‘That we have enough time is a misconception’

Polar researchers on melting ice sheets

Researchers at work in Greenland

Four Utrecht University researchers, each with slightly different areas of expertise and at different stages in their careers. But with one urgent shared concern: climate is changing, ice sheets are melting and sea levels are rising. This concern is crystal clear. But the complex research behind it is far from simple for most people. Therefore (or despite this) eight questions to four passionate 'polar researchers'.

1. What are you researching?

Roderik van de Wal, professor: "Sea level rise. But on 11 May, at the annual National Polar Symposium in The Hague, I spoke about a project aiming to make the longest CO2 reconstruction (1.5 million years) by drilling down the oldest ice on Earth."

Cecile Hilgen, (just starting) PhD student: "In my Masters I researched the natural and anthropogenic climate variations stored in lakes in East Svalbard. Together with supervisor Wim Hoek, I reconstruct the climate from the formation of the lakes after the last ice age."

Willem Jan van de Berg, assistant professor: "The interaction between the atmosphere and the ice sheets. But also between the ice sheets and the ocean and the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets."

Maurice van Tiggelen, PhD candidate (promotion on 17-05-2023): "The exchange of heat between ice and the atmosphere. And the influence of rougher ice on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet."

2. What do people really need to know?

Willem Jan: "That sea level rise is really going to become a big problem for the Netherlands in the long run."

Cecile: "That we are finding increases in organic material in all the lakes we have sampled. As temperatures rise and the growing season gets longer, there are more algae in and around lakes. It shows how far the warming of (such a remote part of) the Earth is already."

Maurice: "That the Greenland ice sheet is losing a huge amount of mass every year and that it could take a lot more time to reverse this mass loss in the future."

Roderik: "Adapt and mitigate NOW!"

3. What is the most persistent misconception among people when it comes to your field?

Roderik: "That we have enough time to adapt to changing circumstances. People lose sight of the fact that for small climate changes tipping points may already be exceeded, which could lead to irreversible long-term damage."

Cecile: "That the bottom of lakes consists of unusable, smelly mud. But locally deposited sediment from lakes is actually very valuable for research. We use it to reconstruct global patterns in the climate system."

Willem Jan: "That uncertainties in climate science still give room to draw other conclusions. But it is very clear: human-emitted CO2 (and methane) is causing the current climate change."

Maurice: "That ice and snow can only melt if the air is warmer than zero degrees. And that ice looks the same all over Greenland."

Cecile Hilgen taking samples

4. To what extent does Utrecht University play a significant role in this area of research?

Maurice: "Utrecht University has been taking measurements of climate and of mass loss on the Greenland ice sheet since the 1990s. This uniquely long data set is very important for improving climate simulations and for calibrating satellite measurements. Many researchers around the world use these measurements for their work. They are also used in the IPCC report."

Roderik: "The ice and climate group at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU) is one of the larger groups in Europe. We have a high output and are involved in many international initiatives."

5. What is the importance of collaboration in your research?

Cecile: "Arctic research costs a lot of energy, CO2 and money. It is therefore very important to do it as efficiently as possible with a multidisciplinary and international team. Cooperation with citizens and tourists can also be a sustainable solution; they can bring material from remote areas for further research."

Willem Jan: "Without cooperation, we are nowhere. The climate system and the tools we use to do research (models, observations) are complex and you cannot be an expert on every part. So by collaboration between scientists, climate research moves forward."

6. Name one thing that you hope to have achieved by the end of your career?

Roderik: "That we, in the Netherlands, will be fully committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement."

Maurice: "That climate simulations match measurements as closely as possible - and that we understand how to further improve simulations."

Cecile: "I have now started my PhD project and at the end I hope to be able to provide valuable knowledge to different target groups (e.g. scientists, schoolchildren, politicians) and enthuse them to want to understand the Earth system better. And I want policymakers to realise the urgency of the extent to which the current way of life is affecting certain ecosystems. Furthermore, I feel a great motivation to represent the new generation."

7. To what extent can 'ordinary citizens' contribute?

Willem Jan: "Just as climate change is not caused by one individual, it cannot be stopped by one individual. All of us need to start living in a way that will make climate & environment suffer less, and we need to support policies that enable this."

Cecile: "We can all stay curious about the impact we as citizens have on the earth and keep love for fellow humans and nature!"

Roderik: "Changing behaviour!"

Maurice: "Being aware of the enormous complexity and fragility of our climate."

8. How optimistic are you about the future?

Roderik: "I am ambivalent."

Cecile: "Optimistic and I want to radiate that. I think that positive hope, belief in each other and being action minded are important ingredients to be able build a sustainable future."

Willem Jan: "Unfortunately, I am not so optimistic. The necessary global climate policy - which means short-term costs for everyone - can only become successful if all determining countries and world leaders let it take precedence over their geopolitical interests or their upcoming
(re-)election. For me, the war in Ukraine and the reactions to it show that countries easily let geopolitical interests prevail."

Maurice: "I think people do feel the need to want to understand and be able to explain things around them. I am therefore convinced that change is possible when the need is high."

Ice caps seen from a ship with researchers