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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New Satellite Imagery Shows Rapid Pace of Andean Glacier Melt

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. 

Glaciar el Juncal, Región de Valparaíso, Chile (Credit: Eyal Levy)

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.” 

Campos de Hielo Sur, Parque Torres del Paine Región de Magallanes, Chile
(Credit: Eyal Levy)

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.” 

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