Carol Devine in conversation with glaciologists M Jackson and Erin Pettit
Our planet is and always has been a dynamic one. In the age of humans, we inhabit and shape a world of extremes. We call it the environmental crisis, yet our home existed long before we showed up. In each issue we see a reflection of ourselves — and a warning for our future.
As our understanding of the natural world deepens, so does our understanding of ourselves as a species within a greater living system. The impacts of climate change are ecologically, societally and culturally nuanced and complex. What does it mean to be human at a time when we must reckon with human-driven climate catastrophes? Answers demand perspective, something offered in abundance in the harshest environments. Glacier scientists find theirs in the stories of ice.
Amid soaring temperatures, unprecedented ice melt and news of an Arctic on fire (and snowing plastic), Parley caught up with explorer and artist Carol Devine, whose investigations into the state of our planet have brought her to its chillier stretches. On a recent expedition to Antarctica, she met glaciologists and explorers Drs. M Jackson and Erin Pettit. Below, Carol reflects on meeting both women and interviews them on their groundbreaking research into ice, humans, climate, and the interconnections that call them, and all of us, to more closely examine and re-evaluate the dynamics of our changing world.
Carol led the first civilian cleanup expedition to Antarctica with the Russian Antarctic Expedition in 1995-1996. She then went north, joining Cleanup Svalbard in 2015 and brought home samples of marine debris collected on Norway’s remote Arctic shores. They are exhibited in the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Carol currently works on climate change and health. She swam for the first time in Antarctica in 2018.
By Carol Devine
Humanitarian, writer, researcher, explorer & glacier admirer
On an expedition to Antarctica, I had the opportunity to meet the extraordinary glaciologists and National Geographic explorers M Jackson and Erin Pettit. I’d encountered both women before virtually, and was already in awe of them. Now we were going to be in icebreaker ship cabins next to one another and walking on fast ice together as guest speakers with Lindblad Expeditions/ National Geographic in December 2018.
M and Erin have incredible and distinct skills, and use them in ways that help people better understand science, the incredible life-giving essence of glaciers, and what they teach us about ourselves, the past and forewarnings of our future. In other words, these are very cool women.
Our trip was Dr. M Jackson’s first to Antarctica, but she’d previously spent oodles of time on Icelandic and Arctic glaciers doing research. Antarctica has the largest ice sheets in the world and some 500 to over 1,000 glaciers, depending on how you count them. I was excited to witness M experience Antarctica’s glaciers, and compare and contrast them with their north polar counterparts that keep our world well.
A couple years earlier, I’d read M’s groundbreaking writing with Mark Carey, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” Her 2015 book, While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change, weaves together the parallel stories of what happens when the climates of a family and a planet change, and The Secret Lives of Glaciers shares the little-explored interactions between people and ice to better understand environmental change. I knew I’d meet a person who sees things with a necessarily fresh perspective and lens.
Carol Devine in conversation with Dr. M Jackson
Dr. M Jackson — Geographer, glaciologist, explorer, and author of The Secret Lives of Glaciers and While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change
What were you doing in Iceland?
Having an amazing experience. I was just shooting the first episode of a four-episode virtual reality series focused on female National Geographic explorers whose work intersects with water. The series is produced by the Canadian production company Sherpas Cinema in partnership with National Geographic, Google, and YouTubeVR. The first episode focuses on glaciers and my research on people and ice on the southern coast of Iceland.
What have you learned about glaciers or ice since writing your new book, The Secret Lives of Glaciers?
Since I wrote The Secret Lives of Glaciers, which delves deeply into the nuanced relationship between people and ice in Iceland, I've been thinking about how people worldwide are connected to ice. And of late, I've been thinking about how glaciers make their own weather—they can even manipulate local conditions to cause snow to fall on their bodies and feed themselves.
Glaciers shape local and planetary weather, and it is through weather that people worldwide connect directly with ice. Whenever it rains, go step outside, tilt your head back, let the rain fall on you. That's rain brought to you by a glacier, that's water released from the glacial stasis, put back into our water cycle. I think that's amazing.
I'm now working on a project looking at how glaciers shift social structures, most particularly, gender roles. It's quite new, quite fun. I've also just finished writing a new novel, called Ice to Water, and I'm sketching out some new projects to work on in the coming years.
What is your advice to this emerging generation of activists?
Boiled down: my advice to all activists is that we have to suit up for the long haul, the long fight. I'm aware that all the ice I work on now, all the ice I advocate to save, is disappearing rapidly. Even if we stopped increasing our air temperatures today, the majority of the ice I work with would still disappear in my lifetime. I know that. But I'm still out there working, advocating, fighting for glaciers. Because losing our ice isn't the end of the story, isn't the final chapter. We know what the problem is—rising air temperatures—which means we know what the solutions are and where those solution spaces are located.
What keeps you going?
What I think about is that ice can grow back. I won't see the results of my work, I won't see the ice grow back. But my children will. And their children will. And the seventh generation will. So I'm in a fight that I'll never see the positive results of — and I'm still getting out of bed each day, still fighting the long fight. Because it's worth it.
Prior to our Antarctic expedition, I’d emailed with Dr. Erin Pettit when I was updating her Wikipedia biography as part of the “Antarctic Women Wikibomb: raising the profile of female scientists” initiative. The Wikibomb’s goal was to “provide more visible female role models for early career scientists.” As I write this in 2019, only 17.86 percent of all Wikipedia biographies are about women, up from 8.5 percent in 2011.
At that time, Erin was working in Alaska. After our trip she’d formally move to Oregon for her associate professorship in Glaciology at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. I’d learned that Erin founded Inspiring Girls Expeditions to champion “tuition-free, wilderness science expeditions for young women from all social and economic backgrounds to build their creativity, curiosity, courage, and confidence.” Erin is also part of a new international collaboration to use ocean data to help predict the fate of the unstable Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. She looks at how the ocean below the glacier and the atmosphere above it affect the ice.
The question we are trying to answer is how much will the unstable glaciers retreat so we can create a profile of sea level rise vs time. These glaciers dumping ice in the ocean will increase sea level. Our project goal is to join heads together to do our best to bring uncertainties down to what is the picture for the next 100 years of ice loss of these systems and the sea level rise that will result.
If we can narrow down if sea level will rise one meter in the next century vs two meters vs only 30 centimeters, that’s a huge contribution in terms of coastal people and communities trying to plan and mitigate in coastal regions.
How does it feel to be a part of an undertaking of this kind?
I feel honoured to have been asked to be a part of this project, I’m leading one of eight teams selected to dive into this problem. And a little bit daunted, there are limitations to what we can do. Everyone is genuinely interested in this project. I want us to do our best to try to figure out what’s going on. I want us to come up with our best work, though it won’t be easy, it’s one of these big challenges. But I feel like we’ve got the resources and an awesome team working on it.
What is your advice to this emerging generation of activists demanding change?
Two pieces of advice to the next generation of activists. One is to maintain an openness to learning new things because the best discoveries come when we’re really open to new ideas. If you have prescribed notions for how you think things are then that can close off your mind from seeing things from new perspectives or finding new solutions to solve a problem.
The other advice is empathy, because the best way I’ve learned to bring others along as a leader has to start with you being empathetic to where people are and are coming from. Everyone has their own lived experience. If you want to engage people in your passion and pursuit to make things better, people will trust you more if you express empathy.
You’re heading back to Antarctica soon. What’s the goal for the next trip?
In November we’re going to go to three different sites on three different ice shelves. Ice shelves are the floating part of a glacier. The ice shelf floats as a kind of gatekeeper of the land ice, essentially the dam helping keep land ice on land. The Thwaites glacier and two others nearby, Crosson and Dotson glaciers, have undergone an incredible amount of change even since we wrote the proposal two years ago. All three glaciers are totally unstable. The whole system is undergoing such rapid change. The changes are more surprising than expected especially under the Dotson and Crosson glaciers undergoing a lot of thinning. Basically, we can’t measure it fast enough before it changes.
What are you hoping to discover?
We’re studying the atmosphere-ocean-air connection. We’re going to go and set up these instruments on each of those glaciers that will provide us with information. We’re installing glorified weather stations on top of the glacier, which include embedded sensors in the ice and oceanographic instruments underneath the glacier where there’s some 400-500 meters of ice and 100-1000 meters of water under the ice.
Because of climate warming, ice shelves are getting attacked by the atmosphere; changes in atmospheric circulation and atmospheric winds are increasing. And the ice shelves are getting attacked below the surface by the ocean, where there are also big changes in water movements. Changes in the atmosphere are helping drive these changes in the ocean and bring warm waters in to melt the ice shelf from underneath.
What are the first steps in this five year study?
We’ll leave the instruments there for two years. They report back data six times a day and we’ll collect a whole bunch of contextual data and structure what is happening. We’ll then put the data time series into a spatial context.
Climate change is here and glaciers are such visible cases of this warming. Both M and Erin helped me understand much more both about the nature of glaciers and feel that they really are alive. Each speaks of glaciers with such respect and even affection for their adaptability, formidable character but also heartbreaking fragility as human behavior accelerates their retreat.
We had an opportunity near the end of our voyage to polar dip into Antarctic waters. Erin and M were gung-ho ready in their bikinis. I was feeling wimpy and hadn’t thought to bring my bathing suit. Up on the deck in the light snow and very cold air, I saw guests below getting in the line-up to jump in the freezing freezer of the world. I knew they’d be out soon and thought, how the heck can I not go in with them (and even some guests in their 70s)! I cobbled together a swimsuit just in time for the last jumps. It was unbelievably sharp, invigorating and seriously cold. We toasted each other with Aquavit.
Darker colors absorb more solar energy, while white reflects it. As ice melts in water, more seawater means more absorbed heat, accelerating the melting cycle. Similarly, ice covered in soot (e.g. from wildfires) melts faster than clean ice.
As ice melts, biomass thaws and decomposes, releasing more methane and ultimately carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Antarctica is the world’s largest ice sheet, covering approximately 14,000,000 square kilometers and containing 25,400,000 cubic kilometers of ice. This icy mass conceals entire mountain ranges and numerous volcanoes. If melted, its volume would be equivalent to a sea level rise of 58 meters.
People living in arid climates near mountains often rely on glacial melt for their water for part of the year.
The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the most similar place on Earth to the desolate landscapes of the Moon and Mars.
The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok, Antarctica: -89.2°C on 21st July 1983.