Exploring glaciers to understand climate change

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Glaciers can warn us about the looming dangers of climate change, but it takes a multidisciplinary scientist (with a warm jacket) to interpret the message.

Christine making Maria LaughGlaciers may have the reputation of moving slowly, but deep below them, unseen by humans, things are moving more quickly every day. Global warming is melting our glaciers, creating streams of icy water and slush below the surface. If this water spreads out, it can lubricate the ice above it and cause the glaciers to flow faster. While this melt and the resulting glacier flow tells scientists how fast our climate is changing, it’s up to a new breed of scientist to tell us how fast we need to act. 

Christine Dow, Water Institute member and Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Glacier Hydrology and Ice Dynamics, is the newest CRC in Waterloo's Faculty of Environment. She travels all over the world, or at least all over its coldest parts, to study the dynamics of glaciers and the water flowing through and underneath them. 

She represents a new kind of young, diverse, cryospheric researcher who are inheriting the duty to warn the planet about inevitable sea level rise that will impact people for thousands of years. And she’s willing to literally go to the ends of the earth to do it.

“It’s so challenging to access the bed of glaciers, that there are many aspects of the system that we still have to discover,” she says of her giant frozen subjects. “I enjoy that frontier-like aspect of the science — the opportunity to visit spectacular and rarely seen regions of the world, which is a huge privilege.”

It’s a privilege that Dow, the Faculty of Environment’s youngest CRC, has earned. Joining Environment from NASA, her appointment as a CRC is rooted in an impressive grasp of different scientific disciplines:

“Interdisciplinary research is important to cryospheric research, as we pull from areas such as physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science in addition to earth science and geography.”

As a gifted multidisciplinary scientist, Dow could have applied her talents to climate-related problems anywhere in the world, but the cryosphere has a special allure; masses of ice and snow act as ancient artifacts grudgingly surrendering clues about the past and the future of our climate. It takes more than data analysis to understand them.

Christine Dow
“The appeal of glaciology for me comes from the opportunity to discover the unknown. Trying to understand how water flows under glaciers requires a combination of physics and imagination,” says Dow. “We have so little data from the base of ice sheets that to accurately reproduce glacial hydrology systems in models, for example, requires envisioning the journey of a parcel of water through some of the least accessible regions of the world.”

The phrase, “least accessible regions of the world,” is a kind of Rorschach test. To some, visiting these regions sounds like a hassle. But for Dow, it’s an undeniable perk of being one of the brightest minds in a field growing in importance with each degree the earth warms.   

“Alarm bells for climate change have been ringing for several decades now. This is particularly clear when measuring the rapid retreat of Alpine glaciers,” she says. “An area of increasingly great concern is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has the potential to add more than three metres to sea level if it were to entirely collapse.” 

What that collapse means for the planet is difficult to grasp. Partly because the potential for devastation and disruption isn’t something most people want to consider. It’s also difficult because the scale by which Dow is talking is hard to put into context for people. However, as a new voice in the field she’ll have the opportunity to change the conversation on climate change with first-hand, on the ground stories conveying the size and scope of both her subjects and the problem she’s trying to solve.

“Being a CRC is allowing me to build a research program that addresses some of the most pressing questions in glaciology stretching from the Antarctic to the Arctic and to Canada’s shrinking glaciers in the Yukon Territory. As the CRC in glacial hydrology and ice dynamics, I will have opportunities to communicate the outcomes of this global research both in Canada and internationally.”

Christine DowThe fact that Dow is willing to spend prolonged time in inhospitable places, can be an inspiration to a new generation of scientists who don’t feel constrained by what an explorer or a scientist is supposed to be. She can also offer an example of the rewards associated with being one of the brightest minds in your field.

“Visiting the Antarctic has been one of the most special parts of my career to date,” she says. “The scale of the ice fields is so vast that it really enforces what drastic changes would happen to our planet if they were to melt or collapse. The Antarctic is both an inhospitable yet deeply beautiful part of the world and should be protected for its own sake as well as for all of our futures.”

Photos by: Brandon Abiog
Words by: Faculty of Environment