State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Thinking on Your Feet on the Ice

Nick Frearson at home in a snow hole near Mount Erebus, Antarctica, in 2009
Nick Frearson at home in a snow hole near Mount Erebus, Antarctica, in 2009

Nick Frearson, Gravimeter Instrument Team, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

I’m a senior engineer at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and my role in Operation Ice Bridge is to work with the gravimeter. This instrument can see beneath ice sheets into the water and bedrock below to reveal the ice sheet’s hidden contours – critical information for predicting how the ice will change as the climate warms.

The poles are an important indicator of change. There you can see how sensitive the environment is and how easy it is to upset its delicate balance. What happens to ice sheets at the poles has repercussions for sea level and climate around the world.

I have traveled to both poles and enjoy the wildlife, solitude and shear expansiveness of these amazing places that remind me constantly of how fragile life is. I enjoy thinking on my feet and solving problems with limited resources — so different from our normal civilized lives.

On my last trip to Antarctica, we mapped a huge and remote ice-covered mountain range in the middle of the continent, trying to understand how and when the ice sheets formed. Inside my tent I could hear the constant whispering of the wind over the snow, mixed with the music of Radiohead, Coldplay, Snow Patrol and Imogen Heap.

I miss my friends when I’m away. Two summers ago, I went to Canada’s Ellesmere Island with my good colleague, Michael Studinger, to test gravity instruments near the North Pole. The island is stunning with windswept hillsides leading down to frozen fjords. I walked for miles across the island, observing Musk Ox and wolves go about their lives. Back at camp, I enjoyed listening to other scientists talk about their travels.

I hope that you enjoy reading about our exploits flying over Antarctica as much as I’ll enjoy taking part in them.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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