When asked about how he became a scientist, Alun Hubbard fondly remembers three people from his younger years. An inspirational physics teacher who encouraged students to ask tough questions and trust their intuitions.
A well-travelled geography teacher with an old-fashioned slide show and anecdotes of world-travels that inspired wanderlust. And a larger-than-life scoutmaster, an ecologist from his hometown Aberystwyth, who led them on wild adventures. He vividly recalls one of those trips, when the group got stuck on a small offshore island where they were digging artificial burrows for rare ground-nesting seabirds. They were stuck for a week. It was one of the best weeks of his life.
The glaciologist has always been curious about the world around him and enjoys discovering how things work. As a young boy, he would take apart broken cars, engines and TVs to see what was going on inside and sometimes even manage to fix them. The place where he grew up, the rugged coast of Wales, also provided endless opportunities to explore the sea, sand dunes, peat-marshes, cliffs, and hills. He grew to love such places – especially where mountains meet ocean.
Hubbard has led a nomadic academic life of adventure very much like his geography teacher and scoutmaster. He has spent the last three decades doing research (plus lots of sailing and mountaineering) in Antarctica, Alaska, Patagonia, New Zealand, Greenland, Svalbard and many other places with high latitude or elevation.
The connections between ice, in its many forms, and the landscape, ocean and atmosphere fascinate him. Hubbard’s main focus has been to understand how glaciers and particularly the Greenland ice sheet are responding to climate forcing.
“But I’m most intrigued by what’s going on beneath the ice. Satellites provide great datasets of how fast things are changing across the surface, but that’s literally superficial! Ice sheets are many kilometres thick and beneath is this amazing hidden world – dark, cold and watery with frozen mountain tops and deep lakes but one that’s teaming with microbial life. It’s a world we know little about. As we tentatively explore it, we realise that it really is a strange world”, Hubbard says.
Alun Hubbard installing a pressure probe in a melt lake on the Greenland ice sheet. Thousands of these spectacular azure lakes form across its surface each summer. Despite being kilometres wide and very deep, many drain in a matter of hours through fractures and moulins to the bed. Photo: Jason Box
The world is far from simple to the glaciologist. After almost three decades in science he is weary of a recent trend for over-simplification of natural systems. “The real world is often more complicated than simple theory credits. There is a beautiful complexity in nature – trying to understand the multitude of processes that kick in and govern how a system behaves when its forced into change and how it interconnects with other natural systems. The processes themselves can be simple but they often manifest in complex behaviours and outcomes. Reducing it all to simple cause and effect may get you a high impact publication and tabloid headlines but often misses the context and bigger picture”, Hubbard explains.
He takes model predictions of the future with a big dose of salt as well. According to him it is common to make large-scale forecasts based on conveniently simplified relationships and parameterisations with little knowledge of the underlying processes. "I believe that’s a dangerous game. It leads to misplaced confidence in what we actually know. I see a lot of modelling going on with virtually no data or real process-understanding underpinning it. We're confusing a certain brand of techy computer simulation with knowledge. It’s wrong, it’s arrogant and unfortunately, it's taking over science”, he says.
Sailboats and sleeping bags
The glaciologist is always trying to find alternative means to engage and study nature. One time he took his small sailboat and a couple of dedicated PhD students to Antarctica and froze the boat into the sea next to a massive calving glacier. They took measurements to understand how warm ocean circulation is melting the edge of the ice sheet.
They found that a lot more is happening under the sea ice than assumed. “That was just an amazing expedition. I probably wouldn’t get away with doing it now. For me, it is most rewarding to be part of small self-sufficient teams, not the outputs or the papers – though that’s part of it too”, Hubbard says.
Nothing comes easy in the hard conditions of field research in the Arctic. There are enormous logistical challenges. Thus flexibility, problem-solving skills and spontaneous fixes are often required. Hubbard enjoys these unpredictable circumstances. “When you study nature, little goes to plan or behaves how you expect it to”, he states.
Small human errors can sometimes get magnified in the remote, isolated locations. Hubbard remembers a time when he and his team were airlifted to the middle of Greenland ice sheet to carry radar survey in early April. Temperatures were -30 to -40 C. They stayed in tents and on that first night he realised he had forgotten his sleeping bag. “A rather stupid thing to do. Definitely a contender for a Darwin award! I guess I could have called for help, but in this case I wrapped myself in what I had and shivered my way through a long and miserable night. Didn’t get much sleep that time”, Hubbard jokes.
Alun Hubbard sailing past a tabular iceberg from Store Glacier which is one of the largest outlets where the ice sheet flows directly into the ocean in west Greenland. He has been working there for over a decade. He uses his sailboat as a mobile research base to monitor the ocean water, meteorology, ice flow and iceberg calving. Photo: Chris Rubens
Impressions on Oulu
The glaciologist has been based part-time at the Arctic University of Tromsø, Norway for the last five years. Hubbard applied for a fellowship to work in Oulu with Professor Jeff Welker and the Arctic interactions visiting grant programme. He is involved in Welker’s ambitious project called Arctic Water Isotope Network (AWIN) and is using the labs to analyse ice-cores collected from the Greenland ice sheet.
He is very happy with how things worked out with his samples from Greenland, but unfortunately planned fieldwork in Svalbard has not come off because of the pandemic. “It’s a great shame since I was really looking forward to getting out there with my new collaborators. Oulu has this really motivated group with some brilliant young researchers, and labs and facilities are superb”, Hubbard says. “The University of Oulu is expanding and a rising star in terms of new Arctic frontiers. It’s at the cutting edge of research and ideas”, he says.
Hubbard feels that the visiting programme is a superb opportunity. “It’s a dream come true in terms of freedom to get stuck into new ideas. I’m very excited at the prospect of embedding myself within a new group that is the natural progression and next step to my subglacial ice sheet research. It’s an eye-opener to multi-disciplinary collaborative science”, says Hubbard. He is also extending the welcome to scientists from Oulu to collaborate with him in Tromsø, Svalbard and Greenland in the future.
Hubbard has been involved in some major nature documentary projects for the BBC (Frozen Planet), National Geographic (Chasing Ice), Netflix (Our Planet) and others. He describes this media work as a fun distraction that has led to some of the most surreal and exciting situations. His goal as a scientist is to convey the message as engagingly as possible without loss of content or complexity. He believes it is important to communicate to the public the processes going on in these places that otherwise remain unseen and unknown for many.
He wants to highlight the speed of change the Arctic is going through. “I probably come over carefree – but do have a strong sense of duty with it”, he says and adds: “I’m not too self-conscious. That helps one to be quite natural and spontaneous. I also know that the locations are stunning and that they really are the show-winners, hence my job is very easy. That is the key to this kind of documentary making. But I really enjoy being involved in that creative process too. It probably helps to have a bit of a performer in you. The last thing I’d want to do is render the locations boring to the average viewer.”
Alun Hubbard being filmed at one of his time-lapse cameras at Store Glacier. This particular camera installation has been around for over 15 years. It is part of the original Extreme Ice Survey that was shown in the National Geographic film Chasing Ice. He has been visiting and maintaining this installation, often from his sailboat, each year for over a decade. Photo: Hannah Bailey
What is it like to work with a film crew instead of a research team? Hubbard gives high praise to the BBC natural history unit film crews he has worked with over the years. “These film makers all have a solid scientific background. They can tolerate hardship, know their stuff, and that nature doesn’t work on cue. These people are just amazing to work with. We share similar passions and it just clicks immediately once you’re in the field. I have huge respect for their dedication, patience and creativity, and it’s fun an inspiring” he says.
Unfortunately, not all film crews are like that. Hubbard explains: “Some directors have no real idea what’s going on or any understanding of how it works. And they try to put words in your mouth. Once, after filming a short take on melt at the margin of the Greenland ice sheet, the director asked the cameraman to turn round, get a different angle of the ice sheet plateau, and then asked me to do it again but this time ‘pretend you’re in Antarctica. We’ll brighten it up and CGI some penguins.’ It was one of those bizarre moments and really funny except that she was dead serious. Of course – I told her where to stick her CGI penguins.”
Text: Aino Soutsalmi
Main photo: Alun Hubbard descending into a moulin on the Greenland ice sheet. Like giant plug-holes, these massive shafts are formed when summer melt rivers and lakes unexpectedly drain through kilometres of ice to the bed. This one - now dry - was 180 m deep before it hit the water level in the ice sheet. Photo Credit: Lars Ostenfeld
Last updated: 12.6.2020