“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.”
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.
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.”
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 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 glaciersto 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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 desertification of Mongolia, brought about by the onset of human-caused climate crisis, 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.”
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.
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.”
“Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”
“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.
In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”
Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland
“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”
Robin Bell is a renowned geophysicist, the natural science which concerns itself with the physical processes and properties of the Earth. She has accumulated many accolades for her discoveries in Antarctica and Greenland, which include sub-glacial lakes, rivers that flow uphill, and a volcano beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet.
Bell is the current president of the American Geophsyical Union. The AGU is an international organization, which includes 62,000 scientists from 144 countries, making her the de facto top earth scientist in the world. The sensitive polar regions Bell studies are warming quickly, a symptom of climate change wrought by emissions from mankind’s activities. She is acutely aware of her personal contributions to the problem; her fuel-intensive polar research and a demanding travel schedule.
For many Americans, even those convinced of the science, climate change is a problem requiring collective action and thus excuse themselves from making personal sacrifices to reduce their personal emissions. Some say individual efforts to curb climate change, like eating less meat or cutting down on their air travel, are largely symbolic and too small to make any meaningful impact. It is notable, however, that the world’s leading earth scientist is not allowing collective inaction to absolve her of personal responsibility.
A Profile of Robin Bell
It is a frigid winter day at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory on the Hudson River. Ice and salt still crystallize the pavement from the last storm, so Bell drove her silver Prius to work. I follow the sound of laughter on the first floor of the Oceanography building and run into Bell at the end of the hall. She offers me loose tea and invites her dog, Nara, a fluffy white Samoyed, to join us in her office overlooking the river.
Bell lives ten miles from the research center where she has worked to advance polar science over the past 35 years. According to Bell, the fossil fuel that supplements her hybrid vehicle will be her largest personal carbon expenditure until her flight to Asia later this year. In better weather, she cycles, or rides her electric bicycle.
Bell talked me through the weeks of her 2018 carbon emissions, which she tracked and charted as a line graph on her computer. She lamented the flight to Mexico that caused the line to spike and noted where it leveled out during carbon-negligible weeks where Bell and her husband, environmental law professor Karl Coplan, were sailing. “Nine tons. I’m still below average, but boy this year I’m going to blow it through the roof with travel.”
Bell’s role as the head of the AGU demands her presence at engagements in countries far from her home base in New York. But she will plan her trips with the precision of a military movement, combining multiple trans-Pacific trips to fulfill her presidential duties and to visit her daughter in California, into one condensed itinerary.
Her presidency, which began in 2019, comes as international community wrestles with how to quickly decarbonize the world economy. Staving off the worst effects of climate change requires immediate global-scale reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, the world’s largest per capita emitter, has sidelined itself from participating in the global effort, handicapped by its own recalcitrance.
Amid the political paralysis in America, debate has emerged among environmentalists and green-leaning citizens between individual versus collective action to curb emissions.
“I just want to set an example. If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.” – Robin Bell
In a December 2017 essay, David Roberts, a prominent climate and energy journalist for Vox, wrote “Go forth and be green. You will be happier and healthier. But do not mistake it for a solution to climate change. Only collective action and collective ingenuity can save us.”
Roberts’ view exposes a sentiment that is ubiquitous, even among many who study or write about earth science: that change is necessary on a scale far greater than could possibly be affected by any personal sacrifice, so why bother?
Roberts continued the thought in a recent Twitter thread: “Climate change is not an “environmental problem.” It’s far deeper than that. Solutions require basic changes in technology, law, and infrastructure, none of which is affected by individual behavior…Personal asceticism is largely irrelevant.”
The world’s top earth scientist disagrees.
“If we do not start acting like we care about our planet future’s then we can never move toward being a sustainable species,” Bell told me. “We cannot simply blame others and wait for some policy solution. All actions matter. Engaging all the strategies from individual action to carbon sequestration is essential to keep our planet, our home habitable.”
Living life in a manner that comports with her field of study is essential for Bell: “I just want to set an example,” she said. “If I am telling people this is an issue, I should be acting like it’s an issue.”
Bell usually stops by the farmer’s market on her way to the office. Buying from her local growers is an act of community for her. Bell and Coplan also belong to a community-supported agriculture group, whereby members purchase a share of the harvest of local farms to distribute the risk of farming.
Bell and Coplan have adopted a similar strategy for home energy supply, buying into community solar power. “It’s kind of like a CSA for solar,” Bell said. For Bell and Coplan, it is a work-around strategy, since their home is in the woods and shaded much of the day by tall trees. “We haven’t been willing to cut all the down trees that keep our house cool to get better solar.”
The pair ascribes to a Mediterranean diet; a mostly plant-based approach to food. They keep a garden, too. Bell primarily does the perennials and tends the bees, while Coplan oversees the annuals. Coplan also maintains a sustainable living blog and is the author of the forthcoming book “Live Sustainably Now: A Carbon-Sustainable Vision of the American Dream.” Last fall The Hill ran an op ed where Coplan urged Americans to make fundamental lifestyle changes, “there is no argument for inaction…collective action starts with individual action.”
Their shared passion is sailing, a wind-powered hobby. Bell and Coplan constructed a boat together while they were students at Middlebury College in Vermont. With their two children, they have completed multiple transAtlantic voyages and have planned a circumnavigation of the globe. They also maintain a cabin upstate, completely off the grid, ski-in ski-out, with plug-ins to charge their vehicle. “It’s just like a boat,” Bell says. “The batteries are in the floor. It’s a composting toilet. Just a wood stove for heat.”
I asked Bell about the last time she used a plastic bag. Expecting a figure on the order of decades, she replied, “I still read the regular old paper and they come in plastic bags when they are hand-delivered to your house.” Bell is hyper-aware of her impact, but she is not ascetic in her lifestyle. Supporting print journalism, for Bell, is a concession which outweighs the plastic cost. “On my list of things to worry about, plastic bag use isn’t my highest. My carbon use is. I’m much more worried about that. People get worried about plastic straws and don’t have a bigger vision of what their impact is on the planet.”
On fellow earth science leaders, Bell said, “We should be showing that we are taking sustainability seriously. Very few people are being reflective. Maybe people have done something like dropped beef. Some of my favorite friends here, that’s what they’ve done. But they still fly to an island several times a year.”
Bell proudly points to the new AGU headquarters, the flagship building of science, as an example of what can be accomplished on a macro level. It is the first renovated net-zero building in Washington, DC. It uses rooftop solar, a green wall, auto-tinting glass, and a sewer heat exchange system to offset the energy it uses. “It’s showing what you can do as an individual. This is how we start to say what the future can look like and have it be a positive view.”
Mendenhall Glacier, near Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, is one of the most visited and oft-photographed glaciers in the United States. Kevin Lyons, an Alaska-based adventurer, uses his lens to offer a fresh angle on Mendenhall. Lyons is a self-described “photography enthusiast with a passion for travel and the outdoors.”
Dirt and cryoconite deposits on the ice surface inhibit the glacier’s ability to reflect solar radiation. Melt pools form on the ice surface, accelerating ablation by creating pores that allow water to penetrate the glacier.
Mendenhall’s retreat is well-documented, partly thanks to time lapse imagery provided by scientific cameras, like the one pictured below. The 2012 film, Chasing Ice, highlighted Mendenhall’s retreat to effect of global warming on the planet’s glaciers.
Mendenhall’s famous ice caves, pictured below, have collapsed since Lyons visited in 2014. A Frequently Asked Question on the U.S. Forest Service website addresses the rumor that ice caves exist at Mendenhall: “There have been several ice caves in past years, but the cave that appears in many recent internet photos has collapsed and disappeared. It was located along the west flank of the glacier but the ice has completely melted out of that area and no other caves are present.”
An indirect benefit for visitors and residents of Juneau is Lake Mendenhall, which did not exist prior to 1930. The lake formed due to excessive melt. The tongue of the glacier is expected to retreat to the point where it no longer terminates in the lake itself. According to Lyons, when the ice surface freezes just right “the hockey games out there are epic.”
This week’s video digests the sobering findings of the Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment. The montage was published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), one of the institutions responsible for compiling the report. As GlacierHub reported last week, the assessment is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers.
The video describes the effects of climate change on the Third Pole, as the Himalaya is often called, including the rapid melting of glaciers. It conveys second-order effects on downstream human populations and ecology, which depend heavily on glacial runoff to support the region’s rivers. The major watersheds of southern Asia are fed by the melt from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, which supports water, food, and energy needs for nearly two billion people.
GlacierHub also reported on the threat to hydropower development in the region posed by climate change.
The video appears during a week in which climate change received significant coverage in the United States, owing to the rollout of the Green New Deal proposal and a skeptical tweet about climate change from President Trump.
The video underscores the need for immediate action to stave off the worst effects of climate change in the sensitive region. In it, Asuncion Lera St. Clair, senior principal scientist at the Climate Action Program, suggests the comprehensive assessment “might be the beginning of a process of uniting the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas around what the science says needs to happen.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced February 7 a resolution laying out the broad brushstrokes of a so-called Green New Deal. The announcement comes after the November 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives. The Green New Deal framework aims to address the polarizing issue of climate change in the United States.
The resolution proposes a multiplicity of initiatives, the most transformative of which is the decarbonization of the US energy system. It also aims to add jobs and boost the economy while addressing the social consequences that come with such a reformation.
While the idea of a Green New Deal has existed for a decade, Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on a massive public-sector effort to address climate change. The idea has gained traction among a wide array of Congressional Democrats and most leading Democratic presidential contenders.
“The Green New Deal Resolution’s purpose is to define the scope of a climate solution,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “We’ve defined the scope and where we want to go. Now let’s assess and collaborate on projects.”
The Green New Deal resolution references the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 special report on global warming of 1.5°C and calls for the cessation of US fossil fuel use by 2030.
The deteriorating state of the world’s glaciers has framed in many ways perceptions of climate change. An NPR news article on the Green New Deal led with a reference to the hollowing Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, whose collapse might raise sea levels by more than half a meter. Thwaites received recent attention in the news as it perches precariously on a sill in West Antarctica. Glacier retreat also featured prominently in the IPCC 1.5°C report, the US Fourth National Climate Assessment, and the recent Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment.
During the run-up to the 2016 Democratic primary, GlacierHub found that Sen. Bernie Sanders scored two percentage points higher, on average, in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state of Wyoming.
Glaciers are part of the iconography of the American West and glacier-related tourism is central to the economies of glacier regions. In 2017, Glacier National Park in Montana drew over one million visitors in the month of July alone. The National Parks Service reported Alaska’s parks, which are largely glaciated, added $1.3 billion to that state’s economy in 2018.
Given the incentive to preserve the economic and ecological benefits of glaciers for US glacier regions, GlacierHub has surveyed support for the Green New Deal among glacier-state Senators and members of the House that represent glacier districts.
Of the twenty senators from the ten glaciated states in the US, only three have officially stated their support: Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and California’s Kamala Harris, a Democrat who also announced her candidacy for president.
In the House,18 members represent districts with glaciers—and just six have announced their support.
Rep. Joe Neguse (CO-02), whose district contains all 14 named glaciers in Colorado, co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. “There is no longer a debate about whether climate change is real, the only conversation left is how we reverse its course,” Neguse said in a press release. “We do not have time to wait. We are the generation that will heal our planet.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (CA-02), whose mostly rural district includes the glaciers and icefields of Trinity Alps Wilderness, also signed on.
In the Pacific Northwest, glaciers and political lines get complicated. The representative of the district that includes Seattle, Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), is in support of the Green New Deal. Seattle lies within view of Mount Rainier, a glacier peak in the Cascade Range, though the district itself is glacier-less. But in one of the more vexing nonconformities, the representative of the district containing the glacier peak itself, Democrat Kim Schrier (WA-08), has not announced support. Washington is the most-glaciated state in the continental US, and yet none of the representatives of glacier districts—of which three out of four are represented by Democrats—have endorsed the Green New Deal. Representatives from those three Democratic districts did not provide GlacierHub with comment.
While Washington state was the most confounding, perhaps no region exhibited political division more starkly than Oregon. District boundaries in Oregon run along the spine of the Cascade Range, effectively splitting glaciated peaks between districts. OR-3 and OR-4 lie on the west side of the mountains. Representatives for those districts have endorsed the Green New Deal. OR-1, in western Oregon, also endorsed but it was excluded from GlacierHub’s analysis since the district lacks any glaciers. But the representative for OR-02, which comprises the entirety of eastern Oregon, from its southern border to the north, has not. The district, which is rural and reliably Republican, has been represented by Greg Walden since 1998. On Walden’s website, he appears draped in an American flag, superimposed in front of Oregon’s glaciated Three Sisters peaks.
Walden is the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Asked about the lack of support for a Green New Deal, Walden’s communications director referred GlacierHub to his remarks at an event last week where Walden held a glass jar of ash as a prop and harped on the need for better forest management to combat climate change.
America’s glaciers are in a state of retreat. “It’s inevitable that we will lose them all over the next few decades,” Daniel Fagre, a US Geological Survey scientist, told the Guardian. “The Colorado glaciers started melting before Montana’s and while there are larger glaciers in the Pacific Northwest that will hold on longer, the number vanishing will steadily grow until none are left.”
For now, political division in the US is obstructing efforts to address climate change. Barbara Brower, a geography professor at Portland State University, commented on Oregon’s divided support: “What could begin to change hearts and minds is growing awareness downstream from glaciers—in those intermountain red states—that no glaciers means no glacier-mediated summer streamflow.”
Before his appearance at the UN, Kurtyka joined Columbia faculty and students for a round-table discussion, hosted by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) and co-sponsored by the Committee on Global Thought. Kurtyka gave opening remarks on the achievements of COP24, including a detailing of the challenge of forming international consensus. A discussion followed, which was moderated by Jonathan Elkind, CGEP Fellow and Senior Research Scholar. The conversation centered on climate change issues, including climate-related disasters on international peace and security and the recently held COP24, which is the 24th annual meeting of signatories to the UN Convention on Climate Change.
Kurtyka, who presided over COP24, gained diplomatic fame for his triumphant leap off the table at the closing ceremony in Katowice. COP24 came down to an 11th hour resolution, as many recent COPs of significance, like COP15 in Copenhagen and COP21 in Paris, have tended to do. The result was the so-called Katowice Rulebook, which operationalizes the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Kurtyka praised the Rulebook, which he said “gave life to the Paris Agreement,” providing clarity on how, when, and according to which formula, all the countries of the world must act to achieve their pledged goals.
Central to the Katowice Rulebook is the concept of a “just transition,” whereby countries address social consequences of their shifts toward low-carbon economies.
In high mountain regions, glacial melt is a source for hydropower, a crucial component for many countries to achieve clean energy goals. Runoff from glaciers is also a chief supply for irrigation and clean drinking water. Tension exists in some glacier-fed basins, such as the Indus River, which lies between India and Pakistan—two countries where deep-seated animosity runs high. As glaciers near peak melt in coming decades, these pressures are unlikely to ease.
Kurtyka acknowledged the existential threat climate change poses and its potential to “create inflammatory ground where conflict can breed.”
A GlacierHub reporter asked Kurtyka about the challenges facing countries transitioning to renewable energy, particularly those dependent on meltwater from glaciers. “We have right now more climate and environment refugees than war refugees in the world,” Kurtyka replied. “With big rivers being exhausted, and also polluted enormously, we should expect, unluckily, lots of drama in this regard. Whether we can do something about it, I hope so. It might be extremely painful.”
The following day, at the UN Security Council, on which Poland currently holds a rotating seat, Kurtyka discussed tools for defusing potential climate-induced instabilities. He stressed the importance of conflict anticipation and prevention by equipping nations with early warning information gathering systems, aimed especially at states predisposed to such risks. One such exposed country is the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh representative, Kanat Tumysh, warned of his country’s increasing vulnerability due to glacial melt, which threatens to exhaust the region’s irrigation and drinking water by 2050.
At the meeting, Pavel Kabat, Chief Scientist at the World Meteorological Organization noted “the short-term effects of leaving glacier melt unchecked include increased flooding.” Kabat added: “The long-term threats will affect water supplies for millions of people.” The WMO chief’s comments marked the first time the international organization has briefed the Security Council on climate and extreme weather issues.
In 2017, a UN Security Council resolution recognized the adverse effect of climate change on political stability. Addressing the threat, though, has been typically left to other bodies like the UN Development Program.
The UN Security Council climate security meeting marks a turning point in the evolution of the way the international body regards climate change. No longer is climate change perceived as a concern limited to development and well-being, but is increasingly viewed as an immediate threat to peace and stability. At the meeting, the WMO chief announced that a position had been established at UN Headquarters for a dedicated WMO officer, an indication of the Security Council’s seriousness. The officer will provide expert information to UN strategic decision makers.