Archive for the ‘Science Communication’ Category

A good week for defense

January 19, 2015

I successfully defended my dissertation last Thursday! Defense title: “Measured and modeled albedos of sea-ice surfaces on the oceans of Snowball Earth.”

Here’s how I summed up my talk:

A planet orbits round a yellow sun
Light years away or megayears ago
Its seas are dark, its continent is dun
But brilliant sea ice sets its pole aglow

Its CO2 drops dangerously low
Tendrils of ice reach from the polar caps
That sparks a feedback: oceans turn to snow,
Glaciers push in to close off any gaps

The oceans roiled with countless living cells
Who learned to take their energy from light
Now locked beneath the cold of Dante’s hells
They starve; how long must they endure this night?

Why has this happened, and by what device?
To know, we must investigate the ice.

As sea ice freezes, tiny drops of brine
Are trapped between the quickly forming plates
When cold enough, their molecules align
Into sodium chloride dihydrates

The solid crystals catch and scatter light
Reflect it back, refuse its energy
And I myself have quantified how bright
The surface of the sub-eutectic sea

And in our lab we’ve watched salt ice sublime
With instruments ingeniously designed
The secrets of another space and time
Unfold beneath my models and my mind

This is my work; I hope you will agree
That it is worthy of a Ph.D.


Scatter, Adapt and Remember (cross-posted from S.A.G.A.N.)

June 10, 2013

Note: S.A.G.A.N. is a social network for astrobiologists, and I have promised I will write some poems for them. Like this one!

Last month I went to see a talk by Annalee Newitz of about her new book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember. In the talk, she went over some of Earth’s previous mass extinctions and their notable survivors, and discussed how humanity might manage to make it through the next one, whatever its cause might be.

It was an excellent talk and it inspired me to write the following poem.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember
inspired by Annalee Newitz

Four billion years after the Earth coalesced,
in the Cambrian period, life held a fest-
ival of evolution that still holds us rapt.
Lesson the first: to adapt.

Life took this to heart with impressive effect,
but the number of species has not grown unchecked.
Several times mass extinctions remorselessly zapped
All species that couldn’t adapt.

The survivors escaped from conditions grown harsh
by leaving their homeland of forest or marsh
for new habitats change hadn’t managed to shatter.
Lesson the second: to scatter.

They carried on re-population apace,
and their many descendants took over the place–
till disaster re-taught them the two things that matter:
how to adapt and to scatter.

They evolved new skills after each terrible blight,
like lungs, and warm-bloodedness, uteri, flight.
Then one kindled bright flames from a neuronal ember
and learned Lesson Three: to remember.

For a species had suddenly mastered the means
to store useful skillsets outside of its genes.
All able to learn from their cleverest member
how to scatter, adapt and remember.

When the next big volcano or meteor hits
We’ll survive through our cities, our brains and our bits
We’ll weather the storms of a years-long December(1)
And scatter, adapt and remember.

(1) e.g. snowstorms if your reference point is in Canada, firestorms if in Australia, torrential rains in Brazil, etc. There are a wide variety of disastrous Decembers to choose from.

The Very Model of a Modern Glaciologist

December 3, 2012

A “poster preview video” for the 2012 IGS meeting in Fairbanks. This is about the same project I’ll be presenting at AGU.

I am the very model of a modern glaciologist
I’m master of all manner of arcane and icy knowledges
My derivation of the flow law rivals that of Dr. Glen
My icy glare can cause a melting glacier to refreeze again
My glacier surveys show my unmatched skill with a theodolite
I outdrink all my colleagues after seminar on Thursday night
The NSIDC sends me their data sets to analyze
I leap crevasses meters wide to save an ice core from demise

I’m here to demonstrate to you this model stuffed with elegance
Developed with the use of my superlative intelligence
It seeks to show why graphs of crystal fabric from depths Stygian
Can oscillate and swivel in a manner callipygian
The foremost of our multitude of possible hypotheses
Was that the ice preserved the stamp of ancient surface processes
To substitute for nonexistent measurements empirical
We based it on pure physics from the realm where cows are spherical

I reasoned that since snowflakes sometimes grow as columns, some as plates
Why shouldn’t grains within the snowpack lend themselves to sim’lar fates?
I made ten thousand crystals and then grew them all stochastically
And let simple diffusion change their size and numbers drastically
The output is a credit to my wit and perspicacity
And several high-speed processors all running at capacity
Come marvel at my poster and admire all my knowledges
For I’m the very model of a modern glaciologist

McCarthy Glaciology Summer School 2010: In Limerick Form

November 29, 2012

These are some limericks I wrote while attending the 2010 Glaciology Summer School in McCarthy, Alaska. I tried to write one about each subject that was covered in lecture, although I think there are a few missing. N.B.: the tidewater-glacier-as-leveraged-bank analogy is from the actual lecture.

Ice dynamics
Though its speed is exceedingly low,
Ice is fluid, as glacier shapes show.
Non-Newtonian viscosity
Determines velocity
According to Glen’s law of flow.

Ice fabric and anisotropy
At the microscale, ice grain migrations
Derive from crystalline dislocations
Anisotropies cause
New constitutive laws
To account for in our simulations.

Subglacial hydrology
Water flows through the glacier like blood
Makes it slide over bedrock and mud
When a tunnel melts through
Or ice dam breaks in two
Out comes pouring a Biblical flood

Tidewater glaciers
When these tidewater glaciers retreat
The destruction’s both fast and complete
It advances again
On a borrowed moraine
Like a leveraged bank on Wall Street

Mass balance
Adding up rain, wind, heat, cloud and sun
To get melt isn’t very much fun
You could try degree-day
It’s an easier way
But a somewhat less accurate one

Glacial thermodynamics
Now the species of glaciers are three
Cold are fully below zero C
Temperate’s always at freezing
Polythermal’s a pleasing
Combination of types A and B

Remote sensing with ICESat
When inspecting the tracks of ICESat
Look for spots that are curiously flat
Or locations that flex
From concave to convex
It’s a subglacial lake doing that!

Gravitational remote sensing
For the weighing of glaciers, a scale
Is inevitably much too frail
But science saves face
By celestial GRACE
Which delivers the mass-balance Grail

Laser Altimetry
To determine an ice-surface height
Send out regular pulses of light
Measure time to bounce back
Then, repeating your track
Demonstrates warming glaciers’ dire plight

Inverse methods
To extrapolate former conditions
Using presently measured positions
Although methods inverse
May inspire you to curse
They’ll reveal past climatic transitions

Debris-covered glaciers
Grand white Kennicott looms above town
But its foot is all filthy and brown
If we clean off the sand
It’ll look mighty grand
Till, uncovered, it melts, and we drown.

The consequences of setting forty glaciologists loose on a small town’s alcohol supply
There’s a flow law for ice strain and shear
What we need is a flow law for beer
Given glacier grads, N,
And a drink rate X, when
Will all booze on the shelves disappear?

The Story of Glacier Joe

November 28, 2012

Written at the request of the President of the International Glaciological Society, for the 2012 IGS meeting in Fairbanks. In the style of the classic The Cremation of Sam McGee by the great Robert W. Service.

The Story of Glacier Joe

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun
   By the folks who study ice
They’ll spend hours of time on a glacier climb
   Just to check on some strange device.
With their crampons donned they ascend beyond
   The realms where sane folk go
Yes, they’re all bizarre, but the oddest by far
   Was the one called Glacier Joe.

The letters I.D. marked his sole degree–
   “That’s ‘Doctor of Ice’,” he’d say
From a glacial perch he’d perform research
   In his own peculiar way.

He’d carefully take his ablation stake
   Back home at the start of spring
For the sunny glare might cause wear and tear
   If snowmelt exposed the thing.
He hated to dig, so his snowpit rig
   Was a big overclocked hair dryer
He never would change, though his numbers were strange
   And his notebook often caught fire.

I answered an ad for a glacier grad
   That’s how I joined Joe’s lab
He’d heard some stories ’bout inventories
   And wanted to take a stab.
Our first sortie was altimetry
   With a stopwatch and big flashlight
But so blindingly fast those light pulses went past
   That our glaciers had negative height.

So next Joe raves about seismic waves
   And runs out to buy T.N.T.
But it came to pass that each change in mass
   Was just what we’d blown to debris.
He thought he’d shoot for the theory route
   With area-volume scales;
So Joe would divide feet-long by leagues-wide
   And end up with volume in bales.

Said Joe, “I guess the I.G.S.
   Are a bunch of clever sots,
They’re hosting some sym-pos-i-um
   So I’ll go expound my thoughts.”
He showed fifty-six slides dense as bricks
   With text in Comic Sans
And spoke with such flair that the Session Chair
   Dragged him offstage with both hands.

We went for beers with our glacial peers
   And they told us of what they did
And all this news made Joe enthuse
   Like a sweet-shop-dwelling kid.
So back we went to our field tent
   To add to our data stores
Energized anew, we both set to
   The task of drilling cores.

We drilled and cored and dug and bored
   ‘Til our hands were sore and tired
And I strained my eyes to analyze
   The samples we acquired.
Well, day by day went on this way
   And the data rose like the tide
But nary a bit of that data would fit
   No matter how hard Joe tried.

“I’ll never know how the glaciers flow,”
   Joe cried out in despair
“From the top to the bed, it’s all over my head–
   I tell you, it just ain’t fair.”
“I know some folks can use full Stokes
   But my models ain’t even one-D.
From densification to surface ablation
   These glaciers befuddle me.”

And after this spiel, Joe turned on his heel–
   And threw himself down a moulin!
With a rope from the sledge I raced to the edge
   But by then he was long gone.
Unhappy and damp I returned to the camp
   And pondered poor Joe’s fate;
Down the hole he’d been flushed to be frozen or crushed
   It was awful to contemplate.

But later that night in the fading light
   I awoke to a bellow grand
Like a trumpet brass from a deep crevasse
   Saying “NOW I understand!”
“It’s all so clear from way down here!”
   Exclaimed the voice with glee.
“Every wax and wane of stress and strain
   Is an open book to me!”

“I can see each kernel of snow and firn’ll
   Become a crystal grain
And each drop of melt makes its presence felt
   In the branched subglacial drain.”
The ice folks say that to this day
   A student or a seeker
Can strain an ear, and faintly hear
   From beneath the ice: “Eureka!”

There are strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun
   By those studying ice and snow
Yes, they’re all bizarre, but the oddest by far
   Was the one called Glacier Joe.

Firn Chantey

November 27, 2012

This is about the work I’ll be presenting at AGU. Written at the request of the University of Alaska Fairbanks crowd, sung to the tune of The Sailor’s Prayer (not to be confused with the somewhat more serious “Sailor’s Prayer” that’s the first Google result for that song title.) I very much want to record all these and post videos, but I haven’t really worked out a good recording setup.

If we wish to learn
About the firn
Upon the ice sheets polar
We’ll want to know
About the snow-
fall and the input solar

Chorus: Oh, snow is white
And clean, and bright
A tricky thing to model
But easy flowed
The Matlab code
‘Longside a friendly bottle

Some grains of snow
Will slowly grow
While others are a-shrinkin’
Which ones win out
Is still in doubt
And needs a bit of thinkin’


Grains change their state
They sublimate
From many different places
When they commence
To recondense
They prefer partic’lar faces


And so we find
Grains are aligned
C-axes all together
And from this state
We can relate
Ice flow to ancient weather

(chorus again, with FEELING)

The Ballad of AGU

November 27, 2012

The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (usually just referred to as AGU) is when something like 15,000 scientists descend on San Francisco’s Financial District for a week. There are talks and posters, of course (so many talks and posters!) but as with any convention the main point is to connect with new colleagues and re-connect with old friends. This is a poem I wrote for the Cryosphere gathering at AGU a couple of years ago. The meter and rhyme scheme are modeled after “The Egyptian Diamond” by Randall Garrett.

I will be at AGU again next week! Monday is Science Open Mic Night at Jillian’s Billiards Club, so I have to decide what to perform, which is going to be tricky.

The Ballad of AGU

Sunday, just a bit past five
And you’re feeling half alive
With your poster on your shoulder as you stumble to your flight
You’ve been staying up too late
Your data won’t cooperate
And you found a whole new error around ten PM last night.

But now you’re at AGU
There’s a million things to do
There are friends from far-off places who you haven’t seen all year
In the morning, though, I’m betting
You will find yourself regretting
That moment you decided “Sure, I’ll have another beer!”

Bright and early, you will fight
The grand excesses of last night
You will struggle bravely out of bed and stagger to Moscone
There’s a talk you must attend
By an early-rising friend
And a cutting-edge announcement you suspect might be baloney

Now you’ve coffee cup in hand,
with which to aid your mental band-
width, for a firehose of data’s aimed directly at your brain
There’s a clever new device
To gauge the temperature of ice
And a host of novel ways to watch a glacier from a plane

There’s a brand-new data set
Barely even processed yet
That details the Greenland ice sheet’s elevation, shape and speed
There’s a fellow at a booth
Who, if his pitch has any truth
Sells an instrumental system that does everything you need

There’s an algorithmic way
To take the data from a day
And extrapolate behavior of the system for a week
There’s a dozen gloomy talks
On how the planet’s on the rocks
And the global warming outlook’s gotten just a bit more bleak

Then, before you’re really read
When your spiel is still unsteady
You’re onstage—your poster’s posted and your work you must explain
Visitors interrogate you
Some to praise, some to deflate you
And your voice is going hoarse from giving out the same refrain

But look! some kind soul brought beer
And the end is getting near
And suddenly it’s over, just as quick as it begun
Battling through the teeming streets
You reach a trove of drinks and treats
And the denizens of Cryosphere are here to have some fun!

Seussian Snowballs

November 27, 2012

I wrote this poem about Snowball Earth for the Pacific Science Center’s Polar Science Weekend. Usually I take considerable enjoyment in putting as many obscure and multi-syllabic words into my poems as possible, but in this case I was trying for a younger audience.


I. THE FREEZE, or, Ice-Albedo Feedback

A long time ago, in a place not so far
On the third planet out from a middle-sized star
A watery world, all flecked blue and white
Where conditions would shortly be perfectly right:

The gases that made up the atmosphere changed
As the continents gradually got rearranged
Reflecting more sunlight back out into space
And allowing heat out at a speedier pace.
As the planet cooled down, ice crept toward the equator
And the sunlight reflected grew greater and greater
And the planet cooled more and the ice grew still faster
And the ice sheets and glaciers were vaster and vaster.
When the tropical seas fell beneath the ice pack
It was clear from that point there was no turning back.

The planet was wrapped in a blanket of ice
So thick it could swallow the Space Needle—twice.
It looked like a snowball, so shiny and white
And therefore it reflected most of the sun’s light.
With no light to absorb, it stayed snowy and cold
Till this super-Ice-Age was millions of years old.

II. THE THAW, or, CO2 to the Rescue

But—volcanoes! Undaunted by ice, they don’t care
They just keep spewing lava and gas in the air
With the oceans iced up, gas had no place to go
And so, though the progress was terribly slow
Greenhouse gases built up for a very long time.
Very slowly, the temperature started to climb.
We don’t know all the details (we’re still finding out!)
We do know the ice melted—of that there’s little doubt.

For the planet was Earth, as you no doubt have guessed.
Ice now sticks to the poles (perhaps taking a rest.)
Though the Sun’s now too warm to let Earth freeze again
Earth-like worlds around other stars might well have been
Sealed up under the ice, like we were long ago.
Perhaps some worlds still lie under miles of snow.
There could even be life, waiting for things to warm
Or well-suited to cold with a strange alien form.

But this story I’ve told of seas dark and snow pale
Is just a small part of a more complex tale
For water and ice come in other shades too
From near black to snow white to umpteen kinds of blue.

So the thing I’ve been working to find out so far
Is: what makes ice and snow be the colors they are?

III. LIGHT AND ICE, or, Why Things Work This Way

Two ways that light works are the main things that matter:
We science types call them absorption and scatter.

All things absorb light, but some don’t absorb much–
things like air and Saran Wrap and windows and such.
The more “stuff” light goes through, the less light is left
So you’ll get more absorption from things with more heft.
And some things allow only certain shades through
Like ice, which absorbs red but still lets through blue.
That’s why glaciers are blue, and not red or green
(Or some times they’re a nice sort of aquamarine.)

So that’s why ice looks blue, but then why is snow white?
Snowflakes are just miniature ice crystals, right?
Indeed, snow is just ice in the form of small flakes
But what makes it unique is the shape that it takes.
See, when light hits a surface, it changes direction.
(You can see this yourself with a moment’s inspection:
Put a pencil in water—it looks bent, right where
It comes out of the water and into the air.
It’s not really bent, but the light you see is.
That’s what we call refraction in this science biz.)

So every time light hits a snowflake, it bends
And with lots of snowflakes, that beam of light ends
Up bouncing around and around ‘till it goes
Back out into the air and away from the snows.
That’s why snow looks so bright—any light that goes in
Will quickly be scattered right back out again.
This works much the same for light red, blue or green
Which is why snow looks white. (But, as you may have seen
Light that goes through enough snow will look a bit blue
Because snow’s made of ice, and it can absorb too.)

There are many more ways to change ice’s color
Ice is brighter with bubbles, while dust makes it duller.
And there’s probably ways that we haven’t found yet
So we’re out there looking for new ones, you bet!

Other people talk about ice!

June 25, 2011

I’ve been trying to do more with this blog than just write text and post it—WordPress offers a wide variety of features, and blogging is at its best when it’s part of a larger ecosystem rather than just one person talking in isolation. So I’ve been adding links to the blogroll. Allow me to present a few here:

From a Glacier’s Perspective offers detailed descriptions of glacier retreat around the world, with each post focusing on a different glacier. This post describes how a glacial feature called ogives can be used to help measure glacier velocity. (Ogives are “ripples” in the glacier that form due to the influence of icefalls: the area of ice that happens to be going over the icefall during the summer melt season melts faster than the ice around it, leaving a trough that then moves down the glacier.)

The IceBridge Blog recounts news from NASA’s IceBridge Campaign. The aerial surveys of IceBridge use a variety of instruments–lasers, radar, even a gravimeter–to survey the Earth’s ice. The information gathered from IceBridge will “bridge” the gap between IceSAT-1, which stopped taking data in 2009, and IceSAT-2, which is scheduled for launch in 2016. The blog includes both pretty pictures of icy landscapes and discussions of the science behind the work, such as this post on how airborne gravimetry can tell us about the shape of the land below water and ice.

For those of you wanting to see more of Antarctica (one of my favorite continents!) there’s the “Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA)” which allows you to pan and zoom all over the continent. Anthony Powell’s photography shows the place on a slightly more intimate scale, mostly around McMurdo and including some justly famed timelapse films. Or Maria Coryell-Martin’s Expeditionary Art captures both the Antarctic and the Arctic, capturing the feel of the icy realms in a way photographs sometimes can’t.

I’ll be adding more as time goes along! In particular, I want to find some good resources on ice elsewhere in the solar system, which is a fascinating subject I haven’t even gone into yet.

The Voyage of the Endurance

June 11, 2011

Hey guys! I wrote you a song! It’s about the epic tale of survival that resulted from Shackleton’s attempted Trans-Antarctic Expedition; I used this website as a reference for some of the events, or you could read Shackleton’s own book on the experience, South. Be sure to check out the pictures, which are widely and deservedly regarded as the best part of the book.

Sung to the tune of (The Bonnie Ship) The Diamond.

The Voyage of the Endurance

‘Twas early in the century
The world prepared for war
But Shackleton intended the Antarctic to explore.
Some men sail for profit
Some sail for renown
But this one sailed for Science and the glory of the Crown.

Through the icebergs that clash, through the great waves that roll,
The mighty ship Endurance went a-sailing for the Pole.

The whalermen had warned them
That the ice would be severe
They were still above the Circle when the first floes did appear
Still bravely they sailed southward
But soon they were beset
Imprisoned in the heaving ice, but not defeated yet

Through the icebergs…

They whiled away the winter
Drifting ‘cross the Weddell Sea
When finally the sun arose, they thought they’d soon be free
But the mounting pressure of the ice
Was more than she could bear
In just days the stout Endurance was crushed beyond repair

Through the icebergs…

They loaded up the lifeboats
With provisions piled high
They watched her sink beneath the ice as, helpless, they stood by
The men camped on an icefloe
Let it take them where it would
It brought them near an island before breaking up for good.

Through the icebergs…

The isle was cold and barren
Inhospitable to man
So Shackleton devised another daring rescue plan.
He’d sail eight hundred miles
‘Cross the world’s most stormy sea
To the whalers on South Georgia he would make his earnest plea.

Through the icebergs…

A thousand times the pounding waves
Near sank the tiny boat
They lost most of their gear and food, yet somehow stayed afloat
When the party reached South Georgia
Thirst-tormented and sore
They realized the whaler-camp was on the further shore.

Through the icebergs…

They scaled the craggy mountains
And crossed crevasses deep
They stumbled into whaler-camp half-crazed from lack of sleep
The whalers were astonished
When these strange men came in view
Soon Shackleton secured a ship to rescue all his crew

Through the icebergs…

Let Shackleton’s Antarctic fame
For centuries survive
For with all their trials and troubles, every man came back alive!