Climate Change

This scientist and author will make you care about melting glaciers

Icelandic glacier reflecting on water.

Glacier in Iceland is melting, similar to other frozen parts of the world. Image: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

Patrick Henry
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Climate Change

  • Scientist Jemma Wadham says glacier melting poses an imminent threat to life.
  • Glaciers and ice sheets store about 70% of the world’s fresh water.
  • Wadham has spent her career studying glaciers from the Swiss Alps to the Himalayas.

Scientist Jemma Wadham met her first glacier when she was 20. During a career spent studying glaciers and ice sheets from Norway to Antarctica and the Swiss Alps to the Himalayas, she has watched all of them shrink.

As the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, wraps up in Glasgow, Scotland, Wadham’s warnings about the consequences of global warming are more important than ever. She says we should treat glacier loss as an “imminent threat to life - a lot of lives, millions of people around the world and the world as we know it.”

Wadham, a glaciologist at UiT The Arctic University of Norway and the University of Bristol, spoke to the World Economic Forum about her life on the ice and the challenges we all face from climate change.

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Professor Jemma Wadham
Glaciologist Jemma Wadham says we need to treat the loss of glaciers around the world as an “imminent threat to life.” Image: University of Bristol

What do you find fascinating about glaciers, and why has your study of them been such a personal journey?

For me, they're almost like the eighth wonder of the natural world. You see this colossal lobe of ice edging down over the mountain’s crevasse, very dynamic, feeding meltwater to its surrounding lakes and rivers and oceans. Just being in these places you feel very connected to that natural environment. But it’s also quite a challenging environment to be as a human being. We don't tend to live so much right next to a glacier. So it's always been very personal to me.

Your book, Ice Rivers, is full of details from your research work in the field that really bring the science of glaciers to life. Could you share an anecdote from your life as a glaciologist?

A lot of being around ice sheets or glaciers involves just day-to-day surviving. When I did my Ph.D. on Svalbard, that was one of the most impressionable periods of my life as a glaciologist, partly because I was quite young, and I think you always feel things when you're young. It's the first experience. I was living by the side of a fjord in a tiny wooden hut for several months, and you're creating your own heat and trying to make food. But it's the most incredible environment. You see polar bears sometimes turn up, and you always have to be carrying a rifle to be cautious about these situations, to protect yourself if needed. You've got the beluga whales that swim down the fjords and they’re sloughing off their skin in the shallows. You've got the Arctic terns. You're trying to get to the glacier, but you have to cross their area where they're nesting, and they’re dive-bombing your head and it’s literally drawing blood.

What lessons should we learn from the melting of glaciers and ice sheets around the world?

I find it a very scary thing because I've seen these changes with my own eyes. The glacier I started out on as a 20-year-old, when I first became fascinated by glaciers, is a little glacier in the Swiss Alps that's lost a kilometre of its front over that same time period.

We're going to lose quite a lot of glaciers. And the scary thing is that these are lifelines to us, through their fresh waters, but also how they connect with the very fragile environments and ecosystems around them as life-support machines in many ways. And I think we are essentially cutting off that life-support machine to ourselves.

Glacier mass balance (yearly)
2020 was the 33rd year in a row that glaciers tracked by the World Glacier Monitoring Service lost rather than gained ice. Image: NOAA Climate.gov based on data from the World Glacier Monitoring Service

How has our understanding of glaciers changed over the course of your career?

When I started out aged 20, glaciology was mostly about maths and physics. That was because we didn't believe glaciers had any life living within them or around them. We thought they were these sterile wastelands almost like a desert. But not long after I started my Ph.D. there were reports of populations of microorganisms found living in the dark, in the cold, on mud beneath this valley glacier in Switzerland I was studying. For me, that completely changed the way I thought about glaciers. It changed the way people around the world, scientists around the world, thought about glaciers. They were no longer these sterile wastelands. They’re as alive as a handful of soil you might pick up from your garden, or a forest environment.

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