Posts by kristenfrench

Little Auk Upends Arctic Climate Change Models

Posted by on Jan 22, 2015 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Little Auk Upends Arctic Climate Change Models

Spread the News:ShareIn July of 2013, a team of scientists from France, Russia and the United States descended upon an uninhabited archipelago in the Russian Arctic called Franz-Josef Land, the northern most archipelago in the world. There they spent two months at Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, one of the archipelago’s 191 islands, tagging and studying a small black and white seabird called the little auk (Alle Alle), which nests on cliffs and dives for its dinner in the frigid water. Their findings call into question some models of climate change impacts on polar ecosystems, says David Grémillet, the lead scientist of the group, in research published in Global Change Biology in mid-January. Given its remote high-Arctic location, Franz-Josef Land has long been considered a kind of Arctic Eden, sheltered from the impacts of climate change. Nearly 85 percent of its land mass is blanketed by glaciers and its islands are surrounded by extensive sea ice. But temperatures in the Arctic are rising, and are predicted to increase by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Grémillet and his colleagues wanted to measure how the ecosystem of this icy Arcadia is responding. They chose the little auk as a subject because it is a so-called sentinel species, one that can be used as a proxy for the health of an entire ecosystem, much like the polar bear. The most abundant seabird in the Atlantic Arctic, with over 40 million individuals, the little auk is a major part of the food chain in polar ecosystems. Previous research has suggested that the little auk is quite flexible in the face of changes to its environment. But Grémillet and his colleagues suspected the bird might reach a breaking point due to its high energy costs and metabolic rate, as well as a diet primarily made up of copepods—tiny crustaceans that are themselves highly reactive to changes in sea ice and water temperature. Using remote sensing data, the scientists measured changes in the volume and area of sea ice and glaciers between 1979 and 2013. They also tagged a number of little auks from one colony with tiny electronic devices affixed to legs or breast feathers to track their foraging behavior. These devices, called miniaturized temperature–depth recorders, provided information on the depth and duration of every dive, as well as the hours spent each day gathering food. The researchers then compared current and historical data on the diet, body weight and chick growth of little auks at Franz-Josef Land. The data they collected revealed some bad news and some good news. The bad news: Sea ice in the Franz-Josef archipelago has, in fact, retreated markedly during the last decade, disappearing entirely during summer by 2005—a harbinger of future conditions elsewhere in the Arctic Ocean. Coastal glaciers have also retreated, dumping large volumes of meltwater into the sea. The good news: while disappearing sea ice curtailed the birds’ traditional feeding grounds, retreating glaciers created new ones. The little auks adapted their behavior, feeding at the boundaries where glacier melt discharged into coastal waters at Tikhaya Bay, close to the their breeding areas. Local zooplankton were shocked by cold temperatures and dramatic contrasts in salt concentrations between the fresh meltwater and saline oceans, making them easy prey. The little auks were able to maintain chick growth weights, while adults lost just 4% of body mass. The little auks’ adaptability in Franz-Josef raises questions about previous research on the birds. In a 2010 paper, Nina Karnovsky of Pomona College predicted that 40% of all little auks would disappear from the Atlantic Arctic by the end of...

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John Muir: America’s Ice-Chief

Posted by on Jan 13, 2015 in All Posts, Art/Culture, Featured Posts, Policy and Economics, Science | 1 comment

John Muir: America’s Ice-Chief

Spread the News:ShareA rhapsodic wanderer trained in geology and botany, John Muir had a big hand in launching the American environmental movement and is considered by many to be the godfather of America’s national parks. The Scottish-born naturalist wrote numerous screeds in defense of wild places for national magazines around the turn of the 20th century that electrified the American public, and he influenced both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft to take major measures to protect iconic American landscapes. He was also one of the founders of the Sierra Club. In a book out last year, Kim Heacox argues that it was the glaciers of Alaska that inspired Muir’s fiercest passion for the wilderness and animated his efforts to protect wild places. Thus, the title of Heacox’s book: John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America. Muir “would popularize glaciers unlike anybody else, and be to glaciers what Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars,” writes Heacox, an independent scholar who lives in Alaska. The story is an entertaining and elegantly written romp through Muir’s evolution from a self-described tramp and outsider who scorned all things urban and “civilized” into a formidable force for conservation in the United States. Along the way, he cultivates friendships with some of the greatest minds of the era, and takes painstaking efforts to nourish his literary talent. The lure of Alaska’s majestic and otherworldly ice-scapes for Muir are a constant throughout, and Heacox’s descriptions of his adventures there are some of the most lively passages in a lively book. Muir was undeniably enamored of the unforgiving rivers of ice that blanketed his beloved mountains in California’s Sierra Nevada and the United States’ new frontier, Alaska. He called glaciers “God’s crystal temple,” in one passage cited by Heacox, from a book by his friend the Reverend Samuel Young, Alaska Days with John Muir. Muir’s references to God and temples were not just for the reverend’s sake. John Muir believed that heaven lies on earth, that one finds transcendence in the wilderness, that nature is the original church. Muir tells Young, I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculpted figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be. While he courted great danger on many of his trips to Alaska, he trusted his own luck and the expertise of his guides, native Tlingits. Muir admired them for their knowledge of and respect for the ice, sea and land. He in turn won their esteem, according to Heacox, with his fearless daring, his death-defying agility and his persuasive oratory. The Tinglits called Muir the ice-chief. It turns out that even then, the ice chief was worried about the ice. When Muir made that first visit to Alaska at the age of 41, he already believed that its massive glaciers had begun melting into the sea. Here Heacox quotes Muir in his own words, from his Travels in Alaska, written at the very end of his life: Glacier Bay is undoubtedly young as yet. Vancouver’s chart, made only a century ago, shows no trace of it, though found admirably faithful in general. It seems probable therefore, that even then the entire bay was occupied by a glacier of which all those described above, great though they...

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Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Posted by on Dec 23, 2014 in All Posts, Communities, Featured Posts, Policy and Economics, Science | 1 comment

Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Spread the News:ShareCentral Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan. The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve. Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.) Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months. Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.) Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe. In Conflict In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation. The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a...

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Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age

Posted by on Dec 12, 2014 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 1 comment

Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age

Spread the News:ShareHave you heard of Ötzi? One of the world’s best-preserved mummies, he immediately became an archaeological sensation when he came to light in 1991, and new details of his story have been surfacing in scientific journals, magazines, television programs and on the radio ever since—Radiolab dedicated an entire episode to Ötzi just last year. A 45-year-old Neolithic man, fully clothed and carrying a backpack, an axe, a dagger, medicinal plants, and many other personal belongings, he was discovered by a pair of hikers in the Ötzal Alps of Italy lying face down in glacial ice and meltwater. At first the hikers thought he was the victim of a recent mountaineering accident. But when scientists took a look, they discovered the body was over 5,000 years old. Ötzi could be considered the poster child for what has since become its own branch of study: glacier archaeology. Though it has been over two decades since Ötzi was discovered, and many more major finds have surfaced in melting ice and snow in the time since then, glacier archaeology is a field that is only now coming into its own. While one-offs like Ötzi and other mummies have made thrilling finds, the potential for recovery of new artifacts is growing as glacial melt accelerates around the globe. Just this November, the first journal dedicated exclusively to glacier archaeology launched: it’s called, suitably, The Journal of Glacier Archaeology. “There is immediacy to this research,” write the editors in an introduction to the journal’s first annual issue. “Climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay. Consequently, it is imperative to extend the geographic scope of this research now.” Once the artifacts thaw, they begin to decompose, and shrivel up, which makes them less valuable to researchers, which has lent the hunt for finds a sense of urgency. Vast regions of Asia, Europe, and North and South American have so far been virtually untouched by the discipline. Identifying good new sites in remote glaciated regions of the world is increasingly being done with the aid of advanced technology: not just aerial photography and helicopter surveys, but satellite imagery and geographic systems modeling. The first issue of the journal offers, among other things, an overview of findings about the impeccably preserved 500-year-old “Inca Ice Maiden” and two other mummified Inca children, discovered together in 1999 on Mount Lullaillaco in northwestern Argentina and understood to be human sacrifices; a pollen analysis of caribou dung found on ice patches in the Yukon; a discussion of bronze age arrows found in Norwegian alpine snow patches (see below); and an analysis of GIS (Geographic Information Systems mapping) methods used by glacial archaeologists. A series of annual meetings called “Frozen Pasts,” first launched in Switzerland in 2008, provided the impetus for the new journal, according to Martin Callanan, a glacial archaeologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and managing editor of the journal. “It’s a bottom-up thing—people working with the same things, the same complex phenomena, the same findings, all finding each other and saying something is going on here, and it’s global, we need to have regular meetings and a proper publication for ourselves,” he says. “It’s its own special little field…we’ve only started looking.” The Cryospheric Gallery The funny thing about the term glacial archaeology is that most artifacts recovered intact from melting snow and ice actually come from what are called snow and ice “patches,” according to Callanan. That’s because snow and ice patches don’t grow and recede the way glaciers do, making them less likely to crush...

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Disappearing Glaciers, an Artist-Activist’s Muse

Posted by on Dec 2, 2014 in All Posts, Art/Culture, Featured Posts, Uncategorized | 1 comment

Disappearing Glaciers, an Artist-Activist’s Muse

Spread the News:ShareDiane Burko has an appetite for ice. For nearly a decade she has been documenting the disappearance of glaciers from the earth in large-scale series of paintings and photographs. Burko considers herself not just a landscape artist, but a landscape activist. Her two most recent projects, entitled Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations, have been developed in close collaboration with glaciologists. It’s a symbiotic relationship: she wants her work to accurately reflect the science and the urgency of climate change, and they want her to help them communicate their science to the public through her art. The glacier work fits neatly into a much longer artistic trajectory: she has been photographing and painting dramatic, monumental landscapes for more than 40 years. I spoke to Burko about her evolution as an artist, her interest in glaciers, and her collaborations with scientists. What follows is an edited excerpt of the interview. Q: You were raised in Brooklyn, New York, a place that is not exactly known for dramatic sweeping landscapes of the kind you feature in your work. Where did that impulse come from? Diane Burko: The first landscape that had that kind of awe moment for me was the Grand Canyon. I was asked to do a show at Arizona State University in 1977, and the draw for me was that I knew it was near the Grand Canyon. I happened to meet James Turrell, the light artist, in L.A. a few months before the show, and I was telling him about how I was going to Arizona, where he was, and he said well what are you going to do? I said, ‘The big thing I’m going to do is see the Grand Canyon,’ and he said, ‘What you need to do is fly over and fly into it.’ Apparently, he actually does that. He has a plane, so he flew me into the Grand Canyon in a little Helio Courier. So that was the first time I flew over something and photographed it. Before then, I was using photographs that other people had made, magazines, calendars, National Geographic, whatever I could find. And once I was in that plane with Jim, I realized I was going to be making my own photos and making paintings out of those photos. That was the historical beginning of my aerial view and I always credit Jim for getting me started. Q: So how did you move from the Grand Canyon to glaciers? Burko: There was kind of a pivotal epiphany moment in 2006. I did this project that was basically about Iceland and volcanoes. I went to a place called Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake where lots of the James Bond movies were filmed. And I had an exhibition about it in 2006, and the curator said, ‘You’re doing ice here, in these glaciers, but didn’t you do ice and snow in the 70s?’ And she was correct, and she took one of those paintings of French Alps, from 1976, and put it in this show. And so, it just hit me that it was 30 years later. And it was the exact same year as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, and I had also just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, on climate change, so it was in the air. I think all those things together raised my consciousness. It really changed my whole practice. It was no longer just about painting beautiful landscapes, but it was about figuring out a way to talk through my language of paint about this issue that is...

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