A conversation between Jan Mot and Heiko Goelzer on water and ice and more.
As a scientist working in climate research, Heiko Goelzer studies the role of ice sheets in the climate system on various timescales in past, present and future and their contribution to sea-level change.
This conversation, originally published in Jan Mot’s Newspaper No. 124 (October 2020), is the introduction to a series of three texts by Heiko Goelzer to be published in the coming newspapers of the gallery as well as on the website Galleries Curate.
Jan Mot: When you hear the word ‘water’, what do you think of?
Heiko Goelzer: The first thing I had to think of now was actually tea. Maybe because the first thing I typically do when I get up in the morning is to put water to a boil and make tea. In the new place we live now, the water quality is so good, you can drink it straight from the tab. The water suppliers in most Western cities will tell you that this is possible and that their tap water is the best controlled and regularly tested. That may be so, but in Brussels, the water was so hard, we always used a water filter for our tea. It took out a lot of the calcium and magnesium to make the water softer. I could tell the age of the filter cartridge by the amount of residue in the water cooker. The only thing that is really strange for me about living with soft water now is that it is really difficult to wash off the soap from your hands and body.
JM: Let's change our perspective, from cosy tea-sipping in an Oslo living space to the breaking off icebergs as we heard of yesterday and not for the first time.
HG: Reading about icebergs and disappearing glaciers in the news is really a two-sided sword for me. On the one hand, it is still nice to see that the issue that is close to my heart is getting more press coverage. Climate change and its consequences has really entered our everyday, but it still needs a lot of work to communicate it and get it across. I am also reading these articles with a different angle than most other news. I have typically either heard the story already before it comes into the press, or I can roughly imagine what it is about. So, I am also evaluating if the image that is drawn with all its necessary simplifications is an accurate representation. I remember a realisation I had when I grew up, I must have been around fourteen years old. There was a news magazine article about the city I grew up in. Obviously, I knew the place pretty well from my own experience, and it was shocking to see how inaccurate and biased the descriptions were. Could this also be the case for articles about something that we don’t know something about? On the other hand, current reports about melting land ice give little reason for hope, and the stories that make it to the press are often the more catastrophic ones. In the end, I think the one thing that keeps me from really getting depressed over news like that is my professional relation to the subject that creates at the same time a closeness and distance.
JM: I understand, but I guess everyone’s relation to environmental issues is characterised by closeness and distance at the same time. We all experience it directly, but we also feel it is a problem of enormous proportions that needs to be solved on a higher, political level because individual action alone will not be enough. Or how would you formulate it?
HG: Yes, I think I agree with your notion of responsibility. At the same time, I think it is extremely important that people are ready for changes in their own lives. Political decision making is a slow process, almost by definition, because it concerns so many people. I can make dramatic changes with decisions that concern my own lifestyle almost instantly. Changing what we buy, eat and where we go on holiday as a family or group of friends is already more difficult, because there are more people involved, so to say. But when political incentives come in, and they are coming in more regularly now, we can choose to be hesitant or to be early adopters, where the latter often even comes with long-term benefits. However, I am not so sure about the point of experiencing climate change directly.
The attribution problem of clearly detecting the anthropogenic influence on climate change is scientifically solved, but that does not mean we are really feeling climate change in our daily lives. There are people that do, no doubt, and it often comes with threatening their livelihood, which is terrible. But I am wondering how close burning forests and melting ice sheets are for us really, as long as they are just passing on our screens. The lack of personal contact and engagement with the global environmental crisis has been a big problem since the very beginning. And it is an ongoing struggle for activists and the politically engaged alike that the moment the problem becomes a personal experience for enough people it will be too late to turn the tide.
JM: Coming back to your professional work on ice, can you describe briefly what exactly your work is about and have you always worked on this subject?
HG: I am a physicist by training, and I am now working mainly as a glaciologist and ice sheet modeler. My work is all about how large ice sheets change under different climate conditions and how they contribute to sea-level change. We have currently only two of those, one on Greenland and one on Antarctica. They are called ice sheets, because they are draped over the continents like thin sheets. Thin is relative to the several hundreds of kilometre length: they are ‘only’ a few kilometres thick in their centres. The sheer size of them makes that small changes for them mean large changes for us. When ice sheets lose more mass by melting in a warmer climate, we get sea-level rise as one of the most problematic consequences of global climate change. Working as a modeller means that I study ice sheets and their interactions with other components of the climate system with computer programs that simulate their physical state and evolution. I was personally interested in climate change from early on but did not get into it professionally right away. During my master's I first worked on automatic speech recognition, following my interest in acoustics and signal processing. It was with a PhD in oceanography that I entered into the larger theme of climate change and I started working specifically with ice sheets during my first postdoc position, now more than twelve years ago.
JM: The climatological and environmental situation of our planet is dramatic but are there any positive developments to report?
HG: On the scientific side of things, there are certainly ups and downs. Taking ice sheets again as an example, occasionally, new mechanisms have been proposed suggesting that ice sheet disintegration could go much faster than previously thought. When such mechanisms are finally not confirmed and discarded as implausible, it can feel like a great relief. I have experienced two or three processes of that kind in my career and we may be in the middle of one right now concerning Antarctic ice sheet instability. But science is often a slow process and it can take years for a question like this to be settled. What I really experience as a positive development that gives me hope is people's change of awareness about the global environmental crises over the last 15 years or so. The problem is clearly on people’s mind, on the political agenda and it is taken seriously by many companies and industries. We have a lot of work ahead of us, no doubt, but seeing that climate change and other environmental problems are taken on as global challenges by most countries is a very positive development for me.
Heiko Goelzer is working as a senior researcher at NORCE Norwegian Research Centre and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway.