Tell us a little bit about your job as a glaciologist, what does it entail?
There’s one thing you should know about me: I LOVE glaciers. 10 years ago, as I was hiking from Chamonix to Zermatt, a mountain guide told me that it is possible to spend your life studying glaciers, and become a glaciologist. I’ve never looked back. Through my studies and my work I have had the chance to study glaciers all around the world, from the French Alps to Greenland, from the Arctic to Antarctica. Today, I invest my time in science policy and science outreach. I believe researchers like me have the duty to communicate about our work and tell the world about the wonders of the cryosphere and the threats targeting it.
Glaciologists try to understand how glaciers behave, and how they impact our lives, climate change and the rise of sea. It is a very collaborative science. Various institutions work together to identify areas of our science that need improving, and we develop a plan on how to do so. It might involve field work (my favourite part!), processing satellite imagery or numerical modelling using supercomputers.
Beyond research, teaching is also an important part of my work, and it is one that I enjoy very much. Glaciology is more popular than ever, and we are lucky to meet some of the most dedicated students, always ready to accompany us in the field!
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Sevestre caught the arctic bug during a six-month undergraduate exchange program in 2008, which ignited her love for the Arctic archipelago and its glaciers. “I came for one semester and couldn’t get myself to leave – it broke my heart,” she says. “I just wanted to get as far away as I could, and live something extreme and different.”
Following a masters program in the UK, she finally returned to Longyearbyen in 2011 to complete her PhD on a phenomenon known as surging glaciers, where glaciers move up to 15 metres each day, rather than a few metres a year. And, with over 60% of the landmass comprised of glaciers, Svalbard is a glaciologist’s paradise. “We’re right in the heart of a cluster of these funky surging glaciers,” says Sevestre. “This is literally the best place in the world to study them.”
It’s also a dream for fieldwork, and UNIS boasts a huge equipment area where teams of students and professors have access to a treasure trove of field equipment – from arctic tents, snowmobiles, and zodiac boats to ice drills and cutting edge research technologies. Typical field expeditions involve snowmobiles, helicopters, setting up camp on a glacier for up to two weeks to conduct tests, and, of course, the occasional polar bear encounter. It was enough to make at least one of the Norwegian team fleetingly consider abandoning journalism for a career in glaciology.
As with most things in Svalbard, the fieldwork season follows the light. “During the light season we do the fieldwork and it’s literally non-stop until the dark season,” says Sevestre. “Then, when the dark comes, finally we can breathe and relax. Even nature relaxes.”
So, is Sevestre destined to become one of Svalbard’s long-term residents? She certainly hopes so, and is already planning a post-doctorate to continue her work at UNIS. “Every time I go back to the mainland, it feels very aggressive,” she says. “Svalbard is a bubble of peace and friendliness – it’s like a big family. Especially at UNIS, we really take care of each other.”
What did you study?
I did my Bachelors in Geography followed by MSc (Aberystwyth University) and PhD (University of Oslo) in Glaciology.
What is it about ice that makes you tick?
The first time I stepped on a glacier I was transported on a different planet. It is truly the stunning beauty of these icy landscape that originally attracted me into studying them. And there’s something magical about ice! The shades of blue of the ice, the air bubbles that have encapsulated atmosphere from thousands of years ago, the rumbles of a calving glacier… Being in the presence of these glaciers is a very humbling experience.
Is ice in the Arctic different than in Antarctica?
Glaciers are made of layers upon layers of compressed snow that is slowly metamorphosed into ice. Once a certain thickness is reached, the glacier will start to move under its own weight, under the force of gravity. But the glaciers we find in these Polar Regions are not completely the same.
During the Arctic summer, the snow covering the lower part of the glaciers will be stripped off by melt. Therefore it is easier to find stunning blue ice, especially at the front of calving glaciers. Glaciers in the Arctic can move extremely fast, some as described as “surging glaciers” and can move at speeds up to 20 metres per day, while the fastest moving glacier on Earth is an outlet of the Greenland ice sheet called Jakobshavn, and move at speeds up to 19km per year. In Antarctica glaciers are often completely covered with snow all year round, and look as if someone as spread whipped cream on top of them. They appear to be covering every little bit of ground available, and calve huge icebergs such as large tabular icebergs that we rarely see in the Arctic.
Down south, everything is bigger, but also older! Ice in the Antarctic can be up to one million years old, while in the Arctic, especially in the Greenland ice sheet the oldest ice collected was about 400 000 years old.
What makes you passionate about glaciers?
I feel that I have the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The reason why I am so passionate about glaciers is because they are huge, dangerous monsters of ice, but also extremely vulnerable, in particular to changes in climate. I love the fact that in glaciology there is still so much we need to understand about them, and no matter how good our tools are, glaciers still manage to keep things hidden away from us. Obviously today we understand that glacier changes have a huge impact on our populations, and we urgently need to study them, more so than ever.
Down south, everything is bigger, but also older! Ice in the Antarctic can be up to one million years old, while in the Arctic, especially in the Greenland ice sheet the oldest ice collected was about 400,000 years old.
We understand that glaciers have a huge importance on the rise of the sea level, what can be done to minimise the meltdown of glaciers?
These glaciers today are in imbalance with the current climate. The sad truth is that the trend of mass loss will continue even if the temperatures stabilize. But this does not mean that it is too late to do something about it, quite the contrary! I remain an eternal optimist, and I firmly believe that now is the best time to act. We have incredible technologies available, and the funds and the clever minds to keep on developing them. Diversifying our sources of energy is key. And harvesting green energies is obviously the way forward.