In August 2019, Pakistan successfully established a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme on Koshik Glacier in the Karakoram – a 5-km long clean glacier accessible from the Karakoram highway. The glacier met the requirements for a benchmark glacier provided by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS): clean, with uncomplicated geometry, accessible, and representative of glaciers in the entire region.
ICIMOD’s Cryosphere Initiative – supported by the Government of Norway and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – has been closely working with Karakoram International University (KIU), the Institute of International Rivers and Eco-Security, Yunnan University, and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) to initiate a long-term cryosphere monitoring programme in Pakistan. A team of researchers from these institutions conducted initial activities from 23 July to 20 August 2019 for long-term measurements, including installing stakes to measure glacier ablation and accumulation for mass balance. Rain gauges were installed close to the glacier to measure total precipitation. Similarly, Differential GPS surveys were conducted on the glacier surface to monitor glacier surface elevation change.
Snow and ice are important sources of water for domestic use, agriculture, and hydropower operation in Pakistan. With 7,253 known glaciers, Pakistan has the largest area under ice cover of any country in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH). As individual glaciers shrink and fragment into multiple glaciers because of rising global temperatures, this figure is bound to increase. However, an increase in the number of glaciers is not the same as increased volume; it is more indicative of declining glacier health. Only a handful of these glaciers are monitored long term and there is no ground-based, long-term glacier observation programme in Pakistan.
At least 30 years of data are needed to understand the trends and impacts of climate change. Long-term cryosphere data helps make sense of changes in the cryosphere and develop forecasts to inform progressive adaptation policies and mitigation actions. ICIMOD is working with regional partners to establish long-term cryosphere monitoring in HKH countries. Cryosphere monitoring activities were first established in Nepal in 2011, and this was replicated for a similar programme in Bhutan in 2015. Afghanistan also started long-term cryosphere monitoring activities in early 2019, with ICIMOD providing technical backstopping.
A common challenge across HKH countries is the lack of experienced personnel to conduct cryosphere monitoring activities. ICIMOD and partners regularly conduct training on glacier monitoring to address his gap, and such trainings continue to be in high demand across the region as countries begin to understand the importance of monitoring their cryosphere.
I am a glaciologist and planetary scientist, now at the Planetary Science Institute, formerly at the University of Arizona and US Geological Survey. I cofounded, then directed Global Land Ice Measurements from Space. My work involves remote sensing and field studies of glaciers, glacial lakes, and landslides. I apply science to human concerns when earthquakes hit mountains, glacial lakes burst, landslides and avalanches dam rivers, or when mountain disasters destroy oil pipelines, highways, villages and military bases.
My earliest University studies in geology taught me about natural coal ages and ice ages. I became concerned about human-caused climate change in the 1980s when the scientific community’s alarm amped up about industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The basic physics is not complex. Human-caused global warming was predicted in the 1890s by Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin. They recognized that fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor explain the ice ages and interglacials, and that industrial emissions of carbon dioxide eventually would alter Earth’s climate.
If not for greenhouse gases, the Earth would be gripped by a permanent global ice age. But if too much of these gases are added rapidly, then climate change is injurious. Venus, where surface temperatures are near 750 degrees F, has an extreme “super-greenhouse.” Mars, on the other hand, has so little greenhouse gas that, together with its greater distance from the Sun, keeps it more frigid than Antarctica.
Global climate is normally regulated by geology and Earth’s rotational wobble, solar physics, and Jupiter’s gravitational tug on our planet’s orbit. The drift of continents and emissions of volcanic gases can cause the climate balance to be tipped toward a full ice age; or to a full hot house, where rain wears down the continents and mountains are partly replaced by global swamps— organic accumulations then eventually form coal, oil, and natural gas. These swings happen naturally, primarily slowly, and life adapts accordingly.
Civilization has grown during a relatively stable climate. Small natural climate swings have caused famines, desertification, and spread of grasslands, affecting nomadic, agricultural, and urban societies. Natural climate changes have caused civilizations to collapse, including a 13th century mega-drought induced failure of the Anasazi and other Pre-European Native cultures in and near my state of Arizona.
In 2004— a US Presidential election year— my agency (USGS) caved in to the climate change denialism of President George W. Bush, a former oilman, who apparently didn’t want understanding of greenhouse gases and a warming planet to spread among the public. Public communications about the science of glaciers and climate change were stymied. I resigned my civil servant position so that nobody could dictate my public communications. Never one to tolerate either climate change exaggeration or climate change obfuscation, I did not participate in the minimization and hiding of evidence for climate change. I always thought that the modern global economy can adapt and mitigate 21st century impacts from a couple degrees of human-caused climate warming. (And we can if we are smart about it.)
Around 2005, I started paying attention to the continuing work by Dr. Jennifer Francis (then at Rutgers University, now Woods Hole Research Center). The melting of Arctic sea ice, predicted in 1981 by Jim Hansen and colleagues, already was underway. Francis had linked the fast-warming Arctic and melting sea ice to shifts in the behavior of Earth’s jet streams — the great rivers of stratospheric air that guide storms, speed eastward-bound airliners, and slow westward flights. The now familiar, dreaded, related winter weather phenomena known as snowmaggedons, polar vortex disruptions, and bomb cyclones also had begun, and extreme drought and heat waves in both summer and winter were being reinforced by slowly moving or stationary and wildly meandering jet streams— the kind of extreme weather that Francis with colleagues has explained, other climatologists have also supported, and which the public is grasping in terms of consequences.
I was not thinking about abruptly changing behaviors of the gigantic currents of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. In 2005, I thought that climate change was gradual and readily manageable. I was wrong. I didn’t consider nonlinear effects— the tipping points— that climate change would have on individual components of the Earth system.
Hurricane Katrina hit also in 2005, and since then a succession of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have struck North America and Asia, and year-upon-year of ever-warmer, record-warm conditions have hit worldwide. The climate and extreme weather news just in 2019 and 2020 is alarming not just to scientists but to a wider public. Jennifer Francis is onto something big, as she has connected climate change to extreme weather with a climatological understanding as almost nobody else had previously done. Forest fires have raged seasonally on six continentsat levels that previously were uncommon or historically unprecedented. Wildfires have become an increasingly frequent feature of the past two decades’ evening news in California, Alaska, Australia, Scandinavia, and Siberia. Wildfire links to climate change are understood scientifically and were predictedand are also understood by the public.
As if the changing atmospheric circulation isn’t enough, there is increasing evidence that some ocean currents are changing from historic behavior. In 2014 I attributed part of the variability in glacier behavior to regional adjustments of ocean currents to shifting global climate. Overall, glaciers started melting 150 years ago in response to a modest natural warming episode earlier in the 19th century, and since the 1990s the melting binge has speeded dramatically. This behavior recently extends to the Greenland ice sheetand parts of Antarctica.
A finely tuned Earth system from a century ago has become more disrupted than at any time in human civilization, by some measures more than since modern humans (Homo sapiens) have lived, and by other measures more than going back halfway to the age of dinosaurs. Carbon dioxide levels assure that much more change is pent up and is coming our way.
My confession is that the signs and the models were in place by 2005, but I was still thinking in gradualistic terms. I was not thinking about abruptly changing behaviors of the gigantic currents of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. In 2005, I thought that climate change was gradual and readily manageable. I was wrong. I didn’t consider nonlinear effects— the tipping points— that climate change would have on individual components of the Earth system. My change of perspective stemmed partly from my own research into melting glaciers and the roles of exceptional heat or rain in triggering glacier surges, ice avalanches, and glacial lake outbursts, and that these processes involve climate-tipping points and glaciological tipping points. But then there were record breaking hot summers and drought in my home state of Arizona, and record breaking wildfires nearby in California. Those are just the impacts I personally deal with every year. Globally there are so many 500-year floods, 500-year droughts, unprecedented firestorms, so many $10 billion and $100 billion hurricanes that we forget their names, and bizarre weather patterns that have no place in history. At some point, we run out of excuses that it’s just an anomaly for this, and a different anomaly for that. The recognition hits: the data on greenhouse gases and global warming connect to the climate models, and the models connect to the observed rise in extreme weather, and lately, to burning koalas and kangaroos.
are by nature cautious in our technical work. However, it can become
misleading, even unethical, to leave the public with what to them is a
confusing concept of statistical uncertainties and error bars and confidence
limits; our language must not obscure the underlying understanding and urgency
that the scientific community has about what is happening and why and what is
will not turn into a Venus, but my planetary science mind definitely sees how
rain forests turn to deserts, how nations lose their food supplies, and wars
erupt. The climate system is in upheaval, and global climate change has global
economic reach of course. As a scientist, I see that the gap between climate models
and extreme weather observations is not yet closed at the local and regional
levels. It is locally and regionally where the most serious impacts of climate
change nonlinearities— the tipping points— are being felt. In politics, as a
famous American House Speaker once said, “All politics is local.” In climate,
we ought to take the same approach to inform public understanding. People care
about burning koalas, but they will vote on climate change when they see the
Fifteen years after my enlightenment, we have more than a crisis, arguably not yet an apocalypse. The planet has been through worse. But humanity, aside maybe from Homo robustus, has never witnessed such drastic changes to our environment, a period now known to geologists as the Anthropocene. Civilization is slowly preparing, but not on a schedule to match climate change’s impacts on people, dollars, and nature.
Scientists, economists, engineers, and business people— and many politicians— know what should be done and how to do it. We can affordably transform our economy to move off fossil fuels. Most nations want to do this. Roadblocks against international climate change agreements and national policy initiatives are erected by crafty saboteurs, who use “manufactured doubt” about climate change. They implement myriad infrastructural supports and subsidies for 20th century technologies to keep the world hooked on fossil fuels.
It might be too late. I am not of a view that is already clearly too late. Too late for what? The worst? No, it is not too late to make things worse. After a depressing January, my almost irrepressable optimism is reasserting that we can chart and follow a better course. Politicians will come onboard, pressured by public opinion and climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. Maybe this year’s record-breaking, nature-killing, sea-to-sea-to-sea bushfires across Australiawill awaken politicians there. It’s something everywhere, every year.
Though there are hopeful political glimmers in China, the U.S. and elsewhere, the corporate world may be issuing a mandate for the needed changes. Though still attracting climate activists’ skepticism, a rather believable and substantive action plan has been announced by the $7 trillion BlackRock investments— the world’s largest investment group. Climate activists’ pressure is needed to assure follow through. Around the world, no matter what the economic system, people— powerful people especially— respond to where money flows. Furthermore, the rich and powerful have children, too. Maybe the message is getting across.
A new postdoctoral fellowship seeks applicants interested in probing the timescales of human interactions with cryospheric change. The University of Oregon-led project will take an interdisciplinary approach, noting geographers and related fields would be really well-positioned, and are open to researchers in social sciences, humanities, or natural sciences. The deadline to apply is February 17.
By Mark Carey and Dave Sutherland
GlacierHub readers are aware that glaciers are shrinking and that this cryospheric change has far-reaching implications for people living close to and far from the ice and snow. The recent IPCC special report on oceans and the cryosphere makes this abundantly clear, noting that melting ice in high-mountain and Polar regions affects “food security, water resources, water quality, livelihoods, health and well-being, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and recreation, as well as culture of human societies, particularly for Indigenous peoples.” Research on the societal and physical dimensions of ice keeps expanding, offering more precise pictures not only of the ice change itself but also the ways people are affected and responding.
Frequently, though, discussions about glacier retreat and human resilience to the ice loss can miss some of the nuance in the timing and timescales of these processes. Reports about glacier size, retreating terminus positions, increased calving, reductions in glacier runoff, and slope instability in the periglacial environment often adhere to long-term linear chronologies and focus on decadal timescales. They might go back a few decades or to the end of the Little Ice Age to document past glacier terminus positions and illustrate ice loss. Or, the accounts provide projections of ice loss moving forward, usually trying to understand processes and impacts to the year 2100, or perhaps an earlier date when the glaciers might disappear altogether.
Yet there are other aspects of the timing and timescales of glacier loss that have received less attention in recent years. Glaciers do of course change over decades, centuries, and millennia. But they also have “weather,” with daily variations due to solar heating and melt, seasonal variations that result in more water in certain months, and longer term changes due to natural and anthropogenic factors.
People living near glaciers also operate under their own temporalities, which often do not align with the “natural” temporalities of ice environments. Fishing communities react to daily, weekly, and seasonal changes of glacier runoff and iceberg calving into fjords. Hydroelectric companies must overcome effects of glacier fluctuations on downstream hydrology so they can boost energy production every weekday evening for peak electricity consumption. Irrigators, too, have different water needs based on their seasonal and crop-specific water needs. And they must adjust to daily, seasonal, annual, and decadal changes to glacier runoff, which influences the quantity and timing of water flowing into their fields. Tourism also has its unique temporalities, usually concentrated in summer months or tied to some other specific seasonal constraint that may have little or everything to do with snow and ice conditions, particularly for access or safety. In all of these cases, there are wildly distinct environmental and societal timescales that interact, intertwine, or collide with different people differently.
Dave Sutherland (oceanographer) and Mark Carey (historian) have just launched a new project at the University of Oregon that seeks to understand these divergent, multiple, and constantly changing temporalities. The project explores glacier fluctuations from both a physical science perspective and societal lens. What is the impact of cryospheric change and ice loss on local communities in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska region? How do we reconcile the long-term trends in glacier change with observed short-term variations, and how do the short-term changes affect various social groups differently? To make progress on these questions, this project will develop a nuanced, time-focused approach to glacier change.
A key part of this project is the hiring of a new postdoctoral fellow to join their team at the University of Oregon. Applications are due by February 17, 2020. The postdoc will help study the timing and timescales of glacier and societal change in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Sutherland and Carey will both co-mentor the postdoctoral fellow for this integrated, interdisciplinary research. The postdoctoral fellow may come from any discipline provided they have interdisciplinary inclinations and training. They will be integrated into both Sutherland’s Oceans and Ice Lab and Carey’s Glacier Lab, making this a truly interdisciplinary research experience.
Ultimately, this research project and postdoc will implement the frequent calls for integrated, interdisciplinary research. They will examine the scientific issues of glacier change and its impacts on various marine and land-based ecosystems, as well as analyzing how different stakeholders and human groups are affected by the timing of specific changes in socio-cryospheric systems. Resilience, in short, hinges as much on short-term planning for these various contingencies as it does on long-term planning for glacier shrinkage, future runoff reduction, and sea-level rise—the issues we usually hear most about with climate change and ice loss.
We need to understand how glaciers are shrinking in order to better adapt to climate change impacts such as changes to water supply, landslides and avalanches, says Professor Andreas Kääb, a glacier expert from the University of Oslo in Norway.
Measuring ice melt and the unprecedented changes in our cryosphere––the frozen parts of the planet which regulate the climate by reflecting the sun’s heat––is crucial for understanding future situations, he says.
We spoke to Prof. Kääb about the importance of the cryosphere and what we know about how it’s changing.
‘Glaciers are typically found comparably close to where people live. That means their changes affect people quite directly.’
‘Glaciers are typically found comparably close to where people live. That means their changes affect people quite directly.’
Professor Andreas Kääb, University of Oslo, Norway
Why is the cryosphere important?
‘The cryosphere––that is glaciers and ice sheets, snow, sea ice, permafrost, and lake and river ice––and changes of the cryosphere affect the lives of hundreds (of) millions (of people) and many ecosystems in various direct and indirect ways. Seasonal or year-round snow covers around 45 million sq km, and glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets an additional 15 million sq km, together (constituting) around 40% of the Earth’s land area.
‘Importantly, most ice on Earth is very close to melting conditions, a few degrees below 0°C, and thus reacts very sensitively to changes in air temperatures. Small temperature changes can trigger melt and (large) environmental changes. Sea level change through increased melt of glaciers and ice sheets is certainly the most far-reaching effect of ice melt on Earth.’
How are sea levels changing?
‘Melting of glaciers, (and) the two ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica contributes to more than half of the currently measured sea level rise and they are projected to contribute more. The other half is thermal expansion––as the ocean gets warmer it expands––and all this sea level change affects people around the world, especially in coastal areas, (and) even if living far away from the melting ice.
‘Mean sea level is projected to rise about 1 metre by 2100 and will threaten coastal societies. How much the ocean would rise in (the) case of an, unrealistic, complete melt of the Antarctic ice sheet is around 60m.’
What are the other impacts of ice melt?
‘In terms of more local effects, there are a number of hazards relating to glaciers and thawing permafrost that we expect to increase. For instance, if glaciers retreat they leave steep mountain flanks uncovered so there is debris and rocks that are set to destabilise. So, we expect more rockfalls or debris flows from such areas.
‘Greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost are much less understood, but could have an equally wide, actually global, impact by enhancing manmade emissions.
‘Then there are also hazard situations that could actually improve. (Ice avalanches from glaciers) can destroy infrastructure, houses and kill people. But (there’s) the extreme case (where) if a glacier retreats very much, then the hazard from related ice avalanches could actually reduce.’
Do you think we have passed a tipping point when it comes to ice melt?
‘The term tipping point is a bit controversial, because in most cases we don’t really know. Another term that is better is what the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) uses––committed (climate) change. So, climate change that man has contributed to has committed changes to the future.
‘That means the excess energy that mankind has already caused (through greenhouse gas emissions capturing the sun’s heat) will commit a long-term change in glaciers, ice sheets and ocean temperatures. Change that, let’s say, over a hundred years is irreversible. Even if we change our emissions now, a lot of ice melting has been committed.’
You focus on glaciers. Why do we need to understand glacier change?
‘Glaciers are typically found comparably close to where people live. That means their changes affect people quite directly. Understanding glacier change helps to adapt to related climate change impacts such as changes in dry-season run-off and water supply, changes in glacial landslides and avalanches, or changes in the touristic value of glaciers.
‘Glaciers reflect climate change in a very visible and clear way. Their shrinkage has become for good reason an icon of climate change. For scientists, glaciers are important to illustrate climate change and make it understandable for a large audience.’
You were the coordinator of ICEMASS, a project using satellite imagery to measure and analyse changes to glaciers. How did you analyse change?
‘We have increasingly more and more different satellite data, and what the satellites measure is very different. My main goal, my main achievement, of the ICEMASS project was actually bringing different data together and integrating them. For instance, we use optical satellite images repeatedly to measure glacier flow. This works perfectly fine unless you have cloud cover or polar night (24-hour darkness). Then we use radar images that penetrate through clouds for the same purpose. But this does not give us the volume of glaciers.
‘For that we use, among others, satellites that shoot laser beams, like your laser pointer, and they measure the return time of this signal. The signal is sent from a satellite, bounces (off) the glacier surface, and comes back to the satellite. The time difference is directly related to the distance from the satellite to the (glacier surface). So, if you know the satellite position very well, which we do, then you can measure the height. And if you do that, over time, repeatedly, you get also the changes in glacier thickness and volume.’
And what did you find?
‘For me, personally, the most important results are more regional scale results. We developed glacier volume changes over a number of areas where little was known before. One of the examples that made it into the Nature journal, for instance, was glacier volume changes over the Himalayas and Central Asia. There was a lot of different numbers around for these melting glaciers––some actually massively contradicted each other––from very little change to massive change. And we (really) narrowed this uncertainty down.’
What did your project reveal about the state of glaciers around the world?
‘We found glacier mass loss in almost all regions we looked at. Unexpected large losses we measured in the European Arctic, on Svalbard. The massive retreat of sea ice in this sector of the Arctic raises air temperatures at a rate of roughly double the global average. The result is glacier melt rates (that are) much higher than one would expect so far north. In addition, about half of the glacier mass loss comes not from direct glacier melt but from glaciers that massively increased their ice flow and thus their ice discharge into the ocean.
‘(We found) unexpected low changes in glacier mass, lower than the global average, in parts of Central Asia, in the Karakoram, Pamir, and western parts of Tibet. There is even a region where glaciers grow a little bit. By also measuring changes of lakes without direct river outflow, we could show that the region received in recent years more precipitation, which let the lakes and the glaciers grow, despite air temperatures increasing at the same time.’
This year’s IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere says climate change will cause up to 80% loss of glaciers in some places by the year 2100. What can research do to help society prepare for this future melting?
‘Carbon dioxide levels are much higher than they have been for the last 1 million years or more. This means our climate is at a stage where we don’t have historical experience to build sound statistics on extreme events. So, we need to monitor more what is going on now and then we need to better model future scenarios.
‘The EU has their own fleet of satellites, the Sentinels within the Copernicus programme. They are really a game changer because before them there were mostly occasional scientific satellites.
‘These EU satellite constellations, in my experience, help develop models and strategies for really long-term perspectives. (We need these) satellites to allow for the long-term, consistent, observations that we need to predict and adapt to climatic changes.’
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This Q&A was written by Steve Gillman and originally appeared in Horizon Magazine.The research in this article was funded by the EU’s European Research Council.
Bushfires raging in Australia have taken their toll on New Zealand’s glaciers. Smoke and dust from the fires drifted across the Tasman Sea and settled on glaciers in New Zealand more than 1,300 miles away. Ash covering glaciers in New Zealand is visible in photos published to Twitter. In the images, the snow and ice appears as a pinkish color.
Australia has experienced a severe bushfire season. At least 18 people have died, over 1,000 homes destroyed, millions of livestock lost, and over 15 million acres of land has burned. The smoke and dust-laden glaciers of New Zealand are representative of the second-order effects of the bushfires in Australia.
The distance the smoke and ash have traveled and the extent to which they have blanketed glaciers in New Zealand speaks to the severity of the Australian bushfires. This coating of smoke and ash poses a significant threat to New Zealand’s glaciers. It settles as black carbon, which darken glaciers’ snow and ice, absorbing heat and contributing to increased rates of melting and extending the melt season.
The smoke from the fires rose high into the atmosphere and could be seen from space. Some regions of Brazil became covered in thick smoke that closed airports and darkened city skies.
As the rainforest burns, it releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and larger particles of so-called “black carbon” (smoke and soot). The phrase “enormous amounts” hardly does the numbers justice – in any given year, the burning of forests and grasslands in South America emits a whopping 800,000 tonnes (880,000 U.S. tons) of black carbon into the atmosphere.
This truly astounding amount is almost double the black carbon produced by all combined energy use in Europe over 12 months. Not only does this absurd amount of smoke cause health issues and contribute to global warming but, as a growing number of scientific studies are showing, it also more directly contributes to the melting of glaciers.
In a new paper published November 28, 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers has outlined how smoke from fires in the Amazon in 2010 made glaciers in the Andes melt more quickly.
When fires in the Amazon emit black carbon during the peak burning season (August to October), winds carry these clouds of smoke to Andean glaciers, which can sit higher than 3 miles (5,000 meters) above sea level.
Despite being invisible to the naked eye, black carbon particles affect the ability of the snow to reflect incoming sunlight, a phenomenon known as albedo. Similar to how a dark-colored car will heat up more quickly in direct sunlight when compared with a light-colored one, glaciers covered by black carbon particles will absorb more heat, and thus melt faster.
By using a computer simulation of how particles move through the atmosphere, known as HYSPLIT, the team was able to show that smoke plumes from the Amazon are carried by winds to the Andes, where they fall as an invisible mist across glaciers. Altogether, they found that fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5% increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia.
Crucially, the authors also found that the effect of black carbon depends on the amount of dust covering a glacier – if the amount of dust is higher, then the glacier will already be absorbing most of the heat that might have been absorbed by the black carbon. Land clearing is one of the reasons that dust levels over South America doubled during the 20th century.
The tropical belt of South America is predicted to become more dry and arid as the climate changes. A drier climate means more dust, and more fires. It also means more droughts, which make towns more reliant on glaciers for water.
Unfortunately, as the above study shows, the fires assisted by dry conditions help to make these vital sources of water vanish more quickly. The role of black carbon in glacier melting is an exceedingly complex process – currently, the climate models used to predict the future melting of glaciers in the Andes do not incorporate black carbon. As the authors of this new study show, this is likely causing the rate of glacial melt to be underestimated in many current assessments.
With communities reliant on glaciers for water, and these same glaciers likely to melt faster as the climate warms, work examining complex forces like black carbon and albedo changes is needed more now than ever before.
The glaciers, atop a mountain near Puncak Jaya, on the western half of the island of New Guinea, have been melting for years, Thompson said. But that melt increased rapidly due in part to a strong 2015-2016 El Niño, a phenomenon that causes tropical ocean water and atmospheric temperatures to get warmer. El Niños are natural phenomena, but their effects have been amplified by global warming.
The study suggests that the glacier will disappear in the next 10 years, most likely during the next strong El Niño.
Thompson said it is likely that other tropical glaciers, such as those on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Quelccaya in Peru, will follow.
“I think the Papua, Indonesia, glaciers are the indicator of what’s going to happen around the world,” Thompson said.
Thompson and his team have been monitoring the glacier since 2010, when they drilled ice cores to determine the composition and temperature of the atmosphere around the glacier throughout history. Even then, the glacier was shrinking. That melt started at least 150 years ago, Thompson said, but has quickened in the last decade. The researchers found signs of melting at both the top of the glacier and at the bottom.
During the 2010 drilling expedition, the team installed a string of PVC pipe sections, connected by a rope, into the ice. Their idea was to measure how much ice had been lost by periodically measuring the rope sections left uncovered as the ice melted.
When the stake was measured in November 2015, about five meters of rope had been uncovered, meaning that the glacier surface was melting at a rate of about one meter per year. A team went back in May 2016, and saw that an additional approximately 4.26 meters of rope had been uncovered––a rapid increase in melting over just six months.
The team also measured the extent of the glacier’s melt by measuring its surface area, which shrank by about 75 percent from 2010 to 2018. The ice field had shrunk so much that by 2016 it had split into two smaller glaciers. Then, in August 2019, a mountain climber scaling the peak took a photo of the glacier, showing its near disappearance.
“The glacier’s melt rate is exponentially increasing,” Thompson said. “It’s similar to visiting a terminal cancer patient, and documenting the change in their body, but not being able to do anything about it.”
Globally, glacier melt is a major contributor to sea level rise, which, along with warming ocean waters, can lead to more frequent and more intense storms.
Thompson said the mountaintop glaciers around the world contribute between a third and a half of the annual sea level rise in the Earth’s oceans.
“They are much more vulnerable to the rising temperatures because they’re small and they’re warmer––they’re closer to the melting threshold,” he said. “Ice is just a threshold system. It is perfectly happy at freezing temperatures or below, but everything changes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Climate change has increased the temperature of the atmosphere, which means the air around the glacier is warmer. But it has also changed the altitude at which rain turns to snow. That means that where snow once fell on top of the glacier, helping rebuild its ice year-by-year, rain is now falling. That rainfall is the kiss of death for a glacier.
“It’s similar to visiting a terminal cancer patient, and documenting the change in their body, but not being able to do anything about it.”
Water absorbs more energy––more heat––from the sun than snow does, so increasing the water on top of the glacier warms the glacier even more, accelerating the melting of the remaining ice.
“If you want to kill a glacier, just put water on it,” Thompson said. “The water basically becomes like a hot water drill. It goes right through the ice to the bedrock. So, when water starts to accumulate on top of the glacier, the glacier starts to melt much faster than current models predict as the models are driven by temperature changes but don’t account for the effect of water accumulating on the glacier surface.”
Once water starts streaming through crevasses in the glacier to the bedrock, it also begins to lubricate the glacier along its bottom. This eventually creates a warm pool beneath the glacier, which may cause the glacier to slide, ever-so-slowly, down the mountain to lower elevations where temperatures are warmer.
Such was the case with this glacier, the researchers learned when they first drilled in 2010. The cores they brought to the surface showed meltwater at the base of the glacier as well as at the top.
That melt can affect the information scientists are able to learn from the cores, which normally provide year-by-year data records of the climate around the glacier. As the glacier melts, those year-by-year records can become blurred. In this case, however, the cores still showed evidence of El Niño events throughout the ice cores’ history. Because so much of the glacier has melted, the cores hold data for only the last 50 years, despite the fact that these glaciers have likely occupied these mountaintops for the last 5,000 or so years.
The glacier’s disappearance is a cultural loss, too, Thompson said: The indigenous people who live around the mountain worship it.
“The ridges and the valleys are the arms and legs of their god, and the glacier is the head,” he said.
When the team drilled in 2010, some of the elders of the indigenous communities protested: “In their words, they thought we were ‘drilling into the skull of their god to steal the god’s memories,’” Thompson said. “I told them that was exactly what we were doing. We needed to preserve those memories because the glacier was going to melt.”
That started a debate throughout the indigenous community, weighing whether the team should be allowed to continue its research mission to learn the history contained within the ice, or was it more important that the glacier remain undisturbed? Thompson said the elders of the community were strongly in favor of kicking the research team out while the younger people, he said, wanted the mission to continue. In this case, the younger people won.
“It was the young people who were saying, ‘Have you not seen what’s happening?’” Thompson said.
Other Ohio State researchers on this study are Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Mary E. Davis, Ping-Nan Lin, Julien P. Nicolas, John F. Bolzan, Paolo Gabrielli, Victor Zagorodnov, and Bryan G. Mark. This work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
This post was written by Laura Arenschield and originally published by Ohio State News.
Study Analyzes Strengths and Weaknesses of Glacier Monitoring Systems Around the World
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.
Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.
Kenai Fjords National Park: Exit Glacier Area Transportation Study
In October, the Federal Highway Administration’s Western Federal Lands Division Office (WFL) published a report about insufficient parking, congested traffic, and the difficulties of creating bike lanes at some popular glaciers at Kenai Fjords National Park National Park in Alaska. The report offers a view into the dilemmas of glacier tourism and public management.
The Development of Austria’s Pitztal-Ötztal Glacier
The Alpine Association Austria, nature lovers, and the World Wildlife Fund are demanding that the development of the Pitztal-Ötztal glacier be stopped immediately, according to a story on Snow Brains published at the start of ski season in September.
“The Pitztal-Ötztal glacier complex plans to level an area the size of 90 football fields (64 hectares) on wild, rugged glacier landscape to form ski slopes,” Snow Brains reported. “For the construction of new buildings, two football fields (1.6 hectares) are to be removed from glacial ice.”
Global warming will cause substantial glacier retreat for the majority of the world’s glaciers over the next few decades. This will not only spell the end for some magnificent natural monuments, but also importantly affect the water cycle. In high-mountain regions, these ice masses act as reservoirs feeding water to large river systems, and balancing seasonal discharges.
Without glaciers, rivers would carry considerably less water in summer, which would have noticeable consequences for water availability, energy production and agriculture in many regions of the world. Researchers had previously discussed the idea of compensating the shrinking storage function of glaciers with reservoirs (see Zukunftsblog – in German only).
A group of glaciologists from ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL is now again engaging in the discussion about the dwindling ice: in a study published in Nature, they investigate the global potential for storing water and producing hydropower in presently-glacierised areas that will become ice-free within this century.
Using glaciers as reservoirs
In their study, the research team around Daniel Farinotti, Professor of Glaciology at the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW) at ETH Zurich and at WSL, analysed about 185,000 glaciers. For these sites they calculated a maximum theoretical storage potential of 875 cubic kilometers (km3) and a maximum theoretical hydropower potential of 1350 terawatt hours (TWh) per year.
“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable”, explains Farinotti.
In order to obtain a more realistic estimate, the researchers conducted an initial suitability assessment for all sites. They identified around 40 percent of the theoretical total potential as “potentially” suitable, equalling to a storage volume of 355 km3 and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13 percent of the current hydropower production worldwide, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.
“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Farinotti says. Assuming an average climate scenario, about three-quarters of the storage potential could become ice-free by 2050.
Cautious estimate of potential
For their analysis, the glaciologists used a global glacier inventory and placed virtual dams at the current terminus of each glacier with an area of more than 50,000 square meters located outside the Subantarctic. They then optimised the size of the reservoirs by appropriate dam positioning and height. In doing so, they minimised the reservoirs’ impact on the landscape and did not just maximise economic return. The team used digital elevation models of the subglacial terrain and combined them with a glacier evolution model to determine the storage volume of the 185,000 glaciers they had selected.
In the suitability analysis that followed, the researchers assessed the sites based on several ecological, technical and economic criteria: “On this basis, we ruled out the most unsuitable sites; this enabled a more realistic assessment,” explains co-author Vanessa Round, who was affiliated at both institutions and had a pivotal role in the study. She also adds that it is neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam for every glacier.
A model for the future?
The team also stresses that local impacts should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, the results indicate that deglacierised basins could significantly contribute to national energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in High Mountain Asia.
Among the countries with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80 percent of current electricity consumption, Chile (40 percent) and Pakistan (35 percent). In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25 percent of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy has recently revised downwards the expansion potential for Swiss hydropower. This is mainly because of revised estimates for the impact of stricter regulations on environmental flows, and because the potential of small-scale hydropower is now considered to be lower than it was in 2012. However, in its assessment, the SFOE explicitly excluded the hydropower potential that could arise from future ice-free basins. For this reason, the glaciologists led by Farinotti do not see a contradiction to their results, as the two studies cannot be directly compared.
This post was written by Michael Keller and originally published by ETH Zurich.
A High Mountain Summit has issued a Call for Action in the face of rapid melting of the Earth’s frozen peaks and the consequences for food, water, and human security, as well as for ecosystems, the environment, and economies.
The three-day summit, convened by the World Meteorological Organization and a wide range of partners, identified priority actions to support more sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation both in high-mountain areas and downstream.
“The high mountain regions are the home of the cryosphere, and source of global freshwater that are transmitted by rivers to much of the world. Preservation of ecosystem function and services from these regions is essential to global water, food, and energy security,” says the Call for Action.
“Climate change and development are creating an unprecedented crisis in our high mountain earth system that threatens the sustainability of the planet. There is great urgency to take global action now to build capacity, invest in infrastructure, and make mountain and downstream communities safer and more sustainable. This action must be informed by science, local knowledge, and based on transdisciplinary approaches to integrated observations and predictions,” it says.
“We, the participants at the WMO High Mountain Summit 2019, hereby commit to the goal that people who live in mountains and downstream should have open access to hydrological, cryospheric, meteorological, and climate information services to help them adapt to and manage the threats imposed by escalating climate change,” says the Call to Action.
It commits itself to a new Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative as one of the tools to address the challenges of climate change, melting snow and ice, and water-related hazards and stress.
It urges that sustainable mountain development and mountain ecosystem conservation should be an integral part of international development policy, and that there should be strengthened transboundary cooperation in open data sharing, forecasting and prediction, policy development, and knowledge generation and sharing.
“It is very clear that the choices we make and urgent action we take now are critical for safeguarding our high mountain regions. This Summit has succeeded in connecting science, policy, and practice to define the roadmap for climate action,” said Mountain Research Initiative Executive Director Carolina Adler, who was co-chair of the summit. “We need to ensure that the science responds to people’s needs, supporting the information services they rely on to address risks.”
Water towers of the world
Mountain regions cover about a quarter of the Earth’s land surface and are home to around 1.1 billion people. They are known as the ‘water towers of the world’ because river basins with headwaters in the mountains supply freshwater to over half of humanity, including in the Hindu Kush Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau region, known as the Third Pole.
Presentations from around the globe highlighted that glacier and snow melt translates into a short-term increase in hazards like landslides and floods, and a long-term threat to the security of water supplies for billions of people.
Swiss Federal Councillor and Interior Minister Alain Berset described how Swiss glaciers have lost 10 percent of their volume in the past five years, including 2 percent in the last year. Five hundred smaller glaciers have disappeared, and by the end of the century, 90 percent of the remaining 4,000 glaciers may melt.
During the summer 2019 heatwaves, the equivalent of Switzerland’s
annual national drinking water consumption melted from its glaciers in
just 15 days, according to MeteoSwiss.
The summit declaration voices concern that “water security is becoming one of the greatest challenges of the world’s population, and that the uncertainties on the availability of freshwater from mountain rivers is a significant factor of risk for local and downstream ecosystems, agriculture, forestry, food production, fisheries, hydropower production, transportation, tourism, recreation, infrastructure, domestic water supply, and human health.”
Avoiding the impending crisis
The summit brought together more than 150 participants, representing
meteorology, hydrology, environmental and atmospheric sciences,
development agencies, research and academia, voluntary partnerships, and
The Call for Action is entitled: ‘Avoiding the Impending Crisis in Mountain Weather, Climate, Snow, Ice and Water: Pathways to a Sustainable Global Future.’
International observations show an acceleration in the retreat of 31 major glaciers in the past two decades. But lack of observations hinder reliable monitoring.
The summit noted “the scarcity of meteorological, hydrological, climate, and cryosphere observations in mountain regions, and the difficulties in accessing existing data.” But it also stressed the potential of space-based observing systems to improve the situation.
It also highlights the need for early warning and risk prediction systems that reach the people as well as decision makers in mountain areas so they are able to plan more resilient communities and take early action in the anticipation of hazardous weather, climate, and water events.
Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative
“WMO will provide leadership and guidance in the Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction Initiative. We need to improve observations, forecasts, and data exchange in mountain ranges and headwaters around the world. This is needed to address accelerating climate change, which has increasing impacts on vulnerable populations,” said WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova.
WMO is working towards an integrated Earth System Forecasting and Prediction System, with strong engagement from the research community. To support this new integrated approach, WMO has reformed its constituent body structures. WMO’s newly formed Commission for Observation, Infrastructure, and Information Systems will be instrumental in the new Integrated High Mountain Observation and Prediction System Initiative, according to the commission president, Michel Jean.
The IPCC report said that current trends in cryosphere-related changes in high-mountain ecosystems are expected to continue and impacts to intensify. Snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost are projected to continue to decline in almost all regions throughout the 21st century.
This press release was republished from the Mountain Research Initiative. It first appeared on the WMO website,
Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service has issued an orange alert for Nevados de Chillán, a complex of snow-capped stratovolcanoes located in the Ñuble region near the country’s border with Argentina.
The agency’s level-orange alert signifies a significant uptick in volcanic activity.
According to NASA’s Earth Observatory: “Like other historically active volcanoes in the central Andes, the Nevados de Chillán were created by upwelling magma generated by eastward subduction, as the dense oceanic crust of the Pacific basin dove beneath the less dense continental crust of South America. The rising magmas associated with this type of tectonic environment frequently erupt explosively, forming widespread ash and ignimbrite layers. They can also produce less explosive eruptions, with voluminous lava flows that layer together with explosively erupted deposits to build the classic cone-shaped edifice of a stratovolcano.”
According to Chile’s geology and mining agency: “The main volcanic hazards associated with the CVNCh correspond to lahars, debris flows and lava flows, channeled through the main valleys: Estero Renegado, Estero Shangri-La, Chillán River, Estero San José, Santa Gertrudis River, Gato River and Las Minas River . The generation of lahars configures the greatest potential danger for the population surrounding the volcano, given its proximity to the channels and the amount of snow and ice on the summits of the complex. Ash fall determined by the dominant wind direction.”