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A Glaciologist

Since his early work on a Norwegian glacier in the 1980s, Dr Ian Willis has worked in Canada, Switzerland, Alaska, New Zealand, Iceland and Svalbard and will be visiting Greenland later this summer, trying to understand how our planet’s glaciers and ice sheets work, how they are changing, and how they might change in the future. When Ian is not hiking up glaciers, he works in the Scott Polar Research Institute, researching and teaching undergraduates and Masters students. What does your research involve? I investigate the mass balance of the world’s land ice. Like many glaciologists, I am particularly interested in whether ice masses are growing or shrinking and what controls this. Using a combination of computer modelling, airborne remote sensing and ground based instrument data, we are able to map the changing extent of glaciers and ice sheets and how they might change over the next few decades in response to climate change. I am also interested in the hydrology of ice masses and their dynamics; in other words, how water moves through them and the effects this has on their movement. 24

How much time do you spend between research and teaching? About half and half. Of course, there is quite a lot of administration associated with both teaching and research. What about fieldwork? I typically spend a few weeks or months each year doing fieldwork for my research. For example, this year I have trips planned to Greenland and Svalbard in Arctic Norway. Teaching also involves fieldwork. In recent years I have been lucky enough to take undergraduate students to the Arolla Glacier in Switzerland. It is a great opportunity for the students to learn about the techniques glaciologists use to measure the mass balance, hydrology and dynamics of glaciers and to see first-hand the changing landscape of the Alps as the climate shifts and the glaciers, rivers and vegetation respond. What does a field trip for you entail and what special training do you need before you explore these inhospitable places? Field trips are all quite different, depending on where I’m working. Next month I’ll be working on a glacier called Midre Lovénbreen in Svalbard. The glacier is close to a research base at an old mining settlement called Ny Ålesund, which at around 79°N and is one of the world’s northernmost settlements. The set up there is relatively comfortable because the infrastructure has been developed for many years now to cater for the large scientific community who work there. It is not just glaciologists that find Ny Ålesund a perfect base for their research, but also oceanographers, biologists and atmospheric and space scientists. Usually we fly by jet to Longyearbyen via Oslo and from there, via a small twin propeller aeroplane, we fly to Ny

Ålesund. Here, there is nothing but a lot of ice and a few polar bears between you and the North Pole. Expeditions from here are via skidoo pulling a sled carrying our scientific instruments. The only training we really need is to be able to drive a skidoo and fire a rifle, as there is always a chance of an unexpected encounter with a polar bear! The days on the glacier are always exhausting, as we have a finite time to collect all the data and, although repetitive, we have a lot of work to get through. This means that at the end of a long day in the Arctic, we don’t usually notice the 24 hours of daylight during the summer months and sleep very well back at the base. IAN WILLIS


Beth Ashbridge meets Ian Willis from the Scott Polar Research Institute

Field trips are not always this cosy. In the late 1990s, I worked on the Arolla Glacier in Switzerland. Arolla is one of the highest traditional villages in the Alps, at an altitude of about 2000 m. The infrastructure here was not at all comparable to Svalbard and involved us camping in fairly rough and basic conditions. We really embraced the bitterly cold wilderness up there but when the weather was good, there was nowhere in the world I wanted to be more. For more information visit: Beth Ashbridge is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry

BlueSci Issue 15 - Easter 2009  

Cambridge University science magazine FOCUS: Lighting up the Brain

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