Major Report Stresses the Importance of Glaciers in a Global Context

In September, a new report, “Well Under 2 Degrees Celsius,” was released by the Committee to Prevent Extreme Climate Change, a global think-tank group made up of scientists, policy makers and military experts. The premise of the report is to provide governments with practical solutions to implement the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. It emphasizes the importance of glaciers in a global context by highlighting examples of melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet.  

Researchers from a NASA-funded mission examining melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons).
To challenge the impacts of climate change, the group proposes a roadmap that highlights science-based policy pathways to give society an opportunity to limit global temperatures to safe levels and prevent a two-degree Celsius temperature increase. Solutions include decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050 and reducing short-lived climate pollutants. Unfortunately, climatic trends show that the global temperature has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, the authors note. If emission levels stay at the current rate, we can expect to see a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in the next fifteen years, with a 50 percent probability of reaching 4 degrees Celsius by end of century. 

The report uses the Arctic and Himalayas as prime examples of the severe impacts of temperature increases, as these regions continue to warm at nearly twice the global average. In the Himalayas and Tibet, for example, more than 80 percent of the glaciers are retreating, according to data collected by the authors. The South Asian monsoon, which provides the primary source of water for the glaciers, has decreased by around seven percent over the last fifty years.

When asked about the effect of a two-degree Celsius rise on glacial retreat, Eric Rignot, a co-author of the report and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, said, “A two degree Celsius above pre-industrial and even a 1.5 degree Celsius will not be sufficient to stop ice sheet melt. In fact, I think that a 1.5 degree Celsius will still commit us to multiple meter sea-level rise over the time scale of a couple of centuries. My hope is that once we are there, the world will realize that we can do better, sequester carbon and go back to a climate regime from the 1970s to 1980s, which in my opinion was okay for ice sheets.”

The signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement (Source: Martin Schulz/Flickr).
The authors note another concern for glaciers and snowpack in the Arctic and Himalayas: the deposition of black carbon from human activities like diesel combustion and biomass cooking. Black carbon decreases the snow’s albedo, causing surface warming and melting. If greenhouse gas emissions and black carbon deposition increase, these glaciers and mountain ranges will not be able to provide water for many people in the region who rely on connected river systems.

Due to emission trends not decreasing at a fast-enough rate, there is now only a 50 percent probability of achieving the two-degree Celsius goal, and there is a 10–20 percent probability of the warming exceeding three degree Celsius by 2100. To remain below the two-degree Celsius mark, global leaders would have to start on the carbon neutrality pathway by 2020, moving toward 100 percent clean energy as soon as possible. However, the political leaders, corporations, and the public tend to assume that there is more time to take action, the researchers contend, with many people unaware of the severity of the climate crisis.

Shichang Kang, one of the co-authors of the report and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told GlacierHub, “As a scientist, I hope the international community will work together and take action as soon as possible. However, countries have diverse backgrounds and social and political issues. It seems that we can’t use one measurement for different countries.”

It will be a challenge to remain below 1.5 degree Celsius,” Rignot added. “The problem is to transition to a carbon free economy fast enough. You cannot turn around an economy based on burning fossil fuel overnight to an economy using clean energy. This would be a catastrophe. You have to give it some time.” The report advises leaders to begin decarbonizing the global economy with low- or no-carbon technologies and renewables.

The authors equip world leaders to begin taking action by providing four building blocks to achieve these goals. The first building block includes fully implementing nationally-determined mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement. The second scales up numerous sub-national and city climate action plans. The third includes reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) by 2030 and decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050. The final building block aims to make scalable and reversible carbon dioxide removal measures, which can begin removing CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere.

Despite the fact that each country deals with climate change in a different way, climate change remains a serious problem that impacts the global community at large. The question now remains – will we reach our goal of staying below the 2°C mark?

Photo Friday: The Glaciers of the Spanish Pyrenees

The glaciers of the Pyrenees stretch along the border between Spain and France. Since the mid-1800’s, a majority of the glaciers in the area have been in a state of recession. Currently, there are only 21 glaciers in the Pyrenees, with 10 on the Spanish side. Since 1990, glaciological calculations have shown that rapid melting has caused the total regression of the smallest of these glaciers and 50-60 percent of the surface area of the largest glaciers. A study released in 2009 by the Spanish Environmental Ministry further confirmed that between 2002 and 2008, the Spanish Pyrenees lost about a quarter of their total glacier ice as a direct consequence of global warming and changes in rainfall patterns.

This Friday, see images of the rapidly disappearing glaciers of the Spanish Pyrenees.


Slopes around the Pyrenees near Catalonia, Spain (Source: Michele Benericetti/Creative Commons).


Aneto Glacier in Spain (Source: David Domingo/Creative Commons).


Ossoue Glacier in the Pyrenees (Source: Benoît Dandonneau/ Creative Commons).
Ossoue Glacier (Source: Brigitte Djajasasmita/Creative Commons).
A skier going down the Ossoue Glacier (Source: Benoit Dandonneau/Creative Commons).

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Faces Oil Drilling Threat

For the past 30 years, extensive conservation efforts have protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas interests. Now, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Trump administration has renewed a movement to open up the refuge to energy exploration. In a document obtained by the Washington Post on September 15, the DOI urges the Trump administration to implement a draft rule that would strike a 1980s provision that prevents seismic exploration in the Alaska refuge. Seismic studies represent a necessary ground step for Arctic drilling and have been halted due to their impacts on local wildlife, including denning polar bears.

Established in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 19 million acres, stretching from the coast to the glacier summits, and is one of the last intact landscapes in America. The refuge is home to the Brooks Range, which has peaks and glaciers up to 9,000 feet, and mountains that span 75 miles from east to west. In addition, there are around 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species that reside in the refuge. With its abundance of biodiversity, the refuge is considered one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive ecosystems in the world.

Pamela A. Miller, an Alaskan conservationist and former Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, told GlacierHub, “Opening a protected wildlife refuge to the oil and gas industry would continue Alaska and the nation on the fossil fuel course which is not sustainable in the face of adding a new source of global warming pollution – at a time when Alaska is already warming at a rate two times the rest of the nation. The Arctic Refuge today as a protected landscape provides resilience and safety for wildlife in the face of climate change which is transforming their habitats – and on top of that there is massive industrialization continuing to grow across America’s Arctic.”

A polar bear and its young in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

When asked about the effects of climate change and drilling on the refuge, Neil Lawrence, the Alaska director to the Natural Resource Defense Council, added, “Climate change has softened permafrost, made tundra more vulnerable, greatly stressed coastal species dependent on ice, and overall made the flora, fauna, and geology of the refuge more vulnerable to any disturbance, including seismic and drilling.” With temperatures rising, glaciers like the McCall Glacier and other alpine glaciers in the Brooks Range have already receded at astonishing rates over the past half-century. If these rates continue, the Brooks Range glaciers will vanish in 80 to 100 years.  

Oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and seismic imaging studies could further negatively impact the Arctic ecosystems by disrupting the wildlife areas and the habits of species such as polar bears and muskoxen. “Scoping for oil includes seismic testing that is done by convoys of 30-ton trucks equipped with massive off-road tires, traversing large portions of the landscape, crushing sensitive plants and soils, impacting disturbance-averse wildlife, and leaving tracks that scar the land for decades,” Lawrence explained to GlacierHub. Climate change effects have already taken a toll on the summer sea ice, leaving many polar bears without a home.  

Caribou graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

Despite its negative environmental effects, oil drilling presents financial incentives for the state of Alaska. Oil is currently trading around $50 a barrel. If developers were to reach the 27 billion barrels of oil believed to be in the U.S.-controlled portion of the Arctic, Alaskans would no doubt reap financial rewards. For this reason, Alaskan politicians like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) support oil exploration which would increase the annual dividend each Alaska resident receives.

The newly proposed draft rule must first go through a period of public comments and pass other bureaucratic agencies, which could take around 18 months, before companies could place bids to start the exploration. Any approval to the memorandum would likely incite political debate and clashes between the administration and environmental groups who aim to protect the area’s biodiversity and glacial mountains.

In addition to this new draft proposal, the DOI under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has further urged President Trump to modify 10 national monuments, calling for the reduction of the boundaries of four of these sites. There is a lack of historical precedent for presidents to reduce the site boundaries of national monuments. For the time being, none of the national protected areas containing glaciers are being threatened with reductions in area. Perhaps the high mountains are so deeply appreciated by the American people that such a move would seem imprudent. Nonetheless, the threats to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge and the national monuments show the importance of vigilance for our nation’s wild and natural spaces, including glaciers.

Town Evacuates After Part of Swiss Glacier Collapses

On Saturday, September 9, part of the Trift glacier in the Swiss Alps broke off and crashed into a glacier below it. About 220 people of Saas-Grund, a small nearby ski town, evacuated the area as a precaution, said local police spokesman Simon Bumann. The collapsed piece measured approximately 500,000 cubic meters. Local authorities who had been surveilling the glacier found that the glacier’s tongue, a long and narrow extension of ice, was moving at about 130 centimeters per day, according to the Valais canton police.

The village of Saas Grund in the Swiss Alps (Source: Wandervogel/Creative Commons).

It was during the night that the glacier’s movement began to increase. Eventually, more than two-thirds of the glacier’s front edge broke off on Sunday morning, but the debris that hit the glacier below didn’t reach the surrounding inhabited areas. Authorities feared that the broken piece could have triggered an ice avalanche, potentially impacting the town. In August, eight hikers were buried when a rockfall triggered an avalanche in Bondo, Switzerland. The avalanche in Bondo moved about four million cubic meters of mud and debris, which is the equivalent of 4,000 houses, about 500 meters, according to the regional natural hazards office.

Since the evacuation ended in Saas-Grund, residents have been able to return to their homes, and local roads around the glacier have reopened. As a precaution, the area underneath the glacier, including hiking trails, remains closed to walkers.

A view of the Trift glacier that partially collapsed in September (Source:

Thanks to Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the technology institute ETH Zurich, the surrounding villages were able to evacuate in time before any damage had been done. Funk had recommended that an expensive radar system be reinstalled just three days prior to the incident to keep an eye on the glacier. Rangers in the Saas-Grund area have monitored the Trift glacier since 2014, when they first noticed that the north face of the Weissmies mountain had broken off. But an earlier radar system that had been installed in the area was later removed due to the high price of its innovative technology. The system is said to have cost authorities around 400 francs a day, or about 417 dollars.

“In 2014, it was found that the Trift glacier in the Weissmies area moves faster than is usual for glaciers in our region. Afterwards, the behavior of the Trift glacier was closely monitored,” said Sandra Schnydrig, head of housing control at the municipality of Saas-Grund, to GlacierHub. “In the years 2015 and 2016, the glacier was permanently monitored with a radar arm and the behavior of the glacier was analyzed. At the beginning of 2017, a more simple measurement method was installed via photo analysis.”

There was no imminent threat until this year, when Funk saw that the glacier had begun moving again in the photos. “On Tuesday, September 5, the photo analysis showed that the Trift glacier started to move faster. Immediately afterwards, it was decided to reinstall the wheel arm measurement and to observe the behavior of the glacier more closely,” said Schnydrig. But when Funk urged authorities to reinstall the radar system, there was none available. The last radar in Switzerland had been sent to Bondo, another valley in the Swiss Alps, which recently suffered damage from an avalanche and mudslide.

Fortunately, on September 7, a radar system was sent from Germany and installed on the Trift glacier. With the proper equipment, Funk was able to predict the imminent collapse. “The degree of monitoring of this glacier is much greater than for most other glaciers in the world,” Jeff Kargel, senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub. “Technology is getting close to a point where satellite-based monitoring can detect the precursory movements of ice and result in semi-automated alerts. We are not far from being able to do that all over the world.”

A map of Saas-Grund in Switzerland (Source: Cities of the World/YouTube).

The glacier will continue to be under constant evaluation. A third of the glacier’s snout remains and is unstable. Bruno Ruppen, president of the commune, was reportedly satisfied with the way the evacuation was carried out for this incident because the glacier did not cause any damage. “It could not have gone better,” he told local reporters.

The village of Saas-Grund was fortunate the recent event didn’t cause damage or casualties, but if the glacier continues to retreat at its current rate, it is assumed that more pieces of ice could break off. “The loss of ice below these remnants and the withdrawal of physical support from these pieces of the glacier means that they are very likely to fracture and slide off, especially during warm weather episodes when the ice melts, water gets in between the ice and the bed, and the whole mass becomes very slippery and weakened by fractures,” Kargel explained. “Therefore, the very common style of climate-change-driven glacier thinning, retreat, and seasonal melting is very often accompanied by this type of ice avalanche.”

Roundup: Bowdoin Glacier, Floods, and Bacterial Populations

Speeding-up of the Bowdoin Glacier

From People Publications: “Glaciers are subject to sudden ice flow speed-up events in response to rapid increase of meltwater in the subglacial hydrological network after a prolonged warm period or the drainage of a supraglacial lake…. lasting a few hours, a period too short to be captured by satellite remote sensing. We used a cost-effective Vertical Take-Off and Landing and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to monitor bi-daily the movements of Bowdoin Glacier. Our results show four distinct short-lived speed-up events, which were in phase with fluctuations of air temperature and meltwater plumes at the glacier snout, showing that recorded accelerations were triggered by an increase of buoyant forces in response to a surplus of subglacial meltwater.”

Read more speed-up events here.

Tongue of the Bowdoin Glacier (Source: ETH Zurich/Creative Commons).

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods at Imja Lake

From MDPI: “Glacial retreat causes the formation of glacier lakes with the potential of producing glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Imja Lake in Nepal is considered at risk for a GLOF. Communities in the path of a potential Imja GLOF are implementing adaptation projects. We develop and demonstrate a decision-making methodology. The methodology is applied to assess benefits in Dingboche of lowering Imja Lake by 3, 10 and 20 m. The results show that the baseline case (no lake lowering) has the lowest expected cost because of low valuation of agricultural land and homes in the literature.”

Read more about Imja Lake here.

Imja Lake in the middle of the Himalayas of Nepal (Source: Kiril Rusev/Creative Commons).

Bacterial Populations of East Antarctic Glaciers

From Frontiers in Microbiology: “Glacial forelands are extremely sensitive to temperature changes and are therefore appropriate places to explore the development of microbial communities in response to climate-driven deglaciation. We investigated the bacterial communities that developed at the initial stage of deglaciation using space-for-time substitution in the foreland of an ice sheet in Larsemann Hills. Our results show that abundant bacterial communities were more sensitive to changing conditions in the early stages of deglaciation than rare community members.”

Learn more about the bacteria populations of East Antarctic glaciers here!

Mineral treasures of Larsemann Hills, Antartica (Source: National Science Foundation/Creative Commons).


Climate Change Through a Camera Lens

The impacts of climate change on glaciers and other landscapes are often hard to conceptualize, making it difficult for scientists to convey the urgency of these changes to the general public. This difficulty is being addressed by photographers like Danish artist Carston Egevang and American Diane Tuft, who are taking action through visual image to show the effects of climate change on different landscapes, wildlife and people around the world. Photographers interested in this subject matter aim to convince their audience that climate change is real, according to a new report by Carolyn Beans in PNAS. Rather than reading numbers and graphs, the public is able to look at a photograph and visualize the negative results of temperature rise on the environment.

Walrus hunting in the Thule area of Greenland (Source: Carsten Egevang).

With disappearing glaciers a prominent symbol of global warming, glacial retreat photography is one way to monitor the effects of climate change around the world. Egevang, who began his career as a biologist, completing a Ph.D. in Arctic biology at the University of Copenhagen, first began taking photographs at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources as part of his research. Egevang’s transition from science to photography was largely due to his desire to share his scientific observations of environmental change with a larger community, according to the report. One series of his photographs shows the reactions of Arctic people to a hunter’s polar bear trophy, a unique capture and sight in the town of Ittoqqortoormiit on the eastern coast of Greenland, made possible by dwindling sea ice and a change in the animal’s hunting behaviors.

“Arctic photographers bring climate change into focus,” Egevang said in an interview with Beans. “With photography, I really feel that I get the attention of a very large crowd.” Climate projections may not move people, he continued, “but when you show the local hunters, how they can’t do what they usually do because there is no sea ice and it is happening so rapidly, it is much easier to understand.” His work captures the lives of people in Greenland, who are greatly impacted by climate change, and the animals that sustain their livelihoods. As temperatures rise, the landscape has changed, forcing the animals to shift their patterns of movement. Hunters are not able to reach their usual hunting grounds because the sea ice isn’t thick enough to hold the weight of their sleds, for example. “With photography, I really feel that I get the attention of a very large crowd,” he said.

Egevang is not the only photographer dedicated to showing environmental change. James Balog created the Extreme Ice Survey program, a photography program that combines art and science to give a “visual voice” to the planet’s changing ecosystem. The program consists of him and his team placing cameras in different locations around the world to view cliff faces and track changes in glaciers through time-lapse photography. As of January 2016, Balog and his team have placed 43 Nikon cameras tracking 24 glaciers across Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains.

Glaciers in Greenland (Source: Carsten Evegang).

The cameras take images of the changing landscape every hour, year-round, and during daylight, producing about 8,000 frames per camera per year. The time-lapse photographs show the incredible transformations of the glaciers. The images are then made into time-lapse videos that display the landscape’s retreat due to climate change and other human activity. The work of Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey team was also recognized in the 2012 award-winning documentary called Chasing Ice.

Diane Tuft, a New York-based photographer, has also worked on projects that show the melting ice in the Arctic Ocean by taking aerial views of the mountain glaciers of Svalbard, Norway. When asked about her images, Diane told GlacierHub, “Through my work as an artist, I feel that I need to communicate to a broad audience the dire effects that the melt in the Arctic will cause throughout our planet. By exposing the public to the emotion and beauty in my images, I hope to stimulate conversation about how to save the Arctic, and thus save the Earth from the drastic repercussions of ocean rise.” Two of Tuft’s photographs, for example, when placed side by side, demonstrate a striking contrast between the size of the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2007 and its gradual shrinking by 2016.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, July 20, 2007 (Source: Diane Tuft).

Another photographer, Kerry Koepping, has traveled from the glaciers of Northern Greenland to Iceland to emphasize the urgent consequences of climate change. Koepping’s photographs reach the scientific community as well, due to his research affiliate at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. Koepping’s position allows him to stay up to date with climate change research, while adding observations from his own work. As founder and project director of Arctic Arts Project, Koepping and other photographers use their photography skills to help people understand the science behind climate change through imagery. Koepping’s work spans from photos of ice caps breaking off the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland to the ice recession of the VantnJökull ice cave in Iceland.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, July 16, 2016 (Source: Diane Tuft).

Collaborations between scientists and photographers bring to life the facts and results of climate change science. It allows the photographers to convey a concept that is hard to grasp, provoking the audience’s emotions to help them understand the harsh truth of environmental change.

Photo Friday: A Journey to Lake Issyk-Kul

Issyk-Kul is the world’s second largest salt lake and one of the world’s largest alpine lakes. The lake is commonly called “hot lake” because it never freezes, even though it is surrounded by mountains. The mountains encompass the lake and protect the Issyk Kul hollow from extreme cold or hot winds. The lake valley is a combination of sea, steppe, mountain climate and eternal ice zone.

Ryskeldi Satke, a contributor to GlacierHub and journalist with research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and the United States, recently visited Issyk-Kul. Satke told GlacierHub, “The most fascinating part of the South shore was the view of the Tien Shan from the beach. Glaciers were so close to the lake that it was a very enjoyable experience to observe the lake and snow peaks at the same time. It’s also realistic to hike near glaciers and come down to the beach and take a dip in the water the same day.” Check out his photos and video of the “pearl of the Tien Shan” here.


Lake Issyk Kul during midday (Ryskeldi Satke/Twitter).


15 miles up eastern Tien Shan (Ryskeldi Satke/Twitter).


The journey to Issyk-Kul (Source: Ryskeldi Satke).


A view of the lake (Source: Ryskeldi Satke).



Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

A recent study by John All et al., “Fire Response to Local Climate Variability,” investigates whether or not human interference in the fire regime of Huascarán National Park in Peru was the primary cause of an increase in fire activity in the park. The fire activity, whether caused by humans or climate variability, was poorly understood because of a lack of historical data. The wildfires in this park are continuing to grow and could pose a threat to surrounding glaciers. Resource managers believed that the fire increase was human-caused and not necessarily linked to climate processes, but in this instance, fire perception and fire reality are not aligning. The new challenge for resource managers is how best to reconcile these two factors to more effectively manage the parklands. If the wildfires become more frequent, the glaciers in Huascarán National Park could melt at faster rates because of the soot and other material from the fires deposited on them.

The 3,400 km Huascarán National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca range in north-central Peru, the largest glaciated area in the tropics, with 80 glaciers and 120 glacial lakes. The park, created in 1975 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, has already seen a significant loss of ice and snow in the region in the past 60 years, according to research published in the journal Mountain Research and Development, altering the glacier melt that supplies water for the Santa, Marañón, and Pativilca River basins.

A fire destroyed 2,000 acres in Huascaran National Park in 2012 (Source: River of Life/Creative Commons).

The study’s goal was to help the park’s land managers understand the patterns of the fires, why they’ve been changing, and how to better manage the park in the future. When asked if climate change could make the wildfires more frequent, Edson Ramírez Henostroza, a security specialist for rescue and fire control at Huascarán National Park, told GlacierHub, “Yes, in our country, there is the popular belief that fire and smoke generate rain, and that ash balances the pH of the soil, which is usually acid in the Andes, causing the peasants to burn more pastures ad bushes in search of rain and more productive soils.”

From 2002 to 2014, Huascarán National Park has seen higher activity of grazing and anthropogenic burning, due to natural ignitions and climate variability, which has altered the regimes and population dynamics of the vegetative communities. Anthropogenic fires are usually caused by livestock owners who start fires to get rid of biomass and improve grass regrowth for the next grazing season. Humans change the characteristics of fires, such as the intensity, severity, number, and spread. “We believe that the best tools to prevent forest fires is environmental education, to reach schools in rural areas and talk to peasants and their children,” Edson told GlacierHub.

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

Since the 1970’s, glaciers in the tropical Andes have receded at a rate of 30 percent. Increased black carbon and dust will only quicken this glacial recession. A consequence of man-made fires is the release of black carbona particulate matter released by the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, which accelerates glacial melt when deposited on glaciers. Since black carbon absorbs solar energy, it has the ability to warm the atmosphere and speed up the melting process on glaciers.

In an interview with GlacierHub, John All, a research professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Huxley College and one of the co-authors of the study, said, “There are multiple potential sources of black carbon, but our work indicates that black carbon on glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca is almost entirely ‘young’ carbon – i.e. not fossil carbon like diesel. Mountain fires potentially provide large amounts and large particle sizes of local black carbon that can be deposited immediately onto the glacier.”

Lake 69 in Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru (Source: Arnaud_Z_Voyage/Flickr).

Park managers are working to save the park from future fire-related accidents by bringing on specialists like John All. “We began this research at the request of the Park Superintendent because he was concerned about how these fires, which are ignited to improve grazing in the Park, were affecting the ecosystem and visitor experiences,” he told GlacierHub. “We’ve worked with USAID and various Peruvian agencies to hold workshops and work with local stakeholders to curb burning practices. However, as natural fire conditions become more explosive, even accidental fires may become widespread in the future.” More research needs to be done in order to improve fire management and learn more about the fires’ impact on the park.

Roundup: Antarctic Coral, Laser Ultrasound, and Totten Glacier

Ecology of Antarctic Coral

From Science Direct: “Antarctic ecosystems present highly marked seasonal patterns in energy input, which in turn determines the biology and ecology of marine invertebrate species. The pennatulid Malacobelemnon daytoni, is one of the most abundant species in Potter Cove, Antarctica. Its biochemical compositions were studied over a year-round period. The profiles suggest an omnivorous diet and opportunistic feeding strategy for the species, which supports the hypothesis that resuspension events may be an important source of energy, reducing the seasonality of food depletion periods in winter. This gives us a better insight into the species’ success in Potter Cove and under the current environmental changes experienced by the Antarctic Peninsula.”

Learn more about the Malacobelemnon daytoni here.

The Antarctic Peninsula (Source: Halley Wombat/Creative Commons).

New Laser Ultrasound Aids Ice Core Studies

From MDPI: “The study of climate records in ice cores requires an accurate determination of annual layering within the cores in order to establish a depth-age relationship. We present a complimentary elastic wave remote sensing method based on laser ultrasonics, which is used to measure variations in ultrasonic wave arrival times and velocity along the core with millimeter resolution. Custom optical windows allow the source and receiver lasers to be located outside the cold room, while the core is scanned by moving it with a computer-controlled stage. These new data may be used to infer stratigraphic layers from elastic parameter variations within an ice core, as well as analyze ice crystal fabrics.”

Read more about the wave remote sensing method here.

Research teams in Antarctica to study lead pollution through ice cores (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Creative Commons).

Totten Glacier Mass Loss

From University of Exeter: “A large volume of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet drains through the Totten Glacier (TG) and is thought to be a potential source of substantial global sea level rise over the coming centuries. We show the surface velocity and height of the floating part of TG, which buttresses the grounded component, have varied substantially over two decades, with variations in surface height strongly anti-correlated with simulated basal melt rates. Coupled glacier/ice-shelf simulations confirm ice flow and thickness respond to both basal melting of the ice shelf and grounding on bed obstacles. We conclude the observed variability of TG is primarily ocean-driven. Ocean warming in this region will lead to enhanced ice-sheet dynamism and loss of upstream grounded ice.”

Learn more about the Totten glacier’s mass loss here.

Shelf ice calving in Antarctica (Source: Ice Sheets/Wikimedia Commons).

National Climate Assessment Report Under Review by Trump Administration

The Trump administration is assessing a 545-page draft report about the causes and impacts of global warming, including the imminent threat of glacial retreat. This draft report known as the Climate Science Special Report is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment, and it is undergoing a final interagency review by the administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and 12 other agencies. The New York Times published the draft report on August 7th, which brought a good deal of attention to the document, even though the information had been available at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit internet digital library, since January.

The Trump administration must decide whether to accept or reject a draft report that is part of the fourth National Climate Assessment (Source: Climate Nexus/Twitter).

On August 20th, the Trump administration took initial steps to weaken the effectiveness of the draft report by disbanding the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment, the group that guides the report and helps policymakers and private-sector officials integrate climate analysis into long-term planning, raising questions about the future of the report. The charter for the advisory committee will expire on Sunday, August 27th, and the panel will not be renewed.

The report was written by a team of more than 300 experts from 13 federal agencies. The National Climate Assessment is one of the most rigorously sourced and vetted documents produced by the federal government, based on “peer reviewed journal articles, technical reports by federal agencies, scientific assessments, etc” and produced every four years since 1990. The latest assessment, which ultimately could be rejected by the Trump administration, concludes that the average annual temperature will continue to rise throughout the century, with global temperatures increasing between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades. This could result in longer heat waves, disappearing snow cover, shrinking sea ice, and melting glaciers.

Mark Carey, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, told GlacierHub that shrinking glaciers actually have notable impacts. “For one, they help regulate water flow in glacier-fed rivers, providing meltwater for downstream water use in dry summer months when farmers and hydroelectric power stations most need the water,” he said. “Glacier retreat can also unleash outburst floods and avalanches from the unstable glaciers.” 

People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014 (Source: James Preller).

According to the assessment, the annually averaged ice mass from 37 global reference glaciers “has decreased every year since 1984, a decline expected to continue even if climate were to stabilize.” The findings stirred public interest because they refute statements from the Trump administration about the causes and effects of climate change. The Trump administration, including his cabinet members, have taken a different approach to combatting global warming, repealing environmental regulations and defunding climate research. Earlier this year, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and rolled back policies that former President Barack Obama put in place, such as the Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants.

The Trump administration also worked hard to save the coal industry and promised to increase oil and gas production by drilling in protected areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, which will increase emissions. Additionally, Trump has appointed members to his cabinet who openly deny anthropogenic climate change. Agency scientists have found that discussing climate change with EPA leadership has become taboo. The Interior and Agriculture departments have also banned climate change talk and cancelled meetings with climate change experts. The report is one of the administration’s biggest tests to date in regard to the their public opinion on climate change.

Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, recently told CNBC, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Since Pruitt’s arrival at the EPA, the agency has moved away from its historic practice of publicly posting data collections of emissions from oil and gas companies. To date, the EPA has also taken down more than 1,900 agency web pages that contain climate change information. It is also attempting to undo a water protection rule in order to dismantle previous regulations.

The latest assessment suggests average annual temperature will increase between 0.5 and 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next two decades (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

If the Trump administration rejects the information in the latest assessment, the move would be another step away from the global consensus, which recognizes melting glaciers, disappearing snow cover, and the reduction in the volume of mountain glaciers and continental ice sheets. By rejecting the report, Trump’s administration would directly contradict scientific conclusion that “many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.” Specifically, the report concluded that the planet has rapidly warmed over the last 150 years, finding it “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, stated that the report’s disapproval would put in disarray the carefully constructed practices and approach used to build the report, but it would also further galvanize the scientific community to bring more science directly into the public eye. “A report from a different configuration of science organizations would certainly emerge,” Pelto said. “In the short run it will be a challenge to the community, but in the long run it will strengthen this community. Less dependence on the government for both funding and sanctioning is the challenge and the opportunity.”

Photo Friday: Air Bubbles in Glacial Ice

Glacial ice can range in age from several hundred to several thousands of years old. In order to study long-term climate records, scientists drill and extract ice cores from glaciers and ice sheets. The ice cores contain information about past climate, giving scientists the ability to learn about the evolution of ice and past climates. Trapped air bubbles contain past atmospheric composition, information on temperature variations, and types of vegetation from earlier times.

Studying ice bubbles is one way for scientists to know that there have been several Ice Ages, for example. Unfortunately, glaciers have been retreating at unprecedented rates since the early twentieth century, destroying ice bubbles. This Photo Friday, view images of these information-packed glacier ice bubbles.

Glacial air bubbles in the South Pole (Source: Michael Creasy/Twitter)
Blue ice is formed when snow falls on the glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier (Source: Jamie Mae/Twitter).
The bubble air has been trapped in the ice for thousands of years. As glaciers are retreating, the imprisoned air is slowly released as the ice melts (Source: Dru!/Creative Commons)
Scientists sample air bubbles trapped in the glacial ice to understand atmospheric conditions (Source: Booizzy/Creative Commons).

The Pascua-Lama Mining Project Threatens Glaciers

Fabiana Li, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba, brings new insight to a long-standing conflict over a South American mining project in her recently published article “Moving Glaciers: Remaking Nature and Mineral Extraction” on Sage Journals. Li’s article investigates the controversial Pascua-Lama mining project, located on the border between Chile and Argentina, run by Barrick Gold, a prominent mining company from Canada. The project gained recognition because of its plan to move three glaciers located at the mining site, disturbing the integrity of the glaciers in the region. Ongoing debate over the site’s future and expenses led Barrick to abandon the project in 2013, but controversy over the future of the site continues.

“The Pascua-Lama project is still in limbo,” Li said in an interview with GlacierHub. “Like other mining companies recovering from the downturn in the metals market, Barrick is now looking for partners for a joint venture in order to mitigate the risks involved in the project. The company has already spent $8.5 billion on Pascua Lama, so it is not likely to abandon it entirely, but it will not be able to continue operating as before, without a new approach to community relations and environmental issues.”

The Pascua-Lama project first ran into trouble when dealing with the glaciers that surrounded the ore deposit, notes Li. In the company’s initial environmental impact assessment, they disregarded the glaciers’ existence. In 2001, the company decided to include the glaciers in the environmental impact assessment by creating a section called the “glacier management plan.” The plan stated that Barrick would move 10 hectares of glaciers with bulldozers, front loaders, or even “controlled explosives,” if necessary, to an adjacent area outside of the development. This plan was approved by the Chilean authorities in 2001.

Outlined borders of the Pascua-Lama project area (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

However, the company’s proposal to move the glaciers was met with animosity from environmental organizations, local residents of the Huasco Valley (a region in Chile located below the mine), representatives of the Catholic Church, Diaguita indigenous communities (who claimed the land as their own), and local and foreign activists. Li told GlacierHub that she tried to show in her article how glaciers, mountains and rivers are more than just resources. “They make up people’s sense of place, their identities, and ways of life,” she said. “They form part of important relationships that people forge with their surroundings and that sustain life.” Communities in the Huasco Valley, for example, protested the glaciers’ removal, arguing that they are dependent on the water supply for agriculture and drinking, with the glaciers storing water for the dry season.

During the 1990s, there was a boom in companies investing in exploration and extraction from countries in South America like Peru. As of 2013, Pascua-Lama was thought to own one of the world’s largest gold and silver resources. Barrick first began exploring the Chile/Argentina border in 1994, searching for possible mining opportunities. It was not until 1997 that both the Chilean and Argentinian presidents signed the Mining Integration Treaty that allowed mining development along the mountain ranges. The treaty granted access to economic activity, foreign property ownership, and water and resources. The Pascua-Lama project also became the world’s first binational mine, creating an example for other projects and developments to follow.

One of Barrick Gold’s sites in Pascua-Lama (Source: Barrick Sudamerica/Creative Commons).

In 2004, the company released an environmental impact assessment, which diminished the importance of the glaciers once again, calling them “ice reservoirs,” “ice fields,” or “glacierets.” One of Barrick’s top executives even denied that there were any glaciers at all. Scientists and researchers hired by the company, such as those at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Aridas (Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones) and the Centro de Estudios Científicos (Center for Scientific Studies), stated that snow and ice features identified “are of very small surface area and it is not clear from the images whether they would be classified as névés, glacierets or glaciers.” They defined the term glacieret as an ice body “formed primarily by blowing or avalanching snow, which usually shows no surface signs of flow.”

In 2006, the assessment was approved under the condition that the company “only access the ore in a manner that does not remove, relocate, destroy, or physically interfere with the Toro 1, Toro 2, and Esperanza glaciers.” Barrick modified the size of the mining pit and claimed that the three “ice fields” were outside of the mining pit limits and wouldn’t be touched.

Community groups protesting against the Pascua-Lama mining project (Source: The future is unwritten/Creative Commons).

Mining construction resumed in 2009, but inspectors soon found that the company neglected their water management plan, which affected the Estrecho glacier and environmental mitigation strategies to protect the glaciers, such as plans to reduce the amount of dust from the site over the glaciers. Chilean government inspections confirmed the company’s negative impact on the glaciers, rivers and wetland systems, resulting in the project’s closure.

According to a local paper, Diario Financiero, the judgement authorized the “temporary closure of Pascua-Lama mining operations, without having the necessary measures in place to ensure the physical and chemical stability of the water sources affected by the project.” Barrick’s continued disregard for environmental regulations resulted in a $16 million fine, the highest possible fine under Chilean law, according to Li. Originally, the company estimated the mining project would cost $3 billion, but this estimate increased after additional costs were added, including from legal battles and additional fees for not abiding with environmental regulations. The project was officially halted in 2013 after the Supreme Court of Chile suspended the project due to the company’s environmental wrongdoings.

Due to complications with the Pascua-Lama project, Argentina created a law in 2010 that prohibited mining and oil drilling in glacier and peri-glacier areas to preserve its water resources. Additionally, Argentina started a national glacier inventory, so that the government and companies are able to identify where mining projects can and cannot take place. Barrick also signed a memorandum of understanding with 15 indigenous communities in Chile to open a dialogue, although there have been no updates on whether or not the project will resume. In the end, the Pascua- Lama project provides an important example to all sides. “This conflict helped to raise awareness about the consequences of resource extraction and inspired people to speak out against mining in a country where this industry has long been considered the backbone of the economy,” Li said. “Pascua Lama also helped make glaciers more visible, and brought to light new issues that had not been addressed.”