New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Through recent installation of automatic weather stations, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) aims to increase data collection on high mountain glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. Data collection on these glaciers is essential to understanding how climate change might affect the region’s water resources, which are crucial for fresh water supplies and agricultural production. 

The HKH region spans 3.5 million square kilometers across eight countries, and its extensive river basins provide water to nearly two billion people. Of the 54, 252 identified glaciers in the HKH, only seven are monitored by ICIMOD researchers. ICIMOD, which is based in Kathmandu, is an intergovernmental knowledge sharing organization that focuses on ecosystem conservation in the HKH region.  

Monitored sites, all located in Nepal, include the West Changri Nup, Langtang valley, Ponkar, and the Rikha Samba glacier. 

Automatic weather station atop 1 of the 7 ICIMOD sites (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Installation and management of automatic weather stations at high altitudes requires carefully led expeditions and immense energy to carry research equipment up mountain. “Cryosphere monitoring is a highly resource-intensive activity, especially in the HKH, as research involved at least a week-long trek to the glacier sites across rugged terrain,” ICIMOD researchers said in a report called Reaching New Heights

Created by ICIMOD designers Willemien van der Wielen and Chimi Seldon, Reaching New Heights is an online story map that highlights the extensive fieldwork on Rikha Samba glacier. Rikha Samba is located in the Mustang District of Nepal and feeds the Kali Gandaki River, which contributes to the larger Gandaki River basin. 

More About the Research 

On Rikha Samba, the automatic weather station was installed at an elevation of 5,800 meters above sea level and is currently the highest-altitude installed station. The research team on Rikha Samba includes scientists from both ICIMOD and Kathmandu University. Annually, it takes the researchers and sherpas a total of 7 days to reach the destination due to steep slopes, atmospheric oxygen changes, and harsh weather conditions. 

ICIMOD and Kathmandu researchers on Yala glacier (Source: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Flickr)

Once installed, automatic weather stations collect data hourly without human intervention. Meteorological measurements include temperature, precipitation (rainfall and snowfall), wind speed, humidity, and cloud patterns. Over time, the data will likely reveal glacial snow and ice changes due to climate forcings. 

“Automatic weather stations provide essential data which allows us to model snow and glacier melt (and thus river flows), predict shifts in trees upslope, monitor microclimates in mountains which may be critical for individual species survival (refugia), and even can allow us to predict processes such as rock falls before they happen,” University of Portsmouth climate scientist Nick Pepin told GlacierHub. 

In addition to weather stations, researchers use density kits, and bamboo stakes to measure glacial changes over time. By digging into the snow using a hand-operated coring mechanism, researchers measure the amount of water in the snow and black carbon deposits. Additionally, steam-driven drills and ice corers allow a network of bamboo stakes to be installed into the glacier. The network of stakes, located across Rikha Samba, record glacial mass changes over time. 

Early data analysis thus far shows that Rikha Samba glacier has lost substantial glacial mass between 2010 and 2018, specifically at lower altitudes where atmospheric temperatures are warmer. 

Additional Readings on GlacierHub

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Roundup: Alaska’s Heat Wave, Black Carbon in Tibet, and Artwork at The Met

Heat Wave in Alaska Results in Record Temperatures, Wildfires, and Glacial Melt

From Yereth Rosen at Reuters: “Alaska’s heat wave is driving wildfires and melting glaciers, choking the state’s biggest cities with smoke and bloating rivers with meltwater. Melting glaciers and mountain snowfields are bloating rivers and streams across a large swath of south central Alaska, the [National Weather Service] said. The melt has brought water levels to flood stage at the Yentna River northwest of Anchorage on [June 30].”

Read the full story here.

Recorded water levels at Yentna River, Alaska (Source: NOAA/National Weather Service)

Black Carbon Measured in the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau

From Science of the Total Environment: “Black carbon (BC), which consists of the strongest light-absorbing particles (LAP) in snow/ice, has been regarded as a potential factor accelerating the melting of glaciers and snow cover over the Third Pole. During the winter and summer of 2016, snow, ice and topsoil were sampled from the Laohugou basin located on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. Concentrations of BC in Laohugou Glacier No. 12 (LG12) and snow cover in this basin.”

Read more about the research study here.

Eastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Nicolas Marino, Flickr)

Contemporary Artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Features Icelandic Artist Ragnar Kjartansson

From The Met: “As part of a new series of contemporary installations, The Met presents the world premiere of a major new work: Death Is Elsewhere (2019), a seven-channel video installation by the acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Provocatively rethinking the possibilities for performance and video art, Kjartansson makes work in which he simultaneously evokes Romantic clichés while using irony, nihilism, and absurdity to undermine them.”

Read the full exhibition overview here.

Contemporary art installations featuring Ragnar Kjartansson (Source: The Met)

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Photo Friday: Jostedal Glacier—Europe’s Largest Glacier

Spanning a total area of 193 square miles, Jostedal Glacier is mainland Europe’s largest glacier. Jostedal Glacier is located atop a plateau in western Norway and features several glacial arms, or valley glaciers. Some of the valley glaciers are named Nigardsbreen, Austerdalsbreen, and Briksdalsbreen. All are notable, Norwegian ecotourist destinations.

Jostedal’s highest peak, referred to as Lodalskåpa, has an elevation of 1.3 miles. Wildlife around Jostedal Glacier includes eagles, red deer, lynx, and wolverines.

This week’s Photo Friday highlights Jostedal Glacier’s scenic landscape and sublime beauty.

Jostedal Glacier, Norway (Source: A.Rueland, Flickr)
Jostedal Glacier, Norway (Source: stephan zurbuchen, Flickr)
Jostedal Glacier, Norway (Source: Felix Richard, Flickr)
Jostedal Glacier, Norway (Source: Christian Nesset, Flickr)
Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway (Source: John6536, Flickr)

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Video of the Week: A Stroll Through Myvatnsjokull Glacier

In this installment of GlacierHub’s Video of the Week, tour guide Halldor Sigurdsson walks through an ice tunnel inside the Myvatnsjokull Glacier, which is located in southern Iceland and is a well-known snowmobiling and hiking destination.

In the short video, Sigurdsson’s whistling and singing echoes throughout the tunnel, while a stream of melt water trickles over the tunnel floor.

On Twitter, one of his followers commented, “Your voice sounded like folk art … like it belongs in the glaciers. It just touched me in a way that felt real. Leaves me wanting to make a quick jaunt up to the glaciers where I live.”

Sigurdsson’s video provides a glance at the inside of Myvatnsjokull. The tunnel walls appear wavy and course; their color, blackish and dark blue. Water can be seen dripping from the top of the ice tunnel.

Overall, the video provides viewers with a glimpse of the beautiful and rarely seen interior of an Icelandic glacier.

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UNESCO-Recognized Glaciers Could Shrink 60 Percent by End of Century

In a recently published Earth’s Future study, researchers from Swiss research institutions inventory and analyze a total of 19,039 glaciers found within 46 World Heritage sites. The research team, led by glaciologist Jean Baptiste Bosson, is the first to catalog and examine glaciers located within UNESCO World Heritage sites. Bosson serves as a scientific officer for the world heritage program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Bosson told GlacierHub: “Theoretically, the World Heritage status is the most important commitment to protect the integrity of cultural and natural features on Earth.”

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Source: Patrick Harvey, Flickr)

In 1972, UNESCO created World Heritage sites in order to identify and preserve areas of significance. Today, there are a total of 1,092 World Heritage sites around the world. Some of UNESCO’s world heritage locations include the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu, the city of Venice, and Yellowstone National Park. World Heritage sites can range from places of cultural significance to areas containing natural value.

More About the Study

Using climate modeling techniques and greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, the researchers calculated the total volume of glaciers located within World Heritage sites and project glacial mass volume changes over time.

The researchers found that the largest proportion of ice-covered areas within world heritage locations are in New Zealand (76 percent), Alaska (44 percent), and northern Asia (26 percent).

In a “business as usual” emissions scenario (RCP8.5), the researchers calculate that 60 percent of total glacial mass volume within world heritage glaciers will be lost by 2100. Additionally, 21 of the 46 sites examined in the study will likely suffer from complete glacial extinction. Glacial loss of this magnitude would likely threaten the integrity of ecosystems, alter large-scale hydrology, and reduce species’ diversity.

Mount Cook, Canterbury, New Zealand (Source: Dave Wong, Flickr)

Reduced emissions scenarios, such as RCP4.5 and RCP2.6, project lessened environmental impacts but require immediate action on curbing greenhouse gas pollution. Unfortunately, all emissions scenarios project future ice loss.

“The key message is that we have to make utmost efforts to conserve glaciers because if they disappear, the current earth system and the life [on] its surface will be completely modified,” Bosson said.

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Mercury from Melting Glaciers Threatens the Tibetan Plateau

Often referred to as “the Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau is known for its unspoiled environment and plentiful water resources. The Tibetan Plateau is an expansive region with an average elevation of 2.8 miles and an area of 965,300 square miles. The plateau is estimated to provide water to more than 1.35 billion people throughout Asia.

Due to increasing anthropogenic aerosols in the atmosphere, the scientific community has become increasingly concerned about the plateau and its critical water supply. Anthropogenic aerosols are small, atmospheric particles of carbon, sulfur dioxide, and mercury that are released through the burning of fossil fuels—more specifically, coal. Aerosols can be transported by wind from one location to another all across the world.

Jyekundo, Tibetan Plateau, China (Source: reurinkjan, Flickr)

A research team, led by Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher Rukumesh Paudyal, sought to learn more about mercury concentrations on the Tibetan Plateau. They published their findings in the journalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research.

Paudyal and his colleagues traveled to the remote location of Mt. Yulong, which is located in the southeastern region of the plateau. There, they collected various snow and water samples from Baishui Glacier, Lashihai Lake, and Luguhu Lake at different altitudes.

Uncovering the Study’s Findings

Once back in the lab, the researchers completed chemical analyses on the samples using ion chromatography and fluorescence spectrophotometry. These research methods are used to measure the chemical components and concentrations of the collected sample.

The results of the chemical analyses indicated that mercury is sourced from the earth’s crust as well as anthropogenic aerosol sources. Additional findings revealed that mercury concentrations were consistent with concentrations at other sampled regions on the Tibetan Plateau, but concentrations were noticeably higher than in previous years.

Lashihai Lake, Tibetan Plateau, China (Source: Patrick J, Flickr)

“Temporal variation of Hg [mercury] concentration suggested that the highest concentration of Hg [mercury] was found in the fresh snow, possibly have been carried from the source regions (industrial regions) by long-range transportation,” the researchers wrote.

Mercury concentrations were also higher at lower elevations, possibly due to glacial surface melting. During melting, mercury particles become exposed on the snow’s surface, forming dirt cones and resulting in higher concentrations.

Unfortunately, high mercury concentrations at low elevations present problems to the communities and countries that rely on the plateau for drinking water. Release of mercury into the local ecosystem will likely result in negative implications to both human health and wildlife. At high exposure levels, mercury can become toxic to humans and alter vital organ functioning.

Shichang Kang, a co-author of the study and researcher with the Chinese Academy of Science, told GlacierHub: “As discharge of glacier melt has been increased recently, Hg [mercury] stored in glacier[s] will be released faster than before. The way to prevent Hg [mercury] emitted [into] the downstream ecosystem is to mitigate glacier melt.”

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Rising Temperatures May Not Cause More Frequent GLOF Catastrophes

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Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

The  Andes  are the longest mountain range in the world, stretching 4,500 miles long and spanning seven South American countries: Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Andean ecosystems include peatlands, grasslands, shrublands, salt flats, forests, and alpine regions. Mountain peatlands, or bofedales, play a particularly central role in the rearing of llamas and alpacas, which provide wool and meat to Andean, pastoral communities.

Alpacas at Sajama National Park, Bolivia (Source: Karina Yager)

Alpacas at Sajama National Park, Bolivia (Source: Karina Yager)

In order to remain productive and green, bofedales require continuous water supply from precipitation, groundwater, and glacial outflow. Without adequate water flow, bofedales are likely to dry up. Climate change and poor irrigation exacerbate the drying of bofedales.

A recently published research article in Springer Nature analyzes bofedal changes due to decreased water availability in Sajama National Park (PNS) in Bolivia. Karina Yager, NASA researcher and Stony Brook University professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, leads the scientific investigation.

Using satellite image analysis, vegetation studies, and traditional ecological knowledge, Yager and fifteen of her colleagues, from institutions in the U.S. and South America, study land cover changes over a 30-year timeframe and identify communal perspectives on drying bofedales.

Yager shared to GlacierHub: “traditional ecological knowledge gives voice to the human dimensions of land cover and land use change which are often overlooked; in this case with the bofedales, locals help us to understand both the climatic and social drivers of bofedal change, from shifting weather patterns, to water access, to herd management.”

Highlighting the Study’s Findings

Yager and some of her colleagues completing a vegetation survey of plant species growing in bofedales in Sajama National Park
(Source: Karina Yager)

PNS contains five pasture areas, where Andean communities reside. The pasture areas include: Sajama, Lagunas, Caripe, Papelpampa, and Manasaya. Members from all five communities participated in focus group sessions to share information regarding bofedal condition, climatology, and potential irrigation actions.

A Manasaya herder shared to the researchers: “the pastures of the bofedal are dying because not enough water is entering any longer. In some places that are dry, you can hear how the water runs below and you can see that there are places where the bofedal is sinking. There are holes; we cover them so the livestock do not fall in.”

Through field work and data collection, the researchers find that three communities within PNS—Sajama, Lagunas, and Manasaya—show significant loss of healthy bofedales. These land changes will likely result in decreases to animal health and communal livelihoods. In addition, completely dried bofedales are difficult to restore and likely take generations to recover.

Yager states to GlacierHub: “These are peatland systems that are relatively slow growing and have developed in many cases over several millennia. Some of the systems in Sajama are over four thousand years old, and unfortunately some have become completely desiccated within the last five to ten years.

Some bofedal systems would take generations to recuperate, and others may just be completely lost.”

On the other hand, increases in healthy bofedal land cover is observed in the two other, irrigated PNS regions of Caripe and Papelpampa. This finding signals that proper irrigation management and communal-based pasture management are critical to the conservation of bofedales.

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Photo Friday: Norway’s Picturesque Sognefjord

Nicknamed the King of the Fjords, Sognefjord is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway, spanning 127 miles in length and reaching a depth of 4,265 feet below sea level. Steep cliffs around the fjord reach elevations of over 5,570 feet.

Fjords are long, narrow inlets of the sea, situated between mountainous coastline on either side. Fjord formation occurs when significant glacial retreat reaches bedrock level. The glacial retreat then leads to land erosion and the creation of a U-shaped valley, which fills with seawater, resulting in unique geological features such as Sognefjord.

This week’s Photo Friday captures Sognefjord’s picturesque views, beauty, and expansiveness.

Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Simon X, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Kari Siren, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: bjarne.stokke, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Thorbjørn Øvrebø, Flickr)
Sognefjord, Norway (Source: Sabin Merino Basterretxea, Flickr)

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Great Biodiversity of Puyuhuapi Fjord

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Unearthing Rock Glaciers: Hidden, Hydrological Landforms

Rock glaciers are distinctive, geomorphological landmasses composed of rock, ice, snow, mud, and water. Unlike exposed ice glaciers, the majority of ice and water is located within the rock glaciers’ underground permafrost. Above-ground characteristics of rock glaciers include unique tongue-shaped terminations, rock debris, and mountainous ridges.

Rock glaciers are frequently overshadowed by neighboring ice glaciers and overlooked due to their hidden nature. Although often forgotten, rock glaciers are common features in many mountain regions of the world and provide supplementary streamflow when water is needed most during dry, warm years.

Cross-section of a rock glacier which includes the above-ground layer, the permafrost core, and the hydrological system (Source: Schaffer et al.)

A Chilean-based scientific review team, from the Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA), published a study that evaluates the hydrological value of rock glaciers in the semiarid Andes (SA). Rock glaciers in the SA are rarely studied, so this group, led by scientist Nicole Schaffer, attempts to shed light on the region’s hidden landforms.

The SA is “a transition zone between the extremely arid region north of 25°S and the humid climate south of 40°S … over the twentieth century, total precipitation has declined and desertification has been recognized internationally as a critical problem,” states Schaffer et al.

Using published data sampling from the La Laguna Basin in Chile, the review team estimates glacial water contributions of the Llano de las Liebres, Las Tolas, Empalme, and Tapado Rock Glaciers using discharge measurements. Water discharge measurements collect the volume of moving water down a stream per unit of time.

Overall, rock glaciers in the semiarid Andes are believed to provide meaningful contributions to streamflows. The team’s findings indicate that the rock glaciers in the La Laguna Basin contribute between 9 to 20 percent of the total streamflow in the region.

How Will Rock Glaciers Respond to Warming Temperatures?

Through climate projections and historical evidence, the scientific community believes that rock glaciers will likely be less vulnerable to climate change.

North Cascades, Washington National Park (Source: Richard Droker, Flickr)

Due to the sheer size and high elevation of rock glaciers in the Chilean Andes, there will likely be delayed response times to climate change. As temperatures increase, smaller and lower elevation rock glaciers will likely thaw before substantial, high mountain rock glaciers.

U.S. Forest Service scientist Connie Millar studies both the historical and ongoing influences of climate change on rock glaciers in the western U.S. Millar’s research includes hydrological studies of rock glaciers in the Great Basin and ice glacier canyon mapping in the Sierra Nevada.

Millar said: “[Rock glaciers may] lag in response to climate change and maybe it’s more on scale of hundreds of years rather than thousands of years and it depends of course on where it is … and how quickly and how they respond to warming.”

North Cascades, Washington National Park (Source: Richard Droker, Flickr)

Alexander Brenning, scientist at Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, also offers insight on the potential impacts of climate change.

Brenning shared: “Rock glaciers are complex systems that may react in various ways. The most worrying of all scenarios is the acceleration and even collapse of rock glaciers. Climatic warming may play a role in this scenario since it is expected to increase the availability of liquid water within the otherwise frozen rock glacier.”

Ultimately, rock glacial responses to climate change are highly variable and dependent on glacial size, elevation, and geographical location. To learn more about the climatic impacts, greater awareness of rock glaciers and further in-depth research is required.

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Video of the Week: Glacial Thinning in Greenland

Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier is one of Greenland’s largest tidewater outlet glaciers. This type of glacier terminates in the sea, leading to frequent calving and releases of ice. Kangerdlugssuaq, which translates to “large fjord” in Greenlandic, is located on the southeastern coast of Greenland.

Ph.D. candidate Michalea King, who studies Greenland outlet glaciers at Ohio State University, created this week’s video of the week. The GIF documents glacial thinning in the 21st century on Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier.

The GIF’s x-axis shows the glacier’s change in elevation, which is measured in meters. The y-axis displays the glacier’s upstream distance, which is measured in kilometers. The upstream distance measures the distance of the glacier’s stream channel from the sea to the inner glacier. An upstream distance of 0 kilometers is located at the termination of the glacier, near the sea. And an upstream distance of 35 kilometers is located further inland, towards the inner part of the glacier.

The short video shows a decrease in glacial elevation over time. Years 2000 to 2005 are colored in blue, 2006 to 2010 are colored in green, and 2011 to 2016 are colored in yellow. The most recent recording, from 2017, is colored in orange.

Yellow and orange years reveal noticeable decreases in glacial elevation, meaning that the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier is losing ice mass. The upstream distance, specifically from 5 to 15 kilometers, shows a greater loss of elevation than other upstream distances. This means that regions near the glacier’s termination, by the sea, are particularly vulnerable to ice mass loss. Decreasing ice mass over time is likely due to increased ice calving events.

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Rising Temperatures Threaten Biodiversity Along the Antarctic Peninsula

The 800-mile-long Antarctica Peninsula, which extends northward off of western Antarctica, is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet. The peninsula’s climate has warmed 3 degrees Celsius over the last 50 years, according to the British Antarctic Survey.

The Antarctic Peninsula, boxed in red (Source: United States Geological Survey)

Hundreds of glaciers, such as Crane and Sheldon, scatter the peninsula’s icy terrain. Rising temperatures have led to significant glacial melting on the Antarctic Peninsula. Large-scale glacial meltwater flows into nearby seas resulting in ecosystem disruption, which increases biodiversity vulnerability. Plant and animal species that cannot adapt to the changing conditions face extinction on the peninsula.

In an article published in Limnology and Oceanography, researchers examine how the changing climate of the Antarctic Peninsula impacts the biodiversity and decomposition of macroalgal communities.

Aquatic macroalgae are large, photosynthetic planets that can be seen without the use of a microscope. Macroalgae include a variety of seaweed species that are usually attached to the sea floor.

All three types of macroalgae, brown, red, and green algae, inhabit the coastal waters off of the Antarctic Peninsula.

When storms, erosion, and ice movement occur, macroalgae detach from the seafloor and become free-floating. Free-floating seaweed gets eaten, washes ashore, or decomposes in the ocean. Excess free-floating seaweed leads to biodiversity loss within the local ecosystem.

Red algae (Source: Peter Southwood, Creative Commons)

Lead-author Ulrike Braeckman from the Marine Biology Research Group at Ghent University and twelve additional authors from research institutions in Germany, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Belgium examined the accumulation and degradation of free-floating seaweed over time. Braeckman and her colleagues traveled to King George Island, which is located to the west of the northernmost tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, to complete the study.

Specifically, the researchers analyzed two native seaweed species—red algae, Palmaria decipiens, and brown algae, Desmarestia anceps.

To examine the degradation rates in a lab setting, the researchers sampled sediment cores from the research site. Each core was roughly 9.8 inches long. Next, freeze-dried, shredded versions of the macroalgae and seawater were added to the sediment cores. Seawater was replaced every second day to avoid metabolite accumulation or improper chemical breakdown.

The researchers used stable isotope labeling of carbon and nitrogen, two chemical elements found in decomposed plant material, to understand the seaweed degradation rates. Stable isotope labeling is a valuable research technique used to measures the ratios of chemical elements.

Brown algae, Lobophora variegata (Source: John Turnbull, Flickr)

The results of the study indicate that Palmaria decipiens degraded quicker than Desmarestia anceps. In the research setting: Plamaria decipiens degraded in 31 days while Desmarestia anceps degraded in 48 days. The results confirmed the researchers’ initial hypothesis.

Increasing glacier melting results in expanding macroalgae growth associated with detritus [decomposition] accumulation at the seafloor in this area …the degradation of the macroalgal detritus [decomposition] in this study evolved over time, and the patterns were indeed species specific”, state Braeckman et al.

Therefore, some macroalgae species such as Palmaria decipiens decompose faster than other macroalgae species, which makes these species more susceptible to extinction on the Antarctic Peninsula. Climate change on the peninsula will likely contribute to future biodiversity loss as species struggle to adjust to the altered environment.  

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Lahars Increase Stress-Tolerant Vegetation on Explosive Popocatépetl

Popocatépetl, or Smoking Mountain in the Aztec language, is an active stratovolcano, situated in central Mexico. Stratovolcanoes are steep, sloping volcanoes, characterized by their powerful eruptions and thick, slow-moving lava flow.

Mexico City with Popocatépetl hiding in the clouds (Source: Giovanni Paccaloni, Flickr)

At 8:26 am on March 6, Mexican authorities reported an explosion on Popocatépetl, according to the Mexico Daily News, which created a colossal ash plume reaching almost 4,000 feet into the atmosphere. As the explosive activity continues, an ash advisory remains in effect.

Popocatépetl is located about 43 miles from Mexico City, which has a population of 21.2 million people. As a result of the eruption, residents south of Mexico City are advised to keep all windows closed, use damp cloths around their noses and mouths, and drive slow due to the magnitude of ash on the ground.

Research published in the Journal of Vegetation Science shows an increase in stress-tolerant, competitive vegetation due to lahar activity on Popocatépetl. Lahars are fast flowing, destructive mudflows, often caused by eruptions and very hot flows of ash, lava, and gas. Lahars may also occur due to heavy precipitation.

Popocatépetl’s summit crater featuring Ventorillo and Noroccidental Glaciers (Source: NASA)


Glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Popocatépetl, are more susceptible to lahar activity due to glacial melting that occurs during eruptions. Reaching up to 2,200 °F, lava will melt everything in its path, including ice. As a result, glacial water can mix with dirt and debris to form dangerous lahars, which can destroy nearby ecosystems. 




Research Findings on Popocatépetl

In the study, researchers affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México analyze the leaf traits of 67 vegetation species on the Huilóac gorge. The gorge is located on the eastern slope of the volcano. The research project incorporates a total of 9 years of data.

Some of the analyzed species include Stevia tomentosa (small flowers), Roldana lobata (large herbs), Fragaria mexicana (strawberries),  Villadia batesii (evergreen succulents), and Stipa mucronata (grass).

Popocatépetl Volcano with flowering vegetation and hills (Source: nic0704, Flickr)

Using CRS (Competitive, Stress-Tolerant, or Ruderal) cataloging, the collected species were assorted into one of three categories. Competitive species adapt to productive, undisturbed environments. Stress-Tolerant species adapt to disturbed, harsh environments. And ruderal species adapt to disturbed, nutrient-rich environments.

The results of the study show that short-living vegetation with effective seed dispersal thrives in this cruel ecosystem.

The researchers conclude that “the change from ruderal/competitive to stress-tolerant and competitive species with time suggests that the most recent lahar event played a major role in sorting species according to their tolerance for disturbances”.

Increase in stress-tolerant species, such as conifers and alpine grasses, show that lahar activities play a role in species sorting. As vegetation adapts to favor resilience, it will transform Popocatépetl’s landscape. 

Read more on GlacierHub:

Using Film to Reduce Risk on Volcanoes

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