Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

A Scientist's Life: Helen Amanda Fricker

Glaciologist uses satellite data to monitor one of the most significant global warming-related changes in nature

Glaciologist Helen Amanda Fricker received her BSc in mathematics and physics from University College London in 1991 and her PhD in glaciology from the University of Tasmania in 1999. She joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego as a postdoctoral scholar in 1999 and she currently serves as a professor. She’s also a member of NASA’s Science Definition Team for ICESAT-2, a new ice-measuring satellite launched in September 2018.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

HAF: I’m a glaciologist and a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I first came to Scripps to work on a NASA satellite mission called ICESat, which is Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite. It was NASA's first laser altimeter mission.

Here in San Diego, we will feel the effects of sea-level rise that has been brought about because the melting of glacial land ice in Antarctica and Greenland will reach all the world's oceans. We will feel those effects even right here in La Jolla. I live on the coast. My family has a sailboat. I spent a lot of time on the water. I see the effects of changing sea levels all around San Diego even now. I've lived here for two decades and these are the time scales on which we are observing changes.

en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

HAF: I work on the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland and the main question there is how much ice is staying locked up in the ice sheet and how much is being melted out into the ocean. The big impact that we feel around the world when the ice sheets melt is that the ocean is rising in response to the extra water being added to the ocean from the land ice melt.

Land ice is important because the ice is sitting on top of bedrock. So when you add that ice that's melted into the ocean, the ocean will rise. There’s a difference between land ice and sea ice. When sea ice melts it is already displacing its weight in water so it does not raise sea level when it melts. The analogy that you can think of that is if you have a glass of water with an ice cube, if the ice cube melts, the level of the liquid in the glass doesn't go up. But if you add extra ice cubes into the glass, then the level of the water does go up. And that's the analogy between grounded ice and floating ice, including sea ice.

As you melt the land ice, you can raise the level of all the world's oceans. So globally we see an effect. We will see the effect of the melting ice sheets as time goes on because if enough ice is to melt the global sea level will rise, which is why it's super important for us to monitor sea-level rise everywhere around the world, not just where the ice-sheet changes are occurring.

en: What tools do you use in your research?

HAF: We measure the mass or the volume of ice sheets using satellite data. We have to use satellites  because the ice sheets are vast. You can go in on the ground and try and make measurements, but you're not going to make a dent in it because it's so large. You need to have a way of doing this systematically every few months or every few days even.

A project which I'm involved in is fieldwork on a lake that I found using satellite data. The ICESat instrument was able to detect a whole network of subglacial lakes under the Antarctic ice sheet and now 10 or 12 years on from then, we've drilled two of these lakes and collected samples of water and sediments from them, so we can understand how often they have drained in the past, how long they’ve been there for, where the water comes from, what lives in them – all these amazing questions. It's kind the most incredible example that I can think of that I've been involved with in human exploration of the planet.

Another project is an airborne survey over the Ross Ice Shelf. The Ross Ice Shelf is the largest ice shelf in Antarctica. It's about the size of Texas or Spain. And we map that with laser altimetry and radar to measure magnetics and gravity. And we have got a very rich data set now over that entire ice shelf so we can understand how the whole system works together, including the bathymetry underneath the ice shelf.

en: Describe the new Scripps Polar Center and the motivation behind its creation.

HAF: The Polar Center is a vision of how we can increase interaction between people who are already doing polar science here at Scripps. There are many, many researchers and students and postdoctoral researchers, and principal investigators who are all doing work on different questions in the polar regions. And the Scripps Polar Center is a way to bring all those people together so that we can start working together a bit more in a collaborative sense and also just become known for being a center of excellence in polar research, which we actually already are. It's just that we have never called ourselves that.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

HAF: In glaciology, there's a lot of interest in the ocean interaction with the ice. Ice-ocean interaction is a key field that we need to know more about. And here at Scripps we are really well set up to learn about that because there are experts in glaciology, geophysics, and oceanography, and you need to bring all these things together to understand the system as a whole.

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