Ponds on ice- What I do and why (I think!) it matters

Melt ponds, which are exactly what the name implies – ponds of melted water formed on ice – have been observed in recent years on the Antarctic Peninsula, the most northern part of Antarctica. Previously this area had been too cold for melting to occur but, due to a 2.5 degrees Centigrade warming trend on the Peninsula over the last 50 years (several times the global average), this has begun to change.[1]

Melt ponds on Arctic sea ice such as those initially modelled by CPOM, copyright NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Melt ponds on Arctic sea ice such as those initially modelled by CPOM, copyright NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Larsen B ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula hit the headlines in 2002 when it spectacularly (see image below- definitely a justified use of the word spectacular!) collapsed and an area of ice larger than Rhode Island was lost in a matter of weeks.[2] This collapse occurred during record warm air temperatures when both the length and extent of the melt season reached a new high. Areas of the ice shelf with melt ponds collapsed whereas adjacent areas with few or no melt ponds did not. This suggests that melt ponds may be playing a role in triggering ice shelf collapse. However, there are many other processes – such as rising ocean temperatures – which may also play a role and so a greater understanding of ice-shelves and the mechanisms affecting them is essential in predicting their future.

A common misconception is that when ice shelves collapse they contribute to sea level rise. This is not strictly true; ice shelves are already floating on the water and in the same way that when ice cubes in your glass of water melt the water level in the glass doesn’t go up, ice shelf break-up (and subsequent melting) won’t add to global sea level. By Archimedes’ Principle (that’s the one from the ‘jumping out of the bath shouting “Eureka”’ story) the floating ice has already displaced a volume of water that is virtually the same as the amount that would be added to the sea if the ice shelf were to melt.*

However, the fact that ice shelf break-up doesn’t contribute to sea level directly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an effect on it. When Larsen B broke up it was observed that the glaciers which fed into the ice sheet accelerated, possibly because there was no longer any force from the ice sheet blocking their flow. The ice coming from these glaciers is coming from the land and going into the sea so does contribute to sea level rise. This acceleration can continue for several years after the ice shelf has collapsed,[3] so the effect of a large collapse can actually be quite significant. On top of this, there is also the loss of habitat and the effect that large amounts of cold fresh water from the melted ice shelves have on ocean circulation and chemical make-up to be considered.

The break up of Larsen B in early 2002. The dark marks on the ice shelf you can see are melt ponds or drained melt ponds. Copyright NASA.

The break up of Larsen B in early 2002. The dark marks on the ice shelf you can see are melt ponds or drained melt ponds. Copyright NASA.

So what is it about these ponds makes them so key in understanding what will happen to the ice shelves? Firstly, it’s important to note that ‘pond’ is quite a deceptive term – on the Antarctic Peninsula we’re talking about something that can cover several square kilometers as oppose to something that would be found in your back garden, so these ponds are actually a fairly significant feature of the ice shelf.

One of the crucial things that melt ponds affect is albedo. Albedo is the proportion of incoming radiation that a surface reflects back. Ice, being white, has a high albedo whereas a melt pond is darker and has a lower albedo: it will reflect less energy and thus absorb more energy. Absorbing more energy means more heat is absorbed, more ice melts, ponds grow, albedo is further decreased, more energy is absorbed and so on in a positive feedback loop that results in greater and greater amounts of ice melting.

Meltwater is also thought to influence ice shelf break up when it fills crevasses in the ice. The forces that act on crevasses that open in the ice sheet tend to close them but meltwater filling existing surface crevasses provides an outward pressure that can allow them to remain open. Additionally, meltwater can cause the crevasses to penetrate further through the ice shelf, possibly far enough for them to reach the ice shelf’s base and impact on its structural integrity.[1]


A melt pond on the Greenland ice sheet- very similar to those I’m looking at and hopefully a lot of my work can be applied to Greenland too. Copyright NASA Earth Observatory.

Researchers in the group that I’m part of- Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) [4] at the University of Reading are looking at improving climate models by incorporating a better understanding of the processes affecting melt pond formation into the models. Initially, work was done on modelling melt ponds on Arctic sea ice [5]; one of the greatest uncertainties in predicting future global temperature changes is sea ice level fluctuations and this is something the level of melt ponds will play a role in. Now they have successfully incorporated a physically based melt pond scheme into the CICE sea ice model in order to simulate the stages of melt pond development.[6]

So where do I come into this? I’m going to be adapting a physical model of Arctic sea ice melt ponds to look at the Antarctic, focussing on the Larsen C ice shelf as melt ponds have appeared there and it is thought to be a potential candidate for future collapse. The ponds found on Antarctica are much larger and over a greater scale than the Arctic sea ice ones and, unlike sea ice, the ice-shelves do not contain salt, adding an extra challenge in modifying previous work. If successful this model will help to provide new insights into the role of meltwater in the collapse of ice shelves and help to improve future versions of ice sheet models and climate predictions. I’ll keep you updated.

*Technically, a very small amount of sea level rise would occur on melting as ice shelves are made of fresh water and sea water is salty (and therefore more dense than fresh water) so slightly less water is displaced than the total melted amount would add but the effect is so small it is negligible: the equivalent of less than 4cm of sea level rise if all floating ice (ice shelves and sea ice) were to melt.


[1] Scambos et al. (2000), The link between climate warming and break-up of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula, Journal of Glaciology, Vol. 46, No. 154, pg 516-529

[2] http://nsidc.org/news/press/larsen_B/2002.html

[3] Scambos et al. (2004), Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment Antarctica, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, L18402, doi:10.1029/2006GL020670

[4] http://www.cpom.org/research.html

[5] Scott and Feltham (2010), A model of the three-dimensional evolution of Arctic melt ponds on first-year and multiyear sea ice, J. Geophys. Res., Vol.115, C12064, doi:10.1029/2010JC006156

[6] Flocco et al. (2010), Incorporation of a physically based melt pond scheme into the sea ice component of a climate model,  J. Geophys. Res., Vol.115, C08012, doi:10.1029/2009JC005568

Is the climate changing or are we just lost in translation?

We can spend a lot of time worrying about unlikely probabilities. (Image news.com.au)

We can spend a lot of time worrying about unlikely probabilities. (Image news.com.au)

Fear of flying- it’s something that many of us have, and even those who don’t can at least understand what there is to be afraid of. Planes crash, there’s no two ways about it. Yet to have a fear of climate change? That seems a lot less logical. Why is it we focus on the remote probability but often don’t spare a thought for something that is a lot more likely to have an impact on us?

Maybe for the case of climate change it’s due to not knowing the numbers involved- is this “dangerous” level of climate change politicians like to focus on something that will actually happen? If we somehow manage to keep carbon dioxide concentrations at the current level of about 400 parts per million, (bearing in mind that this level was exceeded in May 2013 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii for the first time since 1958 and in April 2014 became a monthly average) then the chances of 2 degrees warming in relation to pre-industrial levels is 30%. 2 degrees is a figure that should be prevented according to the UN and the EU and is often quoted as being a dangerous level, bringing with it global consequences including significant increase in wildfire, sea level rise and decreasing crop yields. But 30% likelihood doesn’t sound so bad, or does it?

Put this into a context we might better understand and this figure doesn’t look so good. There are currently an average of 30 fatal flying accidents per year. If the probability of fatal flying accidents was the same as the chance of 2 degrees warming this figure would rise to over 9 million. That’s over one thousand fatal flying accidents per hour. Increase carbon dioxide concentration to 450 parts per million and this figure nearly doubles.

But then again even if we knew the statistics, would that matter? Maybe it’s an inherent fear of numbers that GCSE or O level maths leaves countless people with but in the UK we as a nation tend not to be comfortable with probabilities. European weather forecasts frequently give a percentage likelihood of rain but here the closest we really get is being told there is a slight chance of showers.

This does lead to another problem though, what does “slight chance” actually mean? Do I pack my umbrella? In the case of climate change it may well be the wording that is the problem not the numbers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the ‘IPCC’) use a scale of phrases to describe the probabilities of events ranging from ‘virtually certain ‘ to ‘considerably unlikely’.

A study by the University College London, Cardiff University and Shandong Normal University in China showed just how big the problem with these terms is. Only 20% of UK participants could correctly put the IPCC’s terms into the order of increasing likelihood that they were intended to represent, let alone determine what ranges of probabilities that they are trying to demonstrate. Chinese participants scored even lower than this with only 9% completing a correct order. The understanding of the terms used for the Chinese version of the IPCC report for most native Chinese speakers did not agree with the IPCC’s definition, especially for the higher probability terms such as ‘very likely’ which the IPCC believe should represent over 90% probability but was being interpreted by Chinese participants as only 70% likely. So we have an intergovernmental report, designed to give a clear guide to the world on the best that science has to tell us about the state of the climate but a wide range of ways people interpret the terms they’re using.

Maybe using numbers is the way forward, or maybe scientists are just not using the right words. Many of those with a science background have constantly been told throughout school, undergraduate degrees and beyond that climate change is happening. Perhaps for scientists the language is less important and we just don’t think how a choice of words can affect those who are less convinced.

There is much debate around whether or not scientists should get involved in policy or try to get certain messages out to the public. Some feel that science should be done just for science’s sake whether or not everyone else can understand it. But with funding bodies demanding outreach work and big publications, coupled with a great deal of taxpayers’ money funding research, the science has to be shared, regardless of how people choose to interpret it. For this to happen it needs to be clear what scientists are actually trying to show when they use probabilities and it seems that in the case of climate change this is still not happening. Will this change in the future? I’d say it’s very slightly somewhat considerably likely.


  1. Statistics created using http://global-risk-indicator.net/index.html It’s a really cool tool, go and play with it.
  2. Study mentioned: Lost in translation? Interpretations of the probability phrases used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in China and the UK- Harris et al, Climatic Change (2013), 121:415–425, DOI 10.1007/s10584-013-0975-1

What makes a PhD?



One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and show friends and family what it is I do, and why I was crazy enough to give up a good, well paid job with nice stable prospects to return to be a poor student who will potentially be unemployed in just over a year and a half, if I’m lucky. So what is it I actually do? Well the first key question has to be:

What is a PhD?

The dictionary definition of a PhD (or Doctor of Philosophy) is “The highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”

So how does it work?

In practice I do what is judged to be 3 years worth or original research, write a huge long report about it (“the thesis”) about it and then sit in a room with two experts in my field and try to stop them tearing it to pieces (otherwise known as “the viva”). Along with this there are other deadlines such as the monitoring committees every 6 months (essentially a report and mini viva) and various talks/ posters etc.

It can get pretty stressful around these key times but I think it’s fair to stay a large amount of the stress is self inflicted: at the end of the day you’re producing you’re own original piece of research so it needs to be your best.

A nicer side is that we also get to  snazzy locations for summer schools (mine was in Italy) to try and learn about our field and conferences (although so far these have been less snazzy- Loughborough and Leeds).

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

Some alternative interpretations of what I do.

So what do I actually do all day?

A PhD can work pretty much like a normal job if you want it to. I have a desk in an office, a computer, a wheely chair and a contract. You’re expected to do a certain amount of work in a week and although there can be some flexibility in when you do this (some people can end up doing some very odd hours, especially come writing up time) most people tend to stick to roughly 9-5 plus or minus a few hours (naming no names!). I tend to work more than this as do a lot of my colleagues. Often come writing up time people will be in most weekends- even before then it can be quite hard to switch off. It’s not an easy option but it’s not completely unmanageable.

Generally it’s better to be in when other people are around and there are certain things during normal working hours such as seminars you need to go to. So other than sitting at my desk cursing Matlab my day can also consist of:

  • Seminars: An opportunity to hear speakers from outside or inside the department. Attendance is expected, as is remaining awake although this is achieved less. At Reading Met we also have an informal weekly seminar given by 1 or 2 PhDs which is a good relaxed opportunity to practice speaking in front of a friendly audience.
  • Research group meetings: As with seminars but smaller and more specific- so I’m part of Arctic group (which despite the name does Antarctica too). It’s less formal and we also have socials so are a good way to meet people from different levels of the department.
  • Demonstrating/ teaching: Nice way to earn some bonus cash and get some teaching experience, less nice if you get lots of marking.
  • The dreaded weekly supervisor meetings: Mine actually aren’t that bad but you can tell when people have theirs as there is a sudden panic to produce some kind of plot to demonstrate what you’ve been doing all week. They’re an opportunity to discuss results (or lack of results) and plan future work. I always worry about mine but then come out excited about progress and what I’m going to do for the next week… and then I get a cup of tea and check facebook and suddenly it’s all gone…
  • Procrastination: Reading is excellent for this. At any one time we could be covered in PVA glue making props for the panto, honing our croquet skills for the golden mallet, predicting which ever sporting event is happening/ the next week’s weather, sharing the gossip from the latest department pub crawl (hearing senior staff stayed out longer than the undergrads is always enjoyable); it’s a wonder we get anything done really…

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year's Met Department Panto. Photo Stolen from Carly Wright.

    Me as Professor Scrooge in last year’s Met Department Panto. Photo stolen from Carly Wright.

So are you actually a student?

Yes and no. We are technically students (yes NUS discount!!) but without the massive long holidays and lie ins, and we mostly do get paid even if it’s not a huge amount. Some brave people fund themselves (most of them I’ve met will be part time in order to do this), the rest of us will be funded by research councils or industry.

So what happens after? Do you become a lecturer?

I wish it was that easy! The way academia works is that a lot of PhDs will become Postdocs if they wish to stay in research, this is where you have a fixed term research contract. This can put a lot of people off: once you get a job you’re potentially having to then look for another one after a year or two and this can involve a lot of moving around- in fact it has been argued that you’re more employable if you can show you’ve worked at more than one institution. Those who do want to stay in academia will eventually need to find a more permanent position but these are much rarer and competitive meaning that the future is somewhat risky.

In fact a lot of PhDs will end up in careers outside of academia for this reason, or becuase after 3+ years they find that they just don’t want to do any more research.

Is it worth it?

At the moment, yes, absolutely. I get to do something I (most of the time) love every day and it’s great. Although I may come back to you and update this when it comes to writing up…

I’ve definitely not had the experience that a PhD can be isolating, my department is a really supportive, fun place to be and within the University the graduate school does a lot to encourage PhDs from different departments to interact, ranging from free breakfasts to 3 Minute Thesis competitions. It can be quite frustrating and stressful at times and you need a lot of self motivation but I guess that is just the nature of research- if it was easy or obvious then someone would probably have done it already! But  I don’t want to make light of the fact that it can be incredibly demanding in terms of keeping yourself going and the pressure of knowing that you need to get this work done or you’re wasting 3+ years of your life but if you think about that too much you’d probably never get anywhere. And hopefully I’m getting somewhere… as long as my next model run is successful…



Book Review- Cake Days from the Hummingbird Bakery

P1070934£20- Collins

My rating: 3/10

To quote the great Paul Hollywood this is definitely a “style over substance” book.

In my post about cocktail cupcakes I mentioned that I loved the hummingbird ideas but the reality was too sweet. They have lots of complicated and unhealthy ingredients and to be honest that seems to apply to most of the recipes in this book. The contents are beautiful, fun and original but generally you can do something similar for a fraction of the budget and calories. Some recipes such as the grasshopper pie have a horrendous amount of cream and the result was described as tasting like a bad Vienetta ice cream. I’d rather buy the ice cream, have my afternoon back and save my arteries at the same time.

P1070939 However, saying that it’s presented in a lovely seasonal way, there are loads of pictures which is always helpful and one recipe I did love is the spiderweb cheesecake: simple and not loads of ingredients for once!  

Verdict: Borrow someone else’s or get it out of the library- steal some ideas and create your own versions but the recipes themselves are not worth shelling out for.

My attempt at the spiderweb cheesecake with some other Halloween goodies.

My attempt at the spiderweb cheesecake with some other Halloween goodies.

Antarctica in the News- The Penguins Are In Trouble!

Headlines today have picked up on a study suggesting that a third of Antarctica’s emperor penguins could be wiped out by 2100.

The emperor penguin, one of Antarctica's most iconic species. (Image http://www.emperor-penguin.com).

The emperor penguin, one of Antarctica’s most iconic species. (image http://www.emperor-penguin.com).

What’s the problem? A predicted loss of sea ice means a loss of krill, the main food source for emperor penguins. Young krill need sea ice to survive as they eat algae that lives in it.

Tasty tasty krill (image National Geographic)

Tasty tasty krill (image National Geographic).

I thought sea ice was increasing in Antarctica? That may well be the case for now, and the study does suggest that penguin numbers may actually increase for a while, but eventually a decline in sea ice will cause a  fall in penguin numbers much steeper than this increase. Can anything be done? The study’s authors suggest that putting in marine protection zones to prevent fishing in areas where penguins need to hunt for food may help, but they don’t expect that penguins will have much ability to adapt to changing conditions, unlike these clever climbing penguins.

Global number of breeding pairs of emperor penguins from 2009 to 2100. (Jenouvrier et al. 2014, Nature Climate Change)

Global number of breeding pairs of emperor penguins from 2009 to 2100. After a short spell of increase the population plummets. (Jenouvrier et al. 2014, Nature Climate Change)

You can read the full study here: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2280.html
Sammie Buzzard

Book Review- Cupcake Magic by Kate Shirazi


£7.99- Pavilion

My rating: 8.5/10

Simple and different cakes that anyone could manage.

I buy most of my baking books on recommendation so I thought it might be useful to start posting some reviews on here. I didn’t want to start with anything negative so here is one of my favorites. It’s subtitled ‘little cakes with attitude’ and I wouldn’t argue with that.

Straight forward instructions and plenty of pictures.

Straight forward instructions and plenty of pictures.

The book is divided into low-faff, medium-faff and high-faff so you know what you’re getting but the really nice thing is even the high-faff recipes look acheivable an really not an extreme amount of effort. The pictures don’t all look like the finely decorated immaculate cupcakes you get in many books: they’re beautiful but not unrealistically perfect and that’s what I really like about this book- they look like they’ve been made by a real person and are something that you could realistically copy (maybe not quite as well but at least you’ll get something that’s reasonably like what you expect!). In terms of ingredients and equipment I’d say they’re all pretty low-faff. Lovely.

Things anyone can do…almost.

The flavorings are great and different without being too wacky (although I’ve not investigate the savory cupcakes section yet)- the ‘grown-up’ mocha cakes have become one of my standard bakes and always disappear even when I worked in a office full of weight watchers fiends.

The best thing is this feels like a book written by a real person. Not a company or team. Kate’s sense of humor comes through and her section about free-range eggs and gluten free cakes just makes you like her. I was recommended this by someone who had attended her cupcake classes and I’m sad that I no longer live in Devon and can’t go. Her website is here, I’d recommend a look, just avoid the wedding cakes, they look too good and will make you sad (unless you’re actually getting married in which case GO, GO NOW).

Tip: This book can be found online for just over a fiver but I picked it up in The Works for about £3- definitely a bargain at that price.


My attempt at the star cupcakes. Not the neatest but still not unhappy as was my first time piping with royal icing. My main niggle is the fact that they are stars. Who can even draw a star well let alone pipe one?? Even so, tip in the book of practicing before putting them on the cake was a very good idea.

My attempt at the star cupcakes. Not the neatest but still not unhappy as was my first time piping with royal icing. My main niggle is the fact that they are stars. Come on Kate, who can even draw a star well let alone pipe one?? Even so, the tip in the book of practicing before putting them on the cake was a very good idea.

The Arctic in the news- Arctic sea-ice melt prediction using melt ponds

Even though I’ve mostly stuck to Antarctica news so far this bit is important for two reasons. One it’s about melt ponds, which is what I look at but on the other side of the world, and two it’s the group that I’m part of at Reading, go CPOM!

Melt ponds on Arctic sea ice, copyright NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Melt ponds on Arctic sea ice, copyright NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

What’s happened?

The CPOM group at Reading have just released a prediction for the 2014 Arctic sea ice minimum. They did this by using the fact that there is a correlation between the fraction of sea ice covered by melt ponds  (pools of melted ice) in spring and the minimum amount of ice that will then be present at the end of the summer.

The reason for this is to do with the ponds being darker than the surrounding ice, as you can see in the image above. This means that they absorb more energy from the sun, which can lead to warming and further melting.

What does this mean?

These short term predictions are mostly important for predicting shipping routes but the more we know about modelling processes such as the formation of these ponds the better models will be for predicting future extents- one of the greatest uncertainties in predicting future global temperature changes is sea ice level fluctuations.

What’s next?

The prediction has been entered into the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) Sea Ice Prediction Network-  an annual comparison between different scientists’ predictions, but we’ll have to wait until September to see if Reading’s efforts will do well in the rankings!

An inforgraphic produced by University of Reading to go with today's news.

An infographic produced by University of Reading to go with today’s news.




Penguins are going climbing to adapt to climate change!

An emperor penguin (image Photo Volcania)

Until recently it was thought that all emperor penguins bread on fast ice, that’s sea ice attached to the land; much easier to navigate than the cliffs of ice shelves (image Photo Volcania).

It has been well publicised recently that despite sea ice in the Arctic decreasing, sea ice in the Antarctic has been on the increase. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice, so surely this would be a good thing for the penguins?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case- even though there is more ice forming it’s forming too late for the penguins’ breeding season. The climate of Antarctica is changing, it has warmed more than 5 times the global average over the last century. It is thought that one of the colonies discovered moved as a result of the late arrival of the sea ice, potentially due to a changing climate.

Penguin colonies can actually be spotted in satellite images such as the one below and it was a combination of this and aerial views from planes that alerted scientist to the fact that these colonies that have moved onto ice shelves.

A satellite image of an emperor penguin colony on an ice shelf (Image BAS/Digital Global).

A satellite image of an emperor penguin colony on an ice shelf (Image BAS/Digital Global). Guano is a term for penguin excrement.

It’s not known quite how the penguins manage to climb up cliffs onto the ice shelves as the colonies haven’t been studied up close but it is thought they might be able to shuffle up between ridges formed by draining water on the ice shelves.

Although it is bad news that the penguins are having to do this it’s a nice positive in their chances of future survival. Polar regions warm faster than other areas so this may not be the end of unusual penguin behaviour if the planet continues to warm.

An emperor penguin huddle. The males are left to look after the eggs while the females go off and hunt, they hiddle together to try and survive the freezing conditions such as during the blizzard shown here (image Australian Antarctic Division).

An emperor penguin huddle. The males are left to look after the eggs while the females go off and hunt, they huddle together to try and survive the freezing conditions such as during the blizzard shown here (image Australian Antarctic Division).



The original research article (Fretwell et al.) is http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0085285