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National Geographic Emerging Explorer M Jackson and the Shifting Story of Humans and Ice

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers. Geographer and glaciologist M Jackson is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest...

Photo by Jill Schneider

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Geographer and glaciologist M Jackson is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

What do you see when you look at a glacier? The answer to that question is a lot more varied than you might expect among people around the world. Glaciologist and geographer M Jackson studies the diverse interactions between people and ice in places as varied as Alaska, Turkey, and Iceland. Having recently completed her PhD in geography at the University of Oregon, Jackson also helps educate students and travelers on National Geographic-led expeditions to Iceland and Alaska.

Jackson moved to Alaska in her early 20s with thoughts of becoming a bookmaker, serving as a backcountry guide, firefighter, and medic along the way. But the daily exposure to ice, and the rapid changes she was seeing, led her to explore glaciers not only from a physical but also a social perspective. In a sense, now she is attempting to assemble a vast book of people-ice stories across cultures. That volume of stories is important, Jackson says, because it can also help us better understand the impacts of climate change.

Why are glaciers important?

The short answer is pretty simple: They regulate global climate, make local weather, build and shape vast landscapes, provide water and other essential resources, and act as early indicators of significant environmental imbalances.

Beyond that, glaciers mean much more to humanity: They have been witnessed, recorded, and represented by countless human beings throughout time. My research finds that glaciers inspire, hold memory, directly connect cultures to landscapes, provide spiritual fulfillment, and link people to greater forces at play across the planet.

M Jackson. Photo by Annie Agnone

What drew you to glaciers personally?

I spent about a decade living in southeast Alaska where there are really big ice systems, and I would see the ice was changing. I read a lot of literature about what was happening out there. A lot of it was from the physical sciences. But what I became acutely aware of is that there is a geography—a human geography—of glacier change. Because people have so many different opinions about what’s happening, so many different narratives. They’ll tell you about maybe a local glacier or they’ll talk about glaciers at a global scale.

Basically, where there are glaciers, there are people, and the two have been interacting for the entirety of human history. But we actually know very little about that type of interaction. That’s for me what was really inspiring. There is just such incredible diversity in how people in different parts of the world in different times form environmental relationships with glaciers. But we don’t hear much about that.

Photo by Stephan Mantler

When you talk about changes in ice, what do those look like? What do you see?

Let me give you an example. I spent a year living on the southeastern coast of Iceland. This is a place where you either have the solid blue North Atlantic ocean, you have the green of this really flat, marshy landscape, and then you run into big, white—or in the winter they turn blue—glaciers that just dominate this landscape here. So that’s all you see.

I would visit the same glacier every week or two weeks. For some of these glaciers, the changes that they experienced, I almost didn’t trust what I would see with my eyes. I would go out, stand on a small hill in front of the glacier, take a picture, and then I would come back a week or two later and I’d have to go back through my phone and grab that picture again to make sure I was standing in the same spot. The ice had thinned or else had recessed back so quickly that it almost wasn’t recognizable.

Photo by James Bernal

How does that connect to the human-ice interactions you mentioned?

There’s this dominant idea that if you stood with me in the exact same spot and we looked at this glacier, that we’re going to see and register the same thing … that we’re going to see climate change. That’s why, if you look at a lot of news stories out there, usually when they talk about climate change, they’re adorned with some type of image of a glacier.

But the work I do shows actually there is no single story of glaciers. You can line up five or six people in the same spot, have them look at the ice, and they’re going to have diverse and complex stories that they see.

If you think about glaciers being the most visible manifestation of climate change, think about how we talk about climate change more broadly.

We tend to talk about climate change as if it’s this very same phenomenon that’s happening to all people in all places at all times. Instead, it’s actually this incredibly complex thing that’s happening in really diverse and complex ways all over the planet. There’s a lot of people who are benefiting from both glacier recession and from climate change as much as they’re experiencing the negative sides of those. So that’s what my work tends to show.

Older icelanders—say, Icelanders that are over 50—would say things like, “I look at the ice getting smaller and I feel such relief,” because they don’t live in a dangerous landscape anymore. But think about how people, especially in the States, talk about glacier change: It’s this narrative of ruin and loss. It’s very different.

Some people in southeast Iceland—but also southeast Alaska, and a lot of different glaciated landscapes—perceive sentience in their neighborhood ice. They think that the ice might be alive. That changes they way they interact with it. That changes their moral orders. That changes who’s responsible. I think that’s all incredibly important. We should be talking about that.

Jackson showing off her National Geographic Society pride. Photo by James_Bernal

If you’re science-minded, I would imagine it would be challenging to sit within all of these different perspectives and not want to highlight the one that has the most validity. Do you struggle with that?

I don’t, but I’ve definitely sat in those rooms and had those conversations. It’s a natural impulse to reduce complex things down to a knowable bit.

I don’t think it’s helpful if we reduce climate change down to a single phenomenon like “the weather’s going to get a lot worse and we’re all going to have a negative experience.” If that’s not what you see outside your window, you can’t engage with that. If you don’t see yourself in that story of climate change, you aren’t part of that story of climate change. So if we try to reduce glaciers down to the summation of their parts and processes, that risks missing so much more of the complexities of human-ice relations.

Glaciers are on all seven continents. We don’t know anything about that, the diversity of people and ice and all of those experiences. I’m looking to establish a global geography of people and ice. I’m starting to get afraid that the complexity that is ice and people is going to go away with ice, that we’re going to lose these stories. I mean, that’s terrifying, right?

It does seem like an incredible challenge, creating that global geography of people and ice when it’s constantly shifting and the ice’s very existence is threatened.

Climate change is forcing us to transform alongside transforming environments. So if we want to know what that process looks like, we can look at how people have been transforming with glaciers in glaciated places throughout the entirety of human history—seeing how people handle that continual transformation, that continual change. I think the work I do—it’s not just another explanation of what we’re losing, rather it’s an exploration of what we may yet find.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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Meet the Author

Christina Nunez
Christina Nunez is a writer based near Washington, D.C. She spent five years at National Geographic covering energy for the website, including stories about the hidden clean energy labyrinths underneath cities, the scientific effort to find and fix the places where the world is hemorrhaging methane, and Californian farmers converting crops to solar panels. Before that, she worked as a digital editor and producer at media outlets including NPR and AOL. She also had the privilege of interviewing each and every one of National Geographic's incredible 2016 class of emerging explorers, and she continues to write about energy, innovation, and other topics for Nat Geo and elsewhere.