A Few Observations About Ice and Glaciers


Fox Glacier image by Cath Singleton

One Thursday night while watching rugby league, I went to the freezer, extracted some ice cubes and wrapped them in a tea towel. The aim was to encase my throbbing thumb in an icy blanket of numbness.

It’s just arthritis, the doctor said, examining the swelling of the thumb joint. Gardening, playing guitar and driving tends to bring on the pain and swelling. Importantly, the doctor did not recommend ice, instead suggesting anti-inflammatories (tablets or gel).

For athletes the world over, ice has for decades been part of the treatment for swelling and pain brought on by sporting injuries. It was quite a revelation, then, to discover that ice no longer has the imprimatur it once had for treatment of bruises and sprains. It seems that doctors and physiotherapists now believe that moving the injured body part helps more with recovery than numbing it with ice.

To digress for a moment, a Deloitte survey of media and entertainment habits cited here a few weeks back found that 91% of survey participants multi-task while watching TV. I scoffed at the time, then started thinking about the things I was doing while ‘watching’ footie.

The ritual of icing my thumb expanded into googling (on my phone) all manner of references to ice (frozen water) as a future FOMM took shape. I may have toyed with my crossword book (seven down: a permanent mass of ice caught in a mountain pass).

I may also have left-handedly replied to two texts and three emails while watching the Brisbane Broncos make multiple mistakes, run sideways, miss tackles and wonder why they got beaten.

When it comes to ice and rugby league, you often footie players sitting forlornly on the bench with bags of ice strapped to their shoulders, knees, thighs or ankles. The most common rugby league injury is what is euphemistically known as a ‘cork’ which is what we kids used to call an ‘Uncle Charlie’, that is, when the schoolyard bully knees you in the thigh muscle. The result is extreme pain, as a deep-seated bruise takes shape within the traumatised tissue.

You will notice I have reclaimed the original definition of ice (the solid form of water). It takes this form when subjected to temperatures of zero and below. In contemporary culture, ice is most frequently used to serve chilled drinks and to create temporary fridges at large family gatherings.

The times when ice (frozen water) most often makes it into the news is when storms drop hailstones as big as golf balls, tennis balls, cricket balls or even bowling balls. It’s no fun being caught out in a hailstorm and can even be dangerous. There have been reports of people dying, going back to France in 1360, during the Hundred Years war, when 1,000 English soldiers were killed in a freak hailstorm. The deadliest of the last century was when 246 people died in Moradabad, India, in 1988.

Hailstorms bring out the worst in headline writers, as they struggle to find four or five letter words that create panic pictures (‘wreak havoc’ is a favourite) and so is ‘freak’, as in ‘a very unusual and unexpected event or situation’.

Hailstorms also play freakish havoc with the balance sheets of general insurers. The Insurance Council of Australia reveals its biggest payout in recent times was the $1.7 billion in losses a 1999 hailstorm caused to Sydney’s city’s east. Then there was the $31 million in losses caused by Sydney’s Anzac Day hailstorm of 2015. Not to mention the trauma and loss of production suffered by crop farmers and fruit-growers and the long queues of car owners waiting for their turn in the panel shop.

You may have already gathered I might steer this conversation from freak hailstorms to what climate change means for the world’s glaciers and arctic ice sheets.   

As Sarah Gibbons wrote in National Geographic this week: “Like an ice cube on a hot summer’s day, many of Earth’s glaciers are shrinking.”

The article is based on new data from researchers at the University of Zurich. They found that melting mountain glaciers contribute roughly a third of measured sea-level rise. This is about the same sea level rise as the Greenland ice sheet and more than the contribution of the Antarctic. Their research also highlighted that many of the world’s glaciers may disappear in the next century. Sea levels rose 27mm between 1961 and 2016, roughly half a millimetre a year. NASA now says sea levels are rising at the rate of 3mm a year, with melting glaciers contributing about a third of that volume.

Glacial movement is caused by variations in temperature with snow accumulating or melting, the evidence seen at the glacier terminus. The sheer weight of the glacier causes it to move slowly downhill, whether or not the glacier is advancing or retreating.

New Zealand’s Fox Glacier advanced between 1995 and 2009 at the rate of a metre per week. Since 2009, the glacier has begun retreating again, as it did in the decades prior to 1995.

Fox and neighbouring Franz Josef are not typical glaciers, though. They retreat or advance 10 times faster than glaciers located in other countries. This is partially to do with the excessive precipitation on New Zealand’s west coast, but also the extremely large neve* above the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.

(*that’s glacier-speak for snow accumulated above a glacier).

The New Zealand situation seems anomalous, however, as US scientists found that 2017 was the 38th year in a row of mass loss of mountain glaciers worldwide. According to the State of the Climate in 2017, the cumulative mass balance loss from 1980 to 2016 was 19.9m, the equivalent of cutting a 22m-thick slice off the top of the average glacier.

My original premise of using ice to soothe pain arose again when friends came over to watch A Star is Born. You know that scene where Bradley Cooper’s character Jackson Maine drags Lady Gaga’s character Ally into a suburban all-night supermarket? This is not long after Ally has biffed an off-duty cop in the face and apparently damaged her hand.

“Better get something on that, before the swelling starts,” Maine says.

So he scurries around the supermarket, putting together a makeshift icepack to soothe Ally’s bruised knuckles. (I read this as a bit of rock star foreplay, giving Jackson an excuse to stroke Ally’s hand).

Gabe Mirkin, author of “The Sports Medicine Book,” where the RICE (rest-ice-compression-elevation), acronym first appeared in 1978, now says the rest and ice part of the cure is no longer recommended. He changed his mind after reviewing the latest research, which includes a study published in 2014 by the European Society of Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery & Arthroscopy. The report found that icing injured tissue shuts off the blood supply that brings in healing cells. “Ice doesn’t increase healing — it delays it,” Mirkin says, and the studies back him up

It would seem the rugby league fraternity did not get this memo.

Perhaps they should take the tip from commentator Gus Gould, who, despite a seven-year footie career marred by injuries, appears to advocate stoicism.

“Aw that’s nothing,” says Gus. “It’s just a cork – he can run that off.”


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Hugh Lunn
Hugh Lunn
April 12, 2019 8:52 pm

I’m always complaining that columnists and feature writers in our newspapers just regurgitate the news and tell us what we already know – but not Bob Wilson! What’s great is Bob always tell me something I didn’t know before.
No more ice on my funny bone, for example.
Hugh Lunn