The life expectancy of the glaciologist

Willi Dansgaard died recently. He gave his name to one half of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, a sequence of rapid (relatively speaking) climate fluctuations that occurred during the last glacial period where rapid warming (of up to 8C over a matter of a few decades) is followed by a long slow cooling over a few hundreds of years. These events are mostly known from the Greenland ice cores,  but there is evidence that they are in fact a worldwide phenomenon.

Willi Dansgaard with ice core
Willi Dansgaard with ice core (taken from the obituary published by DMI)

Willi Dansgaard will probably be mostly celebrated as the “founder” of ice core science, though of course many people helped to develop the ideas and techniques, some of them are still working in Copenhagen today. Remarkably for a scientist you’ve probably never heard of, a full obituary is given in the LA Times

In the last year or two several eminent glaciologists have passed away, almost all of them well into their 80s and 90s, while some of the founders of the modern discipline, including John Nye and John Glen (who together formulated “Glen’s Flow Law” for ice that describes how glaciers move), are still active in attending meetings and producing papers.

For a profession that specialises in the study of cold, dangerous places (more on my own encounter with mortality on a glacier in a later post) glaciologists seem in general to reach a respectable, and healthy old age. I wonder if this is due to the fact that science teaches a healthy inquisitive attitude to life that keeps people young? Or perhaps those attracted to field based research are naturally likely to be more interested in outdoor activities that help keeping active and fit? On the other hand perhaps it just reflects the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives in general?

Either way, I hope I manage to have as long a productive and healthy life as some of the guiding lights of my profession, even if I can’t hope to replicate their genius.


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