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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eventually, Karmenka and Adolfo’s research came to three very important conclusions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
More information about glaciers:
More information about 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.