This Glaciologist Predicts the Impact of Climate Change From the Front Lines

Christine Dow on how she made it happen

Christine Dow
(Photo: Sarah Scriver)

Name: Christine Dow

Job title: Assistant professor of geography and environmental management, University of Waterloo; Canada Research Chair in Glacier Hydrology and Ice Dynamics

Age: 34

From: Dunblane, Scotland

Currently lives in: Waterloo, Ont.

Education: Master’s in geography, University of Edinburgh; Master’s in earth science, University of Alberta; PhD in glaciology, Swansea University

First job out of school: Post-doctoral fellowship at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

You know that little thing called climate change? Christine Dow is one of the people who monitors how it’s affecting the planet. Her titles as assistant professor at the University of Waterloo and Canada Research Chair are definitely a mouthful, but her job essentially comes down to examining the ice sheets and glaciers around the world to determine their flow speed, as well as the stability of ice shelves in a warming climate, which help predict sea level rising.

She can pinpoint the exact moment she decided to be a glaciologist. “In my fourth year of undergrad, we went to Iceland,” she says. “My task was to run around with a little instrument to measure water conductivity…and we discovered that there was a lot of volcanic water coming out of this glacier. I was just struck by this tiny little instrument that’s six inches long but can tell so much about what’s going on underneath the ice, this bizarre hidden environment that we still have loads and loads to figure out about. And from that moment, I just thought, ‘Wow, this would be an amazing job.’”

Her academic career has been “a roller coaster.” On the plus side, glaciology is a small community, and her mentors have become her friends. She gets excited when she publishes high-impact papers, but the best part is getting into the field. “You’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have to worry about admin anymore, you’re out in the wilderness and it’s beautiful out there.” Seeing her grad students get hooked the same way she did is icing on the cake.

However, there have been days when she felt like she didn’t belong and she wanted to quit. Getting funding, especially for Antarctic expeditions, is tough. And she has often encountered the age-old idea that men are better suited to science and exploring. “You had to be quite aggressive as a woman to be heard,” she says of her early days in the field. “I trained myself to have more ‘masculine’ qualities to try to get ahead. And that’s still true to some extent, but it’s getting better.”

The number one question people still ask her is whether climate change is real and if humans caused it, but she doesn’t understand climate-change deniers. “We’re the ones who are going to suffer from climate change—the glaciers will come back eventually,” she says. “We’re going to have problems with weather, with agriculture, with disease, with sea-level rise. So why are we not doing as much as we can about it?”

Despite these frustrations, Dow loves her work. Getting out onto the glaciers and watching her students develop make everything worth it. “Over the past few years, [I’ve had] the freedom to research whatever I want,” she says. “I’ve been branching out and trying lots of new things, and I’m discovering all the time that I have more capability than I realized.”

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