denis felikson and doug brinkerhoff photo with early career awards
Denis Felikson (left) was one of two young scientists selected to receive the 2019 IACS early career award.

Alumnus Denis Felikson has received an early career award from the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) for research into glacier thinning that he conducted while working as a graduate research assistant at UT Austin’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG).

The award is presented every two years to two early career scientists who have published the best scientific papers on a cryospheric subject. This year’s winning papers demonstrate a growing trend in modern glaciology: crunching data to solve problems.

Felikson graduated from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (ASE/EM) with a doctoral degree in 2018 and is now a postdoctoral fellow at NASA where his research is being used to predict future sea-level rise.

The research he was awarded for combined theoretical physics with satellite observations of the Greenland ice sheet. His results will allow researchers to identify which glaciers are vulnerable by simply examining their shape.

Felikson’s story as a glaciologist began in aerospace engineering. After a short stint working as a flight dynamics analyst, he decided to go to graduate school and do something more closely related with earth sciences. He began his research at the Center for Research (CSR) under the direction of the late Bob Schutz, a highly respected professor in the ASE/EM department. The CSR at UT Austin stood out to Felikson.

“CSR [researchers] are world leaders in satellite geodesy, which is exactly the blend of aerospace engineering with applications in earth science that I was after,” said Felikson. “How I got into glaciology is actually quite a funny story,” he recalled. “Bob Schutz was working with Ginny Catania on a project and advised me to enroll in her class.”

Felikson admits that at the time he knew nothing about glaciology and the cryosphere and wasn’t sure how the course would be relevant to his interests. After the first class, he soon changed his mind.

“The thing that struck me was how many important questions are still unanswered in glaciology,” he said.

Sadly, Schutz passed away in 2015. Felikson continued working on his Ph.D. at CSR but at the same time, decided to take his research in a new direction. Inspired by glaciology conversations he’d had with Catania, he decided to join her research group where he met one of her postdoctoral researchers, Tim Bartholomaus.

Bartholomaus had unearthed a 1960s glacial flow theory conceived by pioneering British glaciologist and physicist, John Nye. At around the same time, Felikson was producing new high-resolution satellite observations of glacier elevations which, when combined with a similar 1985 data set, gave him an accurate measure of how much the Greenland ice sheet had changed since the 1980s. Bartholomaus saw an opportunity to explain why some glaciers thinned quicker than others by combining Nye’s theory with Felikson’s observations. He suggested the project to Felikson who was more than happy to take it on.

Felikson analyzed his observations of sixteen glaciers in West Greenland and matched their change with what Nye’s theory predicted. The study showed the four glaciers most susceptible to thinning and revealed that Rink Isbrae, a glacier thought previously to be stable, could thin over a very large region if it is forced to recede.

At almost three times the size of Texas, the Greenland ice sheet contains an enormous amount of water – if melted, enough to raise global sea levels by 23 feet. While such a scenario is unlikely within our lifetime, recent studies have shown that unless greenhouse gas emissions are immediately cut, the Greenland ice sheet will disappear entirely, and even with drastic action could still account for up to six feet of global sea level rise within 200 years.

glacier image
Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua, a glacier in West Greenland that was part of the study. Photo credit, Denis Felikson

Sophie Nowicki, the senior NASA research scientist who nominated Felkison for the award, says there is still much to understand about the polar ice sheets and their contributions to sea levels. Forecasting how quickly they are melting is a very complex process which makes Felikson’s work all the more important.

“At NASA, Denis has brought a different approach to tackling this problem that is key to gaining new insights,” she said. “There are not many awards for young scientists, so I’m pleased Denis was selected for this one,” said Nowicki.

After completing his postdoc fellowship in 2020, Felikson hopes to stay in the field of cryospheric sciences and work in a faculty or research scientist position.

The IACS Early Career Award recipients were recognized at a ceremony during the IUGG General Assembly in July 2019.

The original version of this story was published on the UT Austin Institute for Geophysics website.