Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Glaciers have gotten a lot of buzz in recent years as global warming has accelerated, threatening the existence of the world’s land ice. Scientists expect several of the world’s glaciers to disappear in the coming years, with some having already perished from climate change

The fate of Montana’s Glacier National Park, however, is somewhat less certain. The park recently removed signs stating that the park’s glaciers will disappear by 2020, replacing them with ones making more general statements about glacier melt and climate change. 

Hidden Lake at Glacier National Park (Source: Scott & Eric Brendel/Flickr)

The new signs

The older signs, posted earlier this decade at the St. Mary Visitor Center, were based on earlier scientific assessments of glacier recession. A display at the center which read “Goodbye to the Glaciers” explained that computer models indicated the loss of all of the park’s glaciers by 2020.

Yet, with 2019 coming to a close, some of the glaciers remain.

While they’ve continued to shrink and are on course to disappear, recent years of plentiful snowfall has slowed down their rate of depletion. This prompted park officials to replace the signs.

These new signs say that glaciers are still melting bit by bit due to climate change, although researchers are unable to make an accurate prediction of when exactly glaciers at the park will disappear. “When they completely disappear, however, will depend on how and when we act,” the new sign reads.

New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)
New signage at Glacier National Park (Source: Lauren Alley/Glacier National Park)

Climate denialists pounce

The news was not formally announced on the park’s website, but has drawn the attention of climate denial sites in the past few weeks. The Daily Caller quoted the US Geological Survey, which stated that glacier retreat can fluctuate due to changes in local microclimates. “Subsequently, larger than average snowfall over several winters slowed down that retreat rate and the 2020 date used in the [National Park Service] display does not apply anymore,” the agency said. 

Watts Up With That, a hub for climate denialist commentary, also covered the signage change. It sited Roger I. Roots, founder of Lysander Spooner University, who said the park’s Grinnell and Jackson Glaciers have actually grown since 2010. They believe the Jackson Glacier may have expanded by as much as 25 percent in the last decade.

Both stories, among others, suggest that recent increases in glacier mass demonstrate that previous accounts of glacier retreat were alarmist.

Scientists have recognized, however, that glacier retreat is not a linear process. Climate variability sometimes causes more snow to accumulate on glaciers, causing them to grow. Yet the mass trend in the northern Rockies, where Glacier National Park is located, and in nearly all mountain ranges in the world is on a steady decline.

Local factors

Caitlyn Florentine, a post-doctoral research fellow at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, spoke to GlacierHub about the glacier retreat at Glacier National Park and the influence of local microclimate on melt rates. She is currently working on projects focused on the relationship between mountain glaciers and regional climate, using Sperry Glacier as a benchmark for regional climate change at Glacier National Park.

Sperry Glacier (Source: Emilia Kociecka/Flickr)

Florentine said it’s important to look at the ways local factors, such as avalanching, shading, and wind drifting of snow, affect mass balance on glaciers.

Florentine referenced a recent study published in the journal Earth System Science Data, which monitored seasonal mass balance on the park’s Sperry Glacier since 2005. “There are some years where there’s a positive mass balance, and that was true in 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2016,” said Florentine, “But, overall, the net loss from each year offset the mass added, leading to a cumulative decline.”

The study team examined one model that suggests Sperry Glacier will not disappear until 2080 under current climate and glaciological conditions at the park. Scientists have tracked a steady, progressive retreat of Sperry since the mid 20th century. 

“If you look at glacier change and Glacier National Park based on the footprint of the glaciers, with data going all the way back to 1966, you’ll see that the footprint of the glaciers has definitely shrunk over time,” Florentine said.

Although Glacier National Park has received a significant amount of snow in recent years, the glaciers are continuing to retreat, with a third of the park’s ice having already disappeared in just the last 50 years.

Spatial extent of the Sperry Glacier from 1998 to 2015 (Source: Clark et al.)

Informing the public

Lauren Alley, a management assistant at Glacier National Park, said it’s difficult to capture how the longevity of the park’s glaciers will affect tourism.

She stressed the importance of incorporating accurate information about climate science and melt rates at the park. Climate change is one of the things that the public really wants to learn more about, she said.

“There’s no doubt that for some, a component of their trip may be to see a glacier,” she commented. “That said, typically things like wildfire, exchange rates, gas prices, and the economy overall can all have a pretty big overall effect on national park visitation.” 

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Photo Friday: The Power of Stories by the Global Oneness Project

Story telling can be a powerful tool in sharing unique human experiences between individuals. A good story is thought-provoking, captivating, and can have the power to influence and inspire people and their ideas.

The Global Oneness Project believes that stories play a very important role in education. This nonprofit provides lesson plans, images, films, and other educational resources for classrooms for free, with a goal to connect people through stories on issues such as climate change, food scarcity, and migration.

“Through featuring individuals and communities impacted by these issues, the stories and lessons provide opportunities to examine universal themes which include the following: identity, diversity, hope, resilience, imagination, adversity, empathy, love, and responsibility, and our common humanity.” they wrote on their About Us page.

Stories and lesson plans by the Global Oneness Project have been featured on numerous publications, including National Geographic, PBS, and TED Ed.

One of the project’s lesson plans is based on a photo essay by Camille Seaman, an award-winning photographer based in California.’Melting Away‘ features images of the rapidly melting icebergs in the polar regions of Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica. In her essay, Seaman shares her personal experience of traveling across these regions, and witnessing the consequences of climate change.

Check out images from Seaman’s photo essay below.

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Video of the Week: Icebergs at Kiwi Glacier’s Proglacial Lake

Kiwi Glacier is one of the longest glacier in British Columbia. Located in the Cariboo Mountains, this glacier is 9 kilometers long and drains into a growing lack near the headwaters of the Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia.

According to an article on AGU100 Blogosphere, this glacier has retreated about 700 meters from 1985-2015. Scientists have found that the proglacial lake has grown significantly during that period, from 700-800 meters long to 1400-1500 meters long today. Author Mauri Pelto wrote that since the lower 300 meters of the glacier is flat, the lake will at least extend that far with increased melting.

Check out this video below by Ben Pelto, PhD student at the University of Northern British Columbia. Hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes can be seen drifting on Kiwi’s lake.

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Roundup: Contaminated Arctic Spiders, Sand Abundance in Greenland, and Cryoconite on the Tibetan Plateau

Wolf spiders in West Greenland are indicators of metal pollution in mine sites

From Ecological Indicators: “In the Arctic, spiders are the most abundant group of terrestrial predators, with documented abilities to accumulate metals. In Greenland however, most contamination studies in relation to mining have targeted the marine environment, with less attention given to the terrestrial.”

“The contamination status of a terrestrial area can be estimated based on soil sampling and measurements. However, such measurements may be biased due to difficulties in collecting representative soil samples (i.e. caused by high within-site variation of soil contaminants or a lack of information on potential bioavailability of the contaminants investigated). It has therefore been hypothesized that ground dwelling wolf spiders, based on their frequent hunting activities and their active movement over their hunting habitat, would display contamination levels more representative of that area than a specific soil sample.”

Read more about the study here.

Wolf spider in the tundra (Source: Fiona Paton/Flickr)

Greenland’s melting ice sheet releases vast quantities of sand

From Henry Fountain and Ben C. Solomon of the New York Times: “The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.”

“But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.”

Read the full story here.

Cryoconite on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau enhances melting

From Journal of Glaciology: “Cryoconite is a dark-coloured granular sediment found in supraglacial environments, and it represents an aggregate of mineral particles, black carbon (BC) and organic matter (OM) formed by microbial communities.”

“Compared with snow and ice surfaces, cryoconite typically exhibits stronger light absorption, and its broadband albedo is <0.1 due to its effective absorption of visible and near-IR wavelengths. Thus, cryoconite can effectively influence the mass balance of glacier surfaces.”

Read more about the research here.

Debris and cryoconite at A8 glacier study site (Source: Li et al. 2019)
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South Asian Perspectives on News of Rapid Himalayan Glacier Melt

The “Third Pole” glaciers of the Himalayas feed into the major rivers of South Asia, providing vital freshwater. This resources is essential to the development of national and local communities and economies. 

With global warming, the Himalayas, along with several other glaciated regions across the planet, are expected to experience a drastic reduction in ice mass and rapidly retreat. A new study tracing Himalayan glacier melt from 1975 to 2016 found that the melt rate has actually doubled since the turn of the century, suggesting a heightened risk of flooding for vulnerable regions. 

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, was conducted by Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer. Maurer and fellow researchers from Columbia University and the University of Utah examined satellite images to detect changes from the periods of 1975-2000 and 2000-2016. 

This new study received international recognition and gained media attention across several South Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a riverine country where three of the major rivers in the region—the Ganges, Meghna, and Brahmaputra—converge and fan out to the Bay of Bengal. These rivers which feed off of Himalayan meltwater provide much-needed freshwater for irrigation, drinking, and other needs.

How might this news impacts the country’s water system?

A view of the Himalayas taken during a trek in Nepal (Source: Treks Himalaya/Flickr)

Bangladeshi perceptions of the study

An AFP article published in The Daily Star, one of the leading English-language Bangladeshi news outlets, asserts that the rapid retreat outlined in the new study threatens the water supply of hundreds of millions of people living downstream across South Asia. It mentions additional contributions to melt aside from temperature, which the study emphasizes as the leading cause of the region’s glacier melt. “Other factors the researchers blamed were changes in rainfall, with reductions tending to reduce ice cover, and the burning of fossil fuels which lead to soot that lands on snowy glacier surfaces, absorbing sunlight and hastening melting,” AFP reported.

UNB and bdnews24 also covered the study. Joseph Shea, a glacial geographer from the University of Northern British Columbia, told bdnews24 that the melting will lead to changes of timing and magnitude of stream flow in a heavily populated region. 

UNB highlighted the study team’s ability to fill critical data gaps by utilizing US spy satellite images to calculate Himalayan ice mass in previous decades. NASA climate scientist John Willis commented that the study’s models provided confirmation of what scientists suspected, which was that warming was the main culprit to extensive melt.

A photo of the Brahmaputra river, the longest river passing through Bangladesh, taken in Mymensingh, Bangladesh (Source: Topu Saha/Flickr)

Glacier contribution to Bangladesh hydrology

GlacierHub interviewed Saleemul Huq, renowned Bangladeshi climate scientist, IPCC author, and director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Huq provided some general views on the recent news and spoke about the relevance to Bangladesh’s water systems.

“Bangladesh’s Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin is highly complex,” Huq said. “Glacier melt makes an important contribution to rivers in dry areas where there is very little rainfall. However, as soon as the monsoon starts, glacier ice melt becomes incomparable to the contribution by heavy monsoon rains.” 

He added that the loss of the glacier overall will impact Bangladesh in the future, yet the immediate increased glacier outflow into the rivers does not heavily effect the hydrology, particularly for the downstream regions. 

Huq said Bangladesh is currently working on some techniques to improve water availability and security for dry seasons, which are expected to become longer with climate change. Some methods include creating barrages, river dredging, and rainwater harvesting. 

The monsoon season (typically June to October) brings nationwide flooding to Bangladesh (Source: Martien van Asseldonk)

Other regions of South Asia

Pakistan media sources, including the Daily Times PK and The Express Tribune, among others, also covered the news. One story published by The Nation PK mentions that, in the long term, millions of people who depend on glacier water during drought years will experience difficulties. In addition, scientists say that the rapid melting of the Himalayas can also result in flooding. This flooding will be exacerbated by heavy monsoon rains. 

Business World India connects the news about the Himalayas with drying taps in Chennai. The greatest impact is said to be in the Indus River system, which is comprised of the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers and is shared by India and Pakistan. The Indus river itself receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacier melt

Already India is suffering from water management issues, and the taps and reservoirs of Chennai are all dried up. In addition to the current weak monsoon and excessive groundwater extraction, future loss of the Himalayas will make the country even more water-stressed. 

Check out this video by The Quint, a popular news website in India, which emphasizes the impacts of Himalayan glacier melt in Asia.

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Photo Friday: Totten Glacier Twitter Feed is Pun-derful

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Photo Friday: Totten Glacier Twitter Feed is Pun-derful

East Antarctica’s Totten Glacier has got some amazing social media presence. The Twitter account ‘Totten Glacier’ provides updates on relevant glacier news, while also offering some punny first-person commentary, adding a playful and refreshing spin to climate change research.

The account refers to the glacier as “old timer” and “sleeping giant”, as Totten is one of the biggest glaciers in the region. The glacier is so massive that it holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by about 3 meters.

According to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, East Antarctica is relatively stable compared to the rapid melting in the western portion. However ice loss in the region has been substantial in the recent years.

In a recent story by Phys.org, a study obtaining data through new satellites reported significant ice loss from the Totten Glacier region. Approximately 1.4 billion tons of water have been lost in the last decade. Scientists from the study believe this to be just the beginning of serious change to the ice sheet.

East Antarctica coastline (Source: Nasa JPL)

Click below to check out a time lapse video by Google Earth demonstrating the recession at the foot of the glacier since 1984.

Totten Glacier recession (Source: Google Earth/YouTube)
INSH tweets that Totten Glacier loses 63-80 billion tons of ice annually (Source: INSH/Twitter)

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Project Pressure Exhibition Explores Climate Change and Glaciers

Project Pressure, a charity founded in 2008, seeks to provoke action to confront climate change by organizing exhibitions that combine photography and science, specifically focused on the world’s glaciers.   

The group’s latest installation of artwork is titled “Meltdown. A Visualization of Climate Change by Project Pressure” and is on display until September 1st at the Natural History Museum, Vienna. The exhibit features projects by renowned artists, such as architecture and landscape photographer Simon Norfolk, who have traveled around the world to photograph some of the planet’s most vulnerable environments and landscapes. The artists worked with scientists from a wide array of backgrounds to ensure accuracy. 

Norfolk uses fire lines to map the past front of the Lewis Glacier on Mt Kenya (Source: Natural History Museum, Vienna)

Glaciers retreat and glacier mass loss is a readily apparent symptom of the impacts of climate change. Mass loss from glaciers, unlike other weather and climate events, can be directly attributed to warming. All around the world, glaciers are visibly shrinking, prompting local residents, elected officials, academics, prominent cultural figures, and climate activists to raise the alarm about the rapidly deteriorating state of the world’s glaciers. 

The exhibition is divided into three sections, the first of which is titled “The Importance of Glaciers,” which includes work from artist Peter Funch, a Danish photographer who captures landscapes, people, and portraits . Funch uses postcards of images of glaciers in America to portray recession over the years, giving the effect of old photographs by using RGB tricolor separation, a technique invented in the 19th century. 

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Interview with artist Peter Funch about the upcoming When Records Melt exhibition. Read the full story @ unseenamsterdam.com – “The project features photographs taken during my multiple trips to the Northern Cascade Mountain Range in between 2014 to 2016. The photographs are contemporary recreations of vintage Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier postcards found on Ebay and such. Using these ephemera, maps, and satellite images I was able to locate positions where the original postcard images were made. Consequently I re-captured the mountain’s glaciers from the same positions to create comparative juxtapositions of then and now. As an aesthetic point of departure, I’ve used RGB-tricolour separation, a technique invented in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. RGB-tricolour separation is a process that uses red, green, and blue filters to make three monochrome images, which are then combined to make a single full-color image. However the current glacial recession predates the use of color photography: the recession dates to 1850, while tricolour projection became the standard in the following decade. With this timeline in mind, we can say that the photographic representation of glaciers has always included it as a subject in a state of decline and regression. The use of RGB-tricolour separation incites a dialogue on the influence of mankind on nature. I see it as our blindness to the consequences we as society are creating in our desire to control nature.” – #climatechange #photography #art #peterfunch #glacier #projectpressure #unseenamsterdam #whenrecordsmelt

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Various urgent subjects are explored in the second section of the exhibition, “Current Issues. This includes the impacts of climate change and glacier loss on populations, such as the over one billion people dependent on the Himalayas for water. 

The final section of the exhibit, “Meltdown Consequences,” surprises audience with peculiar examples of the impacts of climate change. This section includes work by artists Norfolk + Thymann, picturing part of the Rhone glacier in Switzerland covered by geo-thermal cloth to prevent further melting. This striking image reflects the desperate attempt by local people in trying to conserve the critical water resources that glaciers provide and that they heavily depend on.  

Norfolk + Thymann present an unusual attempt to prevent melting at Rhone glacier (Source: MELTDOWN Press Release)

Project Pressure artist Toby Smith is an environmental photographer whose project “Heavens and Earth on Aragat” is currently being exhibited as part of Meltdown. Smith told GlacierHub about the project and shared his experience during his time on Mount Aragats, the highest point in Armenia. The glacier feeds into a network of tributaries, providing water to surrounding provinces.

Smith said that initial research conducted for the project showed Mount Aragat was under major threat from climate change, experiencing dwindling ice cover and rapid decrease in glacial surface area over time. “The glacial cover has been disappearing on account of the insufficient snowfall, changes in rainfall patterns, and critically an increase in annual mean air temperatures,” he said. 

Glaciation at this snowfield has been retreating due to increased temperatures and reduced snowfall (Source: Toby Smith/Project Pressure)

One of Smith’s main goals was to understand the different human relations with glacier flow. He was able to connect with people from remote villages across provinces and learn how changes on the mountain affected their lives. Unfortunately this change in hydrology has negatively impacted the livelihoods and economies of these local communities. Although the primary focus is to document landscapes, Smith said he deliberately focused on also exhibiting a strong human and cultural presence on the mountain. 

Fiona Bunn, a British and Swiss alpine photographer, commented on the power of photography and visual artwork to raise awareness on important issues regarding climate change.

“For the past 5 years I have felt the increasing significance of communicating through visual arts the changes I have seen, and the positive impact it can have on awareness of climate change” she said. Bunn added that the role of an artist in this field involves documenting changes, celebrating the beauty of the natural environment, and creating community by sharing with the world nature through art.

“The success of “Meltdown” is in finding a public platform for sharing this important issue”.

Astronomy lab at 3200m above seal level on the South Western slopes of Mount Aragats (Source: Toby Smith/Project Pressure)

The Meltdown exhibition is on display at the Natural History Museum, Vienna until September 1, 2019. Like the glaciers, see it before it’s too late.

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The Impact of the GRACE Mission on Glaciology and Climate Science

Science and technology have come a long way. We continue to learn more and more about our planet and its complex dynamics each and every day, and much of this new data is attained through cutting-edge tools and Earth monitoring systems.

One of the most revolutionary advances for physical sciences in recent decades is GRACE, (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) mission. Launched by NASA and the German Aerospace Center in 2002, GRACE was a satellite mission aimed towards better understanding the mass changes of the planet’s hydrosphere and cryosphere.

Byron D. Tapley and colleagues recently published a review of the GRACE mission in Nature Climate Change. The researchers examined the contributions of GRACE to our current observations and understanding of mass transport of water, whether liquid, solid ice, or vapor in the atmosphere.

Some additions from this mission include observations of terrestrial water cycles, ice sheet melting and glacier retreat, and a first look at groundwater resources from up above. Check out this video below on GRACE and it’s effects by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

An Overview of GRACE

Unlike previous single satellite approaches, the GRACE mission utilized two satellites orbiting one behind the other. As they orbit, they shift a miniscule The measurements are produced by tracking of the distance between the satellites, which varies depending on the gravitational attractions as they circle the globe. Measurements are collected after each month and estimates of the mass balance of the Earth’s surface are then composed through changes in its gravity field.

Battery failures resulted in the end of the GRACE mission on October 15, 2017. However the over 15 years of data collected has been monumental in perceiving quantifiable changes on the Earth’s surface.

“For the first time, GRACE enabled the quantification of mass trends and mass fluctuations of terrestrial water storage, continental aquifers, and glaciers and ice sheets, and enlightened our view of large-scale mass redistribution associated with glacial-isostatic adjustment and earthquakes” the authors state. GRACE was able to measure global and regional changes, and also capture both natural variability and anthropogenic influences on the planet’s water storage.

A diagram of satellite separation (Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Major Contributions to Glaciology and Climate Science

One way in which GRACE was different from previous satellite observations was  that it provided direct measurements of the net mass change of ice sheets and glaciers. The measurements include precipitation, evaporation, runoff, and ice discharge. Without GRACE, satellite altimetry is limited to just surface mass change, and it is also limited by sampling errors and multi-annual trends. GRACE has fewer sampling errors for ice sheet measurements, which are obtained monthly. This makes the data obtained through GRACE relatively more robust.

According to the authors, GRACE was able to reveal a clear signal of ice-mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica after just two years from the launch date. Throughout the lifespan of GRACE, ice-mass loss encompassed the entire ice sheet in Greenland, while in Antarctica the mass lost came mostly from the Amundsen Sea Embayment, which was found to be influenced by ocean conditions. The satellites continued to build more robust mass trends over time, as well as develop higher quality gravity field solutions.

The GRACE mission has also been impactful in providing a robust survey of terrestrial water storage, groundwater and the anthropogenic influences on depletion, and also sea level rise and ocean dynamic changes. It has been able to produce annual zonal mean plots of terrestrial water storage and groundwater variability, which can be representative of such events as floods and droughts. It’s identified hot spots for water loss among some of the world’s major aquifer systems, in which studies confirmed excessive groundwater extraction.

Artist’s concept of GRACE (Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Scientists continue to produce analyses of global sea levels with data from GRACE, altimetry readings, and Argo floats, which drift on the surface of the oceans to measure temperature and salinity. Respectively, these different tools provide measurements of total sea-level trend, mass inflow, and thermal expansion.The combined use of GRACE and temperature measurements from Argo also produced reliable measurements on ocean heat content. Although Argo floats are unable to measure temperatures 2,000 meters below sea level, other observations are applied for an indirect approach to the oceans’ heat budget.  

As a follow-on to GRACE, NASA recently launched the GRACE-FO mission on May 22, 2018. This mission will continue to monitor the planet’s water storage, and the authors are hopeful that this project will bring us one step closer to achieving a multi-decadal record of mass variability on Earth’s hydrological systems.

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Scientists Catch Tibetan Snowcocks on Camera in their High-Elevation Habitats

There are few well-studied high-elevation animals. Harsh climate conditions can make it extremely difficult to conduct field research and observe species in their natural, alpine habitats. It’s now more important than ever to examine the changes in habitat and activity in these animals, especially since these high-altitude regions are being severely impacted by climate change. Without such knowledge, it is difficult to design conservation strategies to protect them.

In a recent study published in the journal Avian Research, Gai Luo and several colleagues from Sichuan University and the Administration of the Gongga Mountain National Nature Reserve investigated the distribution of the population of soft-colored, yet brightly-billed, Tibetan snowcocks. Their objective is to provide both a baseline to measure the influence of warming on this species and also provide valuable information on ecology and conservation.

The Tibetan snowcock is a bird the size of a small chicken and part of the pheasant family. They can be found all across the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau in high elevations. These birds have red-colored bills and feet and brown and white stripes along their bodies, which provides camouflage. The bird’s coloring can make it difficult to spot among the high-altitude rocky mountain slopes.

These pheasant birds blend in really well with their environment (Source: Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the researchers, based on limited descriptions available of this species, Tibetan snowcocks can be found inhabiting zones exceeding 4,000 meters in the summer and descending to 3,000 meters during the harsh winters. Breeding season for these migratory birds begins in mid-May and ends in July. During this season, snowcocks build shallow nests on the ground lined with dead leaves and grass, and the monogamous mates remain together throughout the season. Quantification of snowcock populations is difficult due to the extreme environments, but some previous research suggests that the Tibetan snowcock population declined in the 1990s.

Environmental changes in the previous decades prompted researchers to think about how glaciers changes and rising temperatures might affect the snowcocks. The proximity of snowcocks to glaciers raises questions of the role of glaciers and meltwater on this species. There is currently very little information on the life history and general ecology of the Tibetan Snowcock, and this information is essential for potential conservation efforts.

The study was conducted on the western slope of Mt. Gongga, a glacier located in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the Sichuan province of China. Mt. Gongga is the highest point in the Hengduan Mountains, standing at 7,556 meters and surrounded by many mountains with elevations over 6,000 meters. This region is considered to be a global biological diversity hotspot. Is is one of the major homes of Tibetan snowcocks, along with several other rare pheasant species.  

The researchers used infrared-triggered camera traps to observe the species during the post-breeding period from late June to early November. In total, over 100 traps were deployed at altitudes covering a range of more than a kilometer in elevation. The traps were carefully hidden among rocks and rubble so as not to disturb the animals. They operated 24 hours a day, and if any activity was detected, the cameras would take three consecutive photos, followed by a 9-second video. The team also collected information on location in order to study whether being near a road or village influenced habitat use.

Distribution of camera traps over the study region (Source: Luo et al.)

Researchers were able to utilize 92 camera traps for their study. Several of the traps suffered from equipment failures or were disturbed by curious animals. Like other pheasants, snowcocks are social birds. Nearly two-thirds of all observations showed birds with at least one other individual nearby. The largest group contained 13 individuals. The snowcocks were most active in the morning and before nightfall. The team was unsure as to why this might be, though they infer the birds avoid activity during midday to prevent energy loss and evade the intense sunlight.

They also found that Tibetan snowcocks prefer environments with high elevation, gentle slope, and low EVI (enhanced vegetation index). A low EVI means low-vegetation production and poor food quality, which is common in high-elevation regions. Researchers believe that there must be a trade off between predator risk, foraging efficiency, and food availability for these snowcocks in which they favor low-predator risk over good quality and quantity.

Interestingly, researchers also found that the species prefer habitats near human activity. Results showed positive correlation with occupancy and road and settlement density. Do the birds actually prefer being near humans, or do they like the way that humans have altered the environment? Do birds and humans both like the same place—relatively gentle slopes with open vegetation? One study from 2010 showed that Tibetan snowcocks liked to forage in potato fields in Nepal, suggesting that the human impact provided a species advantage. The study team suggest further research to expand on this.

The Blood Pheasant is another rare pheasant of the Himalayas, known for its bright red coloring (Source: Dibyendu Ash/Wikimedia Commons)

Virat Jolli, an expert on avian ecology and biodiversity in the Himalayas, commented on the importance of this study in building a better understanding of high-altitude species. Jolli said the researchers are providing useful insights on a bird that is rarely studied and can be used in future studies of the species.

“It’s an important study throwing light on bird species which are poorly studied and little is known about it in published literature,” he said. “Pheasants are the most threatened and rare group of birds which are relatively difficult to monitor.”

Jolli added that the study can also be replicated in parts of the Trans-Himalayas, where similar bird species reside. Knowledge of the basic ecology of high altitude species is vital to perceive the influence of global climate change on species composition and distribution.

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Roundup: GRACE for Glacier Retreat, Heat Waves on New Zealand Glaciers, and Peatland Water Dynamics in South America

An Overview of GRACE for Tracking Glacier Retreat

A study published in Nature Climate Change gives a thoughtful overview on the use of GRACE satellites in tracking small changes on the earth’s gravitational field, which is one of the major contributions in observing glacier retreat.

“Interactions between the different climate system components involve mass variations in continental surface and sub-surface water storage (rivers, lakes, ground water, snow cover, polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers), as well as the mass redistribution within and between ocean and atmosphere. These mass movements are inherent to the evolution of droughts, floods, large-scale ocean currents, ice-sheet and glacier changes, and sea-level rise. Launched in 2002, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission1 added a unique component to the existing suite of Earth observations: time-resolved gravity measurements of global-mass redistribution, a fundamental building block crucial to understanding the complex interactions and transitions involved in today’s changing climate.”

Artist concept of GRACE (Source: NASA)

Heat Waves on New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

An article by the International Journal of Climatology looks at a new type of extreme event, marine heat waves (MHW), and the impacts on glacier size in New Zealand.

“Monitoring of ice volume changes across mountain ranges provides a very sensitive indicator for the early detection of climate-related changes associated with global warming… However, glacier monitoring data are strongly biased towards the Northern Hemisphere, with sparser information from the Southern Hemisphere. Thus observations from the mid-latitude mountains of New Zealand, which have over 3,000 glaciers, are of considerable value for the global climate monitoring network.”

Franz Joseph Glacier in New Zealand (Source: Vince O’Sullivan/Flickr)

Peatlands Water Table Dynamics in the Andes, Bolivia and Peru

A study published by Hydrological Processes examines high-elevation peatlands in Peru and Bolivia. These peatlands are often close to glaciers, and present many ecosystems services while also supporting indigenous pastoralist livelihoods.

“Little is known about the hydrological processes supporting peatlands in other regions of the Andes, particularly the more arid Puna region of the Andes that extends from central Peru to central Chile. The vulnerability of these peatlands and associated socioecological systems to glacier loss under climate change is largely contingent upon how exclusively wetlands are supported by glacier melt water rather than hillslope groundwater recharged by precipitation. Future climate change effects on precipitation in the Andes are complex to predict could influence not only stream flow but also recharge of groundwater flow systems that could support wetlands.”

Andes Mountains in Peru (Source: maios/Flickr)

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Rising Temperatures May Not Cause More Frequent GLOF Catastrophes

Glacial lake outburst floods, GLOFs for short, are expected to increase in frequency over time as global temperatures warm. These floods can be very sudden, fast-flowing, and powerful enough to form their own seismic signatures. They carry water, rocks, trees, and debris down valleys, destroying homes and sometimes killing people and livestock.

Many glaciers such as ones in the Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas are shrinking rapidly, forming glacial lakes and causing potentially catastrophic floods for tourists and nearby communities. Understanding the influence of climate change on the frequency and intensity of GLOFs will help disaster risk managers in developing early warning systems and disaster response plans.

Glacial lake by the base of Gokyo Ri, a peak on the Ngozumpa glacier, the largest glacier in Nepal (Source: AlexCuby//Pixabay)

Although experts expect these moraine-dammed glacial lakes to grow in size with the addition of glacial meltwater, the risk of GLOFs doesn’t necessarily increase everywhere. In a recent article published in Nature Climate Change, Georg Veh and several of his colleagues from the University of Potsdam and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences examined historical flood occurrences in the the Himalayas that were considered to be hotspot regions for glacier retreat. They aimed to observe GLOF activity for the last few decades, assessing changes in frequency and trend.

Some climate scientists hypothesize that dangerous GLOFs will become more frequent with the growth of moraine-dammed glacial lakes. According to Veh and his colleagues, testing this hypothesis is confounded by incomplete data. Historical reports on GLOF activity are selective, and the researchers speculated that 40 reports on GLOFs in the Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas since 1935 only accounted for large and destructive cases. This suggests that a significant portion of the data might be missing.

To account for reporting bias, the team examined changes in GLOF frequency through a systematic inventory of activity in the Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, and the Himalayas. They were able to identify moraine-dammed lakes and activity in Landsat images from the late 1980s to 2017. Researchers used a random forest model, which was able to generate land-cover maps. These maps provided probabilities for water, cloud, shadow, ice, and land cover across the image tiles. During GLOFs, lakes would abruptly decrease in size, changing from a water to land classification in the Landsat image.

Lake Saiful Muluk in the Karakorum mountain range (Source: Mansoor Haque 199108/Wikimedia Commons)

The research team mined over 8,000 Landsat images of the region. In addition to the 17 GLOFs reported since the 1980s, the researchers added 22 newly detected occurrences. They found that despite increasing rates of meltwater entering glacial lakes, particularly in the central and eastern Himalayas, which observed rates of up to six times higher than the northern basin, GLOF abundance remained low.

The average annual rate of 1.3 GLOFs in the region remained unchanged over the last three decades. The fraction of GLOFs per unit of meltwater area, however, has declined since the 1990s.

“We infer that climate-driven rates of glacier melt and lake expansion may be unsuitable predictors of contemporary outburst potential,” stated the researchers.

Their findings were consistent with research on glacial lakes in the Patagonian Andes.

The scientists inferred that their result may indicate a sort of resilience to climate-driven triggers such as glacier calving and ice avalanches, the most frequently reported cause of GLOFs. Unfortunately the team was unable to identify triggers for the 22 newly identified outburst floods, although 16 of them came from pro-glacial lakes within proximity of their parent glaciers. GLOFs generated by calving and avalanche events become less relevant as glaciers retreat from the lakes they have formed.

They also mentioned the importance in perceiving the role of alternate triggers such as earthquakes and landslides in the formation of outburst floods. They give the example of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in the Nepalese Himalayas. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake did not provoke GLOFs, but it generated landslides which hit glacial lakes.

Veh said the research demonstrated that climate as a sole driver did not change GLOF frequency over the last decade, but that does not mean that frequency will remain unchanged in the future.

“Reliably projecting the future frequency of outburst floods remains an open issue, given that our current knowledge of triggers is quite vague today,” Veh said. The updated inventory of outburst floods will allow for further examination of these cases in more detail.

“Better knowledge of the processes involved in glacial lake outburst floods will ultimately reduce current uncertainties in hazard and risk assessment,” he added.

The researchers believe new generations of optical and radar sensors may be effective in better recognizing GLOF triggers and determining when the next glacier lake outburst flood might occur.

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Video of the Week: Can Blankets Protect Swiss Glaciers from Melting?

People in Switzerland are taking matters into their own hands, becoming creative with their efforts to combat climate change.

In a recent tweet from NBC Left Field, members of a community in the Swiss Alps are seen covering glaciers with ginormous white tarps. They hope the tarps will help reflect sunlight, which could reduce the amount of melting caused by rising temperatures.

The residents describe in the video their fear that the water they receive from the glaciers might soon disappear. Glaciers have long been a dependable water source for regions all over the world, but not anymore.

In honor of Earth Day, NBC Left Field tweeted a video depicting people covering glaciers with blankets.

[Click here to watch the full video on YouTube.]

A 2018 article in the Washington Post describes how a group of people living adjacent to Rhone Glacier haul tarps through the mountains each year prior to the start of summer. Rising temperatures, as well as a longer summer season, means glaciers are likely to face rapid melting in coming years.

But can blankets really help save the glaciers?

Although it isn’t the most comprehensive solution, it may actually work. Swiss glaciologist David Volken told NDTV that the blankets could reduce ice melt by as much as 70 percent. It’s just a temporary fix, though. Volken estimates that by the end of the century only about 10 percent of the ice volume will remain.

The blankets, however, appear to be slowing the pace of melting, giving communities some time to adapt and consider alternate sources of water.

Read More on GlacierHub:

North Cascade 2019 Winter Accumulation Assessment

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