New Method Identifies The Most Vulnerable Glaciers In Greenland

Using an old theory and a new high tech dataset, scientists have developed a simple method to assess which of Greenland’s glaciers might contribute the most to sea-level rise.

Photo: Screenshot / Catherine Jex

Date Completed: 2017

The Brief: Incorporate a figure produced for a scientific paper into a popular science article. Produce an animated gif to depict the scientific process in question.

Key Features: Thinglink . Tumult Hype Pro . GIMP

Client: ScienceNordic

Media Type: Online news . Magazine

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This interactive graphic accompanied an article I wrote for ScienceNordic and, reporting on a new method to assess the vulnerability of Greenland’s glaciers to climate change. Ultimately, the new method could help scientists to identify which glaciers are ‘the ones to watch’ and thereby improve estimates of future sea-level rise.

Try it yourself:

Explore the interactive map to see how glaciers in West Greenland are responding to climate change in different ways. Some have already lost vast amounts of ice and are retreating inland (deep red shading). Others have lost relatively little ice (light red shading), while some have actually gained ice (blue shading). The size of the circles indicates the amount of ice lost or gained since 1985. (Interactive map: Catherine Jex / ScienceNordic / Illustration: Felikson et al. 2017 / Nature Geoscience)

A home icon in the top left, explains how to use the graphic. Information icons explain each of the legend elements on the left of the image. For example, blue circles indicate a loss of ice and the size of the circle indicates the amount of ice loss, so bigger circles indicate greater ice loss.

Hovering the mouse or touching areas of the map, including the shaded map areas, blue and red circles, and initials for each glacier, brings up an explanation for each of these.

The Concept

The study was published in Nature Geoscience. In it, scientists applied an old theory of how glaciers retreat and advance, and combined it with updated satellite imagery to identify how vulnerable individual glaciers are to ice loss in the near future. Crucially, it helps get to the bottom of why some glaciers are losing more ice than others.

The original scientific article contained a great figure plotting ice lost and gained from outlet glaciers along the coast of West Greenland since 1985. I wanted to use this in my popular science article, but it would need either redrawing for a new audience or a lot of explaining for a non-expert readership. There was a simple work around: I used an online tool, Thinglink, to add interactivity to the original figure.

How I did it

Thinglink allows you to upload an image and add icons and popups anywhere on that image, making it interactive. No coding is needed and there’s no need to self-host the interactive element once created, as it can be embedded directly from the Thinglink editor. With permission of the authors, I used their original figure, and added interactive popups in Thinglink to guide the reader through the results shown. The user needs only to hover the mouse or touch an area of the image to reveal the popup and an explanation of what the image shows.

At the time I made this, Thinglink was available for free. But since then, the pricing structure has changed, It appears that you now need to sign up to a paid account to be able to create embeddable graphics like this. But for scientists and research groups looking to share their data with a wider audience, it might well be worth the investment. It is certainly a quick and reliable way to create embeddable graphics that are also easily shared on social media.

Graphic 2:

The same article also included a gif to illustrate the process by which the scientists could explain why some glaciers were more or less vulnerable to rapid ice loss and retreat. It depicts how a marine terminating glacier becomes thinner at its snout where it enters the sea, and how this thinning spreads back up throughout glacier.

The animation above shows how a glacier thins until it reaches its natural “thinning limit.” The location of this “thinning limit” is controlled by the initial thickness of the glacier and the shape of the land underneath the ice. (Gif: ScienceNordic / Based on an illustration by Denis Felikson).


The process is described in my article, but of course images tell a thousands words. It at first appears to be a rather abstract processes, so having an animation alongside the written description helps to explain the process. The graphics were produced in the free vector graphics software, GIMP, and animated and exported as a gif in Tumult Hype Pro. It is based on a series of initial sketches by the scientist and loops to the start, automatically.


Graphic 3

Finally, I used Thinglink again to show the location of the most vulnerable glaciers in West Greenland, as reported by the scientific study. It works the same as the graphic above: Hover the mouse or touch each of the icons to reveal information about each of the glaciers.

These three glaciers in West Greenland are the most vulnerable to climate change and are likely to make big contributions to sea-level rise, according to a new study. Click on each of the glaciers to learn more. (Interactive map: Catherine Jex / ScienceNordic)

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