Written by Elisabeth Gilmore, Marta Olazabal, Ricardo Safra de Campos, Jessica P. R Thorn, Erin Coughlan de Perez, and Sherilee L. Harper…
After an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Oxford, I moved to University College London for an MSc in climate change and a PhD in polar climate science. After graduating I joined the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science, and I now work in the Earth Observation Group at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.
I try to fuse observational and modelling approaches, since almost every observational method has a model of some kind hiding within it. My PhD work investigated the snow cover on sea ice using microwave remote sensing and observations from crewed drifting stations. I’m also interested in larger questions of sea ice production and drift, and more recently the role of the atmospheric boundary layer in Arctic amplification.
How did you first become interested in the science of sea ice?
As a physics undergraduate, I struggled to care deeply about my course material. I enjoyed the approach, but felt like quantum and statistical mechanics were too esoteric. So I rolled the dice and enrolled for an MSc in climate change, which changed my life. The course exposed me to a host of biological, geological, and even policy issues which I found fascinating. I knew that I wanted a career as a climate scientist, but I also wanted to use my hard-won physics skills!
When choosing my PhD project I tried to play to my strengths in physics, but also to my interests in rapid environmental change. Modelling and remote sensing of sea ice fit the bill exactly. It allowed me to think about electromagnetic scattering and heat flows, but also to jump outside of physics and explore computer science, ecology, and the social issues that Arctic sea ice decline presents. An added bonus was the chance to challenge myself in some of Earth’s most extreme and isolated environments.
What is the focus of your current research?
Right now I’m trying to characterise the snow cover on the sea ice at both poles, and understand why they can be so different in each hemisphere. I’m particularly interested in how we can efficiently model snow and sea ice, retaining key physical processes while discarding those that turn out to be inconsequential for a given application.
I’m also fascinated by what historical data from Arctic Ocean Soviet Drifting stations can tell us about the sea ice, the snow cover, and the lower atmosphere in the pre-satellite era. They offer decades of in-situ observations on the snow cover’s response to meteorological forcing, much of which has never been fully analysed.
How would you summarise your experience of carrying out fieldwork in Antarctica?
In a word: hard. For my first Antarctic campaign we were based on an icebreaker and accessed our field sites on the drifting pack-ice via helicopter. For the second, we skied out from a coastal station onto the nearby sea ice to do our work, hoping that it wouldn’t break away. Both presented a very different set of challenges, but the unifying theme was that if you drift too far from your ship or station, or if the weather closes in, then things can get quite nasty.
Antarctic fieldwork can also be a very isolating experience. You’re away from your friends and family for months at a time, often in the dark, and always in the cold. In 2023 I spent nearly eight months on the Antarctic peninsula during its winter season. The darkness can really get to you at times, so it’s important to stay on top of your mental and physical health alongside your science.
Having said that, the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen have all been in the Southern Ocean. The scenery of the sea ice, glaciers and icebergs on a good-weather day is totally unbeatable. The abundance of wildlife is also mindblowing; people often ask me whether I saw any penguins, whales or seals down there, but the reality is that you see them more days than not, sometimes in their tens or hundreds. The folks that help us there are also fantastic. They’re hugely talented and could succeed in almost any organisation, and get a paycheck to match. Instead, they’ve chosen to go to Antarctica for the love of it, sometimes year after year, to support polar science. I feel very lucky to explore the Antarctic environment and to work with such extraordinary people.
Why does Open Science matter in your field of research?
Science is of course facing a reproducibility crisis, but truly Open Science goes far beyond addressing just that. I think we’re also facing an efficiency crisis, where ironically things such as software or lab protocols are constantly reproduced by individual groups because they aren’t made available, or transparently documented, alongside publications. I’ve particularly seen this in my field where model code or raw data can be fiercely guarded by state-run research organisations. On the flip-side, there are some real trailblazers out there, particularly those involved in the open-source software community.
I think Open Science also matters in environmental research when you consider the diversity of our intended readership. Some papers can have important findings for governments, IGOs and NGOs who might not have easy access to paywalled research. If you really want to reach outside the world of science and make an impact, Open Access is the way to go. There are also equity considerations in Arctic research; for instance, non-Arctic researchers are often helped by local communities in the Canadian North or Alaska. For me it just wouldn’t feel right to publish in a place or format that’s not easily accessible to those who help us and are impacted by our findings.
What motivated you to join PLOS Climate’s editorial board?
I’ve had my eye on the PLOS family of journals for a while as an example of good practice. While Open Science is rightly proliferating over the subscription-based model, it seems to increasingly be done in a for-profit way. Firstly, I think taxpayer-funded scientists have a responsibility to spend their funds in an ethical and considered way. But secondly, a profit-motive can have pernicious effects on the quantity and quality of publications in a given journal. So, when I got the chance to become an editor for an open-access and non-profit publisher, I jumped at it!
I was also really impressed by PLOS’s distinctive and bold approach to the Journal Impact Factor. As scientists we have a responsibility to monitor the impact of our work. However, the conventional calculation of a journal’s impact factor is so fraught with downsides and unintended consequences that I agree that we should move past it. It’s a classic example of Goodhart’s law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. So I’m very happy to be part of this movement!
What kind of research would you be particularly excited to see?
In terms of approach, I’m excited about work that fuses remote sensing with traditional climate science, since the two fields have historically been quite siloed. This is particularly obvious in the author-lists of IPCC reports, where there’s a real dearth of remote sensing scientists. Speaking as part of that community, we need to go beyond generating “products” for climate scientists to later use, and instead integrate our work directly into climate-scientific methods.
In terms of topics, I think there’s a lot of important work to be done right now on the pre-industrial temperature baseline for the Arctic. As the global average temperature ticks closer to 1.5°C, it’s clear that the global preindustrial baseline needs clarifying. But if we’re to really get to grips with Arctic Amplification and how that will play out in future, we need to know how it’s played out in the past. Unfortunately we currently don’t have a robust baseline to compare Arctic warming since the preindustrial period to global warming over the same timescale.
I’m also very excited by reconstructions of the past spatial distribution of sea ice. Atmospheric reanalysis products such as ECMWF’s ERA5 product are now reaching back further and further in time, but to do that rigorously requires much better knowledge of where the sea ice was in the pre-satellite era. There have been some amazing “data rescue” methods deployed for temperature and precipitation, which has helped extend reanalysis products back in time, and I’d love to see the same focus put on sea ice.
Finally, we’ve seen some absolutely extraordinary sea ice extent records in the Southern Ocean this year. These records evaded our prediction, but also our full understanding even in hindsight. Disentangling the atmospheric and oceanic drivers of these records and then forecasting the evolution of the drivers is a huge, but critically important task. I’d really love to see that tackled in PLOS Climate.