Glimpsing beneath glaciers

Meet the Antarctic explorer who turned a love of glaciers into a research career mapping subglacial lakes

Four people (3 men and one woman) standing on a glacier and wavingLeft to right: Ryan Walker (NASA), Christine Dow, Jinhoon Jung (KOPRI) and a KOPRI field guide

A glacier can be a cold and unforgiving environment with nothing but snow and ice as far as the eye can see, but it can also hold some of the keys to understanding climate change.

Dr. Christine Dow is a glaciologist by trade but an arctic explorer at heart. Her work focuses on understanding subglacial hydrology, or how the water beneath ice interacts with the bedrock below.

Dow became fascinated with glaciers as an undergrad at The University of Edinburgh. During a field trip to Iceland, she and her classmates had the opportunity to run their own glaciology projects. “We had the chance to visit a glacier and take part in the science, such as measuring water conductivity. It was showing us a hidden environment that still has so much to be discovered – I was just hooked after that”.

Following her love of glaciers, Dow completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where she examined the characteristics of subglacial lakes in Recovery Ice Stream of East Antarctica, using a 2D subglacial hydrology model. 

Today, her work transcends the water conductivity tests that hooked her. Dow’s research is helping to understand the impact of climate change on some of the biggest bodies of ice on the planet. Having traveled to small glaciers in the Rockies, and the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic, she is exploring how rising temperatures are affecting each body of ice, and the research she is contributing to is shedding light on some frightening truths. “The West Antarctic might destabilize within the next 500 years,” Dow says. “It was predicted that it might take a few thousand years, but recent studies suggest it could be much quicker than that.”

Research in glacial hydrology reveals that our understanding of the climate is not complete. Further study is needed to understand where our planet is heading and whether it’s possible to change course. Dr. Dow will be heading back to Antarctica in November to do what she does best: camping alone on an ice shelf in a tent while taking measurements. She is a scientist but she will always be an explorer first.

Dr. Dow is looking forward to bringing her field experience to her new assistant professor position in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management. She will be teaching GEOG 102 (Geog. & Planetary Environ.) and GEOG 474 (Glaciology and Glacial Geomorphology) in the Winter 2017 term.

“I am very happy to have joined the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. Even in this short time, it’s clear that the Faculty has a great collaborative and supportive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to seeing in which directions this will lead my research in the coming years.”