The Right Time to Study the Timing of Glacier Melt and Human Resilience —A New Postdoc Opportunity

A new postdoctoral fellowship seeks applicants interested in probing the timescales of human interactions with cryospheric change. The University of Oregon-led project will take an interdisciplinary approach, noting geographers and related fields would be really well-positioned, and are open to researchers in social sciences, humanities, or natural sciences. The deadline to apply is February 17.

By Mark Carey and Dave Sutherland

GlacierHub readers are aware that glaciers are shrinking and that this cryospheric change has far-reaching implications for people living close to and far from the ice and snow. The recent IPCC special report on oceans and the cryosphere makes this abundantly clear, noting that melting ice in high-mountain and Polar regions affects “food security, water resources, water quality, livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and recreation, as well as culture of human societies, particularly for Indigenous peoples.” Research on the societal and physical dimensions of ice keeps expanding, offering more precise pictures not only of the ice change itself but also the ways people are affected and responding.

Image: Mark Carey

Frequently, though, discussions about glacier retreat and human resilience to the ice loss can miss some of the nuance in the timing and timescales of these processes. Reports about glacier size, retreating terminus positions, increased calving, reductions in glacier runoff, and slope instability in the periglacial environment often adhere to long-term linear chronologies and focus on decadal timescales. They might go back a few decades or to the end of the Little Ice Age to document past glacier terminus positions and illustrate ice loss. Or, the accounts provide projections of ice loss moving forward, usually trying to understand processes and impacts to the year 2100, or perhaps an earlier date when the glaciers might disappear altogether.

Yet there are other aspects of the timing and timescales of glacier loss that have received less attention in recent years. Glaciers do of course change over decades, centuries, and millennia. But they also have “weather,” with daily variations due to solar heating and melt, seasonal variations that result in more water in certain months, and longer term changes due to natural and anthropogenic factors.

Image: Mark Carey

People living near glaciers also operate under their own temporalities, which often do not align with the “natural” temporalities of ice environments. Fishing communities react to daily, weekly, and seasonal changes of glacier runoff and iceberg calving into fjords. Hydroelectric companies must overcome effects of glacier fluctuations on downstream hydrology so they can boost energy production every weekday evening for peak electricity consumption. Irrigators, too, have different water needs based on their seasonal and crop-specific water needs. And they must adjust to daily, seasonal, annual, and decadal changes to glacier runoff, which influences the quantity and timing of water flowing into their fields. Tourism also has its unique temporalities, usually concentrated in summer months or tied to some other specific seasonal constraint that may have little or everything to do with snow and ice conditions, particularly for access or safety. In all of these cases, there are wildly distinct environmental and societal timescales that interact, intertwine, or collide with different people differently.

Dave Sutherland (oceanographer) and Mark Carey (historian) have just launched a new project at the University of Oregon that seeks to understand these divergent, multiple, and constantly changing temporalities. The project explores glacier fluctuations from both a physical science perspective and societal lens. What is the impact of cryospheric change and ice loss on local communities in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska region? How do we reconcile the long-term trends in glacier change with observed short-term variations, and how do the short-term changes affect various social groups differently? To make progress on these questions, this project will develop a nuanced, time-focused approach to glacier change.

Source: Mark Carey

A key part of this project is the hiring of a new postdoctoral fellow to join their team at the University of Oregon. Applications are due by February 17, 2020. The postdoc will help study the timing and timescales of glacier and societal change in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Sutherland and Carey will both co-mentor the postdoctoral fellow for this integrated, interdisciplinary research. The postdoctoral fellow may come from any discipline provided they have interdisciplinary inclinations and training. They will be integrated into both Sutherland’s Oceans and Ice Lab and Carey’s Glacier Lab, making this a truly interdisciplinary research experience.

Ultimately, this research project and postdoc will implement the frequent calls for integrated, interdisciplinary research. They will examine the scientific issues of glacier change and its impacts on various marine and land-based ecosystems, as well as analyzing how different stakeholders and human groups are affected by the timing of specific changes in socio-cryospheric systems. Resilience, in short, hinges as much on short-term planning for these various contingencies as it does on long-term planning for glacier shrinkage, future runoff reduction, and sea-level rise—the issues we usually hear most about with climate change and ice loss.