Video of the Week: Glacier Communities Grapple with Pandemic Response

While the usual GlacierHub Video of the Week content––like videos of ice cores being dropped into Antarctic bore holes and swims across supraglacial lakes––might be a welcome reprieve from news of the pandemic impacting human societies around the world, looking away from the moment feels irresponsible, especially as the novel coronavirus rapidly spreads among glacier communities. In this week’s videos we show glimpses of glacier communities on three different continents as they grapple with the response to the pandemic; tense discussions in a hospital in Ecuador, an empty market in Pakistan, and the public health response in one US Pacific Northwest glacier county.

The first video, tweeted by the Pamir Times, features a shuttered market in Pakistani Karakoram, a region which is home to some of the world’s highest and most glaciated peaks, several of which are visible in the background. What would apparently be a busy marketplace is deserted––with two men in conversation, little traffic, and a passerby wearing a surgical mask––in a scene indicative of the economic cost of the disease to glacier communities.

Below is a recording of a confrontation in a hospital in Ecuador near Chimborazo, a 6,268 meter (20,564 foot) glaciated stratovolcano in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. The dispute is over where to treat coronavirus patients––whether to bring infected patients from around Chimborazo to the hospital in Ambato (which has better facilities, but at the time had no COVID-19 patients) or to the nearer hospital in Riobamba, the capital city of the province.

The tweet reads (translated from Spanish): “Yesterday the zonal director of District 3 of the MSP [Ministry of Public Health] contradicted directives and logic by bringing infected patients from Chimborazo, when there was a local hospital that could tend to the patients…this is the beating he received.”

In Skagit County, Washington, which extends from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and includes the glacier-clad Mount Baker, there have been 48 confirmed cases of COVID-19, five hospitalizations, and one death. Skagit County’s Public Health Director, Jennifer Johnson, said success will be defined by how the community responds to the challenge. She announced the launch of a video talk show “designed to share the latest thinking, understanding, and advice on how to manage this emergency as individuals, parents, leaders, and as a caring community.” To curb misinformation, concern, and confusion, she said the series will cover topics including social distancing, testing, personal preparedness, and the emotional impacts and challenges of “keeping family safe, healthy, happy, and occupied.”

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

Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

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

Last week GlacierHub compiled news from glacier regions impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has prompted governments around the world to limit movement of people in order to slow the spread of the disease. In the intervening seven days, the global situation has escalated. Glacier regions continue to be affected, glacier lands––including the US National Parks––are restricting access, and 2020 field research hangs in the balance.

Global Glacier Region COVID-19 Update

Italy has reached nearly 60,000 cases of COVID-19 and, with more than 5,000 deaths, surpassed China’s mortality total. In the Alps province of South Tyrol, 679 people have tested positive. The province’s website reads: “All production activities that are not essential for life will be closed until April 3.”

The weekly news magazine Der Vinschger serves the Vinschgau, the upper portion of the Etschtal, a valley in South Tyrol, Italy, surrounded by some of the highest and most glaciated peaks of the central Alps. It usually reports on government programs, economic developments, local sports teams, and similar topics. It has taken a more somber note with the pandemic.

“The situation is serious,” a March 17 story began. “The numbers and headlines roll over every hour. And we are all right in the middle. “Surreal” was the only word that a merchant uttered when he put the key of his business in his pocket on March 12th at 9 a.m. in the pedestrian zone in Schlanders. The day before, I watched an elderly woman in front of the closed old people’s home trying to reach her husband on the phone. She didn’t succeed. Their call to at least bring him to the window so that they could see each other was initially unheard of. Almost everyone is currently experiencing such and similar situations. Not only do all economic consequences and material emergencies, into which many “simple” people are thrown, weigh heavily, but loneliness within their own four walls also weighs heavily for many. Staying at home is the only thing we can and should all do at the moment. Because we do not know the “enemy” exactly and because we do not (yet) have weapons against him, there is only one thing left: to protect ourselves and our fellow human beings by strictly adhering to the guidelines with which a further spread of the virus can be prevented as far as possible.”

Most of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have declared states of emergency, while some remain without any cases––albeit somewhat dubiously––and have carried on with celebrations like Novruz spring holiday on March 21 in Tajikistan, where thousands gathered in close proximity in major cities.

Greenland has “a few cases” and Antarctica remains the only continent without a confirmed COVID-19, where efforts are underway to keep it that way.

In the US, Washington Governor Jay Inslee outlined the stark realities of the coronavirus outbreak in his state at a March 16 press briefing, including the temporary statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants and recreational facilities. Tacoma, a mid-sized city south of Seattle near the glaciated stratovolcano Mount Rainier, announced the suspension of disconnection of power and water for residents behind on payments.

Uneven COVID-19 Messaging from US National Parks

Signals from glaciated and glacier-formed US National Parks have been inconsistent––ranging from open with no acknowledgement of any global pandemic, to open with modified operations, like waived entry fees and no services, to others which closed their gates altogether. A brief rundown:

Near the Pacific Northwest COVID-19 hotspot of Seattle, Mount Rainier National Park waived its entry fee and as of March 21, was still open for “self-guided, dispersed recreation and auto touring.” In Alaska, Denali National Park closed its visitor centers and suspended the 2020 climbing season, breaking with their no-refund policy by offering alpinists partial compensation. Also in Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park appears to be business as usual––the park’s website showed no indication of anything amiss. California’s Yosemite National Park closed on March 20. Meanwhile, in Montana Glacier National Park modified its operations but did not close––instead the park is waiving fees and continuing to allow overnight backcountry permits. Yellowstone National Park is also open to visitors but “most facilities are closed.”

Mines in Peru Close or Reduce Operations

Antamina, a large copper and zinc mine in the Peruvian Andes, has reduced its operations. Under the 15-day national emergency declared in Peru on 15 March, enterprises other than essential services have been closed, including many mines. However, Antamina received an exception because of its critical importance to the national economy.

Though internal travel in Peru has largely halted during this emergency, Antamina received permission to allow workers in high-risk categories (over 60 years old, or with medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension) to return home. The mine has set up plans to operate within social distancing guidelines, though these may be difficult to implement in some specific work settings. Some employees, largely office staff, will be allowed to work remotely. This mine, located below the heavily glaciated Cordillera Blanca, has received many complaints about its negative impacts on water quality.

COVID-19 Impacts on Research

Last week Nature reported an explosion of new research, beginning in mid-January, on coronavirus and the disease that it causes. As of March 12, searches for ‘novel coronavirus’, ‘ncov’, ‘COVID-19’ and ‘SARS-CoV-2’ returned results for more than 900 papers, preprints, and preliminary reports.

Cryosphere field research, on the other hand, is on ice for the time being.

Norway-based glaciologist Miriam Jackson messaged GlacierHub, stating “A planned trip to the subglacial laboratory under Svartisen, that had been delayed several times due to bad weather, is postponed indefinitely.” Jackson’s mission to Svartisen, on the western Norway ice cap, was to download data, some of which is located in water tunnels only accessible in winter.

Jackson said another planned trip, to Nepal with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, is delayed until the autumn. “The problem with a lot of glacier fieldwork is the travel required to get there. If it was possible to magically be transported to a glacier, there would be much less of a problem,” she said.


Research climatologist William Colgan said that his team has canceled its 2020 field season in Greenland, “Postponing to 2021 would be any way to think about it, I suppose.” Colgan told Glacierhub that Greenland closing its border last week has had a ripple effect on aircraft charters to the country, pushing them into mid-May at the very least, since the pilots who fly teams to field sites are unable to get into the country for their month-long rotation.

“Right now, the National Science Foundation’s first flight period is cancelled, and the University of Copenhagen has cancelled its entire East Greenland Ice Core Project season. Lots of smaller projects like us are scrambling for fall-back plans for critical 2020 work or just cancelling 2020 work entirely” Colgan said. “It’s tough to find an upside.” His team is now scrambling to find a later season solution to install the most critical instruments––GPS stations to resurvey ice velocities first measured in the 1950s––they had planned to deploy this Spring near Jakobshavn Isbræ.

If the COVID-19 impacts are any indication, 2020 might be a bumper year for remote sensing research.

Read More On GlacierHub:

Roundup: COVID-19 in Glacier Regions

Photo Friday: The Drygalski Ice Tongue

Video of the Week: “Return to Natural––Documenting the Tasman Glacier”

Photo Friday: The Drygalski Ice Tongue

Ice tongues are the oddballs of the cryosphere. Extending roughly 70 kilometers (43 miles) into the sea, the Drygalski Ice Tongue, located in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound, is the planet’s largest such feature. The National Snow and Ice Data Center define an ice tongue (sometimes called a glacial tongue) as an extension of a glacier or ice stream projecting seaward, usually afloat. Functionally, Drygalski is the floating end of the David Glacier, which reaches the sea from a valley in the Prince Albert Mountains of Victoria Land. Ranging from 14-24 kilometers (nine to 15 miles) wide, it is relatively narrow compared to its length, which distinguishes it from ice shelves and other floating ice masses.

The phallic shape sticks out like a sore thumb in a satellite image––or like a drying, cracking schmear of spackling. It is a perplexing ephemera whose very existence is under constant threat by belligerent icebergs released from the nearby Ross Ice Shelf. The massive icebergs roam the ocean freely, crashing into more fragile things, like ice tongues, and breaking them.

Drygalski Ice Tongue, Scott Coast, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica – February 6th, 2020 image is about 181 kilometers wide (Image: Pierre Markuse)

It’s easy to root for Drygalski’s survival, especially given the warming circumstances. Scientists estimate the ice tongue has been around for some 4,000 years, though one can imagine the number icebergs facing Drygalski with tongue-breaking potential has never been higher. In 2005 and 2006, Drygalski was struck by icebergs from the Ross Ice Shelf, which cleaved off two 27-square mile chunks in 2005 and one 39-square mile breakage in 2006.

The image (be sure to check out the high resolution image on Flickr) is a product of the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite, which was processed and shared by Pierre Markuse on Twitter. Markuse is based in Hamm, Germany and processes images taken from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites and NASA’s Landsat orbiters. He was also responsible for the now-famous satellite image of the Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise, California in November 2018.

The iceberg C-16 collides with Drygalski ice tongue on 30 March 2006 (Source: NASA/WikiCommons).

Large exposed ice tongues are a uniquely Antarctic phenomenon. As GlacierHub explained in a recent post, Antarctic glaciers flow outwards horizontally, and continue on into the water as huge floating shelves that stretch miles out to sea. Greenland glaciers flow down the island’s mountainous sides and break into icebergs when they hit the water. This behavior is common where a glacier’s terminus is close to where it starts to float—also known as the grounding line.

“Basically when [Greenland glaciers] start to go afloat, they form icebergs as opposed to Antarctica, where in most places they go afloat they don’t break off instantaneously but they form these big long ice shelves—floating extensions,” glaciologist Paul Winberry told GlacierHub. “It’s completely different.”

Looking right down the Drygalski Ice Tongue from the air (Image: Santiago de la Peña)

In response to Markuse’s sharing of the Drygalski satellite image, polar researcher Santiago de la Peña, who studies ice sheet dynamics and surface mass balance in Greenland and Antarctica at the Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, replied with the head-on image of Drygalski featured above. He added the question, “I wonder what conditions favor the formation of such a tongue here?” The head of the Earth and Mission Science Division at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Earth Observation program, Mark Drinkwater, replied. “Cold Ross Sea shelf waters, and no warm circumpolar deep water to destabilize it,” Drinkwater said.

For more earth observations, including cryosphere images, Markuse maintains a personal blog of the images he processes. You’ll want to bookmark it.

Editor’s note: After this article was published, ESA chief Mark Drinkwater tweeted the image below: “Here’s my all-time favorite Envisat image of Drygalski ice tongue and the most spectacular Ross Sea iceberg flotilla I’ve ever reported on.” The photo features an armada of icebergs, the largest of which is the aforementioned aircraft carrier-shaped berg named B-15A, which impacted the ice tongue, shattering the tip. Iceberg B-15A measured around 295 kilometers (183 mi) long and 37 kilometers (23 mi) wide, with a surface area of 11,000 square kilometers (4,200 square miles). It holds the record for the largest iceberg in the world––bigger than the country of Jamaica––so large it even has it’s own Wikipedia page. Also wandering the Ross Sea at the time were icebergs B-15K, C-16, and B-15J.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes

Photo Friday: “Antarctica” – An Exhibit Showcasing Lamont Scientists’ Photos from the Field

Video of the Week: “Return to Natural––Documenting the Tasman Glacier”

Video of the Week: “Return to Natural––Documenting the Tasman Glacier”

This week’s Video of the Week is a short film featuring award-winning photographer and natural progressive, Chris Burkard, on a quest to take a single photograph that represents humans’ relationship with nature. The film, Return to Natural, was produced by New Zealand outdoor apparel brand, Icebreaker, who invited Burkard to the Tasman Glacier to seek and capture the photo. In that search for the right image, the film was created.

The 12-minute movie follows Burkard and his team over the course of five days as they hike, ski, boat, and fly above the Tasman, becoming increasingly intimate with the glacier. On the final day Burkard found the image he was looking for––one that would challenge peoples’ perspective of nature. “It hit me when I was taking the photo of the lake,” Burkard said.

“It was the literal open wound of a melting glacier,” Burkard said of the glacial lake, which is younger than the 34-year old photographer himself. “The lake was in fact new, only 30 years old. Created from the run-off from the ever melting glacier.”

About a year after Return to Natural was filmed, the Tasman Glacier was the site of a heartbreaking video that went viral in January when ash and soot from the Australia bushfires turned the sky orange and darkened the ice. The fallout will accelerate the melt of Tasman, which the docu-film reported is already receding 477-822 meters each year. The dire forecast for Tasman is underscored by a recent study that showed fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5 percent increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia alone.

Earlier this year GlacierHub reported on Burkard’s new book At Glacier’s End in which he and author Matt McDonald documented Iceland’s glacial rivers by air to advocate for their protection as part of a new national park covering most of the country’s interior. In the book, as with the short film, Burkard’s ‘it’s not the photo––it’s what you have to say about it’ mantra is unmistakably consistent.

“We have the potential to reduce our impact, but it starts with changing our perspective and moving to natural alternatives,” Burkard said. “We need people to re-examine their perceptions and individual choices…particularly the things that might not be so obvious.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

Video of the Week: Smoke and Ash Choke Tasman Glacier in New Zealand

Photo Friday: New Zealand’s Tasman Glacier

Roundup: COVID-19 in Glacier Regions

On February 13, GlacierHub reported on the spread of COVID-19 into the glaciated regions of Western China. At the time the disease was mostly confined to China, with smaller outbreaks beginning in Europe, including in the French Alps. In the month since, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Europe has succeeded China as the virus’ epicenter. Economies around the world are shutting down as governments urge populations to adopt social distancing as a means of slowing the novel coronavirus’ spread. GlacierHub is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in glacier regions as an increasing number of people have become infected.

The concerns for glacier regions like Western China are similar for other glaciated corners of the world; while glacier communities are generally rural and may not have as high exposure to the virus as urban areas, they are much less equipped to deal with an outbreak. “In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub, referring to Western China. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.”

The North Cascades, in the US Pacific Northwest, are one of the glacier regions where GlacierHub is monitoring the spread of coronavirus. On March 10, the first cases were reported for Whatcom and Skagit counties, which extend from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and share a border with the glacier-clad Mount Baker. On Sunday afternoon, Mount Baker Ski Area announced the temporarily closure and reassignment of its staff of more than 70 medics, nurses, flight nurses, and doctors to help provide care to the local hospital and health care community. As of March 15, there are seven confirmed cases between the two counties.

The epicenter of the outbreak in the United States is in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, where people in Seattle and surrounding communities––an area ringed by glaciated peaks––have been deeply impacted (Source: Whatcom County).

Schools in both Whatcom and Skagit counties are closed today, March 16, following the order of Washington State governor Jay Inslee to close all schools in the state. Other agencies have also taken steps to address the pandemic. Puget Sound Energy, which serves all of the two counties as well as other counties in the state, has announced that will not disconnect service during the coronavirus pandemic. It will waive late fees, and will work with customers on a payment plan and a new bill due date.

Schnalstaler Glacier in South Tyrol, Italy (Source: WikiCommons)

Italy has the highest case total outside of China. South Tyrol, a trilingual border province in the Italian Alps, has seen a surge of cases. A rash of COVID-19 confirmations have paralyzed the country––nearly 25,000 cases have been confirmed there––with a higher mortality rate than that of China, where new coronavirus cases have begun to ebb.

In neighboring Switzerland, ski resorts in the Swiss Alps abruptly shut down for the season on Friday in response to the virus. Norway and Austria have already closed resorts within their borders––a blow to the already-struggling ski industry. At present, Spain and France have the fifth and sixth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, 5,753 and 4,469 cases on March 15, according to WHO statistics. But the cases are concentrated in the largest cities. There are fewer in the Pyrenees, the high glaciated mountains that form the border between them. Cases there are increasing, though, and the future is uncertain. In Pakistani Karakoram, a remote high mountain region in Central Asia, several people have also tested positive.

The governments of China and Nepal have shut down expeditions to the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Last week Kathmandhu joined Beijing in canceling all permits to summit Everest until at least April 30, a move that halves the April-May climbing season at a minimum, and will cost the Nepali government precious millions in lost climbing fees.

Despite its proximity to Iran, few coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Caucasus region––at present, 30 cases in Georgia, 23 in Armenia, 15 in Azerbaijan. Georgia closed it border with Russia over the weekend and postponed its presidential primary from March 24 to May 19.

Greenland has reported its first case of COVID-19. Visit Greenland reported the case along with a travel advisory barring non-residents from entering. “The smaller the community in the country, the smaller the nursing clinics are and the more vulnerable the situation. That’s why we need to limit traffic around the country as much as possible”, said Bjørn Tegner Bay, chief of police in Greenland and head of the Epidemic Commission.

The novel coronavirus is poised to expose the remoteness and vulnerability of glacier communities, whose isolation cuts both ways. Though their dislocation from urban centers is an advantage in containing the spread of the virus, public health infrastructure in these regions is generally ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. For more frequent updates on COVID-19 as it impacts communities in the world’s glacier regions follow GlacierHub on Twitter.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

French Resort in the Pyrenees Sparks Debate on the Transportation of Snow to Ski Slopes by Helicopter

Photo Friday: Piedmont Glacier ‘Like Cold Honey’

If you’re a GlacierHub reader then you are likely familiar with our love for the imagery and science that resulted from more than a decade of Operation IceBridge––and our lament that the temporary program has finally been replaced by satellite. To be clear, this is a good thing––but it means that personal images from the window seat of IceBridge flights, like this week’s Photo Friday courtesy of glaciologist Mike MacFerrin, are now a thing of the past.

On March 8, MacFerrin shared a 2018 photo of a Greenlandic piedmont glacier on Twitter with the florid caption “Like cold honey spilling onto a plate.” He snapped the picture with his mobile phone, which if you look carefully, is visible in the window reflection.

Piedmont glacier, Greenland 2018 (Source: Mike McFerrin)

One of the upsides of Operation IceBridge was that it took scientists to hard-to-reach regions for observation. “It’s less impressive than if I stood on a mountainside taking the photo,” MacFerrin told GlacierHub via Twitter. “But that part of Northeast Greenland National Park is extremely remote and inaccessible otherwise.”

The mission of Icebridge was to collect data for predicting the response of the Earth’s polar ice to climate change and sea-level rise. NASA assembled the operation after an ice monitoring satellite, NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), malfunctioned in 2009. Operation Icebridge flights “bridged the gap” until the successor satellite, ICESat-2, could be launched in 2018.

A chart of Northeast Greenland National Park glaciers where the piedmont glacier image was taken (Source: Mike McFerrin).

The unnamed glacier in MacFerrin’s image is a piedmont glacier, a valley glacier which has spilled out onto relatively flat plains, spreading into bulb-like lobes––or as MacFerrin put it so poetically, like cold honey spilling onto a plate. The formation of a piedmont glacier happens when ice flows down a steep valley and spills out onto a relatively flat plain. The biggest and perhaps most famous piedmont glacier is Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier, which glaciologist Mark Fahnestock aptly described as a 1,500-square mile “large puddle of ice.”

Malaspina Glacier in Alaska is the world’s largest piedmont glacier (Source: NASA)

NASA said 2019 would be the final year of IceBridge flights, “the end of an era of airborne observations that has catalogued an Arctic that has experienced rapid change––from the rapid thinning of many Greenland ocean-terminating outlet glaciers to the continued decline of the Arctic sea ice pack in extent, snow cover and thickness.” Though IceBridge may have ended, don’t expect us to stop sharing its images anytime soon.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Alaska’s Sheridan Glacier––via Operation IceBridge

Photo Friday: NASA’s Renewed Operation IceBridge

NASA’s IceBridge Project- More Than Just a Pretty Image

Video of the Week: A Glacial Surge in Pakistan

Less than one percent of the world’s glaciers are characterized as “surge-type” glaciers. The Karakoram in Central Asia––the world’s second highest mountain range––has one of the planet’s densest concentration of surging glaciers, where the Shishpar Glacier in northern Pakistan is moving at a rate of five to seven meters per day and is threatening human settlements.

Surging refers to episodes with a sudden, large increase in ice velocities. “Glaciers in the Karakoram exhibit irregular behavior,” said the authors of a 2017 study on surging glaciers published in the journal Scientific Reports. “Early reports suggested they are out of phase with climate fluctuations and trends observed elsewhere.”

A video posted on March 9 by German broadcasting channel DW News, calls attention to the threat posed by Shishpar (also Shisparé or Shishper):

Last year NASA reported that Shishpar started its advance in April 2018, with certain parts moving as fast as 13 to 18 meters (43 to 59 feet) per day. “Since the surge started, the front of Shishpar Glacier has advanced by about 1 kilometer,” the NASA Earth Observatory said. “As the ice pushed south past an adjacent valley, it blocked a meltwater stream flowing from the neighboring Muchuhar Glacier. By autumn 2018, the water had pooled up and formed a sizable lake.”

These images, acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8, show the position of the glacier and lake on April 1, 2019 (right), compared to April 5, 2018. The ice appears gray because dust, soil, and other debris are piled on top of it (Source: Lauren Dauphin/NASA).

A lack of incoming water from the blockage has already forced one power station to halt operations and a crucial route used by miners and herders to traverse the glacier is now impassable. According to NASA, this is not the first time that this glacier has surged. Field research and analysis of satellite imagery indicate that Shishpar also surged in 1904-1905, 1972-1976, and 1993-2002.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Roundup: A New Glacier Surge Study, Three Decades of Caucasus Glacier-Debris Change, and Mining Expansion in Greenland

Massive 1929 Himalayan Flood is a Cautionary Tale

Roundup: Plant Succession, Glacier Surges and Organic Pollutants

Roundup: Thwaites Earthquakes, Peru Glacier Collapse Claims Lives, and an Alaskan Streamflow Study

Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes

Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica’s largest contributors to sea level rise from Antarctica.  Its rate of loss has doubled in the past three decades, earning it the moniker “doomsday glacier.” Understanding why it’s retreating so quickly has been a challenge, but glaciologists have recently discovered that the glacier is now generating its own seismic activity when it calves (breaks off icebergs into the ocean), which could help in unlocking the physical keys to this process. The findings were published early this year in Geophysical Research Letters. 

Read the full story on Thwaites earthquakes by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.

Icebergs near the terminus of Thwaites Glacier. If it were to collapse it could raise global sea levels by ten feet. (Source: NASA)

A Catastrophic Glacier Collapse and Mudflow in Salkantay, Peru

On 23 February 2020 an enormous, catastrophic debris flow tore down the Salkantay River in Santa Teresa, Peru. This event has killed at least four people, with a further 13 reported to be missing. Given the magnitude of the flow, this number is probably uncertain. The mudflow was captured in an extraordinary video posted to YouTube.

Read the full post on the Salkantay ice/rock avalanche by Dave Petley on GlacierHub here.

A Classification of Streamflow Patterns Across the Coastal Gulf of Alaska

From the plain language abstract: “Streams provide society with many benefits, but they are being dramatically altered by climate change and human development. The volume of flowing water and the timing of high and low flows are important to monitor because we depend on reliable streamflow for drinking water, hydroelectric power, and healthy fish populations. Organizations that manage water supplies need extensive information on streamflow to make decisions. Yet directly measuring flow is cost‐prohibitive in remote regions like the Gulf of Alaska, which drains freshwater from an area greater than 400,000 km2, roughly the size of California. To overcome these challenges, a series of previous studies developed a tool to predict historical river flows across the entire region. In this study, we used 33 years of those predictions to categorize different types of streams based on the amount, variability, and timing of streamflow throughout the year. We identified 13 unique streamflow patterns among 4,140 coastal streams, reflecting different contributions of rain, snow, and glacial ice. This new catalog of streamflow patterns will allow scientists to assess changes in streamflow over time and their impact to humans and other organisms that depend on freshwater.”

Read the full study published by the American Geophysical Union here.

Source: AGU/Sergeant et al

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Norwegian Glacial Ice Preserves Ancient Viking Artifacts

Video of the Week: Animation Shows Frequency of Antarctic Calving Events

Black History Month: Honoring an Arctic Explorer

Roundup: A New Glacier Surge Study, Three Decades of Caucasus Glacier-Debris Change, and Mining Expansion in Greenland

Progress Made Toward Understanding Glacier Surge Motion

Previous studies of glacial surges neglected to account for till mechanics––the unsorted glacial sediments underlying glacier beds. A new study submitted to Proceedings of the Royal Society A in January 2020 accounts for the hydromechanical properties of those sediments.

From the abstract: “Glacier surges are quasi-periodic episodes of rapid ice flow that arise from increases in slip-rate at the ice-bed interface. The mechanisms that trigger and sustain surges are not well-understood. Here, we develop a new model of incipient surge motion for glaciers underlain by sediments to explore how surges may arise from slip instabilities within this thin layer of saturated, deforming subglacial till. Our model represents the evolution of internal friction, porosity, and pore water pressure within the sediments as functions of the rate and history of shearing. Changes in pore water pressure govern incipient surge motion, with less-permeable till facilitating surging because dilation-driven reductions in pore-water pressure slow the rate at which till tends toward a new steady state, thereby allowing time for the glacier to thin dynamically. The reduction of overburden pressure at the bed caused by dynamic thinning of the glacier sustains surge acceleration in our model. The need for changes in both the hydromechanical properties of the till and thickness of the glacier creates restrictive conditions for surge motion that are consistent with the rarity of surge-type glaciers and their geographic clustering.”

Read the full study here.

Storstrømmen and L. Bistrup Bræ in east Greenland probably are the largest surge‐type glaciers in the world (Source: WikiCommons).

Supra-glacial Debris Cover Changes in the Greater Caucasus from 1986 to 2014

New research on debris atop glaciers in the Caucasus––an important and understudied region––spans nearly three decades of change for nearly 700 of the area’s glaciers. While some debris accelerates melt; a lot can protect against it. A new study exploring the pattern was published on February 14 in The Cryosphere.

From the abstract: “Knowledge of supra-glacial debris cover and its changes remain incomplete in the Greater Caucasus, in spite of recent glacier studies. Here we present data of supra-glacial debris cover for 659 glaciers across the Greater Caucasus based on Landsat and SPOT images from the years 1986, 2000 and 2014. We combined semi-automated methods for mapping the clean ice with manual digitization of debris-covered glacier parts and calculated supra-glacial debris-covered area as the residual between these two maps.”

Read the full study here.

Supra-glacial debris cover increase on the Elbrus Massif from 1986 to 2014. SPOT-7 image from 20 August 2016 is used as the background. Blue shows retreat of clean-ice parts. Clean ice in 1986 consists of the clean ice in 2014 (light blue, transparent) plus clean-ice area that retreated between 1986 and 2014 (dark blue) (Source: Tielidze et al)

Glacier Retreat Could Allow Expansion of Mining in Greenland

As Greenland’s glaciers retreat, mining companies are prospecting the exposed mineral riches. One Canadian company is going after molybdenum, an important metal for electronics and communication. According to Live Science, small amounts of molybdenum can be found in a wide variety of products: missiles, engine parts, drills, saw blades, electric heater filaments, lubricant additives, ink for circuit boards and protective coatings in boilers. It is also used as a catalyst in the petroleum industry.

Greenland Resources Inc is a Canadian reporting issuer regulated by the Ontario Securities Commission, focused on the acquisition, exploration and development of mineral properties in Greenland. Yahoo Finance reports that the The Greenland Mineral Authority has provided comments on environmental and social impact assessments and is working with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland on three deliverables:

  1. A high-resolution satellite study to forecast glacial ablation at Malmbjerg during the years 2028-2048 to better understand how the Malmbjerg molybdenum surface mineable mineral resource estimate may increase with the current accelerated glacial ablation that could positively impact project economics;
  2. An updated Digital Elevation Model that will show the magnitude and spatial distribution of recent changes in glacier thickness; and
  3. A time-series of annual surface mass balance on Malmbjerg, to understand the site-specific increase in ice melt over the past four decades.

Will other rapidly de-glaciating regions of the world, like Antarctica, be next?

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Engabreen Glacier and Subglacial Laboratory

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Video of the Week: A Daring Swim Across a Glacial Lake to Protest Climate Change

Photo Friday: Engabreen Glacier and Subglacial Laboratory

This Photo Friday, glaciologist Miriam Jackson takes us to Engabreen, a northern outlet glacier from Norway’s western Svartisen ice cap. Engabreen is Norway’s fastest retreating glacier and is also home to a subglacial observatory.

There can be 6-8 metres of snow during the winter (the record was 11 m in 1997), so the mass balance stakes and towers are visited in February or early March (Source: Miriam Jackson)

According to Jackson, the glacier previously covered the lake but retreated during the 1930s. However, there was a glacier advance during the late 1980s and 1990s. During that time the glacier tongue came all the way down to the proglacial and moraine-dammed Lake Engabrevatnet at two meters above sea level, but the glacier has retreated about 600 meters since 1999––with one third of that occurring in just the last two years. The glacier terminus now sits about 140 meters above sea level.

Dr. Miriam Jackson at the entrance to the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory (Source: Miriam Jackson)

Jackson is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate chapter on high mountains.

Source: Miriam Jackson

The nearly 40-square kilometer Engabreen Glacier (also referred to as Engenbreen) is also the location of the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory. The lab is situated under 200 meters of ice, with direct access to the glacier bed, and has been the site of unique glaciological experiments since 1992. Remarkably, the subglacial science center includes the following facilities for researchers:

  • Fully-equipped living quarters with beds for up to 8 researchers in four bedrooms, kitchen with cooking facilities, dining/living area, bathroom and shower.
  • Three laboratory rooms, freezer and workshop;
  • Hot-water system for melting subglacial tunnels;
  • Electronics supplies, extensive tool inventory and heavy equipment;
  • External telephone system.
The heights of mass balance stakes and towers are recorded (of the ones that are found – sometimes several of them are buried under the snow) and they are extended with extra stakes or tower joints so that they can be found during the accumulation measurements in May (Source: Miriam Jackson).

The mass balance of Engabreen has been measured annually since 1970. Jackson said the measurements consist of accumulation measurements in May, to see how much snow accumulated over the previous winter, and minimum measurements in September, to see how much snow and ice melted during the summer. Since Engabreen is a maritime glacier with high snow accumulation and high melt rate, there are extra measurements in the winter and summer. Click here for a gallery of Engabreen images dating back to 1885.

A tourist cabin at Engabreen, which is also utilized by glaciologists (Source: Miriam Jackson).
Engabreen Glacier as photographed in 1885 (Source: Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Black History Month: Honoring an Arctic Explorer

Video of the Week: A Daring Swim Across a Glacial Lake to Protest Climate Change

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Roundup: Bernie Wins First Glacier State Caucus, A Cryosphere Congressional Hearing, and Using Drones to Monitor Ice Flow

The First Glacier State to Vote in 2020 Primary Goes For Bernie

On Saturday Bernie Sanders won the Nevada caucuses in a landslide. The state was the first with glaciers to vote in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. It might come as a surprise to learn that the desert state has any glaciers at all and would perhaps be even more unexpected if the glacier had much of any influence in how residents voted. But this is GlacierHub––and the 2020 American election is perhaps the single most consequential moment for the future of glaciers worldwide––so we looked at it.

Nevada’s lone glacier is nooked in a crevice at the base of 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, in the Snake Range in the eastern part of the state. The forlorn-looking rock glacier sits within Precinct 9 of White Pine County, which caucused together with the other precincts at White Pine High School in the county seat of Ely. With with nine of 10 precincts reporting at time of publication, Sanders leads, though his advantage is not as significant as his margin of victory statewide.

In Precinct 9, Sanders had a plurality but not a majority on the caucus’ first alignment. He tied with Senator Amy Klobuchar for delegates on the second alignment. Statewide results show that the urban areas went more heavily for Sanders than the rural areas, but they also have by far the largest populations. Notably, White Pine County, which has a population density of one person per square mile and lies within the Mormon Corridor, has between 50-60 percent registered voters as Republican. Public land issues are a top voter concern there.

GlacierHub has, on occasion, applied a glacier-lense to American politics. Last year we published What Glacier State Congressmembers Think of a Green New Deal and on November 9, 2016; Editorial: Viewing the Election from the Summits of Glaciers. We also covered Senator Sanders’ 2016 run for the Democratic Primary; Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders and Of Sanders and Glaciers, Wyoming Edition.

Mount Wheeler and Nevada’s only glacier (Source: WikiCommons)

Congressional Hearing Focuses on Earth’s Changing Cryosphere

On January 15, a panel of earth science and environmental communicators addressed the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology in Washington. Among the experts advising how the United States should be addressing the climate crisis were Heidi Steltzer, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and a lead author of the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, and Pamela McElwee, a professor at Rutgers University and a lead author of the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

Read the story by Zoë Klobus on GlacierHub here.

Heidi Steltzer (center) and Pamela McElwee (first from left) testifying in front of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology (Source: Heidi Steltzer)

The Viability of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Monitor Ice Flow

A new study demonstrates that drones are promising instruments for monitoring ice flow, especially that of hard to reach or inaccessible glaciers, with a resolution unachievable by remote sensing. From the abstract:

“Measuring the ice flow motion accurately is essential to better understand the time evolution of glaciers and ice sheets and therefore to better anticipate the future consequence of climate change in terms of sea level rise. Although there are a variety of remote sensing methods to fill this task, in situ measurements are always needed for validation or to capture high-temporal-resolution movements. Yet glaciers are in general hostile environments where the installation of instruments might be tedious and risky when not impossible. Here we report the first-ever in situ measurements of ice flow motion using a remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicle.”

Read the full study here.

The Enduro quadcopter UAV that landed on Eqip Sermia Glacier (Source: Jouvet et al).

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: Bore Hole Ice Drop!

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Congressional Hearing Focuses on Earth’s Changing Cryosphere

Video of the Week: Bore Hole Ice Drop!

In 2018, glaciologist Peter Neff recorded a video of himself dropping a piece of ice down a bore hole in an Antarctic glacier. The clip went viral. More than 10 million viewers have since watched––and listened––in bewilderment at the sound the produced by the ricocheting ice.

Last week paleoclimatologist John Higgins replicated Neff’s ice drop, reigniting the internet with the simple joy of the naturally-produced sci-fi sound.

The ice cores were drilled to extract ice cores to glean information about the atmospheric composition of ancient Earth. “Once you have all of these bore holes that you’re done with, you’ve done all the science, the logical human thing to do is throw some ice down a deep hole to see what it sounds like,” Neff said with a chuckle. “And that’s what we did. It’s an unexpected sound.”

Fascination with the sound inspired acoustics researchers to explain the phenomenon. “I had never heard anything like this recording before, especially the ‘ricochet’ sound, and I have to admit that we were stymied for a few days,” said Mark Bocko, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Rochester. “After digging into some of the darker recesses of my old acoustics textbooks, I was able to work out the details and this turned out to be a straightforward but really striking illustration of sound dispersion in acoustic waveguides.”

A post on the Rochester Newscenter explained Bocko’s findings:

According to Bocko’s analysis:

As the piece of ice falls down the hole, it scrapes and bounces off the edge of the borehole. You can hear the frequency of this sound decrease as the ice chunk picks up speed the further down the hole it gets. The decrease in frequency is the Doppler effect, the same effect that causes a car horn to drop in pitch as it drives past you.

After the ice chunk hits the bottom of the borehole, you can hear a “ricochet” noise, which is caused by the slightly different ways the sound from the impact propagates back up the borehole. The acoustic wave for the “heartbeat” impulses travels straight up the borehole, while the other sound waves bounce back and forth off the side-walls of the borehole on their way up. This causes different frequencies to travel at different speeds. The high frequencies travel fastest and get to the top first while the low frequencies lag behind and arrive later.

The spacing of the “heartbeat” noises after the ice impacts is determined by the depth of the hole and the speed of sound in air. In this case, the speed of sound in air at -20 degrees Celsius is 318.9 meters/second; it takes sound about half a second to make one round in the 80-meter-deep borehole.

Read a full explanation of Bocko’s findings here.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Congressional Hearing Focuses on Earth’s Changing Cryosphere

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