Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

The Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: llee Wu/Flickr).

Mountain societies in low-income developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with global warming threatening livelihoods. A new study and conference paper from “Life in Kyrgyzstan” investigates the adaptive capacities of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change and improve their coping strategies under weather extremes.

Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Mountain societies around the world differ with respect to challenges to development and ability to overcome these challenges. Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, author of the study and director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, explained to GlacierHub, “Some mountain societies have been doing remarkably well, for example the Sherpas of Nepal who were successful traders even before the first ascent of Mt. Everest started the rush of tourists into their region, which continues until today.” However, this does not apply to mountain societies in general. “The main challenges to development are remoteness, harsh terrain, high risk of mountain-specific natural disasters and scarce resources,” Schmidt-Vogt said.

The vulnerability of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains is impacted by their often remote locations, outdated infrastructure and poor access. The need is high for these communities to develop effective strategies and adaptation measures to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change; however, this is a complex task. The new study states that it is essential to strengthen research to address climate change challenges in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain regions to understand the vulnerability of these mountain societies and assist them in developing adaptation strategies.

Mountainous areas in Central Asia (Source: “Climate Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity of Mountain Societies in Central Asia“).

“Challenges to development in this peripheral region have been intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline in infrastructure and services,” Schmidt-Vogt explained to GlacierHub. The difficult task of development will be further intensified by effects of climate change, including glacier retreat, which will increase frequency of landslides and rockfalls as well as increase the aridity of an already arid climate.

Glaciers, Complexities, and Adaptation

It is often a complicated task to predict climatic trends in mountainous areas because of the lack of information on water systems and the interactions between the arrangement of topography, water infrastructure and the atmosphere. The sensitivity of glaciers to climate variability, as well as to climate change, adds another level of complexity.

The Tien Shan mountains form a mountain range of about 2,800 km, making it one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan. Glaciers in the Tien Shan area like elsewhere are primarily controlled by temperature, mostly by rising summer temperatures. Increased summer temperatures cause glaciers to melt, while decreased snowfall further impacts glacier retreat. Amanda Wooden, professor of environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University, explained to GlacierHub, “The Central Asian region is glacier rather than precipitation dependent. Monitoring of glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain ranges has demonstrated considerable and steady ice mass loss since the 1970s, with variation by range location, size, and elevation.”

Glacier retreat in mountainous Central Asia may increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, leaving local populations vulnerable. The most important long-term effect of glacier retreat is on the hydrology of the larger region, including nearby lowland areas. Meltwater from glaciers is an important source of irrigation water in the dry summer months. The study suggests interventions for improving climate adaptation that include glacier monitoring through direct measurements, remote sensing, and modeling.

Tien Shan Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: Ian/Flickr).

Schmidt-Vogt told GlacierHub, “Increased melting of glaciers may in the short term increase the amount of water available for irrigation, but will in the long run lead to a decrease in the amount of available water. Increased melting of glaciers can in extreme cases lead to flooding and also contribute to the hazard of mudflows.”

The climate change processes in highland areas of Central Asia were also found to be more complex than initially anticipated. The authors explained, “Geophysical, historical and institutional factors make climatic predictions and the introduction of adaptation measures a challenging task requiring a thorough and in-depth analysis. Particularly at the local level where adaptation measures rely critically on precise information, the currently available climate prediction models are afflicted with uncertainties that often exceed the predicted magnitudes of change.”

Vulnerability and the Need for Improvement

Challenges to development remain a serious issue for the states in Central Asia after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long-term monitoring of glaciers was discontinued, and research infrastructure has not been maintained since then. Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, explained to GlacierHub, “These countries are still in political and economic transition which is impacting decision-making process in the regional governments. Let alone intra-regional political differences between the states regarding water resources and border. This is primarily related to the Ferghana Valley triangle where three states, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share common challenges and complex concerns.”

Pamir Highlands, Bulunkul Village, Central Asia (Source: Ronan Shenhav/Flickr).

The study highlights several major areas where more action is needed. These areas include governance, economic, education, knowledge sharing, infrastructure caps and data gaps. Stefanos Xenarios, author of the study and a senior researcher at University Central Asia, told GlacierHub, “The adaptation strategies to improve the vulnerability status of mountain societies shall be carefully designed based on sound scientific background and policy-evidence results in close engagement with local communities.”

The study shows the importance of education and capacity building by noting that the public and some government officials are not yet fully aware of climate change, climate-related disasters, and potential adaptation measures. Therefore, there is a need for awareness programs at various levels, as well as an integration of climate change education to the national curriculum.

Beyond the areas highlighted by the study, more can also be done to cover vulnerability of mountain societies in the foreign and regional media. “In my opinion, the Central Asian media including state-controlled news organizations have to improve their record on the subject of climate change to effectively inform regional population of about 70 million,” Satke said. “Similarly, international news outlets could include more coverage of climate change impact on glaciers in Tian Shan and Pamir mountains in Central Asia.” As a start, Central Asian media outlets could cooperate with counterparts in the Himalayan region where ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) has been leading the front on climate change. Cooperation would work well for everyone, Satke suggested.

The degree of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change determines the degree of vulnerability of a community. The study is intended to draw attention to a region that is little understood in terms of climate change and its effects on mountain societies. “The current study is aspired to designate the major research field areas where climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity initiatives should concentrate for the livelihoods improvement of mountain societies in Central Asia,” the authors note.

Alaska Governor Issues Order on Climate Change Strategy

Aerial Mt. Muir with Baker Glacier, Harriman Fiord, Prince William Sound, Chugach National Forest, Alaska (Source: USDA Forest Service Alaska Region/Flickr).

Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. On average, during the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit overall and 6 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has issued an order on climate change strategy with the intention to create “a flexible and long-lasting framework for Alaskans to build a strategic response to climate change,” according to the Office of the Governor. As a key part of the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, Walker has appointed members of a climate action leadership team that will design the strategy and work to investigate ways to reduce the impacts of climate change.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy is not the first climate-focused policy effort by the state. Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s senior advisor for climate policy, told GlacierHub that “The Strategy and Leadership Team builds on previous initiatives from former governors and the legislature, as well as the wealth of Arctic research conducted through the University of Alaska.” One such effort, for example, was the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet created by former Governor Sarah Palin’s Administrative Order 238 in 2007. The Sub-Cabinet was composed of two advisory groups for adaptation and mitigation as well as two working groups for immediate action and research needs. Each group prepared extensive reports with climate policy recommendations in each of the four areas.

Order to Support the Paris Climate Agreement

The new order supports the Paris Climate Agreement in light of U.S. actions to withdraw from the agreement. It also aims to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and encourages international collaboration, emphasizing the need to assure a competitive economy in Alaska. The order states that “the State may also engage with national and international partners to seek collaborative solutions to climate change that support the goals of the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, ‘Climate Action,’ while also pursuing new opportunities to keep Alaska’s economy competitive in the transition to a sustainable future.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker and his wife, Donna, along with Toyko Gas’ Mr and Mrs Hirosa visit Mendenhall Glacier in 2017 (Source: Office of the Governor/Flickr).

Although the governor’s actions sound positive, it’s important to note that they are taking place in a state that favors expansion of fossil fuel extraction at odds with environmental groups. For example, Walker himself has promoted Chinese investment in Alaska’s liquified natural gas pipeline to support additional gas extraction and export to Asia. This gas pipeline project agreement was signed by Governor Walker during President Trump’s trade mission to China last November. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski also worked hard to have the U.S. government allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area where drilling had not been permitted. She has personally expressed ambivalence about the Paris Agreement. For his part, Governor Walker changed party affiliation recently for the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, in which he plans to run unaffiliated. Walker has been a longtime Republican, but also ran for office as an Independent. His Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott has been a longtime Democrat. Regarding their decisions to run unaffiliated in 2018, the two said in a statement, “We believe that independent leadership that relentlessly puts Alaska’s priorities first is critical to finishing the work we have started to stabilize and build Alaska.”

Climate Action Leadership Team

In a statement in December, the Alaskan government announced the creation of a climate action leadership team to provide Governor Bill Walker and his cabinet with guidance on climate change issues. The team has a specific task and will be part of the overall climate change strategy to develop a recommended plan of action. On December 12, 2017, Governor Walker appointed 15 members to the team which will focus on mitigation, adaptation, research and response for Alaska. The team members are directly involved in Alaska’s collective response to climate change and have professional backgrounds in science, industry and entrepreneurship, community wellbeing and planning, natural resources, environmental advocacy and policy making. As described by the Office of the Governor, “The expertise of leadership team members includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, coastal resilience, indigenous knowledge and culture, science communication, technological innovation, and transportation systems.”

Alaska’s Northstar Island in the Beaufort Sea, built of gravel six miles off the Alaska coastline, in operation since 2001 (Source:Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement BSEE/Flickr).

Governor Walker has expressed the importance of naming the team as a critical step in advancing meaningful climate policy. “I am proud to present a motivated group of leaders, each of whom brings a range of expertise and interests to the table. Our team members not only represent a breadth of experience across the state from the North Slope to the Southeast, but also have strong networks and resources spanning from Alaska to the rest of the world, giving us a voice in the global dialogue on climate change,” he said in his statement.

Shrinking Glaciers Prompt Action

Glaciers in Alaska have lost about 75 billion tons of ice annually since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientific American puts this amount into perspective as they compare it to “the amount of water needed to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.” And as a warmer climate melts ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the sea level is also rising at an increasing rate. Overall, a warmer climate in Alaska has caused retreat of Arctic sea ice, shore erosion, shrinking glaciers, and permafrost and forest fires, with these impacts only likely to accelerate in the coming decades.

Glaciers in southeast Alaska, in the Alaska Range (a 400 miles long mountain range in the southcentral region of Alaska), and along the south central coast, for example, have retreated drastically during the last century. The Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, retreated over 31 miles since the late 19th century, when it was recorded for the first time.

Retreating glacier in Alaska, aerial view (Source: C Watts/Flickr).

President Barack Obama visited Alaska back in 2015 to illustrate the environmental impacts caused by climate change. The Guardian notes that the Trump administration has “moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs” like the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. In November 2016, it was tasked with safeguarding towns and villages at risk from rising sea levels.

According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, 31 Alaskan communities have been identified to be at high risk due to impacts of rising temperatures. As stated in a report from 2009, “While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats.”

Nikoosh Carlo explained to GlacierHub that responses to new state policies or initiatives tend to vary according to whether and to what degree a constituent or group believes that the action represents their interests. In this case, it is undeniable that the state of Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the United States. Quick actions are needed to protect Alaska’s communities and resources.

“The majority of Alaskans are ready to consider climate change impacts, to address immediate actions at the community level, to mobilize research, and strategic action with the State to work toward the energy transition necessary for our vision of a sustainable future,” Carlo told GlacierHub.

A poll from 2017 by the Nature Conservancy asked Alaskan voters what was on the top of their minds with regard to climate change. In this poll 68 percent of Alaskans said that the effects from climate change have already begun, 86 percent said that they support policies that encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in Alaska, and nearly 80 percent of Alaskans are concerned about climate change impacts on commercial fisheries.

Alaska’s Transition to a Renewable Future

The trans-Alaska pipeline crosses the Dalton Highway near Milepost 159, between the South Fork Koyukuk River and Chapman Lake, Alaska (Source: Craig McCaa, BLM Alaska/Flickr).

The order states, “To assure Alaska’s continued growth and resilience despite climate challenges requires communities statewide to work together as they have throughout Alaska’s history to pioneer solutions to our most difficult problems.”

Governor Walker further notes how these solutions require the creation of a vision for Alaska’s future that both incorporates necessary long-term climate goals and recognizes the need for non-renewable resources (to meet current economic and energy requirements) during a phase of transmission toward a future based on renewable energy.

An overnight energy transition is not possible. Alaska needs to transition toward a renewable energy-based future. Carlo told GlacierHub that “Alaska’s role as an energy producer and our obligation to protect current and future generations from the impacts of climate change are not mutually exclusive.” The continued development of resources in Alaska is necessary for survival and provision for Alaskans. Carlo further explained that many Alaskans pay the highest energy costs in the nation, while at the same time the state continues to work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing use of renewables and more energy efficient systems.

“Alaska will need to analyze difficult questions such as the timing, scale, impacts, benefits and risk as we discuss the pathways we might pursue while we diversify the economy and drive a shift to a renewable energy-based future,” Carlo added.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy establishes a framework for the prioritization of climate actions, based on short-term and long-term goals. “Alaska has a role both in meeting the energy needs of the world even as we work to do our part to produce and use cleaner energy,” Carlo told GlacierHub. “I believe that sustainability rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions and to correct for climate change. Our children and children’s children should not inherit a world that we haven’t made our best attempt at ensuring its long-term health.”

As Alaska Glaciers Shrink, Salmon Populations May Also Decline

A view of the Kenai River (Source: Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia Commons).

Alaska is experiencing some of the most rapid changes to glaciers and ice fields on Earth. Global warming is causing drier summers and wetter autumns, and changing the landscape through the melting of glaciers and the loss of wetlands and wildfires. The salmon population in the area will also likely be impacted from these environmental changes: some will benefit from the changes, while some will be negatively impacted. A new study in Fisheries Journal investigates the region’s Kenai River and the future climate change impacts on healthy salmon populations.

Salmon in the Kenai River

The Gulf of Alaska region produces a third of the world’s wild salmon; however, the Chinook Salmon (O. tshawytscha) population has declined. Environmental changes are likely to impact future populations. The Kenai River supports world-famous fisheries in the region and exemplifies the high social, economic, and ecological value of wild salmon as well as the complex changes they face. Its yield faces a serious threat with the area strongly influenced by glaciers that are losing mass. The Chinook Salmon may not recover, and the populations that are declining threaten the livelihoods of the dependent fishing communities. The fishing communities are diverse and include indigenous, sport and commercial fishers. The authors of the study wrote, “Kenai River salmon support several of Alaska’s largest recreational salmon fisheries, major commercial gill-net and personal-use dip-net fisheries, as well as small-scale subsistence and educational fisheries.”

The Salmon Life Cycle

Chinook Salmon (fry) (Source: USFWS Photo by Roger Tabor/Flickr).

Chinook salmon is an anadromous fish species. Individuals hatch in freshwater rivers, then the young fish swim out to the ocean to grow and mature, and later return up the river to spawn and then die. The cycle begins as the female lays eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river (this nest is called redd). The redd is then fertilized by a male, and the eggs remain in the gravel throughout the winter as the embryos develop. As the eggs hatch in the spring, alevins emerge. Alevins are tiny fish with the yolk sac of the egg attached to their bellies. After they have consumed the yolk sac and grown larger, they emerge from the gravel and are then considered fry. Fry can spend up to a year or more in their natal stream. After, the fry begin to migrate downstream toward the ocean.

Eran Hood, professor of Environmental Science & Geography at the University of Alaska Southeast, told GlacierHub that glaciers provide an important source of streamflow during the late summer salmon spawning season. In addition, Hood added, “glaciers are important for moderating stream temperatures during warm periods when spawning salmon can become metabolically stressed by warm water temperatures and associated low levels of dissolved oxygen.”

Glacial Rivers

Glacially-fed rivers respond to weather and climate differently than non-glacial rivers. During hot and dry summers, the water in a typical non-glacial river will warm up and streamflows will drop. However, the same summer conditions will cause glaciers to melt faster and lead to more cold water input into glacial rivers. In Alaska, many important salmon rivers are fed by a mix of glacial and non-glacial streams. If one of the streams suffers from drought conditions, there is a chance that another stream in the same section of the watershed has a lot of deep and cold water. Schoen explained to GlacierHub, “This habitat diversity helps to stabilize salmon runs on a large scale, and lessen the risks of boom-and-bust dynamics in our fisheries.”

Jeffrey A. Falke, professor of fisheries and assistant leader at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained to GlacierHub that the major concerns from a freshwater perspective are changing patterns in the timing and magnitude of stream flows, and increasing water temperatures. “Salmon are at the margin of their range in much of Alaska so the latter may be less of an immediate concern. However, changes to flows have already occurred and are projected to increase into the future,” he said.

Falke told GlacierHub that the glacial rivers are an important habitat for multiple species of salmon across Alaska. The river bottoms and banks are also important habitats for the fish. Glacier loss causes changes to the hydrology of these systems, which includes both the rivers and the habitats that they support. Climate change could make the glacier river systems more similar to surface water/snowmelt runoff systems, which would therefore reduce the diversity of habitats. By reducing or removing the habitats favored by specific salmon species and by specific stocks (sub-populations) within the species, it would also reduce the salmon biodiversity. Falke further stated, “I’m not sure we can do anything about glacial loss, but continuing to work to ensure that there is a broad array of intact habitats in other areas will be key.”

Perspective rendering showing retreat of the Skilak Glacier, a major source of glacial runoff to the Kenai River. Colored lines indicate ice extent for 1952, 1978, and 2013 derived from aerial photographs (Source: Future of Pacific Salmon in the Face of Environmental Change).

The author of the study, Erik Schoen, a postdoctoral fellow at Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told GlacierHub that climatic and landscape changes influence salmon ecosystems. These diverse ecosystems are large, varied, and interact with glaciers in different ways,. Thus, the changes will not necessarily be all negative or all positive. “Some of the salmon runs that Alaskans have relied on for generations are probably going to decline, but other runs may become more productive, and we have a chance to shape that with strong habitat protections,” he said.

Changing Environmental Factors

The authors of the study conclude that salmon rivers in this region face a complex set of climate-driven changes, including warmer summer stream temperatures, glacier retreat, and increasing streamflows during fall and winter when developing embryos are vulnerable to more rapid flow even in relatively sheltered areas where females deposit their eggs.

The overall results of climate change are likely going to cause winners and losers, the authors note. There are five species of Pacific salmon, and they each use a range of different life-history strategies and habitat types, so are likely to respond in different ways. Schoen explained to GlacierHub that hotter, drier summers will expose salmon to low oxygen levels which can cause die-offs. “This is a big concern in small, lowland streams, but less so in streams with a cooling glacial or snow-melt influence. Warmer winters are causing more rain-on-snow events, which can cause floods that kill salmon eggs in the streambed,” he said. It’s important to mention that some streams are more likely to be affected than others, he added. A positive outcome from glacier retreat is that it allows salmon to colonize new streams and lakes. Longer ice-free growing seasons allow the juvenile salmon to grow larger in certain habitats.

Economic Impacts

Schoen explained the economic importance of salmon in the region: “Salmon fishing is one of the main pillars of the Kenai Peninsula’s economy, and an important part of the overall Alaskan economy. This includes commercial fishing (and support industries) and recreational fishing, which is a major driver of the tourism industry.”

The study can help build resilience toward a changing climate. Schoen told GlacierHub, “Our goal was to highlight the rapid changes happening in the Gulf of Alaska region and explain what this means for salmon and the people who depend on them.” There is a large amount of research documenting these changes; however, the majority does not always allow for an easy understanding of the big picture. “We wanted to make the science more accessible to the general public, policy makers, and scientists in other fields,” Schoen added.

Increased Resilience

A Chinook salmon or Oncorhynchus tshawytscha (Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game).

Falke told GlacierHub that the best way to ensure robust salmon populations is to maintain and promote diverse habitats and life histories. “Luckily in Alaska there are mostly intact habitats, and the example of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery is the best to highlight how diversity equals both ecological and economic resilience,” Falke added.

Schoen explained to GlacierHub that prior research has shown that fishing communities can stabilize their revenue streams by diversifying their catch to include different fish species and stocks. A stock of fish is a population within a species that migrates together, breeds together, and is genetically distinct; one species will have a number of stocks, some of which could respond to climate impacts more favorably than others. However, many fishing communities have adopted strategies that are the reverse, concentrating their efforts on fewer stocks. “Diversifying the fishing sector (and overall economy) is an important goal to increase the resilience of Alaskan communities to rapid and unpredictable climate change,” Schoen further explained.

Hood told GlacierHub about the critical importance of more holistic research, which can provide an understanding of how glacier change is impacting the structure and function of food webs downstream rivers and estuaries. “This information will allow us to better project future impacts and understand how ecosystems services such as fisheries and tourism opportunities may change in the future,” Hood added.

This research show the complex effects of glacier retreat on salmon populations and the humans that depend on them. Though most salmon species face less favorable conditions in most of their range, some species are hit harder than others. And the impacts on the habitats, though generally negative, are less severe in some areas than others, and some new habitats are being created by glacier retreat. This article marks a major advance in this complex system, a topic of great importance for the fishing communities— indigenous, sport and commercial fishers.

Glacier Reconstruction: The Key to the Future

A recent paper titled Geomorphological Techniques by the British Society for Geomorphology develops a technique to draw together the work of scientists who have sought to overcome a fundamental problem in glacier research: the short-time depth of the observational record. Scientists are eager to learn about the size and extent of glaciers much further into the past, and the tool they are turning to is called glacier reconstruction.

How researchers determine the size of glaciers in the past

Glacier reconstruction map
Glacier reconstruction in Kamchatka, Pacific Russia. Image the left: The landscape as it is now without any big glaciers. Middle image: The landscape with mapped glacial features (moraines) shown in red. Left image: The landscape reconstructed as it was roughly 21,000 years ago, when occupied by large glaciers (Source: Lestyn D. Barr).

Glacier reconstruction involves a reconstruction of past ice extent, thickness and ice flow, and dating of past ice fluctuations, with the results displayed through graphs, maps, and 2-D or 3-D renderings. Through this process, glaciologists attempt to understand what might take place in the future by learning more about how glaciers and ice sheets reacted to climate in the past.

A typical approach to glacier reconstruction may show the progression from a geomorphological map to a reconstruction of the horizontal extent of former glaciation using a flowline model and finally developing a full 3-D glacier reconstruction.

Glacier reconstruction (Source: 3.4.9 Glacier Reconstruction).

It is necessary to make a geomorphological map of the area to depict the physical features of the surface of the earth and their relation to geological structures. The type of ice-mass under consideration (ice sheet vs. mountain glacier) usually determines what methods are used for glacial geomorphological mapping. One of the major difficulties is for researchers to accurately recognize the features of what caused the landform at a specific region. This is done by looking at several lines of evidence such as glacial, periglacial (relating to or denoting an area adjacent to a glacier or ice sheet) and fluvial (of or found in a river) in order to conclude the glaciation style and size.

Challenges in glacier reconstruction

Glacier reconstruction is used all over the world; however, techniques vary and are rarely precisely described. The new research paper addresses the issue concerning the lack of a common formula for glacier reconstruction. To fill this gap, it formalizes how past glaciers are reconstructed to make it easier to compare between different studies and different regions.

Earth scientists use glacier reconstruction in North America, northern Europe and Antarctica, for example, as well as in thousands of different mountain ranges from Patagonia to Siberia. One research paper in Geomorphology by Simon Carr and Christopher Coleman used glacier reconstruction in the U.K. to investigate the recognition of past glacier extent and dynamics to better understand the climatic sensitivity of glaciers.

Glacier reconstruction
Reconstructions of the former extents of glaciation on Gurla Mandhata, after Ma, 1989 (Source: Quaternary glaciation of Gurla Mandhata (Naimon’anyi)).

Glacier reconstruction includes responses to climate change such as mechanisms and processes of change, thresholds and tipping points, processes of glacier flow and magnitudes, and rates of change under different environmental scenarios.

“Glacier reconstructions not only tell us about the dimensions and dynamics of past glaciers, but are also used as indicators of past climate (i.e., they are paleoclimate proxies),” Iestyn D. Barr, author of the paper and a scientist at the School of Science and the Environment at in Manchester Metropolitan University, told GlacierHub. “This is based on the assumption that if we know the dimensions of past glaciers, we can estimate the past climatic conditions that were necessary to allow them to exist,” Barr added.

A common formula for a consistent approach

Due to the lack of a single established way of reconstructing glaciers, there can be uncertainty and debates about what different glacial landforms tell us about past glaciers. “This means that different researchers might disagree about how a particular geomorphological feature is formed which causes an inconsistent approach. There are also challenges with dating landforms—a vital step if reconstructed glaciers (and associated paleoclimate information) are to be assigned to particular period in time,’’ Barr told GlacierHub. This indicates a need to establish a common formula for glacier reconstruction.

A glacial inversion model allows for ice sheet reconstruction in terms of past size, arrangement, dynamics and retreat pattern. The origin of glacial landforms is widely debated; therefore, it is important to define the assumptions made while using this approach in order to reduce the uncertainties of glacier reconstruction.

Glacier reconstruction Peru
Reconstruction of glacier levels (A-D) of the former ice-cap in Las Lagunas (Source: “A potential geoconservation map of the Las Lagunas area, northern Peru”).

Mountain glacier reconstruction can be made through 2-D glacier extent or 3-D geometry. For 2-D glacier extent, a selection of landforms can be used to define the size of the ice-mass. Researchers have identified one kind of landform as the most useful in mountain glacier reconstruction: These are moraines, a mass of rocks and sediment carried down and deposited by a glacier, typically as ridges at its edges or extremity. But when they are not present, researchers look carefully to a variety of other forms. Researchers can use techniques such as relative dating or direct dating to determine the relative age of glaciers

After this, they are ready to carry out the step of surface reconstruction. The 3-D geometry of the glacier in the past is important to establish since the following reconstruction steps rely on an accurately constrained and contoured ice surface. Generating such a surface typically follows either a cartographic approach or by implementing a flowline model (a type of numerical model that simulates ice flow along a flow line).

New advances in glacier reconstruction

The availability and quality of satellite data continues to evolve, making glacier reconstruction more efficient. “Remote sensing and GIS [geographic information system] methods has revolutionized how glaciers are reconstructed. In particular, satellite data now allows glaciers to be reconstructed over vast areas, sometimes in some of the most inaccessible parts of the world. This progress in the availability and quality (spatial resolution) of satellite data is likely to continue over coming years,” Barr told GlacierHub.

A formalized approach as provided by the new research paper provides an opportunity to compare different studies and regions more easily. A framework, used as guidance for reconstructing glaciers, in combination with the evolving quality of satellite data will make glacier reconstruction even more efficient in the future.

Roundup: A Melting Iceberg, Cryoconites, and Lichens

Drifting Icebergs, Bacterial Activity and Aquatic Ecosystems

From BioOne Complete: “The number of icebergs produced from ice-shelf disintegration has increased over the past decade in Antarctica. These drifting icebergs mix the water column, influence stratification and nutrient condition, and can affect local productivity and food web composition. Data on whether icebergs affect bacterioplankton function and composition are scarce, however. We assessed the influence of iceberg drift on bacterial community composition and on their ability to exploit carbon substrates during summer in the coastal Southern Ocean. An elevated bacterial production and a different community composition were observed in iceberg-influenced waters relative to the undisturbed water column nearby.”

Read the research paper here.

Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctic Peninsula (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).

The Tibetan Plateau and Cryoconite Bacterial Communities

From Oxford Academic: “Cryoconite holes, water-filled pockets containing biological and mineralogical deposits that form on glacier surfaces, play important roles in glacier mass balance, glacial geochemistry and carbon cycling. The presence of cryoconite material decreases surface albedo and accelerates glacier mass loss, a problem of particular importance in the rapidly melting Tibetan Plateau.”

Learn more about the research here.

Cryoconites (Source: Joseph Dsilva/Flickr).

Lichen Diversity on Glacier Moraines in Svalbard

From BioOne Complete: “This paper contributes to studies on the lichen biota of Arctic glacier forelands. The research was carried out in the moraines of three different glaciers in Svalbard: Longyearbreen, Irenebreen and Rieperbreen. In total, 132 lichen taxa and three lichenicolous lichens were recorded. Eight species were recorded for the first time in the Svalbard archipelago: Arthonia gelidae, Buellia elegans, Caloplaca lactea, Cryptodiscus pallidus, Fuscidea kochiana, Merismatium deminutum, Physconia distorta, and Polyblastia schaereriana. One species, Staurothele arctica, was observed for the first time in Spitsbergen (previously recorded only on Hopen island).”

Read the research paper here.

Lichen in Svalberg (Source: Tim Ellis/Flickr).

A Swiss Community Fights to Save their Glacier

The Morteratsch Glacier. (Source: Johannes Oerlemans)
The Morteratsch glacier (Source: Johannes Oerlemans).

The local community of Pontresina, in the Swiss Alps, has commissioned a study due to concerns of losing their glacier. The study investigates the feasibility of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, a popular tourist and skiing destination, by artificially producing snow.

The six km-long Morteratsch glacier is located in the southeastern part of Switzerland and ranges from 2,200 to 4,000 meters in altitude. The study researched the possibility of increasing the mass budget of the glacier, or at least slowing down the glacier retreat, by using meltwater from lakes to artificially produce snow, a process of meltwater recycling. A snow cover implies a significant positive effect on the surface mass balance as it prevents ice melt at the surface.

As climate warms, projections indicate continuous increasing future temperatures; however, the precise increase is difficult to determine. Scientists have expressed concern about the Swiss Alps losing their ice by the end of the century if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate. There are about 1,800 glaciers in the Swiss Alps, and between 1850 and 1975, most of the glaciers lost half of their mass, according the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

The study takes into consideration three different warming scenarios. For the case of modest warming, for example, the study shows a difference in glacier length between 400 and 500 meters within two decades if artificial snow is produced. However, focused on the feasibility of artificial snow, the study also expresses how this approach would be expensive for the community of Pontresina. The authors state that “it is not a technical recommendation but a feasibility study, representing an important contribution to the discussion about possible local measures to deal with glacier vanishing and related impacts for humans and their infrastructure.”

The Morteratsch Glacier, Bernina railway. (Source: Caihy/Flickr).

Due to climate projections, the community of Pontresina remains concerned about their glacier, which has lost about 35 meters per year. Over 90,000 people visit Pontresina annually to explore the 350 km of ski runs in the winter and 500 km of hiking trails during the summer. The community depends on tourism, with tourism marketing concentrating on the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The disappearance of the Morteratsch glacier would greatly affect the economy, making tourism less attractive.

Wilfried Haeberli, senior scientist at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub, “The tongue of Morteratsch glacier had been a famous attraction to visitors of the region because it was easily accessible from the train station and road. Within less than one hour, people (including children) could reach the lower ice margin, take pictures from very close or even touch the ice.’’ He added that ‘’Signs along the trail to the ice margin mark the positions of the historical ice retreat and thereby contribute to the ‘awareness building’ concerning global warming. The access to the ice is now becoming longer and more difficult.” Even as the melting of the ice begins to affect tourism in the Swiss Alps, the long-term impact on the economy in the region is a complex question influenced by many other issues, such as foreign exchange rates, Haeberli said.

Glacier melting might also create additional problems by impacting water supply and causing natural dangers. For example, it might lead to the formation of lakes. A larger lake below steep slopes with unsupported hanging glaciers and degrading permafrost has the potential to create strongly increased risks from flood waves. This would alter access to the glacier and could even disrupt the railway at Morteratsch and infrastructure further down the valley.

Though it is possible to slow down the ice retreat and formation of an upper critical lake by the Morteratsch glacier, such measures would come at a high price. Haeberli told GlacierHub that the community has begun to explore different means to address the problem of lake formation and evaluate the areas that could be affected by such hazards. The responsible authorities became aware of the risks several years ago as information and knowledge was provided through the framework of a national research program and a corresponding project on newly formed lakes in de-glaciating mountain regions.

Pontresina (Source: Prabhu Shankar/Flickr).

Although other communities have asked for studies to save their glaciers, this is a rare case as it is the first to investigate artificial snow as a possible solution, Haeberli explained. Research has been completed in Austria, for example, concerning covering glaciers with protective blankets made of white plastic to reduce glacier retreat in connection to ski runs on glaciers.

Christine Jurt, anthropologist at Bern University of Applied Sciences, told GlacierHub that although it is rare for a community to request a study for artificial snow, many municipalities probably ask themselves the same question of whether there is a way to save their glacier. “Glaciers are crucial in terms of reservoirs of water and economic activities, particularly tourism, but often also in terms of identity and community,” Jurt added.

The study of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier was inspired by the success of the Diavolezza glacier in Switzerland. The Diavolezza was covered with protective blankets made of white plastic to maintain parts of the winter snowpack throughout the summer. However, scientists have indicated that covering glaciers with protective blankets cannot be done on big surfaces, making it an unrealistic solution for the Morteratsch glacier. Therefore, the focus for Pontresina switched to adding mass to the glacier by producing artificial snow.

The Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Thomas Meier/Flickr)

Though snow deposition does not immediately take effect, it can reduce glacier shrinkage if maintained for some time. Researchers state that, if used for a decade the difference in glacier length ranges from 400-500 meters. The study of slowing down retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, has shown that deposition of artificial snow on the glacier can have a significant effect on the glacier’s future evolution.

“In combination with even modest mitigation of climate change in the near future, artificial snow could make the difference between a valley with a large lake, or a valley with a glacier in the second half of this century,” stated the authors of the study.

Although the only reasonable long-term solution to stop the glacier retreat worldwide is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, artificial snow represents another option to avoid losing glaciers due to increasing global temperatures. The study states that there is no simple or cheap solution with artificial snow production. Technical solutions may only become realistic in a very few cases where a lot of money can be spent, scientific information is available, and the damage potential is high. Even in such cases, technical measures may only help gain time for adaptation efforts, but these measures can hardly constitute definitive solutions in a world undergoing long-term warming.

Venezuela is Losing its Last Glacier

Humboldt Glacier, 14 December 2011 (Source: The Photographer/ Creative Commons).

Venezuela used to have five glaciers. Today, only one remains. The last glacier in Venezuela, the Humboldt glacier, is about to disappear. “Reduced to an area of ten football pitches, a tenth of its size 30 years ago, it will be gone within a decade or two,” reports The Economist. Once Venezuela loses the Humbolt, it will become the first country in modern history to have lost all of its glaciers.

The glacier is expected to completely vanish in ten to twenty years, and scientists have expressed the importance of studying the glacier in its last stages. However, the political and economic crisis in Venezuela makes it difficult to study the glacier. In the past, studies have shown how rapid glacier retreat affects the water cycle in glacier-dependent basins, which changes water regulation and availability. Thus, the disappearance of the Humboldt glacier will impact local communities as run-off stability and water supply for agriculture change.

Walter Vergara, a forest and climate specialist focused on the Global Restoration Initiative in Latin America, told GlacierHub, “This is a tragedy that should be highlighted as one more consequence of irresponsible behavior in energy-intense economies.”

Humboldt Glacier, 9 January 2013 (Source: Hendrick Sanchez/Creative Commons).

Carsten Braun, faculty director at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts, has conducted glaciological fieldwork on Humboldt Glacier in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Braun explained to GlacierHub that even several years ago the fieldwork was limited. It consisted mainly of a GPS survey of the ice margin, plus some basic qualitative observations. Due to the crisis in Venezuela, the Humboldt glacier is currently only being studied via remote sensing/satellites. Braun suggests that “a standard glacier mass and energy balance study would be feasible on the glacier and provide some important basic data about the glacier and its interactions with the environment.’’

While some variables, such as ice coverage and the reflection of solar radiation, could be studied via satellites, others are better determined if scientists can measure them in the field. The latter concerns snow and ice depth, temperature gradients in the glacier, and precipitation.

“In this particular case, the glacier will be (most likely) gone in the near future, and all that will be left will be its geomorphological impact/evidence on the landscape, as well as paintings, photographs, and people’s memories,” Braun said. “Adding some quantitative scientific ‘memories’ would be an important complementary memory.”

Humboldt Glacier, 14 December 2011. (Source: Wilfredorrh/Flickr).

Ángel G. Muñoz, a postdoctoral research scientist at both the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), at Columbia University, and Princeton University added that many factors impede scientific research in Venezuela. The economic situation in universities, research centers, and in the country as a whole, including the crime and the brain drain, are just a few of the factors making it impossible for local scientists to advance in many fields. Having first-hand knowledge of these difficulties as a result of his research activities at the Center for Scientific Modeling of Zulia University in Venezuela, Muñoz told GlacierHub that these barriers extend to fields as critical as environmental and ecosystem studies, which both directly and indirectly impact Venezuelan society.

The precise rate of glacial shrinkage is due to the interaction of climate change and natural variability, and it is only through well-conducted and interdisciplinary research that we will know if there’s any chance that the glaciers can come back in the future, or if we are losing them forever. However, it remains important to study glacial changes for societal and scientific benefits, Muñoz notes. Their disappearance reduces the availability of drinking water; changes in atmospheric patterns that control rain and temperatures; and a chain reaction of impacts to the surrounding ecosystems that could affect food availability for humans and other species.

Humboldt Glacier, 29 May 2014 (Source: Hendrick Sanchez/Creative Commons).

Looking beyond the crisis in Venezuela, there are people in the government that understand the issues of climate impacts. “Venezuela’s Minister for Environment, Ramón Velásquez-Araguayán, is a smart and capable climate scientist who is very sensitive to climate change issues and environmental conservation,” Muñoz added.

Venezuela is likely to be the first country to lose all of its glaciers, but unfortunately it will not be the last country. According to NASA, scientists have calculated that many tropical glaciers will be gone within a century, and in some cases decades or years. The Pyrenees, in Spain, lost almost 90 percent of its glacier ice over the past century (a quarter disappeared between 2002 and 2008), and the rest is expected to vanish within the next decades. Indonesia, the only country in tropical Asia with glaciers, will likely lose its glaciers by the end of the decade.

Photo Friday: Walk the Widest Glacier in the Himalayas

The Ngozumpa glacier in Nepal is the longest glacier in the Himalayas at 36 km. Large parts of the glacier are covered in rock from mountains, and with a pair of hiking boots, you can walk across the entire glacier. A warmer climate is causing the glacier to melt, creating the large Ngozumpa Spillway lake. Other lakes formed by the meltwater are the Gokyo Lakes, the world’s highest freshwater lake system made up of six main lakes. A hike across the Ngozumpa glacier provides views of the glacier, surrounding lakes and the sixth highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyo (at 8,188 m above sea level).

This Photo Friday, enjoy images from a Ngozumba Glacier walk.

Looking south across the Ngozumba Glacier (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).


Gokyo village, Ngozumba Glacier (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).


Cho Oyu (8201m), Gyachung Kang (7922m) and the Ngozumba Glacier moraine (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).


Looking down on the Ngozumba Glacier, Gokyo Ri (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).


Gokyo village and Dudh Pokhari from the crest of the Ngozumba Glacier moraine (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).


The core of Ngozumpa glacier, and emerging Spillway lake (Source: VascoPlanet Photography, Wikipedia commons)

Disappearing Ice and Invisible People

Repeat photography of Taboche, Khumbu, Nepal. Top image, 1950s (Source: E. Schneider, courtesy of A. Byers). Bottom image, 2012 (Source: R. Garrard).

People and communities in mountain regions that depend upon glacier resources are directly affected by climate change, suffering the most from impacts of limited water resources, outburst flooding, and changes to agriculture and the economy. Repeat photography showing before and after pictures of specific glaciers as they retreat has been a useful tool to document climate change, from illustrating how glaciers move and melt to how parts of the ice break off. It has enabled humans to gain a better understanding of these important glacial changes and the human impact on the environment. However, repeat photography does not capture local societal impacts well, according to research published in “Beyond Images of Melting Ice: Hidden Histories of People, Place, and Time in Repeat Photography of Glaciers,’’ a recent book chapter by Rodney Garrard and Mark Carey.

The authors discuss the limitations of repeat photography, a form of photography that compares historical and recent photographs to find changes within a landscape, and how it fails to provide a complete perspective of glacier retreat. The photographs do not typically incorporate the people and culture connected to the glaciers, for example, and depict climate change rather uniformly across the world, lacking the ability to show the variety of glacier change issues. While repeat photography can be useful in several ways, it is important to note what it is not capable of capturing: the greater perspective that is often quite more complex. 

Why do we need to capture the societal context, the culture and the stories of the people? And why is it important to point out what repeat photography doesn’t capture today? To date, the common tendency of most repeat photography of glaciers has been to vividly present glacier melt and over simplify downstream impacts, which is actually a form of environmental determinism, Garrard explained to GlacierHub. “Generally, there is no portrayal or even recognition of local people and factors that create differential vulnerability to glacier hazards or climate change,” he said. “While repeat photography can be a useful method to chronicle glacier recession by providing insight into key aspects of glacier dynamics, corroborate results from other glacier studies, and provide a greater historical reach and vividly display these changes for diverse audiences, it can simultaneously yield misinformation by generalizing glacier retreat and providing simplistic deterministic causalities, thereby creating its own narratives about glaciers (i.e., loss), which in turn influence scientific assessments, public perceptions, and government policies.’’

Sagarmatha National Park, 2013 (Source: Thomas Fuhrmann).

The chapter focuses on four case studies to illustrate the limitations of repeat photography as a lens to examine climate impacts: Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, Grinnell Glacier in the United States, Glacial Lake Palcacocha in Peru, and Khumbu (Mt. Everest region) in Nepal. Garrard and Carey examine how repeat photographs fail to include “hidden histories of people, places, knowledge, vulnerability, and the ever-evolving politics of glacier representation.” The four case studies provide evidence about how certain areas can be more complex than repeat photography can capture.

The first case study of Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, for example, is one region where repeat photography has provided knowledge about glaciers and their dramatic retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age. However, the repeat images do not include the societal context and economic impact of this glacier retreat. Likewise, repeat photography at Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park in the United States has provided information and understanding of glacier loss in the park but has failed to capture the impacts on local livelihoods.

Peru’s Lake Palcacocha, located in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, is an important resource to a quarter million people who rely on glacier runoff for irrigation and domestic water use. Changes in accessibility to glacier runoff leads to challenges in water supply, irrigated agriculture, and hydroelectricity generation. Other negative impacts include the dangers associated with glacial lake outburst floods. Since 1941, for example, about 15,000 people have lost their lives in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range due to these floods. Yet, there is no way to translate these impacts through repeat photography.

Similarly, while repeat photography has been helpful in revealing the increase in glacial lakes at Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park in Nepal, this region is also threatened by glacial lake outburst floods that can cause damage to the nearby communities. There are over 4,000 residents located in the Sagarmatha National Park area, and their vulnerability cannot be fully expressed through repeat photography.

USGS Repeat Photography Project: Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park, MT. From the left: Image one, 1981 (Source: Carl Key); Image two, 1998 (Source: Dan Fagre); Image three, 2009 (Source: Lindsey Bengtson).

Carey told GlacierHub, “When we see these repeated photographs, we lament the lost ice, but mainly through a tourism, alpine recreation, cruise ship lens. The photographs appeal to the urban, middle-class, environmentalist sensibility of lost landscape in a national park or a distant peak. But there are no local people, no residents dying in glacial lake outburst floods or living with anxiety about avalanches or worrying about dwindling water supplies or struggling to find jobs, access health care, or send their children to school.’’ 

In other words, repeat photography obscures social and environmental justice. It leaves out key issues playing out below most of the world’s mountain glaciers, such as inequality and injustice, uneven vulnerability to hydrologic change and glacier hazards, the politics of water allocation, the cultural significance of ice, and the political economy of energy regimes and industrial irrigation dependent on glacier runoff, Carey added.

Thus, it is important to understand the limitations of repeat photography and capture the societal context, culture, and stories of the local people. To do this, Garrard offers three tenants of a good repeat photography study: that the method is contextualized, systematic and combined with GIS/RS [Geographical Information System/Remote Sensing] methods as a form of triangulation. The authors conclude, “In terms of the larger picture, this chapter aspires to be an initial step in influencing current repeat photography practices toward broader participation from communities affected.”