‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’: The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015

Every summer the The Royal Society hosts a public exhibition of cutting edge science in its London headquarters and this year I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part as part of the presenting team for the ‘Vanishing Glaciers of Everest’ stand.

Our stand was the brainchild of Ann Rowan, a research fellow at Sheffield, and involved the collaboration of five UK universities: Sheffield, Aberystwyth, Leeds, Hertfordshire and Northumbria. Because of the links to my own research group, the Sheffield ICERS (ice & climate), I was drafted in as an additional presenter to help out the Himalayan glacier specialists.

The aim of the exhibition is to engage the public and particularly school children with on-going science across all disciplines. There is a huge variety of stands – ours was the only geography representative and we were competing with everything from nuclear fusion and biomedical science through to plasma rockets and archaeology. There were some fantastic stands on display, most with some sort of interactive element that you could have a play with.

For our part, the main interactive attraction of the ‘Vanishing glaciers’ stand was a big old block of ice that was melting happily and aided us in explaining the variables that affect glacial melt rates. Thankfully the weather was obligingly hot so our ice block rapidly rounded off and started to look convincingly like it was disappearing. The presence of a nice cold block of ice that you could touch turned out to be a big draw in itself as temperatures in central London hit 36oC! Cue all the glaciologists whinging about being too hot. Temperatures around freezing are much more our ideal habitat.

Whilst the ice block was a nice draw, we also had a fantastic stand covered with information and photos, as well as some great 3D images and a 3D printed map of Mount Everest & its environs.

All this stuff was designed to get people talking and asking us questions. This worked magnificently and gave our presenting team of scientists the opportunity to explain how glacier mass balance works and to discuss the impact that future climate change might have on the Himalayan glaciers and hence the rivers & water resources of the Indian Subcontinent and Southern China. Because of the informal nature of the event, visitors also got the chance to ask us about all sorts of other aspects of glaciology. Being more of a palaeoglacial and polar specialist this was great for me because I often got the chance to bring in a little of my own area of expertise into the discussion.

All in all, I had a great time presenting and would thoroughly recommend the event to other scientists. It’s particularly good for us PhD students to have an opportunity to do a bit of outreach and to practice communicating science to a non-technical audience. I certainly learned a lot and I think that it’s very important to get out there and talk to ‘normal’ people about science. It was great to get so much engagement from our visitors and to be asked so many interesting questions.

Even if you don’t find yourself presenting I would still suggest that you go along and have a look at next year’s exhibition. There are some fantastic stands and you’ll certainly learn something new and interesting. Plus you might even get the chance to do a bit of science celebrity spotting – we had the likes of Prof Brian Cox visiting when I was there!

(Thanks to Ann Rowan and Mike Hambrey for the use of their photos. See photo captions for individual credits.)

For more detailed information about the science behind our stand, check out the the ‘Glaciers online’ website: http://swisseduc.ch/glaciers/himalaya/khumbu/index-en.html

Email overload

(The above image is from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham:  www.phdcomics.com)

I’ve been trying to do some reading over the last few mornings but I keep being distracted by emails. Like most people I seem to get too many emails and not enough useful ones. So I thought ‘what can I do to streamline my emails and make them more relevant & useful?’

Going through my inbox and having a bit of a filing session made me realise just how fundamental emails have become for doing research. Everything from quick notes to colleagues through to conference invites and journal alerts comes via email these days. But are we actually using emails as effectively as we could be? Judging by the frequency of complaints about having too many emails, I suspect not. So here are my personal top tips for effective use of email as a researcher.

  1. Getting important info via email

The first thing you need to consider is whether you are getting the important information in your University and in your field of research.

Hopefully the uni will have signed you up to the relevant email lists as soon as you joined, probably as well as a whole load of other useless junk (I’ve set up auto-deletes for a lot of this stuff – really slims down my inbox!). Make sure to check that you’re added to your research group’s mail list as well as the more generic stuff.

Once you’re all sorted with your uni comms, you need to think about getting access to the important info in your field. If you’re not already on at least one subject-specific email list, then I suggest you ask around your department and get yourself signed up to one or two of the most relevant lists.

For example, in my area of research the important email groups are ‘Cryolist’ (for all things ice related) and ‘Geomorphlist’ (for everything geomorphological). These lists provide me with new data sources, conference invites, job adverts and invitations to collaborate amongst a whole load of other stuff of varying usefulness. Yes you will get a lot of emails from lists like these but they really are the best way to ensure you know about anything new going on in your research area. And you never know you might see an advert for your dream postdoc!

By now you’ve probably joined a few learned societies – this is your chance to make sure that you’ve been included on their email lists too. This is particularly important for societies that offer funding opportunities because they will usually send out grant information and deadline reminders via email.

  1. Literature updates via email

Now you are in the know about the goings-on in your university and discipline, you need to ensure that you have a finger on the pulse of the literature. Regularly hitting ‘Web of Science’ for generic lit searches takes up a lot of time and will only get you so far in terms of finding out about new papers. Far better is the Zetoc ‘Journal alerts’ service.

This excellent service allows you to set up lists of journals that you are interested in. For example I have four lists:

  1. Cryosphere & glaciology (containing journals like Annals of Glaciology and Journal of Glaciology)
  2. Geomorphology & earth science (e.g. Boreas, Earth Science Reviews, Geomorphology)
  3. Quaternary (e.g. Quaternary Science Reviews and Journal of Quaternary Science)
  4. General geoscience & glam mags (e.g. Nature, Science, Progress in Physical Geography)
  5. Methods/ tech (e.g. Computers and Geoscience)

Every time a new journal issue is released in any of these lists I get an email containing the contents page, with links to read the abstracts and download the articles. Whilst this does give me a fair few emails, most only require a quick skim to ascertain that there is nothing interesting in that particular issue. But a couple of times a week I’ll spot an article with an interesting title, which I can then follow up and decide if I want to download and read the full text.

Journal alerts are by far the easiest way that I’ve found of keeping up with the literature and ensuring that you don’t miss key papers. One thing to be aware of is that Zetoc does not have every journal, although it does have most. This means that you may need to set up separate email alerts for one or two individual journals that are not in the Zetoc database.

  1. Making sense of all those emails

So you now know that you’re getting all the important info in your field, university, learned societies and that you’re up-to-date with the literature. If you’re anything like me all these lists add up to a lot of emails. And that’s before you’ve added in conversations with colleges, info about teaching, LinkedIn notifications or anything else. How are you going to wade through this sea of electronic communication? The answer is to set up a proper filing system.

It amazes me how few people do this. How do they ever sort the wheat from the email chaff? I have an extensive filing system that examines incoming mail and sorts it into the correct inbox folder. That way I can easily prioritise my email reading order – I know that anything in the ‘Journal alerts’ folder isn’t urgent whereas a new email in ‘Supervisor comms’ should probably be read sooner rather than later!

This filing system took maybe 30mins to set up initially, although I modify it regularly, and consists of a series of inbox folders and associated mail filters. All email clients, online or desktop, will have some way of doing this. It really is super easy and will save you so much time wading through a massive inbox. This is especially true if you’ve been away for a few days.

On a related note – it is also possible to set up auto-deletes using a similar method. I recommend doing this for anything that you regularly receive but don’t want, be it out-and-out spam or just pointless bureaucratic rubbish from the Faculty (I get a lot of this stuff and no one has noticed that I never reply!).

Do any of you have any good ways of managing your emails? Have I forgotten any useful email tips that you use to help your research? Let me know in the comments section below.

Computer calamity

Once again I need to start a post with an apology for not writing in a while. This time I have the best excuse yet – my laptop had a major meltdown at the start of March. Think completely non-functional, all data, programs & settings wiped. Total computer devastation. For an idea of the magnitude of the crash, I refer you to this Tweet from the Lego Academics.

After I’d gotten over the initial shock, I got to work straight away securing my data and double-checking all my back-ups. Then I tried to fix the problem. I made some progress and got the laptop up and running, only for it to last a day or so before crashing again. This happened two or three times. By this point a couple of weeks had elapsed since the original crash and I was getting majorly behind in my work. I had to resort to borrowing my Dad’s computer to write my talk for the RGS Postgraduate Midterm Conference and do other essential online things, like internet banking.

Needless to say I was getting pretty stressed by this point. So after the conference I gave it one last ditch attempt to fix the laptop by performing a total system reset. This is where you wipe the computer and refresh to the settings and software that it left the factory with. Once again the laptop seemed to stabilise, giving me a flicker of hope that was cruelly followed by yet another crash.

This was my darkest hour. Like many people these days, I need my laptop not just for my PhD but also for email, banking, keeping up with the news, entertainment and contacting my friends. I’d now been without it for three weeks and was realising how much longer everything takes when you can’t just look stuff up on Google.

Something had to be done. I faced a stark choice:

  1. Write off the laptop and find the cash to go buy a new computer.
  2. Send it off to be fixed professionally and accept even more no-computer time.

I was dead against buying a new laptop for two reasons: I felt that the problem was software-based (& so nothing wrong with the actual computer itself); and a new laptop of the spec I need for my PhD work costs c. £1000. The money motivation in particular persuaded me to hand my computer in to a local tech shop to see what they could do for me.

It was fortunate that the timing of this decision coincided with me going away for a scuba diving holiday over the Easter break. So really the ideal time to be without a computer as it’s not like I’d have been getting much work done anyway!

Happily, this story has a happy ending – the computer wizards were able to fix my laptop. Although it has taken me a further week or so to get it completely back up and running, including reinstalling all my software and changing the many inexplicably stupid Windows default settings.

Ultimately the moral to be learned is that you not only need to back-up your data but you also need to back-up your programs. Re-installing and setting up programs caused me no end of hassle and I lost some important data in the process – like a few reference summaries and my entire email history. Cloud back-ups are particularly useful and can save a lot of inconvenience by protecting things like bookmarks and settings from being lost. But whatever your particular arrangements make sure you have multiple back-ups and that you check them regularly to ensure your files and programs are backing-up correctly.

May the computing deities look favourably on you!

Pomodoros: What’s all the fuss about?

Recently I’ve been coming across a lot of discussion about a technique called ‘pomodoros’, which can be used to help you focus and to reduce procrastination. The idea is to set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly until it goes off. Ideally you should use a kitchen timer because it gives you a nice reassuring ticking – the name ‘pomodoro’ is even taken from the Spanish word for tomato in reference to the common egg-timer shape.

Once your timer has beeped then you set it again for 5 minutes, during which you can do whatever you like. This break time is your opportunity for condensed procrastination and a short mental holiday. The idea is that knowing you have a break coming up is sufficient to keep you focusing on your work for an intense 25 minute period. The break then gives you a chance to refresh before the next work period. A work period and a break together form one pomodoro, lasting half an hour in total. After four pomodoros (i.e. 2 hours), you get a longer break of 15-20 minutes.

So much for the theory, does it work in practice? Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been giving pomodoros a bit of a go and I have some findings to report back.

A real benefit of pomodoros is their simplicity – once I’d got a timer sorted there really wasn’t anything else to do before I could get started. I don’t have a tomato shaped egg-timer, but I just used the clock app on my smart phone. You don’t get the nice ticking but otherwise it works just as well and you can save your timer programs, so I can start a new pomodoro with just single tap on the screen. What could be easier!

But do they actually work? Did I procrastinate less? Did I get more done?

To test these questions semi-scientifically, I opted to use the pomodoros for my weekly writing day. At the moment I’m writing my literature review and progress has been pretty slow. Every four or five weeks I’ll have a blinding session where I get a good 1000 words down in one day. But the majority of the time I’ll be lucky to do 500 words in a whole day and this is largely due to difficulties holding my focus and resisting procrastination. Knowing my usual writing day work rate, I decided to try pomodoros for two weekly writing days and see if there was any improvement.

Well the results were pretty spectacular – on both pomodoro days I wrote more than 1800 words. That’s over three times my normal 500 words and nearly double my previous ‘good day’ level. You do need to have your writing well planned but if you essentially know what to write then the pomodoros really help to actually get words on the page. I was very surprised at how easy it was to do and I felt like I was putting much less effort into concentrating. Knowing I had a break coming definitely helped me focus and the 25 minute work period seemed about right. Any longer and I think I would start to get distracted!

I’m now experimenting with using pomodoros for other tasks. I find they work well for data entry, statistics, making graphs or figures, skim proof-reading etc . So anything that needs a reasonable amount of thought and focus but isn’t too high-intensity or heavily cogitative. They don’t seem to suit more detailed proof-reading/ editing and anything involving deep thinking, like data interpretation or planning difficult pieces of writing, like discussions. I don’t feel like the 25 minute periods are long enough for these tasks and I find that the breaks can disrupt my chain of thought.

Overall, I’d recommend pomodoros as an easy and surprisingly effective method to improve your productivity for the donkey work of academia. Anything you can do whilst listening along to the radio is something that pomodoros can help with. For something that requires more concentration or greater metal agility and you might be better looking at other techniques. Give them a go on your next writing day – you may surprise yourself with the amount of work you get done!


p.s. the featured image for this post is from Wikipeadia Commons.

From opposite ends of the timeline: some interesting procrastination

This post isn’t academic. It’s about a couple of videos that I watched this week when I should have been working on my literature review.

We’ve all been there when we’re trying to proof-read something and mysteriously find ourselves browsing a random page on the internet. Often this is just plain old procrastination and is generally something that we try and stop ourselves doing. I personally have been experimenting with the pomodoro technique to curb my own procrastination – look out for a blog post on this in the near future.

But sometimes a bit of procrastination is a good thing and can introduce us to new ideas, or explain old ideas to us in a new way. And sometimes it can be less enlightening and more entertaining (so many cat videos and buzzfeed lists come into this category). Yesterday I had one of those rare procrastination moments that was both enlightening and entertaining. So I thought I’d share it with you.

I was on Twitter, a regular procrastination location for me, when I found myself clicking on links to two videos. They were both on the website of the British Mountaineering Council and were about the experience of two very different people tackling a challenging in the great outdoors. The protagonists couldn’t really be more different: one is a little girl of perhaps 3; the other was Sir Chris Bonington, an 80 year old mountaineer of no small renown. I think you’ll enjoy their different but ultimately very similar experiences of the hills. Perhaps these videos will even inspire you to get out and climb something, even if it’s only a short hike uphill to the pub!

Video #1: First Ascent by Katrina Brown (Entered into the BMC Women in Mountain Adventure Film Competition 2015)

Video #2: Sir Chris Bonington: The Old Man of Hoy


Expect the unexpected, or why you should share those bad graphs

This week I’ve had a timely reminder that things don’t always go to plan, especially when you’re doing a PhD.

About this time last year I did a pilot study to see if a particular topographic variable changed systematically along the length of a mountain glacier. The results of this pilot study looked promising and gave me a really nice looking trend.

Not a bad looking trend, enough to merit further investigation!


This was all great and was instrumental in allowing me to breeze through my MPhil to PhD upgrade process.

So now I was a ‘proper’ PhD student and I needed to start working on a much larger sample of glaciers to further investigate my nice trend and see if it held true. I had collected the pilot data entirely by hand, which a very laborious process that took several days to get the measurements for a single glacier. Clearly this was taking far too long for me to be able to scale-up the data set to a statistically significant number of glaciers. I needed a faster data collection method. My supervisor suggested that I automate the process so that I could collect the data much faster and using a more standardised method. This sounded like a pretty good idea and I got to work right away.

Turns out automating a process is a hell of a lot easier said than done. I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say that after many months of trial and error, I finally hit on a method that appeared to work. But as in all real-life situations there is a catch – my automated method is not outputting data with the nice trend that I’d found in the pilot study.

Uh oh. This doesn’t look very nice and that extected trend is a pretty poor fit for the data.


I’ve tried everything to refine the method and get data to behave (short of manipulating it I hasten to add!). It’s just not working. This has been very disheartening and I’ve often wanted to simple abandon researching this variable, put all the notes away, and never speak of it again.

Thankfully my supervisor hasn’t let me do this. At every meeting he suggests more tests for me to do and urges me not to abandon the project and potentially throw a baby out with the bathwater. It’s still too early to know if he’s right but our meeting this week did give me a bit of hope that this automated method might just work out after all. The reason for this? He spotted something in the data that I’d completely overlooked.

Hold on, if we remove the expected trend that 'bad' graph does actually look pretty interesting...

Hold on, if we remove the expected trend that ‘bad’ graph does actually start to look pretty interesting…


I had got completely blinkered by the trend I’d found in my pilot study data, to the point where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and had missed another trend that was staring me in the face. Now I don’t know if this new trend is reliable or if it’s going to solve my automated method woes. But just having overlooked something this obvious has reinvigorated me to review all the data that I’d written off because it didn’t match the trend I was expecting. In short: I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected.

So the purpose of this post is a reminder to you researchers to keep an open mind, don’t be put off if the data isn’t coming out looking just as you want it, and , most of all, always show your ‘bad’ data to other people. When you work on something for as long as I’ve been working on my automated method you can very easily become blind to something that a fresh set of eyes will see immediately. So chin up and take that horrible-looking graph along to your next research group/ supervisor meeting. Maybe someone will see the interesting shapes in your data clouds?


p.s. the nice trees in the title image of this post are Redwoods in Whakarewarewa Forest, near Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island. Worth a visit if you’re in the area, plenty of good walking and mountain biking to be had in that forest.

A day in the life of a 2nd year PhD student

I was trying to think of an interesting blog post that might be useful for people considering doing a PhD, and I had the idea of doing a sort of insight into what I actually do on a daily basis. This would have been really useful to me when I was trying to decide what to do with myself as a newly minted graduate considering doing a research degree. Particularly because it is quite tricky to explain what PhD students actual are and what they do, you really don’t find out until you become one. And by that time it’s a bit too late!

I think the mystery shrouding the PhD process may be one of the reasons that there is such a high drop-out rate for first year PhD students – people begin a PhD but rapidly realise that it’s not what they were anticipating and come to the conclusion that the PhD lifestyle is not for them. Maybe this post will help to prevent a few people falling into this common trap.

You know when you’re at a party or other ‘small-talk’ kind of social occasion and people always ask what you do for a living? Well when you say you’re a PhD student this is almost always followed up by either a blank expression or the question “so what does that entail?”. This is actually quite tricky to answer because a PhD is like a job, but it’s not a ‘proper’ job and you are still classed as a ‘student’, but you also have to teach and are included in staff-only departmental emails. Confused? I am. Anyway, here is a quick run-down of a typical day in my life so you can draw your own conclusions about what a PhD entails and stop asking me about it at parties!

  •  7.30am                              Get up!

I usually haul myself out of bed between 7.30 and 8am, depending on if I’m working at home or if I need to walk into ‘the office’ in the Geography building.

  • 9am-10am                       Emails/ Twitter/ general timewasting

There are always loads of emails to be sifted through. Then I should really check my academic twitter account and maybe have a look at those journal alerts, oh and I need to read through the prep for this tutorial and the afternoon’s labs… You get the picture.

  • 10am-11am

Tutorial Teaching a 2nd year undergraduate tutorial, probably in a different building that I will have to sprint to because I’m almost certainly running late!

  • 11am-12pm                      Writing/ meetings

I try to squeeze in some writing time in the mornings because I find that’s when I concentrate better. But unfortunately this is also the prime time for having meetings with my research group, supervisors or other academics.

  • 12pm-1pm                        Lunch!

It’s very important to give yourself a good lunch break. I’ll either have a chat with the other physical geography PhDs or, if I’m at home, I’ll have a read of my book or a magazine.

  • 1pm-3pm                          Labs

Lab demonstrating for another group of undergrads. This can be anything from demoing and supervising actual laboratory experiments, through to assisting with computer-based ice sheet modelling practicals, or answering questions during a pen & paper research exercise.

  • 3pm-6pm                          Research

Finally some time to work on my own research! At the moment this involves working in ArcMap GIS to make measurements of modern glaciers from satellite images, before doing a whole load of maths-y data processing in Excel.

  • Evening (after 6pm)        Dinner/ sports/ tutoring/ pub/ more PhD work

My evenings are a real mixed bag. Three or four days a week I’ll be hurrying home to eat dinner and go out to either a sports session (Muay Thai or rock climbing usually), or to my other job as a geography A-Level private tutor. Otherwise I might be going round a friend’s, catching up with someone via Skype, heading down the pub or just staying in and watching tele. A couple of nights a week I’ll usually try and squeeze in an hour or two of reading journal articles, proof-reading my own writing or maybe even writing this blog.

Hopefully this has given you an interesting insight into what PhD students actually do all day. Mostly it seems to be a juggling act between getting in c. 40hrs of PhD work  per week (or more when deadlines loom!), fulfilling our teaching obligations and trying to fit in hobbies and a social life. It really is like a full-time job, so please stop telling us ‘but surely you’re a student, you must have loads of free time?’. We really don’t!

If you’re applying for a Phd and you think you’ll have tonnes of free time then I’m afraid that you’re wrong! I’d suggest you do some research on sites like the Thesis Whisperer, Research Whisperer and PhD2Published. These will give you more of an idea of what doing a PhD is like and can point you in the direction of more information.

p.s. You may be wondering about the relevance of this post’s title image. Quite simply, tea gets me through my days as a PhD student. And there’s nothing wrong with receiving important life messages from the slogans on your tea mugs.


Alps trip Part 2: Glacier safety drills

Aside from hiking up to various glaciers looking for possible field sites, I was also in the French Alps to refresh my glacier safety skills. So my Dad and I spent two days out with our mountain guide friend Simon Abrahams (check out his twitter account) to brush up our safety drills.

There are two key safety issues for working on glaciers: cold or exposure injuries like hypothermia or frostbite; and falling into crevasses. Cold injuries are best dealt with via preventative measures, like proper layering to keep warm and ensuring that you drink enough. I already know a fair bit about this from my previous Antarctic fieldwork, so we were focusing our training on preventing crevasse falls and on crevasse rescue techniques.

Crevasses are cracks in the surface of the ice that can be several metres wide and many metres deep. At the end of the melt season, when there is little to no snow, crevasses are obvious and easy to avoid but during the rest of the year they can be covered by snow bridges. This makes them hard to spot and very dangerous because snow bridges that are thin or weakened, e.g. by warm weather, may collapse under a person’s weight. Baring in mind that glaciers are often in remote areas many hours from any help, it’s therefore important for everyone working in these environments to know how to get themselves or a friend out of a crevasse.

We didn’t fancy practicing our rescue drills in an actual crevasse (too dangerous!), so we nipped up the Aiguille du Midi cable car to find a suitable edge to stand-in as a crevasse lip. In this case we found a wind scoop, formed by snow blown around the base of a cliff, which did nicely. Our practice involved throwing a rucksack tied to a rope (simulating our unfortunate friend) over the lip of the wind scoop and taking it in turns, under Simon’s guidance, to set up a snow anchor and pulley system to haul the bag back up. The idea was to simulate the worst-case situation of rescuing a team member who has fallen into a crevasse and is unconscious or otherwise badly injured and unable to get out on their own. This situation is why you usually work on ice in teams of at least three people, because setting up the kit and hauling someone out of a crevasse on your own is very hard work. This is especially true in the cold and at altitude or if you weigh less than them, as will almost always be the case for me.

The wind scoop we’d chosen to practice on was at the bottom of the Col du Midi, below the Cosmiques hut. Getting there was a little hairy – you have to walk along a narrow ridge to descend from the Aiguille du Midi and at this time of year it is icy and easy to slip off. I was glad to be wearing my new & extremely sharp crampons!


Once off the ridge, we reviewed best practice for glacier travel in crevassed areas and set off for the wind scoop. After a bite to eat (yummy quiches, why are French bakeries so much better? No offence Greggs), Simon ran us through the techniques for hauling an unconscious person out of a crevasse. Having learnt these previously from my Dad, it was very useful to have them reviewed by a professional mountain guide and to be introduced to some modern kit that I’d not come across before. I had definitely picked up some bad habits and out of date techniques. I do need a bit more practice though – so I’ll be bullying some rock climbing friends into letting me hang them over the edge of a crag in the Peak District in order for me to ‘rescue’ them repeatedly!


The next day was a bit wet and windy so we didn’t brave the heights and confined ourselves to the Chamonix valley floor. I wasn’t too sorry as I’d developed a horrible altitude headache on the ascent back up the Aiguille du Midi ridge the previous evening and didn’t fancy getting another one. A clear demonstration of the woes of going straight up to an altitude of 3,800m without proper acclimatisation.

A quick trip out to a local crag to practice jumarring and assisted crevasse rescue was the order of the day. Jumarring is a self-rescue technique using a mechanical ascender in order to climb up the rope and get yourself out of a crevasse. It requires a bit of coordination to get right and does involve a lot of sitting in your harness with one leg up at an awkward angle. I’m sure we entertained the local mountain police, who were also out practicing their own rescue skills, as we swung around halfway up the cliff trying to jumar up the rope and keep balanced at the same time.


I’d like to say a big thank you to Simon for going over all these techniques with us and to him, Dee and the girls for having us to stay!


p.s. If you want to know more about crevasse rescue and glacier safety, I will try and post something more comprehensive at a later date. Otherwise I’d recommend looking for instructional videos on websites like UK Climbing and YouTube (search for ‘crevasse rescue’, ‘ascending a rope’, ‘glacier travel’ etc.). But before venturing out to anywhere icy I thoroughly recommend getting proper instruction from a recognised mountain guide or attending a suitable course. Some useful sites with info on courses for UK based readers are the British Mountaineering Council, British Mountain Guides and Mountain Training.


Here are a small selection of other photos from my Alps trip. Enjoy!

Alps trip Part 1: Field site reccy

Once again I’ve had a bit of a gap between blog posts and once again this is because I’ve been very busy. This time my excuses are buying a house (a worryingly adult thing to do!) and a short trip to the Alps, which is the main subject of this post.

My Dad and I drove out to Chamonix in the French Alps where we stayed with Simon Abrahams, a mountain guide friend of Dad’s (check out his twitter for lots of nice pics of mountains). Both Dad and I were rusty on our glacier safety and crevasse rescue techniques so this was a grand opportunity to have Simon run through these drills with us. I also needed to road-test some new crampons that were replacing Dad’s old 1970s spikes that I’d been using previously. The impossibly difficult bindings of these retro crampons were often the source of a lot of colourful language at the end of a long day on the ice! I am not sorry to be shot of them.

After our tiring drive (sleeping in the car is always a bad idea), we decided to break ourselves in with a bit of a hike. I wanted to check out the Mer de Glace as a potential field site, so we decided to traverse across to the glacier from the mid station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (Plan de l’Aiguille at 2,317 m above sea level), before descending back to Chamonix. The walk took around 6 hours, giving us a bit of acclimatisation time at a reasonable altitude.


I was impressed by how much the Mer de Glace has retreated and down-wasted over the last 150 years. The sign in the photo below indicates the level of the glacier surface in 1820 and you can see how much lower the ice is now. My Dad could see a huge change from the last time he visited in the 1980s and I could even see a reduction in the glacier’s size since I was last there in 2009. Evidence of climate warming in action!


This dramatic shrinkage is shocking but exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my own work – I need accessible glaciers with significant recent retreat. Clearly the Mer de Glace has the retreat box ticked and it even has a train service right up to the ice, bingo for accessibility! Even better, we have numerous paintings, sketches and photos (like the ones below) showing the extent of the glacier at its most recent advance, during the cooler period of the Little Ice Age at around AD 1800.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).  Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 and a zoomed in view of the snout position, with the snout marked by the white arrow.

This Figure is taken from Zumbuhl et al. (2008, Global and Planetary Change pp.42-57).
Part (a) shows the snout of the Mer de glace painted by Samual Birmann in 1823. (b) shows the same view photographed by S.U. Nussbaumer in 2005 with a zoomed in view of the snout (marked in the main image by a white arrow).


On other hikes, I also had a look at the Glace des Bossons and the Glacier d’Argentiere as possible field sites. However both of these glaciers have retreated so much and so quickly that they have exposed polished bedrock and scree slopes around their snouts, which would be too unsafe to work on. When we were up near the Glacier d’Argentiere we witnessed 3-4 ice falls on the glacier snout over the course of around 20mins. I’d certainly not be keen to be getting up close to that!


So it looks like the Mer de Glace is going to be the optimal field site for me, if I decide to work in the Chamonix valley. Now I just have to write up some grant applications and work out the logistics!



One year down, two to go – a summary of my first year as a PhD researcher

It’s now been almost exactly a year since I started this PhD. Can’t believe this has come around so fast! But then people always say that. You’d think by now we’d have learnt to expect time to fly but it still does come as a bit of a shock.

What have I been up to over the last twelve months as a PhD researcher? Well not a lot of research actually. I was speaking to more advanced PhDs from other universities at the QRA conference last week (see my blog post about this here) and one thing they all say is that first year is useless in terms of actually getting any research done. There is just too much reading to do, too many training courses to take and, of course, too much academic bureaucracy!

I agree with this sentiment to some extent but also disagree that first year is a total waste of time in terms of doing ‘real’ work. Certainly some things were a bit of a waste of time, particularly the time I spent getting myself removed from the social science ethics courses (don’t think my sarcastic ‘so rock, how did you feel about being overrun by ice during the last glacial maximum?’ interview plan would have gone down well). But a lot of the training, all of the reading and even some of the bureaucracy has turned out to be beneficial. In particular the upgrade process, whilst fairly time-consuming, did help to make me focus and to condense my ideas into a single project that is feasible and justifiable.

Another thing we were discussing at the QRA is the 3-year issue. The UK is unusual in only allowing 3 funded years for a PhD candidate to progress through the relevant training, complete their doctoral research and write up most of the thesis. The candidate then nominally gets a further 12 months to actually submit the thesis, although this period is generally unfunded. Other European countries vary between 3 and 5 years of funding, whereas in North America and Australasia it’s more like 4-5 years as standard I’m told.

We were wondering which system is the ‘best’ for environmental science students who need to do fieldwork; which takes up a lot of time in seeking funding, planning the logistics and actually doing the fieldwork. We all agreed that we knew very few people who actually managed to submit within 3 years. Most British environmental PhDs will have to use that extra year of no funding to get it done, often whilst working either full- or part-time to make ends meet.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe. But are the longer PhD systems better? Whilst the extra financial security is nice, it would also take the pressure off a little and perhaps cause PhD candidates to procrastinate a bit more. Or to have their time filled by teaching assignments and being made to do their research group’s donkey work. You hear a lot of sob stories about this kind of stuff coming out of North America and I don’t doubt it does happen in some places.

Personally I’d like to have the financial security of having some money assured for a fourth year, even if it was only half-pay or similar. I think that would be the best solution to keep me working to the 3 year deadline without too much pressure. However, I only have the standard 3 year funding. So I guess I’ll just have to get myself a part-time job when the money dries up and minimise procrastination in the meantime!


p.s. for an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of a British PhD vs a North American one, check out this post. Also, if you were wondering what the image at the top of this post is – it’s a brainstorm of all the broad categories in my reference manager’s library at the end of my first year reading bonanza.