New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day

I am writing this from a hospital bed in Copenhagen.

At this time of year it is commonplace to make some resolutions about how we want our lives to be changed, whether weight loss, reduction in alcohol or giving up smoking. Conventional wisdom has it that we should tell other people of our intentions to make it harder for us to fail.  In any case, it has not been my habit to make resolutions at new year, since I prefer to evaluate my life and try to make adjustments as I go on. In fact I think I once read that the beginning of spring was a better time to make resolutions. However, this year I plan to make an exception. In fact I have made two resolutions this year and this blog post encapsulates both.

I am writing from a hospital bed because the recently hatched sterna chick is  ill and needs some extra care. Fortunately she is getting it and improving by the day. There is however nothing quite like being on a children’s ward to put a few things into perspective. While waiting to be admitted I was alarmed to see a young woman running out of the ward sobbing hysterically. I have no idea what caused such distress and I don’t really want to speculate, but the fact is our children are the most precious things in our lives and we would do anything to protect them.  It is only very recently that we have become complacent about childhood survival rates to the extent that small groups of well organised, but badly misguided anti-vaccination activists have been able to derail public health, leading to epidemics of measles, whooping cough and mumps for instance. Low take up of vaccinations pose a serious risk to those, like the sterna chicks with background health issues. A further risk is the transmission of everyday diseases

There are all sorts of grim lists available on the Internet based on how many germs or bacteria we get contact with every day. In fact, it seems to me that it is an amazing testament to the immune system that we aren’t ill more often. However, watching the medical staff taking such high precautions with hygiene, and seeing how ill some of the children on this ward are is more than enough to convince me. My first resolution is that this year I am going to wash my hands properly. That is, will wash them thoroughly, regularly and with proper soap. More than that, I will make sure the rest of the sterns family do too.

My second resolution can also be summed up in this blog. I started it with all sorts of bold ambitions, but it all too quickly became a millstone, or else a way to avoid doing “real writing” of papers. It is however painfully clear to me I really need to get over my mental block, and cultivate writing as a habit.

My second, much more difficult resolution is thus to write something, anything, for at least 10 minutes every day of the year. Some of those ramblings will never see the light of day. Some will be professional and used for publications and others will end up being posted here. So see this as my statement of intent.  I will not post every day or perhaps even every week, but the main thing will be to force myself to the keyboard. This blog may not ever see a lot of posts, but it will be my sounding board and practice page, comments more than welcome.  I hope you feel like coming along for the ride.


I mowed the lawn for the first time last weekend.

This mundane task was made much easier by these beauties, smiling over me.

Red and yellow tulips with a frilled edge around the petals

I believe the variety is called “Jet fire” which seems highly appropriate. I had never really appreciated tulips until a few years ago when we planted some “queen of the night” – dramatic dark purple flowers that really caught your attention, especially when combined with vivid orange tulips; the glaucous foliage of both setting off the combination beautifully.

Dark purple queen of the night tulip
Our last remaining ‘Queen of the night’

Then a few trips to Holland happened, I visited the famous Keukenhof gardens and the bollenstreek. and I learned to love the tulip. Eventually when I got married I even had yellow tulips in my bouquet (though mainly because they were in season and I wanted to have locally grown flowers).

This year we also have this variety in a pot, though I’m not sure what they are called.

Red and yellow streaked tulips

Their bright colours really make a difference after the long dark winter and I am so happy to see them come up again – still glorious even in a second year. More than any other spring flower, tulips for me embody the transition from winter to spring to summer.

As I had my camera out in the garden I could not resist taking a few more photos. The internal parts of the tulip are extraordinary in close up. The stamen with the fine powder pollen on the anthers, surrounding the pistil and the deep black of the central petals have always reminded me of big dramatic bumble bees.

Sexual organs of the tulip
Inside a tulip: click to enlarge

It is not surprising to me that Elizabeth Blackadder, has chosen red and yellow tulips for some of her most dramatic flower paintings. They simply sparkle with life and vitality. They flower themselves to exhaustion after a couple of years, often requiring 5 years or more to come back to flowering. Truly a passionate plant.

And yet, the frilling and streaking of the tulip petals is actually caused by a virus. This must be a rare case of a pathogen enhancing natural beauty. I had assumed that these were a modern variation added by skillful breeders but on a recent trip through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam I had the opportunity to visit the Rijksmuseum’s Dutch Flowers exhibition. There, in one of the first paintings I looked at from the 17th century was a tulip beautifully streaked with colours.

An anonymous painting of the most expensive tulip ever sold, the Semper Augustus.
Image from wikimedia commons

I had seen Dutch flower paintings before, having been inspired to look up a few after reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift (a beautiful book, a meditation on time passing and the natural world but touching on many subjects). However, I had never appreciated how vividly beautiful such paintings were until seeing them in reality.

Unfortunately, the mosaic virus that causes such beautiful patterning weakens the bulbs through the generations to such an extent that eventually they no longer reproduce, and many of the original varieties from the 17th century no longer exist other than in oil paintings.

Note: I haven’t written anything on this blog for a long time for which I apologise – a combination of too little time due to work/family commitments and a lack of inspiration, but I have good intentions at least to continue posting here items that interest me semi-regularly over the summertime. Thanks for reading. 
Note: I have also had to change my web address to since my .com domain expired this year and, due to illness I did not renew it in time. 

Living in interesting times

There has never been a better time to be a glaciologist. The old curse about living in interesting times, which is perhaps dubiously ascribed to a chinese saying, seems particularly relevant to science in general and ice and climate specialists in particular right now. We have access to a truly phenomenal range of resources that help us track the changes in the earth system; we can bounce radio waves off rocks buried under 4km of ice and use lasers to measure the height of clouds or the depths of a crevasse with decimetre precision. The GRACE and GOCE satellites whizz around the planet and the tiny relativistic accelerations and decelerations of paired satellites measure the seasonal ebb and flow of groundwater, snowfall and ice melt; and we can use the time signals of the GPS constellation of satellites to measure the millimetre by millimetre relaxation of whole continents as the glaciers melt. We do live in the future.

The planet often seems to me to be very full of people and every corner well explored, but these new techniques still demonstrate that we have large gaps and science is probably the most fundamental form of exploration. This week a paper in Science demonstrated the importance of the freezing on of ice at the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet (see this article on the BBC science page for a very readable summary). As a process it’s been well known for some decades that liquid water can exist due to the huge pressures under the ice sheets and that this does indeed freeze on at the bed of glaciers. The ice core drilled out of the Antarctic ice sheet at Vostok station lies directly above a lake roughly the size of lake Ontario, known as lake Vostok and shortly to be drilled into directly for the first time. The drilling hit frozen lake water some hundreds of metres before it stopped, with some intriguing hints of lifeforms found within the lake ice.

What is a surprise in the latest work, an airborne radar mission to the Gamburtsev Range (a mountain range the size of the European Alps in East Antarctica but don’t try looking for it on Google Earth because it is also, like Lake Vostok, buried under 4km of ice) is that up to 25% of the total thickness of the ice sheet in this area results from the freezing on of liquid water underneath the ice. This is largely because that water is squeezed up against the mountain sides where the ice is thinner and the pressure consequently lower.

Ice Radar

I first saw some of this work presented at a conference at Northumbria University in 2009, even then, when the actual data was still being analysed, it was clearly very exciting work with many implications for our knowledge of both process and feedback and implications. There are also some important implications for how we evaluate the state of the cryosphere, and neither this process, nor many others relating to how water flows over, through and under ice, what we term glacier hydrology, are captured in current ice sheet models.

Of course, the old curse is famously double-edged, the reason we have access to such great tools and have been able to make so much progress is related to the fact that the climate is changing and the cryosphere is demonstrating behaviour of great concern to the millions of people who live in coastal regions or who depend on snow and ice for water sources. It is up to glaciologists to disentangle important processes from the trivial, to define the current state of the cryosphere and project how it will change. This new work shows just how much we still need to know and how seemingly trivial processes may complicate the picture. Just as well those satellites are continuing to fly.

Welcome to the future.

XKCD cartoon on flying cars