Roundup: Drone Launch, Soaring Requests, Glacier Floodwaters

GMA launches drone into a glacier live on air in climate change special

Good Morning America (GMA) anchors rarely venture far from their set in Time Square, but when they do it’s usually for a one-of-a-kind experience.This morning, Amy Robach took the audience on a journey deep into an ice sink hole in the Southeastern region of Iceland.With the use of a high-tech drone camera, viewers saw live footage of a climbers descending thousands of feet into the icy caverns of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.Experts study formations to learn how the ice melts and sweeps into the ocean, which has been raising sea levels. Second time GMA has been to Iceland, first time they shot a working volcano and captured footage of lava lake. The drones’ technology allowed GMA viewers to see the erupting Bardarbunga Volcano from just 380 feet above itIcealand has been used as the setting for a number of movies including Thor, Tomb Radar and Batman Begins.”

Good Morning America’s Amy Robach is in Iceland for a feat that’s unprecedented in television history: to take viewers live into an ice sinkhole that’s thousands of feet deep. Using the very latest in drone camera technology, Robach watched as a daring team of elite ice climbers ventures down into the vertical ice drop located in the Breidamerkurjökull glacier

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Soaring requests to see disappearing Mendenhall Glacier

“The U.S. Forest Service has awarded permits for thousands of guided tours at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor center, but had requests for three times as many trips as were available.Visitors to the increasingly popular Mendenhall Glacier can watch climate change in action as icebergs calve from the face of the glacier and dot Mendenhall Lake.”

Neary calls that “a great learning opportunity” to talk about climate change.

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Visitors can get their closest look at a glacier at the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Juneau. The Forest Service is trying to cope with congestion at the glacier’s popular visitor center by shifting use to the lake or trails.

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Geologic formation could hold clues to melting glacier floodwaters

“Geologists investigating an unusual landform in the Wabash River Valley in southern Illinois expected to find seismic origins, but instead found the aftermath of rushing floodwaters from melting Midwestern glaciers after the last ice age. The finding could give clues to how floodwaters may behave as glacier melt increases today in places like Greenland and Iceland.”

“Illinois State Geological Survey researchers Timothy Larson, Andrew Phillips and Scott Elrick published their findings in the journal Seismological Research Letters. ISGS is part of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.”

Illinois State Geological Society scientists Timothy Larson, Scott Elrick and Andrew Phillips investigated a long, straight short cliff and found it was most likely carved out by melted glacier water. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer
Illinois State Geological Society scientists Timothy Larson, Scott Elrick and Andrew Phillips investigated a long, straight short cliff and found it was most likely carved out by melted glacier water. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer.

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Glaciers Harbor Life Over Millennia

Gyldenlove Glacier, Greenland. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Gyldenlove Glacier, Greenland. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Rock samples collected at the base of glaciers in Canada, Norway, Greenland and Antarctica have helped resolve a longstanding mystery: what were the energy sources that supported life in the distant geological past, when the earth was covered with ice?

The microorganisms in subglacial habitats may have taken energy from hydrogen molecules during the harsh Neoproterozoic glaciations, 750 to 580 million years ago, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience. This hydrogen may have been the key to their survival, the authors found.

During the Neoproterozoic glaciations, ice sheets covered the world for millions of years. These ice sheets gave this period its common name, “Snowball Earth.” These environments, previously considered inhospitable to life, have been found to sustain diverse ecosystems over millennia. Subglacial environments lack carbon and light, which usually serve as energy sources for life. In well-lit environments, organisms can use light to produce organic molecules that are used by organisms higher up in the food chain. Darker environments also have organic matter, often from decaying organisms which provide energy for organisms living within them. But in subglacial environments, organic matter is quickly depleted.

“A wide diversity of microbes inhabit vast ‘wetland’ areas beneath ice sheets and many glaciers but life certainly isn’t easy for them,” Jon Telling, lead author of the paper, said in a press release. “They have to contend with cold temperatures, high pressures from overlying ice, dwindling food supplies as washed-in soils and vegetation are consumed, and constant crushing as rocks embedded in glacier beds are ground against bedrock or sediment.”

Bear glacier - Canada. Photo by Dirk Van de Velde/Flickr.
Bear glacier – Canada. Photo by Dirk Van de Velde/Flickr.

Telling and his team reproduced the conditions at the bottom of glaciers in their laboratory to better understand how life survived in these subglacial conditions. They found that some combinations of minerals and physical conditions led to hydrogen being released from rocks.  Microorganisms grab hydrogen molecules, split the bond between the two hydrogen atoms in each molecule and use the energy in the bond for the biological activity, allowing them them to live and to reproduce.

Tests were conducted with six different types of silicate rocks from glacier sites in Canada, Norway, Greenland and Antarctica and scientists regulated experimental variables like the grain size, water content and temperature. The rocks were crushed much as they would be under a glacier, and each  type was found to produce hydrogen under the proper conditions. However, calcite, the rock the researchers tested as a control, did not produce hydrogen. This result confirmed the importance of silicate rock in the survival of microorganisms.

Though the environment in the laboratory is constructed to simulate the natural conditions, there are still many differences between experiment and natural conditions. For instance, the experiment condition is rather stable while the natural conditions vary significantly. The authors pointed out that these differences and other factors are likely to lead to an underestimation of the amount of hydrogen that would be produced in natural environments. In particular, they suggest that the short duration of the experiment and the possibility of escaping gasses during the experiments would add to such an underestimation.

Sediment beneath glacier ice and bedrock at Kiattuut Sermiat Glacier, Greenland. (credit: Eddy Hill)
Sediment beneath glacier ice and bedrock at Kiattuut Sermiat Glacier, Greenland. (credit: Eddy Hill)

The study indicates that hydrogen generated through mashing rocks that can provide a mechanism in support of continued microbial metabolism. The authors note that other researchers have proposed methane as the energy source used by prehistoric microorganisms, but they show that hydrogen could have been far more abundant, and would have been available for longer periods. This hydrogen could have supported food webs in subglacial refugia, in which organic matter produced by bacteria would have provided energy for eukaryotes–organisms whose cells have the nuclei which bacterial cells lack.

Though the ancient eukaryotes were tiny, simple organisms, they are of great importance because they are the ancestors of modern multicellular organisms, from sponges and jellyfish to worms and insects to fish, reptiles birds and mammals. It is remarkable to imagine that they survived planetary glaciations that lasted millions of years by consuming organic matter produced by bacteria—and that these bacteria survived by drawing on the energy in hydrogen molecules released from rocks crushed by ice sheets.

Peru Faces Tensions Over Water

Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr
Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr

Peru will face a “new normal” as greater agricultural and energy demands, population growth and climate change chip away at what is left of its glaciers, according to a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Glacial retreat could ultimately lead to conflict in the country, the author found.

“Peru offers an early view of the challenges mountainous regions worldwide may face in coming decades,” wrote Peter Oesterling, the author. “The country—if successful—may also provide the world a model for effective policies to mitigate threats to environmental and human security.”

For people in Peru, glaciers are the essence of their existence. Most people live on the west coast, an arid region, and rely on glacier meltwater for day to day use, crops, hydroelectric power and mining. But since the early 1980’s, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 22 percent. Further loss could lead to increased risk of flooding and water scarcity as well. Already, seven out of nine watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca are already past “peak water,” meaning that the glaciers have passed the upper limit of melt water they can release.

At the same time, water demand in Peru is on the rise as water security dwindles. The population is projected to grow by 35 million by 2020, which will put pressure on the country’s existing land and water resources. Millions of households rely on the  Cañon del Pato hydropower plant on the Rio Santa, but as water availability declines, the plant could lose 40 percent of its power generating capability.

The country’s mining industry also consumes a great deal of water. Eleven percent of Peru’s land is being mined for minerals. In addition to using water for mineral extraction, mining releases contaminated water back into the watershed.

View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr
View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr

“Peru’s trends in water use and supply are incompatible,” wrote Oesterling. “Glacially-fed rivers are already at emergency levels—insufficient for the country’s agricultural and hydroelectric demands during the dry season.”

The result has been socio-environmental tensions in the country, which have roots in the country’s history. Peru’s government historically cut indigenous communities off their land and limited their access to water resources for the sake of economic development. Still now local populations are dis-empowered and unable to take part in any decision making processes on their land even though they are the first to suffer from water contaminated by mining. Oesterling discusses a protest in which angry villagers blocked a major highways for several days, even though they were physically attacked by police, in order to bring attention to the concerns over pollution from mines.

To prevent future conflict, the country will need better regulatory processes that shifts the responsibility of environmental impact assessments away from private companies and into the hands of government bodies, said Oesterling. Existing regulatory government bodies could also benefit from being strengthened.

“With a sound response that addresses clean water access, environmental protection, and public participation in resource allocation decision-making, Peru can mitigate the effects of glacial recession and acclimate to new environmental realities,” he concluded. “Yet—much like Peru’s water supply—the time for effective action against glacial recession is dwindling—and quickly.”

Roundup: A Glacier Made of People, A Lake and a Thaw

Global climate march 2015 – in pictures

On the eve of the opening of the UN climate change conference in Paris, campaigners around the world from Melbourne to London are marching to demand action. In Germany, demonstrators dressed in white to appear as a glacier.

Campaigners dress in white clothes to represent a glacier in Munich, Germany(Photograph: Sven Hoppe/EPA)

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Lakes expanding ‘dangerously’ in Everest glacier

Lakes that have been forming near Mount Everest could threaten settlements downstream if they overflow. Ponds on the surface of the Khumbu glacier in the Himalayas have expanded and joined together to form larger bodies of water. Climbers need to cross the glacier, including the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, to climb the mighty peak. The accelerated meltdown of glaciers in the region is causing concern against a backdrop of rising global temperatures. Scientists say the warning is the first of its kind for Khumbu, although other glaciers in the Himalayas have seen an increase in the number of lakes formed. Such newly formed glacial lakes can overflow causing flooding, and with it loss of life and damage downstream.

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Scientists are warning that superglacial ponds like this one are expanding to form lakes(source:C. Scott Watson, University of Leeds)

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The great thaw: Climate change has profound effects in Glacier National Park

The river of ice that hugs Mount Grinnell’s high ridges is neither big nor particularly beautiful, but it may be the most accessible glacier in all of North America. In as little as three hours, an average hiker can traverse the mountain’s well-groomed trail to plant a foot on a frozen relic of the Little Ice Age. But the glacier is now melting quickly, and will soon be gone.

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A 2012 photograph shows the remains of Boulder Glacier in Glacier National Park in Montana.(source: Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center)

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Photo Friday: Ice Watch Last Year and This Year

The Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, is preparing an “Ice Watch”–a melting ice sculpture–for installation in Paris, to be timed with COP21. We offer you here images of a similar sculpture which he and a geologist Minik Rosing installed in Copenhagen’s town hall square last year, also timed with a major climate event–a  meeting in Copenhagen of the IPCC and a large sustainability congress organized by the national university, located in that city.

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To see more of the current Paris Ice Watch, check the project’s website. We hope that for a successful outcome of Eliasson’s goal–using melting ice, released from a glacier, to convey the urgency of action on climate change.