Roundup: Decaying Matter, Glacial Bacteria, and CO2 Uptake

Transport of Nutrients and Decaying Matter by Rivers and Streams

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

Read more about the findings here.

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


Glacial Bacteria Originated on Slopes Near Alaskan Glacier

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

Learn more about glacial bacteria here.

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


Simulated High Alkalinity Glacial Runoff Increases CO2 Uptake in Alaska

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

Read more about the study here.

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


Glacial Retreat and Water Impacts Around the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glacial Geoengineering: The Key to Slowing Sea Level Rise?

The rapid collapse of some of the world’s biggest glaciers due to climate change will have devastating consequences for our planet’s coastlines due to sea level rise. Compounding this issue is the fact that many of these coastlines are heavily populated and developed. A recent proposal, first reported in The Atlantic, aims to avert potential catastrophe by turning to geoengineering through the construction of massive underwater walls, called sills, which would be built where glaciers meet the ocean in Antarctica and Greenland.

The idea is the work of Michael Wolovick, a glaciology postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University. The uniqueness of his geoengineering proposal is its focus on a consequence of climate change, in this case sea-level rise, as a result of glacial collapse, rather than a focus on decreasing greenhouse gases (GHG), the root cause of climate change. Many geoengineering proposals attempt to slow down or even reverse the Earth’s rising temperatures as an alternative to GHG mitigation through the addition of aerosols like sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere or increase in the reflectivity of clouds, while others explore ways to capture and subsequently sequester carbon.

Photo of the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenalnd.
The calving front of the Jakobshavn glaicer in western Greenland. The Jakobshavn is a potential site for the proposal’s walls (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

When asked about the inspiration behind his distinct work, Wolovick told GlacierHub he has been fascinated by the large scale societal implications that glacial collapse could have, given the relatively small scales of the glaciers themselves. The so called “doomsday glacier,” the Thwaites of West Antarctica, is only around 100 km wide, for example, but its collapse would swiftly destabilize large parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet, potentially leading to sea level rise of up to 13 feet in some parts of the world.

So how does Wolovick’s plan work? It starts with an engineering project of unprecedented scale, the construction of large underwater walls, composed of an inner layer like sand and an outer layer of boulders. These walls would be strategically built at the grounding line, where a glacier’s leading edge meets the ocean, of the world’s most unstable glaciers. These walls would be built primarily in Antarctica and Greenland where many glaciers extend beyond the land to float on the ocean.

Figuredetailing how ocean ending glaciers are melted from below
Figure detailing how ocean-ending glaciers are melted from below. The walls from this proposal would be placed in front of the grounding line pictured here (Source: Smith et al.).

Glaciers that extend from land into the ocean are exposed to both warming air and water temperatures. Warmer sea water melts these glaciers from below in addition to the melting that occurs from the air above, causing them to melt faster than glaciers solely confined to land. This is where the walls built on the ocean-floor would come into play. Once in place, the purpose of these barriers would be “to block warm water so you could reduce the melting rate, and also to provide pinning points that the ice shelf could reground on as it thickens,” according to Wolovick. In addition, because the glaciers are already floating, the walls would prevent warm water from moving further inland and increasing melting rates there.

Would these walls work in actuality? Wolovick’s computer modelling is in its early stages, but some models show glaciers stabilizing after walls are put in place, with some glaciers actually gaining in mass. This possible stabilization would buy some time to act decisively on adaptation to sea level rise and perhaps allow the prevention of disastrous ice sheet collapse altogether. Still, Wolovick admits a lot more work needs to be done in the future including the development of better ocean models to see if the walls would block warmer water in the way intended, allowing a glacier to stabilize.

Photo of a calving front of a glacier in West Antarctica
The calving front of a glacier in West Antarctica (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

While the proposal has the potential to slow glacial melting, Lukas Arenson, principal geotechnical engineer at BGC Engineering Inc. who spoke with GlacierHub about the proposal, says it is still in its very early stages, and there are many questions that need to be answered before implementation. One of Arenson’s principle concerns is “the enormous costs for building such a sill or a dike in a stable manner in these areas as it requires some major engineering and construction efforts.” Wolovick recognizes that his proposal would require placing a massive amount of material in front of glaciers, especially for wide ones such as the Thwaites.

There are also a plethora of engineering matters that need to be addressed. First, the foundations for the walls would need to be well protected. This protection could take the form of boulders and concrete elements or additional sills built in front of or at an angle to the main sill to redirect currents that could compromise its effectiveness, according to Arenson. Secondly, the seafloor on which the walls would be built could be “quite unstable and soft at places so that placing additional fill for a sill may be extremely challenging, potentially causing some local instabilities,” Arenson added. Finally, Wolovick states that it may be necessary to build the wall “underneath floating ice shelves, or in the vicinity of dense iceberg melange.” These efforts would further complicate what would already be a mega-engineering project.

Photo of an iceberg in Pine Island Bay
An iceberg floats in West Antarctica’s Pine Island Bay where the Thwaites glacier ends Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

In addition to the technical aspects of the proposal, there are other issues to consider. There is also the question of where the material for the walls would come from and whether the walls might have detrimental impacts on sensitive Antarctic sea floor environments.

However, despite the many challenges ahead, the time is right to take action. As climate change progresses and glaciers around the world continue to melt, global sea levels creep up. One recent study projects an increase of 80 to 150 cm (close to five feet) by 2100, which would flood land currently inhabited by 153 million people. This geoengineering proposal will by no means solve every problem associated with climate change, like unabated human emissions of greenhouse gases, but with millions living along the coasts, it could provide humanity with something always in short supply, time.

Photo Friday: Soups of the Mountains

The month of January is designated National Soup Month in the United States. Here at GlacierHub we are celebrating the occasion with a soup-themed Photo Friday!

Soups are a very common part of the diets of mountain dwellers across the world. In the Peruvian Andes, for example, soup is a main dish for many meals with an estimated 2,000 varieties across the country, with ingredients ranging from potato to quinoa. Thukpa, a Tibetan word for a noodle soup, is a staple of Himalayan cuisine, with yak or mutton often mixed in. The European Alps have a rich soup tradition as well. During the winter months, a common expression is “jetzt isch wieder Suppeziit,” meaning “It’s soup time again.” Famous soups of the Alps include Bündner Gerstensuppe, a barley-based soup with vegetables and dried meat which originated in eastern Switzerland, and Basler Mehlsuppe, which translates to flour soup and is commonly eaten in the Swiss cityof Basel during Basler Fasnacht, the city’s carnival, which marks the start of Lent.

Many of these soup recipes can be found online, allowing you to celebrate national soup month with the tastes of the mountains. Here’s one from Ecuador that will warm you up and please you with its flavors.

Photo of women preparing a potato soup in Ecuador.
Women in Ecuador preparing a potato soup (Source: scottgunn/Creative Commons).


Photo of a quinoa soup in Peru.
A quinoa soup in Peru (Source: Jenny Villone/Creative Commons).


Photo of Tibetan Thukpa noodle soup
Thukpa, a Tibetan Noodle Soup (Source: neosprassus/Creative Commons).


Photo of a bowl of Bündner Gerstensuppe
Bündner Gerstensuppe (Source: Daniel Gasienica/Creative Commons).


Photo of a bowl of Basler Mehlsuppe
Basler Mehlsuppe (Source: Klaus Schoenwandt/Creative Commons).

Fire, Ice, and Climate Change in Iceland

Fire and ice have consistently shaped Iceland’s history, so much so that red and white, the colors symbolizing these elements, make up two of the three colors on the island nation’s flag. In a new twist to the relationship between fire and ice in Iceland, a recent paper in Geology details the link between climate-driven changes in glacier volume and volcanic activity.

Photo of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano
Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Southern Iceland, erupting in 2010 (Source: Sverrir Thorolfsson/Creative Commons).

At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, large scale glacial retreat across Iceland led to increased volcanism due to reductions in surface pressure. This impact of glacier retreat on volcanic activity has been supported by a number of previous research according to Charles B. Conner, an author of the study who spoke to GlacierHub. However, the link between smaller changes in glacial ice masses and their effects on volcanic eruptions is a less established phenomena, fueling the motivation for this latest research.

While climate-driven fluctuations in glacier size might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines volcanoes, ice does impact fire. Throughout time, as glaciers retreat and advance, they exert varying pressure loads on the Earth’s crust and mantle, according to Conner. When a glacier retreats, magma production in the mantle and the crust’s magma storage capacity increase, the latter due to a reduction in surface pressure. Conversely, when a glacier advances, magma production in the mantle is suppressed and the crust’s magma storage capacity decreases, as a result of added surface pressure.

Maps of volcanic ash sample sites and Iceland Holecene volcanos and ice masses
Maps detailing Northern European volcanic ash sample sites and Iceland Holecene volcanos and ice masses, respectively (Source: Swindles et al.).

Iceland has many volcanoes due to its location atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive crack in the Earth’s crust where magma from the mantle makes its way to the surface; 130 volcanoes to be exact. Thanks to Iceland’s northern latitude, many of these volcanoes are covered by glaciers, making the country an ideal place to examine possible links between the two. To study these linkages over a relatively short time scale, the authors of the study focused on the mid-Holocene period, a time period from roughly 7,000 to 5,000 years ago.

To determine changes in volcanic activity over time, they relied on two data sources: Icelandic volcano records and northern European volcanic ash deposits. One might think that when examining geological records, adjacent sources such as those taken near the study area would provide more insights than those taken thousands of miles away in Europe. However, local volcanic record analysis is often confounded by the burial or reworking of evidence by subsequent eruptions. By using European ash deposits as a proxy for direct evidence, they were able to circumvent possible complications. Examining both of these data sources, the study’s results point to a marked decline in the frequency of eruptions over a 1,000-year period, from 5,500 to 4,500 years ago.

Nonetheless, the drivers behind volcanic activity in Iceland are numerous and complex. One possible explanation for the decline could be a decrease in the rate of magma supplied to the Earth’s mantle, leading to the subsequent decrease in eruptions. However, the authors contend that a change in magma supplied is unlikely to be the cause of this particular decrease, as it occurred across multiple volcanic systems within the country. Rather, the authors point to an external factor, such as a change in glacial ice volume, as a more likely driver due to the simultaneous decline in volcanism.

But was there evidence to support a climatic change that would drive glacial advance during the mid-Holocene? As it turned out, yes. Paleoclimate records reviewed for the study showed conditions ripe for glacial advances across Iceland, lower temperatures and increased precipitation. Core samples taken from the Icelandic Shelf and the North Atlantic indicated oceanic cooling, while reduced productivity in records taken from lakes in Iceland show evidence of cooling over land. Concurrently, ice cores taken from Greenland suggest a deepening of the Icelandic low pressure system, usually associated with above normal precipitation and lower than normal temperatures in the North Atlantic.

Photo of Mýrdalsjökull glacier
Mýrdalsjökull glacier atop the volcano Katla in Southern Iceland (Source: Adam Russell/Creative Commons).

Next, to assess the impacts of this glacial advance on volcanic activity, the authors assayed the correlation between the Greenland ice core data, representing climate conditions, and the European ash deposits, representing eruptions. The correlation revealed a 600-year time lag between the climatic event and the successive decrease in volcanic activity. This lag incorporates both the varying response times across Icelandic glaciers to climate changes and the uncertainties that exist for new magma to reach the surface.

Chart showing Volcanic sample data, glacier data, and climate data
Chart outlining the study’s volcanic sample data, glacier data, and climate data for the mid-Holecene (Source: Swindles et al.).

While this study focused on past climate changes and their influences on glaciers and volcanoes, it has relevant implications for the changing climate of the present. As the Earth warms due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, glaciers around the world are melting. In Iceland, glaciers have lost an estimated 10 km3 per year since 1995. Given that deglaciation leads to increased volcanic activity, humans seem to be doing the job nature once did in regulating eruptions in Iceland.

Nobody alive today is likely to see increased volcanism in Iceland because of climate change given the time lag of 600 years between a climate event and a change in volcanic activity identified by this study. When asked about the possibility that human activity might impact this lag, Conner told GlacierHub that at this time it is not known if rapid climate change will lead to changes in the timing of resultant volcanic eruptions. Although, he said it is possible “that the rate of volcanic activity changes much more rapidly than it did during natural deglaciation in the past, but this is speculative.”


Photo Friday: Rephotography Captures Mountain Change

Mountains are some of the most rapidly changing landscapes on Earth thanks to climate change and other drivers. To observe these changes within the Canadian Rockies, the Mountain Legacy Project has utilized repeat photography of images taken from past surveys. Exploring changes is as easy as traversing to the project’s website and clicking a point on the map, revealing historical images and their modern counterparts.

Check out four of these photo comparisons below, and visit the Mountain Legacy Project Explorer to discover more wonders from the full catalog.


Mt. Edith Cavell within Jasper National Park


1915 Photograph of Cavell Meadows
Photograph taken in 1915 of Mt. Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).


1999 Photograph of Cavell Meadows
Photograph taken in 1999 of Mt. Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).


Thunderbolt Peak within Jasper National Park


1915 Photograph of Thunderbolt Peak
Photograph taken in 1915 of Thunderbolt Peak within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).


1999 Photograph Thunderbolt Peak
Photograph taken in 1999 of Thunderbolt Peak within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).


Mt. Majestic within Jasper National Park


1915 Photograph of Mt. Majestic
Photograph taken in 1915 of Mt. Majestic within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).


1999 Photograph of Mt. Majestic
Photograph taken in 1999 of Mt. Majestic within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).

Columbia Ice-fields within Jasper National Park

Photograph of 1918 Columbia Ice-Fields
Photograph taken in 1918 of the Columbia Ice-Fields taken within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).
2011 Photograph of the Columbia Ice-Fields
Photograph taken in 2011 of the Columbia Ice-Fields within Jasper National Park (Source: Mountain Legacy Project).

Below the Ice: Subglacial Topography in West Antartica

When traversing the broad white expanses of West Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier (PIG) by snowmobile, you might think the main attraction would be the surface of the rapidly receding river of ice. However, for the authors of a recently published study in Nature Communications, the real draw was not the surface but the rock beneath—the subglacial topography of Antarctica’s most rapidly melting glacier.

Photo of snowmobile pulled radar
Snowmobile pulling survey radar on Pine Island Glacier (Source: Damon Davies/British Antarctic Survey).

Utilizing ice penetrating radar towed by snowmobile, the study’s authors were able to compile the first high-resolution maps of PIG’s underlying bed topography. What sets these maps apart from previous surveys is the detail and diversity of the rugged underlying landscape according to Ted Scambos of the National Snow & Ice Data Center who was not one of the authors of the study. Where previously conducted airborne studies found relatively level topography, this work showed more varied, and often rugged topography—findings that earlier studies had missed, because of the inability of planes to conduct very close parallel surveys.

Why is improved glacier bed delineation crucial for analyzing and predicting glacial retreat rates? It has to do with basal traction or, simply, bottom ice flow. Although we might imagine a glacier sliding as smoothly as an ice cube on a table on a hot summer day, in fact glacial movement is often slowed by two factors, friction and drag. The first of these components is the friction where ice meets the bed below. This factor is highly dynamic, changing as ice melts, flows, and refreezes; friction is also affected by subglacial till, sediment in the glacier bed which was eroded by the glacier, as it moves and freezes.

The second factor, drag, is the more static component of glacial movement. It reflects the size and orientation of undulations in the bedrock below. The net result is the sum of the first, more variable component and the second, more constant component. But earlier work had measured only the sum of the two—making it difficult to predict how the sum might vary. This study marks a major step in removing this limitation. Researchers were able to estimate the two components separately and come up with more precise predictions.

Ariel view of Pine Island Glacier meeting the sea (Source: NASA Ice/Creative Commons).

The glaciers of remote Pine Island Bay (PIB) have received a good deal of attention lately. In May, Rolling Stone published an article examining the Thwaites glacier, West Antarctica’s other rapidly shrinking glacier, and its contribution to rapid sea level rise. Then, in November, Grist published a piece titled “Ice Apocalypse” on the possibility of a rapid glacier collapse in PIB.

Pine Island Glacier, one of the most rapidly retreating glaciers in Antarctica, is estimated to have contributed up to 10 percent of observed global sea level rise, according to the study’s authors. Because of already problematic sea level rise and the societal threats posed by the rapid collapse of these glaciers, many studies have attempted to project the PIG’s future retreat. However, despite all of the focus on the PIG’s retreat, one condition has remained uncertain: the slowing of the glacier’s seaward movement, due to the forces deep below the surface where ice meets terrain.

Photo of figure showing Pine Island subglacial topography
Pine Island subglacial topography derived from study observations (Source: Bingham et al.).

Previous survey methods were unable to separately resolve glacial friction and drag. They could only measure the sum of the two, leading to inaccuracies in ice sheet models that predict retreat rates. These inaccuracies contributed to high variability in bottom ice flow predictions. Given the improved clarity of bed topography observed in this study, the authors were able to conclude that previous inconsistencies must be associated with an incomplete picture of topography beneath glaciers.

The study’s observations of the PIG painted a detailed picture of the landscape beneath the ice. Utilizing these observations, the authors were able to compare them to satellite data outlining the glacier’s recent movements and shrinkage. The comparisons revealed an interesting relationship, the movement of the glacier differed in its tributaries. What was the reason for this variation? It turns out that the slower advancing tributaries corresponded to rougher bottom terrains, with the coarse tributaries, for example, advancing toward the coast where melting occurs, two to three times slower than their smoother counterparts. These findings indicate that bedrock undulations under the PIG impact the glacier’s flow considerably more than changes in friction, a result not previously observed.This discovery allows researchers to make more precise predictions, by summing each of the different tributaries of PIG.

Photo of Thwaites glacier.
Thwaites Glacier, the other rapidly shrinking glacier in Pine Island Bay (Source: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

The study shows the large influence of subglacial topography on the retreat of PIG, a topic of great importance to society for its potential disastrous impacts. While the results reveal the importance of these landscapes for glacial recession, the authors note that more research is needed to better measure terrain beneath glaciers. Specifically, they underscore the significance of these needed improvements for PIG’s counterpart, the Thwaites glacier. Like PIG, Thwaites appears to have similar diversity in underlying topography. Nonetheless, the glacier has exhibited a rapid recent retreat, faster than that of even the smoothest PIG tributaries. This is a disturbing fact given that the study’s authors state that the glacier has the “potential for rapid and irreversible retreat, and a considerable contribution to sea-level rise.”

How fast the glaciers of PIB and West Antarctica retreat in the future is still difficult to predict. Nevertheless, as exemplified by this study, scientists continue to develop better methods and models in the face of extreme conditions in one of the most remote and inhospitable places on Earth. But while remote, what happens in the coming years to the ice in PIB has the potential to change the world.

Photo Friday: Ice Cauldron Forms on Iceland’s Highest Volcano

Iceland’s highest volcano, Öræfajökull, recently showed signs of life with the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) reporting the formation of a new ice cauldron. Ice cauldrons form when ice is melted from below during times of increased volcanic activity. The volcano last erupted in 1727 and also erupted in 1362, the largest eruption in recorded Icelandic history. The IMO has increased its monitoring of the volcano and issued a yellow aviation warning, signaling an increase in volcanic activity above background levels. Back in 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, grounding thousands of flights. However, there are currently no signs of an impending eruption of Öræfajökull. Check out images of Öræfajökull below.

Photo of satellite view of cauldron
Satellite view of a cauldron forming on the summit of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL (Source: @Vedurstofan/Twitter).


Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL and cauldron forming
Another satellite view of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL and the cauldron forming (Source: Antti Lipponen/Creative Commons).


Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground
ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground (Source: Theo Crazzolara/Creative Commons).


Photo of ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground showing its extensive glacial coverage.
ÖRÆFAJÖKULL from the ground again showing its extensive glacial coverage (Source: Aarne Granlund/Twitter).

Comment Period Still Open on Proposed Fee Hikes at National Parks

Photo of Denali
Mt. Denali in Denali National Park peaking through the clouds (Source: Mark Stevens/Creative Commons).

Glaciers are an integral part of many national parks in the United States. They have helped shape some of the country’s most iconic landscapes like Yellowstone and enrich spectacular scenery in other parks like Mount Rainier, Denali and Glacier. However, on October 24, the National Park Service (NPS) announced a proposed increase in peak-season entry fees at 17 national parks, including at several parks with glaciers. In some cases the proposal could more than double the single vehicle entry fee from $30 to $70, creating obstacles for low and middle income visitors wanting to enjoy America’s natural splendor.

The NPS opened the proposed entrance fee hike to a public comment period that runs until December 22. Citizens are encouraged to provide feedback on the proposal to help determine if and where the entry fee increase will be put in place. The revenue generated from the entry fee increase would be used to improve infrastructure like roads and bathrooms in National Parks, the NPS said. It is estimated to add an additional $70 million in annual revenue, a 34 percent increase in comparison to the $200 million revenue total for 2016.

The 17 national parks where the proposed increase would be implemented are the busiest in the system, according to the NPS. Many of these parks, including Denali, Glacier, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, and Yosemite, contain glaciers or have been molded by past glaciations. The complete list of parks impacted by the fee hike can be found here.

Photo of Mt Rainer
Mt. Rainer in Mount Rainer National Park (Source: Eric Prado/Creative Commons).

When one thinks of the birth of federal parks in the United States, they may conjure images of the geysers of Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park. Nonetheless, glaciers are rightly considered the old and faithful natural feature that led to the formation of our parks. A new paper published in Earth Sciences History by Denny M. Capps, the park geologist of Denali National Park, for example, details the role of glaciers and glacier research in the development of U.S. National Parks.

Capps documents that the history of glaciers and national parks starts with the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864, eight years before the establishment of Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park. The act, signed by Abraham Lincoln, set aside land for use by the public for recreation for the first time in the United States. Four years later, naturalist John Muir traveled to Yosemite for the first time and was deeply enthralled with the landscape. During his time at Yosemite, Muir conducted some of the first research on glaciers and fought to preserve the park by founding the Sierra Club. Next, in 1872, came the signing of the Yellowstone Act by Ulysses S. Grant establishing Yellowstone National Park. The act states that the area was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And although there is a history of entrance fees, these fees were historically kept low and affordable.

Photo of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park (Source: Wayne Hsieh/Creative Commons).

The next significant moment for glaciers and national parks came in 1916 with the formation of the NPS through the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 signed by Woodrow Wilson. Capps writes that the Organic Act focused on conserving scenery, natural objects, historic objects, and wildlife, four elements he argues are supported by geology and glaciers. Glaciers embody the definition of geologic heritage put forth by the NPS Geologic Resources Division, according to Capps. The definition states that noteworthy geologic features are preserved for the values they provide to society including scientific, aesthetic, cultural, ecosystem, educational, recreational, and tourism, among others. The natural beauty of Yosemite and the educational value of the recession of glaciers in Glacier are two examples Capps provides.

Glaciers continue to enhance some of the most iconic landscapes in the United States, providing natural beauty for the public to enjoy. The NPS’s proposed entry fee hike could impact American citizen’s accessibility to these parks. Since its announcement the proposal has been met with mixed reviews. Some news outlets like Slate have voiced support for the increase, citing perpetual underfunding and overcrowding, while others like the Denver Post call it a “slap to the face to low income families.”

In response to the proposal, the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) stated, “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places – protected for all Americans to experience – unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.” Nick Janssen, who has climbed Denali and owns a packraft rental company in the area spoke to GlacierHub about the proposed fee hike. Janssen echoed the NPCA’s view stating that although park fees are not new, an increase of this magnitude “prohibits those of lower means from enjoying what should be a basic privilege for all.”

Glacier National Park (Source: Seth King/Creative Commons).

While the entry fee proposal would raise needed funds and possibly reduce overcrowding that negatively impacts sensitive areas, there are other options available. One of these options is the National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017. The bipartisan act, introduced to Congress in March, would direct revenue from annual oil and gas royalties into a restoration fund until 2047. The NPCA has endorsed the act, with its president Theresa Pierno stating that the “bipartisan, bicameral proposal makes a strong investment that our parks desperately need and deserve.”

Is a restoration fund the solution? Or are park entry hikes the right way to fund improvements? Ultimately, it is up to the American public to voice their opinions before the comment periods ends on December 22 at 11:59pm.

If interested in commenting on the proposal you can do so here, and when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and reflect on what you are thankful for, you might reflect on living in a democracy where one person can submit a comment and positively impact a nation.

Photo Friday: Chile’s Elqui River Valley

This Friday, we’re covering images that are a bit different from our usual Photo Friday images. Rather than featuring photos of glaciers themselves, today we present photos of a river valley and reservoir in Chile that receives almost all of its water from glaciers and snowmelt and is currently facing water shortages due to glacier retreat. The photos come courtesy of Francesco Fiondella, director of communications for Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). In addition to the photos that follow, Fiondella provided a statement to GlacierHub detailing the region and his time there. His statement follows:

“The region of Coquimbo, Chile, is a typical semi-arid or dryland area. Less than four inches (100mm) of rain falls here, and almost all of it during the short winter rainy season. On top of this, rain and snowfall are highly variable year-to-year. In the past, people have had to cope with drought conditions in one year and rainfall five times above average in the next.

I visited Coquimbo’s Elqui Rvier Valley in 2013 to report on a collaborative project (now ended) among staff at the IRI, UNESCO and Chilean research institutes to help the water authority there incorporate seasonal forecasts as a way to better allocate water and prepare for droughts. When I made these photographs, a widespread, multiyear drought that started in 2009 had depleted the Puclaro to only 10 percent of its capacity.”

Some of these photographs are currently on display in a public exhibition in Venice, Italy. To see more of his photography, follow him on instagram [@fiondella].

Photo of the Elqui River
The Elqui River, shown here, is fed almost entirely by snowmelt from the Andes. It provides drinking water for two cities and irrigation for large vineyards, small farmers and goat herders (Source: Francesco Fiondella).
The Puclaro Dam and its reservoir on the Elqui River (Source: Francesco Fiondella).
Photo of the Pulcaro Reservoir
Another photo of the Puclaro Reservoir. At the time it was 10 percent of its peak level in 2009, indicated by lines on the mountain in the background. The dam is in the distance (Source: Francesco Fiondella).
Photo of Natalia Edith Codoceo Flores who lived in a village that was flooded when the reservoir was constructed. Due to the drought in 2013 the remnants of the village were visible.
The original village of Gualliguaica, where Natalia Edith Codoceo Flores lived until the 1990s, was flooded when the Puclaro Dam was built. But a long lasting drought diminished the reservoir to 10 percent of its capacity, leaving the entire old village exposed (Source: Francesco Fiondella).

Water Access and Glacial Recession in Peru

The glaciers of the Peruvian Andes have long served as a key water reserve in a region where precipitation patterns are highly seasonal and vary greatly from year to year. However, the retreat of these glaciers because of climate change threatens to alter the balance of water resources. A new paper detailing this transformation titled “Glacier loss and hydro-social risks in the Peruvian Andes” was recently published in the journal Global and Planetary Change and has attracted interest from others including the Mountain Research Initiative.

Diagram depicting connections between biophysical and social processes (Source: Mark et al.).

GlacierHub spoke with Molly Polk, one of the authors of the paper, about its findings. Dr. Polk was in contact with three of her eleven co-authors, including Bryan Mark, Kenneth Young and Adam French, all who helped provide feedback to GlacierHub. Their paper examined the effects of glacial retreat on water resources based on the results of long-term research on water access and its impacts on hydro-social risks in Peru. The research focused on how water in the Andes connects both biophysical and social processes to evaluate regional vulnerability to hydrological changes caused by retreating glaciers.

Research for this collaborative project grew in scale and focus over time, according to the authors. In the beginning, the project focused on the impacts of glacial retreat on rural livelihoods within the Santa River watershed near Huaraz, Peru. The initial results pointed to the importance of coupled hydrological and social systems in the region. From there, the project received an award from the National Science Foundation enabling the formation of an interdisciplinary team of eleven researchers with extensive experience in Peru.

The team focused on two areas: the Santa river watershed, which drains the Cordillera Blanca, the most glaciated tropical mountain range in the world, to the Pacific, and the smaller Shullcas River watershed, east of Lima, which drains the Mantaro and Ucayali rivers before joining the Amazon River. Both areas contain mining operations, agricultural regions, and hydroelectric stations, making them ideal to study the impacts of glacial retreat through the lens of biophysical and social processes

Map of Peru detailing the two watersheds examined in the study (Source: Mark et al.).

Biophysical Processes

Both watersheds have experienced substantial losses in glacier mass in recent years. Observations of the Cuchillacocha glacier in the Santa watershed, for example, show the glacier’s surface area retreated from 1.24 km2 to 0.82 km2 and lost a volume of 0.02 km2, equivalent to a 10-m lowering of the glacier’s surface, from 1962 to 2008. Notably, the authors found their volume-change analyses showed a 37 percent greater loss in glacial mass than what could be projected using surface area measurements alone. These analyses could infer that the region’s glacial water reserves have been overestimated.

Land cover changes within the watersheds were also found to be an important proxy for monitoring glacial retreat. As glaciers recede the bare ground they leave behind is colonized by plants, changing hydrologic flows. This “greening” of land cover causes lakes and wetlands below glaciers to expand during the peak of the melting and shrink thereafter. By analyzing this expansion and shrinkage, the authors were better able to evaluate glacial recession and its impact on water recourses.

Molly Polk and field assistants taking a peat sample in Huascaran National Park within the Santa River watershed (Source: Kenneth Young).

Social Processes

To assess the social aspects of water access and glacial retreat, the study first evaluated the perceptions of local water users regarding water availability finding that perception varied across time and space. Most surveyed users perceived declining water availability during the dry seasons, with the greatest awareness of declines among users in areas with the least glacial cover and least awareness in areas with high glacial coverage.

The diversity of water users in the study area was also found to be an important aspect of water accesses and availability. Rural households use water for agriculture and livestock, usually relying on springs and glacial-fed streams. Recent expansion of mining within the watersheds has increased water demand as well as contamination risks. Survey results indicate local residents have negative opinions of mining operations and their effects on water quality and availability. Further downstream, growth in large-scale irrigation for agriculture and hydroelectric production divert large quantities of water from the watersheds. This growth has fostered the development of large water infrastructure projects to meet water demands, like multiple irrigation projects, for example, that divert water from the Santa river for agriculture along the arid Peruvian coast.The authors note that while this infrastructure is economically important, it is also at risk to natural disasters such as earthquakes and weather variability, most notably the El Niño Southern Oscillation that threatens water access.

Water governance in a region experiencing economic development and urban population growth should be a key social priority, but formal action has yet to develop. New watershed management processes were developed in 2010 but failed to take hold due to intra-regional and inter-regional political problems, according to the authors. This lack of governance has led to water scarcity during the dry season and conflicts over water between users. Attempting to remedy the situation, the state has tried to formalize water rights, but this led to differing opinions, with small-scale water users fearful of privatization and large-scale users arguing that water rights will allow for more efficient water usage.

The paper’s authors visiting one of the Santa River water diversion projects that provide water to costal irrigators (Source: Kenneth Young).

Future Outlook

Glacial recession in the Peruvian Andes is increasing the hydro-social risks faced by water users in the region, risks that are likely to only get worse over time. The authors highlighted three challenges to GlacierHub that necessitate future research to better address these risks. First, expanded monitoring of glacier and hydrological changes would aid in detecting changes in water storage. Secondly, the complex interactions associated with local water access need further investigation to better inform water management. Finally, the effects of elements outside of the watersheds, such as the global or regional economy on access to local water resources, needs further examination. Ultimately, the authors were able to examine the transformation affecting glacierized, hydro-social systems through a transdisciplinary approach across both physical and social processes, enabling the assessment of risks and vulnerabilities faced by a diverse group of water users in a rapidly changing region. And while these transformations have the potential to drastically change the region, enthusiasm and dedication still prevail, Dr. Polk says, as people from diverse backgrounds come together to figure out the best way forward.

Roundup: Meltwater Buffering, Glacier National Park, and River Variability

Glacier Melt Buffers River Runoff in Pamir Mountains

From Water Resources Research: “Newly developed approaches based on satellite altimetry and gravity measurements provide promising results on glacier dynamics in the Pamir-Himalaya but cannot resolve short-term natural variability at regional and finer scale. We contribute to the ongoing debate by upscaling a hydrological model that we calibrated for the central Pamir… We provide relevant information about individual components of the hydrological cycle and quantify short-term hydrological variability… We demonstrate that glaciers play a twofold role by providing roughly 35 percent of the annual runoff of the Panj River basin and by effectively buffering runoff both during very wet and very dry years. The modeled glacier mass balance (GMB) of −0.52 m w.e. yr−1 (2002–2013) for the entire catchment suggests significant reduction of most Pamiri glaciers by the end of this century. The loss of glaciers and their buffer functionality in wet and dry years could not only result in reduced water availability and increase the regional instability, but also increase flood and drought hazards.”

Learn more about glacial melt in the Pamir Mountains here.

Amu Darya river catchment and glacier coverage (Source: Pohl et al.).


Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park

From USGS: “In Glacier National Park (GNP), MT some effects of climate change are strikingly clear. Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared. The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, around the end of the Little Ice Age. Most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2015, measurements of glacier area indicate that there were 26 remaining glaciers larger than 25 acres. There is evidence of worldwide glacial glacier recession and varied model projections suggest that certain studied GNP glaciers will disappear between 2030 to 2080.”

Learn more about glacial retreat in Glacier National Park here.

The retreat of Jackson Glacier in Glacier National Park (Source: USGS).


Runoff in British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains

From Hydrological Processes: “This study examines the 1914–2015 runoff trends and variability for 136 rivers draining British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains. Rivers are partitioned into eastward and westward flowing rivers based on flow direction from the Coast Mountains. Thus, eastward and westward runoff trends and influence of topography on runoff are explored. Our findings indicate that rivers flowing eastward to the Nechako and Chilcotin plateaus contribute the lowest annual runoff compared to westward rivers where runoff is high. Low interannual runoff variability is evident in westward rivers and their alpine watersheds, whereas eastward rivers exhibit high interannual runoff variability.”

Read more about variability in river runoff in British Columbia here.

Map of British Columbia’s Coast and Insular Mountains with the locations of the hydrometric gauges used in the study (Source: Hernández-Henríquez et al.).