Let's Talk with Bob Bindschadler about the Movement of Ice Sheets

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Bob Bindschadler is a glaciologist who studies the movement of the Antarctic ice sheet. His research takes place both in the field, surveying the ice, and in the lab, using remote sensing photographs from space to get a better view of the large ice sheets. Lately he's been studying the ice streams of West Antarctica, flowing "rivers" of ice that carry ice from the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet out to the Southern Ocean; these ice streams may contribute to the rising global sea level.

Why should kids know about deep sea Antarctica?

"It's a part of the planet–an important part of the planet and a very unusual part of the planet. I think it's one of the most un-Earth-like parts of Earth. Antarctica is also the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet; seventy-five percent of Earth's freshwater is found there. But we don't want that ice to melt too quickly!"

How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

"I think its important to be aware of the existence of everything on this planet, and to know how conditions in one place, a place like Antarctica, can affect the rest of the planet."

Field of Study Glaciology–the ice stream of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet
Hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Science, Math, Gym, Social Studies, especially Geography and Civil War History, Wood Shop
Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects English, Art, Metal Shop–"My metal shop teacher was rigid and a scary guy."
Interests in Middle/High School Music–played trumpet in an orchestra; cars, bikes, baseball, football, basketball; reading, especially mysteries. ("My sister had the whole series of Nancy Drew mysteries.")
Interests Today Running, sailing, camping
Life Lessons from the Field "People matter most; science will be there tomorrow. And there is only one planet–we have to treat it with respect."
Recommended Reading Endurance by Albert Lansing, Glacier Ice by Post, and LaChapelle Physics of Ice by Paterson
Major Influences "My high school science teacher was a really cool guy. He could relate to the kids. He had a sense of wonder about it all. He was willing to not know something and discover along with us." Graduate school–"I was so lucky to have had Charlie Raymond as an advisor. He was a superb advisor–had no ego, was brilliant beyond all proper allowance, did excellent work in his field." Kids "Four stepchildren ranging in age from eleven to twenty-eight. They are all very proud of what I do; some would like to accompany me; some quite the opposite!" Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Twelve

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Bob: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is THE ice sheet in terms of potential for affecting sea level in the near term. In other words, if the WAIS breaks up or melts, all that water is going to raise sea levels all over the world. And this can happen in our lifetime. My work focuses on the WAIS, but I'm interested in the movement of ice and glaciers all over the world.

AMNH: How do you study ice and glaciers?

Bob: Some of it is pretty simple in theory. We put markers, like poles, in the ice and measure how quickly the pole moves! We use surveying instruments to tell us exactly where the pole is. And then when we go back, we measure where it has gone and that tells us how fast the pole is moving. This is called the flow rate. We also look at the ice sheets from space, using satellite images to get a better view of the large ice sheets. We can see them with scientific instruments in ways that our eyes can't. With this technology, we can see new things on the surface or even what is under the surface.

AMNH: Describe a typical day in the work field.

Bob: I love the sense of discovery, of figuring out how my piece of the world works. Whether we're investigating ice streams in the field or back at home, it's always exciting. We started our work thinking we knew all about how ice streams operate; but we discovered that they were not at all what we thought. Quite often it is fun to be wrong, to be surprised. It's the wonder of it. I like the mystery. That's what science is to me, solving a mystery and knowing that, like a mystery story, "its not always the butler" who did it. It would be boring if it was always the butler. And just being in Antarctica is really exciting I never liked being away from the family when I had to go to the field. Especially Antarctica, because the summer season there includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. But being there was wonderful, just having the opportunity to go to places where no one has ever been, to live and work there. It's amazing to me that you can still do that on planet Earth. This place has been here for a long time, and it's an incredible feeling to wonder if you are the only person who has ever been in a particular spot. Of course, it's dangerous; but sometimes that danger is wonderfully exciting. I remember once taking a short cut to get to my field study spot. I came upon a deep crevasse, and if I had not hit the brakes in time, it would have been certain death.

AMNH: It's certainly not as dangerous back at home. How do you study Antarctica when you're not there?

Bob: We use satellite remote sensing, which is the next best thing to being there. With the satellite images, we can look at motion of the ice sheets; we look at the changing location of the edge of the ice sheet. We look at how temperatures relate to ice sheet movement, and we find out where and when icebergs are breaking off the ice sheet. We also look to see how and where crevasses are moving. We track changes by comparing two or more satellite images across time. We collect and analyze A LOT of data; we have radar that can see through the clouds, microwave sensors that detect motion beneath the surface, and altimeters that measure the height of the ice sheet. We use the satellite data in new ways to collect the same kind of information we used to collect in the field. Though it may not be as fun as going into the field, the satellites make it easier and more efficient to collect new data. That saves time and money–and considering the dangers of Antarctica, it could save lives.

AMNH: Is your work day at home very different from a work day at home?

Bob: I'm in charge of the project, but that often means that I don't get to do as much hands-on work as I'd like. I get to define what we are doing, to formulate it, sell it, and execute it. I figure out where we want to go, and what we don't yet know; I figure out why it's important and then I have to convince someone to fund it. Once we have the funding, I have to make sure the work is being carried out properly. This may or may not include going into the field. It's wonderful to help create a community where there wasn't a community before, all through a shared goal. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to see progress made, and to be able to say that it is more than the sum of the parts. In other words, that all of the small investigations are helping us come to some really big conclusions. When I'm not in the field, there are lots of requests for my time. I have to talk to people who have nothing to do with glaciology as well as colleagues. I spend a lot of the day wishing I could read articles and maintain a current view of my field and specialty; I have a pile of things to read, and it grows faster than I can look at it. If I need to do some writing, I have to leave the office. I need the whole day to think deeply enough about anything and not be disturbed. But when I'm in the office, I try to be always accessible. I keep the door open so that students and colleagues know I am there for them. My students get to do a lot of the science, and sometimes I find myself getting jealous! They work with the data and figure out what it means, and that's what I really love doing. Sometimes I get frustrated enough to go to the lab to see what they are doing and get recharged. It reenergizes me. I think the science that we are doing as a group is really interesting and I have to maintain a connection–I'm not naturally a bureaucrat. I want to see and do as much of the science as I can.

AMNH: Do you have to deal with alot of bureaucracy your work?

Bob: There are a lot of hoops to jump through, a lot of paperwork. I have to set up our budget in a certain way and stick to limitations imposed upon us when the project begins, even if things change as the project progresses. My dream would be to get a grant from NSF and put it in a checking account with no impediments, no limitations, for a full year. We'd be fully accountable at the end of the year, but we'd have the year to do our work without worrying about all the forms that need to be filled out for every proposal. We have to deal with too much bean counting for some of the programs. That's what happens when good ideas run amok.

AMNH: How did you end up studying glaciology, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in particular?

Bob: Science was always there for me. Certainly there were fields of science I related to more than others–biology was okay, chemistry was more like math because you had to balance equations. Physics intrigued me the most. I liked thinking about forces and movements and reactions to forces. I first discovered glaciology on a family vacation in Banff National park in Canada. We took the glacier tour on Athabasca Glacier. My father was asking the tour guide questions, and the tour guide told us that there was a scientist studying that very glacier. That seemed really interesting to me. Years later I found out that the scientist was my advisor–Charlie Raymond. Up the road was another glacier, on the side of Mount Temple. I always remembered that glacier, was always drawn to it, and that was back in high school. It wasn't until I graduated from college with a BA in Physics and one in Astronomy that I realized that I didn't want to do astronomy. It seemed too esoteric; it seemed like there were no applications to our world. I didn't know what I wanted to study, but I kept looking at books on mountains; in fact, I kept looking for mountains. I liked images of ice and snow, and I discovered a book called Physics of Glaciers by just looking in the card catalogue under "glaciers." I read that book cover to cover in one night and was totally riveted. When I realized that I had just read a graduate text book, I decided that maybe this was the field for me. It had been eight months since I had graduated from college, and I had about 100 graduate school applications and two very worried parents. I went back to the library and found the Journal of Glaciology. After I read it, I wrote to the people mentioned inside it, explaining my interest. I got some responses, including one from Charlie Raymond. I had described to him a model I'd done of a star during undergrad work, and Charlie wanted me to do some glacier modeling with him. So I took the GRE's (Graduate Record Examinations) and went to work with Charlie. Now that I know everyone in glaciology, I know how lucky I was to have had Charlie as an advisor. He was a superb advisor–had no ego, was brilliant beyond all proper allowance, did excellent work in his field. He made it easy to learn from him. The first day I met him, after he had showed me my office, and left the room, my new office mate, another student, said, "listen to every word that man says." At the time, I didn't understand–but I do now. He was a great teacher and scientist and a really nice person. He was also a superb role model. Largely because of him, my goal as a scientist is to help everyone who's doing science around me become a better scientist. It's about giving, not taking, letting go of your ego to enjoy shared accomplishments. I can't be as smart as Charlie, but I can try to be as nice a person and as good a teacher.