Earth Day 2020: Inside the Glacier by Dr Philip Porter

Dr Philip Porter, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Hertfordshire talks about how he faced his fears to pursue his dream career in glaciology and highlights how quickly glaciers are changing due to global warming.

"Back in 1991 when I graduated with a degree in Physical Geography I made the decision that I wanted to undertake a doctorate in glaciology and I recall one of my tutors at the time telling me that this was a bad idea as ‘it will involve lots of very hard mathematics’!

As someone who is rather mathematically ‘challenged’ I was concerned! However, I forged ahead regardless, not because I thought I could overcome my mathematical weaknesses, but because I was excited by the mountains and the great outdoors and of all the sights on Earth, a huge glacier cascading down a mountainside is to my mind about as beautiful as it gets. There is also something magical about rocks and water, whether solid or liquid. These two primary elements of our landscape fascinate me and transfix me in equal measure when I am in the mountains.

Given this fascination, I suppose it was natural that rather than just working on the surface of glaciers and ice sheets, I would want to see inside the glacier and explore what is a virtually unknown world. After a twenty-eight year career as a glaciologist, my chance finally came in 2017 when I was invited to participate in a research project to laser scan the deep interior of a High-Arctic glacier to understand how the channels and tunnels that move and store meltwaters are evolving in a warming world.

Along with maths, another challenge I face is a fear of heights and as much as I was excited about my imminent 60m abseil into the dark abyss, I was also moderately terrified! I ‘prepared’ myself for this experience by peering down over the balcony on the top floor of the highest building I could find on the University campus, but realising that the abseil would be at least three times further than this dizzying height did little to quell the nerves!

After numerous delays due to bad weather, the day finally arrives and, as anyone with a fear of heights who has abseiled will testify, the worst part is leaning back into space on the rope and quietly catastrophising about what will happen! Of course the rope holds and all is well and then the wonder overcomes the fear. I am surrounded by vivid blue ice of breathtaking beauty, comprising incredible water-sculptured elements that rival the finest artworks anywhere in the world. It’s impossible not to wonder how old the ice is; glacial ice is simply compressed snow, layer upon layer and so as I gingerly inch my way downwards, I’m going back in time. Did this ice fall as snow during Roman times?  Did it fall during the Stone Age, or even before humans roamed the Earth? It’s spellbinding stuff and with the ever-changing light dancing around me the temptation is to hang in space on the rope and soak in the visual feast.

Work calls however, and 60m below the surface I hit the ground with a gentle bump, but the eyes are drawn ever upwards towards the light. Even an obviously dangerous overhanging block of ice looks serene and harmless, such is its beauty. It is sobering and not a little depressing to realise that all this beauty around me will be gone in a few short decades at current rates of ice melt, but equally this is motivational, as science educates and informs and that’s why we are here, to understand these melting rivers of ice and to highlight how quickly they are changing and how transient they will be unless we act.

I never did overcome my mathematical limitations or my fear of heights, but when pursuing dreams such things assume a lesser significance; I sometimes say that more people have walked on the moon than have seen the deep interior of a glacier. I may be wrong, but it’s a nice thought and one that never ceases to remind me of both how privileged I am to have seen such a transient environment first-hand and how it’s so important not to let our limitations, mathematical or otherwise, limit our pursuit of the things in life that excite and motivate us."


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