Suldenferner meltwater stream changes

I have an automatic camera overlooking the terminus of Suldenferner glacier, where we are now studying the meltwater fluxes and their relation to sediment fluxes in the context of the GLORI project with the Free University of Bozen.

Here is a nice video of this project:

As a quick look of how the meltwater stream outlets have changed over time I thought I’d look at an early and recent image, so here is a comparison of 22nd August 2015 with the 27th June 2018. Unfortunately, it seems that at some point when I was changing the memory card in the camera, I inadvertently altered the zoom so the original image pair does not line up perfectly. Luckily Jordan Mertes just showed me how to align them in Photoshop – yay! You can see fairly substantial changes in some of the terminus outflow streams and also apparent lowering in the upper part of the debris covered ablation zone.

June 2018
August 2015


I’ll readjust the zoom of the camera next visit which will offer a slightly wider view angle to capture more of the terminus region, and we will keep monitoring these changes.

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Lovely climate communication projects

So, I don’t get as many chances to do public communication of climate science as I’d like and its made a bit trickier for me here in Austria as I think (probably correctly) that my German is not good enough to be clear and authoritative on the subject, and that bothers me.

Anyway I came across Ed Hawkins blog about participating in the Hay Festival – at which he says “The Festival had paired up three environmental scientists with three artists and authors to produce a series of hour-long live events, and provided us with an opportunity to talk about science with a very different audience.” And I think its pretty awesome! Go and have a read/look/listen on his blog

I think such initiatives, making the message about climate change and our responsibility for it beautiful, accessible, stimulating, hopeful, fun and inspiring is the way we have to go.

I really love Ed Hawkins visualizations, for example, the one below shows annual global temperatures from 1850-2017, with the colour scale representing the change in global temperatures covering 1.35°C [data]:

Even more along the lines of data-to-art is the work of Jill Pelto, for example this one using uses measurements from 1980-2014 of the average mass balance for a group of North Cascade, WA glaciers:

Gorgeous, right? You can buy prints of these type of paintings from Jills Etsy website.

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Bitten by python

I’m learning to write code for my data analysis and numerical modelling work in Python. I quite like learning how to make tidy code and developing an understanding for the tricks of a specific language, but at the same time I’m deeply impatient as I really just want to get to the answer. I think what I’m saying is that if I had a time machine I’d really like learning programming. If.

Anyway the reality is that my students are better at it than me, and I have much to learn, and it  seems to take me ages. Luckily there is a heap of material out there to help make learning easier and faster. In fact almost overwhelming. Also its not just that I need to learn python but also all the useful packages I need in my work. So here are some resources that I am finding useful so far – I will update it as I find new things.

Tutorials/workshops/lecture notes:

Articles (suggested by my colleague Fabien Maussion):

If you have other recommendations, do let me know, both to help me and so I can add it to the list! In the meantime, enjoy some encouragement from xkcd ….

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In my undergraduate degree we spent a lot of time studying the history of science and development of the scientific method, and its important to convey some of this to students undertaking independent research projects even if they have not studied it so extensively. Following the scientific method gives the research a clear structure and makes the whole process much easier in the long run!

Here is a decent summary diagram of the whole thing from which appears to be designed to help US students with science fair projects, but is nevertheless totally suitable for my purposes here:

The question might come from an observation, from a previously identified gap in the scientific literature, from your disagreeing with something you read in the literature, or it might even arrive while you are brushing your teeth (so I’m told).

One aspect of this procedure that seems to pose difficulties is constructing a testable hypothesis. There are of course some research questions for which it is easier or harder to devise a testable hypothesis but its important, prevents bias in your research, and makes the whole process cleaner and easier to actually execute. A hypothesis is a statement, not a question. Your hypothesis is not the scientific question in your project. The hypothesis is an educated, testable prediction about what will happen, and its important to establish the hypothesis before you start the experiments or data analysis tests as these should be designed to test the hypothesis.

So, the key is that before we set out to answer the research question by performing an experiment and observing what happens, we first clearly identify what we “think” will happen in response to a given set of circumstances.

  • We make an “educated guess” about what we expect to happen
  • We write a hypothesis from this
  • We set out to disprove the hypothesis using specifically designed tests/experiments/analyses

Here are some examples of good, poor and bad hypothesis, also from Science Buddies

Here is a more in-depth blog from Bethan Davies about designing good academic research studies for students:

And the accompanying seminar that Bethan gave as part of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) webinars (skip to minute 2 where it starts for real):

Bethan also has a useful blog post with more practical advise for completing a BSc or MSc dissertation or thesis:

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Are the snows of Greenland pristine or polluted?

I recently prepared a blog for Der Standard an Austrian newspaper entitled: Wie unberührt ist Grönlands Schnee? I say prepared as really it was re-written by my colleague Elisabeth Schlosser to make the German sound more native!

Anyway here is an English version of it:

Nowadays my work is primarily studying glaciers, but I used to work in a water chemistry laboratory, studying ice cores from the Canadian Arctic.

An ice core section showing dust layering inside it. Photo B. Markle

I always liked how clearly you can see the impacts of some human activities in ice cores,  for example by looking at the lead records you can see the rise of leaded petrol use in the 1920s, and then the subsequent advent of unleaded petrol from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

Measured lead (Pb) levels in an ice core from Greenland (annual samples) and the Monte Rosa massif (5-year samples) in the Alps. Lead can come from a variety of sources but you can see the pattern of leaded and unleaded petrol usage. Graphic redrawn from Osterberg et al, 2008; Greenland data from McConnell et al (2006) and Alpine data from Schwikowski et al (2004).

Although the levels of lead measured in the ice core from the European Alps are much higher, the pattern of leaded petrol use can also be seen in the Arctic areas even though most of the industrial activities and cars are far away from the Arctic.  This is because the snow falling in the Arctic is made of moisture that has travelled far through the atmosphere and so it carries the emissions and pollutants from elsewhere into the Arctic. Thus, some of the impacts of our activities in mainland Europe are felt in the farthest reaches of our planet.

A family of pollutants that is of particular interest in the Arctic are the so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are man-made compounds like pesticides, herbicides and fire retardants that are not easily broken down in nature. Because of being so long-lived, they can be transported far from their place of emission or use into the Arctic, where they are stored in snow, water and soil. Unfortunately these POPs are generally toxic, and have been found in elevated concentrations in the fatty tissue of Arctic fish, seabirds, whales, polar bear and human populations. POPs may be responsible for long-term health issues, in both animal and human populations, including hormone disruption, infertility and cancer.

Last year I was asked to participate in an expedition called POP Greenland to collect samples of snow from Greenland to see how much POPs are being transported into the Greenlandic snow. We will use non-contaminating sampling techniques to collect large samples of fresh snow, which will later be analysed to find out the concentration of pollutants within it.

Agna and I learning how to take snow samples in the field and Krys in the laboratory.

We were hoping to traverse the icesheet taking regular samples but the logistics for that did not work out, so now we are sampling at two locations in east Greenland and we have linked up with colleagues from the Greenlandic Geological Survey, the Norwegian Polar Institute and students from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Polar Academy, who will take samples from other locations on Greenland to spread the reach of our study.

Once we have found out the current levels of modern POPs in the snow, we will use 3D representations of air flow from atmospheric models to trace their transport pathways back to the likely location of the source emission. By doing all this, we can develop a much better idea of the present deposition and storage of POPs in the snow and ice of the Greenland icesheet.

Knowing the modern day levels and transport pathways better will also enable us to make a more educated estimate of how much pollution was deposited in the Greenland snows since the start of the 20th century.  This is important because, during the middle of the last century, much higher levels of more toxic, pesticides and other POPs were used. The Stockholm Convention which has been in effect since 2004 restricted use of 12 of the substances deemed most potentially damaging. However, meltwater runoff from the icesheet is coming from both modern and older snow and ice, and this will flow into the rivers and surrounding ocean. Our work will help us find out if, counterintuitively, meltwater from the seemingly ‘pristine’ Greenland icesheet may in fact present a source of toxic pollution to the Arctic environment in the coming years.

In case you are wondering, the sampling team is being kept as small as possible, and we will do our sampling by ski to minimise the use of vehicles in Greenland. To get there, from Austria and Poland, we do however have to use planes and helicopters. As far as possible the carbon emissions of this travel have been offset, but we know it is not perfect.

Our project is supported primarily by a National Geographic Society Explorers Grant. You can follow our project on the web ( and via social media (@POP_Greenland or Agna and Justyna set off for Greenland on April 10th – I will join them on May 15th.

If you are really interested in this topic the Arctic AMAP report is a great source of information:

  • Osterberg, E. C., Mayewski, P., Kreutz, K., Fisher, D., Handley, M., Sneed, S., Zdanowicz, C., Zheng, J., Demuth, M., Waskiewicz, M. and Bourgeois, J. (2006) Ice core record of rising lead pollution in the North Pacific atmosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35(5), 2–5.
  • McConnell, J. R., S. Kipfstuhl, and H. Fischer (2006), The NGT and PARCA shallow ice core arrays in Greenland: A brief overview, PAGES Newsl., 14, 13– 14.
  • Schwikowski, M., et al. (2004), Post-17th-century changes of European lead emissions recorded in high-altitude alpine snow and ice, Sci. Technol., 38, 957– 964.
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Crevasse rescue training

Every year as we take a new bunch of student helpers out to the glaciers with us we arrange a crevasse rescue course. This year Benjamin and Christoph Stern were our guides at the Stubai Gletscher ski area where we slid down steep faces to be rescued s part of a larger rope team and practiced rescuing conscious people on a smaller 3 person rope team. Then we went to the stairs to practice self rescue:

I love doing these courses every year as I always learn something new, or refine my skills or get another idea of something to think about while undertaking glacier travel. There is much that i already feel quite adept at – judging the landscape, assessing dangers, setting anchors of various kinds, direct haul rescuing using a z-pulley system, self rescue, but, for example, this was the first year I ever practiced a rescue with a larger rope team (as we usually travel with just 2-3 people for fieldwork), and we also discussed how dangerous it can be to leave someone hanging unconscious in a crevasse and how to get to them fast and rig a little chest harness to get them into a stable position. I practiced using the Garda hitch which is nice, as although I usually have a Petzl microtraxion with me, you never know when you might have to work without it. Especially when you are ham-fisted like me, and likely to drop valuable gear into crevasses …

Stay safe out there!

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Life on ice and bioalbedo

Birgit Sattler is a biologist here in Innsbruck studying the microbial life of Alpine glaciers with her team in a project called Black Ice. I’m trying to help them out a bit by running our massive freezer room for some experiments on the growth of algae in the Hintertux glacier show caves … but so far the pesky device has failed us and cooked the samples instead. Anyway here is their teaser for the Black Ice project:

Microbial life on glaciers is a pretty hot topic these days with numerous activities on Greenland such as the Black and Bloom project and well-publicized work by researchers such as Arwyn Edwards and Joseph Cook and colleagues.

Here is Joseph Cooks video about his work as a Rolex Award for Enterprise Laureate:

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Polya’s Problem Solving Techniques

Teaching University students to carry out critical and independent science research is challenging, and they need to learn to flex new muscles and approaches in their brain, that are not always well stretched at the school stage. I have found the summary of George Polyas lessons that I reproduce below on a number of websites (e.g. here) and I do not know the original source, but its great – have a read:

In 1945 George Polya published a book How To Solve It, which quickly became his most prized publication. It sold over one million copies and has been translated into 17 languages. In this book he identifies four basic principles of problem solving.

Polya’s First Principle: Understand the Problem

This seems so obvious that it is often not even mentioned, yet students are often stymied in their efforts to solve problems simply because they don’t understand it fully, or even in part. Polya taught teachers to ask students questions such as:

  • Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?
  • Can you think of a picture or diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to enable you to find a solution?

Polya’s Second Principle: Devise a Plan

Polya mentions that there are many reasonable ways to solve problems. The skill at choosing an appropriate strategy is best learned by solving many problems. You will find choosing a strategy increasingly easy. A partial list of strategies is included:

  • Guess and check
  • Look for a pattern
  • Make an orderly list
  • Draw a picture
  • Eliminate the possibilities
  • Solve a simpler problem
  • Use symmetry
  • Use a model
  • Consider special cases
  • Work backwards
  • Use direct reasoning
  • Use a formula
  • Solve an equation
  • Be ingenious

Polya’s Third Principle: Carry Out the Plan

This step is usually easier than devising the plan. In general, all you need is care and patience, given that you have the necessary skills. Persist with the plan that you have chosen. If it continues not to work, discard it and  choose another. Don’t be misled, this is how things are done, even by professionals.

Polya’s Fourth Principle: Look Back

Polya mentions that much can be gained by taking the time to reflect and look back at what you have done, what worked, and what didn’t. Doing this will enable you to predict what strategy to use to solve future problems.

These principles and more details about strategies of carrying them out are summarized in this document:Polya’s Problem Solving Techniques

George Polya (1887–1985) was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century. His basic research contributions span complex analysis, mathematical physics, probability theory, geometry, and combinatorics. He was a teacher par excellence who maintained a strong interest in pedagogical matters throughout his long career. Even after his retirement from Stanford University in 1953, he continued to lead an active mathematical life. He taught his final course, on combinatorics, at the age of ninety.

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Landlab teaching tools

I’m trying to develop teaching materials using Jupyter notebook (mainly inspired by my colleague Fabien Maussian) and its super interesting but quite hard work for me as a python beginner. I was looking for other things people have been doing with this format and I came across the teaching tools that accompany Landlab, which aims to create an environment in which scientists can build a numerical landscape model without having to code all of the individual components (Hobley et al., 2017). Landscape models have a number of commonalities, such as operating on a grid of points and routing material across the grid. Scientists who want to use a landscape model often build their own unique model from the ground up, re-coding the basic building blocks of their landscape model rather than taking advantage of codes that have already been written. Landlab offers python coded building blocks for developing your own model. Cool huh? Landlab is described in an open source paper.

The Landlab team currently shares teaching resources appropriate for geomorphology and surface water hydrology classes. The exercises use numerical models to illustrate physical processes. These exercises were designed as homework or laboratory assignments, but they could also be used to illustrate concepts in the classroom related to:

  • Hillslopes evolving according to the linear diffusion equation.
  • Drainage density sensitivity to the strength of hillslope and fluvial processes.
  • Fluvial channel morphology (steepness and chi-elevation relationships) sensitivity to rock uplift and rock erodibility.
  • Hydrograph sensitivity to watershed shape and storm characteristics.

These exercises do not require coding knowledge. They are written in Jupyter notebooks, which combine text and code, and are easy for students to use. The exercises include directed exploration exercises (i.e. students are told exactly how to change the code and run it) and thought and interpretation questions based on the resulting plots. The exercises can be tailored for your class.

Everything is open source so FREE! You can even run them online without any software installation.

For more information: (scroll down that page to see text), or just email the developer: Nicole Gasparini


Hobley, D. E. J., Adams, J. M., Nudurupati, S. S., Hutton, E. W. H., Gasparini, N. M., Istanbulluoglu, E., and Tucker, G. E.: Creative computing with Landlab: an open-source toolkit for building, coupling, and exploring two-dimensional numerical models of Earth-surface dynamics, Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 21-46,, 2017.
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Der Standard “Eis und Klima” blog

Our research group has started blogging on Der Standard, an Austrian broadsheet. The aim is to let Austrian readers know a bit more about both our research, why we do it, and what is involved in being a working scientist.

Part of the idea is to offset the (for me a bit upsetting) trend of doubting scientists and their motives for doing their work, by showing a bit of ourselves in this blogging process, while also letting people know what is being done with our portion of the Austrian research funds we are allocated.

Hopefully it will be a positive experience, and I’ll update this post with the new articles as they come out every 4-6 weeks.

1. Kristin Richter has posted on Die Vermessung des Meeresspiegels (Measuring sea level), starting with the question of how come an oceanographer studying sea level rise ends up in the Alps, and going on to explain what data on sea level rise is available for investigations.
2. Johannes Horak has posted on Die Vermessung der Gletscher (Measuring glaciers), covering a broad sweep of what glaciers are, some reasons why they matter, how they are changing and how we can measure these changes.
3. Lindsey Nicholson has posted on Wie unberührt ist Grönlands Schnee? (Are the snows of Greenland pristine or polluted?) about an expedition to Greenland to see if pesticide pollution from lower latitudes is contaminating the snow on Greenland
4. Elisabeth Schlosser has posted on Antarktis: Leben und Forschen im ewigen Eis (Antarctica: Life and Research amidst the ice), about the revisiting the Neumayer III research station for her research after overwintering in the first station almost 30 years earlier.
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