December – a month where we dream of a white snowy Christmas. What better month is there to meet up with Susanne Lilja Buchardt Ph.D., faculty for the ice-bound core course Glaciers and Human Impact: Icelandic Climate Change Case Study!Susanne, who has spent six summers conducting research at both Poles, joined DIS this year to teach the new second core course in the Environmental Science of the Arctic program. We met up with her to hear more about her work with ice core analysis and ice flow models, and what students in her course can expect inside the classroom and on tour in Iceland.
DIS: You hold a Ph.D. in Glaciology from the University of Copenhagen and studied at the Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute – what first drew you to this area?
Susanne Buchardt, Ph.D.: When a teacher back in high school first taught me about the Greenland ice cores and how they reveal climate history for the last 100,000 years, my interest was immediately sealed. The more I learned, the more interesting it became and I just had to find out more! I started studying geophysics and eventually got the opportunity to go to Greenland and participate in field work at an ice core drilling station. Today, I am still fascinated by the climate information you can get from studying the ice sheets – information about current changes as well as past changes. Also, the field of glaciology is special because of the field work dimension, and I enjoy the combination of theoretical and practical work as a glaciologist.
SB: I have participated in ice core drilling operations on the Greenland ice sheet for five summers now, while one summer (the Northern Hemisphere winter) I spent in Antarctica. Typically, there are around 30 scientists and students from many different countries in the camp when the drilling is in full operation. The ice core drilling takes place in laboratories that have been dug into the snow. When the ice cores come up (typically around 3m at a time), they are measured and cut into smaller sections. Some of the measurements are done in the field while some have to wait until the cores have been shipped home. These measurements tell us many things about the conditions in the past: what was the temperature, how much did it snow, when did volcanic eruptions happen and much more.
DIS: What are the main differences between your core course, Glaciers and Human Impact: Icelandic Climate Change Case Study and the other Environmental Science of the Arctic program core course Ice Cores and Ice Ages: Greenlandic Climate Change Case Study?
SB: In both courses students learn about how climate has changed in the past, and what the causes and mechanisms behind these changes are – but the Iceland course is also focused on societal aspects of climate change. The motivation is that understanding past climate variability provides us the best foundation for understanding present changes and for making useful projections of future climate. This difference is also reflected in the case studies.
In the Iceland case study, we investigate the impact of past and recent climate changes on people and society in Iceland since the settlement of the country 1,000 years ago. We cover periods when the climate was significantly different than present day and explore mechanisms and feedbacks governing the climate system. Meanwhile, the focus of the Greenlandic case study is the development of ice core science and the deeper time climate dynamics and mechanisms.
DIS: Why does Iceland make such an interesting destination for the study tour you lead and what kind of visits do you go on?
SB: Iceland is unique. It’s an island where 11% of the country is covered by glaciers. Since Iceland has a very well developed infrastructure, you only need to drive an hour from the capital of Reykjavik and you will see a glacier! Furthermore, Iceland is located far to the north where even small temperature changes can have a big effect on farming and thus on society. This makes it an obvious place to study interactions between climate and society. On study tour, students visit local research institutions, a geothermal power plant, and go on hikes in geothermally active areas and even on one of the many glaciers.
SB: My connections to Iceland are both personal and professional. My husband is Icelandic and has a big family in Iceland, so we spend almost all of our vacation time there. Furthermore, the presence of glaciers – and how easy it is to access them – makes it an interesting place to pursue glaciology.
DIS: What for you is the most exciting aspect of teaching students from the U.S. at DIS?
SB: Personally, I find it very interesting and motivating to teach students who have grown up in a different society than your own. It gives rise to many interesting academic discussions and differing viewpoints.