Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes

Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica’s largest contributors to sea level rise from Antarctica.  Its rate of loss has doubled in the past three decades, earning it the moniker “doomsday glacier.” Understanding why it’s retreating so quickly has been a challenge, but glaciologists have recently discovered that the glacier is now generating its own seismic activity when it calves (breaks off icebergs into the ocean), which could help in unlocking the physical keys to this process. The findings were published early this year in Geophysical Research Letters.  

Combing through seismograph readings collected in West Antarctica during a large calving event at Thwaites on February 8th 2014, a team of researchers found evidence of two low frequency earthquakes, each about 10-30 seconds long. Their hunch—that the quakes came from the calving—was confirmed when they matched the seismograph readings with satellite images taken on the same day. 

Thwaites Glacier
The rate of ice loss from Thwaites Glacier has doubled in the last thirty years. (Source: NASA)

They also discovered high frequency blips of seismic activity that chirped on and off in the week preceding the event. Glaciologist and lead author of the study, Paul Winberry, explained to GlacierHub that in these short bursts they were actually “hearing all these little cracks start to propagate.” It was the sound of countless cracks forming and popping apart, heralding the large break about to come. 

“Frequency” refers to the behavior of shockwaves that reverberate out from the source of the earthquake. Waves repeat their motion as they travel in a peak-valley-peak-valley pattern. Waves that do this rapidly are called high-frequency and those that do it slowly are called low frequency. High frequency waves are detectable over short distances; low frequency waves over long distances.       

Thwaites is the only known glacier in Antarctica to exhibit seismic behavior, whereas glaciers in Greenland have been recorded causing earthquakes for some time. This difference can be explained by the fact that the majority of Greenland’s icebergs capsize when they break off into the water. The result is a more boisterous form of calving that produces detectable earthquakes. Why Greenland’s icebergs capsize and Antarctica’s do not has to do with the physical makeup of each landmass’s ice sheets and where they start to float on the water.

Greenland glaciers flow down the island’s mountainous sides and break into icebergs when they hit the water. This behavior is common where a glacier’s terminus is close to where it starts to float—also known as the grounding line. Antarctic glaciers flow outwards horizontally, and continue on into the water as huge floating shelves that stretch miles out to sea. 

“Basically when [Greenland glaciers] start to go afloat, they form icebergs as opposed to Antarctica, where in most places they go afloat they don’t break off instantaneously but they form these big long ice shelves—floating extensions,” said Winberry. “It’s completely different.”

The other key component of capsizing is the physical shape. Greenland’s icebergs are top-heavy. “They’re taller than they are wide. They’re not stable, so when they break off they want to flip over,” said Winberry. 

Tim Bartholomaus, a glaciologist from the University of Idaho who has studied Greenland’s glaciers told GlacierHub that the capsizing icebergs bang into the front of the glacier as they’re flipping over and that generates the earthquake. “As they’re rotating en masse, they’re putting their shoulder against the back of the terminus and giving it an enormous push as they’re rotating.” 

Icebergs near the terminus of Thwaites Glacier. If it were to collapse it could raise global sea levels by ten feet. (Source: NASA)

These collisions don’t normally occur during calving in Antarctica because the ice sheets are far bigger, already floating on the water, and terminate far from the grounding line. “Those icebergs break off and form New England or Delaware-sized chunks. And when that happens they kind of slowly drift away,” said Winberry. That Thwaites is now generating detectable seismic earthquakes means one thing: its icebergs are likely capsizing because its terminus is now close to the grounding line. 

“The fact that Thwaites is now doing this slab capsize style of calving, that means that it is breaking off right at the point where the glacier is hitting the ocean,” said Bartholomaus. 

The capsize calving at Thwaites on February 8th 2014 sent low frequency waves traveling—and shaking—through the ice and land underneath for hundreds of miles. It generated enough energy to show up on seismometers over 900 miles away as a magnitude 3.0 earthquake.  

Over the last three decades, the Thwaites glacier has lost about 600 billion tons of ice. Some scientists fear that with an increased rate of 50 billion tons of ice lost a year in recent times, runaway instability of the glacier may already be underway. Total collapse of the glacier would raise global sea levels by 10 feet. Thwaites’ newfound seismic activity suggests that its retreat has now reached land. 

“It’s lost all of its floating ice,” Winberry told GlacierHub. “The floating extension has basically disappeared. So to understand the future retreat of the glacier, we need to understand this different style of calving behavior.” 

While that may be concerning, it also gives scientists a new tool for better understanding the process of calving at Thwaites. So far, glaciologists have relied heavily on satellite imagery for studying large scale calving events in Antarctica, but satellites usually only take one picture a day or every two days.  “A lot happens between those two days. In these calving events, the flipping of these icebergs and actual breaking apart can happen over minutes to hours,” said Winberry. Being able to “listen” to them unfold in near real time adds a whole new element. 

“That is going to help us unravel the physics of how these icebergs actually form, which is what we need to know to produce better predictions of future retreat of this glacier” said Winberry. 

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Photo Friday: French President Emmanuel Macron Dons Ski Suit and Visits Mont Blanc and Mer de Glace

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the tram from the Alpine resort of Chamonix up to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to pay homage to the legendary massif and reflect on the toll climate change is exacting on its great glacier, the Mer de Glace. The President dined at Mont Blanc’s base with climate scientists; peered from the mountain’s northern slopes down upon the jagged crags of ice doppling the immense—albeit shrinking—valley glacier; and walked in blue tunnels, which course the Mer de Glace’s innards. 

The glacier has shrunk more than 200 feet in depth (65 meters) and almost 1,000 feet in length (300 meters) since 1996. “What we see with this glacier melting is irrefutable evidence of global warming,” Macron said after visiting Mer de Glace.     

French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to make combating the climate crisis a signature piece of the rest of his term as he eyes the 2022 elections. (Source: Twitter)

The visit coincided with Macron’s announcement of numerous environmental policies aimed at combating the climate crisis. These ranged from the promise of the French government to stop purchasing single-use plastics in July, to the creation of a new agency—the French Office of Biodiversity—tasked with the stewardship of the country’s ecosystems. 

More pertinent to Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace was the announcement of a new nature preserve ringing the mountain and a raft of new rules on limiting the number of climbers that can access the summit of Europe’s highest peak. Around 30,000 people attempt to summit the almost 16,000 foot (4,800 meters) peak each year and leave it strewn with garbage. 

Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint Gervais—a town near Mont Blanc—sent Macron a letter last fall lamenting the polluted state of the mountain and the “oddballs” responsible for it. Last year a British Royal Marine veteran tried to summit Mont Blanc while carrying a rowing machine—a stunt intended to raise money for charity. The climb sapped his strength, however, so he descended without it, leaving the hulking exercise machine high on the mountain. Local authorities said they will have to use a helicopter to get it down.  

“It is all well and good to worry about the Amazon rainforest, but to ignore what is happening on Mont Blanc and to allow this disrespect to continue is intolerable,” wrote Peillex. 

Some believe that the controversial French President’s environmental ambitions and business friendly policies are incompatible. (Source: Twitter)

These new policies and the visit to Mont Blanc are part of Macron’s larger effort to stake the second half of his term on climate and the environment. Some view the controversial President’s climate change combating ambitions at odds with his investment banking past and business friendly policies, but he thinks the two are compatible.  

Speaking before scientists and members of the French Ministry of Ecology at Chamonix after his visit, he declared that the fight to curb climate change and protect biodiversity was “a fight for our own survival” but added that “we need to show that this strategy is compatible with economic progress because this is the strategy in which I believe.” 

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Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

The novel coronavirus—officially known as COVID-19 by the World Health Organization as of Tuesday—is gaining altitude. The mysterious flu-like respiratory illness that has wracked eastern China and put the rest of the world on alert is creeping into the country’s mountainous western provinces high on the Tibetan Plateau. While the number of cases in these areas still remains low, there has been a slow uptick in infections in recent days, and the weak public health infrastructure in these poor regions could worsen the pandemic. 

According to the WHO, the westernmost provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai collectively have 78 confirmed cases so far—up from 27 at the start of February. Sichuan province, which includes the easternmost portion of the Tibetan plateau, has 436 confirmed infections. These vast regions of Western China, sometimes colloquially called the ‘roof of the world’ because of their high elevation, are home to thousands of glaciers. 

Globally, over 60,000 people are known to have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 1,300 of them have perished since the disease first appeared in late December. Most of these infections have occurred in central China, specifically Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated. Officials think that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal of some kind at a live wildlife market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million. It’s reservoir host—where it persists in the environment—is unknown, although the WHO suspects it to be a species of Rhinolophus bat common throughout Asia.   

Many local communities on the Tibetan Plateau are far apart and remote, which can present a challenge to healthcare, but could also limit the virus’s spread. (Credit: Creative Commons)

The biggest worry in the western provinces is containing the virus’s spread. This is a concern across all of China—and of any country during an outbreak—but it carries extra weight in the remote mountainous regions of the country where public health infrastructure is poor and ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. In villages and towns scattered across the rugged terrain of the Tibetan plateau, proper hospitals or clinics are hard to come by. 

“In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.” 

Gerald Roche, an anthropologist from La Trobe University in Australia who lived and studied on the Tibetan plateau for nearly a decade, expressed a similar sentiment. “Healthcare migration is a fact of life for the vast majority of Tibetans,” he told GlacierHub. “The more serious a condition is, the further one has to travel.”

In Qinghai and the Tibetan parts of Sichuan, roads between counties have been closed and checkpoints between townships have sprung up. Many businesses are shuttered and people have been encouraged to stay home. Villages have largely isolated themselves from the outside. “These places aren’t technically on lock-down but it is very far from business as usual,” said Roche.   

The remoteness of local communities in the western provinces could work in their favor, however, in spite of a delicate healthcare system. Viruses like the novel coronavirus require large, densely packed populations of people that are regularly in flux in order to persist. “Since the communities live dispersed in these areas, it would be hard for the virus to spread fast,” said Gyal. 

The other positive, he pointed out, is the current level of awareness of the disease in these provinces. The ubiquity of phones and social media—even in some of the most remote areas of Tibet—have contributed to a high level of consciousness about the virus and its dangers. “It used to be quite difficult to disseminate this kind of information to these areas,” said Gyal. Social media apps like WeChat and Kuaishou have changed this. “I’ve been in contact with some Tibetan pastoralists and they are fully aware of this,” he said.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. The best healthcare in the western provinces is usually in the regional capitals. (Credit: Desmond Kavanagh)

Tibetan celebrities have even helped spread knowledge of the disease—especially singers. Several songs are dedicated to coronavirus victims in Wuhan, while others educate listeners about COVID-19 itself— “the lyrics are about the virus,” said Gyal. 

Coincidentally, COVID-19 has also made it to a glacier region outside of China as well: the French Alps. The coronavirus cases in France—11 in total—are clustered in Contamines-Montjoie, immediately below the peak Aiguille des Glaciers. The virus has so far jumped from China to 24 countries, largely through air travel, resulting in 441 reported cases and one fatality.

When the epidemic will peak remains unclear, but at the moment it shows no signs of slowing down. After expanding their diagnostic tools for counting new infections, Chinese authorities reported nearly 15,000 new cases and over 240 deaths on Thursday. A stalling economy is putting pressure on authorities to get 700 million of its citizens back to work, however, which could create more conditions for the virus to spread. 

From what he can gather from family and friends, Gyal believes the mood among Tibetans to be stable. “I think people are relatively calm,” he said. “But it depends—it’s day to day. It’s been spreading quite fast, so who knows.” 

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Ancient Mosses Add to the Story of the Iceman’s Final Days on Earth

After 5,300 years, Ötzi the Iceman continues to divulge secrets. Archaeobotanists recently identified seventy-five different species of mosses and liverworts (a non-vascular plant similar to moss) that were sprinkled on the neolithic man’s clothing, sequestered in his gut, and buried in the icy gully where he lay for millennia after his murder by the Schnalstal/Val Senales glacier in the Ötzal Alps. Many of these bryophtyes—another term for mosses and liverworts—are not local to the spot where the Iceman was found, and reveal information about his movements in the final forty-eight hours of his life. A study detailing the new findings was published this past fall in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

When the Iceman (also nicknamed Ötzi after the Ötzal Alps where he was found) was discovered by two hikers in South Tyrol, Italy in 1991, he was laying face down in a frozen gully. He had been killed over five thousand years prior—shot through the back with an arrow—but the glacier’s ice preserved his corpse. Also captured in the ice around his shriveled body was a menagerie of neolithic plants and fungi.

“The thought that it is possible to use plant remains to work out the details of a 5,000 year-old guy’s last days is very appealing!” lead author Jim Dickson told GlacierHub. Dickson, now retired, was a professor of archaeobotany at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. Ötzi, for his part, lies frozen in a cold cell in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano Italy.     

A forensic reconstruction of what Ötzi may have looked like when he was murdered 5,300 years ago. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archeology)

Dickson and his colleagues from the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, gathered thousands of fragments of bryophytes picked off of the Iceman’s clothes, gear, the grass mats in the gully where he was found, and his gut. The assemblage of liverworts from that period—10 species altogether—is a particularly big find, because they do not last long exposed to weathering elements. Researchers surmised the plants must’ve been rapidly frozen by the glacier.

Seventy percent of the species picked from in and around Ötzi’s body do not live at the altitude where he was found—about 10,500 feet above sea level. This indicates to researchers that he carried some there himself. Others were likely deposited by animals, water or wind. Mosses and liverworts are unique non-vascular plants that do not reproduce with seeds, but with spores. They can cling unseen on people’s clothes or animal’s fur in the way that fungal spores or pollen can. As a person or creature tramps through the forest or meadows, tiny fragments of mosses can stick to their outsides as well. 

The mosses found in the Iceman’s gut were not ingested intentionally. In the same way that spores and fragments adhere to clothes or fur, they could’ve stuck to his food and gotten to his insides that way. Alpine ibex or chamois (a goat-antelope native to Europe) were likely the animals that unwittingly carried some of the other moss species up Schnalstal. Ötzi himself was a hunter—his bow was recovered by his side—and his last meal was of cured ibex meat.

Other neolithic mummies found preserved in bogs have had some mosses in their guts, but according to Dickson, these were not eaten intentionally either. “Mosses are not nutritious or palatable,” he said. “There is no good evidence that mosses have ever been eaten as staples anywhere, by anyone present or past.”    

Some species of moss have been used by indigenous peoples for medicinal and other practical purposes, however, and the Iceman himself did seem to be carrying one particular species of moss intentionally—Neckera complanata—that he had wrapped his food in. 

View of the Val Senales glacier and Similaun Mountain of the Schnalstal Valley where the Iceman was found protruding out of melting ice in 1991. (Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

He may have also used some of the mosses found in his gut to dress a deep cut on his hand.  Experts believe Ötzi sustained the injury in a fight a few days before his death. Two of the mosses found in his gut—both species of bogmoss—have absorbent, antiseptic properties and are found lower down the mountain. Dickson believes Ötzi used these bogmosses to staunch his badly sliced palm. Tiny pieces of moss would have stuck to his bloody fingers, so that when he ate, he’d have accidentally ingested the plants too.  

The Neckera complanata, bogmosses, and two other species collected with Ötzi are particularly revealing about his activities in the last forty-eight or so hours of his life. These mosses are all found at lower elevations in the Schnalstal Valley and indicate that he took a particularly strenuous climb up the glacier through a gorge. 

This corroborates a previous theory of his movements suggested after pollen from hophornbeam trees was found in large quantities in his bowels. Hophornbeam are plentiful in the lower Schnalstal. 

Why he took such a tiresome route up the Schnalstal could be explained by the fact that he was murdered and was possibly on the run from his attacker. The gorge is full of boulders and trees and has many hiding spots. Why he was on the lam we’ll never know, but it could’ve had to do with the cut he received on his hand a few days earlier. Perhaps an altercation broke out that caused him to flee for his life. In spite of his murderous end, however, countless studies of Ötzi and his belongings have furnished invaluable gifts of information about early human history that would otherwise be unknown.

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Video of the Week: Mexico’s Popocatépetl Volcano Explodes

Popocatépetl, Mexico’s most active and unruly volcano, is undergoing a bout of acid reflux. Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED) recorded the fiery explosion that initiated the volcano’s current gassy episode on their live webcam

The eruption launched plumes of ash and smoke 20,000 feet into the air and could be seen from space. No one was injured, although authorities are still warning people to stay away from the grumbling behemoth because of possible falling fragments and ash. The volcano is located approximately 40 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Popocatépetl, otherwise known as “El Popo” by locals, is over 17,000 feet high and is particularly grumpy. It erupted as recently as last summer—when it burst twice. It has a collection of small glaciers that have managed to survive its cranky behavior so far, although some have been hit by the recent volcanic activity. 

In the video, all is calm until Popocatépetl spontaneously belches out a fire ball that showers its sides with glowing red shards,followed by a thick, constant flowing stream of black smoke and ash that the volcano spews into the sky for many minutes.

Popocatépetl is a stratovolcano––tall and conical, with very steep sloping sides, and periodically erupts with fiery explosions and thick pyroclastic flows. These slow moving flows cool and harden quickly on a stratovolcano’s sides, which help maintain its cone-shaped profile. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) put up a satellite video clip on their twitter that also captured the eruption from space.

CENAPRED has the current warning level set to “Yellow Phase 2” which means there is no imminent danger, but that people should be wary and keep a distance of approximately 7.5 miles from the volcano. CENAPRED has also counted 248 “exhalations” of water vapor, gas—including sulfur dioxide—and ash since the explosion, and lists some pyroclastic activity, ash fall, and explosive activity of “low to intermediate level” as possible near term scenarios.

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Indigenous Activist Among Those Killed In Iran’s Takedown of Civilian Airliner

For centuries the Qashqai people of Iran have been stewards of the pastures and forests of their mountain homelands. Last week, researcher and PhD student Ghanimat Azhdari, a global steward of Qashqai culture as well as mountains, perished when Iranian security forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people on board. The accident occurred during the most recent period of military provocation between Iran and the United States.

The Qashqai are an Indigenous group of nomadic pastoralists in southwestern and central Iran that tend to herds of goats and sheep. Born the daughter of a local Qashqai leader, Ghanimat Azhdari was a PhD student at Canada’s Guelph University, where she worked on using satellite imagery to map Indigenous cultural sites. She hoped this would foster bottom-up conservation efforts centered on Indigenous knowledge and support. She was 36 years old.

Ghanimat Azhdari, in a dress sewn by her mother, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in November, 2018. She was killed on January 8, 2020 when Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 was shot down over Iran. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“She was always smiling, often buoyant, and with quite a contagious enthusiasm,” Marc Foggin, a Canadian conservation biologist, told GlacierHub. Foggin works with local communities in Kyrgyzstan and was a friend and colleague of Azhdari’s.

“Sometimes she might have felt the weight of the magnitude of some of the challenges faced,” he said, “yet her optimism always seemed to prevail. She regularly brought hope and joy to the room.”

The Qashqai people that Azhdari was a part of are of Turkic origin and––with numbers around 900,000––represent one of the largest surviving groups of nomadic people left in the world. The number of them that remain wholly nomadic, however, is readily shrinking. Many have become totally or partially sedentary as available pastureland becomes developed or degraded, and as their youth move to cities in search of a more modern way of life. Those that do still live traditionally—mostly in southwestern Iran—tend their flocks of goats and sheep at low altitudes by the Persian Gulf during winter, and high altitudes amongst the sparse glaciers of the Zagros Mountains during summer, nearly 300 miles away.

The health of the land, and the ability to travel upon it unimpeded, is thus central to the Qashqai’s very existence. This is what fueled Azhdari’s work to conserve landscapes and preserve Indigenous cultures all over the world. To her, the two were synonymous.

One of her biggest efforts was satellite mapping Indigenous areas around Iran. Much of this work she did through an organization known as the ICCA Consortium, which promotes bottom-up conservation and stewardship of Indigenous lands. The term “ICCA” is an abbreviation for “territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities” or “territories of life.”  

She was a central figure of the organization and her work was well known in the region. “Ghanimat was actively engaged in all aspects of documenting and protecting ‘territories of life,’” said Foggin. “Her name preceded her.”  

Ghanimat Azhdari was a member of the Qashqai nomadic people of southwestern and central Iran. She spent her life researching and promoting Indigenous-driven conservation efforts. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

Azhdari appeared on behalf of the ICCA Consortium at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity summit in Egypt in 2018. Speaking to hundreds of delegates wearing a traditional dress sewn by her mother, she implored them to listen to, and engage, Indigenous people in conservation efforts. No one else has a bigger stake in biologically diverse lands than they do, she argued—eighty percent of global biodiversity is found on Indigenous territories.   

In Canada, where Azhdari began working on her PhD last September, she was collaborating with the Miawpukek First Nation to map Indigenous cultural sites in the boreal forests of Newfoundland.

In Kyrgyzstan, where Foggin is based, she participated in a workshop on the anticipated social and environmental impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through mountain regions of Central Asia. The controversial trillion dollar project is, according to the Chinese government, a plan to build transportation infrastructure in countries around the world—particularly Southeast and Central Asia—in order to “enhance regional connectivity.” Some see it as a move to streamline the flow of goods in and out of China.

“Ghanimat was a loving person,” Foggin told GlacierHub. “She cared so much for people—for her people, the Qashqai tribe, and also for many others in similar circumstances,” he said.

An outpouring of grief across the internet and social media followed the news of her passing. The ICCA Consortium posted a tribute on its website lamenting the “utter disbelief” and heartbreak at the sudden loss of “one of its most cherished flowers.”

Born a member of the Qashqai tribe in southwestern Iran, Ghanimat Azhdari (far right) was well known and respected for her work representing Indigenous peoples and lands throughout Central Asia and the world. (Credit: ICCA Consortium)

“A thriving young Indigenous scholar’s life and work has been extinguished,” Dr. Karim-Aly Saleh Kassam, professor of environmental and Indigenous studies at Cornell University, told GlacierHub in an email. “The loss will be felt by all of us—even those who did not get to know her—because we will no longer have access to the insights of this PhD student from Guelph University,” he said.

Foggin recalled the last time he saw Azhdari in person, at the ICCA regional assembly in Yerevan, Armenia this past summer, right before she went off to Canada for her PhD. Their team of about twenty people were there from countries spanning Jordan and Lebanon, through Armenia, Georgia and Iran.

Azhdari was “very much a central figure,” he said, “holding us together; bringing her good cheer and extraordinary knowledge and experience; as well as her positive and always pleasant demeanor.” 

“We miss her so much,” he said. “We will always miss her.”

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Crowded Backcountry Ski Slopes Increase Risk of Skiers Endangering Each Other

Year by year, more backcountry skiers travel to mountain ranges across America. There is some worry that avalanche accidents involving multiple groups of people will grow as a result. A recent paper published on the open access website arXiv suggests that this risk increases with the density of skiing parties in a given area. Put simply, the closer together multiple groups of skiers are on a slope, the higher their chances are of endangering one another with an avalanche.

As their name suggests, inter-party avalanches involve at least two people or groups: one inadvertently triggers the avalanche, and the others are swallowed up by it. This type of hazard—and its increasing likelihood in the age of an overpopulated backcountry—has been discussed by the skiing community before, but this paper’s author, Charlie Hagedorn, has put it in a mathematical context so it can be measured. In the paper, he builds a model that attempts to predict at what point the risk of an avalanche starts to increase—and by how much—as the density of skiing groups ticks up in a given area.

Hagedorn, a physics researcher at the University of Washington and a backcountry skier himself, was inspired to pursue the topic after a backcountry traveller disappeared on a slope he has skied many times. The paper is written as a discussion piece, to spur a professional conversation among avalanche experts on inter-party accidents.

“The idea with this paper is to create a mathematical framework and start a rigorous professional conversation about inter-party incidents while the rate remains small,” Hagedorn told GlacierHub. 

His model indicates that the key variable affecting the likelihood of an inter-party avalanche is the density of ski groups (consisting of one or more people). The likelihood of one of these avalanches increases as the square of the density of groups in the area.

Mt Rainier (foreground) sticks above the clouds in the Cascades mountain range of the Pacific Northwest. One of the incidents in the paper occurred by the Nisqually and Wilson glaciers on Rainier. (Credit: Dllu)

The incident that stirred Hagedorn to make this model occurred on December 19, 2015. Two parties of backcountry travelers were skiing just below the ridgeline on Kendall Peak in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in the Cascades in Washington State. This area is considered “avalanche terrain”—a tract of land where avalanches occur. The region had been hit by record breaking snowfall, and deep powdery snow had piled up on the peak.

After a run, one of the groups recalled passing a solo skier further down the slope. As they ascended through the glades for another go, they witnessed a series of avalanches triggered by the other party of skiers further up by the ridgeline.

Later that day the solo skier they had passed was reported missing. A 3,000-man-hour search and rescue effort ended six months later, when the skier’s body was found face down, ski poles scattered 40 to 50 feet above him, and some personal belongings strewn about further downhill. According to the accident report, an avalung pack—a device meant to help people breathe while buried under snow—lay next to his body, the mouthpiece visible.

Hagedorn was in the vicinity on the day when the skier disappeared and was involved with the six-month search and post-accident investigation. The subsequent report concluded it was possible the skier was killed by one of the human-caused avalanches. The experience, he told GlacierHub, was impactful. “Friends and I were easily within half a kilometer of him the day he disappeared,” he said.  

A skier during a run down Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington State. (Credit: National Park Service)

There are many kinds of avalanches, all of which depend on a particular recipe of conditions to occur, but snow and avalanche scientist Jordy Hendrikx of Montana State University told GlacierHub that slab avalanches typically require four ingredients: a slab of cohesive snow, a weak layer (below the slab), a slope of 30 degrees or greater, and a trigger. 

Triggers come in many forms: new snow, wind, a cornice drop; but when fatal accidents occur they’re usually triggered by people. “Research shows that ninety percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by either a victim or a member of the victim’s group,” said Hendrikx.

Hagedorn described trigger points as being “not unlike a minefield.” The more groups of people passing through avalanche terrain, the higher the chances of someone plodding on one. “There have been many accidents, where a slope that has been skied many times has avalanched when a person has hit just the right spot at just the right time.”

In addition to the Kendall Peak accident, Hagedorn chronicled 12 other incidents of inter-party avalanches, including one from the Nisqually and Wilson glaciers on Mt. Rainier. That one, from 2008, was triggered by a descending party of skiers and caught a splitboarder and skier on its way down. It nearly swallowed a party of ice climbers as well, as it plowed passed the convergence of the two glaciers. 

Backcountry skiing can sometimes require arduous hiking as well. This skier is huffing it up a slope in the Gallatin Mountains of Yellowstone National Park. (Credit: National Park Service)

There are discussions in the backcountry community of skiers using radios to communicate with each other, or mapping/sharing information on their ski runs in order to keep an awareness of who is above and below on the slope.

Safe behavior cannot always protect you from someone else’s unsafe behavior, however. One study found that overconfident skiers expose themselves to more “black swan” events like avalanche pileups. Even experienced skiers, according to another study, are susceptible to skiing risky terrain because of social pressures.

The best action, said Hagedorn, is to avoid densely skied areas altogether. He has sharply curtailed visits to such places and instead skis regions that are harder to access or have lower quality snow. In his paper, he writes that there are still “lonely places with great skiing” out there. 

Hendrikx expressed a similar sentiment. “We have plenty of mountains and space—it’s just that we all crowd into certain spots, in increasingly marginal conditions” he said. And it’s mostly because those spots have “easy access and good snow.”

Hagedorn hopes this paper can spark quantitative study of inter-party avalanches—especially in Europe which has dealt with high mountain population densities for some time. But, perhaps more than that, “this paper,” he said, “is an attempt, among several, to push back at entropy a little, to find something helpful from within a tragedy.”

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Airport Construction Threatens Andean Environments and Cultural Monuments

Construction of a mountain airport has landed the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru—a world heritage site—on the World Monument Fund’s “Watch List.” In January of this year, the Peruvian government dispatched a fleet of bulldozers into the village of Chincheros in the valley to clear earth for the construction of a major international airport.

Archaeologists, environmentalists, and social activists worry that greater access to the region will lead to unrestrained tourism, putting ancient sites, traditional ways of living, and fragile environments at risk. Among the threatened is a pyramidal glacier that caps the top of Mt. Veronica, the highest mountain of the Urubamba range within the Andes.

The new airport will require large aircraft to fly low over the old town of Ollantaytambo in their descent, rattling buildings and spewing exhaust over the old Incan fort that the town is built around. Black carbon from the exhaust will not only eat away at the fragile stone architecture (and degrade air quality for the people living there), but also speed up melting of Mt Veronica’s glacier nearby. Black carbon has intense light absorbing properties and is known to accelerate the melting of glaciers it settles upon.

Mount Veronica is the highest peak of the Urubama mountain range in the Andes of Peru. (Credit: roli_b)

World Monuments Fund is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1965. Their annual monuments watch list—that the Sacred Valley has the unfortunate distinction of being listed on in 2020—flags imperiled cultural structures and traditional communities in danger of decay or disappearance.  

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is perhaps more famous for what bookends it than what is in it: Machu Picchu on one end, and the old imperial capital of Cusco on the other. But the mountain valley was once the agricultural center of the Incan Empire, and contained many sites of great religious importance to them. To this day, it is full of old Incan structures and Quechua-speaking peoples.

Small towns built amongst ruins and terraces sprinkle the 70-mile long river valley that sits between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level. Mount Veronica and its glacier watch over Ollantaytambo. The mountain, and many other Urubamba peaks embracing the Sacred Valley, are also deities, or apus, to some of the communities living there.

The move to construct an airport in the valley realizes a developmental dream of the State’s, dating back to the 1970s. Currently, tourists wanting to set eyes on Machu Picchu have to hop on a jumper plane to Cusco from Lima; then hike or travel by train or bus from there. The government hopes that with this new airport, they won’t have to, and that affluent foreigners can funnel directly in from the US and other parts of Latin America.

To reach the airport, large commercial planes will fly low over the town of Ollantaytambo, which contains many Incan ruins. (Credit: Esmée Winnubst)

Not everyone is against the airport’s construction. Life can be hard in rural Peru and there are promises of 2,500 or more jobs coming with the planes. The Yanacuna, one of the three landholding communities within Chincheros sold most of their land away at a $35 million price tag for runway construction. 

Development promises upheaval of normalcy in the valley, and the economic benefits of tourism are not felt by all. “Tourism benefits, basically, big corporations, tour agencies and airlines, and very little of the money stays local,” anthropologist Deborah Poole of Johns Hopkins University, told GlacierHub. Poole has worked in, and studied, the Cusco region. 

“It does bring some money into the area, but that money is unequally distributed,” she said. 

How the state plans on regulating a torrent of new tourists into the valley when Machu Picchu already exceeds the sustainable limit of 2,500 visitors a day set by UNESCO remains to be seen.

But for Poole, the problem is more than that. “The way [tourism] is organized now it doesn’t do much for Cusco. Certainly not for peasants.” She said. In the municipality of Urubamba, for example, she noted that “there are these big hotels that cost $100 to $150 a night and they wouldn’t even let local people go in.”

Members of the community sell brightly colored traditional wares at the central market in Chincheros. (Credit: Bernard Gagnon)

In addition to the inequitable distribution of wealth, the erosion of the natural landscape, like Veronica glacier, can also lead to emotional distress among local communities. The snow and ice capped peaks surrounding the valley are sacred and their breakdown also symbolizes the deterioration of a deity.  

“The indigenous communities there have a particular relationship with the landscape, with the water,” said Poole, “and they’re not equal shareholders in this project.”

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Tlingit Song Recalls Glacier Bay and Time Gone By

Paul McCartney is said to have composed the melody for the hit Beatles’ song “Yesterday” in a dream. Sometimes composers labor over a song’s creation, and sometimes they are born in an instant. A recent paper published in the journal BioOne describes such a song from 120 years ago when a Huna Tlingit woman named Mary Sheakley first sang one after an encounter with wolves in Glacier Bay Alaska. Also recounted in the paper—and just as remarkable—is the spontaneous recollection and recovery of this song decades later by her younger clan sister, Amy Marvin, after being nearly lost to time.

The Huna Tlingit of southeastern Alaska inhabited Glacier Bay for millennia before the glacial advance of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s necessitated a move out. While they never permanently resettled the Bay, they continued fishing and berry picking there for centuries. After the area was designated a National Park in 1910, however, the US Government forced them to leave. After decades of struggle by the Tlingit to regain ownership of their sovereign land, small efforts have been made by the National Park Service in recent years to honor this sovereignty and once again allow activities like berry picking—which have important cultural significance. 

Xunaa Shuká Hít—the Huna Tribal House—was the first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay in over 250 years when it was built in 2016. (Credit: National Park Service)

Anthropologist and lead author Thomas Thornton went on such a berry picking excursion in Glacier Bay with Huna Tlingit elder Amy Marvin and her niece in 1996. Marvin—then in her late eighties—had been going around with Thornton to help him record the Tlingit names for the places in the park. During a break from berry picking, Marvin recalled an old song she’d previously forgotten that was composed by an older clan sister of hers. Seated on some logs, sipping coffee, she began to sing.

“[Amy and her niece] were just chatting away in Tlingit, and she just goes ‘oh you know what, there is a song that was composed here and I think you should know it,’” Thornton told GlacierHub.

Amy Marvin performing Mary Sheakley’s song in 1996. (Credit: University of Southeast Alaska)

That was over two decades ago. Thornton didn’t know the meaning behind the words, and it stayed with him. “It always haunted me,” he said. Then, a couple years back, Thornton ran into Marvin’s daughter, Mary Rudolph, who was herself nearly 80 by this time. Marvin had unfortunately passed away some years prior. Rudolph was not on that original trip, but is a native Tlingit speaker, and has adopted the matriarchal mantle of her mother.

“I told her, ‘you know your mom sang this song on that trip and it haunts me twenty years later. Would you be willing to look at it with me?’” said Thornton. She agreed and they sat down to listen to the recording. Rudolph, who is a co-author of the paper, helped Thornton understand its meaning. 

Mary Sheakley’s Song as Introduced and Sung by Amy Marvin in August 1996:

A transcription and translation by Mary Rudolph and William Geiger, co-authors of the paper, of the recording of Amy Marvin’s performance.
(Credit: Thornton et al 2019)

When Marvin retrieved the song from memory back in 1996, she also recounted the story about how it was composed. She told of a berry picking trip that her older clan sister, Mary Sheakley, took in Glacier Bay sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. As the story goes, when Sheakley finished up and pushed off from shore in her canoe, a group of wolves came down to the water’s edge and began to howl. Sheakley sung the piece on the spot in response.

A wolf’s howl is nothing new in this region. “What made it novel,” said Thornton, “was that they came to the beach and seemed to be addressing the paddlers…being addressed like that inspired a response.”

Sheakley’s response was a reflection on life in general, and the shortcomings we often experience throughout it. It’s a song of longing and maybe a little regret, but also of making peace with everything that has transpired.

Huna clan members in 2016, at the opening of the Tribal House in Glacier Bay. (Credit: National Park Service)

“It is kind of a reflection on how we maybe didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to. Maybe we got sidetracked; maybe we long for something else; but hey that’s the way it is and we can celebrate anyway,” said Thornton, adding with a laugh, “That’s my extremely crude reduction of the song.”

Mary Rudolph taught the song to her daughter Amy Starbard—also a co-author of the paper—who in turn instructed her daughters. The song is now a clan-wide song that is performed during ceremonial meetings called potlatches. Songs are rich components of many indigenous communities, and passing them on from generation to generation provides critical support for the survival of these cultures. Thornton credits Amy Marvin with keeping the song alive.

Securing the legacy of Sheakley’s song preserves more than tradition, but also the power wrapped up in its music. Thornton described an experience with this power in Glacier Bay. After Marvin died, he and Rudolph went up to Glacier Bay together with some students. As their boat puttered up alongside Margerie Glacier—the big one at the head of the bay—Rudolph sang the song. “After she sang this song all these little ice chunks came off,” said Thornton. Several people accompanying them remarked that those were the glacier spirit’s tears. “It was really poignant.”     

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Video of the Week: Hellish Bike Race Down French Alpine Glacier

British online publication SPORTbible posted a video on their twitter handle this week profiling the mad “Mountain of Hell” bike race—a yearly competition where hundreds of mountain bikers careen 8200 feet down a glacier at Les Deux Alpes ski resort in France. The video includes shots of this year’s race, which resulted in a terrifying pileup just minutes after the start.

The glacier at Les Deux Alpes is the largest skiable glacier in the world and rests atop peaks in the Ecrins mountain range of the French Alps. The “Mountain of Hell” race occurs in summer when the snowpack is diminished, but—as is evidenced by the video—also very slick. This makes stopping impossible and any slight squeeze of the brakes, or nervous jiggle of the handlebars, quickly ends in disaster with both bikes and bikers flying end over end in a heap of metal and humanity. 

The winner of this year’s race was French professional biker Kilian Bron who avoided the icy pandemonium by getting out in front of the 700 other competitors and remaining there the whole way. He finished the 15.5 mile controlled fall down the ice in 31 minutes. 

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Snow and Glacier Themed Animated Film ‘Abominable’ Fuels Geopolitical Controversy

Snow and Glacier Themed Animated Film ‘Abominable’ Fuels Geopolitical Controversy

A half second blip in the newly released animated kids film “Abominable,” was all it took to aggravate a decades-old geopolitical controversy in Southeast Asia in October. The film—about a lovable yeti and his child companions’ journey to the Himalayas—has been banned in Vietnam and Malaysia, and boycotted in the Philippines, because of a map shown in the film that depicts China’s disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. To some, the film also glosses over the yeti’s physical and cultural connection to Tibet and Nepal. 

DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s “Abominable” has aggravated a longstanding controversy despite positive reviews. Credit: DreamWorks Animation LLC

Abominable” is a joint production of Dreamworks and Chinese company Pearl Studio, and tells the story of a young girl—named Yi—in Shanghai who stumbles upon a frightened, but friendly, yeti hiding on her roof. After patching up a wound on his arm, feeding him pork buns, and other fuzzy-feeling-inducing moments, Yi and the yeti embark on a journey away from the megalopolis of Shanghai to get him back to his home in the Himalayas.

The scene that has been the cause of so much international ire is a split second glimpse of a map on Yi’s wall, that very prominently (if you’re from Southeast Asia) includes China’s infamous “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. The “nine-dash line” is a vague demarcation that China has insisted represents its historic territory in that body of water. Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei all claim portions of this same area.

Clip from the film that shows the disputed “nine dash line.” Credit: Twitter

On a map the dotted line—literally made of nine dashes—plumes out from the Chinese mainland and covers nearly 90 percent of the resource rich South China Sea. There is no legal basis for this claim, which also violates the international principles of freedom of the high seas.

The film also neglected any mention of Tibet or Nepal—the cultural home of the yeti. “The yeti is…naturally and inherently a being from the Tibet-Nepal Himalayan region,” social scientist and Himalayan expert Galen Murton told GlacierHub. Yet in “Abominable,” even its home, vaguely referred to as “Everest,” is also depicted as just another part of China.

“What is missing is what’s really important—it vaporizes the issue of Tibet,” said Murton. China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet has been challenged for decades, most notably by Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.

Coincidentally, the Himalayas have also been the subject of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, especially India. The much disputed border there—known as the Line of Actual Control—cuts through thousands of miles of mountains and glaciers. The two countries fought a war in 1962 over two particular sections that remains unresolved. Things again turned heated in the summer of 2017, when China attempted to construct a road through contested territory and was blocked by Indian troops. The event culminated in a standoff between hundreds of Chinese and Indian soldiers.

Despite political undertones, “Abominable” captures the fascination people have with mountains and glaciers and remains popular in the US.
Credit: DreamWorks Animation LLC

“Abominable,” for its part, is mostly just a kids movie about family, adventure, and compassion for other living creatures. It also highlights the mysterious power that snowy mountains and glacier environments have on people. This is embodied in the friendly yeti, who can magically change the environment around him when he hums deeply. The movie has also been praised by some in the US for the inclusion of an all Asian-American cast, and has done well at the box office.

Even so, the presence of the nine dash line and other geopolitical framings in the film are likely not “totally innocuous or accidental” according to Murton. “I don’t think there is anyway it could’ve been overlooked,” he said, explaining that films shown in China must abide by censorship rules. “I think it’s intentionally inconspicuous. It sort of buries the controversy in an image or illustration that just normalizes it.” 

Huge Cracks in Antarctic Glacier Foreshadow Epic Calving Event

The European Space Agency (ESA) released a video this past week showing the evolution of two very large and disconcerting cracks in Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier. They have each grown to 20km in length and could shear off a hunk of ice the size of Paris and Manhattan combined.

The Pine Island Glacier—located at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula on the western side of the continent—has always shipped Antarctic ice out to sea at prolific levels, but it’s become famous in recent years due to its ever increasing output. These new cracks are just the latest development in a flurry of epic calving events at Pine Island. These used to occur about every six years but are now happening on an almost yearly basis.

The ESA compiled images of the cracks taken by one of their two polar orbiting Sentinel-1 satellites to make the video. Sentinel-1 is continuously monitoring land, sea, and sea ice conditions with a synthetic-aperture radar instrument that allows it to take pictures in all weather conditions and even at night—a key feature in high latitudes, which experience long periods of darkness in the winter months.  These satellites are part of ESA’s larger Copernicus mission.

Pine Island Glacier feeds into a floating body of ice called an ice shelf. A recent study published in Science Advances this month revealed that these ice shelves, and Pine Island Glacier  in particular, are experiencing accelerated melting from underneath, as a combination of fast moving and buoyant plumes of warm water carve troughs into their bottom surface. This makes the shelves more prone to large calving events and ultimately to shrinkage and retreat.

Pine Island Glacier is made of ice from the West Antarctic ice sheet and flows into the Amundsen Sea. (Credit: NASA)

“Warm water circulation is attacking the undersides of these ice shelves at their most vulnerable points,” said lead earth scientist and lead author of the report, Karen Alley. “These effects matter,” she added. “But exactly how much, we don’t yet know. We need to.”

The large calving event building at Pine Island Glacier also comes at a period of particular concern for melting glaciers around the world. The International Panel on Climate Change released its special report on the state of the Earth’s cryosphere last month in which it predicted continued warming of ocean waters and increasing mass loss of the Antarctic Ice Sheets—of which Pine Island Glacier is a part—throughout the 21st century.

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