Zackenberg Ecological Research Operation (ZERO), located in northeast Greenland, is a fieldwork station for high Arctic ecosystems. It is operated by the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. This week, enjoy photos from the Zackenberg station and witness scenes in the life of field researchers in Greenland.
The station is remote and small, accommodating a maximum of 24 people at a time, but conducts important research on ecosystem structure and the impacts of climate change on the region. The station collects and monitors climate data through the ClimateBasis Program.
Among the many important research projects run at the station is the GlacioBasis Program, which has been monitoring the Olsen Ice Cap and tracking its mass balance changes since 2008.
The team also runs the BioBasis Program, which tracks Arctic species and biodiversity across the icy terrain.
In the extreme altitudes and harsh conditions of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, yak herding is more than a way of life–it is a way to survive. Environmental change currently threatens yak populations in the region, and undermines the livelihoods of the communities they support. However, a recent report raises hopes of protecting yaks through international cooperation within the region.
The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) released a special publication in May on yaks in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as HKH. The report, “Yak on the Move: Transboundary Challenges and Opportunities for Yak Raising in a Changing Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” includes a compilation of studies and presentations from the 5thInternational Conference on Yak held in Lanzhou that suggest international, rather than local, policy decisions may be the key to preserving yak populations.
Despite the species’ importance within the region, there is a significant lack of scientific research necessary to address the growing challenges posed by climate change. This report is an important first step in filling the gap of knowledge about yak herding and management. As David Molden, Director General of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, writes in the report, ‘The articles clearly indicate the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural role of yak, and its implications for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development at a local, regional, and even global scale.” The importance of yaks is highlighted by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, which states that yaks have played an important role in HKH life from Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies and economic activity, to preserving ecological diversity of high altitude rangelands through grazing patterns.
This report is the second publication on yaks compiled by ICIMOD following a 1996 report co-edited by United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. It aims to bring multiple stakeholders together to discuss the growing challenges faced by pastoral communities in the high-altitude and glacier-covered ecosystems in the HKH region.
Yak on the Move is representative of ICIMOD’s transnational approach to conservation and policy, including research on a range of Hindu Kush Himalayan member countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and China.
The report explores yak herding and challenges, policy and institutional arrangements, and yak cross-breeding practices. The analysis as a whole offers the case for developing international solutions to the many challenges faced by yak-herders—environmental change among the most pressing.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, often referred to as the “Third Pole,” holds 30 percent of the world’s glaciers and is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and glacial melting. Temperature increases are more pronounced at higher elevations, accelerating glacier retreat in the region and impacting yaks and pastoral communities. Yaks’ woolly undercoat makes them well-adapted for the intense cold of Himalayan winters, but also puts them at acute risk if temperatures increase. While struggling to protect their livelihoods, herders are displaced and forced to move to increasingly harsh landscapes and remote altitudes.
Some of climate change’s negative impacts on yak, including habitat reduction, are outlined in “Coping with Borders: Yak Raising in Transboundary Landscapes of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region,” the first article in the report. When yaks are only able to graze in small areas, the rangeland cannot recover. The piece notes that pastoral communities have been forced to move to increasingly higher elevations, causing a cycle of further land use change and degradation.
However, rising temperatures are not the only threat to high-altitude ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
Forest degradation, human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of rare wildlife and plants are also isolated by ICIMOD as harmful to the area’s wildlife and human population.
The report’s authors find that the combined effect of mismanaged human activity and yak husbandry in the region cause land use changes that can lead to flooding and landslides, putting communities’ safety and livelihoods at further risk–risks that cross national borders. Therefore, while each country, and even community, have unique barriers to yak raising, climate change is a challenge that is universal throughout the region and cannot be solved without the combined efforts of the Hindu Kush Himalayan nations.
Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.
Climate Change Education for Mendenhall Glacier Tourists
From KTOO: “On a busy summer day, thousands of people — mostly cruise ship passengers — visit Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. The U.S. Forest Service wants those tourists to take in the dramatic views, but also consider why the glacier is shrinking. Visitor center director John Neary is making it his personal mission. That means trying to make the message stick — long after the tourists are gone…“It became our central topic really just in the last few years,” said Neary. He’s not afraid to admit he’s on a mission. He wants the more than 500,000 people who visit the glacier each year to know that it’s rapidly retreating due to climate change, and the 18 interpreters who work for him are prepared to talk about it.”
Pemberton Icefield Glacier Breaks the Fall of a Crash-Landing in Canada
From Weather.com: “‘We tried to accelerate — that was the end of the valley, like cul de sac.’ Jedynakiewicz. told the CBC . ‘I say, ‘Full power! Full power!’ But the plane doesn’t respond. I checked in the last second, the speed it was 40 miles [per hour] when [we made] impact with the ice. It was a soft landing, soft like on a pillow. Believe me.’ The impact knocked out the plane’s radio, Toronto Metro reports, but left the plane almost undamaged and the three men unhurt. ‘I think the wing tips only missed the rock pile by about a foot,’ Hannah told the Metro. There was rocks on one side and a waterfall right in front of us and we jumped over the waterfall (to reach the glacier). So it was touch and go all right. It was a miracle. First thing was say, ‘Oh, God thank you we are alive,’” Jedynakiewicz told the CBC. ‘Not even scratch can you imagine? Three of us.’”
From Albany Daily Star: “A glacier in northeast Greenland that holds enough water to raise global sea levels by more than 18 inches has come unmoored from a stabilizing sill and is crumbling into the North Atlantic Ocean. Losing mass at a rate of 5 billion tons per year, glacier Zachariae Isstrom entered a phase of accelerated retreat in 2012, according to findings published in the current issue of Science. “North Greenland glaciers are changing rapidly,” said lead author Jeremie Mouginot, an associate project scientist in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine. “The shape and dynamics of Zachariae Isstrom have changed dramatically over the last few years. The glacier is now breaking up and calving high volumes of icebergs into the ocean, which will result in rising sea levels for decades to come.” The research team – including scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Kansas – used data from aerial surveys conducted by NASA’s Operation IceBridge and satellite-based observations acquired by multiple international space agencies (NASA, ESA, CSA, DLR, JAXA and ASI) coordinated by the Polar Space Task Group.”
The Kamchatka Peninsula, located in remote Far East Russia, is part of the “Ring of Fire” and is known for its volcanic activity. The 102,400 square mile region has the highest concentration of active volcanoes in the world.
The Klyuchevskoy volcano is one of the seven active glacier-capped volcanoes in the remote region. At a towering 4,835 meters, the Klyuchevskoy, the area’s tallest volcano, is known for its beauty and symmetry.
Considered Kamchatka’s most active volcano, Klyuchevskoy has the likely potential to erupt and is currently listed as code orange. The volcano’s current lava flows still are no match for the 1994 eruption, which sent volcanic ash nine miles high into the atmosphere.
Over the past three decades, satellites have captured many eruptions within the Kamchatka Peninsula, like the 1994 eruption of Klyuchevskoy, seen here. In January of 2013, four volcanoes—Shiveluch, Bezymianny, Tolbachik, and Kizimen — erupted at the same time.
In 2010 a unique photograph of the region was taken from the International Space Station, providing a unique perspective of the glacier-capped volcanoes.
A large glacier-capped volcano in Colombia, the Nevado del Ruiz, has shown significant activity in recent weeks, raising fears of destructive mudflows known as lahars. Photographers recorded ash emissions starting on May 19. The Colombian Geological Service noted volcanic activity and tremors at the volcano early on the morning of May 22. The 5,321 meter high stratovolcano, located in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park, initially emitted a 1,300-meter plume of ash at 2:35 a.m., followed by a second 2,300-meter plume at 5:51 a.m. causing the temporary shut down of La Numbia Airport. Activity continued through May 25, when an additional ash emission occurred at 7:00 a.m. Though the volcano has not erupted, conditions remain unstable and the possibility of further activity is being closely monitored, particularly since the seismic activity suggests the movement of magma in the volcano, raising the possibility of an eruption. The Colombian Geological Service has set the warning level at yellow.
The volcanic activity at Nevado del Ruiz sparked concern from the scientific community, as the volcano is historically known for its deadly eruptions. When the Nevado del Ruiz erupted in November of 1985, it caused what is today considered the worst volcanic disaster in South America’s history, and the fourth worst in the world. Over 23,000 Colombians were killed, with the majority of fatalities in the town of Armero. However, it was not the eruption itself that caused such extensive damage—the glaciers at the summit of Nevado del Ruiz are what made the event so deadly.
“Glaciers and volcanoes can be a particularly hazardous combination,” commented Jerry McManus of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an email to GlacierHub. “The snow and ice provide a ready source of water for the potential generation of destructive lahars during eruptions.”
Lahars, rather than lava, are what leveled the town of Armero and caused the resulting fatalities. Lahars are large mudflows caused by summit glacier melt during an eruption. The combination of water and volcanic rock debris, known as pyroclastic material, creates a material similar to liquid concrete. The 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz created four lahars, which flowed down the volcano at speeds up to 30 kilometers per hour. Armero, located 48 kilometers from the base of the volcano, did not have time to prepare or evacuate. In the aftermath of the disaster, the Colombian government was strongly criticized for underestimating the dangerous impacts of the relatively small eruption despite warnings from volcanologists.
The population of the region has grown over the past three decades, putting more people at risk if an eruption is triggered. Over 500,000 Colombians live within 30 kilometers of the volcano, well within the range of a lahar—significantly closer than Armero. With the disaster still fresh in the minds of the Colombian government and scientific community, the current activity at the Nevado del Ruiz is being more closely monitored.
A recent study in the journal Science Advances proposes a novel methodology to track melting ice sheets and the glaciers associated with them: rather than viewing the ice from above with airplanes and satellites, a team from MIT and Princeton is monitoring it from below. The new technique makes it possible to gather information about ice melt in real time by listening to the seismic activity of the Earth’s crust. Due to the continuous sound of ocean waves crashing on Greenland’s shore, there are near-constant seismic vibrations in the bedrock that can reveal a great deal of information about the overlaying ice. This method, which was originally developed to track volcanic and fault line activity, may be able to provide more accurate data on exactly where and when melting is occurring, the authors report.
How can seismic data communicate information about glaciers? The researchers predicted that the great mass of the ice weighing down on the rock below would compress the Earth’s crust and change its density—possibly enough to have a measurable effect on the seismic waves passing through it. By listening to the speed of the seismic waves moving through the ground, the team was able to determine the density of the rock and calculate the amount of ice lying above. According to the study, the speed of the seismic waves depends on the crust’s porosity, or the amount of small spaces and cracks that are not solid rock. When the crust is compressed by heavy ice masses, the area of open spaces in the rock decrease and waves travel more quickly through the material.
However, when ice melts and there is less weight on the bedrock, more spaces in the crust open up and the velocity of the seismic waves is significantly slower. This newly tested method shows immense promise, and incorporating seismic data from other Greenland stations is the next step.
“We think if the seismic station density were increased we would be able to observe these changes in greater spatial detail, and be able to make a map of the changes instead of averaging them over a large region,” study author Dr. Chris Harig of Princeton University explained in an email to GlacierHub.
In addition to calculating the amount of ice melt, this new method may be able to pinpoint the location of the melting. While findings are preliminary, the study indicates that the seismic data from 2013 picked up differences in melting between the main Greenland ice sheet and the Jakobshavn Glacier, widely considered the fastest moving glacier in the world.
“If you do look at the station pairs individually, the stations near Jakobshavn Glacier show a bit more signal in 2013 than the rest. This could be due to the fact that Jakobshavn is a place of massive changes, and still had large changes in 2013,” Harig commented in an email.
This outlet glacier has shown significant melting since the 2013 data was collected—in 2015, a massive 12.4 square kilometer area of ice calved into the ocean, possibly the largest calving event in the glacier’s history. If seismic activity can pick up on the different rates of melting between Greenland’s glaciers and the main ice sheet, it may be possible to predict which glaciers are most fragile and likely to have calving events.
While testing is needed at more seismic stations, Harig seems optimistic about the potential applications of the new method.
“I was surprised how well the results turned out in the end. We are measuring very small changes in the seismic velocity to compare them to the ice sheet mass. So it attests to the high data quality from these stations, how well the processing techniques worked, and the very large signal we have from the Greenland ice sheet as it gains and losses ice,” he said.
The new technique may be able to fill the gap that remote monitoring methods cannot: measuring ice melt on small, short-term time scales. The researchers state that monitoring methods like NASA’S Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites (GRACE) have collected valuable data on the long-term changes in ice sheet and glacier changes, but the resolution is not high enough to pick up on shorter inter-seasonal shifts in ice melt. On a seasonal scale, seismic waves may be better equipped to measure the melting ice, and the method introduced the exciting possibility of measuring melt in real time— impossible with the current monitoring mechanisms used today. By combining the wide scope of satellite data with the precision of this new seismic methodology, sea level rise projections will be more accurate and allow the global community to better adapt to the impacts of a warming climate.