Video of the Week: An Animated History of Glaciers

NASA has published a time lapse video that recounts the history of Ice Age glaciers starting from 122,000 years ago. The animation is based on a new model of glacier movements and the response of the Earth’s land masses. The animation was created by scientists at the University of Toronto and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

According to an accompanying article, the model is helping scientists understand postglacial rebound, also known as glacial isostatic adjustment, which refers to the way land masses rebound when heavy glaciers melt and disappear from the surface. This factor is crucial in predicting the rise of sea level over time.

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Finger Lakes Residents Connect With the Region’s GlacialPast

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Finger Lakes Residents Connect With the Region’s Glacial Past

Eighteen thousand years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered most of what is now New York State. Two glacial advances, or periods of growth in a glacier, formed Long Island.

Today, residents of Ithaca, New York, a city in the Finger Lakes region known for its gorges and for being home to Cornell University, remember the impact that glaciers had on their landscape and, in turn, their history.

Glaciers and Ithaca’s natural landscape

Millions of years ago, the Finger Lakes were streams running through narrow valleys. Glacial advances and retreats from what is now Canada deepened and widened the valleys, eventually forming the lakes within them. “The previous glaciers left the state anywhere from ten to eighteen thousand years ago, and whatever we see now is new landscape,” Anthony Grande, a geographer at Hunter College, told GlacierHub.

Ithaca boasts 150 waterfalls within ten miles, twelve of which are located in the city’s own Treman State Park.

Josh Teeter, an environmental educator at the park, gives presentations on Ithaca’s gorges in schools, in retirement homes, and within the park.“[Without glaciers], these parks wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have these beautiful gorges all around us,” he told GlacierHub.

“Most people think that the glaciers created the gorges,” he said.

However, the gorges were formed by the interactions between the north-south river valleys, which were chiseled out by the glaciers, and smaller east-west streams, according to Ithaca’s Paleontological Research Institution (PRI).

Glaciers in Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth

PRI maintains the Museum of the Earth, located in northwest Ithaca, which educates the community on Ithaca’s geological and glacial past.

The museum is laid out as a walk-through timeline. Visitors start at 4.5 billion years ago and move through time as they explore rooms and corridors filled with fossils, rocks, videos and plaques that tell the story of the history of the Earth through local artifacts.

Rob Ross, associate director for outreach at PRI, told GlacierHub that the museum informs the public on both the Earth’s past and the impacts of human activity on the planet looking forward. An exhibit on glaciers ties these goals together. 

Featuring a plastic glacier, the exhibit represents the ice age world, known as the Quaternary Period, which we are still in, Ross said. “The idea is to give people maybe a little bit of a sense, even though it’s made out of plastic, what a glacier kind of looks like if you were to walk up to one,” he said, laughing a little.

The exhibit tells two stories, he said. At the entrance of the plastic glacier is information on how glaciers sculpted the Finger Lakes region. By the end of the tunnel the focus switches to the impact of global warming on glaciers.

Technically, we are still in an ice age, Ross explained. “If it’s defined as a substantial amount of ice at the poles, there have been substantial glaciers on Antarctica for at least thirty or forty million years.” But more recently, about two and a half million years ago, ice began a pattern of growing and receding over the Northern Hemisphere. The most recent glacial maximum—the point in time when the Earth peaked in its quantity of ice—was about 20,000 years ago. Assuming cycles of 100,000 years, “if it weren’t for current human activity, we’d probably be entering another one in 80,000 years or so,” he said.

This video explaining how glaciers sculpted the Finger Lakes is displayed on a screen within the walk-through glacier.

Signs throughout the museum detail what global warming is doing to the Earth’s ecosystems and landscapes. The museum is planning a new exhibit on climate change that will be the last stop at the end of the timeline.

A centerpiece of the exhibit will be a diagram showing temperature and carbon dioxide levels in the glacial periods (“ice ages”) and interglacial periods of the past 700,000 years. We have this data, Ross explained, from ice cores in Antarctica that indicate past carbon dioxide levels. The end of the diagram will show the carbon dioxide and temperature increase in the past hundred years, which will “completely dwarf” the other variations on the graph, Ross said. “The idea is to say basically in a picture, the change that we’re causing right now is really vast and significant even compared with the significant changes we’ve seen” between glacial and interglacial periods.

The Paleontological Research Institution’s climate advocacy

Ithaca’s Cayuga Nature Center, also run by PRI, already has an exhibit on local climate change. Ingrid Zabel, as climate change education manager at PRI, works to make climate science accessible through both the Cayuga Nature Center and Museum of the Earth.

She is also the lead author of PRI’s Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change. “We want to provide information and resources for teachers to help them teach about climate change  in the classroom,” Zabel told GlacierHub. The Institution is running a campaign to send the book, which discusses glaciers in the context of the indicators and effects of global warming, to high school teachers around the country.

More locally, PRI recently published a book, “Gorges History” (the title is a riff on Ithaca’s slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges”), which aims to be an accessible yet detailed introduction to the geology and landscape of the Finger Lakes, Matthew Pritchard, the force behind the completion of the book, told GlacierHub.

“Gorges History” was written by Art Bloom, a Cornell geomorphologist and professor, but was not completed in his lifetime.  Pritchard, who went on field trips with Bloom and encouraged his writing of the book, worked with others to “finish this labor of love,” according to the book’s acknowledgements.

Glaciers and Cornell University

The landscape left by glaciers has an impact on the experience of university students studying at Cornell University and Ithaca College. The glacial history inspired Cornell architecture student Ihwa Choi to design a model for a glacier-themed bridge and aquatic center that would cross through Ithaca’s Six Mile Creek, titled “The Glacier.”

“The textures and colors of the stream that I saw at the site were beautiful and I wanted to research about how those textures were created and from what they originated from,” Choi told GlacierHub. She went on to research the local geological history and create her project, which she calls an “interpretation of what a memory of a glacier could be.” She told GlacierHub, “I wanted to essentially pay homage to what created the site we were given to begin with.”

Choi’s model for a glacier-inspired bridge in downtown Ithaca. (Source: Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning)

The landscape left by glaciers has an impact on the experience of the students and residents of the region. Through museums, art, and gorges, residents of Ithaca have plentiful opportunities to connect with the region’s past and reflect on the planet’s present and future changes. 

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Roundup: Antarctic Species Diversity, Credit Ratings, and an Alaskan Podcast

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Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

On June 28, the US Senate confirmed Robert Wallace as Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks within the Department of the Interior, which oversees the country’s natural lands and resources. A Wyoming native, Wallace lives in Teton Village, near the partially glaciated Grand Teton National Park, where he has previously worked as a park ranger. He has also been a Republican staffer and a lobbyist for General Electric. In his new position, he will oversee the nation’s parks, including many of its glaciated regions.

Wallace’s appointment is the latest in a department whose appointees under the Trump administration, most of whom are ex-lobbyists from the energy industry, have raised alarm in the environmental community. Ties between energy interests and Department of the Interior officers are so ubiquitous that Western Values Project, an organization that advocates for national parks conservation, created a website called the Department of Influence that documents “the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and political appointees at the Department of the Interior.” 

Robert Wallace speaks before the Senate Environment and and Public Works Committee (Source: U.S. Senate)

The regulations and policies of the Department of the Interior have an impact on glaciers. The Interior approves and rejects proposals to open the country’s natural lands to oil and gas drilling. Drilling for and burning natural gas adds to global warming, harming glaciers. Allowing drilling near glaciers is even more hazardous, since the dust associated with these operations can darken the surface of glaciers and accelerate their melting.

“Depending on the estimate, anywhere from twenty to twenty five percent of remaining U.S. [fossil fuel] reserves are on federal public lands,” Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental NGO, told GlacierHub. “And the climate reality is that we cannot beat global warming if we burn those fossil fuels.”

Led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, an ex-lobbyist for oil and gas who carries a list of his conflicts of interest, the Department has already opened up 17 million acres of federal lands to be leased for oil and gas. Meanwhile the firm where Bernhardt worked, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schrek, has quadrupled its business related to the Interior since Bernhardt took office.

“We have given the keys to these agencies to people whose whole life mission has been to not promote the agency, but to profit off the agency and to have the agency weakened,” Bill Snape told GlacierHub. “This is the definition of the fox guarding the henhouse.”

With its powers over oil and gas projects on public lands, the Interior Department is the hot seat of the battle between those who want to drill for natural gas on public lands and those who would like to keep them off-limits, according to Snape. Rob Wallace is going to be sitting right in that seat.

The Interior Department is playing an instrumental role in opening up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil and gas leases by rolling back regulations, the New York Times reported.

“There are massive risks to drilling in the Arctic,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told GlacierHub. The Arctic National Wildlife Reserve provides a home for a variety of species, including polar bears and bearded seals. Drilling “risks oil spills that would be impossible to clean up,” devastating wildlife and landscapes. Arctic ice is especially important to protect since it reflects the sun’s energy back into space, making it critical for regulating the global climate.

Beyond the risks of an oil spill, drilling in the Arctic–and anywhere else–means more greenhouse gases. “Science tells us that all known fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic must stay in the ground if we are to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change,” Monsell said. Opening the Arctic to drilling will “add more fuel to the fire and increase sea ice loss.”

Wallace will be in a position to weigh in on this issue. His job will include taking a stance on whether to open up public lands to oil and gas leasing, and if so, where.

Additionally, it is the responsibility of the Department of the Interior to carry out research on climate change. But under the Trump administration, the Department has “established a clear pattern of suppressing science and scientific evidence, particularly when they run counter to the interests and priorities of the coal, gas, and oil industries,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Department’s strategic plan for 2018-2022 does not mention climate change at all

The Brooks Range Mountains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Snape, who has known Wallace personally for 20 years (their children were classmates in elementary school), has hopes that he might do his job differently than Bernhardt. Although the two disagree on various issues, Snape told GlacierHub, “I think that Rob Wallace is someone who believes in the truth… I do believe Rob will make decisions that he thinks are best for the country and best for the resources. I do think that he cares.”

The Department of the Interior did not respond to requests for a comment or an interview with Wallace.

Wallace graduated in 1971 from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in petroleum engineering. He worked as a park ranger at Grand Teton National Park before co-founding the Grand Teton National Park Foundation. He was Assistant Director of the National Park Service in the seventies, and in 2015 he co-founded the Upper Green River Conservancy, a pro-environmental organization that advocates for the protection of the habitat of sage grouse in the Upper Green River watershed in southwestern Wyoming. The Conservancy is a company of i2 Capital, an impact investment firm of which Wallace is an operating partner.

He has also had a political career as a staffer for several Republicans. He was chief of staff for Senator Malcolm Wallop, who was one of the few senators to oppose the 1987 Clean Water Act. He then worked as the Republican Staff Director for the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources from 1991 to 1994, and then as chief of staff for Jim Geringer, the Republican governor of Wyoming in 1995. Most recently, Wallace lobbied for GE Energy with the role of manager of U.S. government relations for 17 years, until 2012.

Michael Hindus, a retired partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP who has worked extensively with energy policy, has reservations about Wallace’s past career in lobbying. “I would be concerned,” he told GlacierHub. However, “he’s not representing GE anymore, and I just don’t know whether he sees himself still as representing the energy industry,” he said. 

Daniel Zimmerle, a researcher at Colorado State University’s Energy Institute, agrees. He told GlacierHub that when it comes to ex-lobbyists in government roles, “it really comes down to whether they sever ties with those prior connections and in particular provide equal access to all viewpoints.”

In a statement to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Wallace said that at GE he “led a policy team that advocated for the deployment of clean energy technologies in the United States and around the world.”

But, Hindus said, the fact that we need to question Interior picks for their past energy interests indicates a larger issue at the Department. “This whole revolving door business is no good. We shouldn’t even have to have this discussion.” There is no question that various agencies under the Trump administration are flooded with ex-industry lobbyists.

He told GlacierHub, “in the ideal world, people from the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth ought to be considered for these positions as well, though I’m not sure they ever have been.”

Wallace was endorsed by the National Parks Conservation Association, which wrote, “Recognizing how long this important Department of the Interior post has been vacant, we applaud Mr. Wallace’s nomination and we look forward to his timely confirmation.”

Snape echoed concern about the position’s long vacancy. He told GlacierHub, “Fish and Wildlife service hasn’t had a director since Donald Trump took office…so what’s really been happening is that David Berhnardt and Todd Willens have been essentially running that agency.”

Snape is not optimistic about the Department of the Interior because of Donald Trump and David Bernhardt, he told GlacierHub. However, he is hopeful about the upcoming presidential election. “I think 2020 is going to be the first climate change election,” he said.

In the meantime, the Center for Biological Diversity is resisting the Trump administration’s pro-oil agenda. “We have sued [the administration] 144 times and counting. We’re commenting on every rollback that they have. We have a grassroots army that has been going to public meetings, whether it be for wolves, whether it be for public lands, whether it be for off shore oil leases,” Snape said.

It may not be possible to know yet how Wallace will play his role at the Department of the Interior. One can only hope along with Snape that Robert Wallace will make decisions that protect the country’s natural lands and avoid causing additional harm to the glaciers.

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Roundup: Gold Mining in Peru, an Animated Film Featuring the Andes Mountains, and a Lunar Simulation in a Swiss Glacier

Gold mines in a receding Peruvian glacier

Photographer James Whitlow Delano captures the gold mining scene in the world’s highest permanent human settlement.

From The Washington Post:

“High up in the Andes, La Rinconada is a place where people go to seek whatever fortune they can muster in the gold mines nestled there. Delano describes it as a place with no running water or sewage system, populated by about 30,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. It is a place, Delano says, where ‘for over 500 years, La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) has attracted first the Inca, then the Spanish. For decades, artisanal miners, mostly indigenous Quechua and Aymara, have followed a receding glacier up the valley hoping to find the mother lode, burrowing deep inside the mountain at over 17,700 feet.’”

The town of La Rinconada, Peru (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Animated Netflix film features Andean glaciers and environmentalism

From Animation World Network:

“14 years in the making, Pachamama, Juan Antin’s animated tale about a 10-year old Andean boy’s journey to reclaim his village’s irreplaceable treasure, premieres today on Netflix. Set during the time of the Spanish Conquistadors and their South American incursions, the Cesar Award-nominated film is Antin’s homage to the indigenous cultures of the Andes, and takes its name for the concept of ‘Pachamama,’ both an earth mother goddess figure as well as a more general concept of living in harmony with the Earth, akin to the idea of ‘Mother Nature.’”

Swiss glacier provides a home for an experimental lunar habitat

After their inaugural 2019 campaign, Igluna, coordinated by the Swiss Space Center, is running their 2020 program to enable teams of students across Europe to work on technology that would help sustain human life on the moon. As in 2019, the technology will be tested in a Zermatt glacier.

From the Swiss Space Center:

“IGLUNA 2020 is an international student project to build a space habitat demonstrator for sustaining life in an extreme environment. Not only does it demonstrate technologies of the future, but also a new way of collaboration across universities, industry and the space community – while forming students in applied project work. In one year, student teams from various disciplines and different countries across Europe develop their demonstrator modules. Their common objective: to integrate the projects together in a test bed in Switzerland in July 2020. Through international collaboration and interdisciplinary team work, the students gain practical experience in project management, build life-long networks, and kick-start their careers.”

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Photo Friday: Glacier Melt in Bolivia Exacerbates the Nation’s Water Crisis

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Video of the Week: Iceland’s Okjökull Glacier Is Gone But Not Forgotten

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Photo Friday: The Melting of Alaska’s Excelsior Glacier

Alaska’s Excelsior Glacier has been retreating since 1941, forming a lake named Big Johnston. The glacier’s melting rate has doubled since 1994, according to a blog post from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) website. The lake, in turn, has doubled in size in the past 24 years. With Big Johnston Lake now five times  the size of Central Park, Excelsior Glacier has completely separated into its eastern and western tributaries, according to a NASA article.

Mauri Pelto is the glaciologist at Nichols College who wrote the AGU post. “To see the amount of expansion and retreat in that amount of time is exceptional,” he told NASA.

According to Pelto, the high melting rate has been caused by warm temperatures and calving, the process by which ice at the edge of a glacier breaks off. This glacial breaking filled Big Johnston Lake with icebergs. But as Excelsior Glacier recedes farther away from the lake, icebergs are disappearing.

Since the glacier has retreated to a higher slope, it is no longer calving at a high rate. With this difference, the glacier “will still retreat, but it will slow down a lot—more on the order of tens of meters per year instead of hundreds,” Pelto told NASA.

Staff from the Johnstone Adventure Lodge, a local resort, captured images of the glacier that show its radical transformation from 2016 to 2019.

Excelsior Glacier and Big Johnston Lake, replete with icebergs, in 2016 (Source: Johnstone Adventure Lodge)
The glacier and lake in 2018 (Source: Johnstone Adventure Lodge)
A 2019 photo of the glacier separated into its eastern and western tributaries (Source: Johnston Adventure Lodge)
A shot of one of the tributaries, taken in 2018. (Source: Johnston Adventure Lodge)
The same tributary in 2019, a chunk of ice now separated (Source: Johnston Adventure Lodge)
Excelsior Glacier in June 2019 (Source: Johnston Adventure Lodge)

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East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that black carbon and dust play a crucial role in the melting of Tibetan Plateau glaciers—and the researchers think they know the sources of that troublesome sediment.

“We believe that black carbon, dust, and other light-absorbing impurities must be important factors in accelerating … ice melting worldwide,” Yang Li, a coauthor of the study, told GlacierHub. And, according to the study, East and South Asia are the largest sources of black carbon emissions that are transported to the Tibetan Plateau.

Black carbon, also called soot, is a byproduct of the partial combustion of organic matter and fossil fuels.

Susan Kaspari is an associate professor at Central Washington University and worked previously with Shichang Kang, another one of the study’s authors. “When you see emissions coming off the back of a truck that’s really black, you’re seeing the black carbon,” Kaspari told GlacierHub.

Along with fossil fuels, an important source of black carbon is the burning of biofuels, such as wood or animal waste, she added.

“[Black carbon] doesn’t stay in the atmosphere a really long time,” Kaspari said. “Usually it will stay in the atmosphere on the scale of a few days to at the most, maybe two weeks.”

Gravity and precipitation eventually pull the black carbon back to earth. And that’s where the trouble comes in for glaciers.

Scientists describe black carbon, along with dust, as a light-absorbing particle, meaning that due to its dark color it absorbs more energy from the sun compared to other light-colored materials—especially the typically bright-colored surfaces of glaciers. When black carbon settles on snow and ice, “It absorbs more energy from the sun, and then that warms the snowpack or ice, and leads to accelerated melt,” Kaspari said.

Kaspari and Kang, among others, published a study in 2011 that detailed how black carbon concentrations in the Tibetan Plateau have increased dramatically. “We documented a three-fold increase from preindustrial to industrial periods, starting around the 1970s, relative to, prior to that period of time,” Kaspari said.

Various anthropogenic activities contributed to this increase, including the Kuwait oil fires set by Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War.

Li’s new study focused on the Laohugou Basin on the northern slope of the western Qilian Mountains, which lie on the Tibetan Plateau. These mountains lost 20.9 percent of their glacial area—about 22 cubic kilometers of ice—in the past 50 years, according to a study conducted last year.

The accumulation zone of the glacier studied by Li and his coauthors (Source: Yang Li)

Li and his co-researchers sampled the ice, snow, and nearby topsoil of the Laohugou Basin glacier during the summer and winter of 2016 and measured concentrations of black carbon and dust. To determine the effect of the black carbon and dust on the amount of energy absorbed by the glacier, they used SNICAR, a model for determining the albedo of snow and ice surface.

They found large spaciotemporal variability in the concentrations of black carbon and dust. Still, they concluded that the concentrations of black carbon and dust on the glacier were “comparable to or higher than” concentrations on most other Third Pole glaciers. The concentrations, though, were lower than those of some select glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, specifically, including the Baishui No. 1 and Xiao Dongkemadi glaciers, which indicated, according to the study, “discrepancies in the deposition, enrichment, and re-exposure of [black carbon] over the Tibetan Plateau.”

Li and his coauthors found, however, that dust plays a more important role than black carbon in accelerating melting.

The researchers walk on a glacier in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yang Li).

Susan Kaspari found a similar result in her 2014 study that measured black carbon and dust on the glacier ice and snow of Solukhumbu, Nepal.

“Let’s say you had a hundred parts per billion black carbon, which would be certainly enough black carbon to cause a change in how much energy is being absorbed,” she said. “If you put that on a snow pack that was quite clean, that black carbon could have a really large impact.”

“If you took that same amount of black carbon and it was deposited upon a snow pack that already had a lot of dust,” she added, “the efficacy, or how effective that black carbon would be in absorbing energy, would be a lot less because the dust is already absorbing some of that solar radiation that could otherwise be absorbed by the black carbon.”

The Tibetan Plateau is a region that is “naturally dusty already,” said Kaspari, who added that the rising temperatures brought about by climate change exacerbate the situation. “As the glaciers are retreating,” she said, “you’re exposing more and more area that used to be covered with glacier that has a lot of dust.”

And that dust, she added, gets blown onto glaciers.

A shot of the Amphulaptsa Pass, Nepal, taken during a 2009 expedition that resulted in Kaspari’s 2014 study. The dark layers are a combination of black carbon and dust. (Source: Jesse Cunningham)

Li and his coauthors found local topsoil to be a likely source of not only the glacier’s dust, but also its black carbon. Urban activities, such as automobile exhaust and industrial pollution, release black carbon that pollutes the soil, according to the study.

To reduce the amount of black carbon released into the environment, Kaspari suggested more efficient combustion methods, more efficient engines, and the elimination of coal-fired power plants.

Natural sources of black carbon, such as wildfires, are more difficult to mitigate. And there’s no feasible way to remove black carbon that’s already settled across the surface of the world’s glaciers.

Li told GlacierHub that the results of his study do not speak to the possible concentrations of black carbon in other glaciated regions of the Tibetan Plateau. “The concentrations of black carbon and dust in the Tibetan Plateau glaciers must vary broadly, because of the spatiotemporal variability in wet, dry, and post depositional conditions,” he said.

Still, along with other studies that research black carbon concentrations in other glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, the work of Li and his coauthors adds to our evidence that human activity accelerates the melting of glaciers in Tibet and worldwide.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Video of the Week: NASA Reports on the Third Pole

A recent video by NASA summarizes how the rapid melting of Asia’s high mountain glaciers, also know as Earth’s “Third Pole,” is affecting water availability. The video explains how NASA’s High Mountain Asia Team  (HiMAT) aims to help in adaptation efforts by providing data and tools.

The video accompanies a feature article that highlights the project, which is described as “the most comprehensive survey ever made of snow, ice and water in these mountains and how they are changing.” Now in its third year, the team studies “three decades of data on this region in three broad areas: weather and climate; ice and snow; and downstream hazards and impacts.”

Due to the difficulties and dangers of visiting these high glaciated regions, “for most of human history, a detailed scientific study of these mountains was impossible,” according to the article. But “the satellite era has given us the first opportunity to observe and measure snow and ice cover safely in places where no human has ever set foot.”

The goals of the program include creating “an authoritative estimate of the water budget of this region and a set of products local policy makers can use in planning for a changing water supply,” called the Glacier and Snow Melt (GMELT) Toolbox.

NASA’s video explains the mission of HiMAT and provides contextual information on the receding of glaciers of the Third Pole.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Study Assesses Efficacy of Artificial Glaciers in Alleviating Water Scarcity in Ladakh, India

This month, Regional Environmental Change published a study that analyzes the “socio-hydrology” of the artificial ice reservoirs, commonly called “artificial glaciers,” of Ladakh, a high mountain region located in the area known as the Trans-Himalaya. The study assesses the effectiveness of these structures as a strategy of adaptation to seasonal water shortages and to the effects of climate change on the glaciers of the Himalaya, which the Ladakhi rely on for water to irrigate agriculture.

Why Artificial Glaciers?

Ladakh has always experienced seasonal water scarcity, according to Marcus Nüsser, a co-author of the study. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “Water scarcity issues are frequent and an annual phenomenon in Ladakh because of the complete dependence of irrigated agriculture from meltwater, especially from the glaciers.” Since the glaciers reside at a much higher altitude than the villages, “the meltwater from these water sources comes quite late in the year. And so there’s a regular problem of severe water scarcity every year in those months when sowing of the cultivated plants starts,” that is, in early spring.

Climate change has increased water shortages in mountain regions worldwide, according to another study published last month. Artificial glaciers help to alleviate seasonal water shortages by storing meltwater from winter months in ice structures at an altitude lower than the natural glaciers and higher than the cultivated fields. There are several different types of artificial glaciers, which are described later in this article. Due to their lower altitude, these stores of ice melt earlier than the natural glaciers, “providing irrigation just in time for the start of the agricultural season,” as Nüsser writes in his chapter of the 2016 book Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, titled, “Local Knowledge and Global Concerns: Artificial Glaciers as a Focus of Environmental Knowledge and Development Interventions.”

Artificial glaciers provide water right when farmers need it for irrigation. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

How They Work

Constructed ice reservoirs, along with water management systems, have long been in Ladakh’s technological repertoire. According to Nüsser’s chapter of Ethnic and Cultural Dimensions of Knowledge, Ladakh “has a long history of water harvesting and community management of water resources.” This history includes tanks for storing meltwater, called zings, as well as an official called a Chudpon who “ensures equitable distribution of water.” The chapter notes the practice of “birthing glaciers” by placing pieces of glaciers in caves at high altitudes found in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan. The Regional Environmental Change study further mentions the tradition of “snow harvesting,” which involves building small barrier walls.

Since then, four types of modern ice reservoirs have been developed, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors:

The types of ice reservoirs, as identified by Nüsser and his coauthors (Source: Regional Environmental Change)

Basin structures store ice similarly to how traditional zings store water. While zings are generally built around the same level as fields, basins for ice storage are located at altitudes higher than cultivated fields so that water can freeze. The advantage of ice basins over zings, and the advantage of ice reservoirs over water reservoirs, is that evaporation is minimized and so more water is retained.

A second type of ice reservoir involves building a sequence of loose rock walls into a river. This slows down water velocity enough that the water freezes in layers. This type of structure, called a “cascade,” was first created in 1987 and was the first structure to be called an “artificial glacier.”

A third type of artificial glacier diverts stream water to freeze in small, shaded side valleys. This strategy also relies on reducing the velocity of river water.

The most recently developed type of artificial glacier, the Ice Stupa, was highlighted in a New Yorker photo essay last month. An Ice Stupa uses piping to divert stream water. The water is shot upwards through a sprinkler and freezes in vertical layers in a conical structure that resembles Buddhist stupas. Due to their vertical shape, ice stupas have less surface area exposed to sunlight, and so they can reside at altitudes as low as the villages themselves while remaining frozen through the winter. A challenge of the Ice Stupa, Nüsser told GlacierHub, is that since they rely on pipes, “they need a relatively sophisticated intake system that is not blocked during the cold seasons.” Developed by Sonam Wangchuk, the Ice Stupa won the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2016.

Reception of Ice Reservoirs

Ice reservoirs are not always successful, according to Nüsser and the recent study. Success depends on “the situation during the wintertime, whether or not ice accumulation is successful,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. The study cites “high inter-annual climatic variability, frequency, and duration of freeze-thaw cycles together with variances in design” for this irregularity.

Further, Nüsser explained, artificial ice reservoirs are only implementable in a very specific environment–that is, a “cold, arid environment… where you have extremely low temperatures during the wintertime because of the high altitude, the position, and where you have on the other hand a very arid situation.” A local climate must include “frequent freeze-thaw cycles to have the successful formation of large quantities of ice. That’s why you cannot use such systems in every area where you have irrigated cultivation.” Still, there are enough places that meet this description that ice reservoir technology has the potential to spread to other locations. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “I’m sure there are possibilities to transfer this technology, for example, to other trans-Himalyan regions,” and possibly to “parts of Bolivia, maybe, parts of Peru, or northern Chile.”

However, as Nüsser and his coauthors point out, support for ice reservoirs is not unanimous. Storing meltwater in the form of ice to service upstream communities in Ladakh deprives downstream communities of this water. According to the study, “There have been protests against the [Ice Stupa] project as it abstracts water from the main stream, thereby reducing water availability for downstream communities and households.”

Presented as an appropriate method of adaptation to global warming, artificial glaciers have received considerable attention. The home page of the website for the Ice Stupa Project reads, “Join Ladakh as it gears up to fight climate change and melting glaciers.” The Regional Environmental Change study observes that although the Ice Stupa Project was the costliest ice reservoir initiative to date, the project was able to receive its funds through crowdsourcing by “promoting these structures in the context of global climate change.”

The authors of the study, though, do not see artificial glaciers as an appropriate method of adaptation to climate change. Nüsser reasonably suggests that the term “artificial glacier” be jettisoned in favor of “artificial ice reservoir.”

“It’s not really a glacier,” Nüsser told GlacierHub. “It’s just a seasonal storage of water in the form of ice to increase meltwater availability in the early season.” Unlike natural glaciers, ice reservoirs only remain frozen for part of the year, and so ice does not accumulate from year to year. “They can not replace the natural glaciers,” he said.

His study, of course, echoes this conclusion: “It is important to see them as site-specific water conservation strategies rather than climate change adaptation, which is neither their original function, nor something they are likely to accomplish.”

Although they do not match the expectations that the term “artificial glacier” may raise, artificial ice reservoirs do, overall, succeed in supplying much needed water to farmers at a critical point in the growing season, according to Nüsser and the study. Storing ice in these structures “helps the farmers to increase the number of irrigation cycles for the cultivated fields.” The aid in water supply allows farmers to “cultivate cash crops like potatoes, in the case of Ladakh, and they can make some more income from these agricultural productions.”

Ice reservoirs alleviate water shortages in upstream communities in the short term, the study concludes, but these ice structures will not slow the effects of climate change on natural glaciers. If glaciers disappear, then there will be no meltwater to be stored in the artificial ice reservoirs. Nüsser told GlacierHub, “In the context of global warming, we have to imagine a time when there is no meltwater available.” For now, though, these artificial ice reservoirs help the farmers of Ladakh and provide an example of creative adaptation to immediate strains caused by global warming.

This artificial glacier resides above the village of Igu in Ladakh. (Source: Marcus Nüsser)

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Roundup: Cryospheric Microbes, Moving Borders, and a Glacial Chase Movie

New Article Reports Current Knowledge on the Microbial Ecology of the Cryosphere

A report synthesizes our current knowledge of microbial ecosystems in cold (below 5 degrees Celcius) environments, including glacial habitats.

From Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology: “Microorganisms in cold ecosystems play a key ecological role in their natural habitats. Since these ecosystems are especially sensitive to climate changes, as indicated by the worldwide retreat of glaciers and ice sheets as well as permafrost thawing, an understanding of the role and potential of microbial life in these habitats has become crucial. Emerging technologies have added significantly to our knowledge of abundance, functional activity, and lifestyles of microbial communities in cold environments. The current knowledge of microbial ecology in glacial habitats and permafrost, the most studied habitats of the cryosphere, is reported in this review.”

To study the microbes of one of Iceland’s glaciers, Mario Toubes-Rodrigo of Manchester Metropolitan University samples sediment from the glacier (Source: David Elliott/Flickr).

A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change

A new book explores how global warming poses a challenge to national borders.

From the Columbia University Press description: “Italy’s northern border follows the watershed that separates the drainage basins of Northern and Southern Europe. Running mostly at high altitudes, it crosses snowfields and perennial glaciers—all of which are now melting as a result of anthropogenic climate change. As the watershed shifts so does the border, contradicting its representations on official maps. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland have consequently introduced the novel legal concept of a “moving border,” one that acknowledges the volatility of geographical features once thought to be stable.”

A part of the Central Eastern Alps, the Zillertal Alps border Austria and Italy (Source: Hagens World Photography/Flickr).

Scandinavia House Screens 2017 Film Following World War II Fighter Through Norway’s Frozen Landscapes

From Scandinavia House: “Based on the true-life tale of World War II resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud, The 12th Man follows a Norwegian mission group’s journey across the North Sea to sabotage a German military facility. When the group’s identity is compromised and they’re attacked by a Nazi warship, Baalsrud is the sole member to evade capture, who escapes by swimming across frigid fjord waters to a nearby island to hide within the mountains.What follows is a harrowing exodus, as Baalsrud fights to stay alive in sub-freezing temperatures, surrounded by landscapes that are as stunningly beautiful as they are treacherous. In his quest for survival under relentless pursuit by a Nazi officer, Baalsrud must rely on the compassion of locals willing to risk their lives to help him cross the border to safety in Sweden.”

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New Funds Help Girls On Ice Canada Expand Access to Glacier Expeditions

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New Funds Help Girls On Ice Canada Expand Access to Glacier Expeditions

This past month, Girls On Ice Canada was granted $25,000 through the PromoScience Program of the Natural Resource and Engineering Research Council of Canada in order to continue their inspirational and educational science program in 2019. In the summer of 2018, the organization took their first group of 10 women aged 16-17 on a free trip through Canada’s Glacier National Park.

Girls On Ice Canada is run by Inspiring Girls Expeditions, an organization that began with an expedition in 1999 to the South Cascade Glacier in Washington with a group of five girls and two instructors. Since then, it has expanded to offer a variety of programs that provide young women opportunities to explore science and nature on glaciers, water, rocks, and fjords.

With women remaining an underrepresented group in the sciences, Girls On Ice provides an environment for young women to explore their scientific interests. As Erin Pettit, founder of Girls On Ice and Inspiring Girls Expeditions, told Smithsonian, girls are socialized to avoid showing their interest or intelligence in science. “But I want to provide a space without that pressure—where the girls can show their interest, their intelligence, their strength,” she said.

Girls On Ice Canada, the newest addition to the programs offered by Inspiring Girls Expeditions, was founded by Alison Criscitiello and three others. “The idea is to serve a different population, mainly First Nations youth in Canada,” Criscitiello told GlacierHub. The Canada-based program, she explained, was a response to the number of Canadian girls applying to the US expeditions.

2018 Girls On Ice Canada participants on GlacierHub
Participants in a 2018 Girls On Ice Canada expedition pose for the camera. (Source: Alison Criscitiello)

The new Canadian program is in high demand. A press release from the University of Alberta, which houses Girls on Ice Canada, notes that over 600 girls applied to ten spots in this year’s expedition.

Criscitiello told GlacierHub that the group is aiming to expand, eventually offering two or three expeditions a year. As part of the effort to make Canada’s program accessible to as many young women as possible, this year’s expedition will involve a live session through National Geographic’s Explorer Classroom program, during which participants will have the opportunity to answer their peers’ questions from their expedition campground.

Girls On Ice isn’t only encouraging women to pursue the sciences. According to the group’s philosophy, regardless of whether participants continue with careers in the sciences, the program seeks to enable young women to “challenge themselves and gain self-confidence in their physical, intellectual, and social abilities.”

Girls On Ice Canada’s first expedition, which occurred last year, had a positive effect on Alyana Lalani. Writing in Scouting Life, she said the program “helped me change my mindset because, moving onwards in life, I know that I will get through whatever difficulty I am facing if I keep going forward.”

According to Inspiring Girls Expeditions, its expeditions are “the science version of a language immersion experience—where we connect science with all aspects of daily life with the goal of creating lifelong advocates for Earth science, specifically, and the scientific process as a whole.”

Criscitiello hopes to make the group’s 2019 expedition even more immersive. Last summer, during the group’s first expedition in Canada, the group spent the first several days of the program at a campground near the glacier due to a lack of available space, she said. “This year,” she said, “we’re heading almost immediately straight into the backcountry and cutting some of that time out in an attempt to really spend the bulk of the time with the girls in a remote location where there’s no interaction with other people and you’re really out there.”

Environmental awareness is a crucial part of this immersion. Alyana said, “During our entire expedition, my instructors stressed the Leave No Trace principles—minimum-impact outdoor activity and taking care of the environment.”

Girls On Ice Canada aims to empower young women to find confidence while pursuing research and learning to appreciate British Columbia’s glacial landscapes. It also plays a role in raising awareness about the conservation of glaciers. As Alyana said, “no matter what our goals were, protecting and respecting our environment came first.”

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