Roundup: Carbon Sinks, Serpentine Syndrome and Migration Dynamics

Roundup: Carbon, Serpentine, and Migration


Dwindling Glaciers Lead to Potential Carbon Sinks

From PLOS ONE: “Current glacier retreat makes vast mountain ranges available for vegetation establishment and growth. As a result, carbon (C) is accumulated in the soil, in a negative feedback to climate change. Little is known about the effective C budget of these new ecosystems and how the presence of different vegetation communities influences CO2 fluxes. On the Matsch glacier forefield (Alps, Italy) we measured over two growing seasons the Net Ecosystem Exchange (NEE) of a typical grassland, dominated by the C3 Festuca halleri All., and a community dominated by the CAM rosettes Sempervivum montanum L… The two communities showed contrasting GEE but similar Reco patterns, and as a result they were significantly different in NEE during the period measured. The grassland acted as a C sink, with a total cumulated value of -46.4±35.5 g C m-2 NEE, while the plots dominated by the CAM rosettes acted as a source, with 31.9±22.4 g C m-2. In spite of the different NEE, soil analysis did not reveal significant differences in carbon accumulation of the two plant communities, suggesting that processes often neglected, like lateral flows and winter respiration, can have a similar relevance as NEE in the determination of the Net Ecosystem Carbon Balance.”

Learn more about the colonization of a deglaciated moraine here.

Glacier National Park (Source: Ada Be/Flickr).


Vegetation and the Serpentine Syndrome

From Plant and Soil: “Initial stages of pedogenesis (soil formation) are particularly slow on serpentinite (a dark, typically greenish metamorphic rock that weathers to form soil). This implies a slow accumulation of available nutrients and leaching of phytotoxic (poisonous to plants) elements. Thus, a particularly slow plant primary succession should be observed on serpentinitic proglacial areas. The observation of soil-vegetation relationships in such environments should give important information on the development of the serpentine syndrome (a phrase to explain plant survival on serpentine)… Plant-soil relationships have been statistically analysed, comparing morainic environments on pure serpentinite and serpentinite with small sialic inclusions in the North-western Italian Alps….Pure serpentinite supported strikingly different plant communities in comparison with the sites where the serpentinitic till was enriched by small quantities of sialic rocks.”

Find out more about the serpentine syndrome here.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (Source: André Pipa/Flickr).


Climate Changes Landscape of South American Communities

From Global Migration Issues: “Mountain regions are among the most vulnerable areas with regard to global environmental changes. In the Bolivian Andes, for example, environmental risks, such as those related to climate change, are numerous and often closely intertwined with social risks. Rural households are therefore characterized by high mobility, which is a traditional strategy of risk management. Nowadays, most rural households are involved in multi-residency or circular migratory movements at a regional, national, and international scale. Taking the case of two rural areas close to the city of La Paz, we analyzed migration patterns and drivers behind migrant household decisions in the Bolivian Andes… Our results underline that migration is a traditional peasant household strategy to increase income and manage livelihood risks under rising economic pressures, scarcity of land, insufficient local off-farm work opportunities, and low agricultural productivity… Our results suggest that environmental factors do not drive migration independently, but are rather combined with socio-economic factors.”

Read more about migration dynamics here.

View of the Bolivian Andes and the city of La Paz (Source: Cliff Hllis/Flickr).
View of the Bolivian Andes and the city of La Paz (Source: Cliff Hellis/Flickr).

China’s Promotion of Everest Tourism

Mount Everest is the highest peak in the world, sitting at 29,029 feet, roughly 5.5 miles above sea level. Though the south side of Everest is located in Nepal, about 100 miles from Kathmandu, the north side of Everest lies within the Tibet Autonomous Region and is governed by China. Earlier this year, China finished construction on a paved road up to Everest’s north side base camp, bordering on a 14,000 foot elevation gain. This was the first step in a larger commercialization goal for the Chinese in Tibet. China has proposed commercializing the north side of Everest by 2019 in order to make the mountain more accessible, according to China Daily, China’s state-run English-language news site. With this move, China may further divide the Everest region, already struggling from political tensions and significant urbanization. China’s success in this venture will rest on the incorporation of approved standards of environmental, cultural and mountaineering practice.

China opened a new paved road to Mount Everest (Source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).
China opened a new paved road to Mount Everest (Source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).

Traditionally, Nepal has been the preferred route to Mt. Everest because of its political stability, slightly warmer climate, less severe elements and helicopter rescue capabilities, as well as government policies that offer access to the site. However, recent issues with overcrowding and growing litter on Everest’s south side has provided China with new opportunities to become more competitive in the mountaineering market, as pointed out by Tsechu Dolma, a Nepali and frequent contributor to GlacierHub. With this recent development, China hopes to bolster the local tourism and mountaineering industry in Tibet, which China claims would have positive impacts on local economies and accessibility. This includes plans for a 84,320 square meter mountaineering center in Gangkar worth $14.7 million (100 million yuan) that would contain hotels, restaurants, a mountaineering museum, a search-and-rescue base and other services.

“These jobs should and would go to locals,” Jamie McGuinness, owner of  the small private trekking firm Project Himalaya, pointed out to GlacierHub, referring to the ethnic Tibetan population of the region. “With the approximate 5,000 meter altitude, other ethnic groups cannot handle living there. Initially, it could be that some of the locals would lose some business briefly; however, over time more income would be generated for everyone.”

Everest base camp, Nepal (Source: Hendrik Terbeck/Creative Commons).

Increasing search-and-rescue capabilities would also help to reduce risks notorious to the mountain. Summiting attempts cater to a very small portion of the population capable of extreme athleticism. Despite climbers’ skill, Everest attempts still pose a great risk to all involved; in the case of Nepal, the local Sherpas  face higher risks due to increased exposure and the pressures associated with route preparation. Having an established mountaineering center could prove beneficial to tourists, and perhaps to guides as well, if the north side of Everest becomes the more preferred route for summiting attempts. Climbing risks can be reduced by having well-funded search-and-rescue teams. This might help reduce the risk of tragedies like the one in 2014 when an ice avalanche from the Khumbu glacier in Nepal claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas.

Having spent the last 25 years trekking through the Himalayas, McGuinness says, “Nepal is lucky that so many expeditions still climb from the obviously more dangerous icefall route, the price of which is roll-of-the-dice deaths. Climbing Everest from the north is significantly less dangerous, and the day of reckoning is coming within the next few years.” The switch needs to happen, McGuinness added, but whether Sherpas and guides climb from the north or from the south, they will still get paid.

Khumbu Glacier
Khumbu Glacier, Nepal (Source: Mahatma4711/ Creative Commons).

As climates continue to change, increased temperatures experienced in Nepal could expand dangers posed to climbers and the Sherpa guides. The Khumbu Glacier regularly releases large,  deadly ice chunks, which fall along climbing routes. The 2014 ice avalanche that killed the 16 Sherpas had a mass that was the size of a ten-story building. The Khumbu Glacier greatly increases the risks from summiting in Nepal, and these risks may only increase as climates continue to shift.

As McGuinness suggests, the dangers associated with climbing routes from the south side of Everest may start to become too great, causing a shift in preferred routes to summiting Everest. However, the north side is not without dangers, nor without glaciers. Tibet’s Mount Everest base camp currently sits below the terminal moraine (furthest point of advance of a glacier) of the Rongbuk Glacier. The Rongbuk Glacier is fed by two upper sections, the East Rongbuk Glacier and the West Rongbuk Glacier, which are also affected by climate change. According to McGuinness, these glaciers pose a lower risk for the mountaineers and guides attempting the ascent than the Khumbu Glacier. The establishment of a mountaineering center may make the climbing route more appealing to outside climbers, with increased technologies, improved capabilities to manage waste, and easier access to critical resources.

Rongbuk glacier, Tibet (Source: Gaurav Agrawal)
Rongbuk Glacier, Tibet (Source: Gaurav Agrawal/Creative Commons).

While the creation of a mountaineering center might certainly be beneficial to the mountaineering and tourism industry in the area, this commercialization would need to be considerate of the environment and culture it would be occupying. For Sherpas as for other indigenous communities of the region, the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Everest are inextricably tied to deep-rooted religious beliefs. For example, before an ascent attempt from the north side, climbers pass Rongbuk Monastery, built in 1909 and currently the highest monastery in the world, home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. Largely reduced to rubble during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s,  this site has seen significant rebuilding and restoration in recent decades. Disrespecting the local culture of Tibet could negate the positive impacts China hopes to achieve in the region.

Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet- home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns. (Source: Göran Höglund)
Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet: home to 30 Buddhist monks and nuns (Source: Göran Höglund/Creative Commons).

China’s ability to respect the values and needs of the Tibetan people would be a positive step to helping heal a complicated history between the two countries. Tensions between China and Tibet have remained high since the 1950s. Large commercial projects could further these animosities by threatening sacred sites that have helped define the local culture of Tibet for centuries. China has the opportunity to work with local communities in Tibet to not only help them build sustainable infrastructure, but also to help improve the lives of the mountain peoples who have otherwise been historically disregarded.

McGuinness comments, “The commercialization of Everest is as inevitable as urbanization. It is a question of managing it with sensitivity and balancing commercial interests against local and environmental interests.” As shown by a recent restriction which China placed on the travel of its citizens to Nepal, geopolitical interests are also likely to be at play.


Photo Friday: Pakistan’s Mountain Region

With a diverse landscape, northern Pakistan is home to some of the Earth’s highest peaks. The high altitude combined with the Asian monsoon have historically provided glaciers in the region with the necessary conditions to thrive, according to National Environment Agency.

Despite their intimidating nature, the Himalayas have an extensive amount of biodiversity. “Climates range from tropical at the base of the mountains to perennial snow and ice at the highest elevations,” according to PBS.

Check out GlacierHub’s collection of images from the glacier-rich mountain region of Pakistan. You can find additional images of Pakistan’s mountains at Pamir Times.


Gojal Valley, Pakistan. (Source: Pamir Times)
Gojal Valley, Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times).


Batura Glacier, Gojal Valley, Pakistan (Source: Akbar Khan Niazi/Creative Commons).
Batura Glacier, Gojal Valley, Pakistan (Source: Akbar Khan Niazi/Creative Commons).


Diamir district of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times)
Diamir district of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times).


(Source: Pamir Times)
A glacier in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times).


Skardu city, Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times)
Skardu, Pakistan (Source: Pamir Times).


Rakaposhi Mountain located in District Nagar (Source: Pamir Times).
Rakaposhi Mountain located in District Nagar (Source: Pamir Times).


Hopar Glacier, Nagar Valley, Pakistan (Source: Najeebmahmud/Creative Commons)
Hopar Glacier, Nagar Valley, Pakistan (Source: Najeebmahmud/Creative Commons).


Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan (Source: Pamir Times).
Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan (Source: Pamir Times).


Mapping Landslides in the Himalayas

Uttarakhand Himalaya in northwest India is a rural, mountain region that shares borders with Nepal and Tibet. Often referred to as “The Land of Gods” for its physical grandeur, Uttarakhand is surrounded by some of the world’s highest peaks and glaciers. However, such beauty comes at a price. The Uttarakhand area is prone to natural and glacier-related disasters, often exacerbated by the region’s topography and climate patterns. Landslides, triggered by heavy rainfall and events called glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), expose the high mountain communities to infrastructure, life and community losses. A recent article by Naresh Rana Poonam et al. in Geomorphology measured and mapped susceptibility in Uttarakhand to help create a template that can be applied to locations facing similar climate-related landslides.

Village of Jhakani, Pauri, Uttarakhand (Source: A Frequent Traveller/Creative Commons).
Village of Jhakani, Pauri, Uttarakhand (Source: A Frequent Traveller/Creative Commons).

To conduct their research, Poonam et al. relied on Landslide Susceptibility Zonation (LSZ) mapping in order to deepen understanding and response in Uttarakhand to local hazards in a manner that can also be replicated elsewhere. Landslide Susceptibility Zonation (LSZ) is a type of mapping system that organizes different variables like geological, geomorphic, meteorological and man-made factors as high-risk based on the chances of slope failure. A slope failure occurs whenever a mountain slope collapses due to gravitational stresses, often triggering a destructive local landslide. Mapping these vulnerabilities is critical to understanding the dynamics and potential force of future landslides in the Himalayas and elsewhere.

Many of Uttarakhand’s peaks have year-round snowpack with glaciers and glacial lakes that can be disturbed by shifting rainfall patterns and changes in the onset of monsoon season. These disruptions can cause a destabilization deep within the ground, causing the initial movement needed to produce a landslide. Additionally, Uttarakhand’s proximity to the Indian Plate, a large tectonic plate where movement occurs along the boundaries, makes it especially vulnerable to frequent earthquakes. According to the United States Geological Survey, the last earthquake in Uttarakhand occurred on December 1, 2016, with a 5.2 magnitude. The energy released during an earthquake of that magnitude has the potential to trigger multiple, large-scale landslides.

Floodwaters of the River Alaknanda in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013 (Source: Indian Army/Creative Commons).
Floodwaters of the River Alaknanda in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013 (Source: Indian Army/Creative Commons).

Given the high-altitude location of Uttarakhand, earthquakes can also cause glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), a type of flood that occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing a large volume of water. These events can be especially destructive to rural mountain communities that are hard to access, making recovery efforts challenging and untimely. Additionally, these villages are often settled in areas where landslides naturally funnel. Preparing mountain communities to understand the risks they face is critical to minimizing damage associated with natural disasters. As a recent article in GlacierHub points out, “Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates.” In an attempt to lower the risk of a landslide disaster triggered by a glacial lake outburst flood or rainfall event, Poonam et al. looked at ways to increase accuracy of floodplain mapping. The hope is to help increase the resiliency of communities by encouraging smart expansion with higher predictability of slide prone areas.

Flash floods in Uttarakhand
Damage caused by flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO).

LSZ mapping is created using the Weights of Evidence method, a statistical procedure for calculating risk assessment using training data, like an established inventory of previous landslides. This statistical approach allows for information retrieved from a geographic information system (GIS) and remotely sensed data to be integrated regionally. LSV maps can also be derived from a knowledge-driven method that involves more human interpretation; however, this method is based on expert evaluations of a location. According to the article, the statistical approach is used more frequently because it lacks the subjective nature of the knowledge-driven method. When a location is evaluated by an expert, risks and interpretation of potential risks will differ based on the expert, leaving the risk of human error. The statistical approach provides consistency and confidence of regional LSZ maps because they can be interpreted using a common baseline.

The researchers hope that more precise mapping will help communities prepare for disasters such as the one that occurred in Uttarakhand in 2013. In a normal year, the monsoon rains soak Uttarakhand during the second week of July; however, in 2013, those rains arrived in June, a month earlier than expected, catching Uttarakhand off guard. During the spring months, water levels are high with snowmelt from rivers and glacial lakes. Combining monsoon rains with snowmelt during the spring can lead to devastating floods and landslides. As a result, 7,000 people and hundreds of animals lost their lives in a rainfall event on June 15th that took place in the Mandakini Valley, east of Nanda Devi National Park, according to BBC News. Adding to the devastating losses, the Manadkini Valley is also home to the Kedarnath Temple, where Hindu pilgrims travel between the months of May to October. The high volumes of people paired with the early-activated monsoon resulted in increased losses.

Flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO)
Damage caused by flash floods in Uttarakhand (Source: European Commission DG ECHO).

After experiencing the devastation of the landslides resulting from the June 2013 monsoon, many people thought the risk of staying in Uttarakhand was too high, so they relocated to the plains. The outmigration left 3,600 villages mostly deserted, as reported by Poonam et al. Outmigration due to climate-related disasters places mountain communities at additional risk for economic stagnation that may lead to increased forced migration to other areas.

Educating communities in both a scientific and social capacity on the risks associated with the natural interaction of weather and a geography allows for increased awareness among local populations which can help lead to better preparedness for future events. According to a recent GlacierHub article, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, located nearby, held a workshop to communicate risk to small mountain communities to help them understand and raise awareness into the unique risks associated with their location. Like with Uttarakhand, it’s not a question of if these events will happen, but when. Providing communities with detailed maps highlighting certain areas that are more prone to landslides and GLOFs will not eliminate the risk, but it may lower it. Combining LSV mapping with education programs on how to use the mapping information will provide small mountain villages with the future tools to build more sustainable and resilient communities. Since LSV mapping efforts are still being integrated, success may not be immediate. However, LSV mapping shows tremendous potential to enable people to continue residing in the world’s richly historic and picturesque locations.

Roundup: Breeding Grounds, Ecosystems, Macroinvertebrates

Roundup: Chronosequences, Drift and Catchments


Glacier Retreat Exposes New Breeding Grounds:

From Molecular Ecology: “The rate of global glacial retreat has increased due to climate change and is projected to lead to the disappearance of alpine glaciers by 2050 if warming continues at its current rate (Fitzharris 1995). One consequence of glacial retreat is exposure of subglacial till [sediment carried and deposited by a glacier], which subsequently develops into mineral soil that supports grassland ecosystems (Anderson 1988). This process can be observed in the glacier foreland, with increasing distance from the glacier terminus used as a proxy for time since retreat: a chronosequence (Hämmerli et al. 2007)… If the sites follow the same ecological trajectory, chronosequences can provide useful insights into successional processes (Walker et al. 2010).”

Learn more about the consequences of glacier retreat here:

Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada (Source: Creative Commons, Oltgolpis)
Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada (Source: Oltgolpis/Creative Commons).


Drift Patterns in High Mountain Streams:

From Acta Biologica:”This study highlighted the strong seasonality of the diurnal [occurs every 24 hours] drift pattern of the different taxa. This could be explained by the seasonality that characterizes high mountain stream ecosystems in their main physico-chemical features (e.g. discharge, water temperature, suspended solid transport, etc.) (Brittain et alii, 2000)… A second reason could be the low abundance of individuals found, especially in June and August at stations g and ac and in all periods at station ng, that hindered the analysis of the daily activity pattern of most taxa.”

Interested in learning more about these studies? Find them here:

Trentino, Italy (Source: Creative Commons, Marcello Colajanni)
Trentino, Italy (Source: Marcello Colajanni/Creative Commons).


Macroinvertebrate Communities in Catchments:

From Hydrobiologia: “Groundwater-fed streams are typically hotspots of aquatic biodiversity within glacierized catchments [natural drainage areas from runoff]. Surface water physicochemistry and macroinvertebrate communities within five groundwater-fed streams were characterized across catchments in Denali National Park, interior Alaska. The main aim of this study was to assess whether hydrological controls on macroinvertebrate communities (e.g. flow permanence) identified within previous catchment-specific studies are present at wider spatial scales, across multiple groundwater-fed streams located on alluvial terraces [a river terrace made of deposits of clay, silt, sand and gravel] within glacierized catchments… The high diversity and structural heterogeneity of macroinvertebrate communities observed across alluvial terrace streams indicated the importance of these systems as biodiversity hotspots in regions under threat from climate change.”

For more on this study:

Denali National Park (Source: Creative Commons, Bill Shupp)
Denali National Park (Source: Bill Shupp/Creative Commons).

Iceberg Killing Fields Threaten Carbon Cycling

The vast, unpopulated landscape of Ryder Bay, West Antarctica gives the impression of complete isolation. However, despite its barren, cold exterior, Antarctica plays an important role in regulating the Earth’s climate system. Located along the southeast coast of Adelaide Island, Ryder Bay is helping mitigate impacts of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to the ocean, where these gases can remain for centuries. This repurposing is being done by benthos, microorganisms like phytoplankton that bloom during summer months and provide critical food supplies that maintain the marine ecosystem in Ryder Bay. Quietly residing on the floor of the Southern Ocean, benthos are encountering increased risks due to a changing climate. While the potential carbon recycling capacity of local marine ecosystems remains significant, the collapsing glaciers and ice shelves in Ryder Bay may threaten this productivity, according to an article in the journal of Global Change Biology.

West Antarctica during winter. (Source: Ashley Cordingley)
West Antarctica during winter (Source: Ashley Cordingley).

The carbon recycling process in the marine ecosystems is one of the strongest mechanisms helping to reduce the impacts associated with historic carbon emissions. Located along the continental shelf, benthos absorb carbon through photosynthesis; when these organisms die and fall to the ocean floor, this carbon is then stored in sediments. Undisturbed, the ocean can help thwart warming due to an enhanced greenhouse effect by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the ocean. David Barnes, a Marine Benthic Ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey and an author of the article,  pointed out to GlacierHub, “Trends in carbon accumulation and immobilization, which occur on the seabed, could be considered most important as these involve long-term carbon storage. [These trends] are perhaps the largest negative feedback on climate change.” However, because of shifting land dynamics, the increased frequency of iceberg creation is having a direct impact on the ability of the marine ecosystems to recycle carbon.

Iceberg shape and size is hard to estimate solely from its above sea level figuration. (Source: Ashley Cordingley)
Iceberg shape and size is hard to estimate solely from its above sea level figuration (Source: Ashley Cordingley).

As the Earth continues to warm, ice sheets and glaciers in Antarctica advance and become thinner, causing cracks and crevasses to form. These fissures, in turn, lead to unpredictable, large-scale breaks which create icebergs that discharge into the ocean. At the time of detachment, ice formations hit the ocean floor, obliterating the marine ecosystems below. Icebergs can continue to impact the benthos as they travel on the ocean.

Barnes described this problem to GlacierHub:  “At places like Ryder Bay, it would be very difficult to provide forecasting, because it is very frequent and a bit chaotic. The direction an iceberg travels depends on its shape, how deep its keel is, wind, and current speed. A smaller iceberg with a vertically flat side above water will easily catch wind like a sail, so if the wind is strong it will mainly follow wind direction. Conversely, a bigger iceberg with a deep vertical flat side might more easily catch current.”

According to NOAA, these icebergstypically rising 5 meters above the sea surface and covering 500 square meters in areaare large enough to inflict significant destruction. Dubbed “iceberg killing fields,” these places of impact can cause extensive disruption to the beneficial marine ecosystems along the ocean floor.

Divers assess seabed for ice scour damage (Source: Ashley Cordingley)
A diver assesses the seabed for ice scour damage (Source: Ashley Cordingley).

David Barnes works with the British Antarctic Survey to study the iceberg killing fields and measure the impact of iceberg-seabed collisions on marine ecosystems. The British Antarctic Survey has been monitoring the local marine ecosystems in Ryder Bay due to their sensitivity to environmental change and the surprisingly large role benthos play in removing carbon from the atmosphere. According to the report, “The scour monitoring has probably become the longest continuously running direct measurement of disturbance on the seabed anywhere in the world.” With roughly 93 percent of carbon dioxide being stored in our oceans, it is necessary to monitor how these potential carbon sinks may fluctuate, according to the Worldwatch Institute.  

According to Barnes’ findings, the benthos in Ryder Bay are experiencing high mortality rates due to the frequent and powerful collisions between collapsing ice shelves and the sea floor, often referred to as ice scour. “Since 2003, when it was first measured in Ryder Bay, ice scour has been less predictable and more variable (than many other environmental variables),” according to Barnes and the British Antarctic Survey. The heightened unpredictability of ice scour makes predicting and preventative measures challenging.

Collisions between icebergs and the ocean floor are frequent and damaging, with the “potential to halve the value of benthic immobilized carbon in the Ryder Bay shallows,” says Barnes. These measurements show a very high frequency of scouring in the shallows because of its proximity to the ocean floors in Ryder Bay, according to the article. In fact, on average, ice scour affected 29 percent of the seabed study area yearly, from 5 to 25 meters deep. In the past decade, Barnes found that only seven percent of the shallows had not been hit by icebergs. This scouring accounts for nearly 60 percent of total benthic fatality at a 5m depth. The high frequency and fatality rates associated with iceberg scour make it one of the “most significant natural disturbance events,” according to Barnes.

Extensive research conducted on the sea floor in Ryder Bay helps measure ice scour. (Source: Ashley Cordingley)
Extensive research conducted on the sea floor in Ryder Bay helps measure ice scour (Source: Ashley Cordingley).

Weekly ocean measurements of temperature, salinity and size-fractionated (micro, nano and pico) phytoplankton have been collected since 1997, says Barnes. The field work conducted by the British Antarctic Survey set up 75 ice scour markers gridded at 5, 10 and 25m. These grids are surveyed and replaced by researchers using scuba gear, allowing for the different scour depths to be calculated. Frequency of collisions is then calculated through the recording of disturbances for each meter squared in order to establish a detailed history and provide insight into potential future trends. Annual collection of faunal remains and boulders are integrated into the disturbance data sets. These collections will help further quantify the damages inflicted upon marine ecosystems and their abilities to sequester carbon.

While glaciers in polar regions seem inconsequential to our everyday experiences with climate, they have the ability to significantly influence the biological systems which remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Continued support of scientific endeavors in the polar regions are critical in order to understand the places and processes that play such a vital role in the Earth’s climate system. As Barnes states, “We have a huge and powerful ally [in the polar regions] in the fight against climate change, so let’s make sure we look after it.”

How Glacial Lakes in India Offer Lessons on Adaptation

Situated on a high plateau in northwest India, the Ladakh region is part of the contested Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. While local communities share similar linguistic, cultural, and religious beliefs with Tibet, Pakistan and India continue to disagree on territorial claims in the region. Located in the Himalaya Mountains, the Ladakh region is home to some of the world’s largest glaciers outside of polar regions with 266 glacial lakes, according to Mountain Research and Development. Given the recent warming temperature trends, the glacial retreat in the region places Ladakh’s small mountain communities at risk for destructive events known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. A GLOF occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing large volumes of water.

In an attempt to minimize these threats to small mountain communities, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science at Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group offered a one-day workshop to educate populations on their local risks due to the increased numbers of glacial lakes in the region. Three months after the workshop, facilitators returned to the area to survey local villagers to measure the retention and overall success of this adaptive approach. 

(Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)
Kargil District, Ladakh (Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)

In the article, scientists report that knowledge of risks was limited: “Most villagers knew of some but not all of the glacier lakes in the valley – primarily those closest to the regular routes used in their daily lives, such as near pasturelands in the headwater areas and along trade routes to the adjacent valleys.” The majority of villagers obtained their knowledge from communications with people who had come across the glacial lakes accidentally, according to the researchers.

By presenting and encouraging action that complemented daily lives, the scientists believed they were able to better prepare communities for climate risks increases. The scientists were able to provide local villagers with information on how to more accurately assess glacier lakes and the potential risk for a GLOF by developing an understanding of local routes. These tools were promoted to help villagers contribute to a stronger, more resilient local mountain community.

A warming planet has caused glacial melt to increase in regions like northwest India, leading to the formation of more glacial lakes since the 1970s, according to NASA. With the increased number of glacial lakes located in the Ladakh region, the risk for glacial outburst flood rises, as stated by Worni et al. Given the high altitude origins of these glacial lakes, a sudden release of water can have similar catastrophic impacts as a massive avalanche. The sudden force is capable of leveling anything in its path, including villages.

“[GLOFs] result in serious death tolls and destruction of valuable natural resources, such as forests, farms, and costly mountain infrastructures,” according to the India Environmental Portal. “The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region has suffered several GLOF events originating from numerous glacial lakes, some of which have trans-boundary impacts.” Educating and preparing small mountain communities becomes increasingly critical because forecasting abilities for these events are limited.

(Source: Creative Commons)
Himalayan Mountains from air (Source: Karunakar Rayker/Creative Commons)

The forecasting challenges surrounding GLOFs makes communicating risk to local communities difficult. In an attempt to reach and effectively communicate risks to remote mountain villages in the Ladakh region, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science, Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group developed a concept for the one day workshop. According to the report, of the 120 people participating, three villages were represented, all possessing different leveled risks. Villagers were picked at random and varied in age from school children to elderly members in the community. Once the workshop began, facilitators encouraged the conversation and integration of both villager observations and scientific fact provided by scientists working for the Ladakh Ecological Development Group.

The workshop began with villagers sharing their knowledge and perceptions on changes in the region. By providing material in both English and the local language, Ladakhi, the workshop tried to make the scientific material more accessible to villagers, regardless of their preferred language. Additionally, many of the challenging scientific processes were presented visually and had accompanying text in both languages. Finally, this information was merged and displayed in terms of future countermeasures needed to reduce flood risks. Success was measured after the workshop had completed.

Drang Drung Glacier (Source: Poonam Agarwal/Creative Commons)

Three months after the workshop, a survey suggested that the local communities had benefited from the experience: “Of the 60 respondents, 34 stated that they had acquired new information from the workshop and booklet. Among them, 18 had not participated in the workshop,” according to the report. While these numbers show an opportunity to improve understanding and retention, the feedback also demonstrates that the workshop was successful in providing villagers who attended with accurate, accessible information. It generated important discussion about confronting risks associated with a changing glacial landscape, as demonstrated by half of the people surveyed not having attended the conference.

Integrating climate science and culture is the future to building resilient communities. As was discovered in the Ladakh region, religion helped shape the local communities view of natural environmental processes. “Some Domhar villagers came to think of these lakes as sacred places; this belief is still alive among some villagers, especially the older people,” according to the researchers. “Participants of one of the four discussion groups mentioned a belief that sacred horses and sheep lived at lakes in the headwater areas of the Gongpa-Rangchong Valley, and that floods or other disasters would occur if these animals were offended…. Furthermore, the participants of the same discussion group also noted that they could see Tibetan temples and landscapes reflected on the surface of the lake.”

Pangong Tso Lake (Source: Praveen/Creative Commons)

Respecting and acknowledging local belief systems is imperative and proved to be useful in the case of educating local mountain communities in the Ladakh region. Reflections appearing in the lakes is deeply-rooted in the religious cultures of the Ladakh region, which is primarily Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, according to the Yale Journal. By creating a workshop that encouraged conversation about the climate changes in the region, the scientists were able to direct the retention of information by providing a learning environment that validated all views. Additionally, by listening and honoring local culture, scientists were able to present scientifically accurate information in a way that would incorporate everyday culture.

Educating communities is the foundation of creating and implementing a successful adaptation plan, as seen with the work done in northwest India. Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates. The methods highlighted by this report of educating through culturally-aware discussions showed promising results worth building upon. As global communities continue to face challenges associated with changing climates, it’s worth exploring methods that have successfully started to implement change.

NASA’s IceBridge Project- More Than Just a Pretty Image

NASA’s IceBridge project looks at Earth’s polar regions in the largest ever collection of images taken from air.

Greenland’s Steenstrup Glacier
Greenland’s Steenstrup Glacier with the Denmark Straight in the background (Source: NASA’s IceBridge Project).

As NASA states, “These flights will provide a yearly, multi-instrument look at the behavior of the rapidly changing features of the Greenland and Antarctic ice.”

This image shows the calving of the Sermeq Kujatdleg glacier in Greenland
This image shows the calving of the Sermeq Kujatdleg glacier in Greenland (Source: NASA’s IceBridge Project).
fjord of Violin Glacier
Taken May 19th, 2016 of the fjord of Violin Glacier (Source: NASA’s IceBridge Project).

The speed of ice and glacial melt continues to surprise scientists. This project will provide a unique and informative three-dimensional view.

Currently information is being collected by regional observation and satellite data collected from NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat).  Being able to pair this data with the new three-dimensional images could lead to crucial advances in the field.

Sea Ice
Miles of sea ice (Source: NASA’s IceBridge Project).

Glaciers Help Explain Suffering Salmon Populations

The Nooksack Indians, who live in northwest Washington near the border of Canada, are fighting to save local salmon populations through a variety of innovative measures. Several species of salmon reside in the Nooksack River, which is comprised of three main forks that drain a large portion of the Cascade Range into Bellingham Bay. The salmon of the Nooksack are struggling as waters in the river warm. In response, the Nooksack Indians have turned to local glaciers to help understand and resolve the otherwise unrestricted impacts of climate change.

Map of Nooksack River. Photo Credit:
Map of Nooksack River. (Source:

The waters of the Nooksack River have long housed several salmon species that have provided tribes like the Nooksack with sustenance and financial support. In recognition of the importance of fishing for Native American communities, fishing rights were granted to the local tribes through the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. However, these fishing rights are threatened by the dwindling salmon populations struggling to keep up with the changing climate.

The endangerment of the local salmon populations aren’t just an economic loss for the Nooksack Indians, but a culturally significant loss as well. Oliver Grah, Water Resources Program Manager for the tribe, points out, “The Nooksack Indian Tribe is place-based. That is, tribal members are supposed to stay and live on or near their reservation.” Once the river ecosystems reach a specific tipping point, the salmon populations will begin to die off and the impacts on local tribes will be deeply felt.

In an effort to avert worrisome climate projections, the Nooksack Indian Tribe has been proactively implementing adaptive infrastructure and closely monitoring nearby glaciers crucial to healthy salmon numbers. It’s through thoughtful and long-term adaptation and monitoring plans that the Nooksack Tribe seeks to ease the environmental stressors that may critically alter salmon habitats.

Mountain Glacier, Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
Mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

Pacific Northwest salmon populations fare best in periods having “high precipitation, deep mountain snowpack, cool air and water temperatures, cool coastal ocean temperatures, and abundant north-to-south ‘upwelling’ winds in spring and summer,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Nooksack River relies heavily on the glacial runoff from both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan located near the U.S.-Canada border. Summer glacial melt has historically helped keep rivers cool and ideal for salmon, according to Northern Arizona University. However, as places like Washington continue to see above average temperatures, the glacial snowpack has started to suffer. When the glaciers suffer, the salmon suffer.

Scientists working on mountain glacier, photo credit: Oliver Grah
Scientists working on mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

With the current temperature trends, salmon populations will slowly wane to extinction in the Nooksack river, according to Grah. Grah states, “Ultimately, loss of glacier melt due to glacier recession will result in reduced stream flows and increased temperatures late in the summer when salmon are most vulnerable.”

Different salmon species breed during the late summer and early fall, according to the National Park Service. This process begins in freshwater when a salmon egg nest becomes fertilized and remains embedded in the river bottom during the winter months. In the spring, eggs hatch and remain close to the nest for several months. Once the salmon have matured and grown in size, they begin to migrate towards the ocean. Depending on salmon breed, the migration can take anywhere from 0-2 years. Once the salmon reach the mouth of the river, they feed to increase their size and chance of survival in the ocean. Salmon can remain in the ocean for up to 8 years before migrating back to their native streams for reproduction. But this entire process relies on a consistent habitat in the salmon’s native river. The Nooksack Tribe recognizes the importance of trying to maintain this original ecosystem despite challenges posed by climate change and reduced glacial runoff.

Scientist Oliver Grah collecting field data (Source: Oliver Grah)
Scientist Oliver Grah collecting project data (Source: Oliver Grah)

In an attempt to reduce vulnerability, the Nooksack’s adaptation measures have sought to create a landscape that will help cool the river. These efforts include lining the rivers with trees to shade exposed waters from abundant sunlight. Additionally, the tribe has been creating log jams, which will help provide sites of colder water for the fish. This habitat restoration program, with its emphasis on the effects of climate change, offers “a good chance that the tribe can improve the chance of salmon survival in the face of climate change,” according to Grah.

Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
River data collection. (Source: Oliver Grah)

While these adaptation efforts won’t specifically address the issue of glacial recession, they will help to maintain the local river ecosystem. The Nooksack have also worked to set up a local glacier monitoring program, recognizing the importance of glaciers on the health of the salmon.

Grah, a leading glacier expert, is part of the team monitoring the local glaciers in northwest Washington for the tribe. Most of the glacier runoff that empties into the Nooksack river comes from the glaciers located on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. According to the University of Oregon’s Tribal Climate Project, “On Mt. Baker alone, at least eight glaciers feed the watershed. There are approximately 148 glaciers, glacierets, and perennial snowfields with a combined area of 40,828,294 m2 (15.76 mi2 ) that drain into the Nooksack River.”

Changes in Washington climate patterns have the ability to drastically impact the glacial landscape of the Northern Cascades. Given the magnitude of the runoff into the Nooksack River, slight deviations from the norm could mean massive changes for the river.

In an attempt to try and quantify these potential changes, the Nooksack tribe has been consistently recording snow depth, melt rates, stream temperatures and runoff. This field data is used to create scientific models that help show the speed and severity of glacial melt. These models take the field data and visually demonstrate the interconnections of different variables, identifying current and future climate trends. Monitoring and striving for healthy glaciers will ensure the Nooksack Tribe can continue to embrace its deep-rooted history in the Pacific Northwest.

With the combined adaptation and research efforts, the Nooksack Tribe understands the importance of being prepared and well-informed. Through collaborations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nooksack Tribe remains focused on preserving historical aspects of their culture for future generations. It’s this awareness and environmental dedication expressed by the Nooksack Tribe that exemplifies how to mindfully manage the impacts of climate change in order to preserve aspects of all culture, not just one’s own.