Climbers and Climate Change: Kristin Schild

Did you know the AAC supports cutting-edge scientific research? Through the Research Grant program, we provide funding to multiple researchers across the country every year. The scope of work Our Researchers conduct is broad, but a common thread among many of them is investigating the effects of climate change. A timely topic, we've asked several of our researchers to sit down and chat with us about climate change, their research and their climbing. 

AAC member Kristin Schild is a 6th year Ph.D. student at Dartmouth College in the Department of Earth Sciences. Kristin’s Research focuses on understanding the dynamics of glaciers that terminate in the ocean (tidewater glaciers) in Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica. Jonathan Oulton, AAC member and geologist, spoke with Kristin to find out more:

Oulton: Why is your research important to climbers and non-scientists?

Schild: The vast majority of climate change driven ice loss (which translates to sea level rise) occurs from tidewater glacier systems. Understanding how and why these glaciers are changing, and the physical processes driving these changes, is crucial to predicting how they will behave in a changing climate. My research looks at a piece of this complicated puzzle, in particular how meltwater that is exiting a tidewater glacier influences the circulation of ocean waters adjacent to the glacier (in the fjord), and glacier terminus melting and stability.

Oulton: Your field work in Norway on the Kronebreen Glacier put you in an extremely remote location. What was that like?

Schild: My field season was about 3 weeks long, including travel. We were stationed out of a very small research base and would take a boat to the glacier each day. I’ve done a lot of work in polar regions, so I knew it would be cold, windy and that sometimes instruments wouldn’t operate in the cold, but this was my first time working from a boat which presented all new challenges. We had to wear full survival suits, including large steel-toed boots and full zip-up hoods, but collecting the data presented the largest challenge.

Kristin Schild performing field work in the Larsbreen Ice Cave.  (Svalbard, Norway - 2013).

We were collecting water samples with air temperatures of about -20 °F and with water temps of about -4 °F, so by the end of the day everything had a solid layer of ice around it - your gloves, the sampling bottles, all of your equipment - everything was frozen. We had to be very diligent to knock all the ice off the instruments between every sample to prevent inaccurate readings or sample contamination.

Oulton: Looking forward, what do you foresee as the most significant challenges to addressing the issues of climate change?

Schild: I think the first challenge is that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation which results in people not knowing what to think anymore. We need to make information about climate change accessible and tangible to the general public.  As climbers, I’m sure many have seen their favorite ice climbs not come in, or a classic route up a mountain change because the snow bridges are melting out earlier each season; so the effects of a changing climate have been observed, however this is not necessarily the case for everyone.

The second challenge is that climate change itself is complex and far-reaching: there is no simple or single solution to climate change because it impacts so many different aspects of our environment and economy. Many people are focusing on adaptation and mitigation, versus curbing emissions, because those solutions seem simpler or more straight forward. 

Kristin Schild servicing a time-lapse camera to monitor the Hubbard Glacier (Alaska, 2011). Photo by Gordon Hamilton

However, if we don't make necessary economic and lifestyle changes to reduce emissions, we won't be able to mitigate and adapt fast enough.

Oulton: A common sentiment is that "the actions of an individual can't influence an issue as massive as climate change." This attitude is dangerous, as it can lead to complacency. What actions can an individual take to have a positive, real influence on climate change?

Schild: There are so many choices, just in our everyday lives, which we can make to reduce our contribution to global emissions that won't hurt our economy (and, in fact, would help it). Many we’ve heard before: turn off the lights, take public transportation or ride your bike to work. But there is also the consumerism side: buy local products, buy energy efficient appliances, and reduce overall spending.

The real big one though, is to vote. Everyone should take the opportunity to urge government representatives and policymakers to support the development of renewable energies, the development of smarter/more efficient vehicles, and research into new technologies. The scientific community is working hard to understand how our planet is changing and on what timescales, but without the support of the governmentthere is a limit to what we can do.

Kristin Schild headed back to the helicopter after installing a high resolution GPS on Helmheim Glacier (Greenland, 2009). Photo: Gordon Hamilton

Oulton: Thank you. That wraps up out climate change questions. Let’s talk about climbing. Did you see anything in Svalbard that would be fun climbing?

Schild: The rock around Svalbard is all sedimentary rock, so it’s not ideal for rock climbing. However, the skiing is amazing, there are several ice caves, and ice climbing routes do exist! The views and terrain are quite variable, so I can only imagine any exploration being an incredible experience.

Oulton: Have you had any interesting wildlife encounters during field work?

Schild: While I haven’t had any personal encounters, I’ve certainly had some unplanned repairs because of them! One trip out to Greenland we found a few Arctic Foxes had eaten through our “fox-proof” cables connecting our solar panels to the GPS system. On another trip in Alaska, we found the housing for our time-lapse camera had been used as a scratching post by a bear about a week after setting up the system. Thus, instead of watching the glacier terminus advance and retreat, we now had a whole season’s-worth of pictures looking first at the bear, then at the ground.

Oulton: What advice would you give to someone who wants to visit Svalbard?

Schild: I would actually encourage them to visit during the late winter (February-March). It is absolutely bitterly cold and is just coming out of 24 hours of polar darkness, but there is an incredible peace in the darkness up there and the northern lights are the best I’ve ever seen.

Oulton: That sounds oddly amazing. What is one of your most memorable climbing experiences?

Schild: This past summer we were contracted by the US Geological Survey to install a survey marker at windy corner (measuring plate movement) and to determine the ice-thickness at the summit of Denali. Our group of four spent about 3 weeks shuttling all of our science equipment up Denali - equipment which included a rock drill, various different cold-temperature epoxies, a small car battery, as well as the high-resolution GPS system and ground penetrating radar (GPR) system. This was certainly more weight than any of us would take on a normal climbing trip! The day we summited and measured the ice thickness there was very poor visibility, so instead of taking pictures of the view, many other climbers took pictures of our group towing around the radar to measure the ice thickness at the summit. We later found out that everyone thought it looked like we were vacuuming the summit!

Oulton: You were able to climb Denali for science! Thank you so much for chatting with us, Kristin. We look forward to hearing about more of the results from your research!

Kristin Schild descending along the ridge traverse from High Camp to Camp 14 on Denali after completing a radar survey measuring the snow thickness at the summit (Alaska, 2016). Photo: Seth Campbell

For more information on Kristin, her research, and other AAC Research Grant recipients, please see the following links:

AAC’s “Meet Our Researchers” Webpage

Kristin’s Trip Report for the AAC

Kristin’s Dartmouth Profile