(Open Access Week) A conversation with Chris Stokes: Glaciologist, Department of Geography

The theme of Open Access Week 2019 is: ‘Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge’. So, this seemed like a good opportunity to speak to Professor Chris Stokes, a glaciologist from Durham’s Geography department about research and the benefits of open access. Chris was the lead author on the 2019 open access paper:

Widespread distribution of supraglacial lakes around the margin of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet Scientific Reports 9 (13823) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-50343-5

Meltwater on the ice shelf next to McMurdo Station. Image Credit: Nicholas Bayou, UNAVCO
Meltwater on the ice shelf next to McMurdo Station. Image Credit: Nicholas Bayou, UNAVCO

So far, in less than a month, the article has been picked up in 101 news stories. For example, National Geographic’s, ‘How Antarctica is melting from above and below’.

Clearly, this open access article has caught the attention of the public and has reached an audience beyond the discipline of Physical Geography.  I caught up with Chris to discuss his research and the benefits of open access, and I was enthralled by Chris’ enthusiasm about his work and his dedication to making research accessible for all.

What is a glaciologist?

Someone who studies ice and the natural phenomena – such as climate change – that involve and impact on ice.

The research in a nutshell:

“How quickly is Antarctica melting?” Satellite images were used to map supraglacial lakes on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. There are more meltwater lakes than previously thought and the research suggests that East Antarctica could be more susceptible to the effects of a warming climate when people have previously thought that Antarctica is such a huge frozen mass that it isn’t something we should worry about.

The research process:

The research as an “amazing dataset”.  Scientists had noticed that there were meltwater lakes in Antarctica but they wanted to know how widespread they were.  New satellites took images of 5 million square kilometres of ice sheet for the first time ever.  They chose to do this in the height of Antarctica’s summer (which is January!) The images proved, scarily, that there are more meltwater lakes than scientists predicted.

This project came from a ‘big idea’ and for big ideas, researchers often need to collaborate with different people to make use of many different skillsets… for this project somebody was needed to do satellite remote sensing, someone who could then analyse the data etc. and therefore a team was built around the idea.  Attending disciplinary conferences aids networking with others in the field and allows the researchers to meet face to face.  Online calls and emails also helps the research process.

The research might not be seen by other scientists as ‘groundbreaking’ and collecting the data was fairly straightforward.  However, the public interest that the data has inspired makes this a special and worthwhile project.  The article was also accepted and published over just a few days so there wasn’t much time to prepare a press release so it was all systems go!

What next?

The satellite images will need to be resurveyed. The next steps of the project will be seeing how representative this data is in subsequent years: are the meltwater lakes growing? Staying the same? Or was the year they were surveyed the first time an unusual year?”

How worried should we be about climate change and the glaciers melting?

The ice sheets are melting and the rate is accelerating.  Some scientists are predicting at least a metre of sea level rise by 2100.

We should be “very worried” about climate change.  However, ten years ago, nobody was doing anything but now governments and society are listening.

“What’s encouraging… is we have a whole generation saying something has to be done”.

Why is open access important to your research?

Chris described a three stage process of the scientific research into climate change:


Concern about the climate emergency and a driving force to implement change has now become embedded into society; it has reached the stage of ‘moral and ethical issue’. This demonstrates the value of open access as it enables non-scientists, the media and schools to read whole research papers.  For this particular piece of research, journalists were delving into the paper beyond the press release to get more facts for their news reports that could be then distributed to a wider audience.  The Northern Echo published an article which presents a lot of the facts in a comprehensive and easy to understand way – definitely worth a read.

The essence of open access and what the benefits can be:

“If there’s a kid somewhere who sees these pretty pictures and thinks I want to know more about this, or I want to study Geography, or I want to go to Durham University”

And here is one of those ‘pretty’ (but worrying) pictures:

A meltwater lake at Mawson Glacier, East Antarctica
A meltwater lake at Mawson Glacier, East Antarctica. Image Credit: Richard Selwyn-Jones, Durham University

I’d like to thank Chris for spending the time chatting to me about his research – I left feeling so proud of the work that Durham University are contributing towards advancing our understanding of climate change and what we can do to address it.

Durham Staff and PGR Students: If you are funded by a research council contact our open access publications officer to find out how we can help publish your article gold open access.

All researchers can #actonacceptance and send your accepted manuscript to the DRO team or follow our instructions to add the publication to your staff profile so we can make your research available to anyone, anywhere, from our repository and help you to reach as wide as possible an audience!

Author: Kelly Hetherington (Durham University Library and Collections)

What is Open Access Week? Open Access week is a global event, aimed at promoting and informing the academic and research community about the benefits of open access. Open Access is the free & immediate online access to the results of scholarly research, and the granting of rights to share, use and re-use those results.

  • You can see other activity at Durham University here, or follow our blog to learn more.
  • You can find out more about Open Access at Durham here.
  • Remember: any full text research publication you access from Durham Research Online, an author at Durham has made the effort to ensure that research is available for free to anyone, with the assistance of colleagues from Durham University Library and Collections, and departmental administrative staff across the University. Thanks all!

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