Life in the deep freeze – the revolution that changed our view of glaciers forever

I’ve been fascinated by glaciers since I was 14, when geography textbooks taught me about strange rivers of ice that crept down yawning valleys like giant serpents stalking their next meal. That kernel of wonder has carried me through a career of more than 25 years. I’ve travelled to the world’s peaks and its poles to see over 20 glaciers. Yet, when I first started out as a researcher in the early 1990s, we were convinced glaciers were lifeless deserts.

Then in 1999, Professor Martin Sharp and colleagues discovered bacteria living beneath the Haut Glacier d’Arolla in Switzerland. It seemed that glaciers, like the soil or our stomachs, had their own community of microbes, their own microbiome. Since then, we’ve found microorganisms just about everywhere within glaciers, transforming what we thought were sterile wastelands into vibrant ecosystems.

So what’s all that glacier life doing? These life forms may be invisible to the naked eye, but they can control how fast glaciers melt – and may even influence the global climate.

The glacier microbiome

Just like people, glacier microbes modify their homes. When I first saw the melting fringes of Greenland’s vast ice sheet, it looked as if a dust storm had scattered a vast blanket of dirt on the ice. Our team later discovered the dirt included extensive mats of glacier algae. These microscopic plant-like organisms contain pigments to help them harvest the Sun’s rays and protect them from harsh UV radiation. By coating the melting ice surface, they darken it, ensuring the ice absorbs more sunlight which causes more of it to melt. In western Greenland, more than 10% of the summer ice melt is caused by algae.

Bright blue glacier ice on rocky terrain.
The margin of Engabreen glacier, Norway.
Grzegorz Lis, Author provided

Again, just like us, microbes extract things from their environment to survive. The murky depths of glaciers are among the most challenging habitats for life on Earth. Microbes called chemolithotrophs – from the Greek meaning “eaters of rock” – survive here without light and get their energy from breaking down rock, releasing vital nutrients like iron, phosphorous and silicon to the meltwater.

Rivers and icebergs carry these nutrients to the ocean where they sustain the plant-like phytoplankton – the base of marine food webs which ultimately feed entire ecosystems, from microscopic animals, to fish and even whales. Models and satellite observations show a lot of the photosynthesis in the iron-starved Southern Ocean could be sustained by rusty icebergs and meltwaters, which contain iron unlocked by glacier microbes. Recent evidence suggests something similar occurs off west and east Greenland too.

A microscope image depicting chains of brown rectangular cells.
Glacier algae from the Greenland ice sheet.
Chris Williamson, Author provided

But glacier bugs also produce waste, the most worrying of which is the greenhouse gas methane. When ice sheets grow, they bury old soils and sediments, all sources of carbon and the building blocks for earthly life. We think there could be thousands of billions of tonnes of carbon buried beneath ice sheets – potentially more than Arctic permafrost. But who can use it in the oxygen-starved belly of an ice sheet? One type of microbe that flourishes here is the methanogen (meaning “methane maker”), which also thrives in landfill sites and rice paddies.

A waterfall at the edge of a glacier.
Leverett Glacier’s wild river, Greenland.
Jemma Wadham, Author provided

Some methane produced by methanogens escapes in meltwaters flowing from the ice sheet edges. The clever thing about microbial communities, though, is that one microbe’s waste is another’s food. We humans could learn a lot from them about recycling. Some methane beneath glaciers is consumed by bacteria called methanotrophs (methane eaters) which generate energy by converting it to carbon dioxide. They have been detected in Greenlandic glaciers, but most notably in Lake Whillans beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Here, bacteria have years to chomp on the gas, and almost all of the methane produced in the lake is eaten – a good thing for the climate, since carbon dioxide is 80 times less potent as a greenhouse gas when measured over two decades.

We’re not sure this happens everywhere though. Fast-flowing rivers emerging from the Greenland Ice Sheet are super-saturated with microbial methane because there just isn’t enough time for the methanotrophs to get to work. Will melting glaciers release stored methane faster than these bacteria can convert it?

Within the thick interior of ice sheets, scientists worry that there may be vast reserves of methane. The cold and high pressure here mean that it may be trapped in its solid form, methane hydrate (or clathrate), which is stable unless the ice retreats and thins. It happened before and it could happen again.

Waking the sleeping giant

Despite the climate crisis, when I spend time around glaciers I’m not surprised by their continuing vitality. As I amble up to the gently sloping snout of a glacier – traversing its rubbly lunar-like fore-fields – I often feel like I’m approaching the hulk of an enormous creature. Sleeping or seemingly dormant, the evidence of its last meal is clear from the mass of tawny-coloured rocks, pebbles and boulders strewn around its edges – a tantalising record of where it once rested when the climate was cooler.

As I get closer, I catch the sound of the glacier’s roaring chocolate meltwaters as they explode through an ice cave, punctuated by a cascade of bangs and booms as moving ice collapses into hollow melt channels below. The winds off the ice play ominously in my ears, like the whisper of the beast, a warning: “You’re on my land now.”

The author inside a giant icy chasm within a glacier.
Exploring a frozen melt channel of the Finsterwalderbeeen glacier in Svalbard.
Jon Ove Hagen, Author provided

This sense of aliveness with glaciers changes everything. Resident microbes connect these hulking frozen masses with the Earth’s carbon cycle, ecosystems and climate. How will these connections change if we take away the frigid homes of our tiny glacier dwellers? These creatures may be microscopic, but the effects of their industry span entire continents and oceans.

After a period of uncertainty in my own life, which involved the removal of a satsuma-sized growth in my brain, I felt compelled to tell the story of glaciers to a wider audience. My book, Ice Rivers, is the result. I hope the memoir raises awareness of the dramatic changes that threaten glaciers – unless we act now.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment Director Jemma Wadham, Professor of Glaciology, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Professor Jemma Wadham



What Al Gore taught me about effective climate change communication


Solutions to the climate crisis are within reach, but in order to capture them, we must take urgent action today across every level of society.  

~ Al Gore. 

Al Gore has always been a hero of mine. I distinctly remember watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for the first time and the profound impact that it had on my view of the world. I personally believe that what Al Gore has done for the awareness of climate change is up there with the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. to the civil rights movement and Nelson Mandela to the abolition of apartheid. In fact, I have pictures of all three in my bedroom (sad, I know…). Often, they will cast judgemental looks from the side of the room and mutter under their breath that I haven’t made enough of a contribution to humankind today! I find that having such tough critics of my moral compass omnipresent often gives me a little more impetus to do something positive and temporarily clear my conscience.

After dragging my family along to the cinema in September 2017 to watch Al Gore’s moving sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, I decided to apply to the Climate Reality Training Programme – a training course delivered by Mr. Gore and his team to train individuals about the intricacies of public climate change communication and instigating change in your local community – perfect! Never in a million years did I think that Osh from West Wales would be selected, but so I was.

The training took place in Mexico City and I was lucky enough to use scholarship funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to pay for my flights and accommodation. The training itself was run for free by Mr. Gore’s charity, The Climate Reality Leadership Training Corps.

Believe in the power of your own voice. The more noise you make, the more accountability you demand from your leaders, the more our world will change for better.

~ Al Gore

I arrived in Mexico City unsure of what to expect. I had read all the pre-material on the flight (in and around a binge watch of the latest movies… as you do), but I was still pretty apprehensive. Luckily, the moment I arrived at the conference and started chatting to the other delegates, I realised that I was surrounded by people just like me from all over the world – a load of enthusiastic tree-huggers looking to do a little bit more than using a bag-for-life at Sainsburys, a keep-cup at Costa and a passive-aggressive tone with housemates about the recycling – I was in my element.

The first session of the day was opened by the man himself, Mr. Gore. He delivered a powerful and poignant speech to begin the training. He talked about the severity of the current situation and the growing need to act:

  • CO2 is being released into the atmosphere faster than at any time in at least the last 66 million years. [1]
  • As a result, global temperatures have increased significantly. We are at a point now, where what would have been considered an ‘Extremely Hot’ day (i.e. a 0.1% frequency event) between 1951 and 1981 now occurs 14.5% of the time! [2]
  • 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. [3]

He then went on to talk about some of the devastating consequences that we have already observed. Notably, he drew links between changes in climate to both the ‘Syrian Refugee Crisis’ and the ‘Beast from the East’:

The Syrian Refugee Crisis


  • Between 2006 and 2010, 60% of Syria’s fertile land was turned into dessert due to severe droughts as a result of record high temperatures. [4]
  • 80% of their livestock was killed. [4]
  • This drove 1.5 million people into Syria’s already overcrowded cities coping with the influx of refugees as a result of the Iraq war. We all know what happened next…
  • In 2015, the crisis reached its climax with millions fleeing Syria for Europe. As a result, thousands died, and huge political unrest was created across the continent.
  • A paper published by the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PANS) ‘ in 2015 stated that the probability of the severity of the droughts was increased by 2-3 times as a result of climate change. [5]


The Beast from the East


  • On February 25th, 2018, the temperature at the North Pole was 28°C higher than normal. [6]
  • The North Pole is usually protected from the warmer temperatures of Southern Latitudes by a natural phenomenon called the Polar Vortex.
  • However, in February/March of this year, a surge in temperature caused the polar vortex to split. This created two areas of low pressure over Northern Europe and North America, resulting in very cold temperatures and large snowfall in both areas. [7]
  • The reason this is important is because the poles serve like a refrigerator for the planet, reflecting solar irradiation back into space. With rapid melting events like those seen in February/March, the ice mass at the North Pole decreased, reducing the pole’s ability to reflect the irradiation and accelerating the warmth of the planet.

Of course, no speech about climate change would be complete without mentioning everybody’s favourite antagonist – yep, you guessed it… Donald Trump. Simply mentioning the name of Trump in a room full of environmentalists was bound to get a laugh. Mr Gore summed it up concisely:

We need to put a price on carbon in the markets, and a price on denial in politics.

~ Al Gore

However, as has become a trademark of Mr. Gore’s speeches over the years, he didn’t leave his audience in the depths of despair about the mess that we find ourselves in. He went on to talk about the positive news and the reasons for hope:

  • In 2000, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind power worldwide by 2010. In 2010, this estimate was exceeded by a factor of 7 and in 2017, global wind energy capacity rose to 539.6 GW, or about 18 times more than the IEA’s projection for 2010. [8]
  • In 2002, a top solar industry analyst projected that the global solar market would grow 1 gigawatt annually by 2010. The actual growth of the solar market in 2010 turned out to be 17 times that, with 17 gigawatts of solar capacity added that year. The world installed a record 98 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2017, far more than the net additions of any other technology – renewable, fossil fuel, or nuclear. [9]
  • According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, by 2040, wind power could draw $3.3 trillion in investment and see a fourfold increase in capacity. [10]
  • China installed 53 GW of solar capacity in 2017, more than the total installed solar capacity of any other country in the world. [11] This has driven a dramatic decrease in the cost of solar and an increase in the robustness of the technology.

Needless to say, it was incredible to watch the passion and conviction with which Mr. Gore delivered his material. He is a truly gifted orator. Communicating the harsh realities of climate change, coupled with the strong message for hope was something that really gave Mr. Gore’s presentation weight. Rather than feeling depressed about the situation, as is often the case when listening to a speech about climate change, this speech left me feeling empowered. Striking this fine balance was a key emphasis of the training to follow.

The next few days of the training flew by in a blur of presentation coaching, climate change and solutions workshops, networking events and various other activities. It was truly inspiring to learn about all the incredible things that people had achieved in their own respective communities. A key aspect of the training was the commitment required following the event. We each had to commit to making 10 ‘acts of leadership’ once we arrived back at home. This could include contacting our local MP to discuss climate change, delivering presentations on the subject, arranging events and so forth.

So far, I have delivered a presentation to my fellow Royal Academy of Engineering scholars and contacted both my Member of Parliament and my Welsh Assembly Member. I have arranged to meet my MP in Westminster, and I intend to present to him about climate change and urge him to instigate action. For my other acts of leadership, I intend to present at a series of secondary schools. I have been lucky enough to be elected Engineers Without Borders’ Outreach Officer for this year, and we have 6 school visits in the pipeline for the Bristol area. I have also organised to go back to my own secondary school in West Wales to present.

Overall, the training was an incredible experience – something that I have taken a lot away from, both in terms of the knowledge and confidence that I have gained to present about climate change and the lasting friendships that I have made with other delegates. I would urge anybody passionate about tackling climate change to attend a training course run by the Climate Reality Leadership Corps (a link to their site to find out about the next training can be found here).

I’d like to leave you with a list of actions that we can all do as individuals to make an impact:

  • Contact your local MP and set out your concerns regarding climate change (I have a template that you are welcome to use – see the bottom of the article for my contact details)
  • Vote for candidates that have a strong stance on combating climate change
  • Buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter and more locally sourced seasonal food – and throw less of it away
  • Drive electric cars but walk or cycle short distances
  • Take trains and buses instead of planes
  • Use videoconferencing instead of business travel
  • Use a washing line instead of a tumble dryer
  • Insulate homes
  • Demand low carbon in every consumer product


 Will our children ask, why didn’t you act? Or will they ask, how did you find the moral courage to rise up and change?

 ~ Al Gore

Please feel free to contact me with any questions at:


[1] RE Zeebe, et al., Nature Geoscience, March 2016
[2] NASA/GISS; Hansen, et al., “Perceptions of Climate Change,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 10.1073, August 2012 – Updated 2016
[3] National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP): Global-mean monthly, seasonal, and annual means,” last updated February, 2018. 
[4] NPR Staff, “How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War?,” National Public Radio, September 8, 2013. 
[5] C. Kelly, S. Mohtadi, M. Cane, R. Seager, and Y. Kushnir. Climate change in the fertile crescent and implications of the recent syrian drought. PNAS, 112:3241–3246, 2015.
[6] Washington Post, “North Pole surges above freezing in the dead of winter, stunning scientists”, Accessed September 27th 2018
[7] The Carbon Brief, “Explainer: The polar vortex, climate change and the ‘Beast from the East’”, Accessed September 27th 2018
[8] Global Wind Energy Council, Global Wind Statistics 2017 (February 2018). 
[9] ** UN Environment, “Banking on Sunshine: World Added Far More Solar Than Fossil Fuel Generation Capacity in 2017,” April 5, 2018 
[10] Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “Global wind and solar costs to fall even faster, while coal fades even in China and India,” June 15, 2017
[11] Mark Osborne, “China officially installed 52.83 GW of solar modules in 2017,” PVTech, January 18, 2018.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Osian Rees, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering.
Osian Rees

Calling all Bristol environmental postgrads: Join the Cabot Institute Press Gang!

When my friend told me she was off to a Cabot Institute Press Gang meeting, I tagged along on a bit of a whim to find out what it was all about. After realising what important work the Cabot Institute was doing I decided to get involved as a Press Gang member, and have since attended lots of events and written around 18 articles for the blog.  Now I’m writing this post to encourage other graduate students and staff members to join the Press Gang, have your say and develop your science communication skills!

What does it entail?

Being a member of the Press Gang means different things to different people. You can spend as much or as little time as you like performing the main activities of blogging about Cabot-themed news and writing press releases about newly published research from members of the Institute. Blogging is probably the most popular past time of Press Gang members – pick a subject in the news or a recent event or talk you’ve attended and tell the world why it’s important. There are occasional meetings to get together with the rest of the team and talk about potentially interesting subjects or events coming up – usually over coffee and cake!


As followers of this blog will know, the Cabot Institute holds a myriad of events throughout the year covering subject matters relevant to the six Cabot research communities; Global change, natural hazards, low carbon energy, water, food security, and future cities and communities. As a member of the Press Gang, you will often be offered a front row seat to world class events to help with Cabot’s promotion. I’ve attended lectures by popular climate change communicators John Cook and Professor Michael E. Mann, Guardian blogger George Monbiot, Professor Dame Julia Slingo (Met Office), and my favourite science correspondent, Alok Jha!

The Press Gang are privileged to attend special events too; last autumn we visited At-Bristol’s 3D Planetarium to watch ‘Blue Marvel’, a show which examined the solar system and incorporated University of Bristol research to explain what makes Earth so special.


I became a Press Gang member to get more experience in science writing and to try my hand at communicating a range of different kinds of research. As a Press Gang member you can sign up for the excellent training provided by the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol Press Office. Learning how to communicate complex topics clearly is a critical skill for any researcher, and you will probably find learning how effectively use social media, how to blog or even how to write a press release incredibly useful methods for promoting your own work in the future!

What has the Press Gang done for me?

I’ve really enjoyed writing for the Cabot Institute, and it’s shown me that I’d like to explore a career in science communication/publishing in the future. The work I’ve done for Cabot enabled me to build the skills I’ll need, as well as a portfolio of work, from which I have already benefited. In my free time, I work as a freelance science writer and editor, and I’m a New Media Fellow promoting plant science with the Global Plant Council. I also spent a month as an intern with the plant science journal New Phytologist, and won a student scholarship to attend and write about the UK Conference for Science Journalists in 2014. In each of these roles, my experience as a Press Gang member helped me both to land the job and to clearly communicate scientific principles to the general public.

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of the Cabot Institute team, but especially to Amanda Woodman-Hardy, the Cabot Institute Coordinator and leader of the Press Gang. She works extremely hard to coordinate the training and opportunities that you will receive as a Press Gang member, and I am very grateful for all the advice and encouragement she has given me over the years!

So what are you waiting for? E-mail the Cabot Institute to find out more about joining the Press Gang today!
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Environmental comms: The power of emotion, non-stories and…Air Wick?

Communicating is what I do in my job, I’m the Cabot Institute Coordinator and I have a responsibility for looking after the website, blog and Twitter account, creating the weekly newsletter and running the Cabot Press Gang – a group of postgraduates at the University of Bristol who are keen to improve their communication skills in the context of environmental research by blogging and writing press releases.

A week ago I had the pleasure in attending Communicate, an environmental communications conference run by Bristol Natural History Consortium.  I always look forward to attending Communicate and this year has to be one of the best years yet proven by the emotive tears, the curious addition to the goody bags and some excellent talks by some of the best environmental communicators in the UK.

The non-story of climate change

George Marshall.  Image credit Rutgers

One of the first speakers to take to the stage at Communicate was George Marshall, a fantastic speaker and co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN).   George said that we need data, graphs, numbers and logic to help demonstrate our social values, metaphors, experiences and stories.  Stories are socially conveyed and climate change is conveyed by members of the public from narratives that they have heard.

However there is the idea of a non-story, stories we haven’t perceived to be stories, but they exist in their own right.  Climate change is full of non-stories as it is a subject that is outside the boundaries of what is appropriate to talk about.  If you mention climate change to Joe Bloggs on the street, how long does that conversation last for?  Probably not that long.  George pointed out examples like people who have children are less likely to talk about climate change and young women are less likely to talk about it than young men.

George asked how we challenge the non-story or ‘the silence’?  Unfortunately climate change narratives compete with each other. Climate change is the perfect problem as it is distant in time and place, uncertain, costly and unprecedented.

One of the things that stood out for me in George’s talk was when he asked if the perfect problem is a generated narrative? When looking at a list of who or what will be harmed by global warming, people always put themselves at the bottom of the list and put future generations and plants and animals at the top.  George said that climate change is cognitively and emotionally challenging so we generate and share narratives that enable us to reject it, ignore it or shape the issue in our own image.

Image from Collateral Damage

George also pointed out that the most compelling stories contain enemies with intention to cause harm.  For example, if you put North Korea as the sole causers of climate change we would look at this issue very differently.  The story of climate change is in search of an enemy.  Environmental organisations are guilty of blaming ‘enemies’ such as oil companies and Rupert Murdoch for climate change.  But climate change doesn’t have an enemy, we’re not deliberately setting out to destroy the planet, we just want to ensure we can live and our families can survive.

George asked if we could write a new narrative and stated that we need stories about empathy and cooperation, positive visions, reinforcing shared values, identity and most importantly love.  Doing something for the love of it is a valuable lesson in environmental comms.  We may not love the same thing but we have a shared value of loving. So we should probably target audiences based on the things they love and care about most.

Emotive tears – when communicating gets personal

After hearing George’s talk about the importance of love and empathy and personalising an environmental message in communications, I was reminded again of this importance during a very special talk by Steve Micklewright of Birdlife Malta and the very brave Ruth Peacey, who has worked on a variety of nature programmes for the BBC but had travelled to Malta to film a campaign against spring bird hunting.

During their talk titled the ‘Massacre of Migration’ they showed several films, featuring Chris Packham, of the devastating effects of hunters on Malta who shoot down migrating birds.  The films were heartbreaking and those involved with the films were brave when up against some very threatening behaviour. One film featuring Chris Packham crying because he was so distressed at the awfulness of the situation he had found himself to be in, was so emotive that the whole conference room started welling up.  Even the chair of the conference shed a tear as he too was touched by this emotively communicated message.

We all felt something in that room, because we all love nature and the environment.  We were all touched by Chris Packham’s tears because he was communicating about something he loved.   Ruth summed up the talk by saying that there is always an excuse not to do something and sometimes you have to be brave and take a risk when communicating.  She also pointed out that there are lots of media channels out there to get your message across including TV and online and not to limit yourself to the big four (BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4).  What I learnt was to communicate with heart and soul and I hope we can start to embed some of this into some of Cabot’s communications outputs during 2015 when we celebrate Bristol as European Green Capital.

The curious incident of the Air Wick freebie

The Air Wick in my goody bag…

One last thing that really stood out at the conference was a peculiar freebie in my goody bag.  An Air Wick.  I was perplexed.  I looked at this and my first impressions were ‘well that’s not very environmentally friendly is it!’.  What was this plastic container of chemicals doing in my bag?  It was a good icebreaker at the tables, we all came up with theories ranging from ‘maybe we smell’ to ‘it must have something to do with National Parks’.  That last comment was as close to the truth as we could have got.  Kathryn Cook of National Parks UK took to the stage and told us it was their Air Wick product.  So how and why does a nature based organisation team up with a big brand?

Kathryn explained that collaborating with brands can help raise money to do the things that will help the environment.  Engaging with brands who are already affiliated with what you do only lets you target your usual audience.  However, engaging with new brands helps you to reach new audiences who don’t engage with you normally.  Kathryn found it challenging to convince her Board to link with a brand and that it was also difficult to manage expectations; adopt a truly collaborative working process; and keep up with the pace of working with a commercial company.

By working with Air Wick, the National Parks UK have had an income valued at £100,000 and outreach has been three quarters of UK adults who would have seen the TV ad campaign amongst other communications outlets.  Since working with Air Wick, numerous organisations have approached them to collaborate including Halfords, Biffa, Esso, BP, Cotswolds and Disney but whichever organisations they choose to work with must convince them that they meet up with their ethics and be as sustainable as possible.

Kathryn finished by saying that environmental communicators won’t speak to new audiences through fluffy nice organisations because they don’t communicate to other larger audiences.  Kathryn felt that you need to engage with the more corporately inclined companies to reach those new audiences who won’t usually engage with you.

Although I wasn’t sure how I felt about National Park’s affiliation with a chemical group, I was impressed by their bravery and tenacity to do something a little bit different to save themselves and the natural beauty of the UK.

One quote stuck in my mind during that conference.  Environmental comms guru Ed Gillespie said that if we’re not p*ssing anyone off then we’re not changing anything.

Too true.

This blog was written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Cabot Institute Coordinator, University of Bristol.  Follow @Enviro_Mand

Further reading

You can read more about George’s thoughts in his recent book Why are our brains hard-wired to ignore climate change.