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.

 

 

Editorial: Viewing the Election from the Summits of Glaciers

The weather was sunny on Election Day in western Washington, with widely scattered clouds or entirely clear skies.  As residents made their way to polling places, many had views of the state’s mountain peaks.

The  results that came in late that night showed that the state as a whole gave strong support to Hillary Clinton. She received 56% of the votes in the state, a percentage exceeded by only 6 other states and the District of Columbia.

County-level results in the 2016 presidential election in Washington state source: New York Times)
County-level results in the 2016 presidential election in Washington state (Source: New York Times).

However, this result was far from uniform across Washington.  Its highest peaks, Baker, Rainier and Adams, indicated by their initials on the attached map, mark not only the crest of the Cascades, but also a line that divides the state into red and blue counties, in one of the sharpest political gradients in the nation.

Did the region’s residents notice these white peaks as they went to vote? The mountains, which contain the largest masses of glacier ice in the lower 48 states, are widely popular in Washington; their forested slopes have given the state its nickname, the Evergreen State. To many in the largely Democratic cities and suburbs near Puget Sound, along the I-5 corridor, the mountains could bring up important issues, particularly environmentalism. This section of the state also supports the maintenance of public lands, especially at higher elevations, for hiking and recreation.

The mountains could also evoke topics that matter to many in the heavily Republican small towns and rural areas near the spine of the Cascades and further to the east.  Many local residents there still bitterly resent the Endangered Species Act which led to the virtual ending of timber cutting nearly thirty years ago, and to the decline of lumber towns up and down the highways of the region. Access to firearms is also a deeply felt issue in this area, where deer and elk are widely hunted, their meat forming an important part of the diet, especially for the rural poor. As these examples show, mountains and their glaciers can both unite and divide people, connecting them to a common landscape in different and contentious ways.

On the same day, halfway around the world, representatives of 196 countries were gathered in Marrakech, Morocco for COP22, the annual meeting of the UNFCCC, with the hope of building on the progress of COP21, held last year in Paris. At this meeting, glaciers are a presence as well. They serve as an indicator of the rapid pace of climate change worldwide and of the need for prompt and effective action to continue the momentum developed in Paris.

The state of Washington, the United States and the nations of the world cannot advance without coordinated efforts on the critical issues which they face. The white summits of the Cascades and of mountain ranges around the world show the great value of nature for all humanity. They show other things as well: the fragility of the world, the urgency of action, and, above all, the necessity of cooperation to carry out actions to protect the world.

Norwegian Institute Releases Video Interview with Ben Orlove

orlove1-edit
Orlove speaking at the Centre for Advanced Study (source: Gro Havelin/The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters)

The Norwegian Centre for Advanced Study (CAS) recently released a video of an interview with Ben Orlove, the editor of GlacierHub, focusing on a lecture which he gave earlier this year in Oslo. The journalist Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen, who is affiliated with CAS, conducted the interview and produced the video. Orlove, an anthropologist, is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

 

Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo (souce: Baarsen/DNVA)
Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Centre for Advanced Study (source: Baarsen/DNVA)

The lecture, “Glaciers in Nature and in Public Life: Science and Society in the Anthropocene,” was jointly sponsored by CAS and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. It was held on April 28 in the Academy’s main building, a nineteenth-century mansion overlooking the Oslo Fjord.

In the interview, Isaksen and Orlove discussed the themes of the lecture. They opened with the broad significance of glaciers as signs of climate change around the world, and the ways in which glaciers cut across the divide between wealthy and poor nations. They recognized the direct economic impacts of glacier retreat, particularly on water resources and natural hazards, but they pointed out that the importance of glaciers extends beyond these economic concerns to issues of human identity.

Pilgrims at Qoyllurrit'i in the Peruvian Andes (source: Allen/GlacierHub)
Pilgrims at Qoyllurrit’i in the Peruvian Andes (source: Allen/GlacierHub)

Citing pilgrimages in the Andes and the Himalayas, Orlove stressed that glaciers are cherished by indigenous people. He reported on a conversation with a group of Quechua alpaca herders in Peru, who said that they had wondered whether the glaciers on a nearby peak were shrinking because the mountain–recognizing the growing lack of respect for the earth on the part of humans–was angry or because it was sad. They decided that the latter was the case. It was this point that led Isaksen to title the interview “The Mountain Is Sad.”

Orlove added that glaciers matter greatly to people in other, less remote, settings as well. He offered Seattle and Yerevan, Armenia, as examples of modern cities where specific glaciers are also valued, and commented that glaciers touch even the people who live far from mountains, because of the way that they allow people to recognize the deep importance of the natural world. These esthetic, emotional and spiritual connections with glaciers allow them to build awareness of need for rapid, effective action on climate change.

Audience at Orlove lecture at the Centre for Advancded Study, Oslo (source: Gro Havelin, The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters)
Audience at Orlove lecture at the Centre for Advancded Study (source: Gro Havelin/The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters)

Isaksen and Orlove discussed other threats to glaciers besides climate change, particularly from mining, whether the direct removal of glacier ice for sale, as in Norway, or the destruction of glaciers by mining companies seeking access to ore, as in Chile and Kyrgyzstan.

Closing the interview, Orlove said that when we look at glaciers, “we see this beauty, we see this fragility, above all we see this urgency.”

Roundup: Glacier Activities: Basketball, Sleep and Clean-up

This Week’s Roundup: Glacier Basketball Games, Summer Living and Clean-Ups

Tony Parker Plays a Basketball Game Teams Up for a Game on top of a Glacier

From The Score: “Tony Parker is taking basketball to new heights – literally. The San Antonio Spurs point guard teamed up with Swiss watchmaker Tissot to host a basketball game atop the Aletsch glacier, located 11,000 feet above sea level on Jungfraujoch mountain in Switzerland.”

Read about the game and see more photos here:

(Photo Source Twitter/@AirlessJordan).
(Photo Source Twitter/@AirlessJordan).

An English Doctoral Student Takes His Study of Glaciers to an Extreme Level

From The Alaska Dispatch News: “This summer, Sam Herreid has slept for 12 nights on these rocks that ride slowly downhill on a mass of ice. For a few days at a time during the last six summers, the 28-year-old has lived on this ephemeral landscape in the eastern Alaska Range. From his regal perch, he is learning how rock cover affects glacier melt…

“The Fairbanks kid who started this project at UAF before heading to England keeps expenses low by ferrying equipment in and out with his mountain bike. For most of his meals, he does not fire up his Jetboil stove. A typical dinner is a few slices of bread, a chunk broken from a block of cheese and a dessert of Digestive biscuits he carried from England. His water source is a stream in exposed glacier ice that slows to a trickle every night.”

(Photo courtesy Sam Herreid).
(Photo courtesy Sam Herreid).

Learn more about Herreid’s research by clicking here:

Central Asia Travel Organizes a Clean-Up Session on Lenin Peak, Kyrgyzstan

From MountainProtection.TheUIAA.org: “Organised each year since 2014, the project rewards volunteers who remove the litter. The goal for each participant is to collect as much litter as possible, give it to the Organizers at the acceptance point (Central Asia Travel Camp 1) and score points. One point equals one kilogram of litter. Every participant himself collects and carries litter to the acceptance point.

In the course of the 2014 climbing season, 38 voluntary mountaineers and ordinary travellers had come from Russia, Iran, Brazil, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, participated in the event. In 2015, Central Asia Travel decided to continue its ecological campaign, and about 100 kg of litter were carried down for disposal. Unfortunately there are still heaps of litter scattered all over the snow-white slopes is a truly disgusting sight! Kilograms of plastic bags and other waste to be preserved by the glacier for the following generations… This action is a right, necessary and timely deed.”

Read more about the initiative here: 

Himalayan Region Considers Climatic Threat to Hydropower Future

Glacial melt is threatening the Hindu Kush Himalayan region’s development of potential hydropower. A recent forum convened by the Kathmandu-based organization International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) highlighted the climatic and social challenges that accompany the establishment and sustainability of the region’s hydropower sector.

The Sept. 1 event event, “Managing climate and social risks key to hydropower development,” held in Stockholm, Sweden, was co-organized with the Stockholm International Water Institute, in addition to the research and consulting organization FutureWater and Statkraft, a Norwegian state-owned hydropower company.

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region has nearly 500 GW hydropower potential, but only a fraction of it has been developed, despite the “increased climatic and social risks” this problem creates, according to ICIMOD. 

“There is a need to manage risks so that the mountains and the plains derive sustainable benefits from the region’s rich hydropower potential,” said David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, according to the organization’s media release.

David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, speaks at the September conference. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).
David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, speaks at the September conference. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).

The Asian mountain range extends across eight countries, from Afghanistan into Myanmar. Collectively, the biodiverse region, with 10 major river basins, directly supports the livelihoods of more than 210 million mountain inhabitants. The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, sometimes called HKH, also has the highest concentration of snow and glaciers outside the polar region, with 54,252 glaciers identified last year — meaning 1.4 percent of the region is glaciated.

Glacial retreat, onset by the impacts of climate change and warming atmospheres, varies, but has been observed across all HKH glaciers in the last few decades. Overall, the decrease in glacial mass in this region over the last several decades has been among the most pronounced worldwide.

“This surely is one of the most vulnerable regions,” said Molden during a video interview at the event.

“It is highly vulnerable to climate change and the people in the mountains are not the ones emitting the greenhouse gases, but really the ones paying the price for climate change. Some of the issues we are seeing are melting ice, permafrost… changes in rainfall patterns that will make a big difference in this region… we really have to pay attention to the area.”

Over 80 percent of the glaciers in the Himalayas have not been researched, as GlacierHub previously reported.

A view of the Nepalese Himalayas along the HKH. (Photo courtesy Flickr).
A view of the Nepalese Himalayas along the HKH. (Photo courtesy Flickr).

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in the area, along with landslides, have also increased in recent years, placing “existing and planned hydropower plants at risk,” according to the organization.

While the Indian Himalayas has the potential to produce 150,000 MW of hydropower each year, only 27 percent of that power has actually been developed. In Nepal, only 2 percent of the region’s hydropower sources are utilized.

Companies at the September meeting expressed concern about a number of risks in generating hydrpower in the region, Molden said in the video interview. The first step, he explained, is understanding the challenges. These include tracking changes in hydrology water resources that come from glacial melt. While melting glaciers increase water flows in rivers  for short periods of time, their contribution to river systems will gradually lessen.

There are also challenges related to GLOFs, and the damage the outburst floods could inflict on hydropower plants.

Aditi Mukherji, ICIMOD’s theme leader in water and air, spoke at at the meeting, presenting on how while hydropower is produced in the mountains of India, for example, mountain people there do not always receive direct commensurate benefits from the production of the energy sources. The consultation of communities in the construction of hydropower plants was also highlighted as another ongoing issue.

Presenters at the session on "Mountains, glaciers and hydropower in a changing climate" in Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).
Presenters at the session on “Mountains, glaciers and hydropower in a changing climate” in Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Udayan Mishra/ICIMOD).

Martin Hornsberg, of Statkraft, also presented at the conference, discussing how many run-off-river hydropower plants in the Himalayas depend largely on the current available surface runoff. Some ongoing challenges include deciding which emission scenarios should be assumed, as well as which climate models should be considered.

His presentation explained how hydropower plants will likely be impacted by a future decrease of water discharge and run off during the dry seasons, possibly also the wet seasons, in a worst case scenario that Hornsberg laid out for conference participants. He suggested that reservoirs would be helpful to balance inflow, but would “require more investment, have a larger impact on the environment and on local communities.”

The September event came at the end of World Water Week, created to serve as a focal point for global water issues.

Roundup: Ice Filing, Seas Falling, Rivers Flooding

This Week’s Roundup: Glaciers are being collected in Antarctica, “quietly transforming the Earth’s surface” and causing floods

A team of scientists, aware of the need to obtain ice cores from threatened glaciers, are working to create a glacier archive bank in Antarctica

From CNRS News:  “By capturing various components of the atmosphere, ice constitutes an invaluable source of information with which to examine our past environment, to analyze climate change, and, above all, to understand our future. Today, the science of ice cores lets us study dozens of chemical components trapped in ice, such as gases, acids, heavy metals, radioactivity, and water isotopes, to name but a few…”

“We plan to store the boxes in containers at a depth of 10 meters below the surface in order to maintain the glacier cores at an ambient temperature of – 54°C. The Antarctic is in fact an immense freezer with an ice sheet up to 4 kilometers thick, and is far removed from everything; in addition, it is not subject to any territorial disputes. The subterranean chamber will be large enough to house samples taken from between 15 and 20 glaciers.”

A lightweight core extractor that will measure glaciers.(Photo courtesy B. JOURDAIN/CNRS PHOTOTHEQUE).
A lightweight core extractor that will measure glaciers.(Photo courtesy B. JOURDAIN/CNRS PHOTOTHEQUE).

Read on here. 

Study finds that ancient melting glaciers are causing sea levels to drop in some places

From Smithsonian Magazine: “But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year. How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called ‘glacial isostatic adjustment.’ You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.”

A beach in Juneau, Alaska, where glacial isotactic adjustment has prompted sea levels to drop, not rise. (Photo courtesy Joseph, Flickr CC BY-SA).
A beach in Juneau, Alaska, where glacial isotactic adjustment has prompted sea levels to drop, not rise. (Photo courtesy Joseph, Flickr CC BY-SA).

For the full story, click here.

Glacial flood emerges along Iceland’s Skaftá river

From Iceland Magazine: “A small glacial flood is under way in Skaftá river in South Iceland. The Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warns travelers to stay away from the edge of the water as the flood water is carrying with it geothermal gases which can be dangerous….The discharge of Skaftá at Sveinstindur is presently 270 cubic metres per second. The flood is not expected to cause any downstream disruption.”

Outburst floods swept away a bridge and caused other damage in the river last year. (Photo Courtesy Egill/Iceland Mag).
Outburst floods swept away a bridge and caused other damage in the river last year. (Photo Courtesy Egill/Iceland Mag).

Learn more about the flood by reading more here.

 

 

 

 

Photo Friday: Volcanic Readiness in Colombia

The Volcanic and Seismological Observatory of Manizales has recently conducted several workshops on volcanic risk with communities in the vicinity of Nevado del Ruiz, a glacier-covered volcano in Colombia that showed signs of renewed activity earlier this year.

The workshops prepare communities to react to volcanic hazards like ash and lahars, the latter of which can occur when lava flow mixes with the icy temperatures of glaciers. Locals participate in focus groups and model experiments to better understand the volcanic risks in their community.

“Communication Strategy of Volcanic Risks,” is enacted in conjunction with the Colombian Geological Service, the National Unity of Disaster Risk Management, and other regional and municipal agencies. Check out some photos of the workshop, courtesy of the Observatory, below.

[slideshow_deploy id=’10916′]

Click here to “like” the Observatory’s Facebook page and to see more photos of the project.

 

Roundup: GLOFs, Presidential Warnings, and Glacial Lakes

Obama: Climate Change ‘Could Mean No More Glaciers In Glacier National Park,’ Statue of Liberty

From Breitbart: 

“During Saturday’s Weekly Address, President Obama stated, “the threat of climate change means that protecting our public lands and waters is more important than ever. Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. No more Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, even threaten Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.”

To read the full transcript of the President’s Weekly Address, click here.

 

Melting Glaciers Pose Threat Beyond Water Scarcity: Floods

From VOA News: 

A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru.
A melting block of ice from a Pastoruri glacier in Huaraz, Peru. Source: Associated Press.

The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy. The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away, at risk from what scientists call a ‘GLOF’ — Glacial Lake Outburst Flood.”

Click here to read more about the risk of glacial lake outburst floods from GlacierHub’s founder and editor, Ben Orlove.

 

Yukon has a new lake, thanks to a retreating glacier

From CBC News: 

Cultus Bay
Cultus Bay, now cut off from Kluane Lake by a gravel bar. Source: Murray Lundberg.

“Yukon has lost a river, and now gained a lake, thanks to the retreating Kaskawulsh glacier.

Geologists and hikers first noticed earlier this summer that the Slims River, which for centuries had delivered melt water from the glacier to Kluane Lake, had disappeared — the glacial run-off was now being sent in a different direction. Now, the level of Kluane Lake has dropped enough to turn the remote Cultus Bay, on the east side of the lake, into Cultus Lake. A narrow channel of water that once connected the bay to the larger lake is gone, exposing a wide gravel bar between the two.”

To read more, click here.

Photo Friday: Massive Landslide in Glacier Bay National Park

This summer a 4,000-foot mountainside collapsed on the Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. Sightseeing and charter flight pilot Paul Swanstrom was the first to discover and photograph the massive landslide after he noticed a large cloud of dust over the glacier.

This region in Alaska is very geologically active and landslides are common there. However, Colin Stark, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, told Alaska Dispatch News that the movement of 130 million tons of earth was “exceptionally large.”

 

Photography of newly exposed mountainside and debris cloud. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com).

 

Photography of June 28 landslide taken the next day. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com).

 

Side view of the massive landslide that flowed nearly six miles across Lamplight Glacier. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com)

 

Photography taken by Paul Swanstrom, pilot and owner of Mountain Flying Service based out of Haines, Alaska. Photo: Paul Swanstrom / Mountain Flying Service (Source: adn.com)

 

Peru Conference Calls for More Work on Climate Change, Disaster Risk

A major international forum this month in Peru has resulted in calls for strengthening research capabilities and for programs in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. It also had demonstrated the need for greater public participation and the development of new financial mechanisms to support these activities. It showed the importance of flexible governance systems that can draw on emerging research and on growing citizen engagement with environmental issues.

The scientific forum’s focus on climate change in the mountains took on particular meaning, as it was held in Huaraz, a  a small Peruvian city located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca, a major glacier-covered range. The forum, held Aug. 10-12, specifically centered on climate change impacts in mountains, with particular emphasis on glacier retreat, water sustainability and biodiversity.

A new Peruvian organization, the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, organized the forum, with support from a number of other organizations.

The forum’s more than 1,400 participants came largely from Peru, but also included a substantial number of scientists, policy experts and agency staff from 18 other countries.  They met in Huaraz, attending plenary lectures in the morning and breaking into smaller groups in the afternoon for topical sessions and discussion groups, which considered specific recommendations for action. These recommendations led to two final documents. The forum produced a set of eight conclusions and a final declaration, both presented to the participants, a number of public officials and the media by Benjamin Morales, the president of INAIGEM.

A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting
A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting. (Photo courtesy of Ben Orlove).

Researchers from the natural and social sciences reported  on water availability and natural hazards in the Cordillera Blanca and other mountain ranges. Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona reported on the connections between earthquakes and glacier lake outburst floods in the Himalayas and the Andes. Bryan Mark of the Ohio State University discussed research methodologies to measure “peak water”—the point at which the contribution of glacier meltwater causes a river’s flow to reach its highest levels, after which the glaciers, smaller in size, contribute less water to the streams.

 

Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12
Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

 

 

Several talks traced links between ecosystems and water resources. They showed the importance of wetlands in promoting the recharge of groundwater and in maintaining water quality. The latter role is particularly important, because as glaciers retreat, new areas of rock become exposed to the atmosphere. As these rocks weather, minerals leach into streams. Since these wetlands are important grazing areas for peasant communities, they raise challenging issues of coordination between communities and agencies charged with environmental management.   

Many speakers focused specifically on this management, stressing the importance of the coordination of scientists and other experts, policy-makers, and wider society. Carlos Fernandez, of UNESCO, stressed the importance of water governance systems that integrated social, economic and environmental sectors, rather than relying on market-driven approaches.

Others examined financial mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services and the expansion of user fees for water and other resources. GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove spoke of the cultural importance of glaciers, and of the role of glaciers as symbols of social identity.

The forum was sponsored by over two dozen institutions, including Peruvian agencies (Ministry of the Environment, the National Service for Protected Natural Areas, the National Civil Defense Institute, and the National Water Authority), NGOs  (CARE, The Mountain Institute, CONDESAN) and the international aid programs from Switzerland, US and Canada, as well as several mining firms in Peru.

The critical role of mountain societies was signaled by a speech from Juan German Espíritu, the president of the peasant community of Catac, located in the Cordillera Blanca. Speaking first in the local indigenous language, Quechua, and then in Spanish, he emphasized the importance of full  participation, environmental justice, and a vision of human well-being that is broader than measures of economic development.

He and Morales then signed an agreement that gave INAIGEM the right to conduct research within the territory of Catac. This agreement is a departure from earlier practices in Peru, in which communities would often be bypassed.

The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru.
The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

The comments of German Espíritu were echoed in a speech by María Foronda, a congressional delegate from the region where Ancash is located. Drawing on her personal and professional experiences, she argued for the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in environmental management and for the Quechua concept of allin kawsay, emphasizing sustainability and community over unchecked economic growth.   The importance of the forum was emphasized by the presence of the Minister of the Environment, Elsa Galarza, who gave the closing speech of the forum. She affirmed her commitment to sustainable development and to addressing the basic needs of the full citizenry of Peru. Both of these points are major issues in Peru, where mining companies often clash with rural communities and environmental groups over issues of water and air pollution.

Galarza also spoke of the importance of scientific research in shaping environmental policy. Her speech, along with coverage of the forum in national newspapers, shows the growing recognition for INAIGEM, founded only last year as a branch of the Ministry of Environment.  This attention, along with the support for the forum evident in its broad sponsorship, suggests that INAIGEM may take an increasingly prominent role in addressing glacier retreat and other climate change impacts in Peru and in other mountain regions.

 

 

Walking to the Mountain, Dancing at the Shrines: An Andean Pilgrimage

Zoila Mendoza, an anthropologist and the chair of the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is also the producer of a documentary recorded in the high Andes of Peru. “The Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i: The Walk Experience,” first released in February 2015, has won five honors, including a 2016 International Gold Award for Documentary and Short International Movie Awards, held in Jakarta earlier this month.

Pilgrims from Pomacanchi nearing a pass, on the walk to Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Pilgrims from Pomacanchi nearing a pass, on the walk to Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

Mendoza’s film provides a detailed view of the largest pilgrimage in the Andes. Each spring, about 50,000 people, many of them indigenous Quechua, travel to the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i in the Cusco region of Peru, located at 4,800 meters above sea level at the foot of a glacier. At this site, they perform ritual dances and pay homage to the miraculous image of Christ on a rock and to the mountain itself, the glacier-covered Qollqepunku. Mendoza accompanied villagers from the community of Pomacanchi on three different annual pilgrimages, as they walked the 135 kilometers from their home village to the sanctuary. This journey takes three days and two nights, and leads them over four high passes. Her video shows the continuous music of flute and drums that accompanies the entire pilgrimage, as well as the dances in Pomacanchi, at points on the path to the shrine, and at the shrine itself.

The film documents the integration of sounds, sight and movement that together compose the pilgrimage experience. With its close-up view of a group of pilgrims, showing the heavy loads they carry on the journey and the long hours of vigorous dancing, it conveys the depth of their devotion of the pilgrims to the saints and mountains. In an email interview, Mendoza discussed the production of her documentary with GlacierHub.

Zoila Mendoza at the head of the line of pilgrims, walking from Pomacanchi to Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Zoila Mendoza at the head of the line of pilgrims, walking from Pomacanchi to Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

GlacierHub: Though many people who have described the pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit’i emphasize the importance of dance, you have subtitled your film “The walk experience.” Why do you place such importance on walking? What relations do you see between walking and dancing?

Zoila Mendoza: This was a result of my experience with the people of Pomacanchi, for whom doing the walk itself was the most important aspect of the whole pilgrimage. Walking has been the way of travel for Andeans for millennia, the same word is used in Quechua for “walking” and “traveling”: puriy. Even today, with the available motorized vehicles, many Quechua-speaking people in the countryside still spend several hours a day walking to go to their fields, herding their animals, etc. As I argue at length in my articles, the walk to Qoyllur Rit’i is carried out with the incessant music of flute and drum so, even at moments of rest and of introspection, the music is always there. There is a tune for walking and one for worshiping and saluting. The walk has also a choreography since it has to be done in a single file with the icons and flags in front and the music in the back. The whole musical walk can be considered a “dance” to the sanctuary.

 

Pilgrims kneeling at Qoyllur Rit'i, with Qollqepunku glacier in the background (source: Z. Mendoza)
Pilgrims kneeling at Qoyllur Rit’i, with Qollqepunku glacier in the background (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: Your film depicts other bodily movements in addition to walking and dancing. In particular, you show the importance of two other bodily gestures: carrying heavy items, such as rocks and pottery icons that represent chapels, and kneeling in front of sacred sites or along paths. What do these gestures represent?

ZM: The participants use the same gestures to salute and pay homage to the sacred images and to the mountains. Carrying rocks uphill and unloading them is a way to kinesthetically level or flatten the ground (pampachay in Quechua) in order to heal any possible unevenness that might have emerged between the humans and the higher powers that are the saints, the Christ figures, and other sacred images and the mountains. They kneel and pray to both the images and the mountains. They do all of this always with music as an accompaniment.

 

Musicians from Pomacanchi at Qoyllur Rit'i (source: Z. Mendoza)
Musicians from Pomacanchi at Qoyllur Rit’i (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: In your discussion, you emphasize that the pilgrimage combines beliefs in pre-Columbian mountain spirits and in Catholic saints. Do the people of Pomacanchi see these as separate beliefs, or as one set of beliefs? And are their participants’ own understandings of these beliefs changing?

ZM: This question addresses a very important issue that emerges when scholars and non-scholars bring up when they address Andean festivals. They always want to separate the pre-Columbian and the Catholic components. But in my 30 plus years of studying festivals, I have never run into a situation where the participants see those beliefs as separate. Sometimes they are forced to make that distinction because of the questions posed to them or because of outside repression that seeks to remove elements deemed primitive or pagan. In my case I had to put it in the documentary because I know it would be a question that many viewers would be asking in their heads. The participants’ own understandings of the beliefs are always changing. New stories come along, new practices are brought in, new names and new logics are integrated into the system.

 

GH: The majority of the pilgrims travel from the village to the sanctuary, with only the Ukukus—the men wearing bear costumes—continuing up to the glacier itself. Do the Ukukus perform particular rituals during the walk to the sanctuary? Do they sing in falsetto only on the climb to the glacier, or at other points as well?

ZM: During the walk, the main role of the Ukukus is that of guarding the order and the good behavior of the pilgrims. They also take on the role of the main helpers for the procuring of water and other elements for cooking during the trip. In my experience with Pomacanchi people, some of the most knowledgeable members of the group were the Ukukus who tended to be the more experienced having done the trip the most times. During the walk they did not perform different rituals than the rest and did not speak or sing in falsetto. I have only heard falsetto at the sanctuary.

 

Dancers in Pomacanchi before their departure on the pilgrimage (source: Z. Mendoa)
Dancers in Pomacanchi before their departure on the pilgrimage (source: Z. Mendoza)

GH: In recent years, the ukukus have stopped the practice of taking ice from the glacier. Do the ukukus, and other pilgrims from Pomacanchi, comment on this change? Do they harvest other kinds of ice at Qoyllur Rit’i, such as frozen stream or pond water? 

ZM: Many of the rituals and practices that seem to be important for other participants in the festival do not seem as important for the people of Pomacanchi, even though they still take the crosses up to the glacier and then bring them back the next day with the rest of the groups, there did not seem to be much expectation about this part of the ritual. This might have changed since the bringing down of the ice ceased around 2004, and I have only traveled with them since 2006 when the ban was already established. But I did not see people interested in taking melted ice or water from the streams that come down, as I have seen people from other places do. They are also not interested in the large procession at the principal shrine, which takes place on the main day of the pilgrimage. Instead of participating, they pack up to go during that time. Finally, they have never taken part in the so-called 24-hour pilgrimage that takes place the last day and night of the celebration when the groups carry the image of the Lord of Tayankani, closely associated with the miraculous image of Christ, to the town of Ocongate and perform important rituals at sunrise.

 

GH: A number of sources on Qoyllur Rit’i comment on the changes in the pilgrimage that have been brought about by global warming, particularly the shifts in climbing to the glacier. But other factors are also transforming the pilgrimage: the expansion of roads in the region, indigenous movements in Peru, the growth of tourism that brings foreigners to the pilgrimage. What future do you see for Qoyllur Rit’i?

ZM: Change has been a constant in this pilgrimage from the beginning, different factors have made it the biggest of the Andean region. At least one scholar, with whom I agree, Guillermo Salas Carreño, has argued that in fact the apparition and cult to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i started only in the 1930s and not at the end of the eighteenth century as was widely believed. He suggests that it was stimulated by local conflicts and later fueled by nativist movements. Roads, tourism, and indigenous and other current movements (e.g. movements to stop the government contracts with the mining companies) only make the pilgrimage more important and better known. As I state at the end of the documentary, since people in the Andes place great importance on the integration of kinesthetic, visual and auditory experiences in their everyday lives and other cultural practices, rituals such as Qoyllur Rit’i will continue to play a central role in their lives.

 

A DVD of this film is available at a discount to GlacierHub readers.
From the US: go to the distributor’s website. Click on the “Apply for discount” button, and mention you saw the post at GlacierHub. You will then receive an email with an individualized discount coupon with a 20% discount off the list purchase price. Individuals who are not connected to an educational institution should let us know that in the comments section of the discount request page.
From outside the US: contact the distributor directly at: info@berkeleymedia.com, and mention you saw the post at GlacierHub. You will then receive instructions on how to order the DVD.

Roundup: Cold War waste, glacier retreat, and “glacier quakes”

Cold War Waste Buried Beneath Melting Greenland Ice

Nuclear power plant at Greenland's Camp Century during the Cold War (Source: US Army)
Nuclear power plant at Greenland’s Camp Century during the Cold War (Source: US Army)

From Scientific American: “When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.”

“But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner—possibly even by the end of this century—posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.”

Read more here.

Researchers manipulate Andean stream to mimic glacier retreat

Antisana Ecological Reserve in Equador, where the study took place (Source: Stefan Weigel)
Antisana Ecological Reserve in Equador, where the study took place (Source: Stefan Weigel)

From Nature Communications: “Glacier retreat is a worldwide phenomenon with important consequences for the hydrological cycle and downstream ecosystem structure and functioning. To determine the effects of glacier retreat on aquatic communities, we conducted a 4-year flow manipulation in a tropical glacier-fed stream. Compared with an adjacent reference stream, meltwater flow reduction induces significant changes in benthic fauna community composition in less than 2 weeks. Also, both algal and herbivore biomass significantly increase in the manipulated stream as a response to flow reduction.”

Read the full study here.

“Glacier quakes” causing a stir in Alaska

Hundreds of small seismic events have occurred in an area near Pothole Glacier. From the Alaska Earthquake Center
Hundreds of small seismic events have occurred in an area near Pothole Glacier. From the Alaska Earthquake Center

By KTUU: “Earlier this summer, the scientists at the Alaska Earthquake Center began monitoring a swarm of small earthquakes in an area about eight miles west of Mt. Spurr. According to State Seismologist Dr. Michael West, they probably aren’t earthquakes at all…The Alaska Earthquake Center worked with the Alaska Volcano Observatory and largely ruled out volcanic activity. That left glaciers as the most likely explanation.”

“Most ‘glacier’ quakes are caused by large icebergs calving into water. West says some of these can be felt hundreds of miles away. Glaciers can also cause the ground to shake from crevassing, grinding against the underlying rock and pieces falling off ice falls.”

Learn more here.