An Exchange of Research and Culture – Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen


By Tyler Wieland
Summer 2013

Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen

Photo: Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen with an ice core from the NEEM Project on the Greenland ice sheet. Photo courtesy of the University of Copenhagen.

As a high school student in Denmark, Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen was eager to study nature. Her curiosity in exploring the natural world led her to study the ice sheets as an undergraduate, and her initial experiences in the field sparked her interest in understanding how the world’s changing climate affects the ice sheets.

As a Danish citizen, Dahl-Jensen has a strong cultural connection to the people of Greenland, which is considered an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. She said this is the primary reason why her research focuses heavily on the Greenland ice sheet.

Dahl-Jensen, who is one of the leading researchers in ice sheets at the Niels Bohr Institute of Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, said her current research is what brings her to the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets in Lawrence, Kan.

Though she has been to Lawrence, Kan. before, this is the first time she will be on an extended stay. Dahl-Jensen, her husband, who is also working at CReSIS, and her daughter all arrived in Lawrence, Kan. in the middle of August for a three month research exchange.

Research at CReSIS

“I have had a long and fruitful collaboration with the researchers at CReSIS,” Dahl-Jensen said. The University of Copenhagen and the University of Kansas have a long history of exchanging professors and graduate students to assist with collaborative research ventures between the two universities.

She said, “CReSIS is the leader in radar and the development of radar technology to monitor and record changes in ice sheets.” It is this that brought her to Lawrence, Kan.

According to Dahl-Jensen, the radio echo data being collected by CReSIS’ radars will help a collaborative group of international researchers determine the prime locations for drilling future deep core sites across Greenland, New Zealand and Antarctica.

She said the tools and data that CReSIS provides her is an important element in reconstructing the Greenland ice sheet to see how it has moved and changed through time.

Cultural Exchange

“The work environment reminds me of home, but the cultural is much different,” Dahl-Jensen said. While her family is excited to be experiencing Kansas’ unique culture, her primary focus continues to be on her research. “I am taking advantage of the opportunity to work with the researchers at CReSIS and utilize the data available,” she said.

One of the more difficult cultural shocks for Dahl-Jensen and her family was the summertime heat. “Back home we are able to bike almost anywhere we would need to go, but some days it’s just too hot to bike across town.” She went on to say that in Denmark, everything is fairly close, so biking is more feasible than in Lawrence, Kan.

Dahl-Jensen’s 13-year-old daughter is currently enrolled at a local middle school. She said that though it has been difficult for her daughter to go to school in a foreign language, she loves the experience. Dahl-Jensen and her family will be in Lawrence, Kan. until November 6th.

Even while she is focused on her current research, she has many other projects planned or in development. “Research is always changing,” she said.

Current and Future Research

Dahl-Jensen took the time to highlight how exactly she plans to use the unique radar data and IceBridge technology to assist in determining future locations to drill ice cores. She said, currently, a Danish group is working on mapping Roosevelt Island in New Zealand for possible locations to drill. She hopes Operation IceBridge will be able to make a pass over the area in the near future.

Her next project will focus back on Greenland. In 2015, a collaborative group of researchers from the U.S., Germany and Denmark will be in the field studying the Renland, Greenland area for locations to begin deep ice core drilling. Dahl-Jensen expects to use CReSIS radar data to pinpoint the best location for the team to drill.

“It fascinates me to work with the past climate and understand how the climate has changed over the years,” she said. Dahl-Jensen hopes these deep ice core samples will help determine the movements of the ice sheets using the folds in the ice crystals to estimate the rate of change.

Another project in its early stages is a 2016 deep ice core drilling project, also located in Greenland. Dahl-Jensen said that she hopes the project will be able to shed some light on the northeast Greenland ice stream and its contributions to sea level rise.

According to Dahl-Jensen, this study would tell us a great deal about what we could expect for future sea level rise due to ice sheet mass loss in Greenland. While this project is not funded yet, she believes it is instrumental to the next stages of studying sea level rise from Greenland’s ice sheet.

Climate Change and Ice Sheets

When it comes to climate change and ice sheets – Dahl-Jensen takes two approaches. First, she focuses on the small scale. “In 50 years it will be interesting to see how the cultural and society of the people of Greenland changes,” she said. For example, as the ice melts more natural resources will become available and farming will likely become more prominent.

Next, she looks at the broader impact of her research involving ice sheets. “Studying how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica continue to evolve will tell us what will happen as these ice sheets melt,” Dahl-Jensen said.

As an example, if all the worlds’ ice were to melt, these ice sheets could add approximately 65 meters or 210 feet to world’s sea level. With over one third of the earth’s population living in coastal areas, knowing just how fast and how much sea level rise will occur will be the only way to combat these changes.

“I enjoy working with young people and hearing their new ideas,” Dahl-Jensen said. Research is one of the most fluid fields to work in, which is just one of the reasons why she enjoys it so much.