Meet the glaciologist with one of the coolest jobs in the world

5 May 2021

Image: © Joe Tighe/JET5 LLC

Glaciologist M Jackson spoke to Jenny Darmody about the importance of glaciers and how everyone is connected to the planet’s ice, even if we can’t see it.

As I spoke to Dr M Jackson about her work in glaciology, she told me about a common response she gets from others. She said that often, when she walks into a room and tells people that she studies glaciers, someone might say, ‘You’re going to be a historian soon.’

“I dream for that moment to stop happening,” she said.

Often, the conversation around ice and the planet’s glaciers starts and ends with the fact that they are melting. But as a glaciologist, Jackson said there is so much more to working with ice than simply using them as an indicator of the worsening climate crisis.

“The misconception I want people to understand is that our future is not set. It seems so lodged in people’s mind that our future is grim and dark and set and that our ice is going to be gone if it’s not gone already,” she said.

“I want people to understand that the loss of ice that I see every day in my work is not the final chapter in our planet’s book of ice. Our ice can grow back.”

One example of growing ice came in 2013 from a team of engineers who created giant pyramids of ice, known as stuptas, in the drought-hit Indian Himalayas to combat the effects of the climate crisis.

‘Wherever you are on this planet, you are connected to ice and what happens to that ice is happening to us’

“We have all of the known science, we understand glaciers. Glaciers basically need snow, they need cold temperatures, and they need time in order to thrive,” said Jackson. “When I think about our future, I keep thinking to myself that our ice can grow back, we have the necessary knowledge and ingredients.”

However, she said that even if we waved a magic wand to completely cut emissions and get global temperatures down, glaciers are still incredibly slow. In fact, naturally forming glaciers can take more than 100 years and, in some cases, several centuries.

“They’re not going to grow back in my lifetime, they’re not going to grow back in my children’s lifetime, but they could grow back in that next generation,” she said.

“Future generations have the ability to live on a planet where people and ice are thriving and that’s the future I want to fight for.”

Jackson spoke about the frustration she feels when people don’t see the connection between themselves and the planet’s ice, particularly for people who don’t see glaciers in their lives.

This problem of psychological distance is an ongoing problem when it comes to climate science. According to Yale’s 2020 Climate Opinion Maps, an estimated 72pc of adults in the US think global warming is happening. However, only 43pc think it will harm them personally.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe spoke to me about this before, saying: “Even if we care about it, we think it matters to future generations, to plants and animals, to people in developing countries. And then most people think it matters to other people in the same country, but nobody thinks it matters to them.”

‘Any existing weather is going to be exacerbated because our glaciers are melting at such an unhealthy rate’

In a similar vein, Jackson said that when it comes to glaciers, it’s important not to privilege our visuals by only paying attention to what is right in front of us.

“I don’t see the country of China every day, but I am told it is important,” she said. “We are every day connected to ice, just because you can’t see it, you’re certainly going to feel it.”

Glaciers help control our planetary weather in various ways. For example, their white surfaces reflect the sun’s rays, keeping the climate mild. They also store a significant portion of the global water budget in what Jackson calls a glacier bank.

“The colder the planet is, the more our planetary water budget is actually locked up in a glacier bank. But when the planet is warmer, that glacier bank is smaller and more of our global water balance is in a liquid form in the oceans and in our atmosphere.”

Of course, the melting glaciers bring many people’s thoughts back to rising sea levels, but Jackson said the additional water in the atmosphere also needs to be considered because that is what leads to bigger hurricanes, bigger wind events and bigger rainstorms.

“Any existing weather wherever you are is going to be exacerbated because our glaciers are melting at such an unhealthy rate,” she said.

“If we spent more time thinking about science and learning that connectivity of our systems, we’re going to see that wherever you are on this planet, you are connected to ice and what happens to that ice is happening to us.”

New ways of communicating

Jackson also spoke about how she is bringing the story of ice into the wider public. She just released a new short film, After Ice, which shows glacier change on the south coast of Iceland, with Kieran Baxter from the University of Dundee and Þorvarður Árnason from University of Iceland.

“We took images from the 1940s and the 1980s and we reconstructed them in 3D, and then we brought modern drone images together so you can actually see, through large timescales, change. How the ice on the south coast of Iceland had gotten smaller and smaller and smaller,” she explained.

“That’s the funny thing about glaciers. People interact with them but it’s really hard to get scale. We just see these big things right in front of us. We don’t understand how that big thing has changed over time.”

Jackson has written The Secret Lives of Glaciers and While Glaciers Slept, books dealing with our changing glaciers. She is now writing a novel about glaciers and women in Oregon, which is “mainly from the lens of science communication” but she’s hoping it will appeal to a wider audience.

“I’ve written non-fiction books and a memoir, but people self-select to get to those books. So I really wanted a chance for people who wanted a good story to pick up a book and then maybe they’ll learn a little bit about ice as well.”

Glaciology through a diverse lens

As well as speaking about her work in glaciology, Jackson has also given a TED talk about the importance of viewing this area of science through a feminist lens. She spoke to me further about the issues around diversity within the sector.

“Take the idea of who gets to practise glaciology, when and where. You can look back at the history of glaciology and you can see that it was mainly well-funded, Western, white men who are those initial practitioners of glaciology.”

Even though the number of women in science and glaciology has increased, she said the masculine perception still exists. “That idea that you have to be physically able and strong is absolutely bunk in modern glaciology, but it still persists in the public imaginary,” she said.

“Add to that, why do you have to have a PhD or an academic degree to even talk about glaciers or to have a position of knowledge on ice? We have a lot of indigenous cultures that have been interacting with ice for centuries. Where are their voices in this? So, you have a huge representation problem.”

Aside from the representation issue, Jackson also spoke about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the field. A 2014 survey of field scientists, led by anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, found that 71pc of women scientists surveyed experienced sexual harassment, while 26pc experienced assault.

From her own point of view, Jackson said most of the hate mail she receives when she puts work out into the world is about her gender rather than the work itself.

“No one is saying your data’s wrong or this number is off, they’re saying terrible things about my gender, as if my vagina gets in the way of my data.”

She added that just because the number of women in STEM has increased, it doesn’t solve the structural problems that cause gender inequality. “It’s just almost in a way there are now more women to harass.”

However, she said that while the problems within STEM when it comes to gender and diversity are a much bigger challenge to solve, the science is there to help our planet’s glaciers.

“Just because I’m never going to see the results of the work I do each day, doesn’t make my work any less important. In fact, that’s a motivating factor.”

She said that for people who want to work in glaciology, the door is open, even if it doesn’t look like it.

“We need so many more people to be studying ice, we don’t even have a baseline. We need more people and more perspectives and more disciplines, and more views looking in at the ice we have now.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic