A Glacier-covered Volcano in Chile: Will It Erupt Soon?

Several recent events suggest that a set of glacier-covered volcanoes in the southern Chilean region of Bío-Bío, which have been showing increasing activity since December, may be likely to erupt.  The three mountains, known as the Nevados de Chillán, reach over 3200 meters in elevation, and have a set of glaciers totaling over 2 square kilometers in area on their summits. They have a long record of eruptions, with historical documentation from the 17th century. Radiocarbon evidence records eruptions that took place about 8000 years ago.  

Ash from eruption covers volcano webcam at Chillán (source: SERNAGEOMIN)
Ash from eruption covers a volcano webcam at Chillán (source: SERNAGEOMIN)

The Nevados de Chillán complex, which averaged about one eruption a decade during the 19th and 20th centuries, had been relatively quiescent since an eruption in 2003. Sticking roughly to that schedule, the complex began to show signs of returning to activity with an earthquake in February 2015 which registered 3.2 on the Richter scale. The Chilean National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN) maintained the volcano warning at the lowest level, green, until 31 December, when it issued a yellow warning, signaling an intermediate level of danger. This shift was prompted by the appearance of a new gas vent on 8 December and by a series of over 2000 small seismic events, all under 2.0 on the Richter scale, throughout the month,  which indicated the fracturing of solid rock and the upward movement of magma beneath the surface.

New crater near the summit at Chillán (source: SERNAGEOMIN)
New crater near the summit at Chillán (source: SERNAGEOMIN)

This activity has picked up in January, with the opening of a second new vent on 8 January, accompanied by a 2.9 earthquake and a cloud of ash. SERNAGEOMIN and the National Office of Emergencies (ONEMI) installed two webcams near this vent on 27 January. Providing these cameras with material to record, new clouds of ash appeared on 29 January. On 30 January, a crater, about 25-30 meters in diameter, appeared near the other new vents, with gasses, ashes and occasional blocks of cooled lava emerging from it. Temperatures at the summit were about 125º C, which was consistent with ongoing hydrothermal activity but did not suggest that magma, typically closer to 1000 º C in temperature, was approaching the surface.  Taken as a whole, these new activities led ONEMI to create a 2-km zone around the new craters from which people are excluded.  The local sense of concern was increased by the wide availability of images from the new cameras and from an impressive thunderstorm on 31 January, as shown below:

Dave McGarvie, a volcanologist with considerable experience in ice-covered volcanoes, has been working around Chillán since 2001. In his blog, he offers this overview of the situation:

What makes me think that this unrest is likely to lead to an eruption? Well there are two main reasons.


Firstly, there’s clearly been a new heat source introduced into the plumbing system beneath the volcano, and this had drilled a new pathway to the surface leading to bursts of heat escaping through a new vent. This heat source is almost certainly due to magma rising up in the plumbing system. And at the moment there’s a ‘vent-cleaning’ phase in place, with bursts of heat interacting with water contained within the cone (Hydrothermal). There are probably magmatic gases involved as well. These energetic outbursts are cleaning out material in the developing conduit, and possibly also pulverizing (fragmenting) material being blown out.


Secondly, this new vent has developed on the youngest cone at this volcanic complex, which has developed through a long series of eruptions, punctuated by time gaps of a few years to decades.

Hazard map showing areas at risk of lava and mudflows (source: ONEMI)
Hazard map showing areas at risk of lava and mudflows (source: ONEMI)

McGarvie’s assessment is that an eruption in the near future would probably be small, though it could include significant volumes of lava as well as of gases and ashes. He notes that the snow cover on the mountain is relatively small at this time of year, the austral summer, but that the risk of melting snow and glacier ice cannot be excluded. SERNAGEOMIN produced a map in 2012 that indicated the zones of danger from lahars (volcanic mudflows), which extend 40 km from the volcanoes through the foothills of the mountains and of local authorities into valleys with farms and town. Local officials could use these maps to organize evacuations if a large eruption occurred.  

However, the summer season brings another risk to the area: fires. A brushfire in the area on 31 January threatened to grow large, but was controlled after several hours. On 1 February, the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) sent three helicopters to combat a large and rapidly-moving forest fire near the mountain. With the assistance of the lumber company Masisa and four local fire departments, CONAF was able to extinguish the blaze, which closed local roads.  The movement of lava down the mountain could create a large series of fires which would prove more difficult to control, especially if the current heat wave continues.

The coming weeks will provide more information about the activities of this glacier-covered volcano complex. A recent video, with dramatic footage of a sudden burst of ash and an audio recording of sustained deep rumbling, offers a suggestion of what the start of an eruption might be like.

Climate Refugees from the Peruvian Andes

Indigenous herder and sheep near Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Indigenous herder and sheep near Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

Two recent studies offer complementary accounts of the ways that glacier retreat and other impacts of climate change have displaced indigenous people from their communities in the Peruvian Andes. One describes the people who have left as refugees, the other as migrants. Both emphasize the seriousness and apparent irreversibility of this large population movement

Teófilo Altamirano’s book, Environmental Refugees: Climate Change and Involuntary Migration, draws on methods and concepts from anthropology to explore displacement from a glacier region in central Peru. It links glacier retreat in the Peruvian Andes with other impacts of climate change, particularly the increasing variability of precipitation. Altamirano, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, focuses on Huaytapallana, a glaciated mountain about 5500 meters in elevation, located roughly 20 kilometers to the northeast of Huancayo, a large city in the central highlands of Peru. In the local Quechua language, the mountain’s name means “the place where wildflowers (huayta) are gathered (pallay)”—a reference to the meadows that are fed by glacier meltwater. Its glaciers have lost 55% of their area since the mid-1980s, according to a study published recently in Global and Planetary Change.

Plowing in valley below Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Plowing in valley below Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

This region has experienced swings between periods of heavy rain and periods of drought, both of which reduce the yields of traditional agriculture, whether rainfed or based on irrigation. Altamirano links what he terms “water stress” to food insecurity, which is one of the strongest drivers of migration. He recognizes other drivers as well, particularly changes in the employment structure in Peru and increasing demand for labor in the United States, and pollution from mines. Nonetheless, he emphasizes the decline of local agriculture and food security as a major cause of outmigration. He notes that young adults are the most likely to leave; this age-specific migration depletes the local population of individuals most capable of agricultural labor, and adds to the vulnerability to droughts and to food deficits. Faced with these difficult circumstances, many households encourage the young adults to travel to areas where they can earn wages and send remittances home that can compensate for the decline in local agriculture, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on migration.

Andean new year festival at Huaytapallana source: T. Altamirano)
Andean new year festival at Huaytapallana (source: T. Altamirano)

Altamirano’s book includes a cultural account of the community’s connection to the glacier. The local residents recognize the mountains as powerful beings, and honor them in rituals held every year. The most important festivals take place on 21 June, close to the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and on 25 July, linked both to the Catholic saint Santiago and to traditional Andean thunder deities. These events, both  lasting several days, consist of pilgrimages from local villages to places close to the glaciers, where the participants bring offerings—candles, fruits, and drinks—to the spirits. They perform traditional dances and consume ritual meals.

In the first phases of outmigration, the migrants could contribute to the festivals, sending money home to provide for dancers, food and drink, and returning to participate in the rituals that demonstrated their respect to the mountain spirits. But the lengthy periods of migration can weaken these ties, and the visible retreat of the glaciers also can threaten the rituals which link between the communities and the mountains.

Woman embroidering in village near Huaytapallana source: UNU)
Woman embroidering in village near Huaytapallana (source: UNU)

Altamirano uses the term “climate refugees” to refer to the people who have left this region permanently, driven by environmental factors that undercut traditional livelihoods and by the decline of the culture and rituals that had linked earlier generations to the mountain landscape. He draws parallels with other high mountain regions as well, particularly the Himalayas, where environmental and cultural processes have contributed to an outmigration that has severely weakened local communities.

A second study of the same region, “Where the Rain Falls: Climate Change, Food and Livelihood Security, and Migration,” draws on quantitative methodologies from geography and sociology to examine the same process, outmigration, from the same region. In this report, sponsored by CARE and the United National University, Koko Warner, an economist at United Nations University, and her coauthors include the Huaytapallana region in a set of eight case studies from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Like Altamirano’s study, this report indicates glacier retreat and increasing irregularity of rainfall as the principal impacts of climate change, though they mention other effects as well—a general decline in precipitation, and an increase in frost events. They also point to the weakening of traditional agriculture as a cause of outmigration, and indicate that young adults are the ones most likely to leave. They focus entirely on livelihoods strategies, emphasizing environmental factors.

Migrant remittances help support commerce in the region source: UNU)
Migrant remittances help support commerce in the region (source: UNU)

Drawing on 150 household surveys and 23 workshops in three communities in different ecological zones in the region, this second study indicates that migration varies by elevation. The residents of the lower communities in the valleys, where cultivation of maize and potatoes are the principal activities, engage either in short-term migration to the city of Huancayo for work in commerce,  construction, and other economic activities, or in seasonal migration to lowland areas to the east to harvest coffee. Those from the higher communities in the uplands rely on livestock raising; they tend to migrate to the United States, where they work as shepherds, often on multi-year contracts which remove them from their communities for longer periods.

These two studies complement each other. Altamirano’s book discusses the cultural and religious links between the residents of mountain communities and the landscapes that they have long inhabited, while Warner and her coauthors provide quantitative data that emphasizes environmental factors. Taken together, they indicate the ways that glacier retreat and other impacts of climate change are undermining long-established indigenous communities in a high mountain region and displacing people from them. They offer a major contribution to the current debates on climate refugees, and demonstrate the importance of glacier retreat within those debates.

Historical Glacier Photos To Be Available Online Soon

A recent grant to two institutions in Colorado will permit a large collection of historical glacier photographs to be digitized, making them more readily available to researchers and to the public at large. Until now, access to these print images was limited to those who could travel to see them.

Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)
Photograph of Hugh Miller Glacier, 1907 (Credit: NSIDC)

The $148,586 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries will support a team that will digitize about 9,000 images, dating back to the 1850s. They will also prepare descriptions of each image to facilitate searches. The images will be available in the University of Colorado Digital Library and NSIDC’s Glacier Photograph Collection, where they will complement other NSIDC digital databases of cryospheric and polar material.  Some images will be placed online late this year, with the rest to go up in 2017. The grant is one of 18 awarded in a national competition, titled Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives, conducted by the CLIR and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Jack Maness, an associate professor and director for sciences at the University of Colorado Libraries, is one of the principal investigators on the grant. GlacierHub interviewed him earlier this month.

GH: What led you to apply for this grant?

JM: We applied for this grant due to our conviction that these materials constitute an irreplaceable contribution to the human record and our relationship to the planet. But the fact is that in a digital era, collections such as these are often ostensibly hidden from most researchers. The archive at NSIDC includes thousands of maps, photographs, prints, expedition journals, and other items of interest to those researching the history of science or exploration, or studying past climate. Without historical collections, our quest for early data can only go back so far. Satellites and other modern data sets show us that glaciers are retreating, sea ice is shrinking, and polar oceans are warming. Records from the earliest observations reveal how unusual these changes are, and can document the first stages of change—a perspective made possible when archived data such as these are available. This grant makes some of it available, and hopefully lays the groundwork for making more available in the future, in increasingly accessible ways.


Panoramic Photos of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)
Panoramic photographs of Blanca Peak, 1960 (source: NSIDC)

GH: Please mention two or three specific projects that have used historical glacier images in their current, undigitized form.

JM: One of the primary uses of the images has been in repeat photography projects, particularly those of Alaskan glaciers taken by USGS geologist Bruce Molnia. The images were also used in Ken Burns’s documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and NOVA’s “Extreme Ice.” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/extreme-ice.html) They have been used in artist books, text books, even children’s books, in addition to journal articles, dissertations, and exhibits.


GH: What types of users do you anticipate for the digitized images?

JM: Scientists, historians, artists, photojournalists, and students in any of these disciplines, especially those interested in repeat photography techniques, are probably our primary anticipated users. A handful of archives (at national parks, universities, and at the USGS) hold similar collections and have contributed to repeat photography projects, but many of these images are totally unique to their archives. A researcher must visit them and physically handle these fragile items in order to determine which photographs can or should be repeated and compared. Obviously, not all historical images can be repeated, but by digitizing, describing, and publishing them in the public domain our intent is to dramatically expedite use for anyone for any purpose. Ideally, we could one day work with other institutions and colleagues to provide a more comprehensive and accessible digital library of glacier photographs and related materials.


File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)
File cabinets containing historical photographs of glaciers (source: NSIDC)

GH:  What types of analysis do you anticipate the researchers will conduct?

JM: In addition to repeat photography, there are users interested in the technical aspects of how these images, both digitized and born-digital, can be analyzed to obtain geophysical information. How might a researcher go about determining focal length, for instance, to be able to deduce the height of a glacier front in a picture? How might that information be used to analyze other properties of the glacier and surrounding terrain? Could additional geospatial metadata be added to the images over time in order to enable GIS analysis? Or, could an historian use them to further their understanding of arctic exploration? Could a photojournalist analyze them to tell a more compelling story of climate change? Or an artist better capture the beauty of frozen regions?

Perhaps more fundamentally, our role as librarians and archivists is to work with users to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of materials in order to support analyses not yet invented, even imagined. We are also interested in the sociological aspects of how people might use enormous troves of photographs and the digital record that is accumulating online. Librarians and archivists try to take the long view—I sometimes think of my niece, and what she may need in her future research. She’s a senior in an environmental science program and is at this moment in Patagonia studying glaciers. If she further pursues these studies, could she need these images one day? Will she invent new techniques or discover new knowledge because of them? My job is to make sure that is not rendered impossible, and this collection is but one of untold millions across the globe, all of which are of great value. I agree with the International Council for Science, Committee on Data for Science and Technology’s Data at Risk Task Force  when it writes “science stands to benefit significantly whenever . . . older sets of measurements can be transformed to electronic formats.”


Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)
Muir Glacier photographed in 1893 by Frank LaRoche (standing) (source: NSIDC)

GH:  You mention that the images could contribute to “public discourse.” Could you expand on this a bit?

JM: Bruce Molnia wrote in 2014, regarding the repeat photography project, that “the simplicity of the photos is so striking. My basic premise is, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s a pair of photos showing dramatic change worth?” I totally agree, and think many of these older images alone convey something quite striking as well. Images contribute to public conversation in ways words simply can’t express. The President  was probably thinking in that manner when he visited Alaska’s Exit Glacier. I think of the first time people saw images of the earth from space; the faces of people half a world away; or of landscapes utterly foreign to them—these were moments in history that changed us. Now, we live in a world replete with images, but what are sometimes lost are images of the past. Seeing these stark images of glaciers and frozen regions, sometimes with a person or a tent dwarfed by peaks of ice, gives one a perspective on the immensity of time and landscape. And really, these images are really not that old, but they portray landscapes that are in some cases totally different today. That perspective helps us see beyond our region and our lifetime; and that, I think, helps us discuss issues related to climate change with a humility badly needed in a public discourse too often rife with vitriol.

Norway’s Gift to Finland: A Mountain and a Snowfield

Halti in late winter credit: Flickr/Carsten Frenzel)
Halti in late winter (credit: Flickr/Carsten Frenzel)

Norway may present its neighbor Finland with an unusual gift: a mountain 1331 meters in elevation, with a permanent snowfield at its top. This peak, Halti, lies a few hundred meters on the Norwegian side of the boundary between the countries.  Though it is small by Norwegian standards—it does not appear on the ranking of the country’s 200 tallest mountains—it would become the highest peak in Finland. The current summit to hold that record, Haltitunturi, is just 7 meters lower; it is a high point on a ridge that descends from Halti itself. (A kilometer to the north, further within Norwegian territory, there is a higher peak,  Raisduotthaldi, which rises to 1361 meters in elevation; it has not been offered as a gift.)

Map, with Norway to north and Finland to south. Potential transfer area indicated as jubileimsgaven. source: Facebook/Haltijubileum)
Map, with Norway to north and Finland to south. Potential transfer area indicated as jubileumsgaven, or anniversary gift.  (credit: Facebook-Haltijubileum)

To accomplish this transfer, Norway would cede only a tiny portion of its territory, a triangle 1.5 hectares in area. The idea was first proposed in the 1970s by Bjørn Geirr Harsson, the former chief engineer of the Statens Kartverk, the Norwegian Mapping Authority, after he had observed the close proximity of the summit to the border while on a helicopter survey of the region.  When he learned earlier this year that Finland would be celebrating the centennial of its independence from Russia in 2017, he decided that this anniversary would be a good occasion to bring his idea into fruition.   The Facebook page that discusses this gift has over 10,000 likes, with numerous comments from Norwegians and Finns, nearly all of them positive, and a few positive comments from others as well.

Liisa Malkki, a Finnish anthropologist at Stanford University, shared this enthusiasm in a recent email to Facebook, in which she described the idea as “a beautiful breath of imagination from Norway!”  In another email interview, Rasmus  Gjedssø Bertelsen, a Danish political scientist at the University of the Arctic in Tromsø, Norway, expressed a similar sentiment, calling it “a great gesture from Norwegians.”

Hiker on snowfield at Halti (credit: Kent-Hugo Norheim)
Hiker on snowfield at Halti (credit: Kent-Hugo Norheim)

The story has attracted attention in the press and social media in Norway and Finland, in the other Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark,  and in more distant countries, include the UK,   Russia and Turkey. These stories note that the full diplomatic negotiations to accomplish this transfer have yet to begin, though the Norwegian Mapping Authority and its Finnish counterpart have both expressed their support.  A recent post on Gizmodo describes the idea as “truly embracing the Christmas spirit—the part where you give of yourself.” The theme of holiday generosity is also expressed by CNN, whose story calls the proposed transfer “the pinnacle of gift-giving.”

By contrast, the centennial itself has attracted less attention. Only a few bloggers have emphasized the long, tangled history between Finland and Russia, pointing out that the Soviet Union invaded Finland during World War II. The Soviets occupied  border territories and retained them after the end of the war. The Finnish residents of these areas were evacuated to Finland.  More recently, tensions between Norway and Russia have increased. The cooperation between the countries declined after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, and deteriorated further when  Russian military planes entered Norwegian airspace earlier this year.

Finnish geoscientists taking a core sample to reconstruct glacial history sourcecredit A. OJala
Finnish geoscientists taking a core sample to reconstruct glacial history (credit: A. Ojala)

GlacierHub has found that some Finns find the mountain important, not only for its height, but also for its links to glaciers and ice and to cryosphere science.  Antti E.K. Ojala and his colleagues conducted paleomagnetic dating of sediments in nearby lakes to trace the activity of the Halti Glacier, a large mass of ice on the higher portions of the mountain, which they term “probably the best representative of major neoglacial activity in Finland.” Writing in The Holocene, they report that Halti Glacier formed after the melting of the large Fennoscandian Ice Sheet at the end of the most recent ice age, some 9000 to 10000 years ago, and remained active as recently as 5500 years ago. In an article  in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of Finland, Heikki Hirvas and his coauthors discuss the remnant ice in the area at present. They describe on Finland’s largest permanent snowfield, located on the mountain’s slope.  Over 3 km2 in area and over 6 meters thick, it contains numerous masses of ice within it, and may be associated with permafrost zones as well. The snowfield appears to have been stable for a long period, and was larger 100 to 150 years ago. It is not thick enough to form ice which would flow downslope and thus become a glacier.

Reindeer at Halti credit: Carten Frenzel)
Reindeer at Halti (credit: Flickr:Carten Frenzel)

An entirely different reaction—one of concern—is raised by the Sámi people, who are indigenous to the region. Their traditional lands straddle northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, and include northwestern Russia. The Norwegian anthropologist Marianne  Elisabeth Lien wrote to GlacierHub  “The mountains of which Halti is part is called Ráisduottarháldi in Sámi and are part of a larger region generally known as Sápmi–an indigenous land long known before the national borders were established. The subsequent settlement of national borders between Norway and Finland has been a major hindrance for reindeer-herding Sámi whose migratory movement with their animals was hindered by forced nationalization and sedentarization in the 18th and 19th centuries.” The Swedish anthropologist Elisa Maria Lopez, an expert on northern Scandinavia at Uppsala University, noted in an email  “Háldi is the name of animistic spirits within the Sámi religion that reside in various prominent natural features of the sub-arctic landscape, including mountains, which were considered sacred and sites of worship.” 

Lien put GlacierHub in touch with Liv Østmo, a Sámi educator in the region, who travels to Halti for fishing in the summer and has interacted extensively with local herders.  Østmo wrote to us, “This is an area which is quite important for the reindeer husbandry. Here is both calving and summer/autumn pastureland for their reindeer and therefore no wasteland.  The reindeer herders experience that there is a great pressure on the area, by different projects such as hydroelectric power and powerline developments.”  The alteration of the border would add to the pressure.  Lien added, “If this were to become the highest mountain in Finland, it is quite likely that a wide trail would develop, since this would be a national attraction. Østmo  tells me that such trails are very common around Finnish mountaintops. They would in turn lead the way for tourists, and might disturb the animals.” Indeed, the area is popular with hikers, and it would be challenging to find a form of access that would satisfy both them and the Sámi herders.

Halti reservable wilderness hut, a former Finnish Border Guard station credit: National Parks of Finalnd)
A reservable wilderness hut at Halti, which was formerly a Finnish Border Guard station (credit: National Parks of Finland)

This case shows that a small shift of an international mountain border is far from simple, even in the Nordic countries, one of the world’s most peaceful and orderly regions. It demonstrates that mountains and icy places deeply engage many people–indigenous herders, glaciologists, hikers, cartographers. anthropologists, journalists–in different ways. They evoke memories, and they stir the imagination of people whose see them on physical and virtual visits.

For more discussion of mountain and glacier issues at international borders, see our posts on France/Italy in the Alps and India/Pakistan in the Himalayas.


The Paris Agreement Offers Some Good News for Glaciers

Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)

The 195 countries which took part in COP21 reached consensus on 12 December, bringing the Paris Agreement into being. This accord, in which nearly all nations have stated their specific goals (“nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) in reducing emissions, has been widely acclaimed as a positive step in addressing climate change. With its attention to transparency and monitoring, and with its commitment to a concrete schedule of future steps, it represents a sharp contrast with the vagueness and relative inaction of earlier COPs. But what does this Agreement mean for the glaciers of the world? Though the document focuses primarily on the details of the plans and actions through which countries will reduce their emissions, it does include some elements of relevance to glaciers.

Climate Change Mitigation in the Paris Agreement

Of these elements, the most important is the Agreement’s core,  the global commitment to reducing emissions and to limiting global warming. These offer some protection to glaciers, since glacier retreat is so tightly tied to temperature increases, which in turn are linked to greenhouse gas concentrations. In addition, it provides a more stringent temperature target than those included in decisions at the  earlier COPs. Where these earlier documents spoke of limiting warming to 2 °C, the Paris Agreement calls for “ holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” Though the difference may seem small, it could make a significant difference for glaciers. For discussion of this point, GlacierHub contacted Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich and leader of the university’s Research Group on Environment and Climate: Impacts, Risks and Adaptation. He stated:

Anchoring 1.5° C in addition to 2° in the Paris Agreement is important and substantially matters for glaciers. Although we have a lack of studies analyzing the detailed impacts of 1.5° C vs 2° C on glaciers and downstream regions, we can easily see how much of an effect 0.5° C global temperature change can make to glaciers if we observe the consequences on glaciers of a ca. 0.8° C global temperature increase since the Little Ice Age (and glaciers are yet not in a balance with current climate).

ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative released a detailed report at COP21, titled “Thresholds and Closing Windows: Risks of  Irreversible Cryosphere Climate Change,” which begins to fill the gap that Huggel mentions. This report calculates the projected loss in glacier volume through 2300 for several scenarios, including one that examines the effects of the emissions allowed with the NDCs that were promised at COP21 and another that meets the 1.5C limit. Their models indicate the projected losses for 12 glacier regions of the world. The regions at higher elevations and closer to the poles are less vulnerable, but even so, by 2100 the least vulnerable regions in Patagonia, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic will lose 20-30% of their ice volume in 2000, depending on the scenario, while the most vulnerable regions in the central Andes will face declines of 80-90%. By 2300, the outcome is more severe: even the highest, coldest areas will have lost 50-60% of their ice, and the glaciers will be reduced to less than 5% of their 2000 volume, if they have not fully disappeared.

Climate Change Adaptation in the Paris Agreement

Since the new mitigation plans in the Paris Accords will not be able to  protect glaciers fully, it is positive that the agreement  speaks strongly of the importance of adaptation. Article 7 states “[the] Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2 [and described above].”  The communities that are most directly affected by glacier retreat may also fall under the special protection also described in Article 7, which recognizes the goal “to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Regional Mountain Glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
Regional mountain glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

Moreover, the Agreement contains language which offers recognition of the cultural distinctiveness and long-established knowledge. It  includes “indigenous rights” among the rights which Parties should “respect, promote and consider. ” It  specifically mentions “local communities and indigenous peoples” as non-Party stakeholders. The contributions of mountain peoples, as well as their rights, are recognized in Article 7, which indicates that adaptation action should “be based on and guided by” both “the best available science”, and, when appropriate, “traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems,”

The Agreement contains two specific sections which recognize that the impacts of climate change may be so severe that they cannot be addressed by adaptation. The opening section calls for several bodies within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” Article 8 states “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.” In other words, the Agreement recognizes that glacier retreat may drive people from their established homes in mountain regions, or present them with losses and damages to which they cannot adapt. Huggel commented:

Loss and damage has been one of the most critical and contested issues in Paris. Compensation and liability have been explicitly excluded in the Paris Agreement but are not off  the table. Science and policy need to work on how to deal with different form of loss, including the irreversible loss of glaciers which in many societies comes along with a loss of cultural identity.

Installation of ice from Greenland glaciers at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)
Installation of glacier ice at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)

Beyond  the Paris Agreement: Next Steps

Some issues of importance to glaciers do not appear in the Agreement, which focuses on reductions in emissions. It does not mention black carbon, an important short-lived climate pollutant which reduced snow cover and exacerbates glacier melt in several regions.   Fuller attention to adaptation financing would have offered greater assurance to mountain regions, which have already been experiencing the effects of glacier retreat for decades. Nonetheless, the Agreement addresses several elements of importance to communities and ecosystems which rely on glaciers: it advances on mitigation and adaptation, it recognizes indigenous peoples and local communities, and it discusses displacement and loss and damage.

Lonnie Thompson, a  paleoclimatologist, widely known for his ice-core research around the world, offered this assessment of the Agreement.

I do not think the Paris talks should be viewed as a “make it or break it” on climate change as it is a complex process with so many players involved.   However, most physical and biological systems contain thresholds. Ice is perfectly stable below freezing,. and above freezing it just melts.  It is the potential thresholds in our climate system that I worry about.  When it comes to global climate change, nature is the time-keeper and none of us can see the clock to know just how much time we have to come up with a binding solutions however the global retreat of glaciers very clearly tell us that the clock is ticking.   Unfortunately, at least in the foreseeable future. the glaciers will continue to retreat. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.  We still have a lot of work to do!

It seems likely that mountain countries will be aware of this work that lies in the future. They will pay close attention to the implementation of these provisions and to the promotion of stronger action in future years.

Other News from COP21

Representatives of seven small glacier countries (Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway) met a COP21 to discuss topics of common interest. They agreed on several follow-up actions and planned to meet again. For more information, see here.

UNESCO held a conference entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change” just before  COP21. It brought together over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in creating direct dialogue and exchange between indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—and scientists and policy-makers. The speakers emphasized that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy. For more information, see here.

UNESCO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change

UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)
UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)

UNESCO held a conference on indigenous people and climate change on 26-27 November in Paris, as a lead-up to COP21, the major annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNESCO conference, entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change,” drew over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in bringing indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—in direct dialogue and exchange with scientists and with policy-makers. Though the specific cases varied greatly, they also shared some common elements. They show that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy.

The numerous papers focused on the complementarities of indigenous and scientific knowledge about climate change. In contrast with some other discussions of the topic, which suggest that climate change has created unprecedented changes which render indigenous knowledge outdated and of little practical use, a number of presentations at the conference emphasized the dynamic nature of indigenous knowledge, and documented its ability to serve as a basis for the development of new forms of activity—pastoral and agricultural practices, land management (including controlled forest burns), internally-directed migration—which serve to adapt to climate change and to promote resilience.

Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

This conference, organized by UNESCO and the French National Museum of Natural History, and Tebtebba, also received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden, the United National Development Programme, Sorbonne University, Conservation International, the National Research Agency of France and the Japanese Funds in Trust to UNESCO.  It opened with talks by leading figures, including representatives of major Western institutions, such as Flavia Schlegel, the Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences of UNESCO, and Bruno David, the director of the French National Museum of Natural History, who discussed the reliance of indigenous peoples on natural resources and their vulnerability in the face of climate change.  There were addresses as well by indigenous leaders, such as Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó of Brazil, and Hindou Oumarou, a Mbororo from Chad, representing the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change and the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad; they recognized this vulnerability while emphasizing the long history of struggle and the effective resilience of indigenous peoples. Raoni’s energetic oratory and Oumarou’s evocation of human rights and sustainable development created strong impressions on the audience. Nicolas Hulot, the French Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, offered a provocative contrast, noting that indigenous peoples are often called “first peoples” and that current human generations will become the “last peoples” if climate change is not addressed.

Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

The specific presentations, too numerous to be all summarized here, presented vivid accounts of the confrontations of indigenous peoples with climate change and with pressures on their lands. Minnie Degawan of the Kankanay people of the Philippines and the former Secretary-General of that country’s Cordillera Peoples Alliance, described how the Ibaloi people of Benguet, Philippines, faced with unprecedented weather conditions and land pressures, moved from their original territory to other sections lower down in the same watershed, where they adapted their traditional knowledge to construct terraces and select new crop and tree varieties in this area, but now face pressures from unregulated gold mining. She emphasized the role of religion and ritual in these adaptations.

Lino Mamani, a Quechua from Cusco, Peru, discussed a project in which a number of indigenous communities have created a “potato park” where they experiment with cultivating indigenous potato varieties at different elevations to assess which perform best under the changed climate circumstances. They coordinate with agricultural scientists, raising potatoes in both fields and greenhouses, and linking indigenous taxonomies of potato varieties with laboratory assessments of the DNA of these varieties. Alejandro Argumedo of a Peruvian NGO ANDES, and the coordinator of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples discussed the exchanges between this program and similar partnerships in Tajikistan, China and Kenya. These cases offer examples of the close interactions of indigenous peoples and natural  scientists, and point to the way that these groups can learn from each other.

Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)
Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)

Tsechu Dolma, a Tibetan-Nepali researcher and organizer who has contributed to GlacierHub, discussed the Mountain resiliency project. In northern Nepal, climate change has brought irregular precipitation and glacier retreat. Working with local communities, this project works to develop activities such as greenhouses and micro-hydropower facilities which can promote food security, energy security and what she terms “talent security”—the promotion of local employment which can reduce youth outmigration. Local community men, women and youth contribute directly to the initial research which scopes out community needs and to the design and implementation of the activities. Dolma emphasized how this expansion of adaptive capacity can turn what would otherwise be climate disasters into manageable climate hazards. Her account documented the ways that investment of community land, labor and knowledge into these activities contributes to their long-term sustainability.

Other cases showed similar processes in other parts of the world. Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce of Fiji described the revitalization of canoe-making traditions in his country, allowing sea travel once again to serve as an indigenous form of mobility which permits people to draw on the resources of different islands to promote resilience to disasters. Kathleen Galvin, an anthropologist from Colorado State University, discussed the negative combined effects of irregular rainfall and loss of land rights to indigenous pastoralists in East Africa, and spoke positively of the effects of meetings between these pastoralists, Mongolian herders, Native Americans and Euro-American ranchers in developing herd and land management strategies to address these challenges.

Several speakers located this work in the context of international climate policies. Douglas Nakashima and Jen Rubis of UNESCO noted that indigenous peoples have been observing climate change for at least two decades, citing as an example Inuit knowledge of shifting ice conditions and growing weather variability. They traced the growing recognition of indigenous knowledge in key statements and documents, including the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004, the IPCC’s Fourth and Fifth Impact Assessment Reports, and the Adaptation Committee of the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Program.  Their discussion was complemented by a talk by Valerie Masson-Delmotte, the head of the IPCC Working Group I. She emphasized the value of peer reviewed publications on indigenous knowledge for the groups that write the IPCC Assessment Reports.

These discussions led to consideration of further activities, particularly the promotion of further exchanges among indigenous peoples and between indigenous peoples and natural scientists. A number of speakers expressed a wish to expand further the recognition of indigenous knowledge among natural scientists and international climate policy circles, as a means to promote resilience and to advance indigenous rights. The closing address by Irina Bokova, the secretary general of UNESCO, emphasized the longstanding commitment of that organization to indigenous cultures and indigenous rights. It seems likely that the discussions at this conference and the development of ties among the participants will promote such efforts.

A Visit to a Glacier Goddess

view of Mount Jomolhari, a high peak in the Himalayas of Bhutan
View of Mount Jomolhari from village shop (source: Ben Orlove)

During my recent visit to Bhutan, a shopkeeper in a mountain village mentioned to me that there was a temple located high up in a valley on Mount Jomolhari.  It contained an image of the local deity, he added, the goddess of the mountain.  These facts, mentioned quite casually, stirred my curiosity and made me eager to visit it.  What would the image of the deity look like, and what could I learn from it about what the local people, most of them yak-herders, thought about the mountain and its shrinking glaciers? The shopkeeper was uncertain of the distance to the temple and of its elevation, but he did recall that there were several large streams to cross.

Several members of my party wanted to remain at lower elevations to advance their research on trees, but the horseman, Rinzin Dorji, was interested in coming—a fortunate addition, since he was familiar with the region. Kinga Thinley, one of the foresters working with us, wanted to join us as well. His English was better than Rinzin’s, so he could serve as an interpreter. The shopkeeper encouraged us to go, but warned us that we might not be able to enter the temple. It was usually locked, except for festivals, or when an itinerant monk might happen to stop by. Jomolhari Temple did have a caretaker who keeps a key; however, since the caretaker was a yak-herder who often traveled to high pastures or to market towns, we might not be able to find him.

Chorten on the path to the temple at Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove)
Chorten on the path to Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

We set off up the main valley early the next morning. After an hour or so, we came to a chorten, surrounded by prayer-flags, which marked a spot that had been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan master who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 8th century. Rinzin stopped to light a butter-lamp in a niche in the chorten, and then we began our ascent of the valley’s flank. A series of switchbacks led us up through pastures and forests to a flat meadow with several large boulders. Rinzin showed us a number of cracks and bumps in the boulders which were traces of events long in the past. Guru Rinpoche’s carrying basket and his horse’s saddle were visible. He also pointed out a flat space on one boulder, and a set of closely-spaced parallel lines.

Renzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)
Rinzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)

Thanks to Kinga’s help as an interpreter, I could understand the story that Rinzin was telling. The flat space was the impression that had been made by a sacred book, which had flown to this area from Dagala far to the southeast. The parallel lines were marks made by flutes that had rested there; these were the flutes that had been played by the monks as they walked from the temple—the same one that we were going to visit—to receive this book and carry it back to the temple. Rinzin indicated a low spot in the hills ahead of us, and said that there was another one just beyond it. They had contained lakes which had flown to Dagala. These lakes were the gifts of Jomolhari to another spirit, also named Jomo, and the book was a kind of return gift. There is a third Jomo in eastern Bhutan, near Sakteng in the province of Trashigang; Rinzin did not know much about her, though the caretaker would be able to tell us more. He did know that the three Jomos were sisters, and that Jomolhari was the oldest.

We continued along the trail, ascended a small rise, and entered a high valley that led directly to Jomolhari. The mountain’s immense mass was now visible in front of us. Rinzin mentioned other sacred sites to us. Kinga quickly found a meditation hut high up on a cliff, but I had to look carefully to see the small building and the line of prayer-flags to one side. A monk from the town of Lingzhi, a day’s walk away, comes for several months every spring, before returning to Lingzhi and continuing to other meditation huts in central Bhutan.  The local residents bring him food during his stay each year.

Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple's caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)
Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple’s caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)

On the trail, we met two men who were gathering plants to make incense. They directed us to the caretaker’s hut. The caretaker’s children told us that their father had gone to a market town, and their mother was visiting a nearby village; the son, Tshering, mentioned that he had the key to the temple, and would be glad to show it to us.

We continued on the same trail, which began to ascend more steeply. The others walked quickly, but I was slower, less accustomed than they were at picking a way over the rough ground, and less confident as well, since a drizzle was making the trail muddy. The exposed rocks that served as stepping-stones across creeks were a bit slippery as well. I was relieved to find bridges over the larger creeks. Rinzin pointed out a feature on a cliff that looked like an image of Buddha, and told us a story about the temple. A large flood had come down from the mountain, and nearly destroyed the entire temple. Only two objects remained unharmed, the sacred book that had flown over from Dagala, and one cup from the set of seven on the main altar, the ones that had been filled with fresh water every morning. The temple had been rebuilt, and has remained intact.

Two buildings came into view when we rounded a curve in the trail. The temple itself, surrounded by prayer-flags, was set right against enormous boulders at the base of a cliff. Tshering explained that the newer building, close by, served as a guest-house during festivals. He showed us some monk’s cells built up against the cliff; a dark space marked the entrance to a cave, which Guru Rinpoche had visited.

Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (sorce: Ben Orlove)
Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (source: Ben Orlove)

Tshering took out the key, and opened the door to the temple, a single room, square in shape. Rinzin, Kinga and I made the customary prostrations, first to the lama’s seat—throne-like in its dimensions and style—under the window on the wall to the left, then to the large altar, with a number of images behind it, to the right. Tshering, filling in the role of a monk, brought a ewer and poured a little water into our cupped hands, once for us to sip and a second time for us to dab on our hair and foreheads.

These acts completed, we sat on the floor to rest a moment. Light was streaming through the window behind the lama’s seat, illuminating the table in front of it and the brightly colored cloths which reached partway down from the ceiling. The rain had stopped after we had entered the temple, and the clouds had lifted. As Kinga later mentioned, this was a good sign; had we displeased the spirits, they might have sent heavier rain, or hail. Tshering explained some details of the temple’s history, which I wrote in my notebook. And then something heavy suddenly hit the top of my head. Rinzin had picked up the book, the one that had flown from Dagala and survived the flood, and was tapping each of us with it in turn. This gesture would bring us good fortune, he explained

We looked more carefully around the temple, examining the murals of deities and demons that decorated the walls. Tshering showed me the tall figures, several meters high, behind the altar: three Buddhas, the middle one the largest, with Guru Rinpoche next to them on the right, and Gyalwa Lorepa, the founder of the temple, to the left.  He then brought me to a table against the far wall, which held a painted box a bit under a meter high. Inside the box was the image of Aum Jomo, Mother Jomolhari. Kinga explained further: she is the local deity, the powerful spirit that governs the region. So here, at last, was the glacier goddess.

Renzin sitting to one side of lama's seat, with sacred book in front source: Ben Orlove
Rinzin sitting to one side of lama’s seat, with sacred book in front (source: Ben Orlove)

I would not get to see her full image, since the box was opened only three times a year, for the festivals that celebrate her. Tshering conferred with the others about the dates, and then Tshering brought out a calendar that showed both the Western and Bhutanese months.  The three festivals are all on dates marked as national holidays: the day of Buddha’s first sermon to his five disciples; the day when Buddha, having reached heaven, descended back to earth to continue teaching; the anniversary of the death of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan and founded the monarchy in the 17th century. Large groups gathered for all of these, Tshering told us, some of them coming from a day’s walk away, or further. As Kinga explained, these festivals were opportunities to renew one’s ties to the goddess, and encourage her to bring health and good fortune. Illness and bad luck could come to those who incurred her displeasure or anger, or to their animals.

The box containing the image of Am Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)
The box containing the image of Aum Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)

I was able to get a glimpse of  part of the image, though, through a small window on the front of the box. She has remarkably long earlobes, and a calm smile. A garland of five flowers was strung across her hair. Her robe, her entire body, were hidden in shadow. I would not get to see them unless I returned for one of her festivals.

Kinga and Rinzin were standing, ready to head back down the valley. I took a last look around the temple. Tshering waited for us to leave, and then locked the door behind us. He led us into the cave, where we found a spring. Kinga and Rinzin filled plastic bottles with this water, infused with the power of Guru Rinpoche.

As we walked back, I tried to put my thoughts together. Aum Jomo, Buddha, Guru Rinpoche: how did they fit together in this temple at the foot of the mountain, the temple which bore her name? Buddha is a universal being, Aum Jomo a local spirit. The main images at the altar were of the Buddhist figures, with the goddess, a smaller figure, off to the side in a box. The main festivals celebrated her, but they took place on dates associated with Buddhism. The most important ritual object in the temple was not an object from the mountain, but a Buddhist book that came from another region. But the book was there because of Aum Jomo, whose initial gift of two lakes to her younger sister brought it to the valley.

Burning incense as an offering in village below Jomolhari Temple source: Ben Orlove_
Burning incense as an offering in a village below Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

I tried to formulate questions on these points of religion to ask Kinga. We have words for these things, he said, but they are hard to translate; if only we could talk to the caretaker, he is the one who really knows about this. Kinga did manage to convey that Buddha was wholly benevolent, and the local deities were capable of doing harm as well as good; the presence of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche would direct the goddess to work in a positive fashion, and would prevent her from expressing her dark side.

I looked back at the mountain, its summit gleaming white in the sunshine, and thought for a moment how dangerous a sudden snowstorm on our trail could be. And Aum Jomo’s influence extended much further down the mountain, to villages whose residents came to pay her respect. They knew her great power, and, in the words and acts, had conveyed something of that great power to me.

An Abundance of Yaks

yaks in a stream in Jomolhari, Bhutan
Yaks in a wetland near Mt. Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

A trip with two colleagues to the Jomolhari area of northwestern Bhutan in October gave me hope that yak-herding remains an active part of the regional economy. We hiked for two weeks through villages and high pastures and up near the mountain’s glaciers, both along major trails and in less-traveled sections. I met some herders at a two-day festival early in my visit, and then was able to visit them in their villages later during the trip, while my colleagues studied the forests at the treeline.

This abundance of yaks around Jomolhari seems to be an exception to a general pattern throughout much of highland Asia. Yak-herding is reported to be declining there, as shown by studies in recent decades from China, India, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, as well as in parts of Bhutan to the southwest and the east of Jomolhari. In those cases, young people find the caring of the animals at high elevation to be overly rigorous; they prefer to seek employment in towns, a shift which has been supported by the growth of market economies, education and road networks. If this decline continues, it may become irreversible, as younger generations lose the knowledge and skills of herding. The Jomolhari area might be different, due to some combination of local pride in yak-herding, complementary economic activities that support yak-herding families, and the efforts of the Bhutanese government to support yak-herders with traveling veterinarians and with programs that offer compensation for losses from predator attacks.

Two yak bulls fighting source Ben Orlove
Two yak bulls fighting (source: Ben Orlove)

I traveled there at a good time of year to observe the animals, since they had recently moved down from their high summer pastures above 5000 meters, when they were dispersed in small groups, cared for by the herders who lived in tents and other temporary shelters. By October, the herds had returned to the winter areas, between 3500 and 4500 meters, where the pastures would be supplemented with hay and other fodder, cultivated over the summer; the herders had returned to the small stone houses, sturdier than the summer residences. The location of these houses on paths made it easier to see both yaks and herders. Though I did not conduct a census of humans and animals, I was able to see that the houses were all inhabited, and a number were new, unlike other yak-herding areas, which have experienced significant outmigration. Conversations with local mayors and school officials indicated that the ratio of children to adults in the local villages also indicates that populations are stable.

A depression made by a yak bull that rolled in the dry earth source
A depression made by a yak bull that rolled in the dry earth (source: Ben Orlove)

The behavior of the animals in this season made them easier to find. October is towards the end of the mating season. The females go into estrus at that time and bear the calves eight or nine months later. This timing—the production of natural selection among wild yaks and human breeding practices assures that the nursing females will have access to the abundant summer pastures, while the newborn calves will have little risk of exposure to frost. The rut leads bulls to be more aggressive and more visible. Threatening each other with lowered heads or fighting with their horns, they become easier to notice than animals that graze quietly, as they do other times of year. They also leave visual signs of their presence at this time by wallowing in dry soil.

Impressions of yak hooves at the edge of a creek
Impressions of yak hooves at the edge of a creek (source: Ben Orlove)

Once I became aware of the yaks, I could notice them at greater distance, and detect other evidence. Their dung has a different shape than cattle’s. Their tracks are quite distinctive, since their hooves are small for such large, heavy creatures. And I learned that the homes of herders could be recognized by the fodder that had been harvested and was hanging from the eaves to dry.

Recently-gathered fodder, suspended from eaves and laid out on a wall to dry
Recently-gathered fodder, suspended from eaves and laid out on a wall to dry (source: Ben Orlove)

I had the opportunity to spend a full day and night with a yak-herding family, since they were relatives of Renzin Dorji, the local villager who provided the horses to carry tents and other belongings for my colleagues and me. The husband and wife had built a home for themselves soon after their marriage, eager to establish a claim to an area of rich pasture along a creek that carried water from Jomolhari’s glaciers. They own 54 yaks (40 cows and 14 bulls) and 8 horses.

a yak peers into an open doorway in Bhutan
A yak, looking into the herders’ house (source: Ben Orlove)

I was particularly struck by the strong attachment to the area and to herding itself on the part of their children, a daughter Pema Lham, who was 21, and a son, Tshering Wangchuk, who was 17. Tshering had studied English for seven years in school, and spoke it quite well. The work of herding, which I had been told was burdensome, seemed to pass easily for them. They kept a close eye on the animals, each of whom they recognized as individuals and knew by name. Tshering did not need much time to complete the evening round-up of the younger animals, and he seemed to watch with interest as each one entered a large paddock near their house. Pema milked the cows efficiently in the morning and made cheese, by curdling and boiling the milk, separating the curds and hanging them in a cloth to dry, and then pressing them under a heavy rock. The dried yak cheese can be stored for a long time, and, as Tshering told me, sells for a good price. I had heard, before we set off on the trip, that the cheese from this area is particularly prized, since the yaks are reported to graze on medicinal plants as well as on grasses.

a young woman milks a yak in Bhutan
Pema Lham milking a yak (source: Ben Orlove)

Tshering had a number of stories of interesting events during his recent stay at the summer pasture, and was looking forward to meeting up again with friends of his who were also returning from these pastures. He gave me a quick positive answer when I asked him if he planned to remain in the area when he grew up, as if he had never seriously considered an alternative. And Renzin later told me that Pema, an attractive, cheerful and hard-working young woman, was likely to marry in the coming years; as is the local custom, her future husband would move into her home, as Tshering would move to the home of his future wife. There was a good chance, I realized, that Pema would remain for her whole life in the house where she was born.

a young woman in Bhutan is separating curds and whey as part of the process of making yak cheese
Pema Lham, preparing curds for cheese-making (source: Ben Orlove)

I recognize that it could have been easy for me to idealize this family during a short visit. But I  did notice their attentiveness to their animals a number of times, and I believe it showed a genuine affection: Tshering standing patiently to wait for the slowest of the animals to walk back at night, a bull whose front foreleg had broken when he slipped on boulders in a heavy rain; Pema turning to hold a bowl of whey for a cow to lap up (giving me a chance to stare, close-up, at the cow’s dark blue tongue); the two of them, laughing as Pema scooped up the family  cat—the mouser who protected the food stores at home—who was sniffing at a plate of butter. And they seemed comfortable in their family home. Pema showed me the large battery, run off solar panels on their roof, that powered the lamps in the house and the flashlights they took out at night, and allowed them to charge cell phones. In a way the battery complemented a cement bridge, built by the provincial government a few years ago, that Tshering had pointed out to me earlier that afternoon, when we went out for a walk and came to a sizable creek. Both the battery and the bridge are signs of progress that suggest that the high pasturelands are not being left behind as Bhutan’s towns and cities develop.

As I walked back down to the main valley after the visit, I had the strong impression that these two young herders were likely to build lives for themselves in the high country, rather than leaving for town. I was pleased that they, at least, might be an exception to the more general pattern of decline that has been found throughout highland Asia and that I had expected to find in Jomolhari as well.

A Walk Up Jomolhari

A trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region.

I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred.

A view of Jomolhari from above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)
A view of Jomolhari from the trail. (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well.  At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger.

We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations.

Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Yaks in a wetland at Haluphu below Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off.

The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked Renzin about it. He recalled that the ice had reached much lower down when he was a boy. The warm summers of recent years were the reason for the shrinkage of the glaciers, he said; much more water came rushing off the glaciers than in the past. It would be very serious when all the ice was gone, he thought. In fact, life might end altogether in the area. But that would be far in the future, since there was still a great deal of ice left. And the streams were still full, the pastures still abundant. Local people cared about the mountain, he added. Every household sends at least one person to the large festivals to honor Jomolhari that are held at a temple in another valley that came off the mountain. A monk came from Lingzhi, a village a day’s walk away, to lead these festivals. Renzin seemed to suggest that the mountain did not feel neglected.

An abandoned firepit used by Cordyceps collectors. source: Ben Orlove
An abandoned hearth used by Cordyceps collectors. (source: Ben Orlove)

We walked down from the moraine to the side of the creek in Haluphu. Renzin pointed out signs of new economic activities. He indicated a crude fireplace, a sign that people had come in the late spring or early summer to collect a medicinal fungus, called Cordyceps, which they sell for very high prices, either in government auctions in Bhutan or to buyers a day’s walk away across the border in China. He also showed me a large pit where local people had come to dig sand which they would mix with cement for the construction of government buildings, shops and houses in Soe and other villages. Earlier in the last century, stone buildings, sometimes chinked with mud, had replaced the yak-hair tents of the more nomadic pastoralists, and now cement was becoming common. The Cordyceps and sand-collecting were linked: flush with income from sales of fungus, local residents were constructing larger houses than they had had before. Renzin pointed out a new risk as well: there were large rocks on the flat areas along the creek. Rockfalls from the sides of the valley, especially in summer months, are more common than they had been in the past—possibly a sign of melting permafrost at high elevation, I thought. Renzin mentioned that yak-herders remained in higher pastures during the period of rockfalls, though others, eager to obtain products that they could sell at high prices, came then to collect Cordyceps and sand.

Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove
Sandpit at Haluphu, below Jomolhari (source: Ben Orlove)

There were a number of animal trails that led up beyond Haluphu. Renzin led us on one which took us to a second moraine, composed of larger boulders than the first. Beyond that was a lake, named Haluphu Tsho, with strings of prayer-flags stretched across the point at its base where the creek emerged. The waters of the lake were a pale green, filled with fine glacier sediment. We saw a few yaks here as well, fewer than below.

Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. source: Ben Orlove
Exposed rock and dark ice on lower slopes of Jomolhari. Moraine in foreground. (source: Ben Orlove)

The trail continued on above the lake to a third moraine. Here, at an elevation of about 4750 meters, the boulders were larger still, and had sharper edges. We stopped to look closely at Jomolhari, its immense mass filling the broad space at the head of the valley. The upper sections of the mountain were white with snow, but lower down the last winter’s snows had melted, revealing ice that was quite dark, almost slate gray in color. Was this local dust, or soot that had blown in from the diesel vehicles and wood fires of India? It would be possible to trace the history of this dark ice by taking cores, and seeing what particles were contained in the older ice, below the surfaces. Perhaps I would return some day with a glaciologist for such work, I thought. I recalled as well the warnings of the national park officials. The climbing had become difficult, and I did not want to risk a fall if I clambered over these large boulders to try to reach the ice. Moreover, this ice was further from the moraine than it had once been, since the glacier’s edge had moved upslope, revealing bare rock. The growing cloud masses on the summit removed any impulse to continue further: I did not wish to risk being caught in a storm higher on the mountain.

Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background source: Ben Orlove
Renzin Dorji, with Jomolhari in the background (source: Ben Orlove)

We sat in silence, staring at the mountain. After a while, I reached into my backpack and retrieved some snacks—Power Bars, a favorite of Ed’s and Paul’s, which we had both taken a liking to. We shared them, and then started our walk back. I reflected on the mountain and on the changes that Renzin had seen in the decades since he herded yaks in Haluphu as a boy. Renzin himself was taking part, in a small way, in the growth of tourism, by renting his horses to trekkers. The sale of medicinal fungi and of sand, the possibilities of trade (nearly all clandestine) with the growing towns just over the border in China: these new sources of income for local villagers were growing, perhaps as fast or faster than the glaciers were retreating. The final demise of the glaciers lay far in the future, while the trajectory of the new economy was uncertain. In the meantime, some features of earlier decades remained. Renzin’s wife and son cared for their yaks during the months when he accompanied foreign visitors, and their family sent a member to the festivals at the temple.

Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. source: Ben Orlove
Blue sheep and yaks above Jangothang. (source: Ben Orlove)

As we crossed the pastures below the first moraine, Renzin signaled to me to stop. He pointed out, just below us, a herd of blue sheep—a wild species, quite shy and rarely seen close up. Several yaks were grazing in their midst. I was pleased by this unexpected mix of the wild and the domesticated, at a spot not far from the villages in the main valley below Jomolhari. The presence of these animals gave me hope that the mix of old and new forms of human life high in the mountains might continue well into the future.

A Mountain Festival in Bhutan Draws Locals and Visitors

Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival source: Karma Tenzin)
Guest of honor Chencho Norbu arriving at festival (source: Karma Tenzin)

Hundreds of people, ranging from yak-herders to government officials to foreign tourists, gathered in a remote village of Bhutan earlier this month to attend a two-day mountain festival, designed to celebrate local cultures and promote conservation. The sponsoring organizations and communities presented a wide array of activities, with broad participation by the diverse set of people who attended.

The sponsors of this festival included the local communities themselves and Jigme Dorji National Park, the park in whose lands the host village of Dangochjang is located. They received support from the Bhutan Foundation and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, an international environmental NGO. The  Tourism Council of Bhutan also played a crucial role in granting recognition in promoting it.

Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)
Dancers from Soe village source: Ben Orlove)

As Lhendup Tharchen, the field director of the national park, explained, these organizations share the common goals of protecting the landscape and biodiversity of the high mountain ecosystem and of promoting the community-based conservation approach. They hoped that the festival would promote closer relations between the national park and the communities, and at the same time stimulate tourism and bring more government services to the isolated setting, located at 4000 meters at a two days’ walk from the end of a narrow, bumpy unpaved road. In addition, they hoped that the festival, by bringing attention to mountain cultures and instilling pride in them, might help slow down the flow of migrants from these high areas of Bhutan’s towns and cities.

Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)
Mount Jomolhari (source: Karma Tenzin)

The festival opened on the morning of 7 October with a marchang—a ritual offering of fermented grain and butter—followed by a series of short speeches, including one by the guest of honor, Chencho Norbu, the Director General of Forests and Parks.  It soon shifted to a presentation by members of the local communities of Soe and Yaksa, who wore national dress and performed a set of circle dances similar to those found at the middle-elevation agricultural regions of the country. They differed from the high-elevation communities of central and eastern Bhutan, whose dances and customary dress are strikingly distinct from the national majority populations. (The long history of incorporation of this western mountain area into Bhutanese national society and its proximity to national capital of Thimphu may account for this difference from other regions.) The children at the local school also performed dances, which were greeted with enthusiastic interest by the local villages, the government officials in attendance, and the tourists in the audience as well. The latter formed a small group, about two dozen, some of whom were passing through on treks (Dangochang is located on a popular hiking route which leads to the major glacier-covered peak of Jomolhari) and others of whom had taken a layover day at a tourist site, Jangothang, several kilometers away.

Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. source:
Horsemen waiting for the race to begin. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later in the day, local men took part in a horse race, followed by athletic competitions. The assembled crowd watched avidly as young men took part in pundo, a kind of shot-put competition for which two large round rocks had been carried up from the river. Participants took turns picking up a rock, lifting it to their shoulder, and pushing it as far as they could. They did not seem disturbed by the fact that the rocks were not quite the same size or shape.

Man preparing to throw rock in local game  sour
Man preparing to throw rock in local form of shot-put (source: Ben Orlove)

The crowd also enjoyed watching a group of young women play musical chairs (a bit of a challenge, since they were wearing close-fitting ankle-length kiras or traditional skirts). Over one hundred villagers stopped by a public health booth, where their blood pressure and other vital signs were measured, and where they were evaluated for diabetes and other medical conditions.

Visitors watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)
Villagers watching a sport event at the festival. (source: Ben Orlove)

Later that evening, a large bonfire was lit in the festival grounds, and visitors and participants alike gathered for hours, taking part in some spontaneous dances, while Sirius, Orion and the Milky Way shone high in the sky. The festival had been set for the 25th and 26th days of the lunar month. These dates in the local calendar were chosen because local villagers recognize them as auspicious, but they have the added advantage of providing moonless skies with bright stars.)

Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)
Prayer-flags placed over stream connecting two sacred lakes (source: Ben Orlove)

On the morning of the second day, groups set off on half-day hikes to different spots. One group of visitors followed a trail up a steep slope to two high lakes, sacred places in the local cosmology, and placed a prayer-flag over the stream that connected the lakes–an act which promoted harmony at the festival. Others hiked up to glaciers and went to visit the cameras that had recorded snow leopards. The groups reassembled on the afternoon of the second day, in time to see more dances by the communities of the region, the awarding of prizes to the participants in the athletic events and a distribution of certificates to the local villagers, and to hear speeches by officials to close the festival.  A bonfire on the second evening drew a large group as well.

Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)
Visitor at festival having blood pressure checked by national health worker (source: Ben Orlove)

The festival met at least some of the goals of the organizers. Most simply, the festival succeeded in providing entertainment and information in a challenging, remote setting. It brought local villagers in closer contact with the national park and with representatives of other government agencies, and also provided them with government support in the form of free health check-ups and medical information.

Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)
Students from village school performing a dance (source: Ben Orlove)

The contributions to tourism were on a smaller scale, though the international tourists and government officials brought some additional economic activity to the village—a local shopkeeper said that she sold much more beer in two days than she usually sells in several weeks, and the yak-herders who brought cheese for sale quickly disposed of their stocks. But the engagement of the participants was genuine, and the villagers and government officials seem likely to carry through on their statements of planning to return for the festival next year.

For other stories on Bhutan, look here and here. For other stories of festivals near glaciers, look here and here.


Glacier Residents Include Birds and Mammals

Snow bunting in Norway (source: Tormod Amundsen)
Snow bunting in Norway (source: Tormod Amundsen)

A recent article in the Journal of Biogeography provides the first systematic review of birds and mammals which include glaciers (and perennial snow patches) as part of their regular habitats. The author, Jørgen Rosvold of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, documents the great importance of these cold frozen environments for a number of warm-blooded active species, which are known as chionophiles ( snow-loving organisms). In total, glaciers and perennial snow patches are frequented by 19 bird species and 16 mammalian species—or 17, if humans are included. It is not surprising that other vertebrate groups, such as reptiles and amphibians, are absent from glaciers, since they are cold-blooded and could not survive long exposure to such low temperatures.

Nest of white-winged diuca finch, on Peruvian glacier (source: Cornell University)
Nest of white-winged diuca finch, on Quelccaya Glacier in Peru (source: Doug Hardy/Cornell University)

The most common order of birds in these habitats is the passerines, or songbirds. However, other groups are represented.  The golden eagle is a member of the falcon order, and the common raven, like crows, jays and their relatives, is a corvid. Several species of ptarmigan represent the gallinaceous birds, a group which includes chickens, turkeys, partridges, pheasants, quail and grouse.

The avian behavior most often recorded on glaciers is obtaining food—insects and worms in the case of smaller birds, other birds and mammals for the golden eagle. One bird species, the white-winged diuca finch, constructs its nest on the surface of glaciers in the Andes; it has been systematically studied on Quelccaya Glacier in Peru.

The mammals are more diverse, both in terms of taxonomy and behavior. Most common are the ungulates such as bison, musk ox, elk, reindeer, mountain goat, ibex, chamois and bighorn sheep, who come for relief from the heat; as large animals covered with fur and hair, they have difficulty cooling off during hot periods, and either lie directly on the ice, or rest in the cold air that drains off glaciers. A much smaller mammal, the pica (a lagomorph, or relative of rabbits and hares), also uses glaciers for this purpose. They have also been observed to drink water on glacier surfaces. Elk calves and bighorn lambs play on the open surfaces of glaciers and snow patches. The carnivores—bears, snow leopards and wolverines—travel across glaciers and snow patches, perhaps to avoid leaving a scent. Wolverines have also been seen caching their prey on glaciers; the author suggests that this behavior may provide lactating females with critical components of their diet during the period when they are nursing their cubs.

Musk ox resting on snow patch in Norway (source: Tord Bretten, SNO)
Musk ox resting on snow patch in Norway (source: Tord Bretten, SNO)

This article rests largely on the direct observations of field biologists. In the future, this valuable, though time-consuming, research method may be complemented by the use of radio collars to track animal movements. However, the opportunities for such research are become scarcer, as glaciers world-wide are shrinking. These organisms which rely on ice, snow and cold temperatures will find their ranges reduced, and some may be threatened with extinction.  In the meantime, Rosvold’s website, Frozen Fauna, provides a variety of information about the mammals and birds which inhabit, or at least regularly visit, glaciers, as well as about the archaeology of the hunters and herders who have also inhabited these zones for many centuries.

Climate Variability Shapes Glacier Retreat in Peru and Norway

Two recent studies, one in Peru and the other in Norway, link glacier retreat, not to climate change as many researchers have done, but to climate variability—the fluctuations in temperature and precipitation across large regions of the world, on time scales of years or decades. These studies add an important level of detail to the role of glacier science in building awareness of climate change. On the one hand, glaciers around the world are shrinking, and rising temperatures, due to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, are the principal cause of this decline. On the other hand, glaciers do not respond uniformly and homogenously to greenhouse gas concentration and to global mean temperatures; instead, their dynamics are more varied. Indeed, one of the studies shows that some glaciers have periods of growth lasting several years, even though longer-term research indicates that they are shrinking when they are examined on a time scale of decades. The other study shows that even in an area of steady glacier retreat, there can be months with slight growth, though there are no years of net glacier growth.

These two studies are striking, because they examine glaciers which are located in different continents, at different latitudes, and in proximity to different oceans. Moreover, they use different methods, indicating the variety of techniques in glaciology. However, they both point to the influence of major patterns of climate variability on glacier dynamics.

Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca (source: University of Innsburck)
Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca (source: University of Innsburck)

In the study of a Peruvian glacier, published recently in The Cryosphere, Fabien  Maussion and his coauthors, all at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, used detailed weather data and glacier mass balance to study the Shallap Glacier in the Cordillera Blanca, a region known to have a strong influence of El Niño.  For their study period of 2006-2009, they obtained monthly data on the glacier mass balance, on the energy balance at the surface (including  incoming and outgoing shortwave and longwave radiation and  heat fluxes) and on a number of meteorological variables (temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, relative humidity, air pressure, wind speed and wind direction).  They assessed the mass balance through the use of ablation stakes. They linked these variables to each other and to  the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a major form of climate variability in the tropical Pacific. To assess the state of ENSO, they used a standard measure, the anomalies of the sea surface temperatures in a region of the western tropical Pacific, close to the Cordillera Blanca. (This ocean variabilility is the El Niño component of ENSO; there is also an atmospheric component, the Southern Oscillation, which is tied to the difference in atmospheric pressure between Darwin, Australia, where pressure is typically low, and Tahiti, where it is usually high. Since the ocean and atmospheric components of the variability in the tropical Pacific are highly correlated, the researchers used only the ocean component.)

Monthly mass balance of Shallap Glacier, calculated from modeling. Period of field data shown between green bars. Black line indicates calculated trend, with gray showing confidence intervals. Note greater rate of shrinking in El Niño periods, with some months of slight growth during La Niña periods. (source: The Cryosphere)
Monthly mass balance of Shallap Glacier, calculated from modeling. Period of field data shown between green bars. Black line indicates calculated trend, with gray showing confidence intervals. Note greater rate of shrinking in El Niño periods, with some months of slight growth during La Niña periods. (source: The Cryosphere)

As shown in the figure above, during the drier, warmer El Niño periods, the Shallap Glacier lost mass more rapidly. In the moister, cooler La Niña periods, the loss was slower, and there were a few months of gain, though there were no years of net growth.

In the study of Norwegian glaciers, also published recently in The Cryosphere, Mathias Trachsel and Atle Nesje of the University of Bergen used statistical methods to link three datasets. The first consists of mass balance data for eight Norwegian glaciers, some closer to the ocean and others further inland. The mass balance data begins between 1946 and 1970, depending on the specific glacier, and extends to 2010. It includes both seasonal mass balance (winter, summer) and total annual mass balance. The second is the weather data for the glaciers for the period for which mass balance data is available. The third is  climate data for two major forms of climate variability, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO).  The NAO is an atmospheric phenomenon which reflects the variation of two major weather systems, the high-pressure system centered over the Azores and the Icelandic low-pressure system. The NAO is positive when the two systems are both relatively strong, and negative when they are weak. A positive NAO strengthens westerly winds and brings winter storms to northern and central Europe; a negative NAO sends the storms further south.  The AMO reflects the variability of the temperature of the surface waters in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is positive when these waters are warmer than normal, and negative when they are cooler.  The AMO is associated with precipitation variability across parts of North America, Europe and Africa.  These atmospheric and oceanic systems in the North Atlantic are less tightly linked that El Niño and the Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific, so these researchers considered them separately.

Rembesdalsskaka Glacier, one of the 8 study glaciers (source:NVE)
Rembesdalsskaka Glacier, one of the 8 study glaciers (source: NVE)

The researchers found that variability in winter precipitation had a strong influence on the mass balance of maritime glaciers, where annual temperature variability is relatively low, because of the proximity to the ocean. For the continental glaciers further inland, variability in summer temperature had a stronger influence, with greater loss during the warmer summers. These precipitation and temperature variations are associated with the NAO and AMO.

The AMO was negative for a long period, between 1963 and 1996, and this was a period of cooler than normal summers. The NAO was positive, bringing mild, wet winters, for a portion of this time, between 1987 and 1995. This period in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a time of positive mass balance, so the glaciers grew in size—a difference from Peru, where the glaciers shrank every year during the study period, though their rate of change also varied from year to year.

Net glacier growth for 8 Norwegian glaciers [top] and climate variability [bottom] (source: The Cryosphere)
Net glacier growth for 8 Norwegian glaciers [top] and climate variability [bottom] (source: The Cryosphere)
This association is important, because it shows that a general trend towards glacier retreat, caused by global warming, can be masked for a time by climate variability. None of the eight glaciers in the study have grown  since the mid-1990s (six have shrunk, and two are the same). However, four of them grew considerably in the period of favorable conditions, so they are larger than they were at the start of the research. The figure in the paper, included here, shows that two had significant net growth and remain steady, while two have lost much of their growth in this period; four of them have grown smaller, though the pace of retreat has varied.

All of these glaciers are highly sensitive to climate variability, since they are relatively warm (in Peru because of the tropical location, in Norway because of the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream); in colder glaciers, net accumulation of snow is relatively slow (because cold air does not hold as much water vapor that can form into precipitation) and net ablation or loss of ice is also slow.  The steepness of the mountain ranges in both areas may also contribute to the sensitivity to climate variability, because the ice that forms during a few years of favorable conditions will flow downslope more quickly, where it will be exposed to warmer conditions, where it will melt; glaciers in areas of gentler slopes take longer to respond, so their processes of growth will smooth out the variability from year to year or month or month—much as a small swimming pool will grow warmer or cooler as weather changes  at a more noticeable rate than a large lake.

Nonetheless, these studies show the importance of including climate variability as well as climate change in the study of glacier dynamics. Climate change skeptics were quick to pounce on a short period of glacier growth in Norway to challenge the overall global patterns of glacier retreat. Though there have been fewer claims in the last five years of such growth, these studies show the importance of offering more detailed, nuanced accounts of glacier processes. Such information is also of importance to water managers and to local communities.