Science

Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

Spread the News:ShareA recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years. This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels. Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people. In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.” According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity. Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global...

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Cruise Ships Cause Murrelets to Demur: Management and Tourism in Glacier Bay

Posted by on Jun 8, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, Policy and Economics, Science | 1 comment

Cruise Ships Cause Murrelets to Demur: Management and Tourism in Glacier Bay

Spread the News:ShareWhen the U.S. National Park Service was established by the Organic Act of 1916, just over 100 years ago, it was given two mandates: to protect the natural resources in its parks, while also allowing for enjoyment of those resources. Sometimes, these mandates conflict. In a May 2017 paper in PLOS One, Timothy Marcella and his co-authors describe one such case. The paper shows that cruise ship traffic in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve disturbs two rare seabird species, Kittlitz’s and marbled murrelets. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a 3.3 million acre region of water and land in Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, is characterized by vast tidewater glaciers and the landscape created as they recede, a succession from bare rock to mature spruce and hemlock forests. The Park provides crucial habitat for Kittlitz’s murrelets, which nest on the ground in deglaciated terrain, drawn to tidewater glaciers and the marine invertebrates and fish that live in glacial outflow. Up to 37 percent of the global population of Kittlitz’s murrelets visits Glacier Bay in the spring and summer, and as much as 95 percent breeds in Alaska, as the authors indicate. Closely related to Kittlitz’s murrelets, marbled murrelets nest in old-growth forests, crucial habitat preserved by the Park. Wildlife observers poised on the bows of cruise ships found that, in areas of the cruise track dominated by Kittlitz’s murrelets, 61 percent of all murrelets approached within 850 meters by a cruise ship showed signs of disturbance. For a seabird, this means changing from a “loafing” behavior like sleeping, preening or swimming, to either taking flight or diving. In areas of the park where marbled murrelets were more prevalent, the effect was even greater— 71 percent of birds dove or flew away. However, Scott Gende, project lead and co-author of the PLOS One paper, believes these diving and flushing behaviors aren’t necessarily harmful. Speaking from Juneau, where he and his team prepared for a cruise to study disturbance in harbor seal pups, Gende pointed out that long-term monitoring of both species suggests that their populations within Glacier Bay are stable. “If the murrelets are living on the energetic margin (having only sufficient resources for survival, and no more), one more dive could make a difference— disturbance events could equate to a population effect. If we assume that the stable numbers of murrelets over the years is reflective of their ability to forage and breed successfully in Glacier Bay, it’s not likely that the disturbance events are so egregious that it’s causing the murrelets to have lower reproductive success or survival rates,” Gende told GlacierHub. If the murrelets’ populations are healthy, is disturbing them inherently a problem? Gende doesn’t think so. “Parks are for people,” he quipped, and noted it is far easier to measure impact to a natural resource, like seabirds, than to measure the positive effect of people on the ship experiencing that resource. “People are moved by Glacier Bay, seeing wildlife— bears on the beach, whales, the scenic wilderness. That can have a profound impact on their experience of national parks,” he said. Positive experiences in national parks are important not just to individuals, but to the protection and longevity of the national park system itself, which relies on public and congressional support. “Over the years I’ve been doing this research,” Gende reflected, “I’ve talked to hundreds of people, and I’m convinced the experience they have pays dividends to recognizing values of having national parks and these protected areas in general.” In addition, the cruise ship presence in Glacier Bay directly creates an opportunity for...

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Palcacocha Icefalls Demonstrate Hazard Vulnerabilities in Peru

Posted by on Jun 6, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Policy and Economics, Science | 1 comment

Palcacocha Icefalls Demonstrate Hazard Vulnerabilities in Peru

Spread the News:ShareRecent Calving Events at Lake Palcacocha In the last week, calving events at Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes released masses of ice from a glacier on Mount Pucaranra. The ice fell into the lake, sending waves across the lake that destroyed infrastructure designed to prevent dangerous outburst floods. Fortunately, the waves were not high enough to overtop the moraine dam and send floodwaters downstream, where they could have taken many lives and damaged urban infrastructure. A glacial lake outburst flood from Palcacocha devastated Huaraz, the largest city in the region, in 1941, killing about 5,000 people. Other, more recent, glacier floods in the region have also been very destructive. Marco Zapata, the director of glacier research at INAIGEM, the Peruvian National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, spoke about the events recently in a press conference reported in the Peruvian daily El Comercio. A Spanish-language video of the full press conference is available online. Zapata indicated that the calving event occurred around 8 p.m. on May 31. The resulting waves, three meters in height, were strong enough to move and damage ten large pipes, rendering them inoperable. These pipes, known locally as “syphons,” are designed to draw water from the lake at times when its level is high; in this way, they were thought to reduce flood risk significantly. They had been a point of local pride, seen as a successful application of modern technology to protect against the dangers to which the region has long been subject. Zapata mentioned that the waves also destroyed several gauges and a sensor which measures lake levels. And the event was not an isolated one, at least according to a regional newspaper, which reported a second calving event at 5:40 a.m. on June 2. Representatives of INAIGEM and two other organizations, the National Water Authority and the local municipality of Independencia, visited the lake a few days later. They found that the workers on Pucarthe site had restored two of the drainage pipes. These officials anticipated that the other eight will soon be functional.  Zapata and the other authorities called for increased investment in infrastructure at the lake to reduce the risks of a flood. They estimated that an expenditure of US $6 million would prevent about $2.5 billion in potential damages, including a hydroelectric plant and irrigation facilities on Peru’s desert coast; it would also protect the lives of the 50,000 people who live in the potential flood zone. The Causes of the Calving Events These events were not entirely unexpected. Marcelo Somos Valenzuela, a postdoctoral fellow at the Northeast Climate Science Center at the University of Massachusetts, is the lead author of a study, published last year in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, which concluded “there is consensus among local authorities, scientists and specialists that Lake Palcacocha represents a glacier lake outburst flood hazard with potentially high destructive impact on Huaraz.” This paper also stated that a “small avalanche” like the ones that recently occurred are “the highest likelihood event” and that they would “produce significantly less inundation.”  Somos Valenzuela wrote to GlacierHub, “There are empirical models and hydrodynamic models which provide estimates of the height of the wave in the lake… In this case, it seems that the ice-fall was small, and 3 meters is a reasonable estimate of the wave height.” Moreover, several sources indicated high risks at this time of year. Noah Walker-Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester, spoke recently with the workers at the drainage site at the lake. He wrote to GlacierHub, “According to the people who work at the...

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Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and a Sherpa protest

Posted by on Jun 5, 2017 in All Posts, Featured Posts, News, Roundup, Science | 0 comments

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and a Sherpa protest

Spread the News:ShareRoundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and Sherpas   Calving Event in Peruvian Lake Damages Infrastructure Designed to Reduce Flood Risk From El Comercio: “Small ice avalanches have damaged the system of syphons in Lake Palcacocha, Ancash, Peru. Marco Zapata, the head of the Glacier Research Unit at INAIGEM, stated that on May 31, around 8 p.m., a calving event occurred at the glacier front on Mount Pucaranra, releasing ice into the lake. This event generated waves 3 meters in height, which caused 10 of the syphons to shift and which destroyed three gauges and a water level sensor.” Find out more about Lake Palcacocha and ice avalanches here.   Asian Glaciers Fight Against Drought From Nature: “The high mountains of Asia… have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people… Predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.” Find out more about Asia’s drought-resilient glaciers here.   Sherpas Demand Summit Certificates at Protest From The Himalayan Times: “Hundreds of sherpa climbers who met at Mt Everest base camp [in May] asked the government to immediately issue their summit certificates… Sherpa climbers who made it to the top of several peaks, including Mt Everest, have not been getting their summit certificates since last year after the government refused to approve their ascents citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining such certificates… For most of the foreign climbers, summiting a mountain without sherpas’ help is almost impossible in Nepal… The new amendment to the regulation will recognize high-altitude workers as a part of the expedition to get certificates.” Find out more about the Sherpa protest and resolution here.     Spread the...

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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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