GEM Scientist of the Month - September

This SOTM series has until now only covered scientists from ClimateBasis, GeoBasis, BioBasis and MarinBasis. So we are happy to present Michele Citterio from the GlacioBasis programme in this ‘Scientist of the Month’, introducing some of his thoughts on science, open access data and his electronics hobby.

How did you get interested in the Arctic environment?

Mostly by chance… I owe my love for mountains and glaciers to my parents. I studied geology aiming to work in mineral exploration,  and graduated two years late because I was also freelancing with mapping, geophysics, landslides monitoring and any excuse that came my way, paying or not, for being in the field. A fun one was volunteering for the glacier mass balance surveys coordinated by University of Milano. I also liked caving a lot, so I found a PhD grant on the crystallography, chemistry and stable isotopes of ice, some more than 1700 years old, that I drilled in ice caves in the Alps and the Carpathians. Most ice core literature deals with the polar ice sheets, so I picked up some Arctic glaciology. In 2005 I helped putting together the first on-glacier automatic weather station in Italy, a perfect way to give a fieldwork twist to my electronics hobby, but my day job started drifting away from ice. So when the PROMICE monitoring programme of the Greenland Ice Sheet started at GEUS in 2007 I quit my job, moved north, and started cluttering Greenland with weather stations :-)

What is your current research/field work about?

My broad interest is in understanding what global and local consequences we can expect in terms of sea level rise, water resources and geohazards as the terrestrial cryosphere reacts to climate forcing. I also have a strong interest in remote sensing and in situ instruments fit for Arctic conditions. In GEM I manage the two GlacioBasis monitoring programmes in Zackenberg and on Disko Island. They tell us how different glaciers adjust to changes in temperature, precipitation and other climate parameters. Now that my field season is over, I plan to resume work on the GEM remote sensing high resolution albedo and snow extent products, after last year’s funding gap.

What has your field season been this summer, do you want to tell us a bit about how that links to your current research

My usual three April weeks in Zackenberg had to be moved to June and exclude Freya Glacier because of travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 virus. The rough equivalent of one day’s work on snow scooters in spring became a week-long hike, and many mass balance stakes from last year had melted out and fallen. But it was a fantastic opportunity to familiarize myself with the snow-free landscape, and for cleaning up the snow-free part of the glacier from years of old instruments. Two new seismic stations were built in Zackenberg, and two more in west Greenland on the northern slopes of Vaigat Strait between Nuussuaq and Disko during three weeks in July and August. They link to my bedrock permafrost work in Vaigat, where I also retrieved the first year of data from 3 weather stations and the 15 thermistor strings I drilled in the rock cliffs last year. Then I spent two weeks at Arctic Station and Chamberlin Glacier for GlacioBasis Disko and later in Nuuk until early September for installing another seismic station and servicing two PROMICE weather stations on the ice sheet and for visiting the glacier in Kobbefjord together with GEM colleagues from Asiaq. So, all in all a fairly successful field season despite Covid-19!

Since when and at which site are you working for GEM and what do you enjoy most about it in the GEM context?

I began in 2008 when GlacioBasis Zackenberg was established, and in 2016 I came for the first time to Disko Island where GlacioBasis Disko is now running. In the following years I also started visiting the glacier in Kobbefjord which is being primarily monitored by Asiaq. I especially enjoy my time in the field at the three GEM sites, each with its own peculiarities. In Zackenberg it is the opportunity of working in an otherwise inaccessible region. Chamberlin Glacier on Disko feels as familiar a landscape as working in the Alps, where everything is within a few hours’ hike reach, and the atmosphere at the station with students coming and going and the charm of the old house, which I hope survives renovations.

What is your most memorable fieldwork experience?

I think the most memorable fieldwork experience was the first time I descended a glacial moulin, a vertical shaft in the glacier draining a surface meltwater channel. That one was on Upsala Glacier in Patagonia, but I could recently check out one in Greenland. Being entirely surrounded by blue light coming at you from all directions, even from below is probably what makes it feel magic, and very different from going down a crevasse. Some other moulins let you reach all the way down to the glacier bed, so of course there is no light from below, but getting there is quite interesting too.

What is the single biggest leap of technology you noticed in your field of research in the most recent years?

Undoubtedly, the rapid growth of easily accessible observational data and of good free software tools to make use of it.  I remember for my masters project I received a floppy disk in the mail with the meteorological time series from a station close to my field site. The file was a blob of unintelligible gibberish and an almost equally confusing documentation of the codes and formatting. I couldn’t find any software to decode it, so I had to teach myself enough C to write a little program for decoding the data. Today anyone can download a wealth of high quality satellite imagery for free and improving software and more widespread programming skills make it possible to use such enormous amounts of data. However, not everything has improved at the same pace. For instance the number of glaciers with ongoing surface mass balance measurements in Greenland fell to one for most of the 1990’s and 2000’s, with GEM gradually rebuilding the monitoring capability and only surpassing the 1980’s coverage around year 2013.

How do you spread the science? Which forms of outreach do you use most / find most effective?

I think the most effective outreach in the long run is providing access to reliable, timely and easy to understand evidence of ongoing changes, such as glacier retreat, through websites like and I plan to further contribute to it. I am aware a website will only ever reach those who go looking for it, so it is not the best tool for reaching anyone regardless of their existing interest in the subject. But social media with their ability to push or suggest content have been turned into battlegrounds where visibility, however achieved, is construed as a measure of legitimacy and relevance.

 What is the biggest challenge in working as a scientist in the Arctic or maybe in general?

Access to the field sites. Both high travel and logistics costs and the vulnerability of fieldwork plans to disruptions. Except on Disko, I get only one opportunity per year to visit each site, so I need to stock or send ahead of time anything I may need to repair instruments or make up for delayed parts and tools. In general, of course securing funding is challenging, but that is common to most professions. So, I’d say managing the boundary between work and leisure time when both revolve around similar personal interests. Certainly, it was much easier to keep things separate during my stints as a self-employed.

For the future (Arctic) research, what would be your hopes and aspirations?

There is an accelerating trend toward open access to the inputs and outputs of scientific research, namely measurement data and the publications based on it. I hope it will soon become just as common and even required to give unrestricted access to the ‘machinery’ sitting in between. That can be as simple as a spreadsheet or as complex as any model source code. Anyone with an adequate understanding of the subject and methods, let’s say anyone who could have acted as reviewer for a paper, should be allowed to download and run the same tools that produced any number, table and figure in that paper starting from the same raw measurements. Most technical difficulties that may arise can be addressed without undue post-publication burden on the original authors. Important methodological details are becoming increasingly difficult to communicate by plain language and a limited number of key equations, tables and plots. Science has progressed through researchers ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. Those giants are rapidly growing taller so sharing existing ladders to climb up to their shoulders should be encouraged.

Do you engage politically as a scientist? Why (not)?

No, I try to make my results accessible and of course answer questions when asked, but I don’t engage in the political debate for two reasons. Political decisions stand the best chance of achieving their stated goals if they rest on science. Prioritizing those goals is the key task of politics, but tricky to do ‘as a scientist’. My second reason is that today’s scientific evidence on the climate impact of fossil fuels burning by humans is so strong and widely known, that the only way to keep ignoring it is by some logical fallacy. The most common is claiming scientists have a political agenda. Engaging politically ‘as a scientist’ unavoidably plays to that narrative in the eyes of those already inclined to believe in conspiracy theories.

Contact info: Michele Citterio <>

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