Convergence Conversation: Securing our Global Future with Glaciologist M Jackson

I met Dr. M Jackson in December 2018. She was one of two glaciologists traveling aboard the National Geographic Explorer, headed to Antarctica. Every night, M would join a different group of travelers for dinner, spending time sharing stories and learning about each of us traveling. We were midway through our two-week trip when she joined my friend, Barb Loftus, and me to break bread. Our conversation was wide-ranging from why her parents named her M to what a glaciologist does. Her energy is contagious and her curiosity runs deep.

Besides serving as an Arctic Expert for the National Geographic Society, M is also a geographer, TED Fellow, author of several books, and guest speaker. Her 2015 memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change weaves together the parallel stories of what happens when the climates of a family and a planet change. Her 2019 book, The Secret Lives of Glaciers, explores the profound impacts of glacier change on the human and physical geography of Iceland.

In this Convergence Conversation, M and I discuss the importance of glaciers and the impact they have on people, communities, societies, and humanity at large.


The Profile of a Glaciologist

Deb: What is glaciology and what does a glaciologist do?

M: Oddly, I did an interview this morning and those two questions are contentious issues right now. Traditionally glaciologists are scientists who study ice or something adjacent to ice. That’s what it’s always been, but to me that it’s too narrow of a definition. This traditional definition excludes other people who also take part in understanding ice. When we say a glaciologist is a scientist who studies ice, it usually means someone who’s been through a system, usually an academic system. I think today the nature of our academic systems sheds people. As you go higher up in the system, the doors keep closing. By the time you’re a full-fledged scientist, typically a Ph.D. postdoc scientist, you look around and glaciology is awfully male, white, and Western-influenced.

I’ve been trying for several decades now to expand who can be a glaciologist and the public image of this role. When I was early in my career, I thought a glaciologist had to be someone very masculine and physically fit to be able to carry a hundred-pound pack and be able to be out on the ice for long durations of time. I’ve come to realize that obviously, this is not true. Any person able-bodied or not, or at any level of physical fitness, or of any gender range can practice glacier science or pursue understanding what ice is. 

I advocate a great deal for the idea that we don’t need to have the same people trained in the same ways to understand what’s happening with our world. We need a lot of brains and perspectives, at all career stages and points of view, looking at the ice right now because our ice is disappearing. If we don’t start getting on this right now, we’re going to be studying something that doesn’t exist anymore.

Ice Through the Eyes of a Glaciologist

Deb: Why is it so important to study ice?

M: That answer is based on perspective. A lot of people want to assign a value to ice to describe why it is important to people. I’m not a big fan of that type of thinking. I don’t think we always need to put people in the center of all systems of value. But if you do take that answer as a jumping-off point, it runs from glaciers providing ecosystem services like basic water to providing transportation for humans, or shaping religious beliefs, cultural artifacts, or having spiritual significance. But I think the biggest influence glaciers have is they touch everyone, wherever they live because glaciers control the weather on our planet.

One way to imagine how glaciers control the weather is to use an analogy. A useful one, especially in the context of the current ongoing conversation in the U.S., is our economic system. We’re told we’re all going to get a stimulus check. Stimulus. It’s even labeled this way. We’ll take this money, and we will put it back into our system and then, so the thinking goes, it will stimulate our economy. We take money, we put it in a system, the system ramps up.

Our planet has a finite amount of water. Imagine, for one moment, water is the money of our analogy. Glaciers tend to control how much water goes in or out of the larger ecosystem, how much our global system has to spend. We know that when our planet is colder, it’s also drier — not a lot of money floating around. Thinking back to our last ice age, we had bigger glaciers, so less water was circulating in the earth’s ecosystems. The earth’s water was all stuck in the ice, locked up in the bank. We had a drier planet and smaller storm systems and smaller weather events.

Today, we have smaller glaciers because there’s more water, more money, in the system. So when that system is stimulated with warmer weather, it creates more water, which means more fuel to stimulate the system. We have bigger water events like hurricanes, rain, snow events, droughts, and floods. Wherever you are on the planet tends to be stimulated a great deal by the ice and what the ice is doing and where the ice is. 

For me, the biggest connection between people and ice is the weather. It’s tangible. Stepping outside and looking around and saying, we don’t have enough water, we have too much water, or we’ve got rain coming down. Anything you’re experiencing in your weather, that’s brought to you in part by a glacier.

The Value of Glaciers and Ice

Deb: What do you wish people knew about the relationship between glaciers and communities around the world? 

M: We privilege our geographies, and we privilege what we see. It’s not shocking to say people who live in New York City believe Central Park is important to the identity of their city. It’s not that hard to say to someone who lives in Seattle, that Mount Rainier is incredibly important to the ecosystem, to the identity of the area and the cultural aspects of that region. Here in Eugene, Oregon, Westmoreland Park is important. If we can say that this thing right next to us is important, how could we not extend that to other spaces on our planet? Other communities on our planet may not be living with Westmoreland Park or Mount Rainier, but they are living with an enormous glacier in their backyard.

A specific example is on the south coast of Iceland, where the people and glaciers have been intertwined for over a thousand years. The reason for their importance has changed, but glaciers are still very important to Icelanders. Over hundreds of years, the ice has constantly oscillated. It was sometimes identified as hazardous because it could surge over your farm and destroy your structures. At other times, it was considered a bridge way over rivers or mountains. It could facilitate transhumanist practices, such as taking sheep over the ice. Fast forward to the last 10 years in Iceland. The ice is probably one of the largest sources of money to Icelanders. Several Icelanders have pointed out to me that as glaciers melt, they melt money. Tourists from all over the world go to Iceland, Antarctica, and Alaska to see the ice before it’s gone. The value of ice shifts over time.

Facilitating Human Movement

Deb: You have talked about how ice impacts human diversity. What do you mean by this?

M: You can take it as literally as that. It affects where and how people go places. A good example of this is early human migration coming over from the Asian continent into the North American continent. We have evidence early peoples came to present-day Alaska over the Bering land bridge. The planet was colder and drier because more of our planet’s water was sucked up into ice and the glacier systems were larger. This meant the oceans were about 410 feet lower than they are today. That’s how early humans had the Bering land bridge. It’s always been there, it just wasn’t covered with the ocean.

When people migrated to the North American continent from Asia, they encountered a solid wall of ice where Denali is today on the Alaska range. We have evidence that some groups of people turned back, some people continued east to Greenland, some stayed. But these migrants didn’t come South. We have genetic diversity in what is today British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. This ice literally separated them.

It’s really fascinating that ice actually segments populations today as well. A lot of today’s climate change conversation talks about winners and losers. We hear the narrative of we are losing places because of rising water levels. But some areas near the Arctic are gaining physical landmass. And places like Iceland, parts of Greenland, and South Georgia Islands are gaining landmass for a different reason. The ice is melting, and all that melting ice is going into our seas. Our seas are rising, but that ice weighs so much that it squishes down the land. This is called isostatic rebound. 

As the ice gets smaller, the land springs back up. Iceland is rising out of the sea quicker than the seas are rising. Greenland’s not losing. South Georgia Island is not. It really comes down to the fact that weather is a value judgment. Many people say that the weather’s getting warmer in the places they live, giving them the ability to grow more variety of things. They are winning at climate change. I’m not sure how much that helps us think about these things and the future of earth.

Glaciologist as Educator 

Deb: I imagine a part of your job with National Geographic is to educate. What response do you get from business people when you talk about the importance of ice and the issues we are facing?

M: I find on an individual level, the majority of folks are deeply interested and even fascinated with what’s happening with ice. But there can be a very strong push back to what I’m saying. People will tell me about what they are doing and the importance of what they do, then they tell me the environmentalists can deal with our planet. Another common response from leaders is the younger generation is going to have to deal with these problems.

I have also given talks where the audience doesn’t see any connection to them. What I’m saying is completely unrelated to what they are doing. And when that is the case, it’s a stopping point for me. I can spend all day telling somebody how their industry or company relates to ice. But when it doesn’t move them I don’t feel like I’ve ever done it in such a way that actually changes hearts and minds. 

I remind myself that we have all of the knowledge and scientific evidence that tells us what a glacier needs to be healthy and thrive. They need snow, cold temperatures, and time.

We know how to drop our temperatures and how to deal with our emissions. We may not have the social will at this time, but we do have the knowledge. That’s important. And if we decide to look at climatic changes or increasing greenhouse gas emissions and say, what do we do, there are a ton of really inventive and amazing solutions.

I know our ice can grow back. We can live on a planet with ice. But there’s a caveat that it will take work. Even if we magically turned our emissions off and our temperatures down today, our ice wouldn’t grow back in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime. But that doesn’t mean that in three generations, humanity isn’t living on a planet with healthy ice systems. I think about that future and want to move towards our ice growing back. So I’m going to be out there pitching glaciers till the day I pitch it in. 

When I first started out so much of what I did was trying to convince people that climatic changes are happening. If I’m going to say that I’ve seen a shift, it is that argument seems to have lessened in the work I do. Now it’s about how do we move forward? How do we ameliorate some of these impacts? How do we migrate to a better future? This gives me hope. 

Creating Change

Deb: What are some positive steps that business leaders can take immediately while we’re all trying to figure out how to forward?

M: Regardless of what industry you are in you will be able to find an area that intersects with ice or the many intersections with increasing climatic changes. Focus your efforts because if you try to take on the whole beast, you can’t do it and won’t do it. Focus on what you can do. The floral industry and the automotive industry won’t be able to take on issues in the same way, but any aspect of any industry is going to be touched by climatic changes. They just need to find their focus.

A lot of businesses are very cautious and they aren’t going to want to talk about climatic changes or where they have personal responsibility or intersection to it, because they might lose potential customers. I’d like to see business leaders taking risks. I’d like to see more companies come out and make a stand. I’ve been really proud of REI and Patagonia. They have come out and said they are taking a stand because their business intersects with climate change.

Future Focus

Deb: what’s your greatest hope for the future?

M: I really want people to understand that the future is not set and that the unknowns are exciting. People think the future is dark. That can destabilize or immobilize people. I think the future that we move into is deeply influenced by what we imagine. We have the ability to imagine a different future. And just because those futures are not unfolding on the timescales that I privilege doesn’t mean that the future doesn’t have the possibility of existing. If I didn’t think that our ice could grow back, I wouldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing. 

I really hope people hold on to the imagination of a future that is not as dark as we’ve been told. I think people are easier to control when they’re scared, when they’re told that they don’t have power, and when they’re told who to fear. We need to spend less time picking at each other and spend more time trying to make a better world.


M challenges us to change the narrative about the purpose of business and its role in serving global communities. When we stand from a place of human needs, such as water, we will begin to ask ourselves critical questions such as: What critical global issues must be addressed to sustain the very markets we are attempting to create? How are we thinking about these issues with regard to our growth strategies? How will we ensure the execution of our plans doesn’t have unintended consequences that create negative impacts on the communities we want to interact with? If glaciers control the weather and ultimately the water on our planet, shouldn’t they be a part of our business considerations?

I find comfort in M’s belief that we have all of the knowledge and scientific evidence that tells us what a glacier needs to be healthy and thrive. I am also encouraged to see the gaining momentum to use this knowledge to address the issues we know must be solved for the future.

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