What Antarctica Means for the Rest of Us


What Antarctica Means for the Rest of Us

Q&A with Professor Lauren Miller
Lauren Miller headshot

n a conversation with Lauren Miller, a professor in UVA’s Environmental Science department, she shares about her work on glaciers, a recent trip to Japan, and the potentially massive impact of Antarctic research on the rest of the world.


Tell us about your research.
Miller: I’m a geologist and I study glacier changes over hundreds or even thousands of years. I essentially use rocks and landscapes in areas that have glaciers or had glaciers in the past as history books. I work mostly in Antarctica, but have projects that include many other places across our planet. I research why and how glaciers change and disappear. I do this because in order to be able to predict what glaciers will do in the future, we have to understand everything about them and how they interact with the land, atmosphere, and oceans. Why and how do glaciers change? With this information, we can predict future glacier changes, which, because of climate change, are often happening rapidly and having dramatic effects on our world, such as rising sea levels.

What is the global significance of Antarctic research?
Miller: Antarctica is interesting to work in and think about because of the lack of people. The vast majority of human inhabitants of Antarctica are scientists and researchers, who live there only temporarily. This means that we don’t talk about the impact of environmental change there on local people and communities, as we do in populated areas. With that said, despite being isolated, there are global connections and impacts that affect people worldwide. For example, when ice melts in Antarctica, it actually has a bigger impact on the rising sea levels on the Virginia coast than if ice melts in Greenland.

International collaborations are very important to Antarctic research. In 1959, twelve countries with researchers working in the Antarctic, including seven countries with territorial claims there, signed the Antarctic Treaty. In this treaty, they agreed that Antarctica would be used for peaceful purposes only, that freedom of scientific research in Antarctica would be retained, and that the observations and results from this research would be exchanged freely. As a result, Antarctica is really a special place where researchers come together despite issues between countries around global economics and politics.

Glacier in Antarctica
Photo by Lauren Miller

You’ve just returned from Japan. What brought you there?
Miller: I traveled to Japan because of an international fellowship at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. I had learned about the fellowship through Twitter, cold-emailed a researcher at Hokkaido who does research relevant to mine and he turned out to be willing to work with me. The U.S. doesn’t have a national polar research institute that employs researchers to specifically focus on work in Antarctica, but Japan does, so there are quite a few people working on cold and polar regions. This was a great opportunity for me to exchange and expand collaborations situated in universities doing slightly different research. I was at Hokkaido for six weeks and interacted a lot with faculty at their Institute of Low Temperature Science. I also had the opportunity to meet with UVA alumni in Tokyo, to visit a colleague at University of Tokyo, and to give a talk at the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research. This was a great experience and now I have connections with lots of potential future collaborators in Japan.

My host partner, Shin Sugiyama, is a glaciologist who studies the current status of glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Patagonia, among other areas. Glaciologists study ice and because of that they think in changes over days, seasons, or several years. As a geologist, I study both ice and land and I think over much longer timescales: tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years. So, our research areas and even disciplinary methods are quite different, but through this trip and our chance to speak and work together, we discovered that our research is quite complementary. If we understand glaciers and processes that impact them elsewhere, we can better understand what happens in Antarctica.

What projects are you planning for the future?
Miller: I’m working on a collaborative proposal with some of the researchers that I connected with in Japan. We’re interested in looking at glaciers in Alaska and Patagonia that are currently not shrinking, some of which are even advancing. Today, the vast majority of glaciers are getting smaller because temperatures in the atmosphere and the ocean are both rising, meaning that the glaciers that terminate in the ocean are exposed to this warming both from above and below. But because of interesting landscape features, some are expanding or not changing much, even when their neighbors are shrinking. We want to know why they’re behaving differently. Glaciers move across the land like slow rivers, so they move sediment and rocks to the margin or to the terminus of these glaciers. These accumulated piles of sediment are potentially protecting glaciers from ocean warming by making barriers. It is key to understand why these glaciers are changing and, with that understanding, it may be possible to better predict future changes and to intervene on a global scale.

It is key to understand why these glaciers are changing and, with that understanding, it may be possible to better predict future changes and to intervene on a global scale.

People are thinking about geoengineering ice sheets and glaciers by putting barriers in front of them to stop them flowing into the ocean. In the French and Swiss Alps, people put what are essentially huge blankets onto glaciers in order to prevent them from melting. There are talks about geoengineering in Antarctica to prevent warm ocean water from making contact with the ice, but it’s controversial as there are logistical, ecological, and governance challenges. So, this kind of intervention could potentially be done, but I don’t think it’s time to start building walls because there’s a lot we still don’t know as we lack the basic research needed to understand the potential outcomes.

I’m also interested in thinking about working with human populations. I’m interested in human resilience to environmental changes. I would like to explore thinking about glaciers and landscapes, even those without glaciers, over timescales of thousands of years and working with colleagues at UVA and beyond to think about human resilience to these big and small environmental changes over these long periods of time.