Environment

Interview: Studying the South Pole From the North Pole

Based out of Tromso in Norway, Vikram Goel has been travelling to Antarctica to study glaciers, which may have lessons for the Himalayas.

It takes a great amount of logistics to make trips to Antarctica. Credit: Vikram Goel/NPI

It takes a great amount of logistics to make trips to Antarctica. Credit: Vikram Goel/NPI

As part of an innovative project the Indian ministry of earth sciences sent two young PhD scholars to study at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) in Tromso. They have been conducting their research there for two and half years. Both of them are glaciologists, although the research focus of one is the Arctic and the other is the Antarctic. This is the second of two interviews, with Vikram Goel, who has been studying “ice rises” and how they impact the flow of glaciers in Antarctica.

How did you get into this programme? What appealed to you?

I heard about this program through an advert in the Employment News newspaper. I had just finished my masters in earth system science and technology from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur and was looking for PhD opportunities in Europe focussing on application of physics in earth sciences like meteorology or oceanography. When I saw this opportunity in the newspaper, I was very much interested. This position, funded by Earth System Science Organization (ESSO) – part of the ministry of earth sciences – included working at the NPI in Tromso for three years on the topic of Antarctic glaciology. The underlying physics behind glaciology is quite similar to disciplines like oceanography and meteorology that I had studied previously, and this opportunity involved doing fieldwork in Antarctica which was a dream I never dared dreaming. Since the Indian government is funding this position, I really liked the possibility of working for Indian Antarctic program in future.

Can you give us a brief overview of the research you are doing?

My research focusses on investigating the current status and past evolution of ice rises in coastal Dronning Maud Land (DML) – (also known as Queen Maud Land, a territory annexed by Norway in 1939)– in Antarctica. Ice rises are grounded ice bodies surrounded by (floating) ice shelves. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine a water bottle lying on its side. The water inside is held by the cap. And the threads on the bottle keep the cap in its place. If the cap is loose, water will leak. If you screw it too tight, it might break the cap and lead to a leak or total drain of the water. Ice shelves act like caps in controlling the flow of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet to the ocean. And ice rises act like the threads that are keeping the ice shelves there. We are investigating ice rises in DML, which is one of the least studied regions in Antarctica. This region also holds ice which, if it melted, would raise the sea level by potentially 6-8 metres.

A series of illustrations by a Belgian colleague of mine, Reinhard Drews, explains the role of ice rises quite well.

 

This is how an ice shelf looks without an ice rise

This is how an ice shelf looks without an ice rise

 

An ice rise stabilises the system by buttressing the ice shelf

An ice rise stabilises the system by buttressing the ice shelf

If the ice self thins, the ice rise will also disappear, leading to speed up of melting

If the ice self thins, the ice rise will also disappear, leading to speed up of melting

Ice shelf images

Or the ice rise may destabilise the system itself by becoming too big. Credit: Reinhard Drews

We want to know whether these ice rises are growing or thinning. How they came to be there? Also, what can they tell us about the past of the surrounding region? Ice rises are like small islands surrounded by flowing ice, they can store exclusive information (because they have not melted like their surroundings) about the past climate of the surrounding region which is untapped. The knowledge of the past is essential to make better future predictions.

Vikram being briefed before going out for work. Credit: NPI

Vikram being briefed before going out for work. Credit: NPI

In my PhD I’m studying the ice rises in DML with a special focus on a specific ice rise known as Blåskimen Island. To carry out this investigation, we go to the selected field sites and acquire a lot of information using various geophysical methods including Global Positioning System (GPS) and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). We use this data along with state of the art ice flow models to answer our research objectives.

Why is this research important?

Antarctica is the biggest deposit of freshwater in the whole world with 70% of all freshwater. It holds enough ice to raise sea level by 60 metres or more. In the past few decades the contribution of Antarctica to global sea level rise has been steadily increasing. However, with the current state of knowledge and data it is hard to predict how this contribution will change in the future. Based on recent studies, we are realising the importance of ice rises in Antarctica. These ice rises that act as tiny (on the Antarctic scale) pinning points, if lost, can lead to a speed up of glaciers and can also destabilise the ice shelf in some cases. They also hold valuable information regarding the history of the continent. This information is crucial for various continent scale models which are used to predict the sea level rise contribution form Antarctica. Due to their small size most of these ice rises cannot be resolved in these models, even though they have a significant impact on the system. Our studies can help these models to measure the impact of these ice rises on the system and produce more accurate sea level estimates.

Can your research on ice rises be applied to the Himalayan research, if so, how, and to what purpose?

Glaciers are rivers of ice and understanding them involves understanding the behaviour of ice in different settings. Whether it’s a glacier in Antarctica, Svalbard or the Himalayas, it’s still all ice, although in different climates. So the tools we use to study its behaviour remain mostly the same. For my study in Antarctica I used high precision GPS, ground penetrating radar, firn cores and numerical modelling. All of these tools can be adopted to study glaciers in the mountains and are already in use by many glaciologists around the world.

Digging into ice rises can help understand the history of glacier melt. Credit: Vikram Goel/NPI

Digging into ice rises can help understand the history of glacier melt. Credit: Vikram Goel/NPI

Has being in Tromso helped you in your research?

Yes, certainly. Living here has given me an intimate perspective to climate change. Compared to the rest of the world the Arctic is warming at twice the pace and is undergoing rapid changes. Living here has given me a firsthand experience of these changes. Also it has been a great learning experience working on a day to day basis with the best glaciologists in the field.

What do you see yourself doing in the future, now that 2.5 years of your three years is over?

I see myself doing similar things. I have become fond of glaciology for many reasons and would love to continue with similar research. If opportunity arises, I would like to work with my Indian colleagues and share what I have learned in the past three years and contribute to Indian research. I would also like to act as a bridge between Norway and India to enhance the cooperation.

This article was originally published on the The Third Pole.