Academic spotlight: Dr Caroline Clason

Caroline looks back at her career, reflecting on her achievements and love for geography as we celebrate 50 years of geography at Plymouth

5 min read

Dr Caroline Clason is a Lecturer in Physical Geography in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and a Leader of the Centre for Research in Environment and Society. Dr Clason’s research expertise centres upon glacier dynamics and hydrology, and the impact of retreating glaciers on downstream water availability and quality. She has conducted glaciological research in Greenland, Arctic Canada and Scandinavia, Iceland, the European Alps, and most recently the Peruvian Andes.
Her current research focuses on the downstream impacts of glacier retreat for water, food and energy security in mountain glacier areas, in addition to studying the presence of man-made contaminants within glacier catchments and evaluating the impacts of this for water and environmental quality.
Geography 50 - Dr Caroline Clason

Can you explain what makes you passionate about the subject of geography?

“I’m passionate about geography because it encapsulates so many aspects of the Earth System, many of which are inter-connected. As a subject it can make a real contribution not only to understanding of environmental processes and change, but also to finding solutions to mitigate and adapt to the impact of emerging environmental challenges, thanks to the multidisciplinary nature of the subject.

“Geography also benefits from being a subject which lends itself very well to field-based study, and for me, working in the field is one of the highlights of my job, both in terms of research and teaching.” 

You’ve made a career out of geography – what inspired you to want to teach that subject?

“As an undergraduate student I conducted my dissertation research on the Miage Glacier in the Italian Alps. I’ve been hooked on glaciers ever since, and have gone on to specialise in meltwater travelling within and downstream of glaciers in Greenland, the Canadian and Scandinavian Arctic, and most recently the Peruvian Andes.

“As a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth I teach students about the cryosphere both thousands of years ago, right up to thinking about changes to the Earth’s icy environments in the present and the threats they face from anthropogenic climate change and other human influences.”

Is there a piece of research that you have undertaken of which you are particularly proud?

“The research I am most proud of is a very recent study of the extent to which fallout from nuclear weapons tests and accidents from Chernobyl is still found in remote locations across the global cryosphere (glaciers around the world). By collecting samples of an ice surface sediment called cryoconite from a number of glaciers in Sweden and Iceland I was able to analyse this material for fallout radionuclides.

“I worked with a team of scientists from across the world to set these results within the context of other results from Greenland, Antarctica, Canada, Svalbard, the Alps, and the Caucuses, and we discovered that the levels of fallout radionuclides found on some of these glaciers were some the highest ever described outside of nuclear exclusion zones.

“We are now working to evaluate the extent to which the presence of this material in glaciers may or may not be harmful for the downstream environment, as glaciers melt and retreat under a warming climate.” 

Where is the most special place you have visited on this planet and why?

“The most special place I have visited is the Tarfala Valley in Arctic Sweden. The valley sits below Sweden’s highest mountain, Kebnekaise, and is home to Tarfala Research Station which has been my 'home from home' during many summers. I have explored the glaciers there for my own research, but also taught a field course there during my time working at Stockholm University.

“I’ve even coached a team of Swedish students to win the 'Tarfala Ashes' in a cricket match against a team from a local tourist station (and lost a few times too). The valley is home to reindeer, glaciers, unique Arctic flora, and high mountain peaks, and you can even have a dip in a freezing cold glacier-fed river after a sauna at the end of a day in the field. Idyllic.

Do you think studying geography is especially important given the current state of the planet? And do you think that might change over the next 50 years?

“I believe that geography is as important now as it has ever been. The environmental challenges we are facing today, specifically those arising due to anthropogenic activities, are posing a very real threat to the natural environment with a clear risk of serious knock-on impacts for the human population.

“What is perhaps different now, as opposed to say 50 years ago, is that geographical research on these environmental challenges no longer focuses only upon describing the problem, but increasingly looks to provide solutions to these issues and creating impact from our research that extends beyond academia.

“My expectation is that this will continue over the next 50 years, and that geography will remain as central to understanding and adapting to environmental challenges as it is today.”

Geography 50 - Glacier walking
Geography 50 - Iceland fieldwork group photo
Geography 50 - Iceland

Celebrating 50 years of geography

2019 marked the 50th anniversary of geography as a degree subject at the University of Plymouth.

In the last half century, 6,394 students have graduated from our geography programmes and 154 staff have worked with us, supporting and carrying out world-class research and teaching.