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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.”
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 ‘Mountain of Hell’ race is MENTAL! 😱
700 riders race down a 3,400-meter-high glacier… What could go wrong? 🤕🚵♀️
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
Climate change has long been known to be a stressor on glaciers the world over, but a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, reveals just how bad it’s been for those in the Andes: Glaciers in this South American mountain range have the unfortunate distinction of being both the fastest melting and the largest contributors to sea level rise in the world.
Glacial melt has been watched carefully for decades, but because of limitations in technology and methodologies, scientists haven’t gotten the most precise picture of how much melting is occurring, or how fast.
Previous techniques looked at regional locations scattered throughout the Andes like the Northern Patagonian Icefield and then extrapolated those findings. Others gave hazy estimates from low-resolution, remote-sensing images. But these methods can miss individual glaciers and clusters of just a few or more.
In an attempt to refine understanding of Andes-wide glacial melt, the researchers harnessed the image-collecting power of a satellite with the Asimovian name of the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). ASTER has been taking high-resolution, stereoscopic images of the Andes since 2000. By compiling these images and integrating them into digital models, the study’s scientists were not only able to get a new ice loss estimate for the entire Andes, but also for individual regions and individual glaciers over the past two decades.
With this high resolution dataset, the researchers determined that the entire glacial range in the Andes shrunk about 23 gigatons (1 gigaton=1 billion tons) since 2000—more than previous studies have found—and account for 10 percent of global sea level rise. At this rate, some of these ancient glaciers will be gone in just over two centuries—but the rate is accelerating.
Digging through the data, the researchers also parsed out an array of differing melt rates between glaciers that revealed the areas of the heaviest melting: Patagonia (Chile, Argentina) and the tropical Andes (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). Previous research has shown that low altitude glaciers in some of these areas like Peru have lost as much as 50 percent of their mass since 1970.
“[Patagonia] is the region that contains the largest surface of ice, and [so] it’s normal to expect that the highest loss is going to be there,” lead author and glaciologist Inés Dussaillant told GlacierHub over the phone, adding that glaciers terminating in oceans and large lakes like those in Patagonia also experience heavy amounts of calving—which accounts for more than half of all the ice mass loss observed in the Andes. The glaciers in the tropics—mostly in Ecuador and Colombia—Dussaillant explained, are relatively small and highly sensitive to changes in climate. “A small change in temperature can make tropical glaciers lose a lot of mass,” she said.
Perhaps the most troubling of the team’s findings, however, dealt with glaciers’ contribution of freshwater to rivers through snow and ice melt. During the summer months, snow and ice melt from glaciers flows into streams and rivers, adding to the overall water availability of a particular region. This is particularly important in the Dry Andes of the northern and central regions of Chile and Argentina. Since 2010, these heavily populated semi-arid regions have been strapped in what climatologists have called a megadrought. The team found that increased glacial melting in these areas since 2009 actually helped to mitigate some of the most severe impacts of the drought. But as glaciers continue to shrink because of anthropogenic climate change, their ability to act as this natural salve is going to diminish or disappear.
“They are not going to be able to contribute to rivers eternally,” remarked Dussaillant. “There will be a moment where they’ll no longer be able to contribute during these periods of drought.”
This point highlights the larger implications of the study, which is that millions of people live near, and depend upon, these glaciers in the Andes, and the drastic reduction or total disappearance of them is going to have potentially severe consequences. Dussaillant, who is Chilean, pointed out that more than half of the population of Chile lives in or near the capital city Santiago, which lies in this region.
Eyal Levy, an industrial engineer and Andean climber who is also from Chile, told GlacierHub that Chileans are “starting to become very worried about the water stress. He added that rural areas and poorer communes around Santiago have been “seriously impacted.”
Glaciers are a conspicuous part of the everyday scenery, Levy said, and their shrinking takes a toll on people’s emotions. “People talk about melting glaciers with sadness, worry, and without knowing what to do,” he said.
Dussaillant hopes that the high resolution dataset gathered from this study will be used by other glaciologists for local or regional studies. “I study glaciers because they tell us what is happening,” she said. “It’s showing us that climate is changing, and the climate is a global thing. So what’s happening in the Andes … it concerns us all.”