Satellite Images Offer Clues to Causes of Glacial Lake Flooding

(from journal article: Field observations for glacial lakes: (a) the rapidly expanding Lake Longbasaba in 2012; (b) an areally increasing glacial lake at the Middle Rongbu Glacier near Mount Qomolangma (Everest) in 2008.)
(from journal article: Field observations for glacial lakes: (a) the rapidly expanding Lake Longbasaba in 2012; (b) an areally increasing glacial lake at the Middle Rongbu Glacier near Mount Qomolangma (Everest) in 2008.)

Satellites are now allowing us to track the behavior of icy glacial lakes on the Himalayan Mountains–in particular the conditions that lead to glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which have become increasingly frequent in the region over the past 20 years.

Researchers from the Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment and the State Key Laboratory of Cryosphere Sciences in China published a study in PLOS One in December of last year that catalogued data from lakes in the central Himalayas between 1990 to 2010.

The scientists, Drs. Yong Nie, Qiao Liu, and Shiyin Liu, used images from Landsat scientific satellites to count and measure glacial lakes in the region. As the longest running remote sensing project, Landsat has over 40 years of images available across the globe.

(from journal article: Distribution of glacial lakes in the central Himalayas)
(from journal article: Distribution of glacial lakes in the central Himalayas)

GLOFs – floods that occur when a lake dammed by a glacier or glacial moraine is released – are hazardous to communities located at elevations below the burst lake. Flooding and debris flows damage infrastructure, cause property loss, and can take lives, as GlacierHub has reported in prior posts. It is widely believed that rising temperatures due to climate change and reduced albedo of the ice from cryoconite (also known as carbon dust particles) are melting the glaciers at higher rates and causing lake volumes to rise, which in turn increases the risk of GLOF events. But the specific processes that lead to GLOF outbursts are not well understood.

By looking at lakes at four time points (1990, 2000, 2005 and 2010), at different elevations (from 3,500 to 6,100 meters), of different types (pro-glacial and supraglacial), and of varying sizes, the researchers were able to identify which lakes expanded faster and burst more frequently to understand which ones pose the greatest risk of GLOFs.

A GLOF from above in Alaska’s Kennai Peninsula (Travis S./Flickr, some rights reserved)
A GLOF from above in Alaska’s Kennai Peninsula (Travis S./Flickr, some rights reserved)

Overall, it was found that total lake surface area for the 1,314 lakes in the central Himalayas had increased over the 20-year period. Drs. Nie, Liu and Liu found that more lakes on the northern side of the central Himalayan range were expanding rapidly. They also found that pro-glacial lakes (lakes at the terminus of a glacier) grew faster than supraglacial lakes (lakes on the surface of the glacier). Some pro-glacial lakes are connected directly to glaciers while others are not, but those that were connected grew far faster. Additionally, larger pro-glacial lakes were likely to flood sooner than smaller ones and more changes to glacial lakes occurred at the altitudes between 4,500 and 5,600 meters.

The dynamics of alpine glacial lakes are complex, but this study could help communities monitor lakes at high risk of flooding and to create early-warning systems and disaster preparedness plans.

PAPER DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083973.g002

GLOF aftermath in Peru ( Will McElwain/Flickr, some rights reserved)
GLOF aftermath in Peru (Will McElwain/Flickr, some rights reserved)

Is a new Fern Gully in the making on a sub-Antarctic island?

The Elaphoglossum hybridum fern from southern Africa. The fern has found an unlikely home on Signy Island near Antarctica. (source: botany.cz)
The Elaphoglossum hybridum fern from southern Africa. The fern has found an unlikely home on Signy Island near Antarctica. (source: botany.cz)

An unusual form of life was recently discovered on a glacier located on a remote island in the Southern Ocean. Signy Island is part of the sub-Antarctic South Orkney Islands, about 600 kilometers northeast of  the Antarctic Peninsula and 900 km southeast of Tierra del Fuego. The site of a former whaling station and the current home of a British research facility, Signy Island is largely covered with ice, the surface of which is pockmarked with holes in many sections. The life-form was found in one of these surface holes.

Material called cryoconite –windblown dust made of rock, soot and microscopic organisms– has settled on the surface of ice on Signy Island, as it has on many other glaciers and icesheets. Generally dark in color, cryoconite absorbs solar energy and melts the ice surface. The melting creates depressions in which cryoconite settles, further intensifying the melt. This process can  create deep and sometimes narrow tubular holes which contain significant amounts of sediment.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/44079186@N00/339595948/in/photolist-yRiZk-wxrXj-w1w3y-xs4kh-vZzzX-vUdDj-wYLbB-wxpRA-vPKci-9hzWdc-b9C7GV-9hD3gf-9hD4sy-9hD4B3-b9C6B6-b9C5wF-MPj22-MPjaR-AakVp-BTGVj-9B3Q22-9B3PEx-9B3QjV-9B6J8S-9B6Kpw?rb=1
Signy Island is part of the South Orkney group of islands, just beyond the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. (source: Mark/Flickr)

Researcher Dr. Ronald Lewis-Smith from the Centre for Antarctic Plant Ecology and Diversity in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, collected sediment from the bottom of these ice tubes in November 1999. He carefully cultured the materials at the research station on Signy Island, and over the following months some plants began to grow.  The first ones to appear, consisting of mosses and a kind of non-flowering plant called liverworts, were all native to the island. A more unusual one appeared after a few more months. Initially identified as a liverwort, it was sent to a laboratory in England, where it was cultivated on a base of sterilized moss from Signy Island.

As this plant grew, it became evident that it was a fern, and therefore not a native to the island. It took several years for it to grow large enough to be identified. Photographs of the plant and two fronds were sent to the Natural History Museum in London, where specialist identified it as Elaphoglossum hybridum. This species is found across a wide area of southern Africa, and also on islands in the southern Indian Ocean, as well as Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

A specimen of Elaphoglossum hybridum raised from spore from Signey Island. (source: Antarctic Science)
A specimen of Elaphoglossum hybridum raised from spore from Signey Island. (source: Antarctic Science)

These sites all lie to the north and the east of Signy Island. Some locations are as close as 1500 km to the island. However, the prevailing winds are from the west,. As the author states, “The most probable explanation for the spore, from which the present plant developed, reaching Signy Island was by encircling the Southern Hemisphere on an east–west trajectory at high altitude.” The survival of this viable spore is thus a testimony both to its ruggerd vitality and to the ability of the glacier to preserve it.

This fern could not grow in Signy Island’s current climate, but Lewis-Smith’s research does show that diaspores–plant seeds or spores –could be preserved in glacier ice and be viable for growth if the climate becomes more hospitable for them in the future. It is striking to think of the future of Signy Island when current warming trends progress further. Glaciers might contribute to the appearance of new species in two ways. Firstly, as they retreat, there will be an expansion of the ice-free areas in which plants can grow. And secondly, they may release biological material such as this spore, from which new species, not known on the island, may grow. Perhaps, thanks to climate change, Signy Island could one day resemble Fern Gully. The new ferns could be a testimony to the glaciers, which will be much diminished by that time.

Signy Research Station (source: Povl Abrahamsen)
Signy Research Station (source: Povl Abrahamsen)

Drawing Montana’s glaciers at a glacial pace

What does it take to draw each of Montana's glaciers? (Jonathan Marquis/Kickstarter)
What does it take to draw each of Montana’s glaciers? (Jonathan Marquis/Kickstarter)

With his dog Mylah by his side, the Montana artist Jonathan Marquis climbed up eight glaciers this summer. In addition to an ice-axe and crampons, he took less standard equipment: two graphite pencils and notebooks. These are essential tools for his undertaking, which he has termed his Glacier Drawing Project, an ambitious plan to make drawings of all 60 of the state’s named glaciers, an undertaking which will require four or five more summers.

This June he completed the initial financing of the project through Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding website. He reached his goal of $6,000, which paid for first hikes to Montana’s glaciers. As his Kickstarter project page declares, “I am going to hike to all of Montana’s glaciers to draw, bear witness and create a comprehensive record of these extraordinary features before it is too late.” Indeed time is short. Scientists in Montana’s Glacier National Park estimate that the park’s namesake glaciers may be completely gone by 2020. Historically, the park was the home of around 120 glaciers, and as of 2010 there were only 25.

Artist Jonathan Marquis and his dog XX
Artist Jonathan Marquis and his dog Mylah, who accompanies him on his drawing hikes. (Jonathan Marquis/Kickstarter)

Marquis is not limiting himself to Glacier National Park, but will also draw the glaciers in the Mission Mountain Wilderness, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. “I want to see each of these glaciers with my own eyes, feel their cold with my fingers, experience their presence with my body and breathe the chilled mountain air surrounding them,” he said.

Better known for his paintings and graphic designs, Marquis chose sketches and drawings as the media best suited to capture and evoke glaciers. He suggests that drawing offers a more intimate experience to the artist and the viewer than photography, the medium most often used to depict glaciers. The marks his pencil makes as he drags across a page evoke for him the marks that glaciers make as they move across the landscape. “Drawing has the potential to convey not only the seen but also to be a record of what is felt and experienced over a period of time across a broad set of vantage points,” he wrote.

Marquis' intention is to savor the "aesthetic and emotional character of these glaciers while we still can". (Jonathan Marquis/Kickstarter)
Marquis’ intention is to savor the “aesthetic and emotional character of these glaciers while we still can”. (Jonathan Marquis/Kickstarter)

Apparently his 129 financial backers agree. Kickstarter allows for public sourcing of financing of various independent projects, usually in modest amounts. The catch is that the full amount must be reached by the deadline; otherwise none of the funds can be used. The Glacier Drawing Project exceeded its goal and 20 patrons contributed $100 dollars or more each, a generous contribution.

Ultimately Marquis wants to show in exhibitions and create a coffee-table book of his drawings. This will both document Montana’s changing mountains and raise awareness about climate change.

You can see more on the progress of The Glacier Drawing Project on its Facebook page, and more about the artist, Jonathan Marquis, on his website.

For an account of an artist who evokes changing glaciers in the Italian Alps, see “The painting is our desire for the mountain“. And for an account of an artist who captures glacier sounds rather than images, see “If a glacier melts on a mountain, does anyone hear it?“.

Photo Friday: Highland communities in Ancash, Peru

Anthropologist Kate Dunbar wrote her dissertation on highland communities in Peru’s Ancash region. The glaciers in this area are important sources of drinking and irrigation water for these villages as well as myriad downstream users.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

[slideshow_deploy id=’857′]

In state of the climate report, mountain glaciers get special attention

(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)
(Ruth Hartnup/Flickr)

The year 2013 hasn’t been a good one for climate change (as you might’ve guessed) and mountain glaciers have been singled out, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center.

The largest climate data archive in the world sits in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains and contains 14 petabytes of information, enough to stream 23 million movies. Asheville, N.C. is home to the NCDC, a division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – that provides climatological services and data worldwide. For the last 24 years, NCDC scientists have been producing an annual report on the state of the world’s climate. These reports provide updates on global and regional climate and notable weather from the preceding year. Published by the American Meteorological Society in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), this report is a large international collaboration. The most recent report, covering the year 2013, involved over 400 scientists from 57 countries.

(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)
(Luca Carturan/University of Padua)

Among the 2013 report’s distinguished highlights, along with carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, and the record-breaking super-typhoon Haiyan, is the news about mountain glaciers. The supplementary report begins by explain the importance of these glaciers:

“Around the globe, some 370 million people live in basins where rivers derive at least 10 percent of their seasonal discharge from glacier melt. Glacier melt provides drinking water for human populations, and irrigation water for crops. Dams on glacier-fed rivers are key sources of hydroelectric power in some parts of the world. The retreat of the majority of mountain glaciers worldwide is one of the clearest signs that climate is warming over the long term; some glaciers have already disappeared.”

The report indicates that mountain glaciers lost more ice from melt than they gained from seasonal snow-fall for the 23rd year in a row. This pattern is expected to continue. Since 1980, glaciers have lost the equivalent of 50 feet (more than 15 meters) of water.

glacier mass balance, 1980-2012Five regions with long histories of data are used in the report as a barometer for the health of mountain glacier: Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal, and the Northern Cascades of Washington State. The news – a pattern dominated by loss – is grim. Of the 96 glaciers evaluated in the Austrian Alps, 93 are retreating, two are stable, and just one is advancing. Norway is much the same: 26 of the 33 are retreating, another four are stable, and only three are advancing. Things are worse in North America (the 14 glaciers of the Northern Cascades in Washington State and Alaska are all significantly retreating) and in New Zealand, where all 50 are anticipated to have retreated by the end of the 2013 melt season. Only in Nepal, where the 3 glaciers monitored are near equilibrium, this near-balance reflects an unusually good year. In 2013, those glaciers received the largest amount of snow accumulation in the last seven years.

The plight of diminishing mountain glaciers has serious implications for the health, food, energy resources and livelihoods of the 370 million people who live close to them. There are also serious effects in adjacent lowlands. Just as steady upward trend of the Keeling Curve of carbon dioxide concentrations is closely watched, so should be its apparent reflection: the glacier mass balance curve, shown each year in the State of the Climate report for the world to see.

This year’s’ report and all previous reports are available for free download online.

Glaciers are muddying rivers, with drought to blame

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ericleslie/8212279250/in/photolist-cCuW6s-dndS9U-edti9N-5CUoh2-dFUvMh-4YfzPv-cnpRiA-963PNi-dvG5vy-dGjfwN-61HCUp-cE8Vrf-eyqfiG-nXoKTN-6BUxNx-3pWnxe-cE8UT1-28USLJ-28USLj-abgYeY-6BYE3S-6BUxFV-6BYj6E-6BUcMP-4A9txp-kyMExc-8GmWUy-47PCcj-8scuUp-a8KUSA-5CYFmQ-4AdKGC-4LYtr9-81CDP4-nXh4gG-8gbnvM-3wUuC-52FeVn-5cMp6m-3K1an6-8iHxMK-6Sdi8N-cE8Uts-cE8TW9-NMktt-aKU4XH-8iAb3u-7LZc1C-cE8NYh-5hWkDf
Rivers off of California’s Mount Shasta are increasingly becoming brown. (Eric Leslie/Flickr)

Water flowing off snow-capped mountains has the image of being absolutely pure, but the rivers and streams of California’s Mount Shasta are unusually brown, and geologists are pointing at drought as the cause.

News surrounding the drought in California inundates the media, but we often hear about dying crops and brown lawns. This time it’s the tourism and fishing industries that are up in arms.

Paradoxically, the heavy river flows are caused by the same climatic variations that have created drought throughout the state. A dry winter left California’s glaciers exposed to the sun, without their usual protective cover of snow. Hot weather in the summer is rapidly melting them, particularly on Mount Shasta, home to the state’s largest glaciers. The mountain’s porous volcanic soils can absorb some meltwater, but their capacity has been overwhelmed this summer, and the meltwater is causing debris flows, muddying rivers and streams. More commonly known as mudslides, debris flows are flows of water, rock, soil and other organic material that course downslope, becoming destructive torrents when they enter streambeds. They can muddy the waters of rivers that are usually pristine.

http://www.climatecentral.org
Saying California’s drought is spreading quickly is a small understatement. (Climate Central)

This year, the rapid melt of the mountain’s south-facing Konwakiton Glacier has left the McCloud River opaque with volcanic ash. These highly turbid rivers are not novel phenomena. In the past century, severe debris flows like the current one have been witnessed seven times, particularly in the 1924, 1926 and 1930, other dry years for the region, when debris flows blocked roads and railroads, rendering them impassible for days. During this period in the 1920s, the McCloud River was unfishable. The murky waters do not harm the fish, but simply make them nearly impossible to catch.

https://www.dfg.ca.gov/fish/Resources/WildTrout/Waters/images/LowerMcCloudRiver-1200x900.jpg
Fly fishing in California’s McCloud River is one of the many activities to be affected by brown rivers caused by drought. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Fly fishermen, fly fishing tour guides, and local businesses that relying on tourism fear that the current drought, and the associated glacial melt, debris flows and cloudy waters, will be detrimental to the local economy during the fishing season this fall and in the future years. Some fly fishing groups have already cancelled tours that they had booked—another sign of the cascading effects of glacial melt around the world.

For another story on the effects of glacial melt on fisheries, click here.

Emma Thompson’s latest role: climate change activist

Emma Thompson partners with Greenpeace in Norway to highlight the effects of climate change. (Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace)

Two-time Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson is known for her leading roles in Howards End, Sense and Sensibility, Love Actually and more recently Effie Gray. But her latest role might have the greatest reach: as a real-life activist for climate change

Thompson is travelling with Greenpeace across the Arctic aboard the activist ship, Esperanza, which started in Longyearbyen, Norway, and will travel north to the world’s northernmost climate station at Ny Ålesund, and later further past to the edge of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean . While on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, she visited the Smeerenburg glacier.

Thompson has chosen to help highlight Arctic climate issues because, as she says, “the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, and this isn’t just a problem for polar bears. It’s affecting weather in places as far away as India, while rising sea levels are causing havoc for people across the world. Arctic warming is a massive threat to our survival.”

It isn’t about the polar bears. Her 14-year old daughter accompanying her on the trip is part of the intergenerational message she is sending. Thompson believes it is a moral issue for people to stand u and demand more climate action from our politicians. “My daughter and her generation are about to inherit the world we’re responsible for… I’m making this trip because I want Gaia’s generation to grow up in a decent and sane world. In fact I’m making it so that her children can grow up.” The Harry Potter actress agrees with Greenpeace in the urgency of international policies to protect the Arctic from oil drilling and industrial fishing, and in the need to keep all peoples safe from climate change.

You can see the view from the Esperanza at its webcam and you can learn more and contribute to her cause at savethearctic.org/emma.

SkiFree, a game from the past, has a message for the future

The 1990s game SkiFree was simple, until the yeti started chasing you.
The 1990s game SkiFree was simple, until the yeti started chasing you.

If you used a PC at any point in the ‘90s, you probably encountered the game SkiFree. To jog your memory, the 16-bit windows game featured a lone skier tirelessly trying to gain “style points” and avoid obstacles such as rocks, trees, snow bunnies and a man-eating yeti.

SkiFree, created by Microsoft programmer Chris Pirih in his free time, was recently revamped to reflect present-day concerns. Instead of a snow monster chasing you down the alpine slopes, you and the monster end up at the bottom of the mountain, submerged in water below the bottom of a melting glacier.

sshot4f2ab791bcdb8

Countless hours could be spent in any of the original game’s three modes of play: slalom, tree slalom, and free-style. Skiing down the mountain you would lose points by running into trees, rock or yellow snow (yes, the crude humor reflects correctly on the overall tone of the game). Points could be gained by jumping over trees and rock, knocking over snow bunnies, and running over snowboarders. There were also moguls and snow banks for the very skilled virtual skier to catch some air on–all of this controlled from your keyboard number pad. The goal was to accumulate as many style points as possible before the abominable snow monster (or monsters if you were very good) caught up and gobbled you up!

Skifreeonline.com hosts a version of the game that you don’t have to download. This retro favorite was released in March of earlier this year. After clicking the link, you are immediately taken to a familiar screen in your browser window. Just after you have remembered how to maneuver and begin to pick up momentum the white slopes are interrupted with a gray cliff and then blue water. Next thing you know, you have joined the yeti bobbing up and down in the ocean.

Unlike the original, the version on SkiFreeOnline.com features a more sobering ending than being eaten by a yeti.
Unlike the original, the version on SkiFreeOnline.com features a more sobering ending than being eaten by a yeti.

The presence of glaciers has been seen in the virtual sphere before. The online world Second Life has an island with calving glaciers, and we previously mentioned the addictive phone app Glacier Rush [link here when published]. The new version of SkiFree blatantly offers a bit of a reality check to the nostalgic 20 to 50 year olds who popularized the game in the 1990s: “The snow monster is not a real thing. Climate change is.” The abrupt end of play and demonstration of how familiar landscapes we take for granted are changing was effective and direct.

Play the original here or check out the revised version reflecting our changing climate here. There is also a free version for the iPhone and iPad on Apple’s App Store.

Scientists find yet another negative impact of glacial melt: ocean acidification

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/32/College_Fjord.jpg
One of the College Fjord glaciers as it flows into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Ocean acidification from the meltwater is yet other negative impact of rising temperatures. (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers have recently uncovered previously unknown negative environmental impact of accelerated glacial melt. If reductions in freshwater availability, landslides, outburst floods and sea level rise were not bad enough, ocean acidification can be added to the list.

Ocean acidification is a well-known process, though it has not previously been linked to glaciers. Scientists have recognixed that the chemistry of the world’s oceans has been changing as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. About one-third of the carbon dioxide that humans release each year dissolves in the oceans, making them more acid, much as dissolving carbon dioxide in tapwater makes seltzer, its characteristic tartness due to its acidity. This acidification reduces the concentration of carbonate ions that are essential to the formation of the mineral shells of marine organisms, whether large molluscs, corals, or microscopic plants such as plankton. If the saturation level of these ions in seawater falls too low, the shells begin to dissolve.

Jeremy Mathis and Wiley Evans, experts in chemical oceanography at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Ocean Acidification Research Center, recently published a paper that examines the chemistry of fresh-water plumes from glaciers that directly discharge into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The glacial meltwater accumulates in the sound during the summer, when melting is most pronounced. That freshwater eventually ends up in the Gulf of Alaska, when the tides pick up at the end of the summer. “We are seeing that the glacial plume inside and moving out into the Gulf of Alaska is far more extensive than we thought it was going to be,” said Mathis, “one of our conclusions is that the glaciers are having quite an extensive impact on the water chemistry of Prince William Sound.” They found reduced concentrations of carbonate ions more than 10 miles offshore, as well as other chemical changes that can harm shells.

Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water's surface. (via the National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/glba/naturescience/glaciers.htm)
Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water’s surface. (via the National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/glba/naturescience/glaciers.htm)

Building on this research, they are leading a project that will send three remotely controlled vessels into Prince William Sound to collect more data on the water chemistry. In this round of study, the additional data will help identify the processes that are occurring due to glacial run-off, and help pinpoint which species are most vulnerable in the Sound. They are also exploring the interactions between the glacier meltwater and the waters of the open seas; these may combine to exacerbate the ocean acidification.

As Jeremy Mathis, a lead oceanographer in the study explains, “if the saturation state becomes too low, the waters can become corrosive to shell building organisms.” This has dire implications not only for the organisms themselves, but for the foodwebs within marine ecosystems—and for the humans who depend on healthy ecosystems for fishing.

The project, funded partly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is exploring glacially-fed Alaskan waters this summer. It includes two yellow surfboard-like Carbon wave gliders that move across the surface of the water. The Slocum Glider is a yellow torpedo-like sensor that dives underwater to depths of 600 feet capturing profiles of the ocean. The researchers consider this technology a “revolution,” making study the oceans far less expensive and data more available and extensive. In addition, the team will work with tour companies and launch with instruments from those ships. This strategy not only is cost-effective, but also gives the researchers the opportunity to share with the public the environmental issues they are studying.

There is a lot at stake in the Prince William Sound and outlying Gulf of Alaska. While their work is valuable in understanding how glacier loss will affect aquatic ecosystems around the world, the loss of marine organisms is a big threat for their region. Ultimately, the project aims to understand the dynamics of the sound and Gulf of Alaska, not only for the sake of science, but also so that the fishing community, armed with fuller information, can begin exploring ways to adapt to their changing environment.

Photo Friday: Life as a Chilean cowboy in the Andes

Photographer Peter Haden traveled to Chile in 2007 and shot a photo essay of Leo, a huaso who lives in the Andes. For more photos, visit Haden’s Flickr page.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

[slideshow_deploy id=’644′]

 

High schoolers get “hands on” with Alaska glacier

 

A program for high school students in Alaska brings 16 and 17 year olds up close and personal to glaciers. (Vic Trautman/LeConte Survey Program)
A program for high school students in Alaska brings 16 and 17 year olds up close and personal to glaciers. (Vic Trautman/LeConte Survey Program)

In an age when satellite images are often the only source of data you could need about a glacier, few people will still strap on ice cleats and lug a theodolite up to a calving ice front. What’s even more unusual is finding a group of 16 and 17 year olds who do just that.

For over 30 years, students from the high school in Petersburg, a town in southeastern Alaska, have been taking part in the LeConte Survey Program, a two-year training course where they spend their lunch break gaining the skills they need to produce reliable survey data from the LeConte Glacier. In their first year, they focus on the basics of surveying and mathematics, while in the second year, they, and two supervisors, visit the glacier as a group to survey it.

The LeConte Glacier is the southernmost tidewater glacier in the northern hemisphere. Tidewater glaciers are unconfined ice streams that stretch down from mountains, reach the coast and extend into open sea. The bottoms of tidewater glaciers rest on the sea floor, at elevations below sea level. These glaciers lose ice by calving, often creating copious numbers of icebergs.

(https://flic.kr/p/2Jb6tF)
Alaska’s LeConte Glacier is the southernmost tidewater glacier in the northern hemisphere. (JBrew/Flickr)

On the day of the survey the group splits into two, with each hiking to a different ledge. Each group measures as many points on the glacier as possible (usually between 15 and 20) before a helicopter takes each group to the other ledge, where they cross-measure the other group’s points. They end the day with a “math night” of intensive trigonometry and data validation.

The LeConte Survey Program was founded in 1983 by geology teacher Paul Bowen. Trautman has been running the it since in the late 1990s, when Bowen retired. The LeConte Survey Program has given students a new perspective on the environment they grew up in and contributed to the science of glaciology. The student-collected data has used by professional scientists and published in academic papers.

In 1993, the students discovered very significant retreat of the glacier, half a mile in 6 months. Scientists became very interested in the Survey Program’s data. “That was way before we had any of the other, quote, unquote, huge recessions of glaciers,” said Vic Trautman, who runs the program. This discovery prompted researchers to collection additional data, particularly the height of the glacier’s terminus above the water level.

Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water's surface. (via the National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/glba/naturescience/glaciers.htm)
Tidewater glaciation is found both above and below the water’s surface. (via the National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/glba/naturescience/glaciers.htm)

Researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast suggested to the students that the rapid retreat might indicate a thinning trend. Additional years of steady data collection proved this hypothesis to be correct. Their earliest records showed the glacier to be 250 to 260 feet above water level, but currently they are measuring it at 190 feet. “The face falls off continuously, but we have a map and we plot each point, so every year we get a new line,” Trautman said. “We can compare this year’s line to last year’s line, all the way back.”

Through measurement and monitoring of glaciers is often automated, direct field research can still be of value. It is satisfying to know that glaciers are providing young people with research skills, with direct experience of environmental change, and with the sense of participating in a community effort that has lasted for decades. Perhaps the dedicated efforts of two teachers to support this activity will inspire others to such establish such programs as well.