Should I bet on an iceberg? What is going on with Larsen C?

The ice shelf that my PhD is based on last week hit the headlines with the news that a crevasse in the ice shelf had grown suddenly, and now an iceberg of about 5000 sq km (that’s about 1/4 the size of Wales to use the internationally recognised unit for big things) is set to break away from the ice shelf. Should the iceberg break off it will be one of the top 10 biggest every recorded.


The crevasse between Larsen C and the potential ice berg (image NASA).

However, the big news among glaciologists is surely that that things we find exciting have finally made it in the big time: Paddy Power are offering odds on when the iceberg will detach (or calve to give it its technical name).


So is it worth a punt?

Well even the experts aren’t sure. Prof Adrian Luckmann, who is part of the MIDAS project which released the news about the crevasse told the BBC that he’d be “amazed” if the iceberg doesn’t calve in the next few months. Looking at the scale of the crevasse and the speed at which it seems to have grown recently this seems like pretty sound reasoning:


However, before you go splashing all your cash on January and February remember there is still 20 km of ice holding that iceberg on, which is still a fair distance. We also don’t yet know what caused the sudden growth of the crevasse at the end of last year.

Large break up events tend to happen in the Antarctic summer (i.e. our Winter) so if it’s going to happen and it’s not in the next month or two it may well not be until next year.

So that narrows things down quite a bit but there’s still a bit of guessing to be done if you feel this is more worthy of your money than guessing how many goals Chelsea will score against Leicester on Saturday which I’d personally recon as being a much safer bet.

A few other notes about this iceberg that may be of general interest:

  • Its breaking away won’t contribute to sea level rise (it’s already floating on the ocean so it has already displaced its own weight in the water), but it may make the ice shelf less stable.
  • aAlthough previous ice shelf collapses such as that of Larsen C’s former next door neighbour Larsen B did follow big iceberg events, there was significantly more melting observed on Larsen B prior to this, so a sudden collapse of Larsen C is still unlikely.
  • However, if Larsen C did collapse it could lead to sea level rise through the glaciers that used to flow onto the ice shelf speeding up and flowing into the ocean.
  • Yes, penguins have been known to live on Larsen C 😦

And remember, please gamble responsibly. And that does not mean signing up for your free bonus bets and then putting them on Barnet FC to get promoted. That would be silly.



What is a conference? Part 2- the BIG meeting- AGU Fall Meeting 2015

My PhD has so far taken me to some pretty exciting places and I’ve been lucky enough to secure some travel grants that have allowed me to really make the most of my allocated travel money. However, despite the fact that my friends and family seem to think I’ve been constantly off on holiday conferences are actually pretty hard work and essential for making a career for yourself in the scientific world.

Recently I wrote about my experiences at a small meeting in Iceland. Small meetings tend to have a set programme, you all see all of the talks, everyone has lunch together and you have a chance to speak to the bulk of the people at the meeting. My other conference trip last year was to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco and was completely the other end of the scale. With over 23,000 attendees it is the largest Earth and Space science meeting in the world, and is spread across 3 buildings. At any one time there are many talks going on as well as multiple poster sessions; here the poster session is the size of several football fields.


A small fraction of the poster hall at AGU.

Given this, I was slightly sceptical about how much I was going to get out of the meeting. Even though I had put in the effort to be prepared for what I wanted to see the first couple of days were exhausting and I didn’t feel like I was picking much up. Even simple things like going for dinner were quite hard work with limited WiFi and even though I knew plenty of people there I kept missing many of them. The icebreaker reception was pure chaos- the crowd outside waiting for the free beer and merchandise from the exhibitors reminded me of the crowds you see on the news for black friday!

However, once I got over the jet lag a bit things went up hill. I realised my brain was too saturated with science on Wednesday to take in much more and instead joined to queue to watch Al Gore speak (a definite advantage of a larger conference)- he was very into the space science he was talking about, funny and nothing short of inspirational at the end. Words I’d never expect to use about a politician. It was also nice to have dinner with my UCL colleagues, and catch up with old Reading colleagues and Karthaus friends throughout the week.

Thursday was a very early start for my talk but I was glad there were still quite a few people there for the time of the morning. Straight after my talk I had responses on twitter and the next day at the poster session I spoke to several people who were interested in my work and able to offer help and advice, or were just starting out on their PhDs and wanting to know more.


Giving my talk. Unfortunately no-one ever sits near the front but there were a lot of people there, honest! Thanks to Nat Melia for photographing.

It is these interactions that make the conferences so useful and so essential. Not only have I found help with my own work, I may be able to help others with theirs and collaborate in the future. You also get a good idea of what other people are working on so you know where there could be gaps to look at things in the future.

It’s a weird old world in science as we are all at the end of the day often rivals for the same pots of funding, but we also all need help from others to get to where we need to be. Meetings like AGU are essential for this and also good for just getting to know what’s going on more generally in your field- Iceland was great but it was very specific. AGU gave me chance to watch big keynote speakers such as Eric Rignot talking about sea level rise, the notes from which will definitely be useful for putting my PhD in context both in my viva any upcoming Fairbrother public lecture.

Conferences also are of course a lot of fun and luckily there was a bit of time for sight seeing and even a Parkrun* the day after the conference ended. It was also useful that the conference was right next to Bloomingdales for those moments when a break from the full on science was needed, but don’t tell my supervisor that…


*The last one in the world in fact and therefore probably the only one where coming last is a more exciting achievement than winning.

What is a conference? Part 1- a small meeting- International Glaciological Society Iceland Symposium

This June I had the chance to attend my first international conference. It was a little daunting being as I’d only been to UK conferences before and had never spoken outside of my home Universities but the chance to visit somewhere so stunning definitely helped to mitigate that.

The journey there was an adventure itself- fill a tiny plane with glaciologists and fly them over an ice cap and you are bound to get some pretty excited people.

The conference itself was a really good size- there were 120 delegates which means that it is very easy to get talking to people. The day consisted of talks and poster session. Talks are as you would expect, a speak has about 12 minutes to give a presentation on their work and then the audience can ask questions. Poster sessions are usually in another room where people can wander and chat more informally with those presenting their work as a poster. These are often at the end of the day and over drinks.

Being a small meeting the talks were quite specifically in the area of ice shelves, ice sheets and glaciers which was good as I felt I understood a lot and also picked up things from people that are lucky enough to actually go to these places or use satellite data to learn about them.

My talk thankfully seemed to be really well received which was a big relief and has definitely helped with the thesis writing motivation. This was slightly bad timing being as I was about to start 3 months away from Reading on my Government Office of Science internship but it’s definitely made me keen to get back to the science and given me extra confindence that this a career that I can do.

A highlight of the week was the mid week excursion to the Hoffellsjokull glacier. Finally, after 2 and a bit years of PhD, some actual ice! I was clearly not the only theoretician that was overly excited by this as one was heard to exclaim, seeing the chaotic crevassing  in the ice “and we’re supposed to model this?!” We were greeted at the end of the hike with Brennevin (an Exeter Uni musician staple, no-one could understand why I was quite so averse to it), horse meat and pineapple. When in Iceland…

The conference was great for making contacts, I got to see some old Karthaus friends, and make new early career buddies as well as meet a lot of interesting and important people from withing glaciology. I have hopefully got a chance to collaborate with others outside of Reading and have since been invited to give a talk by one of the other attendees. Sadly it was all over too quickly, but even the journey home from the conference was picturesque with the bus stopping at least every half an hour to view lakes and waterfalls. Iceland, I’ll be back.


NERC ATSC Fieldwork Training Part 3- ICE!!

Having spent time getting excited by the local flora and fauna came the day I was most looking forward to- the ice! Course tutor Ed had shipped up lots of radar and GPS equipment to Ny Alesund before our arrival so our first job was to work out how to distribute it all among us to carry up to Midrelovenbreen, the glacier we were going to be working on.

Once we were all loaded up we walked out to the glacier and split into teams on of which used GPS to plot out a path up the glacier, then they were followed by the team with the ground penetrating radar. The radar is on a sledge that would normally be pulled by a skidoo but Ed had decided that as he had a handy supply of PhD students he could use us.


Team sledge dog pulling the radar equipment along the glacier (twice as someone forgot to turn it on the first time…)

We were able to attach some show chains to our boots that allowed us to walk on the glacier without falling all over the place. The path up the glacier was marked out initially by piles of rocks by the GPS team, and then spare team members as the surface of the glacier became far less rock covered the further up we got. 20 years of education to get to pretend to be a rock…



We stopped at the top of the glacier for lunch and a quick sunbathe.


After lunch at the top of the glacier we were shown a melt river that in some places was completely hidden by a layer of snow and ice over the top- a reminder that even a glacier that feels very safe can have hidden surprises.


Once we were back to Ny Alesund a few of us still had some excess energy so decided to go for a hike up towards the atmospheric research laboratory on a hill near to the town. This was our first time out on our own without a course leader so we were hopeful for no bears. Due to the measurements they’re taking  at the lab we couldn’t get too close but we still managed to get high enough to get some excellent views of Ny Alesund even if it was much more of a climb than a hike. The decision to go back down the shale front tested my balancing skills to their maximum, although little did I know that we were being checked up on through the base telescope and probably providing quite a lot of entertainment into the bargain.


A fairy steep and chilly climb up…


But worth it for excellent views of Ny Alseund and this glacier behind the mountain.

Once back at the base we had a chance to look at our biological samples and review Ed’s images from the radar.

The next day it was sadly time to head back to Longyearbyen but this was made slightly more bearable through it being via a stunning flight over the ice caps.

Our final meal of the trip provided an opportunity to finally meet a bear, thankfully our rifle training wasn’t necessary.



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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