LISTENING TO THE ICE
ple thought — so fast that it could disappear one day, raising global sea levels and
redefining coastlines worldwide.
It’s “a big if,” Rial says — a small word
at the center of growing political and scientific debates about the concept of global
Let’s listen to the ice
Rial, on Carolina’s faculty since 1985, is
a theoretical geophysicist. His academic
and professional career over four decades
has touched on structural engineering,
astronomy and how to disguise U.S. underground nuclear tests from the Soviet
Union. He’s published papers in Science
and other prestigious academic journals.
Now, Rial’s into climate science. First,
he studied ancient ice ages, and now he’s
using much of what he learned to look
into the global warming observed over the
A single theme ties together these
diverse areas of study. Rial is an expert on
what he calls “wiggles” — using mathematics to analyze wave forms. And earthquakes, exploding nuclear warheads and
sliding sheets of ice all create waves he can
measure, analyze and model in the lab.
It’s a novel approach to studying how
the ice is changing in Greenland.
“People … know his work and pay
attention to it,” William Schlesinger, dean
of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, said of Rial.
“Looking at the breakup of ice in Greenland and what might be causing a change
of rate, those things are absolutely relevant
to understanding climate change and what
we’re doing to the planet.”
Rial was on sabbatical in 2005 at the
University of Colorado at Boulder when
he befriended a climatologist who told
him stories about Swiss Camp and the climate research that scientists from around
the world were conducting there.
Rial was fascinated. “One day, I said to
him, ‘Let’s listen to the ice as it moves.’ He
sort of bought it. He said, ‘That’s a great
idea. Let’s do it.’And we did it.”
Chaos under the surface
Rial and his navigator, a young Swiss
Army surveyor named Louis Frei, traveled by
snowmobile toward Station One. A blue plastic barrel protects the delicate instruments
Rial placed to measure tremors of the ice.
Top, floating icebergs shed by the
the fastest moving
glacier in the world,
Greenland. The view
is west toward the
ocean. Bottom, the
base camp, also
known as Swiss
Camp, showing, left
to right, the dining,
sleeping and work
Carefully, Rial opened the lid, slipped off
his heavy gloves and popped out two Com-pactFlash memory cards, like the ones that
store pictures in a digital camera. Theoretically, the stamp-sized squares of plastic and
silicon in his palm held up to 4 gigabytes of
data on the wiggles of the ice — and
maybe new clues about global warming.
Or maybe there was nothing at all.
Maybe his equipment hadn’t worked. Or
maybe it had, and there hadn’t been any
interesting movements to record.
With Frei navigating the craft around
deep crevasses, they rode the several kilometers to stations Two and Three, harvested
the memory cards and made it back to
ice to ‘the
of a very large
If the buttresses
will happen to