Global Warming, On the Rocks

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper is breaking new ice in climate science. Working from missoula and Whitefish, University of Montana professor Joel Harper, 49, is one of only a handful of professors in North America that specializes in glaciology. The good doctor studies the relationship between glaciers melting and rising sea level.

Using a jet of high-pressure, near-boiling water, Harper and his crew drill a borehole through the Greenland ice sheet. The drill lowers a long stem down the borehole until it reaches the ice sheet’s bed.

Using a jet of high-pressure, near-boiling water, Harper and his crew drill a borehole through the Greenland ice sheet. The drill lowers a long stem down the borehole until it reaches the ice sheet’s bed.

As a kid in the Colorado mountains, he loved snow so much he piled it on his back deck in a futile attempt to make his own glacier, one that would last through summer. “Some kids have a rock collection,” he muses, “I tried to have a snow pile, but it never worked.”

Chasing ice would come to define Harper’s career. After doing graduate work for Environment Canada on the Peyto Glacier in Banff National Park and several coastal glaciers in British Columbia, he next spent years studying Alaskan ice. In 2007, he moved over to the world’s biggest source of melting ice, Greenland, which contributes about 3.2 millimetres to sea level per year—40 per cent of the global total.

To collect data for computer models, Harper and a crew of seven graduate students camp for six weeks each summer on the Greenland ice sheet and jet hot, high-pressure water into the ice to create an open column, melting down 800 metres per day. After drilling, they install sensors at various depths to measure the movement of the ice and the pressure of any water at the base, where conditions dictate how the ice works to affect sea level.

A radar system measures the snow’s layering and density. The ice sheet’s annual snowfall here accumulates into a layer about 90 metres thick. The crew analyzes the speed of radar waves as they travel through the layer to determine how the density of the snow changes with depth. Here, one person moves an antenna that sends out radar waves, and the other works the antenna that then receives the waves.

A radar system measures the snow’s layering and density. The ice sheet’s annual snowfall here accumulates into a layer about 90 metres thick. The crew analyzes the speed of radar waves as they travel through the layer to determine how the density of the snow changes with depth. Here, one person moves an antenna that sends out radar waves, and the other works the antenna that then receives the waves.

Harper pushed the idea of going ultra lightweight and portable for this work by custom building the entire drill system. “The drill tower and power plant break into pieces, none of which are more than a couple of hundred pounds, so we can easily move it short distances by foot,” he says. “This enables us to spread boreholes around without needing a helicopter for every short jump. This keeps costs way down and gives us lots of flexibility.”

Understanding sea level change is paramount the world over at this moment, and Harper understands this better than most. “If sea level comes up quite slowly, people can gradually adapt in most cases,” he explains. “But very rapid sea level rise could create a lot of hardship, especially for developing nations. The costs to society of over preparing are just as problematic as being caught off guard, so this is one we have to get right.”

Author / Contributor

Becky Lomax

Becky Lomax lives in Whitefish, Montana, because of its rugged mountains and cultural sensibilities that renew her. She updates her guidebook on neighbouring Glacier National Park, Montana, every two years and is currently producing a guidebook for Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. For magazines, she writes about hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking and science, including tagging along with wildlife re...

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