UCI Researchers Are Predicting the Future with Glaciology

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A Race Against the Climate Clock

As the ice caps melt, rising sea levels become a stark reality.  Now more than ever, it is critical to have accurate data to predict and manage this phenomena. Using remote sensing of glaciers, is helping to track the effects of global warming on the planet. Researchers at UCI are racing against the climate clock in an effort to get a firm grasp of the changing climate.

Earth system science (ESS), graduate student, Romain Millan is one of the UCI researchers who has uncovered large oceanic valleys beneath some of the massive glaciers flowing into the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica. Carved by earlier advances of ice during colder periods, the subsurface troughs enable warm, salty water to reach the undersides of glaciers, fueling their increasingly rapid retreat.

Romain takes images from satellites to track how fast glaciers are moving. Comparing these images taken over the last 30 years, he can then determine a change in ice thickness over time based on how quickly the glaciers used to move. He can also calculate exactly what the rise in sea levels will be from that accumulated ice melt.

In addition, Romain and his department use airborne gravity measurements to image the bottom of the ocean under the ice sheets. The form of the ocean floor controls what direction the glacier will be retreating. This is important because it provides information about the pathways of warm ocean water that can melt the ice.

“Based on our research, we now have a much clearer picture of what is hiding under these large glaciers located in a particularly vulnerable sector of West Antarctica,” says Romain.

He is also the lead author for a UCI study and was recently honored in the first year of his Ph.D. studies to have a paper published on this subject in the Geophysical Research Letters titled, Bathymetry of the Amundsen Sea Embayment sector of West Antarctica from Operation Ice Bridge Gravity and Other Data.

Romain worked with his supervisor Eric Rignot along with others to achieve this, “I had to work very hard to be able to combine the intense class schedule we had in the ESS department and my research,” he says.  “In the end, it was a relief to see that the paper was accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters and that it received a little bit of attention.”

Outside of his important work in glaciology, Romain finds time to maintain a healthy work, life balance. Though he finds it hard to leave the lab with a problem left unsolved, he still makes sure to swim laps several times per week for the therapeutic effect of forgetting about his work for a few hours. He has been playing the trumpet since he was very young and still plays with the UCI Big Band Orchestra and the Surf Band. His love of the outdoors extends to hiking and climbing in the San Gabriel Mountains and other national parks, and he even occasionally practices slacklining, which is similar to slack rope walking and tightrope walking.

In life, Romain admires his grandparents, both survivors of the Spanish Civil War, more than any other people, because although they have experienced many difficulties, they are happy and have a positive attitude. “They never complain about anything and are always looking into the future with a positive outlook,” says Romain. He applies that attitude to his studies in the Earth Sciences and hopes to make a positive difference in our declining environment.

Romain Millan