Glorious Glaciers

Learning about science often means learning lots of new words. Don’t worry – you can use the glossary at the end of the story to help you understand them. There, you can also find lots of cool videos and websites that are related to the story, and some fun questions to help you learn more. Happy reading!

Meet Dr Maria del Carmen Domínguez Álvarez – she goes by “Karmenka”.

Karmenka is sat on a kayak in front of large mountain of ice: a glacier. She is wearing a helmet and thick, warm clothes. She is floating on a glacial river; behind her, a penguin runs across some ice.

Karmenka is a mathematician from Spain. Her passion for maths goes far beyond adding up how much her shopping costs, working out fractions, or drawing graphs. It takes her all over the world! That’s because after studying maths for years, Karmenka found a second love: glaciers.

Though Karmenka studied maths at university, she had always been fascinated with nature. She was determined to put her maths knowledge to use not just in a lab or an office, but out in the natural world.

One day, Karmenka attended a talk in the city of Madrid. It was given by a man she would come to call a dear friend: Adolfo Eraso Romero. Adolfo had studied chemistry at university, but he too was most passionate about the outside world. By the time Karmenka met him, he already had a great reputation as a geologist, caver, and mountaineer.

At Adolfo’s talk, Karmenka learned all about glaciers: their colossal beauty, and the enormous walls of ice and cold rivers that ran beneath. Just like that, she was hooked.

A text box. It reads: 
Let's talk about glaciers!
Glaciers are huge areas of ice that build up in cold places. They can "flow" like super slow rivers, and move across landscapes over thousands of years. As they do, they change the landscape around them, forming rivers and valleys. Isn't that brrr-illiant?
These icy giants cover about 10% of the Earth's total land area, and each one takes hundreds of thousands of years to form. Making a glacier is very simple! When snow falls in very cold places, it freezes to ice. Soon, another layer of snow falls on top and freezes too. In doing so, it compresses the ice below it to form a layer. Eventually, all these layers build up into enormous blocks of ice, which make a glacier.
As well as carving out valleys and looking beautiful, glaciers play a very important role in the lives of every animal and plant on the planet. That’s because they hold about 75% of the world’s fresh water!
Some of this water is released each year when the glacier melts in summer. This meltwater is vital for keeping crops, people, and animals alive. Pretty cool, right?

Karmenka saw her first glacier in Iceland, just months after attending Adolfo’s talk. It was huge and ancient – over 1000 years old. Karmenka stood below the glacier’s icy walls, and was struck by its beauty. Beneath her feet, its blue ice stretched for hundreds of kilometres, on and on towards the sea. Birds flew overhead, water dripped, and Karmenka heard the glacier’s ice heave and crack like a living thing.

The longer Karmenka spent at this glacier, the more she understood how powerful it was. The ice itself had carved out the valley before her, scraping the Earth beneath it and pushing rocks into new formations. The water that flowed from it ran into huge glacial lakes, where wild seals played, or into rivers that provided water to nearby towns and cities. It was a solid thing made of ancient snow, but its essence was the lifeblood of Iceland.

There, looking out across the landscape, Karmenka decided that learning about glaciers was what she was destined to do.

A glacier stretches across a river in front of some tall, sharp mountains. It's ice is blue and forms jagged peaks.

Since then, Karmenka has been on more than 60 polar expeditions, each lasting up to 6 months. She’s become an experienced climber, skilled at using special equipment like crampons and ice axes that are often needed on glaciers. She ventures inside glaciers through tunnels and caves, and kayaks across the great rivers that flow from them.

Doesn’t this sound like a great adventure? Karmenka certainly thought so. It was a world away from the quiet university halls where she’d studied maths for so many years.

Although Karmenka had fallen in love with glaciers, she had no intention of leaving maths behind! Alongside Adolfo, her adventures involved measuring these icy giants, and the water that pours from them. Finally, she’d found a practical way to use all the maths skills she had learned in the real, wild world.

Karmenka is sat on her kayak, paddling away down the glacial river. She is headed for a gap in the ice, which looks like some kind of tunnel or cave.

Measuring glaciers is a tough task, but it’s one that Karmenka and Adolfo have dedicated their lives to. This isn’t just a project they’re doing out of curiosity – glaciers are under threat, and it’s up to scientists like them to work out how much they’re being damaged.

But what can damage something as vast and ancient as a glacier? Karmenka’s ice axes barely make a dent, and for centuries glaciers have melted and then frozen again each year. It’s natural for glaciers to grow and shrink – but not at the speed they are doing so today.

Karmenka knows better than most how much climate change is affecting glaciers. Many areas of the Earth are getting warmer, and with that heat, huge areas of ice and snow are melting more than ever before. Karmenka has watched as ice caps have disappeared, snow has failed to freeze, and glaciers have melted so much that they’ve almost faded away.

A text box. It reads:
What is climate change?
Climate change, which is also known as global warming, is the process of Earth heating up. While that might sound like a good thing, especially on chilly Winter days or rainy Summer mornings, it is actually very bad for life on Earth. 
Earth’s temperatures have always changed a little bit. Throughout history, there have been long ice ages and then fast periods of warming, which have made our planet look the way it does today. However, in the last two hundred years the Earth’s temperatures have been increasing faster than ever before. The reason for this? Us. 
Human activity is driving rapid climate change. To build all the technology we have today, and to support so many people, we have destroyed many natural habitats and released a huge amount of pollution into the air. This has affected the Earth’s natural balance, causing temperature changes and unpredictable weather like intense storms.
Because glaciers melt quickly when the Earth warms up, they are good indicators of temperature change. By looking at glaciers, scientists can see whether climate change is speeding up or slowing down, and identify whether any efforts to reduce global warming are working. 
So far, climate change shows no sign of slowing, and glaciers across the world are feeling its effects. In America, a national park named after its glaciers – Glacier National Park – had 150 glaciers just over 100 years ago. Now, over 120 of them have melted, and only 30 remain. By 2050, there may be none left.

From her research, Karmenka knows that the melting of glaciers has bigger consequences than the world losing a bit of ice. She has kept up to date on how the Earth’s changing climate is affecting glaciers for many years, and each year she reads something more concerning.

“If glaciers melt, animals and plants that live in and around them will lose their habitats and the resources that they need to survive”, Karmenka read. On her travels, she had seen that animals like walruses, penguins,and polar bears were already suffering because there was less ice around each year. Ice was their home, and without it they struggled to find space to live and support their families.

Two penguins sit on a large block of ice. Behind them, the glacier rises. They look small and fragile in front of it.

Even away from the North and South poles, glaciers are being affected. In Pakistan, for example, Karmenka has read that the country’s population of snow leopards is falling, because the animals they eat have been swept away in floods caused by glacier melt. When glaciers melt, the water rushes into rivers and makes its way through the country to the sea. Nothing can stop it.

“The more glaciers melt, the more water flows into the oceans”, Karmenka read. Melting ice results in rising sea levels. This creates damage all over the world, devastating the lives of animals and people living in coastal countries.

A problem like this is far too great a challenge for just one person. It takes many people, from countries all over the world, all working together on different parts of an overall solution. Karmenka was determined to be one of them.

Until recently, there was no good way to measure how much water was lost from glaciers each year. This is really important to know, because it tells scientists how much the glacier is affected by climate change each year. If scientists track measurements of water loss over long periods of time, they would be able to assess whether the rate of melting was getting faster.

That sounded like the perfect challenge for Karmenka.

She got straight to work, alongside Adolfo, with a huge goal in mind: to create a system for measuring meltwater and use it to take measurements from glaciers all around the world.

Before they could go anywhere near a glacier, the team had to design equipment that would allow them to measure the properties of the meltwater. They created small electronic measuring devices called data loggers. Each data logger had a large memory, so that it could store measurements from every hour of every day, and hold tonnes of data without becoming full. Great news for Karmenka – she didn’t have time to watch over it for months on end! 

The data loggers also had to be completely waterproof, because Karmenka and Adolfo wanted to keep them submerged in the glacial rivers. Only by covering the data loggers in water, would they be able to collect the kind of information Karmenka needed. This included the temperature of the water, how much oxygen was in it, and how much matter was carried in it.

Two people are stood on ice. The glacier rises behind them. There is a stack of tool boxes beside them. One person is working with a long ice saw, while another is holding a large metal pole. They are hard at work.

Once they’d tested their devices in smaller, more accessible rivers in Spain, the team headed out to a glacier in Antarctica. They mounted their data loggers on a large metal poles, which would be strong enough to withstand the power of the river.

Getting the loggers positioned correctly in the river was a challenge in itself! Karmenka had to brave the bone-biting cold of the river and stand shoulder-deep to fix the poles in properly. She wore a special drysuit that kept her warm, but it didn’t stop the work from being exhausting.

Two people are working on an ice floe in front of the glacier. One is holding a long metal pole, the other a drill. The pole is in focus - this is the part they are working on now.

Karmenka and Adolfo also installed a special sensor, which could detect the water level of the river. The higher the water level, the more water was in the river. Since all the water in the river was meltwater, this would also give them an indication of how much the glacier was melting.

Karmenka took the plunge into the icy water many more times, as she and Adolfo measured the depth and speed of the river. Because rivers have uneven floors, and move at different speeds in different areas, it was important that they repeated these measurements to get a mean value – which meant lots and lots of getting wet!

Finally, all of the equipment was ready, and the loggers could start collecting data. Now all Karmenka and Adolfo could do was wait to see what it would find.

In the background, Karmenka is back on the river in her kayak, while someone else works with the ice saw on the shore. In focus is a data logger, some tool boxes, and a shovel - the key equipment that Karmenka needs to study the glacier.

Karmenka left the devices alone for several years, making occasional trips to check that the loggers had not been dislodged, and to download the data onto her computer. After ten years, however, enough time had passed for her to get some results.

With the data gathered, Karmenka’s maths knowledge took centre stage! She worked hard to plot the water level data on graphs, to help visualise the changes glacial rivers went through during their yearly cycle of freezing and thawing. Then, she tried to untangle the effects of climate change from other factors like rainfall, which add non-glacial water to the river.

After all that mathematical work, she and Adolfo discovered something incredibly important: the amount of water leaving the glacier had doubled in their ten years of study. Twice as much water was leaving the glacier now compared to when they first visited – and the glacier was getting smaller and smaller as a result.

This discovery jumpstarted their research project, and Karmenka flew into action. She knew that they needed to test lots more glaciers, from lots of places around the world, to see if these results were true elsewhere.

Within a few months, she and Adolfo had identified seven new glaciers to work on. In addition to the one they’d already studied, this meant that they now had four in the Northern Hemisphere and four in the Southern Hemisphere. They made camp all over the world, putting out new loggers and new sensors, and measuring the rivers just as they had before.

Karmenka's red and green tent is in focus. Behind it, the glacier rises, and penguins can be seen on the shore of the glacial river. An ice axe and shovel are left outside the tent; Karmenka will be back for them soon.
A text box. It reads: 
Where on Earth?
Karmenka’s glacier adventures have taken her all over the world. Now, she most frequently visits eight very important glaciers, where all her equipment is working day and night. These glaciers are found in six different places: Iceland, Sweden, Chile, Argentina, Antarctica, and Svalbard. 
This is followed by a map of the world, showing these countries.

Having all these glacier measurement systems set up meant that Karmenka and Adolfo were flooded with data! Getting the equipment up and running so quickly had taken an incredible amount of effort, but the results would make it all worth it.

They watched these eight glaciers for four more years, frequently travelling to fix broken equipment or collect more data from within the glaciers. Karmenka loved each and every visit, but the more data she looked at, the more concerned she became for the glaciers’ future.

A view over the glacier landscape. In the glacial river, small ice floes move downstream. In the background, two penguins play. The rocks and ice rise up behind the river into mountain-like towers.

Eventually, Karmenka and Adolfo’s research came to three very important conclusions.

  1. Any change in temperature around the glacier resulted in an immediate and direct change in the amount of water that flowed from a glacier. Even small amounts of warming resulted in lots more glacial melting.
  2. Glaciers in the Arctic produce up to 4x as much water as glaciers in Antarctica. This means that Arctic glaciers are melting faster, and will be lost sooner.
  3.  In Antarctica, the amount of meltwater coming from the glacier that Karmenka and Adolfo first studied had doubled again – this time in just four years.

When she realised what her results meant, Karmenka took a deep breath. Though it made her heart sad, they confirmed something that she had always suspected.

“Glaciers are in trouble”, she declared. “If we do not act now, they will have melted away, and there will be nothing we can do to bring them back”.

Karmenka knew from the first time she saw a glacier, that she would dedicate her life to studying them. Now she’s taken on a second role: as their protector. She works hard to give talks, write articles, and visit schools – all alongside her work as a scientist – to spread the word about climate change, and encourage people to save the glaciers she loves so much.

Though her job is hard, Karmenka keeps going because she is sure that it’s not yet too late to protect the glaciers, and keep climate change at bay. People all over the world just need to act faster than the glaciers can melt – and as Karmenka knows, that’s very quickly indeed.

A penguin sits in the foreground, standing on a small ice floe. In the background, Karmenka is heading into the ice cave along the glacial river. The landscape is beautiful and pristine, save for Karmenka.

Thank you for reading!

This story was written as part of a Masters in Science Communication project, investigating whether storytelling is an effective way to teach children about science and scientists. As a result, I would really appreciate some feedback, which you can give by answering a short survey. The survey takes less than 5 minutes to complete, and I will use the results to develop even better science stories in the future. To help, just click on the button below.

accessible – able to be reached or entered. 
Antarctica – a very cold country around the South Pole. It is the most southern country in the world!
Arctic – the are found around the North Pole and above the Arctic circle. It is the most northern area in the world!
caver – a person who studies or explores caves.
chemistry – a type of science, which focuses on matter, properties, and reactions.
climate change – a change in global or regional climate changes over an extended period of time e.g. rainfall, temperature, wind conditions, etc. 
coastal – of or near the sea.
compress – to squeeze, press, flatten, or squash something using pressure.
crampon – a metal plate with spikes attached, that can be fixed to walking boots. The spikes dig into ice and give the climber extra grip.
data - a collection of facts, such as numbers, measurements, observations, or words.
data logger – a small device that is used to collect data. It can measure particular factors and store the measurements safely.
direct – with no diversions; moving without changing direction or stopping.
doubled – become twice as much; increased by a factor of 2. 
drysuit – a waterproof suit that you can wear warm clothes beneath. In a drysuit, you don’t get wet.
factor - something that has an effect on an experiment. 
formation – a thing that has been made into a specific shape.
geologist – an expert in the study of rocks and the physical structures of Earth (geology).
glacial – if something is glacial, ice is present there.
Glacier National Park – a national park in Montana, USA, on the border with Canada.
glacier – a huge, slow-moving mass of ice.
global warming - the recent rise in global temperatures, mainly caused by increased levels of gases produced by human industry.
habitat - a place where an animal lives e.g. desert.
ice axe – an axe used by people climbing ice.

immediate – instant; happens straight-away.
indication/indicator – a thing that shows the state of level of something else.
Madrid – the capital city of Spain.
mathematician – an expert in mathematics.
mean value – the average of a set of numbers.
meltwater – water formed by the melting of snow and ice, especially from a glacier.
mountaineer – a person who climbs mountains.
Northern Hemisphere – the half of the Earth that is north of the equator, a line running round the centre of the Earth.
oxygen – a gas that many animals need to breathe.
polar – related to the North or South Pole. 
polar bear – large white bears from the Arctic.
pollution – something dirty, unclean, or harmful that is introduced into air, water, or soil.
population – all the inhabitants that live in a particular place.
practical – doing or using something hands-on rather than working with ideas and theories. 
properties - any measurable traits that you can use to describe matter e.g. density, colour, mass, volume, length, hardness, temperature…
rate – the speed at which something happens or changes, or the amount/number of times it happens or changes during a particular period of time.
resource (in nature) – a supply of something essential for life, like food or water. 
rising sea levels – increases in the level of the world’s oceans, due to the effect of global warming.
snow leopard – large, rare cats that live high in the mountains of Asia.
Southern Hemisphere - the half of the Earth that is south of the equator, a line running round the centre of the Earth.
submerged – completely covered by water.
walrus – large marine mammals related to seals, which have two large tusks. They are found in the Arctic.
water level – the height reached by the water in a certain place e.g. the sea, a river, a tank.
Hungry for more? 
If you’ve loved hearing about how Karmenka combined her love for maths with her passionate determination to save glaciers, have a think about these questions…
1.	Imagine a glacier, and everything that comes from it. The mountains where the glacier lies, and the clear waters that spring from it and run down the valley towards the sea. Can you list all of the animals and plants that might rely on that glacier? 
Extension: Draw out the glacier, river, and sea. Then, try to label different places on the drawing to show where the different creatures might live. 

2.	Karmenka has recently been to a glacier in Canada. She’s been hard at work in the glacial river, taking her first measurements. She has measured the speed of the water at five different points, and received the following results: 
Point	Speed (metres per second)
1	2.10
2	3.10
3	2.70
4	2.60
5	2.40

Can you calculate the mean water speed for her? 
Karmenka then wanted to work out how many metres of water were passing the point per minute. You know the mean speed that water passes per second – can you use that to work out the mean amount that passes in a minute? 
Use this resource if you get stuck!

3.	Global warming is a big problem, but everyone can do something to help reduce its effects! Brainstorm green, eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly activities that you could do at home. Maybe you could start recycling, or stop using plastic straws. There are lots of things to think of - use the resources below to help you! 

Then, decide on three things that you think you could achieve. Challenge yourself – can you do them for a week? A month? Maybe even a year?

4.	Karmenka’s friend Rafael wants to help out with her work, but he’s absolutely clueless about what glaciers are and how they form! Using your new knowledge, make a poster that will give him all the important information. Make sure it’s clear and easy to understand – he doesn’t want to get confused and have to ask Karmenka for help!

5.	Karmenka had to design the data loggers that collected measurements from the glacial rivers. Now, she wants to record what wildlife can be found at different points on the glacier and along the river. Can you design a machine that could record wildlife sightings for her? What information does she need to be recorded – a photograph, time, species, and/or location? How could a machine obtain and store this information for Karmenka, and keep it safe? Hint: if you’re stuck, try researching camera traps!


Karmenka’s research paper: Domínguez, M., Eraso, A. (2007). Subpolar glaciers network as natural sensors of global warming evolution. Ukrainian Antarctic Journal. 4 (5): 272-277.

More information about Karmenka and Adolfo’s project:

Project website – GLACKMA

Karmenka’s blog

Article: Karmenka and Adolfo’s “Polar Diary”

More information about glaciers:

Video: How glaciers change the world

Video: Join glacier explorer M. Jackson

Article: 10 fab glacier facts

Article: Glaciers

More information about climate change:

Video: Global Warming for Kids

Video: Climate change in the Arctic

Article: BBC Newsround on Global Warming

NASA Climate Kids: What is climate change?


Karmenka did not produce this research alone; she was supported throughout by Adolfo Eraso. He too deserves credit for this discovery – good science is often best done as a team.  

This story would not be nearly so good without its illustrations by the wonderful Megan Dymock, and the advice and support of Dr. Nicola Hemmings.

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