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Using Kayaks and Drones to Explore Glaciers

Posted by on May 23, 2017 in All Posts, Experiences, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Using Kayaks and Drones to Explore Glaciers

Spread the News:ShareField study sounds cool: a group of scientists take boats out into untraveled waters on an important scientific mission, even witnessing extraordinary scenery like an iceberg calving event along the journey. However, the breathtaking beauty of such a trip can also come at a price, sometimes even human life! “I like working in Alaska, but I face the difficulties of any ice or ocean research project,” said Erin Pettit, an associate professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Pettit finds it hard to find a reliable boat and captain for her trips, and too much ice in the fjord often limits how close she can get to the glaciers. The risks to her personal safety rise when she has to work on cold or rainy days. “It can be really dangerous in Alaska, so we send the kayaks out,” said June Marion, the principal engineer for a new study using remote-controlled kayaks to research Le Conte Glacier. The oceanic robotic kayaks are controlled by a laptop a few miles away, according to Marion. “When the calving event happens and an iceberg falls onto the kayak, we do not need to sacrifice valuable human life,” she said. “More importantly, the kayak can go further into unexplored regions. We are more hopeful to collect data.” With a radio controller or a computer, the researchers navigate the kayak by clicking on points on a map, sending the kayak directly to the location for study. The engine can even be started using a computer program. “There are always new technologies being used on glaciers,” said Pettit. Guillaume Jouvet et al. figured out another way for scientists to avoid danger during field work. They used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to study calving of the Bowdoin Glacier in Greenland in 2015. They combined satellite images, UAV photogrammetry, and ice flow modeling, drawing important conclusions from the results. With UAVs, researchers are able to obtain high-resolution orthoimages taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, including major calving events. In this way, Jouvet et al.’s study demonstrates that UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modeling can be a safer tool to study glaciers. This technology has also been successfully applied to monitor Himalayan glacier dynamics: the UAVs can be used over high-altitude, debris-covered glaciers, with images of glacier elevation and surface changes derived at very high resolutions, according to W. Immerzeel et al.. UAVs can be further revolutionized to develop current glacier monitoring methods. Scientists like Marion and Pettit are excited to see these new technologies developed to study glaciers and save lives. They are hoping for more methods to achieve this goal. Spread the...

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Don’t Step on the Crack at Petermann Glacier

Posted by on May 18, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Science | 0 comments

Don’t Step on the Crack at Petermann Glacier

Spread the News:ShareCracks in ice shelves have appeared in disaster movies as ominous signs of global warming. One memorable instance occurs in The Day After Tomorrow when a paleoclimatologist is drilling ice cores at the Larsen Ice Shelf. The shelf breaks apart, leading to a series of cataclysmic climate events that disrupt the North Atlantic Ocean circulation. In July, a real- life crack appeared at Petermann Glacier in Greenland and has been growing steadily ever since. Two scientists, Andreas Muenchow and Keith Nicholls, are investigating the crack and hypothesize that it is caused by an increase in air and ocean temperatures. Petermann Glacier connects the Greenland ice sheet to the Arctic Ocean at 81°N. It is approximately 43 miles long and nearly 10 miles wide. This is not the first crack or full break of ice at Petermann Glacier, according to a Washington Post article by Chris Mooney. Since 2010, entire slabs of the Petermann glacier have broken off. In fact, during two occasions, the glacier lost an area of ice six times the size of Manhattan, according to Mooney. This loss raises enormous concern because the glacier serves to slow down the flow of ice downhill from the Greenland ice sheet into the ocean. For this reason, experts call Petermann a “floodgate.” If the glacier that sits behind Petermann melts, it could raise sea levels by about a foot. A recent paper published in the Geophysical Research Letters describes this type of calving at Petermann as common. The authors explain that it is usually assumed that ocean-ice dynamics are not involved. However, evidence from the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica found that ocean forcing can play a role in the melting. Muenchow and Nicholls expect similar dynamics are occurring with Petermann Glacier. They have been on several expeditions to the glacier in order to measure ocean temperatures underneath the shelf itself. They want to see if rising ocean temperatures are also detrimental to the glacier and causing the melting from below. If warm ocean water were melting the base of the glacier, it would only accelerate the destruction of Petermann. While it is extremely difficult to know definitively, they hypothesize Petermann’s river and the channel beneath it are playing a role in the melting. Data from 2015 and 2016 demonstrates that the temperatures of the warm Atlantic layer in the ocean have increased. With both air and ocean temperatures getting warmer, it is unclear how much longer Petermann Glacier will be intact, leaving frightening implications for the melting of the enormous glacier behind it. The crack in the Petermann Glacier and the possible ensuing events show that news from the ice can sometimes be just as scary as the scenes in disaster movies. Spread the...

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Could Cryoconites Hold the Secrets to Extraterrestrial Life?

Posted by on May 16, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 1 comment

Could Cryoconites Hold the Secrets to Extraterrestrial Life?

Spread the News:ShareIn recent years, scientists have found other locations on planets, moons and exoplanets where life might exist. Different animals and organisms like tardigrades (eight-legged microscopic animals commonly known as water bears) have also been sent into space to explore the conditions for survival away from Earth. However, a recent paper published in the journal Contemporary Trends in Geoscience argues that we can look closer to home to understand survival strategies of extraterrestrial life. More concretely, the authors propose we look to glacier cryoconites, which are granular or spherical mineral particles aggregated with microorganisms like cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, tardigrades and rotifera (another type of multicellular, microscopic animal). Glaciers are among the most extreme environments on Earth due to the high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation received and the permanently cold conditions. These factors make them analogous to icy planets or moons. The associations of cryoconites and microorganisms on glaciers are held together in biofilms by extracellular polymeric substances (natural polymers of high molecular weight) secreted by cyanobacteria. They exist as sediment or in cryoconite holes (water-filled reservoirs with cryoconite sediment on the floor) on glacier surfaces. Cryoconites have been found on every glacier where researchers have looked for them. Cryoconite holes form due to the darkening of color (also termed a decrease in the albedo, or reflectivity of solar radiation) of cryoconite-covered surfaces. The darker color leads to greater absorption of radiation, with an associated warming and increasing melt rates. “Today we think that simple life forms might have survived on Mars in glacial refugia or under the surface. They can and could have evolved on Saturn and Jupiter’s icy moons,” Krzysztof Zawierucha, the lead author from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, shared with GlacierHub. “Imagine a multicellular organism, even a microscopic one, which is able to live and reproduce on an icy moon… It is a biotechnological volcano.” Organisms that live in glaciated regions are adapted to survive in extreme conditions and could provide insights into the survival strategies of extraterrestrial life. Some possess lipids (organic compounds that are not water-soluble), and produce proteins and extracellular polymeric substances that protect them from freezing and drying. Others are able to enter cryptobiotic states in which metabolic activity is reduced to an undetectable level, allowing them to survive extremely harsh conditions. The microorganisms in cryoconites cooperate and compete, affecting each other’s survival responses. Therefore, previous astrobiological studies, which have only been conducted on single strains of microorganisms, may not reflect the true survival mechanisms of these microorganisms. In addition, previous astrobiological studies involving some of these microorganisms used terrestrial or limno-terrestrial (moist terrestrial environments that go through periods of immersion and desiccation) taxa, such as moss cushions, which are less likely to be well-adapted to icy planets than their glacier-dwelling cousins. Tardigrades found in cryoconite have black pigmentation, which probably protects them from high UV radiation. Along with tardigrades, glacier-dwelling rotifera, specifically Bdelloidea, also possess a great ability to repair DNA damage, which confers high resistance to UV radiation. Both may also be better adapted to surviving in constantly near-freezing conditions than terrestrial forms. “So far, a number of processes analogous to those on Mars and other planets or moons have been found in the McMurdo Dry Valley as well as other dry valleys or brines in sea ice, both of which were considered to be extraterrestrial ecosystem analoguos. There is a great body of evidence that some bacteria and microscopic animals like tardigrades may survive under Martian conditions,” Zawierucha explained. “Of course, to survive does not mean to be active and to reproduce. Undoubtedly, however, it triggers consideration...

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Flooding Glacial Lakes in Chile

Posted by on May 9, 2017 in Adaptation, All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Flooding Glacial Lakes in Chile

Spread the News:ShareIt is a peaceful experience to walk near the glacial lake near Colonia Glacier, one of several prominent glacier lakes in Patagonia, Chile. The breeze on the lake helps you relax as you look out on the distant glaciers. In such a tranquil setting, it is hard to imagine that a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOFs) could pose a threat to the area. However, GLOFs have become a significant but poorly understood hazard of a warming global climate. The truth is, melting Colonia Glacier, located in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, Chile, has caused dozens of GLOFs over the years. The lake near Colonia Glacier, Cachet II, has been drained frequently after unexpected floodings. The people living nearby are under constant threat of a sudden flood, which could completely destroy homes and livelihoods. Actually now, in the Chilean and Argentinean Andes, recent research by project member Pablo Iribarren Anacona has identified at least 31 glacial lakes have failed since the eighteenth century, producing over 100 GLOF events. “These lakes can be dangerous, and we need to take action,” Alton Byers, a geologist at the University of Colorado, told GlacierHub. A group of scientists concerned about GLOF risk have initiated a project, “Glacier Hazards in Chile,” which aims to answer key questions concerning past, present and future glacial hazards in Chile. One of the members is Ryan Wilson, a glaciologist at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. “The project will assess the changing magnitude, frequency, and distribution of different glacial hazards in Chile under current and future global climate change,” Wilson explained to GlacierHub. At the moment, Wilson and the other researchers are focusing on understanding the processes that govern the development of GLOFs in Chile. The fieldwork of Wilson and his team was recently featured in Science. The them held a workshop at Aberystwyth University in July 2016, during which they discussed progress on their Chilean fieldwork, glacial lake mapping, glacial hazard assessment, outburst flood modeling and climate modeling. To assess GLOFs and GLOF risk, the team compiled a glacial lake inventory for the central and Patagonian Andes (1986 – 2016). Wilson said they used remote-sensing and fieldwork to find past GLOF sites around the major icefields, satellite glaciers and snow-and ice-capped volcanoes of Chile. “We have managed to use this lake inventory to inform field campaigns in February to two interesting glacial lake sites in Chile,” Wilson said. “We conducted aerial drone surveys and collected lake bathymetry data.” The team will next analyze flood hydrographs (a graph showing the rate of flow versus time past a specific point in a river) of selected former GLOFs and use these to establish the patterns of downstream impacts. They are proud of their work so far, which they hope to publish soon. Using the inventory across Chile, the team and local community  are able to assess the potential damage GLOFs can cause. Wilson et al. plan to “conduct numerical simulations of downstream impacts for selected potential GLOF sites using physically-based numerical flood models.” In collaboration with Chilean partners, this research will be used to develop early warning systems and raise awareness about quantified GLOF risks. Glacial hazards have threatened various commercial and governmental stakeholders across Chile, making GLOFs a pressing priority. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide a framework that can be applied to other lower income countries, since GLOFs pose threats in multiple countries. “We will make recommendations for GLOF hazard assessment protocols and mitigation strategies in lower income countries globally,” Wilson told GlacierHub. Spread the...

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Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Posted by on May 2, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Spread the News:ShareUnderstanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru. The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes. The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes. Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change. To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a half–hour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated. To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared. Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs. “No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said. Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing. Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception. High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period. The...

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A New Glacier Grows at Mount St. Helens

Posted by on Apr 25, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Science | 0 comments

A New Glacier Grows at Mount St. Helens

Spread the News:Share “I grew up in the Yakima Valley (near Mount St. Helens). I was out fishing when I saw the lightning and dark cloud,” Flickr user vmf-214, who captured the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, told GlacierHub. “It looked like a storm. I saw it as I pulled into the yard. Mom came out and said the mountain had blown.” He was describing the volcanic eruption that occurred at Mount St. Helens 37 years ago in May 1980. During that event, an eruption column rose into the sky, ultimately impacting 11 states in the U.S. But it wasn’t just the people who live in the area that were affected by the eruption: the glaciers of Mount St. Helens melted into nearby rivers, causing several mudslides. Cascades Volcano Observatory indicates that before the 1980 eruption, extensive glaciers had covered Mount St. Helens for several hundred thousand years. About 3,900 years ago, Mount St. Helens began to grow to its pre-eruption elevation and a high cone developed, allowing for substantial glacial formation. There were 11 major glaciers and several unnamed glaciers by May 18, 1980, according to the United States Geological Survey. But after the eruption and resultant landslide, about 70 percent of the glacier mass was removed from the mountainside. It was during the winter of 1980 to 1981, following the catastrophic eruption, that a new glacier, Crater Glacier, first emerged. “The glacier formed very fast, in a couple decades,” professor Regine Hock from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks told GlacierHub. It developed in a deep crater left by the eruption and landslide. Rock debris from the crater walls and avalanche snow created a thick deposit between the 1980–86 lava dome and crater walls. Shaped like an amphitheater, the crater protected the glacier from sunlight, allowing the glacier to expand extensively, according to the USGS. By September 1996, it was evident from photographs and monitoring that a new glacier had formed. Crater Glacier at Mount St. Helens is now considered one of the youngest glaciers on Earth. “The glacier tongues can be seen, descending either side of the degassing cone. Much of the glacier is covered by volcanic ash,” notes a recent report in Geography Review. By 2004, the report continues, the glacier covered around 0.36 square miles (0.93 km2), with two lobes wrapping around the lava dome in a horseshoe-like shape. Joseph S. Walder, a research hydrologist at the USGS, has been studying the latest eruptions of Mount St. Helens. When interviewed by GlacierHub, he attributed the formation of the Crater Glacier to three factors. “First, the crater acts as a sort of bowl that collects snow avalanching from the crater walls, so the accumulation rate is extremely high,” Walder said. “Secondly, the crater floor is in shadow most of the time. Last but not least, lots of rock material avalanches onto the crater floor, tending to cover and insulate accumulating snow.” Today, there are hiking tours available throughout the Mount St. Helens area. Climbing the mountain is like walking on the moon, with ash and boulders surrounding you. From the top, you can see the growing volcanic dome, steaming and smoking. Rodney Benson, an earth science teacher and blog writer at bigskywalker.com, hiked into the crater recently. “Some say the world will end in fire. Some say ice. What does this new glacier indicate?” he pondered.   As glaciers around the world recede as a result of climate change, the new glacier provides a fascinating context to explore interactions between volcanic processes, volcanic deposits and glacier behavior. The intensive monitoring programs led by the USGS...

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