Peruvian Demands Payment for Climate Change

Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake absorbs glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. "Lago Palcacocha 2002". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake grows from glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. “Lago Palcacocha 2002“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Peruvian farmer and mountaineering guide Saul Luciano Lliuya, and the town of Huaraz where he lives, long known as the “Switzerland of Peru,” may go down in climate-change history.

The hundreds of tropical glaciers that blanket the mountains above Huaraz are melting, and Lliuya lays partial blame on German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last Friday, Lliuya sent a letter of complaint to RWE, demanding that it pay $21,000 in compensation for its role in climate change, pocket change for a company that earned $1.38 billion in 2014. According to Lliuya’s claim, all the carbon RWE emits into the atmosphere contributes to glacial melt that threatens to flood his town, destroy his home and displace his family.

Saul Lliuya, a small farmer and tour guide from Huaraz, Peru, who is seeking compensation from a German company for increased flood risk due to greenhouse has emissions.
Saul Lliuya, author of the letter of complaint. source: Germanwatch

It is the first such claim in Europe and is backed by a German environmental NGO called Germanwatch, a representative of which met with Lliuya during the Lima Climate Change Conference, COP20, last December. Lliuya sent the letter to RWE through his lawyer Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental attorney. If RWE is not willing to pay or does not answer his request by April 15, Lliuya will evaluate the possibility of suing the company.

“This move is unparalleled in Europe,” said Christoph Bals, Germanwatch’s policy director, in a statement. “It is unprecedented both in legal and political terms.  It empowers potential climate change victims. It implements the ‘polluters pay’ principle, a step which is long overdue. A company which creates risks to others has two obligations: stopping to hurt them and limiting the damage.”

Michael Murphy, a spokesman for RWE, told GlacierHub via email that the company could not comment on the letter because it had not yet received it. There is no chance a lawsuit would turn into a class action, because Germany does not have a legal framework for such cases, Verheyen said, also via email. “I do not know whether this will spur similar cases,” she wrote. “My client takes a very courageous step.”

Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni
Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni

Given the timing, the case could have an impact on negotiations at the climate treaty meeting in Paris this December. According to the most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retreat and melting in the tropical glaciers of the Andes are caused by climate change. In fact, there are few environmental risks in which climate change can as clearly be faulted as Andean glacier melt, says Germanwatch.

“We do think that both the present claim and a potential lawsuit could lend new momentum to a climate agreement and in the international climate debate,” wrote Stefan Küper, Germanwatch press officer, in an email.

Huaraz is the capital of the region of Ancash, which is a site of great social unrest in Peru, in part due to the environmental impacts of mining mega-projects, which have long been charged with contaminating local water resources. Ancash registered the highest number of social conflicts of any region in Peru during February, with 24 cases, according to the Peruvian government’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).

Flood Risk

The mountain range that towers over Huaraz is known as the Cordillera Blanca, or white mountain range, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. These dramatic white peaks are covered in 722 glaciers and 296 lakes, according to some estimates. But as the glaciers melt, they threaten not only to deplete a critical water source for the region, but to overwhelm the lakes below, causing torrential and devastating flooding in what are known as a glacial lake outburst floods. One of these lakes, called Lake Palcacocha, sits directly above Huaraz and is thought to pose major flood risk to the town. Over the past 40 years, the lake has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times, according to Lliuya’s claim against RWE.

Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” Lliuya told the Guardian. About 40,000 people live in the high-risk zone for flooding from Lake Palcacocha, according to the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1941, the lake banks were breached by flooding, and within a matter of minutes Huaraz was inundated.

Lliuya says RWE owes Huaraz $21,000 because that sum is equivalent to 0.47% of the estimated cost of protecting the town against flooding and other risks associated with glacier melt. According to the Institute of Climate Responsibility in Colorado, RWE is responsible for 0.47% of all global warming emissions produced between 1751 and 2010. The cost of protecting Huaraz would include drainage of Lake Palcacocha until safety works can be completed, including the building of new dams and the repairing of old ones.

A mutual friend of Lliuya and Germanwatch first introduced them, prior to the meeting at COP20. A small Germanwatch team including Christoph Bals subsequently visited Lliuya and his family in Huaraz, and made a joint visit to Lake Palcacocha. Lliuya could not be reached for comment.

To read more about glacial lake flooding, check out these glacierhub.org stories.

Satellite Images Offer Clues to Glacial Lake Flooding

Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

Bhutan’s Fortresses Yet Another Victim of Glacial Floods

For more about Peru’s glaciers, read these glacierhub.org stories

As Peru’s Glaciers Vanish, Villagers Appeal to the Gods

Photo Friday: COP20 Voices for Climate

Artists Stage Glacier Worship to Fight Climate Change

 

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Will Chile Get Its Five-Star Glacier Law?

Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford
Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford

Chilean authorities and legislators agreed last week to a new framework for a law to protect thousands of melting glaciers in the towering Andes. The new proposal would safeguard glaciers inside of Chile’s national parks, but it’s not clear what protections would be offered to those glaciers that lie near some of the country’s major mining concessions.

Some 31,000 glaciers span the Chilean side of the cordillera, which represent 82% percent of all glaciers in South America and provide critical water resources to the region. But the billions of dollars worth of copper, gold and other mining projects operating in the Andes represent a significant source of income for Chile, the world’s biggest copper exporter.

Though Chilean authorities pledged to make the new proposed law a priority—it will be presented to environmental authorities this week—glacier laws have been a subject of heated debate for some time in the country, and it’s not clear this one will pass any more readily than its predecessors. While the new legal framework includes approximations of some measures contained in a “five star” glacier law proposal put forward by Greenpeace and a handful of Chilean politicians last year, environmentalists charge that there are too many loopholes for mining companies to exploit.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera
Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera

The new glacier law framework consists of 14 amendments to an earlier law proposed last year, according to Chilean newspaper La Segunda and radio station Radio UChile. These amendments would assign legal classification to different kinds of glaciers, as well as to the frozen land surrounding them, declare them national “patrimony” to be protected by the government, and allow for the revision of environmental permits already granted for projects that would interfere with glaciers. Such permits could not be revoked, but companies could be required to take additional measures to mitigate the impacts their projects would have on glaciers. The law would also describe specific kinds of activities prohibited on glaciers designated as requiring special protection.

The “five-star” proposal included a few extra steps: de facto protection of all areas defined as “glaciers,” as well as surrounding land, banning any activity that damages a glacier, and requiring all projects that today impact glaciers to stop doing so.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 7.52.25 PMEnvironmentalists have been clamoring for good glacier laws in recent months with a string of colorful protests. In January, Greenpeace activists parked themselves in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda, in the capital city of Santiago with a mock food cart full of withered and dried up fruits and vegetables for the “Market without Glaciers.” Produce was advertised at outrageous prices ($5,000 pesos, or around US$7, for every ratty piece of corn). On Twitter, Matias Asun, head of Greenpeace Chile, explained in Spanish that this is what the country’s produce would look like if all of its glaciers were destroyed.

A few months earlier, on Sept. 27, two thousand people, many of them children wearing superhero costumes, marched to the La Moneda to urge president Bachelet to write glacier protection laws. And last March, Chilean Greenpeace activists declared a “Glacier Republic,” a sovereign state covering 23,000 square kilometers of glaciers in Chile that already has over 15,000 “citizens,” to push adoption of a law to protect Chile’s glaciers.

According to at least one politician, 80 to 85 percent of all glacier surface area in Chile exists within its national parks. Under the new legal framework, the fate of the rest of the glaciers would be determined by the council of ministers as opposed to by legislation. Greenpeace’s Asun told Radio UChile that he believes this would open such decisions up to political influence from mining companies such as Barrick Gold, Angloamerican, Los Pelambres de Luksic and Codelco.

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chile’s neighbor Argentina adopted a glacier protection law in 2010 that defines glacier broadly to include rock glaciers and frozen groundwater left by receding glaciers, because some scientists feel these are key sources of glacier water reserves. The Argentine law has caused delays in a few mining projects, such as Canada’s Osisko Famatina gold exploration and the Argentine operations of Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama gold and silver mine. But even before a law has been passed in Chile, the Chilean operations Pascua-Lama have been suspended over concerns that it was interfering with nearby glaciers.

Other countries that protect glaciers under natural resources laws, water laws, or other laws include Colombia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Peru and Austria.

For more on the threats posed to Chile’s glaciers by mining projects, read this prior post.

 

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Mining a Norwegian Glacier for Luxury Ice Cubes

Ice cube. © Marc Amoruso
Ice cube. © Marc Amoruso

The World’s Most Wanted Ice Cube: that’s the tagline a Norwegian company is using to market ice cubes carved out of a melting ten-thousand-year-old Norwegian glacier. It plans to sell them to owners of upscale bars in Dubai, London and New York. After all, if you are sipping a $50 7-star cocktail served in a glass made of Swarovski crystal you are not going to want to contaminate your drink with any old grocery store ice cube. You are going to want luxury ice.

At least, this is what Geir Ludvik Olsen is banking on with his Norwegian startup SVAICE. He launched the company in November and wants to make his ice cubes out of ice mined from Norway’s Svartisen glacier. Most glacier ice formed long before the industrial age polluted our atmosphere and our water, so it is presumed to be especially pure. It has been so tightly compressed over thousands of years by the weight of a glacier that it takes forever to melt and won’t dilute your drink. And glacier ice cubes hiss and pop as they melt—they practically sing to you while you sip.

“If you thought you knew what an icecube [sic] could do for you, think again!” the company’s website declares. “We guarantee goosebumps and a memorable moment for those who can find it.” The home page features a pretty average looking ice cube, set against a mysterious curl of white smoke and a background of deep purple shading to black. SVAICE plans to sell around 16 million of the cubes a year in sleek black refrigerated boxes. Olsen says the venture will support the struggling local economy of Nordland county, where the glacier is located. He told the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK his company will provide 60 new jobs. And Arve Knutsen, Nordland County Council advisor for business and regional development,  hopes the ice cubes will put Svartisen on the map for tourists.

Svartisen postcard from 1890s. © Ashley Van Haeften
Svartisen postcard from 1890s. © Ashley Van Haeften

But SVAICE’s plans have drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists, who are not thrilled at the idea of mining a melting glacier to support an energy-intensive and emissions-heavy shipping business. Sigurd Enge, an advisor on Arctic issues for environmental NGO The Bellona Foundation, told Norway’s The Local that a full environmental impact assessment should be required to see how the mining operation will affect the condition of the glacier. Enge also noted that it will require a lot of energy just to keep the product cold as it is shipped around the globe. The World Wildlife Fund’s Secretary General in Norway, Nina Jensen, also spoke to The Local about the project.

“It seems very strange that the government should provide support to mine Svartisen when we know that it is shrinking because of climate change,” she told the publication. “I do not think it is right to create short-term jobs by eating up the last parts of a glacier which is about to disappear.”

SVAICE is getting 250,000 kroner (US $33,000) from Norway’s Nordland County and the Norwegian forestry department to conduct exploratory “drilling” on Svartisen, which will require heavy industrial machinery. Norway’s second largest glacier, Svartisen covers approximately 370 square kilometers of land and sits just 20 meters above the sea. Melting water from the glacier is dammed and used to produce electricity. Between 1999-2009, the outlet glacier at the tail of Svartisen, called Engabreen, retreated 255 meters, according to the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. At the terminus, the glacier is melting at an annual rate of 12 meters.

SVAICE’s website claims that the ice it will harvest is “soon-to-be calving” anyway and adds up to “just a cup of water in the ocean.” Those 16 million ice cubes per year are the equivalent of 51.4 seconds of hydropower, the website says. (I reached out to Olsen via email to find out how the company made these calculations, but did not hear back before this post was published.)  SVAICE further promises not to cause “visible wounds” in the natural landscape and asserts that it will use only “green” equipment and renewable energy to run its operations. It also pledges that it will produce no waste or emissions.

Svartisen glacier. ©Anita
Svartisen glacier. ©Anita

“We’ve obtained customers and are talking to a supplier in Dubai. Other world cities such as London and New York could be next,” Olsen told a Norwegian English-language publication The Foreigner. SVAICE has purchased a factory previously owned by bankrupt Norwegian solar power company The Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) and plans to start selling the ice cubes this fall, according to NRK.

SVAICE is not the first to try to make a penny (or a krone) on glacier ice. It’s an industry that has been around for decades. In 1988, the New York Times ran a story about the burgeoning new business Alaska was doing in glacial ice cubes. “Enterprising businessmen, seeing gold in those frozen hills, have created a fledgling industry, marketing glacier ice as an upscale approach to chilling the world’s drinks,” the paper wrote. But these ice entrepreneurs crafted their cubes from icebergs rather than from glaciers. More recently, a Chilean man was arrested for smuggling five tons of ice illegally collected from a protected Patagonian glacier in a refrigerated truck. It remains to be seen how Olsen’s plans to market Norwegian glacier ice will unfold.

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Scientists Learn to Drone in the Himalayas

Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and scientists at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) used drones to map difficult to reach regions of the Himalayas. (source: screenshot of ICIMOD video)

As glaciers around the world melt in response to climate change, scientists are rushing to map and catalog the precise ways in which they are changing. They have new allies in this fight: drones. But first, scientists have to learn how to use and operate them.

In late January, an organization dedicated to sustainable mountain development called ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) held a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal on the use of drones for scientific research. The workshop addressed permitting issues, the use of drones in landscape mapping, and some future applications of drones. These include detecting and documenting flooding and landslide hazards, as well as tracking illegal logging and mining. Participants were also shown how to fly a drone and tested the machines out in the field.

Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr
Langtang Lirung Glacier © Funky Buddha/flickr

Many researchers believe that drones could significantly transform our understanding of glacier dynamics and glacier melt. They can collect data on large geographical areas faster than ground-based field studies and have higher spatial resolution than satellite imagery. And they are especially suited to tracking and mapping natural hazards and risks, such as glacial lake outburst floods and landslides, due to the ease with which they can reach and monitor far-flung places in dangerous terrain. All it takes to launch one into the world to fetch glacier data is a GPS device, a camera and a little programming to design a schedule and plot out a route.

ICIMOD and researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands were the first to launch a study of Himalayan glaciers using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). The Himalayas, which supply rivers that provide water to a fifth of the global population, are losing ice at the rate of 9,000 sports stadiums full of ice every year. But what exactly is the role that the glaciers play in the water cycle of the Himalayan region? And how are they melting? There are many theories but very little data. The groups’ initial research findings, which concerned the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in the Langtang valley, were published in the journal Remote Sensing Environment last July.

Today, the ICIMOD and Utrecht University researchers are using UAV’s to conduct comparative studies of the Lirung and Langtang glaciers in Nepal. That project is attempting to address several key research questions: (a) how quickly and where specifically are debris-covered glacier

Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht
Launching a drone into flight. © University of Utrecht

tongues melting; (b) how dynamic are ice cliffs and supra-glacial lakes and what is their role in controlling the melt; (c) how fast are the glaciers moving, or what is the ice flow velocity and; (d) are the glaciers retreating? The project leaders also hope to train local researchers so that they can use UAVs to monitor glaciers in the region over the long term.

Other UAV-glacier projects include the Ocean Research Project’s glacier mapping research on the southeast coast of Greenland. PhD students in the geosciences from the University of Cambridge and Aberystwyth University are also using drones to investigate the glaciers of West Greenland. Still others are using them in the Canadian Arctic. Even high school students are getting in on the act. One group from Miami spent the summer investigation ice mass loss at the Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.

As drones evolve, with better technology and software, and scientists get a better handle on how to use and operate them, the research findings they can contribute to the field of glaciology will surely evolve as well.

For other stories on the use of drones in glacier research, look here and here

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Earthquakes Rattling Glaciers, Boosting Sea Level Rise

An iceberg from the Helheim Glacier in calm waters, Sermilik fjord, East Greenland. ©  Mads & Trine
An iceberg from the Helheim Glacier in calm waters, Sermilik fjord, East Greenland.
© Mads & Trine

Talk of earthquakes likely calls to mind giant fissures opening up along the earth’s crust, the trembling of rock, buildings crumbling to their knees and, depending on your age and cast of mind, the love of Superman for Lois Lane. But it does not likely conjure up images of giant tongues of sliding ice or the splash of calving icebergs. And yet it should.

Most earthquakes are generated by the friction produced by two bodies of rock rapidly sliding past each other on a fault in the Earth’s crust, but a different breed of earthquakes was discovered in 2003: glacier earthquakes.

Map showing 252 glacial earthquakes in Greenland for the period 1993–2008, detected and located using the surface-wave detection algorithm. (b) Map showing the improved locations of 184 glacial earthquakes for the period 1993–2005 analyzed in detail by Tsai Ekström (2007). ©  Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Map showing 252 glacial earthquakes in Greenland for the period 1993–2008, detected and located using the surface-wave detection algorithm. (b) Map showing the improved locations of 184 glacial earthquakes for the period 1993–2005 analyzed in detail by Tsai Ekström (2007). © Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

These newly documented earthquakes are occurring in glaciated areas of Alaska, Antarctica and Greenland and are caused by the dumping of giant icebergs–equal in size to, say, 400,000 Olympic swimming pools–into the sea. They produce seismic signals equivalent to those found in magnitude 5 earthquakes, which can be felt thousands of kilometers away. And there are many more of them today than there were just a couple of decades ago: six to eight times more than in the early 1990s have been recorded at outlet glaciers along the coast of Greenland.

This sudden surge in glacier earthquakes is expected to set off a series of events that will result in faster sea level rise over the coming century than had previously been estimated, according to research conducted there by Dr. Meredith Nettles, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and some of her colleagues, as a part of Project SERMI. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revised estimates for the next century dramatically upward (from 11-17 inches by 2100 to 10-39 inches) when taking Dr. Nettles and her colleagues’ earthquake research into account for the first time. This upward revision reflects the fact that the earthquakes change the internal dynamics of the glaciers, causing them to flow more rapidly, and to shed more ice into the ocean.

Monitoring station on Helheim glacier. © SERMI
Monitoring station on Helheim glacier. © SERMI

Nettles gave a talk on glacier earthquakes last November at the American Museum of Natural History. In the summer of 2006, she and 11 other scientists from six institutions in the U.S., Denmark and Spain traveled to a small town in East Greenland to take seismic, GPS and time-lapse photography measurements of the Helheim Glacier. They wanted to examine the location, dynamics and frequency of glacier earthquakes and to develop a method for using seismic data to map changes in the ice. They also wanted to learn how these earthquakes shape the behavior of outlet glaciers, which cluster around coastlines and deposit ice and meltwater into the oceans.

After setting up camp in town, the scientists flew a helicopter out to the glacier, drilled holes 6 feet deep in the ice, and drove 9-foot poles into those holes to anchor their GPS, time-lapse and seismic equipment. From the data they collected, they learned that short-term acceleration of glacier ice flows—up to 25% increases in velocity—coincided with the earthquakes. They also found that the increase in glacier earthquakes corresponded to net retreat of the ice front in Greenland. In particular, the section of the Greenland coast with earthquake-producing glaciers expanded northward. And whereas in the 1990s, a few glaciers were causing earthquakes; by 2005, those glaciers were associated with more frequent earthquakes, and other glaciers began to have seismic activity as well.

Map showing locations of GPS stations (blue and yellow dots). Arrows show average velocities over this time period. Red dots represent locations of rock-based GPS reference sites. Dashed lines show the location of the calving front at the beginning (eastern line) and end (western line) of the network operation period. Inset shows location of Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland (black arrow) and locations of glacial earthquakes (white dots). © Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Map showing locations of GPS stations (blue and yellow dots). Arrows show average velocities over this time period. Red dots represent locations of rock-based GPS reference sites. Dashed lines show the location of the calving front at the beginning (eastern line) and end (western line) of the network operation period. Inset shows location of Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland (black arrow) and locations of glacial earthquakes (white dots).
© Glacial Earthquakes in Greenland and Antarctica, Meredith Nettles and Göran Ekström, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

Future research should focus on ice-ocean interactions that promote or reduce glacier calving, said Nettles. And scientists still need to better understand the specific mechanisms of loss of ice at the calving front and the effects of loss of ice on flow speeds. Nettles’ current research examines the impact of tides on glacier calving. Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that glacier earthquakes are more likely to occur at low tide.

Nettles and her colleagues collected most of their seismic data and GPS observations of the glacial earthquakes through facilities run jointly by IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) and the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). Thanks to grants from the USGS and the National Science Foundation, that data is open sourced and available to the public.

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Little Auk Upends Arctic Climate Change Models

Little auks ©  Allan Hopkins, Flickr
Little auks © Allan Hopkins, Flickr

In July of 2013, a team of scientists from France, Russia and the United States descended upon an uninhabited archipelago in the Russian Arctic called Franz-Josef Land, the northern most archipelago in the world. There they spent two months at Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, one of the archipelago’s 191 islands, tagging and studying a small black and white seabird called the little auk (Alle Alle), which nests on cliffs and dives for its dinner in the frigid water.

Their findings call into question some models of climate change impacts on polar ecosystems, says David Grémillet, the lead scientist of the group, in research published in Global Change Biology in mid-January.

Frozen Franz-Josef Land, August, 2011.  © NASA's Earth Observatory
Frozen Franz-Josef Land, August, 2011.
© NASA’s Earth Observatory

Given its remote high-Arctic location, Franz-Josef Land has long been considered a kind of Arctic Eden, sheltered from the impacts of climate change. Nearly 85 percent of its land mass is blanketed by glaciers and its islands are surrounded by extensive sea ice. But temperatures in the Arctic are rising, and are predicted to increase by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Grémillet and his colleagues wanted to measure how the ecosystem of this icy Arcadia is responding.

They chose the little auk as a subject because it is a so-called sentinel species, one that can be used as a proxy for the health of an entire ecosystem, much like the polar bear. The most abundant seabird in the Atlantic Arctic, with over 40 million individuals, the little auk is a major part of the food chain in polar ecosystems. Previous research has suggested that the little auk is quite flexible in the face of changes to its environment. But Grémillet and his colleagues suspected the bird might reach a breaking point due to its high energy costs and metabolic rate, as well as a diet primarily made up of copepods—tiny crustaceans that are themselves highly reactive to changes in sea ice and water temperature.

Little auks in Franz-Josef Land. ©  Cory Richards (Facebook)
Little auks in Franz-Josef Land. © Cory Richards (Facebook)

Using remote sensing data, the scientists measured changes in the volume and area of sea ice and glaciers between 1979 and 2013. They also tagged a number of little auks from one colony with tiny electronic devices affixed to legs or breast feathers to track their foraging behavior. These devices, called miniaturized temperature–depth recorders, provided information on the depth and duration of every dive, as well as the hours spent each day gathering food. The researchers then compared current and historical data on the diet, body weight and chick growth of little auks at Franz-Josef Land.

The data they collected revealed some bad news and some good news. The bad news: Sea ice in the Franz-Josef archipelago has, in fact, retreated markedly during the last decade, disappearing entirely during summer by 2005—a harbinger of future conditions elsewhere in the Arctic Ocean. Coastal glaciers have also retreated, dumping large volumes of meltwater into the sea. The good news: while disappearing sea ice curtailed the birds’ traditional feeding grounds, retreating glaciers created new ones. The little auks adapted their behavior, feeding at the boundaries where glacier melt discharged into coastal waters at Tikhaya Bay, close to the their breeding areas. Local zooplankton were shocked by cold temperatures and dramatic contrasts in salt concentrations between the fresh meltwater and saline oceans, making them easy prey. The little auks were able to maintain chick growth weights, while adults lost just 4% of body mass.

The little auks’ adaptability in Franz-Josef raises questions about previous research on the birds. In a 2010 paper, Nina Karnovsky of Pomona College predicted that 40% of all little auks would disappear from the Atlantic Arctic by the end of the 21st century, Grémillet and his colleagues note. They argue that this prediction must now be revisited. They also call for further study of little auks at other Arctic geographies, to see if they are as adaptable as the ones making a home at Franz-Josef Land.

The Franz-Josef little auk findings support the conclusions of other recent research on Adélie penguins in the Antarctic and seabirds and marine mammals in Alaska that suggest glacial melt can, in some cases, compensate for disappearing sea ice to support new feeding habits, benefitting certain animals within an ecosystem, according to the authors of the paper.

“There is currently a huge demand for predicting the fate of Arctic biodiversity exposed to ongoing climate change,” the authors write. “At the species level, this is achieved by building habitat models.” But if the models don’t take certain environmental interactions into account, inaccurate predictions will be made.

For other stories about birds on glacier-covered islands at high latitudes, look here and here.

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John Muir: America’s Ice-Chief

John Muir in 1907.  Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz
John Muir in 1907.
Public Domain. Source: Francis M. Fritz

A rhapsodic wanderer trained in geology and botany, John Muir had a big hand in launching the American environmental movement and is considered by many to be the godfather of America’s national parks. The Scottish-born naturalist wrote numerous screeds in defense of wild places for national magazines around the turn of the 20th century that electrified the American public, and he influenced both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft to take major measures to protect iconic American landscapes. He was also one of the founders of the Sierra Club.

In a book out last year, Kim Heacox argues that it was the glaciers of Alaska that inspired Muir’s fiercest passion for the wilderness and animated his efforts to protect wild places. Thus, the title of Heacox’s book: John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America. Muir “would popularize glaciers unlike anybody else, and be to glaciers what Jacques Cousteau would be to the oceans and Carl Sagan to the stars,” writes Heacox, an independent scholar who lives in Alaska.

The story is an entertaining and elegantly written romp through Muir’s evolution from a self-described tramp and outsider who scorned all things urban and “civilized” into a formidable force for conservation in the United States. Along the way, he cultivates friendships with some of the greatest minds of the era, and takes painstaking efforts to nourish his literary talent. The lure of Alaska’s majestic and otherworldly ice-scapes for Muir are a constant throughout, and Heacox’s descriptions of his adventures there are some of the most lively passages in a lively book.

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 10.49.55 AMMuir was undeniably enamored of the unforgiving rivers of ice that blanketed his beloved mountains in California’s Sierra Nevada and the United States’ new frontier, Alaska. He called glaciers “God’s crystal temple,” in one passage cited by Heacox, from a book by his friend the Reverend Samuel Young, Alaska Days with John Muir. Muir’s references to God and temples were not just for the reverend’s sake. John Muir believed that heaven lies on earth, that one finds transcendence in the wilderness, that nature is the original church. Muir tells Young,

I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculpted figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be.

While he courted great danger on many of his trips to Alaska, he trusted his own luck and the expertise of his guides, native Tlingits. Muir admired them for their knowledge of and respect for the ice, sea and land. He in turn won their esteem, according to Heacox, with his fearless daring, his death-defying agility and his persuasive oratory. The Tinglits called Muir the ice-chief.

Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.
Tourists at the edge of a crevasse on Muir Glacier in Alaska, 1896. public domain.

It turns out that even then, the ice chief was worried about the ice. When Muir made that first visit to Alaska at the age of 41, he already believed that its massive glaciers had begun melting into the sea. Here Heacox quotes Muir in his own words, from his Travels in Alaska, written at the very end of his life:

Glacier Bay is undoubtedly young as yet. Vancouver’s chart, made only a century ago, shows no trace of it, though found admirably faithful in general. It seems probable therefore, that even then the entire bay was occupied by a glacier of which all those described above, great though they are, were only tributaries…that this whole system of fjords and channels was added to the domain of the sea by glacial action is to my mind certain.

John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro
John Muir Glacier and Bay, July 2010. © Eric E Castro

Muir attributed glacial retreat around the world to warming temperatures, and may have been the first naturalist to do so, according to Heacox. In 1896, Heacox tells us, just six years after Muir’s first visit to Alaska, a Swedish physicist and chemist named Svante Arrhenius began to theorize about the effects of burning coal and oil on the atmospheric concentration of carbon, and in turn, the possibility that this atmospheric carbon would have a greenhouse effect, raising the surface temperature of the earth. More than a century later, though scientists have since confirmed both Muir and Arrhenius’ suspicions, climate change remains a subject of contentious debate. (Just witness the lack of commitments to action made by the governments that participated in the December United Nations Climate Change conference in Lima, Peru.)

John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office
John Muir commemorative 5 cent stamp, 1964 © U.S. Post Office

It is likely that the places Muir visited on his first trip to Alaska are now ice free, according to Heacox. “Muir Glacier today, only a fraction of its size in 1890, now rests at the head of Muir Inlet, some thirty-plus miles farther north, and is no longer tidewater,” he writes. Though the glacier that carries Muir’s name may be much diminished, Muir himself remains larger than life—an inspiration to those who work to combat the effects of climate change and who seek solace in the wilderness. Heacox’s book is a timely and poignant addition to a canon of literature about one of America’s favorite mountain men.

For more recent stories about glaciers in Alaska and California, click through to the following stories:

As Glaciers Melt, Mt. Shasta Could See More Mudslides
For One Time Only, the Perfect Glacier Wave
High Schoolers Get Hands on with Alaska Glacier

 

 

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Kumtor Gold Mine Threatens Central Asian Glaciers and Water

Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch
Tien Shan mountain range rising behind Issyk Kul lake, © Thomas Depenbusch

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan.

The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve.

Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.)

Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months.

Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report
Petrov glacier and Petrov Lake. © Kumtor Environmental and Sustainability Report

Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.)

Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe.

Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor tailings pond. Flickr photographer, anonymous.

In Conflict

In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation.

The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a third. The agreement called for further audits of the mine’s operations, and for the government to continue pursuing claims against Centerra worth some $471 million for economic and environmental damages. But the Kyrgyz government is now threatening to expropriate the mine unless that stake can be raised to at least two thirds. In a Dec. 1 television interview, Krygyz President Atambayev said that nationalization of the mine would be the only option if a deal with the Canadian company can’t be reached by December, although some investors think nationalization is unlikely.

In April, a new glacier law was passed by the Kyrgyz parliament that would have made it impossible for Kumtor to continue operating, but it required the signature of the president. An online search does not turn up any record of the president having signed it. A change to the water code proposed by the government in June may serve as a work around: it would allow companies that make a significant contribution to the economy to search, explore and exploit deposits in glacier areas. In the meantime, also in June, the government gave the mine the necessary permits for its 2014 mine plan after the company threatened to shut the mine down if it did not receive them.

Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.
Kumtor mine, Flickr photographer, anonymous.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, given the risks to regional water supplies, approval of the mine’s operations by the Kyrgyz government may violate a water resources treaty between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “The signatories committed not to allow any operations in their respective territories that would harm the interests of the other states parties, that would inflict damage on them and lead to the contamination of their water resources,” the authors write.

Mistrust of Centerra has been simmering since 1998, when a company delivery truck carrying over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide overturned, releasing its contents into the Barskaun River, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul. Some local and international media organizations claimed the incident poisoned hundreds of people and caused several deaths, but an independent group of experts said there was no major environmental impact. Eventually, around $4 million USD was paid in compensation, though different media outlets report different figures. Bankwatch claims that came to about $25 per person.

William Colgan, a researcher studying glacier-climate interactions at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, discussed some of the challenges of mining deposits that sit under glaciers, including Kumtor, in a recent post on his Glacier Bytes website.

 

 

 

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Glacier Archaeology Comes of Age

The Iceman's reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter
The Iceman’s reconstruction (c) South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

Have you heard of Ötzi? One of the world’s best-preserved mummies, he immediately became an archaeological sensation when he came to light in 1991, and new details of his story have been surfacing in scientific journals, magazines, television programs and on the radio ever since—Radiolab dedicated an entire episode to Ötzi just last year.

A 45-year-old Neolithic man, fully clothed and carrying a backpack, an axe, a dagger, medicinal plants, and many other personal belongings, he was discovered by a pair of hikers in the Ötzal Alps of Italy lying face down in glacial ice and meltwater. At first the hikers thought he was the victim of a recent mountaineering accident. But when scientists took a look, they discovered the body was over 5,000 years old.

Ötzi could be considered the poster child for what has since become its own branch of study: glacier archaeology.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Though it has been over two decades since Ötzi was discovered, and many more major finds have surfaced in melting ice and snow in the time since then, glacier archaeology is a field that is only now coming into its own. While one-offs like Ötzi and other mummies have made thrilling finds, the potential for recovery of new artifacts is growing as glacial melt accelerates around the globe. Just this November, the first journal dedicated exclusively to glacier archaeology launched: it’s called, suitably, The Journal of Glacier Archaeology.

“There is immediacy to this research,” write the editors in an introduction to the journal’s first annual issue. “Climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay. Consequently, it is imperative to extend the geographic scope of this research now.” Once the artifacts thaw, they begin to decompose, and shrivel up, which makes them less valuable to researchers, which has lent the hunt for finds a sense of urgency. Vast regions of Asia, Europe, and North and South American have so far been virtually untouched by the discipline. Identifying good new sites in remote glaciated regions of the world is increasingly being done with the aid of advanced technology: not just aerial photography and helicopter surveys, but satellite imagery and geographic systems modeling.

Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Overview of snow patches sites with archaeological finds in central Norway. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

The first issue of the journal offers, among other things, an overview of findings about the impeccably preserved 500-year-old “Inca Ice Maiden” and two other mummified Inca children, discovered together in 1999 on Mount Lullaillaco in northwestern Argentina and understood to be human sacrifices; a pollen analysis of caribou dung found on ice patches in the Yukon; a discussion of bronze age arrows found in Norwegian alpine snow patches (see below); and an analysis of GIS (Geographic Information Systems mapping) methods used by glacial archaeologists.

Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem:NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeol- ogy. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Arrows with shell points recovered from the Løpesfonna snow patch. (a) T25172; (b) T25684. Photo by Åge Hojem: NTNU-Museum of Natural History and Archaeology. Layout Martin Callanan. Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

A series of annual meetings called “Frozen Pasts,” first launched in Switzerland in 2008, provided the impetus for the new journal, according to Martin Callanan, a glacial archaeologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and managing editor of the journal. “It’s a bottom-up thing—people working with the same things, the same complex phenomena, the same findings, all finding each other and saying something is going on here, and it’s global, we need to have regular meetings and a proper publication for ourselves,” he says. “It’s its own special little field…we’ve only started looking.”

The Cryospheric Gallery

The funny thing about the term glacial archaeology is that most artifacts recovered intact from melting snow and ice actually come from what are called snow and ice “patches,” according to Callanan. That’s because snow and ice patches don’t grow and recede the way glaciers do, making them less likely to crush artifacts in their midst to dust over time. There is an ongoing debate over whether these formations are considered “glacial” or not, he says, and in terms of their cryospheric properties, they’re not well understood.

“I think initially people thought you could just transfer glacial theory or dynamics over and that would explain them, but that’s not the case,” says Callanan. “They’re at an elevation far below the [glacier] equilibrium line, seem to be of an age that would indicate they are stable, but at the same time, some of them are surrounded by evidence that there’s been movement in the past, so it’s turned out to be one of the really interesting aspects of this. It’s a new member of the cryospheric gallery.” These ice or snow patches, he says, may have been strictly glacial in formation during the Little Ice Age.

The snow patch at  Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
The snow patch at Løftingsfonnkollen on (a) 14 September 2008. (b) 17 September 2008. (c) 21 August 2010. The find location of the Bronze Age shaft (T24138) is marked. Photo by Geovekst, Statens kartverk, Norkart AS (b) and Martin Callanan (a, c). Callanan et al, 2014, Journal of Glacier Archaeology, Vol. 1. Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

There is also an ongoing battle over who is allowed into the club–who can and should call themselves glacial archaeologists. Many more traditional archaeological finds have been dug up out of permafrost—a subterranean layer of earth that is frozen year-round and is typically found at some alpine altitudes and at high latitudes, such as the Arctic and Antarctic regions. “There are wonderful complex finds in the permafrost, but they have a different physical background and regime than ice patches, and there’s all sorts of different sites: grave sites, graveyards, villages, houses. Then it would be a more standard archeological excavation, but the warming thing is what binds them together,” says Callanan.

“So I’m part of the school that says permafrost is in, but we’re still arguing about that.”

For a related story in glacierhub about bodies resurfacing as ice melts, check out this link.

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Disappearing Glaciers, an Artist-Activist’s Muse

Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA). 2012, Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. © Diane Burko
Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA). 2012, Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches. © Diane Burko

Diane Burko has an appetite for ice. For nearly a decade she has been documenting the disappearance of glaciers from the earth in large-scale series of paintings and photographs. Burko considers herself not just a landscape artist, but a landscape activist. Her two most recent projects, entitled Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations, have been developed in close collaboration with glaciologists. It’s a symbiotic relationship: she wants her work to accurately reflect the science and the urgency of climate change, and they want her to help them communicate their science to the public through her art. The glacier work fits neatly into a much longer artistic trajectory: she has been photographing and painting dramatic, monumental landscapes for more than 40 years. I spoke to Burko about her evolution as an artist, her interest in glaciers, and her collaborations with scientists. What follows is an edited excerpt of the interview.

Q: You were raised in Brooklyn, New York, a place that is not exactly known for dramatic sweeping landscapes of the kind you feature in your work. Where did that impulse come from?

Lake Powell #3, colored pencil on paper, 40 x 60 inches, 1980. Grand Canyon series. © Diane Burko
Lake Powell #3, colored pencil on paper, 40 x 60 inches, 1980. Grand Canyon series. © Diane Burko

Diane Burko: The first landscape that had that kind of awe moment for me was the Grand Canyon. I was asked to do a show at Arizona State University in 1977, and the draw for me was that I knew it was near the Grand Canyon. I happened to meet James Turrell, the light artist, in L.A. a few months before the show, and I was telling him about how I was going to Arizona, where he was, and he said well what are you going to do? I said, ‘The big thing I’m going to do is see the Grand Canyon,’ and he said, ‘What you need to do is fly over and fly into it.’ Apparently, he actually does that. He has a plane, so he flew me into the Grand Canyon in a little Helio Courier. So that was the first time I flew over something and photographed it. Before then, I was using photographs that other people had made, magazines, calendars, National Geographic, whatever I could find. And once I was in that plane with Jim, I realized I was going to be making my own photos and making paintings out of those photos. That was the historical beginning of my aerial view and I always credit Jim for getting me started.

Q: So how did you move from the Grand Canyon to glaciers?

Burko: There was kind of a pivotal epiphany moment in 2006. I did this project that was basically about Iceland and volcanoes. I went to a place called Jökulsárlón, a glacial lake where lots of the James Bond movies were filmed. And I had an exhibition about it in 2006, and the curator said, ‘You’re doing ice here, in these glaciers, but didn’t you do ice and snow in the 70s?’ And she was correct, and she took one of those paintings of French Alps, from 1976, and put it in this show. And so, it just hit me that it was 30 years later. And it was the exact same year as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out, and I had also just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, on climate change, so it was in the air. I think all those things together raised my consciousness. It really changed my whole practice. It was no longer just about painting beautiful landscapes, but it was about figuring out a way to talk through my language of paint about this issue that is such an urgent issue for time, and for the future.

Q: In the bio on your website you say the Politics of Snow and Polar Investigations projects are intended to “invent visual strategies to make the invisible visible, and visceral to the public.” Can you say more about what this means?

Columbia Glacier, lines of recession 1980-2005. ©Diane Burko
Columbia Glacier, lines of recession 1980-2005. ©Diane Burko

Burko: So, once I started looking at and reading the work of glacial geologists—you know, I got a lot of their books—I saw that they have all these graphs, they have these recessional lines, expressing how a glacier has changed. They date them. So that was one thing I saw, a visual way of explaining change, which I adopted in some of my paintings. But another more powerful tool that they used and that I picked up on was that they use what they call “repeat photography.” This guy I contacted early on named Bruce Molnia, he was the author of a USGS atlas on Alaskan glaciers, and I found them online and I contacted him and then he met me and he’s actually been a collaborator ever since. He explained that what geologists do is they will return to a site and measure it, photographing at the same longitude, latitude, same time each year, and they will photograph that glacier over time. So I would take those repeats and make diptychs. I even made one that was four big paintings of Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park from 1935 up to after 2000 and you can just see by looking. It’s visceral.

Q: What are your collaborations like with the glaciologists? Is it mostly a sharing of materials that the scientists gather?

Burko: Well, it started out that way, it started with me emailing these scientists where I found their names in relationship to images, like Bruce, and then it evolved into my actually meeting them. Bruce came to my first Politics of Snow show in 2010, so we met in the gallery and talked about the science.

Boulder Glacier 1932 after T.J. Tileman, January 2010, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches.  ©Diane Burko
Boulder Glacier 1932 after T.J. Tileman, January 2010, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches.
©Diane Burko
Boulder Glacier 2005 after Greg Pederson, January 2010, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. © Diane Burko
Boulder Glacier 2005 after Greg Pederson, January 2010, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. © Diane Burko

Another collaboration developed with this man named Tad Pfeffer, a physicist and glaciologist who studies ice melt, mostly on mountain glaciers, who I found on the Internet. And I did a whole series on Columbia Glacier, based on information he gave me—visual information and conversations. And then we met at a conference in 2012 and he suggested I become an affiliate of this organization, INSTAAR (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research). Well it’s an incredible organization of scientists who are all involved with glaciers and not just ice sheets that you’d have in Antarctica or Greenland, but also these mountain glaciers as well, which Tad explained to me are just as important. It isn’t just the issue of sea level rise; it has to do with drought. If the Himalayan glaciers are melting at different rates, then the water going down either becomes a flood or it’s not there when the farmers need it. I mean everything is topsy-turvy because of this change of C02 in the atmosphere. And in October, I went to do a seminar at the INSTAAR conference at the invitation of Pfeffer.

Diane Burko with her camera. ©Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research
Diane Burko with her camera. ©Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research

All these collaborations have to do with another term I haven’t mentioned yet called outreach. What I like about these scientists is that I learn from them. I’m just in awe of what they do. But what I help them do is I help them tell their story in a way that the public can understand. So I’ve been invited to a lot of their conferences, to panels about how to communicate science. I’m not the only person doing this. There are many, many artists involved in trying to communicate science. 

Q: Today many of your photographs are works of art themselves. What makes you decide a particular photograph stands alone as a work of art, and what kinds of images or subjects give you the urge to paint instead?

Burko: The ones that give me the urge to paint are the ones that appear to me less complete, maybe even out of focus, sometimes more abstract, not highly detailed or specific. Sometimes it’s about having a number of photos that I combine to make into one painting. I usually know instantly when a photograph is a photograph and when it should be made into a painting. I never want to just reproduce the photograph, I want to take from it, and make that image inspire more in the painting—different colors, maybe a change of actual lines and shapes. The painting takes over after I use the photographic image as a first pass.

photograph: Sperry 1, 40 x 60 inches, 2011, Glacier National Park. © Diane Burko
photograph: Sperry 1, 40 x 60 inches, 2011, Glacier National Park. © Diane Burko

Q: How do you make aesthetic choices about individual pieces versus a series when creating your work?

Burko: I have always painted in series because I’ve never been interested in just making a finished work. I’m more invested in an extended study of landscape phenomena such as volcanoes, Giverny [home to Claude Monet’s house and gardens], deserts, and now glaciers. Diptychs were a natural device for telling the story of climate change because they allow you to show changes in a single glacier over chronological time. The grid is another strategy I find useful in this regard. I was first inspired to use this device by [Danish-Icelandic artist] Olafur Elliasson some ten years ago. It is a way to present a collection of like images that become something more when organized into a group. Thus, both my goals conflate: aesthetics and message—my goal with all my work is to seduce with the beauty I encounter and at the same time remind the viewer of the fragility of our natural world due to the threat climate change poses to our planet.

Columbia Glacier II (Figure 46) March 2011, archival inkjet print on canvas with oil paint, 54" x 150". ©Diane Burko
Columbia Glacier II (Figure 46) March 2011, archival inkjet print on canvas with oil paint, 54″ x 150″. ©Diane Burko
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Going to Extremes: Glacier Boarding, a New Sport

As glaciers the world over melt, some adventure athletes are turning the ice into an extreme playground—and bringing along photographers to record their exploits. One of the new sports they are trying is called glacier boarding, but what that means exactly may depend on who you ask.

In Switzerland, canyon guides Claude-Alain Gailland and Gilles Janin recently took boogie boards out to Altesch glacier, Europe’s largest. Then they donned flippers, wetsuits and helmets, dropped those boogie boards into a freezing liquid channel carved into the ice, and careened around the snaking glacial river while photographer David Carlier snapped shots from above.

This particular form of glacier boarding is a bit like riding a boogie board through a slide at a water-park, only you risk hypothermia, being overtaken by glacial floods, getting hit by falling or protruding ice, or falling into a deep bottomless crevasse, according to a listicle of emergent adventure sports on the website of energy drink maker RedBull. Redbull assigned the sport an insanity level of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is craziest. Of course, not many people have tried it, so rarity: also a 10. Training required: High.

But the term glacier boarding is also used to refer simply to snowboarding on a glacier, typically one covered in fresh powder, a relatively common sport. A team of snow boarders over in New Zealand was recently dropped onto the glaciers of Methven by helicopter, as part of a shoot for next year’s Burton Snowboards catalogue. They spent the next 10 days exploring the best places to do tricks and get perfect shots. What makes glacier snowboarding different from regular snowboarding is that the terrain can be icier, and ice formations can allow for more dramatic boarding moves, like the one shown below.

Jeff Curtes, who photographed the New Zealand group, told Oceans2Vibe, “We pick terrain that we end up riding because it generally looks ‘right’ and ‘doable’. When Jussi [one of the snowboarders] and the team saw the ice their eyes lit up with possibilities.” They also took extensive safety precautions, he said. But it was so warm that the powder snow had melted, which made the adventure a bit more dangerous, because they “were forced to play and shoot in the ice.”

Glacier snowboarding videos abound on youtube. Here’s one, below, of some snowboarders on Farnham glacier in British Columbia in September 2013.

Glacierhub recently wrote about another extreme glacier sport that was very short-lived: glacier wave surfing. It was so terrifying and dangerous, in fact, that the guys who invented it only attempted it once, and never went back.

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Icelandic Zombie Glacier Survives by Shedding Dead Bits

Falljökull glacier. Photo: © Matt Malone
Falljökull glacier. Photo: © Matt Malone

It’s alive! British scientists recently discovered that a glacier named Falljökull in Iceland, considered dead, is in fact partially “alive.” Using 3D imaging of the interior and surface of the glacier, they found that its long top section, which extends in a steep ice fall from the ice cap Öraefajökull to a plateau below, has at least temporarily saved itself by severing ties with a lower stagnant, dead piece. It brings to mind that lone hiker pinned under a rock who hacked off his arm a few years ago to escape certain demise in the wild.

Perched as it is between dead and undead, Falljökull has earned the nickname zombie glacier in the popular press. But it’s not clear whether this unusual glacier behavior of sloughing off dead ice–behavior that had never before been reported–will keep this patient alive over the long run. Today, the glacier’s active, or living, length is about 700 meters shorter than it was five years ago.

“It would be nice to think that the behaviour we have described at Falljökull could represent a type of ‘survival mechanism’ whereby steep mountain (Alpine) glaciers can quickly adapt to warming summer temperatures and decreasing snow fall during the winter months,” wrote Emrys Phillips, British Geological Survey research scientist and lead-author of the paper, in an email. But its survival ultimately depends on whether it remains “attached” to the Öraefajökull ice cap, its source, he said. And predicting how the glacier will behave in the future is tricky.

Consider snow and ice, and you may conjure barren, unforgiving landscapes that don’t sustain much life. But most glaciers are in some sense “alive,” an idea first proposed by legendary naturalist John Muir in the late 1800s. This means that the vast sheets, bulging tongues and glittering blue crowns of ice that constitute a glacier are mobile. They flow and advance in ice-rivers and ice-falls in winter and retreat in summer, according to seasonal patterns in snowfall and melt and given the pull of gravity that results when giant hunks of packed and frozen H2O are pitched at an alpine angle.

Of course, many glaciers are melting faster than they can accumulate new ice from snowfall, wind-blown snow, avalanches and frozen rain in the winter—mostly attributed to rising temperatures and increasing soot and dust in the atmosphere around the globe. This means the seasonal balance between advancing and retreating is thrown off, which can result in such a severe decline in glacier mass that the glacier is declared “dead.” A dead glacier stops moving and simply melts in place, like a giant ice cube in an empty glass on a hot day in summer.

The fault line where the living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier meet. "You can see the highly crevassed ice fall which feeds ice to Falljökull and then below that a ‘bulge’ in the glacier surface which is fractured and pocked marked by hollows – this area represents the living active part of the glacier. The thrust faults which are formed as the ice moves forward can be seen in the lower part of the glacier (the curved fractures cutting across the ice)," says British Geological Survey scientist Emrys Phillips. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.
The fault line where the living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier meet. “You can see the highly crevassed ice fall which feeds ice to Falljökull and then below that a ‘bulge’ in the glacier surface which is fractured and pocked marked by hollows – this area represents the living active part of the glacier. The thrust faults which are formed as the ice moves forward can be seen in the lower part of the glacier (the curved fractures cutting across the ice),” says British Geological Survey scientist Emrys Phillips.
Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.

At Falljökull, the team of scientists, who published their research in the AGU Journal of Geogphysical Research in October, found that a new ice front has formed between living and dead pieces of the Falljökull glacier, with the living section actually surging up over the dead section into a bulge at a giant fault line. The scientists note that retreat of the original ice front has accelerated since 2007 and is moving at a faster rate than in any 5-year period since annual measurements began in 1932. Meanwhile, the upper part of Falljökull is still flowing forward at between 164 to 230 feet per year.

“Although the margin of Falljökull has ceased moving and is now undergoing stagnation, field and photographic evidences clearly show that the icefall remains active, feeding ice from the accumulation zone on Öraefajökull to the lower reaches of the glacier,” the scientists write in the paper. “To accommodate this continued forward motion, the upper section of the glacier below the icefall is undergoing intense deformation (folding and thrusting) and, as a result, is being thrust over the lower, immobile section of Falljökull.”

The group expects Falljökull is not the only glacier behaving in this manner, but finding out for sure will require more research. “As far as we know, this is the first time that this type of structural adjustment in active glacier length has been reported, so we cannot be certain that other mountain glaciers respond in the same way as Falljökull,” wrote Phillips. “But that said, from informal comments made by colleagues working in North America, Svalbard and elsewhere in Iceland, plus reading the published literature, we think that it is possible that a number of other Alpine-type glaciers are potentially behaving in a similar way.” In particular, they expect it may be found in places such as the Himalayas, Andes, Alps and Cascades.

The team of scientists was able to detect this zombie glacier behavior using Ground Penetrating Radar to map the ice’s internal structure; terrestrial Laser scanning (LiDAR) to create a 3D model of the surface of the glacier and surrounding landforms; four Global Navigation Satellite System stations on the glacier’s surface to record its velocity, and digital mapping and measuring of the glaciers surface structures, such as fractures, crevasses and faults.

 

Andrew Finlayson setting up the ground penetrating radar. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.
Andrew Finlayson setting up the ground penetrating radar. Photo Credit: British Geological Survey.
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