Video of the Week: Icefall at Alaska’s Portage Glacier

On April 11, a trio of hikers witnessed a spectacular icefall at Portage Glacier in Alaska, which was caught on camera and shared widely on social media. The ice fell into the frozen Portage Lake, creating waves that rippled beneath the frozen surface, briefly threatening the safety of the onlookers.

Portage is a retreating glacier located on the narrow neck of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where the legume-shaped extension meets the mainland. In January, GlacierHub posted “Glacier Hugging Is the New Tree Hugging” with a series of photos depicting glacier-huggers at Portage Glacier. The inherent instability of glaciers makes them dangerous for visiting up close, especially during the spring, as the hikers in the above footage experienced.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Anchorage resident Jason Rouch Jr. — who was hiking at Portage Glacier on that morning and preparing to photograph the glacier — felt like “something intense was about to happen.” Rouch was there to photograph the glacier with a couple of friends on a socially-distant outdoor excursion.

“It just fell and it seemed like slow motion,” Rouch, 25, said in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News. His Facebook video of the calving event, which has been viewed more than 93,000 times and shared more than 4,000 times, included the following caption:

😱😱😱 I was blessed to experience this INCREDIBLE, RARE, and SCARY moment today. The weather was once again amazing here in Anchorage, so I decided to do another hike out to the Portage Glacier.

I wanted to get a photo fairly close but still in a safe spot so I walked over to land next to the glacier. Very shortly after I got to land, I heard the ice begin to crack, and each second it grew more intense. So I pulled out my phone and took this video! A giant piece of ice the size of a house weighing probably tens of thousands of pounds fell right in front of me!

I think this will be my last time on the ice for this season, since it’s all cracked up now. Usually I get a bit closer, but just yesterday, a great friend Cindy Carlton warned me that if the glacier calves, sometimes the ice chunks can fall under the ice and create a wave buckling the ice upwards. Thank you for your excellent advice! If you hadn’t warned me, I would’ve still been on the ice, and a lot closer.

“If people are going to go out there, they should use caution,” Rouch told the Anchorage Daily News. “I would say, 1. Keep your distance away from the glacier, and 2. I wouldn’t travel alone if you do go out there.”

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Iceberg Melt Rates and Glacier Frontal Ablation: Seller and Heim Glacier, Antarctica

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A Minority of Peruvian Mountain Farmers Benefit From Government Pandemic Programs

Roundup: Norwegian Glacier Change, Climbing Federation Refocuses Priorities, and Antarctic Meltwater Influence on Phytoplankton

Glacier Change in Norway Since The 1960s

An overview of Norwegian glaciers since the 1960s shows there was some advance through the end of the last century. That period of advance has ended and the region’s glaciers are now in uniform retreat, though with some variation.

From the abstract: “In this paper, we give an overview of changes in area, length, surface elevation and mass balance of glaciers in mainland Norway since the 1960s. Frontal advances have been recorded in all regions except the northernmost glaciers in Troms and Finnmark (Storsteinsfjellbreen, Lyngen and Langfjordjøkelen). More than half of the observed glaciers, 27 of 49, had marked advances in the 1990s. The glaciological mass-balance values for the period 1962–2018, where 43 glaciers have been measured, show great inter-annual variability.”

Read the full study in the journal Cambridge Core here.

Digitised glacier outlines and basins for a subsection of the study glaciers in Jotunheimen (Source: Cambridge Core/Andreassen et al)

UIAA Restated Priorities For 2020 and Beyond

The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), the world’s major mountaineering federation, is revising its core statements of purpose, and is including climate change. Glaciers will be a component. There is a series of steps, with meetings of the Executive Board in earlier this spring and a major assembly in May. The Surfrider Foundation took on ocean plastics in a big way, can climbing groups do the same?

From a February 20, UIAA press release: “Recent dialogue and meetings dating back to the UIAA General Assembly in Cyprus and involving the GA, the UIAA Management Committee and the UIAA Executive Board, have focused on collectively realigning the UIAA’s role, objectives and vision.

Taking elements from the expertise which went into the publication of the 2019 UIAA Strategic Plan (produced by a dedicated working group), the resulting proposal is to focus on objectives which are more direct and specific, all in the spirit of being available to render service to the member federations.”

As a result, the proposal is for the UIAA’s key strategic priorities going forward to be defined as:

(1) Providing global guidance on nature and climate risk
(2) Setting and maintaining the highest standards
(3) Acting as a helpline to national federations and their members

Read the full UIAA press release here.

Source: UIAA

Environmental Drivers of Phytoplankton Taxonomic Composition in an Antarctic Fjord

Phytoplankton, the microscopic floating plants in the ocean, are the key to marine food webs. This study from Antarctica shows that they are influenced by glacier retreat, because meltwater influences temperature, salinity, nutrients, turbidity.

From the abstract: “The impact of ice-ocean interaction on the Southern Ocean is expected to intensify in the future. However, its influence on phytoplankton community composition remains an open question. The Antarctic Peninsula fjords offer an ideal system to understand the effect of ice-ocean forcing on phytoplankton community, providing an extreme in the spatial gradient from the glacio-marine boundary to the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) continental shelf. During two cruises conducted in December 2015 and April 2016 in Andvord Bay, we found that glacial meltwater input altered surface salinity, promoting shallow mixed layers, and enriched surface waters in dissolved iron and nitrate. The three major groups of phytoplankton fueled by glacial input were: cryptophytes, diatoms, and a group of unidentified small flagellates.”

Read the study in the journal Science Direct here.

Andvord Bay, Antarctica (Source: WikiCommons/David Stanley).

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Fogo Island’s Icebergs

Photo Friday: The 2020 Greenland Melt Season is Underway

Daily updates have resumed for the 2020 Greenland melt season, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), based in Boulder, Colorado, announced last month. The open-access information is available for those interested on the NSIDC website for the April through October melt season. The Greenland Ice Sheet Today data collection contains daily, monthly, and annual melt areas for the Greenland Ice Sheet. The data is displayed as an interactive chart where users can select years to compare back to 1979.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The green plot line below represents the 2019 melt year. According to the NSIDC, melting on the Greenland ice sheet for 2019 was the seventh-highest since 1978, behind 2012, 2010, 2016, 2002, 2007, and 2011.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The Greenland ice sheet data is derived from passive microwave sensors, which project data onto a 25-kilometer equal-area grid. Ice monitoring gained a powerful new tool with the launch of ICESat-2 in the fall of 2018. The orbiter uses a laser altimeter to produce imagery with astounding resolution. According to NASA, “With 10,000 laser pulses per second, this fast-shooting laser technology allows ATLAS to take measurements every 28 inches along the satellite’s path.”

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A Personal Reflection on a Himalayan COVID Experience in Queens

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Q & A with Artist Activist Diane Burko

Roundup: Coronavirus Update from Peru, Tajikistan

Despite coronavirus cases in the US approaching 1.2 million this week, the governors of many American states allowed stay-at-home orders to expire. Protests incited by quarantine-fatigue, economic hardship, and in some cases, encouraged by the president, have ratcheted up pressure on governors to reopen economies. Meanwhile, many nations are seeing a steep upward trajectory in the virus’ exponential spread, including the glacier nations of Peru and Tajikistan.

In Peru, a mother carried her three-year-old child, who died in her arms. She had brought him to Lima to seek medical treatment, but then returned to the highlands in the country’s interior.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there are more than 45,000 confirmed cases in Peru, with more than 1,200 dead. People who return to the highlands from Lima have to quarantine.

El Informante Perú reports 47 prisoners and four employees tested positive for coronavirus in the prison in Huaraz, in the Cordillera Blanca.

Tajikistan, a mountainous country in the Pamirs of Central Asia, had seemed to largely avoid coronavirus impacts until reports of cases recently surfaced. Though Johns Hopkins University reports just 230 cases and three deaths there, some of the tweets below suggest a more complicated picture emerging.

On April 30, the Daily Sabah reported Tajikistan detected its first 15 cases.

Overcrowding was reported at the country’s National Medical Center (Karobolo hospital). On May 2, one Twitter user reported the mother of a popular Tajik activist was denied care.

A tweet by Tajik Culture on May 2 reports “Unfortunately, the pandemic situation in Tajikistan is getting worse.”

On May 3, a medical student in Dushanbe, the capital city and the country’s largest population center, reported a rapid spread of coronavirus.

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Video of the Week: Measuring Mass Balance on an Austrian Glacier

Video of the Week: Measuring Mass Balance on an Austrian Glacier

If the overall health of a glacier is determined by its yearly mass balance measurement––the gain and loss of a glacier’s ice––then a mass balance measurement is like an annual visit to the doctor for a physical examination. In the case of glaciers, the doctor comes to you. In this week’s Video of the Week, the annual checkup for Mullwitzkees, a glacier in East Tyrol in the Austrian Alps, was performed by a team which included 27-year old Andreas Gschwentner, an earth science master’s student at the University of Innsbruck. Gschwentner’s work is part of a long term glacier mass balance monitoring program supported by the Institute for Mountain Research in Innsbruck since 1963.

Mullwitzkees is a glacier in the Venediger Group, the most glaciated mountains in the High Tauern. The overall health of Mullwitzkees has been “close to equilibrium” since monitoring of the glacier began in 2006––though researchers recorded a negative average mass balance over the first decade of monitoring. The Mullwitzkees project is headed by glaciologists Martin Stocker-Waldhuber and Andrea Fischer, who note that Mullwitzkees’ health is highly variable year to year, largely dependent on snowfall received and the intensity of the melting season. In the 2013-2014 winter, for example, the glacier actually gained mass only to be immediately followed by the largest recorded mass loss the subsequent year.

View this post on Instagram

How is mass balance measured? Part 1 . . Measurement of mass gain (accumulation) verse mass loss (ablation) on glaciers is a direct assessment of the annual budget of the glacier. It can be thought of as the ‘health of a glacier’. We dig snow pits to measure the depth and density of the snow at the end of the accumulation season. . Here I am sampling snow and removing a core of a defined volume. The person who is filming is measuring and recording the mass of the samples. With these data we calculate the density of the snow and convert it into snow water equivalent – it can be thought of as the depth of water that would theoretically result if you melted the entire snowpack instantaneously. #massbalance #glaciology #science #scicomm #glacier #sow #snowpit #fieldwork #fieldworkfriday #climatechange #mullwitzkees #großvenediger #alps #austria #tirol #osttirol #protectourwinters @karpos

A post shared by Andreas Gschwentner (@andi_gschwentner) on

Making the visit to the glacier surface and performing the measurements is an arduous task, which Gschwentner and his colleagues–– Stocker-Waldhuber, Bernd Seiser, and Andrina Janicke––make look like quite a good time. A song by the rock group Whitesnake can be heard playing over a portable speaker with the lyrics “sweet satisfaction to soothe my soul” as snow pits are being dug. Gschwentner shared the videos on his personal Instagram page.

According to Gschwentner, monitoring of Mullwitzkees includes creating a summer and winter mass balance using the direct glaciological method and the Fixed Date System. Mass balance studies using the glaciological method are based on measuring various points on a glacier directly. Within one hydrologic year (October 1 to September 30 of the following year) gains and losses in mass are measured. The measurements at different locations on the glacier are integrated and compared to the previous year to determine the change in mass.

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Not All Glaciers Retreat with Climate Change

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Photo Friday: Outlet Glaciers of Greenland

Each August a team of earth scientists and engineers make a routine maintenance trip to Greenland to keep a network of sensors functioning in one of the planet’s most inhospitable climates for humans––and electronics. Their objective is to keep The Polar Earth Observing Network (POLENET) array of autonomous instruments alive and transmitting critical GPS and seismic data. The core of the operations team that keeps the science going includes Thomas Nylen, a polar engineer, who has been making the mission-critical sojourn since 2007. He recently shared several striking images of outlet glaciers from his latest trip to Greenland on Twitter:

Outlet glacier called Sermeq Silarleq, on the west coast of Greenland (Lat: 70.7965°, Lon: -50.8054°). Photo taken 2019-08-26. Shadow is a plane contrail, which there are probably few of these days (Source: Thomas Nylen)

Nylen captured the Greenland glacier images during his team’s support of a POLENET sub-project called the Greenland Network (GNET). The initiative started in 2007, as part of a larger collaborative effort to measure changes in ice sheet mass balance and to provide observational feedback for computer models of glacial isostatic adjustment––the elastic rebound of the Earth’s crust as glaciers melt. Denmark now leads the project, though the US National Science Foundation continues to provide support.

Perdlerfiup Sermia, small outlet glacier on the west coast of Greenland (Lat: 70.9893°, Lon: -50.9291°). Photo taken 2019-08-26. Glacier is on the cusp of losing its tidewater status. A lot of rock poking out at the terminus (Source: Thomas Nylen)

Nylen is responsible for remote power and communications for polar science projects at the non-profit University NAVSTAR Consortium (UNAVCO), in Boulder, Colorado. The university-governed collective facilitates geoscience research and education using geodesy (pronounced: jee-odyssey)––the study of Earth’s shape, gravity field, and rotation. Among the seven founding universities is Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Geological Observatory, the parent academic institution of GlacierHub. The list also includes the University of Colorado, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Store Gletscher, west coast of Greenland, Aug 26, 2019 (Source: Thomas Nylen)

The elements in Greenland and Antarctica wreak havoc on sensitive equipment, but so do wildlife. “Some of the bigger issues we have are with animals,” Nylen told GlacierHub. “Especially polar bears, but also foxes and maybe Arctic wolves.”

A site in NW Greenland where a polar bear chewed the tops off of the two Iridium antennas (Source: Thomas Nylen).

“The unprecedented scale of the POLENET sensor network is allowing investigations of systems-scale interactions of the solid earth, the cryosphere, the oceans and the atmosphere,” the network’s website reads. “POLENET data is enabling new studies of the inner earth, tectonic plates, the earth’s magnetic field, climate and weather, and the solar wind, and will lead to as yet unimagined discoveries about the critical polar regions of our planet.”

GNET Site TREO. The GNSS antenna sits under a radome on a steel mast bolted to bedrock. Access is by Air Greenland helicopter. (Source: Thomas Nylen/Arcus).

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Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

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Roundup: Covid-19 Reports From Glacier Regions

In Nagar Khas, Pakistan, home of the Bualtar Glacier, a five month-old girl was discharged from the hospital after overcoming coronavirus. The Pamir Times reported that the community has reported the highest number, 80, of Covid-19 cases in the administrative territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.

In Kathmandhu, Nepal, police are using a “multi-purpose fork” device to enforce lockdown measures. Initially used for crowd control purposes, police have found the tool practical to maintain social distance while detaining people who violate stay home orders.

A story published in German media outlet Der Spiegel described how the the South Tyrol aprés-ski scene destination of Ischgl fueled the spread of coronavirus across Europe. “The Austrian winter-sports mecca of Ischgl is well known for its parties,” an excerpt for the story reads. “But after helping spread the virus across Europe, the town’s reputation is changing to one of incompetence and greed.”

On April 3, South Tyrol Der Vinschger editor-in-chief Sepp Laner wrote the following note on Sigmund Freud’s prescient description of current circumstances. The following quote is excerpted from German:

Sigmund Freud says in his work “The Future of an Illusion” (1927) that the most important task of cultural work lies in “defending ourselves against nature against the elements, the diseases and the excruciating riddle of death.” And further: “With these powers, nature stands against us, great, cruel, relentless, our weakness and helplessness before our eyes. One can take the position one likes to Freud’s thesis. He couldn’t have known about the coronavirus, but its three adjectives describe our circumstances: new, invisible and everywhere. It is certainly an enemy as well: great, cruel, relentless. We do not need to seek a new “word of the year now. Nor do we need an Unwort––an unword, a non-word.”

Sepp Laner
The town of Schlanders, South Tyrol, Italy (Source:

In an excerpt from another post by Laner, he describes the small Alpine town of Schlanders, which is home to a population which holds strongly to its traditional celebrations. The following quote is excerpted from German:

“They are not consecrated, but you are welcome take two branches to be consecrated tomorrow,”an employee told me yesterday at the fruit and vegetable business in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders…Today is Palm Sunday. The consecration in the Church will be nothing. The door is closed. The church service can be followed on the Internet. It’s kind of weird when you look at imagines the elderly in the kitchen or sitting and sitting on the computer, notebook, laptop, or even on the phone, celebrating their pastor’s service. Live streaming, it’s called. Will Easter be the same? Shortly after noon a consecrated olive branch came to me, given by a woman who was going home by bike…people are looking for churches during the time of coronavirus, or chapels if they are open, for a short, lonely prayer. One entry in the visitor book at the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Laas read “Please, o Virgin, make this time pass quickly. Thanks.” This entry expresses what we have all been seeing for weeks wish: an early end to this disaster, this pandemic and all with it related suffering, hardships, problems and difficulties…The current measures to contain the coronavirus remind me of the time when we as children several decades ago helped fight the potato beetle infestation. In the time before sprays were used, we looked up and down the rows for days under every leaf of potato plants, collected the beetles and crushed them…in the end we won the fight.”

Sepp Laner

A report by the Union Bank of Switzerland has concluded the transfer from air to rail will be greater still once the present Covid-19 situation ends, citing an increase in climate awareness. “The report found that consumers and governments were becoming ‘more climate aware’, with the Covid-19 outbreak revealing in industrialised countries ‘what clean air means’.” Glacier regions have noted the cleaner air and better visibility––in some areas views not seen in decades were exposed.

In Ecuador, Indigenous communities in Chimborazo came down from higher elevations to the city of Riobamba to bring gifts of potatoes, beans, and milk. Residents in need of support can be seen in the video lined up wearing face masks and holding bags to receive the bulk distribution.

In Washington State, GoSkagit reported the increasing need for food is being felt statewide. “Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday the launch of a new program, the WA Food Fund, and pleaded for financial donations from those who are able,” the article said. In the town of Concrete, the local emergency food bank has created a call list to ensure regulars and vulnerable community members are taken care of as many have decided venturing out for food carries too great a risk to health.

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Photo Friday: Coronavirus Shutdown Brings Clean Air, Clear Mountain Views

The Covid-19 pandemic is creating undeniably miserable conditions for human populations, with the worst impacts likely still to come for many regions. It is unclear what the virus’ long-term climate legacy will be. But if the 2008 recession is any indication of how governments will respond, economic stimulus plans, like the ones being rolled out by the US government, will likely surge carbon emissions and make climate action all the more difficult to attain in the short time that the climate emergency demands to avoid catastrophic and irreversible warming.

For the moment, however, emissions are dropping as a result of the ‘stay home’ order issued by world leaders. Waterways are cleaner and air quality improvements are detectable from space. Geoscientists say that seismic indicators, which can normally detect the thrum of human activity, are so quiet that the creaking of some potentially dangerous faults may be detected better than ever. In the Northern Hemisphere, people are wondering if the birds this spring are especially loud, or if it’s just that human pace has slowed enough to notice.

Amid the devastation wrought by coronavirus, some observers have taken notice of the co-benefits of the shutdown––particularly those in areas where there was once a view obscured by air pollution. The following tweets show the elation of people in glacier regions with clean air and clear views of glacierized peaks:

Preliminary estimates by Carbon Brief suggest 2020 could be the largest ever single-year drop in carbon dioxide emissions––1,600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2)––four percent of the world’s 2019 total.

In India, residents report seeing the stars for the first time in years and a daytime sky hue of blue not seen in decades.

The Weather Network said a view of the Himalayan mountain chain’s Dhauladhar range is a rarity in country with a documented air quality problem. “Never seen Dhauladar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar..never could imagine that’s possible,” said one Twitter user. People reported visibility of the mountains from 200 kilometers away.

In Balkumari, Nepal, empty roads and the resulting clear air opened spectacular views of the Himalayas.

In Pakistan, the mountains of Kashmir were visible from more than 100 kilometers, a sight residents reported not seeing in three decades.

The skies are bluer than usual, American meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus recently noted for The Correspondent. The coronavirus pandemic is nothing to root for, as many have pointed out, but Holthaus noted the disease has made “an indictment of the status quo.”

His comment points to the deeper issue of environmental justice. “Millions of people die from air pollution every year, and that is absolutely not inevitable,” Holthaus said. In the US, areas of more intense air pollution are being linked to a higher Covid-19 serious infection and death rate––the same zones inhabited by greater concentrations of people of color. The New York Times reported that the cited study “could have significant implications for how public health officials choose to allocate resources like ventilators and respirators as the coronavirus spreads.” It also has dire implications for communities around the world with poor air quality as the disease spreads.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated air pollution is being correlated to a higher Covid-19 rate of serious infection and death. Data indicates there is a statistically significant link between the two, not a direct correlation.

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Video of the Week: Ice Fall at Chenega Glacier

In this week’s Video of the Week, Australian Geographic photographer and conservationist Chris Bray captures a spectacular ice fall at Alaska’s Chenega Glacier in the Fall of 2019. “Wait for the end, it all comes down!” said Bray in his Instagram caption. “It was so explosively powerful we could feel it in our chests!” In the slow motion video, startled seabirds can be seen evacuating their forage zone at the glacier’s face.

Chenega is a 12-mile (19-kilometer) long tidewater glacier in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A study which looked at the terminus position of 50 Alaska tidewater glaciers from 1948-2012 found Chenega was the lone glacier to not advance or retreat significantly. It is not clear whether the glacier has begun to retreat in the eight years after the study was completed, but once retreat begins it’s hard to stop. “The retreat phase of a tidewater glacier can be triggered by changes in climate,” the study’s authors wrote. “Once retreat is initiated, the glacier’s behavior is only weakly influenced by climate and geometry becomes a primary driver of behavior.”

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

An April 2019 study published 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, with Alaskan glaciers being the largest contributors. “Awesome to witness but sad to see more and more rock exposed every year at my favorite glacier as the face retreats more and more,” Bray said, adding the tag #globalwarming.

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Roundup: COVID-19 Glacier Regions Update and a Glacier Hazard In Peru

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.

Oregon Public Radio science and environment editor Ed Jahn encouraged followers to join in a calming virtual road trip through the Cascades, which includes an excursion inside Mount Hood’s glacier ice caves and an education in bioluminescent snow algae on Mount Baker. Elsewhere in the US, tourists are being blamed for transporting the virus to glacier region ski towns like Vail, Colorado.

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.

Public perception of trust in government response to the COVID-19 pandemic around the world was mixed, according to a survey conducted by an international team academics in 12 different countries. On the chart below, the closer to “1” indicates higher trust. Many glacier nations were in the middle to bottom half of the spectrum. Notably, American trust in its government’s response is trailed only by Russia and Venezuela.

Major Glacier Hazard Event in Cusco, Peru

On April 4, Peruvian newspaper Agencia 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.

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Are US Glacier Counties Complying With Social Distancing?

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.

(Source: Unacast)

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”. 

Source: Unacast

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.”

Crowds of greater than 10 people within 6 feet of one another on the Angels Landing Trail on Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune via Avery Sloss/ National Parks Service)

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”.

Mount Shasta, California from Interstate 5 (Source: Wikicommons)

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.”

Source: Unacast

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 Times reported 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. 

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Glacier State Congressmembers Think of a Green New Deal

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Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition

COVID-19 in Glacier Regions Update: Latin America Responds, Italy Uses Drones to Enforce Quarantine, and the US Copes

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.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Roundup: COVID-19 Glacier Regions Update, Some US National Parks Close, Mines in the Peruvian Andes, and 2020 Research Put On Ice

Roundup: COVID-19 in Glacier Regions

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts