Photo Friday: A Glacier from the Cradle of Civilization

At the convergence of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, and Iran sits Mount Ararat, which is actually two peaks. The higher of the pair, “Great Ararat,” sits more than five thousand meters above sea level, and is home to a glacier on its crown. Due to its visible presence in one of the longest-inhabited regions of the world, Mt. Ararat is the topic of countless myths, mentioned in a wealth of real history, and is an emblem of pride and identity for millions of different people. In Judeo-Christian tradition, the mountain is believed to be the site where Noah’s ark landed after the waters of the Flood receded, and the nearby Armenian highlands are often suggested as the location of the Garden of Eden.

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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 glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Photo Friday: A Glacial Fear of Heights

Deep in the Canadian Rockies a glass walkway has been constructed extending ninety feet off a sudden cliff edge. The Glacier Skywalk opened in May of this year, and allows you to walk out into the empty space off the cliff’s edge and enjoy panoramic views of Jasper National Park in Alberta. Engineered by Simon J. Brown and John Kooymans with Read Jones Christoffersen Engineering, and designed by Sturgess Architecture, the walkway made out of glass, wood, and steel, and supported by an intricate cable support system, blends into the natural environment and appears to suspend itself in midair with no obvious foundation. Standing on the glass bend almost eight hundred fifty feet above the Sunwapta valley floor you might even feel a little like a mountain glacier high above the wilderness. Photographers Eva Kurilova and Marc Roy provide some images.

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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Yes, Glaciers Melt, But Do You Know How?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/logicalrealist/14494532650/in/photolist-nWJPeD-nWJQTR-9Y9Any-nWryPM-bDWXVm-6VtJ1d-9YpxJ2-nYw5Cr-o5Qgzm-nYvYLX-cJqHgJ-hKxWT-nWAuQu-wAom3-8uqaNk-hxSgW-nWrmyp-nEcxKK-528Y2j-nYw5Rc-cwXHRy-9YssPU-9Y9Ajd-9YpxeB-cwXJdL-cwXJTq-deJjfx-9YssXL-9Y9zqY-9YpxCc-9Ysszu-wAmcR-wAoTs-9YJcob-cwXKuw-9Y9ApQ-9Y9zR5-9Y6F9F-acuhzL-cJqCA3-8wxq4K-9YsspY-9YJcmG-9Ypwxn-9XLdsz-9Y9zy1-prjm3-9YssN9-9YpxAg-ca1XX5/
Perito Moreno Glacier calving (Sean Munson/Flickr)

Have you ever wondered how glaciers melt? Do they melt from underneath? Top down? Maybe from all around at once? From the center outward? How fast do they melt? Do all glaciers melt? These are questions scientists’ wonder too, and they’ve been getting some interesting answers.

Virtually every glacier on earth melts each year during the summer, but as long as winter snow accumulation is equal to or greater than that summer melt, a glacier is considered to be stable or growing. If the glacier melts more in the summer than it grows in the winter however, it retreats. But exactly how glaciers melt has not been understood in a comprehensive manner. What is known is that glacial ablation can be caused by any number of natural forces: wind, sun, rain, fauna, evaporation, sublimation and every other possible fashion one could imagine removing a chunk of ice from a even larger chunk of ice.

One of the most talked about forms of glacial ablation is glacial calving. Icebergs, for instance, are created when a chunk of glacier breaks off (or calves), usually falling into the body of water to which it drains. Calving often occurs from a process of erosion at the water line. Calving has gotten attention lately because of new evidence showing that for some glaciers, warmer ocean temperatures have been inarguably increasing the rate of glacial erosion underneath the water line. “Researchers found that, for some ice shelves, melting on its underbelly could account for as much as 90 per cent of the mass loss,” according to research published in Nature in September of last year. This aspect of glacial melt that was not previously well understood, but calving and ocean erosion are not the whole story to glacial ablation.

In 2008, Natalie Kehrwald, a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, was attempting to date ice cores she drilled from a glacier in Tibet twenty thousand feet above sea level by searching for particular radioactive isotopes found all over the world from the mid-20th Century U.S. and Soviet Union atomic testing. She soon realized she couldn’t find the isotopes she was looking for. Confused, she used a different technique to date the top-most layer of the ice cores, and discovered that the newest ice in the samples dated from the 1940s. Kehrwald inadvertently proved that glaciers at those elevations in the Himalayas melt from top to bottom. Of course, it was the first time anyone had observed such a phenomenon, and it doesn’t mean top-down is the only way mountain glaciers melt.

At the Sandy Glacier on Mount Hood in Oregon, two climbers have discovered another particularly fascinating way glaciers melt. Brent McGregor and Eddy Cartaya have been exploring a system of glacial caves that extend more than 7,000 feet inside the glacier. Beautifully sculpted on the inside and ready-made for adventure, these glacier caves are significant because they exhibit glacial melt that is otherwise difficult to document. Scientist sometimes use satellites to record glacial melt, but those techniques would not perceive internal loss occurring within a glacier, as in the ice caves on Mount Hood. Andrew Fountain, a glaciologist at Portland State University, said he didn’t know of any effort to track how much the ice inside a glacier melts from year to year, before learning of the Sandy cave system, according to a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting article on the discovery.

Studying the many different ways the world’s glaciers can melt may help the scientific community better understand how to prevent them from disappearing.

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Roundup: Volcano Drones, Space Glaciers and an Actor’s Fall

Close-Up Drone Video of an Erupting Volcano Melts Face off GoPro Camera in Iceland
Director of aerial imaging for drone maker DJI, Eric Cheng, and nature photographer Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson were able to fly a Quadcopter mounted GoPro camera into an active eruption in the Bardarbunga volcanic system, Iceland.

Read the full story here. For more of GlacierHub’s coverage on the recent Icelandic volcano eruption and the effect on nearby glaciers, click here and here.

 

Jackson Gallagher’s Glacier Fiasco
Actor Jackson Gallagher star of the Australian television soap opera, “Home and Away”, and three other climbers were forced to run for their lives when rocks came falling down above them on top of the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand.

Read the full article on Stuff.co.nz here.

 

Chile’s San Quintín Glacier Viewed from Space
Melting into a lake full of glacier-churned ‘rock flour,’ Chile’s San Quintín glacier can be seen emptying into the Northern Patagonian Ice Field in a recent satellite photo.

See the satellite photos and read more here.

 

 

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As Glaciers Melt, A Lake in Nepal Fills Up

 

Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr
Looking south on the way down from Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft), also known as Imja Tse, in Nepal Himalaya. Ama Dablam is to the right and Imja Tsho (lake) is down in the middle.(Kiril Rusev/Flickr

Glaciers on Nepal’s Imja Tse (Island Peak) in the Himalayas have melted at an average rate of almost 10 meters per year over the past several decades, during which time residents of Imja Tse Valley below have literally watched the residual waters create an entirely new lake. The Imja Tsho (Imja Lake) first began collecting glacial meltwater in the 1960s, when it had a surface area of approximately 49 square kilometers. By 2007, it had grown to 945 square kilometers, an almost 2,000% increase. The aggressive rate of growth has residents and scientists worried about the threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).

The Himalayas are often considered the earth’s “third pole,” given that they contain more ice than anywhere else in the world besides the ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica. Glacial retreat in this region is also happening faster than anywhere else in the world. According to a study released earlier this year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau have shrunk by 15 percent in the last three decades to 43,000 square kilometers. The melt has been almost unanimously attributed to human-induced climate change.

The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)
The Imja Tsho lake has been filling with glacial meltwater at an alarming rate. Since the 1960s, the lake has increased 2,000 percent. (Matt Westoby/Flickr)

In recent years, some organizations have found themselves in hot water for overstating the degree of melting at the Himalayan glaciers. In 2007, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body made up of thousands of scientists and researchers, issued a report that claimed Himalayan glaciers could completely melt away by 2035. Three years later, IPCC officials issued a statement that said those original estimates were unfounded. (An op-ed appearing in April in Scientific American pointed out the seriousness of such overstatements.) And yet, despite the “Himalayan Blunder,” scientists still believe that by the time global temperatures increase by just 2 degrees Celsius, more than half of the Himalayan glaciers will have vanished.

GLOFs like the ones threatening the Imja Tse Valley are an increasing concern worldwide, and the Himalayas, with so much melting ice, are particularly at risk. Glacial lakes are not a new or human-induced phenomenon, however conditions become unstable when these lakes form quickly in cracks and valleys previously covered in ice. It is often unclear whether the walls of the lakes are made of rock or melting ice, which heightens the risk of flooding and landslides.

Many residents of the towns and villages scattered on the foothills of Himalayan glaciers, have already fallen victim to floods, avalanches, and mudslides caused by GLOFs. These disasters can result in loss of life and property, damaging essential infrastructure, destroying crops and crop land itself, and sometimes laying waste to entire villages, leaving only inhospitable rock and mud behind.

Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)
Villages like this one in the valleys below Imja Tse face a constant risk of glacial lake outburst floods.jarikir/Flickr)

For these reasons, there has been increasing attention to monitoring new and expanding glacial lakes in the region. In 2011, the Mountain Institute organized a team of 30 scientists from around the globe to study the Imja Tsho, and concluded that the lake does, in fact, pose a potential threat to local communities. They estimated that melting ice under the moraine could trigger a huge flood,  and that meltwater could seep through the hills around the lake, potentially causing a hill to collapse. They also warned that as melting continues, ice avalanches could tumble into the lake, causing a giant wave to deluge downstream communities.

Last year, scientists from the High Mountain Glacier Watershed Program returned to Imja to discuss with village leaders the risks the lake poses and come up with a plan of action. They determined that there were three options: accepting the risk of a possible GLOF; relocating lodges and other structures to higher elevations to avoid flood damage; or an engineering solution, “such as siphoning or controlled drainage canals.” They emphasized the importance of letting the community decide, as opposed to outside groups or government.

But many residents are simply fed up with all of the warnings and scientific predictions. “We’ve been living in the shadow of this lake for so long now,” Ang Nima Sherpa, a local businessman told the Guardian in 2011. “The only thing I am interested in hearing about now is whether they can get us a hydroelectric plant out of that lake.”

 

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Dariali gorge may be in danger from new hydroelectric plant

The construction of a hydropower plant near Georgia's Dariali Gorge could endanger the surrounding landscape. (photo: Rita Willaert)
The construction of a hydropower plant near Georgia’s Dariali Gorge could endanger the surrounding landscape. (photo: Rita Willaert)

Along Georgia’s border with Russia, about two hours north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Tergi River flows on an almost 400 mile journey down from the Devdorak Glacier atop Mount Kazbek to the Caspian Sea. The river has been a valued source of water for the communities along its banks for thousands of years, and the gorge which it cuts through the Caucasus has been a key trade route as well.

It has recently become the site of a controversial hydroelectric project. After not one, but two major landslides, the Dariali Hydropower Plant, located on the river, has become a topic of recent debate. The May 2014 landslide left three power plant workers dead and five others missing, it also completely impeded the Dariali Gorge, cutting of the region’s arterial roadway between Georgia and Russia, in addition to severing an essential natural gas pipeline providing Armenia with natural gas from Russia. The August landslide, reportedly larger than the one a few months before, resulted in the death of two more hydroelectric plant workers and necessitated a visit to the area by the Georgian president.

These events are not new for the region, which has been blighted by landslides for as long as local history remembers. This history makes local residents concerned. Other hydroelectric projects have succumbed to such hazards. For this reason and others ,the Dariali project, which would provide an estimated 108 Megawatts of electricity to the region, has already run into political controversy. The public does not fully accept the project, Eighty to 90 percent of the Tergi River would have to be diverted, leaving almost five miles of the riverbed completely dry, and threatening the local trout population. The project necessitated the rezoning of the area, removing its status as a national park under legal protection. Local people were concerned that construction began before a permit was issued, or before even mandatory public hearings were held.

Another issue is contribution of global warming to the latest two landslides. Devdorak Glacier, like other glaciers in the Caucasus, has been retreating in recent years. The meltwater could lead to increased water flow and thus contribute to natural erosion, increasing the risk of floods and landslides. Such dangers are well-established in the valley, as demonstrated by accounts as far back as 1869. Douglas W. Freshfield gives this account in his “Travels in the Central Caucasus and Bashan“:

“M.E. Favre, of Geneva, a well-known geologist who visited the Devdorak Glacier a few weeks after ourselves, came to the following conclusion as to the nature of the catastrophe. No avalanche, he says, could without the aid of water traverse the space between the end of the glacier and the Terek (Tergi river), and he accounts for the disasters which have taken place in the following way. He believes the Devdorak Glacier, to which he finds a parallel in the Vernagtferner Glacier in the Ötzthal Alps, to be subject to periods of sudden advance. During these the ice finds no sufficient space to spread itself out in the narrow gorge into which it is driven, and is consequently forced by the pressure from behind into so compact a mass that the ordinary water-channels are stopped, and the whole drainage of the glacier is pent-up beneath its surface. Sooner or later the accumulated waters burst open their prison, carrying away with them the lower portion of the glacier. A mingled flood of snow and ice, increased by earth and rocks torn from the hillsides in its passage, sweeps down the glen of Devdorak. Issuing into the main valley it spreads from side to side, and dams the Terek. A lake is formed, and increases in size until it breaks through its barrier, and inundates the Dariali Gorge and the lower valley.” [ed: place names have been modernized from original text]

Only time will tell whether or not the Dariali Hydropower Plant will be realized, and if so, what the effects will be for the region. Looking back at recent history, however, the safety of the project itself and the valley below seems suspect at the least.

For more information about the Dariali Gorge landslide see:

http://1tv.ge/news-view/74814?lang=en

http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2014/08/23/dariali-gorge-08

For a related GlacierHub story see: http://glacierhub.org/2014/09/03/flooded-with-memories-in-nepal

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Photo Friday: NYC Climate March

Last weekend, ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit, three hundred thousand people gathered on New York City streets in solidarity with similar marches across the globe in order to send a clear message to policy makers around the world that people are invested in their environment, and they are paying attention to what their governments are doing about our changing climate. The September 21 People’s Climate March kicking off Climate Week drew more than 300,000 participants.

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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