Interview with Dr. Gwenn Flowers

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.  

Having just completed two terms as a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC), what did that program allow you to accomplish?
The CRC served to accelerate my progress by providing me with time and resources to invest in launching my research program. I was able to establish a significant field-based research operation in the Yukon that would have taken years to build up without the CRC. This program has involved graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, international visiting scholars, volunteers, collaborators from other universities and First Nations. It has been the focal point of my group’s research efforts over the last decade and has provided terrific opportunities for training. I’m very grateful for the privileges afforded to me through the CRC program. It really gave me an appreciation for what other scientists do with full teaching loads and small budgets.

What is the most satisfying part of the work you do?
The most satisfying thing to me is working with my grad students in the field, which presents combined physical, intellectual and personal challenges. It’s rewarding to watch students rise to meet these challenges, and humbling to realize that I sometimes learn as much from them as they do from me. There are so many aspects of fieldwork that are different from office work; you get to know people in all sorts of different ways. Most field-oriented scientists would probably agree that this is the place where professional relationships are formed, because you bond in ways that you can't in the office.

What backgrounds and personal strengths do you look for in prospective students?
The best educational background would be an undergraduate degree in physics with some experience in earth sciences, or an earth sciences degree with more than the required math and physics. The research we do lends itself to the quantitative and problem-solving abilities of a physics major; however, without the exposure to earth sciences, students are missing the vocabulary and a different way of thinking about real-world problems with variables we can’t control experimentally.

From a personal standpoint, I look for students who are curious and keen, and who take initiative. For fieldwork, it also helps to be physically and psychologically robust. When I look at what my grad students do in their spare time, it tells me they would probably enjoy being out in a storm on an icy rope in some remote place.

How is your students’ time split between field and theoretical work?
Typically, we spend 1-2 months in the field per year. If you're doing theoretical work, it’s important to get an idea of what the parameters and variables you use mean in the field setting. And if you're doing fieldwork, it's important to appreciate how the information is conceptualized in mathematical models. In our discipline there are people who call themselves “modellers” or “field scientists”, but I try to engage my students in both because the intersection of the two is so powerful.

How has the funding landscape for your research program changed over the last 10 years?
When I first started, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science was effectively shut down, and with that, the second largest source of funding for my colleagues disappeared. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding has remained a staple, but has become more competitive in recent years. The Kluane Lake Research Station, from which we stage our field work, was also funded through a program that was dissolved by the previous government. There was a real scramble to figure out how to continue operating the station, but fortunately, it is now transitioning to a new funding model. Overall funding for the kind of work I do, which is basic science rather than industry-oriented or applied research, has become harder to find.

One positive change for me is that the government’s increased emphasis on the North means my research up there continues and benefits from the NSERC Northern Research Supplement, and the Polar Continental Shelf Program, to which I apply for logistics funding, primarily helicopter transport.

What other roles do you play within the scientific community? Why are these contributions important?
I currently serve as the Vice President of the International Glaciological Society, the primary professional organization for glaciologists. Our field is growing rapidly – ice has become more popular so there are now jobs in glaciology, whereas 10-15 years ago we were just oddballs who would be lucky to find an academic position – so it's an exciting transitional time for our discipline and our professional society. We’re currently overhauling the society’s model of scholarly publishing, an important change that affects the way we communicate our science.

What other occupation fascinates you so much that you might choose it were you to start all over again?
I might contemplate doing something more along the lines of advocacy or activism, working to make change in the world through more direct pathways, as opposed to conducting research to understand the natural world, which I love.

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Read more: Dr. Flowers’ personal website, profile on the Earth Sciences website and profile on the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos