What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

The credit rating agency Moody’s announced on July 24 that it had acquired a majority stake in Four Twenty Seven, a leading provider of insight on economic climate risk. The acquisition by one of the world’s foremost credit rating agencies stands out as an indicator that the climate crisis is seen as a material risk that corporations and governments must consider.

Four Twenty Seven uses outputs from climate models to assess physical risks associated with climate-related processes for governments and companies. Heat and water stress, extreme precipitation, cyclones, and sea level rise are among the hazards Four Twenty Seven scores to quantify climate risk exposure for its clients.

Moody’s acquisition, which was widely covered in the media, indicates a responsiveness to investors who are clamoring for not just environmental, social and governance (ESG) intelligence to inform their decisions, but climate data too. 

A farm in Paducah, Kentucky is inundated by floodwaters in January 2016 (Source: PO2 Seth Johnson/US Coast Guard)

Richard Cantor is the chief credit officer at Moody’s. “Over the last few years we’ve become much more systematic and transparent about how we are incorporating ESG factors generally, and climate change in particular, into our credit rating analysis,” Cantor said, referring to the Four Twenty Seven acquisition. “This will help us do even more.”

What the acquisition of Four Twenty Seven enables the credit rating agency to do, explained Henry Shilling, a former senior vice president at Moody’s who oversaw the corporation’s ESG integration during his 25-year tenure, is to help Moody’s to make more sound financial decisions.

“It is clear to Moody’s, as well as other rating agencies, that climate risks have become elevated and they have financial and policy implications,” Shilling told GlacierHub. “It would help refine their capacity to anticipate how these risks could impact their ability to generate future cash flow, which is the primary basis for assessing credit quality.”

Reflecting their seriousness about sustainable investing, earlier this year Moody’s acquired Vigeo Eiris, a global leader in ESG research, data, and assessments. What’s become clear is that ESG is not just a values-based approach—it’s a commercial opportunity.

According to the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, along the U.S. coastline, public infrastructure and $1 trillion in national wealth held in coastal real estate are threatened by rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and the ongoing increase in high tide flooding.

Bruce Usher, a professor and co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, said Moody’s is a traditional firm and that its acquisition of Four Twenty Seven represents a significant shift in how the private sector is evaluating risk. “For them to reach the point where they believe that having a deeper understanding of [climate] risks, and presumably how those risks affect and ultimately are priced into financial assets…that’s an important signal,” he told GlacierHub. “This challenge of pricing financial risk is becoming important to the point where commercially you have to do it.”

Sea level rise is one of the physical factors forcing companies and governments examine their adaptation and mitigation strategy. Glaciers play a significant role in this process.

While glacier retreat is one of the more noticeable—and traceable—effects of the climate crisis, the impact of reduced glacier volume to business operations is not as obvious. Glaciers are referenced in several posts on Four Twenty Seven’s website, specifically on the topic of sea level rise and its effect on maritime shipping and coastal real estate. Glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought, accounting for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961.

The Port of Oakland, California, near Four Twenty Seven’s headquarters (Source: Travis Leech/Flickr)

Seaborne shipping, which accounts for 90 percent of all global trade, is expected to be impacted by more severe storms and inundation of low lying port facilities. Anticipated effects on coastal real estate are even more worrisome.

An estimated 2.5 percent of the global population could be displaced with two meters (6.5 feet) of sea level rise, the level experts say coasts should plan for by 2100. Founder and CEO of Four Twenty Seven, Emilie Mazzacurati said real estate lies on the frontline of exposure to climate change. “Many valuable locations and markets are often coastal or near bodies of water, and therefore are going to experience increases in flood occurrences due to increases in extreme rainfall and to sea level rise,” she said in a 2018 company press release.

“These risks can now be assessed with great precision—the availability of this data provides investors with an opportunity to perform comprehensive due diligence which reflects all dimensions of emerging risks,” Mazzacurati added.

Her Berkeley, California-based company holds detailed climate risk data covering over 2,000 listed companies, one million global corporate facilities, 320 real estate investment trusts, 3,000 US counties, and 196 countries.

The name Four Twenty Seven is an homage to California’s calculated 1990 total emissions inventory: 427 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The figure became the target to reduce emissions by 2020, which the state achieved four years early. It is worth noting that California’s economy grew by 26 percent during the period in which it reduced its emissions.

A destroyed home in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens in New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (Source: Chester Green/Flickr)

Natalie Ambrosio, who manages publications and communications at Four Twenty Seven, says companies and governments are awakening to the need for their services. “They’re increasingly aware that sea level rise and the rippling impacts of sea level rise are going to affect them directly on their own assets and also indirectly through impacts on infrastructure,” Ambrosio told GlacierHub. “We’re seeing more of our clients coming to us wanting assessments on their exposure to these impacts.”

The tricky part is how to price risks with the time horizons associated with climate disruption, which often lie far in the future.

Usher explained the dilemma facing risk managers. “The challenge at the intersection of climate risk and the financial markets is understanding how risk affects the value of assets today when climate risk is primarily considered a long-term risk with significant uncertainty,” he told GlacierHub. “It is very difficult for owners of financial assets to price those risks given those time frames and those uncertainties.”

Intelligence from a climate risk provider like Four Twenty Seven can help.

Regulatory initiatives toward low carbon economies across much of the world are also prodding rating agencies, like Moody’s, toward an embrace of climate risk intelligence. 

Those in the field of evaluating climate risk say the time is already overdue for companies and governments to start addressing adaptation and mitigation risks. “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risks Report begins. “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking.”

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New Mountain Bike Trails Highlight Long Island’s Glacier Remnants

In the hamlet of North Hempstead, New York, a new mountain bike path is being cut in the footprint of an abandoned sand mine. A local non-profit, the Concerned Long Island Mountain Bicyclists, or CLIMB, is creating up to seven miles of paths, creatively integrating glacier-formed features into a trail network, and cleaning up decades of accumulated industrial waste in the process.

During the last glacial maximum, about 18,000 thousand years ago, the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of North America including present day New York City. Long Island, which extends 118 miles into the Atlantic Ocean eastward from Manhattan, was created by two glacial advances, the Illinoisian and the Wisconsin glaciations. Long Island was the eastern terminus of a massive glacial moraine, which spanned the entire North American continent. 

Exit glaciers from the Laurentide ice sheet formed the greater New York region’s landscape. The glaciers pushed sand and gravel into piles, or moraines, which, thousands of years later, provided a bountiful sand deposit from which to mine.   

JB Bennington is a professor of geology at Hofstra University on Long Island, whose research activities include the glacial history and glacial geomorphology of Long Island. “There are very thick deposits of well-sorted glacial outwash sands that built up at the margin of the ice and in many cases were subsequently ice-thrusted and piled up by readvances of the glacier,” Bennington told GlacierHub. “These moraine deposits are thick and well above sea level, which makes mining a lot easier because you don’t have to pump groundwater out of the hole you create.”

Much of New York City’s present day skyline is owed to its glacial history.

The bygone Port Washington sand mine is located less than 18 miles from Manhattan, whose skyscrapers, bridges, and sidewalks were built from the extracted sand and gravel. The materials removed from the ground in Port Washington—140 million tons of it—made up an estimated 90 percent of the concrete used to construct the city during the mine’s operation. An estimated 50 barges of sand and gravel were shipped daily to Manhattan between the 1880’s and 1989, when the mine closed.   

George Williams is the former chairman of the North Hempstead Historic Landmark Preservation Commission. Sand mining was “such a vital industry, so important to the community, and nothing remains,” Williams noted to The New York Times in 2008. “It was almost like it was wiped off the face of the earth.”

Wiped off the face of the earth—except for the debris that was left behind.

Thirty years after the mine ceased operations, piles of ravaged earth and industrial equipment remain. While glacier-deposited resources first drew the extractive mining industry to North Hempstead 140 years ago, today a glacier-inspired mountain bicycle trail is cleaning up after them.

CLIMB, which was founded in 1990, is headed by lifelong Long Island resident Michael Vitti. His group has built and maintains 175 miles of sustainable cycling trails from Manhattan to Montauk, at the eastern end of the island.

A sustainable trail resists the forces of use and erosion, minimally impacts the natural ecosystem, and creates a cadre of people who care for the trail. Vitti’s method aims to endear the community to the area through enjoyment of the outdoors. “They’ll come to love the trails,” he told GlacierHub, “and they’ll come to love and steward the area and clean it up and it’ll become much better.”

Vitti and his volunteers, braving poison ivy, mosquitoes, and deer ticks, have painstakingly mapped and marked the 200-acre plot. “Most people come once and they don’t come back because of the poison ivy,” said Vitti, who is this author’s uncle. “In urban areas where there are lots of greenhouse gases, poison ivy grows mutantly fast. And tall. And big.” The poison ivy immunity of several CLIMB volunteers makes trail construction by hand tool possible. Though it is slow going, 20-30 hours of labor per mile just to flag a viable route for cycling. They’ve done so while complying with the state’s stringent Department of Environmental Conservation requirements, which limits the removal of plant species and constrains the method of trail construction.

They carefully marked a path through the dense vegetation, much of it invasive plant species, without removing a single tree. Routes follow the natural contour of the land and soil disturbance is kept to a bare minimum. Only hand tools are used to blaze the trail. Even the bridges they’ll construct will be fabricated off site to keep sawdust out of the area.

They have removed, however, several tons of industrial detritus.

Braided steel cables and rusted 55-gallon drums, car parts, hot water heaters, truck tires, railcar axles, are among the debris. “Everywhere you look there’s garbage,” Vitti told GlacierHub.

Doing something about the fouled site has been on his mind for a long time.

In 1998, Vitti submitted a request to the town of North Hempstead to repurpose the neglected land for community enjoyment. Every few years Vitti inquired about his request. It was not until 2018, however, that he found a receptive ear in the town through councilwoman Dina DeGiorgio and partnered with local environmental action non-profit PWGreen.

Judi Bosworth is the town supervisor of North Hempstead and a champion of the project. “The Town is looking forward to the opening of the CLIMB bike trail,” she told GlacierHub. “We are so impressed with the quality of work and commitment by the members of CLIMB. The trail system is certainly going to be a wonderful addition to the recreational offerings here in the Town of North Hempstead.”

At the time of writing, Vitti’s group has completed 1.65 miles of the planned five to seven-mile trail network, which he anticipates completing by the end of the summer. The new trail contains many glacial features including thousands of erratics, bluffs of white cretaceous clay, and black clay. Some trails ramp into hump-shaped glacial erratics that allow advanced cyclists to ride up and over. A meander in the path was going to take riders past a rare hoodoo—a ten-story sedimentary spire eroded over the millennia. The impressive natural feature, and the planned path around its perimeter, however, is threatened by a grading project to prevent sediment from running off into a nearby golf course.

While some glacier-created topographical features remain, many of the hills on the trail are mining spoils—giant piles of discarded earth material from a century of extracting sand.

“When we’re digging into it, it’s like digging into cookie dough ice cream,” said Vitti of the challenge of building in the sand and clay-mounded ruins of the mine.

Two other Long Island mountain biking trails bear glacial names. CLIMB  created “Glacier 8,” which has one of the best views and terrain, according to Vitti. The trail runs along the edge of the Ronkonkoma glacial moraine, a feature of the Wisconsin glaciation 85,000-11,000 years ago. Another CLIMB  trail, “Glacier Ridge” in Farmingville, located farther East on the same moraine, is one of Long Island’s most popular mountain biking routes and contains many glacial features.

Most New Yorkers are unaware “that they are living in the middle of a glacial event park,” Joerg Schaefer, a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, told The New York Times in 2005.  

It might just take a bike trail to allow people to realize it.

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Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Evidence of marijuana use is scattered throughout the archaeological record of human civilization. Residue from most of those excavation sites indicates that the cannabis used by ancient humans was of too low potency to have been cultivated, leading archaeologists to conclude that the plants were likely wild varieties rather than ones domesticated by humans.

But a recent find at a cemetery in the glacier-rich Pamirs of western China indicates that humans may have intentionally selected higher potency strains of marijuana as early as 500 BC.

The research team, which included archaeologists and chemists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, published their findings in the June 12 issue of the journal Science Advances.

A wood brazier unearthed at Jirzankal, which was buried within the tomb, containing cannabis residue (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Mark Merlin is a botany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was a reviewer of the study. “We’ve known that cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants in East Asia, primarily for making oil and hemp,” Merlin told NPR. “Now we know the ancients also valued the plant for its psychoactive properties.

The 2,500-year-old Jirzankal Cemetery lies at nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), in present day Xinjiang Uyghyr Autonomous Region, a large province in northwest China. Excavated tombs revealed mummies buried with wood containers, called braziers, used for containing hot coals. Researchers found that the braziers contained cannabis residue.

“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind.”

Ren, et al

The discovery at Jirzankal is significant because of the strength of the psychoactive component of the cannabis residue, which suggests the plants were either cultivated varieties of high potency, or wild varieties which were intentionally selected for this quality.

The research further underscores the role that glaciers may have played in sustaining the marijuana plants, which have a need for high hydration.  A 2015 study on cannabis cultivated in northern California found that an estimated 22 liters of water or more per plant per day were applied during the summer growing season, similar to the water demand of the notoriously thirsty almond tree in the same region.

A wealth of glaciated peaks lie above Jirzankal Cemetery that would have provided melt water for irrigation during the dry season. “Wild cannabis grows across many of the cooler mountain foothills from the Caucasus to western China, especially in the well-watered habitats of Central Asia,” Meng Ren and the co-authors wrote.

Glaciated peaks are visible in the background of the Jirzankal cemetery, whose surface is striped with black and white stones, which mark the tombs’ surfaces. (Source: Xinhua Wu).

Robert Spengler, who worked on the study, is an archaeobotanist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, whose work focuses on the spread and intensification of agriculture in ancient Central Asia.

“Further north in Xinjiang, in the Taklamakan Desert, there are other, roughly contemporaneous, finds of cannabis in burials and those populations were clearly living in desert oases that were fed by glacial melt and mountain rain-fed streams that emptied into a hyper-arid desert,” Spengler told GlacierHub. “All of those early populations in Xinjinag were agropastoral and would have relied on glacial melt from the Tian Shan.”

The findings at Jirzankal provoke the imagination to consider the possible role of cannabis in ancient society. “We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the authors wrote.

Today’s inhabitants of the Pamir mountains are known as Tajiks, one of China’s recognized minorities, who number just over 33,000. They speak Sarikoli, a language in a different branch of the Iranian language family from Tajik spoken in Tajikistan. Tajiks different from the much larger Uygur ethnic community, whom also inhabit Xinjiang.

While the humans of 500 BC embraced marijuana for its psychoactive properties, modern governments have eschewed it, until recently.

A groundswell of popularity and diminishing fear of marijuana has societies around the world slowly welcoming use of the plant back into the mainstream. Barriers to legal access are falling across the United States, and several countries have fully legalized it, including Canada and Uruguay.

Even the Chinese government responded to the shifting views of cannabis, making exemptions on strict laws against marijuana that have been in place since 1985. On May 9, The New York Times ran an article titled “China Cashes in On The Cannabis Boom.” The country produced half of the world’s hemp last year, The Economist reported, though Xinjiang, where the Jirzankal cemetery is located, is not one of the two provinces with special permission to produce the plant.

“Modern perspectives on cannabis vary tremendously cross-culturally, but it is clear that the plant has a long history of human use, medicinally, ritually and recreationally over countless millennia,” Spengler told The New York Times.

And the glacier-marijuana connection is being embraced by American cannabis brands.

The firm Glacier Cannabis is named after Glacier Farms, whose rolling hills in southeastern Michigan were formed by glaciers during the last glacial maximum. “All Glacier cannabis is grown with locally-sourced glacial rock dust,” reads the Michigan company’s brand strategy page.

The Glacier Cannabis logo (Source: Brittany Barnhart/Just Curious).

In the heavily-glaciated Pacific Northwest, a cannabis varietal named “Glacier OG” is bred by RedEyed Genetics, a cannabis seed distributor. Marijuana is also legal in Alaska, the US state with the most glaciers. The rapidly melting glaciers there have contributed more to sea level rise than any glacier region in the world since 1961. A marijuana manufacturer, Glacier Extracts, is based in Anchorage. The operation’s tagline “Not Just Pure: Glacier Pure,” capitalizes on the untainted quality of glaciers.

Humans may have sensed a connection between glaciers and cannabis in 500 BC — or they may have noted the plant’s growth at altitude yielded higher potency buds. “It is possible,” the study authors speculate, “that high-elevation populations of a naturally higher THC–producing variety were recognized and targeted by people in the Pamir region, possibly even explaining the prominence of ritual sites in the high mountains.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

What the Newest Global Glacier-Volume Estimate Means for High Mountain Asia

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Ecuador Prepares for Eruption of Glacier-Covered Volcano

Ecuador contains one of the densest concentrations of volcanoes on the planet. At last count, 84 volcanic centers straddle the Andes mountains, which run through the country north to south. As many as 24 of those volcanoes are potentially active and some are covered in glaciers, which compound the threat of an eruption with the addition of ice and glacier debris. A history of major eruptions and recent volcanic activity, including on the glaciated stratovolcano Cotopaxi, has unnerved Ecuadorian citizens and prompted government action.

On April 19, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued an early action protocol (EAP) to ameliorate the health, livelihood, and food security impacts of ash fallout from volcanic eruptions on Ecuadorian communities.

The EAP is the result of a project, spearheaded by the German Red Cross, to coordinate forecast-based financing to reduce the impact of extreme natural disasters in 20 countries. Ecuador was selected to receive support for a volcanic ash fallout plan.

Cotopaxi spews ash on August 17, 2015 (Source: WikiCommons).

When a volcano erupts, there is often a period of unrest, precursor signals of an eruption, in which ash is spewed from the volcano. Ash fallout can affect health, livelihoods, and food security for people living in the deposition zone. Unrests can be prolonged events, like that of Cotopaxi in 2015, which lasted four months and did not result in an eruption – yet. Unrests can be longer, shorter, or there can be no sign of unrest at all.

The early action protocol cites its objective to “establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas.” The early actions identified were based on the ash fall produced by eruptions over the past 20 years, including that of Cotopaxi, which is located 31 miles south of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. A major eruption would rain ash on the three million inhabitants of Quito and disrupt air travel.

The phases of early action for ash fall depend on the depth of forecasted ash deposition: distribution of health protection kits for ash fall between two and five millimeters, a livelihood protection package to protect livestock and harvested crops from ash fall between five and ten millimeters, and the addition of cash-based interventions for ash fall greater than ten millimeters.  

Benjamin Bernard, a volcanologist at the Geophysical Institute of Ecuador’s National Polytechnical School (IG-EPN), works with the Ecuadorian Red Cross and the Red Cross Climate Center. According to Bernard, the objective of the project is to reduce the impact of extreme events based on scientific forecasts and early actions.

“This EAP is a significant improvement because in Ecuador, until this project, humanitarian financing was only for response to the emergency,” Bernard told GlacierHub. “It has already been proven in this project that early actions can significantly reduce the impact of extreme weather conditions and we hope that it will do the same for volcanic eruptions.”

In 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled “The ‘Anticipatory Anxiety’ of Waiting for Disaster,” which documented the trauma of Ecuadorians living in the shadow of Cotopaxi. Patricia Mothes, a volcanologist with Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, told the magazine, “Of the five eruptive periods from 1532 to now—and this is number six—it always ends (or at least has) in a major eruption.”

Ahead of the anticipated major eruption, however, falling ash disrupts life for communities in the vicinity of Cotopaxi.

Ash fall from eruptions can have a significant health and economic impacts for downslope communities. “In previous events of ash fall, people have had to transport their animals to safe areas free from ash fall or have had to sell their cattle up to 70 per cent less than their normal commercial value, generating a negative impact on household economies,” the Ecuadorian Red Cross report reads. “In other cases, their animals died, which led to a serious impact on their economic stability. In these cases, affected households had to resort to bank loans that they continue to be unable to repay.”

But it’s not the lava or even the ash that worry those who live near glacier-clad Cotopaxi, The Atlantic reported, it’s the lahar—a superheated deadly slurry of mud, water, volcanic rock, ice, and other debris.

Cotopaxi poses dramatically different hazards to nearby populations, according to Mothes. When combined with hot ash and flowing rock, an eruption of a glaciated volcano can create a lahars, which are known to travel downhill at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour (120 miles per hour). Ecuadorian government has installed eruption warning systems to alert communities in lahar zones. The moment monitors detect seismic activity consistent with an eruption, automated sirens rouse communities downslope.

Ecuador is the only country with glaciers straddling the equator. Though Ecuador is seldom thought of as a glacier country, so prominently do glaciers figure in the nation’s landscape they even appear on its national flag.

Bolívar Cáceres is the head of Ecuador’s glaciers program within the country’s National Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. “The Secretary of Risk of Ecuador has worked extensively on the matter, I believe we would be prepared,” he told GlacierHub on Ecuador’s readiness for an eruption. “The latent threat of Cotopaxi is there, waiting for the big event.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Dispatch from the Cryosphere: Glacier Decrease in the Georgian Caucasus

How Mountain-Dwellers Talk About Adapting to Melting Glaciers

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Roundup: A Glacier State Congressman Changes Tone, Minority Rights in Asian Glacier Region, and a New Early Warning System in Peru

A Glacier State Congressman Cites Climate Change as Basis for Nuclear Energy Legislation

Senator John Barrasso, a Republican representing the glacier state of Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. On April 24, Barrasso released a draft act reforming U.S. nuclear waste policy, to ensure the federal government’s legal obligations to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste are fulfilled. His reason? Climate change.

The New York Times writes:

“When John Barrasso, a Republican from oil and uranium-rich Wyoming who has spent years blocking climate change legislation, introduced a bill this year to promote nuclear energy, he added a twist: a desire to tackle global warming.

Mr. Barrasso’s remarks — “If we are serious about climate change, we must be serious about expanding our use of nuclear energy” — were hardly a clarion call to action. Still they were highly unusual for the lawmaker who, despite decades of support for nuclear power and other policies that would reduce planet-warming emissions, has until recently avoided talking about them in the context of climate change.

The comments represent an important shift among Republicans in Congress. Driven by polls showing that voters in both parties — particularly younger Americans — are increasingly concerned about a warming planet, and prodded by the new Democratic majority in the House shining a spotlight on the issue, a growing number of Republicans are now openly discussing climate change and proposing what they call conservative solutions.”

U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Major UN Meeting Raises Minority Rights Issues in Asia’s Glaciated Mountain Areas

The United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its annual meeting in New York City April 22 – May 3. There was significant debate about China’s treatment of minority peoples in the glaciated western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The UN Press reports:

“Despite scattered gains in land, language and legal rights, a glaring lack of political will around the world is inhibiting fundamental change on the ground in thousands of communities in every region, delegates told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today as it continued its work.

Achievements outlined by Member State representatives today were starkly overshadowed by grave concerns – including high youth suicide rates, social exclusion and widespread political apathy – raised by many speakers, as the Permanent Forum concluded its general discussion on “implementation of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum with reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.  The six areas are economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.

Across these areas – from land marred by war or extractive industries’ activities to ignorance about indigenous history and languages – speakers called on Governments and the Permanent Forum alike to urgently take the kind of actions that will have a direct, positive impact on their communities.”

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on April 22, 2019 (Source: United Nations/Flickr)

An Early Warning System for Peru’s GLOF-Prone Lake Palcacocha

In northwestern Peru, government officials announced plans to install an early warning system to alert downstream populations of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) from the Andean glacier lake, Palcacocha,

The lake has a history of GLOFs . Most recently, an avalanche from a calving glacier above the lake on February 5 triggered a wave that tested the moraine holding back the glacial meltwater. The regional capital, Huaraz, which lies downstream, is the second most populous city of the Peruvian Andes.

Peruvian news outlet El Comercio reported on the new warning system, which is expected to take one year to complete.

Lake Palcacocha above the main city of Huaraz is drained using siphons to avoid Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. In 1941, a GLOF leveled Huaraz to the ground (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Read More on GlacierHub:

Palcacocha Icefalls Demonstrate Hazard Vulnerabilities in Peru

Will Climate Change Be Responsible for More Glacial Lake Outburst Floods?

Powerful Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Himalayas

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How Dust From Receding Glaciers Is Affecting the Climate

When glaciers recede, they leave barren landscapes behind. Dust from these surfaces can influence clouds high above, both how they form and how long they last, according to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience journal. Researchers on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard found wind-blown dust from receding glaciers is a catalyst for the formation of ice particle in clouds, impacting Arctic cloud development, lifetime, and reflectivity.

Glacier-sourced dust is made up of fine minerals and organic matter, pulverized over the millennia by the immense weight and slow scouring of glacier ice. The source of the organic matter is undetermined, yet the research team believes those particles are the key to the ice-nucleating ability of glacier dust.  

In the low and middle latitudes, dust in the atmosphere is known to scatter light and cause air to condense and form clouds. Whether high-latitude dust emissions have a similar impact on Arctic clouds is not as well understood.

Glacier dust blows into the air over eastern Greenland on September 9, 2018. Runoff from several glaciers deposited sediment in a flood plain (Source: NASA).

Yutaka Tobo, an assistant professor at Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research, led a research team to see how the dust was affecting clouds. In particular, Tobo wondered whether they were triggering the formation of ice crystals, which can cause clouds to condense at low temperatures. Ice nucleating particles, Tobo’s team found, shorten cloud lifetime by prompting precipitation. Since icy clouds are less reflective than liquid-based clouds, the cloud’s capacity to reflect incoming light is also diminished, a key factor in the Earth’s ability to regulate its temperature.

“Few studies have focused on the possible contribution of dusts released from high-latitude sources to ice nucleation in Arctic mixed-phase clouds,” Tobo told GlacierHub. “If there are more ice nucleating particles around, the cloud properties and lifetime are expected to be dramatically altered.”

Though the field work in Svalbard was mainly performed within the framework of a Japanese Arctic research project, Tobo enlisted scientists from Colorado State University, who he worked with previously, while a team from Cornell University performed global aerosol model simulations, including high-latitude dusts.

Natalie Mahowald, a professor in the department of earth and atmospheric science at Cornell University, was one of the modellers involved in the study. “It is very exciting that these dust particles are much better ice nuclei, which will help us understand more about the climate system and how ice clouds will respond,” she told GlacierHub. “This could be especially important to understand what happened during the last interglacial, when these glaciated sources were much bigger.”

Researchers Yutaka Tobo and Jun Uetake install equipment on Svalbard (Source: Colorado State University).

What makes the glacier dust particularly effective at nucleating ice is the small amount of organic matter within it. Interestingly, the Svalbard glacial plain the researchers studied, is devoid of vegetation or any apparent source of organic material.

Tom Hill, a co-author of the study, is a researcher at Colorado State who specializes in molecular microbial ecology. “The source of the outwash organic matter intrigues me,” Hill said. “There isn’t much of it by percentage but it’s enriched in ice nuclei. We still know very little about ice nucleating microbes in soils, so it could be something entirely new.”

The team suspects the organic particles were washed down from microbial sources from higher up on the glacier. “Further studies will be necessary to understand the major sources of organic matter contained in the outwash,” Tobo told GlacierHub.

The glacier Brøggerbreen on Svalbard in July 2016 and March 2017. Glacier outwash becomes airborne as dust during summer (Source: Nature Geoscience).

Through its influence on clouds, glacier dust, and the organic ice-nucleating matter within it, have implications for the Earth’s climate.

How clouds, which are responsible for more than half of the Earth’s reflective capacity, respond to climate change remains one of the greatest uncertainties in climate science. The wide range of cloud type, altitude, and composition make their effect on Earth’s climate difficult to measure quantitatively. Clouds have opposing effects: cooling, by reflecting solar radiation back into space; and warming, by trapping radiation from the Earth’s surface.

At a fundamental level, climate models are built on an accurate accounting of incoming and reflected solar radiation. Any uncertainty in the atmospheric radiation budget sends errors rippling through climate projections.

In the Arctic, a region especially sensitive to the effects of climate change, comprehensive understanding of what causes clouds to form there – and dissipate – is central to projecting climate impacts.

Though the study focused on the effect of glacier dust on cloud properties and lifetime, the results suggest larger questions about the impact of glacier dust on cloud reflectivity.

A decline in the reflective capability of clouds could degrade the Earth’s ability to moderate its temperature. Paul DeMott, one of the study’s co-authors, told GlacierHub that he was careful not make conclusions about the role of glacier dust in cloud reflectivity, though he acknowledged that it is “a natural, if simplistic, way of thinking about it.”

Whether or not a cloud contains ice particles is a primary determinant of its reflective capacity, as well as heat-trapping ability. Ice crystals allow more light to pass through clouds, while effectively absorbing outgoing infrared radiation.

Dust from the floodplain of Alaska’s Copper River is blown into the atmosphere in October 2009 (Source: NASA).

Glaciated clouds – those containing ice particles rather than liquid droplets – are unable to reflect as much light as clouds with liquid water. The dust from receding glaciers, the researchers found, is especially adept at glaciating clouds. In other words, clouds formed by glacier dust allow greater amounts of heat to enter Earth’s atmosphere.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2018 found low levels of ice-nucleating particles in the Southern Ocean resulted in higher cloud reflectivity – meaning more ice-nucleating particles would do the opposite. More ice-nucleating particles would decrease cloud reflectivity.

As warming from the human-driven climate crisis accelerates, glacier dust is expected to become more abundant, with consequences for Arctic cloud cover and the Earth’s temperature, which depends on the reflectivity and heat-trapping ability of clouds. The study’s conclusion, that ice nucleating particles in glacier dust affect cloud properties, underscores the interconnectedness of natural systems, and their sensitivities.

NASA researcher Patrick Taylor, who was uninvolved with the Nature study told Scientific American, “We really do need to focus on these Arctic clouds because we don’t know a lot about them.” Taylor continued, “And everything we do know about them is pointing to them having this central role in how the Arctic climate system is going to evolve going forward.”

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Roundup: Project Pressure Exhibition, Melting Swiss Glaciers Provide Opportunity, and The Tibetan Snowcock

“MELTDOWN” A Traveling Art Exhibition by Project Pressure

This summer catch the art exhibition “MELTDOWN” a visualization of climate change by world-renowned artists commissioned by Project Pressure, at the Natural History Museum, Vienna June 4 – September 8, 2019.

“Project Pressure uses art as a positive touch point to inspire engagement and behavioural change. The selected artworks in MELTDOWN relate to vanishing glaciers, to demonstrate the impact of climate change through various media. Unlike wildfires, flooding and other weather events, glacier mass loss can be 100% attributed to global temperature changes and as such, they are key indicators of climate change. The exhibition is a narrative of the importance of glaciers told in a scientific, illustrative and poetic way and each artist has a unique take on the subject. MELTDOWN shows scale from the planetary level to microscopic biological impact, and considers humanitarian suffering and more. Together the artistic interpretations in MELTDOWN give visitors unique insights into the world’s cryosphere, its fragile ecosystem and our changing global climate.”

The second stop will be Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, opening the 23rd of November.

Switzerland Is Making the Most of its Melting Glaciers

A recent New York Times interactive “Where Glaciers Melt Away, Switzerland Sees Opportunity,” takes readers to the Swiss Alps for a visually stimulating tour of the country’s innovations around glacier melt, from footbridges spanning glacial valleys to hydropower innovations.

A cable and plank footbridge spans what was the Trift Glacier, 300 feet above the water (Source: Flickr/ThisisBossi).

The Tibetan Snowcock Is Caught On Camera

A study on the little-known high-altitude bird in the pheasant family, the Tibetan Snowcock. The study uses reports on images from camera traps to describe its behavior. It also describes the bird’s preference for higher elevation, living close to glaciers and the snow line.

“Global climate change has had significant effects on animal distribution and population dynamics in mid-latitude alpine areas, but we know little about the basic ecology of high-altitude species due to the difficulties of conducting field research in the harsh climate and habitat present at high elevations. The Tibetan Snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus) is a little-known phasianid distributing in alpine areas at extremely high elevations in the mountains surrounding the Tibetan Plateau. Estimating the species occupancy rate and discussing the factors affecting its distribution based on infrared-triggered camera techniques would provide both a baseline to measure the influence of global warming and valuable information on its conservation and ecology.”

File:Tibetan Snowcock near Luza while going Macheramo towards Gokyo lake.jpg
The Tibetan Snowcock (Source: WikiCommons/Sumita Roy Dutta)

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Photo Friday: New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier

This week’s Photo Friday features the Tasman Glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. At over 23 kilometers, the glacier is the longest of New Zealand’s more than 3,000 glaciers.

The photographer, Ryan Force, took the image from the Tasman Glacier viewpoint. Force and his wife, Marissa, honeymooned on the island by campervan. They intended to park near Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak, and hike to a promontory to view the glacier. But heavy rains in the region days earlier washed out a bridge on the road to the access point. The photo below was as close to the Tasman Glacier as the newlyweds were able to get.

The rock and debris covered Tasman Glacier seen from the southwest shore of Tasman Lake (Source: Ryan Force).

The Tasman Glacier is in rapid retreat. The body of milky grey water in the foreground of Force’s photo is Tasman Lake, which formed as the glacier’s ice melted and continues to grow as the glacier recedes.

In 1973 there was no lake in front of the Tasman Glacier, according to Martin Brook, a lecturer in physical geography at New Zealand’s Massey University. The lake is now 7 kilometers long, 2 kilometers wide, and 245 meters deep.

A significant ice calving event in February of this year created a two-meter surge that damaged a jetty and several boat trailers on Tasman Lake, the BBC reported.

A sign at the Tasman Glacier lookout informs tourists of the glacier’s decline. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation uses the visual display of their rapidly retreating glaciers as an opportunity to raise awareness about climate change.

A sign board installed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation documents the Tasman Glacier’s ablation (Source: Ryan Force).

“We felt a bit defeated,” Force told GlacierHub of the experience. “I felt a little frustration that in the next 50 years, this beautiful landscape might be gone entirely because we as a species put our heads in the sand and refused to take action.”

A 2015 study on the implications of climate change for glacier tourism in New Zealand found glaciers to be a fundamental motivation for visitors, finding a “last chance dimension” luring visitors to the glaciers.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation estimated that 945,000 people visited Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in 2018. The surge in visitors to the park, which contains the Tasman Glacier, is a 17.5 percent increase from the previous year.

An aerial photo of a helicopter landing on a glacier in New Zealand’s Southern Alps (Source: Ryan Force).

Although travelers produce a substantial carbon footprint through last-chance tourism, it may help bolster the sense of place attachment and identity that encourages tourists to engage in carbon offsetting, GlacierHub reported last month. People sometimes build personal connections to places they visit, and this value they put on locations may lead them to take meaningful action to preserve them.

“It was so valuable to actually see it firsthand,” said Force. “This was the first time I saw with my own eyes what the results looked like, instead of reading about them in an article or seeing it in a documentary. I walked away wanting to do more.”

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Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

A new study published April 8 in the journal Nature found that glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought and accounts for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961. The research used a new approach to produce more precise and accurate measurements, improving upon previous studies of glacier contribution to sea level rise.

The international research team, based at the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, says glaciers lost more than 9,000 billion tons of ice since 1961, raising ocean levels by 27 millimeters. The team used field observations and satellite measurements from over 19,000 glaciers to reconstruct changes in ice thickness.

Columbia Glacier, in Alaska, has been in “catastrophic” retreat since 1982 (Source: NASA/USGS/Google)

The study’s principal author, Michael Zemp, leads the World Glacier Monitoring Service and is involved with various scientific projects in the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich. “Glaciological measurements made in the field provide the annual fluctuations, while the satellite data allows us to determine overall ice loss over several years or decades.” Zemp said in a press release from the University of Zurich. “By combining these two measurement methods and having the new comprehensive dataset, we can estimate how much ice has been lost each year in all mountain regions since the 1960s.”

Glaciers in Alaska were the largest contributors, followed by melting ice fields in Patagonia and Arctic glaciers. Glaciers in different parts of the world make their contributions to sea level rise in different decades. A glacier’s input to sea level rise is determined by their mass and rate of loss. Alaskan and Patagonian glaciers, for example, are not as far poleward as some other glaciated regions. They are melting faster and contributing the most to sea level rise due to their large glacier area. Conversely, Antarctica’s periphery glaciers, situated near the south pole, contributed least to sea level rise during the study period. While glaciers in the western US, Canada, and Iceland, located in even warmer climates than Alaska, lost the most mass. Due to their small total glacier area of those regions, however, they contributed little to sea level rise.

Regional contributions to sea level rise (Source: Michael Zemp/Nature)

Sea level rise is a direct result of climate change, though its local and regional extent and impact varies, and depends on geologic, oceanographic, and atmospheric influence. The primary contributors to ocean volume and mass are from thermal expansion (water expands as it warms) and the addition of melt water from ice sheets and glaciers. Glaciers are made up of fallen snow that, over many years, compresses into large, thickened ice masses, and due to their mass, flow like very slow rivers. As they melt, their runoff contributes to sea level rise. Ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica,  are a mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), whose meltwater raises sea levels. An ice shelfis a portion of an ice sheet that spreads out over water. Because ice shelves are already on the water, they do not contribute to sea level rise as they melt.

Understanding the physical processes behind glacier mass loss and its effect on sea level rise is crucial to projecting the impacts of climate change for society. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report issued by the US Global Change Research Program, sea level rise this century and beyond will pose a growing challenge to coastal communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems from increased (permanent) inundation, more frequent and extreme coastal flooding, erosion of coastal landforms, and saltwater intrusion within coastal rivers and aquifers. Glaciers are not just icons of climate change; their rate of retreat is an indicator of warming and accurate accounting of their melt is necessary for calibrating models of sea level rise.

Zemp and his colleagues aimed to use updated methods to provide a clearer view of the extent of global glacier loss. “Over 30 years suddenly almost all regions started losing mass at the same time,” said Zemp.  “That’s clearly climate change if you look at the global picture.”

The most significant improvement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5) in 2013, according to the authors, is the volume and accuracy of remote sensing data. Sampling increased from a few hundred glaciers to more than 19,000 globally, with an observational coverage exceeding 45 percent of the glacier area in 11 out of 19 glacier regions. Studies included in that report had to rely on data from 2003–2009, while earlier years had to be estimated. IPCC AR5 documented the sea level contribution of all glaciers globally to be 0.71 millimeters per year.  Zemp’s study found that glaciers contribute 18 percent more than was reported in IPCC AR5, around one millimeter of sea level rise per year.

Matthias Huss, a Swiss glaciologist from the University of Fribourg and Secretary for Glaciers at the Cryospheric Sciences of the European Geosciences Union, was also involved in the study. Huss told GlacierHub, “In comparison to the knowledge included in the last assessment report of the IPCC the increase in remotely-sensed information on glacier mass change is tremendous.” He added, “our study has now attempted to combine all data, also including development of new approaches for optimally combining the available measurements.”

Zemp’s study will be included in the IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere chapters on high mountains and sea level rise, to be published in September of this year. The next IPCC report will be issued in 2021.

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Video of the Week: Take a 360° Tour of Mount Baker

In this week’s Video of the Week, take a three-dimensional tour of Mount Baker, an active stratovolcano in Washington state. At 10,781 feet (3,286 meters), Mount Baker is the highest peak in the North Cascade Range and the northernmost volcano in the contiguous United States. It is also the only Cascade peak to be affected by both alpine and continental glaciation.

Twelve principal glaciers exist on Mount Baker, all of which are in rapid retreat. The peak is consistently one of the snowiest places on Earth. Mount Baker set the record for snowfall in a year, when it received 95 feet (29 meters) in 1998-1999, an El Niño winter.

Mount Baker is in the news this week after venting steam from a crater near its peak. Though the most recent major eruption at Mount Baker occurred 6,700 years ago, the 2018 update to the USGS National Volcanic Threat Assessment lists the volcano’s eruption threat as “very high,” the most cautious categorization. Volcanoes with this designation are prioritized for research, monitoring, and mitigation.

According to ScienceBase.gov, the USGS data release portal, the purpose of the Mount Baker survey was to contribute to natural hazards monitoring efforts, the study of regional geology and volcanic landforms, and landscape modification during and after future volcanic eruptions.

The rendering below, published by the US Geological Survey in November 2017, used a high-precision Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) survey. LiDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges to the Earth to generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics. A Leica ALS80 system mounted in a Cessna Caravan 208B was used to conduct the Mount Baker survey in the fall of 2015.

High-definition LiDAR sensing creates a stunning model of Washington state’s active, glacier-covered stratovolcano (Source: MapScaping/Twitter).

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Trump’s Interior Pick Wants to Heighten California Dam

Among the controversies facing US President Donald J. Trump’s Secretary of the Interior nominee, David Bernhardt, is his proposal to heighten California’s Shasta Dam, which would increase the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir by 630,000 acre-feet, and flood part of the McCloud River.

Bernhardt began Senate his confirmation on March 28. The Senate Energy Committee voted on April 4 to send Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination as Secretary of the Interior to the full Senate for a final vote. He was nominated for the position after his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, resigned last year amid mounting ethics concerns. Bernhardt could become the second Secretary of the Interior under Trump to threaten glacier landscapes and watersheds in the western US.

Glacier and snow melt from Mount Shasta, which has the most glaciers of any mountain in California, comprise much the McCloud’s flow. The 47-mile river is one of four major tributaries that feed Lake Shasta, which was created with the completion of the Shasta Dam in 1945.

President Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior wants to heighten Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet (Source: Bureau of Reclamation/Flickr)

State politicians, environmental groups, and native peoples in the region, particularly the Winnemem Wintu, have mobilized to resist the proposal as it undergoes environmental review. They point to adverse environmental and cultural impacts as well as ethical concerns with the project.

Opponents of raising the dam cite Bernhardt’s former position as a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, a Fresno-based provider of irrigation for Central Valley agriculture and a likely beneficiary of additional Shasta reservoir capacity. This week the New York Times reported that Bernhardt continued to lobby on behalf of Westlands for several months after he claimed to have discontinued lobbying activities. The US Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the department Bernhardt would oversee, has offered to pay for half of the $1.4 billion cost of heightening the Shasta Dam. Local and state partners are expected to foot the other half. Westlands Water District, Bernhardt’s former client, is the only agency to offer funding so far.

Bernhardt is also a former oil and gas industry lobbyist with a track record of challenging environmental regulations, including the expansion of offshore oil drilling and attempts at weakening key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

A New York Times investigation published last week revealed Bernhardt blocked the release of a report which highlighted the threat presented by pesticides to 1,200 endangered species. Prior to his position in the Department of the Interior, Bernhardt worked to undo protections surrounding California’s critically endangered delta smelt. The small fish is used as an indicator species for environmental quality in the San Francisco Bay-Delta

In response to Bernhardt’s nomination, more than 160 conservation groups signed a letter on March 26, urging Senators to oppose confirmation, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mount Shasta provides much of the flow for the McCloud River, and other river in the region (Source: Nienke Bruinsma/Flickr)

On the McCloud River, endangered and threatened species are also at risk. A lawsuit attempting to block the Shasta Dam heightening project cited three species of salamander which would be imperiled on the McCloud and other rivers. According to the California Wilderness Coalition, the McCloud is not protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, though state protection prohibits the construction of new dams on the river.

Ted Grantham, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California Berkeley, told the Berkeley News, “That area is protected under state law, and the state is opposing it just for that reason. But it’s not just that. The Winnemem Wintu’s cultural influence would be impacted. And there would be repercussions for salmon, trout and salamanders. There are a lot of wrinkles that make this plan problematic.

The Winnemem Wintu are an unrecognized Native American tribe indigenous to the McCloud River watershed. Their name translates to “Middle Water People,” as the McCloud River is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the west and the Pit River to the east. The tribe’s website reads, “We were born from water, we are of the water, and we fight to protect it.”

A Winnemem Wintu child at a ceremony in 2009 (Source: Michael Marmarou/Flickr).

The Winnemem Wintu ancestral lands were submerged in 1945, when the lower reaches of the McCloud River flooded behind the new dam. The tribe hopes to preserve the few sacred sites remaining above water. “We’re unique to that river. And that’s the only river that can make us that. And we’ve already lost a lot,” Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk said in a January 2018 scoping meeting hosted by the Westlands Water District. “The Winnemem people have nowhere else to go to become Winnemem people. We have to have that river and there’s so little of it left.”

The river is storied among fly-fishermen, who pilgrimage there to fish for rainbow and brown trout. Before Shasta Dam blocked the return of anadromous fish, the McCloud River was one of the most productive salmon and steelhead waters in the Sacramento Watershed, according to Cal Trout, a non-profit steward of wild fish and rivers in the state.

Fly fishing in California’s McCloud River (Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife).

William Hagen, professor emeritus in the history department at University of California Davis, has experience fly-fishing on northern California rivers. “To raise Shasta so as to wipe out miles of riffled and white water, when so little such primal water remains, is very deplorable,” Hagen told GlacierHub.  “All other routes to water conservation should be taken first.”

The dam-raising proposal comes at a time when many dams are being removed due to inefficiencies, ecological degradation, and coastal erosion. American Rivers, a non-profit group which advocates for protecting wild rivers, reported a record 86 dams were removed in the US in 2017, while another 82 were taken down in 2018. Significant dam removals are scheduled this year, including four hydroelectric dams on northern California’s Klamath River, into which runoff flows from the glaciers on Mount Shasta’s north slopes.

Due to climate change, snowpack in California is expected to decline 25 to 40 percent by 2050. While the climate trend toward less available water is encouraging water managers to increase storage capacity, reduced water availability raises questions about the efficacy of raising the dam.

Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (left) and deputy secretary David Bernhardt (right) at Bernhardt’s swearing in ceremony in August 2017 (Source: Department of the Interior/Flickr).

“Big, new dams will not remedy California’s water challenges,” the National Resources Defense Council said in 2014. “The dramatic declines in snowpack and changes in streamflow timing raise serious flags about California’s outdated approach to water supply storage, requiring the state to reconsider and change how new and existing reservoirs are managed.”

How realistic is the dam project and its threat to the ecology and Native Americans of the McCloud? “My view is they will ultimately be stopped,” John McManus, who heads the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said to KQED, “but I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

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Mongolia’s Cashmere Goats Graze a Precarious Steppe

Cashmere, the fine hair gleaned from the undercoat of the cashmere goat, is among the world’s most expensive ounce-for-ounce textiles. Cashmere goats thrive in the steppes of Central Asia, an ecoregion defined by its open temperate grasslands. In Mongolia, the second largest cashmere wool-producing country, a confluence of climatic and political forces, coupled with global cashmere demand, are creating instability.

The Mongolian steppe comprises one of the largest contiguous grassland expanses in the world. Increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation, wrought by climate change, are transforming the country’s vast grasslands into parched deserts that offer meager sustenance for Mongolia’s goat herds. According to a 2013 study led by Yi Y. Liu of the University of New South Wales, precipitation across Mongolia has decreased by 7 percent since 1940. During the same period, the country registered an average temperature increase of 2°C. Glaciers in the icy Mongolian Altai mountains, which irrigate many of the rivers and lakes steppes, lost 35 percent of their debris-free ice mass between 1990 and 2016.

The Mongolian steppe pictured in 1997 (Source: Damiano Luchetti/WikiCommons).


The desertification of Mongolia, brought about by the onset of human-caused climate change, coincided with a political shift in the early 1990s toward a market economy in the country. The grasslands, once managed by experienced pastoral herders, supported around 4.4 million goats in 1988. Left to market forces and reduced government regulation, however, the goat population grazing the Mongolian steppe nearly quintupled to 20 million within two decades.

Cashmere fetches high market prices and global demand for the luxurious soft wool remains high. An article in the journal Science cited “fast fashion and increased knitting capacity” in China as factors in pushing cashmere to a mass market consumer good.

Patagonia, the outdoor brand known for its environmental activism, is addressing the degradation of pastures in Mongolia, by promoting the use of waste scrap from other cashmere purveyors. “We didn’t want to be a part of that, so we stopped using virgin cashmere several years ago,” Patagonia said in its 2018 environmental and social initiatives report. “By providing a market for recycled cashmere, we help divert discards from landfills and incinerators and, in our own small way, take no part in the desertification of Mongolian grasslands.”

It is unclear what impact Patagonia’s effort has had on market demand. Another effort focused on cashmere sustainability, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s cashmere initiative, is concentrating on the sustainability of Gobi Desert region cashmere production.

Almost the entire Mongolian steppe region experienced significant vegetation biomass declines between 1988 and 2008. The international research team, led by Liu, reported 60 percent of the decline to climate trends, with the rest of the damage done by fires and goat populations.

Caroline Humphrey, a leading researcher of Mongolia at the University of Cambridge, told GlacierHub, “The problem of goats is not so much the numbers (though that may be part of it), but the way they are now herded, which involves decreased mobility of the flocks and hence over-concentration on some pastures.”

The cashmere goat population has quintupled since 1988 (Source: Oregon State University/Flickr).


Humphrey described how herders now tend to remain closer to routes and population centers. While earlier generations moved great distances to seasonal pastures, those migrations are now fewer and shorter. She also mentioned the increasing tendency to fence off or privatize land, which fragments grasslands and impedes goat herd movement.

While goat numbers have increased, Humphrey added  “Climatic factors, especially decrease in precipitation, are more important and have wider impact.”

One of the difficulties presented by climate change, is an extreme seasonal weather phenomenon known locally as dzud, a Mongolian term for winter weather disaster. Herders fear the dzud for the deep snow and severe cold it brings, leading to high livestock mortality. The dzud in the winter of 2018, killed over 700,000 head of livestock. Dzud are predicted to increase in frequency and magnitude with future atmospheric changes.

One form of dzud, described by Mongolian herders, is a “hoofed dzud.” In other words, a die-off of livestock caused by trampling and over-grazing by over-population or over-concentration of animals in one area.

A Mongolian child with a newborn cashmere goat after the 2011 dzud (Source: EU Civil Protection/Flickr).


According to Liu’s study, climate projections indicate average air temperature will increase and precipitation decrease in Mongolia over the next three decades. Researchers agree that these conditions will further stress the fragile steppe ecoregion and accelerate grassland degradation. In some areas of Mongolia, glacier meltwater is a key resource for pastures, evening out the fluctuations of wet and dry years, though this resource will decline in coming decades.

Efforts like Patagonia’s cashmere recycling program take understanding of the problem into action to ebb global demand. Separately but in concert, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing on sustainable development on the ground in Mongolia by decreasing livestock impact on grasslands, increasing livestock productivity, and by connecting herders directly to cashmere markets.

Liu’s study concluded, “Understanding the competing influences of climate, land management and global demand for a niche agricultural product like cashmere will be key to protecting these ecosystems from further degradation.”

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