(Photo: Dan Westergren)
The Daily Rally

Dr. M Jackson Embraces Our Evolving Planet

It took a powerful experience on a glacier in Iceland for the scientist to see reason for hope in a rapidly transforming world


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Dr. M Jackson shared her story with producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.

I was so down on this glacier, and I was probably pretty honestly looking for something that would keep me going. If I was devoting my life to glaciers and they were dying, then what the hell was I doing? I’d already lost my family. How could I stand to lose more? The thing I loved, ice.

Home for me tends to be where there’s really beautiful glaciers, sharp mountains, strong wind. When things go wrong in my life, I go to Iceland, and I go out to the glaciers and I find peace. That’s what I do.

I used to love going in the morning, because the sound of a glacier is different in the morning than it is any other time of the day. The air is so crisp. The crunch that ice makes under your crampons, it’s sharp. It’s not slushy. It’s sharp. That is a sound that just holds me.

But the thing about being on a glacier in the morning is that it’s more than just the sound of the ice. It’s the sound of the whole place, because the air travels differently, so the sounds travel differently. I would go out in the morning, and I’d watch the sun come up, and I would just look at this landscape and be on this glacier. I loved it.

It must have been, eight years ago, something like that. Just a time back. I was really struggling. Both of my parents had died, and they had died from ugly cancers. Their deaths were not elegant. I had the beauty of being there and helping them die, but I think I did not fully understand how long it would take to process and move forward. I spent a couple of years after that really, really down.

I remember being out on this glacier called Breiðamerkurjökull. I was out on Breiðamerkurjökull one morning, and it wasn’t working. This glacier was supposed to cheer me up, and it wasn’t doing it.

I’d spent a fair amount of time before I was out on the ice at an academic conference, where everyone told me that these glaciers are dying. The future was set. I had spent a great deal of my life watching my parents die, and I was out there, and I was looking for this answer, and I couldn’t find it.

So I started to hike back down. I’m stepping off the ice onto a tree branch, and it’s sizable.This tree branch is probably the size of my ankle. And I’m like, Oh my goodness, what kind of primordial sea creature am I catching with my sharp crampons? Just staring at this thing like, How the hell did you get out here? And what the hell are you doing?

What I loved about it is that as soon as I saw this tree branch, I knew what it was. It was from a forest that used to be there. Thousands of thousands of years ago, before that glacier came forward and ground down on the landscape and covered up that forest, Iceland used to have huge forests. I remember looking at that darn tree branch and almost laughing. Because I was being static. I was stuck. I was caught in this one moment. What I’d forgotten is that everything around us is transforming.

I’m never going to see my parents again. But as I have gotten older, I keep running into people who knew my parents, who tell me stories of my parents as kids. Now that I’m a parent, I think about my parents, and I get all these fresh new perspectives.

My relationship with my parents, even though they are not here on this planet, has continued to evolve as I have evolved. The glaciers I’m working on are evolving. They are changing. They’re transforming, they’re disappearing. But that is not a permanent state. Our ice has the ability to grow back. Our ice has the ability to surprise us, to do all of these things.

For me, what motivates me is to embrace an ever-changing world. It’s the change that motivates. Because I can look around, especially at all I work on, at all the ice, and if I just see how it’s disintegrating, if I just see how it’s in this one moment, it is the most disheartening thing on this planet. It shatters me. But if I remember that it is changing, if I remember it’s in the midst of transformation, I can see my part in that. That gives me hope, and it gets me out of bed in the morning, it keeps me going. Because how I see it, I don’t want it to be, so therefore I can help change it.

What’s so critical to know is that I am never going to witness the results of my work. I want to live in a world with ice, and I’m never going to see that because it’s going to keep transforming.

Dr. M Jackson is an author, mother, and glaciologist. She has worked for over a decade in the Arctic, chronicling climate change. She has also written two books, The Secret Lives of Glaciers, and a newly completed novel, The Ice Sings Back.

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Lead Photo: Dan Westergren