Meet a technologist: Shfaqat Abbas Khan, the man who knows how fast the ice is melting

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"Your view on ice completely changes when you're up there."

Shfaqat Abbas Khan

Abbas Khan has worked at DTU Space (Technical University of Denmark) for ten years. In his capacity as associate professor, he has provided the world with crucial new knowledge about the fast-melting ice caps in Greenland.

Abbas Khan has not quite finished unpacking. Colourful ropes and carabiners, waterproof bags, and various kinds of measuring equipment still take up floor space in his office. At the end of August—when the melting season ends in Greenland—he spent time in the region maintaining the GPS systems which inform him how fast the Arctic ice cap is melting. Immediately afterwards—at the beginning of September—he attended a conference in Iceland focusing on the methods researchers can use to gain a more precise picture of how the soil will rise when there is less ice to keep it down. Ten years ago, Abbas Khan published his first scientific article as a DTU researcher in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters. The article was entitled ‘Elastic uplift in southeast Greenland due to rapid ice mass loss’—the same area of research in which he is currently engaged: The ground rises when the ice melts. But in the 10 years that have passed, a great deal has happened. For example—and Abbas Khan, among others, has proved this—the speed at which the ice caps are melting has increased dramatically. Viewed across the entire period, around 2.5-3.0 teratonnes of ice has melted into the sea from the ice cap, i.e. almost 3,000,000,000,000 kg of ice. “There’s no doubt that things will change as a result of all that water,” he says as he talks about the ice cap: “It’s huge. Your view on ice completely changes when you’re up there. If I’m standing on a glacier, I can look in every direction and the only thing I see is white ice. And then I think, beneath me are four kilometres of ice—what if that block of ice disappears? Then my home will disappear with it. But you have to be there to understand how massive it is.”

Input on UN’s climate models

And this is the task that Abbas Khan has set himself—understanding what is happening in Greenland—and why the ice keeps on melting: the shrinking glaciers, increased temperatures, raised water level, but also the hot areas once situated close to Iceland, but which now lie below Greenland, melting the ice from below.

“I used to sit in my office making modelling designs, but standing on a glacier in Greenland gives you a completely different picture.”

Shfaqat Abbas Khan, associate professor at DTU Space

“I like being out in nature and taking measurements. That’s also why I became a geophysicist, not an astronomer. Very few astronomers get to do field work,” he says. Abbas Khan has conducted research into Greenland’s ice sheet over the past decade and, among others, he is responsible for providing the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the latest data on the melting of the ice cap and how much the oceans are rising. And with each new publication, the models improve, he explains, despite that the results almost without exception make depressing reading. He highlights the time when he and colleagues from the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen succeeded in using old aerial photos from the National Survey and Cadastre in Denmark to show how the ice sheet sometimes loses vast quantities of ice—while at other times is more stable (2017 promises to be one of the stable years). “We’re getting better at modelling and we are learning. Without a doubt, the best data come from satellites, but satellite data are only a fairly recent addition. So the old aerial photos allowed us to go further back in time. And the more data we have, the better we’ll become at modelling,” he says. “We can’t say anything definitive about the future on the basis of ten years’ knowledge—what we’re seeing may just be an anomaly. You have go way back in time if you want to say something about what will happen in 100 or 200 years—and we’re the only ones in Denmark who have been able to provide these data.”

Ground-breaking research

Abbas Khan’s results have been disseminated worldwide and he has had articles published in some of the leading journals such as Nature and Science on several occasions—with four new ones scheduled for publication within the next six months. But while the office floor clearly attests to his research, there is nothing to see on the walls—no framed diplomas or scientific journal headlines. Not that it would be out of place given his more than 40 peer-reviewed articles—eight to ten of which Abbas himself characterizes as scientific breakthroughs. “It’s not important. The only reason to hang a diploma on the wall would be to sit and look at it, and

Greenland DTU

Credit: Astrid Degerbøl

I’m not the kind of person who keeps posters of my front pages—frankly, it’s not that unique anymore. It was fun when the first Nature article came out in the media and everyone was talking about it, but I’m more interested in looking ahead than at past achievements. Once I’ve written the article and it’s been published, then the question is what can I deliver which is new and exciting,” he says and continues: “I’m fortunate enough to be doing something that interests a great many people. And because I am able to connect the different subject areas—geophysics, space, and oceanography—my field has a slightly wider span, which is what interests Nature, for example.”

Multitasking

Even though Abbas Khan does not write the articles all by himself, it is still a time-consuming business. Although still interested in football, he hung up his boots some years ago, when a sprained feet almost put an end to his field work in Greenland. Most of Abbas Khan’s time is spent either programming or analysing data. As our interview comes to a close, he explains that holding a conversation or giving an interview is not a problem, as the other half of his brain is busy working the whole time: “Just before you arrived, I was writing a program that was proving a little tricky. But while we’ve been talking, I’ve come up with a solution. After you leave, I’ll finish writing the program and then get on with my work.”

By Tore Vind Jensen

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