The Glacier Chasers

Erich Osterberg

Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences
Osterberg Lab for Ice, Climate, and Pollution; Department of Earth Sciences

Truth be told, you are something of an action-adventure junkie when it comes to climate science.

In my lab, we’re investigating the causes of climate change, tracking how fast the glaciers are melting, and looking at the sources and impact of air pollution. This necessarily takes us to the places in the world where we can find illuminating evidence of climate change, whether that’s Greenland, Antarctica, or the Canadian Rockies. Our Earth Sciences roving field program is a geological road trip across the western United States and Canada over each fall term. Students and faculty pile into vans and make their way from one significant geological site to the next. Professors with specific expertise about that site or discipline fly in to lead each research segment.

What’s the most amazing sight you have seen in the course of your fieldwork?

In 2012, I was camping with a small team of faculty and student researchers on the edge of an ice sheet in northwestern Greenland. It was the warmest summer Greenland had seen in centuries. We set up camp about 10 kilometers away from the edge of the glacier, where we’d passed a large glacial lake filled to the brim. Overnight, the guards on polar bear watch were troubled by the urgent noise of rushing water. Next morning we discovered that the lake — a mile in circumference — had disappeared. It had drained through the glacier into the ocean, collapsing the glacier. The experience brought home how quickly conditions are changing in the Arctic. That lake has been there for at least 70 years, probably for centuries. This was a distressing symbol of the impact of rising temperatures, but it was incredible that we just happened to be present. It was mind-boggling — and an extraordinary experience for the students who were working with us.

So students are heavily involved in your research?

Given the urgency to understand and mitigate climate change, training the next generation of polar scientists is as important to us as our research. Dartmouth students can be involved in hands-on research from the moment they walk in the door as first-years. They begin by working closely with faculty, then often develop their own interests that spin off from our larger projects. Undergrads can even do their own field research around the world, building to graduate-level projects by senior year.

If you could be stuck in an elevator with one book, what would it be?

Elevator Repair for Dummies. Hey, I’m a scientist. I want to fix it!