Interview with Neil Glasser

We talk to the glaciologist about how it feels to have a glacier named after him and the chances of a catastrophic sea-level rise resulting from climate change

February 18, 2016
Neil Glasser, Aberystwyth University, Institute of Geography, History, Politics and Psychology (IGHPP)

Neil Glasser is professor of physical geography and director of the Institute of Geography, History, Politics and Psychology at Aberystwyth University. At the beginning of this month, the Antarctic Place-Names Committee renamed a glacier in the southernmost continent after him in recognition of his contribution to Antarctic and polar science. “Glasser Glacier” is the second geological feature in Antarctica to be named for an Aberystwyth academic, following Mike Hambrey’s “Hambrey Cliffs”.

Where and when were you born?
Aberdeen, Scotland in 1966.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up, I watched [Aberdeen] change from a city dominated by the fishing industry to a city dominated by the oil and gas industry, with lots of new investment and new development. There was always a buzz about the place, with new people coming and going and a sense of excitement about the rapid changes.

How does it feel to have a natural feature named after you?
I am really proud but humbled at the same time. It is fantastic to know that there is a place in Antarctica, [and] on maps, that bears my name. That puts me in a group with some special people, including the early explorers and scientists like Scott and Shackleton, who have places in Antarctica named after them.

Given the worries about glacial retreat as a result of global warming, how fearful are you that Glasser Glacier might not survive long into the future?
Glasser Glacier is pretty large and it flows down from a snowy catchment area at high altitude, so I am confident that it will be there for a while to come. However, we published a study from this area of the Antarctic Peninsula two years ago in the journal Nature Climate Change that shows that rising air temperatures in Antarctica won’t be offset by extra snowfall. So although it won’t disappear, I do expect the glacier to get smaller over the next few years.

What is the worst-case scenario for society if it doesn’t address climate issues?
There are two. The first would be the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains about five to six metres of sea-level equivalent. That would drown a number of major cities including New York, London and Mumbai and have a massive impact on low-lying land including places such as Bangladesh and the Maldives. The second is the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice, which is altering the world’s ocean and atmospheric circulation, and is also having a massive impact on Arctic ecosystems. Both of these illustrate how changes in the remote polar regions can have global impacts.

How frustrated do climate change deniers make you?
Personally, I don’t like the phrase “climate change deniers” because you can’t deny that climate is changing. Climate has always changed over geological timescales, and it always will. The current debate is about the extent of the human influence on climate change. I find it very frustrating at times, especially when people who have only opinion and speculation rather than scientific data are given “airtime” and allowed a platform to challenge the scientific evidence.

Your field demands research of a more extreme nature than working in a lab. Do you value having to travel for your projects?
I have always loved fieldwork, and I really value it. The beauty of studying my area of physical geography is that it will always involve fieldwork. Even though we now have access to incredibly detailed satellite images, there will always be certain observations and datasets that you can collect only by going into the field. 

Does being isolated in such uninhabited regions ever get lonely?
Yes, it can. I spent seven weeks in a field camp in Antarctica in 2011 in a team of four; although we got on with each other really well, I missed my wife and children.

What is the most beautiful, awe-inspiring glacier you’ve ever visited?
That has to be the San Rafael Glacier in Chile. It crashes down from the North Patagonian Icefield, through dense temperate rainforest, to calve icebergs into a tidal lagoon on the west coast of Chile. I have stood there watching parakeets fly around in the rainforest while icebergs break off from the front of the glacier. There is nowhere else in the world you can see that.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
There are many – but I met my wife at university, so if I don’t say that that is my most memorable moment, I think I will be in big trouble at home.

What do you do for fun?
I do lots of things badly: mountain-biking, football, running and tennis. Mostly I do outdoor things. In the summers, we go camping and force the children on long walks (up to a glacier if there is one); and in the past few years we have spent time camping in national parks in the US, France, Switzerland and Spain. I also enjoy walking the Prom in Aberystwyth and have an obsession with collecting driftwood from the beach by our house.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Anyone with honesty, integrity and a strong sense of equality.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take every opportunity that comes along; you never know where they will lead you. I am not saying you need to be like Jim Carrey in Yes Man, but at least try to be open to new opportunities as they present themselves.


Daniel Hamermesh, professor in economics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been appointed director of the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) global academic network. Professor Hamermesh will coordinate the activities of 1,360 research fellows and affiliates from more than 50 countries. He will also become editor-in-chief of the IZA World of Labour, an online information resource for policymakers. “It is a great honour to do this and to lead the construction of the IZA World of Labour project, an initiative that harnesses scientific knowledge to public policy and to the public discussion of economic issues,” he said. He will take up his role on 1 March.

Nick Jennings, one of the world’s leading computer scientists, has been appointed vice-provost of Imperial College London. Professor Jennings, currently Regius professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, will help to develop and lead Imperial’s research strategy. He also served as the government’s inaugural chief scientific adviser for national security from 2010 to 2015. “Imperial’s Strategy 2015-2020 shows it has the ambition and courage to become an even more successful and influential research university,” he said. “I am thrilled at the chance to contribute to the college’s bright future.”

The University of the Highlands and Islands has announced three new professorships. Crichton Lang and Neil Simco have been awarded the title in recognition of their contribution to higher education management, while academic and poet Meg Bateman has been honoured for her contribution to scholarship and research in Celtic and Gaelic studies.

Glyndwr University has announced a number of appointments. Alec Shepley will return to the institution as head of media, art and design from the University of Lincoln. Mike Hamer will join as head of estates and campus management, and Edward Taylor-Robinson has been made campus services manager. Naomi Squire also joined recently as chaplaincy coordinator.

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