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

Ocean Cake

In my first science/ cake crossover post here is a turbulent ocean cake made for a PhD viva (spot the langmuir turbulence…).

A turbulent royal icing ocean.

A turbulent royal icing ocean.

The main cakey thing here is that royal icing makes a good ocean. I added 3 tsps of glycerine to 500g royal icing sugar, could have got away with 2. Colour the icing to a bluey green base then add some blue and green colouring and mix a small amount to spread the colour without mixing it in. Save a little white icing for the flicks of foam on the waves. The waves can be made easily with a flat knife.

Here you don’t need a marzipan base for the royal icing if the cake is sponge (sometimes the colour can bleed through from cake to icing, especially if fruit cake). One thing to be careful of though is cake crumbs getting through to the icing- add a thin base layer of icing gently and then build up the thicker parts for the waves.

Pumpkin Spice Latte Cake


The excitement that surrounds the arrival of the various seasonal drinks at a certain major coffee chain baffles me every year. One minute it’s #PSL and before you can blink it’s #RedCups… it’s November! Let’s enjoy Autumn while it’s still here and upgrade your coffee to a cake form. This is my twist on an American recipe for pumpkin cake with the latte part put into the icing.

And the most exciting thing.. a decent sized slice of this has fewer calories than the drink it’s based on. *

I just don't understand...

I just don’t understand…


1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s, for UK based people you can get it in the world foods section of larger supermarkets. One cup is less than a tin. You can always scale up the ingredients to use the rest but don’t be tempted to add extra pumpkin without doing this, things will get very mushy)

280g self raising flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

110g butter

2 large eggs

1tsp of each of; cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice


4 layers of pumpkin goodness.


200g icing sugar

100g butter

2tsp instant coffee, dissolved in 50ml water

1/4 tsp of each of; cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice


1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (fan) or gas mark 6. Grease and line two 20cm cake tins.

2. You can make the cake using the all in one method (as the name suggests, bung it all into a bowl and mix!).

Fondant icing pumpkins are surprisingly simple to make.

Fondant icing pumpkins are surprisingly simple to make.

3. Cook for 30-40 minutes.

4. Make up the buttercream icing by mixing together the butter and icing sugar and then adding as much of the coffee needed to get the consistency you want.

5. I cut through each cake to make 4 layers but it still looks effective with just 2 layers. Wait until it’s properly cool if you are going to cut it.

6. Ice between the layers and on top of the cake. Serve with some nice fair trade coffee at a fraction of the cost of buying it out.


*Assuming you can get at least 10 slices out of the cake, based on a grande PSL with whipped cream.







Spiced Autumn Cake

The sun may have stopped shining but here’s something the celebrate that things are well and truly cold now. The mascapone cheese icing stops the spiced orange cake being too sweet.

Steps 1-3 need to be completed a couple of hours before baking but if you’re short of time you can get away without soaking the sultanas and using orange zest in the icing instead of peel.


Note: This was a first attempt, later cakes used smaller pieces of orange peel which made it much easier to serve.


200g Self raising flour
4 Large eggs
200g Baking spread
225g Caster sugar
1 tsp Mixed spice
1 tsp Ground cinnamon
3 oranges
50g Sultanas
250g Mascapone cheese (full fat)
200g Icing sugar
50g Butter

Optional Decoration: Dark chocolate, caster sugar

1) Zest two oranges for the cake. Peel half of the remaining orange into thin strips (keep them small so that the cake cuts easily) and zest the remaining half for the icing. Don’t throw the leftover orange away you’ll need it later!

2) Add the orange peel to a small pan with just enough water to cover it and 10g of caster sugar. Bring the pan to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for one minute, then drain and lay the orange peel onto a piece of greaseproof paper. Cover with 15g of the remaining sugar and leave to dry, preferably on a radiator or sunny windowsill.

3) LEAVE TO SOAK/ DRY for 2-3 hours.

4) Halve the three oranges and juice them. Save two tablespoons of the juice for use in the icing later.

5) Grease and line two 20cm cake tins. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade or Gas Mark 4.

6) Cream the remaining sugar and margarine together, gradually add the beaten eggs. Drain the sultanas and stir in along with the zest from the two oranges.

7) Fold in the flour along with the cinnamon and mixed spice.

8) Divide the mixture between the two cake tins and bake for 30-40 minutes. The cake will come away from the sides of tin and a skewer will come out clean when it’s done.

9) Once the cake has cooled beat together the icing sugar, butter, mascapone cheese, zest from the half orange and as much of the orange juice saved in step 1 to get a consistency of icing you would like. Spread the icing between the two layers and on top of the cake.

10) Decorate with the orange peel and other decorations as required. I used chocolate and caramel leaf shapes but the orange peel on its own is still effective.


Cake and Bake Show Review

London Earl’s Court- 3rd-5th September



The best part was definitely the demonstrations, here Eric Lanlard shows off his sweet pastry.

Tickets £10

What was there:

  • Demonstrations: Sadly no Paul or Mary but a lot of others- all the GBBO winners plus Eric Lanlard, Rosemary Shrager, Racker Khoo and erm… Wendy Peters… We saw Eric Lanlard and the Fabulous Baker Brothers- all really good and lots of good tips. The competition arena had all 4 GBBO winners baking at once. It was chaotic and as it was the last day I think they were all going a bit mad but it was fun. Style over substance may well still be a thing though judging by France’s “Madelines in Chelsea”.
  • Stalls: A mixture of bakes and equipment, mostly a bit overpriced but not too horrendous. As long as you don’t mind borderline offensive sales patter.
  • Classes: Classes at £8 each didn’t seem worth it- you didn’t get to do anything just watch in a smaller area than the main demonstrations so we opted not to do any. There was a free class where you could make fondant figures but the queue would have been the best part of an hour.
  • General baking celebrities: We saw the majority of GBBO class of 2014 wandering around, including Richard looking slightly bemused by all the attention (bearing in mind at this point most people were convinced he was going to win!) and Mr #BinGate himself.


What we learnt:

  • Put your chocolate into a piping bag then but it into a jug of hot water to melt it. Much easier than faffing with a bowl over a pan and it’s ready to pipe straight away.
  • Put cling film in the fridge to find the end. I’ve done this, it really works!
  • Use cling film rather than baking parchment for blind baking. Gets right into the corners.

Some of the display cakes were unique to say the least.

Was it worth it?

For £7.50, yes, but it would have been nice to see some more interactive things to make it worth going again. Or Mary Berry :)

Bonus Tips:

  • At £10 each it seems a bit pricey for what you get but if you hang on you can get better deals- we got 2 for £15 on Amazon Local, and Money Saving Expert had free tickets for the Friday a couple of weeks before the show.
  • The Sunday has some good deals at closing time but don’t expect ridiculous bargains (and don’t get irate with stalls that aren’t doing discounts like someone we saw!).
  • The show guide is pretty essential but at £5 it might be worth just printing off the talk times first. You do get a nice bag and a couple of freebies with it though.
  • Making your own butter is great. The Fabulous Baker Brothers showed us how easy it is: just whisk double cream for 5-10 mins until it separates into butter and buttermilk. Wash the butter in cold water to get rid of all the buttermilk (which will go rancid if left). You can use the buttermilk in their soda bread recipe.


GBBO winner John Waites was happy to pose for photos. Bonus :)

GBBO winner John Whaite was happy to pose for photos. Bonus :)


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.