Climate & Environment


United Kingdom

Changes in Glacier and Ice Shelf Extents in a climate warming hot-spot - the Antarctic Peninsula

The Antarctic Peninsula (AP) is both one of our planet’s coldest locations and a major climate warming “hot spot,” thought to be one of the largest contributors to the current rise in sea level. Alison Cook was not put off by the cold, however: she explored this remote and harsh area to gather data and survey glaciers over the course of three expeditions. The geometry and dynamics of glaciers have changed over the past century in this region. Cook is trying to identify the main drivers of glacial retreat, with particular attention to climatic conditions. Her innovative approach combines satellite imagery and aerial photographs to provide comprehensive coverage of the changes over a wide area. Her ultimate aim is to deliver a Geographic Information System (GIS) database of AP glaciers in order to identify patterns of change. She hopes to enable better predictions of glacier response to climate change over the next century in this sensitive region.

Keeping tabs on Ice Meting

Project Information
Alison begins her PhD following 10 years of work with the British Antarctic Survey. Her role there as Geographic Data Analyst primarily involved compilation of new topographic maps for the scientists who visit these harsh environments, including fieldwork to gather aerial photographs and survey positions. Her job also included a wide range of other mapping projects, such as making maps for publication, maps to assist with logistics for Antarctic fieldwork and scientific research into changes in glacial features. Under a joint project between the US Geological Survey and British Antarctic Survey, ‘Coastal-Change and Glaciological Maps of Antarctica’ she used aerial photographs and satellite imagery, explorers’ maps and reports to map the changes in ice extent on the AP over the last century. This project finished with the delivery of the most comprehensive GIS database of changes in ice extent around the AP, three hardcopy maps showing these changes and a paper published in Science summarising the trends (Cook et al., 2005).
Before working at the British Antarctic Survey, Alison studied for an MSc in GIS at Edinburgh University, where her dissertation examined changes in volume of a glacier in Iceland using photogrammetric techniques. Prior to that, she attended St Andrews University for her degree in Geography. Growing up in Scotland, she has always had a love for the outdoors and a desire to understand the physical processes behind the formation of our landscapes.

What has your AXA fellowship brought you?
The AXA fellowship has brought me the fantastic opportunity to do a research project that I am passionate about. The Antarctic Peninsula is a “climate warming hot-spot” and contains extensive glaciers that are retreating rapidly and contributing to global sea-level rise. Currently, we know very little about these glaciers, or the processes controlling changes in their extent. The aim of my project is to fill this knowledge gap and study how and why the glaciers have changed over the past century, which will assist with predictions of how they may contribute to future sea-level rise.
The funding has enabled me to come and study this topic as a PhD at Swansea University in Wales, joining a Glaciology group that is well-recognised for its Polar research, giving me a strong supportive environment and allowing me to develop my career within an experienced team.
With the AXA fellowship I am able to expand my knowledge by attending courses and conferences and meet with scientists internationally in this field of research. The funds have also allowed purchase of the equipment, software and data required for the interpretation of the glacier changes.

Could you describe your experiences with the AXA Research Fund community?

I began my PhD in October 2010 and have already met with other researchers who are studying various aspects of the environmental risks of climate change. AXA gave us the opportunity to get together and share ideas and report on our latest findings, and make useful contacts for future research. The AXA ‘Talent Day’ meeting at the headquarters in Paris also gave us the chance to speak to two leading scientists, Professor Hervé Le Treut and Sir Brian Hoskins, and hear about their latest research on climate-related topics. I was very impressed by this event and all the opportunities it gave us to assist with our work.

Can you briefly describe what your research project is about?

My research focuses on the extensive glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula that are retreating rapidly and contributing to sea-level rise. We need to understand the processes controlling the changes in their extent, so I will analyse spatial patterns of change over the recent past, combined with information on changes in geometry and dynamics of the glaciers. Alongside meteorological and ocean temperature records, this will help to determine the main drivers of glacial retreat. The results will be improved predictions in likely future changes of ice shelves and marine glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula, a region that is thought to be one of the largest contributors to current sea-level rise.

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Swansea University


United Kingdom