Melting Glaciers Through the Artist’s Lens

In northern Germany  a small open-air art exhibition,  Outdoors Installation, is showcasing the work of six photographers who capture the dramatic changes glacial ice has undergone in the last hundred years across the world.  In alliance with the glacier focused charity, documentary and climate change advocacy group, Project Pressure, the diverse artists are working collectively to spread awareness of climate change though their powerful images.

The 14 images displayed at the environmental education park, Schleimünde Pilot Island, are only a small sample of the Project Pressure artists’ work.  The exhibit, which opened July 16 and will close in September, is a precursor to a larger touring exhibition which will launch next year.

Outdoors Installation was brought to the public with support from the German environmental non-profit group, The Lighthouse Foundation, who purchased the island from the German government in 2008.

Project Pressure’s Outdoors Installation (Source: Project Pressure)

The founder of Project Pressure, Klaus Thymann, said that he believes visual art depicting retreating glaciers can be a powerful tool to increase awareness of climate change, forging a way through the complex science that isolates the average person.  

“Art energizes, it’s a positive touch point, it can spread interest.  A lot of people find science difficult, inaccessible and complicated so they do not engage with it,” Thymann said in a Skype interview with GlacierHub. “If we can use art to get people to engage with scientific issues, we are at least some of the way there to dealing with the underlying issues [of climate change].”

Thymann, born in Denmark, is one of the six photographers featured at the Outdoors Installation.  The other artists include an American fisherman, Corey Arnold, as well as Scott Conarroe, a Canadian whose landscape photography extends to depict industrial works, and Peter Funch, a Danish photographer who has photographed series on human relations and cities. Rounding out the lineup is Mariele Neudecker, a UK-based German artist who works in a variety of mediums and the Nigerian-native Simon Norfolk, who has photographed the war in Afghanistan. Though each artist has a distinctive approach, they all show the intensity and the bleakness of melting glaciers.

One of Thymann’s displays, a juxtaposition of two aerial photographs of Helheim and Fenris Glaciers in Greenland from 1933, and again a starker picture taken in 2012, has a complicated political backstory.  

Glacier du Baounet, France (Source: Scott Conarroe)

In the first half of the twentieth century, Norway and Denmark were in a dispute over sovereignty of a remote section of eastern Greenland.  In hopes to substantiate its claim, Denmark set forth expeditions to survey the unknown region. In 1933, a series of aerial photographs of Greenland’s coasts, thus its coastal glaciers, were taken by Danish explorer Keld Milthers.  The photos were eventually archived in Copenhagen, forgotten, and later rediscovered by Kurt Kjær of the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum in 2009.  

On a trip in 2012, Thymann then took aerial photographs of the same glaciers once documented years past.  The two contrasting shots of the same Greenland glaciers show clear evidence of the ice mass receding over seventy years.

Lewis Glacier_Kenya_Simon Norfolk_2014
Fire marking past glacier front of Lewis Glacier, Kenya (Source: Simon Norfolk)

Comparing an old photograph with a new one is not the only way Project Pressure artists capture the climate-induced changes to glaciers.

Another artist traveled to a glacier and set up a line of fires to mark its former extent. Conarroe, another photographer featured in the exhibit, said “I think Simon Norfolk’s work from the Lewis Glacier is useful and fascinating.  Living in Canada and Switzerland, African glaciers are not so on my radar…. The fire+ice contrast… [is] an efficient indication of how much the glacier has retreated,” when he was asked what other artist featured at the Outdoors Installation struck him the most.    

From her studio in Bristol, United Kingdom, German born featured artist, Mariele Neudecker, spoke of how it is important to reflect “reality” in art.

Qôrqup Glacier_Greenland_Mariele Neudecker_2015
Qorqup Glacier, Greenland (Source Mariele Neudecker)

“I think it is important to make work about the world we live in, and our perceptions of the multi-faceted reality around us,” Neudecker explained in an email correspondence with GlacierHub.  Neudecker immerses viewers into the world of glaciers through 3D imagery.  She captured the two images displayed at the Outdoor Installation using a stereo camera, according to Neudecker.

When viewed with the naked eye each image appears as a mix of red and blue, but when the work is taken in through 3D glasses or a stereoscope, the viewer is forced out of the two dimensional world of conventional photography.

Thymann told GlacierHub that artists are still planning expeditions into the field to gather additional captivating subject matter.  He hopes to reveal those and many more pieces of glacier art at the traveling exhibit Project Pressure aims to bring to the public.

On Russian Glaciers, Algae Imitate Goldilocks

Setting up research camp on glacier in Suntar-Khayata Mountains (source: Melnikov Permafrost Institute)
Setting up research camp on glacier in Suntar-Khayata Mountains (source: Melnikov Permafrost Institute)

Glaciers might seem like places that are hostile to life, but it turns out that microorganisms like algae and photosynthesizing bacteria (known as cyanobacteria) can flourish on them. A team of researchers recently investigated these life forms on four glaciers in the Suntar-Khayata Mountains in eastern Siberia, a range that’s home to nearly 200 glaciers. After three research expeditions during melt seasons, two of which relied on a helicopter for transport, they discovered that the snow algae followed a Goldilocks approach: they were most abundant in the middle of the glaciers.

According to the study, published online in March in the journal Polar Science, the researchers took samples from the glaciers with a stainless steel scoop, then later analyzed them at a laboratory at Chiba University in Japan, the home institution of four of the scientists. They found that there were two main taxa of the green algae on the glaciers: a species with a round shape called Chloromonas sp, and a filament-like species called Ancylonema nordenskioldii. The found that the first species prospered more in the snowy areas of the glaciers, and the second, on ice.

Microscopic photographs of impurities (A) and pigmented ice algae, Ancylonema nordenskioldii (B) (source: Polar Biology)
Microscopic photographs of impurities (A) and pigmented ice algae, Ancylonema nordenskioldii (B) (source: Frontiers in Earth Science)

What’s more, they found that algae had more biomass— in other words, were more abundant— in the middle of the glaciers. The top part? Too snowy. The bottom part? Too much water runoff.

“The decrease in biomass in the upper part of the glaciers can be explained by an increase in the snow-cover frequency with altitude reducing the light intensity of the algal habitats,” the researchers posit. “On the other hand, the decrease in biomass in the lower area has been explained by the amount of running meltwater on the glacier surface.” In other words, the upper portions remain snow-covered the longest, so the algae there have the shortest period of sunlight required for growth. The lower portions receive the largest amount of meltwater, so the algae there are more likely to be washed off the glacier surface.

The authors report that these findings are similar to those from research that’s been carried out on the Arctic. And while they found the same types of green algae and cyanobacteria each year they did research, they did find that the total amount of biomass of the algae changed over the years. For example, on one glacier, 2012 saw the largest amount of algal biomass, which the authors attribute to the weather— it was hotter that year, so the melt season was longer.

The authors conclude by acknowledging that the connection between the algae’s abundance and the temperature should be researched more, and nod towards the future impacts of climate change. “Further studies are necessary to evaluate the impact of expected climate warming in the Arctic region in the coming century on the microbial community on the glaciers,” they write. And the study may also serve more generally as a reminder of the complexity of ecosystems, even in habitats as harsh as glaciers. Though the lowest portions of glaciers are typically the warmest, they are not necessarily the ones that are most hospitable to life. Instead, each glacier is a complex ecosystem, with distinctive spatial patterns that merit close attention.

Glacier 31 in Suntar Khayata Mountains (source: Melnikov Permafrost Institute)
Glacier 31 in Suntar Khayata Mountains (source: Melnikov Permafrost Institute)

For New Zealand Visitors, Helicopters Offer Only Way Onto Two Glaciers

The Franz Joseph Glacier. (Photo: G Morel via Flickr)

The only way for visitors to walk on two iconic glaciers in New Zealand, the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, is by taking a helicopter ride— a situation that probably won’t change in the foreseeable future, a spokesperson for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has told GlacierHub.

The Associated Press reported in March, under the headline “Hiking on New Zealand glaciers banned because of rapid melting,” that it had become impossible for visitors to hike up onto these glaciers because of the dangers posed by their quick recession. It also noted that the number of people who could walk on the glaciers had been cut in half now that helicopters have become the only way to venture onto them, compared to before when people could hike up onto them.

Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)
Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)

Jose Watson, a communications adviser for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, explained the situation in an email to GlacierHub:

There are rivers that come out of the terminal face (front) of the glacier and these rivers often change course meaning that tracks, bridges and viewing points are regularly moved. The glacier is receding, and has reached a point where it is no longer possible to access on foot, so if people want to walk on the glacier they can do so by booking a helihike with one of the guiding companies. A helihike takes people up onto a safe spot on the glacier and walk goes from there. Walking access has not been “banned” as such, but it’s not possible, or safe at the moment, and this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

While helicopters might be a quick and exciting way for tourists to see the glaciers, they are not without their risks— last year, a Squirrel helicopter crashed on the Fox Glacier, claiming the lives of seven people. That deadly event was one of seven accidents involving aircraft and glaciers in New Zealand since 2008.

Almost one million people traveled to see New Zealand’s glaciers in 2015, the Associated Press reported. The beautiful glaciers and striking scenery are part of what lures people to the country.

“It’s the uniqueness, the rawness of the environment,” Rob Jewell, chairman of the Glacier Country Tourism Group, told the AP.  

And for now, unfortunately, helicopters are the only way to experience that raw environment on these two shrinking glaciers.

Photo Friday: Send Us Your Glacier Selfies

At GlacierHub, we don’t just love science— we’re passionate about art and photography, too. We’ve featured work by Zaria Forman and Diane Burko, and each Friday we share photographs of glaciers and other mountain scenes. Now we’re excited to try something new: We’d like to invite our readers to share photographs that you’ve taken of glaciers. Specifically, we want your glacier selfies.

President Barack Obama has already demonstrated this, in a video selfie with a glacier he shot in September last year in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, during a trip to the Arctic focused on climate change.

“Behind me is one of the most visited glaciers in Alaska,” Obama said. “It is spectacular, as you can see. And we’ve been able to spend the day out here, just learning more about how the glaciers are receding. It’s a signpost of what’s happening with a changing climate.”

Photo, via Flickr, by Florence.S.

In that spirit— in recognition of the beauty of glaciers, their threatened status, and glaciers as places that humans interact with— we’d like to invite you to submit your own glacier selfies. We want selfies of you standing in front of, on, or near a glacier. This invitation is open to anyone who might visit a glacier: a researcher or scientist, tourist or traveler, or someone who lives near one.

We will likely publish some of these images on GlacierHub. The photos (no videos, please) should be relatively recent, and should be true selfies. Please email submissions to with a note giving us permission to publish them, along with some basic information: your name, the glacier’s name, the date it was taken, and what you were doing there. (And don’t take any risks while taking the selfie!)

Please email us your photos by May 1– although if you have a trip to a glacier planned after that, let us know. 

‘Ice Cubed’: A Conference on the Many Sides of Ice on April 15

As melting polar icecaps and receding glaciers have generated a global consciousness of the planet’s fragility, ice is now more than ever a subject of fascination and analysis, whether historically or in the contemporary world. On April 15-16, the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University will host Ice Cubed–a two-day conference exploring the wide range of possibilities and contradictions of ice in contemporary analysis and artistic expression.

“Dawn of the Anthropocene.” New York City. Photo by Nora Ligorano.

With support from two Columbia organizations–the Center for Science and Society and the Heyman Center for the HumanitiesIce-Cubed will bring together artists, academics, scholars, and scientists to explore the generative possibilities of ice as a medium for bridging disciplines within and beyond the academy in an era of global warming.

The conference will begin on the morning of Friday April 15 with a full schedule of interdisciplinary academic panels organized around themes from making and melting ice to material structures. Presentations by humanists  and scientists from Columbia and beyond–including Robin Bell of the Lamont Earth Institute, Hasok Chang of Cambridge University, and SIPA’s Ben Orlove–will be followed by a screening and discussion of Isaac Julien’s 2004 video installation, True North.

Barry Lopez, March 24, 2003
Barry Lopez. Photo by David Liittschwager.

On Friday evening at 6, Ice Cubed is pleased to welcome the public to a Keynote Conversation between Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams and writer Barry Lopez, author of the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams. As artists with long experience living and working in the Arctic, Adams and Lopez will discuss the ways in which the stark, ice-bound landscapes of the Far North become incorporated into their work, and what happens when the boundary between artist and activist blurs under the pressure of contemporary climate change. This special event will include a reading of Lopez’s “The Trail: A Short Short Story,” and a performance of Adams’s “…and bells remembered…” by Sandbox Percussion.

Saturday’s schedule offers a continuation of the scholarly discussion around ice, capped off by a Art + Science WALK, co-organized with City as Living Lab, in which GlacierHub’s managing editor Ben Orlove and public artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese will lead conference participants and the public through the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Since 2013, landscape artist Mary Miss and City as Living Lab have been organizing artist-scientist led WALKs with the goal of bring artists, scientists, and the broader community into conversation around contemporary social and environmental issues. Ice Cubed is thrilled to have partnered with City as Living Lab, and to be able to offer the WALK as part of the conference program. For those who attend Friday and Saturday morning events, footage of Ligorano’s and Reese’s work–including “Dawn of the Anthropocene,” a melting ice sculpture that coincided with the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit and the People’s Climate March–will be on view at the conference.

John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams. Photo by Pete Woodhead.

The organizers of Ice Cubed, Maggie Cao and Rebecca Woods, are both postdoctoral fellows at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. The idea for the conference originated in the Fall of 2015 when Cao, who holds an appointment as Assistant Professor of Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Woods, who will begin a tenure-track position in the History of Technology at the University of Toronto in July of 2016, discovered their mutual interest in things icy and cold. Cao works on nineteenth-century American landscape painting, with a particular interest in objects and art produced in polar settings, and Woods studies the history of cold (natural and artificial) in the British Empire. From conversation around this shared interest, and taking inspiration from recent discourse around the cryosphere, came the idea to host a discussion across disciplines within the academy, and beyond.

All Ice Cubed events will take place on the Columbia Morningside Campus, and are free and open to the public. No advanced registration is necessary, although those who wish to attend the WALK can email Rebecca Woods in advance in order to meet up with the group as it sets out from the Columbia Campus at 11:45 on April 15. This will be a great opportunity for the public to meet and mingle with conference speakers and participants.

Full details, including times, locations, and speaker bios, are available on the conference website.

Ancient Cultures Inspire Current Adaptations in the Andes

Ben Orlove giving a talk, Lowe Art Museum, Miami (source: Univ. of Miami)
Ben Orlove giving a talk, Lowe Art Museum, Miami (source: Univ. of Miami)

On 24 February, GlacierHub’s managing editor, Ben Orlove, gave a talk titled “Bodies, Objects, and Power in Andean Landscapes and Waterscapes” at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami. His lecture was one of a series of public talks linked to the exhibit “Kay Pacha: Reciprocity with the Natural World,” the first major display of the museum’s extensive holdings of pre-Columbian art from Peru. The exhibit, curated by Traci Ardren of the university’s Department of Anthropology, presents the Andean belief that humans and nature are involved in mutual exchanges, each supporting the other. This worldview is connected to the Andean emphasis on dualities, in which two entities, sometimes subdivided into four sub-parts, complement each other and form a whole.

Orlove underscored the linkage of landscapes and waterscapes to indicate that Andean peoples see land and water as basic elements that constitute nature, in contrast to Western views that emphasize land as primary, and see water as a secondary substance that travels over the land. He discussed the Inca name for their empire, Tawantinsuyu, the four-parts-together, with the imperial capital of Cusco located at the point where the four parts meet. He stressed the importance of water management for the Inca Empire. They constructed terraces which were watered by irrigation canals, allowing the expansion of the cultivation of maize—a prized crop, served at the ritual feasts, many tied closely to an annual calendar, that celebrated the relationships that linked the imperial rulers, local ethnic communities, and the spirits of the mountains and the earth.

Pre-Columbian khipu from Peru (source: Lowe Art Museum)
Pre-Columbian khipu from Peru (source: Lowe Art Museum)
Villagers in Tupicocha, Peru, displaying khipus (source: F. Salomon)
Villagers in Tupicocha, Peru, displaying khipus (source: F. Salomon)

An extensive network of roads and storehouses allowed goods to be moved throughout the empire. To keep track of goods and to facilitate their redistribution, the Incas used an accounting system known as khipus. These khipus are complex structures of knotted cords, still incompletely understood, which served as records, and perhaps as abacus-like calculators as well.  

Contemporary indigenous cultures in the Andes

Orlove emphasized the radical disruption in Andean life that was brought about by the conquest of the Incas by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. This cataclysm ended the Inca Empire, decimated populations, and forced local peoples into harsh labor in mines. He emphasized that much of the indigenous technology and culture has nonetheless survived to the present. He presented four cases in which these traditions evolved into new forms that address the concerns of contemporary indigenous communities. Drawing on Frank Salomon’s research in Tupicocha, Peru, Orlove discussed a village which preserves ancient khipus and honors them in an annual festival in which they are brought out of a storehouse, unwrapped and displayed, and then wrapped and stored once again. These rituals offer insights into the ancient practices of the Incas. In a similar fashion, the annual, ritual-filled  construction of a canyon-spanning bridge, made entirely from ropes of local straw, sheds light on earlier practices, and provides testimony of the ties of reciprocity that connect the villages involved in the construction.  

The other two cases in Orlove’s talk examined high-elevation regions with glacier-covered peaks. Zoila Mendoza’s study of the Qoyllurrit’i pilgrimage, held each year before the winter solstice to a glacier peak, also shows the importance of annual ritual cycles. As Mendoza has noted, “mountains have been the focus of veneration and ritual [in the Andes] since pre-Hispanic times.” Orlove included images from Mendoza’s video of the pilgrimage in his talk.

Pre-Columbian shovel used for irrigation rituals (source: Lowe Art Museum)
Pre-Columbian shovel used for irrigation rituals (source: Lowe Art Museum)

The pilgrims’ visit to the site in the Cusco region had long included a tradition of harvesting ice from the glacier, but the glacier’s retreat has led them to suspend this custom, a change that causes them great concern. They still worship at other shrines and go up to the mountain, but now return without glacier ice. 

Villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance rituals (source: A. Stensrud)
Villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance rituals (source: A. Stensrud)

Astrid Stensrud’s research in the Colca Valley of Arequipa shows how agricultural villagers work to maintain and extend irrigation canals in the face of glacier retreat which has reduced water supplies. The community work parties that dig and reinforce canals involve festivals, tied to an annual calendar of rituals, that draw on centuries-old cultural symbols. As in the case of Qoyllurrit’i, the regularity of the traditions promotes close attention to environmental change; in this instance, the villagers draw on traditions to adapt to climate change.

Current adaptation projects

Orlove concluded with a discussion of the indigenous responses to climate change which draw on these cultures. In addition to the Colca Valley case mentioned above, he selected, as one example among many, the Cusco-based group Asociación Andes. A group of indigenous communities have set aside lands at different elevations in which they experiment with native crop varieties. They monitor the results to see which varieties perform best in the context of higher temperatures, irregular rainfall, and new pest outbreaks.

pre-Columbian ceramic figure displaying a staff of office (source: Lowe Museum of Art)
Pre-Columbian ceramic figure bearing a staff of office (source: Lowe Art Museum)
Villagers from Calca, Peru, with leader bearing a staff of office (source: Asociación Andes)
Villagers in Calca, Peru, with leader bearing a staff of office (source: Asociación Andes)

As Orlove emphasized, the project leaders draw on long-established symbols of authority, such as ritual staffs, to coordinate the villagers’ efforts across a wide region. To underscore the integration of ancient traditions with elements from the modern world, he showed a photograph of a local indigenous woman who was making a video recording of the discussion of the agricultural experiments.

This Andean case is not the only one in which established traditions inform adaptation to climate change. Comparable examples can be found in other mountain regions of the world, including the Himalayas, the Alps and the Tien Shan. As Orlove suggested at the end of his talk, indigenous cultures’ resilience is a valuable resource for a world that is facing climate change.

Researchers Question Glacier Study

This article has been republished on GlacierHub and was originally posted on the personal blog of Joseph Michael Shea. Shea is a glacier hydrologist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain (ICIMOD) and is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Follow him on Twitter here

A paper published last year in the Indian journal Current Science (pdf) has recently been raised in the Indian parliament. A number of scientists have been rightfully critical of this paper in different online forums. In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at the results of the paper, which are surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of Himalayan glaciology.

Why are the results surprising? Based on a sample of 2018 glaciers, the paper’s authors suggest that nearly 87% of the glaciers in the region have stable snouts, while 12% have retreating termini, and < 1% are advancing.

There are a number of issues with these figures, which lead the authors to the incorrect conclusion  that glaciers in the region are actually in steady state. In no particular order, these issues are:

  1. Glacier snout position is determined by a complex range of factors, including climate, dynamics, and lag times. Over short periods (i.e. less than 10 years, as in this paper) the behaviour of the terminus may not be indicative of the overall health of a glacier.
  2. Glacier retreat is a very different thing from glacier mass loss. Glaciers lose mass primarily due to downwasting (surface lowering), not terminus retreat. And study after study has confirmed that glaciers across the region (except for the Karakoram) are losing mass.
  3. The position of the terminus on debris-covered glaciers can be  difficult to interpret, and it will not respond to climate change in the same way as the terminus on clean (debris-free) glaciers. The authors do not distinguish between debris-covered and clean glaciers in their terminus assessments.
  4. Its not clear how the 2018 glaciers were sampled. There are over 54,000 glaciers in the HKH region, and while a 3% sample size is not too bad, biased sampling for debris-covered or large glaciers make extrapolations to the entire population problematic.

Finally, the “stable” glacier examples given in the paper actually show glaciers in retreat! Here is a Landsat pair (data available at from 2001 and 2014 for the Gangotri Glacier, in the Garwhal Himalaya (Figure 7 in theCurrent Science paper):


Not only is the  Gangotri (the main north-flowing glacier in the center of the image) in retreat, but you can also literally see the downwasting occur as the distance between the active ice surface and the large lateral moraines gets bigger. Smaller glaciers throughout the region also appear to be in retreat.

The authors also use the example of Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range (Figure 8 in the Current Science paper). This is the terminus of a massive glacier system (ca. 700 km²) and the Landsat pairs I pulled from 2000 and 2013 also appear to show retreat and deflation at the terminus:


Bottom line: the Current Science paper is simply not credible. The conclusion that > 80% of glaciers in the region are stable is based on incorrect interpretations of satellite imagery, a possibly biased sampling method, and an unjustified reliance on short-term changes in terminus position as an indicator of glacier health.

Meeting at COP21 Seeks Coordination of Glacier Countries

Eighteen people, representing seven small mountain countries, gathered on 8 December at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris to discuss glacier retreat and its consequences. They reviewed the issues that they considered most serious and considered the possibility of forming an international organization of glacier countries.

Meeting 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21 with Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel source: Svetlana Jumaeva)
Discussion 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

This meeting included representatives from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway; among them were country negotiators at the COP21, leaders in national agencies and NGOs, and officials within bilateral aid organizations, as well as academics and one UN official. It was organized by Ben Orlove, the managing editor of GlacierHub, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the working group of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia. He attended COP21 as an official observer of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The meeting was facilitated by Miguel Saravia of CONDESAN, the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, who facilitated the access at the COP site to Peru’s office suite. This facility, available to the Peruvian delegation and their guests, provided a haven of quiet and privacy, conducive to discussion and reflection, within the bustle of the COP.  It drew on the suggestions of the representatives of the glacier countries, expressed in prior conversations and meetings with Orlove in the months leading up to the COP; in the days before the 8 December meeting, delegates from Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, whose schedules impeded participation in that meeting, offered a number of ideas that were included in the discussion there.

Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives source: Ben Orlove
Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives (source: Ben Orlove)

The impetus of the meeting came from examples set by other organizations that bring together countries sharing common climate change impacts. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Arctic Council, and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations. Another such group, the Delta Coalition, which was announced at the COP on 2 December, links 12 countries to make deltas more visible in global policy discussions, establish partnerships, and undertake concrete actions in order to increase resilience in these regions.

Though the sense of the meeting was that further discussion and study was needed before a Council of Small Glacier States or some similar organization could be established, the group achieved a number of positive steps: examining possible activities for such an organization, conducting a ranking exercise of concerns, reviewing cases that could offer suggestions for the organizations, and establishing concrete action steps to take before the next meeting of the group.

At the outset of the meeting, the participants agreed on the great breadth of possible activities for an organization of glacier countries. Eric Nanchen of the Swiss-based Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions spoke of “knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building,” to which Rasmus Bertelsen of Norway’s University of the Arctic added “policy-shaping networks.” The social actors within the countries similarly ranged broadly across government, universities, local communities, civil society institutions, and businesses.

Discussion at meeting of glacier countries source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries (source: Deborah Poole)

The participants also recognized a variety of structural forms. Emphasizing the value of drawing on existing efforts, Andrew Taber of the Mountain Institute (TMI) argued for inclusion within larger mountain organizations, such as the Mountain Forum or the Mountain Partnership, within which TMI has a leadership role. Others, such as Benjamín Morales Arnao of Peru’s National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, underscored the distinctiveness of glaciers, with their close association with climate change; Firuz Saidov and Anvar Khomidov of the Tajikistan Committee for Environment Protection indicated the specific issues of water resource management and hazards faced by glacier countries at the headwaters of international watersheds. Summarizing this discussion, Thinley Namgyel, Chief Environment Officer of the Climate Change Division of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, emphasized that any new group would “not want to duplicate” existing efforts.

As a first step to provide focus, Orlove led the group in a ranking exercise. The participants reviewed an initial set of glacier-related issues and added other issues to the list. Each one then allocated five points across these issues, giving no issue more than two points. Three issues—hydropower planning and water resources, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems, training and human resource development—all rose to the top. The other issues—reduction of black carbon, tourism planning, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and outmigration from mountain areas—received much smaller numbers of points. The rankings from the Asian and Latin American delegates were quite close to those of the European delegates.

Participants at meeting of glacier countries, COP21 8 December 2015 source: Ben Orlove)
Tajik and Peruvian participants at meeting of glacier countries (source: Ben Orlove)

With these issues in mind, participants offered examples of prior activities. Jorge Recharte, the Andes Program Director of TMI, discussed an exchange program which linked Peru, Nepal and Tajikistan: researchers, government officials and community members formed committees to plan for early warning systems and risk reduction for glacier lake outburst flood hazards. He pointed to the great potential of incorporating local knowledge into research and adaptation, though he also reminded the group of the challenges of assuring ongoing funding—a point that others recognized. Muzaffar Shodmonov of the Tajikistan State Agency for Hydrometeorology spoke of coordination of glacial monitoring across a number of countries. Bertelsen suggested that the group consider as an example the University of the Arctic, based in Norway’s Tromsø University. This university links a number of other universities in countries within the Arctic Council, and has served effectively to develop and apply knowledge. He suggested that the emerging plans  of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to develop a Himalayan University Consortium might be a similar center; Orlove suggested that it could be linked to the University of Central Asia.  Matthias Jurek, an Austrian involved with the United Nations Environmental Programme, also mentioned a number of programs that draw together research and adaptation efforts in different glacier countries, including UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program. Like Bertelsen, Jurek suggested points of overlap between glacier projects and polar endeavors—linking glaciers to the global cryosphere as well as to mountains. This connection had also been raised by Pam Pearson of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who spoke with several participants moments before the meeting but who was unable to attend due to prior commitments.

Discussion at meeting source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries (source: Deborah Poole)

As the meeting progressed, the discussion shifted to concrete action steps. Namgyel’s emphasis on the need for additional work underscored this direction. Jurek proposed a mapping exercise to develop a full list of glacier-related institutions in small mountain countries involved in research, adaptation programs, training and communication. Orlove suggested close attention to the human and social dimensions of glacier retreat, as well as the physical and hydrological aspects. Orlove also proposed developing a grid that would examine the different combinations of activities, structural forms and issues, as a way to locate “low-hanging fruit” that could serve as initial efforts to link countries. The Central Asia-Himalaya link suggested the possibility that such efforts could be drawn on selected regions, rather than the full range of glacier countries around the world.

As the end of the hour allotted for the meeting approached, the participants discussed possible venues for the next meeting of the group. Several people mentioned the World Mountain Forum in Uganda in October 2016 and COP22 in Morocco in November 2016, which is likely to have a thematic focus on water issues, though the possibility of a separate standalone conference was also raised. The participants agreed to remain in contact. This conference indicated that small mountain countries can do more together than they can do alone. The broad awareness of the potential for such coordinated action should provide the stimulus for future actions.

Threat from Himalayan Glaciers Larger Than Expected

By Jingchao Wang and Xuefei Miao

Impacts of climate change in river systems are likely to have considerable social, economic, ecological and political implications, according to a new study published in the journal of Regional Environmental Change.

In order to understand governance mechanisms for climate adaptation in the region, a systematic review methodology was applied to 33 different papers that describe adaptation projects to examine adaptation responses in the riparian countries of three Himalayan river basins at three different levels—policy objectives, institutions and practice. The authors found that most studies focus on the Ganges River Basin. Since 2011 to 2012, the number of studies about climate change adaptation in the region have significantly increased.

The icefall of Khumbu glacier, in the Nepali Himalayas (Source: Nature)

Himalayan glaciers are the source of numerous large Asian river systems, which support rich ecosystems and irrigate millions of hectares of fields, thereby supporting more than one billion people who live in their catchments. The three major Himalayan river basins—Brahmaputra,Ganges and Indus—are spread over six countries in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan).

The region is home to around 1.3 billion people, predominately those of low economic status, living in the three basins that cover more than 2.20 million square kilometers. India’s National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) estimates that more than half of India’s poor communities live on the main stem of the Ganges and that by 2050, this population is expected to rise to approximately 720 million from an estimated 500 million in 2001.

Given the large geographical spread of the three river basins along with the huge number of poor people living in the region, adaptation to the anticipated adverse impacts of climate change is soon expected to feature dominantly in the mainstream policy discourse of the concerned countries, the authors wrote. Though each country in the region faces major threats, very few cross-country adaptation projects have been achieved, the new study shows.

A review of adaptation projects found that existing projects tend to focus on livelihood security, rather than water availability, which is a major concern for communities in the region. Already communities are vulnerable to droughts and floods and glacier melt excpected to exacerbate coastal and inland flooding, especially in Bangladesh.

Researchers went to Himalayas to collect ice cores(Source: NASA)

With climate change amplifying current levels of variability, more lives are at risk and global projects to alleviate local poverty face greater uncertainty and even failure. Large-scale population migration could add to global social instability as millions of people are forced to leave their homes. Considering the different levels of development among countries, difficulties exist in order to conduct large-scale projects, the authors said.

But a number of challenges make international projects difficult to implement. Most countries make their domestic interests a top priority, but climate change knows no national boundaries.

In addition, local cultures vary and some communities consider their cultural heritage as more valuable than economical benefits they could gain from adapting to climate change. A large number of religious sites and structures in the Indian Himalayas, where Buddhism was born, are threatened by climate change. Moreover, due to Himalayan plateau region’s unique environment, distinct biodiversity has formed. Climate change can destroy this heritage and may cause a lot of serious ecological problems, but the review showed that 30 percent of studies on climate adaptation indicate a gap in local awareness about the threats posed by climate change, which will impact peoples’ ability to respond to the challenges presented by climate change.

In order to operationalize adaptive practice effectively, scientists should widen the knowledge base, promote national and regional initiatives to conduct research, develop knowledge and data sharing and establish a cooperative framework to advance an agenda for the exchange of experience and better practices, the authors concluded. As many of the rivers in the region share trans-boundary systems, cross-country cooperation and dialogue among and within jurisdictions should be a priority. However, without clear climate policy objectives and without successful cross-country collaborations, it will not be easy to develop effective adaptation to climate change.

From a policy perspective, it is not merely necessary but urgent to build functional institutional mechanisms at both national and regional levels for addressing and responding to climate change through adaptation measures.

“Apart from India and Bangladesh, there is still ambiguity in goal setting which may constrain policy implementation,” the authors wrote. “At the institutional level, the observation that most of countries are in the process or have already designed structures for knowledge generation and management reflects the capacity for operationalizing the policy mandate of strengthening the scientific base for informed decisions.”

Antarctic Bacteria Prove Resilient

Peptide Sequencing and Identification of Proteins in an Antarctic Bacterium Pseudomonas Syringae. Courtesy of Libertas Academica/Flickr.
Peptide Sequencing and Identification of Proteins in an Antarctic Bacterium Pseudomonas syringae. Courtesy of Libertas Academica/Flickr.

Surviving in Antarctic conditions takes more than cold-resilience for bacteria, recent research from the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology found.

Using six different stressors in lab conditions, from temperature stress to pH change stress to salt and oxidative stress, the researchers were able to test bacterial resistance in the environments they are likely to encounter in Antarctica. In Antarctic glaciers, bacteria are likely to experience extreme cold, in thermal vents extreme heat, and in dried up lakes high levels of salinity. Often, bacteria experience more than one stress factor at a time.

Tests were carried out on ten different bacteria strains, which were grown separately and exposed to different conditions. A number of mutant bacteria developed from a strain of Pseudomonas syringae Lz4w, were also tested so that researchers could identify some of the genetic factors that allowed bacteria to develop stress resilience.

Researchers found that of all the stress conditions, the bacteria strains were better able to tolerate alkaline conditions. The bacteria did not fare so well under acidic conditions, which bacteria can face in Antarctic glaciers that contain some mineral acids.

Other stress tolerance levels varied depending on the bacteria strain. For example, Arthrobacter kerguelensis survived oxidation stress better than Pseudomonas meridiana. Under Ultra-Violet radiation, most of the bacteria strains died.

Antarctica - Gerlache strait. Photo courtesy of Rita Willaert/Flickr.
Antarctica – Gerlache strait. Photo courtesy of Rita Willaert/Flickr.

“Our investigation on tolerance of cold-adapted Antarctic bacteria to other environmental stressors fills the void in the present state of knowledge on the stress-adaptability of Antarctic bacteria,” the authors wrote. “The alkali-tolerance of all of the cold-tolerant Antarctic strains reveals their similarity with some other cold-tolerant bacteria isolated some time back from the Himalayan glacier.”

Researchers also found that bacteria that were exposed to multiple stress factors developed multi-stress protective molecules from proteins, lipids or other types of molecules which allowed them to be more resilient.

By looking into some of these proteins, the researchers were able to begin developing an understanding of the genetic elements that allowed bacteria to develop a tolerance for multiple stressful conditions. The findings could provide insights in the development of resilient  bacteria strains through genetic engineering.

“The multistress-protective potential of a metabolic enzyme, as evidenced in this study, reveals intricacy in the mechanism involved in stress adaptation of bacteria,” the authors concluded.

Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.
Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.

After the devastating earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, Sienna Craig began to conduct field research in Mustang to understand how communities in the area perceived and dealt with the earthquake. Craig is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. She is the co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and the co-founder of DROKPA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with pastoral communities in the greater Himalayan region to implement grassroots development and promote social entrepreneurship. She agreed to write a post for GlacierHub about her work.

Yangjin and I were talking about causality when the topic of glaciers came up. She was describing the interviews she and her fellow community researchers from Mustang, Nepal, had completed this summer as part of an NSF RAPID award called “Narrating Disaster: Calibrating Causality and Response to the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal.” Yangjin moved her hands and shoulders, narrating, through the words of others, how this living earth, jigten, balances on the back of a mythical animal. Sometimes it is an elephant, other times a white ox, fish, tortoise, or pig. “When the animal shakes its tail, there is a small earthquake. This time people felt the whole body shaking.”

Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung
Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

This causal explanation of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes will likely prove to be a common response in our research, particularly among the elderly. Other recurring explanations include discussions of the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – which at once comprise and course through our planet. When these elements are out of balance or in need of release, events such as earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions occur, locals explained. These views resonate with Tibetan Buddhist cosmological understandings as well as those derived from the region’s medical and astrological traditions. Even so, we are finding that such concepts are often voiced in dialogue with what our interlocutors recognize as “science,” including descriptions of tectonic plates shifting and colloquial expressions that correspond with geological and geophysical concepts.

“Many people also spoke about the cultural and religious reasons for the earthquakes,” Yangjin continued. These reasons might be thought of as the lived effects of the anthropocene in culturally Himalayan terms.

Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung
Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

“Some people said these days people are more greedy or focused on individual concerns. Others are poor or ignorant of religion so they use nature’s resources without making proper ritual.” In this ‘dark era’ (kali yug), Yangjin said, reflecting the views of others, we are not using the earth carefully. She went on to describe how people mentioned that specific deities of place (lü, tsen, sabdak, etc.) were displeased with the ways people have forgotten to honor them. At times this reflected a shift in Mustang away from subsistence agriculture toward planting cash crops. “One person in [the village of] Samar said that since so many people are now just planting apples, and nothing else, the lü [serpent spirits] are not happy.” In such terms, the earthquakes are being interpreted as painful reminders to pay attention – wakeup calls that have, in some instances, sparked new waves of religious action among young and old alike.

“The earthquakes have also made people very scared of floods,” Yangjin went on. “Especially in some areas where there are glaciers.” Yangjin is from the Village Development Committee of Tshoshar, a region that suffered massive destruction in the wake of a glacial lake outburst flood about thirty years ago, right around the time Yangjin was born. The results of this flood still define great swaths of Tshoshar’s landscape: river stones the size of ostrich eggs and massive boulders stretch across the river valley, lending it a lunar feel. I had known about this flood but had not realized that a relatively mild earthquake may have triggered it. Such connections are now being made – memories form and re-form as people reflect on the past as a way of dealing with the present and auguring uncertain futures.

Yangjin then explained that a youth group from Kimaling, one of Tshonup’s hamlets, had organized an expedition up to Gyakar Tsho, a glacial lake tucked into the folds of Mustang’s trans-Himalayan ridges. “Youth from all of the nine wards [in Tshonup VDC] went up to the glacier to look at it, but also to take care of it.”

Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club
Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club

“What do you mean ‘take care of it’?” I asked.

“They collected all sorts of chinlab [objects ritually imbued with efficacy] that had come from many holy places or from important lamas. They went up and put it on the glacier to keep it happy, to keep it in place.” Later that day I watched video footage of this event: young men moving across moraine, laughing and narrating their adventure. The footage did not show them making chinlab offerings, but several other interviews confirmed they had indeed made such propitiations.

“Sakya Trizin Rinpoche said that people didn’t have to make such offerings to the glacier,” Yangjin went on, “but local people felt it was important. So they did it anyway.” I found this admission fascinating. At a moment when religious affiliation across the high Himalaya seems to be consolidating around more orthodox manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism such as that embodied by the leader of the Sakya school, experiences of deeply grounded environmental precarity reinforce the importance of place-based knowledge and sacred geography. This glacier – at once a source of much needed irrigation water and a specter of ruin – needs to be coaxed into staying put by those for whom its presence matters most.

The research reflected in this post would not have been possible without Ngawang Tsering Gurung, Yangjin Bista, Tsewang Gyurme Gurung and Karma Chodon Gurung. 

The NSF RAPID Award 1547377 (2015-2017) was granted to PI Kristine Hildebrandt (Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville), Co-PIs Geoff Childs (Washington University – St. Louis), Sienna Craig (Dartmouth College), and Mark Donohue (Australia National University).  This project combines ethnographic and linguistic field methods to study the lived experiences of the 2015 earthquakes in three contiguous but differently impacted districts: Mustang, Manang, and Gorkha. 


Mt. McKinley’s Name Changed Back to Denali

Denali (source: National Park Service)
Denali (source: National Park Service)

United States President Barack Obama announced this week he would officially change the name of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, back to Denali, the original Native American name for the mountain.

Mount McKinley was named after Republican President William McKinley more than a century ago, but the name Denali has older roots in the language of the Athabascan people of Alaska. The name means “the high one,” or “the great one.” Denali’s summit reaches 5,500 metres and is covered by five large glaciers.

Disputes over the mountain’s name began in the 1970’s when the Alaskan legislature requested that the mountain’s official name be changed back to Denali. A stalemate was reached in 1980, when, as a compromise, McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain’s name remained unchanged. Now, 40 years later, the renaming remains controversial. Though many Alaskans celebrate the name change, politicians from Ohio — President McKinley’s home state — are not happy. In a tweet, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Obama had “overstepped his bounds.”

In defense of Obama’s decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said President McKinley had never visited Alaska, adding that the deceased president had no connection to the mountain. Native Americans across the country have applauded the decision.

“Yes, we are truly excited about it- it’s a long time coming since Alaskans have wanted the change for  a long time,” Malinda Chase, from the Association of Interior Native Educators, told GlacierHub. “On the home front, it’s a definite celebration for our People, our Languages, and the ever-present guiding strength of our Ancestors, whom I’m sure will be celebrating in all their glory in the early morning sunlight shining on the high and stunning peaks of our wondrous Denali!”

First publication of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (source: University of South Carolina library)
First publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (source: University of South Carolina library)

Other major glaciated peaks have also had their indigenous names restored. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in East Africa, had a German name, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Emperor William Peak) from 1889 to 1918, the date at the end of World War I when German East Africa became the British colony of Tanganyika, though some Germans kept using the name until 1964, when the colony, together with the island of Zanzibar, became the independent country of Tanzania. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, may have contributed to removing any lingering attachment to the mountain’s German, rather than its KiSwahili, name.

Commemorative New Zealand dollar (source: NZ Post)

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, was given a double name in 1998, Aoroki/Mount Cook, placing the indigenous  Maori  name first.  This decision came after some decades of negotiation, in which the indigenous groups of southern New Zealand pressed their land claims under nineteenth century treaties. A commemorative non-circulating dollar coin was issued some years later.

And some mountains have names which remain unresolved. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, and many have pressed to eliminate the colonial name. The highest peak in Tajikistan seems unlikely to retain its principal Soviet name, Pik Kommunizma, or its alternate Soviet name, Mount Stalin, but several others names are in use, including  Garmo and Ismoil Somoni, the latter being a leader of a 9th and 10th century dynasty in the region. The complex topography and difficult access of the Pamir Range contribute to the multiplicity of names which individual mountains receive.  

Nonetheless, a number of glacier-covered mountains around the world continue to be internationally known by the name given by colonial explorers. It seems likely that they will join Denali and Kilimanjaro in shaking off their colonial names–names used, it must be remembered, for only a small fraction of the history of human settlement in these mountains, or, at least, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, their double, hybrid status could be acknowledged.