Satellites Detect Both Steady and Accelerated Ice Loss

A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters reports the findings of a pair of satellites that measure gravity to get a clearer picture of the continued ice mass loss in Greenland, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The study found accelerated ice loss in the Arctic, and steady loss in Alaska, which will have significant implications for sea level rise globally.

Depiction of the GRACE satellites. (Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
Depiction of the GRACE satellites. (Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

The researchers, Christopher Harig and Frederik J. Simmons, both of Princeton University, analyzed data from the two satellites, called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), in order to not only find the current state of ice mass within glaciers and ice sheets, but the changes in mass since 2003.

GRACE’s dual satellites circle the Earth together, and minute fluctuations in their orbit serve as a basis for measuring the Earth’s gravitational field. The two are separated by approximately 137 miles, and as they fluctuate with the changing gravitational pull, the distance between the two varies slightly. (The two satellites are nicknamed Tom and Jerry, a reference to the cartoon cat and mouse.)

Coupling the differing distances with precise GPS locations, GRACE is able to provide a view of the Earth’s gravity with “unprecedented accuracy” as NASA says. This level of detail allows researchers to easily find even minute trends in mass changes.

GRACE is more commonly used over large areas, such as ice sheets, but in this research the authors studied areas “near the [lower] limit that can be resolved by GRACE data.” After thermal expansion, mountain glaciers and ice caps are the second highest contributor to sea level rise, making accurate and efficient study of the mass loss from smaller areas critical for future sea level projections.

The researchers found that the glacial ice on the north region of the Gulf of Alaska was decreasing at a faster rate than the south region. GRACE detected an unexpectedly large ice loss in 2009 which the authors attribute to a lowered albedo after the eruption of Mount Redoubt.

NASA image of Eureka Sound on Ellesmere Island. (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr)
NASA image of Eureka Sound on Ellesmere Island. (Source: Stuart Rankin/Flickr)

The Canadian Archipelago as a whole has been losing ice mass steadily. Within it, the Ellesmere Island region was stable in 2003, when the data was first collected, but mass loss has been accelerating since. In 2013, the researchers found that the mass loss within the Ellesmere Island region had dramatically accelerated, but has since continued closer to average. Baffin Island, the second area studied within the Archipelago, also saw significant ice loss but not at the same rate as Ellesmere.

Greenland saw “an order of a magnitude” more total volume ice loss than Baffin and Ellesmere. Partially due to its sheer size, ice loss there is significant; in the previous decade the largest land-based contributor to sea level rise has been Greenland.

As ice mass loss continues in these regions due to natural variability and climate change, it will be important to have accurate and localized data to better prepare for the corresponding sea level rise.  

Visual depiction of sea level rise. (Source: go_greener_oz/Flickr)
Visual depiction of sea level rise. (Source: go_greener_oz/Flickr)

“Worldwide, on the order of 500 million people could be directly impacted by rising sea level by the end of this century. The human impact is combined with a large financial impact as well. So regardless of where people live, I think the impacts of ice loss and sea level rise will be easily seen in the future,” co-author Christopher Harig said in an email to GlacierHub.

Roundup: How Glaciers Affect and Are Affected By Water

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

Totten Glacier Hurtles Towards Retreat and Possible Collapse

Totten Glacier catchment area in blue. (Source: Australian Antarctic Division)
Totten Glacier catchment area in blue. (Source: Australian Antarctic Division)

From Nature:

Satellite-based observations indicate that the margin of Totten Glacier may be experiencing greater ice loss than anywhere else in East Antarctica. This, coupled with the presence of low-lying subglacial basins upstream means the Totten Glacier catchment area could be at risk of substantial ice loss under ocean-warming conditions.

Learn more about the processes causing this retreat and the potential sea level rise associated with it.


Are Dams the Glaciers of Tomorrow?

European Alps, the area of interest for this study. (Source: Atibordee Kongprepan/ Flickr)
European Alps, the area of interest for this study. (Source: Atibordee Kongprepan/Flickr)

From Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL:

“Water management in reservoirs could substantially mitigate future summer water shortages, expected as a consequence of ongoing glacier retreat, researchers report. The team simulated the effect of climatic change on glaciers across the European Alps and estimated that two thirds of the effect on seasonal water availability could be avoided when storing water in areas becoming ice free.”

Find out how these researchers suggest dealing with glacier retreat and water supplies.

Scientists Present New Research on Tibet’s Climate Risks

Gurdomangar Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. (Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi/Flickr)
Gurdomangar Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. (Source: Pradeep Kumbhashi/Flickr)

From The Columbus Dispatch:

“A consortium of scientists from around the world have gathered in Columbus at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center for the first U.S. meeting about climate issues facing the Tibetan Plateau, a region that includes about 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers that provide drinking water to nearly a third of the Earth’s people.”

Read more about the importance of the Tibetan Plateau and why these scientists feel action is so urgently needed.

Photo Friday: Jostedalsbreen Glacier

Jostedalsbreen Glacier, the largest glacier in northern Europe, is located within Jostedalsbreen National Park which was founded in 1991 in Norway. The Jostedalsbreen Glacier is so large that it alone covers over a third of the park and separates two of the longest fjords in the world. It is fitting that Norway has such an imposing glacier since the most iconic Norwegian characteristics—fjords and valleys—owe their creation to past glacial movements.

Scientists have flocked to this glacier for centuries to study its retreat since the Little Ice Age, particularly with an interest in studying post-glacial vegetation and landscape. As climate change accelerates glacial retreat across the world, a degree of urgency is added to the quest to learn from Jostedalsbreen Glacier’s retreat. Sometimes, the past can help us prepare for the future.


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Slower Evaporation Rate Spurs Tibetan Lake Growth

A new study in the Journal of Hydrology uses a novel modelling technique that helps scientists understand the effect of evaporation on the expansion of lakes in the inner Tibetan Plateau. This research also has implications for the use of climate models on the Plateau. In addition, the work has broader significance for weather patterns beyond Tibet, due to the plateau’s influence on the atmospheric circulation of the Asian Monsoon system.

Nam Co Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. Photo: NASA Johnson/Flickr.
Nam Co Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. Photo: NASA Johnson/Flickr.

The researchers focused on Nam Co Lake, the second largest of the more than one thousand lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike many lakes, which drain through rivers, this lake is in a closed basin, losing water only through evaporation. There is no bigger lake at a higher altitude than this body of water anywhere in the world.

In fact, Nam Co Lake is expanding, and the researchers wanted to better understand why. Seeking a fresh approach, the researchers aimed to specify the role of evaporation in this expansion.

Led by Ning Ma of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, they found that the expansion of Nam Co Lake is partly caused by decreased rates of evaporation, possibly due to declining wind speeds and decreased solar radiation.

There have been many studies exploring the rapid expansion of lakes in the region since the 1990’s, but there is no agreement on the explanation for this phenomenon. Past studies have looked at increased glacial runoff or increased precipitation as the main drivers. But the authors of this study explain that to fully understand the expansion of this closed lake, evaporation, a factor often neglected by researchers, needs to be incorporated as well. 

Nam Co Lake. Photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee/Flickr.
Nam Co Lake. Photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee/Flickr.

The authors indicate that evaporation in this lake, as in other lakes, depends on several factors: the radiation that reaches the lake’s surface, air temperature, wind speed, and the dryness of the air. In order to find which of these variables has the largest effect, the scientists correlated the average values of each with the evaporation rates over the lake.

Wind speed, they concluded, was most plausible candidate. However, the lack of nearby weather stations and the mountainous landscape of the region pose an issue for the construction of accurate models which include wind speed. Because of this, the researchers used a different model than is usually employed during evaporation studies; this alternate method is called a complementary relationship lake evaporation (CRLE) model.

The CRLE model did not include wind speed measurements, but the researchers can estimate this factor by including an air stability factor that includes variables for heat and moisture content.

The study suggests that the ability to more accurately model the rates of evaporation without wind speed data is the key to counterbalancing the lack of meteorological observations in this area. Further, the need to examine the lake over decades can best be addressed by models, granted the lack of data from the weather stations in the region. Accurate models may be able to help those in the region better understand lake expansion.

Monsoon in Sri Lanka. The authors argue that lake evaporation on the Tibetan Plateau has some thermal-regulatory effect on the Asian Monsoon. Photo: Guttorm Flatabø/Flickr.
Monsoon in Sri Lanka. The authors argue that lake evaporation on the Tibetan Plateau has some thermal-regulatory effect on the Asian Monsoon. Photo: Michael Grogan/Flickr.

The Tibetan Plateau is of great regional importance because of the role it plays in the Asian Monsoon system. Simply put, the heat energy (which is affected by evaporation) from the plateau thermally regulates the monsoon circulation patterns. Changes in evaporation rates from lakes may have implications for the many areas affected by the Asian Monsoon. By providing an assessment of the CRLE model, which the authors argue provides a more accurate representation of evaporation, this study may aid in the understanding of the processes taking place in this critical, but rapidly changing, region.


Rocks and Rain Fix Nitrogen in Post-Glacial Sites

A new study in Plant and Soil found that the input of nitrogen from the atmosphere, via a process of rain funneling through rocks, created levels of nitrogen that are adequate to support plant growth in post-glacial alpine soil, challenging the common view that the element is the primary limiting factor in deglaciated areas.

In fact, the researchers found that phosphorous, due to the low-weathering rates and high nitrogen deposition of the region, is the element in soil which limits post-glacial plant life colonization. The team was lead by Hans Göransson of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna.

The finding challenges the widely-held view that the only plants capable of colonizing post-glacial environments are species that are able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Instead, as this work shows, natural processes enable other plants to become colonizers in the European Alps.

Nitrogen-fixing plants on a post-glacial site in Glacier Bay, Alaska. (Photo:Elizabeth/Flickr)
Nitrogen-fixing plants on a post-glacial site in Glacier Bay, Alaska. (Photo: Elizabeth/Flickr)

This research may have implications for future ecosystem plant colonization and biodiversity, a topic of interest to scientists as glaciers retreat and expose new soils in many regions of the world.

The team, focusing on Damma Glacier in Switzerland, found that the expected nitrogen-fixing plants were usually absent in the early stages of these post-glacial sites, contradicting what previous research has suggested. The study’s findings differ from the research done in recently deglaciated areas in Glacier Bay in Alaska and on the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand, which show an abundance of nitrogen-fixing plants in post-glacial sites.

Most plants are unable to process atmospheric nitrogen directly and can only absorb it once it undergoes a transformation within the soil. (Nitrogen is essential for plant growth.) Some plants, however, undergo a process called nitrogen fixation which converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form useful for them. Bacteria in the plant’s roots help, as they are able to convert the nitrogen into a usable form.

Because of this capacity, nitrogen-fixing plants are generally thought of as the colonizing species in post-glacial sites, since these rocky areas are typically so low in soil nitrogen that plants that cannot fix nitrogen would not be able to grow. Once the nitrogen-fixing plants begin to die and the nutrients from them return to the soil, a more diverse second generation of plants can grow.

Damma Glacier in Switzerland. (Photo:Paebi/Wikimedia Commons)
Damma Glacier in Switzerland. (Photo: Paebi/Wikimedia Commons)

The team set out to explore how plants in the region were colonizing even when nitrogen-fixing plants were not present. They found that nitrogen from the atmosphere was deposited into the soil by newly exposed rocks, which acted as funnels when it rained. This process provided sufficient amounts of nitrogen for plant growth, and thus allowed non-nitrogen fixing plants to grow in these areas.

The researchers divided the Damma post-glacial area into a total of 21 sites across three time periods related to the age of the soil since the glacier retreated: pioneer (fewer than 16 years since deglaciation), intermediate (57-80 years), and late-stage (108-137 years). The Damma glacier has had a long and well-tracked retreat, making the separation of time periods easy.

The team used ion exchange resin bags at each site that measure the amount of nitrogen in the soil. They also took the above-soil measurements by collecting the biomass growing at the sites and analyzing the nitrogen levels.

They found that nitrogen levels were high in the pioneer stage, followed by low levels in the intermediate, and high levels again in the late stage.

As the nitrogen channels through rocks and into the soil, it creates an overabundance of nitrogen at first, since there is little or noplant life to use the element. This process eventually creates hotspots of plant growth, but as soil and organic matter increases, the rocks become covered. Once the rocks are covered, the atmospheric nitrogen can no longer be deposited into the soil. This, along with the increased presence of plants using the soil nitrogen, leads to a decrease in nitrogen availability within the soil in the intermediate stage.

High levels of nitrogen return in the late-stage sites once the vegetation has matured and therefore requires less of the element for growth. With more plant cover, nitrogen increases as plants die and the nutrients are returned to the soil through decomposition.  

Schematic from the study showing the build up of soil and plant matter on top of the rocks. This eventually stops the funneling process found in early stages. (Figure:by Kristel Perreijn)
Schematic from the study showing the build up of soil and plant matter on top of the rocks. This eventually stops the funneling process found in early stages. (Figure:Kristel Perreijn)

The team also looked at phosphorous, another important element for plant growth, and found little difference in its levels in the soil, regardless of the time since deglaciation. Since nitrogen levels changed with time, the ratio of phosphorus to nitrogen also varied. The researchers found that phosphorus stabilized at a low level. When the nitrogen levels were high, in the pioneer and late stages, phosphorus was the limiting element. This relationship flipped in the intermediate stage when nitrogen availability was low. Thus, as the nitrogen availability changes, so too does the element that is limiting plant growth.

The researchers concluded that colonizing plants found in the bedrock typical to the Alps are more likely to be limited by phosphorous due to the high levels of nitrogen deposition and the low weathering rates needed to release phosphorus from minerals. This gives an advantage to plants that can use the phosphorus from mineral sources, thus affecting the composition of the plant life in those areas throughout the different stages of deglaciation.

“In succession, the next set of species coming in is dependent on [those] already present. Thus a change in primary succession may lead to dramatic change in the plant community later on,” Göransson, the lead author, told GlacierHub in an email interview.


Roundup: Bacteria Are Doing Well; Zooplankton, Dams Are Not

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

Project Forecasts India’s Hydrological Future in a Changing Climate

Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region's water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)
Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region’s water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)

From Earth & Space Science News:

“The Indian subcontinent is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its diversified socioeconomic and climatic conditions. Changes in monsoon variability and glacier melt may lead to droughts over the Indian plains as well as extreme rains and abrupt floods in the neighboring Himalayas…Through our work with the NORINDIA project, we found that there is a risk of 50% glacier melt in the Beas River basin, which covers northwest India and northeast Pakistan, by 2050.”

Learn more about NORINDIA and its work in India.


Chilly Conditions No Match for Methane-cycling Microorganisms

Microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane according to a new study. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)
According to a new study microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)

From FEMS Microbiology Ecology:

“Alpine belt soils harbored significantly more methane-cyclers than ––those of the nival belt, indicating some influence of plant cover. Our results show that methanogens are capable of persisting in high-alpine cold soils and might help to understand future changes of these environments caused by climate warming.”

What are the implications of this study? Find out here.


Preliminary Study Looks at Relationship Between Glacial Lakes and Zooplankton

 Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in Zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions/Flickr)
Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions)

From Polish Journal of Environmental Studies:

“Zooplankton communities can be affected by glacial influence. In marine environments zooplankton mortality, mainly associated with the chemical properties of the ice, has been found in areas close to ice fields.”

Find out which characteristic of glacial lakes is affecting zooplankton.

Photo Friday: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in southern China’s Yunnan province, is known for its beauty and for the many tourists that flock there yearly. But the glaciers that top this mountain range may not be around for much longer. A Chinese info site stated in 2010 that four of the 19 glaciers on Jade Dragon have already disappeared.

The mountain’s location at the edge of the Tibetan plateau may be contributing to the accelerated melting since the plateau’s glaciers are generally melting faster than other low-lying ones. This decline is of utmost importance since much of China depends on glacial run off for their water supply. Experience the beauty of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and its dwindling glaciers in the slideshow below.


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Could Glaciology Use a Dose of Feminism?

A new study in Progress in Human Geography argues that the viewpoints of women and indigenous people are not being represented in glaciology and that a feminist perspective is needed to counterbalance this deficit.

Does feminist glaciology provide just a splash of media attention, or is this something the field really needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)
Does feminist glaciology just provide a splash of media attention, or is this something the field needs? (Photo:Tyler Corder/Flickr)

The authors—Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing of the University of Oregon—are calling for a reimagining of what constitutes appropriate and usable knowledge in the natural sciences, especially glaciology. They argue that valuable perspectives are left out of glaciology because its history is steeped in military operations, as well as the fact that there is a current interest in risky fieldwork. The inclusion of marginalized viewpoints will allow for a more complete representation of glaciers, science, and climate change, they assert.

The study has garnered a great deal of attention for its provocative premise. Comments, blog posts, and articles have piled up since the study was published in January. Articles have mockingly called glaciers sexist or complained that the federal government wasted taxpayer dollars funding this study.

This research was funded by a grant awarded to Mark Carey by the National Science Foundation, who addressed criticism with a response that pointed out that only a small fraction of the grant went to this study.

The researchers found, after a thorough literature review, that the exclusion of women and indigenous people’s knowledge comes, in part, from a tradition of glaciers and the military. For example, during the Cold War, the United States viewed the Arctic as an area of strategic concern and began to prepare for military operations in the region.

The importance of learning how to survive and maneuver in those harsh Arctic areas provided “institutional resources, growth, standing, and credibility,” for glaciology, the authors argue. Thus, with the militarized history, the authors say that glaciology was influenced by colonialism, domination, and Western ideals that often ignore women and indigenous peoples. This history may have affected what is currently considered respected forms of glaciology.

USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)
USS Skate surfacing in the Arctic in 1959. The authors argue that the military (especially during the Cold War) had a large role in creating present-day glaciology. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

The authors say that though there are various ways to study glaciers (like modeling, experiments, and satellites), the one that garners the most attention— and therefore funding and validity— is traditionally-masculine fieldwork.

Glaciologist Garry Clarke told GlacierHub in an email that he finds this type of “[a]dventure ‘Rambo’ glaciology,” along with other points brought forth in the study, “embarrassing to most glacier scientists.” Even so, researchers working within harsh glacial conditions are often considered heroes. The authors argue that when prominent publications feature stories that focus more on the adventure, rather than the science, of glaciology, they perpetuate the validation of risk.

Lead author Mark Carey said their aim was to provide a broad perspective on the field, rather than critique individuals or their activities.

“Note that we are talking about how broader sociocultural values influence the reception and perception of science, not about individual scientists and whether their science is valuable or solid, which is not the point,” Carey said in an interview with Science.

The authors concluded that risk-taking fieldwork in the sciences not only often excludes women, but also those who cannot afford to become mountaineers. By only validating physically-demanding activities by affluent researchers, glaciology loses key knowledge that could advance the field.

Glaciologist Elisabeth Isaksson of the Norwegian Polar Institute told GlacierHub in an email that she may have “rolled her eyes” at this paper a few years ago, but upon further reflection and discussions with her peers she has come to realize the importance of a study like this one.

“Being a somewhat older female glaciologist I do think it is time to put the limelight on many of these aspects so I welcome a paper like this! However, some of the aspects brought up in the paper might be unknown for the younger generations who has been brought up in a more gender equal scientific world…”

Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo:Sajith T S/Flickr)
Villagers crossing a glacier. The authors argue that local knowledge is not utilized enough in glaciology.(Photo: Sajith T S/Flickr)

The authors were also concerned with the lack of non-scientific perspectives. They found that while women were the members of indigenous societies who managed water usage, irrigation, and otherwise interacted intimately with glaciers, their knowledge has not been seen as critical or useful to traditional glaciologists.

Not only do women hold key knowledge, they are also disproportionately affected by climate change and glacier risks.

“Women might be less able to migrate out of a flood zone during a sudden glacier melt. In Peru, we know that men migrate to the cities for jobs, whereas women are more confined to their homes and child rearing,”  Carey said in a press release for the study.

Because these women often do not read or write, the authors argue that researchers should utilize techniques such as “audio-visual storytelling” in glacier communities to showcase cultural perspectives. Similarly, the authors suggest that art, such as that by Zaria Forman, is a way to “re-position and re-envision glaciers as greater than their usual status as passive research subjects…”

Another antidote the authors mention is to simply include more women in fieldwork. The study points to a program in Alaska, Girls on Ice, which teaches girls mountaineering skills. Though the authors argues that this program still expects girls to conform to traditionally-masculine fieldwork, they see this approach as crucial.

The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier (Photo :Alaska Climate Science Center)
The girls of Girls on Ice ascending Gulkana Glacier. (Photo: Alaska Climate Science Center)

The authors do acknowledge the current increase in female participation in fieldwork, but argue that it still fails to adequately address cultural and other non-scientific perspectives.

This study does not aim to eliminate traditional glaciology, but rather to have glaciologists incorporate other perspectives to insure a deeper understanding of glaciers, as well as climate change, which is made slightly more tangible through the study of glaciers.

Carey told Science that “[their] goal was to ask questions about the role of gender in science and knowledge—to start a conversation, not conclude the discussion.”

Zaria Forman’s Quest to Capture Ice as Art Before It’s Gone

Zaria Forman is taking pastel drawings to a whole new level by creating photo-realist drawings of areas susceptible to climate change. She believes that artists have a special responsibility to showcase the effects of our changing climate, and has dedicated her work to doing just that.

Greenland no.69, 50x50, Soft pastel on paper, 2014. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Greenland no.69, 50×50, Soft pastel on paper, 2014. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)

Her paintings capture lighting and depth so convincingly that a viewer cannot help but feel an overwhelming connection to these faraway places. While some of her work focuses on glaciers, she also captures the beauty of Hawaii, Israel, and the Maldives–areas affected by sea-level rise. Her work can be seen in exhibits around the world, including the upcoming Pulse Fair in NYC in March and the Seattle Art Fair in August. Her next solo exhibit will be at Winston Wächter Fine Art’s Seattle location, in February and March of 2017.

Forman, with inspiration from her late mother’s photography and her childhood travels, melds her personal and artistic sides mesmerizingly into her drawings. She hopes the innate beauty of the areas she captures will compel her audience to act to slow the loss she is documenting. Her work allows us to step back from the science of climate change and experience the loss, and the beauty, of these iconic and critical regions on a more human scale.

Svalbard no.33, 60x90, Soft pastel on paper, year. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Svalbard no.33, 60×90, Soft pastel on paper, 2014. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)

GH: What are you trying to communicate with your artwork?

ZF: I hope my drawings can facilitate a deeper understanding of the climate crisis, helping us find meaning and optimism in shifting landscapes. One of the many gifts my mother gave me was the ability to focus on the positive, rather than dwell in the negative. I hope my drawings serve as records of landscapes in flux, documenting the transition, and inspiring our global community to take action for the future.

GH: What role does art play in the conversation about climate change?

ZF: Artists play a critical role in communicating climate change, which is arguably the most important challenge we face as a global community. I have dedicated my career to translating and illuminating scientists’ warnings and statistics with an accessible medium, one that moves us in a way that statistics may not.  Neuroscience tells us that humans take action and make decisions based on emotion above all else. Studies have shown that art can impact our emotions more effectively than a scary news report. My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence, and tranquility in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation of threatened places. If people can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps they will be inspired to protect and preserve them.


Greenland no.52, 45x60, Soft pastel on paper, year. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Greenland no.52, 45×60, Soft pastel on paper, 2012. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)

GH: What in your life has inspired this coupling of the arts and climate?

ZF: The inspiration for my drawings began in my early childhood when I traveled with my family throughout several of the world’s most remote landscapes, which became the subject of my mother’s fine art photography. I developed an appreciation for the beauty and vastness of the ever-changing sky and sea. I loved watching a far-off storm on the western desert plains; the monsoon rains of southern India; and the cold arctic light illuminating Greenland’s waters.

I have very fond memories of our family trips and consider them a vital part of my upbringing and education. I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to see so much of the world, and to learn first-hand about cultures so vastly different from my own. This myriad of experiences instilled in me a love and need to continue exploring and learning for the rest of my life.

Greenland no.68, 30x44, Soft pastel on paper, 2013. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Greenland no.68, 30×44, Soft pastel on paper, 2013. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)

GH: GlacierHub is a website dedicated to all things glaciers; is there anything you find particularly interesting about glaciers?

ZF: I had the opportunity to explore Whale Bay [in Antarctica] for two hours in a small boat, riding around massive, majestic, ice structures. I sat in total awe for every moment. A purple-gray sky loomed above and the winds were calm, creating a tranquility that allowed for perfect reflections of the ice and sky on the water’s surface. Our little boat circled around the most astonishing, intricately sculpted, glowing blue icebergs I have ever seen. I had no idea there were so many shades of bright sapphire blues! I shot hundreds of photographs, and at times had to force my camera into my lap so I could relax and simply experience the breathtaking beauty. I only hope my drawings can capture this awe-inspiring iceberg graveyard, so I can continue sharing this sacred landscape with others.

Title, size, Soft pastel on paper, year. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Deception Island, Antarctica, 72×128, Soft pastel on paper, 2015. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)


GH: Can you tell me about your time in Greenland?

ZF: In August of 2012 I led an Arctic expedition up the northwest coast of Greenland. In 1869, American painter William Bradford embarked on the very first Arctic art expedition, and our trip followed his path to find inspiration in the dramatic geography as he had. We compared exact locations with photographs from Bradford’s trip, discovering both similarities and differences in the landscape, almost 150 years later.

My mother had conceived the idea for the voyage, but did not live to see it through. She was diagnosed with brain cancer on Mother’s Day in 2011, and passed away six months later. During the months of her illness her dedication to the expedition never wavered and I promised to carry out her final journey. In Greenland, I was compelled to addresses the concept of saying goodbye on scales both global and personal, as I scattered my mother’s ashes amidst the melting ice.

Greenland no.71, 50x60, Soft pastel on paper, year. Image courtesy of Zaria Forman.
Greenland no.71, 50×60, Soft pastel on paper, 2014. (Image Courtesy of: Zaria Forman)

GH: How close do you get to the subjects of your drawings?

ZF: Very! Both emotionally and physically. It’s quite dangerous to get too close to glacier faces and icebergs, but I bend the rules a bit and get as close as I can.


Part of the proceeds from the sale of Forman’s artworks goes to and other charitable causes. For information on purchasing original works, please contact her studio manager, Melanie Reese, at

Roundup: Hockey, Daredevil Tourists, Microbial Diets

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

Hockey Warms Up Village in Kyrgyzstan

Hockey rink in Kyrgyzstan, screenshot from video in news article. (Photo: Video Screenshot/RFE/RL)
Hockey rink in Kyrgyzstan, screenshot from video in news article. (Photo: Video Screenshot/RFE/RL)

From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

“In the mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan, winters can be long and cold. So people in the tiny village of Kenesh have come up with a healthy way to keep active and fit. Each day, almost all of the villagers lace up their skates, and grab a stick to play ice hockey.”

Watch the video to find out more about this unique practice.

Tourists on Frozen Lagoons Test Limits of Safety

Tour guides warn that the constantly moving waters under lagoon ice creates ideal conditions for the ice to break under someone's weight (Photo: Matt Locke/Flikr)
Hove Lagoon, one similar to that in the article. (Photo:Matt Locke/Flikr)

From Iceland Magazine:

“Tour guides and visitors at Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in South East Iceland watched in shock and disbelief as a large group of people had managed to get themselves near the centre of the lagoon by jumping between ice floats and walking on the frozen lagoon.”

Read more about the risks involved.

Poor Diet Limits Microbial Growth on Debris-Covered Glaciers

Debris-covered glacier in southern Norway. (Photo:NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/Flikr)
Debris-covered glacier in southern Norway. (Photo:NASA/GSFC/Kimberly Casey/Flikr)

From Soil Biology and Biochemistry:

“Photosynthetic microbial communities are important to the functioning of early successional ecosystems, but we know very little about the factors that limit the growth of these communities, especially in remote glacial and periglacial environments. The goal of the present study was to gain insight into the degree to which nutrients limit the growth of photosynthetic microbes in sediments from the surface of the Toklat Glacier in central Alaska.”

Read more about how nutrient availability is affecting life on glaciers.

Photo Friday: Upsala Glacier

Upsala Glacier, a stunning glacier within Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, has been retreating rapidly due to climate change. NASA has found, through satellite imaging, that Upsala’s ice front has moved back approximately 2 miles since 2001, following a similar trend seen in the rest of Patagonia (the vast area at the southern extent of Chile and Argentina).

Also featured in the photos below is the Estancia Cristina–a popular ranch that many visitors use as an outpost on their journey through the glacial park, especially to see Upsala. The ranch offers unique views of the glaciers and its own beautiful scenery.

Upsala gets its namesake from the Swedish University (Uppsala University) that first sponsored glacier research in this area. The area has been extensively studied since, and Upsala is often used as an example of glacial retreat in Argentina. Upsala’s retreat is significant because of the size of the glacier; once the largest glacier in South America, it is now the third largest.

Argentinian glaciers, and Upsala in general, will aid in our further understanding of glacier dynamics.

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Have Ice Ages Gone Extinct?

A new study in Nature says the Earth, previously headed for an Ice Age before the Industrial Revolution, is likely to maintain its current warm phase in the glacial cycle for an unprecedented amount of time.

The researchers―Andrey Ganopolski, Ricarda Winkelmann, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research―first examined the effect of the Earth’s  orbital characteristics on the glacial cycle, but found that increased carbon dioxide (CO2) played a more important role.  Additionally, they found a critical relationship between CO2 and solar radiation that could aid in predicting the beginning of the next glacial period.

Industrialization and increased CO2 may have altered the Earth's glacial cycle for thousands of years to come. (Photo:Bruce Osburn/Flikr)
Industrialization and increased carbon dioxide may have altered the Earth’s glacial cycle for thousands of years to come. (Photo:Bruce Osburn/Flikr)

“This illustrates very clearly that we have long entered a new era, and that in the Anthropocene humanity itself has become a geological force. In fact, an epoch could be ushered in which might be dubbed the Deglacial,” co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber said in a press release for the study.

Interglacial periods are the phases in Earth’s history with generally low amounts of global ice, and glacial periods have the most ice. The study uses the commonly accepted theory that glacial periods occur when Northern Hemisphere summer solar radiation (the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface) is at its lowest.

If summer solar radiation is low in the Northern Hemisphere, where there is more land, snow does not melt as readily. This build up of snow leads to more reflectivityalbedoat the surface. As global albedo increases, even less snow melts and this process continues enhancing itself; this positive feedback loop could potentially trigger a glacial period.

NASA depiction of albedo which plays a role in how much solar radiation the Earth's surface receives. The more light colored ice, the more reflective the surface is. (Photo: NASA)
Albedo plays a role in how much solar radiation the Earth’s surface receives. The more light-colored ice, the more reflective the surface is. (Image: NASA)

This concept was used to support the study’s claim that our planet was headed for a glacial period prior to the Industrial Revolution since the solar exposure was, and still is, close to its minimum. The authors argue that the level of CO2 and low amount of solar radiation seen prior to industrialization should have led to a rapid buildup of ice sheets.

The team also considered the effect that the Earth’s orbital shape might have on climate. The eccentricity of the Earth is currently in a low phase―the Earth’s orbit fluctuates over thousands of years between having a more pronounced elliptical shape in its high phase and a more circular one in its low phase. In its current orbital pattern, the Earth does not get far enough from the sun during the Northern Hemisphere summer to achieve the solar radiation minima that typically spur the buildup of ice. They believed that the current near-circular orbital pattern may have countered the effects of the cooling that would be expected from the lower solar radiation.

In other words, the team thought the shape of the Earth’s orbit could explain why we have not entered an ice age.

In order to test this theory, the researchers used paleoclimate data (data derived from studying natural indicators of the conditions found in previous geologic times) from two similar glacial periods to see if there are any important similarities to the period we are in today, known as the Holocene.

A significant source of paleoclimate data comes from ice cores like these ones. The gases trapped in the cores can tell a story of how the Earth was at that time. (Photo: Lonnie Thompson, The Ohio State University/NOAA)
A significant source of paleoclimate data comes from ice cores like these ones. The gases trapped in the cores can tell a story of how the Earth was at that time. (Photo: Lonnie Thompson, The Ohio State University/NOAA)

The theory that the orbit had caused the delayed ice age was challenged by the fact that similar orbital patterns have led to glacial periods in the past. It was found that neither period matched the Holocene’s characteristics well enough, again showing the unprecedented behavior of the glacial cycle.

Though not a providing a perfect replication of current circumstances, this paleo data provided the closest geological approximation of similar global conditions and was incorporated into their simulations to try to get the most accurate representation of when the next glacial period should begin. The team used a highly sensitive model which had accurately modeled the last eight glacial cycles to examine the effect CO2 and orbit patterns had on this cycle.

Ultimately, they concluded that carbon dioxide, not the Earth’s orbital shape, was the more important factor.

The team surmised that even accounting for the planet’s current near circular orbit “…the Earth system would already be well on the way towards a new glacial state if the pre-industrial CO2 level had been merely 40 ppm [parts per million] lower than it was during the late Holocene…” This clearly shows the importance of the increased CO2 levels.  

Using their data, a more accurate threshold of CO2 levels was determined in order to predict the onset of the next glacial period; with this threshold the team was able to find the “glacial inception” point for various levels of solar radiation.

Based on all but one of the scenarios put forth by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the team concluded that the Earth will not see another glacial period for upwards of 100,000 years or more ― which is remarkable for glacial cycles.

Depiction of the eccentricity cycle. When the Earth has a more circular orbit is it more difficult for the Northern Hemisphere ice to grow enough to cause an ice age. (Photo:Lyndon State College Atmospheric Sciences)
The eccentricity cycle. When the Earth has a more circular orbit it is less likely that Northern Hemisphere ice will grow enough to cause an ice age. (Image: Lyndon State College Atmospheric Sciences)

The researchers argue that even without further human influence, the system would still have an exceedingly long time between glacial periods.

“[O]ur study also shows that relatively moderate additional anthropogenic CO2-emissions from burning oil, coal, and gas are already sufficient to postpone the next ice age for another 50.000 years,” the lead author said in a press release for the study.

“The bottom line is that we are basically skipping a whole glacial cycle, which is unprecedented. It is mind-boggling that humankind is able to interfere with a mechanism that shaped the world as we know it.”