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The woman who risked life and limb for climate data for COP26

11. november 2021
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Ruth Mottram loses her foothold and falls.

In the middle of a glacier crevasse, she passes layers of ice.

Ash gray, chalk white and azure shades of the frozen water swirl past.

She slams her head against the ice.

Measured in metres, this a drop of about two to three meters.

Measured in compressed knowledge from the ice crevasse, this is a fall over centuries of accumulated information stored in ice and air bubbles with CO2.

Her ice ax and spiked boots are not of much use now. Ruth Mottram cannot move.

Her body is wedged in a deep crack in the glacier crevasse.

Her assistant rappels down. Twists Ruth Mottram’s body to the side. Finally gets her hauled free and taken to a hospital in Iceland.

»Afterwards, I looked like someone who had been involved in a car accident,« Ruth Mottram recalls.

Foto: Privatfoto

Ruth Mottram after the fall.

Beaten, bruised but determined, Ruth Mottram continues the data collection a few days later as part of her fieldwork in Iceland – a career that culminates in a PhD. in glaciology and a position as a climate researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

Today, she is one of the world’s leading experts in the melting of the Arctic and the importance of glacier crevices.

Ruth Mottram is one of the few scientists in the world who physically has measured the depth of the continental glaciers and helped to show that close to the surface the socalled slits in the glaciers act as solar panels.

The slits increase the melting, which is already accelerated by the man-made burning of oil, coal and gas. They also exacerbate a weakness in the ice that can lead to calving of icebergs when glaciers meet seas in fjords.

These data, combined with contributions from thousands of other research colleagues, form the scientific foundation of our understanding of climate change.

These data also form the basis of the discussions that world leaders such as Joe Biden, Narendra Modi and around 117 other Heads of State and Government are conducting in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit.

And this is a huge task.

Mads Nissen
Foto: Mads Nissen

Ruth H Mottram, PhD, is a climate Scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute

The gap between the impact of international climate plans and the official climate targets has never been greater. This gap is documented in the UN’s new ’Emissions Gap’ report released in late October.

The consequence of one of the worst-case scenarios is that Denmark and the rest of the globe will face sea level rises from 60 centimetres to one metre over the next 80 years. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the sea level will double over the same time frame.

The melting of Antarctica, among other factors, could well mean that sea levels will rise by two metres instead of one metre by the year 2100, because such factors will affect each other and accelerate the increase.

And that can perhaps also be said to be one of the biggest challenges and paradox of climate change: that the consequences are neither tangible nor visible in the course of everyday life – however dangerous the scientific data underlining the effects may be. According to Anthony Giddens,the British sociologist, many will therefore sit on their hands and do nothing. But if we wait until climate change becomes visible and acute, the most effective climate change mitigation and adaption will then be too late.

Klimamontor is therefore launching an experiment to try to do something about this paradox. The experiment is a different kind of features based on the graph below.

Click or zoom to see the graph in a bigger version.

‘My life and the temperature rises’, we call this feature or mini-portrait format consisting of the graph above.

We want to focus on the people beyond the spotlight, who monitor, collect data or push politically to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. We think it is important to find new ways to communicate the often abstract climate statistics and combine them with the concrete and personal aspects of our lives in the same context to be able to better feel and grasp the concept of climate change.

This graph above has been created thanks to input from Ruth Mottram and her field trips to the ice sheet.

The risks and dangers of collecting climate data in such places is well known among climate scientists.

On 9 August 2020, the renowned Swiss glaciologist Konrad Steffen lost his life in West Greenland after an unusually hot summer - paradoxically increased by the temperature rises.

Konrad Steffen fell down into an eight-meter-deep glacier crevasse on his way to replace a memory card at a measuring system. The gap was probably covered by a thin layer of snow.

Four years earlier, climate scientist Gordon Hamilton died while setting up a climate measuring station in Antarctica. He fell down into a 30-foot-deep slit.

For Ruth Mottram, her limbs have paid the price for her contribution to an increased understanding of the temperature rises.

Satellite observations are still not sufficient to measure the depths and changes inside the glacier crevices.

Ruth Mottram and her colleagues therefore still have to travel to Greenland and descend into the glaciers to study the effects of global warming.

In this way, Ruth Mottram has helped to demonstrate that the gaps in the ice sheet function as important channels for meltwater. This leads to increased glacier calving and the phenomenon of cryo-hydrological warming.

»A clumsy word,« Mottram says with a smile.

The term cryo-hydrological warming actually simply means that, since the water is warmer than the ice, in practice the slits transport energy down into the glacier, which then melts from within.

Mathematical models that describe the movements of the ice have been scarce. Thanks to Ruth Mottram and her colleagues at DMI, among others, the knowledge gap has been patched in recent years.

Foto: Privatfoto

Ruth Mottram away from the office and back at fieldwork.

»The better the models are, the better we can predict how fast the ice can and will change and thus get better control of how much the ice sheet contributes to changes in the global sea level now and in the future,« says Ruth Mottram.

There may be some in northern Europe who think that the melting of the ice in Antarctica is hardly a cause for concern, but the opposite is true.

The meltdown in Antarctica will lead to sea level rise, which will particularly affect countries in the northern hemisphere.

In short, this is because the mass from Antarctica affects the world’s oceans, because the gravity of the ice mass attracts the water. When the ice melts, the effect of gravity also decreases.

The water level around the ice caps will eventually fall, but conversely it will rise further away from Antarctica in countries such as Denmark.

»A lot of fresh water from Antarctica’s inland ice has opened up, which particularly affects the Danish sea level. We must be careful not to wake the sleeping giant when it comes to sea level rises,« says Ruth Mottram.

Editors note: The idea for the graph designed for this feature was former NASA engineer Randall Munroe’s. He is now a successful cartoonist under the name xkcd. He came up of with the original idea and has made it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

The main genre picture is photographed by Lisi Niesner / Reuters / Ritzau Scanpix. Other photos are by Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters, Miriam Dalsgaard / Politiken / Ritzau Scanpix and Caspar Haarloev / Ritzau Scanpix

Text and layout: Mads Nyvold

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