Susanne and I sat next to each other on the long flight from Brize Norton to Ascension Island and got a chance to learn about each other. Once the field work begun, she always lent me a hand setting up the massive laser scanner, and I helped her dig snow pits and drill through the ice as much as I could. To me, snow was snow – the same every time – but she patiently explained that there are many different types of snow depending on the processes that took place, and you can actually observe those while looking down through different snow depths. With her intelligence, experience, kindness and modesty, she is the kind of person I would love to collaborate with on all kinds of projects and stay in touch outside of work as well. Too bad I study octopus camouflage and not sea ice.

DA: Where are you from?

SH: I am Danish, I was born north of Copenhagen, did the first part of my university education studying geophysics in Copenhagen, and my master’s in Svalbard in Norway. That was on snow physics. Right now I am at the Danish Meteorological Institute and head of the Polar Oceanography group. We do 100% research, we have one PhD student plus one who just graduated, all rest 11 of us have a PhD.

DA: How did you become so interested in snow and sea ice?

SH: Snow is fantastic material to ski on! It also makes everything look good. It is fascinating that it’s a media between the atmosphere and the ground. It insulates both ways; protects against the heat and the cold of the atmosphere locking the heat in. Depending on whether we are talking about a glacier or sea ice or frozen ground, snow acts in a different way but always governs how atmosphere and ground are talking to each other.

DA: After you graduated, where did you start working at?

SH: To do snow as a research job, I knew I needed a lot of experience to stand out and get a job in Denmark. Snow jobs in Denmark are not that many so it is competitive. I went to Wales after my master’s and worked with a Canadian-Welsh snow group, doing snow physics in the high Arctic in Canada. I was not sure if I wanted a PhD at the time, so I gave it some time but still found it interesting and fascinating. I was offered a PdH in the in the Swiss Alps. At that time i had been doing field work in the Arctic for almost 10 years, so I thought I might try the area that was closer to my home and where I spent a lot of time anyway. I studied how the avalanche patterns change because of the fact that the ground is heating up (climate change).

DA: What kind of work did you do in the Arctic before then?

SH: I was a field assistant my early Arctic work, did not have my own research then. Later I tried to set up a model for snow melt. In the Arctic now, we mostly do ice-camps. This is actually only my second time working off a ship like the JCR. Normally we are based at polar military stations and then we are flown out on helicopters or Twin Otters to the research locations and either come back overnight, stay on the ice for a few days, or a few weeks, depending on the type of study.

DA: For those 6-week long ice-camps, what kind of food do you eat?

SH: Oh we eat great food! I have a very nice American cook, she comes on the ice, buys all the food and cooks for us all day on the camp. We always have fresh pies and cookies. We bring a small oven powered by a generator. And we always have dogs with us, because when they smell a polar bear, they give a very distinct reaction.

DA: Do they get special food from the cook too?

SH: No! They are Greenlandic Huskis, big ones, trained for this. They eat their special dry food, otherwise their stomachs might get spoiled. Sometimes if we have just meat with no sauce, we give them some meat and bones. But that’s it. They sleep outside on the ice and they love it.

DA:Is there sea ice only at the polar regions?

SH:Polar regions, and then there’s some in Scandinavia, Finland, Canada, Greenland and even the Caspian Sea. That never survives the summer to become thick ice, but it’s still thick enough to annoy the oil companies there. When the wind pushes the ice from one side of the sea to the other, the oil companies get really alert.

DA: Why is sea ice so important?

SH: Sea ice cover is very important for how the earth will react to climate change. There has been a big decline in the sea ice extend – meaning how big an area is covered by sea ice – in the latest years. Today we do not know the exact volume of sea ice that has melted. The reason is that we today cannot measure the sea ice or the snow thickness directly. We measure the height of part of the ice/snow above the sea surface and estimate the ice thickness from that. You know the rule, roughly 1/10th of an iceberg is sticking out so there is 9/10ths underneath? Something like that. But the problem is we can detect the snow-sea ice boundary and therefor don’t know how big a part of it is snow. And you might not think that, but it makes a huge difference.

DA: Because we can not reliably measure the snow depth and ice thickness remotely, we come out to the field to do some ground truthing, right? Can you explain a little bit about what you do once you get on the ice?

SH: Yes that is right, that is one of the things, among others, we do: measuring snow depth for validation. We do this by going out on the ice digging snow pits- meaning we dig a 1×1 meter hole in the snow until we see the surface of the ice-, measure how much show there was and then drill though that ice with a combination of several 2-inch flights until we reach the sea surface. Now we know how thick the ice is. Sometimes it is so thick, we don’t have enough flights to drill through it. We do a lot of this, but in the big picture we only do this in a very small area given the size of the Arctic and the Antarctic. At least this goes into the papers and we can get collective information and validation for the models that exist.

DA: How good do you think are the models that have been developed for sea ice?

SH: Sea ice is treated in a general way in the global models, for example models are not different for Weddell or Bellingshausen Sea, where we have observed some differences first hand. In the future global models might be able to account for such differences. Take a modeler in the field and they’ll go crazy. I took one out one time to the field. He had never been in the Arctic but he was a really good modeler of the Arctic snow cover. When he was out there, the first few days he was going around saying “i can’t model this, I can’t model this, I can’t model this”. And in the end he said “Susanne, you ruined me!”. He left his job after this and got another job (still in modeling, though)! But this is the difference between process based people vs theoreticians (modelers). Most of them have never been to the field. We validate a lot of the models using our field data and they will alter their models according to our input. This is why we still need to do ground truthing. Funding for this from EU, Danish Government, Scandinavian projects, and the sea ice community is really small. I would say including Europe, Canada and the US we are a few hundred people.

DA: Over the 20 years you have been working in this field, how many times have you traveled to the polar regions?

SH: At least once, mostly twice a year for 20 years  – so you calculate!

DA: Are you married?

SH: I am married, no kids yet. Husband is a sales director of a mountaineering sports brand. He never been to the poles — well a few times in south Greenland. He do not likes the cold very much.. I usually give him feedback of the clothing and equipment after I use them the field, i.e. how the zipper irritates you or how the hood is sitting, etc.

DA: I am sure all of your expeditions are great and different in their own way. But is there one that was more memorable than the others?

SH: Well, in 2007, 80 km south of the north pole, ice camp broke up underneath my feet. Jeremy was on the camp with me (DA’s note: Jeremy Wilkinson is another sea ice scientist who is on the JCR now). We had the Twin Otter plane standing on the ice, 5-6 scientists sitting on the camp drinking cognac after a day of hard work. I went out to brush my teeth, this is midnight, of course bright daylight. “What’s that over there?” said Jeremy, “That black line, what is it?”. And then the whole thing just broke off within minutes. The landing strip for the Twin Otter, which needed at least 700 meters to take off, broke into two, suddenly something like 400 meters were left!  We immediately woke up everyone around us, packed up whatever we could. Then took everything out of the plane, seats, every thing that was excess weight at that point. Took off in those 400 meters and actually had to leave 20 people behind. We had to get to a radio station in Greenland. Because I spoke Danish, Norwegian and English only we could organize the recovery with teams from Norway. I sat in a military station in north of Greenland and arranged for the rescue and evacuation. It took several days to get everyone off. Those days had been really cold and the wind was blowing really hard, and because of the strong Arctic wind applying constant pressure on the ice, the ice was kept in place. Then the wind stopped for a while the and we think the ice relaxed, and just cracked and broke off. It’s funny –  the same thing happened again in 2009 again north of Greenland but I was more experienced at that time, and there were only at few of us in the camp at that point and we handled it with more ease. But the first time was frightening and it made a huge impression on me. Later, I was featured on the Danish radio explaining what had happened.

DA: Sounds like an experience. When compared to ice camps how do you find the comfort of the JCR?

SH: This is my first time on the JCR, and actually second time on a cruise like this. I think it’s a very good atmosphere, even though we all work really long hours, everyone is always helping us. Because we have to be here for such a long time, it makes a big difference to have such a great crew. It’s a really nice ship, the cabins are big and the food is pretty good. Only this morning we got canned fruit for breakfast – for all these weeks we’ve been onboard, it was fresh fruit. There is always a salad and every meal is at least a half plate of vegetables. They do really well. It was especially nice how quickly they learned our names. Instead of two groups “the crew” and “the scientists”, it feels like one large group, which is great. We could not have done our work without them.  Even when I accidentally go out on the ice without my life jacket on… very forgiving.

DA: After all this snow and ice work, you must certainly go to warm places for your vacation times?

SH: I ski in my vacation time in the winter, and climb or sea kayak in summer. I used to ski a lot before I started college anyway. My husband and I met through outdoor sports as well. If we go north, we can do daytrips in a nice ski area in Sweden, but normally we go to Norway, or the Alps, which is 12 hours by car.

DA’s note: Dear Susanne, this is my official invitation to you and your husband to visit my hometown Urla, Turkey. There’s not even a remote chance of skiing at any time of the year but there is good hiking, diving and wind or kite surfing which I think you will enjoy especially in the spring or the fall, when it is not too hot. Not to mention the wide variety of fresh local produce.

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1 Comment on Susanne Hanson – scientist

  1. Hulya Saydam says:

    Very interesting interview Deryacim. I hope Suzanne makes it to Urla one day so we can all meet her!

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