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Photo by Joe Tighe

Beneath the Ice: Talking Glaciers with M Jackson

National Geographic explorer M Jackson is all about glaciers—and she’s always on the lookout for new ways to tell people about them. A natural storyteller and a published author, M recently released her second book, “The Secret Lives of Glaciers,” which examines the complex relationships between people and ice in the glacier-draped country of Iceland.

Congratulations on your new book, “The Secret Lives of Glaciers.” What’s the story behind the title?

The title “The Secret Lives of Glaciers” actually came from working with high school students on one of the student expeditions in Iceland. I was talking about all of these different ways that people on the south coast of Iceland thought about, interpreted, and interacted with glaciers. One of the students said “I never knew glaciers had so many secret lives.” In my head I was like, “yes.” It’s fun, because he gets to talk about the fact that he helped make the title of this book.

You’ve studied glaciers all over the world, from Alaska to Turkey. Why did you choose Iceland as your main base for researching your book?

Iceland's a really safe place. In a place like Alaska, you always have to have your antenna up because there are moose, there are bears, there are wolves—there are a lot of things that can happen in Alaska. In Iceland, you can walk into a landscape, and maybe a sheep is going to nibble you. Also, I wanted to understand what was happening with people and ice. In Iceland, people live very closely with glaciers, and they are so excited to talk about ice with you.

How can traveling to Iceland—or anywhere with glaciers—help students make a difference on the climate change front?

On these expeditions, students are learning a host of things. They have their On Assignment projects, where they might be learning writing or filmmaking or science or photography—but it's more than that. They have to deal with people of different backgrounds. They have to learn interdisciplinary work. They have to deal with the unknown. They learn how to approach a problem from a variety of angles, and they build the skills to really navigate complex things, such as climate change. There's no single answer for climate change—no single solution. But there are different approaches to ameliorating it.

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Photo by Leonardo Carrizo

Studying glaciers at the source seems like the most fun way to learn about them. What's the coolest way that students will learn about glaciers on a trip to Iceland?

Students learn about glaciers in a lot of ways. They learn about glaciers just by talking to people in Reykjavík. Then they travel along the south coast, and they start to see the ice over the horizon. Then they actually get to go on a glacier and kayak around a glacier. They get the whole range, and I think that's pretty powerful. They get to see all the different ways that people interact with them—all the different, special possibilities of having a glacier living with you in this landscape.

How can students protect glaciers from home, wherever that may be?

I think if you want to protect a glacier, you have to realize how you're connected to a glacier. A lot of people will say “I don't have a glacier in my backyard.” What they don't realize is that glaciers control our weather. A glacier that is melting puts a lot more water into our hydro system, which leads to more stimulated weather. If they've got bigger rain events, stronger winds, stronger drought, warmer temperatures, colder temperatures—a lot of that is controlled by ice that they may not see. So, if people want to protect glaciers, I think the really critical thing is for them to start thinking about how they might be connected to them. Because when we connect to something, we start to care about it.

Is there hope for glaciers?

If climatic conditions are conducive to ice growing, ice will grow. But ice needs a specific set of things, including cold temperatures, time, and snow. We look at the temperature projections for the next 20 years, and there seems to be an upward trend, so that is not going to be great for glaciers, and a lot of glaciers are going to disappear.

Is that a permanent thing? No. Can glaciers grow back? Yes. Is there a lot we can do to slow the process of glacier change? Absolutely. We know that they are really sensitive to climate, and that should tell us that we need to amp up how we work with our climate. Glaciers are incredibly important. They are worth saving. Somewhere in that process of saving glaciers, we are going to save ourselves.

M Jackson researches glaciers and people worldwide and lives outside of Eugene, Oregon. Learn more at www.drmjackson.com or follow her work on Instagram @mlejackson.