When glaciers appeared in a galaxy far, far away

star wars fins norway empire strikes back anniversary
Star Wars fans gather (in Imperial Snowtrooper costumes) in Finse, Norway in 2010 for the 30th anniversary of the filming of the Empire Strikes Back. (source: kimncris.com)

Rabid Star Wars and glaciologists share at least one thing in common. They both know about the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier in Norway, where scenes set snow planet of Hoth were shot for The Empire Strikes Back.

The possibility of returning to Hoth in the new Star Wars movie has been circulating the Internet rumor mill for a few months now, and even in the age of blue screen and CGI effects, there’s something to be said about shooting on location, on a glacier itself, as the first of the series’ sequels did in 1979.

Norway’s claim to fame dates to March of that year when crews shooting The Empire Strikes Back were based in the town of Finse during the filming of scenes set on the frozen planet Hoth. The nearby Hardangerjøkulen Glacier was used near the beginning of the film during the battle scene between Luke Skywalker’s Rebel Alliance and Darth Vader’s Imperial forces.

The film crew for the Empire Strikes Back prepares to film a scene with Harrison Ford  in Norway. (film still from documentary "Empire of Dreams - The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy)
The film crew for the Empire Strikes Back prepares to film a scene with Harrison Ford in Norway. (film still from documentary “Empire of Dreams – The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy’)

Filming during Norwegian wintertime wasn’t the easiest. When the worst winter storm in 50 years hit the area, it trapped the production crew in their hotel in Finse. Not to lose any time, they shot a scene of Luke Skywalker escaping from an ice monster’s cave by sending actor Mark Hamill out the hotel door into the cold, while the cameras and crew remained warmly inside.

The village of Finse is so remote that no public roads connect it to the rest of Norway, only a railway. The glacier itself is located in a national park and tourists must travel there not only with special permission, but also a guide that can help them avoid dangerous crevasses.

There is a small group of superfans who make the trek out to whatever Earth-related locations stood in for the galaxy far, far away.

Brandon Alinger, who has visited several other Star Wars filming sites, recently made the trip up to Finse, but not before stopping in London to chat with Empire Strikes Back location manager Phillip Kohler.

“We went up [on these trails] when we were on the recce (film slang for reconnaissance trip), on snow cats,” Brandon recalls Kohler telling him. “We told the driver in front, ‘If you don’t know the way, don’t leave the route, don’t let the guys tell you they want to go to the left’, because it looks safe! So what do they do? We see the snow-cat turn left, turn right, and it suddenly stopped. And the director got out and went straight down on his right leg. We said, ‘told ya, it’s all crevasses.’”

Star Wars tourism sometimes brings fans to the ends of the earth (in this case Fense, Norway) to visit filming locations. (source: PropStore.com)
Star Wars tourism sometimes brings fans to the ends of the earth (in this case Fense, Norway) to visit filming locations. (source: PropStore.com)

The Hardangerjøkulen Glacier isn’t the only Star Wars location difficult for tourists to visit. Production crews have used Tunisa multiple times as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s desert homeworld Tatooine. Recently shifting Saharan sands threaten to cover old filming sets, and the Arab Spring uprisings have scared tourists away.

Those looking to travel to Hoth without leaving their front door can find plenty of glacier-inspired Star Wars work. Artist James W. Rook, for example, imagined what it might be like if melting ice revealed a long-missing prop, in this case a crashed rebel snowspeeder. The elements from the Norwegian glacier and surrounding area are even incorporated into Angry Birds Star Wars.

As long as Star Wars exists, in some form or another, so will Norway’s glaciers.

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Photo Friday: Glaciers for all seasons in Patagonia

Patagonia’s stunning scenery was the reason this area of southern Argentina became the namesake of the popular brand of outdoor clothing. Photographer Alex Proimos photographed its glacier ice caves, mountain lakes and the impressive Fitz Roy mountain in 2011. See more pictures from his trip in his Flickr gallery.

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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Humans (surprise!) biggest cause of glacier loss

Humans have been the primary driver of glacial melt since the late-1970s, according to a recent study. (Don Becker/U.S. Geological Survey)
Humans have been the primary driver of glacial melt since the late-1970s, according to a recent study. USGS researchers photograph Surprise Glacier in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. (Don Becker/U.S. Geological Survey)

It’s not quite a “Planet of the Apes” moment, where humans suddenly realize (like Charlton Heston realizing he was on Earth all along) that they themselves were the cause of climate change. A new report in the recent edition of the journal Science is as sobering as it is simple: Humans didn’t used to be the main cause of glacier loss, but now they are.

The study, appearing in the August 22, 2014 issue of Science, covers glaciers during the period from 1851 to 2010. Though the worldwide glacier retreat began in the middle of the nineteenth century, people weren’t the primary driving force behind the ice loss until late 1970s. Prior to that point, the world was just coming out of a cooling period known as the Little Ice Age. Though not a true ice age, this cold period lasted roughly from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.

Grinnell Glacier before after

Researchers from the University of Innsbruck in Austria and Trent University in Canada used many different climate models to estimate snow accumulation verses snow and ice melt. From 1950 to 1980, natural climate change accounted for about three-quarters of glacial ice loss. From 1991 to 2010, humans were responsible for 70 percent of glacial retreat.

Of course, there are uncertainties in the study, as whenever models are used to infer what happened in the past. As climate models and measure techniques improve, so will the resolution of the numbers highlighted by the study.

“Glaciers are superb measuring sticks of climate, because they ignore the fluctuations of day-to-day weather,” wrote Shawn Marshall in Science‘s summary of the study.

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The findings do not suggest that without the influence of humans, there would be no sea level rise or glacier retreat. “Our results indicate that a considerable fraction of 20th-century glacier mass loss, and therefore also of observed sea level rise, was independent of anthropogenic climate forcing,” wrote the study’s lead author, Ben Marzeion, associate professor at the Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics at the University of Innsbruck.

Measuring glacier loss certainly isn’t a new thing. The American Meteorological Society’s 2013 state of the world’s climate report singled out the dire situation mountain glaciers are facing: since 1980, glaciers have lost 50 feet of water. Glacier calving (breaking off into the sea) greatly contributes to sea level rise. Meltwater coming off mountains are browning rivers in California and causing ocean acidification.

Though the news seems dire, providing firmer measures of the extent to which humans contribute to ice loss may help build the impetus to find effective solutions to climate change. In the meantime, glaciers will continue to offer testimony to our species’ impacts on our planet.

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As glaciers melt, bodies resurface

In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter was flying over the Colony Glacier on a routine training flight when the crew noticed bits of wreckage scattered on the ice. The twisted metal, bits of cloth and other debris turned out to be all that was left of a C-124 Globemaster II troop transport that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 people on board.

In June of this year, the Department of Defense said it identified the remains of 17 servicemen from the crash site. “It’s taken 60 years for the wreckage and portions of the plane to actually come out of the glacier underneath all that ice and snow,” said Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist for the military, in a 2012 interview. “It’s starting to erode out now.”

The crash site was nothing like that of a nearly intact World War II-era fighter found in the Sahara. Because of the to the glacier’s splitting ice crevasses, much of the plane, and the plane’s remaining crew, are likely still frozen after 60 years. The location of the troop transport, which was known not long after the crash, had been lost because of the glacier’s movement and the opening and closing of those crevasses.

The reappearance of a long-lost body in the ice isn’t a new thing and will likely become more common as global climate change melts more ice, revealing the frozen corpses of people thought to be missing forever.

The most famous glacier find happened over two decades ago. In 1991, two German tourists were climbing the Similaun peak on a sunny afternoon in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border when they spied a body lying facedown and half-frozen in the ice. What was left of the body’s skin was hardened, light brown in color, and stretched tightly across its skeleton.

The man the tourists found turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. Named Ötzi, after the Ötzal region of the Alps he was found in, the natural mummy provided a look into Copper Age Europe. He had tools, clothes and even shoes frozen along with him. Ötzi’s remarkable preservation (he’s Europe’s oldest natural mummy) was due to him being covered in snow and later ice shortly after death, shielding him from decay.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Last summer, elsewhere in the Alps, a rescue helicopter pilot spotted something that shouldn’t be in the glaciers surrounding the Matterhorn: abandoned equipment and clothing wrapped around bones. Those remains turned out to be those of 27-year-old British climber Jonathan Conville, who had disappeared on the mountain in 1979. Hundreds of people have been reported missing from the area surrounding the Matterhorn and melting ice means more of them might be found.

The tiny town of Peio, high up in the Italian Alps, has grown accustomed to this phenomenon. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the peaks, caves and glaciers around Peio were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I between Imperial and Italian forces. From 1915-1918, the two sides fought along the hundreds of miles of the Italian Front where more than a million soldiers died and two million more were wounded in the aptly named White War.

Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)
Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)

As the Alpine glaciers melt high above Peio, rifles, equipment, bits of tattered uniforms and even letters and diaries from a hundred years ago again see the light of day. Though many of these relics are displayed in the town’s war museum, many more are looted by treasure hunters hoping to resell them on the black market.

The frozen, mummified bodies of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers have also started to resurface. In 2012, two soldiers who died in the 1918 Battle of Presena were given a military funeral in Peio. When they died, the two young Austrian fighters were buried top-to-toe in a crevasse in the Presena Glacier. As with the Alaska crash, only the glacier decides when and where to give up a body. But humans, by changing our planet’s atmosphere and climate, are giving glaciers a strong nudge.

The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
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Photo Friday: Ice cave in Kamchatka

Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is a remote place by any measure, but it’s worth the trip to see an ice cave nearly a kilometer long that was created by water from a hot spring that flowed under a glacier. Reader Roberto Lopez of Asturias, Spain submitted these pictures from a recent trip. See more of Lopez’s photos at http://www.robertocarloslopez.com.

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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Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.

http://www.dvidshub.net/image/702430/double-ridges-dark-spots-and-smooth-icy-plains-europa#.U-uAwVbCWTM
Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.

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Photo Friday: Mt. Baker and the North Cascades

Emily Gibson runs a blog called Barnstorming, about rural life on a farm in northwest Washington. Her pictures feature Mt. Baker, North Cascades and the Canadian Rockies in many different lights.

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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When a glacier has hundreds of bundles of (icy) joy

Argentina's Perito Moreno glacier calving (Sean Munson/Flickr)
Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier calving (Sean Munson/Flickr)

On July 20, 2010, researchers from Swansea University in Wales were setting up equipment near Helheim Glacier in Greenland when they happened to witness a 4-kilometer crack in the ice forming that extended from one side to the other. Quickly, they set up a time-lapse camera to record one of the largest glacier calving events ever filmed.  They knew that they glacier advanced rapidly, achieving speeds as high as 30 meters per day, but they had not expected a sudden event.

As the split in the ice grew, it thrust the front part of the glacier into the ocean with great force. It rotated and flipped over into the ocean in the seconds before the glacier front fully broke off and floated away. Once the separation was complete, the ocean was filled so thickly with chunks of ice it was impossible to see the water.

This film and other data form the basis of a new study that was published last month in the journal Nature Geoscience, “Buoyant flexure and basal crevassing in dynamic mass loss at Helheim Glacier.” The researchers, Timothy D. James, Tavi Murray, Nick Selmes, Kilian Scharrer and Martin O’Leary, found the ocean itself is breaking up the glaciers. In plainer English, when a glacier reaches the sea, the front will float, bending the ice and creating crevasses at the bottom,  causing the front of the glacier to snap off. These crevasses are much harder to detect that the ones on the surface, so their role had not previously been understood.  The bending of the surface was a second discovery. The team used a stereo camera to record subtle elevation changes over two summers, capturing details that previous cruder calving studies had missed.

Scientists had long known that when a glacier calves, it breaks off into the ocean. They knew as well that this ice leads to sea level rise, a seemingly straightforward process. And now they have a fuller understanding of the hows and whys of glacier calving. This knowledge is important, because most of the Greenland’s glacial ice loss over the next 200 years is expected to be from such breaking off of ice into the ocean. Armed with a clearer grasp of the calving process,  researchers will be better able to  produce better models of ice dynamics and sea level rise—of importance to the billions who live in coastal areas, far from Helheim but intimately connected to it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo Friday: Life on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit

Photographer Dietmar Temps traveled to Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit in 2009, which winds its way through the range in the Himalayas in the north-central section of the country. The entire trek takes nearly three weeks to complete. See more of Temps’ pictures in his Flickr gallery.

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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Evidence of glaciers, but no little green men, on Mars

(NASA)
A color image of part of the Nilosyrtis Mensae region of Mars. Flows on the mensa floors contain striae that run parallel to valley walls; where valleys meet, the striae merge, similar to medial moraines on glaciers. (NASA)

When astronomer Percival Lowell looked through his telescope in northern Arizona in 1895, he was convinced that Mars was covered with a network of canals. Lowell published three books on the features of the Red Planet that he believed formed an elaborate system of transporting water from the polar ice caps. The canals, he theorized, where the work of a race of Martians desperately trying to cope with a drying world.

Mars-Canals
Astronomer Percival Lowell’s drawing of what he believed were water canals on Mars.

While Lowell’s ideas fuelled science fiction more than science, the concept of water on Mars isn’t such a farfetched concept.

In 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used radar to detect large fields of water ice just below the planet’s rocky surface in the Hellas Basin, located in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Since any exposed water ice on Mars would quickly vaporize, these underground ice fields may be all that’s left of a massive ice sheets that once covered several portions of the planet’s surface a few hundreds of millions of years ago—relatively recently, granted that Mars is more than four billion years old. One of the many features researchers examined is three times the size of Los Angeles and up to a half-mile thick, according to John W. Holt, a scientist from the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of a 2008 paper in the journal Science.

The MRO’s HiRISE camera photographed several geological features that also point to the presence of glaciers, such as geological lines on the planet’s surface and features known as lobate debris aprons, or piles of rocks found at the base of cliffs. Moving glaciers are the most accepted source of these rock deposits. The glaciers sometimes left tongue-shaped patterns on the surface, evidence that they flowed down mountainsides.

http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/292329main_glacier.jpg
An artist’s conception of glaciers on Mars. (NASA)

When it touched down in 2008, the Phoenix Mars lander was the first probe to reach an area near the icy polar regions (which consist of frozen carbon dioxide, not water). Experiments conducted by the Phoenix showed that water ice did indeed exist just below the surface.

Mars can be located in the night sky this summer, with the handle of the Big Dipper pointing right towards it. The website EarthSky has a handy guide for finding the Red Planet in the late summer sky as well as the four other visible planets.

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The inevitable doom of Glacier Rush

In the game Glacier Rush, you help a narwhal eat as many fish as it can before getting inevitably crushed by sinking blocks of ice.
In the game Glacier Rush, you help a narwhal eat as many fish as it can before getting inevitably crushed by sinking blocks of ice.

I lost track of how many narwhals I killed.

Each time it was the same; a block of ice fell into the ocean, I thought I had given enough time for the narwhal to react and get out of its way but again, the ice hit it, its eyes turned into little x’s and the narwhal sank to the bottom of the ocean.

I wasn’t getting real narwhals killed, thankfully, but little cartoon versions of them in Glacier Rush, the new free game for iPhone and Android.

The game itself is simple enough; you drag your finger across the screen to guide a cartoon narwhal in between sinking blocks of ice (Ok, so it’s not the most scientifically minded time-waster), trying to eat as many fish as you can before your eventual demise.

The game shares more than a few similarities to the ultra-simple Flappy Bird, a game where your only goal is to fly a bird through as many pipes as you can. In both games, the premise and controls are simple, but life is short and the need to keep playing often overtakes better judgment.

Much like other mobile games like “Temple Run” or “Lane Splitter“, no matter how well you perform or how long your character lives, they will inevitably succumb to the game. After a while you start to feel sorry for the narwhals, especially the ones that only live long enough to eat a handful of fish. Normally, I can get to 18, but never more than 33, my top score.

A round of Glacier Rush never last more than a few seconds, but these addictive single-premise games quickly waste one minute, then five, then 10. My first session with Glacier Rush ended after about 20 minutes when I became determined not to quit until my narwhal ate 25 fish. I went through the usual distinct stages of playing: adjustment, zen state, desperation, fugue state, back to zen, and then, once I had my 25 fish, mastery.

The game’s makers probably didn’t intend any level of interpretation of Glacier Rush beyond an amusing distraction. The falling ice, the cute animal in danger, the North Atlantic setting all seem to point to something a little darker: the inevitability of climate change. No matter how long you play or what path through the icebergs you manage to steer the narwhal, the ice will get you.

Narwals are a “near-threatened” species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Falling ice is less of a danger to them than being hunted by humans, though that risk greatly increases as the sea ice breaks apart more and more.

That might be reading too much into it, but according to game programmer Jody McAdams, the average narwhal lifespan is 16 seconds. The game probably isn’t an elaborate commentary on the collateral damage caused by global climate change, but after a few too many rounds of playing Glacier Rush, it’s easy to think how one way or another, ice will get us in the end.

 

 

 

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Photo Friday: Glaciers from above

 

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this picture of the space shuttle Atlantis' STS-132 mission as it flew over a glacier in Chile and Argentina. (NASA)
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this picture of the space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-132 mission as it flew over a glacier in Chile and Argentina. (NASA)

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this picture of the space shuttle Atlantis’ STS-132 mission as it flew over a glacier in Chile and Argentina. (NASA)

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The Siachen glacier as seen in 2011. The 76 km long glacier is sometimes called a “white snake”.

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