Gilbert Club 2018

This December I attended the 2018 Gilbert Club on a rainy day at the University of Maryland. For the uninitiated, the Gilbert Club is an annual meeting of geomorphologists (people who study the shape of the earth as a result of surface processes such as erosion and deposition) that takes place after the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The objective is to share research and build community.

I had never attended before, and I regret to admit that I was only able to attend half the day. However, I was intrigued that the meeting started off with the microphone being passed around to every single attendee to say their name and their affiliation and to state whether they had employment opportunities to offer, or whether they were in search of employment opportunities. The whole process took 50 minutes, and I liked it. It seemed very egalitarian to give each person the mic for a short moment, especially when academia can be hierarchical.

I took the opportunity to do an unofficial demographic survey of the attendees to see what the gender breakdown was. I employed the problematic binary distinction of male/female, and made the categorization primarily based on pitch of voice, as I could not always see the speaker. So, please forgive this casual and simplistic (and possibly discriminatory) methodology. I thought that the numbers might be interesting to other people at the event, despite their crudeness.

And… drumroll please, I counted 159 men and 86 women during the mic session, meaning that 35% of attendees were women. All things considered, that’s pretty good. In comparison, at the Canadian Geophysical Union conference in 2017 (according to our study published in FACETS) an average of 35% of the audience and 29% of presenters were women in the Earth Surface Processes sub-section. So the Gilbert Club gender breakdown is about par for the course.

I will note that diversity in the geosciences was a strong component of the AGU (and associated) meeting this year. At the Gilbert Club Justin Lawrence, Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) used his 15 minute presentation slot to emphasize the discrepancy between the gender and racial demographics of the American population in general and the demographics of Principal Investigators awarded geoscience grants by the NSF and called the discrepancy ‘unacceptable’. Similarly, the AGU continues to advance an agenda of equity and diversity, offering a suite of E&D sessions this year, as well as a plenary, and in publishing a report on the sexual harassment of women in the geosciences. Notably, the AGU has also updated its ethics policy to make sexual harassment a form of scientific misconduct, stating that it is as bad for science as plagiarism, falsifying data, and so on.


Think you’re alone here (at an academic conference)? You might be right.

If you are a woman, a minoritized person, or, in particular, a woman of color, you might have attended an academic conference and thought ‘wow, I feel really out of place here’. It is not an uncommon experience to attend a conference and feel awkward and out of place. This feeling of ‘being out of place’ and its racialized and gendered context motivated my co-authors and I to study the demographics and behaviours of conference participants, presenters and audience members at a 2017 geophysical conference held at UBC. The resultant paper was published yesterday in FACETS Journal, and you can read it here.

The paper first examines basic demographics of attendees, presenters, and audience participants, broken down by disciplinary sub-section. Results show that women and people of color are unevenly distributed throughout Canadian geoscience, illuminating where gains in diversity have been made and where further effort can be usefully targeted. A quarter of all conference sessions had no female presenters, and a quarter had no people of color presenting. Further, women are over-represented as poster presenters rather than oral presenters in a way that cannot be explained by a higher percentage of students who are women, suggesting that women either ask for more poster slots or are disproportionately assigned to them.

Second, the paper analyses the division of scientific labour in Canadian geoscience in terms of how women and people of color participate in geoscientific research. We found that the division of labour within each subdiscipline is unequally distributed along gender and race lines, and we call attention to areas where efforts to diversify the geosciences might be concentrated.

Finally, we found evidence of a ‘chilly climate’ in conference sessions that correlated with an absence of women within those research fields. Behaviours that contribute to this climate include the use of gendered language and jokes, less adherence to time keeping and aggressive questioning styles. Collectively, we argue that these behaviours create a sense of who ‘belongs’ in these spaces and who does not. We also found that presenters of color experience significantly more audience disturbance than do white presenters.

Unfortunately, conferences are just one of the spaces in which the effects of identity and belonging affect a person’s experience within the institution of science. Efforts to address diversity in science have often focused on practical and tangible issues such as access to childcare, harassment and mentorship.  Addressing these barriers to equality is essential, but fails to deal with the multitude of small, cumulative cues about belonging that influence a person’s ability, interest, and opportunities for success within science. We hope that this paper can provide an opportunity for reflection and discussion on these experiences at conferences as well as in science more broadly.

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.

Rivers of the Alberta foothills

The Rocky Mountain Parks (Banff and Jasper) are a famous destination in Alberta, but if you are looking for something a little different and out of the way, there are some real gems in the foothills.  The strong structural controls from the tilted sedimentary layers makes for some absolutely incredible rivers and waterfalls draining the foothills.  Resistant layers of rock can impose ‘knickpoints’ on rivers and cause waterfalls and steps in the bed, and the foothills of Alberta are rife with wonderful examples. Living on the West Coast now with its metamorphic rocks (hey, no value judgments), I really notice what a different quality the rivers in Alberta take on from their sedimentary origin.  The many provincial parks in the foothills get overshadowed by their mountainous neighbours, but the rivers and waterfalls there are second to none.

I suggest driving Highway  11 from Saskatchewan River Crossing to Nordegg and then South down the Forestry Trunk Road to do a tour of some truly incredible rivers and waterfalls.  The campgrounds and roads are also less busy than the Mountain Parks, and if you are interested in hiking you can really lose yourself in the protected areas along the David Thompson.


Crescent Falls on the Bighorn River.  Downstream of here there is a pretty impressive gorge as well – I just didn’t have the skills to get a decent picture of it.


Incredible lithological controls on the Siffleur River in the Kootenay Plains Provincial Recreation Area.  Really one of the most incredible examples I have ever seen! Run, don’t walk to check it out!

2015-08-12 11.02.44

Ram Falls on the Ram River.  There is a virtually empty campground here all the time.  I hear there are trout too, although I can’t testify first hand (and not for lack of trying).  Ram Falls looks similar to Crescent Falls above, but they are in completely different areas.  They just share a formative process.


Ram River south of the falls.  Notice how there is a knickpoint that cuts across the channel at the top and the bottom of the tilted resistant sedimentary layer.  Wowser!


A paraglacial overview

This morning I had a fabulously sunny and clear flight over the Rocky Mountains as I made my way from Vancouver, BC to Calgary, AB.  It’s spring, and snow still covers much of the higher elevation areas in this part of the world, and it graciously acts to highlight the topography and landforms you can see from above.  It got me thinking about geomorphology, as most things do, and about why exactly I enjoy it so much.

Sometimes it is difficult to explain why geomorphology is important to study.  There are always default examples about sediment budgets and geo-hazards, but as I looked out over the incredible landscape of the Rocky Mountains I thought about how for me, learning geomorphology is about learning a language that can help me read a landscape.  To take the metaphor a bit further, let us consider Arabic.  I think Arabic is a wonderfully beautiful written language.  Almost everybody can appreciate its elegance.  I can’t read Arabic, though, and so although I can appreciate its superficial beauty, the real  meaning of the words is lost on me.  The same thing is true for landscapes, I think.  If I wanted to be really cheesy, I would say that although you may be able to admire Nature’s handwriting, you cannot truly appreciate it unless you understand the meaning .  That’s terrible cheesy though so I wouldn’t say that – what am I, a nerd?  I would simply say that geomorphology is the language you need to know to take your appreciation of a landscape to another level.  I like it because when I look out over a landscape, geomorphology helps me pick up on subtleties and piece together a story.

With all of that in mind, I took some sadly low-res pictures of the landscape as we flew over, and I thought I’d share some of my favourite story arcs with you.

Landscape overview

The Rocky Mountains from the air. A classic paraglacial landscape!

Above is an overview of the Rocky Mountain landscape.  This is a paraglacial landscape, which means that although most of it is unglaciated, the current geomorphic (earth moving) processes are still influenced by the legacy of the previous glaciation.  Because of this, paraglacial landscapes like this one tend to have very wide valleys and lower drainage densities than landscapes that have developed exclusively from running water (fluvial) processes.

Fluvial network development?

Fluvial network development?

In the above image, I have marked in red some channels that are fluvial (running water) in origin.  I deduced that based on how deep they are relative to their width (i.e. they are V shaped valleys instead of U shaped valleys) and because they are very close together, i.e. there is a high drainage density.  Glaciers tend to erode the valley walls between them until the ridge is very knife edged, as can be seen very well in the top of the picture, and tend to be lower density drainage basins compared to fluvial basins.  The relevance of the picture to me is that it shows very well how the landscape is changing now that the glacial influence has receded.


A very clear glacial moraine.

In the above photo, the snow and shadows have highlighted a very beautiful glacial moraine (circled in red).  Moraines are essentially just piles of sediment (rock) that are created when glaciers bulldoze through a landscape.  It looks to me like the moraines in the photo are lateral moraines (moraines on the side of a glacier) that have been left behind by a receding glacier.  You can even see the glacial toe at the top of the circle!!

Some lovely crevasses.

Some lovely crevasses.

Circled in red in the above photo is a glacier with some really neat crevasses.  Crevasses are cracks that form on glaciers from stress as they move.



Ok, this is a terrible picture.  I had to include it though, because we were flying over this lake and it was perfectly dotted with these little deltas!  I circled them in red – don’t worry if you can’t make them out very well, though.  These are areas of sediment deposition that are found where a stream is entering a lake.  The foremost one is probably the best example.  As you can see, the stream is coming in from a very confined valley.  Two things happen to form this depositional landform.  Firstly, the stream is a high energy system that is very confined within its valley.  When it enters into the main valley (where the lake) is, it achieves what is essentially unlimited channel width, which causes it to lose energy and deposit its sediment load.  Typically this kind of landform is called an alluvial fan.

Hanging valleys

Hanging valleys feeding into a main U-shaped valley.

This picture shows some of the really dramatic impacts of glaciation on a landscape.  The main valley to the right of the picture is a huge U shaped valley left behind by a main trunk glacier.  To the left you can see small valleys coming in which look essentially snub-nosed.  These valleys are formed where smaller tributary glaciers joined up with the main glacier, although they did not erode as deeply.  The result is small valleys that are left perched above the main valley.  These valleys are known as hanging valleys.

The checker board pattern of clear cutting.

The checker board pattern of clear cutting.

Finally, you could not really look at the geomorphology of this modern landscape without considering the impact that we humans have on the world around us.  This picture shows the dramatic visual impact of clear cutting on the landscape.  It looks like a checker board, no?  Checkmate, Nature!  Your move.

And there you have it!  A slightly different take on a flight over the Rockies.  Next time you are flying with your kids, you can play spot the landform!  Or if you are in first class, make it a drinking game.