Glaciologist


Glaciology is the study of snow and ice and their physical properties. More specifically, glaciologists analyze the formation, movement, and effects of the different kinds of glaciers, for example alpine and arctic glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and ice shelves. A large part of the research conducted by glaciologists analyzes how glaciers and ice caps move and change in response to climate change and how these changes in turn influence climate and the surrounding environment.

At a glance

Imagine you are working in one of the coldest and most remote, but most breathtakingly beautiful, areas of the world. The sun is low in the sky, and the subzero wind is blowing fiercely across your face. With your crash helmet and climbing harness tight, you are slowly lowered into an ice crevasse 15 metres deep. You are a glaciologist and your team of scientists and mountaineers are here on the Trapridge Glacier in Kluane National Park, Yukon, studying the characteristics and movement of this surging glacier. You and your four climbing partners are descending into the crevasse to begin gathering data from the magnificent Trapridge Glacier.As a glaciologist, you've been to this site before. On a previous expedition, you and your team installed a series of markers on the glacier's surface and recorded their positions. Today, you will revisit these markers, determine their new positions with your GPS equipment, and calculate how much they have moved. The markers' movement tells you about the glacier's movement, both how much and in what direction.In addition to resurveying the markers, you and your team will collect snow and ice samples from inside the crevasse. The crevasse itself can tell you a lot about past conditions on the glacier: in its walls, you can see the annual layers of snowfall, and the samples you take will be analyzed for their chemical properties, which can indicate, for example, past changes in the climate and the deposition of atmospheric pollutants. The data you gather on this expedition will add to your understanding of the Trapridge Glacier and its role in the environment.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a glaciologist:
  • Conduct research on ice sheets, shelves, fields, and caps, as well as alpine and arctic glaciers and snow.
  • Collect samples of ice and snow to test for various criteria, including physical properties, chemical composition, and evidence of life in the ice.
  • Design experiments both in the lab and in the field.
  • Use satellite and airborne remote sensing devices to study ice distribution and behaviour.
  • Write reports on experimental findings and synthesize research.
  • Install and test instruments.
  • Communicate with the media and general public on historical and modern glacial activity and its relevance to climate change.
  • Collaborate with other glaciologists and professionals.

Work environment

Glaciologists work in a variety of locations, including, but not limited to:In the office:
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Drafting plans and models
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, and the public, and presenting report findings to clients
  • Researching new technology and advancements in glaciology, and consulting with other glaciology professionals
In the field:
  • Conducting experiments and gathering data in remote field locations
  • Installing and maintaining electronic instrumentation
In the lab:
  • Testing samples and conducting experiments
  • Using remote sensing equipment to study ice and snow
  • Designing and calibrating new instruments

Where to work

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments and parks
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as a glaciologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Calculus
  • Computer Science
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a glaciologist is a university undergraduate degree, although the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies.If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a glaciologist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Environmental Earth Sciences
  • Climatology
  • Physics
  • Geomatics
  • Geography
Certification is not mandatory for glaciologists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations. Most glaciologists have additional training and certification in mountaineering, climbing, and wilderness travel.

Salary

Glaciologists at an entry level position make between $36,000 and $45,500 per year in Canada.With several years experience and education glaciologists make between $51,000 and $85,500 per year.

Role Model

Sarah Boon

It was a field course in her third year of undergraduate studies in geography that sparked Sarah Boon’s love of glaciers. "Being in the outdoors, seeing these glaciated landscapes and knowing the glaciers and glacier meltwater are working on the landscape…and it’s all related to climate. There’s some really interesting stuff going on here.”After a decade of university study, Sarah works in the geography department of the University of Victoria. She still explains her field work to friends and family as "camping and doing research on the side.”  In the summer, Sarah can be found living in some of the most remote locations of the Arctic and northern B.C. There, she spends up to four months camping on glaciers, taking meteorological, hydrological, and glacial measurements. "Glaciers are barometers of climate…[they] are a record of both past and current climate in many different ways.” One of the most interesting parts of her job is "reading” glaciers, whether it’s by studying ice core samples or the moraines (large quantities of rock) that glaciers deposit. According to Sarah, these are indicators of how our climate works.However, a glaciologist’s future is often not so easy to read. Sarah says the biggest drawback of the industry is the lack of jobs. The field of glaciology is very specific, and jobs are often limited to the federal government or universities. "You can’t just go out there and say "Hi, I’m a glaciologist, can I give you my résumé?’”But the limits of the industry don’t dissuade Sarah. "I’m not just a glaciologist…I’ve learned enough skills by going this path that I could do something else that doesn’t necessarily have to be in glaciology.” But Sarah is pleased she took the chance and became a glaciologist. What many people see as large chunks of ice are "inspiring” to her—it’s why she continues to enjoy her work.