Ice Alive

On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending and presenting for the launch of Rolex Young Laureate Joseph Cook‘s documentary Ice Alive at the Royal Geographical Society.

Narrated by The Life Scientific’s Professor Jim Al-Khalili and presenting former commander of the International Space Station Colonel Chris Hadfield, UK Polar Network President Archana Dayal, Dr Jenine McCutcheon and Dr Andrew Tedstone from NERC Black & Bloom, the film explores the connections between life and ice.

Set against a backdrop of stunning imagery from Greenland and Svalbard the documentary makes an arcane research field come alive to a much broader audience than I would have ever thought possible. In Hadfield’s words: in an increasingly complex world, knowledge may be your only means of survival.  Communicating our science clearly to the world in this way helps pack our survival kit for the coming decades.


The evening opened with an “audiovisual exploration” of the Greenland Ice Sheet, linking Joe’s UAV imagery with Hannah Peel‘s original composition.  The exploration covered ground ice I know well as AWS S6 and RG outlet but manages to conjure the sublime and convey both the power and vulnerability of the ice. Watching it full screen and with your speakers to 11 is to be recommended.

On Svalbard in August I had the pleasure of meeting Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Naomi Hart while I was kicking off my own Leverhulme research fellowship. We formed an unlikely partnership – she needed someone with a gun to cover her while she explored the ice, I needed a field buddy while I did what she describes as “cutting edge science with teabags and Danish coins”. IMGP0951

Naomi on the ice

Naomi’s project is to document the links between ice, climate, life and coal on Svalbard from the days of Eric Rugnose Brown to Andy Hodson as heads of geography departments in Sheffield University. Our view of life on ice has changed from Rugnose Brown (“of course the ice is devoid of life”) to Andy (e.g. the seminal review: Hodson et al [2008] Glacial Ecosystems, Ecol Monographs).  Naomi presented these links in a compelling talk and exhibition.  From Naomi I’ve learned the way of the artist and the scientist are often closer than we think: both build upon experimentation to find and communicate truths.

And of course, I couldn’t let the evening pass without sticking my oar in. As the current RGS Walters Kundert Arctic Fellow, and speaking at one of the great homes of exploration, my theme focused on the exploration of Earth’s microbial frontiers. My contention is that exploration is far from a done deal, and we face not the final frontier, but rather fractal frontiers. Here’s a snapshot.

I’ve likened this to the coastline paradox: the more we discover, the more there is to explore.  For my part, these frontiers are microbial, and our current cutting edge is to access the genomes of the microbes while on the frontier. I spoke about how the public health crisis represented by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa stimulated me to think about how we are tackling the environmental health crisis of Arctic warming, leading to in field DNA sequencing using Nanopore devices. I have little doubt that as our lenses sharpen yet again there will be more to discover.

My heartfelt thanks to Joseph Cook for the invitation to attend and present, to Proudfoot Films for an awesome documentary and to the Rolex Enterprise Awards and for making the event possible.

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