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Glaciologist


Description

Imagine working in one of the coldest, driest, most remote parts of the world like Antarctica or Greenland, studying ice formations and glaciers? Glaciologists are ice experts involved in the scientific study of glaciers and their effects on the landscape and our climate. From the great ice age to the sinking of the Titanic, which hit an iceberg in 1912, scientists' fascination with ice has grown into a career focused on that cold substance we like to put in lemonade on a hot day.

Glaciology is the study of snow and ice and their physical properties. A glacier is an accumulation of ice, air, water, and rock debris or sediment. It is a large enough quantity of ice to flow with gravity due to its own mass. A glaciologist's work focuses on ice -- from glaciers to permafrost to polar ice caps -- in order to determine whether ice sheets are growing or shrinking. Consequently, their research will help us understand the global sea level and climate changes.

A glaciologist's research involves collecting ice, studying it and designing experiments. This work relates to weather and climate change, to earth sciences and exploration, and to the research of the Earth's history. Similar to mountaineers that summit great peaks like Mt. Everest, glaciologists work only on clear days due to the danger involved in the work.

Glaciologists use different techniques to measure how the ice sheets are changing. Some involve monitoring ice movement and changes in elevation on satellite images, using remote sensing techniques. Others entail measuring changes in the position of markers in the ice to get detailed information about a particular glacier or ice drainage system. Some other methods involve taking ice cores to analyze the annual growth layers. Therefore projects can range from a tiny ice cap to a glacier the size of a continent (hence, Antarctica), in order to properly obtain results about how ice sheets are changing.

Glaciologists work with professional ice and glacier mountaineers. These professionals know how to work the ropes and stay safe in heavily crevassed regions. Many glaciologists work in teams of five, with each team member performing a particular task. Glaciologists must wear proper safety equipment, including crash helmets and full body harnesses, which are tied to heavy ropes, and to each member of the trekking team; therefore if someone falls, they can be stopped by the ropes before they reach the bottom of the crevasse. If someone were to fall into a deep crevice, their body heat would cause the ice to melt and they would become trapped. Therefore, it is imperative that all work is done with the highest safety standards.

With global warming trends heating up in the past few decades, there is a great deal of work to be done in terms of studying ice formations and understanding their effects on the environment and climate. Glaciologists warn that if all ice on Earth were to melt, the sea would rise over two hundred feet! Call in Noah ahead of time for another potential flood in the making.
 
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  Interests and Skills  
What characteristics does it take to become a glaciologist? Besides a fascination with ice and glaciers, they should have good communication skills, an open, inquiring, analytical mind, along with an aptitude for mathematics and science. They should have logical decision-making skills, and be in good physical shape for harsh expeditions.

Glaciologists must be able to work both independently and in a team environment. They must be flexible because they have to work in isolated locations, often under cold, hard conditions. Glaciologists should enjoy a mixture of office and research work and being outdoors working in the field. Their work requires a great deal of precision along with problem solving, developing innovative approaches, and taking charge of situations.
 

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research on ice caps, glaciers, snow and permafrost
  • Collect samples of ice to test for various criterion
  • Use remote sensing devices to study ice formations
  • Trek through cold, arctic conditions and over deep crevices
  • Write reports on experimental findings upon returning from fieldwork
  • It is hard to study glaciers from the office. Yet eventually glaciologists end up in an office writing reports and synthesizing their research. Glaciologists spend time in research field stations set up in the north, in Antarctica and on mountains around the world. Many glaciologists divide their time between fieldwork and office work. A typical day will obviously depend on whether they are in the office or on site. Office hours are fairly standard, whereas fieldwork could take place for extended periods of time, and spanning over many hours per day. When in the field, for example in Antarctica, glaciologists sleep in tents, go to the bathroom in a hole in the snow, and do not shower (as it is too cold). Since there is always light in Antarctica in the winter season (opposite in the Northern Hemisphere), hours of work will vary as teams can work from six in the morning until midnight or vice versa.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Glaciologists work in both the public and private sectors. They are employed by ice research companies, petroleum and mining companies, and geology and engineering consulting firms. Some glaciologists are self-employed and own their own research and consulting businesses. In the public sector they are hired as researchers for the government and also teach at educational institutions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Glaciologists with master's degrees and PhDs will have no problem advancing in the field of glaciology with experience to bigger research projects and supervising other entry-level glaciologists or students. Some may become full-time, tenured professors and continue to advance in the academic world. Others may decide to specialize their focus in other areas of the geology field, such as paleontology or oceanography. Glaciologists with extensive field experience could work as mountaineers or expediters, which are people who provide glacial expeditions with equipment, supplies, maps and other necessities.
 

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement for glaciologists is a BS honors degree in geology. A master's or doctoral degree in glaciology may be required for employment as a postsecondary instructor or glaciology field researcher. There are not many schools that offer graduate degrees in glaciology.
 

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