The tracks left by the ice sheet led Anne Hormes on a scientific journey that took her from her home in western Germany all the way up to Svalbard.
Today she is a researcher, and the ice has been a central part of her research.
The contents of her tea cup spill over when she bangs the cup down on the desk to illustrate the way the ice sheet formed a barrier against rainfall. The cup is the ice sheet. The desk is Svalbard.
“The ice sheet on Svalbard and the Barents Sea were 1-3 kilometres thick and formed a barrier preventing rainfall finding its way round it. That’s why there was no snow on the other side of the ice,” she says.
We turn the clock back a bit, around 200,000 years. It is the ice age, and in northern Europe the Scandinavian ice sheet extends as far south as present-day Germany. The ice ends where the little town of Grefrath would be built many years later, a few miles outside Düsseldorf. This was where Anne Hormes grew up, and the tracks left by the ice sheet in this area set her on course to study science.
“I have always been fascinated by the development of the landscape. Why a mountain lies where it lies, how different factors interact – that sort of thing interests me.”
She defended her thesis in Quaternary Geology at the University of Bern on glacial variations in the Alps. Her career as a researcher then led her to places that included Italy and Uppsala before she ended up in Svalbard in 2003. What had originally been intended as quite a short stay on this Norwegian island group in the Arctic proved to be nine years. The aim of her research has been to acquire a better understanding of the ice sheet that lay in the region around the Barents Sea during the last ice age and which climate changes have affected it.
“The Barents Sea has been covered in ice on several occasions. The sea is not so deep here; it’s normally 200-250 metres deep, and its bed could have been frozen in places. The land-sea distribution in the Barents Sea area can be compared to the land-sea distribution lying under West Antarctica. If we could understand which climate processes have influenced the melting of the Barents Sea, this could help us improve our models for finding out what might happen in West Antarctica in the future.”
Anne Hormes carries out her research using dating methods in paleoclimatology, the study of the the Earth’s climate during earlier periods in its development. One method she highlights in particular is cosmogenic dating.
“It’s fantastic! It’s based on particles from outer space entering the atmosphere, hitting rock on the Earth’s surface and turning into isotopes such as beryllium or aluminium. When we take samples from erratic boulders we are, for instance, able with the help of these particles to date how long they have been free of ice and thus determine when the ice began to melt.”
In May 2014, Anne Hormes moved to Gothenburg and the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Gothenburg. She is co-leader of the international research group PAGES Arctic 2k, which gathers data on climate variations during the past 2,000 years in the Arctic. The aim is to understand the Earth’s past in order to be able to assess its future.
So does she miss everyday life on Svalbard? The island group is very isolated, of course, and also a good summer’s day on Svalbard is no more than an ordinary November day in Gothenburg. However, for an outdoor person such as Anne Hormes, the Arctic landscape offers something with which other places cannot compete.
“It’s never a problem getting field assistants to come with me when I go backcountry skiing to collect rocks,” she says with a laugh. And there are few things that beat a dog sled ride under the Northern lights on a winter’s night!”
Occupation: Quaternary geologist, researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences, the scientific leader of the international research group PAGES Arctic 2k.
Age: 44 years
Hobbies: Many outdoor activities, most especially rock climbing. She has a dog called Buffy (“as in 'The Vampire Slayer', but I wasn't the one to give her that name!”