A pioneer of glacial microbiology, Dr Cook has spent five seasons in the Arctic exploring the microscopic composition of the ice surface and its effects on the Earth’s climate. His Rolex Award for Enterprise recognises his work and will help him and his team continue their research on the Greenland ice sheet in 2017. Here he takes Avaunt through his greatest challenges.
On a practical level, the work I’m doing is interdisciplinary. It requires field skills, an experimental design that will work in extreme environments and an understanding of technology. The next stage of my work, for example, is to map life on ice from the air, and that requires integrating a new type of multi-spectral camera that will look at specific wavelengths of light. Of course this will require collaboration – my background is in glacial microbiology, not tech.
Another challenge is perception. People see the Arctic, and to an extent the Antarctic, as something abstract. There’s not a general awareness that changes in the Arctic don’t stay in the Arctic, that they have global consequences, and yet it is an incredibly sensitive part of the planet and a driver of processes across the globe.
Nineteenth century polar explorers laid the foundation for a lot of my work. Between 1872 and 1875, with the first crossing of Greenland, Adolf Nordenskjöld and his team, using microscopes, accurately identified cryoconite (dust made from rock, soot and microbes that forms on snow) and what was living in it. They’d even got as far as realising that mankind was accelerating the melt of glaciers and ice sheets. It was Nordenskjöld who said, back in 1875, that life was ‘the greatest enemy to the mass of ice’. Humanity knew all of this, and then effectively forgot it for almost a century.
Now, as we’ve begun to realise the consequences of global warming, Nordenskjöld’s discoveries have taken on a new significance, and it has become more important than ever before to understand how the planet is going to react, and a lot of that is based on how the Arctic responds.
Communicating the severity of this situation is a challenge. People don’t think about the Arctic because it’s something very far away that they don’t see. We need to find creative ways to bring the Arctic into people’s lives, homes and schools, and to communicate the importance of what is happening there. We’re in real trouble and have to act immediately, but at least the intellect and motivation and inspiration exists to do something about it.
In conversation with Pip Harrison
2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which seek to encourage new ventures and recognise those who explore beyond boundaries.
Joseph Cook is one of 2016’s five Rolex Young Laureates. Established in 2010, this segment of the awards aims to support younger pioneers at a critical stage of their careers.