Clouds can be formed when air masses travel up mountains and the water in them condenses. Therefore, since glaciers are usually located on the tops of mountains, the pristine visual of a cloud nestled with a glacier is not an unusual site. Dirty clouds can affect the health and longevity of glaciers. However, let’s ignore that reality and end our week with beautiful pictures of fluffy, inviting clouds on glaciers!
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at email@example.com.
The role of woodland soils in the terrestrial uptake of methane is common knowledge for most earth scientists; however, the link between the new soils, which emerge after glacier retreat, and methane uptake was only discovered in 2003. Now, a new study has brought more gravity to this finding by exposing the surprising efficiency of this process. The results are significant, considering methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. Conclusions from this study prove that glacier forelands, or the regions of land that lie at the edge of a glacier and are newly ice-free, could play a role in mitigating climate change.
The new study, led by doctoral candidate Eleonora Chiri at the ETH Zurich, or the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, aimed to discover which components of glacier forefield soils determine its performance as a terrestrial sink for atmospheric methane. To answer this question, researchers collected between 12 and 15 samples of aerobic methane-oxidizing bacteria–organisms which use methane as their only source of carbon and energy–from multiple strategic locations between the Damma and Griessfirn glaciers in the Canton of Uri, Switzerland. These two glaciers were chosen because of their difference in bedrock type. Samples were assessed for four attributes: soil-atmosphere methane flux, methane oxidation activity, methane-oxidizing bacteria abundance, and bacterial variation. These measures helped the scientists to understand what types of bacteria thrive in the sample regions and how their activity affects the rate of uptake of methane in the various sampling locations. Soils collected ranged from 6 to 120 years old.
The data revealed four key trends. First of all, methane-oxidizing bacteria composition was the only factor that varied based on location; the most important influence on this factor was bedrock type. Oxidation activity was dependent on the water content of the soil. It was initially greatest in deep layers of soil, but oxidation towards the surface became more pronounced as the soil matured. Most significantly, though, researchers found that although the amount of methane from the air that was consumed by the bacteria increased with the age of the soil, a robust amount of uptake could be established as quickly as a few years after the soil became ice-free, and could reach full maturity in about a decade. Contrary to the belief that an area of glacier forefield soil could not uptake methane until it reached 80 years of maturity, the authors concluded “alpine glacier-forefield soils investigated in this study acted as a sink for atmospheric [methane]already within <10 yr after glacial retreat.”
This research is critical to understanding the full picture of glacial retreat. On one hand, many scientists are concerned that thawing Arctic lakes will cause more methane to be released into the atmosphere. This climate change feedback loop could have catastrophic effects, since methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Therefore, the role of methane uptake in glacier forefields could serve as a buffer for this new source of methane emissions.
In addition to the biological significance, the findings from this research have implications for climate change policy. According to the researchers, “young mountainous soils have the potential to consume substantial amounts of atmospheric methane, and should be incorporated into future estimates of global soil uptake.” Although prior mitigation policy has often focused on the role of carbon dioxide in mitigation strategies, the role of soil uptake from glacier forefields opens up a new opportunity for policymakers to claim new sources of climate change offsets. For example, in cities that have implemented greenhouse gas cap-and-trade programs, companies are allowed conservation-based forest management as a carbon offset option. Further research may indicate that the preservation of glacier forefields is also beneficial and this may present itself as an option for greenhouse gas offsets as well.
This study is the first step in understanding the role of glacier forefields in the balancing the global methane budget. More research is necessary to understand the magnitude and timescale of the soil-atmosphere exchange in order to obtain a full picture of this process.
Gulf of Alaska Experiencing Large Flushes of Glacial Melt Water
“The collective freshwater discharge of this region is more than four times greater than the mighty Yukon River of Alaska and Canada, and half again as much as the Mississippi River. While scientists had indeed noticed this runoff, until now they had no idea the magnitude of its impact.”
Intense Bike Marathoners Race through Allalin Glacier
“Each year hundreds of dedicated mountain bikers take part in an annual race in Saas Fee. However, the fact that the race takes place at the beginning of March and the course is a glacier means that the Saas Fee Glacier Downhill is no ordinary mountain bike race…”
Michèle Noach is Making Big Waves as a Pioneer in Glacier Art
“Michèle Noach was born in Australia and lived in The Netherlands & the US before her family settled in London in the last hours of the 1960s. She kept pet mice, listened to the Velvet Underground and The Damned and gazed at a lot of George Herriman, Jean Dubuffet, André François and Ronald Searle. Keen on code-breaking, she has been a cryptic crossword compiler, sign language interpreter and arts’ writer.”
The Tibetan plateau, the earth’s highest and largest plateau, sometimes called the “Roof of the World,” and its immediately surrounding mountains contain the greatest diversity of bumblebee species in the globe. But, these little-studied populations may be threatened by climate change, new research shows. A paper, entitled “Bumblebees, climate and glaciers across the Tibetan plateau (Apidae: Bombus Latreille),” published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity in January, finds that if the many of glaciers in the Tibetan plateau melt without replenishing, they could dry up the summer streams that nourish the plants and flowers on which many of these bumblebees rely for food. It’s the first time glacier melt has been identified as a potential threat to bumblebees, even as scientists around the world race to understand recent declines in bumblebee populations and to devise strategies to revive them.
The research was conducted by scientists from China and London, who set out to understand the relationship between climate and bee species diversity in the Tibetan plateau. The researchers defined the Tibetan plateau broadly to include portions of China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan, a region about one third the size of the United States. To understand regional species variations, they collected data on the various species found and mapped them across the region. They then analyzed climate variables against variation in bee species composition.
The researchers discovered that the richness of the social bumblebee species in the alpine zone of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is greater than that of any other alpine region of the world. The area contains 44 species—by comparison, all of South America holds 24 species. Further, they found three principal groups of fauna, which can be distinguished by their constituent species: the Himalayan fauna of the south with many endemic species, fauna of the east in the Oriental region, and Palaearctic fauna of the north.
The research team, led by Paul Williams, was also able to find some distinct relationships between the types of bees populating an area and climate variables. The primary factor linked to bee variation was differences in precipitation across the region, which divided the study area into two parts— the dry west and north and the wetter east and south.
When finalizing the data, there was one thing the researchers couldn’t figure out: why were bee populations so robust in the arid northern and western areas, such as Ladakh and Zanskar, contrary to what was expected due to the aridity in these areas? According to the study, “these small western and northern ‘oases’ appear to be strongly dependent on narrowly localized irrigation by continuous summer streams…often fed by meltwater from permanent glaciers.” However, these glaciers are believed to be melting rapidly due to climate change, the researchers note. Therefore, the rapid melt of the glaciers is a potentially serious conservation concern for the bumblebee species that thrive in these areas.
The impact of melting glaciers on bee populations most directly relates to the bee fauna in the north and west of the Tibetan Plateau; however, this connection could have impacts for populations across the region. The researchers conclude, “interruption of stream flow could result in sudden, complete and permanent collapse of bumblebee populations throughout these valleys.” This ecological disruption could affect ecosystems in unknown and irreversible ways.
Further, the decline of bee species in any part of the globe is significant because bees are one of the most hardworking, irreplaceable species on the planet. According to Marla Spivak, American entomologist and MacArthur Fellow, over one third of the world’s crops are dependent on bee pollination. In the recent decades, bumblebee populations have faced many perils due to habitat loss, pathogens, and pesticides. Yet, this research is the first time glacier melt has been identified as a conservation issue for bees. In this way, this unique paper points to the complex and delicate life systems that are affected by glaciers.
As a student, I had no idea that I ever wanted to study anything related to science- much less the “hard” sciences. Often, I was pointed in the direction of social science because of my writing ability and creativity. Although my high school days weren’t long ago, this experience is common among young women due to archaic stereotypes that have yet to be dismantled. Luckily, there are some female professionals in the hard sciences, such as Dr. Erin Pettit, glaciologist and founder of the Girls on Ice Program, who are trying new approaches to open corridors in science for young ladies.
Sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Girls on Ice is a free science, mountaineering, and art wilderness program for young women ages 16-18. Each year, two teams of nine young women and three instructors spend twelve days on unforgettable expeditions: one trip explores Mount Baker, an ice-covered volcano in Washington, and the other trip allows the young women to experience the majesty of Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier. The young women selected for the teams explore these unique landscapes with professional mountaineers, ecologists, artists, and glaciologists, and all of the instructors are women.
The program stretches the young women mentally and physically by prompting them to observe, to question, and to experiment while trekking through rough terrain. Although the focus is scientific research, the physical elements cannot be overlooked. “We don’t baby them. They have to set up tents, cook, do everything,” declared Dr. Pettit to the National Science Teachers Association. Over the course of the expedition, the girls are challenged to design and conduct a pinnacle experiment about the environment; during the 2009 expedition, one participant used time-lapse imagery to correlate local weather and glacial melt. She found that air temperature and sunshine have a direct effect on the melt rates of ice and snow cover, thus affecting the pace of water-flow in glacial streams. After the expedition, the young women are invited to synthesize their field research and present it to a public audience, which sometimes includes members from the local geoscience community.
The young women on the Girls on Ice team gain both physical and intellectual confidence, leadership skills, and inspiration for future achievement. Yet, along with stimulating the minds of the young women, the program has benefits for society as it helps to close the gap between the numbers of women and men involved in science occupations. According to National Geographic, women make up a meager 26% of the individuals devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math occupations; although that number has been increasing slightly over the years, “gender bias has affected research outcomes.” Programs like Girls on Ice help to ameliorate these injustices by providing unique opportunities for girls to experience the grandeur and marvel inherent in scientific discovery. As stated by one of the participants, “I am inspired to do anything! In the van ride back I was looking out the window at the amazing scenery and the bright blue sky and I felt so great and excited for life.”
Dr. Pettit stated in her feature in Smithsonian, “My goal is not to turn these girls into scientists. My goal is to provide the kind of critical-thinking skills that are necessary for science-and for everything else we do in life.” The aim is to inspire these young women to become not just scientists, but also “future teachers, journalists, lawyers, and businesswomen who are advocates for the scientific process.” Therefore, this program and other field science experiences for high school students offer a promising outlook on the importance of preserving glaciers and their magnificent environments. Not only are these areas important for their immediate ecosystems, but they have the potential to inspire the curiosity and achievement of many generations to come.
“This is the beginning of a project that aims to explore the powerful nature of a living creature in constant evolution. I want to show how such a powerful creature can be so fragile. In those pictures you can see their magnificence, but at the same time all their fragility.”
Study Finds Increased Volcanic Activity Due to Changes in Glaciers
“Melting ice is causing the land to rise up in Iceland – and perhaps elsewhere. The result, judging by new findings on the floor of the Southern Ocean, could be a dramatic surge in volcanic eruptions.”
Yaks are the grandfathers of glacial areas in Asia. Exemplifying the remote and untamed essence of the locations they inhabit, most wild male yaks live very solitary lives. However, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, “greater yak densities [can be found] near glaciers, which often support adjacent food-rich alpine meadows.” Thus, the health of glaciers is directly linked to the health of this majestic species.
Nepal is becoming more and more popular with tourists because of its majestic glaciers and towering mountain peaks. Traditionally known as a mountainous escape for adventurous trekkers, it is becoming more attractive for all types of travelers as the region modernizes to accommodate them. The recent democratization of the country, which saw the election of its first president in 2008, has also made a wider variety of travelers feel comfortable visiting. As reported by TravelBizNews, an outstanding 798,000 tourists visited Nepal in 2013. But only 13,000 of these individuals were trekkers. The majority of trekkers visit in April and October in order to avoid the monsoon and winter seasons.
A recent study, led by Dr. Izumi Morimoto and Dr. Prem Sagar Chapagain, published in the International and Regional Studies Journal asserts that people in the remote regions of Nepal are adapting their lifestyles and changing traditional practices in order to bring a new level of luxury to the region. Signs of such change can be seen in regions as remote as the Manang village, a high-altitude, isolated area landlocked by the Himalayas and famous for its pristine views of mountains and glaciers.
Although small in number, the people of Manang have always profited from contact with the outside world. As reported by the government of Nepal, the Manang village is currently comprised of about 630 residents. Most individuals in this region are agropastorialists; yet, according to the researchers, recent years have seen a rapid abandonment of cultivated land, and other methods of income generation are gaining traction.
According to the study, “one of the most famous ethnic groups in the context of tourism in Nepal is the Sherpa”. Historically known for their trading expertise and “hardiness”, they have long driven innovation through entrepreneurial trading with other communities and fostering connectedness for the Upper Manang region. These factors, along with Manang’s legendary mountain passes such as the Annapurna Trekking route, have created a nesting ground for a growing tourism industry in this Nepali community.
Remote regions like Manang have to work diligently in order to attract tourists who are visiting the country for diverse purposes, other than trekking. Although the study does not cite precise numbers of individuals in Manang involved in the tourism industry, the researchers reveal the numerous adaptations individuals are executing to make this region more hospitable for tourists. These adaptations are changing the texture of everyday life for residents of Manang. For example, individuals who have begun to work in the tourist industry, primarily as hotel staff, have guaranteed work during the peaks of trekking season. However, due to the seasonal fluctuations of visitors, during the winter and monsoon seasons workers have begun migrating outbound in order to secure other opportunities in areas such as Kathmandu. This cycle of migration within Nepal related to hotel work is unprecedented.
Another change has been the accommodations offered by hotels in Manang. In prior years, although locals would convert their familial lodgings into “hotels” for trekkers, these residences would often lack bathrooms, lights, and other comforts associated with the Western lifestyle. This situation was standard for residents in the area. Additionally, these humble accommodations were logical for the locale considering their fragile ecosystem, remote location, and the fact that, even in 2014, you can only reach Manang by foot.
Despite these obstacles, researchers found that due to societal pressures, current hotel owners in Manang seek to provide a wide range of more modern living technologies ranging from heated water from solar power systems, Western foods from biogas stoves, private bathrooms, sunrooms, Internet connection, and telephone service. One such hotel owner, who was left unnamed in the study, is cited as one of the most successful hotel owners in Manang. Presently, his lodge has grown to a 150-guest capacity, and he is working on a project to generate electricity via a microhydropower project. On the other hand, “because of the lack of banking services in Manang, villagers say that the owner needs to pack the cash, such as dollars and euros, that he earns at his hotel, and bring the money on the back of donkeys, and a rifle on his back to protect from bandit attack, in order to deposit the money at his bank.
In this way, the contradictions of tourist driven development in small towns such as Manang are easy to spot. Yet, hotels in this community, like the Yeti Hotel, are working to ensure that individuals, who are looking to get up close and personal with the glaciers in this region, don’t have to miss out on modern comforts because of their adventurous spirits.
Seals are some of the cutest animals found in the Arctic and the Antarctic. This week’s photo friday features seals carrying out their daily activities on icebergs, which are important environmental features in their chilly habitats. The photos include leopard seals and crabeater seals among other species.
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to a recent study published in the journal Public Library of Science, glacial melt is taking a backseat in the Himalayas to permafrost melt as a central driver of alpine lake expansion and related environmental hazards. This finding is of great importance to policy-makers and communities, who must prepare for flooding and other hazards which can be caused by the expansion of high-altitude lakes.
The study, led by Yingkyui Li of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, determined that patterns of lake changes in the Tibetan Plateau from 1970 to 2010 were more closely associated with changes in permafrost degradation patterns than glacial retreat patterns. This conclusion suggests, at least for this region, the influence of melting glaciers on lake dynamics is outweighed by other environmental processes.
Permafrost is an ecologically important element of high-latitude and high-altitude ecosystems. Permafrost is defined as “perennially frozen ground remaining at or below 0°C for at least two consecutive years,” according to a document on the policy implications of warming permafrost, released by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme). This frozen soil comprises about 24 percent of the exposed land area in the Northern Hemisphere, and is also found in mountainous regions of South America and ice-free regions of Antarctica. The thickness of permafrost is determined by the distance between the top of the permafrost layer, known as the permafrost table, and the bottom, also called the permafrost base. There may be an active layer above this, which thaws and freezes seasonally. The most robust type of permafrost is continuous coverage, where the permafrost table is very thick and extends for many meters into the soil. Areas with larger gaps in the permafrost can be called discontinuous permafrost zones, or sporadic permafrost.
At the outset of the study, researchers did not hypothesize that permafrost would play an active role in Tibetan Plateau lake dynamics. In order to determine the factors which influenced lakes, Li et al. gathered two sorts of data to assess fluctuations in the elevation of lakes. They used historical altimetry data for 94 lakes across the plateau for 2003-2009, and Landsat imagery data for 25 lakes across five different regions in the plateau for1972-2010. They correlated spatio-temporal patterns of lake change with various climate and environmental variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, glacier coverage, permafrost coverage, and daily mean temperature trends.
The analysis revealed clear spatio-temporal patterns. Lakes in the southern and western plateau showed continuous shrinkage or stable levels except for slight expansion from 2000-2004. Lakes closest to the Himalayas showed evidence of continuous shrinkage. Lakes located in the central and northern plateau seemed to experience rapid expansion after 2000, though data showed slowed expansion after 2006 in the central region. These expansion trends have been confirmed by other studies, including an article published in April 2014; however, the study led by Yingkyui Li is unique in its long time scale and fine-grained analysis of spatio-temporal patterns.
The researchers found, “[there is] no statistically significant correlation between changes in lake levels (2003-2009) and glacier coverage in each lake’s drainage basin.” On the other hand, they were able to conclude, “[the] plateau-wide pattern of lake changes is consistent with the distribution of permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau.”
The mechanism that links permafrost melt with lake expansion rests on temperature regimes in the region. When the ground temperature is lower than the melting point of frozen soil, water contribution of permafrost to lakes is limited because the soil remains frozen. However, higher temperatures accelerate permafrost melt, which contributes to lake expansion. An interesting aspect of this mechanism is when temperatures continuously increase and remain above the melting point; in this case, water contribution once again becomes limited because all water held in the frozen soil has been released. This phenomenon would explain stability in lake levels after rapid expansion such as in the central region.
Along with the effects on alpine lakes, there are other serious ramifications of permafrost degradation. By releasing water and changing the structure of soils, permafrost degradation can lead to high-altitude lake outburst floods. In mountainous areas, soils can lose their stability as they thaw, creating landslides. Moreover, as shown by a 2010 study, ecosystems which have had historically robust and continuous permafrost can experience reduced productivity and function associated with permafrost loss due to the decreases in soil moisture content and soil nutrients. In addition, the UNEP News Centre has highlighted the permafrost-carbon feedback, in which permafrost loss is associated with emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; this process could exacerbate rising temperatures.
With these effects in mind, it is important to take into account permafrost changes projected for the future. The UNEP Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost Guide indicates that in the near future “active layer thickness will increase and the areal extent of near surface permafrost will decrease” in most regions. Yet, these changes are contingent upon soil and snow processes, future scenarios of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and the warming response to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. If warming continues, eventually the active layer of permafrost, in any region, can become so deep that it does not fully refreeze in winter; this creates a talik, or an area of permanently unfrozen ground within an area of permafrost. In extreme cases, the permafrost can completely thaw and disappear. Clearly, it is important for researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners to take permafrost processes into account if they want protect alpine communities and prevent environmental hazards such as landslides and high-altitude lake outburst floods.
In June 2013, several days of torrential rains bombarded India’s northern state of Uttarakhand causing devastating glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs), river flooding, and landslides. This event is considered to be the country’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Packed with Hindu pilgrimage sites, temples, and tourists, Uttarakhand saw entire settlements washed away. Roads were heavily damaged, stranding over 70,000 people and causing food shortages. Local rivers were flooded with dead bodies for more than a week, contaminating water supplies for the survivors.
Based on post-disaster studies, researchers from St. John’s Medical College in Bengaluru, India recently published findings indicating that the Uttarakhand flooding may have provoked sustained levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adolescents in the region. The study, which was conducted three months after the disaster, found a 32 percent prevalence of PTSD and a wide-range of stress levels amongst the youth of one the hardest hit districts, Uttarkashi.
In order to secure these findings, the research team obtained consent from 268 adolescents at a high school in Uttarkashi. They assessed the mental health of the students by administering the Trauma Screening Questionnaire, an PTSD assessment recognized in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere. Another structured questionnaire was used to gather demographic information. The average age of children who participated in the study was 14.8, with slightly more male respondents than female.
Because of a lack of mental health care infrastructure in Uttarkashi, researchers were not able to prove the glacier-related event directly caused the high rates of PTSD amongst the students in this region. However, a similar study of 411 high school students, conducted prior to 2012 in Pune, India found a lower rate of PTSD (8.9 percent for girls, 10.5 for boys). These students had not suffered from a recent natural disaster related event. A meta-study of 72 peer-reviewed articles of US children and adolescents exposed to trauma found an overall rate of PTSD of nearly 16 percent..
A study of 533 tsunami victims in South India found a much higher rate of PTSD, roughly 70.7 percent for acute PTSD and almost 11 percent for delayed onset PTSD. Although there are many factors that may be able to explain the difference in rates, the increased prevalence of PTSD in the Uttarakashi youth certainly signals a link between glacial hazards and PTSD in children.
The researchers from St. John’s Medical College note that past research has been able to establish the relationship in adult subjects between natural disasters and PTSD, “the most prevalent psychological disorder after disaster.” Thus, they claim there is a need for greater recognition of post-disaster stress disorder assessment and for interventions among adolescent victims in developing countries.
“The majority of disaster studies have focused on adults, although adolescents seem to be more vulnerable to psychological impairment after disaster which manifests in a variety of complex psychological and behavioral manifestations,” wrote the authors of the study.
The exact cause of the 2013 Uttarakashi district flooding is contested; however, the unyielding rains contributed to heavy melting of the Chorabari Glacier, 3,800 meters above sea level, and this was a significant catalyst in the event. During the week of June 20, melting at Chorabari, due to above average rainfall, led to the formation of a temporary glacial lake. Further torrential rains caused this lake to swell and overflow, inducing flash flooding and disastrous landslides and mudslides. “Eyewitnesses describe how a sudden gush of water engulfed the centuries-old Kardarnath temple, and washed away everything in its vicinity in a matter of minutes,” according to Down To Earth Magazine.
Glacier-related PTSD risk is not unique to the Gangotri glacier region. There is also evidence and historical precedence to connect these environmental and psychological factors in the Hindu Kush region, the Cordillera Blanca area of Peru, and other high mountain ranges with large glacier dimensions because of their increased risk of glacial hazards. Further, as researchers begin to examine the link between climate change related disasters and the well being of communities, they are finding the increase in disasters will likely instigate greater rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and physical illness along with PTSD in exposed populations. The recognition of the impacts of disasters on mental health is an important complement to earlier work, which has focused almost exclusively on property damage and mortality.
Columbia Glacier is Rapidly Retreating: Find out Why
“Since the 1980s, Columbia Glacier has lost about half of its thickness, according to NASA. Between then and now, there were years with particularly rapid shedding of ice chunks, creating a “mélange” of floating icebergs that rafted together, as the NASA time-lapse images show.”