Melting Exhibit Brings Glaciers to London

The Summer Science Exhibition’s “Vanishing Glaciers” exhibit, an interactive exhibit focusing on the science of observing and predicting glacial mass balance, hydrology, and dynamics, as well as the impact of climate change on vital water sources, concluded Sunday July 5, marking the end of the annual science festival.

The Summer Science Exhibition, produced by the Royal Society, is a weeklong, free science festival in London that features hands-on experiments, panel discussions, and family activities. The exhibition ran this year from June 30 until July 5.

Vanishing Glaciers exhibitThe Vanishing Glaciers exhibit, which saw crowds of over 10,000 people and 2,500 students over the course of the week, was conceived by a group of 14 glaciologists from five different UK universities. After the group concluded their most recent fieldwork in Himalayan and Karakoram glaciers, they created the Vanishing Glaciers exhibit as one of 22 exhibits at the Summer Science Exhibition.

Ann Rowan, a Vanishing Glaciers team member and research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said over email, “It felt like time to summarize this work for the public and explain why it’s important to study glaciers in these regions.”

Rowan explains that while most people generally know the impact melting glaciers will have on rising sea level rise, the effects melting glaciers will have on regional water supply are generally unknown. After all, Himalayan glacier melt water composes rivers that support an astonishing one-fifth of the world’s population. In light of climate change, Rowan says, “There is a real need to understand… how water supplies and hazard potential in the region will vary during the current and following centuries.”

On the reception of the exhibit, Rowan remarked that the exhibit was “hugely positive.” Over the course of the week, Rowan and her fellow glaciologists interacted with a “whole range of people who are interested in science,” from small children who wanted to know why ice melts and university students, to “Fellows of the Royal Society who wanted to check that we understood fluid dynamics and mass conservation.”

The exhibit garnered public interest through interactive displays, such as 3-D models of Khumbu glacier and timelapses of glacial dynamics. But, the most popular part of the exhibit by far was a melting block of ice.

“We had a large block of ice, normally supplied to cocktail bars, delivered each day for visitors to interact with and see how fast it melted over time,” said Rowan. “We used this simple and aesthetically pleasing prop to start a discussion about how we could predict when the ice would melt, and the differences between this and predicting how glaciers change.”

The team’s glaciologists used the ice block as a stepping point on to various discussion subjects. Glaciologists and audience members discussed topics such how exactly one measures a glacier, about dwindling regional water supplies, and how scientists know that humans are affecting the climate and what people can do to mitigate these effects.

While some visitors were skeptical about the evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change, Rowan stressed to these visitors that “even if the cause of glacier change is unclear, the need for action [to mitigate the rapid rate of glacial melt] is not.”

The team of glaciologists, while first and foremost scientists, believes that public outreach events such as the Vanishing Glaciers exhibit are vital to their work. “We consider outreach beyond the scientific community to be an essential part of being a successful scientist,” Rowan said.