Rock Glaciers Help Protect Species in a Warmer Climate

Grasses and other plant species often thrive on the periphery of major glaciers on active rock periglaciers (Source: Savannah Theilbar).

In a recent study by Duccio Tampucci et al., rock glaciers in the Italian Alps have been shown to host a wide variety of flora and fauna, supporting plant and arthropod species during temporary decadal periods of climatic warming. Certain species that thrive in cold conditions have been prone to high environmental stress during warm climate stages in the past, but given the results of Tampucci’s research, it is now clear that these species may be able to survive in periglacial settings on the edge of existing glaciers.

One of many species of arthropods equipped to survive in cold temperatures on glacier surfaces. (Source: Rebecca Rendon).

Active rock glaciers, commonly found on the border of larger glaciers and ice sheets, are comprised of coarse debris with intermixed ice or an ice-core. The study has valuable implications on how organisms may respond to changes in temperature, offering a possible explanation for species’ resiliency.

Jonathan Anderson, a retired Glacier National Park ranger, spoke to GlacierHub about the importance of periglacial realms in providing a habitat for animals displaced by modern climate change. “In the years spent in and around the park, it’s clear that more and more animals are feeling the impact of climate change and global warming,” he said. “The areas surrounding the larger glaciers are becoming even more important than before and are now home to many of the species that lived on the receded glacier.”

In their study, Tampucci and team analyzed abiotic dimensions of active rock glaciers such as ground surface temperature, humidity and soil chemistry, as well as biotic factors related to the species abundance of plants and arthropods. This data was then compared to surrounding iceless regions characterized by large scree slopes (small loose stones covering mountain slopes) as an experimental control for the glaciated landforms of interest. Comparisons between these active scree slopes and rock glaciers revealed similar soil geochemistry, yet colder ground surface temperatures existed on the rocky glaciers. Thus, more cold-adapted species existed on rock glaciers.

The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source:
The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source:

The distribution of plant and arthropod species was found to be highly variable, dependent upon soil pH and the severity of mountain slope-instability. This variability is because the fraction of coarse debris and quantity of organic matter changes with the landform’s activity, or amount of mass wasting occurring downslope. The study notes that the heterogeneity in landforms in mountainous regions augments the overall biodiversity of the region.

Anderson affirmed this idea, noting, “The difference in habitats between glaciated terrain and the surrounding, more vegetated regions is crucial for allowing a wide range of animals to coexist.” This variety of landforms contributes to a wide variety of microclimates in which ecologically diverse organisms can reside in close proximity.

Cold-adapted species are likely the first to be affected by region-wide seasonal warming. As temperatures increase, cold-weather habitats are liable to reduce in size and shift to higher altitudinal belts, resulting in species reduction and possible extirpation. Tampucci et al.’s study affirmed the notion that active rock glaciers serve as refugia for cold-adapted species due to the landscape’s microclimate features.

A view of the shrinking alpine-glacial environment that many species call home (Source: Daniel Rojillo).

The local periglacial environment in the Italian Ortles-Cevedale Massif, for example, was shown to be decoupled from greater regional climate, with sufficient thermal inertia (resistance to temperature change) to support cold-adapted species on a decadal timescale.

Despite the conclusive findings that largely affirm previous assumptions about biodiversity in active rock glaciers, the authors carefully point out that the glacier’s ability to serve as refugia for certain species depends entirely on the length of the warm-climate stage, which can potentially last for millennia. Additionally, the macroclimatic context in which the glaciers reside is important and can influence the landform’s thermal inertia, affecting the temporal scale at which the landscape can shelter cold-climate plants and arthropods.

The ice crawler Grylloblatta campodeiformis is another example of a cold-adapted arthropod species (Source: Piotr Naskrecki).

The idea that certain periglacial regions may be the saving grace for small plants and animals is encouraging, yet these landforms fail to offer a permanent solution for conservation ecologists. Although active rock glaciers can harbor cold-adapted species for lengths of time, when an organism is forced to depend upon an alpine microclimate, it has become geographically isolated. In this scenario, the degree to which immediately surrounding terrain is inhospitable governs the species’ extinction risk.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that although certain species are adaptable and resilient, every organism has a limit,” Anderson told GlacierHub. “If the local climate continues to warm, these species will likely die in a few generations.” This means that although certain species of arthropods, for example, may be able to survive in undesirably warm conditions, this climatic shift still influences their long-term extinction risk.

While periglacial landforms may play a valuable role in protecting cold-adapted species in temporary periods of climatic warming, a large variety of external factors can influence the length of time an organism may survive in any given microclimate. The understanding that active-rock glaciers can effectively protect a range of plants and arthropods has valuable implications for conservation biologists and biogeographers, offering insight into possible explanations for cold-adapted species resiliency in historical episodes of climatic warming.

Extreme Skiing Expedition Raises Climate Change Awareness

As glacial ice melts due to global warming, explorers Borge Ousland and Vincent Colliard are in the process of skiing across the world’s 20 largest glaciers to raise awareness about climate change. Deemed the Alpina & Ice Legacy Project, the plan seeks to have the duo cross the world’s most isolated glacial realms over the next 10 years. Ousland hopes that his expeditions will help in develop “new technology, political will, and [understanding about] what’s going on,” according to a November 2016 interview with National Geographic. Given the current state of climate change, the two men may not only be the first to accomplish the feat of traveling the world’s 20 largest glaciers, but also the last. 

The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake. Copyright Icelegacy
The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Both athletes are decorated skiers, with combined expedition experience across all seven continents in the past decade. Borge Ousland, the team’s leader, is credited with the first and fastest solo expedition to the North Pole, a journey that took more than 50 days and resulted in severe weight loss and frostbite. Still, only three years later, Ousland became the first to ski 1,864 miles across Antarctica completely unsupported. Now, for the Ice Legacy Project, 54-year-old Ousland has teamed up with 30-year-old Frenchman Vincent Colliard for a multi-stage glacier expedition.

Derek Parron, an experienced backcountry skier and owner of  Rocky Mountain Underground ski company, attested to the audacity of Ousland and Colliard’s expedition in an interview with GlacierHub: “In all my years of doing long ski treks in the backcountry, I’ve never heard of a team working towards such an extraordinary goal,” he said. “Despite the wealth of experience between the two of them, their project is extremely dangerous with a lot of factors that could potentially go wrong.” 

A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale. Copyright Icelegacy.
A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

The skiing and mountaineering community has a great deal of respect for the duo’s ongoing project, and Parron pointed out that “not only are they touring across the world’s largest glaciers, but they’re documenting the entire process for the world to see.”  

Maintaining a presence on social media is an important piece of the project, allowing the public to track the team’s progress across the numerous expeditions. “The world needs to find technical and political solutions to the environmental crisis,” Ousland told GlacierHub. “This long-term expedition is meant to be an incubator to that process, a visual example and a window to what is happening.”

Ousland and Colliard take a moment to celebrate finally arriving on land after paddling across the Alaskan water (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Despite the risks, the duo has already successfully completed two goals of their project with funding support from watchmaker Alpina: crossing the Stikine Glacier in Alaska and the St. Elias-Wrangell Mountains  Ice Field.  

“We’d get up at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, check to see if we got news from the outside world, then start skiing at 8 a.m,”  Colliard commented to National Geographic about a normal expedition day. “We’d ski for nine hours, towing our sleds, which were about 175 pounds per person, taking 15-minute breaks every hour.” The team would cover approximately 12 miles every day, making sure to keep sufficient food available to sustain a 5,000-calorie daily diet. 

Given the dangers of crossing glacier fields in Alaska, the team’s effort to raise awareness about climate change is all the more admirable. Their project outline states that the plan “combines athletic prowess, human adventure and the sharing of knowledge about the polar environment with as many people as possible, so that future generations may enjoy the fascinating and priceless legacy of glaciers and icecaps.” In order to achieve these goals, Ousland described three major dangers that exist when traveling in isolated glacial environments: hidden crevasses, powerful avalanches from the mountains above, and inclement weather in the form of high winds and cold temperatures.

The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges atop the weather. Copyright Icelegacy.
The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges in addition to the weather (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Derek Parron, who has skied similar terrain, confirmed these risks to GlacierHub. “When you’re skinning through glacial valleys like Colliard and Ousland are, the ridge lines of the mountains can be more than 4,000 feet above,” he said. “This makes high altitude avalanches a major concern.” In addition to avalanche danger, when temperatures are cold, high winds have the capacity to lower body temperatures, quickly increasing the explorer’s risk of hypothermia and frostbite as they travel across the ice and snow. 

With the project far from over, the team is set to travel to ten different countries to visit the remaining 16 glaciers on their list. Given the sizable nature of the duo’s plan, maintaining both physical and mental strength is of utmost importance.

“On most trips, the mental element is the biggest part,” Colliard explained to National Geographic. Yet, despite the grueling effort that goes into the long expeditions, he also mentioned an upside to his followers on Instagram, “The wilderness answers my questions, and being isolated on an expedition is the best time to let my mind think about life and future projects.”

“Although many of these glaciers are not commonly traveled by the masses, our generation may be the last to have the chance to witness them in all their beauty,” Derek Parron added to GlacierHub. Parron’s comments emphasize the importance of Ousland and Colliard’s present project, covering thousands of miles of terrain to promote positive environmental stewardship. 

Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit. Copyright Icelegacy.
Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

In reflecting upon the beginning of the project, Colliard explained, “For me, adventure is a moment, an experience, a journey that takes you to a place of uncertainty, a place where success and failure are one in the same, a place where life is authentic.” It is in these thoughts that the team seems to find the drive to explore, pushing to expose the impending threat of climate change on our planet’s few untouched natural environments. In doing so, the men hope that future generations may have access to the same “authentic,” natural experiences we are privileged to enjoy today. 

Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

Photo Friday: The Glacial Alaska Range

The Alaska Range is a narrow, 700-kilometer mountain range defined by rugged peaks and large U-shaped glacial valleys. The range lies in the southeast corridor of Alaska and is home to Denali, the tallest peak in North America. The Alaska range is part of the American Cordillera and possesses peaks only trumped by those in the Himalayas and Andes.

For many decades, the Alaska Range has played host to an incredible variety of landscapes and ecology, with visitors traveling from all over the world to hike, climb and sight see in Denali National Park. One-sixth of Denali National Park, or approximately one million acres, is covered by glaciers, which transport thousands of tons of ice each year, according to the National Park Service. Take a look at GlacierHub’s collection of images of Alaska’s impressive peaks and low valleys shaped by glacial activity over the past million years.


An aerial view of the high altitude peaks of the Alaska Range (Source: Matt Verso/Creative Commons).


Road entering Denali National Park on the east edge of the Alaska Range (Source: Arthur Chapman/Creative Commons).


The U.S. Army flies a helicopter toward Kahiltna Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alaska Range (Source: Commons).


Moving toward the Harper Glacier in Denali National Park (Source: Mikep/Creative Commons).
Moving toward the Harper Glacier in Denali National Park (Source: Mikep/Creative Commons).


An aerial view of the Upper Muldrow Glacier, Denali National Park (Source: Pete Klosterman/Creative Commons).
An aerial view of the Upper Muldrow Glacier, Denali National Park (Source: Pete Klosterman/Creative Commons).


Looking south across the Monahan Flat (Source: Albert Herring/Creative Commons).


Looking east across the Monahan Flat (Source: Paxon Woelber/Creative Commons).


BHBXAJ airplane Canada Kluane National Park mountain; mountains nature unspoiled Yukon Yukon Territory
Southern edge of the Alaska Range (Source: Denali National Park/Creative Commons).

Glacial Retreat Causes A Yukon River to Disappear

Much to the alarm of Canadians, the glacier-fed Slims River has disappeared following extensive glacial melting associated with anthropogenic climate change. Views of the Slims Valley, where the river once flowed, have been replaced by a dry plain, marked only by the sinuous bevels left behind by the river in the soil. These changes have major implications on local ecosystems and will inevitably result in lower water levels in downstream glacial lakes.

For example, for many years, the Yukon’s Kluane Lake has been fed by the continuous flow of the Slims River. Water in the Slims River had been transported from Kaskawulsh Glacier, feeding the Kluane Lake and flowing into the Bering Sea. The Kaskawulsh Glacier is a large temperate valley glacier that lies in the St. Elias Mountains. It measures more than four miles across at its widest, where it meets the Slims and Kaskawulsh Rivers. With the recent melting of the glacier, water has been diverted in the direction of the Kaskawulsh River, which drains nearly 500 kilometers away in the Gulf of Alaska.

Map showing the re-routing of glacial meltwater. Previous route in green, current one in red (Source: Google Earth).

Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey stated to Paul Tukker of CBC News, “Folks have noticed this spring that the [river has] essentially dried up.” This loss of streamflow is the first regional occurrence in the last 350 years, according to the Yukon Geological Survey. Some of the warmest temperatures on record in 2015 and 2016 have had major implications on glacial health in the region, with ice loss reported throughout the surrounding Saint Elias Mountains, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The rangers in the Kluane National Park noted that the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated nearly a half mile to the point where its melt water is now traveling in a completely different direction. In this case, the diversion of glacial meltwater is so substantial that no water is flowing in the direction of the Slims Valley and the downstream Bering Sea. Despite the Slims normally flowing approximately 19 kilometers from the edge of the glacier to Kluane Lake through the Slims Valley, changes to the Kaskawulsh’s spatial distribution have caused meltwater to flow not westward but to the east, flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

A view across the expansive alpine lake in Kluane National Park (Source: James Bunt).

The change in water patterns has major implications for ecosystems in regions experiencing new levels of flow (both in the dryer and the now wetter areas). For example, in the absence of perennial water, the Slims Valley is more prone to dust storms, at least until new vegetation stabilizes the floodplain. Retired Utah Geological Survey geomorphologist Will Stokes told GlacierHub, “The valley may undergo a major ecological evolution over the next few decades, characterized by new flora and fauna.” Although this may seem like a minor adjustment, Stokes explained, “These changes can drastically alter the local food chain, and if lake levels end up lowering dramatically, there may be a major negative impact on local hunting and fishing.”

Jeff Bond further speculated to CBC News that the melt-water system which fed the Slims Valley may have only been a temporary outflow from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, representing a “300-year blip” on a much longer geological timescale in which large glaciers evolve. A study by Harold Borns in the American Journal of Science supports the notion that water began flowing northward around the year 1700, when climatological events caused the glacier to advance, ultimately diverting a large portion of snowmelt towards the Slims Valley and creating the Kluane Lake. This relationship illustrates the impact that regional climate has had on glacial events, with recent warming reversing the changes that occurred in a colder climate multiple centuries ago.

“Although it’s hard to tell how much lake levels in the Kluane will decrease, locals can expect an abrupt decrease in levels,” Stokes added, “followed by a much slower, long-term loss of water once levels stabilize.”

The Yukon Geological Survey postulates that water levels in Kluane Lake will lower by a meter or more in the foreseeable future. Although the Kluane National Park region is not densely populated by humans, lower water levels in the Kluane may stress trout and whitefish populations that are fished throughout the region’s warm months by both locals and visitors.

Although the diversion of water away from downstream communities may, in this case, be unsurprising to Yukon geologists in hindsight, it does shed light on the powerful effects of warmer temperatures and evolving climate dynamics on natural landscapes. The flow of rivers and plentiful caches of freshwater that exist in many regions due to glacial activity may be at serious risk as melting continues and water flow is redistributed.

The Slims River West Trail running along the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier (Source: Dan Arnold).

It is difficult to tell how quickly changes like those that have occurred in the Yukon may happen in the future, yet these events may serve as a microcosm for the forthcoming state of glacial systems in light of anthropogenic climate change. Despite the ongoing study of glacial evolution by earth scientists, events like this in the Yukon really catch the attention of locals and illustrate first hand the effects of living in a warmer world.

Asian Piolets d’Or Awards Recognize Outstanding Alpine Athleticism

On November 4th, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) held the 11th annual Asia Piolets d’Or awards, commemorating outstanding achievements in rock climbing and mountaineering. Considered by many to be the Oscars of alpinism, the awards have motivated progression in Asian mountaineering culture over the last decade, contributing to an ethos of safety, respect and athleticism in alpine and glacial environments.

The awards honor athletes who employ lightweight, alpine-style tactics in their expeditions, rewarding a commitment to technical face climbing and positive environmental stewardship while in the mountains. These alpine style expeditions generally use less gear, leave less waste on the mountain and exemplify respect for the outdoors.

At this year’s event in Seoul, Korea, six winners of the Piolets d’Or Asia were announced (comprising two climbing teams) along with recipients of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award and the coveted Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement accolade.

In an interview with GlacierHub, American Alpine Club lifetime member Edward Rinkowski spoke to the prestige of the ceremony by stating, “Winning a Piolet d’Or is arguably the highest of achievements in climbing beyond one’s personal climbing goals. No one really sets out to win one, but if the academy recognizes you, it means you’re doing something right. ”

View looking towards the south face on the Gangapurna Glacier (Source: Google Earth Commons).

Award recipients belonged to a pair of teams, one from South Korea and the other from Japan. Led by Chang-Ho Kim, the Korean team of three successfully established a new route on the south face of Mt. Gangapurna, a glaciated 7,455 meter (24,459 feet) peak in the west Nepalese Annapurna region. Gangapurna was first climbed by a German expedition in 1965. Since then, only eight teams have successfully reached its summit.

Kim, along with his climbing partners Suk-Mun Choi and Joung-Yong Park, ascended  Gangapurna’s south face via a new, technically demanding route full of glacial ice and loose rock. They managed to leave no trace of their climb, having recovered all of their gear and expedition waste from the mountain.

Rinkowski, who has climbed in this region, told GlacierHub, “The combination of technical climbing and high altitudes can be absolutely brutal. Hearing that the team recovered all of their gear is extremely impressive.” The expedition’s leader Kim is a laudable recipient of the Piolets d’Or award, having completed all 14 of the Himalayan Giants Earth’s peaks looming taller than 8,000 meters by 2016.

An example of a hanging belay on a big wall, where no major ledge exists to rest upon (Source: Jimmy Chin).

The Japanese team that received the Piolets d’Or honor also consisted of three members: Koji Ito, Yusuke Sato and Kimihiro Miyagi. The group of athletes successfully climbed the Golden Pillar in the Tsurugidake Kurobe Valley, a 380m near vertical rock face in Japan. Their climb required a dangerous snow-covered bivouac (a temporary camp without tents) overnight, which subjected the team to hypothermia and frostbite. Additionally, the climb involved nine hanging belays, meaning that the team rarely had the opportunity to rest on ledges and solid ground after they set off from the ground.

The Kurobe Valley is considered by many alpinists to be more difficult than climbing Himalayan peaks of comparable prominence and is known for experiencing unpredictable, powerful winter storms. The team lived in the snowy region for 22 days, spending much of their time trapped in a tent awaiting a safe weather window to attempt the climb.

Having been on many alpine expeditions himself, Rinkowski talked to GlacierHub about the Japanese team’s climb. “Being stuck in such a desperate situation not only puts stress on the climbers physically, but even more so mentally,” he said. “Riding out such a long storm window can be demoralizing.”

Despite the adverse conditions and difficulty of the ascent, the three men reached the peak’s summit and returned home safely. Less than a dozen teams have successfully climbed the Golden Pillar, especially in the kind of weather conditions present during Koji Ito’s team’s attempt.

Winners of the Golden Climbing Shoe Award included Keita Kurakami, who free-climbed in traditional style the Senjitsu-no-ruri route on the Moai Face of Japan’s Mt. Mizugaki (without the use of bolts or pitons except at belay stations), and Han-na-rai Song, this year’s women’s ice climbing champion from the Rabenstein World Cup event. The golden shoe award is presented to athletes who have achieved exemplary success in the realm of competitive climbing and sport/trad climbing, recognizing great achievements outside of the Piolet d’Or’s alpine realm.  

An ice climber works their way up the wall at a World Cup ice climbing event (Source: Max Res).

Capping off the evening at the ceremony was the second annual Piolets d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award, which was gifted to 84-year-old Tamotsu Nakamura from Japan. Nakamura has participated in thirty-eight successful expeditions in southeast Tibet and China over the last twenty-five years. He has attained numerous first ascents in the glaciated Cordillera Blanca range of Peru. In addition to his climbing efforts, Nakamura has discovered, documented and mapped countless unclimbed peaks in some of the most isolated mountainous regions in the world. As a product of his climbs, maps and photographic stories, he has attained hero-status in Japan, where he motivates the nation’s youth to pursue their dreams no matter how big the mountain that lies ahead.  

On the evolving state of climbing and exploration as a whole, Nakamura stated, “Some convince themselves that veiled mountains in the greater ranges are an experience of the past, but Tibet has an incredibly vast and complex topography that holds countless unclimbed summits, and beckons a lifetime’s search.”

Although many of the world’s glacial and alpine realms have been explored in the last few decades, Nakamura reminds the youthful generation of climbers that “peaks are stunning and magnificent” and “many of them will remain enigmas for generations without the motivation to go forth and explore.” This ideology epitomizes the spirit of the Piolet d’Or awards in Asia, promoting exploration and ascent through the lens of positive environmental stewardship.

Photo Friday: Thanksgiving Dinner and High Altitude Meals

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday represents a day to give thanks for all of our blessings and signals the beginning of the winter holiday season. The day is often celebrated with a traditional turkey dinner in the company of family and friends. In the spirit of Thanksgiving’s gastronomical tradition, GlacierHub took a look at the types of food consumed by climbers on expeditions in high-altitude glacial environments. Eating properly on and before a strenuous climb is an essential part of any successful ascent.

After finishing your pumpkin pie this holiday season, take a look at some of the meals consumed at high elevations from some amazing glacial regions:


Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson enjoy breakfast high on the mountain (Source: Cory Richards).



A typical setup for on-mountain nutrition while climbing above base camp (Source: TA Loeffler).



A high-altitude tent tea house where basic snacks and tea are served. Everest base camp lies in a Hindu area where the slaughtering of animals is prohibited (Source: MountainIQ).



The traditional Dal Bhat dish, which is commonly consumed in Nepal, Bangladesh and India (Source: 松岡明芳).











Small Particles Have Big Impact on Glacial Health

A recent study by Heidi Smith et al. in the desolate McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica has shown that microbial life in biofilms is present across a large part of the region’s ice, suggesting that the stability of polar ice can be influenced by even the smallest of organisms.

Biofilms—thin, slimy bacterial layers that can adhere to a surface—were discovered in conjunction with the windblown dust that accumulates on snow and ice called cryoconite. The research found that a combination of biofilms and cryoconite is capable of enhancing the rate of glacial melting, meaning that the planet may be more vulnerable to sea level rise than previously imagined.

As an important component in the planet’s hydrological and carbon cycles, glacial melting affects sea levels and the chemistry of our oceans. This meltwater enhances the movement of fluids from terrestrial environments to oceans, as well as the transport of nutrients to aquatic ecosystems. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the activity of microorganisms on the glacier surface enables the accumulation of organic matter on minerals found in the ice’s dusty cryoconite layers. This relationship results in the darkening of ice over time, making it less efficient at reflecting incoming sunlight than it would be normally. As most of Antarctica’s ice lies atop the continental landmass,  increased melting at the Earth’s southern pole may lead to an appreciable rise in global sea levels.

A view of the Canada Glacier involved in the field study. (Source:Joe Mastroianni, National Science Foundation)
A view of the Canada Glacier involved in the field study (Source: Joe Mastroianni/National Science Foundation).

Prior research in alpine glacial environments and on the Greenland Ice Sheet (Langford et al. 2010) established a correlation between biofilm development and the darkening of cryoconite particles, pointing towards the synergistic possibility of biologically enhanced rates of melting. Until the recent publication of key research by Heidi Smith et al., the role of biofilms in Antarctica was largely unknown.

In conversation with GlacierHub, Smith stated that “the role of biofilms in different glacial locations has not been explored.” She added “due to differences in environmental pressures (temperature extremes, nutrient availability, levels of UV radiation, and rates of flushing), it is possible that the role of biofilms in glacial surface processes varies by location.” Smith’s team was able to establish the precedence of biofilms at extreme southern latitudes in their research and also contributed to the larger body of scientific evidence supporting the role of microbes in influencing reflectivity, otherwise known as albedo, of glaciers.

Smith and her research colleagues employed a variety of methods to investigate the interactions between the biological and mineralogical components of Antarctic ice. Microbial species were identified in the lab via pyrosequencing (which determines the order of nucleotides in DNA by detecting the release of the pyrophosphate ion) as well as epifluorescent microscopy (which utilizes a compound microscope equipped with a high-intensity light source). The team’s research yielded four unique bacterial components in biofilms found in cryoconite holes. Interestingly, Smith told GlacierHub that “while some organisms identified in this study have also been found in cryoconite holes from the Greenland Ice sheet, the relative abundance of individual organisms in each of these locations appears to be geographically distinct.”

The Trans-Antarctic Mountains, a prominent feature in Northern Victoria Land (Source: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute).

The primary region for fieldwork and sampling for the study was an ice-lidded cryoconite hole on the Canada Glacier, located near Victoria Land, Antarctica. When asked about why the team chose to work in this isolated region, Smith replied: “There are previous studies from this region that have focused on cryoconite hole geochemistry, rates of microbial activity and microbial assemblage composition; therefore, we could place samples from this study into a larger framework.”

Following fieldwork on the glacier, subsequent laboratory analysis showed that enriched levels of nitrogen and carbon isotopes were present when Bacteroidetes (one of the four main bacterial phyla) was incubated in the presence of compounds such as sodium bicarbonate and ammonia. These findings point to the conclusion that the spatial organization within a microbially rich biofilm can promote the transfer of chemical compounds and nutrients. Such a result serves to validate the hypothesis that the formation of biofilms may enhance the accumulation of organic material on cryoconite minerals, thus affecting the color and reflectivity of glacial surfaces.

The study concluded that not only are biofilms present in nearly thirty-five percent of cryoconite holes in Antarctica, but that due to regional differences in the distribution of black carbon between the study region and the Arctic, biofilm may play a heightened role (relative to the northern hemisphere) in promoting biological activity on glaciers. Smith added, “In addition to influencing levels of glacial melt, biofilms have the potential to alter marine ecosystems through glacial runoff.” Additionally, she said, “There is also the potential for increases in CO2 release, which contributes to the rising temperatures globally.”

The research by Smith and her team points to important feedback loops with future increases in temperature, as longer melt seasons will stimulate biofilm communities, which alone have the capacity to increase rates of glacial melt. If temperatures continue to rise, the positive feedback between a warmer climate and lower reflectivity on ice surfaces may lead to exponentially faster rates of glacial melt and sea level rise. Overall, these findings illustrate the environment’s sensitivity to the emissions that human populations generate, suggesting that given enough pressure, Antarctic ice may enter a runaway downward spiral of rapid melting. 

Roundup: Drone Research, Tianshan Glaciers, and Indigenous Alaskans

Roundup: Drones, Glacier Mass and Vulnerability


Drone Research Points to Global Warming

From Pacific Standard: “Aaron Putnam is an hour behind them, hiking with a team of students, research assistants, and local guides. He’s a glacial geologist from the University of Maine, and he and his team are here to collect the surface layer of granite boulders implanted in those moraines that formed at the margins of the glacier…The team hopes that data derived from the rock can tell them when the ice melted. ‘This was the singular most powerful, most important climate event in human history. It allowed us to flourish,’ Putnam says. ‘But we don’t know why that happened.’ Putnam is trying to determine what caused the Ice Age’s demise; the answer could help us identify the triggers that cause abrupt climate change.”

Learn more about how the study of glaciers points to our climate’s future here:

The research team photographs the landscape near the study’s sampling site (Source: Kevin Stark/Pacific Standard).


Central Asia Feels Effects of Global Warming

From Molecular Diversity Preservation International: “Global climate change has had a profound and lasting effect on the environment. The shrinkage of glacier ice caused by global warming has attracted a large amount of research interest, from the global scale to specific glaciers. Apart from polar ice, most research is focused on glaciers on the third pole—the Asian high mountains. Called the Asian water tower, the Asian high mountains feed several major rivers by widespread glacier melt. Changing glacier mass there will have a far-reaching influence on the water supply of billions of people. Therefore, a good understanding of the glacier mass balance is important for planning and environmental adaptation.”

Learn more about glacier mass balance and associated environmental adaption here:

An aerial photo depicting a sector of the Tianshan mountains (Source: Chen Zhao/Flickr).


Perspectives from Indigenous Subarctic Alaskans

From Ecology and Society: “Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities currently are facing a myriad of social and environmental changes. In response to these changes, studies concerning indigenous knowledge (IK) and climate change vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation have increased dramatically in recent years. Risks to lives and livelihoods are often the focus of adaptation research; however, the cultural dimensions of climate change are equally important because cultural dimensions inform perceptions of risk. Furthermore, many Arctic and Subarctic IK climate change studies document observations of change and knowledge of the elders and older generations in a community, but few include the perspectives of the younger population.”

Learn more about the younger generation’s perception of climate change and its impacts here:

An Indigenous Iñupiat Alaskan family (Source: Edward S. Curtis/Wikimedia Commons).


Patagonian Ice Holds the Key to Unlocking the Past

A research team recently conducted a study in the Northern Patagonia Ice Field (NPI) to uncover some of the mystery behind Earth’s ancient climate. Along the way, the team made important observations about the current state of glacial ice thinning and climate change.

Through their investigation of ancient paleoclimates (climates prevalent in the geological past), the scientists were able to identify time periods where major glacial growth and decline occurred in the Patagonian Ice Field, contributing important information to our understanding of our planet’s climate following the last ice age. Developing a strong comprehension of glacial advance and retreat over the last 10,000 years in places like the Patagonian Ice Field provides the scientific community with tools to augment our understanding of the past, as the planet’s climate is intrinsically related to its ecology at any given point in our recent geological history.

An astronaut’s photo of a glacier outlet meeting a fjord in the Southern Patagonia Icefield. (Source: NASA)

Patagonia hosts a wide variety of largely untouched landscapes, possessing a range of environments from mountains and deserts to glaciers and grasslands. In addition to its mountainous beauty, the Northern Patagonia Icefield is special in that it is the most glaciated terrain on the planet within its latitude of 46.5 to 47.5 degrees south. The region where the ice field lies is a barren sector of South America spanning nearly 3 million square kilometers across southern Argentina and Chile.

In the glaciated terrain, thick layers of ice and rock hold a wealth of information regarding global climates of the last 25,000 years, offering a glimpse of where we are headed given the recent anthropogenic (human-caused) acceleration of climate change. The study provided scientists with valuable climate data from the Late Pleistocene and Holocene time periods, which began approximately 125,000 years ago following the final episode of widespread global glaciation.

The lead researchers of the study, David Nimick and Daniel McGrath, focused specifically on the the largest outlet glacier draining in the region, the Colonia Glacier on the eastern flank of the ice field. The team sought to constrain the ages of major glacial events by using a variety of dating techniques, including dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), radiocarbon dating, lichenometry (utilizing lichen growth to determine the age of exposed rock) as well as optically stimulated luminescence (dating the last time quartz sediments were exposed to sunlight). Employing such a wide variety of experimental techniques can be a valuable tool in improving the confidence of data and allowed the team to study a diversity of unique properties of the same glacial medium.  

Lichen covered quartz ideal for lichenometry and luminescense. (Source: Tigerente/Wikimedia Commons)

By examining properties of lichen and quartz grains (when they were last exposed to sunlight), the research team was able to  constrain the time at which specific rocks were uncovered from the ice sheets. The age at which the ice melted away to reveal these rocks corresponds to events of retreat (and subsequent advance) of glacial ice across the last few millennia. The determination of major glacial events using these techniques sheds light on the climatic events that not only influenced South American paleoclimate but also may affect present and future glacial retreat given the recent spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Results from dating analyses indicated that the most prominent increase in glaciated terrain occurred 13,200 years ago, 11,000 years ago and 4,960 years ago, with the last major advance defining the onset of Neoglaciation – the period of significant cooling during the Holocene or present day epoch. Analysis of a local ice-dammed lake revealed that glacial growth occurred 2,900 years ago and 810 years ago, with ice retreating during the intervening periods. This data points to the idea that in a general sense, warming and cooling even within the last 11,000 year Holocene interglacial period is highly cyclical. Significant Colonia Glacier thinning has been observed since the late 1800’s which has opened up low elevation channels for the local Lago Cachet Dos, a possible reflection of our warming climate and the greenhouse effect.

This knowledge provides an effective framework to which we can compare our actively changing climate. The timing between periods of glacial advance and subsequent retreat are useful metrics for judging the speed at which terrestrial ice is currently disappearing.

Glacial ice melts as it floats in a region north of the NPI. (Source: Adam Derewecki)

Nimick’s team’s findings show advance of the Colonia Glacier occurring approximately every 1,000 years under a climate with generally stable atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Given the recent benchmark event of passing the 400ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide threshold, it is undeniable that human activity, particularly in the form of carbon emissions, is altering global climate and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

As we continue to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the stable conditions that contributed to the glacial patterns discovered in the study may no longer be present. Increases in greenhouse gases and a warming planet may spell disaster for ice sheets, yet the current speed and extent of glacial melting remain uncertain. Nevertheless, understanding glacial patterns in the Northern Patagonia Ice Field has improved our understanding of paleoclimate following the last ice age and may in fact contribute to our ability to improve forecasts for glacial retreat in the coming years.

High Altitude Himalayan Heroes Denied Summit Certificates

Two Sherpas standing atop Denali in Alaska
Two Sherpas on an international climbing expedition to Denali in Alaska (source: Wikimedia Commons).

The beauty and mystique of Mt. Everest has never ceased to capture the world’s imagination, inspiring climbers from all over the globe to test their fitness on the iconic mountain’s south face. For some, reaching the planet’s paramount point is a conquest, one made more enticing by Everest’s unrelenting media attention and its recent commercial availability to Western climbers. For others, especially local Sherpas, the mountain and its growing presence in the adventure tourism industry represents one of few opportunities for seasonal income and food on the family dinner table.

The latest chapter in the long history of climbing on Mount Everest has ended in conflict, provoked by the Nepalese government’s failure to provide Sherpas with summit certificates.  Without certificates to verify successful summits on high altitude peaks, the Sherpas’ ability to financially benefit from climbing expeditions on local mountains may be dramatically reduced.  

In isolated Himalayan mountain towns, the economic stimulus provided by large climbing expeditions can be dramatic, offering Sherpas the opportunity to work alongside international alpinists in hauling gear, fixing ropes and offering all-around support in strenuous high-altitude environments.   The average yearly income in Nepal is $691, according to the United Nations data library, meaning that porters who may earn between $2500 and $5000 in a climbing season are making a major fiscal contribution to their families. Even so, this contribution comes at a steep price, with porters facing major safety risks associated with mountaineering.

Despite being an integral part of Mt. Everest’s climbing history since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent in 1953, Sherpas who successfully summited the peak during the 2016 climbing season were denied summit certificates by the Nepalese Tourism Ministry. In an interview with Tshering Paldourche, a Sherpa from Khumjung, Nepal, he indicated that Sherpas have never been denied summit certificates before the 2015-2016 climbing season.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their historic ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The controversy over denied summit certificates stems from the Nepalese government’s sudden refusal to recognize the Sherpas as members of international climbing expeditions, prohibiting Sherpas from qualifying for a certificate. The Nepalese Ministry of Tourism’s Mountaineering Expedition Regulation, introduced in 2002, states that “the Ministry shall provide a certificate of mountaineering expedition to the mountaineering expedition team and the member of such team for successful mountaineering expedition in the format as prescribed in schedule 13.” Sherpas lost the privilege of receiving summit certificates during the 2015-2016 climbing season under the schedule 13 rules because they were not officially classified as members of the expedition team.

Even though Sherpas are an integral part of most successful summit bids, many  failed to pay permit fees on Everest last year, which disqualified them as official members of a mountaineering expedition team. Because Sherpas are natives and are working on high-altitude peaks, they’re not required to pay permit fees, meaning that they were left vulnerable following the government’s refusal to supply certificates. Although receiving a summit document often serves as a trophy of sorts for international climbers, for Sherpas the validation means job security and the opportunity to provide a better life for their families.

According to the Himalayan ClubSherpas in search of work who had migrated from Nepal to Darjeeling, West Bengal, offered much of the assistance to Western mountaineers in the early to mid-1900’s. By utilizing summit records and employer’s references, Sherpas were able to develop official resumes to aid in securing employment with future expeditions. In 1928, the Himalayan Club developed a formal method of documenting Sherpas’ climbing records which allowed those with experience to find work with incoming foreign expeditions. Today, without certificates and thus an official record of high altitude summits, Sherpas must deal with the possibility of this longstanding system simply falling apart.  

Sherpa Tshering Paldourche commented “to work with a new company we need proof of a climbing certificate [and] if we don’t have that, then it’s difficult to join other new companies.” Given the long association between climbing and Sherpas, the idea that the Nepalese government is not supporting local porters is perplexing. The Ministry of Tourism failed to comment on questions from GlacierHub regarding the reasoning behind introducing the legislation that prevented Sherpas from receiving summit certificates. The Ministry also failed to answer whether or not a motion to appeal the legislation was underway.

In recent years, with trends pushing toward increased commercialization of the world’s highest peaks, climbing expeditions are in more need for experienced porters than ever before. In 2013, nearly 4 times as many climbers reached the top of Mount Everest as in 1995, according to Richard Salisbury at the Himalayan Database. This increase equates to more climbers on the mountain, more permit fees and more revenue generated from tourist flow than in the past.

Revisions to permit regulations in the Royalties for Foreign Climbers document enacted on January 1st, 2015 ultimately increased the individual cost for a permit, and thus increased the cost of expeditions in some cases by as much as $5000 per person. With the money from foreign teams climbing 6500 meter (and taller) peaks, a question remains regarding who gets the privilege of capitalizing upon the growth of high altitude mountain tourism. The current state of affairs does not favor the Sherpa community despite their critical role in shouldering the burden of increased high altitude traffic.  

Sherpas at Home
A Sherpa family together at home (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Despite the certificate conflict becoming a new issue, previous climbing seasons on Everest have hardly been problem free. The 2014 climbing season on Everest came to an early halt following an avalanche in the Golden Gate area that killed sixteen Sherpas who were working to establish fixed ropes and ladders at crevasse crossings. The following season, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April resulted in large avalanches on Everest killing numerous Sherpas and international climbers alike.

Around 350 to 450 Sherpas work above base camp in an average climbing season, according to the Himalayan Database,  meaning multiple seasons with such tragic losses represent a staggering mortality rate for the risk-taking porters on the high mountain. When factoring in the 2015-2016 issues with summit certificates, the last few years on the world’s highest peak have seen the hardworking Sherpa climbers marginalized and left in harm’s way in the wake of unpredictable natural disasters.  

Thinking of the future, Sherpa Tshering stated that the issue of being denied a summit certificate on Everest “will change my mind negatively climbing mountains.” Given the extremely dangerous nature of working on 6500 meter+ peaks, the denial of summit documentation for sherpas like Tshering may dramatically affect the nature of Himalayan mountain tourism in the near future, with some Sherpas refusing to assist international climbing partners until their rights are recognized.