A very simple research summary

In the Geography Department at UBC, we are deeply engaged in doing what Geographers do best: wondering what it is that Geographers do best. As part of our existential quest, some of us graduate students have been running workshops and activities to broaden our understanding and appreciation of pan-geographic research. We ran a ‘Human Geography 101’ workshop last April to learn about some of the theory and vocabulary employed by our ‘Human’ Geography colleagues, and on November 4th, we ‘Physical’ Geographers ran a ‘Physical Geography 101’ workshop to return the favour.

As part of that workshop, students presented short summaries of their research in simplified terms by using the XKCD simple writer. It’s an online tool that limits your writing to the 1000 most widely used words in the English language. It limits you to truly jargon free communication. For example, in the below screengrab, you can see that, oddly enough, ‘glacier’ is not one of the most commonly used words in the English language.


The xdcd simple writer limits the writer to the 1000 most common words in the English language. ‘Glacier’ is not one of them.

The results of the exercise were¬†some really cute, one paragraph¬†summaries of people’s research that read a bit like children’s stories. I couldn’t resist – I had to do my own. And so here follows my Simple Writer summary of my research area (all this to actually avoid updating the ‘research’ tab on my webpage).

“Big hills of ice keep lots of water inside of them. They keep this water out of the seas. If they didn’t, beaches that we like and cities on these beaches would be under the sea. In the summer, these ice hills give some of their water to rivers, and then people can use that water for growing food, for making power and other stuff. Fish and animals use the water too. Sometimes these ice hills give too much water, too fast, and then people can get hurt. These ice hills are very important for keeping the Earth hot or cold. Long ago, these ice hills gave too much water into the sea in the north, and the Earth became very cold. These ice hills also change how hot or cold the Earth is by sending back some bits of sun that the sun sends down to us. The more ice hills we have, the more sun they send back, and the colder we stay.


Glacier on Face Mountain, close to Pemberton, BC. (C) Leonora King 2016

These ice hills need the earth to be at least a little bit cold, or they will disappear. Right now, the earth is getting too hot for these ice hills. Many of the small ones are disappearing, and the really big ones (that are really important for where the beaches are and how hot the earth gets) are starting to show some big changes too. This means that we don’t know how safe our beach cities are. If we live close to rivers that get their water from these ice hills, now we don’t know how much water we will get, and when. If we live down from an ice hill, we don’t know if we will get too much water all at once, and how safe our families are.

These ice hills change, move, and grow in lots of different ways – they are very important, but very hard to understand. People are looking at these ice hills trying to understand how they work and to answer questions like: When and why do the ice hills move? How are they growing or getting smaller? Are they changing in surprising ways? Why are they doing that? When they move or grow or change, what does that mean for the world around them?

I, myself, am interested in what is happening on top of the ice hills. On the surface of the ice hills, rivers form and carry water to holes where the water goes inside of the hill and makes it move by making its bottom slip. I like rivers because they are strange but not crazy. They look the way they do because they change in expected ways when things around them change. So, because they act in ways we can learn to expect, we can use the way they look to figure out what is happening around them. I want to know: can we use the way the rivers on top of ice hills look to figure out what is happening to the ice hills? Also, do the different ways that these rivers look and act make the ice hills grow or move in different ways?”


Strikingly blue rivers on top of the Greenland Icesheet. Image is about 7km across. Source: Google Earth.