For whom, and by whom, is glaciology?

This article is contributed by Dr Lizz Ultee based on their recent paper with Alex Robel and colleagues:

For whom and by whom is glaciology? Robel et al., 2024.

How do glaciologists choose what to work on?

Group leaders more or less choose our own research questions according to what interests us.  Many of us, myself included, feel a strong desire to contribute to society through our work.  We want to work on important problems and help others.  Choosing what to work on means identifying what problems are “important”.

Researchers’ personal experiences strongly shape which questions they prioritize (Karlsson et al 2007; Nash 2022).  For example, I am an academic living in the US Northeast, where the last glaciers disappeared tens of thousands of years ago.  I am white and relatively privileged.  The climate problems that are important for me in my home state of Vermont will be very different from the most important problems for a region like the Central Andes or Greenland or even the US Gulf Coast.  I care deeply about how glacier change will affect people in those regions — but I can’t come up with all of the research questions that might be important to them. 

Who does glaciology research?

With this in mind, we wanted to understand whether glaciologists — and the questions we prioritize — are representative of the people we want our research to serve.  In Robel et al 2024, we summarize several relevant geographic, demographic, and cultural characteristics of the groups who might be affected by glacier change.

A substantial majority of glaciology research is conducted in Europe and North America.  Three-quarters of authors who published recently on glacier or ice-sheet contribution to sea-level rise are based in just six countries: the USA, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, or Canada (Robel et al 2024).   This must be contrasted with the worldwide distribution of hundreds of millions of people who stand to be affected by sea-level rise in the 21st century (Nicholls et al 2021).  

Similarly, communities that stand to be affected by changes in glacial water resources, tourism opportunities, or cultural practices are clustered in mountain regions whose populations are poorly represented among professional glaciologists.  The mismatch is not only geographic, but demographic: there are far fewer Black and Hispanic glaciologists than would be expected if the glaciology community mirrored affected communities in the US (Figure 1).  

Figure 1. Racial and ethnic composition of (top to bottom) the US population in 2020, US counties with an ocean coastline in 2020, US counties with a RGI-registered glacier in 2020, US counties with a RGI-registered glacier and less than 100 000 residents in 2020, all sections of the American Geophysical Union in 2022, and just the Cryosphere Section. The US Census requires those listing ‘multiple races’ (approximately 2%) to also specify at least one race, and so the US total is above 100%. County-based data is based on estimates for 2020 based on 2016 US census data (Hauer 2019). Data for AGU provided by AGU staff and provided in aggregate form in supplementary material of Robel et al 2024.

What does this mean for society?

It is very unlikely that the research we pursue today is what’s really needed for the communities who are already experiencing glacier and ice-sheet change. 

Moreover, glaciology, like other geoscience disciplines (Bernard & Cooperdock 2018), is far less racially diverse than the general US population or the “glacier-affected” population.

What should glaciologists do about it?

Two things must happen: 

  1. In the short term, we should recognize our own limited perspectives in devising “important” research questions.  We should draw on the literature of science usability (e.g. Dilling & Lemos 2011) and work to co-produce knowledge with professionals who can bring front-line communities’ concerns more directly into the research process (Beier et al 2017, Ultee et al 2018).
  2. In the longer term, group leaders and organizations should take responsibility for making glaciology as a discipline less homogeneous, and inviting in more researchers with diverse lived experiences. 

Each of us can take action toward more meaningful work through a more inclusive research community. We present twenty evidence-based suggestions for action in our paper — plus a summary cartoon to help you remember them. 

Illustration of selected strategies for increasing diversity in glaciology, created by TreVaughn Ellis.

These strategies include:

S1. Deter harassment and exclusionary behaviours.

S2. Diffuse power and organisational values among members.

S3. Provide clear policies and consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

S4. Work on attracting diverse members into glaciological research groups.

S5. Engage in community level outreach and engagement.

S6. Develop sustained outreach programmes with young people.

S7. Reduce barriers to entry by funding introductory glaciology programmes and providing competitive stipends.

S8. Advertise introductory programmes widely and provide inclusive admissions.

S9. Provide field equipment and opportunities to visit field sites.

S10. Support peer mentorship groups to support diversification of glaciology among early career researchers.

S11. Offer targeted fellowships

S12. Use Masters programmes as a pathway into PhD programmes.

S13. Engage with Bridge-to-PhD Programs 

S14. Develop recruitment partnerships with minority-serving institutions.

S15. Hire glaciologists from historically excluded groups into permanent faculty positions.

S16. Promote a wider range of career pathways beyond academic faculty positions.

S17. Scientific societies could choose to provide specific funding for undergraduate and graduate students from historically excluded groups to attend conferences and summer school programs.

S18. Societies could provide more substantial funding to send large cohorts of glaciologists across different career stages to conferences and events specifically catering to students from historically excluded groups.

S19. Work with communities impacted by glaciological change through co-production of knowledge or coordinating with science intermediaries.

S20. Disseminate expertise and training across national boundaries.

About the author

Lizz Ultee

Dr. Lizz Ultee (she/they) is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Earth & Climate Sciences, Middlebury College. Their research focuses on the processes and downstream impacts of modern glacier change.


Karlsson, S, Srebotnjak, T and Gonzales, P (2007). Understanding the North–South knowledge divide and its implications for policy: a quantitative analysis of the generation of scientific knowledge in the environmental sciences. Environmental Science & Policy 10(7–8), 668–684. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2007.04.001

Nash, M (2022). Who should work in Antarctica? An exploration of the individual, social and cultural aspects of expeditioner recruitment. Antarctic Science 34(6), 432–445. doi: 10.1017/S0954102022000372

Robel, AA, Ultee, L, Ranganathan, M, and Nash, M (2024). For whom and by whom is glaciology? Journal of Glaciology, pp. 1–11. doi:10.1017/jog.2024.29.

Nicholls, R.J., Lincke, D., Hinkel, J. et al. (2021). A global analysis of subsidence, relative sea-level change and coastal flood exposure. Nature Climate Change 11, 338–342. Doi: 10.1038/s41558-021-00993-z

Bernard, RE and Cooperdock, EH (2018). No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geoscience 11(5), 292–295. doi: 10.1038/s41561-018-0116-6

Dilling, L and Lemos, MC (2011). Creating usable science: opportunities and constraints for climate knowledge use and their implications for science policy. Global Environmental Change 21(2), 680–689. doi: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2010.11.006

Beier, P, Hansen, LJ, Helbrecht, L and Behar, D (2017). A how-to guide for coproduction of actionable science. Conservation Letters 10(3), 288–296. doi: 10.1111/conl.12300

Ultee, L, Arnott, JC, Bassis, J and Lemos, MC (2018). From ice sheets to main streets: intermediaries connect climate scientists to coastal adaptation. Earth’s Future 6(3), 299–304. doi: 10.1002/2018EF000827

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