Photo Friday: Glacier Melt and the 2014 AGU Conference

Last week, the fall meeting of the American Geophysics Union wrapped up in San Francisco. The meeting is the largest annual gathering of Earth and space scientists. This year about 24,000 people were in attendance. Hundreds of oral and poster presentations across all areas of geophysical research marked this year’s meeting, which included several findings on glacier melt rates from around the world. Here are a few of the more stunning pictures of glaciers from around the world to be discussed at the conference.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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For An Alien World, Look No Further Than Iceland

Iceland's Svinafellsjokull Glacier played a prominent role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)
Iceland’s Svinafellsjokull Glacier played a prominent role in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

After hundreds of years, the Svinafellsjokull Glacier is ready for its close-up. The Icelandic glacier has a starring role in Interstellar, the sci-fi movie about a team of astronauts lead by Matthew McConaughey that travel to a distant planet in search of a new home for the human race as the Earth becomes uninhabitable.

The glacier, and Vatnajökull National Park where it resides, are stand ins for the of icy, alien world the film is meant to depict. Little set dressing was required for the mid-September 2013 shoot, only a huge model of McConaughey’s space ship was brought to the section of Iceland’s largest glacier.

“How would you recreate the biggest glacier in Europe in a studio?” said actor David Gyasi, who plays one of the astronauts, in a promotional video for the movie. “You wouldn’t.”

The glacier is getting plenty of exposure worldwide thanks to the movie. Interstellar has taken in more than $200 million at the international box office since it opened last week.

The space epic isn’t director Christopher Nolan’s first time filming at the glacier. In 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan used Svinafellsjokull and other areas of Iceland as stand ins for the Tibetan Himalayas, a remote training ground for Bruce Wayne, where he learns how to fight prior to becoming Batman. Iceland is easier to access for film crews than the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, so the tiny North Atlantic country often plays many real and imagined locations.

Interstellar is hardly the first, or the last, movie to take advantage of Iceland's frozen landscapes. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)
Interstellar is hardly the first, or the last, movie to take advantage of Iceland’s frozen landscapes. (Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Iceland’s unique and varied landscapes have also been featured prominently in TV and film before. The country stood in for another alien landscape in Prometheus, the frozen northern region Beyond the Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the black sands of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

This year has been a big one for glaciers in the movies. GlacierHub previously wrote about Austria’s Hintertux glacier appearing in Snowpiercer, a movie about the last of humanity zooming around a frozen Earth on a train. It’s worth noting that both Snowpiercer and Interstellar feature humans searching for a way out of climate problems plaguing the planet. Perhaps the most feared future in science fiction isn’t a world of warm temperatures and high seawater, but one too frozen for people to live.

 

 

 

 

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As Glaciers Melt, They Hum Too

Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)
Researchers discovered a humming sound coming from the Gorner Glacier next to Gornersee (the tiny lake in blue) in Switzerland. (silent7seven/Flickr)

The hills are alive with the sound of… humming? Scientists from the U.S., France and Switzerland recently found that as glaciers melt, they make a low humming sound as water passes through them, according to a new study appearing last month in the journal Geology.

The phenomenon was first observed in the Swiss Alps when a research team placed seismometers near a glacial lake dammed by the Gorner Glacier on the side of the Monte Rosa Massif in an effort to monitor signs of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs). As the water from the lake drained through the glacier, the seismometers picked up tiny “harmonic tremors” in the mountain glacier, as well as similar humming sounds made by icequakes near the glacier’s base.

Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-fi lled fractures. A: SFT of data collected from 12 July to 15 July 2007 (7/12–7/15). B: Enlargement of the 13 July record reveals tremor signal in detail. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)
Sliding Fourier transforms (SFT) of 2007 data at the station nearest lake Gornersee, Switzerland (double triangle in Fig. 1), reveal gliding harmonic tremor during a 15 h period on 13 July 2007. The sudden step changes in harmonic tremor frequencies are indicative of hydrofracturing at englacial water-filled fractures. (source: David S. Heeszal, et al./Geology)

Part of the reason for the humming is that glaciers aren’t just big solid blocks of ice. Water moves through glaciers in an ever-evolving and complex series of tiny cracks, crevasses and channels (hydrofractures) within the glaciers themselves. Small pockets of water open and close within glaciers all the time as water flows from one part to another. Though how exactly this englacier water (that is, water within a glacier) moves isn’t yet fully understood.

The seismographs were able to measure the hums as water-filled cracks within the glacier opened and closed, but the humming noises were often at such a low frequency that a human ear could not detect them.

Humming glaciers are more than just a curious scientific phenomenon. The paper’s authors state that further research into the hums at the Gorner Glacier might lead to the development of an early warning system against GLOFs. In other words, glaciers may have a built-in alarm systems. GLOFS are difficult to predict because water draining from the lakes can follow a number of different paths over, under or through a glacier that is acting as a boundary or border for the lake, holding the lake water in place. Just watching the surface of the lake isn’t enough to predict when a massive flood will occur. Fortunately, when glaciers go, they don’t go quietly.

Switzerland's Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)
Switzerland’s Gorner Glacier as seen from space. (NASA)
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Photo Friday: Around Ausangate

About 100 kilometers southeast of Cuzco sits the majestic Ausangate mountain, which is surrounded by herds of alpaca and communities of llama herders. The mountain was considered a deity by the Incans and today backpackers enjoy the Ausengate circuit, a hike that circles the mountain in five or six days. Here is a selection of photos from along the route, courtesy of Flickr users Rick McCharles, Tim Farley, Josh, Indrik myneur, and Aaron Korr.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Photo Friday: A Hike Up Wheeler Peak

There’s a tiny glacier clinging to the side of Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park in western Nevada. Once upon a time, the Wheeler Peak Glacier was so massive it carved the mountain into its current shape, but now it only measures 300 by 400 feet. The National Parks Service estimates that if temperatures continue to rise, the glacier will disappear entirely in as few as 20 years. Flickr user brewbooks took a few pictures of the glacier from a 2009 hike up to the summit. See more images in his album on Flickr.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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For One Time Only, the Perfect Glacier Wave

In 2007 at Alaska's Childs Glacier, Kealii Mamala (on surfboard) and Garrett McNamara (on jetski) became the first, and probably only, people to surf a wave made by calving glacier ice. (Ryan Casey/YouTube still)
In 2007 at Alaska’s Childs Glacier, Kealii Mamala (on surfboard) and Garrett McNamara (on jetski) became the first, and probably only, people to surf a wave made by calving glacier ice. (Ryan Casey/YouTube still)

A wall of ice from Childs Glacier in Alaska crumbles into the Copper River, gradually at first and then all at once. As a massive wave created by the calving glacier builds power, two tiny figures appear against the vast gray expanse of churning water, one on a surfboard and the other on a jet ski. This is glacier surfing and just watching it might give you the chills.

Back in 2007, surfers Kealii Mamala and Garrett McNamara, a professional big wave rider who set a world record for surfing the largest wave ever, wanted to become the first people to surf a glacier. They made a video to show off their attempt.

The video is hard not to watch. As the wave speeds towards the two men, it looks as though the water washes right over them. “Oh, is he in there? Is he going to come out?” says an unidentified videographer as he loses sight of the figure on the surfboard.

The jetski circles back behind the wave. It’s a good 25 seconds before the little figures reappear, and the camera-man and spectators on the shore become the first to witness a human being surfing a wave created by the power of a glacier falling into the sea.

If you were to list the dangers of surfing next to a collapsing sheet of ice, one of the top ones might be getting hit by any of the enormous chunks of jagged ice that are launched into the air when the glacier hits the water.

“It’s like a bomb, and the giant pieces of ice fly like shrapnel,” McNamara said in “The Glacier Project,” a documentary about riding the ice wave.

It turns out that Copper River at Child’s Glacier is an ideal location for surfing. When a piece of ice calves from the glacier, it displaces enough water to make a wave so large that it curls all the way across the width of the river in a single sweep. This means there are no competing “break points.” According to Surfline.com, a website devoted to identifying the best surfing spots using weather reports and scientific measurements, a wave where all the break points line up is a “perfect” wave, because then a surfer can ride the wave all the way from one end to the other.

Ice breaking off into the Copper River from Alaska's Childs Glacier is said to make the ideal surfing wave, if you can get to it. (Rebecca/Flickr)
Ice breaking off into the Copper River from Alaska’s Childs Glacier is said to make the ideal surfing wave, if you can get to it. (Rebecca/Flickr)

The seeds of the Glacier Project were first sown back in 1995, when filmmaker Ryan Casey worked on an IMAX film Alaska: Spirit of the Wild with his father George Casey, near Childs Glacier. During the filming, Casey saw bits of ice break off from the glacier and fall into the water below, creating the kind of giant uniform wave described above. Casey thought it would be perfect for surfing, if only surfers could get out there. The practice of jet ski towing, by which a surfer is towed into a breaking wave, was not common at the time, but it was 12 years later, when Casey, McNamara, and Mamala headed to Alaska to test Casey’s theory that these glacier waves could be surfed.

“After the scout, I guaranteed that we would ride a wave – any wave,” McNamara said in an interview with surfingmagazine.com. But his enthusiasm evaporated pretty quickly. “After the first day, I just wanted to make it home alive. Not knowing where the glacier was going to fall, where the wave would emerge, or how big it would be. It was so different to anything we’ve experienced in our big-wave tow-surfing history. I spent most the time thinking about my family and wondering if I would survive to see them again. It was in a realm all its own.”

McNamara and Mamala each rode glacier waves during the trip. The largest for McNamara was 15 feet, while Mamala managed to snag a 20-25 foot wave, according to a press release about the project.

“I wouldn’t recommend it for any one,” McNamara said after his trip to Childs Glacier. “I won’t be going back. This is not a new sport.” So far, history has proved him right. The 2007 trip may constitute the only attempt at glacier surfing that will ever be made. There is little evidence that anyone has attempted a similar ride in the seven years since.

 

 

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Visualizing Iceland’s volcanos

The first fissure that opened on Fimmvörðuháls, as seen from Austurgígar in 2010. (David Karnå/Wikimedia Commons)
The first fissure that opened on Fimmvörðuháls, as seen from Austurgígar in 2010. (David Karnå/Wikimedia Commons)

There are few sights in nature as impressive as a fiery volcanic eruption. GlacierHub has featured many photos and stories from Iceland’s recent volcanic eruptions, and another useful way of understanding some of the more intangible aspects of volcanoes is through data visualization.

Each day, the Icelandic Met Office assigns warning levels to the country's volcanos. The gif shows the Bárðarbunga volcano's warning levels since mid-August.
Each day, the Icelandic Met Office assigns warning levels to the country’s volcanos. The gif shows the Bárðarbunga volcano’s warning levels since mid-August.

One of the hot spots (if you’ll excuse the pun) in Iceland is the Bárðarbunga volcano near the center of the country. Each day, the Icelandic Met Office updates the aviation warning color for all of Iceland’s volcanoes. Green means everything is normal, red means an eruption is immanent and air travel must be grounded. Bárðarbunga has been “forever orange” for weeks now, even as other eruptions have come and gone. The gif shows the daily warning progression of Bárðarbunga and you can see just how the volcano has been at “heightened or escalating unrest with increased potential of eruption.”

current volcano warnings

There are more concrete ways to visualize the eruption. We’ve posted a picture to our Twitter feed comparing the lava height to the Statue of Liberty. The University of Iceland overlayed a lava flow onto a map of the area. There are plenty of GPS data maps out there. Iceland Magazine helpfully related the lava flow to Manhattanites by showing it covers an area three times the size of Central Park.

Iceland children's singer Elska posted this drawing about the Bárðarbunga eruption. (source: @islandofelska/Twitter)
Iceland children’s singer Elska posted this drawing about the Bárðarbunga eruption. (source: @islandofelska/Twitter)

Map overlays, size comparisons and seismic graphs are all well and good, but what if you’re a budding volcanologist? Elska is an Icelandic pop singer who makes music for children and families. In late August, she posted a cartoon drawing explaining the eruption to children, which included, among other things, anthropomorphized magma moving closer to the surface and a handy pronunciation of Bárðarbunga (hint: say baur-thar-boun-ga).

We’ll post more graphical representations of the Iceland eruptions to our Twitter feed, @GlacierHub, as we find them.

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Glacier stories you may have missed this week – 9/29

Nepal tourism adapts to climate change

“Weather can ruin the vacation while climate can devastate a holiday destination. Climate change not only impacts on tourism directly by changes in temperature, extreme weather events and other climatic factors, but it will also transform the natural environment that attracts tourists. Despite the global nature of tourism industry and its economic contributions, scholars of climate change research have hardly acknowl- edged the threat of climate change to the tourism industry.”

Read more about Nepal’s tourism industry’s efforts to deal with climate change in this study in the International Journal of Disciplinary Studies.

 

Pakistan needs more glacier data-sharing to mitigate disasters

“‘Our elders used to say this glacier was very high, so high there was no one living here. This was a giant glacial lake,’ Sajjad Ali said. Standing on a cliffside, he pointed down at the Hopar Glacier, more than a 1,000 metres below, its surface covered by massive boulders it had swept out of its way as it carved a valley through the Karakoram mountains.”

Read more about in Pakistan’s efforts to monitor glaciers in IRIN Asia.

 

Austrian and Swiss Alps look back at their history…way, way back

“The landscapes in mountain regions are often strongly influenced by the steep climatic gradients and by past variations in climatic conditions. Therefore, the study of geological landscape features such as moraines, landslides and rock glaciers with appropriate geochronological approaches allows insights into past variations in climate.”

Read the full study in the July 8, 2014 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews.

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Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/22/14

Tibetan glaciers have shrunk by 15 percent

“The study attributes the retreat of glaciers and thawing of frozen earth to global warming, suggesting a significant impact on the water security of the subcontinent. Rivers such as the Brahmaputra have their source on the Tibetan plateau, where it flows as the Yarlung Zangbo before turning at “the great bend” and entering India.”

Read the Hindu Times article here.

Nepalese mountain communities fear melting glaciers and flooding

“‘I lost my grandchild and daughter to a huge landslide,’ 80-year old Dorje Sherpa said in the remote Dingboche village, lying at an altitude of nearly 5,000m. Nearly 14 years ago, they were crushed by a huge landslide caused by flooding from a glacial lake in nearby Amadablam mountain.”

Read the IRIN Asia story here.

New book looks at vanishing glacier’s impact on America

“As world temperatures soar, public outcry has focused on the threat to polar ice sheets and sea ice. Yet there is another impact of global warming—one much closer to home—that spells trouble for Americans: the extinction of alpine glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. The epicenter of the crisis is Glacier National Park, Montana, whose peaks once held one-hundred-and-fifty glaciers. Only twenty-five survive. The park provides a window into the future of climate impacts for mountain ranges around the globe.”

Read an excerpt from Christopher White’s “The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Melting Glaciers” here.

 

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Photo Friday: A Song of Ice and Fire

We’ve brought you plenty of posts and updates on the earthquakes and eruptions in Iceland over the past few weeks. The Iceland’s Institute of Earth Science recently published even more photos of researchers surveying Bárðarbunga from the air and from the ground from a variety of photographers. We’ve selected some of our favorites, but see the whole set here if you can’t get enough ice and fire.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Photo Friday: A visit to South Georgia (the island, not the state)

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King penguins on shoreline of South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)

“South Georgia has become one of ‘those’ places, so steeped in myth and magic that you wonder how a visit can live up to the stories. Happily the landscape shrugs off any human description. I’m still stunned after visiting for the first time and for just a few precious days, I certainly don’t have words to describe it,” wrote photographer Nick Cobbing on his website, Calvings.co.uk

See more photos of the wildlife and scenery from Cobbing’s trip to South Georgia and the Falklands here.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

Tabular iceberg seen approaching South Georgia. (Nick Cobbing)
Mountain range on South Georgia Island. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)
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Old whaling vessel, South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)
(Nick Cobbing)
Tabular iceberg seen approaching South Georgia. (©Nick Cobbing, please contact the photographer before using)

 

 

 

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Icelandic Richard Branson touts pure water, but at a cost

Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)
Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)

Icelandic businessman Jón Ólafsson has some bottled water he wants you to try that’s as clear as can be.

In 2003, when Ólafsson owned 85 percent of all the music recorded in Iceland, he decided to call it quits from his telecom and media empire and try something new. Providing what might be one of the only links between music and bottled water, Ólafsson started Icelandic Glacial, a premium brand of mineral water that has found an audience in Hollywood and caught the eye of Christian Dior, all of which earned him the nickname the “Icelandic Richard Branson.”

Bottles of Icelandic Glacier water have found their way into TV shows like “Dexter” and the “Big Bang Theory“. In 2012, the bottled water company partnered with Christian Dior to include the water in a line of skin-lightening Diorsnow beauty products available in Asia. Earlier this year, Whole Foods announced the brand could now be found in its supermarkets.

Icelandic Glacial water doesn't come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)
Icelandic Glacial water doesn’t come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)

Of course, part of the challenge of selling bottled water is you are trying to get people to buy something they can get practically for free. Icelandic Glacier’s marketing revolves around its purported purity; the water comes from the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland that is made up of snow and rainwater that, according to Ólafsson, “goes through lava and takes between 400 and 600 years to reach the river.” In other words, not from a glacier at all, though this is hardly surprising. Some bottled water companies simply use water from municipal supplies.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he said Icelandic Glacier water is “the purest, best, cleanest water there is.” These words show an understanding of different ideas about water. Though scientists can document that distilled water is purer than water from other sources, the strong association of water with nature causes water from remote settings to seem better. And what could be more natural than a glacier from an island like Iceland? The company’s website describes the country as “magical and remarkably pristine.”  Ólafsson may have had some assistance in selecting these adjectives. “Our distinguished partners at Team One captured the essence of Iceland and we’re confident it will be embraced by consumers around the globe,” he said, referring to the advertising group he worked with, a branch of the global advertising giant Saatchi and Sattchi.

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Ólafsson has said in interviews that his water contains a pH of 8.4, which helps the body balance out acidic, low pH drinks like coffee and alcohol. While the alkaline diet has been touted as a way to combat disease and promote health, there have been limited scientific studies to test the validity of these claims.

The company’s website states “We take great pride in running a completely sustainable operation, fueled entirely by geothermal and hydroelectric power.” And it received a “CarbonNeutral” certification from the CarbonNeutral Company, a UK-based consulting group that helps businesses cut carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets. Offsets themselves are not necessarily reductions in greenhouse gases themselves, but “credits” that can be purchased in projects that reduce such gasses. Nonetheless, the company’s operations pose direct threats to sustainability by encouraging the use of plastic bottles and by promoting long-distance shipping.

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Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial shipped 42 tons of bottled water to aid in the relief effort. (photo: Icelandnaturally.com

Of course, Ólafsson’s company is hardly the first to use the cachet of a remote island setting to promote the claim of purity and naturalness in order to market water. Fiji Water bottles its water in the tiny South Pacific nation and ships it all over the world. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial water shipped 42 tons of its water to the country. Again the water’s purity and “green energy” were touted as solutions to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. One wonders if shipping tiny plastic bottles a distance of 4000 miles to Haiti was an effective way to address the problem of providing clean water after that emergency.

You can read here about a Canadian company that does use actual glacier ice in its vodka.

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