Discovery of a Major Medieval Glacier Lake in Svalbard

Map of Svalbard with the location of the ancient lake marked at Braganzavågen, a bay in the van Mijenfjorden fjord on the island of Spitsbergen. (Source: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency/Google Earth).

Up in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, ice and glaciers cover around 60 percent of the area and have long defined its geographical formation and ecological integrity. One major glacial process that has transformed the Svalbard landscape is glacier surging, a short-lived event of extremely rapid glacier buildup ranging from a few months to a couple of years. Recently, a team of scientists led by Astrid Lyså published a study in Boreas presenting the story of a dramatic glacier surge during the 14th century that dammed off a stream and created a temporary lake in inner van Mijenfjorden at Braganzavågen. The authors report, at its fullest size, the short-lived lake was the largest of any known lake in the entire archipelago for the last 10,000 years at an estimated 77 square kilometers.

In Svalbard, “the glaciers are shaping the landscape on all scales, from eroding the large fjords to small scratches and striations on bedrock surfaces,” says Eiliv Larsen of the Geological Survey of Norway, one of the scientists involved in the study. However, according to the study, it is uncommon for glacier surging to result in lake damming and difficult for scientists to detect them. “The recognition of short-lived lake events is challenging in general, and even more so when a lake became dammed as a result of a surging glacier,” states the study.

One of the important components of analyzing surge-type phenomenon included sedimentary rock formations found at the bottom of the ancient lake. But knowledge of the existence of short-lived lakes from the sedimentary record is “difficult to establish due to the relatively poor preservation potential of shorelines, spillways and thin coverings of lacustrine sediments that constitute evidence of their presence,” adds Fiona Tweed, a professor of geography at the Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, who spoke to GlacierHub about the findings. “These traces are unlikely to survive in environments where subaerial processes are highly active on glacier retreat.”

Mouth of a glacier at Svalbard (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).

Thus, the study required the cooperation of various types of historical, geomorphological, as well as geological information to figure out the life of this particular lake. In addition to the sedimentary records, geomorphological mapping through the analysis of paleo-shoreline remnants helped scientists understand the extent of the lake and its evolution and decay. Sediment core analyses elaborated on the mapping by detecting environmental changes on the fjord from a bay, which became a freshwater lake when cut off by the surging glacier, and its return to a tidal flat of the fjord. Witold Szczuciński, another scientist involved in the study from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, explained how geochronology was the key in bringing all the data together as well as a good understanding of the system, including the interactions and limitations of each component.

“Compiling geological data is very often like a puzzle, and the challenge is to fit the pieces together,” Larsen told GlacierHub. “This research was definitely of that sort, and it is a process that starts in the field, making observations and collecting samples and data, going via analyses and many trials and discussions before a final result.”

For many scholars in the field, the compilation of information is what made this study so remarkable. “For me, the significance of this work lies in the holistic, multidisciplinary approach that has been used to decode the landform and sedimentary evidence,” Tweed said.

In addition to the cause of its unusual formation, another phenomenal component of the lake was how quickly it formed. Perhaps the most impressive finding was how short-lived the lake was, possibly just one season, and the enormous size of the end moraine system deposited during the surge. “This is really footprints of very active and strong forces at play,” Larsen said.

Wesley Farnsworth, a Ph.D. candidate at the University Center in Svalbard and the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, told GlacierHub that this was not the first study from Svalbard to focus on a paleo-ice-dammed lake. There are numerous such events, deposits, and histories that remain undocumented and unstudied in the region. “I find it particularly intriguing that relatively short-lived events can have such an extended impact on the landscape,” he said. “Glaciers and ice caps can be valuable indicators for past climate, making them key archives for extending our understanding of temperature and precipitation beyond the instrumental record.” For example, studying past changes in high latitude glaciers allows a better understanding of the role of the Arctic in the global climate system and aids scientists in more effectively predicting antecedent climate scenarios.

Although most glaciers across the world are retreating, many of Svalbard’s glaciers demonstrate surge patterns similar to the one that led to the lake formation 700 years ago. The study notes both scientific and practical reasons for deepening our understanding of these phenomena, in particular, the fact that damming and draining of these lakes can pose hazards to humans and infrastructure. Szczuciński told GlacierHub that various estimates state 13 to over 90 percent of Svalbard’s glaciers are surge-type and undergo the cyclical rapid advances followed by longer periods of retreat.

Given how fast and extensive this ancient lake formed in the 14th century due to a surging glacier, studies on past glacial activities are quintessential to understanding glacier surge events and how they could impact society in the face of a changing climate.

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in Ecuador

Tarsicio Granizo, Ecuadorian Minister of the Environment, speaking at the opening ceremony (source: Ben Orlove)

Researchers from several countries gathered earlier this month to advance their work on a report that will assess the state of research on glaciers and other topics. The meeting took place in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, close to a number of glaciated peaks in the Andes. This location reflects the focus of the document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report traces cryosphere-ocean links, particularly the contribution of meltwater from the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets to sea-level rise, and also considers other topics related to oceans and the cryosphere.

Lead Author Carolina Adler, being interviewed by Televicentro at the IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, examines a variety of topics which include observed and projected changes in glaciers, permafrost and snow, as well as links to climate, hazards and water resources. It also discusses risks for societies, and the strategies to respond to these risks. The full chapter structure can be found in the outline of the report, which was approved last year.

This chapter is being led by two Coordinating Lead Authors, Regine Hock, a glaciologist and hydrologist from the University of Alaska, and Golam Rasul, an economist and rural development specialist from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. The 13 Lead Authors come from four continents and represent 10 countries—the UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, China, Japan, Ecuador, the U.S. and Canada.

Activities at the Meeting

Chapter 2 team at Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).

Most members of the Chapter 2 team took part in an excursion to a glacier-covered volcano, Antisana, north of Quito the day before the conference started. This trip was organized by one of the Lead Authors, Bolívar Cáceres of the Ecuadorian National Meteorology and Hydrology Institute. The group was joined by Bert De Bièvre, the technical secretary of FONAG, the Quito Water Conservation Fund, who explained the importance of high-elevation wetlands, fed by glacier meltwater, snow and rain, in supplying Quito with drinking water. In addition to accompanying the Lead Authors up to the glacier, above 4,900 meters in elevation, he took the team to several sites which illustrated the collaboration of FONAG with the National Park Service and other organizations in protecting the key ecosystems of the region.

Folk dance troupe at evening performance at IPCC event (source: Ben Orlove).

The IPCC meeting, hosted by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, was held on 12-16 February at the Hotel Colón in Quito. Tarsicio Granizo Tamayo, Minister of the Environment of Ecuador, and Maria Victoria Chiriboga, the Undersecretary of Climate Change, addressed the participants at the opening ceremony, as did IPCC co-chairs. On the evening of the meeting’s inauguration, the Ecuadorian government also sponsored a performance by a troupe of folk dancers, who presented the diverse cultural styles of the country’s coastal and highland regions.

The meeting drew over 100 participants from 30 countries. In addition to attending plenary meetings, the chapter teams discussed the preliminary comments which they had received on the Zero Order Drafts of their chapters. They coordinated with each other to promote the integration of the chapters, and also began the planning of communication products. The discussions continued at meals and in the evenings.

Women Lead Authors and IPCC Staff at IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

This meeting was distinguished by the relatively large proportion of women among the lead authors and by the international diversity, with representatives from more than 30 countries across six continents and the Pacific, taking part. It received wide coverage in a number of Ecuadorian newspapers as well as on television.

Comments on the Meeting

IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett described the meeting, saying, “IPCC authors are assessing scientific literature about changes in the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet, their effects on ecosystems and humankind and options for adapting to them. This report will help policymakers better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future climate change.”

Conversations at lunch at the IPCC meeting (source: Ben Orlove).

“The ocean and the cryosphere play essential roles in the climate system and the ecosystem services that humankind depends on,” said Hans-Otto Poertner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. “Scientists are also trying to understand how the frozen and liquid water bodies of our planet interact, and how sea level will change and affect coastlines and cities.”

Poertner noted that Ecuador and other Andean countries are facing the impacts of glacier retreat, which threaten water supplies for cities such as Quito. He added, “Furthermore, the region hosts unique ecosystems with high biodiversity which are now challenged by human-induced climate change on top of other human influences.”

An Outreach Event and Upcoming Activities

Lead Author Bolivar Caceres, speaking at the outreach event after the IPCC meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Some of the authors and IPCC personnel participated in an outreach event on 16 February, held at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, and jointly sponsored by the university and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment. They presented the outline of the report to local audiences, discussed major findings of earlier IPCC reports about changes in climate and in mountain and coastal environments, and reviewed issues specific to Andean countries and Latin America. This event was attended by a number of representatives of civil society organizations and the press.

The participants left the meeting ready to begin the process of preparing the First Order Draft of the report. This draft will be circulated for expert review in May 2018, and will be reviewed and revised at a third meeting in July 2018 in Lanzhou, China, located in the province of Gansu, which contains glaciers in the Qilian Shan range. The report will be completed in September 2019. The recent meeting provided a highly motivating start to this long process, immersing the authors for several days in the vulnerable context of a developing country, impacted by glacier retreat as well as sea level rise, and showing them the concern of the Ecuadorian people who welcomed and hosted them warmly.

 

Roundup: Remote Sensing, Arctic Civilizations, and Glacier Disaster

Greenland Iceberg Melt Variability

From Cryosphere Journal: “Iceberg discharge from the Greenland Ice Sheet accounts for up to half of the freshwater flux to surrounding fjords and ocean basins, yet the spatial distribution of iceberg meltwater fluxes is poorly understood. One of the primary limitations for mapping iceberg meltwater fluxes, and changes over time, is the dearth of iceberg submarine melt rate estimates. Using a remote sensing approach to estimate submarine melt rates during 2011–2016, we find that spatial variations in iceberg melt rates decrease with latitude and increase with iceberg draft. Overall, the results suggest that remotely sensed iceberg melt rates can be used to characterize spatial and temporal variations in oceanic forcing near often inaccessible marine-terminating glaciers.”

Discover more about the use of remote sensing for studying glacier melt rates here.

Aerial Image of Greenland Ice Sheet (Source: NOAA).

 

The History of Civilizations in the Arctic

From “Arctic Modernities: The Environmental, the Exotic and the Everyday“: “Less tangible than melting polar glaciers or the changing social conditions in northern societies, the modern Arctic represented in writings, visual images and films has to a large extent been neglected in scholarship and policy-making. However, the modern Arctic is a not only a natural environment dramatically impacted by human activities. It is also an incongruous amalgamation of exoticized indigenous tradition and a mundane every day. The chapters in this volume examine the modern Arctic from all these perspectives. They demonstrate to what extent the processes of modernization have changed the discursive signification of the Arctic. They also investigate the extent to which the traditions of heroic Arctic images – whether these traditions are affirmed, contested or repudiated – have continued to shape, influence and inform modern discourses.”

Read more about the history of the Arctic here.

Cover of Arctic Modernities Book (Source: Amazon).

The Catastrophic Eruption of Mount Kazbek

From Volcano Café: “What makes a volcano dangerous? Clearly, the severity of any eruption plays a role. So does the presence of people nearby. But it is not always the best-known volcanoes that are the most dangerous. Tseax is hardly world-renowned, but it caused a major volcanic disaster in Canada. And sometimes a volcano can be dangerous without actually erupting. Lake Nyos in Cameroon is a well-known -and feared- example. What happened in the eruption of Mount Kazbek that made it such a catastrophe?”

Explore the famous volcanic disaster that resulted from a glacier-melting event in 2002 here.

Mount Kazbek (Source: Volcano Cafe).

Photo Friday: Studying Glacier Debris in the Himalayas

How does debris affect and influence glacier hydrology? And how can particulate pollution on glaciers be measured?

Kimberly Casey, a glaciologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, studied six glacier sites around the world to understand glacier debris pollution. Her work led her from the volcanically-influenced glaciers in Iceland and New Zealand to dust-influenced glaciers in Nepal and Switzerland.

In an interview with NASA she states that the type of particulates on a glacier surface, along with the thickness of the dust and debris can affect a glacier’s melt rate. “Because glaciers are a key water resource in many parts of the world, it is important to understand how melt rates may be changing over time,” said Casey.

Her work proved that satellite data could help map out which types of particulates are on glaciers.

“From this project, I was able to establish some methods for using satellite data to map dust and debris types on any glacier around the globe. We now have a satellite record of over a decade and we can look back at how dust and debris on glaciers have changed over time and how this is affecting the melt of glaciers. Going to the field to collect samples or do measurements is expensive, and it would be hard to get to the 200,000-plus glaciers on Earth. So it’s important to use Earth-observing satellite data to quickly and efficiently map glaciers,” stated Casey.

This Photo Friday, enjoy some of the pictures that Casey took during her field trip to Ngozumpa Glacier in the Khumbu region of Nepal. For more photos from her field visits across the globe, visit the NASA Flickr page.

Heavily debris-covered section of the Ngozumpa glacier in Khumbu Himalaya, Nepal. (Source: NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/Creative Commons: Flickr).

 

The icefall of Khumbu Glacier, considered to be one of the most dangerous spots on the South Col route to Mt. Everest’s summit, was one of Kimberly Casey’s fieldwork sites (Source: NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/Creative Commons: Flickr).

 

Glaciologist Kimberly Casey’s guide, Sherpa Nima Sampang Rai, hikes on rocks laying on top of Ngozumpa Glacier in the Nepali Himalayas (Source: NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/Creative Commons: Flickr).

 

Glaciologist Kimberly Casey took this photo of Mt. Everest (left peak) lit by the sunset while she was in the field at Khumbu Glacier in the Nepali Himalayas. (Source: NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/ Creative Commons: Flickr)

Peruvian Farmer Explains His Lawsuit Against Energy Firm

This photo of Saul Lliuya was taken in Peru. Saul is standing in front of a hazard map of Huaraz (Source: Noah Walker-Crawford).

David and Goliath

In a phone interview earlier this week with GlacierHub, Saul Lliuya, a mountain guide and farmer from Huaraz in northwestern Peru, explains how he is preparing for the next step in his legal battle with multinational German energy corporation RWE.

Just last Nov. 30, a court in the northwestern German city of Hamm ruled that it will hear Lliuya’s climate lawsuit. The suit was previously dismissed in 2016 by the Essen Regional Court in Germany where the RWE headquarters is located.

Lliuya decided to sue RWE for roughly $20,000 in disaster preparedness funds for the Peruvian city of Huaraz in 2015. Moreover, Lliuya is demanding another $8,000 for the personal expenses he had to shoulder in preparing for the worst.

According to Lliuya, “RWE presented additional documents because they didn’t want to accept the judge’s decision. However, in the end, they [the German court] decided the case will move along and go into the evidentiary phase.”

Lliuya added that the Peruvian research organization Instituto Nacional de Investigacion en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña (INAIGEM) is studying glacial retreat in the region. They have agreed to provide him with information that he can use in his case against RWE.

When asked how he felt about people thinking of him as a hero, he said he felt he was just doing his job. “I don’t feel like a hero… Glacier retreat since the 1940’s has killed a lot of people… just this feeling of climate justice,” he said. 

Lliuya understands that the odds are stacked against him, but he is still hopeful that he will win against RWE. He is happy to have received help from the NGO Germanwatch. Germanwatch focuses on advocating for global equality and preserving the livelihoods of the marginalized. Lliuya says if other people would like help, their team is in need of funding for future legal assistance.

When asked why he selected RWE as a target for his suit, Lliuya pointed to RWE’s coal burning. “It’s one of the largest contaminators in Europe,” he said. He argues that the German company should be held responsible for the disasters caused by the rapidly melting glaciers in the Andes, disasters which have endangered his livelihood and people.

Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Source:Google Maps).

Glacial retreat has resulted in dangerously high water levels in the glacial lakes above Huaraz, for example. Unfortunately, this places Huaraz and other cities along the river at greater risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Lliuya argues that big energy players like RWE should be held accountable and contribute in preparing for the problems faced by the local population due to climate change.

The Risk to Peruvian Glaciers

Peru’s glaciers have lost up to 90 percent of their mass. The meltwater could potentially end up in glacial lakes like Palcacocha. Palcacocha is located in the Ancash region in the Cordillera Blanca within the Peruvian province of Huaraz. The lake drains into Quebrada Cojup which drains into Quilcay River. The Quilcay River flows through the city of Huaraz and empties into the Santa River.

Since 1970, Palcacocha has grown 34 times bigger. The lake itself contains 17 million cubic meters of water, which is the equivalent of 6,800 Olympic swimming pools. Unlike like some other lakes in Peru, Palcacocha has no early warning system. In fact, Johnny Salazar, a Huaraz civil defense official said in an interview with Reuters that he initially requested $1 million from regional authorities to fund the project. Unfortunately, the plan fell through because the regional authorities didn’t provide any money to help fund the early warning system.

Saul Lliuya (left) and Noah Walker-Crawford (Source: Noah Walker-Crawford)

German anthropologist Noah Walker-Crawford explained to GlacierHub that GLOFs are a very real threat. “Increasing glacial retreat is causing existing glacial lakes to grow in volume and new lakes to form. This is particularly significant for downstream cities with large populations living in areas that would be affected by potential GLOFs,” he said. “In Huaraz, around 50,000 people live in the hazard zone threatened by Lake Palcacocha. Saúl is one of them.”

Anthony Oliver-Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida, agreed, telling GlacierHub that a GLOF in the region could be disastrous, especially for a city like Huaraz. “If in fact, a GLOF took place…if a village is in the way, we’re talking total annihilation… complete obliteration.”

In northwestern Peru, according to some studies, if a large scale avalanche were to take place and fall into Palcacocha it could result in a 100-foot wave within the lake. That wave could potentially create a flood made of meltwater, trees, mud, and rocks which would rush down the valley. That could mean death for the inhabitants of Huaraz living in flood risk zones who currently lack an early warning system to prompt an evacuation.

However, according to Oliver-Smith, draining the lakes regularly is one way of making sure that GLOFs don’t happen. According to him, the drained water is used for things like irrigation. For now, the overflowing lakes are a valuable source of freshwater. However, he added that the water may eventually run out.

“The problem in the long term with glacial melt is that once that water is gone it’s gone,” he said. 

Walker-Crawford concurred, saying, “For rural farmers such as Saúl, this is an existential threat. With increasingly unstable rain patterns and decreasing water supplies, they will have no reliable source of irrigation for their crops. This is a threat to their livelihood.”

Palcacocha Lake (Source: Daniel Byers YouTube).

 

Setting Legal Precedent with a Climate Suit

With so much at stake for mountain populations and the world’s glaciers, why can’t a company like RWE contribute $20,000 to mitigate climate change-induced losses? After all, the company earned 45.8 billion euros in 2015 by generating 216.1 terawatts of energy for 23.4 million customers.

According to Oliver-Smith, the reason RWE won’t bend is that any negotiation would set a precedent for future claims. “That’s pocket change for RWE,” Oliver-Smith said. “They could do that in a heartbeat and never even notice it, but if they do that they are accepting responsibility… so that’s not going to happen.”

 

Who Will Pay for the Damages Brought About by Climate Change?

Huaraz is just one community facing climate change-related problems. According to some reports, developing nations around the world will need between $140 and 300 billion annually by 2030 for disaster relief funds and management. Right now, these expenses are being shouldered by local taxpayers, national governments, NGOs, and foreign aid. Some civil society stakeholders like Germanwatch, and Lliuya, argue that multinational energy companies who have contributed to climate change should help shoulder the financial burden.

Lliuya says that watching the glaciers melt made him feel helpless. That’s why he filed the case against RWE. He wants everyone to know that addressing climate change will not be easy. However, he believes that we can make a difference if stakeholders around the world can come together to address the problem.

“Every kind of a change comes through a fight or perseverance,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, we know what the consequences will be. So I hope that cases like what we’re doing can be done in other places as well so that we can contribute to reduce the temperature.”







Tracing the Glaciation of the Greater Caucasus Mountains

In a paper published last month in the Open Journal of Geology, four researchers from the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University of Georgia traced the old glaciation of the Caucasus Mountains from the 17th to 19th century during the Little Ice Age. These mountains are the highest mountains in Europe. Despite being remote, studying their processes can aid in the understanding of global climate history.

In this study, it is remarkable that the team had a robust methodology comprising a rigorous review of local knowledge and sources from the indigenous people as well as the analysis of rock samples collected during their expeditions. Reading a collection of folklore from the mountain communities by A. Krasnov, the team was able to reconstruct the advance of local glaciers that stretched all the way down to the populated mountain valleys during that epoch. This collection served as a first-hand account on the extent of glaciation based on the location of the villages.

Map of Caucasus Mountain Range
Map of Caucasus Mountain Range (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Divided into the Greater Caucasus in the North and the Lesser Caucasus in the south, the Caucasus mountain region in West Asia stretches between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It is formed from the tectonic plate collision between the Arabian and European plates, occupying territory in Georgia, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russia, Turkey and Persia. According to a local Georgian Svanetian poem by Nizardze, glacier advances had reached a distance of up to 17km during the peak of the Little Ice Age.

The existence of Russian topographic maps from the second half of the 19th century also helped form a broad picture of the latest glaciation. This knowledge was then further corroborated with other sample data collected in the team’s expedition.

The first technique used was petrography, which is the classification of rocks based on physical structure and mineral content. Present-day block debris from moraines could be reconstructed with this information to find out their main centers and from thereon, historical glacier movement and distribution boundaries.

The second technique used was palynology, which is the study of microscopic matter. It was used to identify the genesis of loose sediments from moraines. Using 590 pollen samples, the fossilized plant spectrum in the loose sediments were analyzed to explore if weathering of the moraines occurred as a result of glaciation or fluvial action and the time periods they occurred in. Information about whether the rocks were covered in ice at that point in time would allow researchers to estimate the extent of glaciation.

The summit of El Ushba, a peak in the Georgian Caucasus Mountain Region
The summit of El Ushba, a peak in the Georgian Caucasus Mountain Region (Source: Inakimiro/ Instagram).

“The glaciers completely filled the river valleys of the Greater Caucasus, passed the foothills and covered some of the piedmont valleys. It is supposed that the strongest glaciation took place in the Terek (the northern slope) and Kodori (the southern slope of the Greater Caucasus) river basins as well as in the Enguri and Rioni basins,” the research notes.

Until today, the actual mudflow activity in the Caucasus is still rather intensive (especially in the east). However, it appears that in the past it was even more intensive due to the tectonic shoves, rock falls and catastrophic thaw of large glaciers during highly dynamic glacial epoch. Based on the traces of glaciers, the Caucasus ancient snow-line is still about 700 to 1000 meters lower than the contemporary one.

Research suggests that the minor glacial epoch experienced by the Caucasus Mountains was intensified by the South European covering glaciation. However, the team believes that atmospheric circulation processes and regional tectonic movements are the main drivers of the glaciation.

The Little Ice Age remains the heart of geological research in the Caucasus Mountains since it is the last stage of glacial advance in the region. Hence, the geological mystery on the relative importance of the drivers for minor glacial epoch is still being debated.

 

Geochemical Evolution of Meltwater from Glacier Snow to Proglacial Lake

Glaciers around the world are making headlines for their rapid retreat due to warming. Unlike some of these glaciers, however, dry valley glaciers, while accumulating only about 10 cm of snow annually, are neither retreating nor warming. Sarah Fortner, a geochemistry professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio, examined the meltwater of Canada Glacier, a dry valley glacier located in the Taylor Valley of Antarctica, and published a paper focused on two of its proglacial streams, Anderson Creek and Canada Stream.

Canada Glacier flowing into the Taylor Valley, Antarctica (Source: Anthony Powell).

Melting of glaciers develops an important part of a glacier’s anatomy known as “supraglacial streams,” which are conduits of water on top of glaciers. These supraglacial streams often become a source of water for “proglacial streams,” like the Anderson Creek and Canada Stream, narrow channels of rivers that issue from glaciers supply water to lakes located below the glaciers.

Fortner studied the meltwater of Canada Glacier during the 2001 to 2002 austral summer in the southern hemisphere (from November to March) and the contribution of the proglacial stream and glacial surface to water in Lake Hoare, which is located in front of Canada Glacier.

In her study, Fortner determines the crucial role of the wind in redistributing the geochemistry of the glacial surface as well as the two proglacial streams. By looking at the geochemistry of the two proglacial streams and the role of the wind in bringing valley sediments to the supraglacial and ultimately proglacial streams, Fortner found that the glaciers that contributed to the proglacial lakes are not dilute like glacier snow.

Large pond formed from supraglacial melt on the surface of Canada Glacier. (Source: Fortner)

Contrary to expectations, the chemistry between the two streams was quite different. “While they are roughly five miles apart, they were very different,” she told GlacierHub. “Located on the east side of the glacier, Canada Stream was teaming with life, with multiple mosses, lichen, algae, and invertebrates. If you were to press your hand into these, it would feel like a sponge. On the west side of the glacier, Anderson Creek looks barren in comparison. There is life in the stream, but not as abundant or diverse as the Canada Stream.”

In an attempt to find the source of the difference, Fortner and a team of scientists sampled water from supraglacial channels with high discharge for chemical analysis. Through this analysis, Fortner aimed to map the evolution of the chemicals in the meltwater at Canada Glacier from unmelted glacier snow to supraglacial streams to proglacial streams and finally to Lake Hoare located in front of the glacier.

Taylor Valley and Lake Hoare (Source: 77DegreesSouth).

With the chemical mass balance analysis of the samples from the glacier, Fortner first wanted to see whether the chemical composition of the supraglacial stream would be diluted like the unmelted glacier snow, their primary precipitation. According to Fortner, unmelted glacier snow would naturally be very dilute, with a low concentration of any chemical solute, and we would expect the same level of chemical concentration from the supraglacial streams, located on top of the glacier body itself and created as a result of glacier snow melting. However, she found that supraglacial streams were rich in major ions like calcium, sodium, and sulfate. 

“This begins to highlight the importance of wind-blown sediment as control of water chemistry in these Antarctic ecosystems,” Fortner said.

In her paper, she explains that the strong west to east Föhn wind (Foehn wind), a parcel of dry and warm air moving down the lee (downwind side) of the mountain, brought sediments from the floor of Taylor Valley, abundant with carbonate ( CO3(2-)) and gypsum (CaH4O6S) minerals, which are the sources of the high calcium (Ca2+) and sulfate ion (SO2-4) found in the supraglacial streams. In short, the wind delivered sediment that influenced the chemistry of the streams on the surface of the glacier.

Diagram of Föhn wind (Source: ipfs).

“Both sides of the valley floor contributed to the sediment received on the glacier surface which explained major chemical differences found in supraglacial and proglacial streams versus the original unmelted snow. It is also clear that the Föhn wind coming off of the ice sheet had the greatest influence on depositing chemistry,” Fortner explained.

Furthermore, the west to the east direction of the wind causes a difference in chemical composition between the proglacial streams in the western and eastern sides of Canada Glacier, preferentially depositing more sulfate in the western proglacial streams (Anderson Creek) than in the eastern proglacial streams (Canada Stream).

“As a result of the west to east wind, supraglacial streams flowing into Anderson Creek have much higher concentrations of both calcium and sulfate than supraglacial streams flowing into Canada Stream,” Fortner explained.

Map of the Ross Sea. Lake Hoare is located within the Taylor Valley, showing its proximity to Ross Sea. (Sources: USGSantarctic.eu).

The chemical deliveries from the stream channel to the proglacial lake is crucial to examine, as Anderson Creek contributes over 40 percent of the water to Lake Hoare, the final recipient of the meltwater from Canada Glacier, during the low-melt season. However, Fortner said it is just as important to examine the chemical deliveries from the glacial surface (direct runoff).

“While one would think streams would deliver far more chemistry, as glaciers and their direct runoff are typically dilute, glacier surface can be just as important source of chemistry because of the low accumulation and wind delivered sediment,” she added.

Dry valley glaciers are unique in that the glacier surface is an important contributor of chemistry to downstream ecosystems. Unlike many other glaciers, it isn’t just about chemistry from stream channels, but also about glacier surfaces. If more melt continues in response to the wind, this could result in potential changes in the chemical delivery into Lake Hoare. Furthermore, such changes can extend to the continental outline of Antarctica into Ross Sea, the southern extension of the Pacific Ocean.

 

Roundup: Decaying Matter, Glacial Bacteria, and CO2 Uptake

Transport of Nutrients and Decaying Matter by Rivers and Streams

From “Intermittent Rivers and Ephemeral Streams”: “The hydrological regimes of most intermittent rivers and ephemeral streams (IRES) include the alternation of wet and dry phases in the stream channel and highly dynamic lateral, vertical, and longitudinal connections with their adjacent ecosystems. Consequently, IRES show a unique ‘biogeochemical heartbeat’ with pulsed temporal and spatial variation in nutrient and organic matter inputs, in-stream processing, and downstream transport. Given that IRES are widespread, their improper consideration may cause inaccurate estimation of nutrient and carbon fluxes in river networks… Our purpose is to contribute to the flourishing knowledge and research on the biogeochemistry of IRES by providing a comprehensive view of nutrient and organic matter dynamics in these ecosystems.”

Read more about the findings here.

Photo of intermittent river in Boliva
An intermittent river in Bolivia (Source: Thibault Datry‏/Twitter).

 

Glacial Bacteria Originated on Slopes Near Alaskan Glacier

From Microbiology Ecology: “Although microbial communities from many glacial environments have been analyzed, microbes living in the debris atop debris-covered glaciers represent an understudied frontier in the cryosphere. The few previous molecular studies of microbes in supraglacial debris have either had limited phylogenetic resolution, limited spatial resolution (e.g. only one sample site on the glacier) or both. Here, we present the microbiome of a debris-covered glacier across all three domains of life, using a spatially-explicit sampling scheme to characterize the Middle Fork Toklat Glacier’s microbiome from its terminus to sites high on the glacier. Our results show that microbial communities differ across the supraglacial transect, but surprisingly these communities are strongly spatially autocorrelated, suggesting the presence of a supraglacial chronosequence… We use these data to refute the hypothesis that the inhabitants of the glacier are randomly deposited atmospheric microbes, and to provide evidence that succession from a predominantly photosynthetic to a more heterotrophic community is occurring on the glacier.”

Learn more about glacial bacteria here.

Topographic map of bacteria sample sites
Topographic map of bacteria sample sites on the Middle Fork Toklat Glacier (Source: Darcy et al.).

 

Simulated High Alkalinity Glacial Runoff Increases CO2 Uptake in Alaska

From Geophysical Research Letters: “The Gulf of Alaska (GOA) receives substantial summer freshwater runoff from glacial meltwater. The alkalinity of this runoff is highly dependent on the glacial source and can modify the coastal carbon cycle. We use a regional ocean biogeochemical model to simulate CO2 uptake in the GOA under different alkalinity-loading scenarios. The GOA is identified as a current net sink of carbon, though low-alkalinity tidewater glacial runoff suppresses summer coastal carbon uptake. Our model shows that increasing the alkalinity generates an increase in annual CO2 uptake of 1.9–2.7 TgC/yr. This transition is comparable to a projected change in glacial runoff composition (i.e., from tidewater to land-terminating) due to continued climate warming. Our results demonstrate an important local carbon-climate feedback that can significantly increase coastal carbon uptake via enhanced air-sea exchange, with potential implications to the coastal ecosystems in glaciated areas around the world.”

Read more about the study here.

Photo of the Gulf of Alaska from space
The Gulf of Alaska from space (Source: NASA Goddard Images/Twitter).

 

Photo Friday: Mer de Glace, a “Sea of Ice”

The French Alps lie just about an hour and thirty minutes away from the heart of Geneva. I thought of visiting Chamonix, home of the famous Mont Blanc, after a conference at the United Nations. Though, what I didn’t know was that I could visit the equally majestic Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice” in English, a valley glacier on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif.

I was lucky enough to visit Mer de Glace in the winter outside of peak season. That meant the cable car heading up the slopes actually had seats available. It also meant that I could take breathtaking photos of this winter wonderland without being disturbed. I was in such awe of Mer de Glace that I completely forgot to put my gloves on! I was too focused on capturing the moment. As my hands fell numb, I ran inside the gift shop and waited for the cable car to return. On the way down, I couldn’t help but wonder how long such a magnificent glacier would last. I had suddenly remembered the tour guide explaining earlier that the glacier has been melting and that we were lucky to have seen so much snow.

Upon researching, I came to realize that the glacier was in fact disappearing. The ice has melted so quickly over the past 30 years that it now takes around 370 steps to get down to the ice. In 1988 it took only three steps. Between 2014 and 2015 alone Mer de Glace has lost 3.61 meters of ice. To make matters worse, reports have indicated 40 percent less snowfall over the past 50 years in the region. All over the world glaciers are melting as a result of changing climate. Tourists like myself are left wondering how many more generations will be able to witness the majesty of the French Alps. Will my generation be the last?

This Photo Friday, join me on an eye-opening journey through the snowy mountainside of Mont Blanc.

The quiet town of Chamonix, France (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

At the heart of the town of Chamonix, you’ll find a statue of Michel Paccard. Paccard was a doctor and mountain climber. This monument is dedicated to his ascent of Mont Blanc alongside Jaque Balmat in 1786 (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The author standing on the bridge to the cable car leading up to Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The mountain landscape through which Mer de Glace flows (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

Click here to find out more about the tour I booked in Chamonix.

Glacial Retreat and Water Impacts Around the World

The availability of water under ever-increasing climate stress has never been more important. Nowhere is this more apparent than in glacial mountain regions where runoff from glaciers provides water in times of drought or low river flows. As glaciers retreat due to climate change, the water supplied to these basins will diminish. To better understand these hydrological changes, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change examined the world’s largest glacierized drainage basins under future climate change scenarios.

Photo of a glacier in the Pamir Mountains
A glacier in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia where some of the largest runoff changes are projected to occur (Source: ‏Nozomu Takeuchi‏/Twitter).

Expansive in scale, the study differentiates itself from previous research that assessed the hydro-glacier issue at more localized scales like specific mountain ranges, for example. This study analyzes 56 glacierized drainage basins on four continents excluding Antarctica and Greenland. The basins examined were selected based on their size: they needed to be bigger than 5,000 km2, in addition to having at least 30 km2 of ice cover and greater than 0.01 percent of total glacier cover during the chosen base period of 1981 to 2010.

The motivation behind the study’s global scale, the first ever completed, according to Regine Hock, one of the study’s authors, is that “at a local scale you can only cover a fraction of the glaciers/catchments that may be relevant.” She told GlacierHub that while there are advantages to local studies because they can be more detailed and accurate, the advantage of a global study is that spatial patterns across regions can be identified and analyzed.

In order to calculate changes in glacial mass and accompanying runoff, defined as water that leaves a glacierized area, the authors utilized the Global Glacier Evolution Model to simulate relevant glacial processes including mass accumulation and loss, changes in glacial extent, and glacier elevation. The glacier model was driven by three of the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP). These are future greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration scenarios based on different socio-economic pathways. The RCP’s chosen by the authors were the 2.6 scenario, which they note is the most similar to the 2015 Paris agreement, the 4.5 scenario where GHG concentrations stabilize by 2100, and the 8.5 or “business-as-usual” scenario where GHG concentrations continue to increase past 2100.

Aerial photo of the Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska.
The Susitna Glacier of south-central Alaska, which feeds the Susitna river basin, is not expected to reach peak water until the end of the 21st century. The vegetation appears red due to the wavelengths used by the satellite (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

How do these three scenarios impact glacial volume in the study’s glacierized basins? After running the glacier model, total volume was projected to decrease in all three with a decrease of 43±14 percent for the 2.6, 58±13 percent for the 4.5, and 74±11 percent for the 8.5, respectively.

A decrease in glacial volume will in the short term mean an increase in water for a basin as runoff increases, that is until the point of “peak water,” where the amount of glacial runoff begins to decrease as glacier volume declines. Distressingly, peak water has already been reached in 45 percent of the basins examined in the study including most of the Andes, Alps, and Rocky Mountains.

Three factors— total glacial area, ice cover as a fraction of the basin, and the basin’s latitude— influence the timing of peak water occurrence in a basin. Basins with many large glaciers at higher latitudes like in coastal Alaska were projected to reach peak water near the end of the century whereas basins closer to the equator with small glaciers like the Peruvian Andes have already experienced or will soon experience peak water. Furthermore, the Himalayas are projected to experience peak water around mid-century as their high elevation tempers the effect of their relatively low latitude.

Map of peak water occurrence across all studied basins.
Time of peak water occurrence in all of the studied basins (Source: Huss & Hock).

The study also examined changes to glacial runoff on a monthly timescale for the years 2050 and 2100, focusing specifically on the melt season from June to October in the Northern Hemisphere and December to April in the Southern Hemisphere. The monthly results showed spatial consistency, which surprised the authors, according to Hock, with runoff increasing in almost all basins at the beginning of the melt season (June/December) and decreasing toward the end (August and September/February and March). Another unexpected finding was the significant reduction in overall runoff, up to a 10 percent decrease by 2100 in at least one month, in basins with very low glacial cover, a phenomenon that was observed in a third of the basins, Hock added.

It is important to remember that these changes in basin runoff mean more than just changing numbers and statistics: there are people and communities that rely on water provided by glaciers. The authors note that 26 percent of the Earth’s land surface is covered by glacierized drainage basins, impacting a third of the world’s population.

Photo of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.
A glacier in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. Basins of the Peruvian Andes are especially at risk to climate change as many have already reached peak water (Source: Dharamvir Tanwar‏/Twitter).

The ramifications of glacier retreat will not be felt equally across the basins observed in this study. When asked what regions are most at risk, Hock identified both the Andes and Central Asia as places of concern. In the Andes, runoff is decreasing in almost all basins. This is of particular concern due to the limited water resources of the South American west coast. In Central Asia, glaciers contribute to basin runoff in all months, leading to potential problems if runoff is significantly reduced.

These regions, along with other glacier reliant places, face an uncertain and atypical water future, one that will likely see an increase in glacial runoff, followed by a sharp decline.To prepare for these forthcoming challenges, further study is needed, particularly with a focus on the human dimensions of glacial retreat.

Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen

The Discovery

An ancient tunic was discovered at Lendbreen Glacier in Norway.

On August 4, 2011, a hot summer sun exposed the upper edges of Lendbreen Glacier at the Lomseggen mountain in Breheimen National Park in Norway. An archaeological team was on the scene to excavate the area for potential findings from prehistoric times. After a treasure trove of a day with artifacts littering the ground, including ancient shoes, hunting gear, tent pegs, and even horse dung, the most significant surprise was when archaeologists came across what appeared to be a crumpled up piece of cloth. When examined it at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic, the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway and one of only a few surviving garments from the 1st millennium A.D. in all of Europe.

“It’s very rarely that we find well-preserved clothing from prehistoric times,” explains Marianne Vedeler, professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo to Yngve Vogt of the Apollan Research Magazine. “Only a handful of clothing like this has been found in Europe.”

Since the find, archaeologists and conservators have worked to study this tunic to learn more about its mysterious past. Who wore the tunic? Why was it left in the glacier? How was it made? What raw materials were used, and how time-consuming was the process? Vedeler and Swedish handweaver Lena Hammarlund recently published an article about the reconstruction process to find the answers.

The History

With climate change rapidly melting glaciers across the world, archaeologists have been able to uncover the story behind the ice. The day of discovery on August 4 revealed much more than the tunic and multitudes of other artifacts. Researchers also discovered the area was once a glaciated mountain pass.

As visualized in this eight-minute video on the history and reconstruction of the Lendbreen tunic, the Lomseggen mountain, home to the Lendbreen glacier, now separates the modern villages of Lom and Skjak. Archaeologists determined that this was once a passage used during the Iron Age as a transport route for people traveling between valleys, such as Bøverdalen and Ottadalen.

“The upland areas in which snow patches are found are little frequented by humans today, but hunting and trapping have been carried out there since prehistoric times. Reindeer often congregate on snow patches in late summer to regulate their body temperature and to avoid parasitic insects, making them attractive hunting grounds,” explained a study by Vedeler and Nordic archaeologist Lise Bender Jørgensen back in 2013.

Fieldwork at the Lendbreen Glacier where archaeologists stumbled across the tunic (Source: Secrets of Ice/Twitter).

Why was the tunic left behind? Many hypotheses are up in the air. Mai Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom described how treacherous the mountain passes were in the ancient past. “It was quicker to go over the mountain pass than to go round. The glaciers in those days were much bigger, and easy to walk on. The tunic may have been lost on just such a trip,” Bakke told Medieval Histories back in 2014. But given the extended use of the tunic, Vedeler and other archaeologists don’t see how it would have been carelessly cast aside. Another possible account is that the tunic was left at a place where people had camped to hunt reindeer. Perhaps the hunting party had gotten caught up in a storm and died.

 

The Reconstruction

In the realm of archaeology, textiles are difficult to preserve over time. “Artifacts from different periods are found deposited in the ice patches, many of them made of organic material rarely preserved elsewhere,” indicates the study. “Ice patches often provide exceptionally good conservation conditions for textiles.”

The original Lendbreen Tunic (Source: Secrets of the Ice/Twitter).

The Lendbreen tunic is estimated to have been made between 230 and 390 A.D. and gives archaeologists and historians a glimpse of what life would have been like 1,700 years ago. Woven from sheep’s wool, it is of a basic cut and was evidently frequently used with repaired patches on the back, indicating its extensive use 1,700 years ago. It is also relatively short, with historians concluding it was meant for a man or boy of slender build. Overall, specialists claim the yarns and patterns in the tunic were of a standard Iron Age practice and not requiring expert knowledge to produce.

However, it is evident the tunic was time-consuming to make. “In prehistory, the time spent on fiber preparation, spinning, and weaving must have varied greatly depending on differences in the raw materials and the tools used, and the knowledge and skills of the people producing the textiles,” stated the study, “It must still have been a very time-consuming task to produce a textile. This applies to everyday fabrics as well as to the most valuable ones.”

Regarding the reconstruction process, Vedeler and Hammarlund had two goals with the Lendbreen tunic project. The first one was to create two new tunics as similar as possible to the original, using old-fashioned techniques in hopes to recreate the process. But there was also a broader aim to the reconstruction, according to the study: “to gain greater knowledge of time and labor used in each step of the chain of production by analyzing the original fabric. It is known that prehistoric textile production was a very time-consuming process, but timing each step of the process gave a more detailed picture.”

With the reconstruction process complete, it took 760 hours for handweavers to reproduce the tunic from scratch using old-fashioned techniques. They used wool from traditional breeds of sheep in western Norway that could have been used to create the yarn in the tunic. Although Vedeler and Hammarlund quickly discovered it would be too expensive not to use machines, they indicated it was still an incredibly laborious process to accurately stitch the tunic.

An image of the Lendbreen tunic reconstruction (Source: scientiflix/Twitter).

The Legacy

Today, the museum curators at the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom and the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo are busy preparing the new exhibits that will showcase the tunic and its reconstructions. The original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center shared with GlacierHub the excitement surrounding the tunic and its reconstruction. “We look forward to having the original in our new exhibition. It was exciting to follow the reconstruction of the tunic and very nice for the museum to have an authentic copy,” she told GlacierHub. She additionally described that they are both an important part of the exhibition, “Spellbound,” opening in June.

With climate change melting glaciers like the Lendbreen at unprecedented rates, hundreds of artifacts emerge from the ice every summer, presenting clues to piecing together the lives of communities dependent on glaciers and the interconnected relationship between the humans and the rest of the environment.

Teachers Tackle Climate Change Through Film

High school students at Nederland Middle-Senior High School in Colorado participated recently in an innovative approach, outlined in a report from the National Science Teacher’s Association, to teaching students about climate impacts in their communities. For Nederland students, this meant exploring the nearby Arapaho Glacier which provides their drinking water supply.

Both the South and North peaks of the Arapaho Glacier. (Source: Greg Willis/Creative Commons).

The Arapaho Glacier is located north of Boulder, Colorado, within the Rocky Mountains. It stands as the largest glacier in the state at a quarter-mile long, a half-mile wide, and 15-feet thick. However, during the last century, the Arapaho has lost over half of its area and may be completely gone within the next 60 years. This fits within the pattern that many small glaciers are facing worldwide— rapid retreat.

The idea is to get Nederland students to engage with climate change, a complex and often abstract concept, by creating a “short, documentary-style film about environmental changes in their community” through a three-phase process. “This approach combines science learning with engaging storytelling and artistic elements, which makes it appealing and accessible to different types of learners,” according to the report.

Science Research and Film Production Phases with Tasks (Source: Science Scope).

The students begin with a research phase to obtain a strong foundation of scientific knowledge from which to conceptualize and map out the documentary. Experts and community members are incorporated during the production phase, where interviews, narration, animation, and student-recorded footage are gathered. The students then edit and build the final-cut of the film during the third phase— post-production.

Throughout the filming process, students were able to interview a glaciologist from the nearby University of Colorado as well as a local water manager. To personalize the assignment and topic further, students also participated in a hike in the mountains behind their school which offered views of the glacier, emphasizing its proximity.

Curriculum Gap

Even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-induced climate change is happening, this may not be taught to students studying climate science. Some states have started to require that lessons on climate change include human activity as a major cause, but “few, if any, have provided a road map for how to teach it, and most science teachers, according to one recent survey, spend at most two hours on the subject,” according to the New York Times.

The documentary-style approach outlined in the report not only fills a gap in curriculum but attempts to achieve learning goals better than other methods. “Videos can have greater impacts than hearing or reading about the topics, in part because seeing the dynamics of melting glaciers creates interactions and demands responses lacking in other forms of communication,” says Mike Passow of the Earth2Class Workshops for Teachers at Columbia University and the National Earth Science Teachers Association.

The need for a place-based environmental project of this type is apparent. For example, before the project began, none of the students were aware of the source of their community’s drinking water supply, according to the report. After the completion and film screening of their work, the students were more aware of the importance of the Arapaho Glacier to their daily lives and better able to inform their peers and local community members.

Student Support

Student feedback received at the end of the assignment was largely positive, indicating that students felt motivated and transformed. “The program made them more aware of climate impacts in their communities and inspired them to make changes in their daily lives to reduce fossil fuel consumption,” according to the report.

This is a key outcome. As Passow asserts, “Identifying the local issue of water supply fosters consideration of the global issue of changing climates.”

Simply put, this new approach may best be summarized by a catch-phrase that Passow took note of when he first began teaching in the 1960s: “The Real World Is Outside— Get into It!”

Check out one of the student-produced films below: