Photo Friday: Washington State Glaciers

Over winter break from my PhD program in Arizona, I traveled to Washington State to visit my partner’s family and see old friends. While there, the strong El Nino event affecting global weather this year contributed to persistent high pressure in the region– causing unusual clear blue skies for days on end. The rare winter clarity provided unprecedented views of the region’s beautiful glaciers.

Washington State is home to some of the country’s youngest and tallest mountains– the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. The Olympic Range was created by the movement of the Cascadia subduction zone millions of years ago, while the Cascade range, made up of active volcanic peaks, is driven by the same tectonic subduction. Puget Sound and islands in it, which separate the two mountain ranges, are the remnants of glacial valleys and moraines that were created during the last ice age.

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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

El Niño is Melting Glaciers, Flooding California

Recent research has suggested an increasingly important role between the pacific decadal oscillation (PDO) and the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) on natural phenomena around the globe, including glacial melt variability. These relationships are particularly strong when the PDO and ENSO are in-phase, as they are now.

One study by Bijeesh Kozhikkodan Veettilab, Nilceia Bianchinic, Ulisses Franz Bremerab, Éder Leandro Bayer Maierd, and Jefferson Cardia Simõesa looked at the formation of supraglacial lakes on the Baltoro Glacier in the Pakistani Himalayas from 1978 to 2014. Using a combination of various satellite images the study demonstrated that most of the lakes formed or expanded during the late 1970s to 2008, and that after 2008 the number and size of the lakes decreased.

They discovered that, “the formation and expansion of glacial lakes occurred during the warm regime of PDO, in particular in phase with the ENSO,” and that the shift in 2008 corresponded precisely with the onset of a cool phase of the PDO.

Image of the PDO phases.
PDO warm and cool phases from University of Alaska-Fairbanks Physics Department

The PDO is primarily a sea surface temperature phenomenon that oscillates in the Pacific Ocean, usually switching from a warm or positive phase to a cool or negative phase every 20-30 years. In the positive phase the Eastern Pacific, along the West coast of the Americas is unusually warm, while the Western Pacific along the East coast of Asia is unusually cool. During the negative phase the opposite occurs.

The PDO is often described as a long lasting ENSO-like event. ENSO is what is commonly referred to as El Niño and La Niña, a sea surface temperature oscillation in the southern Pacific Ocean that is a strong predictor of precipitation anomalies, and therefore drought or flooding, around the globe.

Image of the ENSO phases.
ENSO warm and cool phases from University of Alaska-Fairbanks Physics Department

In fact, this summer we are seeing a strong El Niño, also known as a positive ENSO, corresponding with a strong, positive PDO.

Researchers have known or suspected since the early 20th century that El Niño brings strong rains along the United States’ west coast. However, we now know, thanks to the results of the study on the Baltoro Glacier, that the formation and expansion of glacial lakes in the Karakoram Himalayas also occurs during the warm phase of the PDO, in particular when it is in phase with ENSO.

What this means is that the same events that are the likely cause of recent heavy rains and storms hitting Southern California are also likely causing increased glacial melt in the Himalayas.

According to The Weather Chanel, “Los Angeles, San Diego and over a dozen other California cities set all-time rainfall records for the month of July.” In fact, a National Weather Service meteorologist described these recent rains as “super historic.”

Researchers are beginning to pay more attention to sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean, and around the globe, as we are realizing that they influence everything from strong storms in California to glacial melt in the Himalayas.

The PDO was only relatively recently discovered, found in 1997 due to its influence on Pacific Northwest salmon production. Understanding what scientists call teleconnections between these various natural phenomenon can help us better prepare ourselves for the volatile environment in which we live. Knowing ahead of time that when Southern California will have heavy storms, mountain villages in the Himalayas should be wary of glacial lake flooding, can help save time, money, and lives.

Roundup: Glacial Drone Photography, Art, and Inventories

New Randolph Glacier Inventory 5.0

Image of the most recent cover of the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space initiative (GLIMS) publication from their website.

This newest global inventory of glacier outlines was motivated by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and supplements the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space initiative (GLIMS). “GLIMS’ mission is to establish a global inventory of ice that will provide the community with data for later comparison.” Their website says that, “Monitoring glaciers across the globe and understanding not only the cause of those changes, but the effects, will lead us to a greater understanding of global change and its causes.”

Check it out, here.

Drone Glacier Photography

An portrait image of David Kaszlikowski holding a small quadcopter drone.
Image of David Kaszlikowski’s with his camera drone from his Facebook page.

David Kaszlikowski has been using his drone to captur stunning images of glaciers from above. He recently unveiled a new photo documentary titled K2 Touching the Sky. The documentary captures the experience of the children of alpinists who died on K2 in the Karakorum Mountains, when they return to the ice. Check it out below:

The Intersection of Art and Glacial Retreat

Jerilynn “M” Jackson gives five examples of a glacier-ruins narrative, which she describes as “a narrative about glaciers that tends to overlook the existing state of a glacier and/or glacier systems and speaks instead to imagined states of loss.” Check out the whole article, here.

Mountains Turning into Frozen Human-waste Lands

Dealing with tourists’ waste is always a problem; they usually have a lot of disposable goods and aren’t necessarily invested in the area they’re visiting. The problem doesn’t start and stop with trash, however. Where to put tourists’ natural waste is an important matter for local governments and planners. This issue becomes especially important in higher altitudes where organic material does not break down easily, or quickly, on account of the cold, low-oxygen environment that typifies higher elevations.

On glaciers the issue is complicated further. Though burying human waste in soil is often the official leave-no-trace procedure, burying bodily waste in ice only preserves it–when the ice melts, it’s still there. As glaciers retreat, more and more human waste is becoming uncovered.

Pack it in pack it out sign. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

This problem is occurring worldwide, as adventure travel and glacial retreat are both increasing. On Everest, for example, the popularity of the climb has resulted in severe impacts to the mountain’s ecology. And on Mt. McKinley, “climbers generate over two metric tons of human waste annually,” according to a paper by Katelyn Goodwin, Michael G. Loso and Matthias Braun. Most of this waste gets deposited into crevasses. When waste is deposited into a crevasse, the natural movement of the glacier will ultimately force the waste to the glacier’s edge, where it remains preserved. These same problems plague the Americas’ tallest peak, Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, where the regional park has recently invested more substantially in solving their human waste problem.

Since 2005, visitors to the Mt. Aconcagua Park in the Argentine Andes have been told to pack out their own waste, usually back to base camp. However, getting it out of the park is not easy. The procedure involves substantial logistical efforts and expense, since waste is removed from base camp by helicopter. In addition, conservationists are concerned that a lack of rangers present to enforce these policies is causing ongoing pollution into glacial lakes and rivers, many of which feed downstream into water systems actively used by human populations.

According to a paper by Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros, Human Waste Management in Aconcagua Provincial Park: Description and Main Limitations, “Each summer more than 30,000 people visit Aconcagua for sightseeing and 7,000 for mountaineering and trekking.”

An x,y graph showing increasing visitors to the park every year since 1990.
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by year from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

And because the Mt. Aconcagua peak is the highest in the Western and Southern Hemispheres, every year the park draws larger and larger crowds. According to the paper, “The number of visitors has had a regular increase of 10% annually since the year 2000.” For this reason, a major campaign has been launched to address the waste problem. At the same time, similar campaigns are underway at high elevation peaks around the world, including on Mt. Everest.

An image of an ice ax with a roll of toilet paper around the handle
American Alpine Club Exit Strategies Human Waste Cleanup Campaign Logo

The Mt. Aconcagua Park includes several camp sites at various elevations. Though basic pit latrines in lower camp sites were slowly replaced with full septic systems in the early 2000’s, park mangers recently found that the newly installed septic systems are not working as expected due to frigid temperatures preventing the natural breakdown of organic waste.

So far there is nothing the park authorities can do about the septic tanks which are already installed. Even if they wanted to remove the tanks, they are now too heavy to be carried out by helicopter, which is the only way into or out of base camp.

In addition, there have been growing problems in higher elevations where septic is impossible. There, the park mangers must rely on pack out polices that are never 100% effective because they are hard to enforce.

Though there are rangers present in the park, mangers worry there are too few to enforce the waste polices. Trekking guides can be another good source of enforcement and do follow proper polices, however many individuals visit the park without guides, and may never see a ranger. Getting these individuals to follow proper waste disposal policy is an ongoing problem.

Compounding the problem, visitors often stay in the park for 1-2 weeks at a time, meaning the number of bathroom breaks per day is exponentially higher than the 37,000 or more visits per year. Mules, often employed by trekkers for hauling gear, also leave their waste behind.

Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros's 2010 Powerpoint titled, "Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild"
Visitors to the The Mt. Aconcagua Park by season from Sebastian Rossi and Agustina Barros’s 2010 Powerpoint titled, “Exits Extrategies: Managing Human Waste in the Wild”

Because the majority of visits to the park take place over only four months in the summer, the park has to absorb all this waste over relatively few days, leaving even less time for decomposition in an already less-than-ideal environment for its natural breakdown.

As far as solutions go, new dry toilets are currently being installed in the park. So far these small self-contained latrines are mostly in lower elevations, but there is a possibility they could be used in higher elevations in the future. The dry toilets use small containers about the size of an oil drum to store waste. The small size of the drum allows them to be carried out by helicopter when they are full.

An image of a rusty Latrine on rocks on a mountain
A latrine in Mt. Aconcagua Park by Daniel Maldonado Source: Flicker

Though the park is finding some success with dry toilets and pack-out polices, there is still concern over the pollution of glacial lakes from currently unregulated mule and human urine, as well as concern over the enforcement of existing waste removal policy. It will be important to pay attention to these issues, in Aconcagua and around the world, as more and more people travel to remote locations for adventure vacations every year.



Would you SCUBA dive under Antarctica?

The Antarctic Dive Guide by Lisa Eareckson Kelley tells you everything you need to know about visiting the 7th continent from an underwater perspective.

An image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver going through the ice in the first modern SCUBA suit.
The first modern  SCUBA diver in the McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, circa 1960. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

According to the book, diving under ice first started over 100 years ago when divers still used heavy suits and brass helmets to stay dry, while getting their oxygen from ships on the surface. Today, divers use lightweight flexible suits and SCUBA (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) gear that allows them to do much more under the water, all while deployinh modern technology to stay in communication with the surface and document what they find via underwater cameras and hydrophones.

Though Antarctica may seem like a barren place, cold water upwelling under the icecreates some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the world’s oceans. These conditions breed beautiful creatures of all shapes and sizes that an adventurous diver can get up close and personal with. Though nutrient-rich, the water is very cold, and most animals that have adapted to survive in the harsh conditions are smaller than their lower-latitude cousins. Nonetheless, close encounters between Antarctic divers, surface tourists and seals, penguins and whales are not uncommon.

An image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver with a large camera in the face of a large leopard seal under water.
A SCUBA diver filming a leopard seal in Antarctica. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Kelley’ s dive guide lays out all your options for getting to the 7th continent, whether by cruise ship or private charter, and all the safety and regulatory guidelines to keep in mind if you are planing on going under the surface. The book goes over the best places to dive off the coasts of Antarctica.

Tourists and experienced adventurous alike can get to Antarctica for anywhere from $8,000-$30,000 or more depending on the type of trip. According to Kelly, approximately 35,000 people visit the island each year. The cost is mostly determined by the size of the ship one takes. Larger cruise ships where you would spend all your time on the boat cost the least, while smaller expedition ships with only a couple hundred people, where you would spend much more time on small inflatable boats commonly referred by the proprietary eponym “Zodiacs,” exploring the actual Antarctic landmass, cost more. Privately chartered ships that are often partially wind driven will offer the most flexibility and time ashore, these types of ships will run the most expensive.

Image of several dozen small starfish on a reef underwater in Antarctica.
Sea Stars in Antarctic waters, photographed by an Antarctic SCUBA diver. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Diving under the water requires more experience than your average tourist on holiday. Kelly recommends that only very competent and experienced SCUBA divers attempt the cold waters and high-stakes environment. Everything is more difficult in the cold, you risk frost bite on exposed skin, you grind your teeth on your respirator, batteries for dive computers die faster, and valves and regulators are more prone to failure from the below-freezing temperatures.

Knowledge on self rescue is a must, as is the ability to breath through a freely flowing regulator, which is apparently one of the most common problems faced in the frigid water. A freely flowing regulator is a condition where the compressed air you breath is no longer decompressed to surface pressure, making it harder to breath easily.

Image of an Antarctic SCUBA diver's hand holding a red sea spider with long curled legs underwater.
Antarctic SCUBA diver holding a sea spider. Courtesy of Princeton Press.

Skills like these are essential to a safe trip, as is bringing extra gear, including a dry suit, warm layers, and doubles of all your valves, gaskets etc… Unlike diving on the mainland or tourist islands, there are no dive shops to run into if you need a replacement part in the Antarctic seas.

Lastly, Kelly recommends making sure you have medical or trip insurance that specifically covers medevac from anywhere in the world, and covers high risk activities like SCUBA diving, which many polices explicitly exclude. If you need rescuing, medevac could cost more than six figures, and take over 48 hours, so it’s best to be prepared before embarking on the trip.

Image of a long jellyfish underwater with pink internal organs visible through its clear skin.
Antarctic Jellyfish curtsey of Princeton Press

Also important to keep in mind are leopard seal attacks, which though highly uncommon, have become more of a concern in recent years, with one reported death in 2004. Kelly recommends at least one diver carry a Leopard stick while in the water. These PVC or aluminum poles are used to ward off any potentially aggressive Leopard Seals.

In spite of the risks, the waters under the Antarctic seas offer incredibly novel and beautiful experiences that most people could never imagine. In many cases, the waters near Antarctic outflow glaciers, especially off the Antarctic Peninsula, and South Georgia Island, provide the best environments for Antarctic SCUBA diving. Besides whales, seals and penguins, lucky divers will get to see a great variety of underwater flora and fauna, including beautiful  worms, sponges, corals, jellies and kelp.

Surprisingly, while the world above the water in Antarctica is often shades of white and gray, and everything seems still, under the surface there is an amazingly colorful and dynamic ecosystem.

Take our survey and tell us if Antarctic SCUBA diving is something you’d want to try!

Do Windy Glaciers Melt Faster?

The relationship between surface winds and glacial melt is more complex than previously thought, according to an article in the journal, Boundary-Layer Meteorology, which used new data collecting techniques.

The report by Maxime Litt, Jean-Emmanuel Sicart, and Patrick Wagnon, with the Université Grenoble Alpes, France, and, Warren D. Helgason at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, focused on the tropical Zongo glacier in the mountains of Bolivia. They were able to demonstrate that over mountain glaciers katabatic winds and turbulent heat fluxes, which had not been properly measured in the past, were common with substantial effects on glacial wind, and could have substantial effects on glacial mass.

Katabatic glacial wind blown snow over a mountain peak
Katabatic wind-blown snow caught behind craggy peaks, near Meehan Glacier in NW Greenland. By, NASA/Jeremy Harbeck, via Flicker.

Katabatic winds are a gravity driven wind that occur when air high above the ground is more dense than the air beneath it, causing the air to fall, often down a mountain slope. Glaciers are a common cause of these types of winds because the air directly above the ice is likely to be cooler than the surrounding air at the same altitude, and because cold air is denser, air atop mountain glaciers often falls downhill, creating katabatic winds.

By their nature katabatic winds vary with the temperature of the surrounding air, and for this reason do not occur constantly, nor at consistent speeds. This means that the behavior of katabatic winds depends on the weather and climate surrounding the glacier.

At the same time that strong winds intermittently blow down glaciers, smaller surface anomalies on glaciers and differences in terrain around glaciers cause air that carries heat to become turbulent, creating different turbulent heat fluxes, or the amount and speed with which air and heat get churned up over the surface of the glacier as the wind moves.

As an example, you can think of it as similar to the way farmers will plant wind breaks in their fields to prevent soil erosion. Planting trees and bushes in a field will affect the way that air travels through the field, in this case by preventing strong winds from blowing away top soil.

Figure of effect of wind breaks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service
Figure of effect of wind breaks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service

Much as the way that the amount of wind erosion of soil is affected by surface characteristics (a flat field or a field with a line of trees), the amount of glacier melting and sublimation will be affected by the terrain around the glacier and the characteristics of its surface.

Previously, scientists had used a method of calculating the effect of wind driven melting which did not consider the effects of changing turbulence and intermittent katabatic winds.

On uniform stable surfaces the method previously used, called the “bulk aerodynamic method,” is considered standard. However the researches in this study demonstrated that on mountain glaciers, more precise methods were needed, because of intermittent downhill winds and variability in wind turbulence due to complex terrain features.

Using on-site measuring equipment and a six month long real-world study of the Zongo glacier, the researchers demonstrated that the previously unconsidered winds did contribute to the melting and freezing of the glacier. They suggest  that these types of winds should be considered in future studies of glacial expansion and recession.

The Dancing Glacier

The recent recession of the Qollqepunku glacier has ended an ancient ceremonial practice. Because of the rapid melting of the Qollqepunku glacier, and other glaciers in the region, the Ukuku have stopped taking glacial ice during the annual Qoyllurit’i festival and no longer light traditional candles on the glacier.

Each indigenous community that attends the Qoyllurití festival designates individuals to play the important role of Ukuku. Half man, half bear, the Ukuku exist somewhere between this world and that of the gods. Dressed in black, singing in falsetto rather than speaking, they are often portrayed as tricksters and are tasked with climbing the sacred glacier to dance and carry blocks of ice down for the pilgrims in the valley.

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Tens of thousands of men, women and children climb to the Sinakara valley, high above Cusco, Peru in a multiple day celebration of Qoyllurit’i (“star snow”) festival every year in early summer. For many, the journey to the mountain starts weeks before in their local villages and towns where they prepare costumes and supplies for what can be many days of walking to get to the base of the valley.

Fredy Quispe Singona introduces himself as Puma, his given name as a spiritual leader and shaman in the hills and valleys surrounding Cusco, where he was raised. He has been attending the Qoyllurit’i festival for the last 32 years. In fact, he said he was “one of the first little dancers” to attend the event, “before [him] many children went, but not to dance.”

“It is only recently that many people go to the mountain,” he added. “In pre Incan times and in Incan times the festival was not open for everyone, it was only for head leaders of communities and high priests.”

Image of pilgrims hiking to Quyllur Rit'I  in Peru.
Image of pilgrims hiking to Qoyllur Rit’i by Timothy Allen

According to Puma, the event 14,000 feet above sea level, “celebrates the return of the seven sisters constellation, the Pleiades. It meant for the Andean people the return of abundance to the planet, abundant life energy and prosperity.”

The return of the Pleiades constellation to the southern night sky also represents a return to order from the two-month period when it disappears from view in April and May, as well as a lunar marker of the new spring harvest and an upcoming new year.

Qoyllurit’i has multiple origin stories, and for many after Spanish colonization the festival took on Christian symbolism.

“[Qoyllurit’i] has become very Catholic, meaning in years before people could have their ceremony with the mountains completely Andean– this was the origins of the festival,” Puma told GlacierHub.

Pilgrims hiking to Quyllur Rit'I in Peru at night.
Image of pilgrims hiking to Qoyllur Rit’I at night by Timothy Allen

The pilgrimage pays tribute to regional sacred symbols, the Apus (mountain gods), and Pachamama (mother earth), as well as to Christian symbols of the crucifix and Jesus. As in many other traditions in the region, Spanish colonization has blended with ancient ritual to create a hybridization of both. Nonetheless, the ceremony is undoubtedly a celebration of nature. Even the Christian Lord that the event honors according to Christian mythology is named Lord Qoyllurit’i (Star Snow).

“I believe one day we will return to the original meaning of the festival,” said Puma, adding that ultimately during the festival, “people still dance to the sun making a cross, which acknowledges the four directions.”

In the local tradition the four compass directions, South, West, North, and East, hold ceremonial significance and each represent specific features of our world.

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People from all over southern Peru and many from other parts of the Andes and the world, come to the festival in order to participate in the event. Each regional group of local pilgrims, called Nations, dress according to their role in the event and to the region they represent. Dance is central to the festivities; continual dance ensures good spirits and warm bodies throughout the celebrations.

Puma said that they “dance 24 hours a day for 7 days and journey to the snow because the festival means snow star, and we connect with our star only if we are pure. We purify ourselves in the snow, that way our soul becames white light again.” He said that the mountain where they dance is known as the silver gateway, a gateway to the stars and specifically to the Pleiades

. The Pleiades is a feminine star, and silver represents femininity, so the silver gateway in this case represents the gateway to the Pleiades.

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About 10 miles north of Ausangate, a sacred Apu that can be seen from Cusco, the Sinakara valley lays at the base of Mt. Qollqepunku 18,000 feet above sea level. Part of the yearly ritual involves climbing onto the Qollqepunku glacier, an activity that does not come without risks. Some years pilgrims are taken by the mountain, a reality that most locals accept as a natural part of life and balance.

Locals are also beginning to accept the disappearance of the glaciers.

“The glaciers are getting smaller every year and many people worry,” said Puma, adding that this wasn’t only a concern in Qoyllurit’i. “It is everywhere and people are more and more aware. In years before they used to think that it was because of too much heavy energy in the planet, but now people are more aware of global warming.


For many of the pilgrims the retreat of the glacier was a sign of great imbalance, a signal that the mountains were saddened by the changes in human activity. The Ukuku stopped collecting ice from the glacier face itself around 2004, and now only take the ice that forms on the surface of ponds during the cold nights at the high elevations.

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Ultimately Puma said that what the festival really means to him is that, “life is a pilgrimage, and you are on it for everyone in your family and community. While you could be very busy struggling and suffering, you could dance.”


Many thanks to Timothy Allen for giving us permission to use his wonderful photos throughout this story, follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram.

World’s First Rave Inside a Glacier

In less than two weeks, seventy people will gather almost half a mile below Europe’s second largest glacier. There, they will dance to an electronic DJ set, and will be served drinks made with glacial vodka and glacial ice cubes.

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The Langjökull ice cave event, called ICERAVE, is part of the Secret Solstice 2015 festival on June 19-21 outside Reykjavik, Iceland, where thousands of people will party to bands like The Wu-Tang-Clan and FKA Twigs over three days of 24-hour sunlight. The festival’s page states that it is “themed after the Norse religion and mythology of old. It‘s set to deliver a unique party atmosphere filled with great entertainment. The summer solstice was a time of bounty in the lives of the Nordic nations and a cause for celebration. The Norse mythology and religion commonly known as the Asatru is deeply rooted in natural symbolism.”

Secret Solstice Festival Lineup
Secret Solstice Festival Lineup from IcecaveIceland’s Facebook page

Keeping in line with that intention, the main event is taking place in the Laugardalur recreational area. An open green field, Laugardalur’s name translates to Hot Spring Valley. The festival’s sponsors state “citizens of Reykjavík used to bathe and do their laundry in the geo-thermal hot spot . . . there is a huge swimming pool . . . a botanical garden and a theme park/petting zoo.” Camping is also available for those who want to sleep under three nights of sunshine.

After a highly reviewed debut last year, the festival is going even bigger this year, offering many other exclusive side events for those who want a little extra. In fact, this year they’re offering what has been described as the world’s most expensive festival ticket. For $200,000, two people will be flown to a luxury hotel in Reykjavík, helicoptered everywhere else they need to go, given private assistants and cooks, and a private yacht for the weekend. For those who don’t have a quarter million dollars to spend on one weekend, they are also offering a one-night boat party for 100 ambitious festivalgoers.

Taking advantage of Iceland’s extreme latitudes and remote location they are also offering a second excursion into nature, the opportunity to attend an all night music event inside a century old, 102ºF natural volcanic hot spring.

Image of the Flúðir volcanic hot spring  for the Secret Solstice Festival
Image of the Flúðir volcanic hot spring from IcecaveIceland via Facebook

While partying inside a glacier or a hot spring may not exactly be low impact, and doesn’t scream, “leave no trace,” the festival may prove to be eco-friendly. Last year locals were reportedly throwing away their cigarette butts where they belonged, to the surprise of foreign guests. Already, the ICERAVE event has strict rules in place to not allow overly intoxicated individuals into the cave, and is enforcing a 2 drink maximum.

Overall, the festival looks like it will be a great deal of fun for everyone involved. The ICERAVE event is another example of the many different ways people explore the potential of living in a glaciated world, whether by drinking glacial water, or vodka, or dancing inside a glacial cave.

You can get tickets to the Festival, here, and to the ICERAVE event, here. Check out their Facebook page to stay up to date with all they have going on.

Glacial Runoff: Bane or Boon for Aquatic Life?

As glaciers melt around the world, their waters carry high concentrations of sediments into glacial lakes and rivers. That glacial sediment brings some nutrients into the lakes, but also blocks sunlight– the energy source which organisms need to survive.

In a recently published paper in The Journal of Plankton Research, titled When glaciers and ice sheets melt: consequences for planktonic organisms, Dr. Ruben Sommaruga of  the University of Innsbruck, Austria, analyzed the relationship between sunlight, nutrients and organisms.

Glacial rivers and lakes often appear blue because of the particular mix of minerals and sediments, known as glacial flour, or glacial milk, that gets scraped up when glaciers expand and grind the bedrock surface over which they move. Glacial retreat releases that glacial flour into rivers and lakes at unprecedented rates. At the same time, new glacial lakes and rivers are forming, providing scientists with an opportunity to observe if and how life will thrive in these bodies of water.

Figure of turbid glacial lakes transitioning to clear oligotrophic lakes.
Figure of turbid glacial lakes transitioning to clear oligotrophic lakes. Figure by RUBEN SOMMARUGA 2015

High concentrations of glacial flour in young glacial lakes makes them  turbid, or cloudy, blocking sunlight. These lakes become clearer as they age, as glacial flour settles to the lakebed. This process increases sunlight penetration in the water. Combined with an increase in other forms of nutrients entering the lake over time, such as bird droppings, this process results in a clear blue glacial lake with a healthy ecosystem. These clear lakes, called oligotrophic lakes, can support plankton and small fish, but do not have many aquatic plants. Eventually, if nutrients keep increasing in oligotrophic lakes, they can develop into highly biologically active lakes, called eutrophic lakes, with abundant aquatic flora and fauna.

An image of Kurtkowiec Lake, an oligotrophic lake in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland.
Kurtkowiec Lake, an oligotrophic lake in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, via Wikipedia.
An image of Lake Waahi, a eutrophic lake in Huntly, New Zealand.
Lake Waahi, a eutrophic lake in Huntly, New Zealand, via Flicker.

In order for this eutrophication to occur, organisms at the base of the food chain, particularly  plankton, need to survive in the water during its early phase with low sunlight penetration.

Once a lake loses its connection with its original glacier, either because the glacier completely melted or because its runoff ceased, it changes more rapidly from a cloudy glacial lake to a clear oligotrophic lake. The location and size of the lake and glacier influence the pace of this process and the potential for eutrophication.

Research on these processes–which integrate climatic, hydrological, chemical and biological components–contributes to a more general understanding of the ecological consequences of climate change.

In the article, Dr. Sommaruga states “ . . . estimates based on a scenario where all glacier ice disappears in the Swiss Alps, predict 500 new lakes, which represent 30% more lentic [stillwater] systems for Switzerland. In other regions, such as in northern Patagonia, total glacial lake area has increased by 65% from 1945 to 2011.”

This research shows that plankton and other small organisms survive, though not always thrive, in young cloudy glacial lakes and rivers. Future research will extend current understanding of these ecosystems, and trace the implications for our planet’s freshwater ecosystems.

Other posts at GlacierHub have described glacial lakes in Switzerland and Greenland.

Roundup: Bubbling Ice, Black Carbon, and Glacial Advance

The sound of glaciers

A new article in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, titled Unusually loud ambient noise in tidewater glacier fjords: A signal of ice melttracks glacial melt by recording the sounds of the glaciers bubbling underwater in glacial bays.

Check out videos of the unique sounds below, and read the article here.


“After decades of retreat, in the 1980s, many Karakoram glaciers suddenly ‘changed their mind.'”

According to Kenneth Hewitt, a glaciologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, in Canada, ‘I began to see glacier thickening and advancing that I had not observed in the 35 years of field work before.’ Hewitt called it the ‘Karakoram anomaly,’ and climate-change skeptics made the most of it. Read the full story by Jane Qiu in Science.

New Report on Black Carbon in the Peruvian Andes

According to the study, tropical glacial melt is rapidly affecting water supplies and high concentrations of “light-absorbing particles on glacier surfaces” are part of the reason. Read the full report here.


The Sound of Glacial Calving

Listening to the unique creaks and cracks of an arctic fjord, six researchers affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences recorded the sounds glaciers make as they break off into water. The recordings are being used in an important effort to better understand this process of breaking off, called calving.

Glacial calving is “poorly understood” according to the researchers who published a new article in the scientific journal, Geophysical Research Letters, titled, Underwater acoustic signatures of glacier calving. However, through their research they successfully identified three distinct ways that glaciers calve, typical subaerial, sliding subaerial, and submarine. Basically, whether the piece of ice breaking off was falling outward from the top of the glacier, like a person jumping off the top, sliding straight down the face of the glacier, like something very slowly sliding off the top, or was actually breaking off underwater and shooting up to the surface, like a person swimming back up after falling in.

An image of three types of glacial calving and their sound signatures.
Types of glacial calving from Glowacki et. al, 2015.

Although glaciers around the world, by definition, are all large masses of ice that last year-round and slowly move, they vary in size, shape, speed, and importantly, location. Eventually, many glaciers terminate at bodies of water. Glaciers that terminate at bodies of water with tidal patterns, like oceans fjords, and sounds, are called tidewater glaciers. Tidewater glaciers are a form of calving glaciers, which break off into chunks as they push forward into bodies of water, creating icebergs.

This new article adds to our understanding of this process in a novel way. By recording the sounds of the calving process the researches overcame previous obstacles in monitoring these events. In the past, keeping track of tidewater glacial calving was difficult due to the lack of sunlight in the poles and the poor quality of satellite imagery. However, using relatively cheap and simple underwater microphones, called hydrophones, attached to a buoy, the researches identified the distinct sound signatures of the ice slowly melting, cracking and expanding, and eventually, breaking off from the glacier altogether. The researchers then combined the calving sound signatures with photographs from a GoPro camera they had set up to monitor the events visually, allowing them to identify and confirm the three distinct types of calving.

They say that by continuing to monitor the underwater sounds glaciers make, scientists will be able collect more data on how, and how much, glaciers around the world are breaking off into the bodies of water in which they terminate. This will help to better understand the calving process itself, as well as allow them to keep better track of how quickly glaciers are melting due to climate change.

This is important, because tidewater glaciers contribute more water to global sea level rise than any other type of glacier, and by some counts, contribute more water to sea level rise than the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets combined.

By establishing the connection between the visual and audio information the researches established that these sound signatures did in fact correspond to these particular types of events, and presumably, could be used on its own in the future– giving scientist a cheap and easy monitoring tool to gauge glacier calving around the world.

Cecil the Pet Glacier – A Review

An image of the book Cecil the Pet Glacier by Written by Matthea Harvey and Giselle Potter
Cecil the Pet Glacier Cover by Schwartz Wade Via Flicker

Award-winning poet Matthea Harvey wasn’t sticking to conventional children’s pets stories when she wrote Cecil the Pet Glacier, published by Shorts and Wade in August 2014. The book, illustrated by Giselle Potter, follows young Ruby Small on a family vacation to Norway, where she grudgingly befriends a glacier – or rather, a piece of a calving glacier – named Cecil. Ruby didn’t want to go to Norway, and she doesn’t like her parents. Her father owns a topiary garden business, her mother makes tiaras, and they do lots of strange things – they play ping-pong on an airplanes and tango dance in the front yard. Their eccentricity embarrasses the little girl protagonist. Ruby just wants normal parents and a normal life. She certainly doesn’t want a pet glacier – she wants a dog.

Nonetheless, after Ruby discovers what she at first dubbed the “ice-pest,” Cecil, their paths seemed destined to stay intertwined. Cecil notices Ruby’s strengths early, and persists even when Ruby initially rejects him. “He would nudge the door, leaving a wet patch below the doorknob. After a bit, he would slide sadly back to his cooler.” Ultimately, the book provides a great moral about embracing your inner weird and creativity, as Ruby learns by the end of the story that Cecil the pet glacier isn’t so bad, and her eccentric and artsy parents aren’t so bad either.

Lots of kids grow up with or wanting a new pet, and lots of kids grow up wanting a different family, different parents, or a different life. Cecil the Pet Glacier is positive because it embraces this reality at the same time that it embraces the bizarre. How many kids do you know with a piece of a glacier following them around? But the book apparently goes over great with kids. One parent reviewing the book on The Picture Book Review said about her son that she “fear[s] if we ever do come face to face with a real glacier and a small bit doesn’t follow him around, he’s going to be sorely disappointed.”

Cecil the Pet Glacier is great too, because it gives young readers a quick and painless science lesson at the same time that it teaches them to value their individuality. The story inevitably exposes young kids to more geology and geography than your average fairy tale. All the visualizations and anthropomorphisms of Cecil the glacier will cause a young reader, or young listener, to think about what a glacier is, how it melts and freezes, and how fragile it really is. In fact, Cecil even almost dies from melting when he rushes out to rescue one of Ruby’s dolls that had been left out in the rain. And that’s the point when Ruby realizes how much she would miss him if he were gone. At that point, she calls out for his favorite food items,  “Help! I need some ice water and a plate of pebbles!”

Cecil the Pet Glacier is not exactly an equivalent of The Giving Tree of glaciers, but it makes you think more about what glaciers are than most children’s books, and to care about them, too.  As Potter’s surreal illustrations of Cecil and Cecil’s own story continue to charm you, you’ll start to find Cecil as engaging as Ruby ultimately does.