Images Show Active, Glacier-Covered Volcanoes in the Russian Far East

This week’s Photo Friday features two restless, glacier-covered volcanoes in Kamchatka, a peninsula lying on the Pacific coast of the Russian Far East.

The alert level for the Sheveluch and Ebeko volcanoes is currently code orange, meaning they are exhibiting “heightened unrest with increased likelihood of eruption” or a volcanic eruption is underway with “no or minor ash emission,” according to the Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT).

The volcanoes could potentially emit ash plumes, which would impact a nearby airport as well as low-altitude domestic aircraft and international flights. Over 700 planes, transporting thousands of passengers, fly in the vicinity of Kamchatka’s volcanoes each day, according to KVERT.

NASA satellite imagery of the Sheveluch Volcano. Red areas are hot spots related to lava flows. (Source: NASA)

Eruptions of glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Sheveluch and Ebeko, can create lahars, or mudflows, which sometimes threaten nearby communities. Lahars occur when hot water and eruption debris mixes with glacial water.

Sheveluch is one of the most active volcanoes in the region. Ash plumes are seen traveling south-east and then eastwards in this image from 2012. (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight/Flickr)
Ebeko erupted in September 2018 and has remained restless ever since. (Source: amanderson2/Flickr)
A small explosion crater is seen at one of Ebeko’s three summits. Craters form when volcanoes erupt, emptying out magma and leaving a circular depression. (Source: Rdfr/Wikimedia Commons)

Kamchatka is home to 160 volcanoes, 29 of which are currently active and six of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

RELATED: Debris-Covered Glaciers Advance in Remote Kamchatka

RELATED: When Lava Hits Ice in Russia’s Far East

Video of the Week: Cascading Glacier Melt in Northern Pakistan

Our Video of the Week takes place in a remote mountainous region of northern Pakistan. The video, shared by the World Meteorological Organization, was shot by a villager from the Ghizer district, which is located in the Gupis Valley in Baltistan. Glacier melt and snow is seen descending from a nearby valley, alarming residents.

Northern Pakistan is home to over 5,000 glaciers. The region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with an increasing number of glacial lakes forming in mountain valleys in recent years. The melt is likely coming from the nearby Baltoro Glacier, one of the longest nonpolar glaciers in the world. Many of these glaciers are melting rapidly due to climate change, posing a great threat to nearby mountain communities. 

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A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

Erasmo Glacier, Chile Terminus Collapse and Aquaculture

A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

UNESCO recently published a report which addresses the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the Andes. The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas examines the changing climate patterns across western South America, as well the historical and projected rates of retreat of important glaciers in the region. Increased melting will impact societies reliant on glaciers for water resources. The eventual loss of glaciers presents a challenge for countries to address.

An aerial view of the Ojo del Albino glacier in Argentina (Source: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons)

The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, spanning the western edge of South America through several countries. These mountains are considered to be the water towers for the surrounding populations. They provide water to about 75 million people living within the Andes region and 20 million downstream along surrounding rivers. The Andes continue to have a significant influence on local cultures and economies. The impending loss of these glaciers may cripple dependent communities, industries, and various sectors across South America.  

Key Messages and Future Projections

The atlas identifies several key messages essential for discerning the changes in the Andes. Projections indicate that temperatures in the tropical Andes could increase between 2°C and 5°C by the end of the 21st century. The recent IPCC SR1.5 report emphasized the devastating effects of just 1°C of warming, such as extended periods of drought and extreme global heat events. The Andes will likely experience increasingly hotter years with warming driving further glacier retreat.

The report notes that changes in precipitation are harder to project than temperature changes. Nonetheless it presents serious concerns for some regions across the Andes. The atlas refers to the IPCC for precipitation projections. In the southern Andes region, precipitation will greatly decrease by the end of the century, including Chile and Argentina in particular. These regions will likely experience drought events, and loss of glaciers may be devastating to the environment and its people.

Scientists have also observed rapid retreat in glaciers in the tropical Andes, as well as lower-altitude glaciers. According to the atlas, one glacier which remains in Venezuela will likely disappear by 2021. Many large tropical glaciers exist in Peru, including Quelccaya Ice Cap, which may disappear by 2050 at the current rate of warming. Glaciers are also quickly retreating in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This retreat and volume loss of glaciers is “locked in,”and glaciers will continue to retreat no matter what. Even with a moderate level of emissions, the IPCC projects that barely a fifth of the glaciers will remain by the end of the century, with some reduced to barely 3 percent of their current size.

Pico Humboldt, the second highest peak in Venezuela, is home to the country’s last glacier (Source: Okty/Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts of Retreating Glaciers

The loss of glaciers and glacial meltwater is inevitable. As warming continues, a majority of glaciers will soon experience “peak water” (which occurs when melting exceeds new mass accumulated by snowfall), likely within the next 20 years. Many tropical Andes glaciers already reached peak water in the 1980s and have been outputting less water since. Although many countries will benefit from peak water, the aftereffects of less meltwater outflow will heavily strain the available water supply.

Bolívar Cáceres, a specialist of the tropical Andes who worked on the atlas, told GlacierHub about some of the effects of glacier retreat and possible methods for adapting to water scarcity. “One of the indirect effects of long-term melting in communities is the reduction of visitors. Since glaciers no longer exist in some places or become very difficult to climb, tourists are currently opting out and most likely will go to other places in the future,” he said. This will affect local economies that depend on tourism flow and the resources generated. As for adaptation, Cáceres believes that promoting technologies in agriculture and livestock areas to better manage water resources is essential for sustainability.

Water quality will also be affected by the loss of glaciers. Bryan Mark, an expert on Andes and Peruvian glaciers, added: “Recently glacier-free landscapes feature lots of unconsolidated materials that tend to result in more sediment laden, erosive, and ‘flashy’ discharge streams.'” Sediment pollution presents a number of problems for the water supply, including degrading the quality of drinking water for locals and their livestock. Mark also highlighted the importance of diversifying water reservoir resources, utilizing groundwater, small dams, and precipitation capture as alternate water resources.

Vibrant houses and high-rises in the Andean city of La Paz, Bolivia (Source: Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Efficacy and Practicality of Policy Recommendations

The atlas examines the significance of glacier retreat on communities. It provides policy recommendations for countries to sustainably secure future water availability. Some examples include implementing preventative measures for natural glacier-related hazards and developing climate services for water resource management. Although these recommendations are intended to provide direction towards sustainable water supply management, there are concerns of clarity, implementation, and effectiveness of these policies.

Dirk Hoffmann, an expert on glaciers in high mountain ecosystems, commented on the effectiveness of the policy recommendations on communities. “The policy recommendations are all very interesting, but on the whole seem to be somewhat too general as to be useful to specific decision maker,” he said. Hoffmann views the recommendations as well intended and believes the atlas to be effective in raising awareness of these issues. In a practical sense, however, they are too far removed to help decision makers, he said. A clear indication as to whom these recommendations are directed towards would be beneficial.

Deeply entrenched valley below the tree line, with a small town at the river’s edge (Source: UNESCO)

Mark Carey, an expert of the Peruvian Andes, shared similar thoughts on the effectiveness of these recommendations. Carey stated that the lack of social science and humanities research on vulnerability and unequal impacts of shrinking glaciers is an issue. “Vulnerability is framed in ways to conceptualize homogenous ‘affected populations,’ such as those in agriculture or urban areas, rather than understanding the complicated social divisions and power imbalances embedded in the diverse social groups,” he said. Carey added that although the science is necessary, the complex human dimensions of climate change adaptation are essential.  

The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas recognizes the importance of improving interactions between science and policy, bringing awareness of key issues surrounding the loss of glaciers in the Andes. This is a major step towards successful adaptation; climate scientists, social scientists, and policymakers will need to collaborate to effectively allocate resources for sustainable management of the challenges associated with glacier retreat.

Roundup: Government Shutdown Impacts National Parks

The current government shutdown has now entered its third week, and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

The shutdown began on midnight EST on Saturday, December 22, making it the third government shutdown of 2018. President Trump wanted to move forward with building a Mexican border wall, which would require an estimated $5 billion. The House of Representatives, in which the Democrats are a majority, has been unwilling to go above the current $1.3 billion budget for general border security. Trump has threatened to extend the shutdown for a long period until he gets the demanded funding. Click here for a breakdown of the events leading up to the shutdown. 

This shutdown has left about 800,000 government workers without their salaries. Many have shared their personal stories with CNN about not being able to pay bills and rent on time. They describe their difficulties in providing for their children and families. Many have sought temporary jobs to help keep themselves afloat. Vital public benefit programs might also be at risk. According to CBS Newsfunding for SNAP, the national food stamp program, has not been allocated since the start of January. If the shutdown continues through March, no money will remain for the millions of Americans who rely on this program for food security.

Many national parks have also felt the impact of the government shutdown, including some major destinations home to glaciers. Parks are still largely accessible to the public, and entrance fees are not being collected. However, the lack of public services has been a major issue for visitors and local businesses. Here are some glacier parks that are currently suffering some impacts as a result of the shutdown.

Mount Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State has had a partial shutdown on some parts of the park. This closure has affected tourism and traffic in the area which would normally be high during this time and around the Christmas and New Year holidays. The popular road to Paradise has experienced a forced closure, and local firms around the entrance have been vocal about the lost business. Local retailers, restaurants, and hotels in particular are being challenged by the lack of tourism. According to The Olympian, business owners that rely on the tourism industry have reported a decrease of sales and hotel reservations than would normally be expected at this time of year.  

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, has had significant problems with sanitation and waste. Restrooms have been closed and there are no park staff available for supervision. Some visitors of the park have opted to dispose of their various forms of waste alongside some of the roads. Mountains of garbage and human waste has led to some closures in areas of the park, like Wawona Road and Hodgson Meadows. National Geographic says that national parks like Yosemite face long-term damage from the government shutdown, and parks should be closed completely to prevent further harm to the environment.

GlacierHub spoke with a motel employee from Yosemite Cedar Lodge, who told us how business has been affected since the shutdown. According to our source, who wished to remain anonymous, there hasn’t been a large change in business, although some guests have left early. She told us that it’s hard to say exactly if it’s because of the government shutdown, but it could also be due to the recent nearby fires or other factors as well. As for the waste situation, we were told that having no ranger supervision in the parks has allowed guests to act without restraint.

The lack of park supervision may also be a contributing factor to a recent death at Yosemite. Since the start of the shutdown, three people have died in national parks. One tragedy took place in Yosemite on Christmas day, where a man slipped down a hill and fell into a river, injuring his head. Investigation of the incident was delayed because of the ongoing shutdown. A study that draws on data from 2005 to 2016 indicates that about 1.1 person dies per month in Yosemite, roughly 0.6 per month in Glen Canyon and 0.4 in Great Smoky, the three locations where the deaths occurred. Though people have died over the years in these parks, the deaths in recent weeks are at a more frequent rate than usual, suggesting that the government shutdown and lack of services may have contributed to this pattern. 

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Some parks have received visitors but with limited activity. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks have remained open during the shutdown, although visitor services is unavailable. In a statement for the Casper Star-Tribune, Deputy Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail said that visitors to Grand Teton should take caution for their own personal safety, as there are no staff available for guidance and assistance. Entrances are not staffed, and the park’s websites and social media accounts are not being maintained or updated, leaving the public uninformed on current conditions.

In Yellowstone, winter routes remain open although gates are not staffed and government facilities are not available. All regulations for snow-related activities remain in place, and all buildings and bathrooms are closed. Community members in the Yellowstone area have recently taken matters into their own hands. Concerned about the lack of care of park facilities, local residents have gathered to clean outhouses and take out trash. Businesses have donated supplies to help with the much needed cleanup efforts.

Glacier National Park

Some glacier destinations, however, have not been heavily impacted. The shutdown has made little difference at Glacier National Park, which is usually quiet during the winter with road closures from heavy snows. Bathrooms are still closed because of the shutdown, but trash cans are not reported to be overflowing due to the low amount of traffic relative to other parks. Businesses have said that they haven’t been affected much, and conditions are as typically expected despite the shutdown.

GlacierHub spoke with Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Pelto also does work with NASA Goddard and the USGS. He told us that the shutdown has prevented some NASA glacier projects and programs from being executed properly. The USGS, which tracks ongoing conditions in the national parks, currently conducts monitoring. Weather and environmental observations at the national parks with glaciers have been collected but are not being reported by the U.S. government, jeopardizing long-term projects.

“Sometimes shutdowns, even relatively short shutdowns, can push the planning and budgeting process for some of these programs, which can greatly affect future research,” stated Pelto. He also described the effects on the Northern Cascades National Park in Washington. Roadways are mainly forest roadways, which have also closed as a result of the shutdown. Smaller roadways have not received maintenance since the shutdown, and there are concerns as to how conditions will be once the roads open up again, whenever that may be.

There is very little information on conditions at the Northern Cascades and other national parks on the U.S. National Park Services webpage. Lack of information on closures, visitor services, and tips for taking precaution during the shutdown period greatly impacts tourism and safety. Although parks are still mostly accessible, proper staff supervision and visitor services are needed to ensure the safety of visitors and the overall wellbeing of the parks.

Historical Data on Black Carbon and Melting Glaciers in Tibet

Black carbon is an atmospheric pollutant. The very small particles are formed through the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, and settle from the air slowly. Also known as soot, this material absorbs solar radiation, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing heavily to global warming. A recent study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics traces black carbon transport from the Gulf War Kuwait oil fires of January to November 1991 to the atmosphere and ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain on the remote northern Tibetan plateau. Researchers examine the effects of this material on glacier melt at the plateau, considered the “Water Tower of Asia,” which could impact runoff to the major rivers of Asia.

The beautiful Mugtagh Ata mountain. Muztagh Ata means “ice-mountain father” in Uyghur (Source: Dan Lundberg/Flickr).

Black carbon in the air absorbs and scatters solar radiation, impacting the radiative balance. There is also a more direct affect on the ice, contributing to greater melting. Researchers identified past ice core analyses in the Swiss Alps, Antarctica and Greenland. They recognized the great value of ice cores in providing historical black carbon emissions, distribution and regional aerosol transport. The importance of a historical context in current black carbon deposition guided the methodology for this study. The climate in this region is very sensitive to warming, so any small change in the region’s warming mechanisms could have large impacts on the glaciers and the hydrological cycle.

The black carbon in the ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain was analyzed along with the atmospheric composition of CO2 percentage at the site. Researchers relied on a chemical transport model used to quantify the global budget of trace gases and aerosol particles, and to study movement by wind in the atmosphere and chemical transformations and removals. They were able to trace different source regions through chemical compositions and measured the temporal variations in black carbon concentration. They also analyzed the long-term trend since the early 1990s of black carbon deposition. Muztagh Ata Mountain is downwind from several source regions: Central Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. These regions were expected to have the greatest contributions to black carbon accumulation at the mountain site.

Results of the study suggested an unusually strong spike in black carbon during the period from 1991 to 1992. Researchers hypothesized that the massive Kuwait fires at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 caused this peak in concentration. At the time, Iraqi forces set fire to over 650 oil wells in Kuwait. An estimated 1.5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the environment, making it the largest oil spill in history. Black smoke plumes were monitored by satellites and observed to spread over 2500 kilometers, with some material eventually reaching the Muztagh Ata Mountain.

Camels search for untainted shrubs and water as Kuwait oil fires send large black smoke clouds into the sky (Source: Pier Paolo Antonelli/Flickr).

The chemical transportation model was used to simulate the atmospheric black carbon concentrations and depositions for the period before and after the fires, from 1984 to 1994. The simulation used data for anthropogenic black carbon emissions for the non-Kuwait fire periods and enhanced emissions by 50 times from January to November 1991 to represent the Kuwait fires. Winds by the fire region move in the northern and northwestern direction, and the highest concentration appeared to have been transported westward toward the mountain. This, as well as the historical context, supports the hypothesis that the Kuwait oil fires contributed to greater black carbon on Muztagh Ata.

The high black carbon concentration from this event also had significant effects on the glacier’s snow cover and radiative forcing, which is the balance of incoming solar heat to outgoing heat. Researchers found the radiative forcing increase was about two to five times higher than the normal period before and after the Kuwait oil fires. Also, the black carbon on the upper portion of the glacier would have been covered with fresh snow, but might have stayed longer, uncovered, on the ablation zone. These processes resulted in a significant increase of melting from the glacier since the time of the fires, strongly impacting the hydrologic cycle and water resources in surrounding regions.

Satellite imagery of oil fires spreading westwards (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

Philip K. Hopke, researcher of environmental chemistry and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told GlacierHub about the impacts of black carbon on the Tibetan Plateau. Hopke identifies water supply to be the main issue, considering the glaciers here feed into many major rivers such as the Ganges, Yangtze, and Indus rivers. Loss of glaciers and their water feed could lead to disastrous shortages and conflict over control of resources.

“Enhanced melt by rising temperatures is already an issue and exacerbation by deposited black carbon would make things worse” he added. Hopke also mentions that in some ways, warfare might improve local air quality through reduced economic activity and forced evacuations. Additionally, it would take a major conflict to produce sufficient emissions to have such widespread effects. Fortunately, there are no uncontrolled fires today, though it is important to recognize the risks of war and long-distance impacts. The situation in Syria at present, for example, remains uncertain, as well as the situation in northern Iraq, a country that is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, which may be at risk. 

Epidemics and Population Decline in Greenland’s Inuit Community

The dynamics of climate and environment have a large and growing influence on our culture, practices and health. Climate change is expected to impact communities all over the world, requiring people to adapt to these changes. A recent study by Kirsten Hastrup in the journal Cross-Cultural Research looks at the history of health and environment of the Inuit people of Greenland’s Thule community. Global warming has impacted the hunting economy in the region, and increasing sea contamination is negatively affecting the Arctic ecosystems and human health. Kirsten Hastrup locates these recent changes in the context of earlier dynamics, identifying the social and environmental factors contributing to Inuit development over time.

Effects of Early Exploration and Trade

Colorful houses in the Thule community (Source: Andy Wolff/Flickr).

The Thule community is located in the far northern region of Qaanaaq, Greenland. It is called Avanersuaq, or “Big North,” in the Inuit language of Iñupiat. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from the 14th to 18th century, isolated this small population of 140 from other communities and regions in the south. Waters opened with melting sea-ice in the 19th century, allowing European explorers and whalers to contact the region and the Inuit people. The explorers engaged in trade with the Inuit, exchanging wood, guns, and utensils for fur. Unfortunately, trade and the arrival of whalers introduced new diseases to the community, leading to epidemics and population decline.

Hastrup explains that the Inuit also suffered from famine at the time due to the grip of the Little Ice Age. Expansion of inland ice and glaciers and persistent sea ice made it hard for the Inuit to hunt for food sources like whales, walruses and seals. A lack of driftwood used to make bows, sleds and build kayaks for hunting also contributed to the Inuit’s hardship and further population decline. Natural hazards from living in the Arctic environment led to the decline on a smaller scale. Some of these deaths were due to instabilities of the icy landscape, accidents while traveling across expanses of ice, and large animal attacks during hunting.

Cold War Implications on Health and Identity

Although the risk of disease was great, Hastrup recognizes the impacts of diseases. She also identifies the benefits of trade, which brought resources necessary for hunting and overcoming famine. Development of formal trading stations and greater access to wood allowed for increased hunting capability. Fur trade became quite profitable for the Inuit toward the early 20th century, much to the benefit of the local economy.

However, this did not last long, according to Hastrup. During the Cold War period, the Arctic became a sort of frontier between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. An American airbase was established in the early 1950s, and this had long-lasting effects on health and Inuit identity. Transport vessels, airplanes, and heavy activity at the airbase disturbed the Arctic animals, damaging important Inuit hunting grounds. The population had to relocate to make room for the airbase. This forced movement to new housing sites left a sense of dislocation among the Inuit community.

Fighter aircraft at the Thule Air Base,1955 (Source: United States Air Force/Creative Commons).

A new health risk was introduced in 1959 with the launch of Camp Century, a scientific military camp built under the ice cap. This nuclear-powered camp was also secretly designed to house missiles during the Cold War. The movement of the ice sheet led to an abandonment of the camp in 1966; however, the nuclear threat continued. In 1968, a plane carrying plutonium bombs crashed, going right through the sea ice outside of Thule. Three bombs were retrieved from the waters, although reports in European news media suggest a fourth bomb remains. A nearby fjord was also later revealed to be contaminated by nuclear radiation. According to Hastrup, the people in the region continue to fear risks from radiation-related illness and contaminated food.

Impacts of Changing Climate

These activities and the historical implications of outside contact have left a deep-rooted concern for health and well-being among the Thule community, one that is felt even today. According to Hastrup, many fear that changes in the environment may expose them to further ice-trapped radiation. Camp Century was eventually buried within a glacier, and continued warming is causing movement within the ice. Some Inuit worry that leftover radiation might be released if the glaciers were to retreat, harming the health of their community, Hastrup reports.

Seal meat drying on a platform safe from sled dogs. Qaanaaq, 1998 (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

Warming trends impacting the Arctic regions are influencing Inuit practices in certain ways. No longer able to subsist as hunters, for example, the Inuit have adapted to halibut fishing for income. Hastrup argues that in its own way, this adaptation adds a sense of dislocation from tradition. Sharing of game was a longtime tradition among the community, which provided a feeling of unity.

Sherilee L. Harper, associate professor at the Public Health School of the University of Alberta, told GlacierHub about how changing climate might continue to affect the Inuit community. “Research, based on both Inuit knowledge and health sciences, has documented impacts ranging from waterborne and foodborne disease to food security to unintentional injury and death to mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

Despite shifts in traditional practices, Inuit appear ready to meet the challenges of their changing environment. As oceans continue to warm and threaten this Arctic ecosystem, Inuit residents continue to work with governments and climate scientists to monitor changes, deploy conservation efforts, and manage local development. Their openness to change is shown in their shifts to commercial fur collecting in the past to new forms of fishing in the present. Harper added that the Inuit have shown resilience to climate change and continue to be international leaders in climate change adaptation.

Video of the Week: ‘Claim the Climate’ Protest in Belgium

This week’s video follows the commencement of the UN Climate Change Conference 2018, COP24. This year’s conference is located at Katowice, Poland. The conference, which takes place from 2-14 December, has definitely gotten many people riled up about climate change. Over 65,000 people came out for the “Claim the Climate” demonstration on Sunday, 2 December in Brussels, Belgium. Protestors marched through the Belgium capital toward the European Union headquarters, holding banners saying “Stop Climate Criminals” and “There is no Planet B.” As voiced in the video, they hope to raise awareness on the pressing concerns of climate change and put pressure on political leaders to take action.

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Are White Whales Resilient to Climate Change?

Then and Now: Understanding John Muir’s Ideology

A Glacial Escape: Connecting Past, Present & Future in the Novel “Antarctica”

Are White Whales Resilient to Climate Change?

As global warming increases, cold regions like the Arctic continue to experience great shifts in climate and environment. The effects of these shifts are closely observed in human populations, but how are different species impacted? A recent study examined white whales in Svalbard, Norway, and the climate change effects on their behavior and diet. Researchers looked at how reduced sea-ice formation and melting tidal glacier fronts influence the changes in habitat and movement patterns for this species.

White Whale Background and Observations

White whales, also known as beluga whales, can be found in the circumpolar Arctic. They’re known for their distinct white color and are one of the smallest whale species in the world. They are sometimes referred to as “sea canaries” for their high-pitched calls. With an estimated 150,000 individuals globally, they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Some local populations such as those located in Cook Inlet, Alaska, are considered critically endangered.

White whale spotted in the Arctic and sub-Arctic (Source: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

These whales remain off the Svalbard coasts year-round. They live in sea-ice fjords and tidal glacier-front habitats. The fjords are sheltered from open-water predators, human activity, and extreme weather, making them particularly ideal for juvenile mammals. Tidal glacier-fronts are prime foraging areas for the whales. These regions have fresh water ideal for polar cod and capelin, two fish that make up a large part of white whale diet.

White whales migrate seasonally, some travelling 10s of kms, others as far as several hundred. During the warm summer season, sea ice in the fjords melts, providing an opportunity for the whales to move and feed in this region. Sea ice formation in the winter pushes the whales out toward the glacier-front habitats, where they spend most of their time during the colder season.

Methodology and Sampling

Increased warming is expected to negatively influence the environmental composition of this region. Svalbard has the greatest decrease in seasonal sea-ice cover in the circumpolar Arctic region. Rapid increase of air and sea water temperatures over the last two decades are the major contributing factors to this change. According to researchers, glacier-front melting and the associated reduction of foraging habitat could lead to changes in diet. Less sea-ice formation in fjords and warmer seasons could also affect biodiversity in these habitats. Could this mean white whales will need to migrate elsewhere for feeding during warmer seasons?

Researchers in this study compared habitat and movement changes of white whales, before and after major warming induced changes in the environment. They believed these changes began in 2006, so the two study periods were 1995-2001 and 2013-2016.

Fortunately for the researchers, satellite data from earlier years was available. They used satellite tracking to take measurements of whale movement patterns for the later period, and were then able to compare movement patterns for both periods. To track movement, white whale groups were live-captured using a nylon net and then tagged.

Researchers tagging a whale for observation (Source: Kit M. Kovacs)

GlacierHub interviewed Kit M. Kovacs, one of the study’s authors and a senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Kovacs explained that choice of methods reflected concerns for animal welfare as well as data gathering. Groups without calves were netted, to prevent possible injury to young whales, she said. A total of 38 adult individuals were sampled for the study, 34 of them being male. Kovacs also explained that the females travel with their young, while adult males tend to travel in all-male groups, which would explain the sampling bias.

Research Findings and White Whale Resiliency

Results showed that during the later tracking period, the whales continued to remain close to the Svalbard coast. Scientists found this behavior to be striking, particularly when looking at populations in other areas that move long distances. The whales remain close to Spitsbergen, one of the largest islands in Svalbard. They move from the west coast fjords in the summer toward the east coast in the winter. The greatest distance of movement occurred when individuals were forced off the coast by the winter formation of landfast sea ice.

Ice front at a Spitsbergen glacier (Source: Paul/Flickr).

Some changes in habitat were observed. Whales were found to spend much time in glacier-front habitats for both periods, although they now spend more time out in the fjords. Less sea ice formation in the fjords has allowed for an influx of fish species that prefer the warmer waters. Arctic fish, particularly polar cod, have declined in numbers in this habitat, and are being replaced by Atlantic cod, haddock and herring. This new fish composition could be attracting the whales to fjords during the warm season.

Kovacs explained how a change in diet could affect the whales. “White whales use a pretty broad array of food types across their range, so it is unlikely to be a big deal for them to switch to new fish types. They might have to eat more, if the new fishes have a lower fat content, just to keep the same energy intake. As long as enough are available, it should not change their annual intake,” she said.

The white whales’ ability to consume a variety of food resources proves to be beneficial to the species. This helps them build resilience against some of the extreme effects of warming. The beluga may be able to adapt to an environment with less ice than in the past due to this dietary flexibility. Other species may not be so fortunate.

Photo Friday: Mount Baker from Puget Sound

This week’s Photo Friday features Mount Baker, a glaciated peak in the North Cascades of Washington. Lisa Dilling, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shared these photos with GlacierHub. They were taken by Dilling during a recent trip to visit family at the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. These are unusual images, since few glaciated peaks are visible from islands in the ocean. Mount Baker was also a great influence to poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder, who grew up on a dairy farm with views of the peak, and hiked on Mount Baker in his teens.

A beautiful view of Mount Baker (Source: Lisa Dilling).

 

Another view of Mount Baker captured during Dilling’s recent family trip to the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound (Source: Lisa Dilling).

 

Relatively few glaciated peaks are visible from islands in the ocean (Source: Lisa Dilling).

 

Mount Baker peeks out from behind the forest (Source: Lisa Dilling).

The Future Disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap

Quelccaya is the largest tropical ice cap in the world. It is located in the Central Andes of Peru and has a summit elevation of about 5,680 meters. A recent study suggests that the ice cap might soon cease to exist. Researchers used climate data to examine the impacts of the different forcings to determine how imminent its future disappearance is, and to what extent human activity affects the timing.

About 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers are located in the Andes, with around 70 percent found in Peru. Glaciers in the tropical Andes are critical to the regional environment. Through runoff, they provide a much-needed water supply during the dry season. A future disappearance of Quelccaya Ice Cap (QIC) could mean significant changes to the ecosystem, impacts on tourism, and consequences to the culture and traditions of the local populations.

Snowy mountain peaks on the Andes mountains in Peru, surrounded by beautiful fluffy clouds.
Andes mountains in Peru (Source: Michael Mcdonough/Flickr).

Scientists used daily air temperature and snow height data to build projections of retreat at the QIC. Air temperature over the Peruvian Andes has increased over the last six decades, leading to greater retreat. Rising air surface temperatures are one of the major contributors to this retreat, although variations in precipitation and snowfall contribute as well. Meanwhile, El Nino and the South American Summer Monsoon can also impact QIC conditions, but on an interannual timescale.

The researchers also examined the different Representative Concentration Pathway scenarios (RCPs) that play a huge role in the future of tropical glaciers. RCPs are used in scientific modeling to provide temporal projections on greenhouse gas concentrations. These concentrations contribute to warming and have a great effect on glaciers. The rate of warming is typically amplified with elevation in many mountain regions due to elevation dependent feedbacks, which are explained further in the study.

Results of the research show that through anthropogenic and natural forcings, QIC loses mass at its front and base. This means that by around 2050, the ice cap could completely disappear. Even with a great reduction in greenhouse gas concentrations, results indicate that an eventual disappearance can be expected closer to the end of the century. The researchers further explained that these findings are consistent with observations of other glaciers in the tropics. We can look at glaciers in Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, as they have also experienced accelerated retreat over the last decades.

Andrew Malone, a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), told GlacierHub more about the shrinking of QIC and its impacts. “The largest impact would be on loss of water resources for communities both locally and downstream. In the short-term accelerated melting actually increases water resources. But as ice melts, that ‘stored’ water shrinks and shrinks, and at some point the glacier reservoir becomes so small that the total run-off contribution starts to decrease with time,” he said.

The melting of Qori Kalis glacier. The left is the glacier in 1978. Right image is from 2011, presenting a retreated glacier and the lake left from melt (Source: Bird Lai/Flickr).

Malone went on to explain that as glaciers melt, lakes form in their place. These lakes are dammed by glacial moraines, which are formed by buildup of falling dirt and rocks from melting glaciers. Moraines are not structurally sound. As ice falls off glaciers and into the new lakes, large waves  can form and flood the downstream landscape. Malone said that this has happened to the lake in Qori Kalis valley, and as a result livestock were lost with the flooding. Similar events can be expected to happen at QIC as well.

While there is much research and understanding of the glacial and environmental impacts of climate change, the human impacts should also be considered. GlacierHub spoke with anthropologist Gustavo Valdivia, who is currently doing research on the Andes. His research looks at the impacts of QIC glacier melt on the nearby community of Phinaya. This community relies on herding alpaca, selling alpaca wool for their livelihood; thus, they are very dependent on runoff waters to irrigate the pastures for their flocks. At present the Phinaya community benefits from the greater runoff, Valdivia said, but this abundance is not likely to last long. The livestock might also be at risk from flooding, as seen in Qori Kalis.

Alpaca from the Phinaya community of Peru (Source: Christian Aid/Flickr).

Valdivia added that there is a key difference between understanding and experiencing climate. Researchers understand the science behind glacial retreat and warming, but it’s the people who experience these changes. He highlighted the importance of building genuine communication with scientific information. As glaciers continue to melt, it’s vital to build connections to the people and communities who are affected, examining ways in which we can adapt to the changes in our climate and environment. Though each community faces climate change in a specific way, they are also part of a global process of change.

Roundup: Black Carbon, Dying Crustaceans, and Ice Sheet Melting

Kuwait Fires Cause Black Carbon Buildup

From Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Muztagh Ata is located to the east of Pamir and in the north of the Tibetan Plateau. The ice core data provide important information for atmospheric circulation and climate change in Asia. Moreover, the climate in Muztagh Ata is very sensitive to solar warming mechanisms because it has a large snow cover in the region, resulting in important impacts on the hydrological cycle of the continent by enhancing glacier melt.”

Read more about black carbon in northern Tibet here.

Muztagh Ata Mountain, northern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr)

 

Microscopic Crustaceans at Risk in Patagonian Fjords

From Progress in Oceanography: “Glacial retreat at high latitudes has increased significantly in recent decades associated with global warming. Along Chile’s Patagonian fjords, this has promoted increases in freshwater discharge, vertical stratification, and the input of organic and inorganic particles to fjords.”

Read more about the effects of glacial retreat on Patagonian crustaceans here.

Pia Fjord in Chile (Source: Glenn Seplak/Flickr).

 

Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Contributes to Sea Level Rise

From The Cryosphere: “Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated since the early 2000s, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, and could contribute 0.45–0.82m of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Recent mass loss has been attributed to both a negative surface mass balance and increased ice discharge from marine-terminating glaciers.”

Read more about the research here.

Massive ice island broken off from Petermann Glacier, one of the 18 glaciers observed in the study (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight/Flickr).

 

Horn Signaling at a Medieval Icelandic Monastery

A 16th century ceramic horn fragment was discovered at a former monastery site in Iceland. This object attracted attention as Iceland did not produce ceramics during the Middle Ages. Researchers of a recent study examine archaeological and written records of the region to build an understanding of how this horn traveled to Iceland, and its role in monasticism in medieval times.

Site Details, Findings, and Observations

The ruins of the Skriðuklaustur monastery in eastern Iceland were excavated between 2000 and 2012. The monastery operated for about 60 years from 1493 to 1554. It was abolished as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, in which religious reform was imposed on the Icelanders. It had at least 13 rooms and a cloister garden. Roughly 300 graves were found at the monastery cemetery. This was a large institution, and traces of human habitation indicate that the monastery was very active.

The monastery excavation plan. The star marks where the horn was found (Source: Mehler et al.).

Skriðuklaustur was also a pilgrimage destination. The monastery was a stopover for pilgrims traveling across the glacier Vatna from southern to northern Iceland. A shift to colder climate led to the growth of glaciers, which covered the route, rendering it unusable. Documents from 1496 reveal that the cemetery was also a burial site for the pilgrims who died along their journeys.

The study indicates that the horn appears to have been relatively small compared to horns found in Germany and Central Europe. Vertical scars on the fragment suggests that the horn consisted of at least two loops, and it shows traces of heavy wear, indicating that it might have been used frequently. Ceramic is also a very fragile material. The user of the horn must have handled it with care for it not to break. These findings suggest that the horn could have held some importance at the church.

Trade and Movement

A chemical analysis of the horn further revealed that the clay came from the Duingen area of northern Germany. This region was an important producer of ceramics during the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Ceramics were very widely distributed as well. These items were transported by ship to Bremen and Hamburg in northern Germany, which were important trading hubs at the time.

Natascha Mehler, one of the authors and a senior researcher at the German Maritime Museum, told GlacierHub about trade and movement of people during this time. She explained that 16th century Iceland was close in trade with merchants from Bremen and Hamburg. “They came to Iceland with their ships each spring, to remain there for the summer in their own trading stations, and in late summer they returned home” she said. Germans mainly conducted business in southwest and west of Iceland, around what is present-day Djúpivogur in Berufjörður. “This fjord is relatively close to the monastery at Skriðuklaustur and the monastery was surely provided with goods from abroad through this fjord,” added Mehler.

European goods were available at three trading stations located near Skriðuklaustur, where people from the region bought and sold their goods. People also traveled to Hamburg in northern Germany from Skriðuklaustur. One example from a historic text describes a sheriff and farm owner travelling to Hamburg via a ship from Hamburg. Some Icelandic clerics were educated at universities in Germany, and they used Hamburg and Bremen ships for their travels.

What Was The Purpose Of The Horn?

The fragment of the ceramic horn found at Skriðuklaustur (Source: Mehler et al.).

The lack of written history makes it difficult to build conclusions on how the horn reached the monastery. Researchers are, however, able to build some possibilities with observations and historical records. One possibility is that the horn was carried by a merchant from one of the trading stations. It is also possible that a traveler acquired it from areas in Germany such as Hamburg and Bremen and brought it back as a souvenir. The third possibility is that a pilgrim carried the horn to the site.

Although there remains uncertainty about how the horn arrived to the site, the use of the horn is better understood. Observations allow researchers to propose that is was used for signaling in the monastery. The length and coarse material would allow only one or two high notes. This limited range suggests that the horn was used for signaling rather than for music. Ceramic horn fragments were also found in German monasteries, and these also appeared to be signaling instruments.

This horn was found in what appears to be the guesthouse area of the monastery site, near the main entrance. Historical sources show that the entrance was once guarded by a man named Jón Jónsson, sacristan to the monastery. Some of his duties were to prepare the church for Mass, and opening and closing the alter screen. The sacristan was also responsible for sounding signals to wake the monks in the morning, and to sound the call to prayer. The horn would’ve been the perfect device for Jónsson to perform these tasks.

The horn that has been silent for centuries has recently come to the world’s attention. Observations and historical records indicate the horn’s use and origin, and gives us a glimpse of monastic life in medieval Iceland.

Vatna Glacier, the largest ice cap in Iceland (Source: Ron Kroetz/Flickr).

Click here to learn more about activities at the Skriðuklaustur monastery and the glacier route!