Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why journalists get it wrong when they come to the Arctic

I spend much of my time in the high Arctic. The mythological place of ice, midnight sun and endangered polar bears. By now everybody knows what the Arctic sea ice cover looks like and how fast it's shrinking, and satellite images of the globe with ever decreasing ice cover have become common fare in even the most popular of newspapers. Each summer tourists land on these shores in great numbers. They venture out of their comfort zone to see for themselves what it's all about and with them come the journalists, the nature conservationists and the politicians. Most go on day trips to glacier fronts. They go by boat through the fjords and they look at old maps and talk about how the ice has retreated since the map was made and how beautiful it is and how sad it is for the polar bears.

We take students on similar trips. Not because we want them to experience the Arctic before it is gone, but because they need to go to the same fjords to study the modern processes and geology in their curriculum. Because professors are not mean we also go on short "sightseeing" excursions like up close to glacier fronts, and we talk about the same things other people to do when they experience this dramatic play of nature for the first time. We also talk about former positions of the ice margin, but rather than concluding that the ice has retreated two kilometers since 1963 and therefore we are sad, we talk about how glaciers behave and what ice marginal positions mean.

Many glaciers in this particular corner of the world are what we call surging glaciers. It means they accumulate snow (which eventually turns to ice) over many years (often decades), while moving very slowly. At some point the imbalance between the accumulation on the upper part of the glacier and the mass loss near the front will be so extreme that gravity and the sliding capacity along the base of the ice force the ice mass to move forward. Surging glaciers can move forward at incredible speeds of up to 100 m/ day or more than a km in a year. They alternate between the surging phase that commonly lasts a few years and the quiescent phase that lasts for decades. During the quiescent phase glaciers retreat to an "equilibrium position" and build up towards a new surge. In the high Arctic where modern science came with the polar explorers of the late 19th and early 20th century very little is known about the past behaviour of surging glaciers. For many glaciers it is not known whether they are surging at all. Surging glaciers often leave remarkable traces in the landscape in the shape of moraines. The force involved in the surge allows for the ice to push up "slices" of the bed and stack them in front of the glacier. When the ice retreats the moraines remain. Dating organic material (C-14 dating) or Quartz or feldspar mineral grains in sand (luminescence dating) can tell us about the age of past surges. Sometimes they also leave traces in the sea floor like plough marks where rock fragments attached to the base of the glacier have scraped the sea floor.

Surging glaciers are dependent on the ability to slide across the bed. Large glaciers and ice masses like the Greenland and Antarctic inland ice are wet at the base because the weight of the ice allows the ice mass to reach its pressure melting point. Smaller glaciers in cold areas are often what we call polythermal. It means the glacier snout is frozen to the ground, but the thicker ice mass in the hinterland is wet at the base. Surging glaciers are often polythermal. When Arctic glaciers decrease in size they become cold based or perenially frozen to the ground. Cold based glaciers don't really move. It is possible that many glaciers that were surging in the past aren't so anymore. It is also likely that some of the glaciers that surge today will not continue to do so.

In historical terms, glaciers used to be bigger. A global cold phase, "The Little Ice age" lasted from the 17th to the 19th century and is confirmed from historical records from harvest to diseases and narratives about cold winters and wet summers. It did however not begin and end simultaneously and different regions have reacted differently to the climatic fluctuations that characterized this time interval. It seems from temperature records that the north Atlantic snapped out of the cold phase relatively late, maybe as late as the 1920's-1930's. Ice margins from the maximum position of glaciers during The Little Ice Age are still dominant in the landscape. In areas with permafrost, moraines degrade very slowly. Some people have suggested that glaciers are still adapting to the temperature changes 70-80 years ago. This does not suggest that no mass loss is going on today, just that it is difficult to distill the modern change from historical change when standing on a ship experiencing the scenery for the first time.

Each year glaciologists camp out on the glaciers in order to measure thicknesses, ice temperature and isotopic composition, trace gases and other evidence of "the state of the ice". Practically all of them come to the conclusion that most glaciers in the world loose mass rapidly, and the well documented studies should leave no doubt that the heat has been turned on and that ice is melting. So what am I complaining about? I am complaining about the lack of talk about how the glaciers really move and what it is we see in the landscape. The moraine five kilometers in front of the modern glacier margin is not a sad sign of the ice retreat, but a sign of a not climate related natural phenomenon called glacier surge and the retreat from the Little Ice Age moraine is partly an adaptation to warming over the past 100 years. The real signs of climate warming such as the thinning of the glacier, change from polythermal to cold-based glaciers and shorter duration and thinner sea ice cover may be less photogenic, but all the more important.

Let me end by saying that I do "believe in global warming induced by humans and I do think we should do everything we can to turn or diminish the global warming trend. I'm all for higher gas prices, environmentally friendly cars and public transportation and I think it will at some point be considered unethical to fly everywhere and use bargain air tickets. I am also deeply conflicted about this need to always point out that I'm not against global warming when pointing out inaccuracies in terminology or public lingo about the state of the Arctic. As someone who studies palaeoclimate rather than present climate these issues come up a lot when some study or other suggests that things were different in the past than we think.

This post is submitted to the geology carnival "The Accretionary Wedge" on "Favorite geological misconceptions".

(I admit that this post does not conform with my own views on what geology is as discussed recently on Clastic Detritus, but it does have a lot to do with something I encounter regularly in my professional life as a geologist)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Update on the burn-out posts

Things are looking up here. I want to thank the commenters in the posts below for good suggestions, support and feed back. It helps to know that someone is out there and your thoughts and ideas have helped me to see things clearer and ask myself some important questions.

Since last week a few things have happened, which were all small steps towards making things better.

I have slowed down at work and made time for reading widely within my field. This is not a long-term solution because I will not always be able to work at a slower pace, but right now ditching a few self-imposed deadlines and making time for thinking and reading has been nice.

Likewise I have taken evenings and the weekend off. Read a book, watched TV, cooked nice food, gone to the gym and in general taken good care of myself. Again this doesn't solve the problem in the long run, but was a nice breathing break.

I picked up where I left one of the manuscripts before the holidays and realised that although making the last figures will take time, it is not impossible. I think I am realistically looking at some 15-20 hours of work and since I don't have too many other obligations this week it should be possible to finish this paper soon. I also got an email from the co-author (and former advisor) on the other paper, and she has very few comments, so it looks like this papers is also close to being submitted.

I tried to talk about the flexibility issue at work. I ended up mentioning it in a group meeting dedicated to discussing work conditions, so I figured it was appropriate, but couldn't talk about it in a very personal way. I think my point about the need for more work from home time was largely not understood and maybe even seemed a bit offensive to some. The actual meeting was awkward and I felt a bit like I was the problem kid who wanted different and unreasonable rules. However, bringing up the topic made me realise that one of the reasons the others don't understand is that I'm in a very different situation to most of them with being a post doc and on my way out. My intense need to publish over spending time actively on the ongoing projects is mainly brought about by my leaving from this institution. Maybe I am also wrong to assume that I can have all the time in the world to write right now. I am still employed via ongoing projects and I realise now that it is totally reasonable for my PI to expect me to spend many hours a week on those, even if it doesn't mean writing. I think the issue is partly about my preferred way of working while writing (comfortably at home at the longest possible stretches of time) and partly about a lack of discussion between the PI and I on how I should spend my time (writing or doing new research). Even if the meeting made me feel like a fool, this realisation alone was enough to make me consider the meeting a success. I think I understand better now how to frame this discussion when bringing it up again.

I'm trying to work on some of my own issues that brought me in this crossroads position in the first place. I've tried reach out to friends and even tried to talk to my mom about it. I'd say it's definitely with varying levels of success, but I've also gotten some challenging and really useful input. As I've said in one of the earlier posts, one solution is obviously to lower my expectations for my own productivity. This is difficult for a number of reasons. Partly because in academia one does just not lower ones level of productivity and stay in the game, but it's also difficult because having high expectations of myself and getting acknowledged by others because of my accomplishments has become a huge part of who I am. As I just told a friend, maybe the dilemma is to find a way to still achieve academic goals, but not for the acceptance from others, but simply because I think it is important/ interesting/fun (which I still do, at least some of the time).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Revisiting priorities

I hope last week was a low point and that I'm on my way back up. As often before just writing about my worries makes them seem easier to handle. I don't think there is anything physically wrong with me, or put differently, I think if I could be less stressed, I would feel better. I don't think it's a matter of having more downtime each day, fresh air, exercise and eating healthily, though all that certainly helps. I don't think the pressure is really put on me by anyone else. I already got the next job despite my meager publication record and nobody will complain if I don't publish a lot now during the spring. I think the pressure is very much in my head which in a way makes it simpler because I can control that, and in another way makes it much worse because if I really could control my thoughts, I would have done so a long time ago.

It is not entirely true that I have forgotten what I am passionate about in my work. I haven't. My passion for my field is just becoming overshadowed by all the things I must do and haven't done. I am excited about the ideas I have for new papers and for the data collection I am working on. I am excited about developing new classes for next year, about working on a more field-based way of teaching and about new research ideas that can be carried out in my new location. I want to have time in my day to think about the projects and problems I am excited about, but the only way I can do that is by neglecting the endless revision projects that makes me feel useless and stupid and slow, but never ends unless I spend so much time on them.

The paper that tipped me over the edge before the holidays is one I have been working on for years practically. It was in my dissertation as a manuscript and I knew it needed some more work before submitting it. It connects with some of the things I have been working on since and after spending some time revising it last winter, it turned out that the better decision was to split it into two papers and incorporate some old and some new data into both. The first of these papers was due for a journal in early December and I started working on it in November thinking that it would be two-three weeks of revisions. So far I have spent 80 full working hours on it (yes, I've logged them and breaks are not included) and I'm still not done. Because I rarely have a full day to work on anything, it took me from early November to mid December by spending all evenings and weekends and all available work time. It makes me feel sick to think about that it's still not done. It makes me feel slow and hopeless that it takes me 80+ hours to finish a paper that was already half-way there, and to think about how long it will take me to complete the remaining maybe 20 or so hours. It makes me feel I should spend all my waking hours working on it, although I know I will feel bad again the moment I put myself on that kind of track.

This is what happens all the time. I set out after the field season or a vacation with all the best intentions of having a balanced work life with time for writing, reading, communal tasks and research group logistics each day and it goes fine for a little while until some deadline is approaching. Then I realise I am not working hard enough and need to speed up to meet it. The first thing to go is the new research, reading and development of ideas (all the things that make me want to do this in the first place). The second thing to go is exercise, dinner and social time and within no time I am back to working non-stop, feeling sick and having no life at all. Sometimes, as the case was in December, I don't even meet the deadline anyway, leading to further despair.

I really don't know how to deal with this in a better way. Obviously my current strategy is not working but each time I have tried to set up a more balanced schedule I fail at it, because I just don't have time for it. I hate that it is not "allowed" to talk about struggling with work in academia and that the mention of difficulties is the same as admitting to a weakness. I hate that not having kids is making it even less acceptable to struggle with work demands*. It makes me sad that I don't have any close friends here and that my only network is people who are also involved in my workplace.

I think it would help a lot if I had more time to work on new research, new ideas and time to read. It would also help if I had a much more flexible schedule and by that I mean if I could work from home significantly more than I do now. It seems that many of my colleagues thrive in the corporate style environment where they meet in the office in the morning, write happily on their papers all day and punch out after 8 hours of consistent work. Maybe I'm just more lazy, but my brain simply doesn't work like that. I need breaks, I need to get up and go outside and think and be creative. I want to be able to spend a break reading blogs without feeling guilty the moment my boss shows up in the office or go to a coffee shop to think or write if a change of scene is helpful. It may take me longer to finish something, but it is more inspiring for me. I have talked about this at length before, and I am not sure I can do much to change it in my current job, but I think I need to find a way of bringing more creativity with me to work, even within my current constraints. I also need some success experiences with the old research/ manuscripts. I don't even need to see them published right now, but I must at least submit something and get a feeling of making some progress. I really must a find a way to combine the two, because still not having published (or much worse, even submitted) the dissertation papers makes me feel awful.

The really difficult thing is to apply these thoughts to everyday life. I would love to hear what you all think and how you deal with the work pressure and publishing demands. We all talk a lot about balance between work and life, but what about balance between different work tasks. Do you ever feel overworked to the point where it seems worrying and if you do, what are you doing about it? Have you ever opened up to colleagues about such concerns and if you did, how did they react?

*I think this is the other side of the coin of the family friendly politics and society in Scandinavia. The acceptance for parents needing to leave work early, having constraints on traveling plans or just in general being pressed for time is high. This is good, and I might need this acceptance soon enough, but I think it strikes back at people without a family in an unintended way. Often it implies that people with kids are understandably stressed but single people or couples without children couldn't possibly have other demands in their life than work. I don't question the stresses that parents face, but I also think it is essentially more comforting and assuring to arrive home to a loving family who needs you than to an empty house where you can just as well start working again. I was at a seminar about stress in the fall and the psychologist giving the talk actually said that single people often got hit by stress in a different way than families with children because the family demands made the parents leave work earlier and forced them to spend less time and energy on work. This is probably not true in academia, though.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Reality bites

So I did it. I got up on Monday morning and went to work and it was hard, and I was tired and had a headache, but it was not awful. I can do this. I can get up and come to work every day, because, really, why shouldn't I. Other people do this all the time. Then yesterday it felt like I was coming down with something again, and I'm beginning to think I am allergic to work, or maybe to writing papers. I have already had several sick leave days in the fall, and I can't believe this is going to continue. It's been the same for a while now. I'm fine when I have time off and get to recover and instantly get worn out as soon as I return to work, without even doing much, and that scares me. I think it must be psychological in a way, because I cannot really imagine what else would function that way, but I don't know how to break out of it.

It's not even that I truly dislikes my job. It's OK. It's even interesting. I have a lot of freedom to do what I want. I am being recognised for my work and get a lot of positive feedback and the few things I might be less content with are mostly going to change when I start my new job in June. I have done all the right things like taking time off (four weeks vacation in spring and a long Christmas break now), used overtime hours to create a more flexible schedule (took a lot of Thursdays off or made them part-time work from home days in the fall) and it works. I do get more rested and more connected to myself when I take time off, but it doesn't last as soon as I get back.

When I was completely worn out after the field season I tried to talk to some friends and colleagues about it, but they didn't really get it. It is so accepted and I'd say expected in this profession to be tired, overworked and behind all the time, that it's not perceived as an alarm signal, but rather like normality. Maybe I'm just different and can't accept this normality, maybe I'm weaker or less healthy and can't push the limits the way some other people do, or maybe I have just been pushing the limits for so long now that I don't know how not to do so.

I started the postdoc right after defending the PhD. Like in getting up and packing my belongings the morning after the defense and start my new job in a new country the following Monday. I got the visiting ass. professor gig, which was really my first extensive teaching experience, while I was still working on publications from the dissertation, writing my first big grant application and getting my feet wet with the postdoc research and logistics. I moved twice within that year and had a fifty percent post doc on top of being a visiting professor. I got my first big administrative post while I was still working on grades and make up exams from the fall semester and continued to work on my postdoc research while being a new department head/group leader, and on top of that came the worst field season ever this summer as a new expedition leader on two long field seasons with lots of social tension in both. I don't think I have ever been so tired or felt as weak as during the last of these field campaigns. I am awfully behind on publications, because so much of my postdoc time has been spent in other roles and I'm feeling squeezed now because I need to publish more before I start the next job. But I'm tired because I have been loaded with new jobs and extra activities and short term pressure to learn and finish up something new for so long now.

Last year around this time I thought a lot about how to balance work and life and I thought the solution to my problems was to get better at this, take more time off and create a good home life for myself to help take off some of the pressure. Now I think that was only a way to try to cure or keep down the symptoms, but not the underlying problem. I think the real problem and my worst enemy is my own ambition and lack of ability to let go of opportunities. I think now, that maybe there are some of the opportunities that came my way that I shouldn't have taken, because I'm not a machine and cannot keep going indefinitely. I also think I need to let some of my publication goals for the spring slide, but it is hard, because I have already set myself up for being behind and it won't get better when I start teaching in the fall. I sometimes think I dislike my job, but deep down I don't think I do. I love my research when I have time to dive into it and think and play, but the pressure to be productive and on top of it all is crushing me in a way where I don't remember what I'm passionate about anymore.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New Years meme 2008

Wayfarer Scientista tagged me for this, so here goes, though I guess it should have been posted before we switched to 2008. But who cares. It's my blog and I make the rules.

1. Will you be looking for a new job? Not looking, but I will start my first job as a faculty member this summer

2. Will you be looking for a new relationship? No, I'm happily married, but I'm hoping to meet new friends and make social life and relationships in general a higher priority.

3. New house? Yes, as I will be moving in summer.

4. What will you do differently in 08? I hope I will learn to accept my limitations and be satisfied when I do my best. I don't really believe I can change my obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist nature overnight, but I will be working on cutting myself some slack.

5. New Years resolution? I don't make New Years resolutions, but since finishing the PhD two years ago there seems to have been a kind of overarching theme or focus for each year. The first year was about finding my place academically, financially and socially. Getting settled in a new town, struggle with the newness of a foreign country, getting started on projects and paying off debts with newfound income. The second year was about reaching for goals and establishing a life and a routine. It was the year I got married, were able to save money for the first time since forever, began to feel at home in the new town, established friendships here and the year I landed my first faculty job. So now what? This year will bring more change than I am comfortable with right now and it will also bring an awful lot of work. I want it to be the year I accept that I don't want the career at the expense of my physical and mental health and find a way to deal with the workload that allows me to keep both.

6. What will you not be doing in 08? Umm, who knows? Anything might happen. Seriously, take on new administrative posts. The one I have now is more than enough.

7. Any trips planned? A trip to Italy with the husband in late spring, a family gathering in mid-summer, a conference in UK in March, maybe a work trip to Russia in February and two field trips to Russia in summer. On top of this I'm still contemplating blowing off all my overtime hours on a trip somewhere nice in spring before I quit my job here and the overtime hours will dissolve into thin air.

8. Wedding plans? Well no. I just got married last year and we are very happy, thank you very much.

9. Major thing on your calendar? Manuscript submission deadlines. They control my life in an unhealthy way.

10. What can’t you wait for? The husband to return home from the next few months overseas. In a shorter time frame: to go home and eat chocolates and watch the Gilmore Girls final season on DVD.

11. What would you like to see happen differently? A lot in the political debate. For starters I'd like journalists to get a basic grip on earth science if they want to participate in the climate change debate.

12. What about yourself will you be changing? My mind. Can I have another one? Seriously, I am quite happy in my own skin and don't really want to change anything.

13. What happened in 07 that you didn’t think would ever happen? I grew to like the town I live in, and I feel like I've come home when I return from trips.

14. Will you be nicer to the people you care about? Maybe. I don't think I am not-nice now, but stress tends to make me very introverted and unsocial, so some people might think that I'm not being nice to them. I'll try to improve. OK.

15. Will you dress differently this year than you did in 07? Not by choice, but I'm moving to a place that is quite a bit colder than where I am now, so I guess thermal underwear and woolen socks can't be avoided.

16. Will you start or quit drinking? No, I am quite content with my drinking level.

17. Will you better your relationship with your family? It's good and difficult at the same time and I doubt it will change much in 2008.

18. Will you do charity work? Probably not, though, I should.

19. Will you go to bars? Probably more than I do now because that is just something that happens more where we are moving.

20. Will you be nice to people you don’t know? I think I'm already nice enough to people I don't know.

21. Do you expect 08 to be a good year for you? Probably. I have high hopes and it looks promising.

22. How much did you change from this time last year till now? Not at all, but maybe a lot. I think I am more confident in my professional life but I don't think I changed much in my personal life.

23. Do you plan on having a child? Being a new faculty member is not ideal for getting pregnant, but I do wish for having kids in a not too distant future.

24. Will you still be friends with the same people you are friends with now? Hopefully. I have lost many friends in the past due to me letting the friendship slide when moving away. I am becoming more aware of the importance of taking care of the long-distance friendships.

25. Major lifestyle changes? I don't think so, although some people would call moving to our new location a major lifestyle change.

26. Will you move? Yes to a place where it's completely dark three months of the year and where everybody owns a snowmobile, which sounds extremely remote and strange but actually feels much more connected to the world than you would think.

27. What will you make sure doesn’t happen in 08 that happened in 07? Well, nothing really bad happened in 2007 that I absolutely must protect myself or anyone else from. My Russian colleague died, but although it is sad when people die, it's hard to prevent. Maybe less social tension on field work. It's unbelievably draining to be away like that when the group doesn't function.

28. What are your New Years Eve plans? We spent it at my brother's house with his fiancé and my two nephews. It was a last minute arrangement due to a change in travel plans, but it's been years since I celebrated New Years with my brother and it was lovely.

30. One wish for 08? Better and more consistent blogging habits. One can always try.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

It's all about expectations

It's almost one week into the new year and I'm going back to work tomorrow after a three week break. I have deliberately taken the time completely off and it's been wonderful. The husband and I have travelled to visit our families, we have had some time off on our own and I feel reasonably rested and much better than before the break.

I worry about getting back to work, because I feel the demands on my time there are higher than I can cope with, and I don't know how to deal with that or make it better. I haven't been blogging much in quite a while now, partly due to being away but also partly due to being worked completely into the ground for a long time now. I had what I could best describe as a couple of small breakdowns in the week before the holidays and in our first week of actually having time off, and it worries me that I don't see a way to prevent that from happening in the future. I feel pushed and squeezed and dragged in all directions. The expectations are high and although I do my very best at the expense of eating, sleeping and getting regular exercise it is never quite enough to keep up with what I am supposed to be doing. I see that other people are able to work very long hours and weekends in order to reach their goals, and it frustrates me that I can't do the same, but I'm beginning to realise that I really can't. I cannot work for much more than the designated 40 hours per week for any extended period of time. My time on the job is constrained and I don't have the academic freedom of lounging around in pyjamas all day if I want to, going out for lunch or making an appointment in the middle of the day. I get up at six every morning, commute to work and sit in my office for eight hours. If I ever want to work out, cook dinner, clean the house, talk to my spouse or have friends (something I barely have anymore) or lounge around in pyjamas and blog or watch a movie, I cannot work two or three hours each night and weekends. It makes me feel like a failure that I am not able to do this, but when I quit the real life stuff for too long, it pays back and that's where the weepy "breakdowns" came from.

It also bothers me that my year is so interrupted. In most years the months from about the beginning of May to the end of September are taken up entirely by logistics for field work, actual fieldwork and teaching field courses and unpacking gear and wrapping up logistics from the field season. That leaves no time for summer breaks or vacation time and a year's worth of work need to be accomplished in about seven months. I do more fieldwork than I have the time to write up any time soon, but it's the way to play the game as it is now we have the grants. Maybe this bothers me even more because my/our private life is similarly interrupted with the husband working far away from home two times three months a year and only one of these seasons coinciding with my field season. I think this lack of break and uneven pace of the year is something that really makes my life more difficult.

I know those are the conditions of the trade and I don't complain in general. I think my working conditions are just fine and that I/we as academic(s) are to a large extent pushing ourselves, but then again I don't think it's possible to be successful in this career without pushing oneself. I don't know if it's possible to succeed while taking the expectations down a notch or two, but I do know that I need to try to do so unless I want to get sick and unable to work at all.