If you, like me, are going stir-crazy at home as quarantine slowly drones on and are looking for a way to escape reality, try solving a jigsaw puzzle that takes you on a journey to the top of an ice-capped mountain. Actually, solving jigsaw puzzles does provide a metaphorical escape from the times in life when we we’ve seemingly lost all control. They have been proven to boost mental health by offering psychological order to the chaos we feel around us. This is because moments of insight, such as figuring out where a puzzle piece belongs, triggers the brain’s reward system — the same system that responds to food and other primary gratifications.
During instances of insight, the brain releases dopamine, a hormone that allows us to experience elation. Every time our reward system is triggered, we intrinsically wish to experience it again. In other words, we are evolutionarily motivated to seek insight. We are problem solvers by design. According to The Washington Post, insight sparks “curiosity and exploration and the production of new ideas that induce the advancement of all aspects of human society, including science, technology and culture.” Unfortunately, most of us are at an exploratory standstill and are lacking stimulus within the confines of our homes.
Therefore, little pleasures these days should be cherished as they constitute the source of dopamine release — consequently endorsing good mental health. Moreover, travelers who are likely experiencing cabin fever might still be aching for a glimpse of adventure. So, what better way to simultaneously satisfy your body’s thirst for happiness and your mind’s desire for natural beauty than with a mountain-themed jigsaw puzzle?
Who knows, maybe by the time all the pieces come together, you will have determined the destination of your next real-life, dopamine-inspired adventure.
Perito Moreno Glacier In Patagonia, Argentina. Source: Latin Content/Zazzle
Spring has again returned to Nepal. Wildflowers are blooming about the mountains and plains. Rhododendrons and primroses paint the scene with colorful hues of purple, pink, red, and yellow, and soon summertime will bring strange alpine blossoms like the Hippolytia gossypina, with its golden flowers atop white-haired stalks. Autumn will be greeted by bright blue gentians along with the red and yellow changing leaves on the shrubs and trees. The flora of the Himalayas is unique as it has specially adapted to high elevations, bitterly cold winters, and a rainy summer monsoon season. The vegetation is also extremely diverse due to the rapid altitudinal changes in climate and soil conditions over short distances.
While Nepal is most known for its breathtaking views of glacial peaks, mountaineers quickly discover that undeniable beauty lies along the trails as well. The mountainsides will see few, if any tourists, this year due to the coronavirus, but still the beauty will persist. Luckily, there is now an app that allows users to virtually explore the wildflowers of the region. The app’s stunning photos and fun facts provide an escape during this crisis and will have you dreaming of planning a trip to Nepal.
Vegetation ecologist Elizabeth Byers started her plant-identification project with the intention of writing an old-fashioned field guide to flora in Sagarmatha National Park. However, after years of research, her book draft grew to over 600 pages — much too heavy for someone to carry in the field. Byers noticed that trekkers, guides, and locals living in the park all carried smartphones on their expeditions, so she began investigating flora apps.
“High Country Apps, aside from their great name, stands head and shoulders above any other plant identification apps that are currently available, in my opinion,” Byers said. “They have an intuitive, easy-to-use picture-based interface, a brilliant programmer (Katie Gibson), and a dedication to conservation that was a perfect fit with my vision for the project.” High Country Apps donates a portion of the app proceeds to the Flora of Nepal project, which is used to support field costs of Nepali students or to buy field equipment that will allow Nepali researchers to conduct botanical studies.
Wildflowers of Mount Everest is the product of Byers’ botanical research over the last seven years, often done while accompanying colleagues on glacier hazards expeditions. She has collected photos and scientific information for 557 subalpine and alpine species. Descriptions of plant lore, medicinal uses, elevation ranges, bloom periods, and even local names in various languages are available to users. While the geographic focus is on Sagarmatha National Park, most of these plants are also found throughout Nepal’s high elevation terrain. “Many of the species grow on recent glacial moraines or even right on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas.”
The app is designed as an educational tool for beginners as well as for expert botanists — anyone who wishes to learn the names and uses of plants in eastern Nepal. Byers told Nepali Times that, “Two things make this field guide special… First, the Sherpa elders who have graciously shared plant lore and stories to give us a glimpse of the cultural importance of each species. Second, the botanical experts from all over the world who have volunteered their knowledge to help us understand the unique and specially-adapted plants of Mount Everest.”
Byers selected the following glacier-related images from her app so that our GlacierHub readers can catch a glimpse of a few species of remarkable flora that grow directly on the shifting rubble of debris-covered glaciers.
Wildflowers of Mount Everest can be downloaded from the App Store or from the Google Play Store for $7.99. The app will be periodically updated by the authors to include new species, photos, and other content at no additional charge to users. The app does not require an internet connection, so the guide will remain available no matter how remote your adventures. The following video demonstrates how to use the app.
Elizabeth A Byers is a vegetation ecologist studying rare plant species and climate change vulnerability of plants, with a special interest in subalpine and alpine ecosystems of eastern Nepal. She has been studying and photographing the flora of Nepal for nearly 40 years.
Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier.
“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”
His research then became directed toward the glacial soundscape, and last month he published an article in Geophysical Research Letters about the sounds he recorded, not with expensive geophysical sensors, but with a smartphone from Bowdoin Glacier (Kangerluarsuup Sermia), located in northwestern Greenland. His recordings captured a unique sound which he used to describe a specific drainage process within the glacier — one that is impossible to observe from the surface: Meltwater drainage through a crevasse.
Ponds of meltwater that pool on top of the glacial surface drain through the crevasses, entering into the drainage system of the glacier. As the water travels to subglacial environments, it warms up the ice, makes it softer, and increases the subglacial water pressure that causes the glacier to slide faster into the ocean. In his paper, Podolskiy presented the first evidence of unexplained acoustic phenomena being generated by water drainage through a crevasse.
This acoustic signal is distinct from other drainage processes due to the “two-phase” interaction between air and water. “The main point I want to make is that we totally forgot that there’s air,” he said. The air produces vibrations on water in the near surface environment where they mix. “By listening to these sounds, we can actually determine the type of flow regime — the way fluid flows in these systems — just by looking at the analysis of the signals,” he said.
After many years in the field as a glaciologist, Podolskiy found that different types of glacial environments produce their own unique soundscapes. For instance, during the daytime at a Himalayan debris-covered glacier, exposed ice cliffs slowly melt and the rocks on top tumble down the slope, producing noisy avalanches. Podolskiy noticed that during the afternoon, there is a lot of this particular sound. At night, if a glacier is not shielded by insulating debris cover, the ice begins to contract as it gets extremely cold, and the tensile contraction of the ice produces cracking sounds.
Podolskiy’s most recent research concerns the soundscape of Bowdoin, a tidewater glacier. These fast-flowing valley glaciers begin in mountains or on more distant ice sheets and reach their terminus at the ocean where their icy cliff edges occasionally break off, or calve, into the sea. Glaciers recede when the rate of calving and/or englacial melt exceeds the rate of new snow accumulation at higher elevations.
Bowdoin was initially being monitored by Podolskiy and his colleagues because melt and glacier retreat recently began accelerating in the area. Amazingly, the scientists were able to walk right up to the calving front where the icebergs detach, something that is quite uncommon in these environments, making Bowdoin a great study site for all types of glacial research.
The idea of using sensors to passively study the ocean has been around for awhile. In the 1950s, Navy surveillance systems discovered unknown repetitive pulses of traveling through the sea, and they were later attributed to finback whale courting displays. This actually provided much of the stimulus for the early design of ocean acoustic equipment and techniques for observation. According to Acoustics Today, the proposal that “these powerful [acoustic] tools could be applied to a pressing and difficult measurement problem in polar regions: the monitoring of tidewater glaciers with hydroacoustics,” came about in 2008 at a workshop in Bremen, Germany.
Though his paper only references sounds recorded from his smartphone, Podolskiy pointed to a drawing he made behind him on his whiteboard and explained: “We also have seismic and GPS stations to observe tide-modulated motion of the ice and its fracturing. We have hydroacoustic sensors under water so we can hear processes like bursting or pressurized air bubbles within the melting ice, calving, and even whales. On a mountain nearby we have infrasound sensors, which are basically sensors used to measure air pressure because when icebergs fall, they displace air and produce air pressure waves that can tell us where calving occurred,” he said.
Podolskiy held up handfuls of hard drives and explained that instead of going through terabytes of complex geophysical data, he realized a simple fact: “Audible sounds recorded with my smartphone over various drainage systems contain a lot of unique acoustic information. Every place you look has a very different signature. We can fingerprint different ways of water flowing into the ice by sound and the fingerprinting of different flow regimes is useful for understanding the glacial hydrology”
“But when I walk on that glacier I just close my eyes and I realize there are so many sounds, audible sounds — not these fancy seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic recorded sounds we have been collecting there for years — just sounds audible to our ears,” he said.
Podolskiy explained that, after the many summers at Bowdoin, one of the things that directed him to studying acoustics was the sounds of seabirds at the calving front. Birds, like the black-legged kittiwake, are attracted to tidewater glacier discharge plumes which form when meltwater exits from underneath the glacier and, due to its low density, rises in the seawater toward the surface, bringing with it nutrients and zooplankton on which arctic seabirds feed.
Seabird Sounds at Calving Front. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy
“On the surface I listen to the birds and then I listen to the crevasses,” Podolskiy said. Crevasses are deep, open fractures on the glacier surface that form as a result of changing stresses as the ice moves and flows toward the ocean. Crevasses can open up overnight. “It is the most intense process on Bowdoin. We can hear it as shooting sounds, like gunshots,” he said. This ice splitting process should not be confused with the description of meltwater drainage through the crevasse which was articulated at the beginning of the article.
Calving, Podolskiy explained, does not happen as frequently, just several events per day. But calving is very distinct and very loud and can last ten minutes when the ice is collapsing. It produces an array of strong seismo-acoustic signals.
Moulins are circular-like shafts within a glacier through which water enters from the surface. They are normally found in areas that are heavily crevassed and they too produce their own unique sounds.
As the climate warms, understanding the various flow regimes in the englacial conduits is valuable because of their influence on glacial mass flux. In addition to contributing to global sea level rise, the influx of fresh glacial water to the ocean affects global scale heat transport by weakening circulation patterns. Fresh surface water does not sink like dense, salty water, so it slows the overturning movement of the ocean, a powerful regulator of global climate.
“What is clear is that the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and all the glaciers around the world are getting wet because they’re melting over increasingly larger areas, and all this produced meltwater is bringing our cryosphere into a new state” Podolskiy said. The meltwater flows through the englacial system and affects glaciers from the inside, and he presumed part of this story could be studied with microphones. Certainly, near-source acoustic methods offer advantages over more conventional remote sensing methods because satellites are unable to see how the meltwater enters and flows through the crevasses.
Polar explorers and mountaineers were sensitive to glacial sounds for centuries, but now with acoustic instruments we have the ability to learn the things we missed without them. “I hope it will inspire people,” he said, “to pay attention and to just try to see the world like whales or dolphins do because these guys, they don’t see much — they hear the configuration. They are living in soundscapes.”
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are limitless, reaching even the most remote corners of the Earth, including the Everest region, where the virus is inflicting cascading impacts upon mountain tourism and local well-being.
There exists a tiny airport at Lukla, a small town high in Nepal’s Himalayas, where tens of thousands of tourists come each year to begin their trek to the Everest base camp and who then go on to explore one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for this region. In 2018, about 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal, generating over $620 million for the country. Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal TrekOne, told National Geographic that one tourist to Nepal supports eleven families, and Everest mountaineers alone contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy. But the airport has recently fallen silent.
In January, the government of Nepal created the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Devoted to bolstering tourism to the country, its goal was to attract two million visitors this year. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in the Everest region has taken a drastic hit. To keep both tourists and their own people safe, the government of Nepal decided in mid-March to cancel all trekking and climbing permits, suspending the flow of tourists to the airport which normally receives 60 flights per day during peak season (autumn).
Mingma Sherpa, director of Nepal’s Seven Summit Treks, told The Guardian: “No doubt our business will suffer, but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.” However, porters, guides, and guesthouse owners are experiencing great troubles with the halt in income. Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who manages Lukla’s Hiker’s Inn, told The Guardian, “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers, it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”
Nepal has closed its borders, shut down international travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and postponed the Visit Nepal 2020 promotion. Consequences are profound.
Kathryn March is a Graduate Professor of Anthropology and Professor Emerita of Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs at Cornell University. Since 1973 she has worked and even spent time living with indigenous Tibeto-origin peoples in the Himalayas––such as the Sherpa and Tamang––on questions of gender, social justice and change. She told GlacierHub in an email, “You have to understand how precarious the Nepalese economy already is.”
Since the Middle Ages, Nepal has been dependent on subsistence agriculture and trade. During European colonization, Nepal remained independent and isolated. “By the time of Indian independence and the Cold War, Nepal’s backwardness seemed quaint and, even, romantic. Efforts at economic and political development were, however, largely unsuccessful and Nepal entered the 21st century in a crisis,” March wrote. She explained that today’s statistics do not fairly represent “the stagnation of the agricultural sector, the absence of other meaningful sectors, and the dependence upon foreign employment.”
“In this context, tourism is an extremely attractive option,” March wrote. She noted that tourism, most notably high-end mountaineering, generally benefits the tourism middle-men and seldom benefits local economies. Local cooperative and community-based eco-tourism, which March advocates for, barely occurs. “In general, decision-making and profits stay closer to the top of that pyramid, both internationally and at the capitol city,” March wrote; “…Nevertheless, in the absence of other local opportunities, [tourism] is very appealing.”
While tourists are a huge source of revenue to the region, they also bring with them obstacles like overcrowding, trash and pollution. Just last year, several climbers died on their trek up Mount Everest as hours-long waits caused them to endure hazardous conditions. These conditions sparked debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety. Overcrowding also threatens the safety of the guides.
Moreover, as more infrastructure is built in the region to handle the increasing capacity of tourists, the pristine nature of the mountains is becoming ever more endangered. In 2016, China built a road that winds 4,200 meters up the slope of Mount Everest to the base camp. Bloomberg wrote, “What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps.” This new “gateway to the Himalayas” only adds to the overcrowding, trash and pollution issues.
With the onset of the pandemic, the tourist-based income to the region fell sharply, but some of the problems obviously receded as well. Now, there is less risk for guides as no treks are being taken, there is less pollution and no overcrowding because tourists have fled. However, it is not a permanent solution. The same problems will return when the pandemic is over unless revisions to the current tourism industry are made.
Mount Everest isn’t the only landmark that had, until the recent pandemic, seen an increase in tourism. Because most tourism to Nepal occurs in the spring and autumn when the weather is better for mountaineering and sightseeing, Visit Nepal 2020 wanted to explore ways to also attract visitors in the winter when numbers typically fall. With the theme of #Nepalforallseasons, the campaign landed on the idea of hosting open lake sports, as this is popular in the Western World.
However, opening new spaces to tourism brings cultural tensions between those who wish to increase tourism revenue and those who wish to protect their sacred, cultural sites.
At an average altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the Gokyo Lakes form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. Its six main pools are located in northeastern Nepal, in the snow-capped mountains of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for “Everest”) National Park, which is also home to four of the world’s seven highest mountains, including Mount Everest. The lakes are fed by meltwater from the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas. In 2007, the Gokyo Lakes and their surrounding thirty-square-miles of wetlands were classified as a Ramsar site of international importance due to their pristine condition and the habitat they provide for rare species of flora and fauna.
On Valentines’ Day, Gokyo Lake III near Nepal’s Everest Base Camp was the site of a sensational sporting event hosted by Visit Nepal 2020, a governmental initiative devoted to bolstering tourism to Nepal. The event was directed toward winter enthusiasts and included a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating performances from international athletes, including former olympians from the US, Canada, India, and Russia.
Not everyone was on board with this campaign. In a February 25 articleAljazeera wrote, “as figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.” The event was criticized by the indigenous Sherpa community because the six Gokyo Lakes, of which this one is a part, are deeply sacred to the Buddhists and Hindus alike.
In the Himalayas, high altitude lakes and glacial lakes are usually seen as sacred spots where religious people of different faiths, including many shamans, can go and have a direct connection with the gods. They believe that, like the mountains, the lake is home to spiritual beings, and they make regular offerings to these beings. If these places are disrespected and polluted, either spiritually or physically, it is thought that trouble will come to the village.
Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a retired researcher at Sagarmatha National Park and indigenous of the region, stated in a Facebook post: “Development of additional infrastructure and services associated with active sports will threaten the integrity of the Ramsar Site which is already suffering from visual and sewage pollution. Why can’t we save the few natural areas in our country as national heritage where the norms of ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ would continue to apply?”
“The Western Tamang communities — of Rasuwa, Nuwakot, & Dhading — as well as the Sherpa communities of Solu that I know best have long and often troubled relations as minority Buddhist populations in a dominant Hindu state history,” March wrote. Much of the nation’s funds go toward Hindu projects, “even though Buddhist sites in Nepal such as Lumbini, where the historical Buddha was born, have considerable tourist and pilgrimage potential, in addition to their importance to Nepalese Buddhists.”
“In general,” March added, “especially with the resurgent interest in Buddhism in major tourist-sending countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and the US, it has been my experience that tourism often provides much-needed income for Buddhist sites, as long as the tourists know that they are important sites. Therein lies the rub, of course. Many local sacred sites are not apparent to the tourists who pass through, so they get used as campsites or toilet sites, which is clearly not appropriate.”
The question is how to integrate tourism in these areas in a way that is culturally sensitive. The temporary removal of tourists due to the pandemic may offer a much-needed chance for Nepalese tourist communities to regroup and reimagine their unique enterprise.
US Figure Skater Laura Kottlowski practicing before the event on Gokyo Lake, 15,720 ft.
This week’s Video of the Week is filmed in the Callejon de Huaylas, located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca in the north central highlands of Peru, and features a song about coronavirus that is performed in the region’s native Quechua language.
The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range and aside from Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, it is the most glacier-rich region in the Andes. Because it encompasses the largest area of glaciers in the Central Andes, glacier meltwater is a critical resource for agriculture, livestock and human consumption in this region. During this time of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the region is fortunate to be relatively well-supplied with water for handwashing. The song emphasizes instructions for people to wash their hands and not to ignore advice with “the ears of a pig.”
Note minute 3:45 where an older villager washes her hands as the song tells us to use water and soap to kill the dirty disease.
Quechua predates the Incan Empire, but once the Inca made it the official language of the domain, its use spread across the Andean highlands. When the Spanish arrived, they used the Latin alphabet to create the written version of Quechua. Today, many regional variations — approximately 45 distinct dialects — are still spoken by the indigenous Quechua peoples living throughout the highlands of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, and the second most spoken language in Peru (where it originated) after Spanish.
Joshua Shapero, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who conducts research with Quechua speakers in this area, noted a number of specific elements about the video. As for the pigs ears, he noted “’kuchi rinriqa ama kashunnatsu’ translates as ‘let’s not be pig’s ears now;’ in parallel with ‘wiyakushunna yarpakushunna,’ ‘let’s listen up now, let’s remember well now;’ and ‘callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu,’ ‘Let’s not go about in the streets now.’ So, I think it’s safe to assume that the relevant idea here is that a pig’s ear doesn’t obey human language!” he wrote.
Let’s listen now, let’s remember now
Let’s not go about in the streets now
Shapero emphasized the song’s use of paired elements, found in both the lines and verses, that complement each other and form a whole. The song tells “chuulukuna chiinakuna” (young men, young women) to take care. In the scene showing a woman purchasing fish at a market (starting at 3:25), it tells people to cover “sinqantsikta simintsikta” (our noses, our mouths). Then, some verses contain two lines that offer two words which are similar, but are not full synonyms, with the second being slightly stronger than the first. In this way, the musicians suggest a range of meaning. The singer, starting at 2:00, tells people to stay at home if they care for (kuya) their families, if they love (muna) their families.
“If there is one relevant thing to emphasize here, it’s that the song repeatedly employs a parallel verse structure that creates an analogy between Coronavirus and raqcha qishya (the dirty sickness),” Shapero said. “I am not sure if ‘raqcha qishya’ is a phrase that’s been commonly used for other diseases in the past. If so, this seems like just a means of getting the listener to put Coronavirus in this disgusting category of illnesses. If it has not been used for other things in the past, then it might be an attempt to establish a Quechua neologism for the disease,” he wrote to GlacierHub.
The final verses, starting at 5:18, combine these elements. The final message is ominous: “Watch out, disobedient young woman, or coronavirus will pursue you (qatishunkimá), watch out, disobedient young man, or the dirty sickness will take you away (apashunkimá).” This stern warning reinforces the importance of handwashing and social distancing.
In a comment about the video, artist Michel Trejo wrote: “This audiovisual work is a contribution in this difficult conjuncture, for the dissemination of information and prevention against coronavirus, especially for my Andean brothers, Quechua speakers.” As Shapero’s comments show, Trejo not only speaks fluent Quechua, but has made use of traditional Quechua forms to communicate powerfully the need to protect communities from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Luchon-Superbagnères is a ski resort whose summit rests amongst a chain of mountains and glaciers along the crest of the French Pyrenees. Last month, the resort used a helicopter to transport approximately fifty tons of snow to its bare, snowless slopes so that it could remain open during the height of tourist season when the holidays brought a heavy influx of guests to the ski schools.
Temperatures hovered above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in the region, making it too warm to even operate the snow-making machines. So, at a cost of about 5,000 euros, the local council delivered snow from farther up in the mountains to cover the beginner slopes. The director of the local council, Hervé Pounau, claimed this decision would protect the jobs of eighty people, including ski lift operators, rental shop workers, and ski school instructors. Though he admitted the solution was not ecologically sound, Pounau insisted they had no other choice.
“Because of the economic loss that would have followed the closure of the ski resort, French news outlets have echoed support from many local stakeholders,” said Samuel Morin, a researcher at Météo-France, the head of the Snow Research Center based in Grenoble, and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere (SROCC) Chapter 2: High Mountain Areas.
Morin noted that many representatives from mountain communities have publicly expressed their support, including Jean-Pierre Rougeaux, the mayor of Valloire (Savoie, Northern Alps). Rougeaux is also the president of the French Snow and Avalanche association (ANENA) and secretary general of the association of mayors of mountain municipalities. Rougeaux called for an end to “the denigration of the mountain,” saying that the 2020 winter conditions required this additional supply of snow “in order to connect a few tens of meters of tracks,” which would, in turn, support the inhabitants of the village.
Many environmental groups reacted to the situation, arguing that adapting to the consequences of climate change by employing an energy-guzzling flying machine as a solution is certainly a step in the wrong direction. “What made a big difference is that the French Minister for the Environment, Elisabeth Borne, tweeted about it, as well as her Secretary of State, Emmanuelle Wargon,” said Morin. A few days later, a meeting was hosted in Paris in which many local authorities and representatives from the ski industry agreed to abolish the transport of snow by helicopter. Morin added, “a commitment was also made by the French government to provide support to ski resorts to adapt to climate change.”
Translated from French by Google: “Meeting with @JBLemoyne and the professionals and elected officials of the #montagne. A constructive discussion: the players indicated that the snowmaking practices by helicopter are not intended to be renewed. The Government will support them towards sustainable tourism!”
The Luchon-Superbagnères slopes were not the only ones affected recently. Morin wrote to GlacierHub: “Note that snow was also transported by helicopter during the Christmas holidays in Montclar (Southern French Alps), and by trucks in the Vosges ski resort of Gerardmer in January. This also triggered some reactions, but not as strong as the Luchon Superbagnères case.”
According to CNN, the International Olympic Committee reported that a temperature increase of one degree Celsius would push the snow line upslope by 150 meters, and would result in ski seasons that start up to a month later and finish up to three months earlier than usual. According to NASA and NOAA, global temperatures have already risen about one degree Celsius since the late 19th century and are expected to keep rising due to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Since modern record keeping began in 1880, the past five years have been the warmest on record, and 2019 was the second hottest year, after 2016.
“Because our society has been built around the climate Earth has had for the past approximately 10,000 years, when it changes noticeably, as it has done in recent decades, people begin to take notice,” Alan Buis wrote on NASA’s Global Climate Change website. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kathryn Mersmann
The IPCC’s SROCC predicts: “In regions with mostly smaller glaciers and relatively little ice cover (e.g., European Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, North Asia, Scandinavia, tropical Andes, Mexico, eastern Africa and Indonesia), glaciers will lose more than 80 percent of their current mass by 2100.” It also recognizes that “variability and decline in natural snow cover have compromised the operation of low-elevation ski resorts,” such as the Luchon-Superbagnères resort in the French Pyrenees.
Clearly, the helicopter method is not a viable long-term solution. However, “to invest into snowmaking might not be the best option for them moving forward either,” said Robert Steiger, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. “Another option would be to store the snow––that’s called snow farming–– over the summer season in a big pile.” The snow is covered with insulation material, including wood chips and plastic, so that it lasts through the summer. This allows for the preparation of slopes early in the winter season. “They say that they only lose about 20 to 30 percent of snow mass during the summer season,” said Steiger.
“This is what Kitzbuhel [Austria] has been doing for the past five years on one slope and this has allowed them to be the first non-glacier ski area to open their ski season in mid-October.” This is about two months earlier than conventional snowmaking would allow. But then resorts are at the mercy of nature. “If the winter season is warm like this year, it could happen that it melts and you don’t have a slope anymore in January or February,” added Steiger.
This strategy has received pushback from the German-speaking media because it is especially sensitive to environmental issues. “We still had twenty degrees (Celsius) above zero, and pictures were showing a white slope in really green landscape — and that’s very provocative. Such actions actually don’t help the image of the tourism industry,” Steiger explained.
Another alternative technology to helicopter transport is the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, which Steiger mentioned has been installed at some resorts in Switzerland and Austria. It creates snow in a vacuum (so the outside temperature is no longer a limitation), but it is much less energy efficient than normal snow-making, causing the technology to be very expensive. Moreover, snow is generated in one location making distribution to the slopes a challenge––ipso facto helicopter and truck transport.
Translated from French by Google: “A helicopter to snow a runway at Luchon Superbagnères station. Against a bare mountain background. In the middle of winter. I find this video very sad.”
In the long run, Steiger believes that some locations will need to think about alternative solutions in the winter season. “This is not that easy,” he says, “because if you’re focusing on snow-based tourism at the moment, it’s hard to convince skiers to do something else. So you need to attract different kinds of people, different kinds of customers.” He added that these destinations should think about shifting to year-round tourism by introducing activities, like hiking and mountain-biking, that make the summer season more attractive. Therefore, resorts will depend less on snowfall events, which will occur less frequently in the future.
“I think snow in ski resorts is a topic which exemplifies almost perfectly all the difficulties associated with the consistency between climate change adaptation and mitigation,” expressed Morin. “Ski resorts have no choice but to act consistently, given how prominently they are exposed in the media,” he said.
Climate change is rapidly thawing the world’s ice reserves––the glaciers in the Jotunheimen Mountains of southern Norway are no exception. While this is certainly catastrophic to the region’s ecosystem, it also provides an opportunity for Norwegian archaeologists to delve into their history. Cold glacial ice preserves ancient artifacts in near perfect condition, allowing researchers to uncover secrets of bygone civilizations.
On February 28, the Glacier Archaeology Program Oppland posted a tweet from its Secrets of the Ice project displaying a 1,500-year-old iron arrowhead that was found near the edge of a glacier in Jotunheimen, at an altitude of 2,050 meters. The artifact dates back to the Germanic Iron Age when the Celtic and Germanic kingdoms were rising in Western Europe. It was discovered alongside its arrow shaft and one of the feathers from the fletching.
“You call that an arrowhead? THIS is an arrowhead!” 🙂 1500-year-old iron arrowhead recovered on one of our sites. Found close to the melting ice at 2050 m, together with the wooden shaft. It is 18 cm long and 2 cm wide, weighing in at 32 g #glacialarchaeologypic.twitter.com/310zjuPdpd
“Three national parks converge in this region of central Norway, but Jotunheimen is arguably the most spectacular, with 250 peaks over 1,900 meters high, including the two tallest in northern Europe—Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind. Among the stone titans are alpine lakes and shimmering turquoise glaciers, chequering an ancient landscape of unspeakable beauty,” anthropologist Shoshi Parks wrote on Adventure.com.
Parks continued: “Archaeological work is often undertaken in extreme conditions—desert heat and tropical humidity are par for the course—but glacier archaeology is a different kind of challenge. It’s so cold and snowy on the mountains of Jotunheimen that the Glacier Archaeology Program only has about a month each year, from mid-August to mid-September, to study the receding ice.”
The following is a video that was taken just after the arrowhead was discovered. It shows the proximity of the melting ice as well as the arrow shaft to which it was attached.
Yesterday we posted a photo of a very large arrowhead from c. AD 500 found on one of our ice sites. Here is a video taken moments after it was discovered, showing both the projectile point and the arrowshaft close to the melting ice. We ❤️ glacial archaeology🙂 pic.twitter.com/3hEF4S0EaI
Many fascinating artifacts have been discovered from the Viking Age as well, including items such as mittens, skis and spears. In August 2019, Secrets of the Ice discovered a horse snowshoe at 2,000 meters in Oppland County, Norway, dating back to the Viking Age or the Medieval Period. Preserved perfectly intact, the outer ring was made from juniper and the rope was made from twisted birch roots.
Though it was just founded in 2011, The Glacier Archeology Program in Oppland, Norway has already discovered over 2,000 artifacts, the oldest being around 6,000 years old, which dates back to the Stone Age. Artifacts include man-made items like hunting tools, textiles, leather and clothing, as well as zoological materials like antlers, bones, and dung. Altogether, these artifacts form a picture of the mountains, “not as an extreme and isolated environment, but as a place of continuous human activity going back thousands of years,” Parks wrote.
Archeologists have a wonderfully alluring road ahead as they rescue the stories of the past from the climate transformations of the future.
Last month, fifty-year-old Lewis Pugh swam one kilometer across a supraglacial lake while wearing nothing but a Speedo, a swim cap and goggles. Supraglacial lakes are pools of water that collect on the surface of glaciers as a result of ice melt. Pugh’s lake was located on top of Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica, where the water was just above freezing and the air temperature was about minus 37 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) with wind chill on the day of his feat. But this was no futile act.
Pugh studied law and politics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he now serves as Adjunct Professor of International Law. He is an endurance swimmer and an advocate for the oceans. He has spent nearly twenty years jumping into freezing lakes and oceans to draw attention to some of the world’s most beautiful, but threatened, landscapes.
Pugh is most famous for completing the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 to call attention to melting sea ice in the Arctic. In 2010, he swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest to highlight the melting of Himalayan glaciers and in 2018 he swam the entire length of the English Channel as a call to protect thirty percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. In 2013, the United Nations named him the first UN Patron of the Oceans.
“I began swimming in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to the impact of our actions on our oceans. I saw enormous chunks of ice slide off Arctic glaciers. I swam over bleached coral killed by rising sea temperatures, and over the bones of whales hunted to the edge of extinction. I visited lakes high in the Himalayas where once there was only ice. I saw plastic pollution in the most remote parts of the oceans, and garbage piling up so thick on city beaches that you can no longer see the sand.”
Supraglacial lakes are a normal polar landscape feature, but while the lakes themselves do not necessarily indicate a warming climate, it is expected that more will form as a result of climate change. Indeed, an increasing number of lakes have been found in Greenland, and they have also been forming at higher altitudes.
Chris Stokes, a professor at Durham University in England, told NBC News that while scientists have known these supraglacial lakes are also present in East Antarctica, they were “surprised at quite how many had formed and all around the ice sheet margin.” His study found more than 65,000 of these lakes during the summer melt season in January, 2017. Scientists are beginning to take note of how the number of lakes changes from year to year to see if a climate change signal can be detected.
Pugh worked with the University of Durham’s glaciologists to map out last month’s swim across one of the supraglacial lakes in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land region. Their hope was to illuminate the beauty and fragility of the landscape as a call to action for people to protect it. “I’m urging world leaders to be courageous to take the important hard decisions which they have to take in order to protect the environment,” Pugh told NBC news. He hopes nations will come together to support a marine protected area in East Antarctica. “Allowing this area to recover and restore itself, that’s the dream.”
“Why do I do what I do? I do it because I believe in protecting our fragile planet, in peace and in justice. I do it because it’s right. I do it because our souls need nature. And I do it as much for nature’s sake as for ours.”
In December, an interdisciplinary team of climate scientists, historians, and archaeologists at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard published a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. It detailed how they used a new, high-resolution laser technology to analyze ice from the Colle Gnifetti Glacier on the Swiss-Italian border, and how this technology allowed the team to trace the history of Saharan dust events as well as the atmospheric conditions that promote them.
Saharan dust storms are an influential weather phenomenon for both human and natural systems. Though they fertilize flourishing ecosystems, they can also harm human respiratory health, alter the frequency of North Atlantic hurricanes, and speed the melting of glaciers. Because future occurrences of Saharan dust storms are uncertain given the changing climate, many studies have looked to the past to understand the connection between these dust events and climatic patterns.
Lead author Heather Clifford is a graduate student at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute. She explained that the Saharan dust record held inside the Colle Gnifetti ice core revealed that increased dust transport historically occurs when the atmosphere creates high pressure systems over the Mediterranean and drier conditions over North Africa. Climate change models indicate that these conditions will become more vigorous, indicating a dustier future.
Clifford’s coauthor, Dr. Alex More, is a research professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, as well as a researcher at Harvard University and an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at Long Island University in New York. More explained that in 2012, three of his colleagues (Paul Mayewski (CCI), Michael McCormick (Harvard), and Dietmar Wagenbach (Heidelberg)) wanted to extract an ice core in Europe, instead of the typical polar locations, as the site is closer to impacts from human civilization. Greenland traps signals from a mix of North American regions and Antarctica traps signals from a mix of continents as well –– but the Alps provide a unique look into the history of the Mediterranean region.
Enter the Colle Gnifetti Glacier. “The glacier has been studied for many years because it’s a low accumulation glacier which gives a very clear, particularly high-quality ice for this type of study,” said More. The 72-meter ice core –– the deepest core ever to be dug out of the European Alps –– was extracted in 2013. “This was the first time that researchers from history, climate science, archaeology, volcanology, public health and multiple other disciplines came together for a project like this: from grant-writing to publication,” More said.
Clifford took charge of the lab work and data analysis. Normally, ice cores are melted for analysis by a mass spectrometer, the instrument used to determine the elemental signature of a sample. “Imagine spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, to get tens of meters of ice from the remotest places of the world… and then melting the entire thing.” More added: “We are losing a record of climate change because of climate change, so it’s crazy that we would destroy that ice.” Therefore, the team opted to find a better way to collect their data without melting the ice core.
Clifford’s team is the first to use a non-destructive laser method to sublimate microscopic circles of ice from a core. More explained that the laser moves slowly over the ice inside a vacuum to create a 10-micrometer groove in the core. An argon gas carrier then transfers the sublimated gas from the core to the mass spectrometer where it is analyzed in real time. The core remains intact and the glacier’s record can be preserved forever in a specialized refrigerated depository, even when the actual glacier itself ceases to exist.
While this project is the first to use laser technology for ice core analysis, it has previously been used for lake sediment cores and for archaeological purposes, More explained. Artifacts like ancient coins are precious, and a laser helps determine composition without damaging the structure.
The new laser provides an ultra-high-resolution analysis of glacial ice. More calls it the “gold standard” because it has already produced eight million data points, which is unmatched in their field. “The max data collected for one year is 1,100 data points,” Clifford told GlacierHub. This means they are able reconstruct past atmospheric conditions in much more detail, on subannual to storm-scale event time frames. By contrast, the quality of data obtained by the traditional method of melting ice is coarse and does not provide continuous detail. Using the laser, the researchers created the longest and most accurate record of Saharan dust transport to the European Alps. It spans the past 2,000 years.
Ice core extraction on the Colle Gnifetti Glacier and the laser ablation method: courtesy of Alex More, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine.
“It took four of us to put the record together and we all lasered over two years,” Clifford said. Lasering was an entirely new methodology that had to be calibrated very carefully, and the laser proceeds slowly, in 100-micrometer increments. “We can only measure the concentration of a few chemical elements at a time, so we often laser the same ice multiple times in order to measure the concentration of different elements. Each element is a piece of the puzzle in understanding climate change, pollution and the human impact on the planet,” More said.
“A calcium spike alongside an iron spike indicates dust,” said More, referring to the mass spectrometer readings. Then, depending which elements occurred alongside those dust spikes, the researchers could identify how different behaviors in atmospheric circulation deposited the Saharan dust in the Alps.
Some elemental signatures indicated a marine origin. “If they are not present, the air probably took a more direct route across Europe into the Alps,” explained More. Clifford pulled all the elemental data together and found that dust was more likely to be picked up by winds when conditions were dry over the African Sahel, or more arid over the Sahara, or when there was high sea level pressure over the Mediterranean. Periods of drought are expected to become more severe with climate change, so the study predicts an intensification of Saharan dust storms.
Saharan dust is rich in iron, and when iron mixes with oxygen, it rapidly oxidizes and gives off a distinctive red hue. Dust storms have long been observed by NASA satellites, and was a rare enough phenomenon that they were written about in European historical records, referred to as blood-rain. More, McCormick and their team combed through thousands of historical records to match what they read in the ice with what people wrote about their experiences of these events. This level of detail is only possible thanks to the quality of the laser and historical data combined.
Saharan dust events in Europe happen 43 times a year on average, on a scale of two to eight days. But More says “these dust storms sometimes occur and people in Europe don’t even notice… They’ll just say ‘oh it’s a hazy day today.’” The study indicates that dust storms are becoming more intense as climate change results in dryer conditions over north Africa. With more drought, stronger winds will have more dust to lift into the atmosphere, carrying more particles to human populations, an intensification already being seen in North Africa.
A NASA article describes how trade winds carry Saharan dust across Western Africa toward the Gulf of Guinea, forming the Harmattan Haze (named after the dusty easterly trade winds) which in Twi means “tears your breath apart.” Susanne Bauer of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that “air pollution in Africa likely caused the premature deaths of about 780,000 people in 2016, more than the number killed by HIV/AIDS,” and 70 percent of these deaths were attributable to dust. “Air pollution is the greatest silent killer,” affirmed More.
In the record, Clifford found that there has already been a significant increase in dust transport over the past century. Climate data show that the conditions she found necessary to fuel dust events will become more severe in the future with climate change. The team predicts that the increase in Saharan dust transfer will worsen air quality and pose a threat to human health, while increased deposits on glaciers will speed up melting and exacerbate the effects of climate change on nature and society.
On February 2, 1962, Humble Oil & Refining Company published an advertisement in LIFE magazine that proclaimed:
EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER!
Humble Oil & Refining Company was founded in 1911 in Humble, Texas. It was absorbed by Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1959, and later underwent a name change to become Exxon Co. in 1973.
The advertisement continued:
This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has supplied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company. Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation, and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Enco Extra gasoline, and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!
The glacier pictured in the advertisement is Taku, the deepest and thickest alpine temperate glacier in the world. Ironically, while most of the world’s glaciers have been melting, Taku was actually growing for decades after this advertisement was published, as if in protest to Humble’s desire to melt it. Taku only recently started receding. Little did Humble realize how poorly their advertisement would age. Fifty-eight years later, the energy industry has contributed enough carbon into the atmosphere to make glaciers an increasingly endangered earth-feature.
Lately, the recovered advertisement has been circulating the media. One tweet read: “Was this in the 1970’s? When newspaper headlines screamed ‘The next Ice Age is upon us!!’”
Indeed, concern for global cooling began in the 1950s, as people, including American meteorologist Harry Wexler, worried that Cold War atomic bomb testing would accelerate the onset of a new ice age –– in a nuclear-winter-kind-of scenario. Yet, even then, scientists were saying otherwise. In a 1953 issue of Popular Mechanics, Dr. Gilbert Plass, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, warned that “Earth’s ground temperature is rising 1 1/2 degrees a century as a result of carbon dioxide discharged from the burning of about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal and oil yearly.” And, in 1958, Bell Telephone Science Hour produced a video to teach Americans about the greenhouse effect.
Then, in the early 1960s, J. Murray Mitchell Jr., an American climatologist, confirmed a multi-decadal cooling period since around 1945. Popular concern for impending glaciation rose, even as President Johnson’s scientific advisory committee warned that “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment… emissions by the year 2000 could be enough to cause ‘measurable and perhaps marked’ climate change.” Still, concern for a new ice age grew amongst climate deniers, and peaked in the ’70s after the unusually severe Asian and North American winters of 1972-73.
Today’s climate models speculate that this period of cooling, which lasted from about 1945 – 1980, resulted from the dramatic increase in aerosol emissions (by-products of fossil fuel combustion) which formed low altitude clouds that blocked out the sun.
Humble Oil had also been studying the carbon-dioxide problem for decades, since before it changed its name to Exxon. In 1957, Humble Oil scientists published a study “tracking ‘the enormous quantity of carbon dioxide’ contributed to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution ‘from the combustion of fossil fuels,’” reported The New York Times. (Exxon was well aware of these findings and would later employ its own scientists to study the global warming effects of its company — though their results would deliberately be hidden for decades.)
While the media of this time incorrectly prioritized the concern for a potential future ice age, Humble Oil used this overarching fear to its advantage, hence the 1962 headline: EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER! … which would offset the daunting global cooling of the day.
On social media one tweet read: “The mind boggles as to how times have changed. They might have well have just said ‘enough to drown 70 million kittens.'”
An overview of the history of climate science: Despite popular media, climate scientists were overwhelmingly predicting anthropogenic warming, not global cooling.
Discoveries of microbes locked within the depths of glacial ice are opening an exciting new frontier for scientific research, while also posing an ecological predicament. As climate change causes ice masses to melt worldwide, the re-emergence of ancient bacteria and viruses threatens present day species lacking immunity to these old world pathogens.
Early this year, researcher Zhi-Ping Zhong and a team of researchers discovered 33 viral populations within two ice cores that had been extracted from the Guliya ice cap in the northwestern part of the Tibetan Plateau, in the Kunlun Mountains of northwestern China. The ice dates as far back as 15,000 years ago. All but five of the viral groups are new to science, and about half were predicted to have infected different strains of bacteria, which were also abundant in the ice.
The Tibetan Plateau is a vast, high altitude arid grassland home to species like the snow leopard, Tibetan wolf, and wild yak. It is surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountain chains including the Himalayas, the Qilian and Kunlun mountains, and the Karakoram range of northern Kashmir. Shadowed by the world’s two highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2, at an elevation that averages over 4,500 meters, the Tibetan Plateau is known to many as “the roof of the world.”
To climate scientists, however, the Tibetan Plateau and its crown of peaks is known as “The Third Pole,” since it is home to tens of thousands of glaciers containing the world’s largest non-polar reservoir of ice. These glaciers feed the most renowned Asian rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, and Ganges which stretch thousands of kilometers into the arid regions of China and Pakistan and supply water to almost a third of the world’s population.
In their paper, which is currently circulating for comment in advance of peer-review, the researchers explain that the shallow plateau core was drilled in 1992 at a depth of 35 meters while the summit core was drilled in 2015 at a depth of 52 meters. The viral populations are quite dissimilar between the two ice cores and are also different at various depths, “presumably representing the very different climate conditions” at the time when the viral particles settled down into the snow to be compacted into ice.
Video from Kevin Bakker: Ice core drilling in Antarctica (circa 2009) for the purposes of studying bacterial community structure.
Though the first reports of microbes being found in glacial ice occurred in the early twentieth century, they were largely neglected until the 1980s when scientists began investigating organisms in an ice core from Vostok, in Eastern Antarctica. This discovery sparked a surge of glacier ice-core sampling at the end of the twentieth century. However, most studies focused on bacterial communities.
Kevin Bakker, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Michigan, studied bacterial community structure in Antarctic water and ice cores in 2008-09. Once his team extracted a core, it was melted down very slowly, “at the room temperature of the icebreaker we were on, so around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, to make sure the bacteria were kept alive,” Bakker said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Bacteria pop very easily,” he added, “and we needed them alive to see which organisms were eating the radioactive food we fed them… to see which bacteria were active in the community.”
But for viruses, the definition of whether they are living or not is a moot point, since the DNA/protein complex (while not technically living) simply takes over its host cell — which most of the time is a bacterium. Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team wrote, “information about viruses in these habitats is still scarce, mainly due to the low biomass of viruses in glacier ice and the lack of a single and universally shared gene for viruses,” which can be used for genome sequencing.
In fact, the authors wrote, “there are only two reports of viruses in glacier ice.” They include the Vostok study, as well as a study that found “tomato-mosaic-tobamovirus RNA in a 140,000-year old Greenland ice core.” Viral genomes from glacier ice have not been previously reported, and “their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored.”
Moreover, prior to this study, no specific decontamination method existed. In an interview with Vice, Scott O. Rogers, a professor at Bowling Green State University, said “the biomass is so low that anything you contaminate it with on the outside is going to be at much higher concentrations than anything on the inside of the ice core.” Because it is easy to contaminate ancient microbes with modern ones, the researchers developed a new “ultra-clean” method for isolating pure samples from the ice cores.
The ice cores had been sealed in plastic tubing, covered with aluminum, and transferred at -20 degrees Celsius from the drilling sites to freezers in Lhasa, Beijing, Chicago, and finally to Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University. In a sub-freezing temperature controlled room, researchers began extracting their samples by first shaving off half a centimeter from the outer contaminated layer of ice. The cores were then washed with ethanol to dissolve another layer, and finally sterile water was used to wash the final half centimeter away.
The pristine inner ice was then methodically melted down and filtered, and steps were taken to identify the virus after extracting the microbial DNA. The virus’s age could be determined by counting the ice layers, just as you would count rings in a tree. To be even more precise, the researchers also dated carbon and oxygen isotopes found in each ice layer.
Ancient microbes provide researchers a window into Earth’s evolutionary and climatic past. “We are very far from sampling the entire diversity of viruses on Earth,” Chantal Abergel, an environmental virology researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told Vice. Unfortunately, glaciers around the world are shrinking at an alarming rate. The Tibetan Plateau itself has lost a quarter of its ice since 1970, so the race is on to collect as much knowledge as possible with what’s left.
Despite its extreme altitude, the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are latitudinally situated to receive a great deal of sunlight, and like the other two, this third pole is warming faster than the global average. In the IPCC special report on the cryosphere, scientists warn that two thirds of its remaining glaciers are bound to disappear by 2100. “This will release glacial microbes and viruses that have been trapped and preserved for tens to hundreds of thousands of years,” wrote Zhi-Ping Zhong’s team.
“At a minimum, this could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes,” the researchers added. However, “in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment.”
This possibility is very real. Bakker pointed out that in 2016, the anthrax virus escaped from a frozen reindeer carcass, killing a 12-year old boy and hospitalizing about twenty others, when permafrost melted in the Siberian tundra. Frozen microbes released through ice melt are still able to reinfect their targets, but while “there are a ton of viruses, only a few actually infect humans,” Bakker explained. Most ancient viruses pose more of a risk to bacteria. Still, it is important not to underestimate the “dangers encased in ice,” Rogers warned in his interview with Vice.
Zhi-Ping Zhong’s study represents a major advance in the field of virology. It shows how frozen creatures can inform predictions about the types of microbes that may re-emerge with climate warming, and what this could potentially mean for the future of our biosphere.
Video from Kevin Bakker: Bakker’s research team encounters some friends on their scientific expedition in Antarctica in 2009. Perks of being a scientist!
The new music video for the Nepali song Lomanthang Mai Basam, by Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Magar (featuring Ramji Khand and Sangita Thapa Maga), was shot on location in Upper Mustang, Nepal, and features many breathtaking images of the country’s revered glaciers.
The video is meant to encourage young people to remain in the high mountain valley of Lo Manthang, a rural municipality within the Gandaki Province of Nepal. It was released on January 1st “to promote reverse outmigration and tourism,” explained former GlacierHub writer, Tsechu Dolma.
The remote settlement of Lo Manthang was established in 1380 as the capital of the Lo Kingdom. To this day, it is surrounded by an ancient six-meter-high wall made of earthen materials. A Tibetan Buddhist heritage exists inside the walls, and many palaces and monasteries preserve the region’s culture. Located only 50 kilometers from the Tibetan border, the settlement remains an important trade outpost, where clothing, salt, and food is still transported between Nepal and Tibet by mule. The Mustang kingdom prevailed until Nepal became a republic in 2008, and Monarch Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who was the 25th descendent in a direct line of kings dating back to the foundation of the Lo Dynasty, lost his title.
According to Nepal Glacier Treks & Expeditions, “This secret place is located in the rain shadow of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range, and was forbidden to explorers until 1992.” This region is still restricted to a limited number of visitors, thus “it’s possible to hide the secrets of a large number of caves dispersed carefully its red cliffs.” The Mustang region is also home to over fifteen percent of Nepal’s glaciers.
The song’s chorus translates, “Swear to Muktinath by Kagbeni / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang / Swear to Dhaulagiri by Nilgiri / Do not leave, we are staying in Lo Manthang / We are staying in Lo Manthang.” Muktinath and Kagbeni are villages in Upper Mustang, and Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri are two of its notable mountain ranges.
Another section translates, “A sanctuary where the paradise lies / Nature is the abode of the God of Nature” and is accompanied by striking images of the local culture against a backdrop of the rugged, snow-capped Himalaya––a paradise, indeed.