Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller.
“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub. “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”
In between full page spreads of Burkard’s aerial photography––rich with saturated shades of all the blues and greens imaginable in the waters of glacial rivers––McDonald’s prose captures two main lines of thought feeding into the wider discourse on how to manage Iceland’s rivers; should the rivers be dammed and used to power highly energy consumptive industries, or should they be protected as part of a new national park?
“To reach a broader audience, I wrote the book I’d want to read––a narrative that (I hope) gracefully weaves together tales of travel, history, culture, and these endangered glacial rivers,” McDonald told GlacierHub. As a result, At Glacier’s End is a well-rounded argument for why now is the time to create a national park in the Highland.
The Highland (hálendið in Icleandic) is the sparsely populated, high elevation plateau covering Iceland’s interior. In total, it covers about 40 percent of the country. It is mostly uninhabitable volcanic desert dotted with large glaciers and the rivers they feed. Iceland also has a relatively flat, low elevation ring of land on its coasts which acts as the country’s major transportation route.
Within the Highland reside brilliantly pigmented glacial rivers. The rivers get their color from the glacial flour suspended in their waters. Because of active volcanoes and a history of volcanism, Iceland has diverse rocks of varying colors that glaciers grind up as they move. Once the rock has been ground into flour, it can be carried by meltwater into rivers, giving the rivers their unique coloring.
“I think the most challenging part of shooting these photos was being in the air, sticking my hand out of a plane, trying to give perspective by capturing every part of the entire river system from the glacier all the way to the ocean. Our prerogative was to give people the full perspective,” Burkard said. Photography, and art more broadly, can play an important role in broadening viewers’ perspectives on an issue.
Inside the Book
The book opens with a prologue by Burkard. In it, he says he is hesitant to call himself an environmentalist––a surprising way to begin what is essentially a conservation story. “I grew up in a very conservative home and the concept of environmentalism was, in my head, I always pictured some 80-year old dude in a floppy khaki hat. I didn’t realize that anybody could protect and advocate for places they love simply by sharing them––I realized that my work can actually advocate for places I care about,” he explained.
The text and images flow together over the course of the book. “I ordered the text of the book in chronological order from the beginning (Iceland’s land formation) to today (the issues affecting these glacial rivers right now)” McDonald told GlacierHub. He added that “The text mirrors the flow of the images, from glacier to river mouth, beginning to end. Each chapter features an introduction in the form of a personal travel vignette from my time in Iceland, ordered from landing in the country to leaving the country. Then each chapter’s body text follows the history, science, and culture through time.”
In the third chapter, the conservation message at the book’s heart begins to peek through. McDonald explains how due to hydropower Iceland could offer low electricity rates that other energy producers in Europe couldn’t compete with, attracting the high energy use aluminum industry. To generate hydropower it is necessary to dam the rivers.
One dam, Kárahnjúkar, was completed in 2008, and affected five percent of the Highland. It was constructed for an American company to smelt aluminum.
After the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Iceland hard, it looked likely that more rivers would become power sources for industry to create much needed jobs. But, the 2010 volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull launched Iceland onto the tourism map, shifting its focus away from aluminum. Tourism boosted Iceland’s economy and by 2016 accounted for 10 percent of its GDP, creating a significant incentive to protect the wilderness that draws visitors to the country.
The fourth and final chapter highlights the various benefits that would result from the creation of a Highland national park. Locally, glacial rivers help to maintain Iceland’s coastline by delivering glacial sediment to its edges. Building dams would disrupt this process.
Globally, glacial sediments are important as well. The sediments deposited into the ocean actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process of calcium in the rock binding with CO2. The sediment is also a food source for sea algae that many fish species eat, making it important to the fishing industry.
Creating a New National Park
McDonald examines the hard choices that need to be made to ensure that rural communities have the jobs they need. He considers the consumption that most people partake in using products like cans and cars that contain aluminum. And he weighs the importance of the landscape and broader environment humans rely on. He then calls for readers to show their support for the creation of a Highland national park and includes a link to a petition readers can sign to show their support. He and Burkard believe that such a park would create jobs in rural communities, further increase tourism, and benefit the planet.
At the time of the book’s publication, the plan had the approval of 65 percent of Icelanders. A vote is meant to be held in late 2020. McDonald suggests that the park may need to make exceptions for activities that are not typically accepted on protected lands––but that compromising to ensure that farmers, hunters, herders, off road vehicle users, and hikers can all continue to use the land rather than converting it into a series of dams for industrial hydropower would be the better option.
“There will certainly be challenges to overcome, like powerful energy lobbies and polarizing politics, but we are optimistic the park will happen by the end of the year,” McDonald said.
“I think one of the most important things to understand about Iceland is that real change can happen right now, and they value all of our voices,” McDonald stated. “So please use your voice by whatever means necessary to support this national park in Iceland. We have an opportunity––as a worldwide community––to say that even though these are Iceland’s glaciers and rivers, we support their preservation as one of the planet’s greatest works of art.”
In late April 2018, Washington State Ferries (WSF), the operator of the largest fleet of ferries in the United States, announced plans to convert the three largest boats in its fleet to electric power. WSF uses 18 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, more than any other consumer in Washington state. Consequently, it is also the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the state’s transportation system, generating 73 percent of annual emissions.
Washington is the second most glaciated state in the US. One of the most common routes taken by the three ferries to be converted is between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, with the snowy peaks of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier visible to passengers on the route. Washington also has glaciers in the Olympic Mountains and the North Cascades.
WSF plans to swap two of four diesel engines in its Jumbo Mark II ferries for battery packs, which will power the motors needed for propulsion. The changes to the first boat will be largely funded with money from a federal settlement with Volkswagen as a result of its 2015 violation of the Clean Air Act.
The three Jumbo Mark II ferries, Puyallup, Tacoma, and Wenatchee, were chosen to be the first converted because they are the largest boats in the fleet and are responsible for 26 percent of WSF’s fuel consumption. The vessels each have a carrying capacity of 202 cars and 1,800 passengers. They are due for 20-year propulsion system replacements so the changes can be made with few impacts on ferry service. Additionally, the ferries are relatively young and can be used for another 30-40 years. The list goes on, including benefits like reducing engine noise to decrease disruptions to marine life, increasing engine reliability, and decreasing ferry operation costs.
Washington State Department of Transportation officials estimate that converting all three ferries will be equivalent to taking more than 10,000 cars off the road.
Until WSF can have charging infrastructure installed, the two remaining diesel engines will charge the batteries. The hybrid system will still reduce emissions. Ian Sterling, a spokesperson for the state ferries, told the Daily Herald that “It will take a long time to be all-electric, but that’s ultimately where we want to be.” Once charging stations are operational, charging times will only take about twenty minutes.
All of these benefits come with a learning curve; the batteries will need to be replaced every four to five years and crews will need to master the new technology. Nevertheless, WSF aims to have 22 of 26 vessels in its fleet operating as plug-in hybrids by 2040.
Iceberg tsunamis can be dramatic and violent events. A recent paper used large-scale experiments to better understand tsunamis generated by iceberg calving. The team of scientists set up a large tank and used heavy blocks to create waves under controlled conditions. The different iterations of the experiments revealed some of the differences that can be found when icebergs fall into water or rise to the surface in various ways.
The findings were published at the 38th International Association for Hydro-Environmental Engineering and Research World Congress (IAHR 2019) in Panama City. The researchers sought to better understand the different features of iceberg-tsunamis that result when icebergs of different sizes calve. They aimed to expand their research by comparing the new findings to the features of tsunamis caused by landslides. The team hopes that their work will serve to create benchmark test cases that future research can benefit from.
Lead author Valentin Heller, a professor of environmental fluid mechanics at the University of Nottingham, highlighted the work’s immediate and future impacts. “The research enables the efficient systematic prediction of iceberg-tsunamis for a wide range of calving mechanisms for the first time,” Heller told GlacierHub. “In the longer term, this is likely to impact the design of coastal infrastructure and disaster risk assessment in areas where iceberg-tsunamis occur.”
The process through which blocks of ice break off the terminus (end) or margins (sides) of glaciers, ice shelves, or ice sheets and fall into a body of water, typically an ocean, is called iceberg calving. Calving events range from rarer instances in which very large chunks of ice break off, like in the video above, to more frequent events with much smaller pieces of ice separating, like in the video below. Calving events can cause iceberg-tsunamis, examples of which can be seen in both videos.
Though glacier melt is increasing worldwide due to the climate emergency, Heller said an increase in ice loss will not automatically bring about an increase in number or strength of iceberg-tsunamis. This is because other melting mechanisms are playing a role as well. “Ice mass loss is primarily driven by two main components; (i) melting of ice and runoff in the form of water from the ice sheet surface and (ii) discharge through glaciers terminating in the sea in the form of iceberg calving.” He continued, saying that “an acceleration of ice mass loss through (ii) does not necessarily result in larger iceberg-tsunamis.”
Iceberg-tsunamis are dangerous to coastal communities, tourists, and the fishing and shipping industries. Greenland has been the site of multiple significant iceberg-tsunamis; one tsunami at the Eqip Sermia glacier in 2013 produced waves so substantial a tourist boat landing was destroyed. The inhabitants of the village Innaarsuit, located in Greenland, were on high alert in 2018 when a 330-foot tall iceberg drifted into the waters near their homes, bringing with it the threat of flooding.
The research team conducted 66 unique, large-scale experiments in a 50 by 50 meter basin with heavy blocks of up to 187 kilograms each with different variations of iceberg volume, geometry, kinematics, and initial position relative to the water surface. They looked at five iceberg calving mechanisms; capsizing, gravity-dominated fall, buoyancy-dominated fall, gravity-dominated overturning, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. The researchers wrote that “gravity-dominated icebergs essentially fall into the water body whereas buoyancy-dominated icebergs essentially rise to the water surface,” distinguishing the two categories.
The researchers looked at nine parameters influencing iceberg-tsunamis that could impact wave heights and their decay. The parameters monitored were released energy, water depth, iceberg velocity, iceberg thickness, iceberg width, iceberg volume, iceberg density, water density, and gravitational acceleration.
The data showed that tsunami heights caused by gravity-dominated fall and gravity-dominated overturning are approximately an order of magnitude larger than those generated by capsizing, buoyancy-dominated fall, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. In other words, icebergs that fall into the water from above are much more hazardous than icebergs released underwater. Heller told GlacierHub that the researchers were surprised about this large difference because it had not been quantified before.
Diving deeper into the researchers’ analysis reveals that the wave magnitudes generated by the gravity-dominated overturning mechanism created the largest tsunamis, the gravity-dominated fall mechanism created the second largest tsunamis, and the three other mechanisms had waves that were up to a factor of 27 smaller. In other words, the two processes that result from icebergs essentially falling into the water created much larger tsunamis than the mechanisms where icebergs rise to the water surface.
A further difference between the two largest wave producers and the three smaller is that for the gravity-dominated mechanisms the largest wave amplitude was observed earlier in the wave train. For the three processes that resulted in smaller waves, the largest wave amplitude was found in the middle of the wave train.
The results of the study will be useful to both scientists and policy-makers. Heller told GlacierHub that the “results [will] help scientists looking into wave runup at shorelines and wave impact on infrastructures, such as coastal buildings, by providing the necessary offshore wave parameters to support their work.” He elaborated, saying that predicting the heights of iceberg-tsunamis “helps to make decisions on how close to a glacier front ships can safely navigate or if evacuations are necessary, as in the case of the village Innaarsuit on Greenland.”
“Iceberg-tsunamis is a relatively new field of research and people are just starting to realize the significance of such waves for coastal infrastructure, tourists and coastal communities,” Heller said. As the body of research grows, we will have a better understanding of how iceberg-tsunamis function. Once more information is available, impacted communities will be better able to prepare for such events.
The 25th Conference of the Parties, or COP25 as it is commonly known, got under way in Madrid on December 2nd and will continue until this Friday. It is an annual climate negotiation summit attended by parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The parties have met every year since the UNFCCC was signed and worked to draft different agreements to combat climate change.
This year’s conference aims to flesh out some of the details left unsettled from the 2015 Paris Agreement; specifically, they intend to discuss provisions related to carbon markets, communication of adaptation efforts, international climate finance, and capacity building, among other topics. However, slow progress was made in the first week of the conference.
Carbon Brief, a site dedicated to covering climate change issues, asked scientists, delegates, and NGO representatives in attendance what they believe needs to happen in the next year to keep the keep the Paris Agreement on track. Despite having loose enforcement mechanisms, the Paris Agreement remains a promising international agreement with the potential to help limit the impacts of climate change.
In our Video of the Week, one of the interviewees, Harjeet Singh of ActionAid, highlights the urgency behind the Paris Agreement, stating that “The reality is that the global south is already facing climate emergencies. They are facing increasing numbers of cyclones, drought and rising seas, and they need to be supported now as we speak.”
Watch the Video of the Week to see even more perspectives on what needs to be accomplished by COP26 to keep the Paris Agreement on track:
A new study in Mountain Research and Development published earlier this year evaluates a set of country-specific glacier monitoring programs which are managed under a global framework. It did so with the aim of making data from such programs more easily accessible. The study was also meant to aid countries in improving their monitoring programs and finding gaps in the network of programs.
Glacier monitoring is crucial to research in glaciated areas because glacial melting influences energy production, natural hazard prevention, freshwater supply and irrigation downstream of glaciers. Nadine Salzmann, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, told GlacierHub that such monitoring is critical because “we need clear and ‘relatively easy to understand’ climate indicators and monitoring is a fundamental part of any glacier research.”
Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College, told GlacierHub that in the context of this paper, the term glacier monitoring refers “to annual measurement of glacier mass balance, frontal position and completion of glacier inventories that are shared as part of the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) network.”
The authors of the study used the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers (GTN-G) framework, an internationally coordinated framework for the monitoring of glaciers, to assess all glacierized countries’ glacier monitoring systems. GTN-G is jointly run by three organizations dedicated to studying snow, ice and glaciers which are based in Switzerland and the United States.
The GTN-G framework was selected because it provides quantitative and comprehensive data on glaciers around the world. It includes ground-based studies at individual glaciers and remote sensing studies using technology like satellite imaging to better understand groups of glaciers in mountain systems.
Multicomponent system observations across environmental gradients
Extensive glacier mass balance and flow studies within major climatic zones for improved process understanding and calibration of numerical models
Determination of glacier mass balance using cost-saving methodologies within major mountain systems in order to assess the regional variability
Long-term observations of glacier length change data and remotely sensed volume changes for large glacier samples within major mountain ranges to assess the representativeness of mass balance measurements
Glacier inventories repeated at time intervals of a few decades using remotely sense data
The results gleaned from the GTN-G framework are significant because the effects of worldwide glacial melting will ripple across populations reliant on glacial meltwater. Melting will impact the lives of millions whose drinking water supply and irrigation-dependent agriculture will be disrupted as the glaciers melt. According to the study, 140 million people live in river basins where at least 25 percent of the annual runoff comes from glacier melt.
Christian Huggel, a professor of Glaciology and Geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub that “glacier monitoring in many ways stands out as a starting point for different impacts downstream of melting, e.g. river runoff/water resources and different populations and economic sectors that depend on it.”
Glacier monitoring programs increase the data available on the status of glaciers and the roles they play in their ecosystems. When a community in a glacial ecosystem has greater awareness of its dependence on glacial meltwater, it can be prompted to adapt to the changes occurring and to prepare for some of the hazards that come with glacial decline like short-term flooding and long-term drought.
“Local communities, national governments and global/international organizations need to understand how their glaciers, which are important sources of water, among others, respond to climate change, how they change and decline,” Huggel told GlacierHub.
The research team created country profiles for 34 nations and four regions independent of national boundaries. They highlighted three of the country profiles which show that variation in national systems. The first example was Kyrgyzstan. Under the Soviet Union the country had a well-established monitoring system that was abandoned for about two decades before being partially revived. The second was Bolivia; it began a monitoring program, but suffered the loss of one its benchmark glaciers when it melted entirely around 2009, limiting their ability to make long-term comparisons. Switzerland was the third example. The Swiss program is described as one of the most well-coordinated glacier monitoring programs with secure funding, long-term planning, and enough glaciers included in the network that it is not at risk of losing its benchmark.
The detailed information compiled on each country’s glacier monitoring system is intended to raise awareness of the challenges facing each system and to illuminate what future needs might be to maintain them. The study states that countries in Europe and North America, and Chile, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia seem to have more stable programs while those in Asia and South America will require support.
Salzmann stated that she “would like to see more direct financial support for countries to take these measurements and that funding should maybe depend on sharing of the data.”
The results also break down information on monitoring systems by continent and provide suggestions for what each continent’s system should improve on. For instance, in South America glaciers cover about 31,000 square kilometersof land and are important to the freshwater supply of many communities. However, the glacier monitoring network is incomplete and the study calls urgently for more complete glacier inventories.
When asked about the importance of sharing glacier monitoring system related data openly among the countries affected by glacier melt, Pelto told GlacierHub that “it is useful now and this would be enhanced by more comprehensive reporting of glacier measurements to WGMS.” He elaborated, citing studies whose important conclusions were only reached because data was shared among glacierized countries.
Earlier this week, Nature released a letter signed by more than 35 scientists urging the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to increase their support for international cooperation in glacier monitoring efforts. Pelto was one of the co-signatories. Levan Tielidze, a glaciologist at Tbilisi State University, who has written about the effects of glaciers melting in Georgia, was also party to the letter.
The study is meant to function like a springboard for scientists and decision-makers as they work to improve glacier monitoring systems. The authors hope that their research will provide a valuable source of information in that process. It is also intended to highlight gaps in glacier-related data to avoid ill-informed decision-making that could have negative consequences for the people whose lives are impacted by glaciers. The authors call for all glacierized countries to submit their glacier data to repositories with open-access within the GTN-G community so that different communities can learn from each other. The authors also hope that the study will act like a baseline for global glacier monitoring and be repeated at regular intervals to report on developments on the subject.
Huggel emphasized the importance of the study with regard to global climate policy: He stated that the “monitoring of glaciers and their decline permits national governments to defend their case in front of the international community (like at the upcoming COP25 conference [an annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].) He underscored the importance of glacier monitoring, saying that “only through documented monitoring of glaciers can [national governments] make a case how showing much they’re impacted by climate change.”
A team of scientists on board a former Danish fisheries research ship and icebreaker is working to measure changes to Helheim glacier and the fjords around it. Helheim, named for the world of the dead in Norse mythology, is one of Greenland’s largest outlet glaciers. This means that it is one of the primary locations for meltwater leaving the Greenland ice sheet. It is responsible for 4% of Greenland’s annual mass loss.
Understanding the melting at Helheim is crucial because Greenland has the potential to contribute 27cm of sea level rise within the lifetimes of today’s children.
The project studies Helheim using several technologies in pursuit of the team’s goal to create complex models of glacial fracturing. Some of the methods being used to collect data include drilling into the glacier to determine how much snow is deposited on the glacier during storms, using seismometers to detect the spread of concealed fractures, and checking the status of the glacier’s terminus four times daily with an automatic laser system to monitor calving, among other sources of information.
To learn more about the study check out this article from Science Magazine which our video of the week draws from.
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is known for large sculptures, paintings, photography, and films that frequently tackle the urgent problems of environmental sustainability and climate change and aim to inspire viewers to act rather than simply observe.
Eliasson, speaking Sept. 26 at Columbia University, described several of the projects he has created over the course of his career. In his 1993 exhibit “Beauty,” he created a curtain of mist using a punctured hose that shifted depending on the viewer’s perspective. From some angles, a rainbow appeared, and the water seemed to flow more or less intensely depending on distance. In “Waterfalls,” four 30- to 40-meter-tall waterfalls poured down from temporarily installed scaffolding and into New York’s East River. In the “Little Sun” initiative, aimed at promoting solar energy in areas without access to electricity, bright yellow, sun-shaped, and portable solar lamps were designed. Over 800,000 lamps have been distributed since its launch in 2012.
“Icewatch,” a public installation which has had three iterations, was first displayed in Copenhagen in 2014 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Fifth Assessment Report. The second installation occurred in Paris during the UN’s 2015 Paris climate change negotiations. The most recent iteration was in 2018 in London outside of the Tate Modern and in front of Bloomberg’s European headquarters.
Eliasson said the strength of “Icewatch” comes from its physical presence. Visitors to it could see tiny air bubbles in the ice, which would pop as the ice melted. Projects like “Icewatch” bring sound, smell, and touch to a viewer and, thus, can prompt people to shift from thinking to doing, Eliasson argued.
In his 2014 exhibition “Riverbed,” Eliasson filled a wing of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark with rocks and sediment, which was meant to convey how a dry riverbed looks after a glacier has melted. Eliasson described the experience of hiking in such a riverbed, saying that hikers can feel “the void of water that has been” and “the presence of the absence of water” when trekking through an empty riverbed.
Yet another project Eliasson discussed was the photo series “Glacier Series,” which he created in 1999. He photographed glaciers from the sky to give viewers a sense of their immense size. Eliasson is updating the series by including photographs of the same glaciers, but shot in 2018, almost twenty years after the originals, in order to show the changes that have taken place.
Nature, according to Eliasson, is a cultural construct. The idea that nature and culture are inseparable is widely accepted, he said. But, he recalled, not too long ago, nature was seen as separate from culture.
Eliasson’s lecture was part of the Year of Water, an academic year of events at Columbia spearheaded by the School of the Arts aimed at bringing attention to the social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental issues surrounding water.
When asked about the frustration and anger that feed new movements like the global, youth-led climate strikes, Eliasson said that the kind of rage they are channeling is powerful, but that he believes in the importance of optimism. “To actually feel empowered, to become a change agent, a change stakeholder, we have to have an element of positivity,” he said. “I just do think that hope has a greater impact if there is this notion that tomorrow is going to be better.”
Fiona Bunn is a professional alpine photographer whose work has been displayed in London, Milan, and Zermatt. An avid hiker and climber, Bunn spoke with GlacierHub writer Elza Bouhassira about the inspiration for her most recent exhibition in Guildford, England and her ideas about the role of a photographer in a world increasingly shaped by climate change.
GlacierHub: Can you talk a bit about your exhibition? How does it build on your past work?
Bunn: Going back in time, what motivated me originally was that I’ve always spent a lot of time in the Alps, even as a child I always visited them. Around seven years ago I had quite a shocking experience when I was in the Alps; I took some photographs and could see a profound difference in the glaciers. I’m not sure why I suddenly saw that. Perhaps it was because I had been visiting at different times of the year.
After my shock seven years ago, I felt quite motivated to start developing a conversation. Initially a lot of my work was in black and white. It was quite stark. But as I engaged more with people, I came to realize that photography is as much a journey for me as it is for the people who are looking at it.
The first exhibitions I did were quite stark, they were in more artistic exhibition spaces. I was in the Milan Expo, and then I did a couple in London. An exhibition I did in the summer was in a very commercial environment. It was in Bond Street in London. The exhibition I’m doing now is in a more spiritual environment. It’s actually in a church. It’s part of a heritage weekend that they’re doing, and the weekend is also part of the liturgical season of creation, which is all about the web of life, about the interconnectedness of nature, and the impacts of climate change. For me it’s a big exhibition, to take over a city center church and to have this opportunity, really, it’s great.
GlacierHub: Can you talk about the upcoming exhibit?
Bunn: It’s a church in Guilford. It’s a 10th-century church. It’s a bit of an artist’s dream because it’s in a state of disrepair at the moment since they’re doing a lot of building work on it. The structure itself is undergoing a lot of change so the pictures of mountains are almost replacing the windows of the church—the windows are covered up due to the construction. People are seeing nature come into their environment where stained glass would usually be, which is really nice. There are 15 images, each about 1.5 meters by half a meter. It’s a beautiful space. And educationally it’s great too because they’ve got lots of children helping, the local Brownies Guides are doing a pop-up cafe. So there’s going to be a lot of young people there and it’s just a great opportunity to engage with a different audience.
GlacierHub: How do you decide where to shoot?
Bunn: I like to go back to the same set of places because I’m trying to record change. I try to build relationships with people because I want to focus more on education going forward. Since I’m also a climber, I tend to choose places that are very high up.
GlacierHub: Do you use any filters or post-processing as part of your creative process?
Bunn: I don’t use any filters and, in post production, just a little bit of cropping. I’ve got quite a basic camera to be quite frank. I tend not to use polarizing filters. I’m a bit of a nightmare for other photographers because if I can climb it, and I can just sit here and I can photograph it, then I’m happy and I’ll do that.
GlacierHub: Why do you shoot landscapes?
Bunn: The landscape of the Alps is so beautiful. People ask why I go back to the same places; it’s because every time I go it’s different, the sky’s different, the sunsets, the experiences, the people I meet. I always think of people like John Muir who just basically hung out in Yellowstone National Park most of his life. There is something in that because it’s about getting to know people, and the community and building links that will be part of my artistic process of recording what I’m seeing and experiences I’m having. Personally, I try and capture exactly what I see with a little bit of cropping. What you see is what you get with me.
GlacierHub: Most of your images focus on landscapes and mountains. Is it a deliberate choice to omit animals and humans?
Bunn: I feel that landscapes need a voice at the moment. I do photograph quite a bit of wildlife, but I don’t always put those into my exhibitions. I think there’s probably quite a lot of work that can be done around tracking the effects of what’s happening on wildlife.
GlacierHub: What do you think the role of a photographer is in a world confronted by climate change?
Bunn: I think photography opens a door to conversation. It’s a tool for communicating experience. I think artists have a profound responsibility.
I think different artists have different signatures in their work. Some people call them motifs. One thing that I think all artists who have any interest in climate change can say is that the subject profoundly touches you to the extent that you make it the central pivot for your work. What I’ve seen has impacted me to the extent that it has become part of the signature in my work. It’s become very important to me.
I feel the artistic community has a real role to play in that we have different voices, and together we can reach people. I sometimes worry the message isn’t clear, that there is still a lot of confusion about the message. I think we’re still fumbling our way through this, trying to figure out what are we trying to say.
GlacierHub: Do you think beautiful pictures make people complacent rather than provoking them into action?
A: I think we need a combination of both, which is why I think that when different artists work together it’s quite powerful. I’ve always thought that a collective approach is really important. I would say that the more artists who have different approaches, but who are essentially working toward the same goal, the better.
Also, if you show a beautiful picture, you can put powerful words along with it. It’s shocking and it makes me extraordinarily angry to see what we’re doing to the environment. But I know I am not going to reach people with only very stark images. I need to show people the beauty of mountains and that they will not exist the way they do now in the future. Sometimes I wonder whether my work will end up being purely a historical document for people to reflect on in thirty years once the ice is no longer here. If that’s what I end up doing, then I’m prepared to do that. I want to start documenting the people who live there too, because I think that’s important too. John Muir and Ansel Adams, artists I love and respect, they grabbed people’s attention because they cared enough about a place to just sit there and take photo after photo of it. I think things have changed now and I might just be creating a historical document. We can tell people they’re destroying the environment, but they know it.
Environmentalism needs lots of artists. It needs a lot of us because one thing I have understood is that at first I saw my work as just me loving mountains and wanting to share them with people and warn them that these environments are not going to be like this much longer. I think what I’ve understood is that people love to go and look at art, to listen to poetry, to read stories. And I think this is the time for people who are artists to play on that interest. I think artists have a really important role to play in the process of addressing climate change, whatever their style within it.
A multinational team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran, withdrew from their research site on August 5 due to opposition from residents of the nearby Musho village, who suspected the scientists of causing environmental damage to the mountain and of illegal mining.
When they were asked to leave, the scientists had been on Mount Huascaran for about four weeks and had already completed the extraction of the two pairs of ice cores that they needed for their project. The team was evacuated soon after by a helicopter provided by the national police force. However, they left the samples they had collected on the mountain. Soon after, they entered talks with locals and government officials to find a solution that would enable them to retrieve the ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment. Peruvian members of the expedition were allowed to bring the ice cores and drilling equipment down the mountain, and the expedition came to a successful close.
Where the dispute took place
Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers in the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. It is home to 660 glaciers, 300 glacial lakes, and 27 snowy mountains, Huascaran being just one. The park was created in 1975, declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Some of the tension that led to the conflict can be traced back to historical influences from the founding of the park and the governance of land areas within it. The park is managed by the National Service of Protected Areas (SERNANP), under Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. There are a number of communities, Musho village included, located close to its boundaries. The roads into the park pass through community lands and the peasant communities often exercise rights over those roads. They sometimes regulate, limit, or close traffic to the park. In theory, the government could set rules for travel on the roads, but local communities exercise control over them. Additionally, local communities hold customary rights over pastures and woodlands within the park. Those rights existed prior to the establishment of the park. However, now the communities’ access to these areas is more limited.
Peru passed legislation that bans resource extraction within protected areas without explicit government approval. For those projects that do receive approval, concessions are granted within park land, usually to private firms. In spite of this legislation, the area has a long history of illegal mining operations which take place without formal approval. Over time, they have generated suspicion in local communities of the intentions of outsiders visiting Huascaran.
Luis Vicuña, a sociologist at the University of Zurich, explained that the Ancash region is the site of many environmental problems related to mining. He told GlacierHub that “in recent years, illegal mining has increased in this region,” referring to small scale operations by individuals and groups.
Legal mining operations conducted by large, international firms have also raised suspicions. Some of these operations have caused soil and water contamination. People in affected communities have suffered a variety of health problems, from nosebleeds and headaches to cancer and neurological disorders, and their water supplies have become too polluted to serve for irrigation or domestic use.
The parties involved
The three main parties to the dispute were the team of scientists, the government agencies which issued the permits, and the local communities who objected to the expedition.
The expedition was led by the renowned American paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson. It was composed of about a dozen scientists hailing from around the world. Team members were French, Russian, Italian, American, Mexican, and Peruvian, and included scientists from the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña or INAIGEM). Over the course of his career, Thompson has published 245 peer-reviewed publications, acquired 76 research grants, and gained world-wide recognition for being one of the first scientists to collect and analyze ice cores from mountain glaciers in tropical and subtropical regions. His expedition was funded with $1.5 million provided by the National Science Foundation. Analysis of the samples was planned to be conducted at Ohio State University, where Thompson has been a professor since 1991.
Gustavo Valdivia, who assisted Thompson with logistics for his expeditions, described it as a joint project between Ohio State University and INAIGEM. “INAIGEM has been doing field research in the Huascaran Glacier since 2014, so this expedition was supposed to build on INAIGEM knowledge, research experience, and relations in the area,” he told GlacierHub.
Paolo Gabrielli, an Ohio State University researcher and one of the scientists on the expedition, told GlacierHub that “the major goal of the expedition was to collect a tropical ice core that was cold enough to extract a pristine record of methane.”
Methane is an important greenhouse gas that is more powerful in retaining heat than carbon dioxide, despite being less common. It is also less well understood than carbon dioxide.
“Another important objective,” added Gabrielli, “is to infer information about the development and evolution of this large forested area [in South America] since the last glacial age (25,000 years ago).” The National Science Foundation website has an online summary of the award Thompson received to fund the expedition. It lists six main objectives for the research, including establishing timescales for the ice cores and studying climate and environmental effects variations in the mid-Holocene period.
Peruvian government agencies granted permits to the research team. The Ministry of the Environment and INAIGEM, a specialized technical body attached to the Ministry of Environment, oversaw the granting of the permits. According to its website, INAIGEM was founded to promote scientific and technical research on glaciers and mountain ecosystems for the benefit of citizens and to adopt adaptation and mitigation measures in the face of climate change.
The locals came from the village of Musho, a small village near the national park. It is the main entry point to the park for climbers who wish to summit Huscaran. The researchers went through Musho on their route to ascend to the glacier. The research team chose mountain guides and porters in the best interest of safety and the training and experience of the guides, Thompson told GlacierHub. “Most of the high elevation porters came from Huaraz and Cusco while porters, arrieros and burros/horses were hired from Musho. Local Musho residents transported expedition equipment, core boxes etc. from Musho up to the Alpine Hut,” he said.
Timeline of Events
“Press conferences were held in Lima on June 27, Mancos on July 4, at the base of Huascaran and on July 5 at the headquarters of the Huascaran National Park,” Thompson told GlacierHub. He continued, stating that they were held “to explain the scientific objectives and to answer questions and concerns of local people and the press concerning the Huascaran Expedition before starting the project. These press conferences were widely aired on TV and local papers.”
An article announcing the upcoming expedition was published on June 26 in Agencia Peruana de Noticias, a news outlet run by the Peruvian government. Prior to the 26th, foreign scientists and Peruvian agencies coordinated with each other about the expedition. On June 27, the Ministry of the Environment tweeted about the goals of the group’s work and included photos of Thompson meeting with Minister of the Environment Lucia Ruiz Ostoic and the executive president of INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández at the Lima press conference.
Gabrielli maintained a log of the expedition’s progress on his Twitter account. It tells how the team began ascending the mountain with an acclimatization hike to Laguna Shallap (elevation 4,250 meters), before reaching the Refugio Huascaran, a rustic mountain lodge (elevation 4,675m).
On July 9, the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, flew in a helicopter to visit the research team at the climbing hut above the village.The trip was reported on by several Peruvian news outlets, both on their own websites and on their social media feeds. Stanislav Kutuzov, another member of the research team, told GlacierHub that during his visit the president “offered all support including providing a helicopter for the transport of the equipment and ice cores from the basecamp to the heliport at the valley.”
After President Vizcarra’s visit, the researchers continued up the mountain, making camp at various elevations. On July 20, the 24th day of the expedition, the first ice core was extracted and on day 27 the drill reached bedrock at 167 m. On day 28, the team started to drill a second core at the same altitude, which they completed two days later, on July 26. Drilling began at the south summit to collect the second pair of ice cores on July 31 and both were completed by August 3.
The villagers from Musho first expressed their discontent with the expedition around July 31 or August 1. Kutuzov was a member of the team that had gone up to the summit to check progress on the drilling. “The drilling team was still at the summit of Huascaran when we received the text message that the local villagers are not happy about this project and suspect a mining operation at Huascaran mountain,” he told GlacierHub. “The next day (1 or 2 August) about 50 agitated local people went up to the basecamp and demanded an immediate termination of all works, and that all foreigners should leave the mountain, ” Kutuzov said.
Thompson and two other members of the expedition met with the group of protestors at the basecamp and listened to the complaints. “The complaints ranged from our team polluting the local drinking water to the President’s helicopter killing a cow,” Thompson said.
On August 5, a Peruvian police helicopter evacuated all foreign members of the scientific team to the city of Huaraz to wait until a solution could be found. This was done to meet the local community’s demands. All the materials, equipment, and ice cores were left on Huascaran.
The porters and mountain guides were asked to descend from the mountain on August 7. On their way down, they and their police escorts were detained by local people in a field outside of Musho. The group remained in the field until 6am when 30 police cars and armed officers arrived to escort them out of Musho.
A Facebook page was launched in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation called La Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán (The Defense Front for the Interests of Mount Huascaran). It posted statuses explaining why locals interrupted the research and stating concerns of illegal mining and a lack of information coming from the Peruvian government regarding the expedition.
On August 10, Gabrielli tweeted that the scientists, villagers, and local institutions were working to resolve the situation. On August 11, the researchers were invited to Musho village to explain the goals of the project to the local communities, Kutuzov told GlacierHub. The video below shows Thompson speaking at the meeting in Musho village. It was taken by a local resident who posted it to Facebook.
After several days of negotiations, it was agreed that the ice cores and drilling equipment could be retrieved from the mountain, a point which had been a matter of deep concern for the scientists. However, Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, an environmental engineer and a member of the expedition, told GlacierHub that only the Peruvian porters, mountain guides, and scientists from the expedition were allowed back on Huascaran. The foreigners did not return.
The team was given three days from the first helicopter flight to retrieve the ice cores and remove all the materials left on the mountain. The time was set from the first flight because the team needed time to get people back on the mountain after everyone had been evacuated. The three day period lasted from August 16 to 18.
The expedition came to an end on August 18 when the last of the materials was removed. Orjeda, the president of INAIGEM, and the Ministry of the Environment tweeted that the expedition achieved its goals that day. Various news sources posted articles stating that the expedition successfully concluded on August 19 and 20. However, the Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascaran posted on August 21 and called the incident an attack on the country’s heritage and ecosystems.
Different Points of View
Vicuña said that the “two perspectives are lacking a kind of dialogue,” characterizing the breakdown in communication between the scientists (and the national agencies which supported them) and the local communities which led to the growth of rumors and divisions.
From the point of view of those who supported the expedition, the scientific research could advance both basic and applied science. The expedition’s underlying scientific mission centered on studying changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, temperature, and biodiversity in the region over the last 20,000 years. Huascaran is influenced by both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Amazon to east—both areas of great interest in research. The research could also contribute to a better understanding of climate change and the challenges the region may face in the future as the glaciers melt and water supply from meltwater changes. The results could inform public policy going forward. Moreover, from the perspective of the scientists and the agencies, the expedition was fully legitimate. According to INAIGEM, the expedition was authorized by the Ministry of the Environment, through INAIGEM, and was authorized by the national park authority, SERNANP, to enter the park. In other words, they had obtained the necessary approvals to legally conduct their work.
Additionally, Thompson told GlacierHub: “For the Huascaran project (and indeed all of our projects) local people are informed through local lectures, press conferences and a project brochure that are widely distributed before an expedition, written in both English and the local language (in this case Spanish).” Due to these actions, the research team believed they had taken the necessary steps to make residents aware of their work.
Liam Colgan, scientific editor for the International Glaciology Society’s Journal of Glaciology, told GlacierHub about why the taking of ice cores in the Southern Hemisphere is considered particularly important research. “Since these records are often regional, Southern Hemisphere records are very valuable for complementing Northern Hemisphere records,” he said.
Colgan added, “Mid-latitude Southern Hemisphere glaciers currently have some of the highest ice loss rates in the world, which makes them some of the most endangered ice masses on Earth.”
From the point of view of the locals, however, there was great dissatisfaction with poor communication and concerns that nefarious activities were taking place. Some of their suspicions came from preexisting distrust created by illegal mining operations and from the long history of tensions between the park and the communities. Expeditions have sometimes been connected to mining that harmed the region and the local people were suspicious of outsiders who brought drilling equipment to the peak. Locals stated that they had not been involved in or notified of the permitting process carried out by INAIGEM and were unsure of the intentions of the scientists.
A resident of a local village, Elmer Aguilar, told the Associated Press that villagers were angry that they had not been informed of the expedition and that many farmers were under the impression that the scientists were scouting for a mining company. An article in Prensa Huaraz also blames INAIGEM for a lack of communication. In addition to the rural residents who expressed concern, a more senior official, the mayor of the province of Yungay, Fernando Casio Consolación, told ABC Noticias Peru that he was never informed by INAIGEM that the research would take place.
There was a large online response to the events by local community members, with discussion on certain groups, pages, and an individual’s status being shared hundreds of times. The Facebook page of Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán posted on August 7 that 50 people were on the mountain illegally trying to extract minerals. The post was shared 617 times as of September 2.
Similar Situations in Peru and Elsewhere
“As far as we know there are no official studies or statistics that refer to whether [such conflicts] are recurring,” Vicuna told GlacierHub.
He gave an example of a project, financed by Swiss development assistance funds, which installed a high-tech early warning system for glacier lake outburst floods high in the Cordillera Blanca near Huascaran, at Laguna 513. A number of locals opposed it. The Laguna 513 case escalated. After rumors spread that the equipment was preventing the formation of clouds and causing a drought, a number of locals dismantled the station.
Data on the frequency of such conflicts taking place in Peru does not exist.
Valdivia mentioned other occasions where agencies met opposition from locals. He cited problems with the National Meteorological Service installing a weather station and the Ministry of Culture operating archaeological excavation sites.
Potentially adding to or fueling the locals’ suspicions are the high rates of corruption in the Ancash region. According to a recent document produced by La Defensoría del Pueblo, a constitutional body meant to investigate claims against public authorities, the Ancash region experienced a 67 percent increase in cases of crimes against the state between 2016 and 2018, the highest increase in Peru. In 2018, there were 661 complaints of illegal agreements between public officials and entrepreneurs or large businesses.
Outside of Peru, issues of land rights and sovereignty have led to similar conflicts and debate between scientists and local communities. For instance, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii was temporarily blocked by protestors to whom Mauna Kea, where the telescope is being built, is sacred. The protests have brought up issues of land rights and self-determination of local communities.
However, there have also been projects that have successfully been completed by building trust and relationships with local communities. One such case is that of construction of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, where relations between scientists and native peoples developed slowly over decades, allowing trust to be established. Scientists explained their purpose and goals to the tribal council elders who governed the Native American Tohono O’odham Nation and the elders willingly leased 200 acres of land for the construction of an observatory for educational and research purposes. The conflict in Peru played out more along the lines of the Kitt Peak case than the Mauna Kea dispute.
What caused the opposition?
The strength of the opposition in Peru stands in stark contrast to the large amounts of publicity which the expedition received in Peruvian media before it began. It is unclear why it took locals almost a month to respond to the researchers’ presence and how misinformation spread despite public endorsements of the expedition from the Ministry of the Environment, INAIGEM, and even a visit from Peru’s president. Valdivia pointed out how both INAIGEM and Thompson have a history of doing research in this area of Peru and emphasized the need to determine what was different about this expedition from past trips that took place more smoothly.
“The project suffered greatly from inaccurate and deliberately false statements made on social media during the course of this project even by some of our own team members which actually put team members and the success of the project at risk,” Thompson told GlacierHub.
Some elements can be traced to explain this conflict, including the long history of tension between the park and the communities, the negative effects of mining in the region, and the corruption of officials. Scientists’ statements about their intention to drill down to bedrock may have also created concerns about covert efforts to develop mining. Flights of helicopters over Musho likely also contributed to speculation about the expedition and its purpose.
Gabrielli described how the research team was grateful for a visit from the president. He added that it was possible the visit put the expedition on locals’ radars for the wrong reasons. “This event put also our activity on the spot of the local population from the village of Musho and other communities,” he said. “They concluded that our ice core drilling activity was part of a business agreement between us and the Peruvian government to extract minerals such as gold and silver from Huascaran, heavily impacting this mountain,” he told GlacierHub.
Thompson offered another possible explanation for the events. “According to the general overseeing the operations, instigators were being paid to cause our Huascaran project to fail since the President of Peru had endorsed the project,” he stated.
Valdivia said, “Reading this situation as a case in which the locals ‘confused’ this scientific expedition with a mining operation is too simplistic.” He suggested that outreach activities to inform Peruvians of the expedition were more focused on national and urban audiences than on the local rural populations.
The solution that was reached rested on establishing a dialogue with the locals who objected. Valdivia suggested that if the locals had been fully informed of the expedition and its purpose, there might not have been a conflict.
Similarly, Kutuzov ended his statement to GlacierHub by saying, “We’d like to thank everybody who was helping us in Peru, president of Peru Martín Vizcarra, president of the INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández, all the authorities, the people of Musho, and all the communities for allowing us to successfully complete the project.” His comment highlights the important role that communication played in resolving the conflict.
Thompson highlighted the complexity of the environment they were working in, saying “the important thing to understand is that we are the outsiders and do not and cannot fully appreciate the history and the culture and that we need to find a way to work through these issues as they arise.” He added, “the Huascaran project was one of the most successful of my career for which I credit an excellent international field team with an array of diverse talents, great team of mountain guides and porters, local support from friends and colleagues at INAIGEM, the Minister of Environment and the President of Peru, Mr. Martin Vizcarra, and indirectly, the people of Musho!” Thompson was invited back to the region to give lectures on the findings of the expedition.
Despite the successful conclusion of Thompson’s expedition, the elements of discord that originated long before the researchers arrived—and which erupted in a dramatic fashion when they entangled with the project—seem to have returned to a simmer. The sudden and suspenseful turns near the end of the expedition might well bubble up again should the ingredients for conflict combine once more.
On August 18, about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, hiked for two hours to attend a somber event. The gathering was in memory of OK Glacier, which had melted so extensively that, in 2014, scientists pronounced it dead. It is the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change.
To be considered a glacier, an ice mass needs to have movement. OK melted so significantly that it no longer had the mass to move under its own weight and so no longer met the criteria of a glacier.
“Glaciers are melting all across the world, contributing enormously to rising sea levels,” she wrote. “Himalayan glaciers help regulate the water supply of a quarter of humankind. Natural systems will be disrupted.”
Two researchers, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, first proposed commemorating the loss of OK Glacier. The Rice University scientists produced a documentary called “Not Ok” in order to draw attention to the plight of the glacier. In the process of making the film, Howe and Boyer had the idea to hold a kind of memorial for OK, which is shorthand for Okjökull.
Howe and Boyer attended the August 18 commemoration.
“As we neared the site of the lost glacier, we followed an Icelandic hiking tradition where you walk in silence, think of three wishes, and never look back,” Howe told GlacierHub in an email. “Completing that last 100 meters in silence was exceptionally poignant. We were stepping forward, to be sure, but also reflecting on what it means to say goodbye to the world that we have known.”
Once the participants reached OK, they reflected on the tragedy of OK’s disappearance and on the need to protect existing glaciers.
“At the site of the memorial we had words of recognition, remorse, and— more than anything—calls to action,” Howe said.
Echoing the sentiment, Robinson told the Associated Press: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”
OK’s demise and the commemoration in Iceland has already had ripple effect. On September 22, mourners will gather at a funeral for the Pizol Glacier in eastern Switzerland.