Environmental History of Argentina’s Oldest National Park Unveiled

A new study has shed light on the environmental history of Nahuel Huapi, the oldest national park in Argentina. The mountainous glacial region in northern Patagonia is vast, spanning two million acres, yet it has remained relatively unstudied, and little of its ecological history is understood. A study published on August 10 in ScienceDirect has revealed a window into the complex history of glacial Lake Perito Moreno Oeste in Nahuel Huapi, using lake sediments to look back through time.

lakes Moreno and El Trébol on right; mountains cerro Goye, cerro López and cerro Capilla (Source: Bariloche)
Lakes Perito Moreno and El Trébol on right; mountains Cerro Goye, Cerro López and Cerro Capilla (Source: Bariloche)

The research team, led by the Argentinian scientist Natalia Williams, investigated the glacial lake’s history by digging deep into the lake’s sediment. Williams and her team hoped to better understand the environmental factors like temperature and human activities influencing the lake’s ecology over the past 700 years, and had the help of a small aquatic species known as Chironomidae. Also known as midges, Chironomidae are a type of insect found on every continent including Antarctica.

Across the globe, Chironomidae are abundant and can be used to understand the health and condition of water ecosystems. Unlike other species of their size, Chironomidae leave well-defined remains in lake sediments that allow researchers to study them like fossils. There are over 4,000 distinct Chironomidae species, which thrive in different environment conditions–some prefer warmer water while others prefer cold. By examining the number and species of past Chironomidae, the researchers can understand the health, composition, and temperature of the ecosystem through time.

A Chironomidae larva (Source: Jasper Nance)
A Chironomidae larva (Source: Jasper Nance)

The team collected the proxy data by dropping a 43 cm-long hollow pipe, known as an LL, into the bottom of the lake at Llao-Llao Bay—the deepest point of the lake at 20 meters. When the core was dropped, it filled with sediment and trapped preserved organisms. When the pipe was pulled to shore, it contained the layers of sediment which had built up over time, providing a chronological history of the lake. The researchers were then able to analyze the sediment through photographs, chemical tests, and observations of the sediment and individual midges once they cut the pipe in half.

Within the 43 cm-long core, a total of 1594 Chironomidae head remains were identified, and their depth within the core informed the researchers about the time of the deposition, with earlier organisms found deeper in the core.

There were higher numbers of warm water species found at the surface layers of the core, representing the more recent history around 1900.  Their high abundance within the core corresponded to a period of time with higher temperatures and increasing human presence in Patagonia. The first buildings within the national park near Lake Perito Moreno were constructed in 1937, and the isolated glacier lake quickly became influenced by pollution, rising temperatures, the introduction of fish species, and the construction of roads.

core samples (Source: blastcube)
Core samples in the field (Source: blastcube)

Though the lake was free of human influence until the beginning of the 1900s, the ecology of the lake quickly changed in response to human presence in the park. As roads were built and new species were introduced, the lake’s oxygen levels increased beyond healthy levels and allowed the explosion of the Chironomidae population. When the sediment core showed high levels of the species’ remains, the researchers determined that the lake was less healthy than the period prior to human influence, experiencing an ecological imbalance that prevented other aquatic species from thriving.

In order to understand the full extent of human impacts on glacial environments, the history of a region must be taken into account. While it is not possible to go back in time to observe the past, species like those within the Chrionomidae give scientists the chance understand history more deeply.


As Temperatures Rise, Poplars Replace Alaskan Tundra

In Alaska’s Denali National Park, summer temperatures have risen 2 degrees Celsius over the past century, with the majority of change occurring since the 1970s. The glaciers that cover 1 million square miles of the park are melting rapidly, exposing bare earth where there once was ice.

An Ecosphere study, published July 19, finds that the rising temperatures impacting the glaciers are also affecting the plant communities that grow in newly exposed areas, fundamentally altering the Alaskan landscape and ecosystems.

View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)
View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)

The research team, led by Carl Roland and Sarah Stehn, investigated how the Alaskan landscape near Denali’s Muldrow Glacier changed over time by recreating a study conducted 54 years ago by Leslie Viereck. In 1966, prior to the 2 degree temperature rise, Viereck set out to determine the plant succession in the area. Succession is the process of an ecosystem evolving over time. In mountain regions, it can occur when a glacier retreats or a river forms an outwash plain, and a new community of vegetation can grow.

Viereck studied the outwash plain of the McKinley River, which flows west out of Muldrow Glacier, and examined areas ranging from 1 to roughly 5,000 years old. Based on his observations, he determined that the bare rocky plain would transition into a meadow, followed by small shrubs and eventually becoming a tundra ecosystem, with thick moss and a low canopy of shrubs.

Half a century later, Roland, Stehn and their colleagues were able to replicate Viereck’s study to see if the temperature change has impacted the successional path laid out by their predecessor. Using a series of photographs, GPS, field notes and re-measured areas of land, the team found surprisingly different results. The newly exposed areas were not transitioning into meadows, but instead covered in balsam poplar trees. The new Alaskan landscape showed signs of succeeding into a forest rather than tundra—representing a completely different biome change.

Photographs of the Muldrow Glacier study area from the original and current study (source: Ecosphere)
Photographs of the Muldrow Glacier study area from the original and current study (source: Ecosphere)

According to the study, the temperature rise fundamentally altered the climatic conditions of the ecosystem, and as time passes, the differences become increasingly larger. Like an archer shooting an arrow hundreds of meters away, even a small shift in the starting point can change the trajectory completely, and yield a very different outcome in the ecosystem structure and function.

The poplars began to grow in the early succession landscape because they thrive in the warming climate, and require warmer soils to grow. Once the trees were established, they had the competitive advantage over other plant species—they produce seeds early and abundantly, and are able to thrive in bare soil when other species are not yet present. Once the trees begin to grow, they alter the landscape by blocking the sun from smaller plants, and allowing a different range of species to thrive. Both plants and animals that prefer woodland instead of tundra move to these newly formed forests. The trees also block the wind, allowing snow to build up where it previously would have been blown away. The thick layer of snow prevents permafrost from forming, keeping the soils warm. This one species, through a series of chain events, is able to colonize the area and alter both the species and climate of the region.

Balsam Poplar canopy (source: Adam Jones, PhD)
Balsam Poplar canopy (source: Adam Jones, PhD)

While the newer areas of exposed land showed a dramatic shift in the projected succession, the older, more established areas of the landscape followed the path as predicted by Viereck. The areas located farther from the river and the end of the glacier plain had begun to grow before the temperature increase. Once the ecosystem had begun to develop, it is much more difficult to change its course. While poplars were still found in these areas, they had a much smaller impact on the ecosystem as a whole.

As temperatures continue to rise and glaciers continue to retreat in Alaska, there will be large areas of land exposed which will be colonized by vegetation. Ecosystems will form in place of the ice, and when they do, they will be woodlands rather than the iconic Alaskan tundra.

East African Glaciers at Risk from “Global Drying”

In the tropical climate of East Africa, glaciers are an unexpected, yet vitally important part of the ecosystem. Since 1900, African glaciers have lost a staggering 80 percent of their surface area, contributing to regional water shortages.

While rising temperatures may seem like an obvious cause of global glacier retreat in many regions, the glaciers of east Africa are a unique exception. A study published in Cryosphere earlier this year has found that the largest glacier on Mount Kenya, the Lewis Glacier, is melting because of decreasing atmospheric moisture rather than increasing temperatures.

Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)
Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)

African glaciers have all but disappeared, except for three locations in East Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Range in Uganda. Scientists have been studying the few remaining African glaciers in hopes of preserving what is left of the rapidly melting ice. While headway had been made in understanding the causes of melting on Kilimanjaro, the melting on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain, has remained a mystery until now.

The complex climatic features of Mount Kenya, combined with the lack of observational data, has made it difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of Lewis Glacier’s retreat. Lindsey Nicholson, a researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, led a study in 2013 that concluded a combination of causes was responsible for the melt, rather than one factor in particular.

Building on  her previous work, the team, led by University of Graz’s Rainer Prinz and Lindsey Nicholson, set out to collect the data they needed to gain a more accurate understanding of why Lewis Glacier was melting. They installed an automatic weather station on the glacier at an elevation of 4,828 meters, and collected 773 days of data over the course of two-and-a-half years.

Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

In conjunction with the data from the weather station, the team used a model to predict how much Lewis Glacier would melt under a range of different scenarios. By manipulating variables, including precipitation, air temperature, air pressure, and wind speed, in the model, the team was able to see which factors played the biggest role in glacier melt.

The team found that moisture had the biggest impact on Lewis Glacier’s surface area, rather than air temperature or a combination of other climatic factors. Despite differences in location and elevation, the glaciers of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are melting for the same reason: East Africa is getting progressively drier, and the lack of water is impacting much more than just the glaciers.

The glaciers on the peak of Kilimanjaro lie significantly above the regional freezing point—year round, the peak is cold enough to maintain its ice levels, even as surface temperatures in East Africa have steadily increased. Yet, Kilimanjaro’s glaciers continue to retreat and are projected to disappear completely by 2020. Temperature changes fail to explain the severity of the mountain’s glacier retreat.

Observational studies have showed that Kilimanjaro is receiving less cloud cover that leads to increased radiation from the sun, and less precipitation, causing infrequent snowfall. The IPCC has projected a 10% decrease in rainfall during the already dry season from June through August, amplifying the impacts of regional dryness and drought.

crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya--the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya–the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

The impact of a drying climate has greatly impacted Kilimanjaro, and caused its glaciers to retreat from sublimation–a process by which the ice changes directly into water vapor rather than melting into water. The theory that moisture is the main factor impacting glacier melt on Kilimanjaro has, up until now, been assumed to be a product of the mountain’s height and not generalizable to all East African glaciers. Prinz and Nicholoson’s findings suggest that drying may be the main reason for glacier melt throughout the region as a whole.

Mount Kenya’s glaciers are at lower elevations compared to Kilimanjaro’s, and lie much closer to the regional freezing level. It was therefore expected that rising temperatures would affect the glaciers of Mount Kenya, and no scientific studies had proved or disputed this assumption.

Droughts, desertification, and crop failure have become increasingly common in tropical Africa, and according to the study this is primarily caused by shifting ocean conditions that are preventing moisture from circulating over East Africa. The lack of moisture means there is not enough precipitation—either as rain over the savannas or snow on the mountain peaks—to sustain the glaciers or the populations that rely on them. In order to preserve the last remaining African glaciers, it will be necessary to understand and prevent changes in water, rather than only changes in temperature.

Photo Friday: The Glaciers of Denali National Park

Denali National Park spans a vast six million acres in central Alaska, and contains the tallest mountain on the continent that gives the park its namesake: Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley. The summit reaches over 20,000 feet above sea level, and is one of the most isolated mountain peaks in the world—following only Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Glaciers cover an incredible one million acres of the park, making up one-sixth of the total land area.

View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)
View of Denali from Stony overlook (Credit: NPS Photo / Jacob W. Frank)

The park contains hundred of glaciers, but the largest flow from the peak of Denali. Kahiltna Glacier is the not only the longest glacier in the park, but at 44 miles it is the longest glacier in the entire Alaskan Range.

Kahiltna glacier, on the southwestern slope of Denali (Swisseduc)
Kahiltna glacier, on the southwestern slope of Denali (Swisseduc)

Most Denali mountain climbing expeditions start on Kahiltna glacier at Mount McKinley basecamp–or, as its called by climbers, “Kahiltna International Airport.”

Base Camp: It's a 35 minute flight from Talkeetna in a ski equipped aircraft. Most climbers land at Base Camp on Kahiltna Glacier. (Alaska.org)
Base Camp: It’s a 35 minute flight from Talkeetna in a ski equipped aircraft. Most climbers land at Base Camp on Kahiltna Glacier. (Alaska.org)

In addition to offering mountain climbing, Denali is the only U.S National Park with a working kennel. Sled dogs are used throughout the park to reach isolated locations within the wilderness area, and park visitors also have the chance to mush for themselves.

The Climbing Routes Litter Dog sled team in Denali National Park (NPS)
The Climbing Routes Litter Dog sled team in Denali National Park (NPS)


The park is also home to the world’s deepest glacier, the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. The ice is a staggering 3700 feet deep, and is tucked between 4000 foot tall walls of the gorge.

Plane flying through the Great Gorge, to the right of Mount Dickey (Alaska.org)
Plane flying through the Great Gorge, to the right of Mount Dickey (Alaska.org)


Ice loss surpasses poaching as largest threat to Barents Sea polar bear

Prior to the 1970s, hunting decimated polar bear populations across the Arctic. The international community has made strides in protecting the iconic species from over-harvesting through conservation agreements, which have helped the species start to recover. However, a review paper published in Polar Research in July suggests that the road to recovery is far from over, as ice loss now replaces poaching as the most pressing threat to polar bear survival in the Barents Sea area, north of Norway and Russia.

Polar bear in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Arturo de Frias Marques)
Polar bear in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Arturo de Frias Marques)

The paper, written by Magnus Anderson and Jon Aars, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, comprehensively covers the history of polar bear population changes over the course of 100 years. By examining historical documents and current scientific studies, the authors find that ice loss, in conjunction with human encroachment on habitat and pollution, have replaced hunting as the largest threat to polar bear populations in the Barents Sea area.

Somewhere between 100 and 900 polar bears were poached each year between 1870 to 1970 in Greenland and the Barents Sea region. Arctic countries then came together to protect the species as the bears were pushed toward the brink of extinction. In 1973, the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears was facilitated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and signed by five countries, marking an important step in the conservation of the polar bear and Arctic ecosystem. With the additional support of Russia’s and Norway’s polar bear hunting bans, enacted in 1956 and 1973, respectively, the Barents Sea polar bear’s outlook became more promising.

In Svalbard, a glacier-rich archipelago north of the Norwegian mainland, polar bear populations doubled in the decade following the conservation agreement. There were approximately 2,000 bears in the region as of 1980. While population recovery occurred, it happened slower than anticipated by the scientific community.

The Barents Sea and surrounding land areas (Source: Polar Research)
The Barents Sea and surrounding land areas (Source: Polar Research)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentioned the impacts of climate change on sea-ice cover for the first time in its third assessment in 2001. The inclusion of ice loss in the report shed light on a potential new threat to polar bear populations, which depend on the Arctic ice for their way of life. It also offered an explanation for the slow recovery of the species following the Russian and Norwegian poaching bans.

According to current assessments, the polar bear habitat in the Barents Sea will substantially decrease over the next few decades due to ice loss and glacier retreat, as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. Polar bear populations are expected to decline accordingly.

The Polar Research study states that the main reason for the loss of polar bear populations will be the loss of an ice “platform” needed to hunt for prey — ringed, bearded, and harp seals. As the ice melts, polar bears lose their hunting grounds and must travel greater distances under more treacherous conditions in order to find food. Anderson and Aars cite prior studies conducted by Carla Freitas, Ian Stirling, and others which have tracked trends in polar bear movement with GPS collars and have found that the thickness and persistence of ice significantly affects the location of polar bears and their hunting grounds.

Ringed seal, polar bears' main prey (Source: NOAA)
Ringed seal, polar bears’ main prey (Source: NOAA)

In addition to impacting the species’ hunting ability, ice is critical for breeding, traveling, and denning. A loss of  habitat means fewer travel routes for males to find females during the breeding season and a drop in breeding rates across the Arctic. According to the authors’ research, when females have to give birth and raise their cubs, they are hard-pressed to find suitable denning and birthing areas. In the fall, the ice and snow begins to accumulate progressively later in the year due to higher temperatures, making it difficult for females to find the solid ice on which they prefer to give birth. In the spring, the sea ice, which creates a safe den for polar bear cubs, retreats earlier in the season and faster, putting the babies and their mothers at risk.

Mother with her cub (Source: Scott Schliebe, US Fish and Wildlife Service)
Mother with her cub (Source: Scott Schliebe, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The report cites research showing the late arrival and early retreat of ice has impacted both mother and cub body size, health, and survival rates.

Pollution and human disturbance are two other stressors negatively impacting polar bear populations. When these threats are combined with ice loss, the cumulative impact can be deadly. For example, human presence in polar bear habitat, combined with diminished ice, can lead to less effective hunting, malnutrition, and higher mortality rates. And when endocrine-disrupting pollutants are combined with the impacts of climate change, it causes the “worst case combination for arctic marine mammals and birds,” according to the study.
While the threat of poaching has diminished substantially following international agreements and conservation efforts, polar bears continue to face equally serious, but different risks. The report concludes that in order to protect the polar bear, an iconic species that contributes to overall Arctic health, there is a need for new agreements comprehensive management strategies to address the impacts of ice loss, pollution, and human disturbance in the Arctic.

Ocean temperatures main cause of glacier melt in the Antarctic Peninsula

Along the 1,200 kilometer western coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula, hundreds of glaciers stretch down to the sea. Glacier melt from this region is a major contributor to global sea-level rise. While scientists have looked to rising atmospheric temperatures to explain the rapid glacier melting in recent decades, a new study reveals that ocean temperatures may actually be the main cause of glacier retreat in the region.

Aerial photo of the Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)
Aerial photo of the Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Wild Frontiers)

The Antarctic Peninsula is in the northernmost part of the continent, and lies 1,000 kilometers from the tip of South America. Due to its latitude between 63 and 70 degrees South, the peninsula has the most moderate climate and — relatively speaking — warmest temperatures in Antarctica. As a result, glacier retreat in this area occurs at a faster rate than in most of the rest of the continent. However, melting has accelerated in recent years, raising concern in the scientific community. The atmospheric temperature record over the past several decades shows warming in the region. Rising atmospheric temperatures have, until now, been considered the largest contributing factor to glacier melting on the peninsula.

Satellite image of the Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Dave Pape/Anna Frodesiak)
Satellite image of the Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Dave Pape/Anna Frodesiak)

This study, published in Science on July 15, offers a new explanation in its surprising finding that ocean temperatures correlate more closely to glacier melt than air temperatures. The team, led by Alison Cook of Swansea University in the United Kingdom, investigated the relationship between ocean temperatures and glacier retreat in response to research, which showed that the air temperature record in the Antarctic Peninsula did not correctly predict the timing or location of glacier melt in the region.

Along the Antarctic Peninsula, there has been more ice loss in the colder southern end of the peninsula than in the warmer north. Air temperatures fail to explain this dramatic gradient along the peninsula, leading the team to seek another explanation. Using detailed data from the World Ocean Database, the researchers were able to track ocean temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula between 1945 and 2009. When this data was compared to observed glacier retreat over time, a strong connection was revealed.

In the southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, mid-depth ocean temperatures were higher than in the north. By dividing the ocean near the peninsula into 6 study regions, the team of researchers from Swanea and British Antarctic Survey found that the ocean water composition was very different between the top and bottom half of the peninsula.

Along the southwestern coast of the peninsula, water from multiple oceans meets to form Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). In this region, a mix of Antarctic, Pacific, and Atlantic water masses dominates the ocean composition. The temperature and salinity of the water along the southwestern coast is unique because of the mixing of different water sources — cold salty water sinks, while warmer water settles at mid-range depths. The CDW in the region has an average temperature of 4 degrees Celsius above the seawater freezing point.

Diagram illustrating how Circumpolar Deep Water flows onto the continental shelf and drives high melt rates at the grounding line of glaciers (British Antarctic Survey)
Diagram illustrating how Circumpolar Deep Water flows onto the continental shelf and drives high melt rates at the grounding line of glaciers (Source: British Antarctic Survey)

However, Shelf Water and Bransfield Strait Water surround the northern portion of the peninsula. These waters are only 1 and 2 degrees above seawater freezing point, respectively. The warmer southern waters correspond to the areas of the peninsula that have had the most glacier melt, and explain why the southern peninsula has more ice loss than the northern area.

While it may seem that the surface temperature of the water would be the most important factor affecting glacier melt, the team found that it is actually the temperature of water 100 to 300 meters below the surface that correlates strongest with glacier melt — the bottom of the glaciers extending off the coastline fall within this range, and the warm water melts them from below the surface.

When fresh, cold water melts from the glaciers into the ocean, it causes upwelling — a process in which deep water rises to the surface. When warm Circumpolar Deep Water upwells onto the ice shelf, it accelerates the rate of glacier melt. In the north, where the deep water is still cold, this phenomenon does not occur.

The results show that warm ocean water is causing glacier retreat in a staggering 90 percent of the 674 glaciers that drain into the ocean. This important finding in the western Antarctic Peninsula means that conservation strategies need to be reconsidered and climate models readjusted, according to the authors. In order to accurately predict global environmental changes including sea-level rise, the temperature of coastal ocean water needs to be included as not only a factor, but the main factor in glacier melt.


Survival is just the tip of the iceberg in Blair Braverman’s memoir on Arctic life

“On a bad day we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day Summer Camp on the Moon.”  

Cover of Blair Braverman's memoir
Cover of Blair Braverman’s memoir (Source: Anna LoPresti)

In her memoir published July 5, writer and musher Blair Braverman recounts her time living in the isolated wilderness of the Arctic, and her struggles to reconcile the many contradictions—both real and perceived—that accompanied her journey. Over the course of its 274 pages, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North provides an honest and eloquent narrative of Braverman’s personal pursuit to create a home in the fjords of Norway and glaciers of Southeastern Alaska.

While Braverman’s experiences in the north were not always positive, she persistently returns to the Arctic to overcome her fears and self-doubts–seeking safety in extreme environments and confronting her status as an outsider in a “man’s world.”

Her Arctic roots trace back to a young age. Braverman spent a year in Oslo when she was 10-years-old and continuously returned, feeling connected to the country in a way that she never felt in her hometown of Davis, California. A year as a high school foreign exchange student in Norway helped her reestablish her connection. But a host father who made her feel unsafe also made her time there difficult. Braverman was insecure, but not defeated.

Lillehammer, norway, Where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)
Lillehammer, Norway, where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)

As testament to her personal strength and character, she pushed herself to return to Norway and struggle through the extreme physical and mental challenges of survival training and dog sledding in the Arctic at the Norwegian Folk School 69°North.

“I knew I would never be a tough girl,” she writes in the memoir. “And yet the phrase, with its implied contradiction, articulated everything that I wanted for myself: to be a girl, an inherently vulnerable position, and yet unafraid.”

In the far reaches of the North, there were many things to fear—the biting cold, the seemingly unending darkness of winter, being buried alive under the snow. However, Braverman approached these physical challenges head-on throughout her time at 69°North and in the years to follow.

“Of course I was scared. But at least I was scared of dangers of my own choosing. At least there was joy that came with it.”

There were other equally pressing physical and emotional dangers that Braverman faced, one of which is not exclusive to the Arctic: the danger of men threatening her safety and encroaching on her body. In the eyes of the men Braverman encountered, the Arctic was seen as exclusively male territory. Despite the intimidation, harassment, and dismissal by men, Braverman was determined to have an equal right to also call the Arctic “home.”

After completing her survival training at the folk school, Braverman left Norway to work at a summer tour company on a glacier in southeast Alaska. Living on a remote glacier with an aggressive boyfriend, the irony of her job cannot be lost—providing a comfortable experience for tourists to be “explorers” out in the wilderness, when the reality of living in such an environment is anything but comfortable.

Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

She writes in the book that she was also “discouraged from acknowledging climate change, even as the glacier melted away beneath us.” While the majority of people may prefer to sweep difficult truths under the rug, Braverman is admirable for her desire to seek it out, regardless of convenience.

While Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is, to a large degree, a story of emotional and physical struggle, it is also one of deep admiration for nature and the Arctic. Braverman’s love of the environment is contagious and brought to life through her vivid descriptions of living and racing on the ice. Her connection to the sled dogs, and their dedication and loyalty to her, is a source of strength for Braverman in the face of other obstacles.

During her first time out on the sled, she describes her fascination with the sled dogs. “The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to. They were beautiful. They were so beautiful.”

Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)
Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)

Many times Braverman would have to rely on the dogs—their sense of direction, memory of the trails, their speed and strength—to bring her to safety. In the isolating world she lived in, the dogs were a rare example of companionship and trust.

The ice itself also carries significance for Braverman. While beautiful, the glaciers she worked on in Alaska were also cold and unforgiving. In her words, even otherworldly: “A desert, a moonscape—I found myself groping for a metaphor, trying to make sense of the alien world that extended to the far horizon.”

At times, her home, the glaciers of Alaska, also proved to be inhospitable and harsh—not how any “home” is typically described. Yet, the pristine and staggering beauty of the Arctic was never lost on Braverman, and is described so thoughtfully it’s presence carries throughout the narrative of the memoir.

After her time in Alaska, she returned to Norway numerous times to continue relationships she has built over the years and work odd jobs in the small northern town of Mortenhals. Since returning to the United States, Braverman graduated from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and has been a fellow at the Blue Mountain Center as well as the MacDowell Colony. She is currently living in Mountain, Wisconsin, where she races sled dogs and pursues her writing career. “I made my own north,” she says—and for Braverman, that means she has made her own home.

Blair is currently training for the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.

For a limited time. GlacierHub readers can purchase the book for a discount. Promo code GlacierHub20 is now active on harpercollins.com. The promo code, which will remain active until Sept 3, allows for a 20% discount off the retail price of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube and free economy shipping.

Photo Friday: Tibetan Plateau From Space

55 million years ago, a major collision took place between two of the large blocks that form the Earth’s crust. The Indian Plate pushed into the Eurasian Plate, creating what is known as the Tibetan Plateau. The region, also known as the “Third Pole,” spans a million square miles and contains the largest amount of glacier ice outside of the poles. A photograph of the southern Tibetan Plateau taken from space was released June 17th, showing the dramatic topography in false color. The photograph, taken by the Sentinel-2A, was captured near Nepal and Sikkim, a northern state of India, on February 1st. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), “From their vantage point 800 km high, satellites can monitor changes in glacier mass, melting and other effects that climate change has on our planet.” This week, enjoy stunning satellite pictures of the Tibetan Plateau over time.

Tibetan Plateau taken from Sentinel-2A, released June 17, 2016 (Credit: ESA)
Tibetan Plateau taken from Sentinel-2A, released June 17, 2016 (Credit: ESA)

NASA also has taken photographs of the same plate collision from space, showing the snow-capped Himalayas, which are still rising.

Tibetan Plateau Plate T-48 from Space (NASA)
Tibetan Plateau Plate T-48 from Space (NASA)

A true-color image of the Tibetan Plateau, taken in 2003 by NASA’S MODIS Rapid Response Team, shows the region’s lakes as dark patches against the sand-colored mountains.

True-color photograph of Tibetan Plateau lakes (NASA--MODIS)
True-color photograph of Tibetan Plateau lakes (NASA–MODIS)

Prior to the true-color photograph, a spaceborne radar image of the Himalayan Mountains was taken in 1994 in southeast Tibet. Each color is assigned to a different radar frequency that depends of the direction that the radar was transmitted.

Spaceborne Radar image of Southeast Tibet, 1994 (NASA, JPL)
Spaceborne Radar image of Southeast Tibet, 1994 (NASA, JPL)

“Red snow” algae accelerating glacier melt in the Arctic

Scientists have discovered a troubling new characteristic of the tough algae that grow on the surface of Arctic glaciers: not only do they turn the glacier surfaces red, they accelerate the melting of the ice.

Across the Arctic, from Greenland to Sweden, glacier ice is turning red in what has been termed “watermelon snow.” The phenomenon has become increasingly common in recent years, yet little is known about the algae or their broader environmental impacts.  

"watermelon snow" (wiki)
“watermelon snow” (Source: Will Beback)

A recent study, published June 22 in Nature Communications, has shed light on the red snow, reporting that the algae are contributing to glacier melting and climate change in the Arctic.

The Arctic region covers the majority of the Earth’s northern pole, and contains over 275,500 square kilometers of glaciers. It is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, warming at a rate nearly twice the global average.  According to NASA, the rate of Arctic warming from 1981 to 2001 was a staggering 8 times larger than the rate of melting over the last 100 years. Given the severity of glacier melt in the region, understanding the factors that impact melting rates is crucial to preserving the Arctic ecosystem.

Albedo is one of the most important influences on glacier melt, and the presence of red algae is now speeding up the process. Due to their red pigmentation, algal blooms on ice substantially darken the surface of the glaciers and change their albedo—or the amount of light reflected off of the surface of an object.

Just as black concrete is much hotter to the touch than a pale sidewalk, glaciers covered in red algae absorb more light and melt at a faster rate than clean white ice. This sets off a chain reaction of additional melting, as the meltwater creates a habitat for algae to colonize, and low-albedo rocks and dirty ice underneath glaciers are exposed.

Global albedo showing high reflectivity in the Arctic. Image courtesy Crystal Schaaf, Boston University, based upon data processed by the MODIS Land Science Team
Global albedo showing high reflectivity (red) in the Arctic. Image courtesy Crystal Schaaf, Boston University, based upon data processed by the MODIS Land Science Team

The research team, led by Stefanie Lutz of the University of Leeds, found that the algal blooms are decreasing snow albedo by as much as 13 percent over the course of the melt season in the summer. The phenomenon is widespread.

Forty red snow samples were taken between July 2013 and July 2014 from a total of 16 glaciers in Svalbard, Northern Sweden, Greenland, and Iceland. Results were similar across the board in the different regions. Local ecology, geography, and mineralogy did not have an impact on the ability of the algae to bloom—they are cosmopolitan, able to colonize and spread easily across an ecosystem.

Locations of the 16 glaciers and snow fields across the Arctic, where 40 sites of red snow were sampled (Nature Communications)
Locations of the 16 glaciers and snow fields across the Arctic, where 40 sites of red snow were sampled (Source: Nature Communications)

While the researchers found a rich diversity of bacteria in the glacier samples, the algae did not show the same pattern. Instead, results revealed that the spread of red algae was almost entirely attributable to a small group of algal species–the Chlamydomonadaceae being the most common. Six taxa groups made up over 99 percent of the algae species found in all Arctic locations. These finding set the Arctic apart from other terrestrial ecosystems, which tend to be less homogenous, and indicate that these few species of algae can survive and thrive under a wide range of conditions, and are also likely to spread to other locations.

algal cell (Chlamydomonas nivalis) responsible for red coloration of mountain snow packs (wiki)
algal cell (Chlamydomonas nivalis) responsible for red coloration of mountain snow packs (Source: USDA)

This makes the findings of the study even more pertinent, as red snow will become an increasingly common phenomenon while glacier melt accelerates. According to the study, “Extreme melt events like that in 2012, when 97% of the entire Greenland Ice Sheet was affected by surface melting, are likely to reoccur with increasing frequency in the near future as a consequence of global warming.”
Lutz and the research team conclude that there is a need for this “bio-albedo” effect to be incorporated in future climate models in order to accurately predict the speed and location of glacier melting in the arctic and prepare for the wide range of environmental impacts that will follow.

Roundup: Glacier Tourism, Monitoring, and Melt

Each weekly Roundup, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.


Tourists’ take “last chance” to see New Zealand Glaciers

From The International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment:

“For more than 100 years, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park have attracted thousands of tourists annually and have emerged as iconic destinations in New Zealand. However, in recent years, the recession of both glaciers has been increasingly rapid and the impacts on, and implications for, visitor experiences in these settings remain relatively unexplored…Results revealed the fundamental importance of viewing the glaciers as a significant travel motive of visitors, suggesting that there is a ‘last chance’ dimension to their experience. Furthermore, the results demonstrate a high adaptive capacity of local tourism operators under rapidly changing environmental conditions.”

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (Wiki)
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (Wiki)

To read the full study, click here.


Glacier monitoring in the pre-internet era

From AGU Blogosphere:

“We have been monitoring the annual mass balance of Easton Glacier on Mount Baker, a stratovolcano in the North Cascade Range, Washington since 1990.  This is one of nine glaciers we are continuing to monitor, seven of which have a 32 year long record. The initial exploration done in the pre-internet days required visiting libraries to look at topographic maps and buying a guide book to trails for the area.  This was followed by actual letters, not much email then, to climbers who had explored the glacier in the past, for old photographs.  Armed with photographs and maps we then determined where to locate base camp and how to access the glacier.”

Easton Glacier retreat, taken in 2003 (wiki)
Easton Glacier retreat, taken in 2003 (wiki)

For more, go to the AGU Blog post here, and check out “Easton Glacier Monitoring” by Mauri Pelto on Vimeo


Water scarcity in central Asia

From The World Bank:

“Communities in Central Asia talk about how water is vital but scarce resource across the region. The Central Asia Energy-Water Development Program (CAEWDP) works to ensure effective energy and water management, including at the regional level. This work should accelerate investment, promote economic growth and stable livelihoods.”

For more, click here. 

Education Fuels Disaster Resiliency in Northern India

In the Northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, accelerated glacier melting in the Ladakh region has made communities increasingly vulnerable to glacier lake outburst floods, or GLOFs. These unpredictable natural disasters occur when glacier meltwater creates lakes at high elevations, which have the potential to overflow and cascade down the steep slopes of mountains.

As temperatures in the Himalayan region continue to climb due to climate change, the number of glacier lakes in Ladakh has surged to over 266 as of 2014, making outburst floods an acute risk in the region.

glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel, USGS/NASA JPL/AGU
glacier lakes form from retreating glaciers in the Himalayas. Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel (USGS/NASA JPL/AGU)

While engineering and infrastructure projects can decrease the chances of an outburst flood, many remote, high altitude communities in India do not have the economic means or technology to build expensive mitigation structures that could halt the effects of GLOFs. However, a recent study conducted by Naho Ikeda, Chiyuki Narama, and Sonam Gyalson found that community-based measures like engagement and education may provide an alternative path to increased GLOF resiliency in Ladakh.

The Switzerland-based International Mountain Society (IMS) conducted the study in India, published earlier this year in the journal Mountain Research and Development. The research team developed a series of community workshops in Domkhar, a village in Ladakh that is a high risk community with at least 13 glacier lakes located in the watershed. The idea was to determine whether education and outreach were viable tools for protecting the villagers from glacier lake outburst floods.

Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)
Domkhar-Gongma village. Houses and agricultural fields are situated close to the stream on the slopes of old alluvial cones and colluvial footslopes. (Photo by Chiyuki Narama, 7 September 2012)

The workshop, held in May of 2012, brought together 120 community members, scientists, and translators to discuss a wide range of topics on glacier lake outburst floods. Over the course of four sessions, Ikeda and her colleagues discussed their findings from a 2010 field survey of local glacier lakes and distributed an informational booklet written in Ladakhi, the predominant local language. The workshop also gave researchers insight into the community members’ cultural practices, religious beliefs, and current understanding of the impacts of climate change on their local environment.

The researchers’ concluded from their time in Domkhar that community members had a mixed level of knowledge of GLOFs and their associated risks. According to the report, community members expressed an understanding of glacier lakes and GLOFs that relied on a combination of their personal experiences with nature and their religious beliefs.

One group of villagers explained that sacred animals, including horses and sheep, cause outburst floods when the community angers them. Others mentioned that the lakes are sacred because the Tibetan Buddhist temples throughout the region are reflected on the surface of the water. Religion was predominantly mentioned by older members of the community rather than younger villagers, reflecting the fact that cultural identity has played a large role in the Ladakhi community’s understanding of the natural world, although that notion may be shifting with younger generations.

Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa (wiki)
Photograph of the 9 stupas at Thiksey Gonpa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh (wiki)

A larger number of workshop participants also discussed their observations of nature, including the animal species and local geography surrounding the glacier lakes. However, individual observations were not always accurate, as participants did not know how many glacier lakes were within the watershed or of the emergence of a new glacier lake in the area formed in 2011.

Over the course of the day, community members displayed a curiosity and increasing knowledge of GLOFs that led to the adoption of a 7-point resolution to respond to a glacier lake outburst flood. The resolution included the development of a community-based GLOF monitoring committee, establishment of an evacuation plan, and discouraging construction near stream banks. While these measures require time and effort on the part of Domkhar residents, new technology and financial support are not necessary for implementation.

Three months later, researchers returned to the village with hopes that their workshop had increased local understanding of the dangers of GLOF and made a lasting impact on the community. Results were predominantly positive, according to a follow-up survey—over half of the interviewees reported a greater understanding of glacier lake outburst floods and countermeasures to respond to a natural disaster. Even members who had not attended the workshop showed improved understanding, indicating that the information had spread throughout the community.

Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)
Mountains lining the western shore of glacial lake Tso Morari, Ladakh (Sam Inglis)

However, the rise in awareness within Domkhar did not necessarily translate into action. Only half of the villagers interviewed said they made preparations for flooding since the workshop. These findings indicate that awareness and education can reduce a community’s social vulnerability to natural disasters by making resiliency a community-backed effort, but cannot stand alone as the only resiliency measure. Economic and geographic barriers in the remote villages of Ladakh make implementation of GLOF countermeasures a challenge, even for the most committed communities.


Study shows glacial melting changes mountain lake ecology

In the Rocky Mountains, researchers have been studying a pair of lakes–Jasper and Albino. While they are similar in size, location, and depth, there is one important difference: Jasper Lake is fed by glacier meltwater while Albino Lake is fed by snow. A report published in May reveals that this small difference has had a dramatic impact on the biology and chemistry of the lake itself, indicating that water source plays a much larger role in the ecological health of mountain lakes than previously thought.

Hallett Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park (source: NPS)
Hallett Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park (source: NPS)

Mountain lakes are an important source of regional water in the western United States, and are known for their historically high levels of biodiversity. Recently, these lakes have seen rapid changes which sparked concern from the scientific community. Last month the California-based Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT) addressed the need for research on mountain lakes by publishing a special feature of Mountain Views, their biannual report compiling recent research on western United States mountains, that focuses exclusively on mountain lakes. The ten featured research articles all point to the importance of alpine lake conservation and investigate the impacts of climate change and other anthropogenic influences on regional ecology and environmental health.

One article— “Effects of Glacier Meltwater on the Algal Sedimentary Record of an Alpine Lake in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains”— studied glacier-fed and snow-fed lakes and found drastic differences in the chemical compositions and species ecology between the two. The researchers, Krista Slemmons of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, and Jasmine Saros of the University of Maine chose two alpine lakes in the Beartooth Mountains, Jasper and Albino, which are physically and geographically similar. However, Jasper Lake is fed by a glacier meltwater, while Albino Lake is only fed by snowmelt.

core samples (wiki)
core samples (wiki)

To determine differences in the lakes’ histories, sediment cores were taken from the bottom of the Jasper and Albino. Over time, organisms and nutrients accumulate on the lakebed and gradually build up as sediment in bodies of water. The layers of the core therefore tell a story about the history of the life within the lakes. By analyzing the sediment cores, the researchers were able to look back through time and see how the type of water feeding the lakes has led to differences in life history and biogeochemical cycling.

Within the Jasper core, researchers found high levels of plankton species that thrive in high nitrogen conditions, indicating that the lake has had higher nitrogen levels than Albino Lake over the past 3,000 years, with particularly high levels corresponding to periods of high glacial melting, most notably the 20th century.

fresh-water phytoplankton, used to determine historic water ecology and nutrient levels (wiki)
fresh-water phytoplankton, used to determine historic water ecology and nutrient levels (wiki)

Today, glacier-fed Jasper Lake has approximately 63 times more nitrogen than snow-fed Albino Lake. It is the high concentrations of nitrogen in the glacial meltwater that has led to the differences between the lakes. This trend will continue as glacier melting accelerates with climbing temperatures.

While nitrogen is an important nutrient, and often limited in alpine lakes, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In Jasper Lake, the sediment cores also indicated that species richness, or the number of different types of species present in an ecosystem, was lower than in the nitrogen-limited Albino Lake. These findings suggest that a high influx of glacial meltwater into lakes may lead to eutrophication.

algal bloom from eutrophication (flickr)
algal bloom from eutrophication (flickr)

Eutrophication is a type of water pollution that occurs when high levels of nitrogen cause plant and algae to grow excessively. This phenomenon, known as an algal bloom, blocks sunlight from penetrating the water column, decreases the oxygen levels in the water, and can harm other species in the ecosystem. Eutrophication is most commonly seen as a result of nitrogen fertilizer runoff into bodies of water, but the nitrogen stored in glacier ice appears to have high enough concentrations to cause the same negative impacts.

While global water scarcity is enough cause for concern over glacier retreat, these findings suggest that glacier melt has wider reaching negative impacts on ecosystem function than previously recognized. Understanding the cascade of environmental impacts resulting from glacial melting will become increasingly important as temperature rise continues to break global records, and will play an important role in preserving the biodiversity of marine ecosystems.