Posted by: sioglac | May 13, 2014

Vatican Day 2b: Andddd we’re back

Sincere apologies about that one. I’m back in the office in San Diego now, but I can pretend like it’s a week ago and I’m still at the Vatican, right? So let’s hop in the time machine and go back to the second day of the Vatican’s Workshop on Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature. I highlighted some of my favorite quotes from the second day, but never really gave a round up of what “went down”. I’m not sure the best way to do this because each presentation is 20 minutes of dense information followed by 20 minutes of inspired discussion. For today, I’ll give you a list of the speakers with a sentence or two summary of the important stuff. I hope this summary begins to give you an idea of how wide-ranging the topics of the workshop were.

As a programming note, I’ll round up the third and fourth days later on this week and then write a short bit hopefully early next week giving my general impressions about the whole experience (spoiler: I’m simultaneously discouraged about the state of the world and inspired that we just maybe might be able to salvage the situation). I also have about a million pictures of the workshop and general wandering around the Vatican. I’ll get those up somewhere on the internet ASAP.

Anyway, here’s some of what we talked about over a wonderful Saturday inside Casina Pio IVRead More…

Posted by: sioglac | May 3, 2014

Vatican Day 2a: an 11 hour day

Have you ever sat in a conference for 11 hours? The day after you sat in there for…11 hours? 22 hours of conference in 48 hours, after being at a different conference in a different country for the four days previous is ROUGH. Wow. So no recap on the day. (Even though it was awesome and Walter Munk (a) brought the house down with his talk and (b) had one of the greatest closing lines to a day ever: “As an oceanographer, if I had the choice between the sea encroaching on land and the land encroaching on the sea, I’ll take the sea over land.” [Meeting ajourned.])

I’ll write something up tomorrow. In the mean time, here are two links to summaries from Day 1 (NYT and CCC) and some quotes from Day 2:

“[The climate system] is not a computer with an undo button.” Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

“If you want it to last centuries, float it!” Walter Munk


Backside of the cupola


UN style desks


Workshop’s front door


Walter, post-talk, on the big screen!


Random arch. We can wander the Vatican at our pleasure… Probably the coolest thing ever.

Posted by: sioglac | May 2, 2014

Vatican Day 1: Two millennia of experience

Back of the envelope calculation here:

There are 43 participants. Let’s say each one has 50 years experience being a scientist (FYI for Walter, this is an underestimate by 50%). Conservative estimate: I’m sitting in a room with just about two millennia of experience of how to be a scientist.

Oh I guess I should back up here. If you missed previous posts: I’m at the Vatican for a joint workshop of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences/Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. There are three students here to watch. I am one of them. What does this mean?

Basically just that I’m way out of my league.

photo 2

Not a bad place for a conference, eh?

There are lots of things to say about Day 1. I’m tired, with this being my fifth consecutive day of day-long conferences, so let’s just hit some highlights:

  • Jeffrey Sachs definitely won the day, bringing the house down with his talk about sustainable developement and, in response to a question, rattled off one of the longest, most beautiful quotes I’ve ever heard, off the top of his head nonetheless (granted it was a JFK quote and he just wrote a book about the guy…).
  • I got taught biological evolution by Werner Arber today. FYI he has a Noble Prize for something he did with DNA. Oh and his slides were hand drawn cartoons #sciencecrush: photo 1
  • On the topic of two millennia of experience, one of the biggest things that has struck me is how these academics form questions (or, more generally, ideas). While there is always the person with the rambling questions at every conference, most of the questions and comments are impressively succinct, unambiguous, and, best of all, penetrating. It’s like a masterclass on how to be a scientist. I’m never going to be in a situation like this again, so I’m trying to learn as much as possible via osmosis.
  • On the topic of amazingness, some of the things that have come out of these scientists’ mouths is pure gold. “We carry our parents’ luggage…the role of education is desperately important.” “Throwing food away is unacceptable from an environmental and ethical perspective.” “We have filled up the nooks and crannies of the world’s economies to a very dangerous extent.” “Man is a technical giant, but an ethical child.” Obviously we (and by we, I mean them) have run the gambit of topics and done it incredibly eloquently.
  • Oh the guy who discovered Lucy is here.

That’s enough for now. Meeting starts again in 8 hours (tomorrow is cryosphere day!!!) and my walk in the morning along the Vatican wall is like 30 minutes (poor me, right?). So I’ll just leave this panorama here for you all:

photo 3

Posted by: sioglac | Apr 17, 2014

Ground truthin’

I have to get something off my chest: I’m an observationalist. What does that mean? Well in my research, I make direct measurements of what a glacier is doing (for example, with a GPS unit) and use these observations to test hypotheses that I (or we as a community) have about the way glaciers work. In glaciology, observations are relatively rare (though this is changing!). It’s not easy to take a lot of observations of, say, Antarctica because Antarctica is: (a) really far away, (b) has a pretty rough climate to work in (coldest, highest, driest continent on Earth, or as every training I have ever taken says, it’s a harsh continent), and (c) is dark 24 hours a day, 6 months of the year. To that end, I consider myself extremely lucky to have an incredible set of observations that not only contains year-round data, but also contains multiple years of data. While related to the topic at hand, that’s just a tangent for this post.

One way I really like using what few measurements we have of Antarctica is to “ground truth” remotely-sensed observations (like from an airplane or, more often, a satellite up in space) or models. Remote sensing and models are incredible techniques we use in glaciology to understand how glaciers and ice sheets work on scales we could never cover with direct ground observation alone. Case in point: it takes (at least) 2 months of my time every year to make sure not quite two dozen GPS units are functioning well in a “logistically simple” (read: super easy) area of one ice stream in Antarctica—imagine how long it would take to instrument the whole ice stream, let alone the whole ice sheet. My Master’s advisor, however, instilled in me a healthy sense of skepticism about both remote sensing and models: fantastic tools if their methods are verified and their limitations are known. That, in a nutshell, is what ground truthing is. In other words, you can leverage a pretty limited (in both a time and a space sense) set of observations on the ground in Antarctica to test whether the observations satellites continually make are precise and accurate and/or whether the outputs from models are consistent with what the ice is doing in real life. In this way, you can take a relatively small set of difficult-to-make observations and use them to put your trust into methods that draw much broader conclusions than you ever could with your one, small dataset.

With that in mind, you can imagine how excited I get when a new issue of Journal of Glaciology comes out and I find a ground truthing study. [I’m borderline giddy when I find one; in other news, I’m a big ol’ nerd.] One article in the most recent issue easily takes the cake for best paper I’ve read in a long time. Seriously, how cool is this:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 10.03.51 AM


“As a second result, the upstream end point of the computed trajectory emerges very close to the glacier surface in 1926, giving a new and global validation of the glacier model in space and time.” How the authors managed to type that sentence without ending it with about a million exclamation points is beyond me. I also love that they tagged the article with the keyword, “glaciological model experiments.” As my aforementioned Master’s advisor responded when I emailed this article to him, “Tough way to validate a model… ‘So, I was wanting to validate my model, and wondered if you could help me…'” Sorry Bob. If I was only in for a Master’s with you, I don’t think I’d be ready for that kind of, um, commitment to model testing. But I do enthusiastically support this type of ground truth study!

The paper delves into the model in quite a bit of detail (A pretty good paper! Give it a read if you are so inclined.), so we’re going to skip to my favorite section:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 10.04.06 AM

A mystery remains!!

I have on many occasions used investigating a crime as a metaphor for how a glaciologist does his/her research. You use a very small set of clues to piece together a hypothesis, then use a slightly larger (though still extremely small) set of clues to test if your hypothesis is right. Jouvet and Funk blow my metaphor out of the water with the establishment of a new field: Forensic Glaciology**. I cannot wait for the day that I’m flipping through the channels on TV and find an episode of CSI that calls in some glaciologists to help them with their case. It’s going to happen and, to those of you in Hollywood, I happen to know a glaciologist down the road in San Diego who could make a guest-star appearance for you…

Give me a ring, CSI. I’m ready for my closeup!

**Yes, I know this isn’t the first time glaciology has been used to investigate corpses, but it is the first time (I think) corpses have been used to validate modeling work. See here for another fun example of forensic glaciology.


Posted by: sioglac | Mar 31, 2014


Pictures are the best, right?? I told myself when I got back from the ice this season, “I’m definitely posting my pictures from this season before February is over!”

Well that didn’t happen. But they’re up before March was over.

You can always see Scripps Glaciology’s pictures by heading to our homepage ( and clicking the Picasa link on the right side (embarrassingly enough, that’s exactly how I peruse my own pictures too). If you are an old-hand at this and only want to see the pictures from the 2013-2014 Antarctic field season, here’s a link directly to those pictures:

Leave any questions you have about anything you see in the album as a comment here and I’ll be sure to respond.

“What’d you say? You put up pictures?? Meh, back to sleep…”

Posted by: sioglac | Mar 27, 2014

“The future starts today, not tomorrow”

To get things started with ScrippsOnIce v2.0, I’m not going to summarize my paper that was just published based on some of the data I’ve been collecting in Antarctica. Or Sasha’s paper that came out late last year about how quickly the subglacial plumbing can change. That will come in the future. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a pretty crazy meeting I have the honor of attending this May. Coincidentally, this all started while I was out on the Whillans Ice Stream, so let’s hop in the wayback machine to this past field season in Antarctica… Read More…

Posted by: sioglac | Mar 24, 2014

Programming Note

I’ve been thinking for quite awhile about the future of this blog. I obtusely referenced this struggle in a previous post from McMurdo and I think I’m finally ready to come to terms with it. A field blog only works if you (a) go to the field a lot (check!) and (b) constantly have new stories  from the field (……). I love my work out in Antarctica (there is a reason I keep going back after all), but to tell you the truth, it’s a bit repetitive: kick it in New Zealand for a few days, get stuck in McMurdo a week or three, fly to the Whillans Ice Stream, drive over 1000 miles on a snow machine, dig some holes, collect some data, come home. It’s been three years of that. Each year, I find myself with more responsibilities and, as a result, less time to write from the field. But I don’t even know what I’d write if I had time: I feel like I’ve told all the stories already. Plus out on in the middle of nowhere Antarctica, all the pictures pretty much look the same (not that I stop taking them).

So where is all of this going? We’re opening this blog up to be more than “our glaciology field blog” (though I’m keeping that tag line). I was inspired by the original Scripps Glaciology graduate student Jeremy Bassis (now professor at University of Michigan). He told me that in his lab group, once a week (or maybe every other week? I don’t remember; it was awhile ago) everyone is barred from using a computer. They read books, print out journal articles, derive equations on paper, and *gasp* don’t watch videos of cats on youtube. We’re gonna have the bizarro version of Jeremy’s unplugged vision: I’m going to reserve part of an afternoon every other week to update the blog on the going-ons of Scripps Glaciology, glaciology as a field, or just generally cool science. Already in 2014, our group has done some amazing work (6 publications in 2014 already?!) and I think you all should at least hear about the tasty end-product of the sausage factory I’ve been intermittently describing over the past two and a half years.

Sound good? We’ll get things started tomorrow (okay maybe Wednesday) with some prettttyyyy exciting news in the work life of Matt. Stay tuned.


This just about summarized about what happened to this blog :(

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 26, 2013

Fingers crossed

I think what I have come to dislike the most about delays in McMurdo is that when you say bye to friends and colleagues, someone always has to say, “Well I hope I don’t see you tomorrow.”

We're goin' to WIZ.

We’re goin’ to WIZ.

Posted by: sioglac | Dec 23, 2013

337 days later…

Better late than never, right?

Last time we talked, I was giving updates from my time in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, waiting for a plane to come whisk me away to the beautiful Whillans Ice Stream and I guess I never gave you any updates since then. Well whisk me away it did. Team GPS then had 12 days to do about 21 days worth of work. It was a crazy, crazy field season, with little time to catch your breathe and write a blog post (though I suppose I’ve had 325 days since then…). Team GPS finished almost everything we wanted to accomplish in those 12 days and Drill Team drilled into Subglacial Lake Whillans and kept the hole open for four days of science.

Given how compact the season was and how much could have gone wrong due to factors out of everyone’s control, it ended up being wildly successful. WISSARD was named the 12th (!!) top science story of 2013 by Discover Magazine, while Helen and I were featured in a UCSD Alumni Magazine article. Since it’s actually impossible to put into words how cool it is to find myself right in the middle of a project like this, I’ll leave it at this: WISSARD was deemed a better science story than scientists successfully performing a Vulcan Mind Meld. Any year you beat out Star Trek technology is a good year.

I’ll do a full round up of the awesome science that is coming out of the 2012/2013 field season some other day. Feel free though to peruse pictures of last year here. Then there’s the whole story of The Shutdown, which is definitely a post unto itself, so we’ll skip that for now, and move onto the present. Guess what I’m doing right this very instant…

Can’t fly a plane through that stuff.

If you guessed “sitting in McMurdo, waiting for a plane, like every other year,” you’d be right. In fact, my tales of being stuck waiting for a plane have started to become something of McMurdo lore. The newest chapter of our legend: after 2 weeks of absolutely perfect weather in McMurdo (mid 30s, no wind, no clouds), our team is scheduled as a primary flight to our field site last Friday. Thursday evening, at about 8PM, with no warning at all, these clouds that look straight out of a horror movie come rolling in over island, engulfing first just the airfield, then all of McMurdo in a dense ground fog. Those in charge of planning flights into and out of McMurdo are now convinced I’m cursed. Lovely.

So like every year, we wait.

This year there are many silver linings: our group had an unplanned overlap with some friends we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (like Hilary, whose blog you should be reading religiously), we get to have an unexpected Christmas Dinner in McMurdo (which I can only imagine is as good or better than the unexpected Thanksgiving I had here two years ago), and, best of all, I got to make my first ginger bread house. Ever. In my life.

It’s penguins curling with Santa’s helicopter in the background. This is what happens when your team has a helo pilot and a Canadian on it.

As a quick programming note, it’s been hard to write posts about my time in McMurdo this year because I think I’ve covered everything I’m doing in past posts. We pulled food, packed cargo, recreated some, and ate a lot. I guess I may be a bit jaded at this point, so you should head over to Carolyn’s blog at to check out her take on McMurdo going-ons. She’s a UCSC graduate student down here with the team and it’s her first time in Antarctica. Read up on what she has to say!

Posted by: sioglac | Jan 20, 2013


5 on a Basler.
3 on a Basler, 2 on a Herc.
5 on a Herc.
1 on a Herc, 4 on a second Herc.
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 18 on a Basler 4 days later (at the earliest).
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 1 on a Basler by himself.
1 on a Herc, 8 on a Basler.
1 on a Herc, 6 on a Basler.
1 on a Herc, 1 on a second Herc, 6 on a Basler.

These are all the different configurations that the GPS Team has needed to plan for in the past two weeks. Seriously. At one point I had to plan on being “put-in” (aka dropped off in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with only white in every direction) as field team leader. At another point, I had to teach Slawek and Grace how to service GPS stations since I was going to be put-in possibly a full week after them. Yes, you read that right. I’ve been as high as “Leading a Field Team” and as low as “Last Priority.” My theoretical put-in plane has been as empty as, uh, just me (with, no joke, a personal flight attendent, who assured me after the flight was canceled that he would have been as unhelpful as possible) and as full as 18 people on a (retrofitted) DC-3. It’s been a strange 22 days in McMurdo to say the least. I might as well wallpaper my room with “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. Maintaining an even keel and being generally flexible is the name of the game.

So what’s the current situation out here? Slawek was put-in last week with 3 of the 7 drillers along with the cargo and personel that are needed to build and run the main drill camp. The same day as his flight, we had 2 other planes land at SLW with most of Team GPS’s science gear (we had 3 planes land at SLW within an hour of each other. We almost need our own air-traffic control tower…). Grace is going tomorrow with the rest of the drill team on the second Herc, which has my checked luggage on it and our gear to have an independent camp. I’m going tomorrow with the first flight of scientists (6 of us), which will have the last of the WISSARD science cargo on it. Then, Tuesday and Wednesday, the rest of the scientists will fly out. That’s the current plan. That being said, our “current” plan seems to change on the hour, so stay tuned.

I haven’t posted recently because either: (1) if we decided on a plan that seemed post-worthy, by the time I found a computer, the plan had changed already, or (2) I’m sitting around entertaining myself with any trivial task while I wait for a flight.

Things that have happened:

  • I went to Hut Point to tour Scott’s Discovery Hut, only to have 6 penguins try to tour the hut with us. If you aren’t friends with me on Facebook, follow WISSARD on Facebook, or read Betty’s blog, I guess you haven’t heard about that yet. Incredible is an understatement. Watch some of my video here and here. I’m kicking myself for not bring my DSLR to the ice this year.
  • Fox News did a not-too-bad article about us, which you can find here. However, their headline is ridiculous. To quote Susan, we aren’t trying to win a race and DEFINITELY not trying to start a war. Let alone a war that was mostly a nuclear arms race…
  • I edited a proposal, finished up the analysis part of a paper from last year’s data, so I can start writing ASAP, edited a paper that is in its final stages, and edited a paper that is in its beginning stages. There should be some solid papers coming out in the next 6 months…
  • Instigated a Mario Kart for Nintendo 64 party.
  • Signed up for the McMurdo Marathon, only to have it canceled. This was a good thing since I’m coming back from an calf/achilles tendon injury, but  am also willing to do just about anything to avenge my 2nd place (or 1st loser) finish during last year’s 5K. I probably would have just injured myself again, so this was for the best.
  • Attended the 3rd Annual 7th Continent Mustache and Beard Competition as well as the 2nd annual Mustache Roulette. I’ll get some pictures of that up ASAP. Two of my female “townie” friends who are wintering-over here had their heads shaved in the name of charity. (Aside: people that work non-science jobs in McMurdo are oh-so-lovingly referred to by scientists as townies, while non-science McMurdo workers oh-so-lovingly refer to scientists as Beakers. Some are offended by these terms. I, perhaps obviously, am not. I use them ironically and love my townie friends equally as much as my beaker friends. Sometimes I feel like coming down to Antarctica is more like a grand sociology experiment than anything else.)
  • Witnessed a blizzard in McMurdo. Shin deep snow. Snowball fights abound.

Transport to the airstrip in 7 hours. Next post will be from Whillans, I hope!


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