A professor explores the Arctic

Dr. Robin Bell, Professor at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, has coordinated ten major expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland to study the melting polar ice caps. She joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss her scientific travels.


Dr. Robin Bell, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, has coordinated 10 major expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland to study the melting polar ice caps.

She joins us now to discuss her scientific travels.

Most of us are not likely to go there.

So, what's the thing that you wish people understood?

You've taken so many trips there.

What's the wow factor that's surprised you each time?

Oh, that it's just so big and so beautiful.

We think of it as being scary, but it's a part of our planet that's just so beautiful.

The sky is huge and blue.

And it's so white.

And it's not just a flat line off to the horizon.

Describe some of the geography.

When you land in Antarctica, first of all, you're landing on a plane that has skis on it and on a runway that's floating.

[ Laughs ] So it's ice.

So, there are, like, seals swimming under you, probably.

And then you look up, and there's a mountain that goes from the ocean up to about 14,000 feet on one side, and then you're going to go to your bed at the U.S. base, which is on a smoking volcano.

Nothing jaw-dropping.

[ Laughter ] And when the back of the plane opens up, the coldness of the air can just take your breath away.

Yeah. And how long are... What is the season there when scientists are studying?

Scientists first start to go in what is our fall or their spring.

So, September, October, scientists start to go, and then they leave in February when it really starts to be fall and getting cold.

And when you say cold there, describe cold.

Well, some places we've gone, we haven't been able to start work till the temperature gets above minus 50 because then planes and machinery doesn't work very well.

So, we wait till it gets to be like minus 40.

You know, when you think about just the logistics involved, you say that there's a U.S. base.

There's just... There's not like there's that many options of where to stay or how to get there and what to pack.

It's not like you can just go to the store and pick something up again.

Right. It's one of the things that when we first start working with young people who are going to go, it's like, 'Oh, remember, we can't order it.'

If you think you might need it, you really should bring it because it's way better to have it in your bag and bring it home not used than to think, 'Oh, no, if I just had that kind of screwdriver.'

Some of the stuff that you've been working on and researching is also that there are these underwater lakes.

And it's hard to imagine.

I mean, we just think, 'Oh, well, there's ice.

It must be floating on top of a giant ocean.'

But how are there lakes forming inside this environment?

In Antarctica, the ice can be up to 2 miles thick.

And even though it's minus 50 at the top, at the bottom it's actually pretty warm because you know, when you go to your cellar, it's almost always the same temperature.

That heat that's keeping your cellar about 50 degrees is warming the base of the ice.

So, the base of the ice is about zero degrees Celsius, really close to the melting point.

So, if you get it thick enough, you can make water, and there's a hole.

You can collect the water in the hole.

So there's a lake called Lake Vostok that is the size of New Jersey.

It's 1/4 mile deep.

Wow. Now, we've recently been seeing the stories of enormous chunks of ice breaking off slowly in our eyes, but in kind of much longer timelines, at the blink of an eye.


Even in just the number of times that you've been there, what have you been surprised by?

One thing I've been surprised by is to see our awareness of what's going on there -- when I first went there in the 1980s, we didn't have the framework to put in giant icebergs in.

We didn't understand that we as humans were actually changing these iceberg factories.

One iceberg doesn't worry me, but when we start losing the factories, these places that kick the icebergs out into the ocean, that's what begins to worry us as scientists.

And does it get faster?

I mean, as these things break off, does it sort of start to move the larger things that are behind it?

Well, what we worry about are these things called ice shelves, which are floating, and they make the icebergs, and they in themselves, if they go away, don't change sea level, but if we take them away, it's like taking a cork out of a bottle.

And the ice behind it flows faster into the ocean.

So, that's what we worry about, the ice shelves disappearing.

You study the Ross Ice Shelf.

What are you looking for there?

We're looking to understand how deep the water is underneath it and where warming water could get in to make it unstable.

And also the surface, to understand where water on the surface might collect and run in the future.

How do you see water that's so far down?

Well, the ice there is floating.

It's a couple of hundred meters thick, so we use a radar.

And we fly over it with an airplane, and we shoot the radar energy through the ice, and that lets us measure how thick the ice is.

But the radar kind of gets stumped at the water and can't get any further.

So we use gravity.

We measure gravity, and gravity is wonderful.

If I fly along and I'm trying to measure that cup, I could actually tell whether or not there's water in that cup or not because if there was water, I'd get pulled down stronger and then bounce up.

And if there wasn't water in it, I wouldn't get pulled down quite as far.

So, we actually can see what the topography underneath the ice is, even though no ship can get there, no submarine can get there.

Professor Robin Bell, thanks so much.

Thank you very much.