Scientist to talk about her study of glaciers around the world

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PUTNEY — As glaciers melt into nonexistence, humans are losing much more than ice, says Dr. M Jackson, a glaciologist and National Geographic Society Explorer.

"A warming world is profoundly changing human culture and history," said Jackson in a recent phone interview. "Ice influences people and what happens to the ice happens to us."

Jackson will explore this theme during a presentation in the the Landmark College Auditorium on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Jackson has spent the last decade visiting glaciers around the world, especially in Iceland. She said her field of study has more to do with the interaction between humans and ice than the actual mechanics of glaciation. She will talk about what she has learned and share images of glaciers from around the world.

"Glaciers can be found in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia ... really surprising places," she said. "And the pictures of these glaciers are quite surprising, not always the classic white, but different colors including brown and black and with trees growing on them."

Jackson is the author of "The Secret Lives of Glaciers," which was published this year by Green Writers Press of Brattleboro. The book explores what happens when a community's glaciers slowly disappear, focusing on the stories of people and glaciers along the southeastern coast of Iceland. In 2015, Green Writers Press published Jackson's first book, "While Glaciers Slept," an exploration of the parallels between the destruction of the planet as a result of climate change and a family facing the loss of its parents, combining personal science with exploration.

"Along the southeastern coast of Iceland, glaciers are embedded in the daily fabric of going about your business," Jackson said.

"What's fascinating is that everywhere glaciers are located on this planet, they are located within inhabited and historic environments," she wrote in an essay for the National Geographic Society. "As glaciers retreat they are altering the human story in profound ways, and I was about to get a front-row seat."

In that essay, she described a visit to a glacier near the village of H fnin in Iceland.

With an unnamed guide, Jackson's nighttime hike onto the glacier revealed a massive presence of ice.

"[It] is difficult to assess the entirety of a glacier nine miles by thirty, so instead, you're left with a feeling that the glacier just dominates," she wrote.

Arriving at their destination, Jackson and her guide sat in a shallow bowled area surrounded by seracs, towers of ice that tend to stick up like shark's fins from the surface of the glacier, and jagged pillars. And then the Northern Lights began to glimmer.

"First a dull glow, and then, like a light switch flipped on, blazing yellows, purples, greens, swirls of pinks and whites, and — wait — the glacier we were sitting on, Brei amerkurj kull, it began picking up, internalizing, swallowing, containing the lights in the sky," Jackson wrote. "The northern lights pulsed through the ice at the rim of the bowl, through the thin seracs, transforming them into icy Jedi lightsabers smoldering in kaleidoscopic concentrations. And the bowl of the glacier itself, it was whirling, throwing light like a candle-lit chandelier, like a phosphorescent ocean wave, like a field at midnight populated with hundreds of summertime fireflies."

"This is why glaciers are worth fighting for," her guide told after the light show was over.

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"The place where I sat watching the aurora borealis set the glacier aglow was once, upon Iceland's settlement well over a thousand years ago, vegetated meadow and birch forest," she wrote. "Early Norse settlers built farms in the area, raised turf buildings and sheep and goats and children until around 1600 or so, when Brei amerkurj kull began advancing over those homes and families and futures."

Within the next 50 years, Jackson said, Iceland's glaciers will lose between 25 and 35 percent of their present volume as a result of global climatic changes. In warmer climates, glaciers are disappearing more rapidly, she noted.

"Today, we have over 400,000 glaciers and ice caps scattered across Earth, over 5.8 million square miles of ice," she wrote for National Geographic. "Each glacier is exceptionally diverse, each fluctuating in multitudes of complex ways to local, regional, and global environmental dynamics."

And while glaciers have receded and advanced over millennia, she said, never before in human history has ice worldwide decreased as quickly as it has over the last several decades.

"And now," she wrote, "another century is gone, the planet has fully entered the Anthropocene — where humanity's impact on Earth is so serious that scientists have declared a new geological epoch — and the glacier maintains a backward march, dissolving so quickly local Icelanders fear it might never stop and Brei amerkurj kull will disappear completely down to the last snowflake."

"What we know today is glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates," Jackson told the Reformer. "There really is no controversy. We are facing a massive phase change during which frozen water is becoming liquid water going into our seas and oceans. This warm world is getting wetter and wetter."

As for those who argue that global climate change is not a result of human activity, Jackson said she tries to speak to them with compassion rather than disdain. "The majority of the people on the spectrum of denial fear change," she said. "It's easier to put their energy into fighting [the science of climate change] than having to change the way they live. That's very scary for a lot of people."

She also noted that many of the people who attack her on social media or via email are not arguing about the science but instead are "weaponizing" her gender. "They say lots of nasty things." But, she said, "I'm in it for the long fight. For me, the very worst has happened."

Jackson admits that in her lifetime, she won't see the glaciers begin to advance. But she sees that as no reason to give up.

"It doesn't make anything I, or anyone else does, any less important," she said, adding she has seen a shift in the way people advocate for what they feel is important. "There are brilliant, creative brains trying to make our world a better place."

Jackson first came to Vermont as part of National Geographic Student Expeditions, a collaboration with Putney Student Travel.

"I am really excited to be coming back," she said.

Jackson is a TED Fellow, a three-time U.S. Fulbright Scholar, a U.S. Fulbright Ambassador and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. She holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Montana and earned a doctorate in geography and glaciology from the University of Oregon. Jackson has also served as an Expert for National Geographic's student and adult expeditions in Alaska, Iceland and Antarctica.

Her current effort, InTangible Ice, is a multi-year project that studies the impacts of the sociophysical dimensions of glacier retreat, partnering with the National Geographic Explorers, filmmakers and scientists.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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