Photo Friday: Humble Energy Ad Boasts About Melting Glaciers in ’62

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!

HUMBLE OIL

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.

Screenshot: “In the 70s, They said there’d be an Ice Age”

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.

Global Average Temperature Anomaly from 1880 – 2000. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

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CLIMATE CONFESSION: I WAS WRONG

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

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Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

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. 

Researchers trek into the Himalayas to collect ice cores. Credit: Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences/NASA

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.”

Himalayan glaciers. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

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.

Layers in an ice core. Credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr

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.

Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Reurinkjan/Flickr

“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!

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Video of the Week: We are Staying in Lo Manthang!

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.

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Seabirds Find New Ways to Forage in a Changing Arctic

On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid.

Flock of auks. Source: Françoise Amélineau

In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland. One group included foraging surface feeders like the black-legged kittiwake. The other was comprised of divers, like the little auk. The researchers found that while the surface feeders congregate in the area of the cloudy plume, divers prefer to search for food where the water is less cloudy, spatially dividing the bird groups near the edges of glaciers.

Françoise Amélineau, a researcher of seabird ecology at the Norwegian Polar Institute, published a study in Scientific Reports last year, presenting the results of a 12-year monitoring program in East Greenland, which analyzed biological parameters of the little auk, the most common seabird in the Atlantic Arctic. Amélineau says that little auks use vision to detect prey and because meltwater plumes are so cloudy, the birds tend to forage farther offshore in clearer water, where they dive more than 20 meters below the surface. 

A 2013 study in Polar Biology noted that little auks inhabiting West Spitsbergen, Norway also preferred to forage in clear water, far from glacier fronts, where they could easily identify water masses containing large, energy-rich prey.

Little auks usually feed in cold waters at the edge of sea-ice, up to 150 km away from their colonies. “In our Greenland study, we looked at sea ice concentration because some of the prey consumed by little auks are sympagic (associated to the sea ice),” said Amélineau, and “the little auks performed shallower dives in the presence of sea-ice, probably to feed on ice-associated amphipods”––a small type of crustacean. However, these ice-covered feeding areas are disappearing as the climate warms, which could make foraging more difficult. 

Auks on a rock. Source: Amanda Graham/Flickr

Not only does a warming Arctic affect the presence of sea ice, it also alters the distribution of the little auk’s prey. Little auks feed on large zooplankton, which remain at depth in clearer waters. As the Arctic warms, the smallest (and lower calorie) Atlantic species of zooplankton is extending northward, threatening the range of the two larger (and higher calorie) Arctic species that little auks prefer. The invasion of the small zooplankton has the potential to negatively affect the fitness and breeding success of the little auk, which is thought to have the highest metabolic rate of all seabirds due to its small size and large flying and diving range.

With sea ice disappearing, the fate of little auk survival may be at risk. However, little auks from a colony of Franz Josef Land, located in the Russian Arctic, are actually taking advantage of a glacial meltwater plume––an adaptation that could be crucial. “We show that in Franz Josef Land, little auks have changed their foraging behavior with sea-ice retreat and the increase of glacier meltwater volume. At this site, they foraged at the glacier meltwater front instead of at more distant feeding grounds near the sea-ice because it allowed them to make shorter foraging trips,” Amélineau told GlacierHub. 

Amélineau explained that “at the glacier front, zooplankton is stunned by cold and osmotic shock at the boundary between glacier melt and seawater, which makes it easier for little auks to catch. It probably concentrates their prey closer to the colony, but according to Nishizawa’s study, if the turbidity of the water is too high, meltwater plumes become unfavorable foraging areas for little auks who use vision to detect prey.” Discharge mechanisms can differ between glaciers, and this may be why little auks are able to utilize the Franz Josef Land differently than in Greenland, Amélineau added.

Mature little auks have large pouches under their beaks where they store food such as small crustaceans to feed their offspring. This adult little auk has a full gular pouch! Source: Françoise Amélineau

Black-legged kittiwakes are the most common type of gull in the world. While they do consume large zooplankton and small crustaceans, they mainly prefer to eat small fish and other marine invertebrates. While they are the only type of gull that dives and swims underwater, they make very shallow dives compared to that of the little auk, and are unhindered by turbid water. 

Black-legged kittiwakes. Source: Alan Schmierer/Flickr (left); Dominic Sherony/Flickr (right)

Turbid subglacial discharge, which is unloaded 10-100 meters beneath the surface of the water, upwells at glacial fronts to form plumes that bring zooplankton, as well as marine worms and jellies from depth to the water’s surface. “The foraging behaviour of kittiwakes observed in the tidewater glacier bays revealed them to be swarming over the subglacial discharge, with rapid simultaneous nose-diving and plunging into the surface water in pursuit of rising prey,” according to one study in Scientific Reports.

While the size of meltwater plumes at glacial fronts are increasing with climate warming in the Arctic, apparently benefitting surface feeders, it is also important to consider the stage of glacial retreat. Kittiwakes, as well as other surface feeders, benefit most from deep tidewater glacier bays because they have strong discharges that upwell prey to the surface over a wide area.

Margerie Glacier, a tidewater glacier located in Southeast Alaska in Glacier Bay National Park. “The glacier begins high in the mountains and meanders down the valleys like a river of ice.”  Source: National Park Service

According to the IPCC, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. “While other species may be able to shift their distribution to higher latitudes or altitudes,” Amélineau said, “Arctic species may not find suitable habitat anymore.” 

This is both ecologically and culturally concerning.

While little auks are ecologically considered a keystone species in the Arctic, they are also culturally important to the Indigenous peoples that live there. “They are hunted in Greenland,” Amélineau told GlacierHub. The Inuit “prepare a food called kiviak, where the little auks are fermented for 3 months in a seal skin!” Approximately five hundred of these birds are stuffed, whole, into the skin, and left in a pile of stones to ferment over the winter. They are a popular treat on weddings and birthdays.

The Inuit settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit village in East Greenland. Source: Stephan H/Flickr 
Little auks. Source: Alastair Rae/Flickr (left); David Cook/Flickr (right)

Biological responses to changing climatic conditions are difficult to predict, particularly in remote locations that are already heavily impacted like the Arctic, where the ecosystem is already impacted by ongoing sea-ice decline and warming. Amélineau says this makes long-term seabird monitoring efforts extremely important, especially as these birds can be seen as ‘sentinels’ of what will happen at lower latitudes.

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Why Lake Superior Is Rising and What That Means for the City of Duluth

Duluth, Minnesota has been identified as a potential refuge for climate migrants who are fleeing from the damaging effects of climate change occurring in their respective hometowns. The city was selected based on qualitative, social criteria that makes it more appealing than other places, but was not deeply examined in terms of environmental impact or in terms of how climate change might be affecting the water level rise of Lake Superior. Ironically, long-term geological processes as well as recent heavy precipitation events linked to climate change, threaten even the most “climate-proof” city in the United States.

Duluth Skyline. (Credit: Evan Kane/Flickr)

The surface of the Great Lakes region is still in the process of bouncing back from the weight of massive glaciers that began retreating near the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago. These glaciers and ice sheets, which were miles thick, literally pushed the Earth’s crust into its upper mantle. Now, with the glaciers gone, the earth’s surface is rising back upwards, a process known as isostatic rebound. The same way a yoga mat takes some time to return to its original shape after bearing weight––because of the thick consistency of the earth’s mantle––it will take many thousands of years for the land to return to its original equilibrium level.

However, the amount and rate of rise is not uniform across the Great Lakes region; it all depends on the amount of ice that was pushing the land down and how long ago it melted away. For instance, the Hudson Bay area was home to some of the most massive glacial ice sheets, and was the last to see its ice melt away. Thus, the land surface there is rising more than half an inch per year, which sums to over four feet per century.

Isostatic Rebound. (Credit: Brian McNamara/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Moreover, rising land in some areas can cause the land to sink elsewhere, creating a sort-of seesaw effect. North America’s Great Lakes lie along the fulcrum of the seesaw: land north of the lakes is bouncing back up from the retreat of Canadian glaciers, causing the land south of the lakes to subside. As a result, residents on the southern shores are seeing water levels rise very slowly over time. 

Lake Superior itself is experiencing rising water levels on its southern shorelines while its northern shorelines are experiencing the opposite. In fact, a paper published by Lee and Southam in 1994, which examined water level limits for Lake Superior for the purposes of hydropower water diversion, stated: “Due to these natural changes, the upper regulation limit is now 0.21 m higher at Duluth, Minnesota, and 0.26 m lower at Michipicoten, Ontario, than in 1902. By 2050, these differences will be as much as 0.34 m higher and 0.43 m lower, respectively.” They concluded that the effects of crustal movement should be considered in long term planning, especially with regard to establishing flood levels along Lake Superior’s southwestern shore.

The contribution of isostatic rebound to water levels in the Great Lakes is just part of the lake level rise story. Andrew Gronewold, a professor in the school for environment and sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan, explained to GlacierHub that while glacial isostatic rebound is indeed occurring over the Great Lakes region, it is not the reason why water levels are so high in Lake Superior right now. “Water levels are driven primarily by rainfall that enters the Lake Superior basin, and by the amount of water that leaves through evaporation,” Gronewold said, and “this increase in precipitation is largely the response to climate change across the region.”

Waves crashing in Lake Superior. (Credit: Tom Ruppe/Flickr)

Gronewold has been researching how changes in precipitation and evaporation lead to both short and long term changes in water levels in the Great Lakes. He mentioned that as recently as five or six years ago, water levels in the lakes were dangerously low. However, as a result of recent heavy precipitation events, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario just broke their all-time record for high water levels, and that goes back over 100 years. Lake Superior rose one meter in just five years. “It’s important to mention that the rate of change due to glacial isostatic rebound is not nearly as fast as the water level rise by precipitation,” said Gronewold. Researchers believe that rapid transitions between extremely high and low water levels could be the new normal as interactions between the global climate and regional hydrological cycles become more variable with climate change.

Not only has there been an increase in the number of precipitation events, but there has also been an increase in the number of heavy rainstorms. This trend is the result of a warming atmosphere, which can hold more moisture, Gronewold explained. Indeed, for every degree (Celsius) of temperature rise, the atmosphere can hold about seven percent more moisture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that eastern North America is one region especially at risk of seeing the largest increases in heavy precipitation as the climate warms.

According to the IPCC, Earth’s surface warmed an average of approximately one degree C above pre-industrial levels by 2017. This rise might seem small, but the amount of energy that is required to heat the entire surface of the earth by one degree is extremely large. We are already seeing intense sea level rise along the Eastern Coast of the US, worsening wildfires in California, an immense decline in fishery productivity, and the exposure of hundreds of millions of people to climate related risk and poverty. This is forcing millions, especially those in coastal communities, to migrate places that are more climate safe.    

Time series plot of Lake Superior water levels: When working for NOAA, Gronewold helped develop the Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard as a tool to look at long term water level data in the Great Lakes. Notice the recent rising trend. The red line represents the average water level for the period of record while the blue dots represent the average water level in a given month. (Credit: Andrew Gronewold/NOAA).

Duluth, a major port city on Lake Superior, was identified among several other cities in the Upper Midwest as a potential climate refuge for those escaping the damaging effects of climate change in their own hometowns. Jesse M. Keenan, a lecturer in architecture at Harvard University, served as the principal investigator in the “Duluth Climigration” (climate migration) project. “We are seeing the northerly migration of flora and fauna, and the idea is that people will follow,” said Keenan.

“No city can be ‘climate proof,’ no one is immune from climate change,” Keenan explained in his lecture to Duluthians this past April, but there are places that are better insulated than others. Right next to Lake Superior, Duluth the “air-conditioned” city, makes a good case for being quite climate proof. Moreover, recent research out of the University of Maryland suggests Duluth may see a similar climate as Toledo, Ohio, a city 550 miles southeast of Duluth, by 2080.

The video above is a lecture given by Dr. Jesse M. Keenan in April of this year, and is geared towards informing Duluthians about why their city would make an outstanding “climigration” refuge.

“What do people look for when they move?,” Keenan proposed to GlacierHub. Duluth boasts urban affordability, a strong health care system, strong primary and higher education systems, and it also displays core infrastructure that would capture mid- and upper-income consumer preferences. Furthermore, the city has excess capacity for new housing and businesses because it is a residual of the rust belt which saw industrial decline and gradual depopulation starting around 1980. “It has been in a long, long population decline, so any measure of additional population resonates,” Keenan explained. Within the past decade, the entire town gained just 56 people. Though his team did not take into account the environmental impact component of migration in their decision, Keenan affirmed, “I do not discount the associated challenges of water management in terms of stormwater management and managed lake levels, but Duluth itself, has qualitative aspects that make it a good ‘refuge.’” 

Downtown Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior (Credit: Jacob Norlund/Flickr)

Keenan argued that if refugees were to move there, they should settle in high density housing downtown, rather than expand suburbanization, as it provides an opportunity to revive mass transit and build sustainably. “I think this is the most interesting part of the project, actually, because when people move, land becomes very inundated, and this is a chance to move away from the suburban high carbon footprint and build sustainable high-density housing,” Keenan remarked, “and it could easily be like the brownstones of Brooklyn – very nice and beautiful.” 

The important thing to figure out is who will be on the move, which market and demographics they will represent, and what this will mean for the housing lifecycle, tax base, and development. Many Floridians currently imperiled by intense storms and sea level rise may choose to relocate here because Lake Superior resembles the ocean. There have been people who have actually relocated to Duluth as a result of Keenan’s research – “They’ve read these papers and have said ‘That’s it, we’re moving to Duluth!’ Keenan said, and “I want to meet these people.”


The massive glacial ice sheets that carved the Great Lakes make Duluth a deepwater port. Ocean-going ships can reach it, even though it is situated far inland. (Credit: Sharon Mollerus/Flickr)

When asked whether Duluth might make a good climate refuge, Gronewold explained: “As a citizen of the region, I can say that Duluth is an amazing city and the Upper Midwest is a great place to live, but it’s really hard to untangle all the impacts that climate change might have, not only on water and temperature, but also on the economy.” Duluth’s location on Lake Superior provides a cool climate, fresh potable water, and a stable, deepwater shipping hub favorable for climate migration. But now the Great Lakes, to which Duluth owes so much, are changing as a result of slow geological processes as well as much more rapid climate change.

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Russian Navy Confirms Emergence of Five New Islands in the Arctic Ocean

The physical geography of the Arctic Ocean is evolving as the climate warms. Most recently, the Russian Navy discovered five new islands off the coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which were exposed as a result of glacial melt. Novaya Zemlya is situated in a remote corner of the world, northwest of the Russian mainland. There are two islands in the archipelago, and while the whole area is remote, the northern Severny Island is uninhabited and contains more glaciers than the southern Yuzhny island.

“Red arrows indicate 1990 terminus positions, yellow arrows 2015 terminus positions and purple arrows upglacier thinning.  An island has formed at the second red arrow from the bottom.” (Source: Mauri Pelto)

The time-lapse map above shows one of the five new islands being exposed off the coast of Novaya Zemlya. To see the emergence of the other four islands via time-lapse images, visit From a Glacier’s Perspective, by Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.

Russia’s New Discoveries

Located in St. Petersburg, the Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping has long been one of Russia’s leading maritime technical institutions, dating back to 1781 when Empress Catherine II opened the first nautical schools in the Russian Empire. Thus, this university is linked to the foundation of Russian maritime navigation and continues to perfect the operation of the Russian fleet. In 2016, Marina Migunova, then a student at the university, noticed five new islands along the coast of Severny while examining satellite images of the Vize (or Wiese) Bay. Migunova is now an engineer of the Oceanographic Measurement Service for the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy.

Interestingly, the Wiese Bay is named after Vladimir Yulyevich Wiese, an early twentieth century Russian scientist, member of the Soviet Arctic Institute, and founder of the Geographico-hydrological School of Oceanography. He spent his life studying the Arctic ice pack, and in 1930, aboard the Icebreaker Sedov, he and his crew discovered the Wiese Island in the area north of Novaya Zemlya. Its hydrometeorological research station, that was established in 1945, is one of the northernmost in the world.

The red arrow points to Wiese Island. Novaya Zemlya is circled in brown. Franz Josef Land is circled in blue. (Source: Demis/Mohonu)

It took three years, but the Northern Fleet has finally visited and confirmed the discovery of these five new islands. The voyage to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago occurred this past summer, and carried scientists and filmmakers from the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Arctic National Park. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, these islands emerged in the wake of retreating glaciers situated near the Vylki glacier and range from 900 to 54,500 square meters in size.

“NASA’s Terra satellite captured this true-color image of Novaya Zemlya on July 27, 2009… Before the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic sea ice used to linger along the coast of Novaya Zemlya’s larger island each July. After the turn of the century, however, increased summertime melt made open ocean more common.” (Source: NASA)

In addition to confirming the existence of Migunova’s five new islands on the North Island of Novaya Zemlya, the crew also surveyed the depth of many straits, as well as the topography of the ocean floor of the Barents and Kara Seas. On this expedition, the Northern Fleet was also searching for the remains of a Soviet scientist who died in 1950 as he was compiling maps of the “New Earth,” Novaya Zemlya. They found his remains along with a weather station that had been destroyed in 1943 by Nazi submarines. The crew then identified the islands of Littrow and also confirmed the presence of a new island in the Gunter Bay of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, which is another remote group of islands located north of the Russian mainland in the Arctic Ocean. It was explored by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1800’s during a period of geopolitcal competition between the Austro-Hungarians and Russians in the Arctic Ocean, and one of its isolated islands may have even served as a secret Nazi war base during World War II.

Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Ocean (Source: Flickr/ Christopher Michel)

The expedition follows a recent surge of coastline surveying by the Russian Navy. The Russian Ministry of Defense has reported that since 2015, the Northern Fleet hydrographic service has identified over thirty new islands, capes, and bays near the Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos using remote sensing techniques. Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Defense noted that “critical points” in the boundary waters have been clarified to describe the territories of the Russian Federation as well as their economic reach. As you might guess, both of these archipelagos are important locations for military infrastructure and personnel.

In 1933, the Soviets established a small research station on Rudolf Island of the Franz Josef Land, which is located only 200 km from the North Pole. (Source: Flickr/Christopher Michel)

Russian Military Activity in the Arctic

During the Cold War period, Novaya Zemlya was the site of Soviet atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. In fact, it hosted over 130 nuclear detonations, including the “Tsar Bomba,” which was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated – almost four thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Dr. Kristian Åtland, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, told GlacierHub that since the Cold War period, Russia has reinvigorated much of its old military infrastructure as well as built new Arctic infrastructure on Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, and the East Siberian Islands. These include airfields, naval port facilities, radar and early warning installations, and air defense systems. According to Åtland, defense of the coastline is of critical importance to the Russians.

More than half of Russia’s naval nuclear forces are positioned to the immediate east of Norway on the Kola peninsula, and the Russian Navy uses the Barents and Kara seas, which surround Novaya Zemlya, as their patrol and transit areas. “They [submarines] venture into the Arctic Ocean too, where water depths are much greater. Here, it’s easier to hide under the cover of ice or along the ice edge where ambient noise conditions are more favorable, and where their submarines are more difficult to track by western forces,” said Åtland. “The ice cover is shrinking, and Novaya Zemlya’s new islands are showing the changes in the physical geography of the region.”

Polar bears approach a submarine near the North Pole. (Source: United States Navy/ Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs)

While the shallow maritime area closest to the coast of the new islands is not very strategic in terms of submarine activity, the changing physical geography is affecting security in a number of ways. “Nuclear subs are more difficult to locate and track under ice, so the shrinking ice cover could be a challenge for strategic forces,” Åtland told GlacierHub. Still, he noted, “the strategic significance of the Barents Sea for Russia should not be underestimated. To ensure safe operations of subs, the Russians can use a number of assets, such as surface vessels, maritime patrol aircraft and different sensors on the sea beds to optimize their monitoring skills and exercise what we call ‘sea control’ over the Barents Sea.” This is especially important as the level of activity in the Arctic Ocean increases with climate change.

“Seasonally, the ice sort of comes down during the winter, and expands and retracts over the seasons, over the years,” said Åtland. He mentioned that this will continue to be the status until the end of the 2030’s, when we are likely to see a total disappearance of Arctic ice in the summer months. It is projected that, by the end of the century, the ice will expand and retract until it is completely gone in every season. “That will be a whole new situation and could change the strategic dynamics of the region. It could lead to a significant increase in sea traffic and other economic activities in the region as a whole.”

Geopolitical Shifts in the Arctic

In the Arctic Ocean, “not only is the ice melting, but it is also thinning,” stated David Titley, a retired Rear Admiral of the US Navy and a professor of Meteorology and International Affairs at Penn State University. As these waterways become clearer, the Russians are making large efforts to monetize their northern sea routes. They have been working with the Chinese to transport natural gas through the Arctic Ocean, and the fact that they are able to run their ships “without ice-breaker assistance, in the winter, in the Arctic, shows just how much the ice is thinning.”

Krasin, the first “icebreaker,” built in 1917 for the Imperial Russian Navy. “In 1933, Krasin became the first vessel to reach the inaccessible northern shores of Novaya Zemlya in the history of navigation.” She is now docked at St. Petersburg where she serves as a museum ship commemorating Arctic Convoys. (Source: Flickr/Andrey Korchagin)

One pressing issue is, of course, the so-called “straits” issue. This raises the question of whether or not the newly formed waterways are part of the internal waters of the Russian Federation, or if they should be seen as international straits where the right of transit applies. This same case is occurring in the northwest passage by Canada, according to Åtland. Indeed, economic zones are expanding with the warming climate. Therefore, “in addition to the changing physical environment, you also have a changing geopolitical environment,” said Titley, “and there are lots of issues that must be worked out before we can see any shift in shipping.”

Because the geopolitical climate suggests transformation, the Suez Canal authority is now promoting their shipping path. Titley noted that we could see an increase in competition between Russia trying to reorient shipping along their Northern Sea route in the Arctic Ocean versus Egyptians promoting shipping through their Suez Canal. “If you’re a shipper, before you can sanction routes, there are questions of insurance, and how much the Russians will charge to move through the route, as well as for ice-breakers and escorts. Shippers will start to get a choice between route options,” said Titley. An “over-the-top” shuttle service across the North Pole to Iceland may even become a possibility in the future, he added.  

Ships of the Northern Fleet (Source: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

The Arctic is incredibly rich in oil and natural gas: “there are huge amounts of it up there,” but since working underwater, especially in the Arctic, is hard, “at what cost are we willing to extract it, given how easy it is to obtain elsewhere?” proposed Titley. Ice is dangerous stuff if it drifts around oil infrastructure. Titley laughed, “My guess is, if that becomes the last place to get a barrel of oil, chances are we’re gonna go get it.”

The discovery of Novaya Zemlya’s five new islands is simply the most recent chapter in the escapade of Arctic melt. In Mauri Pelto’s blog, “From a Glacier’s Perspective,” he writes: “Climate change has been driving the recession of glaciers and ice sheets, which in turn has been changing our maps.” Indeed, all the mapping and exploration the Russians are doing in the Arctic gives it the feel of a new frontier exposed from beneath the ice. While exciting in some ways, it is important to consider the potential damaging effects to the planet’s ecosystems and geophysical processes. Titley put it perfectly: “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we used every last stone, so we shouldn’t leave the fossil fuel age because we used every last drop of fossil fuel.”

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Photo Friday: “Antarctica” – An Exhibit Showcasing Lamont Scientists’ Photos from the Field

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) is a part of the Earth Institute at Columbia University where roughly 200 PhD researchers and 90 graduate students are involved in earth-science research. “Its scientists study the planet from its deepest interior to the outer reaches of its atmosphere, on every continent and in every ocean, providing a rational basis for the difficult choices facing humanity.”

Miriam Cinquegrana, administrative coordinator at LDEO, has initiated a series of photo exhibits “to provide a space for members of the Lamont community to explore their passion for photography and to share their artistic work.” The hope is for these individuals to make connections and engage their research in new ways, noted Cinquegrana. Previous landscape exhibits have included Patagonia and Easter Island, as well as The Aleutians.

The newest exhibit, Antarctica, is the third display to feature photos taken by scientists as they perform their research in the field. Pieces from this exhibit are displayed here, and highlight photos taken by the following scientists: Isabel Cordero, Nick Frearson, Jonathan Kinslake, David Porter, Margie Turrin, Martin Wearing, Carson Witte, and Robin Bell.

“Each year Lamont scientists travel the globe with their research. This exhibition provides a small glimpse into the beauty and fragility that is Antarctica. These images were taken by Lamont Scientists as they went about their daily research studying topics as diverse as ice dynamics to tectonic origins and ranging from the Antarctic Peninsula to the Ross Ice Shelf and beyond into the East Antarctic interior.”

Nick Frearson
Source: Isabel Cordero
“Sea ice cracking in the pressure ridges near Scott Base (the New Zealand Antarctic base). Some of it melts in the sunlight and creates these blue ice pools on the surface, and some of the blue ice just peeks through the folding ice.”
Source: Nick Frearson
“An emperor penguin stands near the edge of the Cape Washington Penguin Colony in Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica. The penguin studies me with no trace of fear while I frame the picture. During peak season the colony can contain over 20,000 breeding pairs. This area has now become the 73rd Antarctic Specially Protected Area.”
Source: Nick Frearson
“Our Rac-Tent during a storm in Antarctica in 2014. This extremely strong military tent is used as a logistical command center in the field. We use them as science tents during our field seasons, and when we are not out gathering data, we can be found inside them huddled over laptops. On one trip, our Rac-Tent had markings from the Korean War stenciled onto the frame.”
Source: Jonathan Kinslake
“An iceberg floating past Rothera Research Station, Antarctic Peninsula, Nov 2013. S67 35 8; W68 7 59. Altitude 0 m a.s.l. In the background are the glaciated peaks of Adelaide Island.”
Source: Jonathan Kinslake
“A “Scott Tent” in the Weddell Sea Sector of West Antarctica, Jan 2014. S77 50 22.0; W74 47 24.7; Altitude 536 m a.s.l. We’re there using radar to measure the internal structure of the ice and observe how it flows.”
Source: David Porter
“The LDEO Icepod — flying aboard a ski-equipped LC-130 just 1500 feet above the Ross Sea in Antarctica — images and maps sea ice and glaciers as part of the NSF-funded ROSETTA-Ice Project in November 2017.”
Source: Margie Turrin
“Cape petrels soaring against the Antarctic landscape. Common in the Southern Ocean, they are known to track ships hoping for food scraps or fish churned up in the ship’s wake.”
Source: Margie Turrin
“Going ashore to Deception Island. The Island is the caldera of an active volcano in the South Shetland Island archipelago, Antarctica.”
Source: Margie Turrin
“The remains of the Governoren Shipwreck, in Foyn Harbor off the West coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. A 1915 “whaling factory ship” that caught fire, igniting the whale oil and destroying the vessel. The crew was rescued by another whaling vessel.”
Source: Martin Wearing
“Fractured sea ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo taken during the ROSETTA-Ice fieldwork campaign in November/December 2017.⁠”
Source: Martin Wearing
“The calving front of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Photo taken during the ROSETTA-Ice fieldwork campaign in November/December 2017.⁠”
Source: Carson Witte
“Pancake ice rides the swell in Terra Nova Bay, where the stratovolcano Mt. Melbourne looms ever present to the north.⁠”
Source: Robin Bell
“The snow is hard atop the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and the sky is an incredible blue. At the high elevations (3500m) far from the sea, the silence is so intense that you can hear grains of snow knocking into one another as the wind flows past. The flags in the distance mark the skiways where the Twin Otters and the New York Air National Guard LC_130’s land. This picture was taken during the International Polar Year expedition (2009) to the Gamburtsev Mountains. Together with scientists from seven nations, we mapped the Pyrenees-sized mountain range beneath the surface. The skiway was busy as we kept the survey plane in the air almost around the clock.”

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New Studies Trace Glacier Dynamics in the Grand Tetons

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New Studies Trace Glacier Dynamics in the Grand Tetons

Around the world, researchers seek to understand just how fast glaciers are melting as the planet’s climate warms. In Grand Teton National Park, two new studies are underway as researchers investigate glaciers from different, but complementary perspectives. The first is a study by National Park Service (NPS) scientists who have begun tracing the melt and movement of five glaciers in the park. The second study reflects upon research by a Washington State University biologist, who, in turn, is analyzing how these melting glaciers will affect downstream biodiversity.

Mount Owen and the Grand Teton viewed from the North Fork of Cascade. (Source: NPS Photo/J. Bonney)

Study 1: Tracking Glacial Melt

The crests and canyons of the Teton Range in the Rocky Mountains were shaped during the Ice Ace of the Pleistocene era 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago, when the earth experienced its latest period of repeated glaciations. These giant glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, and the smaller glaciers we see today are the result of the Little Ice Age that lasted from about AD 1400 to 1850. 

Glaciers tend to be highly responsive to climate change because they react both to temperature and precipitation. In 2014, NPS scientists and climbing rangers began measuring the health of several glaciers in Grand Teton National Park. They include Peterson, Schoolroom, Teton, Falling Ice, and the revered Middle Teton Glacier. Located on the eastern slope of the third highest peak in the Teton Range, Middle Teton is one of the first sights noticeable from the highway, and is a popular mountaineering route for visitors.

Park scientists record GPS locations on Schoolroom Glacier
(Source: National Park Service)

Each year, scientists busy themselves planting PVC stakes in the ice, setting up time lapse cameras, and using GPS systems to quantify ice surface change. This year, from June through September, approximately 25 feet of the snowpack melted on Middle Teton. While this certainly sounds like a large loss, it is still unclear whether this level of melting is normal given the sparse collection of historical data. Because this study has just begun, it will take about ten years before park scientists can really see how their data fits in with climate change models. 

While there has been some intermittent monitoring over the past few decades, little prior research has been done to track the rate of glacial melt in the park. Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, says this is probably because the Teton glaciers are not very large in comparison to other glaciers in the region, and thus are not as far-reaching in terms of their water contribution to the overall watershed. In contrast, said Pelto, glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park are much bigger and thus affect the surrounding ecosystems on a much larger scale, so more information has been collected regarding their melt rate.

Check out: From a Glacier’s Perspective

A blog by Mauri Pelto

Study 2: The effect of surface glaciers on downstream biodiversity

Nevertheless, the glaciers of the Grand Tetons do have a direct impact on their local environment, especially on the ecosystems located downstream. “I am very interested in the Grand Teton glacier study as it directly informs my research,” said Scott Hotaling in an interview with GlacierHub. Hotaling is a postdoctoral biological researcher at Washington State University analyzing biodiversity in high elevation alpine streams. 

Hotaling and his crew have trekked up the steep alpine slopes every year since 2015, sometimes in very bad weather, to collect diversity samples in various types of alpine streams. They examine streams fed by groundwater aquifers, permanent surface glaciers, snowfields, and subterranean ice (also called “icy seeps”). In the field, stream type can be identified by a variety of characteristics such as temperature and the specific conductivity of water, explained Hotaling.

For instance, glacier fed streams are very cold and display a rugged stream channel while groundwater streams are warmer, at 3-4 degrees Celsius. Icy seeps have lobes like a glacier so they look like a flowing mass of rock and come out at about 0.2 degrees Celsius. Moreover, streams that interact with rock have a much higher ionic content than snowmelt or glacier fed streams.

Scott Hotaling sampling an alpine stream under Skillet Glacier in Grand Teton National Park
(Source: Wyoming Public Media/Taylor Price)

Most of Hotaling’s work focuses on high-elevation stream macroinvertebrates like stoneflies. However, in order “to fully understand the breadth of climate change threats, a more thorough accounting of microbial diversity is needed.” Therefore, his recently published study in Global Change Biology focused on the diversity of microbial communities in high elevation alpine streams in both Grand Teton National Park and Glacier National Park.

He found that the microbial biodiversity of alpine streams does not differ between these two subranges of the Rockies, but does indeed differ depending on the origin of its water source. Streams fed by the parks’ iconic surface glaciers support microbes that are not found in other alpine stream types, and thus increase environmental heterogeneity. Importantly, results from Hotaling’s research show that patterns of microbial diversity correlate strongly with overall trends in biodiversity.

Should the park’s glaciers disappear, alpine stream water will warm, causing them to become more biodiverse because more organisms thrive in warmer streams than extremely cold ones. However, this diversity will instead represent warm-adapted species. Consequently, the glacier-fed streams will become more similar to the landscape, and biodiversity will therefore become more homogenous.

Visit Wyoming Public Media.org
to learn more about Hotaling’s research on Lednia tetonica, a macroinvertebrate that can only be found in alpine streams of the Grand Teton Mountain Range

Lednia tetonica nymph found in Grand Teton alpine stream (Source: Wyoming Public Media/Cooper McKim)

Interestingly, while snowmelt-fed streams and glacier-fed streams each have their own unique biotic communities, icy seeps boast representative species from both communities. Because icy seeps are shaded from solar radiation by insulating debris cover, researchers are hopeful that some of the rare glacial species will persist even after the surface glaciers are gone. We do not know how long the subterranean rock glaciers will last, but “we do know that the Beartooth Mountains support subterranean ice blocks that have been there for a long time in places where there aren’t glaciers around them,” noted Hotaling.

Just like the NPS glacial melt study, Hotaling’s study is in its infancy. There is a lot of “noise” collecting environmental data in such high locations, and so far, his team has only collected five years-worth of data. “We are aiming for the ten-year mark,” said Hotaling, in order to determine if there is a trend in overall biodiversity over time as the glaciers of Grand Teton and Glacier National Park diminish due to a perpetually warming climate.

Conclusion

It is hard to say just how long the Tetons’ glaciers will last. While some research shows that Glacier National Park could be glacier-free within the next few decades, there is also contradicting research that suggest some glaciers are shrinking more slowly than others. Whether this is due to high altitudes, persistent shading by the mountain slopes they have retreated into, heavy avalanching, or a persistent snow accumulation zone, it seems some glaciers may hang in there a bit longer, noted Pelto. Still, the overall trend is negative.

“I monitor glaciers in mountain ranges around the world – two-hundred and fifty of them – and they’re all doing the same thing. They’re all showing the same climate signal” said Pelto. “They [the Tetons] are not unique. We are fooling ourselves if we think they are doing something differently.”

Schoolroom Glacier retreat from 1987 (left) to 2007 (right)
[Source: National Park Service/Cushman (left), National Park Service (right)]

Sarah Strauss, who lived in Wyoming for over twenty years, expressed: “I can say that people in Wyoming are very proud of the National Parks in the state, both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and also identify strongly with being part of a mountain culture. Glaciers, as part of that mountain culture context, are an essential feature of the landscape.” Losing them will surely impact both the natural and cultural dynamic of the region.

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Glacial Ice Core Samples Reveal Sustainable Land-Use Practices in the Ancient Incan Empire

In the Eastern Cordillera of Bolivia, pollen grains travel from near and far to become sandwiched in layers of snow in the Andean mountaintops, ultimately becoming trapped as the layers turn to ice. Such is the case on the Illimani Glacier, which towers approximately 2,500 meters over Lake Titicaca. The lake sits at an altitude of 3,800 meters above sea level in what was the heart of the ancient Incan Empire.

University of Bern paleoecologist Sandra Brugger headed a team of researchers from various European universities to investigate the vegetative history of the Andean region. Their findings, published in Quaternary Scientific Reviews, indicate that the Inca used sustainable land use practices and that large scale ecological changes did not occur until 1740, long after the Spanish invasion and fall the Inca. The study is one of the first to reconstruct past ecology using pollen grains pulled from glacial ice.

The goal of Brugger’s study was to determine the resilience potential of the Andean mountain-forest ecosystem to a varying intensity of anthropogenic land-use practices. The researchers constructed a timeline of vegetation from 10,000 BC through to the present day. Of particular interest were the years following 1438, which represented the transition from the rise to the demise of the ancient Inca, which was then followed by the the reign of their Spanish conquerors. The degree to which the indigenous peoples altered their environment is a topic still deeply debated amongst researchers.

The Moray Agricultural Terraces (Source: Flickr/Shawn Harquail)

Much like tree rings, glacial ice accumulates in distinct annual layers; therefore, scientists can date ice core samples by ring counting, analyzing the layer’s isotopic signature, or by finding evidence of volcanic eruptions that have been well-dated throughout history. These methods are extremely accurate. Ice from the uppermost layers, which correspond to the last two-hundred years, can be dated within two to five years, while the ice corresponding to the time period of the Incas can be pinpointed to within two decades of accuracy.

The methods for extracting ice cores are actually quite challenging, Brugger said. An experienced team is required to extract samples from high altitudes because conditions become increasingly treacherous with elevation. Moreover, they must ensure that samples remain frozen throughout the delivery process—in this case, from Bolivia to Switzerland. “If they melt, samples are no good,” said Brugger.

The team of Margit Schwikowski at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland undertook these dangerous drillings, climbing to an elevation of approximately 6,000 meters above sea level. Additionally, they analyzed the chronology and measured many chemical species in the ice cores. Two core samples from the Illimani Glacier were extracted: one in 1999 and another in 2015.

Ice core drilling in Barrow, Alaska (Source: Flickr/NASA: Kathryn Hansen)

Once in the lab, Brugger applied a series of evaporative and chemical-processing techniques to isolate pollen grains from samples corresponding to specific time periods. Each of the samples held approximately 500 pollen grains. “A good sample took me two to three hours to identify,” she said. A bad sample, she added, could take an entire day. The whole process took about three months.

The trickiest part, according to Brugger, was the patience required to identify the pollen. Not only is the catchment area of Illimani large, but the Amazon basin is also one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, so many different species of pollen were represented in the samples. Undoubtedly, the identification process was painstaking work that required long days behind a microscope at a lab bench – far from the charm of the Bolivian Glacier.

Sandra Brugger counting pollen with a light microscope (Source: Manu Friederich)

Much of the previous research on Andean vegetation was constructed using pollen grains from lake sediments, noted Brugger, which ultimately captures more of a local signal from vegetation directly surrounding the lake. In what was the heart of the Incan Empire near Lake Titicaca, archaeological records suggest that pre-European cultures were highly advanced, domesticating llamas and alpacas, harvesting a wide variety of crops, and practicing metallurgy. Together, these practices could have brought about significant land-use impacts.

Digging deeper, researchers found that llama dung was an important maize fertilizer for the indigenous Andeans.

The switch to agricultural reliance allowed the Inca to abandon traditional hunting and gathering methods and supported the growth of society. An article recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science details how oribatid mites that once dined on llama feces have been found in sediment cores from wetlands such as Lake Marcacocha, high in the Andes. As merchants passed through these areas with their llamas and maize yields, they boosted the oribatid mite population of the wetlands. This population boom strongly correlates with the time period dominated by the Inca (1483-1533), and the mites’ eventual decline corresponds to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who wiped out the Inca and replaced their llamas with cows, horses, and sheep.

Interestingly, a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science suggests that llamas are not as impactful on the landscape as the Old World animals brought over by the Spanish. While llamas graze evenly among the various plant types, cows and sheep appear to be more scrupulous in their dietary decisions. Llamas do not eat plants down to their roots and have padded feet that are less environmentally destructive than hooves. Additionally, explained Brugger, while the native Puna grasses declined around 1740, the population of nutrient-loving weedy species escalated due most likely to the increase European cattle grazing activity. Therefore, the Incan llama grazed the land in a way that was sustainable to the Andean ecosystem, while their European counterparts decimated the land.

Unlike lakes, glaciers trap pollen on a larger scale, as particles drift in from a catchment area of approximately 200-300 kilometers in each direction. Brugger’s research suggests that, on a large scale, the Incan people did not change the Andean forest composition. It is important to note that local versus regional pollen collection methods do not necessarily contradict one another, said Brugger. Instead, they reveal that pockets of disturbance may have occurred closer to the lake where paths and roads were constructed, but overall, the Incan empire did not leave a significant ecological footprint.

Puna vegetation, typical of the Bolivian altiplano (Source: Flickr/Geoff Gallice)

The team identified vegetation that dates as far back as 10,000 BC, establishing an ecological baseline of plant diversity prior to human intervention in the landscape. The baseline served as the control for which human-induced vegetation change over time could be compared.

Brugger found small signs of maize, quinoa, and amaranth, after AD 1, suggesting that the Incas, as well as the indigenous populations before them, grew agricultural crops. Despite signs of human impact, Puna composition did not deviate from previous centuries.

Likewise, the expansion of Polylepis and Alnus after the year 800 followed a warming climate trend. Although Alnus, commonly know as alder, was favored for agroforestry, its range did not dissipate during the Incan regime. According to the book An Environmental History of Latin America, the Incan emperor himself maintained a sustained population of Alder and inflicted harsh punishments for unauthorized logging. In an area naturally defined by so little trees, the alder’s continued existence suggests strict environmental regulation. Its population soon declined with the arrival of Europeans.

A eucalyptus plantation (Source: Flickr/Hari Priyadi)

According to Brugger’s data, changes in the mountain forest composition didn’t occur until around 1740 (two hundred years after the fall of the Incan Empire), implying a long transitional period before the Spanish were able to establish a stable land-use system. After 1740, the pollen record showed a rapid increase in dry grasses and nutrient-loving, weedy species, typical of pasturelands. Then, around 1950, signs of eucalyptus and pine appear in the pollen record, a result of the Bolivian land reform that promoted timber plantations.

Picture from Illimani sitting above La Paz (Source: Margit Schwikowski)

Brugger is now stationed at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, analyzing pollen and charcoal in ice cores from Central Greenland in order to reconstruct the response of sensitive Arctic ecosystems to past climate change. “It was a sensation that the approach actually worked,” said Brugger, “as the site was extremely remote from any plants — and pollen.” The prestudy to the project is published in The Holocene.

Glaciers provide an incredible glimpse into the past because they safeguard microscopic clues that allow researchers to uncover our most ancient secrets. For instance, Brugger’s study suggests that the Incan people, though large in number, were able to form a society that peacefully coexisted with its environment. Modern society has largely degraded the Bolivian ecosystem, but might learn a thing or two by studying ancient Incan methods of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry. Brugger’s research is part of a larger project that examines glacial cores from around the world to explain our past. As the project gains momentum, scientists can begin to unravel other fascinating mysteries trapped within glacial ice.

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