What is Glaciology?

Ken Black

Glaciology is the study of ice and its different natural formations on Earth and other celestial objects, including planets, moons, and any other place it may be found. On Earth, this study includes, but is not limited to, glaciers and large polar ice sheets. The study of glaciology is not only important from an Earth science perspective, but also a meteorological and astronomical perspective. Thus, it is considered a multidisciplinary science and glaciologists often need training in many different scientific disciplines.

On Earth, glaciology is limited to the study of glaciers and polar ice sheets.
On Earth, glaciology is limited to the study of glaciers and polar ice sheets.

Due to the complexities and interdependence of different processes on the planet, the study of ice on Earth is likewise multifaceted. The overall goal or objective of any study is determined by the particular scientist and the area of interest. Some may be interested in learning about earlier periods of the Earth’s geological history. Others may be more interested in what effect climate change, or global warming, has on the Earth presently.

Many rolling hills in the midwest of the U.S. were formed by glaciers as they receded.
Many rolling hills in the midwest of the U.S. were formed by glaciers as they receded.

One of the primary goals of glaciology is in determining what the Earth’s atmosphere was like eons ago. Just like different layers of rock can tell us something about the Earth’s natural history, ice provides very similar insights. Through core samples, scientists can determine almost exactly what the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere was. This can help determine what different species need for optimum survival, especially when cross checked with the geologic record.

The study of glaciology can also help explain why the Earth has certain landforms, even if no glaciers or ice sheets exist around the current area. For example, many of the rolling hills in the Midwest of the United States and Canada can be explained by glaciers carving paths as they receded from the landscape. Likewise, melting glacier water may account for some of the world’s deepest gorges, including the early history of the Niagara Gorge near the border of the United States and Canada.

Glaciology may not only provide answers about the Earth, but may even be outweighed by what the field could to tell humans about other planets and celestial bodies. If scientists can understand and identify which of these have ice, they will have a fairly good starting point in the search for extraterrestrial life. Of course, this life is likely to be very simplistic in nature, but still would answer one of the oldest questions mankind has ever pondered.

Those interested in the field of glaciology will likely find the most opportunities for career placement in educational or research institutions. These often require an advanced degree, so students should be prepared to spend more than four years in college. Those interested in private sector work may find some opportunities in prospecting for oil, minerals, or other natural resources. Often, the ice can provide an indication as to which resources are common in a particular area.

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