Avalanche on Ama Dablam Claims Life of Sherpa Guide

View of Ama Dablam taken from base camp (Source: François Bianco/Creative Commons).
View of Ama Dablam taken from base camp (Source: François Bianco/Creative Commons).

A Sherpa guide has died and a foreign climber was injured following an avalanche on Mount Ama Dablam in east Nepal in late November. The avalanche was triggered by a 5.4 magnitude earthquake that occurred east of Kathmandu and nearly 11 miles west of Namche Bazar in Nepal at approximately 5:20 a.m. local time.

Lapka Thundu Sherpa, a resident of Pangboche, Solukhumbu district, and British surgeon Ciaran Hill were climbing Ama Dablam as a pair when the earthquake struck. They were reportedly only a meter apart, heading for the summit above Camp 3, over 20,669 ft., when pieces of ice dislodged during the shaking, according to Tim Mosedale, leader of the 13-member expedition.

Ama Dablam is one of the world’s most formidable and breathtaking peaks, sitting just east of Mount Everest at an elevation of 22,624 ft. Nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas,” Ama Dablam is a prominent landmark of the Khumbu Valley for those trekking to Everest’s base camp. The mountain is well known for its hanging glacier, named the Dablam, due to its resemblance to the sacred dablam or pendant worn by Sherpa women.

Despite its aesthetic beauty, tragedy is all-too-familiar at Ama Dablam. In 2006, six climbers were killed when an avalanche impacted Camp 3 on the Southwest Ridge. In that accident, three foreigners and three Sherpa guides were killed when a serac (a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier) from the Dablam glacier descended on the climbers’ tents in the early morning hours of November 13. Since then, the Dablam has become increasingly unstable, with further notable collapse in 2008.

Thundu Sherpa (Source: Facebook of Everest Expedition).
Thundu Sherpa (Source: Everest Expedition/Facebook).

Climbers of Ama Dablam typically summit via the Southwest Ridge, settling in at Camp 3 before the final ascent, although this route has recently been under review due to the changing nature of the glacier, which sits above and to the right of Camp 3. It is not clear whether the recent tragedy was from glacial ice breaking off, but according to Jeffrey Kargel, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona who had hiked near the mountain this past October, a treacherous-looking piece of ice was visible nearby the glacier.

“There’s some ice ready to fall,” Kargel recalls saying to his hiking companion, a trekking CEO. It was a chunk of ice right near Camp 3. Although the ice Kargel noticed might not have been the same chunk of ice involved in the deadly November ice fall, Kargel emphasized that ice falls on the Himalayan peaks are a common natural occurrence.

“My feeling is that these chunks of ice and snow are coming down all of the time. They have to come down,” said Kargel to GlacierHub. “You can see how precarious they are, perched on the side and summit of the mountain.”

This sentiment, and the feeling that the tragedy in November was natural and unavoidable, was echoed by the surviving climbers involved in the avalanche on Ama Dablam.

Securing tents on the high camp of Ama Dablam (Source: Satori Expeditions/Instagram).
Securing tents on the high camp of Ama Dablam, December 2016 (Source: Satori Expeditions/Instagram).

“I think it’s important for me to say that from my perspective it was clearly just one of those freak occurrences that could not have been predicted or avoided,” said Mr. Hill in a statement. He was ultimately saved by a long line helicopter rescue operation. “There’s no one to blame.”

Hill credited his own survival to the “flawless” response of the helicopter and ground crew. He suffered broken bones in the right hand, ribs and base of his back but is expected to recover from his injuries. Thundu Sherpa, on the other hand, suffered a fatal head injury from the falling ice, according to Mosedale, the expedition’s leader. Thundu Sherpa is survived by a wife and two children, ages 8 and 14.

“This was a tragic accident as a result of an act of nature,” added Mosedale in a statement on Facebook. “We are surrounded by an amazing panorama of massive mountains, and when the earthquake happened, there weren’t multiple avalanches and landslides. There was one incident, and our team was sadly involved.”

Typically, it is the spring melting season that presents the most dangerous time for avalanches on the mountain. Ice and snow accumulate on the peak during colder periods, but once the spring melting season hits, the wet ice begins to slip.

View from near Imja Lake moraine, October 26, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).
View from near Lhotse Glacier moraine, October 26, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).

“In November, things would have been very hard and frozen. So you can disregard melting as a factor,” Kargel said. “Obviously it was the shaking. It is not hard to imagine that an earthquake is going to set off ice collapses. We saw that with the Gorkha Earthquake and Everest avalanches. The earthquake happened to affect ice that was poised to collapse anyway. Steep peaks and slopes have ice all of the time that is ready to come down.”

Often, glaciers of the Himalayas are relatively protected from earthquakes because the bulk of glaciers sit on valley floors, according to Kargel. The waves get absorbed and scattered before reaching the glaciers, particularly during shallow earthquakes when waves come in at acute angles relative to the surface. The peaks, on the other hand, get shaken up quite a bit during seismic events.

“If there are hanging glacier masses on the peaks, like on Aba Dablam, they can come down,” said Kargel. “Most times, this ice comes down harmlessly. It makes an avalanche, but there is nobody there.”

Otherwise, the risks are often well within the climber’s control, according to Mosedale. For instance, if it is snowing, the climbers know that avalanches will occur and the risk will be high for the 24 hours following the snow fall or longer if there is a huge dump of snow. “So we will steer clear and stay off the mountain or limit activity to safe areas,” Mosedale told GlacierHub. “But accidents can still occur that are beyond our control, as happened last November. This was an accident that couldn’t be foreseen and was completely out of the blue.”

When tragedy occurred, the team was about half way through the expedition, according to Mosedale. Thundu and Ciaran were making the first summit push. The remainder of the team were at Base Camp waiting to go to Camp 1 that day and the day after. “The client who was with Thundu was very well acclimatized, and they were going ahead of the rest of the team,” Mosedale explained to GlacierHub.

Mosedale, a 51-year old guide from Keswick, Cumbria, and a five-time Everest summitteer, made it clear that he did not want to hear negative commentary about the loss of the Sherpa guide during his expedition.

View from near Chhukhung, October 21, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).
View from near Chhukhung, October 21, 2016 (Source: Jeff Kargel).

“I would prefer not to receive any comments to the effect that a climbing Sherpa has died whilst Westerners are pursuing their dreams,” said Mosedale in a statement on Facebook.  “Ama Dablam is a climber’s mountain and all the people in my team are suitably well qualified by experience to be here. The climbing Sherpas are not being used and abused in the duties that they perform, they are proud of the work that they do and have worked for my Sirdar for many, many years, forming a close knit team… Five minutes either way and it would have just been a close call.”

“Sometimes the luck is just not there,” added Kargel. “This is true for scientific expeditions as well. I have had some narrow escapes from avalanches. It happens in the mountains. Sherpa guides know the chunks of ice that are unstable and make their best assessment. They know it is dangerous.”

It is clear that for some time, at least, Thundu Sherpa did attempt to avoid the dangers of the mountains, taking leave from porting to train as a watchmaker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He returned to Nepal in 2012 to co-own Kobold Watch Company Nepal (Pvt.) Ltd., alongside fellow Sherpa guide Namgel and friend Michael Kobold.

View of Ama Dablam peak from Ama Dablam (Source: Neal Beidleman/Instagram).
View of Ama Dablam peak from Ama Dablam, January 2017 (Source: Neal Beidleman/Instagram).

The idea for the watch subsidiary in Nepal was first proposed by Kobold, a German-born watchmaker who was indebted to the two guides for saving his wife’s life during a summit of Mount Everest, according to Elizabeth Doerr of Forbes. Kobold hoped to give the two Sherpas safer opportunities beyond the mountain. However, when the 2015 Nepal earthquake struck, hopes were dashed as the earthquake destroyed the watch company. Following the collapse of the enterprise, Thundu Sherpa headed back to work on the mountains.

“Of slight build, endowed with a quiet voice and an unfailingly humble demeanor, Thundu was nonetheless considered a giant among his peers — the exclusive club of Nepali mountain guides,” wrote Michael Kobold in a tribute to his friend Thundu in the Nepali Times. Thundu began his journey to high altitude porter as a kitchen boy and later became a cook on expeditions, according to Kobold.

“Thundu had a very gentle persona but was incredibly strong and talented in the mountains,” added Mosedale, in conversation with Glacierhub. “He had a great attention to detail, and because he had worked so often with Westerners, he had a very good understanding of what they usually required. Some Sherpas are very strong but don’t get the social differences, whereas Thundu had that extra level of understanding which made him stand out.”

Ama Dablam (Source: alanarnette.com).
Ama Dablam (Source: alanarnette.com).

On Everest, there has been much talk of changing the primary course that climbers take up the mountain following multiple tragic mountaineering disasters and deaths of Sherpas in recent years. A similar discussion may need to take place on Ama Dablam, which has become increasingly popular, dangerous and overcrowded by climbers in the autumn months, according to notable American mountaineer Alan Arnette of alanarnette.com. Arnette is a 2011 Everest summiter and the oldest American to summit K2. When asked whether he would personally summit Ama Dablam again following an expedition in 2000, Arnette cited the risks given the recent instability of the Dablam. “No. It is too dangerous given the avalanches off the Dablam. While climbers summited in 2008, many did not given the new difficulties,” he said. “A modification was put in during the fall of 2008 which takes the route further to the right of the Dablam. This somewhat avoids the avalanche danger but now is over steep blue ice making the summit bid more difficult. As of 2012, teams continue to climb without serious incident but many choose to bypass Camp 3 and have a very, very long day from Camp 2 to the summit.”

A key to reducing chances of tragedy seems to be making sure that climbers don’t sleep or rest below unstable ice masses when an earthquake hits, but the difficulty obviously lies in predicting the earthquake. “The truth is, you really can’t predict an earthquake,” said Kargel. “As climbers, they know that avalanches happen frequently. Maybe infrequently enough that people are still willing to take the risk. The danger doesn’t mean that climbers should stop climbing or that Sherpa guides should stop their work. But obviously these mountains are very dangerous and these deaths are going to occur regularly. It is an unfortunate aspect of this pursuit by human beings to conquer peaks.”

Roundup: Sediments, Swamps and Sea Levels

Roundup: High Arctic, Peru, and Global Seas

 

Suspended Sediment in a High-Arctic River

From Science of The Total Environment: “Quantifying fluxes [the action of flowing] of water, sediment and dissolved compounds through Arctic rivers is important for linking the glacial, terrestrial and marine ecosystems and to quantify the impact of a warming climate… This study uses a 8-years data set (2005–2012) of daily measurements from the high-Artic Zackenberg River in Northeast Greenland to estimate annual suspended sediment fluxes based on four commonly used methods: M1) is the discharge weighted mean and uses direct measurements, while M2-M4) are one uncorrected and two bias-corrected rating curves extrapolating a continuous concentration trace from measured values.”
 
Read more about suspended sediment fluxes here:
 

View of the Zackenberg River and Zackenberg Research Station (Source: Moser på Nordøst-Grønland/Creative Commons).
View of the Zackenberg River and Zackenberg Research Station (Source: Moser på Nordøst-Grønland/Creative Commons).

 

Glacier Recession in Cordillera Blanca

From Applied Geography: “Receding mountain glaciers affect the hydrology of downslope ecosystems with consequences for drinking water, agriculture, and hydropower production. Here we combined land cover derived from satellite imagery and other environmental data from the northern Peruvian Andes into a first differencing regression model to assess wetland hydrologic connectivity… The results indicate that there were two primary spatial driving forces of wetland change in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca from 1987 to 1995: 1) loss in glacier area was associated with increased wetland area, controlling for other factors; while 2) an increase in mean annual stream discharge in the previous 12 months increased wetland area.”
 
Learn more about the study here:

 

View of mountainside of Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Source: MacDawg/Creative Commons).
View of mountainside of Cordillera Blanca, Peru (Source: MacDawg/Creative Commons).

 

Observation-Based Estimates of Glacier Mass Change

From Surveys in Geophysics: “Glaciers have strongly contributed to sea-level rise during the past century and will continue to be an important part of the sea-level budget during the twenty-first century. Here, we review the progress in estimating global glacier mass change from in situ measurements of mass and length changes, remote sensing methods, and mass balance modeling driven by climate observations. For the period before the onset of satellite observations, different strategies to overcome the uncertainty associated with monitoring only a small sample of the world’s glaciers have been developed. These methods now yield estimates generally reconcilable with each other within their respective uncertainty margins. Whereas this is also the case for the recent decades, the greatly increased number of estimates obtained from remote sensing reveals that gravimetry-based methods typically arrive at lower mass loss estimates than the other methods. We suggest that strategies for better interconnecting the different methods are needed to ensure progress and to increase the temporal and spatial detail of reliable glacier mass change estimates.”
 
Read more about global sea-level rise here:

 

Calving front of the Upsala Glacier, Argentina (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).
Calving front of the Upsala Glacier, Argentina (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).

Roundup: Peruvian Climate, Tibetan Lakes, and Greenland’s Glaciers

Roundup: Peru, Tibet and Greenland

 

Project to Improve Climate Services in Peru

From Climate Services: “CLIMANDES is a pilot twinning project between the National Weather Services of Peru and Switzerland (SENAMHI and MeteoSwiss), developed within the Global Framework for Climate Services of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Split in two modules, CLIMANDES aims at improving education in meteorology and climatology in support of the WMO Regional Training Center in Peru, and introducing user-tailored climate services in two pilot regions in the Peruvian Andes… The efforts accomplished within CLIMANDES improved the quality of the climate services provided by SENAMHI.”

Read more about CLIMANDES here.

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Landscape of the Peruvian Andes from behind walls of Machu Piccu (Source: Mariano Mantel/Creative Commons).

 

Monitoring Lake Levels on the Tibetan Plateau

From Journal of Hydrology: “Lakes on the Tibetan Plateau (TP) are of great interest due to their value as water resources but also as an important indicator of climate change. However, in situ data in this region are extremely scarce and only a few lakes have gauge measurements… In this study, Cryosat-2 SARIn mode data over the period 2010–2015 are used to investigate recent lake level variations… Lakes in the northern part of the TP experienced pronounced rising (avg. 0.37 ± 0.10 m/yr), while lakes in southern part were steady or decreasing even in glaciated basins with high precipitation… These results demonstrate that lakes on the TP are still rapidly changing under climate change, especially in northern part of the TP, but the driving factors are variable and more research is needed.”

Learn more about climate change on the Tibetan Plateau here.

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Aerial view of lakes of the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Stuart Rankin/Creative Commons).

 

Data Portal to Study Greenland’s Ice Sheet

From Eos: “A new web-based data portal gives scientists access to more than 40 years of satellite imagery, providing seasonal to long-term insights into outflows from Greenland’s ice sheet… This portal harnesses more than 37,000 images from Landsat archives, dating back to the early 1970s, to track changes in outlet glaciers over time… Through analyzing data from this portal, we can see in great detail how several outlet glaciers are speeding up their treks to the sea. What’s more, any user can access the data to conduct their own studies of glacier behavior at Greenland’s coasts through time.”

Read more about Greenland’s retreating glaciers here:

Aerial view of coastal Greenland glacier (Source: Terry Feuerborn/Creative Commons).
Aerial view of a coastal Greenland glacier (Source: Terry Feuerborn/Creative Commons).

Roundup: Glacier Retreat, Mountain Advocacy, and Precipitation

Roundup:  Glacier Retreat, César Portocarrero and Precipitation

 

Centennial-Scale Glacier Retreat

From Nature Geoscience: “The near-global retreat of glaciers over the last century provides some of the most iconic imagery for communicating the reality of anthropogenic climate change to the public. Surprisingly, however, there has not been a quantitative foundation for attributing the retreats to climate change, except in the global aggregate. This gap, between public perception and scientific basis, is due to uncertainties in numerical modelling and the short length of glacier mass-balance records… We demonstrate that observed retreats of individual glaciers represent some of the highest signal-to-noise ratios of climate change yet documented. Therefore, in many places, the centennial-scale retreat of the local glaciers does indeed constitute categorical evidence of climate change.”

Learn more about new climate discoveries here:

Image of Upsala Glacier retreat and Patagonia Icefield (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).
Image of Upsala Glacier retreat and Patagonia Icefield (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).

 

2016 Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal

From hillarymedal.com: On December 11, 2016, César Portocarrero of Cusco, Peru, received the 2017 Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, the world’s most prestigious award for mountain advocacy. The theme of the presentation event, which took place in Kathmandu, was Science and Survival: Mountain Livelihoods, Recreation and Environments. According to the award announcement, “César Portocarrero has directed projects to mitigate the danger of outburst floods from numerous glacial lakes in the Andes, saving thousands of lives and many millions of dollars, and he is now sharing his expertise with members of the High Mountain Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP), including Nepal, Bhutan, and several Central Asian nations.”

Read more about the 2016 award winner here:

Cesar Portocarrero at one of the Cordillera Blanca lakes
Cesar Portocarrero at one of the Cordillera Blanca lakes (Source: hillarymedal.org).

 

Precipitation Over the Himalaya

From Climate Dynamics: The Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model is used to simulate the spatiotemporal distribution of precipitation over central Asia over the year April 2005 through March 2006. Experiments are performed at 6.7 km horizontal grid spacing, with an emphasis on winter and summer precipitation over the Himalaya. The model and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission show a similar inter-seasonal cycle of precipitation, from extratropical cyclones to monsoon precipitation, with agreement also in the diurnal cycle of monsoon precipitation… These results indicate that WRF provides skillful simulations of precipitation relevant for studies of water resources over the complex terrain in the Himalaya.”

Read more about the WRF model here:

Snow over Kanjin Gompa, Nepal (Source: Raini Svensson/Creative Commons).
Snow over Kanjin Gompa, Nepal (Source: Raini Svensson/Creative Commons).

Photo Friday: The Glaciers of Antarctica

Antarctica, the world’s southernmost continent, is a hostile realm of ice and snow, fictionalized in our popular culture by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and further romanticized by real-world scientific explorers eager to lay claim to the region.

Humans who venture to the southernmost pole do so by way of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they may visit Port Lockroy, site of a former British research station, or take in by cruise the vast terrain and wildlife of the region. Multiple countries also operate scientific camps and research programs in more remote locales of Antarctica where science teams study awe-inspiring glaciers and ice sheets throughout the year.

The largest ice sheet in the world, Antarctica is composed of around 98% continental ice and 2% barren rock. The ancient ice is incredibly thick, although it has been thinning due to the effects of climate change.

Cotton Glacier flows eastward between Sperm Bluff and Queer Mountain in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).
Cotton Glacier in Victoria Land (Source: Kelly Speelman/National Science Foundation).

Several nations have made overlapping claims to the Antarctic continent. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington in 1959, attempts to maintain peace, by neither denying or providing recognition to these territorial claims. Today, a total of 53 countries have signed the treaty, including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom, countries that have all made specific claims in the region. The United States and Russia, meanwhile, have maintained a “basis of claim” in the region. Scientists of these nations conduct field research from Antarctica bases to gather greater knowledge about climatic changes affecting the larger world.

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).
The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Studying glaciers in Antarctica is of great impact due to the influence of melting glaciers on global sea levels. In addition, Antarctica plays a primary role in the world’s climate. According to Antarcticglaciers.org, “Cold water is formed in Antarctica. Because freshwater ice at the surface freezes onto icebergs, this water is not only cold, it is salty. This cold, dense, salty water sinks to the sea floor, and drives the global ocean currents, being replaced with warmer surface waters from the equatorial regions.”

The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation)
The Transantarctic Mountains, glaciers and crevasse fields (Source: Corey Anthony/National Science Foundation).

Ice sheets in Antarctica are fragile and a number have recently collapsed, causing glacial thinning and threatening a rise in sea levels. Some scientists are concerned that the collapsing ice sheets may not be just a natural occurrence but one more closely linked to a warming planet.

A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
A Tucker tractor has been drifted over at Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The Pine Island Glacier is one of the “fastest receding glaciers in the Antarctic” and a major contributor to our rising sea levels, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program. Scientists have observed an ice shelf on the Pine Island Glacier that is rapidly thinning, pushing the glacier toward the sea.

A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation)
A black and white aerial view of Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf shows its heavily crevassed surface (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

A team of scientists constructed a field camp in 2012-2013 to study the impacts of climate change on the glacier, also known as PIG.

The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
The first tent erected at the main field camp on Pine Island Glacier (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

The PIG field camp staff learned to contend with adverse weather conditions in the area and events like windstorms, a common occurrence in this remote and hostile part of the world.

Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).
Pine Island Glacier field camp staff attempt to excavate a mountain tent that collapsed during a wind storm (Source: August Allen/National Science Foundation).

Helicopters provide support to field projects such as the one conducted in 2012-2013 at the Pine Island Glacier.

(Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).
A helicopter is unloaded from an LC-130 at the Pine Island Glacier field project (Source: August Allen/ National Science Foundation).

Elsewhere in Antarctica is the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free area in the region—approximately 15,000-square-kilometers— where science teams perform research projects on glaciers, lakes, and soils, funded by the National Science Foundation. The area is an extreme landscape, but it can also be a useful environment for scientists hoping to study the impacts of climate change.

A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek.
A glacier pool in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica (Source: Peter Rejcek/National Science Foundation).

In Antarctica, teams of scientists can extract old ice flowing from the ends of glaciers in large quantities rather than by drilling directly into the ancient ice sheet. Around 350 kilograms of ice is then melted into a vacuum-sealed container to capture around 35 liters of ancient air. The ancient air was preserved by the ice for thousands of years. Scientists hope to research the ancient air and examine the impact of methane gas on past climate change, according to the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).
Scientist Vasilii Petrenko loads an ice melter at Taylor Glacier (Source: Vasilii Petrenko/National Science Foundation).

Roundup: Tyrolean Iceman, Greenland Glaciers and Tibetan Melt

Roundup: Clues to Ötzi, Greenland Glaciers and Tibet

 

Tyrolean Iceman offers insights into Copper Age clothing.

From Nature: “The attire of the Tyrolean Iceman, a 5,300-year-old natural mummy from the Ötzal Italian Alps, provides a surviving example of ancient manufacturing technologies. Research into his garments has however, been limited by ambiguity surrounding their source species. Here we present a targeted enrichment and sequencing of full mitochondrial genomes sampled from his clothes and quiver, which elucidates the species of production for nine fragments. Results indicate that the majority of the samples originate from domestic ungulate species (cattle, sheep and goat), whose recovered haplogroups are now at high frequency in today’s domestic populations. Intriguingly, the hat and quiver samples were produced from wild species, brown bear and roe deer respectively. Combined, these results suggest that Copper Age populations made considered choices of clothing material from both the wild and domestic populations available to them.”

Learn more about the clothing of the Tyrolean Iceman here:

 Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

Reconstruction of Ötzi, the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

 

Early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers.

From Exploring Greenland: “Christopher J. Ries sheds light on the disparate goals of three diverse groups that created geological knowledge in post-World War II Greenland: the civilian scientists of the US Geological Survey Military Branch working in northern Greenland, an international team of geologists of the Danish East Greenland Expeditions led by Danish geologist Lauge Koch working in eastern Greenland, and geologists of the Danish Geological Survey of Greenland working in western Greenland. Ries argues that the interdisciplinary American group’s ultimate mission was to enhance the ability of military units to operate in Arctic terrains, while the two mono-disciplinary Danish-led teams attempted to balance academic interests in mapping and interpreting the structure of bedrock against more prosaic pursuit of profitable minerals.”

Read more about the early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers here:

A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).
A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).

 

Glacial melt of Tibetan Plateau exceeds USEPA guidelines.

From the Journal of Hydrology: “Global warming has resulted in rapid glacier retreat on the Tibetan Plateau, and the impacts of glacier melting on downstream ecosystems remain largely unknown. Minor and trace elements in stream water draining Dongkemadi Glacier  were examined during the ablation season of 2013…Downstream increased concentrations and/or fluxes of some metals and metalloid (e.g. Cr, Cu and As) suggest potential environmental impacts. Discharge-normalized cation denudation rate (372 Σmeq+m−3) in the Dongkemadi Glacier basin is larger than those from alpine and polar glaciers, suggesting a stronger weathering of carbonate with greater abundance on the Tibetan Plateau in comparison to other mountain and polar glacial catchments. The maximum Fe concentration exceeds the USEPA guideline, and Al, Zn and Pb are close to or of the same order of magnitude as liminal values. This implies that the Tibetan Plateau may face a challenge of ecosystem health and environmental issue in a warming climate.”

Learn more about the Tibetan Plateau here:

The landscape of Tibet (source: reurinkjan/Flickr).
The landscape of Tibet (source:
reurinkjan/Flickr).

Austrian Glacier Serves As Site for Mars Simulation

Analog astronauts walking on a glacier in Austria (source: Österreichisches Weltraum Forum/Flickr).
Analog astronauts walking on a glacier in Austria (source: Österreichisches Weltraum Forum/Flickr).

A manned mission to Mars is one step closer to becoming a reality thanks to a remote glacier in western Austria known mostly for its surrounding ski slopes and snow-capped mountain vistas.

The Kaunertal Glacier, located in the Tyrol state of Austria, recently served as a field site to test a mission of human researchers on Mars. A report detailing the findings of the analog mission was published in Acta Astronautica in September by Gernot Groemer, et al. The AMADEE-15 mission, coordinated by the Austrian Space Forum and 19 partner nations, lasted for 12 days in August 2015, during which a carefully chosen team of researchers performed selected experiments under realistic Martian surface conditions.

But the glacier mission was not just a bunch of scientists playing pretend in an obscure area of the world: Real-life workflows of a true space mission were conducted to aid future astronauts who may one day set foot on the Red Planet.

Simulating the collection of soil samples on Mars, at a field station on Kaunertal Glacier in Austria.
Simulating the collection of soil samples on Mars, at a field station on Kaunertal Glacier in Austria.

The Kaunertal Glacier experiments conducted during the nearly two-week simulation represented no small feat. The success of the experiments relied on a 88-member team whose primary ambition was to advance mission support strategies and further the public visibility of analog planetary research essential to future Martian exploration.

Other field simulations, prior to the AMADEE-15 mission, have been conducted around the world in areas that reflect Martian conditions. These missions have taken place in locations as diverse as the Sahara desert in Morocco and ice caves in Austria.

In fact, glaciers can make excellent test sites for Earth-based Mars missions due to their “astrobiological and mission architectural relevance,” according to Gernot Groemer, et al. Glacier-like forms found on Mars, which are similar to some of Earth’s rock glaciers, represent a key area of study as they could be extremely important to any chance of future human life on the Red Planet. Glaciers are a source of water and ice, which can serve as both a source of life-support for humans and a habitat for other life-forms, such as terrestrial microbes.

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-4-03-54-pmIt was the Austrian glacier’s accessibility, while remote, that made it a prime candidate for an Earth-based test mission like the AMADEE-15, according to Gernot Groemer, et al. The area in which the Kaunertal Glacier is located has good road proximity, accessible by a toll road which rises approximately 2,750 m. In addition, the ice and rock glaciers of the Kaunertal Valley offered a terrain representative of the planetary surface and rock glaciers of Mars, where there is a high percentage of water ice.

While any Mars analog cannot be exact, the conditions of the simulation were crafted to represent the logistics of a Mars mission, with the construction of a realistic base station for the field test located in a parking lot along the toll road at 2800 m. Researchers also calculated 10-minute adjustments for real-time communication between astronauts and the Operations Station. To make the simulation stronger, the AMADEE-15 exercise relied on two space simulators and four robotic and aerial vehicles.

Günther Platter, Governor of Tirol, said that the Austrian Space Forum chose the Kaunertal glacier region for fieldwork to find “important insights for future manned missions to Mars.”

flight-control-director
Photo of the Flight Control Room of AMADEE-15 mission at Kaunertal Glacier in Austria (source: Acta Astronautica).

These manned missions to Mars have been a dream of the international aerospace community since the 1960s when the United States successfully completed its first flyby mission with the robotic interplanetary probe named the Mariner 4.

On Tuesday, October 11, President Barack Obama reiterated in an opinion piece for CNN that the United States has made strides toward its goal to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, a timeline shared by other nations. An even larger ambition of the aerospace field is to have humans remain on Mars for an extended period, perhaps ultimately settling on the planet.

A crucial piece to meeting these timelines and space goals involves completing successful Earth-based Martian missions like the AMADEE-15 on Kaunertal Glacier. The mission proved essential for the understanding of workflow requirements for human-robotic Mars missions due to take place within the next few decades.

The Mars simulation in the Austrian Kaunertal Valley region goes to show that glaciers can be key not only to the understanding of life on our own increasingly warming planet, but also to the success of future Martian colonies.

Roundup: River Outlets, Plant Habitats, and Village Partners

Roundup: Canadian River Vanishes, Plants in the Himalayas and Pakistan’s Villages

Glacier retreat in Canada causes Yukon river to vanish.

From CBCNews: “It’s been the main source of water into Yukon’s Kluane Lake for centuries, but now the Slims River has suddenly slimmed down — to nothing. ‘What folks have noticed this spring is that it’s essentially dried up,” said Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey. ‘That’s the first time that’s happened, as far as we know, in the last 350 years.’ What’s happened is some basic glacier hydrology, Bond says — essentially, the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated to the point where its melt water is now going in a completely different direction, away from the Slims Valley. Instead of flowing north 19 kilometres from the glacier’s toe into Kluane Lake (and ultimately, the Bering Sea), that melt water is now draining eastward via the Kaskawulsh River towards the Pacific Ocean off the Alaska panhandle. It’s a reminder that glacier-caused change is not always glacial-paced.”

Read more about the effects of glacier retreat on the Slims River here:

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The Slims River Valley in Canada following glacier retreat (source: Sue Thomas/CBCNews).

 

The world’s highest vascular plants found in Indian Himalayas.

From Microbial Ecology: “Upward migration of plants to barren [just below the snowl areas is occurring worldwide due to raising ambient temperatures and glacial recession. In summer 2012, the presence of six vascular plants, growing in a single patch, was recorded at an unprecedented elevation of 6150 m.a.s.l. close to the summit of Mount Shukule II in the Western Himalayas (Ladakh, India). Whilst showing multiple signs of stress, all plants have managed to establish stable growth and persist for several years.”

Learn more about the role of microbes in the process of plant upward migration here.

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Six plant species found over 6000 meters in the Indian Himalayas (source: Microbial Ecology).

 

Local struggles in Pakistan show adaptations to glacier thinning.

From Erdkunde: “Framing adaptation as a process of assemblage-building of heterogeneous human and non-human [actors], two village case studies are investigated where glacier thinning has dried up a source of irrigation water, turning cropland into desert. While in the first case case, villagers were able to construct a new and extraordinary water supply scheme with the help of external development agencies, in the second case, several approaches to utilize alternative water sources over three decades were unsuccessful. An account of the adaptation assemblages shows how a diversity of actants such as individual leaders, community, external agencies, construction materials, landslides and geomorphological features play variable and contingent roles in the success or failure of adaptation efforts, thus co-defining their outcome in complex ways.”

Learn more about the adaption efforts to glacier thinning in northern Pakistan here.

View of the Barpu Glacier (source: Michael Spies/Erdkunde)
View of the Barpu Glacier’s former meltwater stream (source: Michael Spies/Erdkunde).