The Story Glaciers Tell (Archive)

Originally posted February 7, 2018.


Brita Horlings’s research focuses on how fast snow compacts into ice on Greenland and Antarctica. She uses computer models to understand what will happen to compaction during climate change and how this affects our estimation of sea-level rise.

Growing up, I wanted to study glaciers because they tell a story. A story of what had happened many years ago and what is happening now. One look into the rugged mountain landscapes of the North Cascades and Sierra Nevadas, or just at the Puget Sound could tell you of the massive glaciers that once covered the area thousands of years ago, sculpting the land to produce icons, such as Yosemite Valley, or leaving behind remnants of their existence, such as the sometimes bothersome hills in north Seattle. One look at the glaciers today on Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker could tell you something different, perhaps muddled by natural growth and decline, but with a clear indication as to what their final fate will be. They are highly responsive to climate change, growing or shrinking directly based on such fluctuations, making their signal valuable to interpret. In other words, they are like those highly sensitive family members, either getting angry or depressed at the first sign of imbalance in the household.

At the University of Washington, I study changes to the snow and ice on Antarctica and Greenland (yes, they are glaciers) that happen because of changes in climate. Talking to the public about my research goes hand in hand with talking about climate change, as is the case with most glaciologists. In reality, rarely can you spot an online news article that doesn’t mention climate change with glaciers. So, when I step into the role of educating the public about glaciers, I invariably step into the role of educating them about climate change. Unfortunately, climate change is a controversial subject, and can be met with incredible resistance from some people. So, as glaciologists, we have an obligation to know the basics of climate change, even if our research is not truly related. And, in fact, we do learn these integral topics – the projections for how much temperature and sea level will rise in the next one hundred years, how glaciers will behave given a changing climate, and how atmosphere and oceanic circulation patterns will be altered. Yet, are we prepared to communicate to the public about glaciers or climate change by simply knowing these concepts and numbers? After many years of thinking that this answer might be “yes,” I have changed my mind.

Until now, I have never taken a communications class. And indeed, I may not have taken one if it weren’t for Engage. I think a great deal of scientists fail to realize that doing research is only half of being a scientist, as I did at first. The other half is communicating that science. Thus, as a scientist, I have a responsibility to be a good communicator, a good conveyor of the science that I’ve done and the science that others have. In many of the Engage sessions, there has been a recurring motif that has particularly resonated with me: “Tell a story.” I often overlooked the strength of storytelling in my presentations or other interactions with an audience, even though it is remarkably simple advice. I also have to laugh a little at the irony of it all, for it was because of the powerful story that glaciers could tell that brought me to where I am at now.