Researchers turn to geoengineering to save Chile’s glaciers
Chile’s glaciers, like the one seen above, are under threat from mining and global climate change. Some researchers are trying to geoengineer a way to save them.
(Dietmar Temps/Flickr)

When you think of geoengineering, you may be imagining huge mirrors in space, or iron filings being dumped into the ocean. Geoengineering, though, can occur on a smaller scale. Some researchers are proposing small-scale fixes as in an effort to save some of Chile’s 3,100 glaciers.

Cedomir Marangunic, a glaciologist in Chile, saw the retreat of the country’s glaciers due to mining and global warming as an opportunity to test techniques for creating new glaciers and slowing the retreat of exiting ones.

How do you make a glacier? You can transport tens of thousands of tons of ice from a place where retreat is fast to a pre-prepared location where retreat is slower; you can set up barriers around an existing ice field, increasing snow accumulation and transforming the area into a small glacier; or you can cover an existing one with a “geotextile” sheet or rocky debris to slow ablution. A minimum of three years is required for some of these methods, according to Marangunic,

While stimulating the growth of new glaciers or slowing the retreat of established ones sounds great, project must simulate a “natural process” and avoid damage to local ecosystems, according to Marangunic, who claims this as a priority for his projects.

Others are not so convinced.

The head of Greenpeace Chile, Matias Asun, doubts that Marangunic’s techniques are “viable, sufficient, successful, and cost effective technologies.” Asun’s priority is promoting actions that protect and save existing glaciers, pointing out that despite the threat of climate change and industry, Chile’s glaciers are not protected by law. A bill in parliament proposes a registry of glaciers and a legal definition for them. The bill might increase awareness to their disappearance, but does little to protect them.

Currently, under the Chile’s water code, water rights are a private resource and can be bought, leading to the question of whether glaciers will be similarly purchasable. Environmentalists believe that that interpretation could allow mining interests to purchase rights to glaciers in order to degrade them with impunity.

Those 3,100 Chilean glaciers hold 82 percent of Latin America’s freshwater reserves – water that is crucial for industry and agriculture in the region. Government and business have an obvious and compelling imperative to save and restore the glaciers, but will leaders look to geoengineering or conservation? The window to conserve is closing, while the door to geoengineering is opening.

See it while you can: A Peruvian national park capitalizes on glacier melt
Tourists are flocking to Peru’s Pastoruri to see it before it melts. (Taco Witte/Flickr)

Ecotourists want to experience the power, beauty, and wonder of nature. But do they also want to be exposed to its fragility?

Not long ago Peru’s Pastoruri glacier attracted around 100,000 visitors per year, but the number of tourists has dwindled as the glacier has shrunk. As it shrank, it divided into two smaller glaciers in 2007 and into three in 2012. So what are the businesses and local guides who depend on the tourism economy to do?

Huascaran National Park is opening a “Climate Change Route” to showcase firsthand the impacts of climate change on these centuries-old glaciers, in what could be seen as part climate change adaptation and part savvy public relations maneuver.  The project began in 2010, will be 35 km long, will have an interpretive center, feature mineral springs with drinking water and unusual native plants including the world’s largest bromeliad (a relative of pineapple) which grows over 12 feet tall. The plan is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Commerce, total of over $1.5M.

In part because of Peru’s diversity of species and its vulnerability to climate change, the country was chosen to host the 20th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December. The goal of the conference is to advance towards developing a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2020. A stronger version of the international agreement will help Peru’s glacier tourism, if it’s not too late, that is.

Local businesses and guides near Peru’s Pastoruri glacier are hoping that tourists will pay to visit the vanishing glacier, just as some ecotourists trek to see vanishing animal species. A three-day route through several villages in the Andes is open for the first time during the tourist season. When the season ends in September, there will likely be an assessment of the success of the first year.

Though it’s too early to tell if strategies like this one work, glacier communities who look to tourists to support the local economy, such as those in Switzerland, New Zealand, and Nepal, will have to weigh their options. They could shift away from glacier-based tourism towards other activities or convince tourists to spend their vacations witnessing the impacts of global climate change firsthand.



As the ice melts, communities ask: Should I stay or should I go now?
A local walks in one of the dozens of villages from Chavin to Chacas in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca region. (martynas/Flickr)

As the global temperature increases, vulnerable communities seem to be faced with a choice: adapt or collapse. Migration is frequently proposed as an adaptation strategy, or in some cases, as an unavoidable outcome for communities lacking the capacity to change. Some researchers, however, have criticized this perspective, saying that it reflects an environmental determinism that discounts the role of governments and other institutions in creating or exacerbating underlying vulnerabilities.

A new study from David J. Wrathall of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security investigates migration as an adaptation response not only to climatic stress, but to political structures as well.

Historically, smallholder farmers in the Cordillera Blanca in highland Peru largely relied on ad-hoc, informal access to water from springs and streams for agriculture and grazing. In the 1960s, a series of reforms promoted more formal management of water resources; along with an agrarian reform, it fostered the growth of smallholder agriculture. Peru’s transition in the 1990s to export-led growth increased urbanization along the country’s coastal region, drawing large-scale emigration from rural highlands.

Competing water needs of the newly urbanized coast, hydroelectric stations and coastal export-oriented agriculturalists, led Peru to introduce a new water management law in 2009. The law is “premised on the concept of integrated water management,” but the authors state that water laws are opportunities for powerful actors to increase the rigidity of water provisioning and control resources even further. Given several recent high-profile disputes, this increasing rigidity in water redistribution appears to be playing out. In the case of the Cordillera Blanca, towns, hydroelectric plants and coastal agriculture have captured water resources that used to be managed informally by smallholders, exacerbating the impacts of glacier retreat on water scarcity.

The study’s authors found that while the new wave of migration is driven by climate change-related stresses, “dominant institutional forces” shape and direct this form of climate change response. They conclude that migration is a strategy of last resort among a menu of limited alternatives, and acts as a necessary pressure valve to relieve the water stress that arises from competition to a limited (and dwindling) resource among powerful and less powerful actors. Migration in this institutional context is a conflict resolution mechanism as much as an adaptation to climate change, and is an adaptation alternative that is promoted by, and reinforces, existing power structures.

Expanding the discourse beyond ecological determinism to an ecological and social “possibilism” is the way forward, according to the paper’s authors. This, broadening, they hope, will allow for alternative adaptation responses and not force “the undesirable scenarios in which migration occurs.”

Climate change horror at the center of “Blood Glacier”
Scientists make a shocking discovery in the Alps in the Austrian horror movie “Blood Glacier” (IFC Midnight)

At a remote climate change monitoring station high in the Austrian Alps, a group of climate scientists discovered a glacier oozing blood. This blood is highly mutagenic, transforming the creatures that come into contact with it into aggressive, terrifying monsters.

“Blood Glacier”, an Austrian horror film, begins with the not-so-farfetched premise that melting glaciers will cause massive changes in the ecosystem. Shot on location in Italy’s South Tyrolean Alps, the movie takes a page from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” in which a group of scientists in a remote, icy outpost awaken an otherworldly horror that picks them off one by one.

This is the basic plot of “Blood Glacier,” a movie that on one hand can be seen as a straightforward monster flick, and can be interpreted as a metaphor for the unknown, scary future we face with a changing climate on the other hand. Monster movies have often dealt with human fears of the unknown, and anxieties about meddling with nature (Godzilla, anyone?).

The killer blood at this melting glacier seems to be Mother Nature retaliating against humanity for threatening her. The metaphor is a bit sloppy, but “Blood Glacier” is definitely an early example of a horror movie about climate change.

“Blood Glacier” is available on iTunes and IFC Films on demand.


To prevent mining expansion, form your own country

CC Image Courtesy of Greenpeace Chile via Facebook

Chilean law does not recognize its 3,100 glaciers, leaving them with limited protection from industrial development. Most notably, the copper mining industry, which contributes 15 percent of the country’s $268.3 billion GDP, often encroaches on the glaciers, tapping water for operations, or dumping mining detritus on them. Recently, the state-owned Codelco proposed expansion of the Andina 244 mine to make it the most productive in the world, drawing criticism from officials and environmentalists who foresee an unjustifiable environmental impact on the glaciers and the region’s geography.  The dust from new unpaved roads would cover the glaciers, hastening their melting.

There is some legal protection for glaciers: Before proceeding with the expansion, Codelco was required to produce an environmental impact assessment that would outline impacts from the mine expansion on the region’s environment. The official document for the 1,260-acre expansion noted that six glaciers would be affected.

Environmental groups and others disagreed, submitting 2,200 comments on the environmental impact assessment  which outlined their objections. Among those objections were disagreements over the extent of the impact, with environmental groups saying 26 glaciers and the surrounding ecosystems would be degraded by the mine as well as the new associated infrastructure – 32 miles of high voltage transmission lines, a 26-mile mining waste disposal chute, and transport networks. These comments are still under review and delayed the project .Sitting just 34 miles from Santiago, the country’s capital of 6 million people, the case is likely to remain controversial, as citizens weigh the mine’s economic benefits against its certain environmental harm.

Greenpeace, however, is trying to provide permanent protection for the glaciers by attempting to exploit the very lack of legal recognition that threatens glaciers in the first place. They argue that because the glaciers are not recognized as part of Chile’s sovereignty, that under the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties (which defines the criteria under which a state can be recognized under customary international law), they can create a new country on the glaciers, to be known as the Glacier Republic. The Republic would be a sovereign state with a defined territory, permanent population and government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the United Nations will recognize the Glacier Republic, not to mention Chile itself would take this step, as an exercise in raising awareness, the loophole maneuver may be effective in spurring legal protection for glaciers and slowing or preventing expansion of the Coldelco’s Andina 244 mine.

What a 2,600-year-old pine needle can tell us about the melting Alps
Glaciers in the Alps are melting twice as fast as those in other parts of the world. (Flickr/Tormod Ulsberg)

The glaciers of the Alps are melting – and at twice the rate of other glaciers around the world. But what did those glaciers look like in the past? The retreat of glaciers can reveal important data about our climate’s past.

High up in the eastern Alps, near the Swiss-Italian border, glaciologists are drilling into snow and ice to extract ice cores, which can uncover the region’s climate history. Under the highest glacier in the eastern Alps, Alto dell’Ortles, researchers have discovered evidence of a changing climate.

That’s 262 feet below the surface of the glacier, to be exact. There, a conifer needle encased in solid ice was recently found. Carbon dating indicates that the needle is 2,600 years old. In other words, it tells us that for at least 2,600 years, this glacier, and likely others in the region, have remained frozen.

Frozen ice extends up from the bedrock to a level 98 feet below the surface of the glacier, where material is found that corresponds to the early 1980s. At that level the scientists started to find layers composed of grainy, compacted snow – indicating the glacier had partially melted and then refrozen.

Paolo Gabrielli, one of the research scientists working on the project, reported this evidence of “current atmospheric warming at high elevation in the Alps is outside the normal cold range held for millennia.”

When analyzed for dust and trace metals, these ice cores will offer up more clues about the region’s past climate. And because annual layers can be detected in the ice cores, they can yield a high-resolution climate record.

The team will also investigate the question of why glaciers in the Alps are disappearing faster than those found around the world.

“Ortles offers us the unique possibility to closely verify if and how regional environmental changes can interact with climatic changes of global significance,” Gabrielli said.

At the Foot the Rockies, Tribes Make Tough Decisions

In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains live the Native American Blackfoot tribes. Facing high unemployment, the tribe opened up their lands to oil and gas production to boast the local economy. The number of wells has grown since the fracking boom on the Great Plains, leading to concerns about this ecologically and culturally important area being degraded by industrial activity.

The reservation sits next to Glacier National Park, and its beautiful, fragile, fading glaciers. While some have hailed natural gas as a positive alternative to other more CO2 intensive fossil fuels, others doubt that it will play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Regardless of whether hydraulic fracturing occurring next to the national park slows or speeds up the glacier’s retreat, the local community is weighing the benefits of increased job opportunities and wealth with the possible harm to land that forms a part of their cultural heritage, and the pristine ecosystem that land supports. New exploratory wells are being opened in an area previously untouched by gas exploration, and the if the wells yield gas, it’s likely activity will increase.

You can read more about the impact of hydraulic fracturing in the area here and here

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