Contact information

Phone+45 91 33 38 14


William Colgan

Seniorforsker, født 1982


What is your project about? 

Jakobshavn Isbræ – Greenland’s largest outlet glacier – is currently responsible for around 2.5% of global sea-level rise. Accurate measurements of ice velocity and elevation were first collected at Jakobshavn Isbræ in the 1950s. This project will re-measure these historical survey points and run computer simulations of ice shape and flow during the pre-satellite era. This knowledge will help us understand how much of Jakobshavn Isbræ’s present ice loss is a recent response to anthropogenic climate change, and how much is a delayed response to the end of the Little Ice Age (c. 1900). 

Watch  the video with William Colgan: The sea-level story of Greenland's largest outlet glacier

William Colgan - is collecting glaciology data.jpg

How did you become interested in your particular field of research? 

Glaciology first interested me because the fieldwork seemed adventurous. Travelling in the High Arctic – especially on the Greenland ice sheet – felt very big and new. I now continue in glaciology because the science seems very relevant, especially in the context of the global challenge of sea-level rise. You want your research to be topical, and Jakobshavn Isbræ is at ground zero for climate change.

What are the scientific challenges and perspectives in your project? 

The two biggest scientific challenges of this project are the size of the study area and the availability of data. Jakobshavn Isbræ drains an area of c. 96,000 km2 – about 6% of the ice sheet – which is a huge spatial scale for computer simulations trying to resolve individual processes. There is a tremendous amount of data – both historical and satellite – documenting Jakobshavn Isbræ’s elevation and velocity since the 1950s. So computationally challenging simulations are needed to explain huge amounts of data.

William Colgan - an aerial photo of Jakobshavn Isbræ.JPG

What is your estimate of the impact, which your project may have to society in the long term? 

The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a need for improved understanding of the role of long-term ice-sheet dynamics in sea-level rise. Perhaps the best impact this project can have is feeding results directly into this IPCC knowledge gap. Constraining how and when Jakobshavn Isbræ has contributed to sea-level rise over the last century will help clarify how other large ice streams might similarly “switch on” under climate change.

Which impact do you expect the Sapere Aude programme will have on your career as a researcher? 

By providing the opportunity to lead a top-tier research project, the Sapere Aude programme gives junior researchers direct access into higher profile science. Of course, unique data and insights will flow from Sapere Aude projects, but these projects also serve as solid foundations from which to pursue synergistic grant and collaborative opportunities. It is difficult for me to guess how a Sapere Aude will impact my career – I know it will be very positive – but I expect its impact will unfold in a non-linear fashion.

City of your current residence

Now living in Copenhagen

Upper secondary/high school  

Crescent School in Toronto, Canada