Photo Friday: John Singer Sargent’s Glaciers

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses several works by the artist John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence in January 1856 to an American couple, Sargent is known for his landscapes and his portraits. Growing up, the artist traveled extensively around Europe. Several of the drawings below come from a sketchbook Sargent had at age 14 and include images of glaciers and mountains. The book was titled “Splendid Mountain Watercolours” by the author and contains watercolor,  graphite, and black crayon drawings. In 1950 this sketchbook, along with several other drawings and paintings, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Singer’s younger sister Violet Sargent Ormond. Currently not on display,  the images can be viewed online at the museum’s website.

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Even You Can Contribute to Glacier Research

A new method proposed by Gloria Bordogna and her team allows researchers to make use of data that volunteers have collected about glaciers and other topics. In this way, researchers can avoid errors that can occur when relying on people who lack proper training.

In the Age of Technology, the proliferation of smart phones and geo-apps has allowed many people to become actively involved in data collection. They provide information through texts and pictures, many with precise locations. Their efforts contribute to what is called citizen science–broad public participation in data collection for scientific research. Such data can be provided by people who care about glaciers, including tourists, climbers, residents of mountain regions,  and others who are affected by glacier retreat.

Datasets of volunteered information can be used by different researchers for different purposes.  Some of those who study glaciers might want to know the location of glacier features, which shift slowly, while others might want to know the date when the first snowfall arrived in a specific portion of the glacier. Still others might want very sharp photographs of glaciers for reproduction.
“To deposit or not to deposit: that is the question”  (Source: Roche DG et al.)

Citizen science creates an opportunity by providing a great deal of free data from volunteers. It also poses a challenge, since the data can be of uneven quality, making it burdensome for researchers to decide one-by-one on the validity of each data entry. At present,  many scientists and policy-makers reject the use of volunteered information, since they believe that it is not reliable.  Research on the assessment of the quality of volunteered data is quite recent, dating back to the early years of this decade.

Without systems in place to assess the quality of the data, it can be hard to ensure that information was gathered with the necessary level of scientific accuracy. A recent article in the ISPRS Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences  introduces credible ways to evaluate Volunteered Geographic Information – another term for citizen science in environmental fields. The lead author Gloria Bordogna, a researcher at the Institute for Electromagnetic Sensing of the Environment of the Italian National Research Council, and her team members  suggest that setting quality levels for data sources as well as minimum acceptance levels and thresholds for specific quality indicators can assure the scientific soundness of volunteered data.

In order to set quality  levels, the researchers would decide what factors are important to the credibility of the information. They then establish scores for categories of characteristics of the volunteers and of the organizations to which they belong, as well as characteristics of observational data, whether recorded as images or texts. Specific features include the length of the notes, the precision of the recording of the location and the time, and the length of the field visit, as well as other variables.  In this way, says Bordogna, a researcher can rank incoming data based on quality. The information is numerically ranked. A researcher who wishes to conduct a study based on such data is able to weigh the factors, giving the most important factors higher weight. For example, observations of the location of a glacier front taken from a highly trained volunteer would be more reliable and thus receive more weight than specific observations from a less trusted source, if the researcher believes volunteer background to be an important factor in their study. For a study of the timing of the first snowfall in autumn, a researcher might choose to place greater weight on the date of the collection of information.

Data quality concerns come up in other areas of citizen science. There are two major areas where citizen science is well established: ornithology (the Christmas Bird Count from Audubon Society being a major example) and astronomy. For the amateur astronomers who identify comets, the assessment of reliability is not  a great problem: soon after one person reports a comet,  others will see it if it is really there. For birdwatchers, data quality is can be a greater problem, since a report of an unusual sighting might be erroneous. Considerable progress has been made in this field; one bibiliography contains over 50 articles on methods for assessing volunteered data quality in ornithology. In a sense, glaciers are closer to comets than birds, in that a number of people are likely to report on an individual glacier, making it easier to identify outliers in a dataset, and to scrutinize them more closely.
European Alps (Source:Fiesch)

With this new method of evaluating the accuracy of volunteer data,  introduced by Bordogna and her team, researchers can engage with communities near glaciers, in places such as the Alps. The new approach allows for greater flexibility, letting researchers and decision makers filter data to match their specific needs. In this way data once considered unusable due to quality issues can now be valuable information to the scientific community and policy makers.




Life on the Edge: The Science of Glaciers that Meet Oceans

Tidewater glacier on Antarctic coast (source: Jason Auch/Flickr)
Tidewater glacier on Antarctic coast (source: Jason Auch/Flickr)

In an October 2015 article in Earth & Space Science News, David Holland and Denise Holland suggest steps to increase the understanding of glacier melt to improve projections of sea level rise.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports have concluded that anthropogenic causes are to blame for glacier retreat in the last century. They predict that increased melt in the present century will rise global sea levels. The authors report that the contribution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, alone will change low-lying coastal and communities worldwide and threaten marine ecosystems.

They note that the rate of sea level rise will be influenced by a number of factors, including the local shifts in the gravitational pull of land masses, along with changes in water currents, wind patterns, and water temperature and salinity. The rebound of land masses, once the weight of glaciers and ice sheets is removed, will also influence sea levels.

Map of Antarctica (source: Maximilian Dörrbecker [Chumwa])
The complex nature of the interface between ice sheets and the ocean also creates uncertainty about the future of many of the West Antarctic glaciers, as it is difficult to make predictions of how the ice will react in the future. In one possible scenario, the circulation of warm ocean waters that is currently held off by continued cold meltwater runoff from Antarctica could grow larger, and the cold water barrier would no longer block it from teaching the continent. The warm water would thus be able to make direct contact with the underside of the glacier and warm it from below, greatly increasing the glacier melt.

Holland and Holland note that many problems with predicting the effects of West Antarctic glacier melt stem from a deficit of data. Though satellites are able to measure glacier volume, they are unable to observe the water resting underneath glaciers or the land mass upon which some glaciers rest. Another area of difficulty in predicting the melting of the West Antarctic glacier involves a shortfall in scientific understanding of calving—the process in which the section of a glacier front breaks and falls into the ocean. Scientists compare the difficulties of constructing models of calving to the challenges of predicting earthquakes. They remain unable to make long-term predictions about when they will occur.
Sketch of the Antarctic coast showing interactions of ice sheet, glaciers and oceans. (Source: Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany )

Holland and Holland state that in order to create accurate predictions for the contributions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to sea level rise, scientists need to couple glacier and ocean models. Currently there is little cooperation between glaciologists and oceanographers, even though both work on sea level rise since each uses separate models specific to their disciplines. To address this problem Holland and Holland report, the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) has established a project, Climate and Cryosphere (CliC). This project held a meeting in October 2014, in which the Marine Ice Sheet–Ocean Model Intercomparison Project (MISOMIP) was established. The project seeks to draw on the efforts glaciological and oceanographic modelers. The participants in the project work together to create coupled and interactive glacier-ocean models. The goal is to follow this suite of glacier-ocean models with regional simulations of specific outlet glaciers such as those found in West Antarctica.

Holland and Holland say that scientists, by coupling glacier and ocean models, can greatly improve the accuracy of future sea level rise projections attributed to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its outlet glaciers. Because of the increasing threat of sea level rise to communities around the world, the accuracy of such projections is of great value. It is to be hoped that this importance will support efforts to produce these projections, which require increased cooperative effort between nations and between disciplines.




Roundup: A Big March, High Futures, and GREAT ICE

Worldwide Climate March, in Photos

“On the eve of the opening of the UN climate change conference in Paris, campaigners around the world from Melbourne to London are marching to demand action.”

London march makes its way through Piccadilly
The London March. (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

See more pictures of the climate march from around the world

Call to Mountains

“By promoting policies in favour of ecosystem-based adaptation in mountain regions, countries could build resilience and reduce the vulnerability of communities living in these high-altitude areas as well as that of millions of others living downstream, concluded a series of Mountain Adaptation Outlooks launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).”

A mirror-like surface at Milford Sound. (Photo: Jocelyn Kinghorn)

Read more about Mountain Adaptation Outlooks

International Cooperation creates GREAT ICE

“The IRD funded the international GREAT ICE (Glacier and Water Resources in the Tropical Andes: Indicators of Changes in the Environment) program in 2011 to strengthen glaciological studies in the tropical Andes; promote collaborative projects between Andean institutions in glaciology, climatology, and hydrology; and develop education and student training programs with local universities.”

Fig. 1. A 1991 glacier-monitoring initiative in Bolivia has grown into a permanent network in the tropical Andes, with sites in four nations. The main study sites are marked on the map, and additional study sites are numbered and listed in the inset. Credit: Modified from Rabatel et al. [2013], CC BY 3.0
Sites of Cooperative International Glacier Monitoring (Photo: Modified from Rabatel et al. [2013])
Read more about France and South America working together to research Tropical Glaciers in the Andes.

Photo Friday: Malaspina Glacier as Seen From Space

The Malaspina Glacier, in Southeastern Alaska, is the largest piedmont glacier on Earth. Because of its size, the glacier can only be photographed in its entirety from space. Most of the pictures we have of the glacier come from NASA.

Piedmont glaciers are flat glaciers that occur when ice that was previously trapped by mountain valleys is able to spread out onto lowlands. The glacier moves in surges that push dirt and rocks outward into expanding concentric patterns, which creates the visible lines in the glacier.

The Malaspina Glacier covers a land area of more than 3,900 square kilometers or about 1,500 square miles.

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A Swiss Exhibit You Can’t Miss

The Glacier Garden (Gletschergarten) in Lucerne is Switzerland’s premiere Glacier Museum. The museum is almost 150 years old, but the special exhibition “Glaciers of the World” is brand new.

"Glaciers of the World" Photographs by Jürg Alean and Michael Hambrey. Source Gletschergarten Luzern
“Glaciers of the World” Photographs by Jürg Alean and Michael Hambrey.
Source Gletschergarten Luzern

“Glaciers of the World” was opened on November 4th 2015, and will conclude on April 10th 2016. Together with glaciologists and photographers, Jürg Alean has designed exhibition in which large panoramas of glaciers from around the world are on display, along with pictures of mysterious ice structures, and glacier-dwelling animals and plants. Photographs featured in the exhibit were taken by Jürg Alean and Michael Hambrey.

The Gacier Garden, where the exhibit is displayed, was first opened in 1873, following the owner’s discovery of strange rock formations and holes on the grounds. Upon scientific examination these uniquely smooth rocks and divots were found to be evidence of a glacier that once covered the area. Today Swiss glaciers exist only on the highest mountains, but the findings corroborated the story that glaciers once covered the land.

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The round stones and holes are evidence of the glacier that once existed here. Source Gletschergarten, Luzern

“Glaciers are fascinating, not only for specialists, but also for our [museum] guests,” Andreas Burri, director of Glacier Garden told GlacierHub in an email. “Most [people] don’t have the opportunity to go on a glacier and if these glaciers are far away in the Arctic or Antarctic, the visit is nearly impossible.”

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People enjoying the exhibit on opening night Source Gletschergarten, Luzern

The greatest impact that the Glacier Garden has on people is in allowing people to discover glaciers. This discovery is heightened by the realization of how quickly our remaining glaciers are disappearing.

“An important aspect is the discussion of the climatic change,” Burri added. “People became sensitive to environmental or disappearing phenomenas like glaciers. In the Alps, the declining of the glaciers is obviously and the whole issue is in the head of (parts of) the society. It is assumed, that in 50 years most of the big glaciers in the Alps are melted away. This forecast makes people thinking about …. and we as the “Glacier Garden” have the intention to be a further trigger of these thinking processes.”

If you would like to learn more about the Glacier Garden, please visit their website.

Glacier Showdown at the Mall

Mall displays which replaced Christmas trees with glaciers have caused major controversies across America this past week. Seven malls removed the model glaciers, where children would have met Santa after communities complained about missing Christmas trees, a number of major news outlets have reported. The displays were a part of an attempt to update displays by Simon Property Group, the company which owns the malls.

Simon Property Group intended to install the glacier sets in 7 of the 110 malls it owns around the country. Most were removed,  and 1 was never set up, a report from CBS New York News affiliate WCBS-TV says. The glacier sets were meant to providea “uniquely modern and interactive Santa experience featuring cutting edge artistic design.”

Simon Property President David Contis said the attempt to change the Christmas theme had nothing to do with making the season secular. The displays featured artificial glaciers, white lights, icicle chandlers, aurora borealis displays, and holographic minimalist Christmas trees. People complained about the lack traditional trees and elves and the absence of the familiar red and green colors. The “warmth” was apparently missing.

One journalist called the display “space-age,” indicating the misunderstanding the public has about the topic of glaciers . Unlike our space age, barely decades old, glaciers have existed for many thousands of years. In fact, glaciers pre-date both the tradition of Christmas Trees and Santa Claus himself.

[ 'Santa's Portrait' byThomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, 1881]
Portrait of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast [courtesy: University of Texas]
While there was a historical figure for whom the mythical man is named, St. Nicholas has little in common with our understanding of Santa Claus. The idealized American version of Santa Claus comes from an 1882 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more well known as “The Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clarke Moore. If Moore turned Santa into a household name, Thomas Nast gave him life. The 19th century cartoonist cemented Santa Claus as jolly, chubby, and grandfatherly. It was also during this time that the figure was given his North Pole living, reindeer sleigh driving, present delivering reputation.

Much of the public outcry against the glacier display was focused on the lack of traditional Christmas tree. The hashtag #BringBackTheTree became the war cry of the public, when people turned to Twitter to protest. But the tradition of the Christmas tree has nothing to do with Santa Claus.  Christmas trees were seen in Germany by the 16th century, when evergreen trees were brought into houses as a way to celebrate the holiday, but did not spread to America until the 19th century.

The connection between the Christmas tree and the gift-bringing Santa Claus occurred rather recently in history. Before Christmas became heavily commercialized, the only presents were those left in stockings on fireplaces. When department stores began using Santa Claus as a way to increase business, they also popularized the Christmas tree as the perfect location under which to leave presents.

WBTV News @WBTV_News / Twitter
WBTV News @WBTV_News / Twitter

The Christmas glacier display in the SouthPark mall located in Charlotte, North Carolina had replaced the traditional Christmas display with a faux glacier, citing it “fresh and exciting,” Katherine Peralta, of The Charlotte Observer, wrote. The public responded unfavorably, with backlash against the display, even though it could evoke some established Santa themes, particularly his residence in an icy realm. A  petition was formed to bring back the Christmas tree at SouthPark, writing “Southpark Mall and Simons Malls have decided to abandon a long standing tradition of having a Christmas tree in the center of the mall and Christmas tree lighting ceremony. We, the community of Charlotte, feel this is in poor taste and needs to be corrected.” The petition generated 25,013 supporters. Some people suggested that the return of the tree would be a restoration of religion, tweeting out their opposition to “a PC Glacier Santa experience.” One journalist described the display in Conservative Tribune, stating “Liberal atheists scored yet another undeserved victory in their war against Christmas.” Though the North Carolina mall was the center of the uproar, there were also protests about glacier displays at malls in New York and New Jersey; these also led to removal of the glaciers.

A protest song about the new Christmas glacier set–possibly the source of the hashtag–was viewed over 18,ooo times on YouTube:
“After listening to customer feedback, we immediately decided to remove and replace them with traditional décor, including Christmas trees, and hope our customers will join us in celebrating the Christmas season,” Contis told NBC affiliate News4 New York. Ultimately the glacier theme was considered too radical a departure for the general public to accept.

Understanding Glaciers through Indigenous Cultures

Climate change is viewed as an economic, political, and physical problem. But a study in WIREs Climate Change by Elizabeth A. Allison (found here) shows that there is a mental aspect to climate change that is being ignored by the major communities invested in the issue: the spiritual and religious importance of glaciers to mountain cultures.

Glaciers are bound to the culture of humans who have lived in harmony with them for centuries, the study found. According to Allison, evaluations made by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimate the true cost of climate change by overlooking the emotional, spiritual, and psychological connections that people assign to changing conditions.

Understanding climate change without the implications it has on culture silences the voices and perceptions of minority communities, Allison found. These are the people who are the most affected by climate change. To diminish the cultural loss of these communities is an injustice not only to the communities involved directly but also to our shared cultural understanding of climate change, she wrote. As part of her research, Allison looked at communities in order to better understand their connection to the glaciers they live alongside.

On the west coast of North America such indigenous cultures as Alaska’s Tlingit people and First Nations people of the Yukon understood glaciers as snake-like beings. These creatures were thought to have particular preferences and requirements. According to an indigenous observer in 1904, “in one place Alsek River runs under a glacier. People can pass beneath in their canoes, but, if anyone speaks while they are under it, the glacier comes down on them. They say that in those times the glacier was like an animal, and could hear what was said to it.”

Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit'i festival
Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. Courtesy of AgainErick wikipedia/commons

In the Peruvian Andes, the Quechua who live near the declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate believe that the disappearance of the glacier is associated with the mountain god’s departure. It used to be that during the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival (meaning Snow Star), honoring an appearance of the Christ child, nearly 70,000 people traversed the Sinakara glacier. Ritual leaders would communicate with the glacial god and cut out large blocks of glacial ice thought to have magical healing properties.

Concern for the receding glacier prompted changes in local custom. In 2000 local leaders set regulations along with installing guards, disallowing ice to be removed from the glacier. Even pilgrims lighting candles at the edge of the glacier in prayer have begun to use smaller candles in an effort to preserve the glacier. Once having relied on the glacier to protect and heal them, this community now sees to the well-being of a god that to them, appears dying.

Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons
Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons

In Bolivia, the people depend on glaciated mountains to provide water for agriculture and day-to-day survival. They see them as life-giving deities, on whom they depend, calling them Achachilas. Within a few decades 80% of Bolivia’s life-sustaining glaciers are expected to be gone. A Bolivian charitable foundation called Fundación Solón, has stated that the loss of glaciers would be a loss for Bolivians surpassing that of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks.

In Tibetan Buddhist communities in the Himalayas, people have begun avoiding cooking or eating certain odorous foods (such as garlic and onions), burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, or physically fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of mountain deities. On April 18, 2014 when 16 Sherpas climbing Mount Everest were killed by a falling block of ice, locals believed it to be the result of an angered mountain deity feeling disrespect due to the accumulated trash, fighting, helicopters, and the attitude of foreigners.

Mingyong Glacier
Mingyong Glacieris one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Courtesy of Chen Zhao/Flicker.

Mingyong Glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Located below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in northwest Yunnan at the Tibet border, it is among the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists. Local cultures do not allow foreign scientists to step out onto the ice of the Mingyong Glacier, out of concern for observed loss of glacial mass, instead allowing scientists to measure glacial recession only through repeat photography. A number of different reasons have been offered up by the locals for the glacial decline: lack of proper prayer on behalf of the local citizens, disrespectful tourists, and the incline of global material greed. Even though the scientific findings indicate an increasingly doomed outlook for the glacier, the locals believe it’s impossible for the glacier to die because their existence is intertwined with that of the glacier.

Aspects of climate change include more than an economical or physical understanding, but an understanding of the cultural importance of the effects of a changing climate such as glacier loss. Allison’s research found that people are more likely to accept and incorporate discussions of environmental and scientific issues, when issues match their own preconceptions. She suggested that scientists could be more effective in educating the public about climate change if they included local conceptualizations of glaciers in their reports, rather than relying purely on scientific data and technical language.