Roundup: Fieldwork in the Mustang Region, Cannabis Used for Ritual, and Sustainability in Mountain Ecosystems

Tracking Fieldwork in the Mustang Region of Nepal

From ICIMOD: “Rikha Samba Glacier is one of the seven glaciers where ICIMOD and its partners are carrying out long-term monitoring activities. A new automatic weather station (AWS) was installed on the glacier at an elevation of 5,800 masl during the field expedition from 24 September to 10 October 2018. As there is limited field data from the region, this high-altitude AWS will provide much needed data for climate change studies. Installing and maintaining a network of weather stations at higher altitudes is a challenge given the topography and remoteness of the field sites in the region.”

Read more here.

Residue from Cannabis used for Ritual Activities Found in the Pamirs

From Science Advances: “This phytochemical analysis indicates that cannabis plants were burned in wooden braziers during mortuary ceremonies at the Jirzankal Cemetery (ca. 500 BCE) in the eastern Pamirs region. This suggests cannabis was smoked as part of ritual and/or religious activities in western China by at least 2500 years ago and that the cannabis plants produced high levels of psychoactive compounds.”

Read more here.

Encouraging Sustainability in Mountain Ecosystems

From Earth’s Future: “Mountain social‐ecological systems (MtSES) are vital to humanity, providing ecosystem services to over half the planet’s human population. Despite their importance, there has been no global assessment of threats to MtSES, even as they face unprecedented challenges to their sustainability. With survey data from 57 MtSES sites worldwide, we test a conceptual model of the types and scales of stressors and ecosystem services in MtSES and explore their distinct configurations according to their primary economic orientation and land use.”

Read more here.

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US Forest Service Plans to Overhaul Tourism at Mendenhall Glacier

Just a short journey from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is the state’s most popular summer tourist destination, and arguably one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Located in Tongass National Forest, Mendenhall is one of 38 glaciers that originate from the massive 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield. From its origin to its terminus at Mendenhall Lake, the glacier stretches some 13.6 miles

A strong tourism industry around  Alaska’s glaciers provides the state with substantial economic benefits. It also gives visitors an opportunity to witness the effects of anthropogenic  climate change. 

Beyond the pristine beauty and temperate summertime weather in Alaska, so-called “last chance tourism” is a huge motivation for visitors, who wish to marvel at immense blocks of blue and white ice as well as Mendenhall’s famous ice caves before they melt. 

Opened in 1962, the Forest Service Visitor Center at Mendenhall Glacier was the very first in the United States. “When this visitor center was built, there were 23,000 visitors per year, and now there’s over 700,000,” James King, a region director for the US Forest Service in Alaska, told the Juneau Empire.

The summer of 2019 is expected to break tourism records for Alaska as a whole, with 1.3 million visitors expected, a 16 percent increase from 2018. Visitorship is expected to continue growing by 2-4 percent per year. 

Current facilities are designed for up to 485,000 visitors per year. The growth in tourists has caused congestion, long waits, and an experience that is less than ideal for visitors to the 6,000 acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Robin Bouse, a tourist who visited Mendenhall last month, described the overcrowdedness. “The visitor center was crowded, so crowded that I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she told GlacierHub. “I came from a cruise ship with about 4,000 passengers aboard and there were four  similar ships in port that day.” 

At its current capacity, the visitor center can only accommodate 4,000 people at a time.  

A panoramic view of Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding Mendenhall Lake, taken in the summer of 2006 (Source: Mike Keene).

In addition, tourist infrastructure will need to evolve to keep up with climate change. From satellite measurements taken by NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite in 1984 and Landsat 8 in 2013, Mendenhall retreated almost 4,000 feet, or three-quarters of a mile in under 20 years. Mendenhall Lake, which sits right at the terminus, has grown by roughly the same amount.

Another visitor to the glacier, Tim Denham, thought a visual representation of the glacier’s retreat over time would have been a valuable visual to add to the experience. “I think it would have been good to have big 4×4 posts with the years carved into them to show how rapidly it has receded,” he said.

By 2050, the glacier itself will no longer be visible from the huge windows that look out from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. ”The glacier ice was so beautiful and I felt fortunate to see it,” Bouse said. “It was easy to see that the glacier is retreating from the bare rocks surrounding it.”

Taken from the same perspective as above: Mendenhall Glacier in May 2019. Massive retreat in the 13 years between the two photos is apparent. The photographer, Henry Titzler, noted this day was about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, remembering summer temperatures averaging around 62 degrees during a previous visit in 1979.

From 2016 to 2018, six public meetings were held to develop a plan for revamping the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area and Visitor Center. The updated 50-year plan, published by the US Forest Service in February 2019 emphasizes major renovations over the next 10 years. 

The Mendenhall Glacier Master Plan aims to create a sustainable recreation experience that can adjust to variations in glacier features. King from the US Forest Service estimated the project’s price tag at around $80 million

As the glacier continues to retreat, the current viewpoints will become more strained, and visitors with a time limit––such as those who must return to their cruise ships––could subsequently be unable to attain the full experience.

“It was difficult to get up close to the glacier with the few hours I had to spend there, but the distant view was still spectacular enough,” said Bouse. 

Denham similarly noticed the marked appearance of the glacier’s retreat, noting it was “barely visible across the lake. We hiked out a half mile on the trail but we were still too far away to see much.” 

To accommodate increased glacial melt, the new plan proposes to switch from a land-based focus on hiking trails and viewing areas to a more water-based approach, complete with a commercial boat service to take people in small groups right to the terminus of Mendenhall Glacier.

There will also be a smaller mobile visitor center closer to the glacier itself. These new features will fulfill the frequently cited desire of tourists to truly be interactive with the glacier, allowing visitors to “touch the ice.”

Other parts of the proposed plan include more restrooms, a larger theater, and expanding parking availability. New walking trails will increase access to ecosystems newly exposed by the glacier’s retreat, including salmon, bears, and other wildlife. Finally, an additional visitor center will provide amenities such as food, restrooms, and directions, leaving the original building as an educational center and museum. 

Taken together, these alterations could give the visitors a more pleasant and informative stay, showing them the glacier as it is now and as it had been. And it could awaken in them a sense of the urgency of climate change as a pressing issue, whether on vacation or back at home.

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Photo Friday: New Zealand’s Fox Glacier

This week’s Photo Friday features Fox Glacier, one of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. It is located in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, among the Southern Alps on the South Island.

Fox Glacier begins at an elevation of over 3000 meters, and descends to a final elevation of just 300 meters above sea level. On its journey from the mountains of the Southern Alps into a temperate rainforest climate right on the coast, Fox Glacier stretches a total length of 13.1 kilometers.

Fox Glacier is a temperate maritime, or “warm glacier,” meaning its ice exists at its melting point of 0°C. This, along with the wide snow accumulation area and steep, narrow tongue of Fox Glacier, makes it extremely responsive to small temperature and mass balance changes.

From 1983 to 2008, New Zealand experienced a cluster of cold years, influenced by short-term natural climate variability. Of New Zealand’s 3,000+ glaciers, Fox Glacier was one of 58 that advanced in this time period.

From 2009 to the present, however, Fox Glacier––along with a majority of New Zealand’s glaciers––has entered a period of significant retreat. In 2017, the glacier’s length was the shortest it had ever been in recorded history, and this trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

Fox Glacier, along with neighboring Franz Josef Glacier, is one of the world’s most easily accessible glaciers, and is a popular tourist attraction. Both Fox and Franz Josef feature iconic, magnificently sculpted blue ice caves.

As a result of massive retreat in recent years, Fox Glacier now is directly accessible only by helicopter––some 150,000 people a year take these scenic flight tours. On foot, visitors can hike to a scenic overlook, but logistics have limited guided walks to around 80,000 people a year, less than half of what it used to be.

In March 2019, a massive landslide blocked the Fox Glacier access road to both vehicles and pedestrians. In the months following, the small town of Fox Glacier has suffered immensely from the lack of tourism, its primary source of revenue. As of June 21, 2019, access to the road was still closed off.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Photo Friday: New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier

The Curious Case of New Zealand’s Shrinking Glaciers

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Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

In March 2019, lawmakers in Nepal proposed 17 amendments to the Safe and Peaceful Use of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials bill. Originally drafted almost a decade ago, the bill was presumably dead on arrival, but is now being resurrected in the wake of recently discovered uranium deposits in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal. The bill was officially re-introduced in December 2018, and in subsequent months a contentious debate has emerged on whether or not Nepal’s future should include nuclear power.

Sketch of the Mustang region in Nepal––Lomangthang is the area of Upper Mustang where a large uranium recently was found (Source: Goran tek-en/Wikipedia).

The nuclear bill would make uranium mining, enrichment, import, and export permissible and establish Nepal as a place where nuclear and radioactive substances could be stored. It would allow uranium enrichment facilities as well as nuclear research reactors (NRRs), which produce neutrons from enriched uranium to be used in medicine, industry, and other research, but do not generate power. To regulate the nuclear and radioactive power sector, the bill would allot non-transferable licenses and establish sanctions for technology misuse resulting in injury or death.

When proposed amendments came out in March, most excluded the word “nuclear” from the bill. Almost all lawmakers thought that nuclear power, if at all, should be addressed in a separate bill, rather than one regarding the use of radioactive materials. Many also opposed storage of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation as a whole. For now, it is up to parliament to decide how the bill should be amended to address these concerns.

Back in 2014, a ground radiometric survey revealed a huge deposit of uranium ore in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region. Upper Mustang, formerly the elusive Kingdom of Lo, is tucked into the Himalayas right at Nepal’s northern border with Tibet. One of the most remote and isolated areas of the world, the entire Mustang region is home to around 13,000 people.

The Kali Gandaki river bed, part of the Gandaki river watershed in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal (Source: Carsten.nebel).

The Mustang region also accounts for more than 15 percent of Nepal’s glaciers, which feed the Kali Gandaki River. Despite the small population in its immediate surroundings, the largerGandaki River watershed provides water to some 40 million people.

Preliminary research, confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggests that the 10-kilometer-long, 3-kilometer-wide uranium deposit in Upper Mustang could be “of the highest grade.” Currently, however, there is no law governing uranium extraction or nuclear technology use in Nepal. In the absence of such legislation, the government has no means to carry out these activities, which can be exorbitantly expensive to undertake.

Proponents cite this gap as their motivation for endorsing the bill. For example, Nepal does not have the ability to import any nuclear-related technology necessary for treating cancer patients or to buy technology for nuclear power.

Giriraj Mani Pokharel, Nepal’s Minister of Education, Science, and Technology, is leading the charge for uranium extraction, production, and trade in Nepal. Under Pokharel’s direction, the ministry was responsible for introducing the nuclear bill in the first place. At an IAEA conference in December 2018, he said, “The goal of the country’s prosperity cannot be achieved without its development. So, opening a nuclear research center in Nepal is an urgent need.”

Landscape of Upper Mustang, with snow-covered mountains in the background (Source: 112tje/Flickr).

Though support for the bill is strong, several members of parliament, as well as Nepali people have pushed back equally as much, and for a number of reasons. In an opinion piece published on myRepública, Mahesh K. Maskey, the former ambassador of Nepal to China declared, “Uranium is a dirty and dangerous source of energy and radioisotopes. Dirty because it is detrimental not only to human and other life forms, but also to soil, water and air since its radioactive waste can remain for millions of years, bringing untold damage to the fragile environment of earth.”

His statement has relevance for the Upper Mustang region, its glaciers are perched on the roof of the world, forming a watershed that nourishes life and land all across Nepal, even reaching millions in China and India. To approve a uranium mining operation next door could put the entire Gandaki watershed at risk of contamination through radioactive pollution. In addition, Mustang’s uranium site is a mere 10 km from the Tibetan border, meaning Nepal could become responsible for imposing a radioactive hazard on people outside its borders.

Extractive industries are extremely expensive to undertake, especially if environmental protection is to be considered. The nuclear weapons potential of uranium is an additional complication. To offset the costs of mining uranium, Nepal would have to sell excess to other countries. At this prospect, Maskey surmised, “If we take a moment to think which country Nepal will approach to sell its uranium, we will realize how unthinkable such thought is.” Competition between the nuclear powers encircling Nepal could destabilize political relations, exacerbating the vulnerability of Nepal’s resources.

Read more on GlacierHub:

A Collaboration on Mustang, Nepal: Capturing Its Culture and History in Black and White

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

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Video of the Week: Flying over Jakobshavn Glacier

In this Video of the Week, watch an aerial view of the flow line at the Jakobshavn Glacier, in Ilulissat, Greenland. The video was posted on Twitter by Santiago de la Peña of Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

“This behemoth shreds into the ocean the equivalent of San Francisco’s water consumption,” he said.

Jakobshavn glacier is well known for likely producing the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.

It is also a very dynamic glacier. In the early 2000s, Jakobshavn was one of the fastest-flowing glaciers in the world, losing up to 20 meters in height each year. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2010, Jakobshavn alone contributed almost 1 millimeter to global sea level rise. In more recent years, however, Jakobshavn is actually growing again, now gaining about 20 meters in height per year.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

Mercury from Melting Glaciers Threatens the Tibetan Plateau

Nepal Considers Uranium Mining Proposal in the Himalayas

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Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Resulting from an unprecedented marine heatwave, the nationwide average temperature in New Zealand for the record-breaking summer of 2017-2018 was 18.1oC, over 2oC above average. Sea surface temperatures varied from 2-4oC above average and even reached 6-7oC above in some areas, the highest temperature anomalies in the world at the time. More, small and medium-sized glaciers in New Zealand’s Southern Alps lost over 13 percent of their total ice volume.

The Southern Alps mountain range, which cuts diagonally across New Zealand’s South Island, is home to over 3,000 small and medium-sized glaciers, which respond to climatic changes––both anthropogenic and natural––much faster than large glaciers. Since the last Little Ice Age ended in 1860, these glaciers in the Southern Alps have notably receded, save for four periods of advancement: around 1950, 1980-1987, 1991-1997, and 2004-2008.

Aerial view of the Southern Alps, New Zealand (Source: Tim Williams/Flickr).

In a new study, published in the International Journal of Climatology, lead researcher Michael J. Salinger of Pennsylvania State University and his co-researchers provide new estimates of glacier ice volume changes and the impact of climate variability on New Zealand’s small and medium-sized glaciers. From 1977 to 2018, the total ice volume of small and medium glaciers went from 26.6 to 17.9 cubic kilometers, a 33 percent decrease.

The researchers utilized a 42-year set of measurements––an annual measurement of the altitude of the end-of-summer-snowline (EOSS)––from 1977 to 2018 to calculate the ice volume changes for a sample of 50 glaciers in the Southern Alps. The EOSS is the boundary between the current year’s new, clean snow and older, dirty snow and is measured in mid to late March, which is the end of New Zealand’s snowy season.

If a particular year experiences lots of melting, the snow line rises in elevation, whereas if snow accumulation exceeds ablation, the snow line will move down. “It’s like doing your annual budget reconciliation,” said Salinger. “So on the 31st of March, [you are] working out whether you’ve received more or less income.”

When researcher and co-author Trevor Chinn started the EOSS monitoring program in 1977, Chinn calculated the volume for all of the over 3,000 glaciers he had mapped. Salinger explained that for this study, the researchers looked at current EOSS elevation compared to years past, using that information to work out the area lost or gained, then convert that to volume of water. “I can work out the glacier contribution from sea level rise, and what I’ve found is that it has been much higher than expected,” he noted.

Valley at an entrance to the snow-covered mountains of the Southern Alps (Source: Richard/Flickr).

Natural climate variability was a primary contributor to interannual fluctuations in glacier ice volume during this time period, even though anthropogenic warming is ultimately responsible for the accelerating downward trend. Volume gains in the 1980s and 1990s were offset and quickly surpassed by rapidly accelerating ice loss from 1998-2018.

The primarily land-covered mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere are much different compared to the mostly ocean-covered midlatitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, which results in strong westerly winds. Salinger cited the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) as the most important source of variability in the Southern Hemisphere. “You can think of the [SAM] as squeezing and relaxing of the westerlies, or the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties as we call them, over the Southern Ocean,” said Salinger.

In its negative phase, the SAM produces enhanced westerlies, cooler weather, and storm activity. In the positive phase, the strong westerlies move south while westerlies in the mid-latitudes weaken, and the weather gets warmer.

“Temperatures go up and you get less precipitation producing weather and more rain than snow precipitation,” said Salinger. The SAM usually fluctuates between positive and negative phases over weeks to months, but in response to anthropogenic warming, it is becoming increasingly positive.

Salinger noted that to a lesser extent, the El Niño Southern Oscillation also causes interannual climate variability in New Zealand. During an El Niño event, the equatorial easterly trade winds are subject to westerly wind anomalies, which would enhance the negative phase of SAM, leading to even cooler temperatures. La Niña pulls the trade winds in the opposite direction, further weakening westerlies over New Zealand and contributing to more warming.

As anthropogenic warming intensified over the last century, glaciers all around the world retreated, losing ice volume, and contributing to sea level rise. At the same time, natural climate variations happening on interannual and decadal timescales also worked to temporarily offset this massive retreat, even contributing to periodic glacier advances for small and medium-sized glaciers in New Zealand. Ultimately though, glaciers are driven primarily by temperature, and so the impacts of the global warming trend will prevail.

Fox Glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand (Source: CameliaTWU/Flickr).

Changing glacier ice volumes throughout New Zealand pose great risks to the country, which relies heavily on hydropower for energy production and on tourism and agriculture for economic output. Salinger cited recent agricultural droughts on the South Island, and the mounting problems faced by farmers without access to irrigation on tap.

Interestingly, New Zealand uses the visual of their rapidly retreating glaciers as an opportunity to raise awareness about climate change. “Our glaciers are iconic, and people are not too far from them, so they are very familiar with them. They’ve seen the huge retreat of some of the glaciers up valleys with melting, because of global warming. It’s something tangible and people can see the long-term change,” said Salinger. “So that’s why we find our glaciers as sort of the canary in the coal mine.”

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: New Zealand’s Glacier Retreat from Space

The Curious Case of New Zealand’s Shrinking Glaciers

What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia


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Roundup: Investigating the New Interior Secretary, Mercury in Tibet, and the International Yak Conference

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is being investigated for calendar discrepancies

From Politico: “[A letter from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Interior Department] adds new pressure to a department that is facing investigations by House Democrats who question whether Bernhardt has violated federal record-keeping laws. Bernhardt’s existing daily schedule shows that the former fossil fuel and agriculture lobbyist has met with representatives of former clients who stood to gain from Interior’s decisions, but the department has released few details about his activities during about one-third of his days in office.”

David Bernhardt (right) being sworn in as the Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (left) in 2017. (Source: Department of the Interior/Flickr)

Read more about the new Secretary of the Interior and a federal proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam in California on GlacierHub.

Mercury concentrations at Mt. Yulong on the Tibetan Plateau

From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “For the first time, Hg was studied over the Mt. Yulong region, in the various matrices of the environment including, surface snow/ice, snowpit, and meltwater… It was evident of the presence of an anthropogenic source of pollutants that have been long-range transported to Yulong Mountain… Suggesting that the concentration of Hg depends [more] on the distance from the anthropogenic sources than the different characteristics of the water bodies.”

Mount Yulong in the Tibetan Plateau, shrouded in mist and clouds. (Source: Sergio Tittarini/Flickr)

Read more about mercury contamination from glacial rivers in High Arctic watersheds on GlacierHub.

Yak herders of the Himalayas voice their concerns

From ICIMOD: “For the first time in the history of the annual International Yak Conference, yak herders from the southern side of the Himalaya were able to join their counterparts from other parts of Asia to raise their concerns… Given the challenges facing yak herding, there is much to be gained from knowledge sharing across borders… Sharing such knowledge and technology from plateaus to other yak-rearing countries will contribute to sustainable yak farming in the region.”

Silhouette of the Great Himalayan wild Yak, with the white peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance (Source: lensnmatter/Flickr).

Read more on GlacierHub about yak herders in Bhutan and what they have to say about global warming.

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Photo Friday: Mount Baker Is Letting Off Some Steam

Mount Baker, an active glacier-covered stratovolcano, is part of Washington’s North Cascades Mountain Range. Standing tall at an elevation of 10,781 feet (3,286 meters), Mount Baker is the highest peak in the North Cascades. Stratovolcanoes––like Baker’s neighbor, Mount St. Helens––are infamous for their highly explosive eruptions, which are often accompanied by hazardous pyroclastic flows, lava flows, flank failures, and devastating mudflows called lahars.

Last week, Mount Baker began venting steam from Sherman Crater, which is situated close to the mountain’s peak. In response, several people took to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos and videos of the steam plume. This event prompted some to ask the question: Could Mount Baker be poised to erupt?

The Washington State Emergency Management Division was quick to respon, in an attempt to quell any fears about an imminent eruption.

At openings on the volcano’s surface called vents, various gases can be released at any time, even continuously, and do not have to be connected to eruptions. A combination of good weather, light winds, and the position of Sherman crater near Mount Baker’s peak made for perfect conditions to observe this plume.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) categorizes Mount Baker’s eruption potential as “very high,” the agency’s highest category. To determine a volcano’s threat level, the USGS assesses exposure of people and property to potentially fatal volcanic hazards like pyroclastic flows and lahars. Volcanoes in the “very high” category “require the most robust monitoring coverage.”

Increased seismic activity is a telltale sign of an upcoming eruption. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) and Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) are in charge of operating stations that can measure earthquakes as small as magnitude 1.0. At Mount Baker and several other high-risk volcanoes in the United States, however, monitoring is currently insufficient. Volcanoes in the two-highest categories should have 12-20 permanent seismic stations within 12.4 mi (20 km); Mount Baker has only two.

Despite these deficits in monitoring, PNSN and CVO detected no increase in seismic activity occurring alongside the plume––in fact there has been no recent seismic activity recorded in the area at all. Considering this lack of seismic activity, Mount Baker’s steam plume is likely nothing short of business as usual.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Popocatépetl, Mexico’s Glacier-Covered Volcano

Photo Friday: These Glacier-Covered Volcanoes in Chile Could Soon Erupt

Images Show Active, Glacier-Covered Volcanoes in the Russian Far East

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Blood Falls: Origins and Life in Subglacial Environments

Blood Falls sitting at the terminus of Taylor Glacier on GlacierHub
Blood Falls sitting at the terminus of Taylor Glacier, spilling its bright-red discharge onto Lake Bonney (Source: German Aerospace Center DLR/Flickr).

Amid Antarctica’s vast stretches of glittering white snow and ethereal blue glacier ice is the famous Blood Falls. Situated at the terminus of Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Blood Falls, which is an iron-rich, hypersaline discharge, spews bold streaks of bright-red brine from within the glacier out onto the ice-covered surface of Lake Bonney.

Australian geologist Griffith Taylor was the first explorer to happen upon Blood Falls in 1911, during one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions. At the time, Taylor (incorrectly) attributed the color to the presence of red algae. The cause of this color was shrouded in mystery for nearly a century, but we now know that the iron-rich liquid turns red when it breaches the surface and oxidizes––the same process that gives iron a reddish hue when it rusts.

The discharge from Blood Falls is the subject of a new study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, researchers sought to discern the origin, chemical composition, and life-sustaining capabilities of this subglacial brine. Lead author W. Berry Lyons of The Ohio State University and his co-researchers determined that the brine “is of marine origin that has been extensively altered by rock-water interactions.”  

Researchers used to believe that to be that Taylor Glacier was frozen solid from the surface to its bed. But as measuring techniques have advanced over time, scientists have been able to detect huge amounts of hypersaline liquid water at temperatures that are below freezing underneath the glacier. The large quantities of salt in hypersaline water enable the water to remain in liquid form, even below zero degrees Celsius.

IceMole at Taylor Glacier on GlacierHub
Overhead view of the IceMole, as it gradually descends into Taylor Glacier, melting ice as it goes (Source: German Aerospace Center DLR/Flickr).

Seeking to expand on this recent discovery, Lyons and his co-researchers conducted the first direct sampling of brine from Taylor Glacier using the IceMole. The IceMole is an autonomous research probe that clears a path by melting the ice that surrounds it, collecting samples along the way. In this study, the researchers sent the IceMole through 17 meters of ice to reach the brine beneath Taylor Glacier.

The brine samples were analyzed to obtain information on its geochemical makeup, including ion concentrations, salinity, and other dissolved solids. Based on the observed concentrations of dissolved nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, the researchers concluded that Taylor Glacier’s subglacial environment has, along with high iron and sulfate concentrations, active microbiological processes––in other words, the environment could support life.

To determine the origin and evolution of Taylor Glacier’s subglacial brine, Lyons and his co-researchers pondered other studies’ conclusions in comparison to their results. They decided the most plausible explanation was that the subglacial brine came from an ancient time period when Taylor Valley was likely flooded by seawater, though they did not settle on an exact time estimate.

An aerial view of Taylor Glacier and the location of Blood Falls on GlacierHub
An aerial view of Taylor Glacier and the location of Blood Falls (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

In addition, they found that the brine’s chemical composition was much different than that of modern seawater. This suggested that as the brine was transported throughout the glacial environment over time, weathering contributed to significant alterations in the chemical composition of the water.

This study provides insights not only for subglacial environments on Earth but also potentially to other bodies within our solar system. Seven bodies, including Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), Enceladus and Titan (two of Saturn’s moons), Pluto, and Mars are thought to harbor sub-cryospheric oceans.

Lyons and his co-researchers concluded that this subglacial brine environment likely is conducive to life. The ability of sub-cryospheric environments such as this one to support life on Earth hints at an increased possibility of finding life in similar environments elsewhere in our solar system.

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Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan were separated at birth, established in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain. Since then, these two countries have been engaged in a violent, 70-year-long dispute over control of Kashmir, waging three wars, countless skirmishes, attacks, and subsequent retaliations. Today, India occupies 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan occupies 35 percent, and China occupies the remaining 20 percent.

Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin on GlacierHub
Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Water is an important aspect of India and Pakistan’s fight over Kashmir. Kashmir, a small mountainous region tucked between India and Pakistan, is home to glacier headwaters for several of the Indus River’s tributaries. The Indus River begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, then continues through to India, Kashmir, and finally Pakistan––and provides water resources to almost 270 million people.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, which was brokered by the World Bank, divided up control of Indus rivers to Pakistan and India. It also established the Permanent Indus Commission to facilitate communication between the two countries and resolve any disputes. Under the treaty, Pakistan retains primary control of Kashmir’s western glacier-fed rivers––Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus––while India holds the water rights for the eastern rivers––Beas, Ravi, and Satluj.

Indian and Pakistani-controlled land areas are demarcated by the Line of Control (LOC) with one huge exception: the Siachen Glacier. The two international agreements defining the LOC did not include the Siachen Glacier area, leading both India and Pakistan to compete for control. India claimed the entire glacier in 1984, and has maintained a military presence there since.

Recent Events

Tensions between the two countries subsided for several years following a 2003 ceasefire, however, more recent conflicts between India and Pakistan have brought the long-standing dispute in Kashmir, and its roots in water, back into focus.

In 2016, 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say, “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.” In the following weeks, India suspended meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, then engaged a policy shift to begin exerting full control over their allotted water under the IWT.

Fast forward to February 21, 2019, when Nitin Gadkari, India’s Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, tweeted:

Gadkari’s declaration came one week after a car bombing in Pulwama (India-controlled Kashmir) left 41 dead, making it the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s history. India charged Pakistan as responsible for the attacks and vowed to retaliate, but the Pakistani government denied any involvement. The next day, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, media frenzy around this tweet quickly ensued. Several news sources speculated that India was attempting to put pressure on Pakistan, or that it was violating the Indus Waters Treaty by halting all water flow to Pakistan. Ministry officials later clarified on Twitter that Gadkari was simply reaffirming an existing policy. In accordance with their plan, India recently began construction of a dam on the Ravi river and plans only to use the eastern rivers, of which they have primary control under the treaty, for their proposed water diversions.

Caught in the Crossfire

In the month following, tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, with Kashmir caught in the middle of their crossfire.

Making good on their promise of retaliation, Indian warplanes crossed the LOC for the first time since 1971 to carry out an airstrike. Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one of the pilots, and releasing a controversial video of the pilot in custody before announcing they would release the pilot back to India as an act of good faith.

Uncharted Waters

Now two weeks after the pilot’s release, tensions in Kashmir have diffused somewhat, and both India and Pakistan have made it clear they intend to avoid further escalation. Historically, it didn’t take much to provoke hostile exchanges into an all-out war between the two, so what is making them more hesitant this time around?

First, both countries are now nuclear powers. And while India has a “No First Use” policy, meaning it will only engage in retaliatory nuclear strikes, Pakistan has yet to adopt such a policy. Any future hostilities run the risk of nuclear escalation and subsequent devastation, making Pakistan and India weary of reaching “the point of no return.” Though certainly possible, escalations of nuclear proportion remain unlikely.

Water as an Emerging Weapon

Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world's highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier on GlacierHub
Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier (Source: junaidrao/Flickr).

Additionally, throughout all of South Asia, future water availability is a monumental concern. In an article published by the New York Times, Arif Rafiq, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “we may be getting a glimpse of the future of conflict in South Asia. The region is water-stressed. Water may be emerging as a weapon of war.”

It is no secret that political turmoil can wreak havoc on an environmental landscape, and in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, this is further complicated by the impact of climate change. According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas by 2100, and up to two-thirds if we fail to meet ambitious climate change targets. Some glaciers are predicted to reach peak discharge as early as 2020.

Less water availability coupled with population growth will likely exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they continue their fight for control over Kashmir’s water resources. The Assessment noted that future glacier and snow cover changes in the Indus river basin may not occur equitably, meaning the water quantities allocated to India and Pakistan under the IWT could change drastically. Since the IWT has no provision to deal with water in the context of climate change, the two countries could very well have to re-negotiate the treaty in coming years.

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Roundup: Blood Falls, Protecting North Cascades’ Glaciers, and Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

This week’s Roundup covers discovery of what causes the reddish tint of “Blood Falls,” the Taylor Glacier’s terminus in Antarctica, a bill passed by the US Senate that could protect glaciers in North Cascades National Park, and ICIMOD’s newly published Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

Scientists Determine the Geochemistry of Antarctica’s Blood Falls

From Journal of Geophysical Research: Geosciences: “Blood Falls is a hypersaline, iron‐rich discharge at the terminus of the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica…Our results provide strong evidence that the original source of solutes in the brine was ancient seawater, which has been modified with the addition of chemical weathering products.”

United States National Science Foundation's helicopter at Blood Falls on GlacierHub
One of the United States National Science Foundation’s helicopters, with Blood Falls clearly visible (Source: German Aerospace Center/Flickr).

 

Good News for Glaciers in North Cascades National Park

From the National Parks Traveler: “Strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate has reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protected Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks from mining on their doorsteps, designated some 1.3 million acres of wilderness, and called for a study into potential units of the National Park System, though the House of Representatives still needs to take up the measure.”

Cache Col Glacier on Mount Formidable, in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State on GlacierHub
The Cache Col Glacier on Mount Formidable, in the North Cascades National Park in Washington State (Source: jaisril/Flickr).

 

Assessing the Value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya

From ICIMOD: “This assessment report establishes the value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) for the 240 million hill and mountain people across the eight countries sharing the region, for the 1.65 billion people in the river basins downstream, and ultimately for the world. Yet, the region and its people face a range of old and new challenges moving forward, with climate change, globalization, movement of people, conflict and environmental degradation. At the same time, we also see incredible potential to meet these challenges in a sustainable manner.”

Scenic view of the Hindu Kush mountain range on GlacierHub
Scenic view of the Hindu Kush mountain range (Source: 401st_AFSB/Flickr).

 

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What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia

sunset Himalaya on GlacierHub
The sun setting over the Himalayas (Source: Pixabay).

Recent advances in remote sensing and computational power have allowed scientists to overcome a stubborn obstacle, which limited their ability to calculate the total volume of glacier ice in the world. Since satellites look down on the world’s glaciers, total area is simpler to measure. But to estimate volume, it is necessary to know how thick glaciers are. As climate change progresses, ice thickness data can help researchers develop more accurate estimates of global glacier volume, and in turn, regional freshwater reserves and potential contribution to sea-level rise.

Producing accurate ice-thickness estimates, however, has proven difficult. In the absence of direct measurements for most of the world’s glaciers, previous studies primarily relied on models built from thickness estimates obtained by using ice-penetrating radar. These show that glaciers that are larger in area also tend to be thicker.

Gokyo Ri summit Gokyo Valley Nepalese Himalayas on GlacierHub
Looking down from the summit of Gokyo Ri at the Gokyo Valley, located just west of Nepal’s largest glacier, with the Himalayas in the distance (Source: Sebastian Preußer/Flickr).

In a recent study in Nature Geoscience, researchers used, for the first time, a five-model ensemble to measure the ice thickness distribution of the world’s 215,000 glaciers, excluding the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. They estimated the total global glacier volume at 158,000km2. When broken down by region, they found that High Mountain Asia (HMA), comprised of the Tibetan Plateau and neighboring mountain ranges, has 27 percent less ice than previously thought and could lose at least half of its glacier area by the mid 2060s.

“In light of the importance of glacier melt for regional water supply, these differences are unsettling,” remarked the researchers in the study.

Much as a traffic helicopter can measure the speed of cars by comparing photos taken over intervals, which allow them to trace individual cars, recent satellite imagery allows scientists to observe specific features on the surface of glaciers as they progress downslope. Researchers used the Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI) 6.0, which contains surface topography information for 215,000 glaciers. Then, they employed principles of surface ice flow dynamics—for example, thicker ice moves faster, and ice overall moves faster when the slope of a mountain is steeper—to obtain estimates of ice thickness.

Muztagh Ata Pamir Mountains on GlacierHub
Muztagh Ata, also known as the “Father of Ice Mountains,” which is the second-highest peak in the Pamir Mountains, at the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The mountain has easily accessible glaciers and is a popular spot for climbers (Source: David Stanley/Flickr).

This study builds on the results of an earlier version published in 2012, that was “mainly born out of the realization that wow, up to that stage, there was no estimate for the global glacier ice thickness distribution available at all,” Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich told GlacierHub. The 2012 study also used the RGI 2.0, which counted 26 percent less total glaciers, and calculated ice thickness estimates based on just one model.

The 2019 study’s volume estimate was just 7 percent less than in 2012, a gap mainly attributable to model differences. That said, the regional distribution of glacier ice volume in 2019 was much different, measuring a 24 percent increase in the Antarctic periphery, which was offset by decreases in the Arctic, the southern Andes, and the 27 percent decrease in HMA.

Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and University of Fribourg, described to GlacierHub one way the 2019 study improved upon the results in 2012. “Whereas the 2012 study was ONE (the first) model for global glacier ice thickness distribution, in the present study FIVE different models were applied, developed by different research groups and with partly different underlying parameterizations,” he said. “This allows providing a “consensus” estimate, and to narrow down uncertainties.”

Both Farinotti and Huss agreed that the RGI 6.0, coupled with better satellite imagery, also made major contributions to the 2019 estimates, especially considering the significant differences between regions. Farinotti explained to GlacierHub how the improved RGI 6.0 could impact these estimates. “If a large glacier is split into two or more parts, the estimate thickness is significantly smaller,” he said. Farinotti also provided a concrete example, explaining that two glaciers each with an area of 10km2 would have significantly less ice volume than one glacier with a 20km2 area.

monastery Indus River Tibetan Plateau on GlacierHub
View of a Buddhist monastery on the banks of the Indus River, which provides water to 180 million people. The snow-capped mountains of the Tibetan Plateau frame the background (Source: lensnmatter/Flickr).

This study offers important findings to the hundreds of millions of people in High Mountain Asia that depend on glacier runoff as a source of freshwater. Based on the 2012 study, glacier area in HMA was likely halve by the end of the 2070s, but the new study moves this estimate up more than a decade, to the mid 2060s.

Glaciers “Knowing how thick [glaciers] are is equivalent of knowing how much cash we have in a bank account,” said Farinotti. According to this study, water reserves in High Mountain Asia are much smaller than previously believed. This could have significant impacts on how planning for future water use might take place, and highlights the importance of mitigation measures in response to rapid global climate change.

Read More at GlacierHub: 

The New Science Editors of the Journal of Glaciology

Increased Focus on Mountains in the IPCC’s AR6 Report

Asia’s Water Supply Endangered by Third Pole Warming

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