Photo Friday: NASA’s Operation IceBridge

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s ongoing operation called IceBridge uses manned aircraft to study polar ice. IceBridge serves to bridge the gap between NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which stopped collecting data in 2009, and NASA’s second generation of the satellite (ICESat-2) which is scheduled to launch later this year.

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NASA P-3 Orion aircraft (Source: NASA)

The six year operation is the largest airborne survey of  Earth’s polar ice, and collects data about ice sheets, ice shelves, and sea ice in Greenland and the Antarctic. The goal is to document annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets along with collecting information to help with the modeling the effect of climate change on Earth’s polar ice, specifically in connection to possible sea-level rise.

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View from a NOAA P-3 aircraft showing the calving front of Sermeq Kujatdleq glacier (Source: NASA/John Sonntag)

IceBridge Airplanes fly over Greenland between March and May and in  over Antarctica between October and November. Smaller airplane surveys of ice around the world are also included in the IceBridge operation.

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Image of P-3 aircraft with data collection instruments labeled (Source: NASA)


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Image of P-3 aircraft with data collection instruments labeled Heimdal Glacier in southern Greenland, in an image captured on Oct. 13, 2015, from NASA Langley Research Center’s Falcon 20 aircraft flying 33,000 feet above mean sea level. (Source: NASA/John Sonntag)


Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord with Kap Atholl in the background, taken April 2013. (Source: NASA / Michael Studinger)



Scientists Look to Locals for Climate Change Study

Villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance rituals (source: A. Stensrud)
Quechua villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance (source: A. Stensrud)

Climate change data is usually collected by scientific instruments and satellites, but a recent study in Nature Climate Change reveals the importance of collecting observations made by local communities. The observations of subsistence-oriented communities indicate that climate change is threatening local food security by impacting animals and plants integral to the continued survival of these communities.

For the research paper, titled “Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world,” author Valentina Savo and five co-authors compared 10,660 observations from 2,230 localities in 137 countries with historical model simulations of climate change. The researchers analyzed local literature dating between 1994 and 2013 to explore relationships between climate and the perceptions of local peoples. Such observations from local communities are sometimes labeled Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which is defined as knowledge that is passed down for generations about the community’s environment and cultural interactions with that setting.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia, with Punta Grande in the background. Source: Phil Whitehouse/Wikimedia Commons

Even though satellite data and global climate models can accurately observe and predict climate change effects like drought and vegetation depletion, scientists have little reliable data on secondary climate change impacts. This includes information about the effects of drought on local animals, and how local animal population loss impacts rural communities. The authors state that methods such as theirs which document the  impacts that climate change is having on local ecosystems can provide material for predictions of fine-scale climate change impacts. Furthermore, effective strategies can be created to help adapt to climate changes.

This study focused on subsistence-oriented communities, which are defined as communities that “include indigenous and non-indigenous people who depend on natural resources for their livelihood and cultural identity.” The communities where observations were made were spread across the globe, but the Pacific Islands, central Africa and the North American Arctic accounted for the largest percentages of observations. Many cases were also drawn from the Himalayas and the Andes, where communities are reporting multiple changes in plant and animal species attributed to drier weather and warmer temperatures and retreat of glaciers.

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of data. Source: Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world/Nature Climate Changerr

The researchers collected information on changes in weather, changes in physical landscape, and changes in ecosystems. This includes climatic conditions, resource abundance, and weather patterns. Some of the best examples of climate change impacts can be seen in the coldest climates. For example, increasing temperature combined with decreasing snowfall are the most common observations among communities in Arctic and sub-Arctic northern locations. In Sweden, changes in temperature, weather, and ice formation have led traditional Sami herders to abandon some of their herding practices. In Alaska, the coast is eroding at an increased rate due to reduced sea ice and more storms. Snowfall, permafrost, glaciers, and sea ice are all singled out in Figure 1 as being in decline.

Furthermore, increased temperatures are impacting the oceans, changing fish and marine mammal migration on which the communities rely. Alaskan fisheries have seen an alarming number of sharks, jellyfish and other species that are typical of warmer waters. While migrating ocean wildlife is continuing to shift to deeper or higher-latitude waters, land plants and animals are following the same pattern, shifting either north or to higher elevations to escape the increasingly warmer latitudes or altitudes.

Previous research has noted broad consistency in observations made by local subsistence-oriented communities and local instrumental data. This reinforces the value of local observational data, which fills gaps left by sparse instrumental data.

Changpa nomadic people of the Himalayas. Changtang, Tibet. Source: Pseudois

It is important that science recognizes the observations made by subsistence-oriented communities. Models and satellites cannot tell you how winds and ice conditions link together to inform animal behavior, but the community that lives with these conditions can. By collecting and comparing information from local communities, we can not only better grasp fine-scale climate change impacts but also create specific strategies for at-risk communities to better adapt to climate change.

‘Foreign Policy’ Salutes the Cryosphere

Last month, a Foreign Policy column focused on security issues turned its attention to the cryosphere.

The writer, Sharon Burke, a senior advisor at the New America foundation and former Obama administration official, began by pointing out the “aesthetic pleasure” of the term “cryosphere”:

The word sounds like some kind of secret realm, possibly involving dead people, but it’s really ice, snow, glaciers, and permafrost. The cryosphere is all the frozen places on Earth, or more specifically, all the frozen water on Earth.

There’s just one problem with the magical ice kingdom: It’s melting.

Burke then focused on a new study (the New York Times covered it in late March) about the Antarctic ice sheet, and the implications that could have for the billions who live in places where the waters will rise.

According to the study, published in the journal Nature in March 2016 and called “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise,” the Antarctic ice sheet is melting at a much faster rate than previously thought. This melting ice ends up in the Earth’s oceans, contributing to sea level rise.

Effect of Southern Ocean warming on Antarctic surface air temperatures and the ice sheet at 128 kyr ago (Photo: Robert M. DeConto, David Pollard )

The study uses updated modeling, which includes details about rocks and glaciers, to establish projections of future Antarctic ice sheet loss. The authors say that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, the West Antarctic ice sheet will start to break apart by the year 2050. The model includes melting from both below and above the ice sheets, by including the impact from warmer ocean currents underneath ice sheets and warmer temperatures in the atmosphere. The improved model reproduced ancient historical sea levels more accurately than previous models, focusing on a period  125,000 years ago, when the oceans were 20 to 30 feet higher. This success supports the model’s ability to accurately predict future sea levels.

But the Antarctic ice sheet is not the only factor influencing sea level. Sea ice, land glaciers, and permafrost are also melting at a rate that contributes to the disappearance of the cryosphere and contributing to rising oceans.

Components of the cryosphere and their time scales. (Photo: IPCC )

Sea level rise is a very large problem for the human populations located in the vulnerable coastal zones. The Times article points out that New York, a city founded roughly 400 years ago, is unlikely to remain intact for the next 400 years. Cities like Miami, London, Hong Kong, and Sydney are also likely to feel the rising tides. But the populations in the most danger are those outside in the developing world. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, provides an example. It is one of the most populated cities in the world, with 15 million people, and is located at sea level.

Flooding is already common in Dhaka (Photo: flickr/masud ananda)

According to the study, the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet could mean more than three feet of sea level rise, leaving limited alternatives for populations at risk. Costly solutions like sea walls and augmented infrastructure are out of the reach of the poorest cities. This leaves them in the greatest danger, with few options.

Roundup: Fungus, Hydropower, and Microbes

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.


Fungal Biodiversity in the Periglacial Soil of Dosdè Glacier

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An example of a Northern Italian Glacier (Credit: Wikimedia)

From The Journal of Basic Microbiology:

“Periglacial areas are one of the least studied habitats on Earth, especially in terms of their fungal communities. In this work, both molecular and culture-dependent methods have been used to analyse the microfungi in soils sampled on the front of the East Dosdè Glacier (Valtellina, Northern Italy). Although this survey revealed a community that was rich in fungal species, a distinct group of psychrophilic microfungi has not been detected. Most of the isolated microfungi were mesophiles, which are well adapted to the sensitive climatic changes that occur in this alpine environment. A discrepancy in the results that were obtained by means of the two diagnostic approaches suggests that the used molecular methods cannot entirely replace traditional culture-dependent methods, and vice versa.”

Read more here.


Review of Climate Change and the Impacts on Cryosphere, Hydrological Regimes and Glacier Lakes

From FutureWater Report:

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Kabul, situated 5,900 feet (1,800 m) above sea level in a narrow valley, wedged between the Hindu Kush mountains (Credit: Wikimedia)

“The climate, cryosphere and hydrology of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region have been changing in the past and will change in the future. In this literature review, the state of knowledge regarding climate change and its connections to changes in the cryosphere and hydrology has been investigated, with a specific focus on impacts for hydropower development. From historical trends in climate it is clear that air temperature has been increasing in the HKH region over the past decades. Rates of increase are different for daily mean air temperature, maximum air temperature and minimum air temperature. Temperature in the higher elevations increased more over time than temperature in lower elevations. Historical precipitation trends on the other hand show no significant increasing or decreasing trends overall, but the trends vary locally.”

 Read more here.

Microbial Communities in Alpine Soils

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Air temperature, precipitation, and snow depth measured for the sampling period of this study. (Data collected from the IDAWEB database of the Swiss Meteorological Institute)

From Frontiers in Microbiology:

“Microbial communities in alpine environments are exposed to several environmental factors related to elevation and local site conditions and to extreme seasonal variations. However, little is known on the combined impact of such factors on microbial community structure. We assessed the effects of seasonal variations on soil fungal and bacterial communities along an elevational gradient (from alpine meadows to a glacier forefield, 1930–2519 m a.s.l.) over 14 months.”

Read more about microbial communities found on glaciers here.

New Study Warns: Rapid Sea Level Rise, Superstorms Likely

Existing climate change assessments could be underestimating the amount of future sea level rise, as well as the likelihood of other phenomenons like increased superstorms and glacier loss, warns a new high-profile paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. The study, by longtime climate scientist James Hansen and 18 co-authors, has gained attention recently for its radical projections of climate change impacts.

Photo: Dr. James Hansen

To conduct research for the paper, titled Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming is highly dangerous, Hansen and the other authors combined ancient climate data with new satellite readings and an updated climate model to show that ice melt is occurring more quickly than previously thought. Instead of incrementally melting, the ice sheets around the Earth’s poles actually melt at a non-linear rate, losing mass rapidly, according to Hansen and his team.

“We have uncovered information and a partial understanding of feedbacks in the climate system, specifically interactions between the ocean and the ice sheets. These feedbacks raise questions about how soon we will pass points of no return, in which we lock in consequences that cannot be reversed on any time scale that people care about. Consequences include sea level rise of several meters, which we estimate would occur this century or at latest next century, if fossil fuel emissions continue at a high level,” Hansen says in a video released about the paper. “That would mean loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history.”

Hansen notes that a positive feedback loop is created as ice melt influences the structure of the ocean’s layers. As cold freshwater runoff from exit glaciers flows into the ocean, it lowers the density of the surface water. This change of density shuts down the normal circulation in which cold salty water sinks and brings warm water to the surface, releasing the heat it carries into the atmosphere. But when heat stays in the ocean at a depth where ice shelves contact the trapped warm water, a feedback loop occurs. The warm water next to the deep ice makes the ice melt even faster.

Stratification and precipitation amplifying feedbacks. Source: Hansen et al, 2015

Thus the ice melt in these regions causes further loss of ice sheets in direct contact with the ocean, which contributes to more rapid movement of exit glaciers and to faster sea level rise. In addition to quickening ice melt, the feedback loop also contributes to shutting down the ocean’s circulation, trapping warm water between layers of cold water in polar regions. The feedback loop creates a greater temperature gradient by increasing temperature differences between high and low latitudes, which increases the likelihood of superstorms.

Source: 5 Meters of sea level rise

Earth’s ice sheets are melting quickly, and the rate of melt is also expected to increase exponentially. As a result, we could see the sea level rise up to five meters, or about 16 feet, by the end of this century if no emissions reduction actions are taken. This puts many of the world’s coastal cities in danger of flooding, including cities like Miami, London, New York, Miami and Shanghai.

The paper forecasts a greater increase in sea level within a shorter period of time than other research has found. In its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the U.N’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts closer to three feet of sea level rise occurring at or after 2100.

“The models that were run for the IPCC report did not include ice melt,” Hansen said at a news conference.

But the paper has received criticism. Hansen and the other researchers first released their research as a discussion paper in the European Geosciences Union (EGU) Open Access journals. This made the paper visible to the public before the peer review process was finished, which is atypical of scientific research and generated some criticism.

There has been contention about Hansen findings within the scientific community, which can be seen not only in the papers reviews and comments but also playing out across Twitter and in the news. In an op-ed on the paper in the New York Times, the environmental journalist Andy Revkin quoted  the climate journalist Eric Holthaus, who succinctly sums up the negative responses in the tweet, appended below.

Gravity satellite ice sheet mass measurements for greenland and antarctic ice sheets. Photo: Hansen

Concern has been expressed that the predictions made in the paper are too extreme. For one, some critics found the assumptions, such as exponential rates of ice loss, to be improbable. Others raised objections to the particular way in which paleoclimate data was used to suggest future conditions. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research strongly criticized the study, saying that “there are way too many assumptions and extrapolations for anything here to be taken seriously other than to promote further studies.” As the extensive comments on blog posts here and here show, the paper by Hansen and his team has attracted a great deal of attention, and sparked lengthy debates in the scientific community.

At a February 2012 TED talk titled Why I must speak out about climate change Hansen said: “Clearly I haven’t got this message across. The science is clear. I need your help to communicate the gravity and urgency of this situation and its solutions more effectively. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Photo Friday: Sichuan–Tibet Highway

The Sichuan–Tibet Highway is known as China’s most dangerous highway. The highway begins in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and ends in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The highway spans 2,142 km, or 1331 miles, over 14 mountains (some with glaciers), runs through ancient forests, and crosses many rivers.  Because of the steep inclines of the landscape, the road was constructed with many curves and zigzags. Running through valleys, up and down mountains, and across or alongside rapid rivers, the route is made even more perilous by the fact that it is not fully paved with proper roads in some places.

Originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway, this lengthy road will take the most dedicated traveler 44 hours to drive, but can take up to 15 days for someone who wants to stop and see all the sights (like a glacier or two) along the way.

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A group of adventurous drivers took 11 sports cars on a journey along the famously perilous Sichuan–Tibet Highway, six of which didn’t even make it halfway. The disastrous results from the ill-advised adventure include a Ferrari and a Maserati with damages like broken axles and sheared tires. See the video below for highlights from their trip.

Artist Jodi Patterson and the ‘Emergency of Now’

As a painter, Jodi Patterson spent decades inside a studio. Now, as a landscape photographer, she uses photography as a platform for activism. Glaciers and icebergs, both susceptible to climate change, are a frequent subject of hers. She also enjoys photographing landscapes like rivers with waterfalls and mountain ranges.

Since 1989, Patterson has been exhibiting her art across the globe, including displays at such sites as the Manhattan Cultural Center, the Tate Modern in London, Ph21 gallery in Budapest, and COP21 at La Maison Bleu in Paris. She has been published in the International Journal of Art in Education and the Visual Arts Research Journal and serves as co-editor of  ARTIZEIN: Arts and Teaching Journal.

Patterson has extensive travel experience, which informs her deep appreciation of nature, making it the subject of many of her photographs. Currently she works as an assistant professor and coordinator of Eastern Washington University’s art program.

Iceland (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)


GlacierHub spoke with Patterson by email.


GlacierHub: What first piqued your interest in photographing glaciers? And how does photographing glaciers differ from photographing other landscapes?

Iceland (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)

Jodi Patterson: Access is key. It wasn’t until I moved out west that I became acquainted with the beauty of a glacier first-hand. Now that I live in Washington I can easily get in a car and tromp a glacier, or hop a short airplane ride to them. Admittedly, at first it was about the adventure – the challenge and nuance of traversing a glacier. But as I met people who live and work around them, they show me how far the glaciers move, and teach me how much their lives (and the lives of plants and animals) are affected by the receding of the ice. I then began using my ability to voice collective worries via my art and audience.

All landforms have an essence. Glaciers have a dynamic balance of silence, sound and surprise – and offer a compelling and unique visual form to explore. The glory and grace of both their power and vulnerability is exactly the type of magnificence artists/people rarely get to experience first hand. Glaciers differ from landscapes due to their rarity of their form and the difficulty of walking to and on them.



Alaska (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)

GH: Many of your glacier images have surprisingly intense blues. Is this hard to capture?

I stare at my photographs and marvel at the color and patterns of the glaciers. I never would or could have thought to paint the world with the colors that naturally emerge on, in and around glaciers. The blues in the crevasses of a glacier are formed through thousands of years of compression. There is simply nothing else in the world that combines light, water and mineral in a way that produces the stunning ice blues that creep up to the light. As you can tell, my camera loves this anomaly.



GH: Many of your glacier images show details of glaciers, rather than long views of entire mountains. Why is this?

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)

I suppose I take closer views of glaciers because I am closer – I am there. I am falling, slipping and tromping on the ice. I realize few people get to experience them as closely as I do – so I show it as I see it.

Though I appreciate the compliment and attention to my work, I really have no hand in the base splendor of what the photographs reveal! As a photographer, I choose to use my art as a witness and advocate of the land and climate. I feel blessed to be able to share our big, amazing world with others via my photos.


GH: Could you talk a bit about the difference between the two mediums you work with, paint and photography?

JP: I mentioned earlier that I spent most of my artistic life learning how to manipulate color through paint. Paint is my first love, but the skills of a painter (composition, form, color, etc.) can transfer to the photographer both pre and post-shot. Though skill transference occurs, I could write an entire paper comparing and contrasting the praxis of painting vs. photography!    Perhaps the biggest shift (besides working in a studio vs. in nature) is that, as a photographer, I can only get “morning” if I am awake and outside in the morning. A painter can paint morning any time of a day he/she pleases.

More to your point, I call myself an interdisciplinary artist. This means I allow the message to dictate the medium not the other way around. As of now, photography best evidences my message of climate change and provides a fairly literal defense of it, which allows the message to not get lost in the abstraction of another art form. So far, my audience watches with interest.

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)

GH: You write: “As an emerging landscape photographer, I am quickly learning the emergency-of-now; how once-in-a-lifetime moments are immediately lost if not acted upon.” Could you expand on this?

Alaska (Image with permission from: Jodi Patterson)

JP: The “emergency-of-now” is a core philosophy that relates to my personal, aesthetic and political views of life.

Personally, it reminds me to pay attention to what is important about a day and/or a life. You know – the “don’t sweat the small stuff” sort of thing.

Aesthetically, it prompts me to seek, notice and respond to “life” – and not take it for granted. So often people believe the things they witness, love or know will be always be accessible to us, but life dictates otherwise. A simple example occurred the other day when I was driving down the highway. In the corner of my eye, I noticed a waterfall flowing into a still pond, thus reflecting itself in the water and I thought there might be a photo there. It would have been easier to get that photo on my return, but I knew if I didn’t find a place to pull over and run to the waterfall immediately, the water may soon begin to ripple, the light would change and the photo might not have the value it had at that moment. So I found a place to pull over and I ran about a ¼ mile back to get the image, and I was happy with it.

And lastly, politically, the climate and the land pulsate with an urgent cry for attention. The glaciers are receding, the earth is cracking and water is becoming a commodity. The time to act in defense of the climate and the land is now and photographs can help divulge this fact and inspire others to care.


Roundup: Holes, Wedding, and Collapse

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Holes in Glaciers May Harbor Unique Flora


Examples of cryoconite holes (A –B), and an overview of the Nordenskiöld tide-water glacier (C). (Photo:CZECH POLAR REPORTS)
Examples of cryoconite holes (A –B), and an overview of the Nordenskiöld tide-water glacier (C). Photo:CZECH POLAR REPORTS
From Czech Polar Reports – Masaryk University:
“Cryoconite holes are small, extreme habitats, widespread in the ablation zones of glaciers worldwide. They can provide a suitable environment for microorganisms including bacteria, cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, and invertebrate
s. Diatoms have been previously recovered from cryoconite holes of Greenland and of Svalbard, and recent findings from Antarctica suggest that cryoconite holes may harbor a unique diatom flora distinct from other aquatic habitats nearby. In the present study, we characterize the diatom communities of Nordenskiöld glacier cryoconite holes in Billefjorden (Svalbard, Spitsbergen), and multivariate approaches were used to compare them with three freshwater localities in the immediate vicinity to investigate possible sources of the species pool.”
Read more about what may be using holes in glaciers as habitats.

Wedding Inside Icelandic Glacier


British couple Anthony and Mari were the first to get married inside Langjökull glacier. Photo:Photo/Kristín María Stefánsdóttir
British couple Anthony and Mari were the first to get married inside Langjökull glacier. Photo:Photo/Kristín María Stefánsdóttir


From Iceland Magazine:

“The first wedding ceremony to take place inside Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, happened last week when British couple Anthony and Mari were joined in marriage.

Travel organiser Pink Iceland assisted the couple with their wedding plans, which began over a year ago. The bride and groom and their guests stayed at Hótel Húsafell, West Iceland, and the wedding location was kept secret up until the last moment. “After breakfast we made sure all the guests were well dressed. Then a number of super jeeps picked up the group and drove them up onto the glacier,” Eva María Þórarinsdóttir, one of Pink Iceland’s owners, told Vísir.”

Learn more about this stunning glacier wedding.

Argentina Glacier Collapse


(Photo:Screengrab ) from video from The Guardian
Photo:Screengrab  from video from The Guardian


From Fox News Latino:

“Argentina’s massive Perito Moreno glacier this week began the process leading to its cyclical rupture, a spectacular event involving the collapse of huge masses of ice that draw thousands of tourists and that has not happened since 2012.

“The Perito Moreno Glacier began its breakup process. We’re waiting! (We) came to experience it firsthand!,” said the Tourism Secretariat of El Califate, a city some 80 km (50 mi.) from the glacier, Tuesday on Twitter.

Before the big show, a huge number of tourists and the news media began arriving at the Los Glaciares National Park in the southern province of Santa Cruz, which receives some 700,000 tourist each year.

“It’s not known how long it’s going to take. We only know from earlier experiences. In the last breakups starting from the moment when the outflow starts, which is what happened this morning, the process normally takes … three or four days,” park official Matilde Oviedo told EFE.”

See more of the video here and read more about the event here.

Photo Friday: Spotlight on Heard Island and Big Ben Volcano

Big Ben, a volcano on the remote sub-Antarctic Heard Island, has erupted three times in the past 15 years, but scientists have just recently been able to capture live images, reports CNET. Researchers were excited to observe lava spilling down the volcano’s Mawson Peak, down over the glacier that is situated there. Because of how remote the island is, humans haven’t been around to witness an eruption until now.

According to the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment, Australia Antarctic Division: “The Heard and McDonald Islands (HIMI) is a subantarctic island group located in the Southern Ocean, about 4,000 kilometers south west of mainland Australia.”

Because of its isolation, human activity on and around Heard Island is limited to short terrestrial and marine research expeditions. But there are a number of different birds and marine wildlife known to frequent the island and its icy waters.

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Bacteria From the Sahara Desert Found on Swiss Glaciers

Bacteria living among dust particles from the Sahara have been found trapped in ice and snow on the Swiss Alps at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, according to a December article in Frontiers in Microbiology. The samplings collected from the Jungfraujoch region of Switzerland contained bacteria originally from northwest Africa, meaning these bacteria survived a remarkable wind-blown journey of over 1000 miles. These bacteria are particularly adapted to cope with UV radiation and dehydration stress, say authors Marco Meola, Anna Lazzaro, and Josef Zeyer.

Example of dust plume from North Africa over the Mediterranean Sea (Photo: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC)

In February 2014 there was a strong Saharan dust event. According to the NASA Earth Observatory, dust events occur when powerful African winds uplift sand and dust into the atmosphere. Reaching high altitudes, clouds of dust are then transported across the globe through high altitude wind patterns. Initial uplift events are difficult to predict. In the past researchers collected dust samples via air capture, snatching the particulates, also called bioaerosols, straight out of the air before they landed. But it is difficult to grab enough dust using this method to have a sample size large enough for microbiological analyses, and the act of gathering particulates from the air often damages the samples that are captured. By collecting samples from snowpack in the European Alps, the researchers were able to obtain a pure sample without damaging the integrity and the potential viability of the particulates.

Bioaerosols are airborne particles that contain biological matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes fungi, bacteria, and even viruses. Charles Darwin first discovered bioaerosols on his famous journey across the Atlantic with the crew of the Beagle. He describes them in his 1846 An account of the fine dust which often falls on vessels in the Atlantic Ocean as “67 different organic forms in fine dust particles.”

Section of one vertical snow profile sampled at Jungfraujoch.(Courtesy of :Meola M, Lazzaro A and Zeyer J )

Saharan dust events that travel toward Europe are rare. Because these events are monitored in real-time at the Jungfraujoch meteorological station, researchers are able to connect samples to specific dust events. For their research, Meola, Lazzaro, and Zeyer used samples taken from a depth of 220 cm from an excavated vertical trench in June 2014.

The particulates collected and attributed to the February 2014 Saharan dust event were tracked back to Algeria. Surrounding countries like Niger, Mali, and Morocco may have also contributed dust particles. Until they landed on the snow in Jungfraujoch, the bioaerosols stayed high in the upper atmosphere, where they were free from any risk of contamination. Three days after landing, the Sahara Dust particles were covered with fresh snow, preserving them by keeping them cold, insulated, and safe from UV radiation.

Meola, Lazzaro, and Zeyer were surprised that one phylum of bacteria, Proteobacteria, was the most common in both the clean-snow control sample and in the Sahara dust sample. What they did discover in the Sahara dust snow samples was an abundance of pigment-producing bacteria from Africa, absent from the clean-snow samples, including the pigment-producing Gemmatimonadetes. These are bacteria that have adapted to cope with high amounts UV radiation, very low temperatures, stress from dehydration, and nutrient deficient conditions. These unique adaptations allow them to survive the long journey from Africa to Europe.

It is remarkable that these tiny organisms, adapted to the desert conditions in the Sahara, can survive high in the atmosphere and as well as under the snow.

Glacier Retreat Ushers in Arachnids

Harvestmen— a spider-like arachnid— are among the first creatures to inhabit land in the wake of glacier retreat, according to a recent study by Sigmund Hågvar and Daniel Flø in the Norwegian Journal of Entomology. The land where glaciers have recently melted is an ideal habitat for creepy-crawlies including spiders, beetles, and other invertebrates. Perhaps surprisingly, these predators are often the first species found on this new land, before herbivores and even plants, although classical theories in ecology state that it should be the other way around.

The authors suggest that this reversal is made possible by the availability of two types of prey: insects that fly in from neighboring areas or are carried in by the wind, and midges that hatch in the carbon-rich puddles formed by meltwater from the retreating glaciers.

Mitopus morio (Photo:Source: Parent Géry)
Mitopus morio (Photo:Parent Géry)

Although Hågvar and Flø mention other species in their article, the study focuses on Mitopus morio, a common spider-like creature in the arachnid family called a harvestman (Opiliones). In America, harvestmen are commonly known as daddy-longlegs. These creatures are both predators and scavengers, since they consume living and dead invertebrates. Having a relatively short life cycle of only one year, young harvestmen hatch during snowmelt in spring and die as mature adults in the fall. Due to their habit of living on newly uncovered land, harvestmen are considered pioneer invertebrates.

Harvestmen are found across Norway, but Hågvar and Flø focused on the ones living in areas of glacier retreat, specifically at the Midtdalsbreen Glacier near the mountain village Finse. This glacier drains the eastern portion of the Hardangerjøkulen (Hardanger Ice Cap).

Hardangerjøkulen Glacier (Photo: Source: de:Benutzer:GerdM)
Hardangerjøkulen Glacier (Photo: de:Benutzer:GerdM)

The study was conducted in different areas— on land that was uncovered 205 years ago and on more recently uncovered terrain. Hågvar and Flø found that harvestmen greatly outnumbered spiders except at the oldest site, and also outnumbered the total number of carabid beetles located at three of the sites (areas uncovered 40, 160 and 205 years ago). In the land that has been uncovered for three years, harvestmen follow the glacier retreat, living alongside the glacier’s edge.
The creatures live on barren ground, meaning there doesn’t need to be any vegetation for them to thrive. The lack of vegetation allows them to move freely, and the empty land is better heated by the sun— an important benefit for these cold-blooded organisms. The study found that the harvestmen thrive best during warm and dry years. Because of the quick establishment of life on what is considered inhospitable land, harvestmen serve as a reminder that nature is remarkable and surprising.

Mitopus morio (Photo: Photo: Ed Nieuwenhuys.)
Mitopus morio (Photo: Ed Nieuwenhuys.)

Roundup: Glaciers Lose Old Timber, Gain Dust and Carbon

Efforts to Clean Up Switzerland

“A lot of infrastructure in the Alps dilapidates due to a missing use, the absence of owners or an unclear legal status. The infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century consists of solidified, impregnated wood, and metal. A recent survey by mountain wilderness has shown that there are – just as an example – over 600 ski lifts without being used, left for decomposition.
The aim of this Mountain Wilderness Switzerland’s project is the deconstruction of a decayed hut in commune of Safien, the canton of Graubünden, in an appropriate way (professional recycling and waste disposal). It involves all the necessary work to deconstruct the building: Obtaining the permission to do so, inspecting the material used, organising their appropriate recycling or disposal (where not possible elsewhere), and – finally – the deconstruction. Hence, the local habitat is able to regenerate, biodiversity and the ecosystem will profit from our action in the long term. The spot once covered by the building will be restored to its natural state with long term benefits for plants, animals (and mountaineers).”
(Courtesy of :UIAA Mountain Protection Award)

To learn more about this project click here.

Dust from Sahara found in European Alps

“Deposition of Sahara dust (SD) particles is a frequent phenomenon in Europe, but little is known about the viability and composition of the bacterial community transported with SD. The goal of this study was to characterize SD-associated bacteria transported to the European Alps, deposited and entrapped in snow. During two distinct events in February and May 2014, SD particles were deposited and promptly covered by falling snow, thus preserving them in distinct ochre layers within the snowpack.”
Section of one vertical snow profile sampled at Jungfraujoch.(Courtesy of :Meola M, Lazzaro A and Zeyer J )

To find out more about the dust from the Sahara that blew all the way to the Alps, click here.

Antarctic Glaciers Act as Carbon Sinks

“Glacier surface ecosystems, including cryoconite holes and cryolakes, are significant contributors to regional carbon cycles. Incubation experiments to determine the net production (NEP) of organic matter in cryoconite typically have durations of 6-24 hours, and produce a wide range of results, many of which indicate that the system is net heterotrophic. We employ longer term incubations to examine the temporal variation of NEP in cryoconite from the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica to examine the effect of sediment disturbance on system production, and to understand processes controlling production over the lifetimes of glacier surface ecosystems. The shorter-term incubations have durations of one week and show net heterotrophy. The longer term incubations of approximately one year show net autotrophy, but only after a period of about 40 days (~1000 hours). The control on net organic carbon production is a combination of the rate of diffusion of dissolved inorganic carbon from heterotrophic activity within cryoconite into the water, the rate of carbonate dissolution, and the saturation of carbonate in the water (which is a result of photosynthesis in a closed system). We demonstrate that sediment on glacier surfaces has the potential to accumulate carbon over timescales of months to years.”

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Example of tidewater glacier on the Antarctic coast (Courtesy of : Jason Auch
Read More about how Antarctic glaciers can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere here.