Intimacy and Expertise: A Conversation with Antarctic Anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly

Glaciologists Doing What They Do

When most people think about Antarctica, they do not think about people.  That is not the case for Jessica O’Reilly, assistant professor of international studies at Indiana University.  In her April 2016 paper, “Sensing the ice: field science, models, and expert intimacy with knowledge,” published in theJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, O’Reilly explores the life of Antarctic scientists and their intimate knowledge of their frozen world.

With years of experience and deep contact with their subject matters, experts of the most southern continent develop an understanding that allows the scientific community to most accurately answer pressing questions, even when lacking complete scientific data.  In her paper, O’Reilly explores a common tool called expert elicitation used to garner this educated opinion.  This method is often used in the assessment of glacier melting and assessment reports on climte change.

In an interview with GlacierHub, O’Reilly discusses her adventure to the Antarctic and her findings on the deep connection field scientists and modelers have with Antarctica.  A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.

Jessica O’Reilly in Antarctica


GlacierHub: Your recent paper discusses the intuitive understanding a scientist develops when working closely with a subject.  In your article’s case, the subject is the Antarctic ice sheet. Can you walk me through the phases of your research?

JOR: In 2004, I began participant observation with Antarctic scientists and policy makers.  Then in 2005 and 2006 I lived in New Zealand, where I worked with Antarctic scientists and policy makers and went on an Antarctic expedition in December of 2005 to do my dissertation project.

I tried to understand how and why Antarctic scientists do what they do.  My main question was how that [their behavior] affects environmental management and policy.  I followed that up with a second project, which was archival research on what scientist believe will happen to the West Antarctic ice sheet and how those projections have changed over time.

In this paper, I looked back at both of these projects and instead of directly studying how the scientists do their research, I tried to understand how the folk tales or legends they spun about their experiences on the ice, or with their data, may affect their perception of the ice sheet.


GH: The word intimacy is very powerful.  Can you explain further how someone can have an intimate relationship with an inanimate object like ice?

JOR: I’m thinking about intimacy as knowing something well, through a long and deep relationship. In the article, I suggest that expert knowledge emerges through these long-term encounters with their field sites and their objects of encounter. This builds from Hugh Raffles’ work on “Intimate Knowledge,” that he published in 2002.


GH: Can you define the term, “expert elicitation,” and discuss its connection to environmental policy?

JOR: Expert elicitation is a formalization of this idea that scientific judgment is highly valued.  It is a… research method where social scientists will send out surveys or gather specialists to give their thoughts about something that is very uncertain, such as predictions about the collapse of the ice sheet.  At the time of expert elicitation there is typically high uncertainty in the data either from the models or field observations about what may happen.  However, there are experts who have living knowledge based on all the time they have spent on the glacier or with their models – or both.

Crevasse Peeking


GH: Why do you think it’s important to bring social research, such as expert elicitation, into scientific analysis?

JOR: A good reason to utilize it is to fill [data] gaps in scientific assessments like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which were used to form the basis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement.

Climate science is a massive interdisciplinary field, and when the science timeline does not match the political timeline, or when policy makers need information quickly and there are gaps in the knowledge, expert elicitation can be one way to fill in a gap.  Everyone understand that the earth is warming and it’s partly caused by humans, but some more specific details like when sea level will rise, where it will rise the most and over what timescale are less certain.  As modeling and data collection continues, some researchers utilize expert elicitation to get as much information on the table as possible so that policy makers can make better decisions.


GH:  According to your work not everyone, even some out in the field in Antarctica, believes that expert elicitation is a viable source of information

JOR: Right, it is contested [see Glacial Drama].  And like all social sciences when exchanged with the hard sciences, or qualitative versus quantitative issues, there are people who are not enthusiastic about it.  The people who conduct expert elicitation or who choose to participate understand the criticisms of it.  It has always been a tool in situations of uncertainty where there isn’t adequate data from natural and physical sciences.


GH: It is very easy to see how someone working in the field in Antarctica can develop an intimacy with the ice.  But what is harder to grasp is the concept of modelers developing intimacy with the glaciers.  How do you explain your observations of the modelers?

JOR: Pure modelers don’t have a relationship with the glacier; they have a relationship with their model… Everyone has relationships with glaciers even if they don’t go, but we don’t all develop relationships with computer code.

U.S. Base: McMurdo Station, Antarctica

That was something that surprised me when I started interviewing modelers.  They love it so much it’s not about going to Antarctica.  It’s about doing the model and seeing a representation of the Earth’s processes unfolding through a series of equations.  The modelers become intimate with their models the same way field scientists come to know the places they are studying, which is through immersion into a long process that is sometimes monotonous but almost meditative.


GH: From your experience and the interviews you conducted, how did working in Antarctic conditions affect the social relationship of the field scientists?

JOR: That is a great question.  My book [The Technocratic Antarctic: an ethnography of science expertise and environmental governance], which is coming out late this year, talks about that.  I don’t think it’s the extreme environment that affects the social relationship as much as the isolation, which does go hand-in-hand with the harsh environment.

The people who choose to go down there are interesting characters and are very thoughtful.  You don’t just happen upon Antarctica.  It is very deliberate decision to get down there.  It involves a bunch of red tape.  Even going on a tourist cruise involves a year of planning, gearing up and training.

There are also a lot of interesting traditions.  Some think it would be hard for an anthropologist in Antarctica because there are not many people, but I found it very rich socially.  You would have to read a whole book to get a glimpse of it.  The culture in Antarctica is a very young culture.  A cool thing about it is that it’s the only continent where the first structure built there is still exists.

Photo Friday: Studying Microbes on Glacier

Any avid hiker or mountaineer would agree life as a scientist studying microbes on glaciers is not too bad. Just look the business trips they get to make. Italian scientists Dr. Andrea Franzetti, environmental microbiologist, and his colleague Dr. Roberto Ambrosini, ecologist, took a trip to Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan to collect data and bacteria samples for their latest work on supraglacial microbes.

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Organisms on Glacier Surfaces May Function as Carbon Sinks

A new study shows that life processes of microbes living on the surface of glacier ice–organisms known as supraglacial microbes–may have an impact on the melting of glacial ice and on global greenhouse gas levels. It documents a previously unrecorded process by which these microbes produce compounds which retain carbon on the glacier surface, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

Forni and other glaciers in the Italian Alps (source: Viola Sonans)
Forni and other glaciers in the Italian Alps (source: Viola Sonans)

Since 2009, Dr. Andrea Franzetti, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Milan, and a team of Italian scientists have used DNA sequencing to determine the taxonomic characteristics of bacteria and algae from glaciers in several regions of the world, and to infer their metabolic processes.  Their latest work, Light-dependant Microbial Metabolisms Drive Carbon Fluxes on Glacier Surfaces, was published in The ISME Journal, a multidisciplinary journal of microbial ecology,  in April of 2016.

Dr. Franzetti and his colleagues who studied microbes dwelling on the surface of glacier ice hypothesize that the supraglacial microbes determine whether glaciers can on average absorb or release atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a major greenhouse gas. Since roughly 10% of the Earth’s surface is covered by glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice, the cumulative impact of supraglacial microbes on global CO2 levels could have a significant effect on global climate.

The key issue whether the supraglacial microbes are predominantly CO2 consumers, like plants, or producers, like animals. The balance of these two types of microbes determines whether the world’s ice surfaces produce more CO2 than they absorb–or vice versa.

Although “it is still an open question,” said Dr. Franzetti during an interview with GlacierHub, he stated there is a trend that implies that marginal glaciers at the edge of ice sheets and mountain glaciers are dominated by CO2 producers and tend to act as carbon sources, while the interior regions of glaciers and ice sheets have mostly CO2 consumers and act as carbon sinks. The rates of production and absorption, multiplied by the areas where these activities are found, will determine the net effect of these organisms.

Schematic of psbD photosynthesizing gene, found in cryoconite algae (source: Curtis Neveu)
Schematic of psbD photosynthesizing gene, found in cryoconite algae (source: Curtis Neveu)

Their research in two sites–Forni in the Italian Alps of Italy and Baltoro in the Pakistani Karakoram–shows a number of biochemical processes that contribute to the production of organic molecules, removing carbon from the atmosphere. In particular, they find that organisms can process the carbon monoxide (CO) that is formed as sunlight breaks down organic matter in cryoconite (a mixture of dark sediment and microbes found on ice surfaces), turning it into compounds that remain on the glacier surface. Their sequencing techniques have documented the presence of a number of genes that support photosynthesis. The discovery of this carbon sink is a key contribution of their research. 

Since the type of microbes found on glaciers are predominantly the same as those found on ice sheets, Dr. Franzetti hypothesizes the most common metabolism is determined by the area of the ice and the availability of nutrients.  Mountain glaciers and marginal glaciers have a more confined surface area and tend to have more organic compounds from windblown sediment and upstream melt water.  Thus, marginal and mountain glaciers can support a greater number of CO2 producers than other areas of the glacier or ice sheet.

In addition to influencing the trapping or releasing of atmospheric CO2, microbial activity may lead to the darkening of the glacial surface and the reduction of the glacier’s albedo, or solar reflectivity, which leads to increased melting.  Glacial darkening can originate from various microbial activities.  These include the natural pigmentation, or color, of algae on bare surface ice, and the buildup of cryoconite.

Many supraglacial microbes produce an adhesive substance that trap sediment carried by wind and melt water.  Over time, the fine sediment and microbes coalesce into larger cryoconite granules, which are more resistant to displacement.  The dark cryoconite is able to absorb more heat from solar radiation than bare ice and causes more melting around the granule.  This process commonly creates what is known as cryoconite holes.  As the ice around the granules continues to melt, an impression is made in the ice surface, which allows for a greater accumulation of sediment in the growing hole and further melting. 

Air bubbles found in ice within cryoconite holes (source: Alean, Hambrey/swisseduc)
Air bubbles found in ice within cryoconite holes in the Italian Alps (source: Alean, Hambrey/swisseduc)

The accumulation of cryoconite is not the only way microbial activity can lead to the darkening of glacier ice. Past studies of supraglacial microbes found several species of algae that exist on bare ice, outside of the cryoconite deposits.  In order to combat the often lethal amounts of solar radiation that the algae are exposed to on bare ice, they release dark colored pigments.  Not only does this dark pigment allow the algae to withstand the high level of solar radiation, it also promotes surface melting.  A larger amount of melt water increases the available habitat of the algae and can lead to greater glacial darkening and melting. 

Although several studies show microbial activity does lead to glacial darkening and melting, Dr. Franzetti stated, “[The] assessment of the relative contribution [to darkening the glacier] of biological processes, chemical processes [normal sediments and geologic processes] and anthropogenic processes is controversial.”  It is unclear how much glacial melt is actually attributed to the microbial darkening.

Glacial ice is a major component of global climate.  As studies on supraglacial microbes continue to reach publication, it is becoming apparent that bacterial and algae activity has an influence well beyond the surface of the ice.