It seems safe to say that much of the literature around glaciers and climate change can be a little dry—no pun intended. Scientific texts on mass balance, false ogives, ground lines, dendrochronology and the cryosphere can be a little heavy for the glacier-curious layman.
This isn’t the case with “The Secret Lives of Glaciers,” a newly published book by American geographer, glaciologist and National Geographic writer M Jackson. The book takes the unusual tack of reporting climate change as a series of stories told by M and the people she meets during her time spent researching glaciers in Höfn. Containing elements of autobiography and diaristic accounts of the glaciers alongside conversations, observations, and anecdotes of all kinds, it’s approachable and readable stuff.
As someone coming from an academic background, this style was a very intentional choice. “I thought a lot about this,” she says, speaking over Skype from her home in Eugene, Oregon. “I wrote the first draft in a very academic style, then put it away. When I came back to it, the academic conventions just weren’t a pleasurable read. My goal is getting as many people as possible to read this stuff and learn about it.”
What about everything else?’
M’s approach—the mingling together of physical and human geography—comes from a distinctive sensibility. “I come from a lens of what can carefully be called a feminist perspective for glaciology,” she says. “If we look at the practice of glaciology, what knowledge is there and who does it, it generally tends to be white western men who are well funded. Ice is difficult to get out to, and so there’s a real specific way that glaciology has been practised for a long time, enacting a Western scientific model where they’re going to measure, model and predict ice. That’s how it’s been for a really long time and it’s given us good, powerful knowledge. But it’s also—as it has zeroed in—it has overlooked, silenced, or marginalised a lot of other ways of thinking about ice.”
Whilst we know a lot about the science of how ice forms, moves and disperses, M seeks to explore other facets of how we understand glaciers. “We don’t know a lot about, say, indigenous knowledges of ice, or how people interact with ice,” she says. “If you do a literature review, or start talking to people, you find out people think another discipline will cover that, or ‘that’s not glaciology.’ So you end up with wall-building or parameterising what glaciology can be. So from that base point, the work I do says, ‘This is really good and solid, but what about everything else?’”
Ice and gender
Hungry to work in little-studied areas, M’s work on the glaciers of Alaska evolved into a move to Turkey. “It was right before the Syrian war broke out,” she says. “I spent a whole year realising that this was not a safe place for a woman who looks like I do to wander around in the mountains during that time. I wanted to go somewhere where I blended in, and somewhere I felt safe. I started asking people where I could study glaciers, people and ice, and be safe. The Geographic asked if I’d considered Iceland. It’s safe for women and there’s a lot of research that hasn’t been done before.”
She found during her time in Iceland that when she talked to women about glaciers, they would often redirect her to men. “There’s very little about gender in the new book,” she says. “But when I was talking to women, they’d often say ‘I don’t have anything to say.’ But when you spend more time with these women, they know a whole bunch. It’s just a different type of knowledge. So I’m doing a whole new book that’s just women and just gender.”
Our god is in the ice
As well as a lack of female perspectives on the ice, M says there’s a lot of work to be done researching the relationships of indigenous people and glaciers. “Nobody’s going to Uganda and the DRC,” she says, “where local people say: ‘Our god is in the ice.’ Glaciers make microclimates, and mosquitos have never been able to come there because of the glacial microclimate. People there today say ‘God’s upset at us, so the ice is melting.’ So now they’re being punished by exposure to malaria. I could rattle off tonnes of these examples, but we don’t have books about how people live with climate change. This is powerful stuff about being human today, but we’re not looking at it yet.”
“The Secret Lives of Glaciers” is M’s second book. Her first, “When Glaciers Slept,” is about how people relate to glaciers in Alaska. “I was able to interact with so many different people because of that book,” she says. “When I write academic things, three people read them. The academic conversation is really powerful, but it’s not my only audience. If you write something that’s approachable, then academics can access it and the public can access it too. And maybe that’s where we need to be right now. I don’t see a lot of academics doing that, and academics have such great knowledge, maybe it would behoove them to do so.”