Last week Washington Governor Jay Inslee expressed concern over the “disturbing” rate of positive tests in his state’s rural areas, including glacier communities. In Skagit County, 21 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive, the highest in the state. Experts agree that part of the reason is that only the sickest are being tested, but there could be other factors that have yet to be sorted out.
Reuters reported Tajikistan’s domestic soccer season is kicking off on schedule despite almost every other soccer league around the globe having ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “You know that the championships are stopped in almost all countries because of the coronavirus pandemic,” the Dushanbe-based Istiklol manager Vitaliy Levchenko told a news conference on the eve of the Super Cup clash. “Thank God, there is no coronavirus in Tajikistan and the new football season begins in the country.”
Churchgoers around the world continue to come to terms with social distancing orders. Last week The Guardian reported in the Caucasus region some priests insist on continuing to use a shared spoon for the communion ritual, “claiming that as communion is a holy ceremony it is not possible to get ill during it.”
Kyrgyzstan is scaling up its preparedness, readiness and response capacities to COVID-19. In a photo story, the World Health Organization reported that since January 2020, through a series of trainings and simulation exercises, as well as delivery of personal protective equipment and test kits, the Ministry of Health of Kyrgyzstan, in collaboration with WHO and partners, has been taking measures to ensure the country is better equipped to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Major Glacier Hazard Event in Cusco, Peru
On April 4, Peruvian newspaperAgencia de Noticias de Cusco reported (translated from Spanish): In the afternoon in the Cusco province of Urubamba, a surprising emergency was registered with major icefall on the snowpeak Chicón, which has caused the district committee of Civil Defense of the Yucay district to be activated immediately, to take preventive actions.
“We are evacuating via prevention the entire population of the different communities that are on the snowpeak San Juan that has collapsed, one part to the Yucay district and the other to Chicon Urubamba, no occurrence was registered, but we are on alert permanent,” he indicated.
Luis Mujica, an anthropologist at the Jose Maria Arguedas National University in Andahuaylas, who has conducted research in the Chicon region for a number of years, wrote to GlacierHub, these steps are “an important decision.” He added that he and others would “support them in any way that is necessary.” Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich who is also familiar with the region, wrote, “it seems to be some sort of ice avalanche.” He mentioned that the precise details of the event remained “to be confirmed.”
Peruvian newspaper La República added that a helicopter will visit the area and that there was a similar event in 2010––where a glacial lake formed, ice fell into it from the glacier, resulting in a glacial lake outburst flood that threatened a sizeable valley town as well as some Indigenous villages higher up.
As a means of containing the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 800,000 people globally, social distancing is being ordered by governments worldwide. With two paradoxical words––social distance––officials are asking people to maintain a greater than usual physical distance from others to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection.
The US government is facing criticism for its laggardly response to the virus, including its reluctance to commit to more stringent social distancing orders. According to a New York Times map last updated on March 30, at least 261 million people in at least 31 states, 82 counties, 18 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home––but not being required to do so. The US holds the ignominious honor of having the most confirmed cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, which has now killed more Americans than the September 11 attacks and has yet to peak.
Conformity with orders to limit movement has been correlated to success in containing the pandemic. GlacierHub examined the counties of ten US glacier states to see whether there is any association between the orders and social distancing compliance.
Using anonymous mobility data from cell phones, the Norwegian data insights firm, Unacast, created a US map to measure and evaluate whether people are heeding social distancing orders. The company created an interactive scoreboard, updated daily, to measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing at the local level.
Glacier counties tend to be rural and less densely populated. Though one might expect normal pre-pandemic activities to cease, dislocation from essential services might drive up the average distance traveled. Though some residents have recently fled from urban areas and have chosen to work remotely, most of the population are poorer and less educated, and fewer have white-collar jobs for which remote work is possible. Increased unemployment also creates more need to travel to social service agencies for support, though many services have banned in-person visits. A digital divide in glacier counties, exposed by coronavirus, is reflective of the yawning gap between US rural poor communities, where internet access can be slow or inaccessible, compared with more affluent urban areas. The closure of libraries has further exacerbated the technology disparity. With higher levels of poverty, residents of glacier counties are keenly aware of fluctuations in gasoline prices. The recent drop in price may incentivize travel.
Since glacier counties are more sparsely populated, compliance calculations could be skewed by anomalies, such as a fraction of the population making long distance trips. Outliers would not have as significant an impact on the average in a more densely populated county, like King County, which includes the city of Seattle, and received an “A” grade. Low compliance marks might also have to do with the half-measures the US Centers for Disease Control and local officials have decided upon, where many businesses are closed, but also many essential services remain open.
Countries like China and South Korea, which have successfully contained the virus, took more proactive and aggressive measures to limit the movement of people. In the US, however, governments have been reluctant to completely shut things down, leaving room for outdoor activity and until recently, even leaving many national parks open to visitors. On March 23, Washington governor Jay Inslee said of his stay home order, “This does not mean you cannot go outdoors, if you feel like going for a walk, gardening or going for a bike ride. We just all need to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.”
Inslee’s state was home of the first major outbreak on American soil, which included several glacier communities surrounding Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. Washington as a whole, which has seen more than 4,600 positive cases of coronavirus, received an “A” grade for its social distancing compliance based on a 40 percent or more average reduction in physical distance traveled. Counties bordering glaciated Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, however, received social distancing failing grades of “D” and “F”, with the exception of Pierce County, which received a “B”.
Whatcom and Skagit Counties, the two which share Mount Baker and which lie within its viewshed, have grades of A and B respectively; these scores likely reflect the changes in behavior of the lowland western sections of these counties. The population of these lowland sections, part of the urbanized I-5 corridor, which includes Seattle and which borders Puget Sound, is much larger than the eastern highland sections closer to Mount Baker. In Whatcom, the city of Bellingham (population 89,000) is likely the driving factor behind that county’s “A” grade.
Poor compliance scores are not based only on the behavior of local residents, but can also be that of people traveling in. The rush to parks has resembled that of peak summer visitation in some areas. “People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus,” said Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University, in a post published by The Hill. “New York, Washington state, California have taken aggressive steps to try to contain the local outbreak, but people are leaving those outbreaks to go to places with less restrictive guidance which means that you may see the virus hotspots moving from some of these areas to areas where the guidance is more lax.”
Hood River County, Oregon, received a “B” grade, the same mark as the state as a whole, which has more than 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19. “I asked all Oregonians, on the eve of spring break, to stay home and stay healthy,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown said last week. “Unfortunately, our trails and beaches were packed this weekend.”
On March 26 Montana Governor Steve Bullock said “Individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas, including public lands in Montana provided they remain open to recreation. Montanans are discouraged from outdoor recreation activities that pose enhanced risks of injury or could otherwise stress the ability of local first responders to address the COVID-19 emergency.” Two Montana counties share boundaries with Glacier National Park––Glacier County received a D grade for social distancing while Flathead County received a “B”. On March 27, the day after Bullock’s press release, Glacier National Park finally closed.
The state of Alaska, the most glaciated in the US, received an “A” for its participation in social distancing compliance. White Pine County, home to Nevada’s lone glacier, received an “F” grade for its part. Utah County, Utah, home of the state’s last remaining glacier, received a “B”.
In sparsely populated Trinity County, California, home of the Trinity Alps with several small glaciers, movement of people is on the rise, earning the county an “F” rating. Siskiyou County, home to Mount Shasta, with the bulk of the state’s glaciers, also received a failing grade as did Inyo County in the Sierra Nevada mountains. There are more than 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide.
Idaho, which is home to more than 200 glaciers and perennial snowfields, received a “C” grade for its adherence to social distancing. To the East, the state of Wyoming received an “F” grade. The counties with glaciers, primarily in the western part of Wyoming, indicated a higher level of compliance than the non-glacier counties––bucking the trend set in other Western states.
Most of the glaciated Rocky Mountain counties, which form the spine of the state of Colorado, received “A” and “B” grades for compliance. Three counties northwest of Denver, which comprise Rocky Mountain National Park, are home to Colorado’s 14 named glaciers. The state, which has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases, received an “A” collectively. Colorado governor Jared Polis said, “Our generation is being called upon to sacrifice to save the lives of our fellow Coloradans and our fellow Americans. And that sacrifice is staying at home.”
Unacast acknowledged the average distance traveled from does not necessarily mean social distancing is being unheeded. “Travel distance is one aspect,” the company’s CEO Thomas Walle said in a blog post. “But of course people can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd — so we know that the real world picture can be quite complex.”
The company is adding layers of nuance to its data synthesis. “We are in the process of understanding the best way to add layers that capture more of the complexity of social distancing: exploring how a change in the number of encounters for a given area, as well as a change in the number of locations visited, contribute to an area’s social distancing score,” Walle noted.
On March 29, The New York Timesreported that social distancing measures in the Seattle area seemed to be working, “While each infected person was spreading the virus to an average of 2.7 other people earlier in March, that number appears to have dropped, with one projection suggesting that it was now down to 1.4.” If true, this also might suggest that the social distancing evaluation tool is a useful indication of compliance. The maps also reveal the difficulties in rural America’s ability to adapt and respond to disaster.
For the past two weeks GlacierHub has made space in the usual Monday news roundup for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic as it impacts glacier regions. In continuing that reporting, the following is an aggregation of coronavirus news stories from global glacier regions:
Though the novel coronavirus has yet to infect Latin America on the same scale as other regions, governments there have learned from the failings elsewhere and acted swiftly to mitigate the virus’ impact with military roadblocks, curfews, and border closures.
Economist Eduardo Zegarra wrote in Noticias SER.PE: The Peasant Federation of the Department of Puno (FDCP) is a major branch of the Peruvian Peasant Federation, representing the mountainous region of the Peruvian altiplano. On March 27, the FDCP issued a declaration about the pandemic. It stated that peasant communities, often seen as a backward element in Peru, and as a sign of rural poverty, are a fundamental part of the “social and economic fabric to face the crisis.” However, in reality the communities are a “very important local governance space,” with well-demarcated territories, and Indigenous knowledge to manage their lands and natural resources. The FDCP declares that it is “urgent to bring the rural areas closer to the national defense system against COVID-19 in rural areas, to strengthen territorial control measures that (already) are being successfully implemented by local communities and governments.” They state that it is important to “maintain virus-free territories, extending control and surveillance systems in all provinces and districts, and establish a rigid protocol of entry and exit to those areas. ” In other words, the peasant communities claim a position for themselves as key actors in the territorial control that is needed to managed the pandemic in the vast rural areas of Peru.
In Peru, the crisis has also brought the issue of access to clean water to the fore. The well-known sociologist Maria Teresa Oré, of the Peruvian Catholic University, published a post on 23 March in PuntoEdu, the web portal of that university. She stated, “Washing your hands with soap and water for twenty seconds, a number of times a day: this is the first measure recommended worldwide to combat COVID-19. Water has returned to take center stage in times of pandemic. However, who in Peru has access to drinking water 24 hours a day, in cities and in rural areas? A family from Carabayllo or the Lima district of Surco? The peasant families of the Apurímac or Puno regions? Having access to drinking water is a right that is not shared by all Peruvian families…What lesson have we learned in the wake of March 22, International Water Day, in the time of coronavirus? The pandemic opens a window of opportunity to draw attention to the need for transparent public water management that provides water security, and access to drinking water and sanitation for all Peruvians. This is the way to protect and guarantee the health of the entire population, understanding that access to drinking water is a human right and water is a common good.”
While Latin American governments are acting early, enforcement of quarantine regulations has exceeded that of most Western nations. In the video tweet below, more than 50 people have been detained in the early hours of the stay-at-home order in the northern cities of Chimbote, Huaraz, and Coischco.
In a protective measure, indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Andes used available resources to physically block a road:
In South Tyrol, a glaciated region in the Italian Alps, drones are being used to enforce stay-at-home regulations:
In a tweet, the French mountaineering society said, “don’t come to the mountains, let health care professionals focus on coronavirus.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought joyful moments, like this scene outside of an isolation center in Pakistani Karakoram, a region with one of the world’s densest concentrations of glaciers.
In the US, shelter in place orders have been issued unevenly across states and municipalities. The half measures have left many people to opt outside, where they have congregated in outdoor recreation areas, including Glacier National Park, which has since closed as of March 27. Mount Rainier National Park also made the decision to shut down operations.
In Bellingham, Washington, residents hosted community based socially distancing with a “Lawn Chair Happy Hour.” Mount Baker makes an appearance at the end of the video.
While the usual GlacierHub Video of the Week content––like videos of ice cores being dropped into Antarctic bore holes and swims across supraglacial lakes––might be a welcome reprieve from news of the pandemic impacting human societies around the world, looking away from the moment feels irresponsible, especially as the novel coronavirus rapidly spreads among glacier communities. In this week’s videos we show glimpses of glacier communities on three different continents as they grapple with the response to the pandemic; tense discussions in a hospital in Ecuador, an empty market in Pakistan, and the public health response in one US Pacific Northwest glacier county.
The first video, tweeted by the Pamir Times, features a shuttered market in Pakistani Karakoram, a region which is home to some of the world’s highest and most glaciated peaks, several of which are visible in the background. What would apparently be a busy marketplace is deserted––with two men in conversation, little traffic, and a passerby wearing a surgical mask––in a scene indicative of the economic cost of the disease to glacier communities.
Below is a recording of a confrontation in a hospital in Ecuador near Chimborazo, a 6,268 meter (20,564 foot) glaciated stratovolcano in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. The dispute is over where to treat coronavirus patients––whether to bring infected patients from around Chimborazo to the hospital in Ambato (which has better facilities, but at the time had no COVID-19 patients) or to the nearer hospital in Riobamba, the capital city of the province.
The tweet reads (translated from Spanish): “Yesterday the zonal director of District 3 of the MSP [Ministry of Public Health] contradicted directives and logic by bringing infected patients from Chimborazo, when there was a local hospital that could tend to the patients…this is the beating he received.”
In Skagit County, Washington, which extends from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and includes the glacier-clad Mount Baker, there have been 48 confirmed cases of COVID-19, five hospitalizations, and one death. Skagit County’s Public Health Director, Jennifer Johnson, said success will be defined by how the community responds to the challenge. She announced the launch of a video talk show “designed to share the latest thinking, understanding, and advice on how to manage this emergency as individuals, parents, leaders, and as a caring community.” To curb misinformation, concern, and confusion, she said the series will cover topics including social distancing, testing, personal preparedness, and the emotional impacts and challenges of “keeping family safe, healthy, happy, and occupied.”
Last week GlacierHub compiled news from glacier regions impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has prompted governments around the world to limit movement of people in order to slow the spread of the disease. In the intervening seven days, the global situation has escalated. Glacier regions continue to be affected, glacier lands––including the US National Parks––are restricting access, and 2020 field research hangs in the balance.
Global Glacier Region COVID-19 Update
Italy has reached nearly 60,000 cases of COVID-19 and, with more than 5,000 deaths, surpassed China’s mortality total. In the Alps province of South Tyrol, 679 people have tested positive. The province’s website reads: “All production activities that are not essential for life will be closed until April 3.”
The weekly news magazine Der Vinschger serves the Vinschgau, the upper portion of the Etschtal, a valley in South Tyrol, Italy, surrounded by some of the highest and most glaciated peaks of the central Alps. It usually reports on government programs, economic developments, local sports teams, and similar topics. It has taken a more somber note with the pandemic.
“The situation is serious,” a March 17 story began. “The numbers and headlines roll over every hour. And we are all right in the middle. “Surreal” was the only word that a merchant uttered when he put the key of his business in his pocket on March 12th at 9 a.m. in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders. The day before, I watched an elderly woman in front of the closed old people’s home trying to reach her husband on the phone. She didn’t succeed. Their call to at least bring him to the window so that they could see each other was initially unheard of. Almost everyone is currently experiencing such and similar situations. Not only do all economic consequences and material emergencies, into which many “simple” people are thrown, weigh heavily, but loneliness within their own four walls also weighs heavily for many. Staying at home is the only thing we can and should all do at the moment. Because we do not know the “enemy” exactly and because we do not (yet) have weapons against him, there is only one thing left: to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings by strictly adhering to the guidelines with which a further spread of the virus can be prevented as far as possible.”
Most of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have declared states of emergency, while some remain without any cases––albeit somewhat dubiously––and have carried on with celebrations like Novruz spring holiday on March 21 in Tajikistan, where thousands gathered in close proximity in major cities.
In the US, Washington Governor Jay Inslee outlined the stark realities of the coronavirus outbreak in his state at a March 16 press briefing, including the temporary statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants and recreational facilities. Tacoma, a mid-sized city south of Seattle near the glaciated stratovolcano Mount Rainier, announced the suspension of disconnection of power and water for residents behind on payments.
Uneven COVID-19 Messaging from US National Parks
Signals from glaciated and glacier-formed US National Parks have been inconsistent––ranging from open with no acknowledgement of any global pandemic, to open with modified operations, like waived entry fees and no services, to others which closed their gates altogether. A brief rundown:
Near the Pacific Northwest COVID-19 hotspot of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park waived its entry fee and as of March 21, was still open for “self-guided, dispersed recreation and auto touring.” In Alaska, Denali National Park closed its visitor centers and suspended the 2020 climbing season, breaking with their no-refund policy by offering alpinists partial compensation. Also in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park appears to be business as usual––the park’s website showed no indication of anything amiss. California’s Yosemite National Park closed on March 20. Meanwhile, in Montana Glacier National Park modified its operations but did not close––instead the park is waiving fees and continuing to allow overnight backcountry permits. Yellowstone National Park is also open to visitors but “most facilities are closed.”
Mines in Peru Close or Reduce Operations
Antamina, a large copper and zinc mine in the Peruvian Andes, has reduced its operations. Under the 15-day national emergency declared in Peru on 15 March, enterprises other than essential services have been closed, including many mines. However, Antamina received an exception because of its critical importance to the national economy.
Though internal travel in Peru has largely halted during this emergency, Antamina received permission to allow workers in high-risk categories (over 60 years old, or with medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension) to return home. The mine has set up plans to operate within social distancing guidelines, though these may be difficult to implement in some specific work settings. Some employees, largely office staff, will be allowed to work remotely. This mine, located below the heavily glaciated Cordillera Blanca, has received many complaints about its negative impacts on water quality.
COVID-19 Impacts on Research
Last week Nature reported an explosion of new research, beginning in mid-January, on coronavirus and the disease that it causes. As of March 12, searches for ‘novel coronavirus’, ‘ncov’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘SARS-CoV-2’ returned results for more than 900 papers, preprints, and preliminary reports.
Cryosphere field research, on the other hand, is on ice for the time being.
Norway-based glaciologist Miriam Jackson messaged GlacierHub, stating “A planned trip to the subglacial laboratory under Svartisen, that had been delayed several times due to bad weather, is postponed indefinitely.” Jackson’s mission to Svartisen, on the western Norway ice cap, was to download data, some of which is located in water tunnels only accessible in winter.
Jackson said another planned trip, to Nepal with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, is delayed until the autumn. “The problem with a lot of glacier fieldwork is the travel required to get there. If it was possible to magically be transported to a glacier, there would be much less of a problem,” she said.
Research climatologist William Colgan said that his team has canceled its 2020 field season in Greenland, “Postponing to 2021 would be any way to think about it, I suppose.” Colgan told Glacierhub that Greenland closing its border last week has had a ripple effect on aircraft charters to the country, pushing them into mid-May at the very least, since the pilots who fly teams to field sites are unable to get into the country for their month-long rotation.
“Right now, the National Science Foundation’s first flight period is cancelled, and the University of Copenhagen has cancelled its entire East Greenland Ice Core Project season. Lots of smaller projects like us are scrambling for fall-back plans for critical 2020 work or just cancelling 2020 work entirely” Colgan said. “It’s tough to find an upside.” His team is now scrambling to find a later season solution to install the most critical instruments––GPS stations to resurvey ice velocities first measured in the 1950s––they had planned to deploy this Spring near Jakobshavn Isbræ.
If the COVID-19 impacts are any indication, 2020 might be a bumper year for remote sensing research.
Ice tongues are the oddballs of the cryosphere. Extending roughly 70 kilometers (43 miles) into the sea, the Drygalski Ice Tongue, located in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound, is the planet’s largest such feature. The National Snow and Ice Data Center define an ice tongue (sometimes called a glacial tongue) as an extension of a glacier or ice stream projecting seaward, usually afloat. Functionally, Drygalski is the floating end of the David Glacier, which reaches the sea from a valley in the Prince Albert Mountains of Victoria Land. Ranging from 14-24 kilometers (nine to 15 miles) wide, it is relatively narrow compared to its length, which distinguishes it from ice shelves and other floating ice masses.
The phallic shape sticks out like a sore thumb in a satellite image––or like a drying, cracking schmear of spackling. It is a perplexing ephemera whose very existence is under constant threat by belligerent icebergs released from the nearby Ross Ice Shelf. The massive icebergs roam the ocean freely, crashing into more fragile things, like ice tongues, and breaking them.
It’s easy to root for Drygalski’s survival, especially given the warming circumstances. Scientists estimate the ice tongue has been around for some 4,000 years, though one can imagine the number icebergs facing Drygalski with tongue-breaking potential has never been higher. In 2005 and 2006, Drygalski was struck by icebergs from the Ross Ice Shelf, which cleaved off two 27-square mile chunks in 2005 and one 39-square mile breakage in 2006.
The image (be sure to check out the high resolution image on Flickr) is a product of the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite, which was processed and shared by Pierre Markuse on Twitter. Markuse is based in Hamm, Germany and processes images taken from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites and NASA’s Landsat orbiters. He was also responsible for the now-famous satellite image of the Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California in November 2018.
Large exposed ice tongues are a uniquely Antarctic phenomenon. As GlacierHub explained in a recent post, Antarctic glaciers flow outwards horizontally, and continue on into the water as huge floating shelves that stretch miles out to sea. Greenland glaciers flow down the island’s mountainous sides and break into icebergs when they hit the water. This behavior is common where a glacier’s terminus is close to where it starts to float—also known as the grounding line.
“Basically when [Greenland glaciers] start to go afloat, they form icebergs as opposed to Antarctica, where in most places they go afloat they don’t break off instantaneously but they form these big long ice shelves—floating extensions,” glaciologist Paul Winberry told GlacierHub. “It’s completely different.”
In response to Markuse’s sharing of the Drygalski satellite image, polar researcher Santiago de la Peña, who studies ice sheet dynamics and surface mass balance in Greenland and Antarctica at the Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, replied with the head-on image of Drygalski featured above. He added the question, “I wonder what conditions favor the formation of such a tongue here?” The head of the Earth and Mission Science Division at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Earth Observation program, Mark Drinkwater, replied. “Cold Ross Sea shelf waters, and no warm circumpolar deep water to destabilize it,” Drinkwater said.
For more earth observations, including cryosphere images, Markuse maintains a personal blog of the images he processes. You’ll want to bookmark it.
Editor’s note: After this article was published, ESA chief Mark Drinkwater tweeted the image below: “Here’s my all-time favorite Envisat image of Drygalski ice tongue and the most spectacular Ross Sea iceberg flotilla I’ve ever reported on.” The photo features an armada of icebergs, the largest of which is the aforementioned aircraft carrier-shaped berg named B-15A, which impacted the ice tongue, shattering the tip. Iceberg B-15A measured around 295 kilometers (183 mi) long and 37 kilometers (23 mi) wide, with a surface area of 11,000 square kilometers (4,200 square miles). It holds the record for the largest iceberg in the world––bigger than the country of Jamaica––so large it even has it’s own Wikipedia page. Also wandering the Ross Sea at the time were icebergs B-15K, C-16, and B-15J.
This week’s Video of the Week is a short film featuring award-winning photographer and natural progressive, Chris Burkard, on a quest to take a single photograph that represents humans’ relationship with nature. The film, Return to Natural, was produced by New Zealand outdoor apparel brand, Icebreaker, who invited Burkard to the Tasman Glacier to seek and capture the photo. In that search for the right image, the film was created.
The 12-minute movie follows Burkard and his team over the course of five days as they hike, ski, boat, and fly above the Tasman, becoming increasingly intimate with the glacier. On the final day Burkard found the image he was looking for––one that would challenge peoples’ perspective of nature. “It hit me when I was taking the photo of the lake,” Burkard said.
“It was the literal open wound of a melting glacier,” Burkard said of the glacial lake, which is younger than the 34-year old photographer himself. “The lake was in fact new, only 30 years old. Created from the run-off from the ever melting glacier.”
About a year after Return to Natural was filmed, the Tasman Glacier was the site of a heartbreaking video that went viral in January when ash and soot from the Australia bushfires turned the sky orange and darkened the ice. The fallout will accelerate the melt of Tasman, which the docu-film reported is already receding 477-822 meters each year. The dire forecast for Tasman is underscored by a recent study that showed fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5 percent increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia alone.
Earlier this year GlacierHub reported on Burkard’s new book At Glacier’s End in which he and author Matt McDonald documented Iceland’s glacial rivers by air to advocate for their protection as part of a new national park covering most of the country’s interior. In the book, as with the short film, Burkard’s ‘it’s not the photo––it’s what you have to say about it’ mantra is unmistakably consistent.
“We have the potential to reduce our impact, but it starts with changing our perspective and moving to natural alternatives,” Burkard said. “We need people to re-examine their perceptions and individual choices…particularly the things that might not be so obvious.”
On February 13, GlacierHub reported on the spread of COVID-19 into the glaciated regions of Western China. At the time the disease was mostly confined to China, with smaller outbreaks beginning in Europe, including in the French Alps. In the month since, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Europe has succeeded China as the virus’ epicenter. Economies around the world are shutting down as governments urge populations to adopt social distancing as a means of slowing the novel coronavirus’ spread. GlacierHub is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in glacier regions as an increasing number of people have become infected.
The concerns for glacier regions like Western China are similar for other glaciated corners of the world; while glacier communities are generally rural and may not have as high exposure to the virus as urban areas, they are much less equipped to deal with an outbreak. “In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub, referring to Western China. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.”
The North Cascades, in the US Pacific Northwest, are one of the glacier regions where GlacierHub is monitoring the spread of coronavirus. On March 10, the first cases were reported for Whatcom and Skagit counties, which extend from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and share a border with the glacier-clad Mount Baker. On Sunday afternoon, Mount Baker Ski Area announced the temporarily closure and reassignment of its staff of more than 70 medics, nurses, flight nurses, and doctors to help provide care to the local hospital and health care community. As of March 15, there are seven confirmed cases between the two counties.
Schools in both Whatcom and Skagit counties are closed today, March 16, following the order of Washington State governor Jay Inslee to close all schools in the state. Other agencies have also taken steps to address the pandemic. Puget Sound Energy, which serves all of the two counties as well as other counties in the state, has announced that will not disconnect service during the coronavirus pandemic. It will waive late fees, and will work with customers on a payment plan and a new bill due date.
Italy has the highest case total outside of China. South Tyrol, a trilingual border province in the Italian Alps, has seen a surge of cases. A rash of COVID-19 confirmations have paralyzed the country––nearly 25,000 cases have been confirmed there––with a higher mortality rate than that of China, where new coronavirus cases have begun to ebb.
In neighboring Switzerland, ski resorts in the Swiss Alps abruptly shut down for the season on Friday in response to the virus. Norway and Austria have already closed resorts within their borders––a blow to the already-struggling ski industry. At present, Spain and France have the fifth and sixth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, 5,753 and 4,469 cases on March 15, according to WHO statistics. But the cases are concentrated in the largest cities. There are fewer in the Pyrenees, the high glaciated mountains that form the border between them. Cases there are increasing, though, and the future is uncertain. In Pakistani Karakoram, a remote high mountain region in Central Asia, several people have also tested positive.
The governments of China and Nepal have shut down expeditions to the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Last week Kathmandhu joined Beijing in canceling all permits to summit Everest until at least April 30, a move that halves the April-May climbing season at a minimum, and will cost the Nepali government precious millions in lost climbing fees.
Despite its proximity to Iran, few coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Caucasus region––at present, 30 cases in Georgia, 23 in Armenia, 15 in Azerbaijan. Georgia closed it border with Russia over the weekend and postponed its presidential primary from March 24 to May 19.
Greenland has reported its first case of COVID-19. Visit Greenland reported the case along with a travel advisory barring non-residents from entering. “The smaller the community in the country, the smaller the nursing clinics are and the more vulnerable the situation. That’s why we need to limit traffic around the country as much as possible”, said Bjørn Tegner Bay, chief of police in Greenland and head of the Epidemic Commission.
The novel coronavirus is poised to expose the remoteness and vulnerability of glacier communities, whose isolation cuts both ways. Though their dislocation from urban centers is an advantage in containing the spread of the virus, public health infrastructure in these regions is generally ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. For more frequent updates on COVID-19 as it impacts communities in the world’s glacier regions follow GlacierHub on Twitter.
If you’re a GlacierHub reader then you are likely familiar with our love for the imagery and science that resulted from more than a decade of Operation IceBridge––and our lament that the temporary program has finally been replaced by satellite. To be clear, this is a good thing––but it means that personal images from the window seat of IceBridge flights, like this week’s Photo Friday courtesy of glaciologist Mike MacFerrin, are now a thing of the past.
On March 8, MacFerrin shared a 2018 photo of a Greenlandic piedmont glacier on Twitter with the florid caption “Like cold honey spilling onto a plate.” He snapped the picture with his mobile phone, which if you look carefully, is visible in the window reflection.
One of the upsides of Operation IceBridge was that it took scientists to hard-to-reach regions for observation. “It’s less impressive than if I stood on a mountainside taking the photo,” MacFerrin told GlacierHub via Twitter. “But that part of Northeast Greenland National Park is extremely remote and inaccessible otherwise.”
The mission of Icebridge was to collect data for predicting the response of the Earth’s polar ice to climate change and sea-level rise. NASA assembled the operation after an ice monitoring satellite, NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), malfunctioned in 2009. Operation Icebridge flights “bridged the gap” until the successor satellite, ICESat-2, could be launched in 2018.
The unnamed glacier in MacFerrin’s image is a piedmont glacier, a valley glacier which has spilled out onto relatively flat plains, spreading into bulb-like lobes––or as MacFerrin put it so poetically, like cold honey spilling onto a plate. The formation of a piedmont glacier happens when ice flows down a steep valley and spills out onto a relatively flat plain. The biggest and perhaps most famous piedmont glacier is Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier, which glaciologist Mark Fahnestock aptly described as a 1,500-square mile “large puddle of ice.”
NASA said 2019 would be the final year of IceBridge flights, “the end of an era of airborne observations that has catalogued an Arctic that has experienced rapid change––from the rapid thinning of many Greenland ocean-terminating outlet glaciers to the continued decline of the Arctic sea ice pack in extent, snow cover and thickness.” Though IceBridge may have ended, don’t expect us to stop sharing its images anytime soon.
Less than one percent of the world’s glaciers are characterized as “surge-type” glaciers. The Karakoram in Central Asia––the world’s second highest mountain range––has one of the planet’s densest concentration of surging glaciers, where the Shishpar Glacier in northern Pakistan is moving at a rate of five to seven meters per day and is threatening human settlements.
Surging refers to episodes with a sudden, large increase in ice velocities. “Glaciers in the Karakoram exhibit irregular behavior,” said the authors of a 2017 study on surging glaciers published in the journal Scientific Reports. “Early reports suggested they are out of phase with climate fluctuations and trends observed elsewhere.”
A video posted on March 9 by German broadcasting channel DW News, calls attention to the threat posed by Shishpar (also Shisparé or Shishper):
Last year NASA reported that Shishpar started its advance in April 2018, with certain parts moving as fast as 13 to 18 meters (43 to 59 feet) per day. “Since the surge started, the front of Shishpar Glacier has advanced by about 1 kilometer,” the NASA Earth Observatory said. “As the ice pushed south past an adjacent valley, it blocked a meltwater stream flowing from the neighboring Muchuhar Glacier. By autumn 2018, the water had pooled up and formed a sizable lake.”
A lack of incoming water from the blockage has already forced one power station to halt operations and a crucial route used by miners and herders to traverse the glacier is now impassable. According to NASA, this is not the first time that this glacier has surged. Field research and analysis of satellite imagery indicate that Shishpar also surged in 1904-1905, 1972-1976, and 1993-2002.
Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes
Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica’s largest contributors to sea level rise from Antarctica. Its rate of loss has doubled in the past three decades, earning it the moniker “doomsday glacier.” Understanding why it’s retreating so quickly has been a challenge, but glaciologists have recently discovered that the glacier is now generating its own seismic activity when it calves (breaks off icebergs into the ocean), which could help in unlocking the physical keys to this process. The findings were published early this year in Geophysical Research Letters.
A Catastrophic Glacier Collapse and Mudflow in Salkantay, Peru
On 23 February 2020 an enormous, catastrophic debris flow tore down the Salkantay River in Santa Teresa, Peru. This event has killed at least four people, with a further 13 reported to be missing. Given the magnitude of the flow, this number is probably uncertain. The mudflow was captured in an extraordinary video posted to YouTube.
Read the full post on the Salkantay ice/rock avalanche by Dave Petley on GlacierHub here.
A Classification of Streamflow Patterns Across the Coastal Gulf of Alaska
From the plain language abstract: “Streams provide society with many benefits, but they are being dramatically altered by climate change and human development. The volume of flowing water and the timing of high and low flows are important to monitor because we depend on reliable streamflow for drinking water, hydroelectric power, and healthy fish populations. Organizations that manage water supplies need extensive information on streamflow to make decisions. Yet directly measuring flow is cost‐prohibitive in remote regions like the Gulf of Alaska, which drains freshwater from an area greater than 400,000 km2, roughly the size of California. To overcome these challenges, a series of previous studies developed a tool to predict historical river flows across the entire region. In this study, we used 33 years of those predictions to categorize different types of streams based on the amount, variability, and timing of streamflow throughout the year. We identified 13 unique streamflow patterns among 4,140 coastal streams, reflecting different contributions of rain, snow, and glacial ice. This new catalog of streamflow patterns will allow scientists to assess changes in streamflow over time and their impact to humans and other organisms that depend on freshwater.”
Read the full study published by the American Geophysical Unionhere.
Progress Made Toward Understanding Glacier Surge Motion
Previous studies of glacial surges neglected to account for till mechanics––the unsorted glacial sediments underlying glacier beds. A new study submitted to Proceedings of the Royal Society A in January 2020 accounts for the hydromechanical properties of those sediments.
From the abstract: “Glacier surges are quasi-periodic episodes of rapid ice flow that arise from increases in slip-rate at the ice-bed interface. The mechanisms that trigger and sustain surges are not well-understood. Here, we develop a new model of incipient surge motion for glaciers underlain by sediments to explore how surges may arise from slip instabilities within this thin layer of saturated, deforming subglacial till. Our model represents the evolution of internal friction, porosity, and pore water pressure within the sediments as functions of the rate and history of shearing. Changes in pore water pressure govern incipient surge motion, with less-permeable till facilitating surging because dilation-driven reductions in pore-water pressure slow the rate at which till tends toward a new steady state, thereby allowing time for the glacier to thin dynamically. The reduction of overburden pressure at the bed caused by dynamic thinning of the glacier sustains surge acceleration in our model. The need for changes in both the hydromechanical properties of the till and thickness of the glacier creates restrictive conditions for surge motion that are consistent with the rarity of surge-type glaciers and their geographic clustering.”
Supra-glacial Debris Cover Changes in the Greater Caucasus from 1986 to 2014
New research on debris atop glaciers in the Caucasus––an important and understudied region––spans nearly three decades of change for nearly 700 of the area’s glaciers. While some debris accelerates melt; a lot can protect against it. A new study exploring the pattern was published on February 14 in The Cryosphere.
From the abstract: “Knowledge of supra-glacial debris cover and its changes remain incomplete in the Greater Caucasus, in spite of recent glacier studies. Here we present data of supra-glacial debris cover for 659 glaciers across the Greater Caucasus based on Landsat and SPOT images from the years 1986, 2000 and 2014. We combined semi-automated methods for mapping the clean ice with manual digitization of debris-covered glacier parts and calculated supra-glacial debris-covered area as the residual between these two maps.”
Glacier Retreat Could Allow Expansion of Mining in Greenland
As Greenland’s glaciers retreat, mining companies are prospecting the exposed mineral riches. One Canadian company is going after molybdenum, an important metal for electronics and communication. According to Live Science, small amounts of molybdenum can be found in a wide variety of products: missiles, engine parts, drills, saw blades, electric heater filaments, lubricant additives, ink for circuit boards and protective coatings in boilers. It is also used as a catalyst in the petroleum industry.
Greenland Resources Inc is a Canadian reporting issuer regulated by the Ontario Securities Commission, focused on the acquisition, exploration and development of mineral properties in Greenland. Yahoo Financereports that the The Greenland Mineral Authority has provided comments on environmental and social impact assessments and is working with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland on three deliverables:
A high-resolution satellite study to forecast glacial ablation at Malmbjerg during the years 2028-2048 to better understand how the Malmbjerg molybdenum surface mineable mineral resource estimate may increase with the current accelerated glacial ablation that could positively impact project economics;
An updated Digital Elevation Model that will show the magnitude and spatial distribution of recent changes in glacier thickness; and
A time-series of annual surface mass balance on Malmbjerg, to understand the site-specific increase in ice melt over the past four decades.
Will other rapidly de-glaciating regions of the world, like Antarctica, be next?