Jul 13 2020

As well as being appointed to serve as a member of the Antarctic Place-names Committee, Dr Bethan Davies, Department of Geography, has also recently been awarded the Curry Fund Certificate of Excellence for Geological Education for www.Antarcticglaciers.org. We recently caught up with Bethan to find out more about both of these achievements and her recent research findings on the link between climate change and water shortages. 

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Geography?

I am a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography. My research focuses on glaciers and climate change; I am interested in how glaciers respond to changing climates over various timescales. At the moment I am working on projects in Alaska and Patagonia, and have undertaken fieldwork in Antarctica, Patagonia, Greenland, and across the UK. I teach first year statistics and a third year specialist module in Glacial Environments. I am currently Programme Lead for the MSc Quaternary Science; for this course I teach an elective module, on the Field Training Programme, and contribute to various core modules.

2. You have recently been appointed to serve as a member of the Antarctic Place-names Committee. Can you tell us a bit about the APC and what your role will entail?

The Antarctic Placenames Committee (APC) works under the Polar Regions Department, in the Overseas Territories Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The APC is responsible for naming places within the British Antarctic Territory and in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. There are several reasons why this is important. Firstly, scientists, cruise operators, search and rescue operators, and others working in Antarctica need clear place names that are understandable and easily used. Many of the placenames are suggested by scientists working in areas with few established names. Secondly, the Antarctic coastline is changing rapidly through climate change, with new features appearing or disappearing. Finally, there is an important sovereignty role with the APC and the UK Antarctic claim.

The committee is responsible for reviewing suggested names and making sure there is a clear rationale for the name. this could be historical, scientific or based on geographical features. Once ratified, names are imported to the gazetteer of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) and are recognised by the international community. There are two meetings per year. We discuss policy, overarching policy, terms of reference, international issues, and specific nominations for placenames themselves.

3. Many congratulations on being awarded the Curry Fund Certificate of Excellence for Geological Education for www.Antarcticglaciers.org. What does winning this award mean to you?

I was delighted to win this award, which recognises all the hard work we put into this public engagement resource. The website aims to promote public understanding of science, and has many features that target especially school teachers delivering the Glaciation knowledge content of the A-Level syllabus. The certificate is excellent news as it highlights the resource to teachers and also to other academics and scientists.

4. Can you tell us more about www.Antarcticglaciers.org?

AntarcticGlaciers.org was set up in 2012, and has been highly successful in promoting public understanding of glaciers and climate change over the last 8 years. This outreach endeavour, motivated by a desire to publicly communicate the risks that climate change and rising sea levels pose to our world’s glaciers and ice sheets, has evolved into one of the premier sites on this subject. I write broad explainer articles on a range of concepts, including articles directly relevant to the school curriculum, rather than just simplified versions of my own research.

The website now covers process explanations, glacial geology, ice sheets beyond Antarctica, and disseminates cutting-edge research for public and educational use. This website aims to inspire young people and school children with geology and geomorphology, and specifically targets teachers to supply them with engaging, original content and teaching resources for use in lesson planning.

To date, AntarcticGlaciers.org has received 2.9 million page views from 1.5 million visitors located across the globe. The website has been cited by diverse news outlets including The Guardian, the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, The Conversation, Sky News, National Geographic, Nature, Huffington Post, The Independent, and NERC Planet Earth magazine. It has been cited by organisations such as NASA Earth Observatory, JPL NASA, National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), American Geophysical Union, Royal Geographical Society, Geologists’ Association and RealClimate.org. The website is also used as a teaching resource by numerous universities and schools, and the Geographical Association. Resources from the website have been used in textbooks for GCSE and A Level Geography, and in several MOOCs.

Analysis of Google Analytics data shows that a substantial portion of the website audience are engaged in the education sector. The website is the top or second hit in Google for a number of search terms, including “British Ice Sheet”, “Patagonian Ice Sheet”, “West Antarctic Ice Sheet”, “Pine Island Glacier”, and “Ice cores”, and is on the first page of Google results for many other search terms. 

5. Your recent research findings on the link between climate change and water shortages has continued to gain international coverage. What were the main findings out of this research?

This research is focused on the world’s mountain glaciers. In high mountain areas, the steady trickle of water from melting glaciers and snow in spring and summer has nourished people for generations. Today, 1.9 billion people live downstream of snowpacks and glaciers and depend on these for water supplies. Mountains with snow and ice could be considered ‘water towers’, these water towers provide a regular water supply and are buffer during droughts. However, as temperatures rise globally, the snow and glacier volume are shrinking, and the volume of water produced each spring is reducing. 

I was part of a team of 32 international scientists that have looked at these water towers worldwide. We calculated the water they produce, store and supply. We also looked at the demands of this water in terms of natural demands, demand for irrigation, hydropower and industry, and domestic consumption. This helped to evaluate the importance of these water towers to downstream communities. 

Finally, we investigated the vulnerabilities of these water towers to climate change and changes in demand due to growing populations and changing demographics. This showed that the Indus is the most important, and the most vulnerable, water tower in the world. It already has significant water stress, and declining glacier volume will contribute to this. 

6. What is your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Geography?

My department is wonderfully collegiate, and working in such a supportive department is always enjoyable. We have great students, who are engaged and committed. I always especially enjoyed teaching on the MSc Quaternary Science, as these students are so enthusiastic.