A Chat with the Iceman

Thorsten Markus, on sea ice in Antarctica.

By Maureen Moses, AMS Education Program
I hope you all had a good Earth Science Week last week! The theme was “Careers in the Earth Sciences,” and the AMS Education Program participated in a twitter chat with NASA Polar Scientist Thorsten Markus, who admits that as a high schooler in Germany science wasn’t his passion, but becoming a musician was. Now head of NASA Goddard’s Cryospheric Science Lab, Dr. Markus makes measurements of ice thickness in Antarctica.
Chat participants included a whole classroom full of eighth graders. Dr. Markus had plenty of advice on how a future polar scientist with an adventuresome streak can make a splash in a cool field! Here are some of the questions he fielded–edited and excerpted from the full chat archived on Twitter:

I’m here with 25 8th grade Earth Science students and one student would like to know what the day to day duties are as a polar scientist.
It’s extremely playful — playing with lots and lots of satellite data and learning something new every day.
Do you get to travel to cool places or are you processing data in an office?
Oh man, yes. I used to go to the Arctic and Antarctic and also flew over them in helicopters and planes.
What was your favorite experience in the field as a scientist?
Seeing the penguins coming out of the water and then standing right next to us. Fantastic!
When you decided becoming a rock star might not happen, why did you choose physics over math for a major?
Physics is pretty much applied Math — you deal with everyday problems… and actually learn how to solve some.
Which class helped you the most to get where you are today?
Maybe Math, but the arts fostered my creativity, for thinking outside the box
What level math did you have to go to? (for the future polar scientists out there). THX for the response!
I have a Ph.D. in physics, which involves a lot of math — but there’s also chemistry, biology and geography.
What is the difference between glacier ice data and sea ice data… Do they tell different stories?
Very different. Glacier ice is fresh water from mountains or ice sheets whereas sea ice is frozen ocean.
Are they affected differently by climate change?
Glaciers are balanced by snowfall and temperature, while with sea ice, also ocean properties play a big role.
So sea ice is inherently more volatile/variable?
I’d like to say sea ice is more complex, but then the ice sheet people might get angry 😉
What is/will be the impact of disappearing ice sheet on the global climate?
Melting of the ice sheets will increase sea level and affect ocean circulation because of the fresh water influx.
When can we expect to see Antartica’s ice retreating because of climate change. If it keeps stable or increasing, what can be made of that?
The Arctic and Antarctica are two different systems and global warming does not mean it warms uniformly everywhere.
What do you say to people who claim there’s a “debate” about climate change?
I don’t think there’s a “debate” about whether there’s climate change. The debate is by how much we’re responsible for it.
How good are the current models in predicting Arctic and Antarctic ice response to the climate warming?
I think the models are remarkable — certainly not perfect, but what prediction is perfect?
What climate data scares you the most (has the greatest implication for scary future events)?
The global ocean circulation, because it shows that things we do to the Chesapeake Bay may affect far away places.
Does any of the research you do tell us anything about other sheets of ice in cosmos?
As a matter of fact, I was involved in research about the Jupiter icy moons. So yes, there are analogies.
Who do you regard as your inspiration?
It was Keith Richards, now it’s the balance of the earth system… isn’t it remarkable how it all works together?

They Still Make Them Like They Used To

This summer, the Catlin Arctic Survey team became the first explorers to ever take ocean water samples at the North Pole. The three-person team covered 500 miles over 2 1/2 months in their expedition across sea ice off the coast of Greenland. On the way they were met with numerous obstacles: a persistent southerly drift that regularly pushed them backward, strong headwinds, ice cracks opening under their tent, dangerously thin ice, and areas of open water they had to swim across.

The Catlin camp

They persisted through it all, measuring ice thickness, drilling ice cores, and collecting water samples (see the video below) and plankton data. They hope their research will provide insight into the effects of carbon dioxide on local marine life and Arctic Ocean acidification.
The heartiness of the Catlin team reminds us of the rich history of polar exploration in the name of meteorology. Historian Roger Turner of the University of Pennsylvania gave a fascinating presentation at the AMS Annual Meeting in Atlanta about the origins of the tradition, spotlighting the group of young Scandinavian meteorologists who studied under Vilhelm Bjerknes in Bergen, Norway. They were vital contributors to numerous Arctic expeditions in the 1920s.
This first wave of Bergen School meteorologists was well-suited to polar exploration, where they contributed their familiarity with the Far North conditions as well as their new understanding of upper-air dynamics. But Turner argues that their affinity for outdoors activities–particularly in the harsh conditions of the Arctic–also set them apart from others in their generation and, by implication, from the desk-bound meteorologists today.
We think those hardy meteorological pioneers of yesteryear would appreciate the intrepid scientific spirit of the Catlin team.