particular Regine Hock and Vladimir Alexeev, for organizing such an unforgettable learning experience. Throughout this course, which was funded and supported by the National Science Foundation, I know that all participants taught and learned from each other, and met new friends and potential future collaborators. I am honored to have been invited to join this experience along with the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science – I have met amazing people and learned so much from them, and I hope in return I have imparted knowledge and inspiration to them about how important it is to effectively communicate scientific research to the public. And I hope you have enjoyed following along with  all of us on this blog! We have now officially had our closing banquet on our last night here in McCarthy (which included quite the entertaining competition for best and funniest photo and video taken during the summer school), and then joined together for a bonfire at the campsite (“glaciology terminology jeopardy” may have been played around the fire). A fitting end to a fantastic experience.


A celebratory bonfire on our last night together in McCarthy


Our group on the glacier (photo: Andy Aschwanden)


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Mini-Conference: Student Presentations

This Glaciology Summer School is an immersive experience if there ever was one. It’s “hands-on” (activities), “feet on” (glaciers), and “brains on” (lectures and projects). Students have been challenged with projects that have been guided by glaciology instructors and designed to give students further experience and understanding of glaciology research, data, and techniques. As the end of the course approaches, we had a “mini-conference” session to allow students time to present their work and their findings.


Mini-Conference at The Porphyry

Interpreting GPS data from moving ice to work out glacier velocities and how it varies…

Using computer models to derive conditions at the base of a glacier, from glacier surface data…

Combining observations and simulations of Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier to gain a better understanding of how seasonal changes affect glacier flow speeds and more…

Gaining experience with the FEniCS Project to investigate how this tool can assist in glaciology research…

Building a computer model of the hydrology and sliding of the Kennicott glacier during summer conditions, especially considering the sliding generated by annual floods…

Building numerical schemes to describe the dynamics of Antarctic ice shelves and ice streams, and comparing the model to observations…

Aalyzing the seasonal surface mass balance of the Austfonna Ice Cap in Svalbard, Norway, using stake data…

Calculating the energy balance at the glacier surface, exploring the sensitivity of melt to meteorological variables…

Using airborne remote-sensing data to measure area and elevation changes of glaciers in Svalbard, and calculating long-term changes in the context of on-site glacier and meteorological measurements…

Analyzing time-series images of temperature and microwave data from the Antarctic Peninsula to investigate snow melt dynamics and compare to regional climate models…

Using a UAS (unmanned aircraft system, or drone) to collect new imagery of Kennicott Glacier and compare to existing data, to calculate changes over time and compare with predictions of glacier melt and motion…

It’s amazing what they accomplished in 10 days… and trust me, there are a LOT more details, so if you want to know more, just ask!


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Activities for the Public

Communicating science effectively to the public is definitely a skill. Scientific research can be complex and very specific. Part of the skill of getting the public engaged in science is taking that information and making connections – connections between ideas, and connections between the scientist and the public. During the second in my series of science communication workshops that I am leading as a part of this Glaciology Summer School, students participated in some activities that illustrated some strategies for engaging non-scientists in science. Things like… how to build a common perspective (aka get on the same page), make meaningful experiences, use thoughtful question sequencing, while also remembering that learning is personal and connected to each person’s own background and experiences. I then challenged students to conceptuallly develop “hands-on” activities related to their research that could be done in a museum or classroom – anything from a demonstration to a game-style challenge to a more structured hands-on activity.


Some of the students working on their activity concepts, outside the old McCarthy hardware store

All 27 students came up with a fantastic range of ideas – it’s just too bad they all can’t physically build their activities and come to Miami to show them off! (But hopefully it’s an idea they may build for later in their own home town or country…)


Simulate an atmosphere & then test weather conditions like rain (spray bottle), sun (light bulb), wind (a fan) and cloud cover, to see how weather and heat affect glaciers (icy surface)


Racing glaciers – model different glacier conditions using flubber (which deforms like ice as it flows) and water (to lubricate “glacier bed” surface), to “race” glaciers down a slope


Learn science and measurement techniques in person, and then go home and take your own measurements of weather conditions like snow depth, to digitally contribute data from more places not previously studied

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Projects: The Home Stretch

The environment here in Alaska is stunning, but students in this Glaciology Summer School course are not only here to enjoy the environment, they are here to better their understanding of it. Everyone is working on group projects as assigned and guided by one of the course instructors, and it will be the students’ turn to give presentations on the last day of the course. This is what evenings in McCarthy, Alaska look like these days for us. Lines of computers and tangles of cables in the Wrangell Mountains Center, aka “the old hardware store.” Can’t wait to see the results!


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Project! Glacier Heat

Glaciers are ice, and ice is cold. But heat plays an important a role in glacier dynamics. In our project for this Glaciology Summer School, we are looking at all the ways that heat flows in and out of the glacier surface, starting with how weather conditions affect glacier flow. We are developing a computer program in which we can input weather data recorded from a weather station placed on the glacier surface, that we can use to see how weather conditions correlate with the melting rate of the glacier. Programs like this that can accurately relate weather conditions to glacier conditions will be a key tool in helping us understand – as well as predict – how a warming climate affects icy glaciers.

- Noel, Shaun, Andy, Kathrin

mini-Noel project_Nordic_station

A weather station similar to that which took the data used in this project. The station in this photo, involved in one of the students’ research, is based on Nordic Glacier in British Columbia, Canada.

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Post from a Scientist: An Unusual Vacation


Do you have a favorite place to go on vacation? Well, I do, and it’s a bit unconventional. I have spent almost a half a year of my life living in Antarctica! I lived on the Whillans Ice Stream, working hard researching the ice sheet there.

First, let me tell you about Antarctica. It’s a huge continent covered in thousands of feet of ice that accumulated as snow over many thousands of years. Did you know that ice flows (despite how solid it looks floating in your glass of iced tea)? This means that the huge pile of ice sitting on top of Antarctica is slowly flowing under its own weight towards the ocean, where it will break off into icebergs or melt into the ocean. How thick the ice sheet is depends on the balance between how much snow accumulates, and how much ice breaks off or melts into the ocean. If more ice breaks off or melts into the ocean than accumulates as snow, the ice sheet shrinks and sea level rises. If more snow accumulates, then the ice sheet grows, and sea level drops. So if you live near the beach (my other favorite place to go on vacation) and want to know how much sea level will rise in the next 50 years, you need to understand how the ice flows downhill towards the ocean. That’s what I’m studying. 

What is an ice stream? An ice stream is essentially a glacier, but instead of flowing between rocky mountains like a glacier in the Alps, it is held on either side by more ice. The ice on either side barely creeps along, moving very slowly, while the ice in the middle flows really fast (1000 feet or more per year). In between the stationary ice and the moving ice, there are house-swallowing crevasses, or cracks in the ice (don’t go there!). Nobody is quite sure what is underneath, but it’s some mixture of mud, sand, water, and rock. Ice streams drain a huge portion of the interior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The Whillans Ice Stream is one of five ice streams on the Siple Coast of West Antarctica, across the Ross Ice Shelf from McMurdo Station. This motley bunch of ice streams has some interesting behavior.  MacAyeal, Bindschadler, and Mercer Ice Streams all behave “normally,” flowing out of the highlands of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and into the Ross Ice Shelf. The Whillans is actually slowing down, and moves in fits and starts. And the Kamb Ice Stream is stopped entirely! How do you stop a river of ice??? (I wish I knew.)

When glaciers and ice streams move, they are sometimes deforming internally (like silly putty), sometimes they slide over their muddy beds, and sometimes they scrape along over harder bedrock. Each of these different kinds of interactions causes the ice to move slow, fast, or unpredictably. The Whillans ice stream falls into the “unpredictable” category. Most of the time, the Whillans is creeping along very slowly. But then, once or twice a day, in step with the tides beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, it suddenly lurches forward, moving a foot or two over fifteen or twenty minutes. Ok, not that exciting, only two feet?? Well, no other ice stream acts like this, so call me crazy, but I find it fascinating. Is this how you stop a river of ice?

Turns out, there are lots of tiny earthquakes (very very very tiny) that occur in certain “sticky” places at the bottom of the ice whileit lurches forward. So this river of ice is slowing down and scraping along the bottom while it does so. Could this be related to what’s causing the ice stream to slow down?

Last year, as part of the WISSARD project, I put a bunch of seismometers (usually used to measure earthquakes) out on the Whillans Ice Stream to study these tiny earthquakes that occur between the ice stream and its bed. My team drilled four holes deep into the ice to put seismometers as close as possible to these little earthquakes. I also have eighteen seismometers and twelve GPS on the surface of the ice, which will allow me to find where the tiny earthquakes are occurring, how big they are, and how the ice stream moves in response. Essentially, I’m using seismometers and GPS to “listen to” and “watch” the ice as it moves over its bed, which might help me figure out what’s so special about the ice stream bed in the stickiest parts of the Whillans Ice Stream story.

Some vacation, huh?

- Grace, University of California Santa Cruz, USA

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Post from a Scientist: The Beauty of Things


Have you ever seen a photo of a glacier (or seen one in person) and thought “wow that is beautiful”? I know I have, and that’s exactly why I became a geologist. But there’s so much more to these giant rivers of ice – there a lot that we still don’t know about how Earth’s ice will respond to climate change, and also how changes in the ice itself will affect the climate.

Glaciers in both Greenland and Antarctica move ice from the ice sheets to the oceans, where icebergs break apart and float into the open water. Changes in the water temperature where the glaciers end up can also alter the speed with which these glaciers move ice from one point to another. But scientists are still uncertain exactly how changes in the ocean temperatures can affect these glaciers.

We need to know more about how these glaciers and the oceans interact. As a student in this Glaciology Summer School, I hope to better understand the physics of glaciers and how we can make better measurements, so that we can understand how things are changing and why – in particular, how these conditions affect the future of the ice sheets.

These glaciers do have a big impact on the ice sheets and the whole Earth. They are powerful forces, and that is what I find so beautiful.

- Denis, University of Texas Austin, USA

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Me and my fellow flyers

The little town of McCarthy, Alaska has a few lovely buildings, some dirt roads, and spectacular vistas. It also has an airstrip, and some friendly and knowledgeable pilots who will take you up in a plane for a tour of this magnificent place from above. This was a touristy opportunity that several of us decided to take advantage of, but it was definitely a learning experience as well, getting to see the glaciers that we have been talking about, walking on, and learning about, from above! Eleven of us started off from this cabin in McCarthy and headed off to the airstrip with Wrangell Mountain Air, ready to go up in two airplanes. I went up with four others with Austin, who took us up in a Cessna-206. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll just let these pictures speak to you. (But I’ll include a few words to you can learn about this awesome place too.)


Downtown McCarthy to catch van to airstrip


Our Cessna-206 (the only plane that can carry its own weight in passengers/cargo)


Our pilot Austin, taking us about 2500 feet above the ground


5 passengers and a pilot


A “braided river,” formed when sediment periodically gets blocked when being pushed along by a glacier and then changes direction to keep flowing


A rock glacier (I had never heard of that before, but that rock is moving like a glacier)


Multiple glaciers meeting at the bottom of the mountain


Austin took us in close, only about 500 feet from the glacier (it was like you could reach out and almost touch it)


These stripes are “ogives” or waves which form seasonally below icefalls. Dark troughs are markers of summer, while the lighter crests are markers of winter.


The dark stripes along the path of the glacier are moraines (accumulations of sediment) have gotten pushed between two glacier flows


Zooming in from above, spectacular blue melt ponds on the glacier surface


The heroes successfully returning from flight

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Post from a Scientist: Cascading Ice


Shorts on an Alaskan glacier

In Oregon, where I grew up, agriculture thrives in part because of seasonal snow storage in the Cascade Mountains, which melts into the river system in late spring and summer and provides water during the portion of the year when there’s little rain in the valley.  The Willamette Valley, which is on the western side of the Cascades, is also extremely fertile due to the sediment deposits left behind by glaciers that were present in the region thousands of years ago.  The region I am studying for my PhD research is the Karakoram and Himalayan Mountains in Asia, which, like the Cascade Mountains, store water for future use.  Hundreds of millions of people in India, China, Pakistan, and Nepal live downstream of the Karakoram and Himalayan Mountains and rely on water from the mountains for most aspects of life.

The Karakoram and Himalayan Mountains are extremely steep and contain many of the highest peaks in the world. The Karakoram and Himalaya Mountains have many more glaciers than the Cascades, which have been storing water for thousands of years.  In addition to being a natural reservoir of water, the glacial sediment mixed into the glacier melt water helps fertilize the downstream agriculture.

Climate change is affecting both the seasonal snow storage and the longer-term storage by the glaciers.  So far in my research, I’ve focused on modeling projections of future snowfall in the regions, and have found that annual snowfall in the region may decrease by 20 to 50%, depending on how much the climate changes.  These changes in snowfall are caused by increases in temperature and changes to precipitation, which will also impact glacier mass in the region.  My future work will be to model projected changes to the glaciers, then combine this with the snowfall projections and other important hydrological processes, to model climate change affects on river water availability.

Any significant changes to the water availability in this region will be potentially disruptive for the hundreds of millions of people living downstream.  By understanding these changes before they happen, we can work to minimize the drivers behind the changes and mitigate the impacts of them.  Through this understanding and preparation for the likely changes, hopefully all of us – the people living downstream of the Karakoram, Himalaya, and Cascade Mountains – can continue to have plentiful water resources and glean all the other benefits of having healthy glaciers.

- Thomas, Oregon State University, USA

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Project! Glacier By Drone


Imagine seeing something the size of your cell phone clearly from the top of a 15-story building. This is the resolution we can get of the glacier surface using a fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, aka drone). For our Glaciology Summer School project, we are investigating mass loss near the Kennicott Glacier terminus (the lowest part of the glacier). UAVs are an inexpensive but effective method for studying changes on the Earth surface. With a simple point-and-shoot camera, we are able to get images with a resolution in the ten centimeter range, from a height of 150 meters. We flew the drone over the Kennicott glacier, and are using the images to build a 3D model of the glacier in its current state. Using that, we can then compare to historical data to see how the glacier changes over time. (And it’s so much fun.)

- Denis, Alex, Jenna




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