Frances Butcher

Frances Butcher

Frances Butcher is a glaciologist and PhD researcher at The Open University, where she is looking beyond planet Earth and towards glaciers on Mars. In Episode 5 of Fieldwork Diaries you can hear how the fieldwork she does on Earth can help her understand processes occurring on other planets. You can also find her on Twitter at @fegbutcher.

I was extremely fortunate to grow up in the Lake District, a mountainous landscape in the north of England, with vast valleys and beautiful lakes that were carved out by glaciers. I soon became fascinated by the landscape-altering power of glaciation. This was accompanied by a love of the incredibly dark Lakeland skies. My parents started taking me stargazing before I could walk, and even now, no trip home to the Lakes would be complete without an impromptu midnight adventure out into the fells in pursuit of a glimpse of the northern lights. Therefore, it seems natural that I ended up combining these apparently disparate passions for glaciology and astronomy, and I am now a planetary scientist studying recent glaciation on the planet Mars. I like to think of myself as a space glaciologist.

My journey into space glaciology began with my feet grounded firmly on Earth. I knew before I went to university that I wanted to study geologic processes shaping the surfaces of other planets, but I also knew that I needed to have a strong understanding of the processes shaping our home planet before I ventured out into the Solar System.

An opportunistic ‘field trip’ to the NASA Apollo Mission Control Centre at the Johnson Space Centre while attending the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston.

With this in mind, I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in Geography at the University of Cambridge. I filled my boots with as much physical geography as possible, including glaciology, volcanology, atmospheric science, and remote sensing. I used the final year dissertation as an opportunity to turn what I had learned to a planetary context. I decided to explore glaciation on the planet Mars, and tested evidence for massive meltwater production by Mars’ south polar ice cap approximately 3.5 billion years ago. I completed this dissertation research during a summer internship with the Planetary Environments Research Group at the Open University in Milton Keynes, where I found a group of scientists who spend their days exploring the surfaces and atmospheres of other planets using an incredible range of datasets beamed back to Earth from satellites orbiting various planetary bodies in the Solar System. It soon became clear to me that I wanted to be a part of this group of planetary pioneers, so I applied for a PhD position in the group, and here I am!

In my PhD research, I am searching for evidence for recent melting of water ice glaciers in Mars’ mid-latitudes. These glaciers are thought to have accumulated within the last several hundreds of millions of years, which is extremely recent in the context of Mars’ geologic history.

Debris-covered water-ice glaciers flowing down the rim of Greg crater in Mars’ southern mid-latitudes. The leftmost glacier is ~4 km long. CTX image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Elevation data: HRSC. Oblique view: F. Butcher.

Evidence for past melting of these glaciers is extremely rare and it is thought that a vast majority of the thousands of mid-latitude glaciers on Mars have never produced meltwater. In my research, I am studying exceptional cases of recent melting of mid-latitude glaciers by studying specific landforms that are indicative of glacier meltwater production: eskers. Eskers are ridges of sediment deposited by meltwater flowing through tunnels within glaciers.

A view along the crest of the Kinnity Esker in Co. Offaly, Ireland. This ridge, which weaves through a beautiful forest today, was deposited by meltwater flowing through a glacial meltwater tunnel that incised upwards into the base of the Irish ice sheet.

When wet-based glaciers retreat, eskers are commonly left in the landscape as fingerprints of their past meltwater ‘plumbing systems’. I use a variety of image data sent back from satellites orbiting the Red Planet to study extremely rare examples of young eskers associated with mid-latitude glaciers on Mars, and thus exceptional evidence for recent meltwater production by their parent glaciers. The quality and resolution of these images (up to 25 cm resolution) rivals those available to scientists studying the surface of Earth. I use these data to generate 3D elevation models of Mars’ surface, which allow me to probe the landforms in great detail.

High-resolution 3D model of eskers associated with a mid-latitude glacier on Mars, identified by Gallagher and Balme (2015, Earth. Planet. Sci. Let.). The esker system is ~4.5 km long. These eskers likely formed within the last few hundred million years due to melting of their parent glacier. HiRISE image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. Oblique view: F. Butcher.

I also use computational models to ‘grow’ glaciers on the martian surface. Using these models, I simulate different climatic and environmental conditions to explore which conditions could theoretically raise the ice temperatures to melting point and permit meltwater production and esker formation.

However, just because I study a planet that is 60 million kilometres away, doesn’t mean I can’t get out into the field.

Hiking in Ísafjörður during a spot of birthday fieldwork in the Westfjords of Iceland. The remote Drangajökull icecap can be seen in the background. My photos attest to the immense luck I have had with the weather on my fieldwork!

In fact, fieldwork is an essential aspect of planetary science. I could tell many a nostalgic story about the fieldwork I have completed in both Iceland and Ireland during my PhD, but a particularly unique ‘fieldwork’ experience was my involvement in the 2016 UK Space Agency Mars Utah Rover Field Investigation, affectionately known as ‘MURFI’. MURFI was an Earth-based field trial simulation of a Mars rover mission. At present, rovers and landers are our only eyes on the surface of the red planet; they are robotic geologists providing us with fascinating insights into Mars’ geologic history. MURFI aimed to train UK scientists in the remote operation of Mars rovers for geologic exploration, in preparation for the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover mission, which launches to Mars in search for life in 2020. A budding team of geologists accompanied a rover platform complete with cameras, spectrometers and a drill, to a desert in Utah.

The MURFI rover exploring the Utah desert. Photo credit: MURFI 2016 field team.

I was part of a team of scientists at a very scifi ‘mission control’ centre in Harwell, UK. Each day, our remote operations team would wake to receive data collected overnight by the rover in Utah. We would analyse the data and select interesting science targets in the morning, before writing the next set of commands for the rover. MURFI was a blind trial, in which the team at ‘mission control’ had no communication with the field team, aside from sending lists of commands written in ‘rover speak’ (e.g drive rover 10m forward, turn rover 15 degrees, tilt camera 20 degrees upwards, take photo). The field team would upload these commands to the rover before sending it off on a day of robotic exploration in search of life in Utah.

The MURFI Rover Operations Centre in Harwell, UK, where we remotely searched for life in Utah using only Mars-like satellite images and data returned from the MURFI rover. Photo credit: Pete Grindrod.

Meanwhile, the field team analysed the geology of the ‘landing site’ independently from the rover, using normal field techniques. We will go on to compare the geologic interpretations from both the remote-operations team and the field team to learn about the effectiveness of our robotic exploration in untangling the geologic history of the ‘landing site’ and searching for life in the Utah desert. To find out more, visit the MURFI blog.

To find out more about my research into glaciers and eskers on Mars, follow me on twitter @fegbutcher, and have a listen to Episode 23 of the WeMartians podcast.

Did you know, you can explore Mars for yourself in Google Earth? Click on the planet logo on the taskbar, and change planet to Mars, then select ‘CTX Mosaic’ under ‘Global Maps’ on the side bar to view images of the entire planet at 6m resolution. You can also find spectacular high-resolution (25 cm/pixel) images at

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