A Classic Whodunit: Industrial Soot, Volcanoes, and Europe’s Shrinking Glaciers

In the second half of the 1800s, glaciers in the Alps rapidly shrunk in length, some by hundreds of meters. Their alarming retreat, documented in photographs, has often been a symbol of the human influence on global climate, as the accelerated melting aligned with increased production of industrial soot. But were there other factors that drove the rapid glacier recession in the Alps at the end of the Little Ice Age?

Surface darkening from mineral dust and soot deposited on the Aletsch glacier. The Colle Gnifetti drilling site lies in the background (Source: Michael Sigl).

A new study in The Cryosphere led by Michael Sigl, a chemist and climatologist at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, challenges the notion that human-made industrial soot, or more formally black carbon, from European industrialization was primarily responsible for the observed deglaciation during the 15-year period between 1860 and 1875.

Based on their comparison of high-resolution black carbon deposition records from ice cores from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps and historical data of the changing lengths of major Alpine glaciers, the researchers discovered that “when black carbon concentrations started to significantly rise (around 1875), Alpine glaciers had already experienced 80 percent of their 19th century retreat, meaning that black carbon was not the first responsible for this retreat, contrary to what was suggested in a previous study,” team member Dimitri Osmont, a doctoral student at the PSI, told GlacierHub, referring to earlier research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that black carbon didn’t contribute at all (especially during the 20th century when concentrations are significantly higher, and also today in the case of Himalayan glaciers), but it was not the first driver,” Osmont told GlacierHub.

Sigl further elaborated on the discrepancies between his team’s findings and that of previous research in discussion with GlacierHub. “If the glaciers had actually been forced to retreat by more abundant soot impurities in the snow, one would expect the glaciers’ retreat to have been synchronous with or slightly lagging increases in black carbon deposition. But we observe the exact opposite and conclude that other factors, predominantly volcanism, account for most of past glacier variability,” he said.

The TUNU ice-core in Greenland containing a continuous archive of global volcanism (Source: Michael Sigl).

Volcanoes? Indeed, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the early 1800s, like the catastrophic Mount Tambora in 1815 behind Europe’s Year Without a Summer, resulted in a few decades of cooler and wetter conditions conducive for the Alpine glaciers to surge and grow. Not to belittle the sheer devastation experienced locally and the socioeconomic effects of altered agricultural patterns across the globe, other positive takeaways of the eruptions included artistic inspiration for vibrant sunsets in J. M. W. Turner paintings, the backdrop of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the peak of larger glaciers in the Alps to phenomenal lengths in the middle of the 1850s.

The team argues that this more favorable atmosphere for the glaciers allowed them to grow to their peak size in the 1850s and that the rapid retreat from 1860 to 1875 was the glaciers simply returning to their “normal” size. They conclude that whatever role anthropogenic black carbon had in Alpine glacier retreat before 1875 was negligible in comparison to the natural decadal factors.

But other scientists disagree with their findings, including Thomas Painter, the author of the study whose hypothesis was tested and a principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Sigl et al. performed admirable work with their ice core analysis, and it is alone an important contribution to understanding deposition dynamics of atmospheric constituents,” Painter told GlacierHub. However, he found that the study “attacked a strawman argument that the glacier retreat in the 19th century predated the emergence of black carbon deposition and its additional absorption of sunlight in the snowpack.” He challenges this new study’s claims that they disprove his hypothesis. “The glaciers did start retreating from a cold period, but they then kept on strongly retreating to lengths not seen in the previous centuries, while air temperature and precipitation didn’t change sufficiently to cause this,” he said.

Image of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in 2015. It’s the ice-core drill site hosting a continuous archive of air pollution since 1741 A.D. (Source: Michael Sigl).

Regardless of the differing conclusions, none of the scientists from the recent study contacted by GlacierHub discounted the role of human activity on glacier retreat. “Just to be very clear, the study in no way neglects the generally significant contribution of anthropogenic emissions to the ongoing observed worldwide glacier retreat, but black carbon, at least for the alpine region, was not a major factor for the 19th century retreat,” stated Theo Jenk, another co-author of the study from PSI. Painter and Jenk’s colleagues are sure to butt heads further, but all in the name of sound scientific endeavor.

Are glaciers behind perplexing shift in paleoclimate Ice Age patterns?

In early August, at the Goldschmidt Conference on geochemistry, a team of scientists from Columbia University presented evidence from seafloor cores that suggest that a million years ago ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere began sticking to their bedrock. The team proposes that as the glaciers grew thicker, it led to a global cooling that disrupted both the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the ice age cycle. But how exactly might glaciers have been involved in this perplexing shift in paleoclimate ice age patterns?

As skeptics of anthropogenic climate change often note, Earth’s climate changes and has changed before. Aside from humans’ unabashed consumption of greenhouse gases, a wide variety of natural factors cause shifts in this complex system. For instance, scientists have long acknowledged how tiny changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, collectively known as the Milankovitch Cycles, drive the coming and going of ice ages. As the Milankovitch Cycles interact, the planet’s movements displace the incoming solar radiation across the globe, dramatically affecting the Earth’s climate system and the advancement and retreat of glaciers.

Glaciers in the North Atlantic, such as this one in the Johan Petersen Fjord of eastern Greenland, may have driven a global cooling a million years ago (Source: Ray Swi-hymn/Flickr).

For a while, ice ages were known to occur steadily every 40,000 years. However, a million years ago, that metronome inexplicably got off course. Instead of periods of intense glaciation occurring every 40,000 years, it shifted to every 100,000 years. But the likely culprit, the Milankovitch Cycles, hadn’t changed a million years ago. It didn’t add up.

And that’s not all. Around the same time, the massive AMOC— the conveyor belt that brings warm, shallow water to the North Atlantic, where it cools and sinks to the sea floor before returning south— nearly collapsed. Were these events related? If so, how and what was behind them?

These questions have perplexed scientists for years, as was apparent even at last month’s conference. But through an analysis of the chemical composition of basin-wide ocean sediment cores over several years, geochemist Steve Goldstein from Columbia University, who led the study presented at Goldschmidt, found unique shifts in isotopic signals that reflect a slower turn of the AMOC 950,000 years ago. 

For the present study, the team examined five more ocean cores, in addition to two analyzed earlier in the decade, that also demonstrated signs of a weak AMOC. The group believes two of the cores from the North Atlantic indicate possible triggers for the AMOC crisis. They suggest that such a slowdown could have rapidly cooled the North Atlantic region, in turn lengthening the ice age rhythm.

Peter Clark, a glaciologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has advanced this hypothesis as the only plausible explanation for many years, wrote Paul Voosen in Science last month. Three million years ago, a sustained warming period allowed for the build-up of thick soil in the Northern Hemisphere. Ice sheets would often collapse as the soil acted as an oiled buffer. But repeated glaciations wore down the warm protective layer and enabled glaciers to dig deeper into older rock that stabilized them and helped them thicken and advance.

Aerial shot of a large glacier in Greenland (Source: Leon Weber/Flickr).

But as exciting as the findings may be, not everyone is sold on the hypothesis. Climate scientist Amy Clement from the University of Miami told GlacierHub it sounded like an interesting concept, but she has problems with how the AMOC idea is applied in the modern climate. Clement explains how some argue that variations in the AMOC strength control the North Atlantic surface temperature on these multi-decadal timescales.

“The problems are (1) timescale and (2) magnitude. On these short timescales, the AMOC doesn’t seem to be the driver,” she noted to GlacierHub. “Instead we think the North Atlantic surface temperatures are controlled by external forcing (some natural, such as the sun and volcanoes) and some anthropogenic (such as greenhouse gases and aerosols).”

Others including Henrieka Detlef, a paleoclimatologist at Cardiff University in the U.K., told Science that while she accepts something important happened in the North Atlantic to lead to AMOC crisis, she has yet to see conclusive evidence that northern ice sheets were increasing in thickness prior to the AMOC slowdown.

Still, most agree that ice age rhythm shifts were likely caused by more than one trigger. The Columbia team is confident that thickening ice sheets in addition to other factors played a role in the perplexing transition. “The interactions between the different components of the Earth’s climate are elusive, but understanding them is crucial for reconstructing past changes,” Maayan Yehudai, part of the research group and a graduate student at Columbia, told GlacierHub. “We still have a long way to go as scientists before we can characterize them perfectly, but I think this is another important step forward on this account.”

Video of the Week: Plateau Perspectives

After many years in the making, a documentary was released in October 2017 about Plateau Perspectives, a Canadian non-profit organization founded by Marc Foggin that is dedicated to protecting the ecological integrity of the Tibetan Plateau and improving the well-being of local mountain communities. This film sought to capture the lives of Plateau Perspectives’ volunteers and their relationships with local residents. According to a note from the producers, translated from Chinese, “In the creation of this video, the soul and nature of their work are captured, combined with visuals of some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.”

For this week’s Video of the Week, learn about the important work that Plateau Perspectives does for the glacierized mountain landscapes of the Himalayas and Central Asia through the film’s trailer. After watching this two-minute teaser, be sure to check out the entire 24-minute production here.

Read more glacier news here:

Glacier Retreat Unveils Truth of ‘Predator First Paradox’

First Year of Camp Century Climate Monitoring Programme

North Cascades Festival Celebrates Community, Heritage

Photo Friday: Pigeon Island’s Potential Glacial Erratic

Have you ever seen a massive rock in the middle of nowhere and wondered how it got there? There’s a chance ancient glaciers transported it and left it behind when it melted. Called glacial erratics, these stones can be carried for hundreds of miles and range from small pebbles to menacing boulders. Just off the northeast coast of the island of Newfoundland, near the village of Tilting on Fogo Island, the small, cone-shaped Pigeon Island may be home to such a landform.

This Photo Friday, enjoy images from Bonnie McCay, an environmental anthropologist from Rutgers University, who has done extensive research on fishing communities in Newfoundland. McCay recently shared a few photos of this impressive rock formation on her personal social media account. This distinctive landmark located on a small island brushed by the Labrador Current is “either an erratic or a dropstone, though one Tilting native likes to joke that he rolled it up there years ago with a friend,” she said. Like similar stones across the world, this rock can provide hints to scientists about ancient glacier movements. Or at least it becomes a fun landmark for the local community.

Satellite image of Pigeon Island and Tilting, Newfoundland (Source: Google Earth).



Map of the northeast coast of Newfoundland and the location of Tilting and Pigeon Island, where McCay came across the formation (Source: Google Earth).










Image of the potential erratic or dropstone (Source: Bonnie McCay).


Another angle with beautiful Fogo Island in the background (Source: Bonnie McCay).


McCay posing in front of the unique stone (Source: Bonnie McCay).


Shot of the lush landscape once covered by glacial ice (Source: Bonnie McCay/Facebook).


A shot of some of the sheep who call the island home (Source: Bonnie McCay/Facebook).

Thoughts from the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park

My view writing the first paragraph of this reflection, looking at the Salamander Glacier (Source: Natalie Belew).

After four hours hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail and with the roar of a waterfall from glacial runoff in the backdrop, there they were: the three patches of ice known as the Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem glaciers.

The glaciers, some of the few remaining at Glacier National Park, are located in the Many Glacier region on the east side of the park. My father and I had traversed along the trail all morning, nearly 6 miles, to get closer to a glacier than we had ever been before.

Although we could see the three glaciers from a few miles away on the trail, the massive lake awaiting us at the end, with its stunning blue waters, took me by surprise. I had few expectations in terms of the size of the glaciers; I knew they would be small and receding, and the snowfields would be at their smallest size this time of the year (summer). It was only when I came across photographs of the glaciers from previous years that I realized just how much rock and water is now exposed compared to ice.

As far as we could drive during my first visit to Glacier NP in 2016 with an incoming blizzard (Source: Natalie Belew).

I had first visited Glacier NP over two years ago in the middle of March when most of the park was officially closed for winter. There happened to be a blizzard blowing in at the time, and my parents and I drove in only as far as we could from the St. Mary’s entrance. We pulled over for a few pictures of snow-covered peaks on the side of the road before hightailing it back to Great Falls, Montana, where my father lives.

During that first trip, I didn’t think much about the park’s glaciers beyond how beautiful they were in the distance among the haze of the blizzard winds. I also didn’t know much about how fast they were receding or the significance of their loss. I knew the park was succumbing to the effects of climate change, but I didn’t understand more about the problem beyond rising global temperatures.

The closest I got to the Grinnell Glacier. A weathered sign read, “Warning: Hazardous Snow Conditions, Glacier Travel Not Recommended.” (Source: Natalie Belew).

A lot is different from my first visit to the park back in 2016 and now. Since then, I began writing for GlacierHub and also completed the Master’s program in Climate & Society at Columbia University. My understanding of glaciers has grown exponentially over this past year from reporting on the latest studies on shrinking glaciers (with a few notable exceptions in parts of the world such as the Karakoram) and our changing planet. And now, I’ve seen not just one but three glaciers up close and personal.

Compared to older photographs taken just two years ago, it is remarkable how much smaller the glaciers are in person. But with temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and standing just a football field away, I was also impressed at how much ice stood. Still, the glaciers looked so vulnerable surrounded by the forces of water, rock, and heat. And humans.

Two years from my first visit, I realize how complicated the science behind climate change can be: it is more than just warming average global temperatures. Likewise, warming temperatures plus glaciers doesn’t always equal recession.

My dad and I posing in front of Grinnell Glacier. Despite living close to the park, he had never made the hike to see a glacier (Source: Natalie Belew).

I have also come to realize the need for more effective communication, not only on the topic of climate change but also about science in general. With all of the nuance surrounding the complicated physics of our planet, communicating its problems is not simple, especially now given the current political atmosphere. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law recently reported 155 instances of the Trump administration restricting or inhibiting science through their Silencing Science Tracker, for example, evidencing that scientists face greater harassment and threats. Even mentioning the phrase climate change in a public office, such as the National Park Service, has become controversial.

For Glacier National Park, once the backdrop of Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,receding glaciers are a powerful symbol of climate change occurring right in our backyard. While visiting Glacier, I was curious about how the park was communicating its reality with its millions of visitors (3.3 million people visited the park in 2017, according to park statistics).

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the signs around the park that talked about climate change. Several openly acknowledged how climate change (and the human activity driving it) is silently destroying the namesake of Glacier NP. There were even some signs that had been updated last year, according to the date in their corner. Only one stated how human activity “partially” explains the accelerated melting of glaciers since 1880. Its lack of a timestamp made it unclear whether it was a product of the Obama or Trump administration.

Image of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, where we stayed the night. My dad and I were sore after hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail (Source: Natalie Belew).

In the annual park newspaper available in the lobby of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, an entire page (albeit the second-to-last page) was dedicated to “Climate Change and the Crown of the Continent,” highlighting the global threat of climate change as “one of the most pressing issues of our time.” Although hidden in the back of the paper, this brief message about climate change’s impact on Glacier NP’s ecological integrity was profound in its clear-cut messaging.

Then there were the fires and record-breaking 100-degree heat that also happened concurrent to the weekend of my visit. Fires broke out on the west side of Glacier NP near McDonald Lake the evening of August 11. Flying into Great Falls that day from New York City, I immediately picked up on the hazy skies during my layover in Minneapolis, and the entire flight from Minnesota to Montana had an eerie film over the Big Sky country.

The remains of a fire taken on my first visit in 2016 with the Montanan prairies in the background (Source: Natalie Belew).

When I arrived the next day, the recent forest fires in the park and across the West were a primary topic of conservation. I overheard fellow visitors and park employees discussing forced evacuations of parts of the park and destruction of historic lodges in the wake of the fires. The fires also attracted national media and revamped attention toward the topic of climate change. As Twitter exploded on the topic, my father and I drove up to Logan’s Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun Road where park law enforcement blocked off further entry.

On that drive, entering the St. Mary’s entrance, multiple patches of charred skeletal remains of trees reminded us of the commonality of fires. With a complicated web of direct and indirect socio-environmental causes, wildfires are one natural disaster scientists can’t always directly link to climate change. An example of the complex nebulous that scientists and scholars observe, it’s difficult to untangle for a broader audience without losing its entire integrity or image.

One of three signs at the Jackson Glacier Overlook with the Jackson Glacier in the background (Source: Natalie Belew).

Information at Glacier NP doesn’t pretend like there’s a shot of saving the glaciers. At the Jackson Glacier Overlook, a sign there describes how when Glacier NP was established in 1910, there were over 100 glaciers within the park boundaries. By 1966, only 35 remained. As of 2015, only 26 “met the criteria to be designated active glaciers.” All of them are shrinking. And with the view of Jackson coming in and out of focus amid the smoky haze, it is hard not to feel hopeless for their doomed fate.

Coming face-to-face with three of the remaining glaciers helped me put my work and studies into perspective. Much like the all-day hike, the Climate & Society program was a long and strenuous year filled with challenging coursework. And much like witnessing melting glaciers, perhaps for the only time in my life, I had the opportunity to learn about the intersection of climate and society. But unlike the fate of the glaciers in Glacier NP, destiny isn’t settled for our planet and our fight against climate change. I remain hopeful that we can improve the communication around the science and in turn bring awareness for necessary action.

Sunset after a long day of hiking just outside Many Glacier Hotel (Source: Natalie Belew).

Photo Friday: Dodging Fires in Glacier National Park

Last Sunday, August 12, I had the opportunity to hike the Grinnell Glacier trail at Glacier National Park in Montana with my father to witness the rapidly shrinking Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem glaciers. Today’s Photo Friday showcases just a few photos of the vulnerable glaciers I captured from the strenuous trail.

A 11.4-mile (18.4 kilometer) hike to and from the glaciers, this demanding all-day trip allowed us to witness not only the receding glaciers but also a range of rich and thriving flora and fauna, including a grizzly bear encounter! But outside of my hike, a lightning strike near Lake McDonald on Saturday night sparked three raging fires that led to the evacuation of part of the park and the attraction of journalists, including Eric Holthaus of Grist, to cover the spreading flames and the record-breaking 100 degree heat that occurred the day before I arrived.

Despite the fires on the west side of Glacier NP, where we were staying at Many Glacier, also on the west side, was not directly impacted by the fires. On the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where we stopped to view the Jackson Glacier from afar, we drove up to Logan’s Pass where rangers and barriers blocked off visitors from traveling further. Despite our distance from the evacuation zone, we noticed that the typically crisp blue sky of Big Sky country in Montana was much hazier than visitors normally experience.

As mentioned in this week’s Video of the Week post, all of the glaciers in the park are rapidly receding due to anthropogenic climate change. From an estimated 150 glaciers in the park around 1850 to a mere 50 by 1966 and a remaining 26 today (many of which are merely a fraction of their original size), it’s only a matter of time before the ice is gone and the glacier’s geological imprint is all that remains.

For more on my experience at Glacier NP this summer, keep an eye out for my personal reflection next week.

Trail sign near the start (Source: Natalie Belew).


On the trail, early in the hike (Source: Natalie Belew).


View away from the glaciers. Skies in Glacier NP aren’t normally so hazy, but visitors could see the ash and haze from fires on the other side of the park (Source: Natalie Belew).


View toward the glaciers. Grinnell and Gem in sight (Source: Natalie Belew).


Obligatory pose in front of the glacial backdrop (Source: James Belew).


Image of the Salamander Glacier (Source: Natalie Belew).


Satisfactory (albeit depressing) photograph of Grinnell Glacier, the larger ice form near the glacial lake, and Gem Glacier, the hanging glacier in the rocks overlooking Grinnell (Source: Natalie Belew).

Roundup: Deadly Glacier Calving & Groundbreaking Assessments

Calving Glacier Kills Tourist in Norway

From The Local Norway: “An Austrian man has been killed in Norway after a huge block of ice calved off the Nigardsbreen glacier, causing a shower of water and ice which threw him into the fast-flowing meltwater. The man […] had ignored the warning signs and crossed over a safety cordon to get closer to the glacier.”

Read more about the deadly incident here.

According to the story, the man had ignored warning signs and crossed a safety barrier to get closer to Nigardsbreen Glacier (Source: The Local Norway/Twitter).


Identifying the Highest Plants on Earth

From Alpine Botany: “Three specimens from the 1952 Everest expedition are reviewed and analyzed, bringing the number of species sharing the title of ‘highest known vascular plant’ from two to five… This taxonomic investigation contributes to our knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”

Check out more about this important discovery here.

Mt. Everest (Source: Wangpin Thondup/Flickr).

Shrinking Glaciers and Growing Lakes in Peruvian Andes

From Global and Planetary Change: “In the tropical Andes, current rates of glacier loss are investigated to some point but associated future extent of both vanishing glacier and forming lake areas and volumes are poorly explored… Our current baseline and future projections suggest that a decrease in glacier shrinkage is also followed by a slowdown in lake formation and particularly volume growth which might have already developed or occur in the near-future.”

See for yourself what this assessment determined here.

Image of Pastoruri Glacier, a vulnerable glacier in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

Adapting to Glacier Retreat in Peru’s Huascarán National Park

The quickly receding Pastoruri glacier may not have too many years left at the rate it’s melting (Source: Joao Diniz/Flickr).

Environmental anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly stated in her 2017 book on science and policy, “While scientists usually act as spokespeople for ‘data,’ some materials may speak for themselves.” Melting glaciers, including the ones in the high Andes, are examples of materials that speak for themselves, acting as compelling visualizations of the concept of climate change.

A recent article in Regional Environmental Change by Mattias Borg Rasmussen explores the nexus of climate change, retreating glaciers, and conservation landscapes in the context of Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park. As one of the most threatened tropical glaciers in the high Andes, Pastoruri has generated significant media coverage for its rapid retreat, which has involved the glacier losing over half of its size over a period of twenty years, according to reports from The Guardian and Reuters. As Pastoruri Glacier has been reduced to two quickly vanishing patches of ice, tourism in Huascarán National Park has also dwindled from over 100,000 visitors a year in its heyday of the 1990s to only 34,000 reported in 2012.

In response to both the deterioration of the physical landscape and paying visitors, park administrators developed a tourist and educational facility in 2013 known as the Route of Climate Change. The initiative, which includes a “Climate Change Trail,” highlights the dangers of climate change in an effort to boost declining tourist numbers. By presenting the glacier as an endangered species of the growing market of last-chance tourism, the park showcases Pastoruri’s decline as a public spectacle to generate conservation outcomes in other parts of the park. However, like similar conservation initiatives, the project in Huascarán National Park was launched without intensive community engagement.

To explore this issue, Rasmussen collected 48 interviews in Peru during ethnographic fieldwork that began in 2014. These interviews add an anthropological framework to his research in order to understand the unique, often tense relationship between the local communities and protected areas. One community Rasmussen visited extensively during his fieldwork was Catac, located just inside the park boundaries. Rasmussen shared with GlacierHub how his article “contributes to enhancing our understanding of these rather unstable arrangements of consent and contestation in conservation encounters.” In the article, he highlights three issues as complicating conservation efforts in the national park: livestock, infrastructure, and tourism revenues. Because park officials considered the refurbishing project to be purely infrastructural, it did not require community engagement.

Environmental historian Mark Carey told GlacierHub that Rasmussen’s article shows “the economic aspects of glacier loss, when tourists stop visiting a place once the ice is gone or where locals and park administrators subsequently develop incentives for tourists to come back and see the marked impacts of glacier retreat.” He added that “glacier retreat generates challenging policy problems that confound conservation objectives and force changes in tourist experiences and local livelihoods that depend on that tourism.”

Regarding the role of conservation in the Anthropocene, Rasmussen said, “I think conservation is good to think about when we want to try to understand the ways in which climate change acts both as a force which changes the physical appearance of landscapes and as an idea which challenges our understanding of the future.”

Image of Pastoruri Glacier with tourists (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

The concept of protected area management, and conservation initiatives in general, is heavily imbued with power dynamics and colonialism. Rasmussen states in the article, “Because they are the outcomes of Westernized visions of the relationship between nature and culture, protected areas are important sites for understanding how notions of the Anthropocene come to reshape ideas about the future of glaciated landscapes.”

The historical production of protected areas came from the constructed sharp distinction between human and nature as well as civilization and wilderness, also a product of Western conception that often forgets or ignores voices of the local.

In the Anthropocene, protected areas, particularly those with glaciers, can no longer represent a fixed time and space created by scientists for conservation purposes. Glaciers, like Pastoruri, disrupt the social imagination of an unchanging locale untainted by human intervention. In this modern era signaling progression, climate change presents a destructive alternative, filled with irreversible changes and a future of uncertainty.

The initiative in Huascarán National Park represents a new global consciousness that is forming around the role that humans will play in shaping the future of the planet and around the importance that protected areas will take on in new arrangements in a new era. “Rasmussen demonstrates how glacier loss is more than just about ice, or even water.  Managing a dynamic glacierized landscape rapidly changing under climate change — and ensuring water supplies for irrigation and livestock pastures in downstream communities — all involve politics, social relations, economics and livelihoods, and cultural values,” Carey told GlacierHub. “We must turn our attention beyond the ice, in other words, to study and understand the challenges that communities, conservationists, policy makers, and tourists all face.”

Conservation is still linked to modern social imaginations, but the creation of the Climate Change Route on the Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park implies a shift in the social imagination that reconsiders the presentation and construction of protected areas. With glaciers visually symbolizing the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of the environment, this step forward may better include the often neglected voices of the local communities in shaping their lives.

Potential Proglacial Lake Discovered on Drang Drung Glacier

Image of the breathtaking Drang Drung Glacier from 2012 (Source: Poonam Agarwal/Flickr).

In the northwest reaches of the Himalayas, most glaciers, with a few exceptions in the Karakorum, are showing signs of rapid retreat due to climate change. With long-term climate projections indicating the rise of local minimum temperatures by over 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the formation of glacial lakes is predicted as the glaciers melt, which could, in turn, have serious socio-environmental impacts.

One glacier already under threat, the Drang Drung, located in the Zanskar region of Jammu and Kashmir, is the focus of a recent study published by Irfan Rashid and Ulfat Majeed in Environmental Earth Sciences. It has shrunk over a seventh of its size in the last 46 years from 1971 to 2017. Using the latest earth observation data, Rashid and Majeed discovered the formation of a potential proglacial lake that began in 2008 and has been growing exponentially since 2014. In fact, within the last four years, the rate of retreat at the snout of the glacier appears to have “radically accelerated,” the authors note.

Tucked in a high-altitude, cold, and arid region, the Drang Drung glacier is a massive ice glacier at a whopping length of 23.3 kilometers, almost 15 miles long. Its runoff contributes as a major source of the Zanskar River, a tributary of the mighty Indus River. Additionally, the glaciers of the region play a crucial role in sustaining the area’s economy and energy supply.

But, to date, analysis on the evolution of glacial lakes and their hazardous potential in the northwest Himalayan region is limited. “Formation and behavior of proglacial lakes over the Jammu and Kashmir region have not been studied in much detail, and hence this region remains a data void,” Rashid explained to GlacierHub.

Despite studies in recent years to account for glacial recession and catalog the formation of glacial lakes in the Himalayas as a whole, data on glacial lake evolution, mass balance, snow cover dynamics, and other factors remain scanty. The study sought to provide a more comprehensive assessment of changes in the Drang Drung area. The dangerously high retreat rate in India’s Kashmir compared to other high-altitude glacierized regions in Asia indicates with high probability that this substantial home to glaciers could be lost before the end of the century, according to the article.

With other related implications in mind like streamflows, hydropower capabilities, and tourism, the study highlighted the importance of evaluating the regional changes to the water resources so that “policymakers are equipped with scientifically robust knowledge that will help in framing policies aimed to sustain the ever depleting water resources in the region.”

Toward this aim, Rashid and Majeed used a Glacier Bed Topography (GlabTop) model to estimate Drang Drung’s glacial thickness and glacier bed overdeepenings (characteristics of valleys and basins eroded by glaciers).

“These overdeepenings in the glacier bed provide an idea about the likelihood of formation of proglacial lakes in the future given the retreating behavior of glaciers,” said Rashid. Being able to input meteorological and climate projections, the researchers were able to simulate what portions of the glacier have the potential to hold water and form lakes as the glacier retreats in upcoming years.

Their conclusions were alarming. Since 1971, the glacier has receded a total of over 925 meters, the length of eight Olympic-sized soccer fields stretched out together. Over the past 46 years, the team distinguished three retreat rates: from 1971 to 2000, the glacier retreated at 22.76 meters a year; between 2000 and 2014, the rate slowed to 6.07 meters a year; and since 2014, the pace accelerated rapidly to 60 meters a year, a length just short of two NBA-size basketball courts.

In terms of the new lake, the team’s assessment revealed that the lake’s rapid growth has a potential peak discharge capacity between 2,343 and 2,667 cubic meters of water per second. For a bit of context on this capacity, in 2013, the outburst of the Chorabari lake in Kedarnath (a devastating flood that killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed critical infrastructure including 30 hydropower plants) released a peak discharge of only 783 cubic meters a second. This could mean that the burst of this new moraine-dammed proglacial lake at Drang Drung has the potential to release 3.5 times more discharge than the fatal 2013 outburst, increasing the vulnerability of communities living downstream.

On top of this finding, another portion of the team’s analysis indicated that temperature warming under current projections could lead to the formation of up to 76 new lakes in the region, although this remains entirely dependent of the future retreating behavior of Drang Drung. In addition, with a massive storage capacity following melting, the potential peak discharge rates were estimated to be at a whopping 35,000 to 48,000 cubic meters of water per second.

Despite the increased vulnerability discovered by the researchers, Rashid is unaware of any disaster risk preparedness initiatives to support the vulnerable communities.

“I do not think the communities have been sensitized with the implications of proglacial lakes and their vulnerability to GLOFs [glacial lake outburst floods],” Rashid told GlacierHub. “Since no such disaster has been reported in the regions, the policymakers seem to be in deep slumber. There are at least four such lakes that have constantly been growing in size since the past two decades in the Zanskar region only, and nobody seems to bother about it. I think the perception and response could be altogether different in case, and God forbid, a GLOF strikes the region.”

For the sake of the surrounding communities, the authors hope a major disaster isn’t the first motivator to get policymakers to discuss the necessary warning systems and other measures to protect the local people against the rising risks of climate change.

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If we thought reducing glaciers is only in Antarctica or North Pole and other northern hemispheric Regions, than we are absolutely wrong, this one is The Drang-Drung Glacier, a mountain glacier near the Pensi La mountain pass at the Kargil – Zanaskar Road in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir, India. The Drang-Drung Glacier is likely to be the largest glacier in Ladakh other than the Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range. If you talk to the locals, you could gauge the scale of reduction in past few years. This was clicked in August 2013 and locals told us that few years back we could hardly see the open land, I have seen a photograph clicked by a friend of mine this year and the glaciers have noticeably reduced even further. Hope with the active awareness, we humans contribute to the lesser damage to our environment in future and bring the nature back to it normalcy before it perishes for the future generation and better good of Mother Earth. #IncredibleIndia #MountainTales #Mountains #NatgeoCreative #NatGeo #Nature #Zanskar#Ladakh #Glaciers #Environment #Nikon #NoPollution #NatGeoTravel #LonelyPlanetIndia #LonelyPlanet #MountainTales #LifeLessons #_oye #NoFilters #ThroughANewLensContest #skyView -#arielview #Ladakh #India #incredibleindia #Landscape_captures #igs_asia #ig_india #igs_world #Stunning_shots #ig_worldphotos #d810 #Nikon @lonelyplanetindia @paulnicklen

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Video of the Week: Intense Landslide in India

Last month in northern India’s remote Nubra Valley, a video captured stunning moving debris flow from a potential glacial event, like a GLOF. At a high altitude of 10,000 feet (or 3,048 meters above sea level), Nubra Valley is tucked in the northeast part of the Ladakh district, surrounded by Pakistan, Tibet, Xinjiang Province of China, and India’s Himachal Pradesh. As one of two valleys in Ladakh, Lonely Planet described Nabra as “a tuft of land of the very scalp of India” and home to the heavily glaciated peaks of the Karakoram Range, including the contested Siachen Glacier and two major rivers.

Heavy rainfall is a typical trigger for landslides, but as weather conditions were fair at the time, it seems more likely the region’s sensitive glacier systems may be the cause. Recently, the relationship between melting glaciers, particularly permafrost and landslides has been studied in Alaska, and one recent study concluded climate change is expected to cause larger and more frequent avalanches due to the melting permafrost.

For more information on how climate change may create unstable conditions around glaciers, GlacierHub recently covered this topic.


Read more glacier news from this week:

Off with the Wind: The Reproduction Story of Antarctic Lichens

The Struggle for Water in the Andes

Roundup: Religion, Economic Impacts, and Glacial Recession


Climate Change Behind More Frequent & Powerful Avalanches in Alaska

As global temperatures rise, melting permafrost is expected to cause more frequent and hazardous landslides at Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Glacier N PS/Twitter).

Slow-moving changes to the planet are sometimes difficult to grasp on the human timescale. However, on the glacierized peaks of Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska, entire mountainsides are crashing down in spectacular avalanches and landslides. The culprit? Not the more usual earthquakes, extreme rainfall, or volcanic eruptions but melting permafrost from increasingly warmer than normal temperatures due to climate change.

In recent years, southeast Alaska has experienced notable rock avalanches on top of its glaciers. Rock avalanches involve landslides of fragmented rock that become hazardous due to their large size and ability to travel long distances at rapid speeds. In October 2015, the largest non-volcanic landslide ever recorded in North America occurred on the Tyndall Glacier. Second only to the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the massive landslide generated a tsunami wave that rose 600 feet, one of the largest tsunami run-ups ever recorded, and stripped alders off the upper reaches of hills on the shoreline.

Just a few months later, a massive rock avalanche spontaneously materialized on the Lamplugh Glacier. Although initially undetected due to its remote location, seismic instruments captured the event as having as much energy as a 5.2 earthquake.

Intrigued by what was happening in Glacier Bay National Park, a team of three geologists from the USGS explored the timing and characteristics of 24 rock avalanches in the park over a 33-year period from 1984 to 2016. Led by Jeff Coe, the recently published article in Landslide documented three distinct clusters of rock avalanche activity during those years: 1984-1986, 1994-1995, and 2012-2016 through the use of Landsat satellite imagery.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier before the 2016 landslide (Source: Allen Castillo/Flickr).

What they found was remarkable: Coe shared the exceptional size of the rock avalanches with GlacierHub. Since 2012, these avalanches were 1.5 to 5.9 times the next largest avalanche in the 33-year sample. The researchers concluded that the avalanches in this third cluster were primarily caused by the degradation of mountain permafrost from long-term warming, in addition to a record-breaking warm spell from 2014 to 2016 in the region. Besides melting permafrost, the study points to other factors such as glacial thinning, increased precipitations, and accumulating elastic strain, as contributors to the weakened slopes.

The increased size and distance of these avalanches appear to be determined more by winter temperatures as opposed to summer temperatures. Coe explains that the warmer than average winter temperatures are behind the weakening rock masses on top of the park’s glaciers, as conditions fail to refreeze as much during colder months as they have previously. As the temperatures warm up to around freezing-melting point in the late spring to summer months, the masses fail and collapse.

In general, climate change is expected to have an adverse impact on slope stability in Alaska. But there has been limited research to assess what changes have already occurred there. This study provides a robust example to systematically study and document the changes in the size and mobility of rock avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, taken in May 2018 (Source: Allan Watt/Flickr).

One interesting pattern the team noticed in their work was that 75 percent of the rock avalanches come from slopes facing north or northeast. Coe pointed to another study on the European Alps that could be applied to Alaska. Observing similar patterns during the 2003 summer heatwave, the scientists in the Alps study suggested the north-facing slopes in their research had more extensive rock permafrost compared to the southern slopes. With more permafrost, these north-facing slopes would be more impacted by anomalously warm temperatures.

So far, major avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park have struck remote areas of the park where humans rarely visit. But that luck may not continue. These events are a reminder of the increasing instability of the mountains and risks of disasters.

As was evident with the avalanche-induced tsunami in 2015, danger could strike on both land and in the water. Last June, tragedy struck a fishing village in Greenland when a mountain slope collapsed into a fjord, triggering a 300-foot tsunami wave killing four people.

“Going forward, we suggest that rock avalanche activity in Glacier Bay National Park should continue to be monitored to critically assess our results, hypotheses, and interpretations,” said Coe. If their hypothesis holds and warming temperatures are in fact the cause of the destabilization in these historically cold regions, more high-risk areas for landslides and rock avalanches in less remote parts can be expected.

Photo Friday: Disney Princesses Grow Up to be Earth Scientists

What did you want to be when you grew up? Well, one artist decided that the beloved Disney princesses wanted to be more than just royalty— they wanted to be earth scientists.

Science communicator and cartoonist JoAnna Wendel re-imagined five of Disney’s most popular princesses as field scientists across the world, forget the pretty dresses and prince charming. It’s not the first time artists have recreated the princesses, whether it’s morphing them into Game of Throne characters, zombie princesses, or even cats. But as Mohi Kumar from AGU’s Eos backstories to Wendel’s drawings suggest, these STEM heroines are curious, resilient, adventurous, and determined: all necessary characteristics of being a scientist. Earther’s Maddie Stone also wrote on Wendel’s art, noting how such images of familiar Disney princesses doing fieldwork with appropriate scientific equipment may seem like a small thing to do but could inspire the next generation of scientists to be more female and diverse.

Today’s Photo Friday showcases these environmentally-conscious Disney princesses: Queen Elsa (Glaciologist), Princess Jasmine (Atmospheric Chemist), Fa Mulan (Paleontologist), Princess Merida (Conservation Ecologist/Park Ranger), and Princess Ariel (Oceanographer). Be sure to check out Wendel’s work. She already has plans for the next round of princess scientists, including Princess Moana as a volcanologist!

With a passion for the cryosphere like GlacierHub, Elsa has dedicated her career to understanding the characteristics of the ice she conjures. In her spare time, she enjoys collecting and cataloging ice cores (Source: JoAnna Wendel/Instagram).


From ice sheets to deserts, Mulan stumbled across an amazing paleontological find working as a paleontologist (Source: JoAnna Wendel/Instagram).


Ariel’s been busy the past few years on land, but recently she’s found her calling back in the ocean, working as an oceonagrapher studying changing ocean conditions and acidification (Source: JoAnna Wendel/Instagram).


All those breathtaking rides on a magic carpet got Jasmine to thinking about questions related to the atmosphere. Now her research as an atmospheric chemist involves understanding the chemistry behind the atmosphere’s composition (Source: JoAnna Wendel/Instagram).


Merida is dedicated to protecting vulnerable microenvironments as a conservation ecologist/park ranger. She spends her days exploring forests, cataloging ecological diversity, and monitoring the health of the ecosystem (Source: JoAnna Wendel/Instagram).