Science and Politics in a Mountain Grassland in Peru

A recent visit to a research site in a high-elevation grassland in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru demonstrated the importance of these rapidly changing ecosystems.  It showed as well the challenges of carrying out studies in this area, and the opportunities for collaborations between different organizations.

The Science of Grasslands

Marlene Rosario and Yulfo Azaña in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)
Yulfo Azaña and Marlene Rosario in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)

On August 17 I drove from the city of Huaraz to Laguna Llaca with Marlene Rosario, an environmental engineer at the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (known by its Spanish acronym, INAIGEM), and Yulfo Azaña, an agronomy student at the Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo National University.  Judith Dresher, another visiting American, also joined us. This visit came several days after an international forum on glaciers and mountain ecosystems, organized by INAIGEM.

Several talks at the forum focused on these grasslands. Enrique Flores, the rector of the National Agrarian University, reported on the deterioration of the quality across the entire Andean region of the country . He indicated that these grasslands have contributed to human livelihoods for millennia, providing grazing for llamas and alpacas since pre-Columbian times and for cattle and sheep as well in the centuries after the Spanish Conquest. They improve regional water resources by promoting the infiltration of surface water into ground water and by removing heavy metals, which can occur naturally or result from mining. Grasslands also support biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)
Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)

Molly Polk, the associate director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, presented results of analysis of satellite images, which demonstrate the reduction in area of wetlands—a key component of grassland biomes—across the Cordillera Blanca in recent decades, and noted this decline in areas that receive glacial meltwater, as well as other areas.

Flores and Polk indicated that grasslands are affected both by climate change and overgrazing. As Rosario explained to me, INAIGEM had begun research to sort out the relative importance of these two factors—a matter of practical importance as well as scientific interest, since they can be addressed by different means.

Planning the Research Project

Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove
Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove)

As we drove up, Rosario,  the sub-director for Climate Change Risks in Mountain Ecosystems at INAIGEM, explained the origins of the project. INAIGEM scientists had decided to conduct grazing exclusion experiments. This method, well-established in grassland ecology, consists of fencing plots so that animals can no longer graze in them, and then assessing the vegetation at regular intervals.

INAIGEM staff reviewed maps and traveled through the grasslands to select possible sites. They recognized that they would need to coordinate with several organizations to receive permission. The first was Huascaran National Park. This protected area, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains large high-elevation grassland areas. The park staff was supportive of the project, both because of their interest in learning more about the grasslands and because it could promote tourism. They discussed installing explanatory panels near the research sites so that hikers and climbers could learn more about the park’s ecosystems.

Sign at entrance to Huascaran National Park from pasture user's group, requesting protection of the environment and respect for culture (source: Ben Orlove)
Sign from pasture-user group at entrance to Huascaran National Park  (source: Ben Orlove)

The second group consisted of the herders who graze their cattle in the region. When the national park was established in 1975, the long-established customary rights of numerous peasant communities to lands within the park were severely curtailed. These communities of Quechua-speaking farmers and herders could no longer build houses or collect wood in the park, and they were forbidden from cultivating fields in the small sections of the park below the upper limit of cultivation around 4000 meters. This loss of rights came just a few years after a major agrarian reform program had granted official recognition to these communities, and was deeply resented within them.

The park allowed some grazing to continue. It set up committees of pasture-users (comités de usuarios de pastos naturales), in this way granting grazing rights to individuals. Other community members were excluded, even though in earlier times they would have been able to gain access to grasslands if they acquired livestock. Moreover, each pasture-user was allowed to pass the rights on to only one heir, rather than to all their offspring as was the practice before the park was established. The concerns of the pasture-users is shown by a sign erected by their group at the park entrance, calling for protection of the environment and respect for local culture as well as compliance with directives from park rangers.

Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)
Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)

INAIGEM staff met with the management committees (juntas directivas) of two groups of pasture-users,  Quillcayhuanca and Llaca, both of them in the drainages closest to Huaraz. They proposed using solar-powered electric fences to establish 2 to 4 exclusion plots of 5 hectares each, indicating that this would provide valuable information about pasture quality and might lead to an increase in tourism revenue. The group in Llaca—all members of the community of Cachipampa, with fields and houses lower down—showed greater interest, and agreed to allow INAIGEM staff to set up the plots.

Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)
Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)

This agreement did not end the tensions. When INAIGEM staff came to delimit the plots, the herders challenged their selection. INAIGEM preferred areas with more established vegetation, but the herders wanted them to study the sections of most deteriorated pasture. The herders claimed that INAIGEM’s actions would lead them to lose their grazing rights. They also expressed concerned that the electric fences would kill the cattle. After tense discussions, the two groups compromised on one initial plot, a bit under 5 hectares, that included woodlands and wetlands as well as grasslands.

The final challenge to INAIGEM came, not from the people, but from the animals. Azaña explained how the cattle of this high area were fierce and wild (bravos), unlike the tamer animals of the lower agricultural regions. When an engineer came with the stakes, he was charged by a bull. Fearing that he would be gored, he ran into the middle of a marshy area where the ground was too soft for the bull to enter. He remained there until others rescued him.

Visiting the Research Site

Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)
Marlene Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)

After this long account, Rosario, Azaña, Dresher and I reached the lake at the foot of the glacier. Rosario pointed out the walls that the herders had built to separate different areas of pasture. We walked down the river valley past some wetlands, and reached the plot. She showed us the electric fence, with four wires at even intervals strung between sturdy posts.

She indicated as well a ladder that passed over it into the plot. It had been added at the insistence of the community of Cachipampa, which had built an intake for a canal on the river within the plot.  The community members use the water to irrigate fields well below the park.

Azaña demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)
Azaña demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)

Azaña demonstrated to us the vegetation assessment procedure. He had established 3 transects—lines which ran the length of the plot, each at a different elevation. He visits the site  every  3 months, collecting data  on the plant species which are present  at a number of determined spots on each transect, as well as the vigor of the dominant species and the percentage of bare soil at each spot.

Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)
Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)

Even after less than a year, the initial results were clear: the plants were taller and thicker inside the plot than outside. Rosario described a meeting that she had with the management committee of the herders; they agreed that the pasture showed recovery when the grazing had stopped. She was hopeful that this finding would lead to discussions of changes in grazing patterns. The national park staff was also eager to reduce herding, though they and INAIGEM both recognize the strong attachment of the herders to these areas and their distrust of government agencies.

Considering the Next Steps

Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)
Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)

On the way back to Huaraz, Rosario, Azaña and I discussed ways to promote further engagement of the herders in the research and the management. We talked about involving the herders directly in the assessment of pasture quality. Rosario said, “We don’t just study trees and water. We pay attention to the social component.”  She and Azaña were interested to hear that an indigenous pastoralist—a Saami from Norway—was a co-author of a chapter in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and considered the possibility of having Quechua co-authors of reports and papers on their research. We discussed including text in Quechua, as well as Spanish and English, on the explanatory panels about the project. Dresher suggested reintroducing llamas and alpacas into the area, with the tourist restaurants in Huaraz as a possible market for the meat.

“We are Andean,” Rosario said, as we drew closer to Huaraz. “We are familiar with these places.” Indeed she and Azaña are both from the Ancash region, where Huaraz and the national park are located. They both speak Quechua as well as Spanish. These common identities and connections to the landscape may prove important as the ties between researchers and herders unfold.

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Officials, Experts, Local People Visit a High-risk Glacier Lake

Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)
Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)

Over 30 people, including government officials, researchers, students and journalists, recently visited Palcacocha, a lake at the foot of a large glacier high in the Peruvian Andes. This one-day trip was a tour that came the day after an international glacier conference held nearby. The group discussed natural hazards and water resources associated with the lake. The conversation revealed that a number of different agencies and organizations have claims to the lake, and that their concerns, though overlapping, differ in important ways, raising challenges for those who wish to manage it. These issues of governance are characteristic of the management of glacier lakes in other countries as well, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Tajikistan.

Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)
Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)

Lake Palcacocha, located about 20 kilometers northeast of the city of Huaraz at an elevation of 4550 meters above sea level, is well-known in Peru and beyond as the source of a major glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). This event occurred in 1941, when a chunk of ice broke off the glacier above the lake, sending waves that destroyed the moraine that dammed the lake. The floodwaters, mixed with rock, mud and debris, rushed down the canyon and inundated Huaraz, located well below the lake at an elevation of 3050 meters. The death toll was high, exceeding 5000 by many accounts, and large areas of the city were destroyed. The residents of the city remain keenly aware of the risks presented by GLOFs, known as aluviones in Spanish.

Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)
Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)

The visitors traveled up to the lake in buses and vans, hiking on foot to cover the final, and roughest, kilometer of the road. They assembled at the wall at the base of the lake that had been built in the 1940s to reinforce the moraine dam. The first person to speak was César Portocarrero, an engineer from the Peruvian National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, the group which organized the international conference. This institute, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, is a branch of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. It is charged with managing glacier issues in the country, including this lake. Portocarrero discussed the wall, indicating that it has been repaired several times after damage from earthquakes. He showed a sluice gate through which a number of plastic pipes were threaded. These serve to siphon water from the lake and pass it into the outlet river below, relying on gravity rather than pumps to move the water.

By lowering the level of the lake, the agency also lowers the risk that waves in the lake (which could be produced by icefalls, avalanches, or earthquakes) would overtop the wall and create another GLOF. Portocarrero indicated as well that an intake valve further downstream directs the water from the river to the city of Huaraz. This lake supplies the city with nearly half its water. The key goal, he emphasized, was to keep the lake level low. He mentioned that glacier melt was particularly heavy in January, due to high temperatures associated with an El Niño event. The lake was so high that the siphon pipes had to be removed, allowing the maximum possible flow through the sluice gate. It took several months after the excess water was drained to thread the pipes through the gate and reinstall them.

Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

The second person to speak was Eloy Alzamora Morales, the mayor of the district of Independencia, the administrative unit in which the lake is located. He emphasized the importance of a multisectoral approach that would link disaster risk reduction with sustainable water use, providing potable water to Huaraz and to rural areas above the city, and supporting a hydroelectric plant that he wished to build. He expressed his hope to coordinate government agencies, civil society organizations and private firms to promote sustainable development through integrated water management. The key goal, he indicated, was to keep the lake at an intermediate level, retaining enough water for urban consumption and hydropower generation while also reducing hazard risks.

Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

After this second talk, most of the journalists who videotaped these first two speakers dispersed to take photographs of the lake, the glacier and the surrounding peaks, which rise up to over 6270 meters in elevation. A few remained to listen to Selwyn Valverde, a conservation manager at Huascaran National Park, the large protected area in which the lake, glacier and peaks are located. He emphasized the national park’s goals of supporting ecosystems in as pristine a condition as possible. He spoke proudly of the park’s biodiversity, emphasizing that it contains sizable populations of high mountain plants and animals that are more seriously threatened elsewhere in the Andes. Pointing to the outflow stream from the lake, he mentioned that it supports high-elevation wetlands which support groundwater recharge. The key goal, he suggested, was to manage the park to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services; any alteration of unimpeded stream flow would require careful consideration.

Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcococha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)
Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcacocha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)

Jeff Kargel, a geoscientist from the University of Arizona, spoke more informally, with one or two journalists taking notes. As a researcher who focuses on the earth and other bodies in the solar system, he, too, had a kind of standing to speak for the area. He pointed out the rocky bluffs halfway up the glacier. When glacier ice, moving downslope, reaches them, it tends to fall off because they are so steep. As a result, they appear as black masses halfway up the glacier. They are large enough to be visible in satellite images. Kargel reported that these were the features that NASA had interpreted in 2003 as newly formed cracks within the glaciers. They issued a warning of increased GLOF risk, which led to near-panic in the region and a sharp decline in tourism for over a year. This incident, he indicated, showed the importance of taking care in issuing warnings, and the danger of false alarms.

These discussions over, the group dispersed. Some people hiked down from the wall to the lake. One of these was Gualberto Machaca, a native speaker of Quechua, the indigenous language of the region. He works with a small NGO, Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla, which focuses on the use of traditional knowledge and culture in promoting sustainability and well-being. His focus was on the indigenous communities that had long held traditional rights to the lake, but which were expelled from the park at its formation in 1975. Walking slowly around the shore of the lake, he commented that the customary rituals of making offerings to the lake spirits, common in other regions of Peru, seemed to be less evident here, but he thought it was likely that they were still carried on, probably at night, by small groups. He provided an overview of the lake rituals in which he had participated, further south in Peru. He suggested that the support of such rituals would promote the integration of indigenous knowledge into efforts to address climate change.

lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)
lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)

After a half hour, the conference organizers called the people to walk back to the vehicles. We drove a short distance to a cluster of stone huts, where the caretakers of the dam lived. They had prepared a lunch for us, a traditional meal of meat and potatoes baked in an underground oven. The group sat at rough-hewn tables and on benches, eating the local food with their hands, as is the customary practice—a striking contrast with the banquet that ended the conference, where food was elegantly served on fine dishes on tables covered with tablecloths. No discord was evident, even though different forms of management of the lake had been discussed, and the lake had been claimed by different organizations (a branch of a ministry, a municipality, a national park, international scientists and indigenous communities). It seemed that everyone could agree on the importance of the lake, the value of the excursion, and the affirmation of customary foods. As the visitors returned for the drive back to Huaraz, a number of people exchanged business cards and handshakes. From these networks and exchanges, new activities may emerge to address the substantial challenges that glacier retreat brings to the lake and to the area, offering lessons for mountain regions around the world.

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Renewed Activity at Colombian Volcano Raises Concern

Ash eruption from VOlcan del Ruiz, 27 June 2016 (source:ExtraHuila/Twitter)
Ash eruption from Volcan del Ruiz, 27 June 2016 (Source: ExtraHuila/Twitter)

The glacier-covered Volcan del Ruiz in Colombia has shown signs of renewed activity in the last several days, following a shallow earthquake of 3.0 on the Richter scale on June 22, associated with fracturing of rock within the volcano. The Colombian Geological Service recognized this fracturing as a sign of possible movements of magma that could lead to an eruption of lava. Tom Pfeiffer, a German volcanologist, suggested that the earthquake was “possibly caused by increased magma pressure inside the volcano’s upper storage system.”

Earlier this week, on June 27, the volcano released an ash cloud, reaching 1,800 meters above the summit. A second emission on June 28 attained a height of 850 meters. Its volume was sufficient to threaten aircraft in the region, which led to the sudden closure of the regional airport in Manizales, 25 kilometers to the northwest.

One local resident released alerts on Twitter, directing people to close windows and to wear face masks as protection against the ash. In a second tweet, included below, she indicated that the warning level had been raised from yellow to orange, “alerta naranja,” though official sources in the Colombian Geological Service and the regional Risk Management Unit wrote to assure the public that the warning level remained at yellow.

On its Facebook page, the regional Volcanic and Seismological Observatory released a video of the most recent eruption, taken on its webcam:

As GlacerHub explained in a recent post, the presence of glaciers on the volcano’s summit creates the risk of destructive debris flows known as lahars. The very rapid melting of ice caused by contact with molten lava can cause floods to rush down the mountain’s slopes, carrying large quantities of ash, rock and soil to populated areas. An eruption of the volcano in 1985 led to over 23,000 deaths.

Ashcloud from Volcan del Ruiz. 28 June 2016 (source:OVSM)
Ashcloud from Volcan del Ruiz. 28 June 2016 (Source: OVSM)

The Colombian authorities and local citizens are monitoring this situation closely. If an eruption is likely, the municipalities in the region will receive warnings. GlacierHub will report on any significant intensification of the volcano’s activity.

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John Kerry Sees ‘Center of Climate Change’ On Norwegian Glacier Visit

Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende inspect the Blomstrand Glacier, June 16, 2016 (source: US Dept of State)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende inspect the Blomstrand Glacier, June 16, 2016 (source: US Dept of State)

John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, visited a glacier recently in Svalbard, Norway, as part of his travels to meetings in the Nordic countries. He was accompanied by his counterpart, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende. The experience of seeing retreating glaciers and shrinking sea ice impressed him. On his Twitter account, he wrote, “Witnessed the effects of #climatechange firsthand w/ @borgebrende in #Svalbard while touring Blomstrand glacier.”

While aboard a research vessel near Ny Ålesund, a scientific base in Svalbard, he said, “This is the center of change within the center of change.” He commented on climate change actions, “The steps that people are taking are not big enough fast enough. We have a huge distance to travel.”

As he does on nearly all his trips, Kerry combined a number of activities and purposes during this visit to Norway. He participated in the Oslo Forum, a meeting of world leaders that seeks to mediate and reduce conflicts, and met separately with the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg for bilateral talks. They reviewed the situation in Syria and Iraq, and discussed the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, to be held early in July. This is a particularly important meeting for Norway, which is a charter member of NATO, though it does not belong to the European Union. For many, its location brings to mind the Warsaw Pact, the mutual defense treaty between the Soviet Union and the Communist countries of eastern Europe which served as a counterpart to NATO during the Cold War from 1955 to 1991.

Secretary of State John Kerry inspecting icebergs calved from Jacobshavn Glacier, Ilulissat, Greenland, June 17, 2016. (Source: US Dept of State)
Secretary of State John Kerry inspecting icebergs calved from Jacobshavn Glacier, Ilulissat, Greenland, June 17, 2016. (source: US Dept of State)

While in Oslo, Kerry also spoke at a conference on deforestation, at which the American and Norwegian governments released a joint statement on Deeper Collaboration on Forests and Climate Change, affirming their commitment to Paris Agreement, stating their support of forests as carbon sinks, and discussing other issues such as aviation emissions. He then continued from Norway to Denmark for discussions with the prime minister and foreign minister; after that, he traveled to Ilulissat, Greenland, where he visited Jacobshavn Glacier, met with Greenlandic and Danish officials and conferred about climate issues in the Arctic. Danish sources reported that they also discussed the management of Thule, an American air force base in Greenland.

The Arctic’s importance to geopolitics

In an email interview. Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, emphasized the strategic aspects of Kerry’s visit, and its link to regional and global geopolitics.

“Kerry’s visits to Svalbard and Greenland reflect the superpower of the international system with global interests and engagements, also in the Arctic. The Arctic has for a long time been an integral part of the international political, economic and security system. Think of the Murmansk convoys of the Second World War or the strategic nuclear weapons and distant early warning systems during the Cold War. Svalbard commands the Barents Sea, and Greenland is important for missile defense,” Bertelsen wrote.

He continued: “Climate change highlights that the Arctic is also key to the global earth system, which is of strategic importance to the superpower whether its energy system or its vulnerability to climate change. From the perspective of the hosts, the two small Nordic Arctic states of the Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Norway, what is most striking is their inability to publicly coordinate and highlight these visits by the US Secretary of State. All the five Nordic small states are Arctic states, and the Arctic is another obvious arena for them for joint impactful action, which is unfortunately not realized.”

Tapping into Norwegian politics

Thomas Hylland Ericksen, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo and the president of the European Association of Social Anthropology, emphasized the significance of his visit for domestic Norwegian politics, where, as in many other parts of Europe, tensions between right- and left-wing parties are strong. He wrote:

“Yes, there has been some excitement, in some circles, around Kerry’s visit. The truth is, alas, that he is probably more progressive and proactive in the domain of climate change prevention than our current government [led since 2013 by the Conservative Party]. We have a minister of climate and the environment who is completely invisible — most people don’t even know his name — and a foreign minister who is competent enough, but more concerned with diplomacy and security than climate…There has been some press coverage of Kerry’s visit, but less than one might expect. On the far left, there have been complaints that he said things about Russia that might be perceived as threats, and that the militarisation of the far north is happening big time now.”

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporter aboard ship on the Kongsfjorden in valbar, June 16, 2016 (source: US Dept of State)
Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporter aboard ship on the Kongsfjorden in Svalbard, June 16, 2016 (source: US Dept of State)

Security issues in the Barents region were discussed during the visit, according to Ericksen, as well as “the situation in the Middle East.” The Svalbard visit reportedly was the result of Kerry’s desire to “witness the effects of climate change [at Blomstrand Glacier] with his own eyes,” Ericksen wrote.

Ericksen indicated that this attention was welcomed by environmentalists in Norway.  He wrote, “During the previous Labour-led coalition [which was in power from 2005 to 2013], the minister for environment and development, Erik Solheim, was in the media every day with some initiative or other. That media role has now been taken by the Progress Party minister for ‘integration’, a local Tea Party kind of politician called Sylvi Listhaug — pretty, smart and dangerous with her anti-immigration agenda.”

Kerry’s human curiosity

GlacierHub was also able to reach someone who was in Ny Ålesund during Kerry’s visit. Paul Wenzel Geissler, an anthropologist who works at Europe’s largest and northernmost arctic research station, following scientists who study birds and the effects of global pollutants on them. Geissler reported that he was “holed up” writing notes during the bulk of the secretary’s visit, “not because I hold any grudges against him, but because the presence of armed men on the higher buildings made me a little uncomfortable, and the fact that we were not allowed to carry weapons that day prevented me from going out of town. [Researchers carry rifles to protect themselves from the polar bears that wander all over Svalbard.] So, the closest I got to the event was being startled and subsequently calmed down by a camouflaged, though smiling, soldier with automatic weapons on his heavy neck jumping down the Polar Institute staircase, just as I thought myself alone in the building.”

Norwegian Polar Institute at Ny Alesund, Svalbard (source: NPI)
Norwegian Polar Institute at Ny Alesund, Svalbard (source: NPI)

Geissler said that colleagues recalled “pleasant” questions. “‘Who of the assembled scientists has lived up here longest?’ Then: ‘What are you actually doing?’ And even: ‘How do you catch the birds, and which are most difficult to catch?’” wrote Wenzel Geissler. “The latter question afforded a colleague, studying a particularly hard-to-catch top predator, to bring up legacy and emerging pollutants in Arctic seabirds – one of the key scientific issues here in the world’s northernmost community (however exactly that is defined). Happy that this massive threat – not just to seabirds – was raised in this sort of climate change dominated event.”

These three different perspectives complement each other. The Arctic is a region of intense jockeying among nations, as the region’s natural resources and shipping routes open up. Climate change issues are a topic that some political parties focus on closely but others ignore or dismiss. Despite the weight of these issues, the glaciers themselves and the organisms that live on or near them elicit curiosity and surprise on the part of visitors, even for major political figures with busy agendas.

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Celebrating Frankenstein’s 200th Birthday

Mary Shelley, 1840 (source: Robert Rothwell)
Mary Shelley, 1840 (source: Richard Rothwell)

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frankenstein. For several days in June 1816, the young English writer Mary Godwin and her lover (and future husband), the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying near a mansion, the Villa Diodati, in the village of Cologny on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the poet Lord Byron and a physician, John Polidori, were spending the summer and fall. Unable to venture outside the mansion for long because of the cold stormy weather, they read ghost stories and proposed a challenge: each would write a ghost story of their own. A conference is being held in Cologny to mark this anniversary.

She later reported her experience after going to bed on the night of June 16. Writing in the preface to the third edition of the book she began soon after, she stated:

“Either in a dream, or in some kind of half-trance, I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Villa Diodati, Cologny, Switzerland (source: Robert Grassi)
Villa Diodati, Cologny, Switzerland (source: Robert Grassi)

The book that sprang from this vision is Frankenstein, published in 1818, after the marriage of the author and Shelley. In it, the student of the unhallowed arts was Victor Frankenstein. The phantasm of a man was the monster, nameless in the book, but known in popular culture as Frankenstein. The novel has been celebrated as the first work of science fiction. Many people know if through the film versions, including the classic 1931 version, in which Boris Karloff plays the monster.

Mary Godwin conceived the story of the scientist and the monster he created in June 1816, but it was not until a month later that she and Shelley, traveling through the Alps on foot and on muleback, would see a glacier—the Mer de Glace, the Ice-sea, France’s greatest ice field and one of the largest in the Alps—that would serve as setting for a key scene in the book, an encounter between the scientist and his creation.

Scene on the Mer de Glace, Thomas Henry Graham, 1818 (source: Pforzheimer Collection/NYPL)
Scene on the Mer de Glace, Thomas Henry Graham, 1818 (source: Pforzheimer Collection/NYPL)

Early chapters of the novel related how Victor Frankenstein recognized the creature’s horrifying nature soon after he made him, and rejected him. The monster, angry at Frankenstein for abandoning him, wandered for some time and then killed Frankenstein’s younger brother. The grief-stricken Frankenstein  traveled to the mountains. It was there, in the Mer de Glace, that the monster found him  and begged him to create a female counterpart.

Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein, 1931 (source: Universal Studios)
Boris Karloff as the monster in “Frankenstein,” 1931, dir. James Whale (source: Universal Studios)

The story then moves to lower elevations before returning to a vast expanse of ice. Frankenstein created, and then destroyed, the female companion that the monster requested; the monster killed Frankenstein’s best friend and later his wife. (In popular culture, the confusion between the scientist and the monster is replicated in the confusion over the identity of bride of Frankenstein.) The scientist and the monster both traveled to the Arctic, the scientist to die of pneumonia, the monster to wander off on a real Ice-sea, the Arctic Ocean, heading towards the North Pole.

The conference, titled Frankenstein’s Shadow: A Bicentennial Assessment of the Frankenstein Narrative’s Influence, is being held on June 14 and 15 at the Fondation Bocher in Hermance, near Geneva. Organized to examine the influence of the Frankenstein myth on current views of science, it is being sponsored by the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, along with Duke University, the University of Lausanne, and the Fondation Brocher, which specializes in  the study of bioethics.

Poster for conference on Frankenstein, Cologny (source: Fondation Brocker)
Poster for a conference “Frankenstein Today” at Cologny (source: Fondation Brocker)

Elizabeth Denlinger, a librarian and researcher at the New York Public Library who is attending the conference, wrote to GlacierHub,The novel only becomes more significant as technology approaches ever close in reality what was only fantasy in 1816.”  She continues,I, personally, hope that we take away the last words Victor Frankenstein speaks: ‘I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.’ This, not the idiotic belief that science is dangerous, is what’s worth remembering. But the daring it takes to change ourselves and our world purposely is frightening, and leaves people prey to superstitious fears.”

She noted that a number of talks focused on themes close to the ones in the book–gene therapy, artificial intelligence, assisted reproduction technologies. Her own talk focuses on museums exhibition which have represented the ethical issues in Frankenstein’s experiment.

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (source: NYPL)
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (source: NYPL)

Denlinger commented on the importance of ice in the book. She writes “The crucial scene of the novel is set on the Mer de Glace, which Mary Shelley uses to good purpose to give Victor and the creature privacy; to isolate them in the reader’s imagination; and to echo in the setting the strangeness of the moment. I think it’s important that the Mer de Glace, though a ‘stupendous scene’ and a ‘vast river of ice,’ is still surrounded by familiar European land. The final Arctic scene is meant to be abysmal in a literal sense, endlessly vast.” She noted that the participants in the conference found themselves “talking about shrinking ice in Antarctica … after dinner.”

And one talk at the conference focuses directly on these themes. Dehlia Hannah, director of the research and curatorial project A Year Without a Winter, wrote a talk “The Year Without a Summer/Winter: Frankenstein and Climate Change,” linking present climate concerns with the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which spewed the vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere that created the cold wet winter which, in turn, contributed to the novel. In an interview with GlacierHub, she described how her project looks back at 1816, the anomalous “‘year without a summer’ in order to rethink the climatic disregulation we face today.” Frankenstein’s experiment and greenhouse gas emissions, she stated, both demonstrate that “when we intervene dramatically in the order ot nature, we risk unforeseeable consequences, ones for which we are not prepared to assume responsibility.”

Mer de Glace (source: Tomislav Medak)
Mer de Glace (source: Tomislav Medak)

Readers of GlacierHub who cannot travel to Switzerland these days will have an opportunity to learn more about Frankenstein through classes at the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, where Denlinger is the curator. Denlinger will also serve as guest curator of a special exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York in 2018, the bicentennial of the book’s publication, focusing on the novel, its author, and what Denlinger terms “its hideous progeny on stage and in film.” This event, like the conference, may well serve as an opportunity for reflection on the great power that glaciers exercised on the human imagination two hundred years ago, and on their new significance in an era of climate change.

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Roundup: Lamborghinis, Spy Satellites, and Changing Calendars

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Swedish Skier Drives a Lamborghini Up a Norwegian Glacier

From Autoblog: “The latest stunt by Jon Olsson has no particular purpose, but we love it just the same. Olsson, a former ski racer, always has a neat car with an equipment carrier stuck on top, and in this video he puts his customized rear-drive Lamborghini Murcielago LP 640 to work at Fonna Glacier Ski Resort in Norway. Makes sense to us. As he says in the short video, the aim is to have fun. He drives the Lambo up the Norwegian glacier aided by monster rear tires with some frightening studs, and then he makes things a little more interesting by creating a giant giant slalom course for the car.” 

Learn more about Olsson’s glacier drive here.

 

Villages Must Recalibrate Time to Survive in the Pamir Mountains

Snow-covered Peaks of the Pamir Mountains (source: Kassam/AGU)
Snow-covered Peaks of the Pamir Mountains (source: Kassam/AGU)

From EOS: “The calendar has stopped working for the people of the Pamir—the stunning, stark mountain range straddling the modern-day borders of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. A shifting climate is disrupting not only their subsistence farming and herding but also their unique way of tracking time. . Local timekeepers name each new seasonal development after a part of the body, beginning with the toenail, then moving upward to the shin, the thigh, the intestines, the heart, and so on, until reaching the head. Arrival at the head coincides with the end of spring and a pause in counting. When the first cue of summer is observed, the counting sequence restarts, but this time from the head downward. Timekeepers rely on natural events—the nascence of a flower, arrival of a migratory bird, movement of fish, breakup of lake ice—as the indicators of seasonal change, not simply the number of days since significant positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. For centuries, this indigenous timekeeping strategy has offered local villagers an intuitive context for scheduling day-to-day life, from when to plow and seed to the timing of festivals and other events at the heart of Pamiri society. In recent years, however, climate change coupled with political instability has begun to disrupt the Pamir landscape, throwing these traditional ecological calendars out of sequence—and in need of recalibration.”

Find out about traditional calendars in the Pamirs and their evolution here.

 

Quantifying Ice Loss in the Eastern Himalayas Since 1974 Using Declassified Spy Satellite Imagery

 

Maps showing elevation change between 1974 and 2006 on glaciers in Bhutan. White outlines denote glaciers used in the study. (source: The Cryosphere)
Maps showing elevation change between 1974 and 2006 on glaciers in Bhutan. White outlines denote glaciers used in the study. (source: The Cryosphere)

From The Cryosphere:

“Himalayan glaciers are important natural resources and climate indicators for densely populated regions in Asia. Remote sensing methods are vital for evaluating glacier response to changing climate over the vast and rugged Himalayan region; yet many platforms capable of glacier mass balance quantification are somewhat temporally limited considering typical glacier response times. We here rely on declassified spy satellite imagery and ASTER data to quantify surface lowering, ice volume change, and geodetic mass balance during 1974-2006 for glaciers in the eastern Himalayas, centered on the Bhutan-China border. The wide range of glacier types allows for the first mass balance comparison between clean, 15 debris, and lake-terminating (calving) glaciers in the region. Measured glaciers show significant ice loss, with an estimated mean annual geodetic mass balance of -0.12 ± 0.06 m.w.e. yr-1 (meters of water equivalent per year) for 10 clean-ice glaciers, -0.15 ± 0.11 m.w.e. yr-1 for 5 debris-covered glaciers, -0.25 ± 0.10 m.w.e. yr-1 for 6 calving glaciers, and -0.16 ± 0.05 m.w.e. yr-1 for all glaciers combined.

To learn more about the new insights gleaned from declassified images from spy satellites, click here.

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Why Didn’t These Two Glacier Countries Sign the Paris Accord?

Earth Day, April 22, marked a major step forward in global efforts to address climate change when 175 parties gathered in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, the accord that had been adopted last December. The ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters marked the historical record for first-day signatures on an international agreement.  This event marks a strong commitment to the next phase of the process, in which countries deposit the technical documents known as “instruments of ratification,” which spell out in greater detail the steps that they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “Today is a remarkable, record-breaking day in the history of international cooperation on climate change and a sustainable future for billions of people alive today and those to come.”  

Countries with glaciers have already experienced the impact of climate change directly. Did this make them more likely to sign the agreement? The large countries with glaciers, like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Italy, and France, all signed. However, not all of the smaller countries did.

By GlacierHub’s reckoning, there are 11 such small glacier countries. Nine of them signed: Iceland, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, Tajikistan, and New Zealand.

Chile was one of the two that did not participate. Their failure to attend the ceremony in New York will not prevent them from joining, since the signing period remains open for a year. The leaders in that country, who otherwise would have traveled to New York, remained in Chile to mark the death of Patricio Aylwin, the 97-year-old former president who passed away on April 19. Aylwin was elected to power in 1990, marking the return to democracy in the country after 17 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet, who had deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup.

Ala-Too Square (former Lenin Square), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr)

The other country that did not sign was Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that it had a significant delegation at COP21 in Paris last year. The reasons for its failure to participate are more complex. Leaders in that country may also have had their attention distracted by national events. A new prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, assumed office on April 13, replacing Temir Sariyev, who had held the position for less than a year.  

To understand Kyrgyzstan’s absence, GlacierHub contacted a number of people in Central Asia.

One of our contacts wrote that they had heard that Kyrgyzstan will sign the Paris Agreement this fall. “It’s a [pitiful] situation. The country could have at least sent an intention of signing the agreement,” this person wrote. “In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan is going through the internal process of discussion over the Paris agreement, which didn’t take place before COP 21 in December 2015. … [T]he ratification of the Paris agreement could have been organized after government signing the agreement, but the process is taking place now.”

Another, writing in a tone that suggests greater disappointment, stated: “This is a very sad story… The agreement was not properly discussed between the ministries. They will sign, but later. Certainly not a good sign about the capacities of the responsible bodies.”

A third, seemingly resigned to such delays, told us: “I am not surprised given the chaos in the government. …   It has to do with simple government bureaucratic capacity. A new Prime Minister was appointed only recently and a Paris agreement is not exactly something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would put on the top of the agenda signing in the middle of an economic crisis.” In a follow-up email, this person added, “You can’t imagine how screwed up the machinery of government is in reality.”

Taken together, these statements make it seem much more likely than not that Kyrgyzstan will join the other glacier countries in signing this crucial agreement.

Kyrgyz in Paris COP21
Discussion on 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, with Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove, to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

“Kyrgyzstan’s persistent problem is political indeterminacy,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told GlacierHub, underscoring the reasons that others had offered for the delay. “And this in turn shows that Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of its neighbors, takes the process of democratic consensus formation very seriously.”

Another source told us that on April 25, the group of Kyrgyz delegates to Paris, concerned about the comments that they had received about their country’s lack of participation, began to talk about possible actions. This source indicated that they are discussing which specific organizations to mobilize to develop a response–a step that supports Horton’s account of the seriousness of their deliberations.

The small island states offer a useful contrast. Of the 37 members of the Association of Small Island States, 35 of them signed. The only two that did not participate have very small populations (the Cook Islands, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, and tiny Niue, whose population barely exceeds 1,000), and, moreover, some of their international affairs are handled by New Zealand, with whom they have long-standing relations. Indeed, 13 of these small island states were among the 15 countries who submitted their instruments of ratification on the same day. These countries are diverse, and some of them have political systems that, like Kyrgyzstan, lack coordination among ministries and have frequent turnover of leadership.

One significant difference is that they have a long history of coordination on international climate accords—a striking difference with the small glacier states, some of whom cooperate on specific issues such as glacier monitoring and the management of glacier-related hazards, but who do not work together so closely.  This contrast suggests the importance of such coordination in allowing small vulnerable countries to participate effectively in the arena of international climate politics.

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Why Didn’t These Two Glacier Countries Sign the Paris Agreement?

Earth Day, April 22, marked a major step forward in global efforts to address climate change when 175 parties gathered in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, the accord that had been adopted last December. The ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters marked the historical record for first-day signatures on an international agreement.  This event marks a strong commitment to the next phase of the process, in which countries deposit the technical documents known as “instruments of ratification,” which spell out in greater detail the steps that they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “Today is a remarkable, record-breaking day in the history of international cooperation on climate change and a sustainable future for billions of people alive today and those to come.”  

Countries with glaciers have already experienced the impact of climate change directly. Did this make them more likely to sign the agreement? The large countries with glaciers, like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Italy, and France, all signed. However, not all of the smaller countries did.

By GlacierHub’s reckoning, there are 11 such small glacier countries. Nine of them signed: Iceland, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, Tajikistan, and New Zealand.

Chile was one of the two that did not participate. Their failure to attend the ceremony in New York will not prevent them from joining, since the signing period remains open for a year. The leaders in that country, who otherwise would have traveled to New York, remained in Chile to mark the death of Patricio Aylwin, the 97-year-old former president who passed away on April 19. Aylwin was elected to power in 1990, marking the return to democracy in the country after 17 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet, who had deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup.

Ala-Too Square (former Lenin Square), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr)

The other country that did not sign was Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that it had a significant delegation at COP21 in Paris last year. The reasons for its failure to participate are more complex. Leaders in that country may also have had their attention distracted by national events. A new prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, assumed office on April 13, replacing Temir Sariyev, who had held the position for less than a year.  

To understand Kyrgyzstan’s absence, GlacierHub contacted a number of people in Central Asia.

One of our contacts wrote that they had heard that Kyrgyzstan will sign the Paris Agreement this fall. “It’s a [pitiful] situation. The country could have at least sent an intention of signing the agreement,” this person wrote. “In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan is going through the internal process of discussion over the Paris agreement, which didn’t take place before COP 21 in December 2015. … [T]he ratification of the Paris agreement could have been organized after government signing the agreement, but the process is taking place now.”

Another, writing in a tone that suggests greater disappointment, stated: “This is a very sad story… The agreement was not properly discussed between the ministries. They will sign, but later. Certainly not a good sign about the capacities of the responsible bodies.”

A third, seemingly resigned to such delays, told us: “I am not surprised given the chaos in the government. …   It has to do with simple government bureaucratic capacity. A new Prime Minister was appointed only recently and a Paris agreement is not exactly something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would put on the top of the agenda signing in the middle of an economic crisis.” In a follow-up email, this person added, “You can’t imagine how screwed up the machinery of government is in reality.”

Taken together, these statements make it seem much more likely than not that Kyrgyzstan will join the other glacier countries in signing this crucial agreement.

Kyrgyz in Paris COP21
Discussion on 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, with Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove, to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

“Kyrgyzstan’s persistent problem is political indeterminacy,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told GlacierHub, underscoring the reasons that others had offered for the delay. “And this in turn shows that Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of its neighbors, takes the process of democratic consensus formation very seriously.”

Another source told us that on April 25, the group of Kyrgyz delegates to Paris, concerned about the comments that they had received about their country’s lack of participation, began to talk about possible actions. This source indicated that they are discussing which specific organizations to mobilize to develop a response–a step that supports Horton’s account of the seriousness of their deliberations.

The small island states offer a useful contrast. Of the 37 members of the Association of Small Island States, 35 of them signed. The only two that did not participate have very small populations (the Cook Islands, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, and tiny Niue, whose population barely exceeds 1,000), and, moreover, some of their international affairs are handled by New Zealand, with whom they have long-standing relations. Indeed, 13 of these small island states were among the 15 countries who submitted their instruments of ratification on the same day. These countries are diverse, and some of them have political systems that, like Kyrgyzstan, lack coordination among ministries and have frequent turnover of leadership.

One significant difference is that they have a long history of coordination on international climate accords—a striking difference with the small glacier states, some of whom cooperate on specific issues such as glacier monitoring and the management of glacier-related hazards, but who do not work together so closely.  This contrast suggests the importance of such coordination in allowing small vulnerable countries to participate effectively in the arena of international climate politics.

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Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

Do glaciers have an influence on voting patterns in America? In this year’s unusual presidential campaign, analysts have examined many factors, such as age, gender, race, education or other demographic characteristics. But looking at the proximity to glaciers also merits consideration.

Last weekend’s caucuses in Wyoming suggest an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, much as the results from Washington state did last month. As the third most glaciated state in the US, after Alaska and Washington, Wyoming seems like a promising site to examine this possibility.

Because Wyoming has not yet released the complete tallies of voters in the caucuses, we are basing our analysis on the numbers of delegates from each county to the state Democratic convention, which are publicly available. The proportion of delegates for each candidate from each county is based on the proportion of voters in that county’s caucus who supported that candidate, so we can infer the voting patterns in each county from the numbers of delegates chosen there.

Using this information, we find that Sanders scored two percentage points higher on average in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state.

Sanders performed well in Wyoming overall, receiving 55.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Washington at 72.7 percent, Colorado at 58.9 percent, and Alaska at 81.6 percent). As we’ve noted, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relationship between glaciers and support for Sanders.

County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Teton and Absaroka indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)
County map of Wyoming, with locations of major glacier ranges, Wind River, Absraoka and Teton indicated by their initial letters (source: USGS)

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Wyoming. We focused on the state’s three most glaciated mountain ranges, the Wind River Range (55.8 square kilometers of glaciers), the Absaroka Mountains (9.6 square kilometers) and the Teton Range (6.9 square kilometers)  since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

We used this information to establish a set of four glacier counties (Sublette and Fremont, which lie on either side of the Wind River Range, Park for the Absaroka Mountains, and Teton for its eponymous range).  We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 19 counties in the state.

(source: Politico)
(source: Politico)

As the table included here shows, the glacier counties went more strongly for Sanders. These glacier counties gave him 57.7 percent of their delegate total, above the state average of 55.7 percent. Indeed, three of these four counties—Sublette, Park and Teton—chose 60 percent or more of their delegates for Sanders, placing them in the top third of the state’s counties for the proportion of Sanders delegates.

There was one glacier county in Wyoming where Sanders didn’t do better than he did on average across the state: Fremont County was one of the eight counties in which Sanders and Clinton were tied. Sheer geographical reasons might account for the relative weakness of this possible  glacier effect in Fremont County, since it is the largest of the counties, stretching furthest from the mountains and most extensively into the plains region in the eastern portion of the state. Moreover, it lacks the major national parks (Yellowstone in Park County, Grand Teton in Teton County) that could underscore the importance of the iconic white peaks. And other local factors may be at play. Laura Hancock, a reporter with the Casper Star-Tribune, described the county as follows in an email interview:  

Fremont County has two dynamics going on. It has the Wind River Reservation, home of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. Leadership from both tribes endorsed Clinton. Bill Clinton has had a relationship with them since the 1990s. But the small city of Lander is also in Fremont County. Lander is at the base of the Wind River Range. It has a number of businesses and organizations in the town that are conservation-minded – the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wyoming Outdoor Council are the ones off the top of my head. Whenever I go to Lander and hang out it seems like there are a lot of young, white men – Bernie’s core group, I think. Granted, those organizations both employ women. I know women who work at both of those places. But generally speaking, Lander is sort of this town where there are a lot of people are drawn, a lot of people who love the outdoors and are so young, they may have been born during Bill Clinton’s second term and don’t really know who he is. So Sanders is inspiring them and the Clintons are these people from the vague past.

The association between glaciers and support for Sanders in the three counties might reflect factors other than the presence of glaciers. The three glacier counties that supported Sanders, taken as a set, have a higher proportion of white residents (92.6 percent), a demographic that has supported him, than the state overall (90.7 percent), while the proportion of white residents in Fremont County is only 74.3 percent. The tendency of urban voters to support Clinton may also be reflected in the fact that Fremont County has Riverton, the largest town in the four glacier counties. Clinton also performed well in the state’s two largest cities, Cheyenne and Casper, giving her a majority in the counties, Cheyenne and Natrona, in which they are located.


Idiosyncratic factors in these counties may also have influenced voting patterns in these counties. A Reddit user  commented that the Democrats in Sublette County supported Sanders because of their opposition to the extensive oil and gas operations there. Also, the strong turnout of young voters in the Park County caucus may have helped Sanders there.  

In an email to GlacierHub, Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, mentioned the influx into Teton County of people from out of state, including celebrities like Harrison Ford and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who are drawn by its scenic beauty. She said, “One thing to know about Jackson Hole and Teton County is that though they are geographically located in Wyoming, they are really part of California/the West Coast in spirit–and, to a great extent, in demographics and political orientation as well.” 

It would be interesting to examine voting patterns community by community, rather than at the county level, but such information is not available for Wyoming. The Democratic Party in Wyoming, recognizing that their party has barely one-fifth of the registered voters in the state, decided to hold only one caucus per county, unlike the more numerous Republicans, who set up several caucuses in the more populous counties, allowing for finer-grained analysis of their voting patterns.

Caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in the coming months in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. The results from these elections may shed light on this possible association between glaciers and voting patterns. In the meantime, Sanders supporters took pleasure that the glacier-rich state of Wyoming extended their candidate’s run of strong performances. His victory in that state was his eighth in the last nine contests— and his fourth victory in a state with glaciers.

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Marking ‘Traces of Change’ with Artist Diane Burko

Burko, Traces of Change exhibition at Cindy Lisica Gallery, as part of Fotofest Biennial 2016, source: Lisica)
Burko, Traces of Change exhibition at Cindy Lisica Gallery, as part of Fotofest Biennial 2016, source: Lisica)

Traces of Change, a solo exhibition by the painter and photographer Diane Burko, features a number of images of the cryosphere. It is currently installed at the Cindy Lisica Gallery in Houston, and will remain open until April 16. Burko’s sustained engagement with geological phenomena on many scales has led her to travel to glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica, where she observes and records with cameras and sketchpads from the air and from the ground.  GlacierHub has presented two projects of hers from 2014, Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations, and conducted an interview last year on her reflections on the relations of art, science and public life.

This exhibition features recent large-scale photographs, paintings, and photo-based works, many of them drawing on collaborations with glaciologists. The Deep Time project, included in this exhibition, draws on the artist’s January 2015 travels to the Patagonian ice field in Argentina. These pieces contrast objects—often quite different ones–from the remote past and from the immediate  present, and invite viewers to recognize both the great age of our world and the presence of forces operating on it at the current moment. This exhibition also presents the Elegy Series with printed works that are enlargements of details from her paintings, and that bear a striking resemblance to aerial views of glacial landscapes. In this way, these works establish connections between the surface of a painting and the surface of a planet.  These works serve as elegies through their sustained reflections and their laments for locations threatened by climate change, but they are not simply works that mourn: rather, they suggest the urgency of attentiveness to the world, and the potential of creative work to transform our awareness into action.

GlacierHub: The title of your show is “Traces of Change.” This could mean that the images show traces of change, or that the images themselves are traces of change. Do you lean towards one meaning or the other–or towards both?

Diane Burko: I wanted “traces” to stand for the idea of recording, marking and indicating change, as in the rapid melting of glaciers. The lead piece in the show that speaks to this is the Jakobshavn-Ilulissat Quartet, which actually includes one panel (the third) which quotes the recessional maps used by glaciologists to indicate such change over time. The one I referenced for my painting traced change from 1850 to 2012.

Jakobshavn-Ilulissat Quartet, D. Burko, 2015, Oil on Flashe Paint on Canvas, 42"x228" overall. Installed at Cindy Lisica Gallery. (source: Burko/Lisica)
Jakobshavn-Ilulissat Quartet, D. Burko, 2015, Oil on Flashe Paint on Canvas, 42″x 228″ overall. Installed at Cindy Lisica Gallery. (source: Burko/Lisica)

GH: A number of your images show paint that has dried and cracked, and that look like crevasse-filled glaciers photographed from the air. What associations do you see between paint and ice?

Elegy for Grinnell, Montana, D. Burko, 30"x 30" (source: Burko/Lisica)
Elegy for Grinnell, Montana, D. Burko, 30″x 30″ (source: Burko/Lisica)

DB: The pieces you are referring to are part of a current series called “Elegies.”  My intention is to provoke an uneasy visual tension in response to these fictional images, where the viewer struggles to make sense of the material as if they are actually seeing photographs of aerial views of melting glaciers.

I found a painting material which indeed mimics patterns reminiscent of the cracking of ice revealed in aerial images of polar seas, glaciers, and ice fields. I’m particularly pleased with this development because it joins both my practices, painting and photography, in a unique combination.

 

GH: Some of the images in your show are pairs–two images, both the same size, placed side by side. Other images are hung separately, though there are other images of the same size. How do these two approaches work together?

DB: The paired images you are referring to are part of a series of another recent project called “Deep Time.” All ten pairs, based on a 2015 expedition to Argentina’s Patagonian Ice field, are a metaphoric exploration contextualizing geologic time. The past and present are contrasted in these large scale images. The left represents the history of evolutionary planet memory, where change happens over millions of years. The right conveys the idea of “now,” where melting glaciers threaten devastating change. The right hand images taken on top of Patagonia’s Viedma glacier are emblematic of all the melting glaciers I witnessed in the Polar Regions.

I tend to work in series, pursuing an idea to its conclusion. That’s why you see a number of same-sized images displayed together. They are usually clustered around the same concept.

I’m thrilled that his exhibition presented both my practices with the Quartet and four images from my Landsat series representing painting, along with two of my most recent photography projects, Deep Time and the Elegy Series.

Seabed Fossils, Upsala and Viedma Traverse II archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 40" x 60" (source: Burko/Lisica)
Seabed Fossils, Upsala and Viedma Traverse II, D. Burko, archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 40″ x 60″ (source: Burko/Lisica)
Bedrock, Ilulissat Glacier II and Viedma Traverse II, D. Burko, archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 40" x 60" (source: Burko/Lisica)
Bedrock, Ilulissat Glacier II and Viedma Traverse II, D. Burko, archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, 40″ x 60″ (source: Burko/Lisica)

 

GH: Some of your images include maps that show the location of the objects they depict, and some include the sites in their titles. Others lack these identifiers. How do you see these as complementing each other?

DB: My work is about climate change. My goal is to communicate the urgent threat it poses to our environment.  I endeavor to do this through the knowledge I’ve gained studying geology, collaborating with scientists, and bearing witness in the polar regions. I translate all this experience into my language as a painter utilizing various visual devices. Sometimes I introduce a map into painting as a visual prompt, like this one of Greenland which informs but also connects aesthetically with the painting in terms of color, etc.

I always use titles that acknowledge the original source of the image, which can include the date an image was taken and the agency or individual who provided the data.  In my Landsat series (four of which are included in the exhibition), each tile identifies the particular agency (usually NASA) and what you are seeing.

GH: You have shown your work about ice in a number of cities. What has been your experience showing them in Houston, with its warm climate, coastal location, and vulnerability to hurricanes?

DB: I do hope the audience in Houston does make the connection you have! That is one of the reasons I enjoy exhibiting all over the country— and having the chance to speak to the viewers. I understand from my gallerist Cindy Lisica that people were indeed reacting not only to the art but the message it conveyed.  She told me how one patron was showing her friends the recessional lines and explaining what they actually meant.

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Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

You’ve heard of red states and blue states–but what about glacier states and non-glacier states?

Most political analysis focuses on voters’ age, gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. But looking at voter proximity to glaciers is also a fascinating metric. In fact, last weekend’s caucuses in Washington state point towards an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In counties with glaciers in them, Sanders scored almost three percentage points higher on average than he did across the entire state.

County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)
County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)

Sanders performed well in Washington state overall, receiving 72.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Colorado 58.9 percent, Alaska 81.6 percent). In fact, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relation between glaciers and support for Sanders.

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Washington. We decided to focus on the state’s three most glaciated peaks, Mt. Rainier (88 square kilometers of glaciers), Mt. Baker (49 square kilometers) and Mt. Adams (24 square kilometers), since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

(source: Washington State Democrats)
(source: Washington State Democrats)

These three glaciers all straddle the borders between counties. We used this information to establish a set of six glacier counties (Whatcom and Skagit at Mt. Baker, Lewis and Pierce at Mt. Rainier, Yakima and Skamania at Mt. Adams). We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 33 counties in the state.

The county-level results tabulated by the Democratic Party in Washington show that Sanders outperformed his main rival, Hillary Clinton, with particular strength in these glacier counties. The proportion of caucus participants in these counties who cast their votes for him ranged from 73.3 percent in Pierce County to 90.2 percent in Skamania County. These figures are all higher than Sanders’ lead in the state as a whole, which is 72.7 percent. Taken as a set, 75.4 percent of the caucus participants in these six glacier counties voted for him. (A two-tailed chi-square test indicates that this association is significant at the p <.01 level.)

Continuing to drill down on this question, GlacierHub examined preliminary caucus returns from one glacier county, Skagit County, the only glacier county for which these results are available, and found that they support the relationship as well. The caucuses pick delegates to upcoming county conventions, as one step in a long process that leads to the final selection of the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Candidates were awarded the proportion of delegates from a caucus that corresponds to their percentage of support at that caucus.

As shown by data provided to GlacierHub by Bob Doll, chair of the Skagit County Democrats, the votes of 3818 residents at 17 caucuses determined the allocation of 438 delegates, with 73.5 percent going to Sanders. The proportion was higher—82.4 percent—in Concrete and Rockport, the two caucus sites closest to Mt. Baker.

These findings can invite speculation of factors that could have caused them: perhaps the residents of the areas closest to glaciers are concerned about the changes in streamflow associated with glacier retreat, or its effects on tourism, in ways that might influence them to favor one candidate over another. It might be that the immediate visibility of climate change’s effects influenced their voting patterns.

To be sure, this association might not reflect any specific glacial influence. The glacier counties have a higher proportion of white residents than the state as a whole (78.9 percent vs. 77.3 percent), a population among whom Sanders is widely recognized to do well. Moreover, these are rural counties, another region that has tended to support Sanders. Or perhaps the residents of these counties might identify with Sanders as a fellow mountain resident, since his state, Vermont, is one of the most mountainous states in the country with the smallest proportion of its territory in flat areas. (In contrast, his home borough, Brooklyn, may be judged the least mountainous of New York City’s five boroughs, since it has the lowest high point, but this fact may not loom large for Washingtonians, many of whom do not have a detailed knowledge of the city’s topography.)

We may gain some insight to this relationship later this spring, when caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. In the meantime, there is at least one piece of anecdotal evidence that points to the importance of glaciers in Washington State. As the attached image shows, a Washingtonian, preparing for activity at a caucus, noticed that the state’s highest peak had emerged from the clouds which usually surround it, and paused to record the view that she saw. The words that she chose to describe this moment—playful as they may be–attribute an awareness to the mountain. Perhaps such engagements with the natural world could play a role in voting, and in other political action as well.

 

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At Family Game Night, Glacier Retreat is in the Cards

Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)

A game that focuses on glacier retreat drew a number of players at a community outreach event held earlier this month in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of a major international conference, the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW). The game, called Glaciers Then and Now, is played with a deck of 16 cards, each of which  contain a photograph of a glacier–some in black and white, some in color–and the year it was taken. The players are told that these cards form eight pairs of images of individual glaciers taken from the same spot, the second one decades after the first.

It’s fairly easy to separate the deck into the earlier and later cards. Six of them have dates between 1899 and 1909, and eight are from 2003 and 2004. The card from 1941 is in black and white, like the oldest cards, and fits in with them. It can take a little more thought to decide where to put the one remaining card in the set, which is from 1976. It’s in color, like the new cards. A player might have to count to see that it belongs with the set of older cards.

Before and after images of Toboggan Glacier (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia/USGS/NESTA)
One pair of cards from Glaciers Then and Now (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia USGS/NESTA)

The players then have to match up the pairs. Some of them are easy, because they have distinctive foreground features like boulders and beaches, which can readily be identified. Others are more difficult, especially the ones in which bushes and trees, which have grown in recent years, block part of the view. Nonetheless, most players complete the matching successfully. They then can notice the striking  differences between the two cards in each pair, and recognize how the newer cards in each pair show photos of glaciers with much less ice. The contrast is striking even for the pair that is separated by the shortest interval, only 27 years, The worksheet that accompanies the game invites the players to compare the pictures, and leads them to see how all glaciers in Alaska are rapidly retreating.

The materials for this game draw on a repeat-photography project of the US Geological Service (USGS). Bruce Molnia and other photographers travelled to glaciers for which historical photographs were available, and located the precise spots where these images had been taken.  The images were first developed into a game in 2007 by Teri Eastburn of the Center for Science Education of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In an email interview with GlacierHub, she wrote that she originally created the game “for use with field trip students interested in learning about polar science and how climate change is impacting the region.” She mentioned “the power of visuals to tell a very important story.” The game was later modified into its current form by Lisa Gardiner for the National Earth Science Teachers Association

Elena Sparrow, the Education Outreach Director and Research Professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, selected this game, along with a number of others, for Family Game Night, a community event at ASSW held on March 16. In an email interview with GlacierHub, Sparrow wrote, “All the games and activities were utilized and children and their parents seemed to enjoy them. We estimated about 75 participants.”

Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Jessica Brunacini)

Family Game Night drew people from Fairbanks, who were curious about ASSW and eager to learn more about their home region, as well as visitors who were attending the conference. The other activities included puzzles that illustrate Arctic sea ice loss and glacier retreat, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis (a card game, developed by the PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership at Columbia University, in which players build an Arctic marine food web, learn about the importance of sea ice, and see potential future changes in marine ecosystems) and a Jenga game of stacking and removing wooden pieces which represent permafrost, which is affected by warming temperatures and thawing. There were also some games developed by and with indigenous communities, including the Never Alone video game created by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and Neqpik, a cooperative board game that illustrates the complex flow of  cash, natural resources, and goodwill in a rural Yup’ik community on the Yukon River.  

The Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), held annually since 1999, is the largest international meeting of organizations involved in Arctic research.  It is sponsored by the International Arctic Science Committee, an international scientific non-governmental organization which promotes and coordinates natural and social scientific research in the Arctic.  Each ASSW  brings  together scientists, government officials and other stakeholders to discuss current activities and research needs.  

Native dancers at ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
A group of Athabascan dancers and drummers perform at the ASSW International Arctic Assembly Banquet (source: Jessica Brunacini)

The 2016 ASSW, which ran from March 12 to 18, was only the second  to be held in the United States. It was hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A thousand participants from 30 countries converged on the university, where they presented papers and posters, attended cultural events and press briefings, and met for formal and informal conversations. They reviewed new research methodologies, including underwater autonomous vehicles—remote-controlled submarines that can gather data under sea ice. And they discussed programs that integrate scientific methods with community-based monitoring drawing on indigenous knowledge.

The recent weather was a major focus at ASSW, as Jessica Brunacini, the project manager for the PoLAR Partnership, described in an email interview with GlacierHub. “Alaska just saw its second warmest winter on record, its third winter in a row with abnormally dry and warm conditions, and it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the US,” she wrote. These changes are disrupting ecosystems, which in turn puts pressure  on the subsistence hunting and fishing which have long been central to the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region. Commercial fisheries, of economic importance in the region, are also rapidly changing. Speakers also discussed the influence of the warming Arctic on weather at lower latitudes. As they said, “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

Despite these challenges, the ASSW had a positive tone. Brunacini described the conference as “bringing together interdisciplinary expertise and cutting edge research related to the Arctic and especially to the rapid changes we are seeing there,”  and noted that it can “help facilitate more of the solutions-focused discussions and research that is needed to effectively respond to the dramatic changes taking place.”

Northern lights outside Fairbanks, Alaska during ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
Northern lights as seen from the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks (source: Jessica Brunacini)

It is striking that a simple card game about glaciers was featured at a community event, held at this major international conference on the Arctic. The interest that it held for visitors at Family Game Night suggests the connections among the different components of the cryosphere—whether glaciers, sea ice or permafrost—and among the communities that are affected by the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere.

Readers who would like to explore before-and-after pictures of glaciers can see the Glaciers Then and Now game here, and can also visit Bruce Molnia’s website. And another link is available for those who want to explore historical photographs of glaciers from around the world. 

Molnia says that he has visited around 80 Alaskan glaciers as part of the photography project. He also notes that he played the card game with students and their parents years ago. “Most were very surprised at the rapid changes,” he said in an email to GlacierHub.

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