Glaciologist and expedition staff member Heidi Sevestre travelled with us on our 2016 European Arctic season, sharing her passion for glaciers and unravelling the mysteries of these ice giants. Between two adventures, Heidi took the time to answer a few questions about her fascinating job, and what she will teach you while travelling to European Arctic!
Tell us a little bit about your job as a glaciologist, what does it entail?
Glaciologists try to understand how glaciers behave, and how they impact our lives, climate change and the rise of sea. It is a very collaborative science. Various institutions work together to identify areas of our science that need improving, and we develop a plan on how to do so. It might involve field work (my favourite part!), processing satellite imagery or numerical modelling using supercomputers.
Beyond research, teaching is also an important part of my work, and it is one that I enjoy very much. Glaciology is more popular than ever, and we are lucky to meet some of the most dedicated students, always ready to accompany us in the field!
What is it about ice that makes you tick?
The first time I stepped on a glacier I was transported on a different planet. It is truly the stunning beauty of these icy landscape that originally attracted me into studying them. And there’s something magical about ice! The shades of blue of the ice, the air bubbles that have encapsulated atmosphere from thousands of years ago, the rumbles of a calving glacier… Being in the presence of these glaciers is a very humbling experience.
Is ice in the Arctic different than in Antarctica?
Glaciers are made of layers upon layers of compressed snow that is slowly metamorphosed into ice. Once a certain thickness is reached, the glacier will start to move under its own weight, under the force of gravity. But the glaciers we find in these Polar Regions are not completely the same.
During the Arctic summer, the snow covering the lower part of the glaciers will be stripped off by melt. Therefore it is easier to find stunning blue ice, especially at the front of calving glaciers. Glaciers in the Arctic can move extremely fast, some as described as “surging glaciers” and can move at speeds up to 20 metres per day, while the fastest moving glacier on Earth is an outlet of the Greenland ice sheet called Jakobshavn, and move at speeds up to 19km per year. In Antarctica glaciers are often completely covered with snow all year round, and look as if someone as spread whipped cream on top of them. They appear to be covering every little bit of ground available, and calve huge icebergs such as large tabular icebergs that we rarely see in the Arctic.
Down south, everything is bigger, but also older! Ice in the Antarctic can be up to one million years old, while in the Arctic, especially in the Greenland ice sheet the oldest ice collected was about 400 000 years old.
What makes you passionate about glaciers?
I feel that I have the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The reason why I am so passionate about glaciers is because they are huge, dangerous monsters of ice, but also extremely vulnerable, in particular to changes in climate. I love the fact that in glaciology there is still so much we need to understand about them, and no matter how good our tools are, glaciers still manage to keep things hidden away from us. Obviously today we understand that glacier changes have a huge impact on our populations, and we urgently need to study them, more so than ever.
Down south, everything is bigger, but also older! Ice in the Antarctic can be up to one million years old, while in the Arctic, especially in the Greenland ice sheet the oldest ice collected was about 400,000 years old.
- Book your 2018 Arctic adventure at 2017 prices!*
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We understand that glaciers have a huge importance on the rise of the sea level, what can be done to minimise the meltdown of glaciers?
These glaciers today are in imbalance with the current climate. The sad truth is that the trend of mass loss will continue even if the temperatures stabilize. But this does not mean that it is too late to do something about it, quite the contrary! I remain an eternal optimist, and I firmly believe that now is the best time to act. We have incredible technologies available, and the funds and the clever minds to keep on developing them. Diversifying our sources of energy is key. And harvesting green energies is obviously the way forward.
What can passengers learn with you on Aurora Expeditions’ voyages?
I am extremely passionate about sharing my knowledge of glaciers with the passengers. Expeditions in the Arctic are about being on the deck of the ship, or in a zodiac in front of mighty. With me, passengers will learn about how glaciers and sea ice form, how glaciers behave, how fast they really move, and how old ice can be. I want to make people feel like they’re a part of a scientific expedition, and that together we are learning about the secret life of glaciers. I also give passengers tools to learn how to read the landscape around them, and reconstruct major events such as past glaciations, the Little Ice Age, etc. These expeditions are about learning, but even more so about exchanging. The more questions I am asked the happier I am!
You’ve lived in Svalbard for four years doing your PhD. What is it like living in the Arctic?
Living in Svalbard is like being in a bubble. Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard has a very tight knit community, surrounded by some of the most unique, beautiful and powerful wilderness. I was fascinated by how nature ruled our everyday lives. The presence or absence of sunlight, the winds, the snow, and of course the unforgiving and mesmerizing wildlife. If I could do it all again, I certainly would!
What is your advice to a first time traveller to the Arctic?
Read some stories of exploration to get in the mood! Of course most people travel to the far North to meet the king of the Arctic, the polar bear. But there is so much more to the Arctic. Sailing through the Arctic pack ice, a pleasant walk across the tundra, the unexpected visit of an Arctic fox, the blow of a whale disturbing the still water of the deep fjords, it is sailing along animated bird cliffs where tens of thousands of animals are flying above our heads. And of course the Arctic is also a paradise for glacier enthusiasts like me, and nothing can beat a zodiac cruise along building high towers of ice under the magical arctic light. Finally, my best piece of advice is to understand that cruising with Aurora is first and foremost an expedition, and this entails that the program might change at the last minute, and it always does! So a little pinch of “Arctic flexibility” is always useful!