How Life Arrives on Glacier Barrens

The crust that forms on the top layer of the soil that is exposed after a glacier retreats is a rich, important place and can support new plant growth in a tough alpine environment.

Salix arctica
Salix arctica (Credit: Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska)

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Biology suggests that biological soil crusts can help larger plants grow and colonize the area, a process called succession. The authors, Katie Breen  and Esther Lévesque of the University of Québec (Trois-Rivières), found that the land covered by biological crusts after a glacier retreats usually supports more plants than places that aren’t covered by soil crusts. The most dominant and thriving plant species can usually be found there, like Salix arctica, a tiny low shrub that grows in Arctic regions.

In the middle of the 19th century, after the end of the Little Ice Age, temperatures increased, which led to a decrease in the mass of glaciers in the Canadian High Arctic. As glaciers retreated, microorganisms and plants had new opportunities to colonize the surface that appeared. The primary colonization of the barren terrestrial environment usually starts on the microbial scale, which is an often-overlooked fact in vegetation studies. The first to move in are the pioneering organisms, such as green algae, lichens, mosses, fungi and heterotrophic bacteria.

Biological soil crusts
Biological soil crusts (Credit:INNSPUB)

As time goes by, the pioneering organisms in the soil can form a solid yet flexible layer no more than 1 cm deep close to the upper layer surface, called the biological or microbiotic soil crust. The microbiota nurtured in the biological soil are very resilient and can survive the most extreme living conditions on earth, such as glacial ice. However, it’s harder for larger plants to grow in the High Arctic; they favor habitats with higher soil temperature, lower wind speed, higher soil moisture content, and increased soil nitrate level.

Luckily, biological soil crusts can provide higher plants with all the necessary growing conditions. Cyanobacteria, a type of bacteria, are able to fix nitrogen in soil crusts and improve nutrients levels in soil; some crusts have a gluey composition, which helps the soil retain moisture and protect it from erosion by wind and water. The rougher surface created by soil crusts is able to absorb more sunlight and thus increase temperature. The process of plants helping each other grow is called facilitation.

Dryas integrifolia
Dryas integrifolia (Credit:Flickriver)

In the early stage of succession, soil crusts are comparatively thin. Within four years of glacier retreat, the plant densities above the crusts are low. Nevertheless, as time goes by, the crusts help the plants grow and the variety of plants increases. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that a few specific species benefit the most from soil crusts than other species. Those species are represented in much higher densities than the others and account for more of the land cover, such as Dryas integrifolia, a tiny shrub in the rose family. Dominant and long-lived species also seem to do especially well in the crust environment.

According to the authors, as global temperature continues to grow, more glaciers are going to melt in the future and continue to make impacts on the development of communities left in the wake of glaciers. This trend may potentially influence the direction of succession. The study refers to this process as the “greening of the north.”

Glaciers Provide Insight on Norse Migration

Recent research on the dynamics of glaciers in the Arctic over the last millennium has altered understandings of climate history and of human migrations in this inhospitable region. Glaciers in Baffin Island and western Greenland reached their maximum extent during the time of Medieval Warm Period,  roughly 950-1250,  instead of the Little Ice Age of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries,  according to a recent research paper published in ScienceAdvances. This and other paleoclimate data suggest that the western North Atlantic region remained cool during the Medieval Warm Period, while the eastern North Atlantic was comparably warmer. Understanding these climate patterns provides insight into the migration patterns of the Norse from Scandinavia into the Arctic during the Medieval Warm Period.

Glaciers and Little Ice Age moraines in western Greenland. Credit: Jason Briner
Glaciers and Little Ice Age moraines in western Greenland. (credit: Jason Briner/popular-archaeology)

Glaciers are sensitive to variations in temperature and precipitation, so historical data on glacier fluctuations  can allow researchers to reconstruct past climates.  For example, if a glacier advances over an area with trees, the trees—and therefore the glacier advance—can be reconstructed through radiocarbon dating.  However, Arctic glaciers did not overrun trees, so it is difficult use this method to draw the true picture of glaciers during the late Holocene, covering the last 4000 years. Instead, researchers examine moraines, the rocks deposited at the front and sides of glaciers as they advance, or when they remain stable for some period.  When a rock is added to a moraine, it is exposed to cosmic rays, which slowly change the isotopes of certain elements within it. By examining the ratio of isotopes, scientists can determine the time since the rock was added. In this way, they determine the age of the moraine and reconstruct the history of glacier movements. This research allows them to reconstruct past climates. This information complements the records of past climate in ice cores and marine sediments, which till now have been the principal data sources which are used to establish the climate history of the Arctic.

Sampling a moraine boulder for beryllium-10 surface exposure dating. Credit: Nicolás Young. From popular-archaeology
Sampling a moraine boulder for beryllium-10 surface exposure dating. (credit: Nicolás Young/popular-archaeology)

Nicolás E. Young and his colleagues  used a cosmogenic isotope, beryllium-10,  to study the development of moraines over the last millennium, focusing on  Naqsaq in Greenland and Ayr Lake in Baffin Island. They report that the size of glaciers in Baffin Island and western Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period was similar to their size during the Little Ice Age, so temperatures in this area during the Medieval Warm Period were cooler than was believed, despite the period’s name. These findings are of particular interest, because they provide clues for understanding human migrations at the time.

Moving westward from their homelands in Scandinavia, the Norse settled in Iceland in the 9th century and arrived in Greenland in the 10th century.  Researchers had previously believed that the Norse were attracted by green lands and a relatively mild climate during Medieval Warm Period. They argued that temperatures at the time were  approximately 1º C higher than at the present and the associated decrease in sea ice in the North Atlantic allowed the Norse to travel to areas they had not been able to reach before.

Vikings Boat, by poweredbyosteons
Reconstruction of a Viking boat (credit: poweredbyosteons)

However, the new research  indicates that the climate during the Medieval Warm Period in the North Atlantic, when Norse made their settlements in Iceland and Greenland, was similar to the Little Ice Age, rather than being warmer. This suggests that the Norse migrations may not be related to climate factors, as previously believed. The authors propose that other socioeconomic factors, including the decline of their trade with other areas, contributed to Norse migrations. The Norse departure from Greenland might reflect their search for trading opportunities rather than to deteriorating climates during the Little Ice Age, though more research is needed to better understand this migration from Greenland at the end of the Medieval Warm Period.

The researchers also note that the climatic factors that contributed to the shift from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age in the Arctic region are still under discussion, although the long-term cooling trend in the eastern North Atlantic is considered to be driven by a gradual decrease of solar radiation. Shifts in ocean currents, the effects of volcanic eruptions, and processes within the atmosphere might also be of importance.  As this work advances, we will have a deeper understanding, not only of past climates, but of the history of our own species as well.

Roundup: Photographers, skiers and pollen-counters

Landscape photographer uncovers the beauty of mother nature

“Mother Nature’s show is fickle, fleeting and often demanding. As an emerging landscape photographer, I am quickly learning the emergency-of-now; how once-in-a-lifetime moments are immediately lost if not acted upon. There is no safe, warm studio to snuggle up in and no way to get the content without being outside, in the land, surrounded by the elements and forced to contend with the kindness, fury and temperament of Mother Nature. Simply put, if I do not show up (and react to impulses) I will not get the photograph. 

This emergency-of-now is also inherent in the translation of a photograph that can project the voice of the land. It is my wish that the land’s call for help, glory and cognizance will be heard far and wide via whatever community flows from my photographs, be it a gallery’s walls, a website, a magazine, airplane seat conversations and for the one-on-one conversation between my partner and I as we stand somewhere far from home, snapping shots and swimming in awe — feeling the urgency to expose the encounter while pushing “POST” to our Facebook feed via a rented hotspot connection.”

Mendenhall Glacier by Jodi Patterson

Read more about the story, click here.

Slalom course for ski areas facing future without snow

“Grenoble (France) (AFP) – As temperatures rise there is less [snow] or sometimes even none at all — global warming is forcing ski areas to think about the once unthinkable, a future without snow. Some in the French Alps have gone beyond thinking and begun diversifying the activities they offer visitors, particularly those at around 1,300 metres (4,300 feet) altitude.”

“According to Educ’Alpes, the glaciers have lost 26 percent of their surface and a third of their volume over the past 40 years, leading ski areas like Val Thorens to close its glacier to skiers a decade ago to ensure its protection.”

Read more about the news here.

Recent and Holocene climate change controls on vegetation and carbon accumulation in Alaskan coastal muskegs

“Pollen, spore, macrofossil and carbon data from a peatland near Cordova, Alaska, reveal insights into the climate–vegetation–carbon interactions from the initiation of the Holocene, c. the last 11.5 ka, to the present (1 ka = 1000 calibrated years before present where 0 = 1950 CE). “

“Highlight of the research:

  • Early Holocene deglaciation leads to foundation species Alnus dominance.
  • Climate-driven vegetational change drives carbon storage in southeast Alaskan bogs.
  • Sphagnum peat drives highest rates of carbon accumulation (50 g/m2/a).
  • Mid-Holocene dry climate favors sedge and low carbon accumulation (13 g/m2/a).
  • Last century of Alnus expansion signals glacial retreat with 2 °C warming.”
Dandelion flower Stigma with Pollen, Flickr
Dandelion flower stigma with pollen, Flickr

Read more about the research here.

Photo Friday: Perito Moreno Glacier

The Perito Moreno Glacier is a glacier located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. It is one of the most important tourist attractions in the Argentinian Patagonia. The tourists can view the glacier from a small boat. Lucky visitors also could witness huge chunks of ice breaking from the glacier, falling into Lake Argentino. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that is growing while most of the glaciers around the world are retreating, but the mysterious reason still puzzles climatologists.

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The ‘Blue Gold’ Rush in Tibet

Earlier in October, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China released a 10-year plan to spur the companies across the country to invest in bottled water industry by tapping the Himalayan glaciers in Tibet’s already environmentally sensitive region, according a recent report. Tibet is embracing its new ‘blue gold’ rush era.

Qomolangma glacier water (source: inhabitat)

The government’s target is to reach a bottled water production capacity of 5 million cubic meters per year by 2020 according to a report, although the glaciers are melting at the rate of 4 to 8 meters every year – the glacier melting is measured in loss of length. This is just the start of the ‘blue gold’ rush–more and more companies want to enter this market, including pharmaceutical, confectionery and petroleum firms. The TAR government signed 16 agreements with various investors, totaling 2.6 billion yuan (US $409 million), including state-owned oil producer Sinopec, the second-largest food manufacturing company Bright Food Group and the state-owned power company Three Gorges Group.

Tibet is considered by many to be one of the last sacred places on land, because of its remoteness, uniqueness and purity. For Tibetans, water is not only important for daily use and livelihoods.  It also holds religious significance. Every year, they hang many new prayer flags around water temples, hoping for sufficient water supplies. To show respect for the local deities and other spirits that govern water, they treat water with gratefulness and respect. However, China is now the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer, according to a study from China Water Risk. With the boom of China’s bottle water industry, companies have been eyeing up Tibet’s glacier resources for a long time and ready to start their ‘blue gold’ rush journey.

Tibet 5100 bottled water (source: Marketing China)

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is known as Asia’s water tower and provides a lifeline for China and other parts of Asia, and it has become a hotspot for new firms. By 2014, the government has approved 28 licenses for companies to produce bottled water in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It has attracted companies such as Kunlun Mountain Glacier Water, Tibet 5100 and Qomolangma Glacier Water, which produce bottled glacier water, sold at high prices. The appeal of what is considered the purest water on earth matches current demand well. One of the advertisements of Tibet 5100 water says, “the water is sourced from a unique glacier spring at 5,100 meters above sea level, one of the world’s most remote, pristine and untraversed location.” In 2010, according to the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) State of Environment Report indicated that 40.1% of China’s rivers were unfit for human contact (Grade IV-V+) and 57.2% of the monitored groundwater was rated as badly or very badly polluted. Under such circumstances, many Chinese households drink bottled water, and only 59% drink tap water according to a survey done in 2014.

Tibet 5100 production line (source: thedailyeye)

Tibet is among the most vulnerable place to climate change. Glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau have already shrunk 15% over the past three decades, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. With the continuing trends of global warming, the risks of further glacier retreat are severe. The bottled water industry thus faces an uncertain future, and it will increasingly compete with other groups in Tibetan society that use water for domestic purposes and other, long-established livelihoods. The challenge to find the balance between the economic growth and environmental stability is at stake for Tibet.

To access to the full study report, please click here.



Climate Awareness Impedes Adaptation

A lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate change in mountain communities in Tajikistan, Central Asia may endanger traditional modes of life and local economies, according to a study published recently in Climatic Change. If these communities do not begin adapting to climate change before temperatures pass the threshold, it will be too late to make a difference, the authors wrote.

Faces of Wakhi kids by Imran Schah

In discussions with local communities, the authors found that many villagers do not consider glacier loss a serious issue. Some believe that the glaciers will grow again, since they can’t differentiate between temporary snow and the permanent ice on the glacier. Others believe that God will prevent their glacier from disappearing. Researchers found that these notions impede the adaptation process, since people see glacier retreat as a threat that can be resolved by nature or a higher power, rather than through their own actions. The inability to perceive climate change as a factor that contributes to glacier loss makes these communities particularly vulnerable.

 “The adequate presentation of information on climate change to all social groups and a social learning process appear to be crucial to avoid a ‘casual structure of vulnerability,’” the authors wrote.

Mountain communities in Tajikistan rely on agriculture to support the continually growing population. By 2050, the population in the region is expected to double, reaching 5.093 million. More than 47% of these people live below the national poverty line – most people have never used a computer before and most women are illiterate according to the World Bank.

Compared to more developed countries, Tajikistan’s ability to address climate change is limited by a lack of capital and technology to address the issue, the new study found. For people living in remote and less-developed areas, there is not enough money and power to change the current situation. Researchers found that if villagers could unite to develop a collective strategy for adaption to climate change, they may be able to improve the intellectual and general ability of local communities to better understand glacier melt and its impacts, and also to act and adapt collectively.

Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe
Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe


If communities can learn to understand the interrelationship between the environment they are living in and how heavily their lives depend on it. The authors proposed that mountain communities in Tajikistan use a scenario-based participatory learning process to help villagers better understand how climate change may affect their lives if they don’t start adapting.

The scenario-based participating learning process allows scientists and researchers to develop models that assess the challenges that communities will face while also assessing their vulnerability. Many villagers live in areas that are not close to glaciers, so they may not associate glacier melting to their daily lives, but the scenario-based participating learning process is a more visualized method that allows villagers to connect climate related changes to their daily life.

When the awareness has been established, people within the community can better cooperate and work towards the same goal. Communities can be taught about labor immigration for the purpose of building water reservoirs, skill training for villagers to learn about agricultural adaptation, engineering for water reservoir construction, irrigation and processing of oil seeds. By forming a strong kinship or social bonding within the community to act together, communities may still have time to improve their adaptation ability, the authors concluded.  

Roundup:The Melting World, Frozen Stories and Ice Artifacts

Alpine glaciers have already begun to disappear worldwide

As world temperatures soar, public outcry has focused on the threat to polar ice sheets and sea ice. Yet there is another impact of global warming—one much closer to home—that spells trouble for Americans: the extinction of alpine glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. The epicenter of the crisis is Glacier National Park, Montana, whose peaks once held one-hundred-and-fifty glaciers. Only twenty-five survive. The Park provides a window into the future of climate impacts for mountain ranges around the globe.

The Alps, Andes, Cascades, Rockies, and Himalayas are suffering staggering losses. Glaciers provide more than fifty percent of our freshwater needs worldwide—for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. What’s more, alpine ice feeds innumerable watersheds that harbor ecosystems crucial to fish and wildlife. Nowhere is this truer than in the mountains of Montana.

Glacier National Park, Montana by Siva Subramanian Vasanth
Glacier National Park, Montana by Siva Subramanian Vasanth Photo from:

Read more about the story, click here.


FROZEN STORIES – Discoveries in the Alpine glaciers

Climate change also has its archaeological aspect. It can bring to light what has been hidden under glacial ice for a very long time. Ötzi was not the only lucky find of the last decades. Many other objects have been exposed from the ice,recounting exciting stories from a distant past. And every new discovery gives rise to the question: What was it that drove people onto the glaciers for thousands of years?

FROZEN STORIES is an exhibition of rare and in some cases only recently discovered finds from the glacier regions of the Alps, some of them appearing in public for the first time.A multimedia tour with animations, videos and original finds explains the glacier phenomenon to visitors in all its exciting topicality.

Read more about frozen story,click here.


Swiss rush to find ice artifacts as glaciers melt

“With Swiss glaciers expected to melt away within a half-century, a Swiss cultural institute and a graduate student in the canton (state) of Graubuenden have launched a pilot project through the end of 2015 to gather artifacts trapped long ago in the ice that are now turning up. The clock is ticking, they say, because once the ice melts away the items will no longer be preserved. Leandra Naef, who has a master’s degree in prehistoric archaeology, told Swiss news agency that the project in eastern Switzerland’s mountains “has to happen now, or else it will be too late, if it’s not already too late.

Upper snows of the Jungfraufirn near Jungfraujoch. File photo. Image by: Tallin/ Wikipedia
Upper snows of the Jungfraufirn near Jungfraujoch. Image by: Tallin/ Wikipedia Photo:


Read more about glaciers melt, click here.