IPCC Report is Now Open for Comment

An Opportunity to Offer Comments on an IPCC Report Currently in Development

Readers of GlacierHub, and other individuals and organizations as well, have the opportunity to provide comments on the current draft of a major international report on climate change. This report contains a chapter on glaciers, permafrost and snow in high mountain areas.

The report is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). The First Order Draft of this report, which has been produced by a team of over 100 experts from more than 30 countries, is now open for comment, in what is called the Expert Review process. This review opened on 4 May, and will continue through 29 June 2018.

This report presents the latest scientific knowledge about the physical science basis and impacts of climate change on ocean, coastal, polar and mountain ecosystems, and the human communities that depend on them. It evaluates the vulnerabilities of these communities, as well as their capacities for adaptation. The report presents options for achieving climate-resilient development pathways in the face of the challenges which climate change imposes.

How to Register to Provide Comments on the Report

Expert Reviewers can register at this site. Registration will remain open through 22 June 2018. Interested individuals are encouraged to sign up earlier, in order to have sufficient time to read the material closely and formulate their responses. There is no fee for registration.

Lead authors of High Mountain Areas chapter at a meeting in Nadi, Fiji in October 2017 (source: Ben Orlove).

This Expert Review of the First Order Draft is a key element of the IPCC assessment process. Experts from around the world will offer comments and suggestions to the author teams. The report’s authors will address every comment received, and draw on them when they prepare the next draft. The review process aims to include the broadest possible scientific perspective. The next meeting of the authors will take place in Lanzhou, China, in late July, and will serve as an occasion for a thorough discussion and consideration of the comments.

The IPCC solicits comments from three categories of experts: scientific, technical, and socioeconomic. The third category includes stakeholders whose knowledge and experience aligns with the topics of the report. Individuals and organizations in any of these categories may register and submit their reviews.

“The review process is essential for the quality of IPCC assessment reports. We expect a broad range of feedback from the natural and social science research communities and also encourage stakeholders with relevant expertise to participate,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts added: “The author teams assess the current state of knowledge to inform policymakers at all levels and in all regions. Experts from all parts of the world are invited to review the draft based on their respective knowledge.”

All IPCC reports go through multiple stages of formal review. This first review will be followed by a second review when governments will also be invited to provide feedback. Expert Reviewers can register with a self-declaration of expertise. All Expert Reviewers will be acknowledged in the final report, due to be finalized in September 2019. Further information on the IPCC review process can be found on the IPCC website.

Mountains and Glaciers are a Major Focus of the Report

Lead authors of High Mountain Areas chapter on an excursion to Antisana Glacier before meeting in Quito, Ecuador, in February 2018 (source: Ben Orlove)

Readers of GlacierHub are likely to be particularly interested in Chapter 2 of the Special Report. Titled “High Mountain Areas,” it covers a variety of topics:

  • Observed and projected changes in mountain cryosphere (glaciers, permafrost, and snow), common drivers of change, and feedbacks (e.g., CH4 emissions, albedo) to regional and global climate
  • Effects of a changing mountain cryosphere on natural hazards and management options for protecting lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystems
  • Impacts from changes in the mountain environment, including low latitudes (e.g., Himalayas, Andes, Africa) on habitability, community livelihoods and culture
  • Risks for societies that depend on mountain cryosphere for water resources (e.g., human consumption, ecosystems and agriculture), including cascading risks, and potential response strategies (e.g., national and international water resource management and technologies)
  • Impacts of variability and trends in water supply on hydropower production and implications for energy policy and water governance
  • Influence of mountain cryosphere run-off on river and coastal systems and sea level

Please consider this opportunity. And please pass word on to your associates and colleagues. The IPCC seeks a broad set of comments, from many nations, many fields and many perspectives.

IPCC Lead Authors Hike Up to Antisana Glacier in Ecuador

Bolívar Cáceres, a glaciologist at Ecuador’s National Meteorology and Hydrology Institute, organized an excursion to a glacier-covered volcano, Antisana, north of Quito, last month. About a dozen researchers took part. They had come to Quito for a lead authors’ meeting of IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere. Bert De Bièvre, the technical secretary of FONAG, the Quito Water Conservation Fund, joined the group as well.

The skies were cloudy for much of the day, as is common in Ecuador at that time of the year. But the group felt fortunate to have no rain. After driving from Quito through some agricultural areas, small towns, and forests, they came to the páramos, the high elevation wetlands that are critical for the city’s water supply. After entering a large protected area, De Bièvre explained the dynamics of the páramos, their connection to the glaciers of Antisana, and the mechanisms for diverting water to Quito.

Páramo grasslands on the lower slopes of Antisana (source: Ben Orlove).


Entering the Antisana Water Conservation Area (source: Ben Orlove).


Bert De Bièvre explaining the importance of glaciers and native vegetation to the urban water supply for Quito (source: Ben Orlove).


The group then drove to a trailhead. They hiked up to the glacier. Cáceres discussed the importance of an automated weather station  they had passed.

IPCC lead authors approaching Antisana Glacier. Bolívar Cáceres is second from left (source: Ben Orlove).


Automated weather station just below Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


IPCC author Miriam Jackson explained the pattern of crevasses on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


The group spent some time up on the glacier, glad to have been able to reach this ice, at an elevation close to 5000 meters.

IPCC lead authors walking on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Fresh snow on old ice, at a lower section of Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Frozen meltwater on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


On the way back down to the trailhead, the hikers looked back at the mountain, first seeing it partially obscured by clouds, and then finally getting a clearer view.


Mist on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Clouds lifting from Antisana at the end of the hike (source: Ben Orlove).





Is the Department of the Interior Taking Steps to Protect Montana’s Glaciers?

Beartooth Range in Montana (source: Save the Beartooth Front).

A Delay on an Auction of Oil and Gas Leases

A recent move by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears—to some, at least—to represent a reversal of the federal government’s firm policy of promoting energy extraction on the public lands it manages. On March 5, Zinke announced that he would delay the sale of oil and gas leases in 26 parcels located in several sites in Montana. Several of these parcels are in the foothills surrounding the Beartooth and Absaroka mountain ranges, north of Yellowstone National Park. These ranges contain the second largest glacier area in the state, after Glacier National Park.

This delay offers at least temporary protection for the mountains and glaciers, preserving their scenic quality and reducing the risk that dust and extraction byproducts would land on the glaciers, darkening them and making them melt more quickly. Moreover, it follows a decision in March to postpone the sale of oil and gas leases near Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site, held sacred by Native Americans and of great archaeological importance. These steps contrast sharply with other recent actions of the Department of the Interior to remove lands from protected area status and to permit mining, oil and gas extraction, and other activities in them.

Local Opposition to Energy Extraction on Public Lands

Zinke (right) applauding after Trump signed Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth (source: Department of Interior/Twitter).

This postponement reflects significant opposition within the state to the sale of leases. A local environmental group, Preseve the Beartooth Front, organized a campaign last year for locals to provide public comment to the BLM against the leases. Three environmental groups, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Wilderness Society, and Park County Environmental Council, filed a petition earlier this year, opposing the auction on the grounds that the BLM had not adequately considered potential environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling on wildlife, nearby towns, and rivers.

Residents in the area spoke out against the auction, as did local and county officials, who thought that the drilling would harm tourism. Objections were also raised by state officials, including both senators, Steve Daines, a Democrat, and Jon Tester, a Republican, as well as the governor, Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Bullock, who has recently signaled his broader political ambitions by planning a trip to the key caucus state of Iowa next month, linked environmental quality and economic growth in a recent statement in which he said, “High-tech businesses are attracted to Montana thanks to our exceptional quality of life and outdoor recreation. … Our public lands lead to more jobs and higher wages.”

Gas flaring at a well site (source: Montana Environmental Information Center).

The BLM offered some acknowledgment of these concerns. In a statement issued the day after the announcement of the delay in the auction, it stated, “the following parcels are being deferred or partially deferred… until staff can review the adequacy of the … Resource Management Plans to provide the appropriate level of protection in light of issues raised concerning the view shed, the local economy, and the effects of oil and gas drilling and production on the environment including air quality, drinking water, and overall water quality.“

GlacierHub wrote to the BLM to ask whether the decision about the leases had taken into account “possible effects of mining or energy extraction on glaciers (deposition of dust or particles on ice surfaces). In response, Al Nash, chief of communications at the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas State Office, replied, “The BLM doesn’t conduct a great deal of scientific research other than that directly involved in specific projects. For your broad question regarding impacts to glaciers, you might reach out to the U.S. Geological Survey.“ Though the USGS conducts extensive research on glaciers in Montana, it does not include dust or other light-absorbing particles among the topics which it studies.

Responses to the Delay in the Auction

Some Montana residents were pleased to see that the leases had been postponed, at least temporarily. Jill Belsky, a professor of sociology at the University of Montana and chair of the university’s Department of Society and Conservation, saw this postponement of leases as a step in the right direction. In an interview with GlacierHub, she stated, “Oil and gas exploration is inappropriate for the area. Many of the lands in question are multigenerational ranchers, outfitters and others rightly concerned about impacts of oil and gas exploration on water quality and their livelihoods. Nature-based tourism is also a large and growing part of our state’s economy and employs more people than in oil and gas. The more lands excluded from oil and gas, the better.”

Others are less positive. Ann Hedges, deputy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, communicated her thoughts on Twitter: “Postponing only 27% of lease acreage shouldn’t invoke praise. Cancel them would. Postponing the other 73% would.”:

Grasshopper Glacier and Mt. Wilse in the Absaroka Range (source: Alexandre Lussier/Portland State University).

She elaborated her points in an interview with GlacierHub. “I’m happy for the folks on the Beartooth front, but I remain deeply concerned about the future of leases in that area as well as all of the other leases that were not deferred, and I’m reluctant to pop the champagne as I suffer from history-induced cynicism. He did not cancel those leases or withdraw them. He simply deferred action on them… he didn’t even cancel all of the leases in that area, only some. My cynical side says that the area where the leases were deferred is loaded with wealthier folks. It’s no surprise that Zinke catered to potentially wealthy donors and sacrificed the remaining lease areas.”

Jess Prentice-Dunn, the advocacy director of the Denver-based environmental group Center for Western Priorities, issued a statement that voiced a similar view: “Secterary Zinke is once again treating America’s public lands like contestants on a reality show, handing out roses to the places he chooses to save while casting the rest aside. Of course these lease sales should be postponed. But a temporary deferment for lands that should never have been offered at all is hardly worthy of loud applause. Lands at the doorstep of Yellowstone or the gateway to spectacular cultural sites at Chaco should never have been put on the auction block in the first place.”

Government and Industry Support for Energy Extraction on Public Lands

In contrast, the BLM has espoused a position in favor of energy extraction. Jon Raby, the acting director for the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas State Office, spoke in favor of leasing programs, saying, “We help put people to work, contribute to local economies, and help make America safe through energy independence by providing for responsible oil and gas development.”

Industry groups, who share this view, seemed surprised by the decision. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent energy producers, said, “It seems as though Secretary Zinke is feeling pressure from those who do not want oil and natural gas.” The Western Energy Alliance has supported the shift from public to online auctions of leases, a change which would reduce the opportunities for public comment. Sgamma is a member of the Interior Department’s Royalty Policy Committee and met last year with Zinke to promote a loosening of federal restrictions on the granting of leases.

An Uncertain Future for Montana’s Glaciers

Fishing at a lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (source: Montanaangler/Instagram).

Perhaps seeking to placate industry and environmental camps, Zinke stated, “Multiple use is about balance. I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study, and appropriately we have decided to defer [these parcels].”

It seems likely that both groups will closely follow the moves of the Department of the Interior. The pristine quality of one of the state’s largest areas of glaciers, and of the mountain ranges in which they are located, is at stake.

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in Ecuador

Tarsicio Granizo, Ecuadorian Minister of the Environment, speaking at the opening ceremony (source: Ben Orlove)

Researchers from several countries gathered earlier this month to advance their work on a report that will assess the state of research on glaciers and other topics. The meeting took place in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, close to a number of glaciated peaks in the Andes. This location reflects the focus of the document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report traces cryosphere-ocean links, particularly the contribution of meltwater from the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets to sea-level rise, and also considers other topics related to oceans and the cryosphere.

Lead Author Carolina Adler, being interviewed by Televicentro at the IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, examines a variety of topics which include observed and projected changes in glaciers, permafrost and snow, as well as links to climate, hazards and water resources. It also discusses risks for societies, and the strategies to respond to these risks. The full chapter structure can be found in the outline of the report, which was approved last year.

This chapter is being led by two Coordinating Lead Authors, Regine Hock, a glaciologist and hydrologist from the University of Alaska, and Golam Rasul, an economist and rural development specialist from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. The 13 Lead Authors come from four continents and represent 10 countries—the UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, China, Japan, Ecuador, the U.S. and Canada.

Activities at the Meeting

Chapter 2 team at Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).

Most members of the Chapter 2 team took part in an excursion to a glacier-covered volcano, Antisana, north of Quito the day before the conference started. This trip was organized by one of the Lead Authors, Bolívar Cáceres of the Ecuadorian National Meteorology and Hydrology Institute. The group was joined by Bert De Bièvre, the technical secretary of FONAG, the Quito Water Conservation Fund, who explained the importance of high-elevation wetlands, fed by glacier meltwater, snow and rain, in supplying Quito with drinking water. In addition to accompanying the Lead Authors up to the glacier, above 4,900 meters in elevation, he took the team to several sites which illustrated the collaboration of FONAG with the National Park Service and other organizations in protecting the key ecosystems of the region.

Folk dance troupe at evening performance at IPCC event (source: Ben Orlove).

The IPCC meeting, hosted by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, was held on 12-16 February at the Hotel Colón in Quito. Tarsicio Granizo Tamayo, Minister of the Environment of Ecuador, and Maria Victoria Chiriboga, the Undersecretary of Climate Change, addressed the participants at the opening ceremony, as did IPCC co-chairs. On the evening of the meeting’s inauguration, the Ecuadorian government also sponsored a performance by a troupe of folk dancers, who presented the diverse cultural styles of the country’s coastal and highland regions.

The meeting drew over 100 participants from 30 countries. In addition to attending plenary meetings, the chapter teams discussed the preliminary comments which they had received on the Zero Order Drafts of their chapters. They coordinated with each other to promote the integration of the chapters, and also began the planning of communication products. The discussions continued at meals and in the evenings.

Women Lead Authors and IPCC Staff at IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

This meeting was distinguished by the relatively large proportion of women among the lead authors and by the international diversity, with representatives from more than 30 countries across six continents and the Pacific, taking part. It received wide coverage in a number of Ecuadorian newspapers as well as on television.

Comments on the Meeting

IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett described the meeting, saying, “IPCC authors are assessing scientific literature about changes in the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet, their effects on ecosystems and humankind and options for adapting to them. This report will help policymakers better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future climate change.”

Conversations at lunch at the IPCC meeting (source: Ben Orlove).

“The ocean and the cryosphere play essential roles in the climate system and the ecosystem services that humankind depends on,” said Hans-Otto Poertner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. “Scientists are also trying to understand how the frozen and liquid water bodies of our planet interact, and how sea level will change and affect coastlines and cities.”

Poertner noted that Ecuador and other Andean countries are facing the impacts of glacier retreat, which threaten water supplies for cities such as Quito. He added, “Furthermore, the region hosts unique ecosystems with high biodiversity which are now challenged by human-induced climate change on top of other human influences.”

An Outreach Event and Upcoming Activities

Lead Author Bolivar Caceres, speaking at the outreach event after the IPCC meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Some of the authors and IPCC personnel participated in an outreach event on 16 February, held at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, and jointly sponsored by the university and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment. They presented the outline of the report to local audiences, discussed major findings of earlier IPCC reports about changes in climate and in mountain and coastal environments, and reviewed issues specific to Andean countries and Latin America. This event was attended by a number of representatives of civil society organizations and the press.

The participants left the meeting ready to begin the process of preparing the First Order Draft of the report. This draft will be circulated for expert review in May 2018, and will be reviewed and revised at a third meeting in July 2018 in Lanzhou, China, located in the province of Gansu, which contains glaciers in the Qilian Shan range. The report will be completed in September 2019. The recent meeting provided a highly motivating start to this long process, immersing the authors for several days in the vulnerable context of a developing country, impacted by glacier retreat as well as sea level rise, and showing them the concern of the Ecuadorian people who welcomed and hosted them warmly.


Interview with Alsak Grinsted, the Creator of Daily Glacier Bot

Daily Glacier Bot header (source: Twitter).
Aslak Grinsted (source: AGrinsted/Twitter).

Aslak Grinsted is a Danish geoscientist who teaches at the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. He has carried out research on a variety of topics. His most widely cited paper develops a method for analyzing time-series data. He has also studied past and projected sea level rise, worked out a way to make use of data from ice cores that have undergone deformation, estimated the total volume of glaciers in the world, and thought through some of the consequences of possible geoengineering projects. In addition, he has analyzed recent changes in glacier lake outburst floods in Greenland .

We know Grinsted, not only as a researcher, but also as the creator of Daily Glacier Bot, which appears on Twitter. It makes the public aware of glacier retreat and climate change by showing two superimposed images of a single glacier, taken at different times. A slider allows the viewer to move back and forth in time to observe the rapid pace of ice loss. We invite you to follow this work @dailyglacier.

Grinsted kindly agreed to an interview, appended below.


GlacierHub: How did you first come up with the idea for Daily Glacier Bot?

Aslak Grinsted: I had been thinking about the idea for a long time before I finally decided to code it up. It was the Landsat bot that triggered the original idea. I have worked with Landsat images and the Randolph Glacier Inventory, so I had a clear picture in my mind about how I would go about making it.


GH: What do you hope that Daily Glacier Bot will accomplish?

AG: The bot just presents reality as it is, and allows anybody to judge for themselves. I hope that the bot can get the reality of climate change across to a few people who would otherwise not be receptive. It would also be great if experts would comment on the highlighted places. It could be anything such as fieldwork experiences, regional climate knowledge, links to projects or papers, and photos. That would be really interesting for non-experts.


GH: Your posts are remarkable in the way that they provide two images of a single glacier, taken at the same time of year, but separated by a number of years. How do you locate them? Do you have to do a lot of processing to get the spatial coverage to match so well?

AG: The bot is running from a cheap server that does not have many resources, so it is designed to only require minimal processing. First, the bot decides which glacier it wants to document, and then obtains a list of all available near cloud free scenes of the place. It then scores every possible image pair according to simple heuristics. It is designed to prefer images that are well separated in time, but almost from the same date, from autumn, and acquired from a similar orbital position. It does not actually “look” at the images before it starts making the comparison.


GH: Are there any specific posts that you are particularly proud of?

AG: There are many that I like. But here are three nice ones

GH: Daily Glacier Bot was covered in a post by Brian Kahn in earther.com a couple of months ago. Did his post help the website?  

AG: The piece in Earther did have an effect. Many checked it out, and the bot’s followers grew by 50%.


GH:  How does Daily Glacier Bot fit into your day job at the Niels Bohr Institute’s Center for Ice and Climate?

AG: The bot is primarily an outreach project made mostly in my spare time. I made it to show to the world just how widespread glacier retreat is. ​It is not directly useful for myself, but occasionally it finds some really interesting places. Who knows what it will find.

Some of the code will be useful for other projects such as for calculating ice velocities from optical feature tracking. I might also reuse it in my “exploration from space” course.


GH: You really channel Bender very well. I can hear him saying, “I show humanity what effects climate change has on the glaciers of Earth.” What do you think Bender would say about Daily Glacier Bot, now that it’s been running for a couple of months? [Bender is a robot character in the television cartoon series Futurama. He appears in the header of Daily Glacier Bot.]

AG: He would say, “This could mean the end of the banana daiquiri as we know it! Also, life.” Note this is an actual Bender quote.


Meeting at UN Security Council Discusses Climate Change and Conflict

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held a meeting on December 13 on the theme “Preparing for security implications of rising temperatures.” It provided a forum for UNSC members and other UN member states to express their views on the still-unresolved question of the Security Council’s engagement with climate change. Though the UN as a whole has been committed for many years to addressing climate change as a fundamental issue, some members see climate change as closely linked to the UNSC’s mandate to support peace and security, while others suggest that its proper home within the UN lies with other bodies, particularly the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. A concept note circulated before the meeting, emphasized the general relevance of climate change to the UNSC, and cited several precedents for action, including a key statement by the President of the UNSC in 2011 about security implications of climate change, but did not make any specific recommendations for action.

The Background to the Meeting

This meeting served as an occasion for 13 of the 15 UNSC members to speak directly on this question (Bolivia and the United States were the two exceptions), and for a number of other countries to offer their views as well. Though the large majority support UNSC engagement with this issue, two permanent members, China and the Russian Federation, disagreed. In the discussions, glaciers were mentioned a number of times. Glacier retreat was presented not only as clear evidence of climate change or as impacting water resources and economic development, but also as a cause of migration and social problems.

This meeting followed closely on two other meetings, both in Europe, in the same week. The One Planet Summit, held in Paris on December 12,  was attended by the UN Secretary General, the president of the World Bank and the president of France, as well as many other heads of state. It marked the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement at COP21. This conference led to a number of pledges to advance climate finance, and the notable statement by the World Bank that it “will no longer finance upstream oil and gas.”

Overlapping with this meeting, the Planetary Security Conference 2017, held in The Hague on December 12 and 13, produced the Hague Declaration on Planetary Security. This document describes climate change as a threat to world peace and lays out a six-point plan of action, including creating an institutional home for climate security, responding to migration and urban resilience issues, and addressing three climate hotspots.

Moreover, the timing in December is important for the Security Council. This month marks the close of the terms for 5 of the UNSC members, including Italy, which convened the event. It also offers an opportunity for the 6 new members which will begin their terms in January to participate in meetings. (Five of these members were elected, while the sixth, the Netherlands, will start a one-year term, replacing Italy under the agreement in which these two countries split a single two-year term.)  This event was held under the Arria Formula, a mechanisms for informal, gatherings of the Security Council members, designed to promote an open exchange of ideas.

Ambassadors, staff and other delegates assembled in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, one of the most prominent rooms of the UN Headquarters, along with representatives of some major international NGOs. In the minutes before the start, several staff members commented on the large number of UN officials who were present, and on the attendance by senior ministers from major countries. They took this a sign of the importance of the issue of the Security Council’s engagement with climate change.

The Convener and the First Speakers Urge Security Council Engagement with the Climate-Conflict Nexus

Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security, speaking at the Security Council on climate and security (source: screen capture from UN webcast of the event)

Sebastiano Cardi, the permanent representative of Italy at the UN, opened the meeting, in one of the last acts of his term. He spoke of 2017 as a year marked by extreme events and large flows of migrants, driven by climate change. He stated “When the United Nations was founded, it was too early to realize that environmental degradation could act a socio-economic stress factor, likely to hamper development and growth and induce conflict in fragile contexts.” He cited two important precedents, an open debate in the UNSC in 2007 on the relationship between energy, security and climate, and UNSC Resolution 2349, adopted last March, which recognized the direct impacts of climate change on reducing the stability of the Lake Chad region. He concluded by signaling “the need for adequate risk assessments and risk management strategies [and] for early warning mechanisms [for] the assessment of new security risks generated by climate change.” He also called for “an institutional home for climate change and security within the UN system, [which] could provide the needed locus for leadership, cooperation and joint action.”

As one of the staff members had explained to me, this language references a key provision of the UN Charter, which entered into force in 1945: article 39, “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken… to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Cardi was followed by two speakers, who had previously been invited to provide briefs. Halbe Zijlstra, the Minister of Foreign Relations of the Netherlands, spoke of the recent meetings in Paris and the Hague. He underscored the significance of climate as a threat to global security, and called for the “creation of an institutional home for climate security.” He stated that his country will press for this step when it takes its seat on the Security Council in January. The second was Caitlin Werrell, the president of an NGO, the Center for Climate and Security. She was the only member of a civil society organization to speak. She discussed the arrival of the Anthropocene, with its “unprecedented changes.” Melting glaciers were the first of the changes she listed, followed by the loss of polar ice caps, sea level rise, and ocean acidification. She presented her organization’s proposal, the Responsibility to Prepare Agenda. She outlined six principles for “climate-proofing security,” which include forming a “climate security crisis watch center.” These principles closely overlap with the Hague Declaration on Climate Security and the points which Cardi offered.

Cardi then invited comments from other officials. The first two were Margot Wallström, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, and Mark Field, the UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, who offered their strong support of the points made by the first speakers. Their countries are also Security Council members and co-sponsors of the meeting. They were followed by the permanent representatives of other UNSC members who were co-sponsors. The French representative spoke of the importance of “preventive action” and the need to create as “climate-risk early warning system.” The representative of Japan underscored his country’s participation in the G7 Working Group on Climate and Fragility

Challenges from Russia and China, and Expressions of Support from 21 Other Countries

Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik of the Russian Federation, speaking at the Security Council on climate and security (source: screen capture from UN webcast of the event)

At this point, Cardi invited comments from other Security Council members who were not co-sponsors. The first to speak was Dilyara Ravilova-Borovik, a senior counselor at the Russian Federation’s Permanent Delegation to the UN and head of its economic section. Talking at length, she emphasized that her country studies climate change seriously, and that it is an active participant in all international fora on the topic. “We have never avoided discussing these issues,” she said, “Even as we become increasingly convinced that the Security Council is not the appropriate platform for this issue.” Disagreeing with the previous speakers, she stated that “recent events show that the world has sufficient hotpots which need immediate attention” of the UNSC, thus fully absorbing the body’s capacity to engage with problems. To address climate change, she said, we have “effective recipes” which include climate-friendly technologies and assistance to developing countries. Work on combating climate change is already being done under the UNFCCC, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council. She closed with a call for UNSC members to “concentrate our efforts on implementing immediate tasks of security” and to “refrain from interfering with mandates of other [UN] units” such as the General Assembly.

In one of his few remarks to the meeting after the opening, Cardi commented that the Security Council was not proposing to fight climate change, but rather to decide “how to assess the security challenge posed by climate change.” He then called on the representative of Ethiopia, who stated that climate change is “ a reality in Africa.” He spoke of the need “to take coordinated efforts to avoid conflict,” but then spoke primarily about the need for international climate financing and technology transfer to support efforts of countries to develop resilient economies. He was followed by the representatives of Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Senegal and Egypt, who presented the impacts of climate change on their countries, and agreed on the importance of addressing conflict issues. The Kazakh representative mentioned the severe water shortages caused by glacier retreat, while the Senegalese representative emphasized the challenge of desertification, which makes many people more vulnerable to “recruiters for terrorism, who dangle a kind of hope in front of desperate people who are easy prey.”

The permanent representative of China, who emphasized his country’s commitment to a low carbon economy and to the Paris Agreement, spoke more slowly and in more measured tones than the Russian representative, but also underscored the inappropriateness of climate change as an issue for the Security Council. He stated that the UNSC does not have “expertise on climate change,” nor the “necessary means or resources to address developing countries’ needs to deal with climate change.” Like the Russian representative, he emphasized that other UN organs represented “the main channels through which the parties can work together” to address climate change.

The last UNSC member, from Ukraine, spoke in favor of the Council’s engagement with the climate-conflict nexus. He was followed by other co-sponsors of the meeting who were not Security Council members, including Morocco, Germany and the Maldives, the only small island state representative to speak.

The permanent representative of Peru, which will join the UNSC next month, emphasized the impacts of climate which Peru has faced, including coastal flooding. He mentioned that the melting of glaciers has led to drying of pastures in high mountain areas and to outmigration, causing social challenges. He referenced article 39 of the UN charter and article 99 as well, under which “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” He underscored the importance of preventing and managing the security risks which climate change creates.

The final phase of the meeting consisted of short addresses by other countries which were neither UNSC members nor co-sponsors of the meeting. All of these—Norway, Ireland, Algeria, Switzerland, Belgium, Estonia, Indonesia, Canada, Romania, Australia and the Dominican Republic—spoke in favor of Security Council engagement with the potential of climate change to cause or exacerbate conflict.

Ravilova-Borovik, the representative of the Russian Federation requested the floor a second time. The only representative, other than Cardi, to speak more than once, she said, “There have been comments made on our statement.” She reiterated her country’s recognition of the reality of climate change and its effects, but stated that the Security Council can participate in climate issues “only in the case of individual country issues” of already ongoing conflict. She mentioned that that was reason that the Russian Federation had supported UNSC Resolution 2349 linking climate change and conflict in the Lake Chad Basin. Later commentary noted that Russia’s comments at this event “seemed to signal an evolving approach” to the issue.

The Close of the Meeting

With time running out, there was no opportunity for comments by representatives of the NGOs, like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Federation, who were in the room. Cardi closed the meeting and thanked all the participants, singling out Russia because of the need to “exchange views.” He called for scientific research and policy analysis, presumably on the link of climate and conflict, because “without data, we can’t do work.” He noted the presence of “some dissident voices.” He closed with a reference to “threats that couldn’t be seen 70 years ago when the UN was founded.” Ziljstra, the first of the briefers, had already left the meeting, so Weddell offered a brief comment on the importance of prevention of climate-related conflict. The meeting was adjourned at 5:50 p.m. The participants chatted briefly in the conference hall and the nearby corridors, and then headed back to their offices or out into the snowy night. These conversations will surely continue next year, drawing on the specific proposals highlighted at the start of the meeting, with at least two new Security Council members, the Netherlands and Peru, having shown their commitment to this issue.

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in Fiji

IPCC lead authors at a plenary session (source: Ben Orlove).

Researchers from several countries gathered earlier this month to begin drafting a report that will assess the state of research on glaciers. The meeting took place in Fiji, thousands of miles from the nearest glacier. This location reflects the other focus of the document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report traces cryosphere-ocean links, particularly the contribution of meltwater from the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets to sea-level rise, and also considers other topics related to oceans and the cryosphere.

Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, is charged with topics which include observed and projected changes in glaciers, permafrost and snow, as well as links to climate, hazards and water resources. It also includes risks for societies and response strategies. The full chapter outline can be found in the outline of the report, which was approved earlier this year.

Lead authors enjoying the refreshments at a mid-afternoon break (source: Ben Orlove).

The event, hosted by the Government of Fiji and the University of the South Pacific, was held at a resort conference center in Nadi, Fiji, from 2 to 6 October. As IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett stated, “This is the first time the IPCC has undertaken a focused report on the processes that drive change and the resulting impacts to oceans and the frozen parts of our planet. There is a huge volume of scientific information for us to assess, which can help policy makers to better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future change.”

The meeting drew over 100 participants from 30 countries, who divided their time between plenary sessions which focused on general issues, meetings of the authors of specific chapters to refine each chapter, and gatherings of representatives of different chapters to coordinate activities and address specific cross-cutting issues.

Ravind Kumar, director of the Fiji Meteorological Service, addressing an outrach event at the University of the South Pacific (source: Ben Orlove).

Chapter 2 is being led by two Coordinating Lead Authors, Regine Hock, a glaciological and hydrologist from the University of Alaska, and Golam Rasul, an economist and rural development specialist from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. The 13 lead authors come from four continents and represent 10 countries—the UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, China, Japan, Ecuador, the U.S. and Canada.

Though the work was steady, the pace was relieved by opening and closing ceremonies, which featured traditional Fijian songs and dances, and regular breaks for coffee and tea. Additional cultural depth was provided by an evening in which a troupe of indigenous performers presented dances from neighboring islands as well as Fiji.

Kava ceremony offered by the Fiji Meteorological Service at the meeting (source: Ben Orlove).

The Fiji Meteorological Service also hosted a kava ceremony, in which participants at the workshop joined the local scientists, sitting together on a mat. The beverage was prepared traditionally, by placing powdered kava root in a cloth and slowly mixing it  with cold water in a large wooden bowl. It was also consumed in the traditional manner, passed slowly in coconut shells from host to visitor.

Some of the authors and IPCC personnel participated in outreach events in Lautoka and Suva, located within a few hours of Nadi, and hosted respectively by the University of Fiji and the University of the South Pacific. They presented the outline of the report to local audiences, discussed major findings of earlier IPCC reports about changes in climate and ocean environments, and reviewed issues specific to Pacific islands.

Garlands being placed on speakers at an outreach event at the University of South Pacific (source: Ben Orlove).

As Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of Working Group II of the IPCC, said, “These events will help policymakers from the region and other stakeholders gain an understanding of climate change and how to respond to it.” He added, “Besides presenting our findings, I hope that these events will contribute to enhancing the involvement of developing countries in our work.”

The participants left the meeting ready to begin the process of drafting the report. Their next draft will be reviewed and revised at a second meeting in February 2018 in Quito, Ecuador—much closer to glaciers. After that, the draft will be circulated for expert review in May 2018. The final report will be drafted in September 2019. The recent meeting provided a highly motivating start to this long process, immersing the authors for several days in the vulnerable context of a tropical island and showing them the concern of the Fijian people who welcomed and hosted them warmly.

China and Nepal Collaborate on Glacier Research

SKLCS research sites in China, Nepal and Pakistan (source: SKLCS).

As China has expanded its capacity in glacier research in recent years, it has also developed its collaborations with other nations, particularly Nepal, in this area.

Chinese glaciological activities date back to the 1950s, and underwent an expansion with the establishment of the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology, located in the central province of Gansu, in the 1980s. An Ice Core Laboratory was created in 1991, which expanded into the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), a component of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science (SKLCS) was established in 2007 by CAREERI and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, which is also a unit within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Shichang Kang, director of SKLCS (source: CAS).

The SKLCS also supports China’s research in Antarctica. As professor Ren Jiawen of SKLCS explained to GlacierHub, this polar work began with the establishment of stations on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1980s, and in the 1990s at Prydz Bay and on the Antarctic Plateau. In addition, China’s Arctic Yellow River Station in Svalbard was opened in 2004. These high latitude efforts show the logic of using the term “Third Pole” to describe the glacier and permafrost regions of high mountain Asia.

This growth of cryosphere research reflects the general expansion of the geosciences in China, and also the recognition of the environmental and economic importance of the cryosphere for China. Glacier meltwater is a major source of water in a number of small watersheds in the western portion of the country, and in one of China’s largest rivers as well. Glaciers supplied over 10 percent of the flow of the Yangtze River in the last decades of the 20th century. Though this contribution increased early in the present century, due to accelerated melt, the river is likely to reach “peak water” around 2030, and then decline, creating serious difficulties in the country, which has hoped to rely on transfers from the Yangtze watershed to alleviate water scarcity in the country’s north. Studies of the glaciers allow for more precise projections of the nation’s water resources.

The SKLCS addresses other pressing cryosphere issues in China. The thawing of permafrost threatens important infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway which links Lhasa with central China. And China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and has turned to the SKLCS to help plan this event within the constraints of declining snow cover, forming a committee to “support and guarantee the snow and ice conditions during the Games.”

Though climate change is a major cause of glacier retreat in China, the deposition of black carbon—soot and other particles—on glaciers also plays a role. The burning of biomass and the use of diesel fuel in South Asia, especially India, provide a major source of this black carbon, which has been a focus of Chinese collaboration with Nepal in cryospheric research since its inception.

Map from recent paper by Kang, Sharma and others, showing transport of pollutants across the Himalayas (source: ES&T).

As professor Shichang Kang, the director of SKLCS, told GlacierHub in a recent interview, “Since 2006, I started a collaboration with professor Subodh Sharma and Dr. Chhatra Sharma at Kathmandu University focusing on water, soil, and precipitation chemistry as well as toxic risk assessment in Nepal-Himalaya. This collaboration is still going on as we are training PhD students and young scientists.” He mentioned that this research examines a number of specific “pollutants in water, soil and air, including black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [organic molecules which derive from biomass burning and other sources] and heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, lead etc.)”

Kang mentioned that the SKLCS “also started another collaboration in 2013, with ICIMOD [the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu], working with Dr. Arnico Panday for air pollution observation in Nepal.” He stated that this research will continue to explore water quality and air quality, and look more extensively at “health risks associated with pollutants, the impacts of black carbon on cryospheric processes, and on the transport of atmospheric pollutants across the Himalayas into the Tibetan Plateau.” Black carbon in the Third Pole is a topic of concern for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Chhatra Sharma, a Nepali limnologist, also described this collaboration. He told GlacierHub, “I completed my Ph.D. at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in 2008 and joined the faculty of Kathmandu University. A year later, I joined professor Kang’s group as a Young International Scientist Fellow in 2009. Kang is currently hosting two researchers within the President’s International Fellowship Initiative at present. And SKLCS and Kathmandu University  have signed a memorandum of understanding for collaboration.” He added that he and Kang have co-authored 17 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Map showing GLOFs in Nepal, including those which originated in China (source: ICIMOD).

Among these papers is a study, published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, about the transport of heavy metal pollutants from South Asia into the Tibetan Plateau. The authors of this paper analyzed samples from ice cores and lake sediments in the Nepal Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. As this study shows, research on this subject requires the collection of field data on both the northern and southern sides of the Himalaya.

These collaborations have allowed China to support its bilateral aid activities in Nepal. It partnered with ICIMOD to study glacier lake outburst floods, including ones which originate in Tibet and spread into Nepal. It put this information to use after the 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. It held an emergency meeting to assess the risk of landslides, debris flows and GLOFs, and sent information to agencies in Nepal.

Meeting at CAREERI to discuss April 2015 earthquake in Nepal (source: CAS)

These ties involve other countries as well. In addition to Nepali researchers, cryosphere scientists from Pakistan and Mongolia took part in the International Workshop on Cryospheric Change and Sustainable Development, held in August, at SKLCS in Lanzhou.

In 2015, China established the Belt Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Drawing on the history of the Silk Road, it seeks to promote infrastructure investments and trade with countries which neighbor China and beyond. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. In this way, Chinese cryosphere scientists and their collaborators in Nepal and elsewhere are responding to the pressures of climate change on glaciers.

Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China in May of this year, promoting its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and facilitating Chinese investment to address Nepal’s infrastructure deficits. Historically, Nepal has shared close ties with India, a country with which it shares Hinduism as the majority religion. Nepali and Hindi are related languages, and Nepal’s transportation network has developed with roads across the lowland jungles that separate it from India, rather than across the high passes of the Himalayas.

But the potential of Chinese investment opens the possibility of a reconfiguratrion of transportation networks and of economic and political ties in the region. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. These efforts lead cryosphere scientists in China and Nepal to address the pressures of climate change on glaciers in their countries, and to explore ways to coordinate their activities.


A New Doctorate Program in Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic Sciences Launches in Chile 

Mike Kaplan, a researcher from the Earth Observatory of Lamont Doherty at Columbia University, has studied glacial history for 16 years between Puerto Varas and Antarctica. He recently traveled to Chile on a Fulbright scholarship in 2017 to plan content related to climate change, ecosystem ecology, geosystems, and conservation at the University of Magallanes.

The university, located in a glacier-rich area in southernmost Chile, launched a new doctorate program in Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic sciences with Kaplan’s help. The doctorate program began in March 2017 with three students and 23 teachers. Read GlacierHub’s interview with Mike Kaplan about the new doctorate program.

Mike Kaplan with his hosts in Cordillera Darwin (Source: Mike Kaplan).
GlacierHub: In what ways does this new program at the University of Magallanes open up possibilities for collaborations between Chilean researchers and researchers from other countries?

Mike Kaplan: Students being trained at the Ph.D level is different than not having such a program. They obviously will make more effort to interact at an international level compared with undergrads and even master’s students. This includes going to conferences or working with/needing labs and resources outside their country for their Ph.D. research. I am already seeing this. A student starting next year will be working in an isotope lab in Europe as part of her Ph.D. In my opinion, students and postdocs can really help form bridges between groups.

GH: What kind of logistical and institutional support does the University of Magallanes give to glaciological research?

MK: The institutional support is the same as in the U.S., office and home institution. Logistical is also similar to us: write a grant (in their case the National Research Council for Science and Technology, CONICYT), obtain funding, and carry out field research with those either already doing it, or try to go it independently! As glaciers are in their backyard, they encourage such work.

GH: The program hopes to promote Natural Resource Management and Conservation in sub-Antarctic environments. What do you see as important priorities for management and conservation?

Mike Kaplan teaching a field class (Source: Mike Kaplan).
MK: Patagonia, including Tierra del Fuego, is included in the definition of sub-Antarctic environments. So, they are thinking about and concerned with these issues in their backyard. I can see that marine life, for example seals, whales, penguins, and fish, is quite an emphasis at the research level. There are a few institutions based out of Punta Arenas concerned with marine research, not just at the university. Like everywhere, they need to think about over fishing. 

Physical systems (glaciers), and terrestrial ecosystems are obviously important. Tourism is a big cash cow for the region, but obviously they need to manage these environments, such as Torres del Paine which attracts a lot of visitors from all over the world. They are indeed managing the area it seems to me. My understanding is there is not a huge population explosion, but new roads are being paved every year, tourists are coming in, etc. I assume, as elsewhere, there is a balance between encouraging tourism in an relatively poor region of Chile, Patagonia, but they definitely love and appreciate what is in their backyard, and its pristine and unique beauty.

Mike Kaplan with his class (Source: Mike Kaplan).
GH: The glaciology activities form part of the project GAIA Antarctica. What other components of this project have you seen? What are the project’s strengths, and what obstacles, if any, does it face?

MK: I think the biologic and ecologic aspects of GAIA faculty expertise and experience have been very strong. In fact, stronger than the glaciologic activities, on a day to day level. This is my opinion. They have not had as strong history of geology and physical systems, such as geomorphology and glacier records. Except Gino Casassa, the first director of the program, of course. This is actually a niche I have been helping to start to fill in terms of teaching (geology, geomorphology, etc) and geomorph/paleoglacier research. Gino is one of the world’s experts (not just in Chile) in glacier behavior and climate. He has extensive experience and expertise in modern glaciers and climate over instrumental records.

The Chinese Glacier with Three Names

Planning the Visit to the Glacier

At the entrance to the Qilian Glacier Station. Left to right: Ben Orlove, Chhatra Sharma, Shengxia Wang, Hongju Cheng (source: Young Li).

The possibility of a field trip came up early in my correspondence with Shichang Kang, a prominent Chinese geoscientist, as we planned my visit to his research institute in the central province of Gansu. The itinerary that I received last August, a month before my arrival, included a nine-day stay at the institute Kang directs, the State Key Laboratory for Cryosphere Science (SKLCS), in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. After that, I would take a five-day field trip, in which I would “visit two stations (desert and glacier),” as Prof. Kang told me, and see oases.

The desert was the Gobi Desert. And the glacier, I was told, would be in the Qilian Mountains. This range, which marks the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is not as famous as some of China’s other, higher ranges, but nonetheless still significant, with peaks up to 5500 meters.

As my correspondence with the SKLCS continued, the name of the glacier did not come up, since my colleagues and I were focused on plans for the lectures that I would give in the first half of my visit. The SKLCS was seeking to expand the social science component of its research program, to include aspects of risk assessment and adaptation. The field trip, I understood, would help me understand the climate change impacts across western China, and contribute to my discussions with the lab.

Research papers on display at State Key Laboratory for Cryosphere Science (source: Ben Orlove).

During my first week in Lanzhou, I gave three talks and had many conversations with researchers at the SKLCS. I had the chance to see the papers that the lab had produced. In some of these, focused on glacier retreat and on transboundary movement of pollutants, I saw references to a “Glacier Number 12” in the Qilian Mountains, as well as others in the Himalayas and the Tien Shan. It seemed likely that this would be the one I would visit, since it had a research station at it. Its number reflected its position in the national glacier inventory.

Our conversations focused, not on individual glaciers, but on the Qilian as a whole, and on the “Hexi Corridor,” the stretch of desert territory west of Lanzhou that I would visit. It is the eastern end of the Silk Road, I learned. For centuries its oases have been watered by rivers that originate in Qilian glaciers, but they now face an uncertain future, with climate change and glacier retreat. Moreover, this region is a key to Chinese development. It serves as a link to the western provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang, which are poorer than coastal regions of China, and it connects with the countries in Central Asia and beyond, where China is promoting ties through infrastructure projects and investments through its One Belt and One Road Initiative, also known as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). In this initiative, the Silk Road serves as an important precedent and symbol for Chinese trade and engagement beyond its borders.


Driving to the Mountains

Dunes in the Gobi Desert in western Gansu province (source: Ben Orlove).

When we set off from Lanzhou on 14 September for the field trip, I still had not learned whether the glacier would have a more vernacular name, or whether it was known only by its number. Five of us left Lanzhou. In addition to myself and the driver, the group in the SUV included two researchers from SKLCS, Dr. Shengxia Wang and Hongju Cheng, and Dr. Chhatra Sharma, an environmental hydrologist from Kathmandu University who has collaborated with SKLCS for nearly 10 years.

To reach the glacier, we would travel more than 1000 kilometers to the northwest. Our route toward it took us through landscapes that grew ever more arid. The irrigated regions of villages along tree-lined roads, with fields of maize and sorghum, grew smaller, as the unwatered areas between them became larger and drier, shifting from low brush to grasslands and finally to bare sand. The larger oasis towns had tall apartment blocks, though the older villages still consisted of low buildings, many with internal courtyards.

Sheep in grasslands in the Qilian Mountains (source: Ben Orlove).

We visited agricultural research stations, where dryland crops and new greenhouse technologies were being developed. We saw new hotels, shops and visitor centers oriented toward China’s rapidly expanding internal tourism market; they showed off western Gansu’s attractions, such as oasis wetlands, striking geological formations, sand dunes, and ancient caves, filled with murals and sculptures, where Buddhist monks prayed and meditated.

And finally the day of the glacier visit arrived. We awoke early and departed well before dawn for the drive up the Qilian Mountains. The ascent took us through grasslands where nomadic herders camped in yurts, and then up a narrow valley, its bottom filled with rubble.

Qilian Mountain Glacier Station (source: Ben Orlove).

We arrived at the research station in mid-morning. The director greeted us, as his staff prepared breakfast. The wait gave us a chance to have at least an hour to acclimatize to the altitude; we had ascended nearly 3000 meters to the station, located almost precisely at an elevation of 4000 m.

The director told us of the history of research visits to the glacier since the 1950s and of the station’s founding in 2007. He showed us the rooms where snow and ice samples were stored for shipment to SKLCS in Lanzhou, where they were analyzed.

And we discussed the glacier itself. It has been shrinking in recent decades, retreating eight meters per year from 1993 to 2005, and then more quickly, at 16 m per year, from 2005 to 2014. Its current length of 10 km makes it the longest in the range.

At the Glacier

Walking up to the glacier, with a covering of fresh snow (source: Ben Orlove).

After our meal, we set out on the short drive to the glacier itself. We found it to be a classic valley glacier—a thick flat mass of ice that ran from one steep wall of a valley to the other. There was still significant accumulation occurring in the higher zones, we were told.

The glacier tongue was relatively low, at 4300 m. We clambered up a slope of scree, over a large boulder, and onto the surface of the glacier itself. The season’s first snow, a week before our arrival, left a fine white layer on the north-facing portions of the glacier, but we could still see details of the surface. The parts of it that were closest to the valley walls were covered with debris, the result of rockfalls from the steep sides. The portions adjacent to them had thick dust as well.

A frozen meltwater pond on the glacier surface (source: Ben Orlove).

Even though there was no fresh water flowing on the surface, we could see much evidence of melting, with streams that had incised themselves. The scientist who accompanied us confirmed that the flow was limited to the summer months. It was a few degrees below freezing where we stood, and the temperatures higher up were much colder.

We continued our way up. The new snow made the hiking easy. We found a few meltwater ponds on the surface, which had recently frozen solid. And there were some icicles in shaded overhangs, signaling summer melt as well.

We hoped to go further, and reach the automated weather station on the glacier, and see the snow pits that reseachers had dug. But Shengxia Wang, attuned to our safety and well-being, pointed out dark clouds near us, and Chhatra Sharma mentioned how he had been caught in sudden snowstorms in the Nepal Himalayas. We decided to turn around. This move proved prudent, since the snow began to fall before we reached our vehicle.


The Glacier’s Three Names

Unexpected snow at the glacier. Left to right: Hongju Cheng, Chhatra Sharma, Ben Orlove (source: Shengxia Wang).

Once we were off the ice, we stopped to take pictures. I asked Shengxia if the glacier had a name, other than Glacier No. 12. She said that its common name, as mentioned in geographical works, was Laohu Gou Bingchuan, Tiger Gorge Glacier, referring perhaps to its shape like a tiger’s tale, or to a story of a tiger that had resided nearby.

And there is one more name, she mentioned, Touming Mengke Bingchuan. She translated that as Green Dream Glacier. I made her repeat the translation, thinking that I had misheard it. She explained that it was the old name from the Mongols, who once had ruled this area; ethnic Mongols are still found in Gansu. She thought that some regional officials could have encouraged the revival of this old name in the hope that it might attract tourists to the mountains.

We speculated on what a green dream might be, and I recalled Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a nonsensical sentence that is grammatically correct, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” (I would later find the first, second and third names used in print.)

Mongolian yurt in Qilian grasslands, with solar panel, and prayerflags at left edge of corral (source: Ben Orlove).

These names remained in my mind during lunch back at the station, and on our drive back. Partway down, we passed a herd of yaks, and a kilometer or two further on, a yurt, with solar panel, and Mongolian-style prayerflags, with several long streamers attached to the top of a pole. We did not see anyone there, whom we might have asked about green dreams. And, I realized, as we continued back down to the arid Hexi Corridor, the hopes that Chinese have for resilient functioning ecosystems in the face of climate change could also be called green dreams, dreams that are increasingly common in our threatened world.

A Ritual to Honor Mountains in a Peruvian Village

Chicón mountain seen from village (source: Ben Orlove).

The residents of four Quechua villages in the Chicón valley in highland Peru performed a complex ritual on August 6 this year, as they have done for years, as a means of making offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother, understood as the source of vitality for humans and other beings. Such offerings, made at this time of year in other villages across the Andes, serve to renew the ties that link the villages with the spirits.

At this time, the villagers also speak to the mountain deities or apus. They directly face each mountain to which they speak and make a series of ritual gestures toward the mountain, a way of recognizing its power and requesting its benevolence for the coming year. The offerings express the villagers’ hope that the mountains will provide good rains and abundant streams to water their fields, so that they will have plentiful harvests.

These events are usually closed to outsiders, but in this case, some were invited by the guilds within the villages that manage the irrigation canals. They invited the staff of an NGO and a Swiss bilateral aid agency that run projects there, as well as some researchers from the regional university who work with them. This invitation was also extended to me and several other researchers who had attended a climate change conference in the nearby city of Cusco earlier that month.

Traveling to the Village

Woman walking from the village towards the site of the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

We gathered before dawn in a square in Cusco, some distance from the city center, and boarded a bus that took us over a pass and down to the Río Urubamba. We took a road that followed that river to its confluence with the Río Chicón, a smaller river which descends, in its length of 8 kilometers, over 2500 meters from glacier summits to the Río Urubamba.

Our bus turned up the Chicón valley, passing through fields, orchards and small clusters of low adobe houses, until we came to the final, highest village, where the road became too narrow and rocky for the bus to traverse. We were then ferried further in cars and pick-up trucks through a higher zone of rocky pastures and scattered trees. The Chicón valley narrowed as we advanced. Along the way we saw many villagers making the same journey, some also by car, others on motorcycles or on foot.

Villagers and visitors assembling at Occoruro Pampa for the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The road came to a rise, from which the place where the ritual would be held came into view, Occoruro Pampa, a broad expanse about 10 hectares in area. Hemmed in by steep slopes, it was the last piece of flat land in the valley before the rugged terrain that leads up to the glaciers. For most of the year, this area would be empty, or have at most a herder or two with their cows or sheep. But by late morning, when I arrived, a couple of hundred people had assembled there, about a third of the entire population of the valley. They were standing in groups, waiting, as one of the Swiss explained to me, for someone who was missing, a representative of a guild that manages one of the irrigation canals in the valley. The leaders from the other canal guilds had already arrived, but the offerings to the earth, and the prayers to the mountains, could not be made until all those who receive water were present to take part.

After some minutes, this man arrived (or, according to some, his chief assistant arrived). The entire group then walked to the upper end of Occoruro Pampa. As we crossed it, I noticed many rocks and some large boulders. These had been carried down from higher up in a glacier lake outburst flood in 2010, which also damaged fields lower down. This event brought a number of relief projects to Chicón—a process which touched off complex, sometimes tense, negotiations between NGOs, government agencies, and the communities, and which contributed to the strong presence of researchers and NGOs in the area at present.

Performing the Rituals

Community members watching the preparation of the ritual offering (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

When we reached the top of Occoruro Pampa, the villagers and visitors formed a large circle around the specialists who would carry out the ritual, known in Spanish as a pago a la tierra, a payment to the earth, and in Quechua as a haywarisqa, an offering. (Some people also refer to the ritual by the term anqusu, which is more common in regions further west.)

The president of the Chicón peasant community gave a short speech in Spanish, welcoming the visitors and telling the whole group of the importance of carrying this ritual out year after year to assure the well-being of all. He urged people to not leave any trash behind, since pollution was a sign of disrespect to the mountains, and could make the glacial ice shrink even faster.

Coca leaves and other items laid out for placement in a bowl, in advance of its ritual interment (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

It soon became clear that there would be two offerings made, rather than just one. The first soon got underway as a man in a poncho knelt down, spread out a cloth, and opened a box containing many items wrapped up in paper bundles. He placed a clay bowl on the cloth and began to prepare small fan-like arrays of coca leaves, each containing exactly three leaves. These arrays, called k’intu in Quechua, are used in other rituals as well. An assistant, standing to his side, reached down—quite impatiently, I thought—to adjust a few of the k’intu. Other people distributed coca leaves to the people in the group; some took leaves to chew, and many formed k’intu of their own.

A community member distributing coca leaves to participants in the ritual (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The leader held a fan of three leaves in front of him and blew on it. He recited in Quechua the names of eight or nine apus, the high mountain peaks of the region, blowing on the k’intu in the direction of each as he spoke its name. The first two which he mentioned were Salkantay and Ausangate; though Ausangate is 100 meters higher than Salkantay, it is not quite as important cosmologically. He continued through some lesser regional peaks, before getting to the local mountains, several of them at the headwaters of the valley. Having completed the list of mountains above us, he then recited the names of over twenty springs in the valley, all below us in elevation, and then began a prayer which requested for the streams to be full with water, and for rain to be plentiful, to assure good harvests. He spoke at length in a slow, loud, sonorous tone, urging the spirits not to forget the people, to be generous to them, and to assure them a year of abundance.

Arranging fans of coca leaves (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

He placed a piece of bread in the dish and then set four k’intu around it. Many people in the group came up, each blowing on their own set of leaves and handing it to the ritual specialist or his assistant. These eventually covered the bread. The specialist then placed additional items on top, starting with yellow maize kernels, which he called qori, gold. The final item was a dried starfish, all the way from the Pacific Ocean. He sprinkled flower petals, red and yellow and white, over the whole assemblage. He then turned to a pit which had recently been dug, about 50 cm across and 75 cm deep. He poured two liquids into the pit, first wine and then the locally brewed maize beer. He carefully set the plate in the bottom of the pit, along with a tiny jug and another small object, and covered them up with earth. He sprinkled petals over the surface, and his offering was complete.

Ritual specialist starting to assemble the offering (source: Richard Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The second offering was to be burned, rather than buried, so a larger pit was dug for it, and firewood and dried cow dung were assembled as fuel. Though these offerings are usually prepared by a single practitioner, sometimes with an assistant, as in the first, the second one featured both a male and a female practitioner, and it was the woman who conducted the preparation of the offering. She set a large paper square on one cloth atop a larger cloth, and held this paper down with four stones, one in each corner. This was a larger offering, layers of different kinds of maize, round colored candies, as well as other items; when it was complete, it formed a large mound. She placed brightly colored ribbons, each descending from the top of the mound in a different direction.

While she was assembling this offering, her male counterpart gave a long address in Quechua, combining the prayers to the spirits with commentary. He opened by emphasizing the seriousness of the ritual, and stressing that it was true, not at all a game. He stated that the whole ritual comes from God, offering a version of the Trinity which included, as is standard, God the Father and God the Son, but which contained as the third figure the Mother of God, rather than the more canonical Holy Spirit. However, he explained, the apus are the owners of the water and so it is to them that requests must be made. His list of apus was not in as precise a sequence from regional to local as in the first ritual, but he spoke with great feeling, apologizing to the apus whose names he had omitted. He requested that the apus whom he might have forgotten entirely not to be angry.

Ritual specialist preparing the offering, with a second ritual specialist (in poncho) next to her, and community members watching (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

One by one he asked the apus, in somewhat varying terms, to watch for us, to send water, to send rain, to cause us to eat, to allow us to work. He evoked the earlier generations who knew better than present-day people how to make offerings, and he stressed the responsibility of the current generation of elders to pass their knowledge on. This knowledge must be raised up, and these offerings must be improved and made more beautiful, year by year. (This emphasis made sense to me after one of the Swiss researchers explained that these rituals had been neglected for many years. They were restored in 2007 by villagers who were concerned about the deteriorating environment that they saw around them.)

As he spoke, a group of five musicians began to play, not the more contemporary brass instruments that are popular in many village festivals but flutes and drums, older instruments that date back many generations. With this accompaniment, he closed his prayers with exhortations to the assembly: they must not look at each other enviously, nor hate each other, nor strike each other. Discord and violence offend the apus, he suggested, while harmony encourages their generosity, and might even help bring the glacial ice back.

Village children dancing after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The woman specialist wrapped up her offering in a square cloth, as the fire began to burn in the pit. She prepared to take the offering there, but the assembled people moved back down to the middle section of Occoruro Pampa. The dancing had begun. Six boys and six girls in costume performed line dances and circle dances, sometimes holding hands, sometimes holding ribbons, to the delight of the villagers and the guests alike.

The Meal after the Rituals

The food then appeared. One large cloth was filled with an enormous pile of boiled kernels of yellow maize, a kind of hominy, while a second held bread and fruit that the guests had picked up in the market in a town between Cusco and Chicón. Both were very popular with the people in attendance. Some continued the spirit of reverence by lifting a handful of maize kernels and blowing on it towards the mountains, as they had with the k’intu.

Boiled maize kernels, served to the participants after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

Maize was available in a second form as well, as the home-brewed beer, prepared with local strawberries for flavor and color. Soon, others came around through the crowd with large cloths filled with potatoes that had been roasted in small earth ovens, and others began serving local cheese. The symbolism seemed evident: the maize and potatoes come from the lower sections of the village lands, the cheese from the cows that graze in the upper pastures. Though many farmers now grow cash crops, such as broccoli and carrots for the restaurants of Cusco, and some have even started cultivating roses, their rituals still evoke the traditional subsistence foods, and indicate that agriculture supports the basic needs of the residents, rather than providing them with cash income.

As the villagers ate their meals, I had the chance to speak with the second ritual practitioner, the one who gave the speech about harmony. He is from the village, but had traveled and studied abroad, and had even received a medical degree in Havana. He returned to the village some years ago and became involved in the local rituals that he had seen as a child and then neglected for decades. He now runs a clinic of what he terms “Andean medicine” in a nearby town. The woman who prepared the second offering has also spent time outside the village.

Discussions of the Rituals

Luís Vicuña, a Peruvian sociologist, explained to me that these two had been contracted to prepare the offering by one group of farmers who were associated with irrigation water guilds, ones that date back many decades and that are now supported by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture. The specialist who performed the first offering, he said, had been brought in by another group that has been seeking to improve domestic water supply, for cooking and cleaning, to the households; these groups are administered directly by the Peruvian cabinet as a whole, rather than forming part of a specific ministry. These rivalries, he thought, were expressed in the delayed start of the ritual, as well as to the presence of two ceremonies, rather than one, as had been the custom for some years.

Apu Chicon (source: BrunoAmaru/Flickr).

Luís and I continued our conversation on the ride back to Cusco, with Luís Mujica, an anthropologist at Peru’s Catholic University, joining in. Was there ever a time when conflict was completely absent in the villages? Researchers had reported disagreements in other villages in Peru over water management. And the multiplicity of projects, of agencies and of NGOs can create rivalries among their supporters. Perhaps the rituals, carried out with such attention to tradition, to well-being and to the watershed itself, can express both unity and division.

I mentioned that Andean rituals are being revived in a number of villages, not only ones like Chicón, confronted with glacier retreat and glacier lake outburst floods, but there must be nonetheless a link with these glacier issues in Chicón. The prayers of the ritual specialists seemed to express genuine feeling, rather than merely being a routine repetition of established formulas. And these feelings seem to be shared by the villagers as well, at least judging by their willingness not merely to attend the rituals but to observe them closely and to participate in them by blowing on k’íntu and on the maize.

As we rode back to Cusco, I reflected on these offerings to the earth and on this evocation of mountain spirits. They are not a simple tradition, one that has remained unbroken and unchanged. Instead, they have a more complex history, one of decline and revival, and one of engagement with environmental and economic change as well. But, despite the shifts in the ways they are carried out, they rest on the deep ties of the villagers to each other, to their mountain-ringed valley and its river, and to the Quechua language that the villagers understand as the only language in which one can address the earth and the mountains.  In a changing world, these ties endure.

IPCC Announces Details of a Report Chapter on High Mountains

On 17 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced the list of experts it has invited to work on a major document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC).

Hans Poertner, co-chair of IPCC WG II and an ecophysiologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute (source: youtube).

Hans Poertner, the co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, underscored the importance of this report. In a statement issued by the IPCC, he noted that the report “is unique in IPCC history.” He added, “[It] reflects the increasing awareness of how important and at the same time how fragile the ocean is as a life-sustaining unit of our planet. The ocean offers many services to ecosystems and humankind, from climate regulation to food supply.” He explained the decision to link oceans and the cryosphere in the report by stating, “At the same time, ocean-cryosphere-atmosphere interactions will shape sea-level rise as a major challenge to human civilization.” Working Group II is the unit within IPCC which assesses climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

Debra Roberts, Working Group II co-chair added, “As an IPCC Special Report focused on two Earth systems which together cover the majority of the planet’s surface and which affect the majority of the global population, a diverse and skilled author team is critical in ensuring a report of the highest policy relevance.”

The role of mountains and glaciers in this report was underscored by IPCC vice-chair Ko Barrett, who said, “The IPCC looks forward to working with experts from around the world on this important topic that impacts billions of people, from the high mountains and polar regions to the coasts.” Barrett chaired the scientific steering committee for the scoping meeting, held in Monaco in December 2016, that drafted the outline of the Special Report.

Regine Hock (right), a Coordinating Lead Author on SROCC, and a glaciologist at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska, during a research trip to the Jarvis Glacier in the Alaska Range in 2014 (source: University of Alaska).

From a total of 569 individuals who were nominated from 57 countries, the IPCC selected 101 experts from 41 countries, each of whom was assigned to one of the report’s six chapters. Each of the chapters has about a dozen Lead Authors, who have the responsibility for preparing the contents of the chapters. Each chapter also has two or three Coordinating Lead Authors, who are charged with providing oversight to assure comprehensive coverage and balance of topics and perspectives, and two or three Review Editors, who are tasked with making sure that the Authors give proper consideration to the substantive comments which arrive during the review stages. Of these experts for SROCC, 69 percent are men and 31 percent women. The distribution by the type of nation is roughly similar, with 64 percent coming from developed countries and 36 percent from developing countries and countries with economies in transition. 74 percent of the selected are new to the IPCC process.

The names, affiliations and other details of the experts assigned to Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, are appended below. A number of these experts work at institutions in mountain countries, or are citizens of mountain countries. Full details are available at the IPCC website.


  Last Name First Name Role Gender Country Citizenship Current Affiliation
1 HOCK Regine CLA F USA Germany University of Alaska Fairbanks
2 RASUL Golam CLA M Nepal Bangladesh International Center for Integrated Mountain Development
3 ADLER Carolina LA F Switzerland Australia Mountain Research Initiative
4 CÁCERES Bolívar LA M Ecuador Ecuador INAMHI, Ecuador
5 GRUBER Stephan LA M Canada Germany Carleton University
6 HIRABAYASHI Yukiko LA F Japan Japan University of Tokyo
7 JACKSON Miriam LA F Norway UK Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate
8 KANG Shichang LA M China China State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences
9 KUTUZOV Stanislav LA M Russia Russia. Russian Academy of Sciences
10 MILNER Alexander LA M UK UK University of Birmingham
11 MOLAU Ulf LA M Sweden Sweden University of Gothenburg
12 MORIN Samuel LA M France France Météo-France
13 ORLOVE Ben LA M USA USA Columbia University
14 ADITI Mukherji RE F Nepal India International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development
15 KASER Georg RE M Austria Italy University of Innsbruck, Austria


This mountain chapter is expected to be about 30 pages in length. It will be comprised of six sections, which integrate natural and social systems. The first is physical processes, the observed and projected changes in mountain cryosphere (glaciers, permafrost, and snow), and the common drivers of change, and feedbacks (e.g., CH4 emissions, albedo) to regional and global climate. The next two focus on impacts: the effects of a changing mountain cryosphere on natural hazards and management options for protecting lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystems; and impacts from changes in the mountain environment, including low latitudes (e.g., Himalayas, Andes, Africa) on habitability, community livelihoods and culture. A fourth section examines risks and responses, with emphasis on risks for societies that depend on mountain cryosphere for water resources (e.g., human consumption, ecosystems and agriculture), including cascading risks, and potential response strategies (e.g., national and international water resource management and technologies). Links to energy systems, and thus to climate mitigation as well as to economic issues, appear in the fifth section, which addresses impacts of variability and trends in water supply on hydropower production and implications for energy policy and water governance. The final section connects high mountains to other regions, examining the influence of mountain cryosphere run-off on river and coastal systems and sea level.

Golam Rasul (right), a Coordinating Lead Author on SROCC, and a development economist at ICIMOD, at a conference International Conference on Green Economy and Sustainable Mountain Development in 2011 (source: IISD).

Other chapters and sections in the SROCC address the framing and context of the report; polar regions; sea level rise and implications for low-lying islands, coasts and communities; changing ocean, marine ecosystems, and dependent communities; and extremes, abrupt changes and managing risks, as well as a summary for policy-makers, a technical summary, and ancillary materials (case studies, frequently asked questions, text boxes). The IPCC has provided a detailed schedule of activities for this Special Report. A series of four multi-day lead author meetings will allow for preparation of the first, second and final drafts; these meetings will alternate with three review periods, each about two months long, in which comments will be provided by experts and governments. The first Lead Authors meeting will take place in 2–6 October 2017, in Fiji, with later meetings over the following year and a half. The IPCC approval of the Summary for Policymakers and acceptance of the Special Report is scheduled for late September 2019.

Kang Shichang, a Lead Author on SROCC, and director of State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences (source: CAS.CN).

This Special Report is one of three that the IPCC is preparing as part of the assessment cycle that will also lead up to the Sixth Assessment Report. The first of these reports, scheduled to be finalized in September 2019, is on Global Warming of 1.5°C. It considers the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. The other, also scheduled for September 2019, is Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. In addition, a methodology reported will be completed by May 2019. It is titled “2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.” The lists of authors and review editors for these reports are also available from the IPCC.