Associate Professor, Department of Earth Sciences
Glaciology Research Group
Dr. Flowers’ focus is on the terrestrial cryosphere, or land-based ice; she primarily studies contemporary glaciers and ice sheets. Working in the St. Elias Range in Kluane National Park, Yukon, her group looks at how glaciers respond to climate, specifically studying the internal processes (i.e. dynamics) and the way those dynamics affect the response of ice masses to climate. This area serves as a natural laboratory to understand general glacier processes. It is a remarkable place to do science, especially glaciology: it has extreme environmental gradients—from sea level in the Gulf of Alaska, the highest peak in Canada, Mount Logan (5,959 m elevation), is located only 100 km inland—and hosts extreme ranges of topography, ecosystems, climate zones and natural processes.
Why do you study glaciers in the Yukon?
The icefields in the Yukon are especially interesting because of the high concentration of surge-type glaciers, as well as tidewater glaciers (those that end in the ocean). Surge-type glaciers act like yo-yos: they speed up and slow down on their own rather than in direct response to climate. They have really interesting internal dynamics, and they are analogues for some of the ice streams within the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland that are responsible for exporting most of the ice from those continents. So the processes that can be studied in Yukon tell us something more generally about the fastest moving ice on earth.
What research obstacles and questions keep you awake at night?
The main obstacle is finding time for all the research I would like to do. A scientific question that has been bothering me for years is the underlying cause of glacier flow instabilities. There is a theory to explain the onset, progression and termination of glacier “surges”, largely founded on observations from one well-studied glacier in Alaska. However, we still cannot explain why some glaciers surge and others don’t. Though only a small population of the world’s glaciers have this unstable behaviour, the processes involved are applicable to many glaciers. Getting at the underlying cause of glacier surging is fundamental to understanding why we observe different dynamics among neighbouring glaciers. One of our goals is to disentangle this internal variation from externally forced behaviour, so we can isolate the influence of climate.