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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Remote sensing is an amazing tool. We can monitor glacier change without having to leave the comfort of our home or office! This means we don’t have to worry about the dangers associated with travelling to and working in these dangerous locations. However, before the advent of satellite technology, we relied on physically travelling to these locations, and there is still a role for such fieldwork today. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, whilst remote sensing is undeniably powerful, it is limited by spatial resolution, so we can’t observe very small features which fieldwork allows. Secondly and perhaps most importantly, fieldwork enables us to observe processes as they are occurring, and thus to better understand how glaciers behave.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds To give you an example – we already know that monitoring changes in glacier size is of the utmost importance, and remote sensing helps us do this. However, what we really want to understand is the detail, and so a glacier’s mass balance – how much mass is added in the winter as well as how much is removed in the summer. We measure accumulation by digging snowpits over a glacier’s surface, and measuring the thickness of snow that has built up over the course of a winter. We measure ablation either by monitoring how much water is draining off a glacier, or by measuring the amount of melt that takes place at various locations across a glacier’s surface.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 seconds This helps us build up a much more detailed picture of the mass balance of a particular glacier, and is only viable through fieldwork.


In this video, David Rippin explains how despite the advances and insights that remote sensing offers us, there is still an important role for fieldwork - i.e. for physically working on glaciers.

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This video is from the free online course:

Tackling Environmental Challenges for a Sustainable Future

University of York