Studying glaciers . . . from Florida

Studying glaciers . . . from Florida

May 9, 20233 min read

By Emma Richards

On the surface, the University of Florida seems an unlikely place to find cutting-edge research on ice sheets.

But Emma “Mickey” MacKie says this is the perfect place for her work — thanks in large part to HiPerGator, one of the fastest supercomputers in higher education.

MacKie, an assistant professor of geological sciences and glaciologist, joined UF in August 2021 and said her decision hinged largely on access to HiPerGator and the university’s focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. MacKie uses machine learning methods to study subsurface conditions of glaciers in polar regions and access to a powerful supercomputer is crucial given the large data sets her research generates.

“I'm very happy to be in a place with lots of people who are working on different types of problems and are interested in developing these different tools,” MacKie said. “There are a number of members of my department in geology who are studying glacial geology through different lenses. And so, there's all of this complementary geological and machine learning knowledge at UF that I'm very excited to bring together.”

MacKie has set up the Gator Glaciology Lab, where she and a team of seven undergraduate students from the fields of geology, computer science, physics, math and data science are using AI to analyze what lies beneath glaciers and how they are moving and melting.

“Our work is part of a bigger effort in the glaciology community to start working on quantifying our uncertainty in future sea-level rise projections so that we can give policy makers this information.”

It’s a very difficult challenge, MacKie said, because of limited access to polar regions and the miles-thick ice covering the ground. Then there is the scale of ice sheets; Antarctica, for example, is the size of U.S. and Mexico combined.

Measurements of the topography below such glaciers are gathered using radars mounted on airplanes to “see” through ice. Her team then uses HiPerGator to simulate realistic looking topography in places where there are gaps or blank spots in the measurements. They generate hundreds of maps to represent different possible ice sheet conditions, which could be used to determine numerous possible sea level rise scenarios.

“Our work is part of a bigger effort in the glaciology community to start working on quantifying our uncertainty in future sea-level rise projections so that we can give policy makers this information,” she said.

Earlier this spring, MacKie swapped out her flip-flops for snow boots to study subsurface glacial conditions in Svalbard, which is next to northeastern Greenland. Visiting Svalbard will help her test and develop data collection and analysis techniques that could be applied to Antarctica or Greenland, which both contain large ice sheets that could have serious environmental impacts if they experience significant melting.

In Svalbard, MacKie and Norwegian researchers from the University of Bergen and the University Centre in Svalbard took seismic and radar measurements of glaciers that will be used to make estimates about conditions beneath the ice.

Among glaciers of concern is the Thwaites “Doomsday Glacier,” which is losing the most ice of any glacier in Antarctica. There are signs showing Thwaites’ ice shelf could start to break in the next few years. MacKie said it will likely be a few hundred years before the glacier could undergo significant collapse and jeopardize the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, leading to several meters of sea level rise.

The effects of Thwaites and other ice sheet melts in Antarctica and Greenland will become apparent in decades to come, with the potential for a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, which MacKie and other researchers hope to predict more accurately.

“The state of Florida has the most to lose when sea level rises,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “And so, I think we have a lot of skin in the game and it’s really important to be studying this question here in Florida.”

To hear more about MacKie’s work, listen to From Florida at this link.

Connect with:
  • Emma
    Emma "Mickey" MacKie Assistant Professor

    Mickey MacKie uses geophysical observations and machine learning techniques to study the topography, geology and hydrology of glaciers.

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