Could Glaciology Use a Dose of Feminism?

A new study in Progress in Human Geography argues that the viewpoints of women and indigenous people are not being represented in glaciology and that a feminist perspective is needed to counterbalance this deficit.

Does feminist glaciology provide just a splash of media attention, or is this something the field really needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)
Does feminist glaciology just provide a splash of media attention, or is this something the field needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)

The authors—Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing of the University of Oregon—are calling for a reimagining of what constitutes appropriate and usable knowledge in the natural sciences, especially glaciology. They argue that valuable perspectives are left out of glaciology because its history is steeped in military operations, as well as the fact that there is a current interest in risky fieldwork. The inclusion of marginalized viewpoints will allow for a more complete representation of glaciers, science, and climate change, they assert.

The study has garnered a great deal of attention for its provocative premise. Comments, blog posts, and articles have piled up since the study was published in January. Articles have mockingly called glaciers sexist or complained that the federal government wasted taxpayer dollars funding this study.

This research was funded by a grant awarded to Mark Carey by the National Science Foundation, who addressed criticism with a response that pointed out that only a small fraction of the grant went to this study.

The researchers found, after a thorough literature review, that the exclusion of women and indigenous people’s knowledge comes, in part, from a tradition of glaciers and the military. For example, during the Cold War, the United States viewed the Arctic as an area of strategic concern and began to prepare for military operations in the region.

The importance of learning how to survive and maneuver in those harsh Arctic areas provided “institutional resources, growth, standing, and credibility,” for glaciology, the authors argue. Thus, with the militarized history, the authors say that glaciology was influenced by colonialism, domination, and Western ideals that often ignore women and indigenous peoples. This history may have affected what is currently considered respected forms of glaciology.

USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)
USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

The authors say that though there are various ways to study glaciers (like modeling, experiments, and satellites), the one that garners the most attention— and therefore funding and validity— is traditionally-masculine fieldwork.

Glaciologist Garry Clarke told GlacierHub in an email that he finds this type of “[a]dventure ‘Rambo’ glaciology,” along with other points brought forth in the study, “embarrassing to most glacier scientists.” Even so, researchers working within harsh glacial conditions are often considered heroes. The authors argue that when prominent publications feature stories that focus more on the adventure, rather than the science, of glaciology, they perpetuate the validation of risk.

Lead author Mark Carey said their aim was to provide a broad perspective on the field, rather than critique individuals or their activities.

“Note that we are talking about how broader sociocultural values influence the reception and perception of science, not about individual scientists and whether their science is valuable or solid, which is not the point,” Carey said in an interview with Science.

The authors concluded that risk-taking fieldwork in the sciences not only often excludes women, but also those who cannot afford to become mountaineers. By only validating physically-demanding activities by affluent researchers, glaciology loses key knowledge that could advance the field.

Glaciologist Elisabeth Isaksson of the Norwegian Polar Institute told GlacierHub in an email that she may have “rolled her eyes” at this paper a few years ago, but upon further reflection and discussions with her peers she has come to realize the importance of a study like this one.

“Being a somewhat older female glaciologist I do think it is time to put the limelight on many of these aspects so I welcome a paper like this! However, some of the aspects brought up in the paper might be unknown for the younger generations who has been brought up in a more gender equal scientific world…”

Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo:Sajith T S/Flickr)
Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo: Sajith T S/Flickr)

The authors were also concerned with the lack of non-scientific perspectives. They found that while women were the members of indigenous societies who managed water usage, irrigation, and otherwise interacted intimately with glaciers, their knowledge has not been seen as critical or useful to traditional glaciologists.

Not only do women hold key knowledge, they are also disproportionately affected by climate change and glacier risks.

“Women might be less able to migrate out of a flood zone during a sudden glacier melt. In Peru, we know that men migrate to the cities for jobs, whereas women are more confined to their homes and child rearing,”  Carey said in a press release for the study.

Because these women often do not read or write, the authors argue that researchers should utilize techniques such as “audio-visual storytelling” in glacier communities to showcase cultural perspectives. Similarly, the authors suggest that art, such as that by Zaria Forman, is a way to “re-position and re-envision glaciers as greater than their usual status as passive research subjects…”

Another antidote the authors mention is to simply include more women in fieldwork. The study points to a program in Alaska, Girls on Ice, which teaches girls mountaineering skills. Though the authors argues that this program still expects girls to conform to traditionally-masculine fieldwork, they see this approach as crucial.

The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier (Photo :Alaska Climate Science Center)
The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier. (Photo: Alaska Climate Science Center)

The authors do acknowledge the current increase in female participation in fieldwork, but argue that it still fails to adequately address cultural and other non-scientific perspectives.

This study does not aim to eliminate traditional glaciology, but rather to have glaciologists incorporate other perspectives to insure a deeper understanding of glaciers, as well as climate change, which is made slightly more tangible through the study of glaciers.

Carey told Science that “[their] goal was to ask questions about the role of gender in science and knowledge—to start a conversation, not conclude the discussion.”