Roundup: Himalayan Avalanche, Glacial Art, and Volcanoes

Twitter screen shot of Himalaya Avalanche

The 7.8 magnitude Nepal earthquake on April 27th unleashed an enormous avalanche above the Mt. Everest base camp. This is the beginning of the short spring climbing season and the camp was full of hopeful climbers. At least 11 people have been killed. For more coverage see here




Until May 3rd an art exhibit on glaciers will be in Berlin, Germany. It will include Emma Stibbon’s Ice themed water colors and drawings. Check it out, here.



Image of Eruption at Bardarbunga, Iceland  on January 2015
Image by, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Via Flicker Jan 2015


Image by, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Via Flicker Jan 2015

There is new evidence that the glacier covered Bardarbunga caldera may be rising again in Iceland. This could indicate an increased likelihood of a near-future eruption. See the story, here.

Photo of the Week: Forgotten Glaciers in the Pyrenees

The Pyrenees, a mountain range between France and Spain, are home to some rarely written about, but strikingly beautiful glaciers. Glaciers in the Pyrenees receive less attention than their counterparts in places like Greenland, the Himalayas, and Switzerland, but like these more familiar ones, they are also very fragile, and very spectacular. Unfortunately,  because of their relatively low latitude and altitude, the glaciers in the Pyrenees may not be around for very much longer.

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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

Ice Cave Collapses On Mt. Hood

In the warmest winter on record the roof of a highly popular ice cave on Mt. Hood, Oregon fell in. The Snow Dragon ice cave at the bottom of the Sandy Glacier on Mt. Hood was first publicly documented in 2011 by Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya– we covered their experience documenting the Sandy Glacier last October. Since then, the western US has experienced one of the warmest and driest winters on record, and the Sandy Glacier responded.

An image of the opening to The Snow Dragon Ice Cave on Mt. Hood before and after roof collapse
The Snow Dragon Ice Cave on Mt. Hood before and after roof collapse. Credit: “Glacier Cave Explorers” Facebook page

As can be seen in the photos above from McGregor and Cartaya’s Facebook page covering ice cave explorations, the Snow Dragon cave has been significantly reduced this winter. The roof to the entrance collapsed in what McGregor on Facebook said he “would consider . . . the biggest change in the cave system since we have been monitoring it.”

This was always a fate for the ice cave that could have been anticipated. For years, many climbers  have said Snow Dragon and other cave systems like it would melt before long. Ice thawing from within the glaciers forms the caves. As that thawing continues and expands outwards, it begins to breach the surface. Once tunnels open to the surface, the glaciers continue to melt in an increasing positive feedback: warm surface air travels down the tunnels to the glacier’s core, increasing the rate of melt and creating new surface openings.

Ice cave systems are inherently temporary, so expeditions attempt to explore and document their beauty, chemistry, and biology before they’re gone. As we posted in January, a team from Uncage the Soul Productions shot “Requiem of Ice” in the Sandy Glacier system with help from McGregor and Cartaya for just that reason.

In an interview referencing the current collapse in the Snow Dragon cave with Oregon’s KGW, McGregor said although they knew the caves were temporary, “we thought we had another 5 or 10 years till we reached that point, but it’s accelerating. It doesn’t matter what you believe as far as climate change, the fact is that we are losing ice on our glaciers, just not in Oregon, just not on Mt. Hood, worldwide we’re loosing a lot of ice.”

In fact, at one time there was an even bigger cave system than the Sandy Glacier system. The caves on Mt. Rainier, Washington’s Paradise Glacier– first discovered in the 19th century– were some of the biggest and most popular ice caves in the country by the 1950’s. By 1970 glacial retreat had caused their roofs to cave in and tunnels to collapse, and today, only the highest ice caves in the system are left.

An image of a Hiker in Paradise Glacier ice cave on Mount Rainier, July 27, 1924
Hiker in Paradise Glacier ice cave on Mount Rainier, July 27, 1924 By Lindsley, Lawrence Denny, 1879-1974. Posted on Flicker by IMLS Digital Collections and Content.

Glacial ice caves don’t always melt away slowly and when no one’s looking. In 2008 a teenage boy became trapped inside an ice cave on Mt. Baker, Washington. The boy’s mother was taking his and friends’ photo inside the cave when the roof suddenly fell in– trapping them inside. It took 6 hours to get them out and the boys were only semi-conscious when they were finally rescued. Events like these outline the dangers associated with these highly volatile cave systems.

More recently, in July 2014, a popular ice cave on Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska collapsed due to increasing glacial melt. No one was trapped inside that time, but scientists and park officials are worried that as temperatures warm and glaciers retreat, more people may be injured exploring popular glacial ice caves unprepared.

image of a women standing inside an ice cave in the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
A women stands inside an ice cave in the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska. By: Andrew E. Russell, Via Flickr

As beautiful as the caves are, and as amazing as it is to have the chance to explore their tunnels, they are inevitably disappearing. Nature is always in flux, and we find ourselves currently in an era of increased climate variability and uncertainty. Fortunately, until the ice caves around the world become too dangerous to explore, passionate scientist and adventurers will continue to document their lives, their tunnels, their expansive chambers and hidden lakes, unique flora and fauna, and their immense beauty.

Heart Shaped Opening of the Pure Imagination Cave Mt. Hood OR
Pure Imagination Cave, part of the Sandy Glacier cave system by Brent McGregor via Facebook

For more photos of McGregor and Cartaya explorations, and the Sandy Glacier cave system, check out their Instagram, or follow them on Facebook. For photos from the Mt. Baker collapse rescue see, here.

Roundup: New Museums, Ice Quakes, and Ice Caves

Glaciarium – A New Museum Dedicated to Patagonian Glaciers Opens in Argentina

Arial photo of a large rectangular glacier jagged
Photo of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate, Argentina by Frank Kehren via Flicker

“Designed as an environment that promotes knowledge and awakens the senses, Glaciarium seeks to emotionally move the visitor through noble visual and narrative resources . . .” Read More, here.


Calving Glaciers causing “Ice Quakes”

Image of ice falling of a larger glacier into a pool of water
Photo of a small amount of calving on Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska by Mark Byzewski via Flicker.

Analysts at the Alaska Earthquake Center discovered that calving glaciers cam cause seismic readings of earthquakes. Read more, here.


New International Workshop on Ice Caves published by the National Cave and Karst Research Institute

An image of the silhouette of a man in front of the opening to an ice cave
Under the Glacier by Alison Tomlin via Flicker

“International experts discuss ongoing research efforts and promote global cooperation in ice cave science and management. The 97-page proceedings of the 6th IWIC contain 20 high quality papers and abstracts that cover ice caves and glacier caves eight countries, three continents, and some extraterrestrial bodies. Topics include modeling, measuring, and monitoring of ice and glacier cave processes, microclimates, and cave ice, as well as the effects of climate change.” Read the report here.


Photo Friday: Salvatore Vitale

Salvatore Vitale is an independent photographer from Switzerland who says he focuses on ” . . . the relationship between man’s identity and the influence he has on the construction of the space around him and vice versa.” Key entities within this space are the Swiss glaciers which Vitale has photographed in an ongoing project, titled “Topography of a Glacier.” He states that this project “aims to explore the powerful nature of a living creature in constant evolution.”  He suggests that the glacier, like a living creature, is characterized by an immediate presence and a very real fragility. The images shown here demonstrate his ability to convey these qualities forcefully.


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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

Glacial Moraines Influence New Techniques in Micro Biomedicine

A recent piece of biomedical research has drawn extensively from an unexpected source, glacial moraines. Moraines form as glaciers advance across landscapes over hundreds or even thousands of years, pushing rocks and boulders along their way. If you can imagine the pile of snow that accumulates in front of a sled as it rushes down towards the bottom of your favorite sledding hill in winter–the same thing happens as glaciers move downslope during periods of glacial expansion. As glaciers recede, they leave behind those piles of rocky materials, which we call moraines.

A diagram of how glacial Moraines are formed
Glacial moraines are created from the shear tension of the huge moving mass of ice. Moraines that form from the pile of sediment built up in front of the glacier are called terminal moraines, moraines formed from sediment left on the sides are called lateral moraines, and sediments piled together from two glaciers pushing together is called a medial moraine. Source: Wikipedia Commons

This phenomenon caught the attention of researchers at the University of Illinois who have been tackling a challenging biomedical problem. Advances in modern medicine have created an abundance of highly specialized and effective drug therapies to combat an increasing number of conditions. And new forms of biotechnology allow interventions at the cellular and sub-cellular level. As a result, medical technicians and researchers have sought efficacious drug delivery techniques. In simple terms, it is not usually sufficient to simply give the host a pill to swallow, because medical science now seeks to promote processes in highly specific locations. Medicine has been looking for ways to deliver micro-therapies with more precision, by controlling both the speed with which a drug is released and the spatial pattern it takes inside the body.

There have been several proposed solutions to the problem, but none of which have been effective enough to reach widespread commercial success. A common mechanism that has been explored is what are called “microspheres” – microscopic time-release pill capsules. The problem with these is they do not fully control the time release, and once the microspheres release the active ingredient, they no longer control its movement through the body. The solution has been proposed by Dr. Min Kyung Lee, Dr. Jonghwi Lee of the Choong-Ang University (Korea), and others working in the NanoBiomaterials lab headed by Prof. Hyunjoon Kong at the University of Illinois. They suggested the use of what they term a “microparticle-loaded hydrogel” to deliver the microdrug therapy, which in their case was vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) that helps stimulate cell growth for regeneration of blood vessels. Their goal is to introduce the VEGF in precise locations at the cellular level in a hydrogel substrate, where it could help repair damaged tissue.


An image of the model displaying the hydrogel freezing process
A model demonstrating how freezing the hydrogel orients its contents in the same way as glacial moraine formation. Source: “Glacier Moraine Formation-Mimicking Colloidal Particle Assembly in Microchanneled, Bioactive Hydrogel for Guided Vascular Network Construction”  Adv. Healthcare Mater. 2015, 4, 195–201


The problem that they faced was making sure the VEGF was oriented and distributed spatially correctly inside the host. When the VEGF was distributed randomly inside the hydrogel, the therapy was ineffective. This is where glacial moraines play a role, by providing a model of spatial organization. These moraines developed from the shear tension in the ice, a product of the increasing weight of the glacier as it grows. This shear tension drives minerals and sediment trapped inside and next to the glacier outward to its edges, resulting in the pile of soil, rock and debris we think of as a moraine. Dr. Lee realized that the sediment becomes oriented in a very specific way in relation to the movement of the glacier. If they could replicate that behavior inside their hydrogel, they might be able to orient the VEGF the way they wanted inside the host. They found that by freezing the hydrogel with the VEGF inside it, they were able to orient the drug into uniform channels that increased the ability of the host’s blood cells to migrate into the gel, which allowed them to come into contact with the VEGF, in turn helping to grow blood vessels. They conducted these experiments on mice, a well-established model for humans, and had positive results.


image displays the difference in cell growth between the VEGF laden micropours hydrogel and the frozen VEGF laden micro channeled hydro gel in a damaged mouse foot
This image displays the difference in cell growth between the VEGF laden micropours hydrol (c2) and the frozen VEGF laden micro channeled hydro gel (c1) in a mouse foot that had a litigated artery. More red indicates more blood cells. Source: “Glacier Moraine Formation-Mimicking Colloidal Particle Assembly in Microchanneled, Bioactive Hydrogel for Guided Vascular Network Construction” Adv. Healthcare Mater. 2015, 4, 195–201


The success of the technique is exciting news on many fronts. It is encouraging news for biomedicine, and medicine in general, by moving us closer to new procedures that might promote blood vessel generation in damaged tissues in humans, more quickly than is possible at present. It is good news for micro-drug therapy research and businesses too, by providing evidence that the field is advancing. But mostly, it is a testament to glaciers and the earth itself, by showing us once again that we only strive to do things as perfectly as happen every day by apparent accident in the natural world. The more fully we understand our natural world, the more capable we are of advancing our own technologies.


An elevation map of Long Island
Long Island New York is a well-known example of landscapes formed by glacial moraines. Source: a. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1004

Climate Change Brings Global Energy Concerns

An image of the Kali Gandaki Hydroelectric Plant in Nepal
Kali Gandaki Hydroelectric Plant in Nepal is an example of new hydropower projects in the Himalayas. Image by Asian Development Bank via Flicker

Global reliance on hydroelectric energy production has only increased in the 21st century, even as our supply of hydropower has become increasingly uncertain due to climate change impacts, including glacial retreat. South Asia is a clear example: due to the high cost and political risks of importing fuels like oil or coal, countries in this region have increasingly turned to hydroelectric power for domestic energy production. But changes to the Himalayan hydro-ecosystem could severely disrupt future hydroelectric development in South Asia.

Today, large regional electrical grids feed most global energy demand. To maintain constant supply and meet demand as efficiently as possible, different “tiers” of power plants tend to work together. “Base load” power plants, such as nuclear and coal generators, are most efficient when providing a constant supply of energy around the clock, as opposed to in short bursts to meet peak demand, and so form the backbone of most electric grids. “Load following” power plants are used to adapt to short-term changes in demand, typically shutting down at night or early morning. Examples include natural gas or diesel and renewable power plants. “Peaking power” plants can start and stop very quickly but are far less efficient than base load plants at longer timescales and are more expensive to run than load following plants. They typically come online for only a few hours a day to meet peaks in energy demand. Diesel and gasoline internal combustion engines are examples.

A map of Hydroelectric power generation in and around the US
Glacial fed hydropower is a significant resource for areas like the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia

Hydroelectric generators can theoretically be used to fill any of these roles, depending upon the availability of water, the size of the reservoir, and the installed capacity. For this reason variations in hydro-ecosystems have a large impact on the energy potential available to such generators. If a hydroelectric plant is supplying base load energy, low stream flow can lead to power outages. If such a plant is used to supply peak needs, declines in water supplies at the wrong times can cause voltage drops or brownouts. Conversely, if the reservoir is too full due to heavy rain or snowmelt, spillways have to be opened and the energy often cannot be used at all. For these reasons hydroelectric plants are most commonly used as load following plants. Some even pump water back up river into reservoirs as a form of energy storage if production is high when demand is low.

In the Himalayas, hydropower is at grave risk, and yet there is virtually no supplementary base load power available, and little ability to purchase energy from other sources. As Himalayan glaciers melt at unprecedented rates, springtime stream flows have become more intense and unpredictable, while the risks of glacial lake outburst floods and landslides are growing. The severe inconsistency of the water supply could even cause hydroelectric projects to fail, flooding downstream communities. Ultimately, investments in hydroelectric power in the region may be disproportionate to the amount of energy that these plants will realistically be able to produce, given the ecosystem risks.

Picture of Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River will be affected by decreased streamflows over the coming decades

Although South Asia is in a notably precarious position, such concerns are not uniquely Himalayan.  In fact, according to a study by Schaefli et al., the net effect of global warming in Switzerland will be to noticeably reduce hydroelectric production, which is a serious problem for a country where 75% of electricity comes from hydroelectric power. Another 2014 study on Swiss hydropower by Ludovic Gaudard et al. has warned that increased water scarcity may lead to competition for water uses, further limiting water available for energy production. As such, the country has been taking measures to insure energy resilience, managing its hydro projects more closely and investing in other forms of renewable energy. According to the results of a project by the Swiss Sustainable Water Management National Research Programme, more careful water management practices could make up for increasing stream flow uncertainty.

In the US Pacific Northwest, scientists are advocating for greater attention to the ways in which climate uncertainty will affect their energy resources. Matthew S. Markoff and Alison C. Cullen find in a recent study that the region’s energy grid will be impacted by global warming as soon as 2020. According to the EPA, on the American Colorado River, a 1% reduction in stream flow from climate change can reduce electricity output from the various hydroelectric plants that run along it by as much as 3%. And in California, a report from the Department of Water Resources states that:

“Climate change will reduce the reliability of California’s hydroelectricity operations . . . changes in the timing of inflows to reservoirs may exceed generation capacity, forcing water releases over spillways and resulting in lost opportunities to generate hydropower. Higher snow elevations, decreased snowpack, and earlier melting may result in less water available for clean power generation during hot summer months. . .”

An image of the dry Folsom Dam reservoir
Dry lakes can’t produce any power. Folsom Dam, Sacramento, California 200 MW installed hydropower capacity. By Dan Brekke with KQED

The report goes on to outline management, policy and funding measures that should be taken to prepare for this reality. Many of these measures are similar to the measures outlined in the Swiss and Pacific Northwest reports.

In each case, the recommended measures are relatively nonspecific, however: increased attention to the uncertainty, and the implementation of increased security standards to protect communities from severe floods and sediment build up. Safety standards can be more easily addressed through the reinforcement of reservoirs, damns and levees, to prepare them for more sporadic and intense stream flows. To address uncertainty, the reports recommend preparing to adapt, and increasing the availability of other forms of renewable energy.

As the world faces widespread glacial retreat and growing climate uncertainty, it is becoming imperative for public and regulatory agencies to take into consideration how climate change will affect energy resources and public safety. This is especially true considering that hydroelectric power is currently the world’s largest source of renewable energy, and that sources of nonrenewable energy are depleting. As the industrialized world publishes studies, drafts plans, and prepares to deal with these risks, industrializing nations like those in South Asia do not always have the same flexibility. Moving forward, different regions of the world must work together to assure the safety of dams and reservoirs, the resiliency of electrical grids, and the sustainability of energy supply.

Round Up: Sounds of Glacier Bay, A New Book, and a Caving Video

“Voices of Glacier Bay” Soundscape Project

The National Park Service has a new project recording various sounds of nature in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. The recordings include sounds of: calving glaciers, humpback whales, singing birds, raindrop polyrhythms, and more!

Check out their website, with tons more sounds and videos.


Over 150 scientists collaborated on a new comprehensive book on glaciers

Picture of GLIMS book cover

The GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space)  project started over 20 years ago to record glacier movement using satellites. The largely never before seen data has been put together in a new comprehensive book by the same name which unquestionably confirms the shrinking of earth’s glaciers.

Read about the project, and the book, here

Extreme ice caving video filmed at Buer Glacier, Norway

Extreme sports buff and outdoor guide Sander Cruiming took his crew and cameras ice caving through Norway’s Buer Glacier. Read more, here.

A Professional Glacier

A picture of Ray Lloyd as Glacier doing his Cryonic Kick
Ray Lloyd “Glacier” doing his Cryonic Kick finishing move (source:Ray Lloyd/Facebook)


Ray Lloyd is a professional wrestler who has wrestled under the name “Glacier” since 1996. Born in Georgia, a state with no glaciers, Ray as a boy enjoyed superheroes, professional wrestling, and martial arts. He took up martial arts himself at the age of 15.  In high school and college Ray participated in and enjoyed other sports, like football, and eventually in his senior year of college decide to try wrestling. In a telephone interview earlier this month, he said that wrestling “felt like a natural fit.” He went on to sign professionally with World Championship Wrestling in 1990, when he was twenty-six. The WCW was one of the largest professional wrestling organizing bodies at the time, often competing for both talent and exposure with the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF. Both bodies turned into today’s World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, in a series of mergers in 2001 and 2002.

A picture of Ray Lloyd "Glacier" in his "battle armor"
Glacier in full gear. (Source: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)

When Ray was thirty-one, in the winter of 1995, he mentioned to Eric Bischoff, the then president of WCW, that he wanted to use his martial arts abilities more extensively in the ring. This idea quickly took off inside the organization and resulted in a very dramatic debut of a new “gimmick,” the term in wrestling circles for a character, particularly one with a distinctive persona. Beginning in 1996, Ray started  wrestling under the ring name “Glacier.” WCW promoted the story that he has returned  from studies in Japan, where he had become an expert in an ancient craft that combined wrestling with other martial arts.  In this story, his master bestowed the name Glacier on him as a symbol of the power of nature, and also gave him a helmet that had been passed down from teacher to student for four hundred years. In the interview, Ray mentioned that wrestling, as a form of entertainment, has  long responded to the cultural trends and interests of the time.  In the mid-1990s, the Mortal Kombat franchise, including video games, films, and comic books, had reached a level of great popularity. WCW  wanted to appeal to the same esthetic when they created his Glacier “gimmick”, taking particular influence from a Mortal Kombat character named Sub-Zero.

I wondered about the source of Ray’s ring name. When I asked him about it, he said that there had been a large number of alternatives, and that Glacier was his favorite. When the initial list of over 150 names had been whittled down to a handful, Eric was strongly in favor of “Cryonic.” Ray and a few of his friends decided to campaign for the name Glacier instead, preferring it to Eric’s choice. In the end, a compromise was reached: Ray’s finishing move was called the “cryonic kick,” and Ray’s character was named Glacier. In an odd coincidence, the other final candidate for Ray’s ring name was “Stone Cold,” which also links thematically with “Sub-Zero.” Soon after Ray debuted as Glacier, Steve Austin in the WWF was creating his own gimmick as the now famous “Stone Cold Steve Austin.” Ray said that he has remained very happy with the choice of name, even though, as a friend of his once pointed out to him, glaciers are slow-moving blocks of ice which do not resemble a fighter who combines the light-footedness of a martial arts master with the power of a pro wrestler.

Glacier in the ring (Source: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)
Glacier in the ring (Source: Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)

Glacier went undefeated in the WCW for a period of  almost twelve months in 1996 and 1997. After a knee injury in 1999, Ray competed less frequently. He also did not like the corporate mergers and changes in marketing that were altering the pro wrestling world at the time. In 2000, Ray left WCW and joined Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, a new wrestling circuit in the southeast founded by Dusty Rhodes, a legend in pro wrestling. Ray won several championships in this circuit in the early and mid 2000’s. He has continued to be active in the wrestling community, competing in events and helping with promotion and training. He has become an actor as well, with roles in two recent movies, A Free Bird, and Attack of the Morningside Monster, and guest spots on television, including the first season finale of Burn Notice.

Ray stated that the Glacier character remains a central part of art of his life. It’s the name that many of his friends use for him (and one calls him “Block of Ice.”)   If he sees a photograph of a glacier, or reads a newspaper article about one, it has a meaning and relevance for him, and he suspects it always will.  He added  that visiting Glacier National Park is “on his bucket list.” Though he does not feel that he can know what will happen to our world in the next several decades, he “certainly wouldn’t want to be the only glacier left.”

The greatest honor in life, he said, was walking into a small room full of legendary pro wrestlers, and realizing that they looked on him as a peer. He said he “gets the same thrill wrestling in front of fifty people as he does in front of fifty thousand.” His intention has always been “just to give people their money’s worth,” and “hopefully help people to enjoy life and help them forget about their troubles for a while.” In a way, Glacier doesn’t seem like such a strange gimmick for someone with an attitude like that. Like glaciers on mountains, Ray has given people enjoyment and inspiration by showing them something exceptional.


Roundup: A New Documentary, Ice Worms, Timelapse Videos



“Glacial Balance,” A New Documentary by Ethan Steinman on Climate Change

“Water and its sources have historically been the key factor in the establishment of cities, of civilizations. But we are at a critical point in the environment and mankind’s existence. . . GLACIAL BALANCE takes us to Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador, getting to know those who are the first to be affected by the melting glacial reserve.”

Read more, here


A picture of the Sholes Glacier
Photo By, Martin Bravenboer, Via Flicker


Glacier Ice Worms Thrive in the Coastal Ranges of the Pacific Northwest

Relying on alga from snowpack to survive, being vulnerable to death from exposure to sunlight, and only being able to move vertically, these worms face many challenges to survival.

Read more, here 



“Requiem of Ice” Amazing Timelapse Video Shows Melting of the Largest Glacier Cave in the Country

 “The cave systems have been mapped and surveyed since 2011 by Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya of the Oregon High Desert Grotto and in that time they have discovered more than a mile of caves and passages beneath the Sandy Glacier.”

A team from Uncage the Soul Productions shot “Requiem of Ice” in two caves named Pure Imagination and Snow Dragon, demonstrating the effect of the changing landscape.

Read more about this story, here

For more on the Sandy Glacier see, “Yes, Glaciers Melt, But Do You Know How?

Killing Rats to Save Birds as Glaciers Recede

Wandering Albatross chick, South Georgia island, ©Stephen Williams
Wandering Albatross chick, South Georgia island, ©Stephen Williams

The biggest island-based rat-killing operation in history is under way on South Georgia, an island north of Antarctica and east of the Falklands. The island was once one of the richest seabird breeding territories in the world, but bird populations fell into severe decline after rats arrived aboard sealing and whaling ships in the 19th century. Scientists are racing to eradicate the rats before glaciers that currently serve as natural barriers between the rodents and remaining bird populations melt away. They are hoping to save the South Georgia Pipit, a species found nowhere else in the world, from extinction.

South Georgia pipit, ©Brian Gratwicke
South Georgia pipit, ©Brian Gratwicke

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the bays of South Georgia served as whaling harbors. Accompanying the whaling expeditions were non-native species, particularly Norwegian brown rats, which have greatly reduced the populations of some native species on the island. South Georgia’s unique geography has complicated this process, however, and offered some protection against extinction.

The UK overseas territory stretches over 7,000 square kilometers, and boasts 11 mountain peaks over 2,000 meters high. Given the combination of latitude and elevation, half the island is covered in snow and ice year round. A number of the glaciers reach from the high peaks all the way to the ocean. This glacial ice has fragmented the island, acting as a barrier between different sections of bird habitat.

Grytvikken at South Georgia, whaling station. source: Wikimedia Commons
Grytvikken at South Georgia, whaling station. source: Wikimedia Commons


In 2010, scientists published a study in the journal Antarctic Science that analyzed the impact of glacial retreat on this habitat separation. The study revealed that the glaciers play an important role in preventing the invasive Norwegian brown rats from reaching the ground nesting sites of native birds. The birds inhabit the coastal sections of the southern end of the island, while rats thrive in the north. Glacial retreat over the last several decades is quickly eliminating that natural barrier, however, allowing rats to move to sections of coastal habitat that were formerly isolated. According to the study, the average rate of retreat has increased more than four-fold since the 1950s. Activists and scientists are concerned that the two sides of the island’s coasts will soon be connected by ice-free land. They estimate that under current conditions, the rats would completely eliminate the endemic pipit from the island, and greatly reduce other birds as well.

Spacial distribution of rats and pipits on South Georgia island. A.J. Cook, S. Poncet, A.P.R. Cooper, D.J. Herbert and D. Christie, “Glacier retreat on South Georgia and implications for the spread of rats” Antarctic Science, Volume 22 | Issue 03 | June 2010, pp 255-263 Figure 6 b. Doi:10.1017/S0954102010000064. Reproduced with permission.
Spacial distribution of rats and pipits on South Georgia island. A.J. Cook, S. Poncet, A.P.R. Cooper, D.J. Herbert and D. Christie, “Glacier retreat on South Georgia and implications for the spread of rats” Antarctic Science, Volume 22 | Issue 03 | June 2010, pp 255-263 Figure 6 b. Doi:10.1017/S0954102010000064. Reproduced with permission.

To prevent this loss, the South Georgia Heritage Trust and a group of biologists from around the world are pursuing an intensive extermination campaign to eliminate rats completely from South Georgia Island. Organizing themselves under the name of Team Rat, in March 2011 they spread 50 tons of Brodifacoum, a rat poison, on the island. This action was the first phase of the eradication process. The initial results were encouraging, with no rats subsequently found in the areas where the poison was spread. According to the South Georgia Heritage Trust website, it seems impossible to prevent all ill effects on other animals on the island from the poison. However, several factors limit the risk of this substance on the native fauna. It is not water soluble, most birds on the island eat marine rather than terrestrial prey, and the rats, once poisoned, tend to retreat into their burrows. The team is carefully monitoring effects on other wildlife each season and has said it will cease work if there is evidence of long-term population-level damage due to the project.

To commemorate the rat eradication campaign, South Georgia issued a set of stamps, pictured here.
To commemorate the rat eradication campaign, South Georgia issued a set of stamps, pictured here.

The fact that the sections of the island are separated by glaciers means that the rats can be eradiated pocket by pocket without risk of previously baited areas becoming repopulated, and the organizers of the effort are confident they will be able to eradicate the rats from South Georgia. The second phase of the project was undertaken in the spring of 2013 when an additional 180 tons of rat poison were dropped on the island, which marked the successful baiting of 70% of all rat-infested habitat.

“After two years of monitoring the work we did back in 2011 . . . we have found no sign of rodents in the areas we cleared then and we are now pretty confident that we were completely successful in eradicating rats from the area,” Howard Pearce, one of the organizers of the project, told The Guardian. The project coordinators expect to complete baiting of the rat habitat by 2015, and expect to declare the island rat-free by 2025. If everything continues according to plan the island will be rat-free before glacial retreat unites the southern and northern shorelines. If this campaign meets these goals, Team Rat will have succeeded in staving off extinction of an endangered species due to glacier retreat.

To see more photos of South Georgia, look here. And here is another story about an invasive species on another sub-Antarctic island with a history of whaling, Signy Island in the South Orkneys.