Planning Meetings to Focus on Water Management in the Andean Region

The objective of a series of workshops on the Andean region is to generate learning, synergies, and develop inputs for the promotion of multipurpose projects (PMP) at the local-regional level that integrate management of water resources and risk management in a context of climate change. The workshops, titled “Exchange of experiences to promote multipurpose water projects as a measure of adaptation to climate change and risk management in mountain areas,” are organized by the Glaciers Project +.

Officials from Chile, Colombia, and Peru who work on issues related to climate change, energy, and water will meet to identify conditions for scaling up PMPs in the Andean Region and other territories. The workshops are expected to generate a roadmap for regional exchange on the PMPs.

Among the topics to be discussed during the two days of the workshops will be the problem of water in the Andean region, which will focus on the consensual construction of the multipurpose approach to adaptation to climate change, management of water resources and disaster risk in the framework of the NDCs. Discussions will also occur focusing on implementing PMP initiatives.

The workshops will be held in the cities of Bogotá and Santiago, the first of which will be held on April 9 and 10 in the Council Room of the Faculty of Rural and Environmental Studies of the Pontifical Javieriana University in Colombia. The workshop in Santiago will be held on May 2 and 3 at the facilities of the National Irrigation Commission.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on El Proyecto Glaciares.

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Glacier Lessons as a Glacier Lessens

In the south of Iceland, just inland from the main ring road that circles the country, sits the Sólheimajökull glacier—a mass of ice that stands stark against the black volcanic landscape. Several hundred meters away from the base of the glacier’s tongue, at the far end of the meltwater lake is a modest and unofficial-looking sign: jöklamælingar it reads in handwritten letters—glacier measurements. Below is a list of numbers, also added by hand.

The sign has been here since 2010. That year, and every October since, Jón Stefánsson has brought his grade-seven students to Sólheimajökull from their school in Hvolsvöllur, a town about 60 kilometers west, to track the glacier’s retreat.

To prepare for their field trip, Stefánsson’s students learn how to use GPS devices to carry out their measurements. They chart the distance from the sign to the glacier, providing a reliable measure of its steady disappearance. Since 2010, the school has seen the glacier retreat by more than 350 meters. This past year accounted for almost a third of that. The students also determine the depth of the glacial lake by lowering a sounding weight from a small boat. The fieldwork can be dangerous, Stefánsson says, “because there is a geothermal area beneath the glacier. There is a lot of hot water there, and sometimes it comes out.” Just in case, an expert rescue team is on hand.

A handwritten sign, maintained by Jón Stefánsson’s grade-seven students, charts how the glacier has changed over time. (Source: Eva Amsen)

Continue reading on hakaimagazine.com.

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University of Lausanne Launches Interdisciplinary Mountain Research Center

The Interdisciplinary Center for Mountain Research (ICMR) was launched by the University of Lausanne (UNIL) as a four-year pilot project to contribute to the sustainable development of mountain regions. It does so by enhancing the synergies between 70 researchers from five UNIL faculties and nine research and dissemination institutions mostly from the Alpine region. Among these associated entities is the Mountain Research Initiative, supporting international outreach and connection.

Inaugurated on November 2, 2018, the ICMR aims at deepening our knowledge about the challenges faced by mountain regions by using a wide range of methods from the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities. Research will concentrate on a set of themes identified through discussions with UNIL experts on mountains during the center’s design phase: time and sustainability, change and transitions, natural hazards and risks, mountain society, natural resources, ecosystem services, innovation, food labels, and tourism and health.

But the integration of diverse research methods and themes is not enough. Tackling the complexity of societal challenges in the face of climate and other global environmental changes also requires the integration of non-academic actors. Indeed, a priority for the ICMR is to anchor its research to the changing needs of mountain societies. Representatives of decision-makers and civil society sit together with researchers in the ICMR’s council, which makes the center’s strategic decisions. Strengthening the societal relevance of the ICMR will require the consolidation of such a transdisciplinary arrangement.

While the ICMR is interested in mountain ranges across the world, its activities will concentrate on a portion of the Alps situated between the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais. Such territories offer a complex interface between mountains and plains, as well as between rural and urban areas, in high-mountain and mid-altitude contexts, while including famous Alpine symbols such as the Matterhorn.

Inauguration of ICMR on the UNIL campus in Sion, November 2, 2018. (Credit: Leïla Kebir/ICMR)

One of the central pillars of the ICMR is the funding of interdisciplinary research projects through internal calls, to which inter-faculty teams of researchers can apply. This year will see the kick off of four seed-funding projects and four post-doctoral projects.

Seed-funding projects will mobilize a wide variety of disciplines and methods to develop pilot studies and prototypes leading to larger research projects. The team of Marie-Elodie Perga, an associate professor at the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, UNIL, will study the feasibility of developing a role-play game about the adaptation of an imaginary Alpine landscape to climate change. Created in collaboration with stakeholders and fed with data from several researchers, the role-play game aims at raising public awareness about the consequences of current choices regarding the management of landscapes and their adaptation to climate change. Meanwhile, a better understanding of how climate change affects glacial erosion in the Alps is the goal of a project led by Frédéric Herman, an associate professor at the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, UNIL. His team is going to measure several parameters in the Gorner Glacier in order to refine the glacial erosion rule describing the complex relationships between glacial speed and erosion. This knowledge is crucial to understand the interaction between glaciers and their surroundings in a changing climate.

The Gorner glacier: a changing cryosphere. (Credit: Emmanuel Reynard/ICMR)

A project led by Michiel de Vaan, a privatdozent in the Department of English, UNIL, will explore the distribution of place names in the municipality of Ormont-Dessus (Vaud Alps) and their relationship with the geography of the mountains. Comparing these results with those from a municipality in the plain, the project wants to understand how the specific features of mountains influence the density and diversity of place names. This integration between linguistics and statistics will materialize in an online atlas of place names.

Finally, the team led by Christophe Clivaz, an associate professor at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability, UNIL, will analyze how recreation practices in high mountains change with climate change, using alpine huts as observatories of such a transition. For this, the researchers will involve the huts’ staff in the design of surveys, that will be tested among the guests of five pilot huts.

Postdoctoral projects will also improve our knowledge of key aspects of Alpine regions with innovative approaches: Christine Moos will assess how the protective role of forests against rockfall may change with climate change and other perturbations; Janine Rüegg will research the ecology of the transition zones between alpine rivers and lakes, which so far remain disconnected areas of inquiry; Günther Prasicek wants to better understand the link between ice flow and erosion in glaciers, working in close connection with one of the seed-funding projects; and Alexandre Elsig will explore the history of industrial pollution and how different social actors worked to uncover or hide its evidence.

Another central pillar of ICMR is the organization of scientific and dissemination events, including a program of seminars and a decentralized series of conferences organized in collaboration with local partners.

This article was written by Iago Otero and Emmanuel Reynard and originally published by the Mountain Research Initiative at the University of Lausanne.

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GlacierHub News Report 08:23:18

GlacierHub News Report 08:23:18

The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week’s newscast is special because managing editor Ben Orlove is joining our newscast. We will be presenting stories ranging from the IPCC to glaciers in Russia to a tradition of citizen climate science and even controversial lands in India.

 

This week’s news report features:

 

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in China

By: Ben Orlove

Summary:

The authors of a major IPCC report on oceans and the cryosphere gathered in Lanzhou, China, in July 2018. They discussed the reviews which the first draft of the report had received. They also planned the next steps to advance the report.

Read more here.

 

Debris-Covered Glaciers Advance in Remote Kamchatka

By: Andrew Angle

Summary: On the remote Kamchatka Penisula in Eastern Russia, most glaciers are retreating due to climate change. However, in one area, some glaciers have advanced due to volcanic debris on top of the ice that has limited melting.

Read more here.

 

Amid High-Tech Alternatives, a Reckoning for Iceland’s Glacier Keepers

By: Gloria Dickie

Summary: It may be one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.

Read more here.

War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win

By: Sabrina Ho

Summary: Ladakh is frequently exposed to floods and landslides when snow and glaciers melt. A recent paper warns of the current nature of a military-led disaster governance, including heavy military presence, in disaster risk reduction.

Read more here.

 

Video Credits:

Presenters: Ben Orlove and Brian Poe Llamanzares

Video Editor: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Writer: Brian Poe Llamanzares

News Intro: YouTube

Music: iMovie

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Meet the Writers of GlacierHub, 2017/2018 Edition

As glaciers retreat, they alter water resources, create natural hazards, reduce tourism and transform cherished landscapes. Here at GlacierHub, we have a team of writers hailing from across four continents to bring you original daily reporting on glaciers and the global impacts of climate change.

With funding support from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, our writers from Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Climate and Society program cover stories about communities living near glaciers and the challenges brought about by glacier retreat. This year’s cohort has developed exciting new projects from a bi-monthly GlacierHub News Report to a Video of the Week post and will continue to bring you the latest glacier news throughout the summer.

We hope you enjoy the website and this introduction to our GlacierHub team!

Some of GlacierHub’s summer writers. From left to right: writer Brian Llamanzares, editor Ben Orlove, and writer Andrew Angle (Source: Ashley Chappo).

 

Meet our summer writers from the Master of Arts in Climate and Society program at Columbia University:

 

Andrew Angle (Source: Andrew Angle).

Andrew Angle has a B.S. in Physical Geography from Penn State University and is a 2018 graduate of Columbia University’s Climate and Society program. He first became fascinated with glaciers on a research trip with Penn State to study the impacts of climate change on the glaciers of the Peruvian Andes and southwest Alaska. As a writer for GlacierHub since fall 2017, Andrew has covered a number of diverse topics from U.S. National Park entrance fees to glacier-covered volcanos and glacial geoengineering. He hopes to apply the writing skills he developed during his time with GlacierHub to connect people with science and policy decisions.

 

Natalie Belew (Source: Natale Belew).

Natalie Belew is a 2018 graduate of the M.A. in Climate and Society program at Columbia University and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in History and East Asian Studies at Trinity University. She joined GlacierHub in fall 2017 hoping to cultivate her writing skills in climate communication and to explore the cultural and historical contexts surrounding glaciers across the world. The topics she has tackled since then include the Lendbreen tunic, the Karakoram Anomaly, and the discovery of a medieval glacier lake in Svalbard, among many others. Beyond Columbia, Natalie hopes to combine her interests in climate science and East Asian history and pursue a doctorate in the environmental history of China. Her experience at GlacierHub has been phenomenal in helping her to understand complex scientific concepts surrounding glaciers. She looks forward to carrying forward her time at GlacierHub in her future endeavors.

 

Sabrina Ho Yen Yin (Source: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin).

Sabrina Ho Yen Yin has a B.Sc. in Geography from University College London and graduated in 2018 with her M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She started writing for GlacierHub in fall 2017 to hone her skills in climate communication by translating sometimes difficult-to-understand scientific pieces into fun and readable stories. She hopes to apply these skills to her work at the Singapore Ministry of Education when she imparts geographical knowledge to her future students. In the meantime, these past months have been a journey of discovery on just how interesting and diverse glacier news can be! From writing about human-related issues such as tourism in the Bhilangana Valley and extreme sports in Antarctica to ecological topics such as tracing plant species competition and crustacean diversity near glaciers to uncovering human history through glacier archaeology, she has challenged herself to write on a wide range of topics. Despite returning to the tropics after her studies, glaciers will always have a special space in her heart.

 

Shreeya Joshi (Source: Shreeya Joshi)

Shreeya Joshi graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College. She is specifically interested in climate change adaptation techniques and policies as well as strategic environmental communications. When she is not thinking about these topics, she’s most likely thinking about food. At GlacierHub, she helped launch the website’s Video of the Week, worked on social media and wrote about the restoration of grizzly bear populations in the North Cascades and capturing climate change through art, among other topics.

 

Brian Llamanzares (Source: Brian Llamanzares).

Brian Llamanzares is a former CNN Philippines news correspondent. He is the CEO and founder of Time Master Watches and a graduate of Columbia University, completing his master’s degree in Climate and Society. Brian also worked briefly at the Philippine Senate as a supervising legislative staff officer and more recently as a political consultant. In his spare time, Brian volunteers as a Youth Ambassador for Habitat for Humanity Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital. He has a passion for public service and an interest in disaster risk reduction management. While at GlacierHub, he founded the bi-monthly GlacierHub news report and wrote about a major climate lawsuit and a glacier hike for a cause, among other topics.

 

Jade Payne (Source: Jade Payne).

Jade Payne started writing for GlacierHub in spring 2018 while pursuing her M.A. in Climate and Society at Columbia University. She spent her earlier years living in Florida, so she has enjoyed writing about glacial environments that are very different from what she is accustomed to. Her work includes covering the importance of glaciers to harbor seals to the captivating glacial artwork of Diane Burko, among other topics. After graduation, she hopes to continue working in climate change communication, especially when it comes to humanitarian causes. When she’s not busy with her school work, she enjoys going on hikes and playing with her dog Milo (the shiba inu).

 

Angela Soriano Quevedo (Source: Angela Soriano Quevedo).

Angela Soriano Quevedo holds a master’s degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University. Her interest in glaciers began as an intern for the regional NGO CONDESAN where she learned about sustainable mountain development and natural resources. As a writer for GlacierHub since fall 2017, she has gained a great understanding of the challenges faced by mountain communities surrounded by glaciers. While at GlacierHub, she has written about climate vulnerability in her home country of Peru to health threats from a glacier volcano in Iceland, among other topics.

Yang Zhang (Source: Yang Zhang).

Yang Zhang is a graduate of the M.A. in Climate and Society program at Columbia University and will be joining GlacierHub as a writer this summer. She holds her B.A. in International Law. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked for the government of China in forestry diplomacy and international environment negotiation. After that, she worked as a policy dialogue coordinator for an Asia Pacific-targeted NGO on sustainable development project management in developing countries and regional forestry policy mechanism coordination. She is also a big fan of SNL.

 

Meet our other staff writers from the fall and spring semesters:

 

Amanda Evengaard (Source: Amanda Evengaard).

Amanda Evengaard holds a bachelor’s degree in Product Design from Parsons and is a graduate of the M.A. in Climate and Society program at Columbia University. Amanda is interested in climate sensitivity, how changing climate affects society and the environment, and how to make decisions for a sustainable future. Previously, Amanda worked in design, production and sustainability with the designer Donna Karan at the D.O.T training center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and at Urban Zen, New York. She kept you covered on the last glacier of Venezuela, glacier reconstruction, and a Swiss community fighting to save its glacier, among other topics.

 

Tae Hamm (Source: Tae Hamm).

Tae Hamm graduated in 2018 from the Climate and Society master’s program at Columbia University and holds a B.A. in Geology from Lawrence University. Tae is interested in sustainable packaging as well as urban planning for disaster risk reduction. He’s an avid reader of books in all forms and shapes, but he buys his books only on Kindle. Tae wrote about glaciers’ influence on the blister infection of the White Bark Pine treea female climber and pioneer, and the geochemical evolution of meltwater from glacial snow, among other topics.

 

Miriam Nielsen (Source: Miriam Nielsen).

Miriam Nielsen is a video producer (and occasional writer) who likes making things about climate change and the environment. She is a graduate of the Master of Climate and Society program at Columbia University, but she spends most of her time on Twitter or playing Ultimate Frisbee. At GlacierHub, she reported on diverse topics from glacier dropstones to Asia’s vanishing glaciers, among many others.

 

And meet our editors:

 

Ben Orlove (Source: Yurong Yu).

Ben Orlove is the managing editor of GlacierHub and an anthropologist at Columbia University. He has conducted research in the Peruvian Andes for many years, and more recently has carried out field work in Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the Italian Alps. He also has carried out research in mountain areas in the western United States.

 

Ashley Chappo (Source: Ashley Chappo).

Ashley Chappo is the senior editor of GlacierHub. She is a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School. Prior to GlacierHub, Ashley worked in the newsrooms of the New York Observer, World Policy Journal, and Manhattan Magazine, more recently covering the Arctic for the World Policy Institute’s Arctic in Context initiative. Her favorite part of working for GlacierHub is getting to know the talented writers and reading their stories on the latest glacier research and climate policy. You can follow Ashley on Twitter @ashleychappo or view her digital portfolio at ashleychappo.com.

 

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Celebrating International Mountain Day at the United Nations

Three countries, Peru, Kyrgyzstan and Austria, sponsored an event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on November 11 to mark International Mountain Day. It was attended by over 60 people, most of whom were senior and junior staff who represent mountain countries and officials from UN agencies. The speakers all underscored the importance of mountains in core UN priorities, including sustainable development, social justice, and human well-being.

Presentations by Permanent Representatives from Mountain Countries

Adriana Dinu, the executive coordinator of the UN Development Program Global Environmental Finance Unit (GEF), served as moderator. Her familiarity with mountain issues stems both from her position as a major representative of one of the key climate finance institutions in the world, and as someone with extensive experience in the mountains of her country, the Carpathians in Romania. She indicated the importance of mountains to key UN initiatives, particularly the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

An animated moment during the discussion (source: Madina Karabaeva)

The three countries’ permanent representatives, roughly equivalent to ambassadors, were the first to speak. Mirgul Moldoisaeva of Kyrgyzstan underscored her country’s long engagement with mountain issues. The Bishkek Global Mountain Summit was held in its capital in 2002. This event marked 2002 as the International Year of Mountains and led to the creation of International Mountain Day by a resolution of the UN General Assembly. Moldoisaeva described Kyrgyzstan’s engagement with snow leopard conservation as a form of mountain ecosystem management which preserves both biodiversity and human livelihoods.

Jan Kickert, the permanent representative of Austria, emphasized the need to maintain fragile mountain ecosystems so that they can support agriculture and water resources. He described the challenges which mountain countries face to keep population in balance with resources, particularly in the context of growing international flows of migrants. Kickert noted that temperatures in the Alps, and in other mountains, are rising at a rate faster than the global average, so that the 2 degree limit established in the Paris Agreement has already been breached there. He also discussed the Alpine Convention, a body which links the eight countries in Europe with portions of their territory in the Alps, and their work on a variety of environmental and social issues.

Peru’s permanent representative, Gustavo Meza Cuadra, noted with pride his country’s deep cultural heritage that traces back to the Incas, a civilization centered in the Andes. He spoke of Peru’s recent successes in poverty reduction. He indicated that the employment and income generation that support this progress rest in part on glaciers to supply water to the desert coast, an active economic region, and hence is threatened by climate change. The growth of tourism, another major economic activity, is also challenged by glacier retreat and water scarcity.

A Diverse Panel Discussion

After these opening addresses, Dinu chaired a panel discussion. The first to speak was Markus Reiterer, the secretary general of the Alpine Convention. He briefly summarized how the Convention on the Protection of the Alps was signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1995. It supports protocols in a number of sectors, including planning and development, nature protection, agriculture, forests, tourism, energy, transport and soils. He discussed several new initiatives of the convention, including a platform for information exchange and a commitment to making the Alps carbon neutral by 2050. He emphasized the importance of women in mountain economies and societies, and spoke of the importance of stemming the depopulation of high mountain regions.

Gustavo Meza Cuadra, Markus Reiterer and Ben Orlove, with Veronika Bustamante (standing) (source: Will Julian)

Carla Mucavi, the director of the Liaison Office of the UN Food and Agriculture Office, underscored the vulnerability of mountain peoples, recognizing the challenges which they face and the potential of their knowledge and resilience. She focused on women in mountain settings as resource managers, guardians of biodiversity, and decision-makers in adaptation programs. She noted that women in mountain settings often suffer from discrimination that blocks their access to land title, and proposed targeted investments to promote resilience in mountain regions.

Ben Orlove, a professor at Columbia University, and editor of this website, was the third to speak. He indicated that glacier retreat affects human well-being not only because of its impacts on water resources and natural hazards, but also because glaciers hold great cultural and spiritual importance in mountain countries around the world. He showed four slides of a pilgrimage to a glacier in southern Peru, discussing the accommodations that the participants, largely indigenous Quechua-speakers, have made to the retreat of the glacier. He noted the participation of mountain communities in UNESCO events that promote indigenous knowledge as a tool to address climate change, and spoke of glaciers as a focus of the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere.

An Engaged Audience

After this panel discussion, Dinu opened the session to questions from the floor. The four people who spoke were all from mountain countries in Asia. Their remarks focused on their countries’ experience with the issues of hunger, climate and gender that the other speakers had raised, including the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the rapid response of mountain communities to assist each other, an innovative financing program involving the World Wildlife Fund and the private sector in Bhutan, knowledge sharing platforms in Tajikistan, and biodiversity programs in Kazakhstan.

Conversations after the meeting (source: Will Julian)

The permanent representatives, panelists and moderator all gave brief closing remarks. In addition to the serious reflections on issues of poverty and sustainability in the context of climate change, there were a few lighter notes, including Moldoisaeva’s invitation to the audience to attend the Third World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan in 2018.

After Dinu formally closed the event, people remained in the room for about 15 minutes. A staff member from one of the host countries commented to GlacierHub, “It’s not usual to see so many people stay around after a meeting. Ordinarily everyone is rushing off to their next appointment.” One small group formed to discuss migration issues in mountain countries. Several people commented to Orlove that they particularly appreciated his slides about the pilgrimage, because these cultural and spiritual dimensions of mountains are often neglected. Dinu received a number of compliments on her effective moderation of the session. And, as often seems to happen at UN events, many participants exchanged cards and promised to remain in touch. Such ties can support mountain issues in international forums in the future.

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Glacier Peaks as Symbols of Peace

Glacier peaks stand high and visible above areas of dense human population. To many people, they appear calm and serene, and in this way offer a vision of peace. Today, on International Day of Peace, celebrate the glaciers with us, recognizing the place the environment holds in our shared humanity.

 

The glaciers of Mont Blanc are located on the peaceful international border between France and Italy (Source: Ivan Borisov/Flickr).

 

The Argentière Glacier is a large alpine glacier within the Mont Blanc massif (Source: Olivier/Flickr).

 

Miage Glacier is another glacier within the Mont Blanc Massif (Source: X-Weinzar/Creative Commons)

 

The glaciers of Glacier National Park in Montana are located on the peaceful international border between the U.S. and Canada. In 1932, Glacier National Park was combined with Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta to form the world’s first International Peace Park (Source: Cody Wellons/Flickr).

 

A view of Grinnel Glacier, upper Grinnel Lake, Glacier National Park (Source: Katy Brady/Flickr).

 

A view of Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park (Source: Distress.bark/Creative Commons).

 

This year’s theme of International Day of Peace— “Together for Peace: Respect, Safety and Dignity for All”— extends to the world’s glaciers, which have been rapidly disappearing as a result of anthropogenic climate change.

 

A view of Mer de Glace in the Mont Blanc Massif, no longer a “sea of ice” (Source: Terekhova/Flickr).

 

One of Canada’s most prominent symbols of glacier retreat, Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, part of the Columbia Icefield that straddles the Continental Divide, continues to disappear (Source: InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr).

 

The remains of Shepard Glacier as seen from Pyramid Peak in Glacier National Park in 2005 (Source: USGS/Creative Commons).

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Narwhals in Scoresby Sound

A version of this post originally appeared on narwhals2017.com. It has been lightly edited and republished with permission by the researchers of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik).

In 2010, researchers discovered a good place in East Greenland to work with narwhals (Source: Carsten Egevang/Pinngortitaleriffik).

In 2010, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen and his colleague Hans Christian Schmidt discovered that Hjørnedal in Scoresby Sound in the Greenland Sea was an ideal place for the live capturing of narwhals. They have been capturing narwhals in West Greenland and Canada for 20 years but needed a good place in East Greenland where they could work with the whales. The first capturing and tagging of narwhals in East Greenland took place in Hjørnedal in 2010, and the locality quickly showed its potentials. There is usually good weather with little wind, and there is no ice that could make trouble in the nets used.

There are not as many narwhals in Scoresby Sound as at some of the other localities in the Arctic, but there were enough for their work, and– very importantly– there was a good group of Iñupiat hunters from Ittoqqortormiit that were willing to assist with the operations. Thus, the team decided to establish a small field station with two home-made houses for use during the month-long stay at the camp. In 2017, they set out to capture and tag at least 10 narwhals in Hjørnedal.

The project to research the narwhals was the biggest marine mammal venture ever undertaken by Pinngortitaleriffik (Source: Pinngortitaleriffik).

Outi Tervo, one of the project’s researchers, sailed around Scoresby Sound putting out listening buoys to record narwhal sounds. She also put Acousonde tags on the whales that deploy hydrophones to record narwhal sounds, and also depth and orientation sensors that tell how the narwhal moves when diving. In Hjørnedal, scientists and hunters took turns sitting at the top of the mountain scouting for narwhals. When one was spotted, everybody worked together in order to calmly lead the narwhals closer to shore where they were instrumented with satellite tags, Acousonde tags and heart-rate recorders.

The narwhal is a medium-sized whale in the Arctic known for its large tusk (Source: Daniel Fridriksson/Pinngortitaleriffik).

Researcher Eva Garde’s main function in the East Greenland narwhal project was as a narwhal-observer on the R/V “Pâmiut.” “Pâmiut” is the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources research vessel used mainly for open-water investigations of shrimp and Greenland halibut. The ship is a stern trawler furnished with wet and dry laboratories as well as computers, hydrographical equipment and other equipment relevant to collection and processing of samples. It departed from the dock in Reykjavik on 12 August heading for Scoresby Sound in East Greenland with a scheduled arrival 24-36 hours later.

The last bit of the fieldwork puzzle came together in August with the start of the aerial survey, adding yet another and final aspect to the list of narwhal related research in Scoresby Sound. The company where the researchers chartered the Twin Otter airplane was based in Akureyri, Iceland, and the team spent the first day installing the recording equipment in the plane. Yes, it took a whole day. The plane needed bubble windows so the observers could look directly under the plane, making sure that animals close to the plane were detected.

The team’s gear included a communication system, a video camera, a GPS tracking system and a recording device called a geometer (Source: Pinngortitaleriffik).

The team also had a communication system, a video camera, a custom-built GPS tracking system and a recording device called a geometer that they invented together with Icelandic colleagues. It worked this way: observers detected a whale, they then pressed a button on the geometer that recorded and logged the declination angle to the whale. Since the researchers flew at a fixed altitude (700 feet), using simple geometry gave them the distance to the whale. After the survey was completed, the team had frequency of distances, with more observations at shorter distance to the plane’s track line. These distances helped model the detection function for the observers and gave them an idea on how many whales the observers saw. This “distance sampling” technique is essential for estimating abundance of wildlife in large areas.

By using two observers on either side of the plane, the researchers also calculated the perception bias, i.e. how many whales are missed by the front or rear observer. Finally, they accounted for availability bias, i.e. some whales were unavailable to the observers because they were below the water surface as the plane flew over. The researchers used the percentage of time the whales spent at the surface with measurements from narwhals tagged with satellite transmitters in previous years in Hjørnedal.

Narwhals spend most of their time close to calving glaciers (Source: Pinngortitaleriffik).

After testing the equipment, the researchers were off toward Scoresby Sound. They started the survey in Gåsefjord, where they knew to look out for “Paamiut.” And there, after a few kilometers flown, they spotted the ship going into the fiord. Not long after, the team detected a group of narwhals. The whales moved slowly through the water, some in pairs, others alone. The researchers even spotted a mother with a newborn and an older calf, and counted approximately 30 whales in total. They seemed to just be hanging around in the small bay close to a calving glacier filling up the bay with icebergs. Since narwhals tend to spend most of their time close to calving glaciers, the researchers made sure to take pictures of all of the glaciers in the fiord. Well, the pilots took the pictures – the observers were busy searching for whales.

In Hjørnedal, scientists and hunters took turns scouting for narwhals (Source: Pinngortitaleriffik).

After finalizing the planned transects in Gåsefjord, the team left for Constable Point, making sure to land there while the airfield was open. They unpacked, looked at the muskox close by, had dinner and finished the securing of recorded data for the day. After sitting in the plane all day, they all needed to stretch their legs, so they decided to take a run along the airstrip. Since there was a polar bear at the airfield last week, they were all on the lookout for something large and white that moves, thinking next time to bring a flare gun…

For more information on the project, please view the researchers’ field diary at narwhals2017.com, recorded from four different field stations in Scoresby Sound and along the coast of East Greenland.

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Meet the Writers of GlacierHub, 2016/2017 Edition

GlacierHub writers and editors, 2017 (Source: Yurong Yu).

 

Here at Glacierhub we have a team of passionate writers and scientific explorers working hard to bring you original reporting on glaciers and the global impacts of climate change. With funding support from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, our writers cover stories about communities living near glaciers and the challenges brought about by glacier retreat.

During the fall and spring, GlacierHub is staffed by writers from Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Climate and Society program. In the summer, we recruit writers from diverse educational backgrounds to continue bringing you stories about the world’s glaciers and glacier retreat. We hope you enjoy this introduction to our GlacierHub team!

 

Meet our summer writers:

 

Will Julian (Source: Will Julian).

Will Julian recently earned his M.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. He came to GlacierHub through a patchwork of past work that includes a Chinese government climate change research center; a Haitian startup that seeks to convert agricultural waste into electricity; and summers riding horses and motorcycles in China’s glaciated Tian Shan mountains. While at GlacierHub, he was able to write about topics that aligned with his intellectual interests, ranging from the role of glaciers in indigenous Maori rituals to the historical importance of glaciers in shaping pan-Germanic ideology and changes in predator-prey dynamics in the Arctic.

 

Rachel Kaplan (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

Rachel Kaplan has a B.A. in Geology-Biology from Brown University, and is currently pursuing twin passions in polar fieldwork and science communication. The last few years have taken her to the Western Antarctic Peninsula to study microbial ecology, Alaska’s North Slope to research Arctic lakes, and many latitudes in between. Writing for GlacierHub has allowed her to expand her scientific horizons and explore topics as varied as seabird ecology, community preparedness for an eruption of Cotopaxi, and waste management for mountaineers on Denali. When not in the field or at a computer, Rachel enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and scuba diving.

 

Rosette Zarzar (Source: Rosette Zarzar).

Rosette Zarzar is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development. Writing for GlacierHub has given her a whole new perspective on the effects of global warming on glaciers and just how much glacial retreat can affect societies around the world. She has written about topics ranging from the closing of ski resorts due to glacial retreat to geopolitics in China and Tibet. Rosette hopes to pursue a law degree after her B.A. and work to protect the glaciers that she has been writing about all summer.

 

Meet our Fall 2016 – Spring 2017 writers from the Master of Arts in Climate and Society program at Columbia University:

 

Souvik Chatterjee (Source: Yurong Yu).

Souvik Chatterjee recently earned his M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University and is currently interning at the United Nations in the Department of Public Administration and Economic Development. His work at GlacierHub was great training and a worthwhile experience for the type of work he is doing now, researching information from different sources and writing documents that are about the same length as GlacierHub’s articles. During GlacierHub, Souvik wrote about glaciated volcanoes in Kamchatka and a new car named after the Stelvio Pass, which has many glaciers. These eclectic experiences made him a more well-rounded person and gave him unique interactions and experiences.

 

Holly Davison (Source: Yurong Yu).

Holly Davison graduated from Boston University in 2010 with a B.A. in Sociology and minors in Earth Sciences and French. After graduation, she worked in human resources at Next Jump Inc., a 200-person e-commerce company. She’s recently earned her master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University and is particularly interested in how natural disasters affect water quality, having been evacuated after a flood as a teenager. While at GlacierHub, Holly wrote about topics ranging from glacier tourism to a meltdown at a Canadian ice core facility. In her free time, she enjoys glassblowing and cooking.

 

Alexandra Harden (Source: Alexandra Harden).

Alexandra Harden wrote for GlacierHub during the Fall Semester 2016. She recently graduated from the Climate and Society program at Columbia University and holds a B.A. in Political Science and Writing and Rhetoric from Colgate University. Her previous work was in Boulder, Colorado, with the Consortium for Capacity Building, focusing on helping vulnerable communities mitigate and adapt to climate change. While at GlacierHub, she kept you covered on stories from iceberg killing fields to mapping landslides in the Himalayas.

 

Ben Marconi (Source: Ben Marconi).

Ben Marconi wrote for GlacierHub in fall 2016. He earned his B.S. in geology from Weber State University in Northern Utah and recently completed his M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. At GlacierHub, Ben reported on topics ranging from the controversy over summit certificates at Mt. Everest to extreme skiing expeditions. He is interested in defining paeloclimates during mass extinction periods to improve our current approach to mitigating climate change. While not working on these projects, Ben can be found skiing, climbing and running in Central Park.

 

Brianna Moland (Source: Brianna Moland).

Brianna Moland has an M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She is currently working as an intern with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. She learned so much about the way humans interact with glaciers by writing for GlacierHub. Some of her favorite posts involved communities that rely on glaciers for melt water, their natural beauty and their role in the Earth’s climate system. Brianna encourages anyone that is interested in environmental studies to check out GlacierHub, or consider writing as a part of its team.

 

Sarah Toh (Source: Yurong Yu).

Sarah Toh has a B.A. in Geography from Oxford University and recently earned her master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University. She is a curious person and started writing for GlacierHub because she wanted to learn about glaciers in different parts of the world. She has definitely been able to do that in her eight months with GlacierHub and has written about topics she did not anticipate, from krill poop to an old outdoor ice rink in New Zealand and an expedition on Spitsbergen. When she was not writing for GlacierHub, she could be found completing assignments, playing badminton and exploring New York City. She will be returning to Singapore, where (surprise, surprise) there are no glaciers, but she will be looking forward to continuing to read the work of the new writers at GlacierHub.

 

Yurong Yu (Source: Yurong Yu).

Yurong Yu earned her B.A. in Regional International Development in China. She recently graduated with her M.A. in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She is interested in the impact of climate change on regional areas, especially the Himalayas. Yurong feels the work done at GlacierHub is creative, innovative and fantastic. While at GlacierHub, Yurong wrote about many topics ranging from glacier animation to ice core evidence of copper smelting and growing glaciers.

 

And meet our editors:

 

Ben Orlove (Source: Yurong Yu)

Ben Orlove is the managing editor of GlacierHub and an anthropologist at Columbia University. He has conducted research in the Peruvian Andes for many years, and more recently has carried out field work in Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the Italian Alps. He also has carried out research in mountain areas in the western United States.

 

Ashley Chappo (Source: Ashley Chappo).

Ashley Chappo is the senior editor of GlacierHub. She is a 2016 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a dual degree master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Prior to GlacierHub, Ashley worked in the newsrooms of the New York Observer, World Policy Journal, and Manhattan Magazine, most recently covering the Arctic for the World Policy Institute’s Arctic in Context initiative. Her favorite part of working for GlacierHub is getting to know the talented writers and reading their stories about such diverse topics as penitentes found on Pluto to glaciers granted personhood status. You can follow Ashley on Twitter @ashleychappo or view her digital portfolio at ashleychappo.com.

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A Cryosphere Tour at the American Museum of Natural History

GlacierHub editor Ben Orlove recently led a cryosphere-centered tour of exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for 20 female students from high schools in the New York City area. The tour was part of the Brown Scholars program at the AMNH. This program, called BridgeUP: STEM, brings female students with interests in science and computers to the museum, where they take classes in programming, databases and data visualization. It offers sessions during the school year and over the summer. Students who complete BridgeUp can apply for internships at the museum. Orlove has recently begun a position as research associate in the division of anthropology at the AMNH, and will be spending time there during his upcoming sabbatical.

Greenland ice core in Hall of Planet Earth (source: AMNH).

As Yvonne De La Peña and Louise Crowley, the director and associate director of BridgeUp, explained to Orlove, the program began in 2014 with a $7.5 million grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust to the AMNH. In addition to the Brown Scholars program, the grant supports five women each year as Helen Fellows; they are advanced students from university science, computer science and entrepreneurship programs who work closely with BridgeUP: STEM. The Helen Fellows work with AMNH educators in a middle school after-school program for girls and boys in grades six through eight, drawing students from underserved New York schools and giving them exposure to STEM fields.

Louise Crowley explained the Brown Scholars program to GlacierHub. She said, “The Brown Scholars program differs from the multitude of programs that aim to teach computer programming, as our students have the opportunity to engage with museum research scientists, utilize current datasets and work on algorithms to answer some of the scientific questions being studied in this building. Moreover, behind-the-scenes tours of museum collections and scientist-led tours of exhibits engage these students enormously.”

This video presents the Brown Scholars program:

Brown scholars at the Greenland ice core in Hall of Planet Earth (source: Yvonne de la Peña).

Orlove’s tour on 17 July was designed to show students the range of research across the divisions of the museum and to present climate to them. It began in the Hall of Planet Earth, where the students examined an ice core from Greenland. Along with Orlove and the students, De La Peña, Senior Director Ruth Cohen , and two Helen Fellows, Lillie Schachter and Abby Mayer, took part in the tour.

They broke into four groups, each of which examined a different section of the core. The groups measured the thickest and thinnest annual year in their section and reported back, allowing the students to discuss climate variability and data records. Orlove spoke briefly about melting in the Greenland Ice Sheet, linking it to sea-level rise.

Bighorn sheep diorama in Hall of North American Mammals (source: AMNH).

The tour continued to the Hall of North American Mammals. At the east end, the students broke into four groups again, each looking at a different diorama— bighorn sheep, dall sheep, mountain goats and musk oxen— in which glaciers are displayed. They noted that the dioramas all depicted summer and fall conditions, when there was still snow to replenish the glaciers. Orlove indicated that in the decades the landscapes were recorded to produce these dioramas, the glaciers have retreated significantly.

Brown scholars at the Alaska Brown Bear diorama (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

At the west end of the Hall of North American Mammals, the tour focused on the diorama of the Alaska brown bear, set at Canoe Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. The students noted different components of this diorama: the high glaciated peaks in the background, the river that runs down from the peaks, a salmon caught by one of the two bears, and the bears themselves, one on all fours approaching the salmon, the other, further back, reared up on its hind legs. They put these elements together: meltwater from glaciers in the summer and fall provides flow to keep the river full and to support the salmon migration.

Brown scholars in the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

The tour continued to the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples, where the Siberian Peoples exhibits document a great reliance on animals. The students broke into different groups and identified the particular animals— reindeer, cattle, or horses, depending on the culture. They looked for cryosphere-related objects and found a few, most notably a sled with runners for travelling over snow.

Orlove explained that permafrost thawing in Siberia was similar to ice sheet melting in Greenland and glacier retreat in North America. It is leading to the growth of lakes and swamps, reducing the pasture for the reindeer, horses and cattle. And it is making the area even buggier, he told them, pointing to a large silver-handled whisk made of horsehair which could be used to chase flies or mosquitoes.

Yakut shaman exhibit in Stout Hall of Asian Peoples (source: AMNH).

The final stop on the tour was an exhibit of a Yakut healing ceremony led by a shaman. The students looked at the replica of a Yakut hut, with a woman lying ill on a bed. The shaman sat on a stool next to her; his assistant and a relative of the woman, dressed like the shaman in skin and fur garments, were gathered around. Orlove told the students that these kinds of healing ceremonies continue in Siberia to the present.

The group moved on to the BridgeUp study area, where the program provided pizza for lunch. The students discussed the reasons for the sequence of the tour: first ice, then animals, then people. The students talked at greatest length about the North American dioramas.

Brown Scholars in discussion with Helen Fellows and Ben Orlove after the cryosphere tour (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

One of the Helen Fellows, Lillie Schachter, began a discussion of climate change, prompted by the pizza lunch, and the students joined in. Sea-level rise could disrupt the ports through which food could be shipped, and weather extremes might impact on dairy cattle. The students had some awareness that cows might contribute to climate change themselves. The other Helen Fellow, Abby Meyer, opened the discussion to the data that the students were studying. She encouraged them to suggest variables that could link climate change and food. That led to a consideration of temperature, water and food prices.

In the time after that discussion, Orlove conferred with Schachter and Meyer for ways to improve the tour, which may be offered again. In the weeks after the tour, some ideas emerged. The similarities between the North American mammals and the animals of Siberia could be underscored, since they are all large herbivores. And the Alaska Brown Bear exhibit is set at a place called Canoe Bay; that, too, suggests a link between indigenous cultures and cryosphere sites. The data questions that Meyer raised are another promising lead. And perhaps there could be a data visualization project for the students.

Yvonne De La Peña told GlacierHub, “The tour and the discussion that followed were excellent opportunities for our students to better understand the impact of climate change. It was also a great way to take advantage of the museum’s resources to support students’ learning.” As she suggests, the AMNH, with its historic collections, continues to find ways to address the concerns of the present and future, as it reaches out to groups that have been underrepresented in science.

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A Visit to the Source of a Recent Glacier Flood in Nepal

Alton Byers discussed a recent glacier hazard in Nepal with GlacierHub. Byers is a senior research associate at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado and co-manager of High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP). He has been recognized as an Explorer by National Geographic. The account below is based on interviews with Byers and emails from Dhananjay Regmi, a geographer at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.

Langmale Glacier (source: Alton Byers).

On May 2, Daene McKinney, Dhananjay Regmi and Alton Byers flew from Dingboche over the Sherpani Col and into the upper Barun valley in the eastern Himalayas of Nepal in an effort to determine the source of an April 20 flood.

Dorje Sherpa, a resident of Yangle Kharka, reported that the lake burst around 1 p.m., flooding down the Barun River, and reached his village about a half-hour later. The settlements of Langmale, Zak Kharka and Rephuk Kharka remained largely undamaged, as did lodges in the area, but Yangle Kharka suffered a loss of at least three buildings and many hectares of valuable grazing land. Tematang, further downstream, is located on a high terrace and was fortunately spared damage. However, all local bridges were washed away.

Debris below lake on Langmale Glacier (source: Alton Byers).

The flood arrived at the confluence of the Barun and Arun Rivers around 4 p.m., where the debris dammed the Arun River, forming a temporary lake 2-3 km long. This setting is remote, a two-day walk from the district capital of Khandbari. The lake presented a serious threat, since it would have created a second, more destructive flood in the densely populated areas downstream had it breached the dam.

The government response was swift. Police reached the site on the morning of April 21 and started to plan how to protect the endangered communities. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Bimalendra Nidhi issued a directive to open the dam in order to reduce the threat of flooding. The Natural Disaster Rescue Committee, an organization within the Nepali Ministry of Home Affairs, met in Kathmandu to discuss the situation. Fortunately, the lake began to drain spontaneously around 2 p.m. on April 21, with some local flooding below, but far less than was feared.

Debris and scarring in Barun River valley (source: Alton Byers).

Rather than originating in the Lower Barun glacial lake or as a result of heavy rains and flooded tributaries, as some surmised, the flood’s trigger appears to have been two surficial glacial lakes on the Langmale Glacier just east of the Langmale settlement area, most likely supplemented by englacial conduit and subglacial conduit, as in the Lhotse glacier flood Byers observed and recorded last June. The combined volume of water cascaded over the Langmale’s terminal moraine, creating a huge torrent that picked up more material and debris as it cascaded down the Barun River channel, carving out massive new river channels and flooding large areas of grazing and forest land.

Damage at Yangle Kharka (source: Alton Byers).

Regmi and Byers spoke with 16 villagers in Yangle Kharka, who said that they would be rebuilding them and returning home soon. The villagers expressed deep concern about the impacts of the flood on the coming tourist season. The damaged trails and bridges make it difficult for local porters and foreign trekkers to reach the region, and the dramatically changed landscapes, with landslide scars, are less visually appealing to tourists.

Dhananjay Regmi interviewing a local resident at Yangle Kharka (source: Alton Byers).

McKinney, Regmi and Byers were only able to fly another 10 km or so down valley because of fuel shortages before returning to the upper Barun and Khumbu, but they noticed another very large and fresh torrent scar on the right bank of the Barun. They plan to study it as well and learn more about its possible role in the accumulation of debris and creation of the lake.  Through this research, they hope to contribute to the active discussion of glacier hazard mitigation in Nepal and other mountain regions in the Himalayas and around the world.

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Ice-Spy: Declassified Satellite Images Measure Glacial Loss

U.S. spy pilot, Gary Powers (RIAN/Creative Commons).
U.S. spy pilot, Gary Powers (RIAN/Creative Commons).

Since the 1960s, images from spy satellites have been replacing the use of planes for reconnaissance intelligence missions. Making the transition from planes to satellites was prompted by an infamous U-2 incident during the Cold War when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet air space. Five days later, after considerable embarrassment and controversy, President Eisenhower approved the first launch of an intelligence satellite, part of a new scientific electronic intelligence system termed ELINT. Today, declassified images from satellites have resurfaced to support scientific research on glaciers and climate change.

Scientists from Columbia University and the University of Utah created 3-D images of glaciers across the Himalayas, and Bhutan specifically, by using satellite imagery to track glacial retreat related to climate change. Joshua Maurer et al. published the results of their Bhutan study in The Cryosphere to help fill in the gaps of “a severe lack of field data” for Eastern Himalayan glaciers.

Looking down the valley from a glacier the team visited in Bhutan in 2012 (Source: Joshua Maurer).
Looking down the valley from a glacier the team visited in Bhutan in 2012 (Source: Joshua Maurer).

Being able to understand and quantify ice loss trends in isolated mountain areas like Bhutan requires physical measurements that are currently not available due to complex politics and rugged terrain. Luckily, the scientists found an alternative route to reach their measurement goals by comparing declassified spy satellite images from 1974 with images taken in 2006 using the ASTER, Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, a spaceborne imaging instrument aboard NASA’s earth-observing Terra satellite.

Bhutan has hundreds of glaciers and glacial lakes. Physical data collection can be a daunting process in such a region considering the vast quantity of glaciers in combination with freezing weather conditions and high winds. The lead researcher of the Bhutan study, Joshua Maurer from Columbia University, experienced firsthand the logistical challenges associated with directly measuring changes in glacial ice density when conducting research on glacial change in the remote and high-altitude regions of Bhutan. Inspired by this difficult experience, Maurer collaborated with other scientists from the University of Utah to find alternative methods for quantifying trends in glacial ice density.

Camera system for a Discoverer-Corona spy satellite (Tim Evanson/Creative Commons).
Camera system for a Discoverer-Corona spy satellite (Tim Evanson/Creative Commons).

Maurer and the team of researchers devised a strategy to use declassified satellite images to collect data by a process of photogrammetry, the use of photographs to survey and measure distances. More than 800,000 images from the CORONA Satellite program, taken in the 1970s and 1980s, have been sent to the U.S. Geological Survey from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and made available to the public.

Several advanced mathematical tools are necessary for making measurements from raw image files. For this particular study, the team used the declassified photos from the 1970s to track changes in glacial ice coverage over time when compared to more recent images from the Hexagon Imagery Program database taken by the Swiss-based Leica Geosystems’ airborne sensors in 2006. Once a timeline was created from the pictures, measurements were made using NASA’s space tool ASTER. This method, Maurer argues, is the solution for measuring massive amounts of hard-to-access data.

Landsat 8 satellite image, with studied glaciers outlined in white (Source: Joshua Maurer).
Landsat 8 satellite image, with studied glaciers outlined in white (Source: Joshua Maurer).

But making precise measurements integrating several sets of images from different periods of time is no simple task. Pixel blocks, minute areas of illuminations from which images are composed, were processed to correspond with regions designated on the film. The blocks of pixels were then selected to maximize coverage of glaciers and avoid regions with cloud cover. Computer-generated algorithms transform these blocks of image into measurements using automated point detectors and descriptors.

Images from the declassified satellite database may suffer from a lack of clarity, so it was also important for the researchers to address these issues. For example, debris-covered glaciers are difficult to distinguish from surrounding terrain using visible imagery only. Furthermore, loud cover and poor radiometric sensing data in remote areas can prevent complete observation. In order to address challenges like these, images were analysed by a computer and then manually edited to more accurately match glacial extent in the year that the image was taken. In order to prevent statistical errors, the research team focused on a select sample size of glaciers representative of the area being studied.

Satellite image analysis like that performed in Bhutan has become increasingly important in the study of climate change. In terms of glaciers, these analyses have proven valuable to scientists in reaching otherwise hard to access data. The main findings of the study were that glacial retreat in the last fifty years is significantly contributing to the creation of glacial lakes in the East Himalayan region and associated flood outbursts. A glacial lake outburst flood is a type of flood that occurs when the dam containing a glacial lake fails due to a buildup of water pressure. Bhutan has low lying river planes that are vulnerable to such floods, so measuring ice loss can help scientists identify which dams are at risk of bursting. This can further help policy makers take appropriate action to mitigate potential disaster.

Declassified Corona spy satellite image from the year 1974 showing the glaciers in Bhutan (Source:Joshua Maurer).
Declassified Corona spy satellite image from the year 1974 showing the glaciers in Bhutan (Source: Joshua Maurer).

Following the successful completion of the Bhutan study, Maurer and his team were granted additional funding from a NASA Earth and Space Science fellowship to expand the same methodology to other regions of the Himalayas. Understanding ice loss is important, and the effort to overcome logistical barriers is worthwhile.

“Ice loss will impact hydropower, agriculture, and ecosystems in the region,” Maurer told GlacierHub. Understanding the glacial ice balance in the Himalayan region and the rates of ice loss assists adaption plans for building strategic dams and reservoirs for seasonal water storage. These actions could result in more people being better off, more people receiving reliable electricity, and a reduced risk of moraine dam outbursts.

While observation of changing trends in glacier mass may not be complete, the information that is available due to declassified spy satellite imagery positively contributes to the Himalayan people’s capabilities regarding future impacts linked to ice loss, according to Maurer et al. Overall, results from spy satellite images have enhanced the understanding of potential glacier contribution to sea-level rise, impacts on water resources, and hazard potential for high mountain regions and downstream populations in Asia.

 

 

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