When Scientists Go Back To School- or the missing link between glaciers and sheep



Karthaus town square. It really is worth the 5 trains, 1 plane and 1 bus it took to get there.


View from the corner of the lecture theatre. It takes some keen scientist to ignore this and learn about numerical modelling.

Doing research means that you’re learning all the time, whether that be reading someone else’s work or looking up a concept that you don’t understand, but sometimes that learning is something more formal- taking a relevant Master’s module or a Summer School for example. This the reason I’ve spent part of my September up in the mountains in Italy, on the Karthaus Summer School on Ice Sheets and Glaciers in the Climate System.

So what does this actually involve? A typical day looks something like this:

8am: Breakfast
8.30am-12.45 pm: Lectures (with coffee and cake break of course)
1-2pm: 3 course lunch
2-3.30pm: Problem class
3.30-4pm: Coffee and more cake
4-5.30pm: Work on group projects
5.30-7.30pm: Hiking, football, running, sauna, or catching up on much needed sleep if you’re lucky
7.30-9.30pm: 5 course dinner
9.30pm-??: Socialising in the bar, potential tango dancing/ general music making.


Sometimes it even got too much for the lecturers.


Enjoying the hiking around Karthaus. Every way leads up…


One of the more noisy local residents.


The intrepid group of brave explorers who made it all the way up Kruezspitze.

The group projects were especially useful, there was enough time to properly get stuck into a problem that, although in the same area as our PhDs was not related to them. It forces you to think in a different way and you get something completely new out of it- although I look at what is happening on top of ice shelves I now know a bit about what’s going on underneath them too which can only be a good thing.


Field trip day. Bonus marks go to Frank’s hat. Trust the lecturers to try and outdo the students.

The planned field trip to a glacier had to be cancelled due to the weather but the trip leaders still managed to take us up to a rock glacier nearby, maybe less exciting to look at but really interesting to learn about all the same. Rock glaciers are insulated by (as the name suggests) a layer of rock debris allowing them to survive in warmer climates than they would otherwise. They can move up to several meters a year which suddenly sounds quite impressive when you see the size of one.

Karthaus students being shown a rock glacier.

Karthaus students being shown a rock glacier.

Not only was the science training great as I’ve been able to learn about so many relevant things to my PhD that often won’t be taught in more general university courses, the social aspect was, surprisingly for me, just as important. Glaciology isn’t a huge community and often departments at individual universities are small so it’s easy to feel quite isolated. I love Meteorology at Reading but sometimes when there is a talk on rainfall or the jet stream I’m thinking “but I just want to hear about ice!”, and now I have a whole network of people to discuss things with or just have a chat about PhD life in general. PhD imposter syndrome (the worry that at some point someone will realise it’s all a big mistake and you’re not clever and shouldn’t be doing a PhD) or worries that you’re not progressing fast enough or know enough are pretty much endemic and it’s good to hear that nearly everyone else has them at some point- and the fact that I got bonus hiking, football and sauna time with them all can only help to ensure our continuing, productive professional relationships !

The lecturers themselves are excellent and also inventive. Whoever could have thought a link could be made between the annual ‘sheep coming down the mountain’ party and glacier flow? Even after a night in the bar no-one can fail to wake up when a sheep appears on a slide mid lecture.

The sheep flow glacier model, Ng et al. 2013.

The sheep flow glacier model, Ng et al. 2013.

The sheep incidentally were also excellent. 2000 come down the mountain at once and are then sorted into pens by thier owners. It looks chaotic but somehow works. Photos at the bottom.

Finally, you can’t talk about Karthaus and not mention the food. It is never ending and always very very good. For example, a typical evening:

A typical evening's light refreshment at Hotel Goldene Rose.

A typical evening’s light refreshment at Hotel Goldene Rose.









Advice for Karthaus 2014 participants:

– The journey is not as impossible as it looks but if you can find people to travel with it helps, although the closer you get the chances of finding another bemused looking glaciologist on a station platform increases exponentially. We gained 3.
– It gets pretty cold, especially inside the lecture room. Bring many layers.
– Just as importantly don’t bring much tight fitting clothing. You will have a permanent ‘food baby’, or more likely food twins.
– Don’t bring work. You just won’t have time.
– Sleep a lot before you come.
– Leave any British style sauna inhibitions at home. Maybe don’t go to the sauna if you’re supervisor is a lecturer on the   course though, some things once seen can never be erased.
– There is Wifi. Don’t panic.
– Be prepared to learn to tango…

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