Reflections from Two Girls on a Rocky Adventure

Two girls and a car, fresh out of grad school, with new perspectives on climate science, that was how our adventure to the Rocky Mountain region began.

Grand Teton roadtrip on Glacierhub
Starting the Grand Teton Park Loop with the Teton Ranges in sight (Source: Sabrina Ho).

A year ago, we were hauled from two different Asian countries united by a common goal. We wanted to become better climate science communicators. That was how I first met Yang Zhang, my close friend and course-mate from Columbia University’s Climate and Society master’s program, and a colleague at GlacierHub. Fast forward to now, Yang and I are about to embark on new jobs in climate science education and climate policy, respectively. But beforehand, we decided to take a 12-day road trip to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to experience camping under the stars and how it feels to live in a RV.

Visiting the Rocky Mountains was a dream of mine. The trip to Grand Teton National Park, a mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, rekindled memories from high school. The Rockies were a constant mention in my geography curriculum in Singapore, from their epic formation when the oceanic crust was subducted under the North American continental crust to the weathering forces affecting the mountain range until today. As we drove past the mountains, I was momentarily dazzled by their sheer size; reading about mountain ranges 4,400m (12,000ft) was nothing compared to seeing them in real life.

There are many glaciers in the Rockies, but most are undergoing rapid retreat. Mount Moran’s five glaciers in the Grand Tetons, for example, have retreated by more than 20 percent in the last 40 years. Some have even disappeared. This narrative was plastered across information boards in the park in western Wyoming. I felt the message needed little introduction: the changes were clear in the small patches of ice on the mountains that stood in stark contrast with the old photograph of a much larger ice patch from 40 years ago. These small patches of ice were once connected when they formed during the Little Ice Age.

Glaciers on Mount Moran, Grand Teton National Park on GlacierHub
Glaciers on Mount Moran, Grand Teton National Park (Source: Sabrina Ho).

In that moment, I felt how powerful it was to be present on site, to see the most obvious evidence of climate change that I had studied all year before my own eyes. I watched as a father told his teenage daughter to capture a good photograph of the landscape. “You’ll never know for sure how or when this might change,” he told them.

The core of our climate and society curriculum at Columbia University was our discussion of the interactions between humans and nature. On one hand, we examined the manipulation and misinterpretation of climate science evidence that fuels arguments from climate skeptics. On the other hand, we were exposed to the different applications of climate science information that helps us better understand and perhaps even solve real-world problems. Over the past year, I have admired the amazing work of my professors, from using remote sensing to predict the regions most prone to Zika mosquitoes in Tanzania to understanding the plight of climate refugees in Bangladesh. But standing in front of the Grand Tetons, I realized these interactions are not limited to our world’s most remote places. The national park system in the United States is a nexus for nature and social interactions, and it reflects our quickly changing landscapes under rising global temperatures.

National Parks were established to protect areas of natural, scenic or cultural significance. They are spaces where people can get close to nature for relaxation and recreation, but they are also effective classrooms. Many researchers conduct ecological, geological and hydrological studies in parks like the Grand Tetons. As Yang and I took short walks from several viewpoints, I witnessed parents pointing out different types of wildlife seen on trails to their children, while kids eagerly filled in their activity books in an attempt to get a Junior Ranger badge.

Wildlife in Grand Teton on GlacierHub
Wildlife spotted featuring the squirrel, antelope, bison and moose (Source: Sabrina Ho).

“It’s always good to bring people close to nature. But how to respect nature and the indigenous people there should be the core as well,” Yang commented during one of our walks. National parks were first established with the purpose of conservation, while at the same time displacing many indigenous communities that lived on the lands. The indigenous populations were often forbidden from carrying out their usual activities of hunting and agriculture. Land grabs also ensued. The Shoshone people, who lived in the Grand Teton region, faced such treatment. Recently, the indigenous communities of nearby Yellowstone National Park have applied for a name change of Hayden Valley and Mount Doane, which were named after perpetuators of violence against Native Americans.

Teton Glacier on Cascade Trail on GlacierHub
Yang and I on the Cascade Trail with the Teton mountain range in the background (Source: Sabrina Ho).

Before we hiked the Cascade Trail to see Teton Glacier, we were warned of grizzly bear sightings in the area. Grizzly bear activity has heightened as bears eat more furiously to prepare for their upcoming hibernation in the winter. During our adventure to Glacier National Park, we had been turned away from the Iceberg Lake Trail because it was closed for bear feasting season. Though I was disappointed, Yang said, “The trail would be the thing I feel the sorriest for missing on this trip. But I also feel glad that we wouldn’t be standing in the way of the mother grizzly bears who are trying to make sure their cubs survive this winter.” Just yesterday, the Endangered Species Act to protect grizzly bears living around Yellowstone National Park was restored.

My visit to the Rockies served as a timely reminder: it is easy to be in awe of nature’s beauty; living in harmony is harder to achieve. I remain hopeful that we will continue working in the right direction, as we learn to better read nature’s signs through technological advances and structure developments in an informed and sustainable manner.

Roundup: NASA Satellite, Swiss Drought and Alaska Earthquake

NASA, ULA Launch Mission to Track Earth’s Changing Ice

From NASA: “NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) successfully launched from California at 9:02 a.m. EDT Saturday September 15, embarking on its mission to measure the ice of Earth’s frozen reaches with unprecedented accuracy. ‘With this mission we continue humankind’s exploration of the remote polar regions of our planet and advance our understanding of how ongoing changes of Earth’s ice cover at the poles and elsewhere will affect lives around the world, now and in the future,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. ICESat-2 continues the record of ice height measurements started by NASA’s original ICESat mission, which operated from 2003 to 2009.”

Read more about ICESat-2 here.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket is seen as it launches with the NASA Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) onboard, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018 (Source: Bill Ingalls/NASA).

 

Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows During Drought

From Reuters: “Swiss army helicopters began airlifting water on Tuesday to thousands of thirsty cows who are suffering in a drought and heatwave that has hit much of Europe. Large red plastic containers hung from the bottom of the Super Puma helicopters carried the water to farms in the Jura Mountains and Alpine foothills. Some 40,000 cows graze in the summertime in high-altitude pastures in Vaud canton (state) in western Switzerland and each needs up to 150 liters (40 gallons) of water a day, authorities said.”

Find out more about the drought hitting the alpine foothills of Switzerland here.

Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow grazing in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).

 

Warnings Abound Before Alaska Landslide and Tsunami

From Live Science: “A massive landslide and tsunami that denuded the slopes of an Alaskan fjord could reveal warning signs that could help predict future disasters. In a new paper, researchers described the geological fingerprints of the tsunami, which tore through Taan Fjord on Oct.17, 2015, at an estimated 100 mph (162 km/h). Using satellite imagery and field-based measurements, the team discovered that the slope was displaying signs of instability for at least two decades before it failed. The rugged landscape is dotted with glaciers, including the Tyndall Glacier.”

Discover more about the severe Alaska landslide in 2015 here.

An island in Taan Fiord, about 10 km from the landslide at Tyndall Glacier, shown by satellite in 2014 (left) and a few days after the landslide and tsunami (right) (Source: AGU).

Roundup: Subglacial Drainage, Extremophiles and Yellowstone Name Change

Subglacial Drainage Under a Valley Glacier in the Yukon

From The Cryosphere: “The subglacial drainage system is one of the main controls on basal sliding, but remains only partially understood. Here we use an 8-year dataset of borehole observations on a small, alpine polythermal valley glacier in the Yukon Territory to assess qualitatively how well the established understanding of drainage physics explains the observed temporal evolution and spatial configuration of the drainage system.”

Read more about the study here.

Kathleen Lake Yukon on GlacierHub
Kathleen Lake in Klaune National Park, Yukon (Source: Creative Commons).

 

Extremophiles at Deception Island Volcano in Antarctica

From Extremophiles: “Deception Island is notable for its pronounced temperature gradients over very short distances, reaching values up to 100 °C in the fumaroles, and subzero temperatures next to the glaciers. Our main goal in this study was to isolate thermophilic and psychrophilic bacteria from sediments associated with fumaroles and glaciers from two geothermal sites, and to evaluate their survivability to desiccation and UV-C radiation. Our results revealed that culturable thermophiles and psychrophiles were recovered among the extreme temperature gradient in Deception volcano, which indicates that these extremophiles remain alive even when the conditions do not comprise their growth range.”

Learn more about extremophiles here.

Image of an extremophile, Tardigrades, which are found in a range of extreme environments (Source: E. Schokraie et al./Creative Commons).

 

Native Americans Seek to Rename Yellowstone Peak

From The Guardian: “A valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, formed by a glacier, may get a new name. Hayden Valley is glacial, dating back to the last Ice Age. It was named after a surveyor, Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden who advocated removing Native Americans from the region. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, comprising tribal chairmen of 16 Sioux tribes from Nebraska and the Dakotas, is pursuing an application to change the name of Hayden Valley to Buffalo Nations Valley.”

Find out more about the news here.

Hayden Valley Yellowstone on GlacierHub
Hayden Valley (Source: Yellowstone National Park).

Seeing is Believing: Project Pressure’s Cryosphere Exhibition at Unseen Amsterdam

Project Pressure’s promotional poster for its traveling exhibition, When Records Melt (Source: Project Pressure).

Klaus Thymann, an environmental scientist and a photographer, married two interests to make an impact on the world as the founder of Project Pressure, an English charity organization that spotlights the world’s vanishing glaciers through poignant photographs and videos. As the organization’s director, Thymann works in collaboration with other artists to depict firsthand the environmental impact of climate change. This month, Project Pressure’s latest collaboration is a traveling exhibition, “When Records Melt,” which will make its debut in the Netherlands at Unseen Amsterdam, an international photography fair held annually at the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam.

Unseen Amsterdam, now in its seventh year, draws attention to the changing medium of photography and highlights the work of new and emerging artists. “When Records Melt” is Project Pressure’s latest photographic exploration of the cryosphere, which will include photographs of the Antarctic Peninsular and the Rhône glacier in Switzerland, captured as part of the expedition project, “Shroud,” which Thymann was personally involved in.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Thymann described his latest work on “Shroud” at Rhône Glacier. “It deals with adaptation rather than mitigation. We are past the point where we can mitigate climate change. We will still have to try to limit carbon emissions, but we need to deal with the consequences,” he said.

“Shroud” explores how forced adaptation is happening at Rhône Glacier, where locals turn a profit from tourists who come to see an ice grotto carved into the glacier. One featured image from the exhibition shows the Rhône glacier shrouded in thermal blankets by a small business to prevent the glacier from further melting and to preserve the glacier as a tourist attraction.

Rhône Glacier as seen in a photograph for project “Shroud” (Source: Simon Norfolk & Klaus Thymann/Unseen Amsterdam).

“It is absurd and I guess that is part of the point. It should also be a call to action,” Thymann said. A review in Next Nature describes how the glacier has become a commodity, noting that the result is “a surreal, nearly abstract image of a landscape that once was natural.”

Although Thymann has not discussed the main messages of “Shroud” in detail with the contributing photographer on the project, Simon Norfolk, he says their main hope is for people to be surprised and intrigued by the images.

“Generally, I hope to raise questions rather than anything else,” Thymann told GlacierHub.

Apart from working on photographic exhibitions, Project Pressure also works hand-in-hand with the scientific community to pioneer new technological developments in the field of glacier monitoring. It is recognized as an official contributor to the Global Terrestrial Network for Glaciers, for example, and is a partner of the World Glacier Monitoring Service and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

GlacierHub has also previously featured Thymann’s work on MELT, an open source digital atlas that allows the public to visually tour the world’s receding glaciers to better understand the ongoing impact of rising global temperatures.

When asked about the inspiration behind his work, Thymann said he reads widely on contemporary issues as well as science. More importantly, when he is out in the field, he says he looks for the stories behind the pictures that are waiting to be told.

“For me capturing images is not relevant, storytelling is,” Thymann explained.

“Cyclope, Glacier du Rhône,” a photograph to be featured in Unseen Amsterdam (Source: Noémie Goudal/ Project Pressure).

For Thymann, the greatest success of Project Pressure is seeing how the artists he has collaborated with engage with the subject matter of glaciers and climate change through their journey of creating art.

“I think all combined, the works are very strong and offer a real unique platform, and that makes me proud,” Thymann said.

On display in Amsterdam from September 21 to 23, this exhibition is not to be missed by glacier lovers. To support Project Pressure in their continued work, you may also donate at project-pressure.org.

Video of the Week: Lower Curtis Glacier Flow

This week, we feature a video from Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Pelto and his team have recorded the mass balance of several glaciers in the North Cascades and Alaska. While on fieldwork, he captured the outflow gushing from the Lower Curtis glacier on camera. Lower Curtis Glacier is located in North Cascades National Park and has been rapidly retreating. It is said to have lost 28 percent of its surface area since the Little Ice Age.

Pelto currently writes for a blog by the American Geophysical Union, From a Glacier’s Perspective. The blog talks about the response of different glaciers to climate change and recent findings on glacier mass balance.

Read more glacier news here:

Thoughts from the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier National Park

GlacierHub News Report 08:23:18

Highest Plants on Earth Discovered Near Glacier

Colombia May Lose All of Its Glaciers in Next Thirty Years

Colombia’s six remaining glaciers are likely to vanish in thirty years if current melting rates persist, says a recent study conducted by Colombia’s Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales (IDEAM). Currently, all six glaciers lie on the peaks in the Los Nevados National Park. Each year, about three to five percent of the ice-covered area is lost.

Research Shows High Rates of Glacier Loss in Colombia

According to a paper published in 2017, satellite images have estimated that Colombia’s overall glacier extent is only 42 square kilometers. This is a 36 percent decrease compared to the mid-1990s.

Different textures of glaciers found in Colombia on GlacierHub Different textures of glaciers found in Colombia (Source: IDEAM).

 

“Every glacier worldwide is facing this dilemma,” Ómar Franco, the director of IDEAM, told the local press during a briefing. Franco attributes the melting to the changing El Niño weather pattern, reports The City Paper, a local newspaper. Between 2015 and 2016, severe drought impacted the country, and limited precipitation hindered glacier growth during the winter months.

While an average increase of 2 degrees Celsius is expected worldwide, it could be twice as serious in the Latin American countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. These countries are home to 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers. When an El Niño occurs, temperatures could increase by up to 8 degrees Celsius, with extremely low monthly precipitation of only 7mm.

However, not all of the glaciers will melt at the same rate. Their microclimate varies and is dependent on the glacier’s distance from urban centers and the presence of tourism activities including hiking. The presence of human activities on glaciers erodes their delicate structures, for example. Thus, glaciers on Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Nevado del Cocuy could potentially have a longer lifespan, as they are relatively pristine. The last to go will probably be the largest and most extensive Sierra Nevada El Cocuy glacier.

Military Involvement in Data Collection

Decreasing Rates of Colombia’ six glaciers from 1960 to 2017 on GlacierHub
Decreasing Rates of Colombia’ six glaciers from 1960 to 2017 (Source: IDEAM)

Given these somber predictions, the government of Colombia is paying close attention to the issue, especially with the end of the Columbian armed conflict that took place from 1964 to 2017. Absent war against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the military can now focus its efforts on other issues such as glacier monitoring. The Colombian Air Force that for decades flew over the country in search of guerrillas, drug traffickers and paramilitaries now uses its technology to monitor the frozen surfaces of the country. The latest findings in the IDEAM study are based on the data collected by the Air Force.

An Official Comments on Global Political Issues

“We call on countries that are big emitters of greenhouse gases to live up to their commitments,” Luis Gilberto Murillo, the Colombian Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development, announced after the IDEAM briefing on the study. Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 were estimated to be only 0.37 percent of global emissions, but the glaciers and environment could still suffer tremendously.

This draws back to the north-south divide on environmental issues, with themes of responsibility, compensation and carbon emission cuts being sources of contention between the developed and developing world.

Previously, Glacierhub reported that Venezuela is losing its last glacier. Will this be the future of Colombia’s glaciers too?

Photo Friday: Mount Baker Amid Haze from Fires

This Photo Friday, catch a glimpse of Mount Baker, a large glaciated peak in the North Cascades, from the area around Bellingham in the state of Washington. Or see what the view was like at spots from which the mountain could usually be seen.

These photos are obtained first-hand from GlacierHub’s managing editor Ben Orlove who is visiting Northwest Washington to interview local residents in the small towns near the peak. The area is known for its spectacular views of Mount Baker, but these views have recently been clouded by haze from devastating forest fires that have swept across British Columbia and eastern Washington.

One afternoon during Orlove’s trip, the winds shifted and the air was a little clearer. Mount Baker was also more visible in the background. But then the winds changed again, and the heavy smoke returned.

Such smoky conditions are historically rare in the region, but this is the second year in a row that they have occurred, according to Orlove. When Mount Baker is visible, its shrinking glacier helps make visitors aware of climate change. After speaking with local residents, Orlove reported that several of them described the situation of smoky air as “the new normal.”  The fires that have made the mountain invisible for stretches of time this year have also been widely discussed in the media, with several commentators linking the fires to support for Washington Initiative 1631, a carbon emissions fee measure on the state ballot this fall. In this way, Mount Baker builds awareness of climate change, whether it is visible or not.

Mount Constitution on GlacierHub
Mount Constitution, the highest point on Orcas Island westward of Bellingham. Mount Baker, ordinarily visible from this spot, was obscured by haze. late August 2018  (Source: Ben Orlove).

 

Mount Baker in Bellinham on GlacierHub
View of Mount Baker from a neighborhood in Bellingham, on one of the few relatively clear days in late August 2018 (Source: Ben Orlove).

 

Early morning in the Fairhaven section of Bellingham, Washington, looking east.  Mount Baker  was obscured by the haze. late August 2018.(Source: Ben Orlove).
Mount Baker on GlacierHub
A spot on Bellingham Bay, from which Mount Baker is ordinarily visible. Late August 2018.(Source: Ben Orlove).

 

View of Mount Baker near the town of Seder-Woolley along the Skagit River on GlacierHub
A view from just outside Sedro-Woolley along the Skagit River. Mount Baker is usually visible from this spot. Late August 2018. (Source: Ben Orlove).

 

A clear view of Mount Rainier, south of Mount Baker, from an airplane above the smoke layer. Mount Rainier has also been obscured by smoke from the fires. Late August 2018. (Source: Ben Orlove).

After ‘Peak Water,’ the Days of Plenty Are Over

In a recent paper in Science of The Total Environment, a team of Chinese researchers created a model of the Urumqi No. 1 catchment in Xinjiang, China, and made a surprising discovery. As they sought to estimate the effects of global warming on glacier thinning, retreat and local supply of water resources, they found that the glacier is expected to reach “peak water,” with runoff shrinking by half of its 1980 extent in the next 30 years. The glacier will also lose approximately 80 percent of its ice volume.

As glaciers shrink, runoff increases (with more melting) but then decreases thereafter when the size of the glacier has permanently decreased. Peak water, or the tipping point of glacier melt supply, when runoff in glacier-fed rivers reaches the maximum, is estimated to occur around 2020. This phenomenon shares its concept with the term “peak oil,” which refers to the hypothetical point in time when the global oil production rate will reach maximum capacity. Thereafter, oil production will only decline.

Urumqi No. 1 Glacier on GlacierHub
Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Far West China/Pinterest).

In contrast to peak oil, glacial reserves can be estimated with a higher certainty. Annina Sorg, an independent researcher with expertise in geomorphology, geography and climatology, explained the concept to GlacierHub. “Peak water for a catchment can be assessed with quite good precision if the past climate and glacial volume loss are well known and if reasonable climate models are being used,” she said. This is because, unlike oil, consumption of glacier meltwater does not have a direct impact on glacial melting. Glaciers will continue to melt no matter if the demand for glacial meltwater is high or low.

“Peak water is an important aspect of glacial impact of hydrology, and the term absolutely makes sense,” Matthias Huss, a senior lecturer from the University of Freiburg, expressed in an interview with GlacierHub. “After peak water, annual runoff sums from glaciers will be steadily decreasing, which might cause problems with water availability.”

Huss’s team recently published a paper on the first complete global assessment of when peak water from glaciers will occur. Huss believes the smaller scale study on the Urumqi glacier uses a very similar approach as he did for all 200,000 glaciers globally but with more accurate data for calibration and validation to fit the local context. Both studies also yield consistent findings.

In the arid regions of Central Asia, meltwater from glaciers determine streamflow. Glaciers are not only valuable water sources for the communities around rivers, but can also serve as buffers against droughts during dry periods.

“Conditions are ‘good’ before peak water— we even have more water than in the case of balanced glacier mass budgets. This water can be used for irrigation or hydropower production. However, after peak water, less water is available, most importantly in the summer months, which might have considerable impact on water resource management,” Huss warned.

Urumqi River on GlacierHub
Urumqi River that is fed by the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Remote Lands/Pinterest).

The story is also more complex in a broader context. Whether water shortage is experienced due to glacier recession strongly depends on the climate regime. In general, glaciers play a more important role when summer climates are dry, as in the case of Xinjiang. Peak water also strongly varies with glacier size, with larger glaciers experiencing later peaks than smaller glaciers.

“As Urumqi Glacier is a relatively small glacier, it might not be fully representative for regional peak water, which is governed by the larger glaciers,” Huss explained.

Still, Sorg holds the view that the abundance of meltwater before peak water “might slow down a society’s attempts to elaborate mitigation measures, which would be needed to handle the second period of decreasing meltwater runoff.”

In the case of Xinjiang, runoff from glacier melting will likely experience a dramatic decrease from 2020 to 2050, post peak water. The east and west branches of Urumqi No. 1 Glacier also have different responses to climate change. By the end of the 21st century, as compared to 1980 rates, the area extent and ice volume of the west branch could decrease by up to 58 and 82 percent, respectively. While at the east branch, glacier area could shrink by 95 percent, losing about 99 percent of its ice volume.

Urumqi Glacier Change on GlacierHub
Predicted Glacier Area Changes in 2030, 2050, 2070 and 2100 based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 (Source: Gao et al).

 

“In my opinion, it is important to spread the term ‘peak water,’ also in popular media, not science alone. It draws awareness to the point that the depletion of glacial reserves is not a continuous process like emptying a bathtub,” Sorg told GlacierHub. Rather, peak water is a period of abundance that Sorg thinks is probably not appreciated enough and is taken for granted.

Sorg concluded with a somber reminder. “After peak water, the days of plenty are over— at least in respect to glacial meltwater availability,” she said. As Xinjiang is very dependent on its glaciers, mitigation measures are required to adapt to glacier mass changes for long-term water security in the region.

Roundup: Swedish Mountain, Glacier Retreat and Glacier Forelands

Hot Weather Melts Sweden’s Highest Peak

From Bloomberg: “This summer’s exceptionally hot weather has seen the south peak of Kebnekaise lose the crown as Sweden’s highest point… The south peak measured 2,097 meters (6,879 feet) above sea level on July 31, down from 2,101 meters on July 2, according to data from the Tarfala research station. The north peak is 2,096.8 meters high, and the research station estimates that it overtook the south peak as Sweden’s highest point on Aug. 1 as the melting has continued.”

Find out more about glacier melting on Sweden’s highest mountain here.

Kebnekaise Mountains on GlacierHub
Kebnekaise Mountains (Source: Swedish Tourist Association).

Melting of Maliy Aktru Glacier Reveals Primary Ecological Succession

In Wiley’s Journal for Ecology and Evolution: “Plants, microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), and soil elements along a chronosequence in the first 600m of the Maliy Aktru glacier’s forefront (Altai Mountains, Russia) were surveyed… Plant succession shows clear signs of changes along the incremental distance from the glacier front. The development of biological communities and the variation in geochemical parameters represent an irrefutable proof that climate change is altering soils that have been long covered by ice.”

Read more about glacier retreat in the Altai Mountains here.

Maliy Aktru glacier’s forefront on glacierhub
Maliy Aktru Glacier’s Forefront (Source: Alexi Rudoy/World Glacier Monitoring Service).

 

Anthropogenic Influence on Primary Succession in Alps

From the 6th Symposium for Research in Protected Areas: “Glacier forelands are ideal ecosystems to study community assembly processes… This study focuses on possible anthropogenic influences on these primary successions. Floristic data of three glacier forelands show that anthropogenic influences in form of (i) grazing sheep and (ii) hiking trails are creating patterns, visible in the floristic community composition and in change of species numbers. (iii) Additionally, it was found that the special protected area ‘Inneres Untersulzbachtal,’ where grazing has been absent for decades didn’t show any of these patterns, underlining the importance of process-protection in glacier forelands, as one of the last truly wild ecosystems in central Europe.”

Discover the anthropogenic influences on primary successions in glacier forelands here.

Alps Glacier Foreland (Source: Brigitta Erschbamer/ Resrach Gate).

War Against Natural Disasters: A Fight the Indian Military Can’t Win

A sensitive Himalayan ecosystem and community vulnerable to threats— both natural and human-caused— lies along the Indian border region of Ladakh, bordered by Pakistan and China. For one, ongoing military tensions necessitate a permanent presence of the Indian army in the region. Ladakh is also badgered by natural disasters, with local inhabitants affected each year by floods and landslides, especially during the spring and summer months when snow and glaciers melt. Despite the region’s exposure to these natural hazards, national security remains the top priority, with the region relying on military-led disaster governance. A recent study reveals that disaster risk reduction is often slow or even absent in Ladakh due to its ongoing status as a conflict and military-tense zone.

GlacierHub spoke to the lead author of the paper, Jessica Field, from the Jindal School of International Affairs in Jagdishpur, India, about disaster governance in Ladakh. In the current era of climate change, the region’s glaciers are retreating, causing floods and threatening livelihoods. Field commented that the issue of flooding is well-recognized in the region and that there have been various efforts over the years to limit the impacts of natural disasters.

“Perhaps the most famous are those of the Ice Stupa project by engineer Sonam Wangchuk and the artificial glacier work of Chewang Norphel, which have been designed primarily to meet the water needs of the region,” she said. ”But engineers are also working on them to prevent flood risk from overflow.”

Ice Stupa Project
Ice Stupa Project was the winner of the 2018 Rolex Award for Enterprise (Source: Interesting Engineering).

The effectiveness of such local intiatives is often limited, because they are solo projects spearheaded by individuals without sustained financial and institutional support. In addition, they tend to be pioneered as solutions to water shortage, for example, rather than solutions to disaster risk. As such, these developments do not regularly feature in the discussions or plans focused on disaster risk, which are much more response-focused than disaster mitigation-focused.

Two key issues in the disaster management governance of Ladakh were highlighted in the study. For one, natural disasters are often framed by the government as extraordinary events. As a result, data and experiences are not systematically recorded.

“De-exceptionalising hazards and disasters is the first step to effectively preparing for them,” Field told GlacierHub.

Historical record of disasters are inadequate, which is problematic when it comes to learning from past crises and improving community coping strategies. It limits our understanding of how hazards figure into the daily lives of communities that live in vulnerable environments, such as communities at the high altitudes of the Himalayas.

Secondly, “there must be a shift from a reactive, hazard-centred approach (where the army seems the natural lead) to a more proactive approach,” Field said.

Locals felt that the response displayed by the military and the local population during the onset of a disaster, such as the cloudburst event in 2010, were “reactive, adhoc and largely insufficient,” the paper notes.

2010 Ladakh Floods on GlacierHub
Aftermath of the 2010 Ladakh Floods. Note the wreckage due to poor quality construction materials (Source: Bindu/WordPress).

Despite the development of a Disaster Management Plan by the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council in 2011, the local community remains ill-prepared. Although good practices to effectively deal with disasters in the future are proposed, it has not been translated to action to reduce the loss of lives and damage to property. Illegal construction using non-resilient materials is still carried out on flood-prone areas, flood mitigation projects are left uncompleted, and local knowledge of evacuation remains limited without a formal, village-level assessment of vulnerability.

Offering her insights on disaster risk management and governance, Field told GlacierHub that the plan needs to “one, focus on longer-term preparedness led by the community and civil society; two, account for vulnerability and the wider social dynamics of a region; and three, systematically record data and experiences of crises to inform future disaster risk reduction efforts.”

However, the process of reducing disaster vulnerability in Ladakh does not come easy. Previous studies have warned of the maladaptive forces of modernization, urbanization and globalization in spurring unsustainable and non-disaster resilient infrastructure. The current nature of disaster governance in the region, including the heavy military presence in Ladakh, needs to be considered.

As a securitized zone, which is similar to the Siachen Glacier region GlacierHub has previously reported on, many of the villages within Ladakh are classified as “Protected Areas,” requiring special government permits for access. Humanitarian actors and aid organizations are often unable to gain clearance to work in these areas, even during emergency situations. This situation stems back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War when civilian interference was seen as a major cause of India’s defeat.

Leh Ladakh on GlacierHub
City of Leh in Ladakh with glacier-covered mountains in the background (Source: Pradeep S. Kadam/Pinterest).

Many of the “Protected Areas” still have heavy military presences, even under civilian governance and emergency-preparedness activities. It is thus unsurprising that the emergency-focused elements of the military strategy for Ladakh also focus overwhelmingly on reactive and rescue, rather than risk production, which Field suggests in her paper have the hidden motive “to gain the trust and cooperation of the local population and legitimize their continued presence.”

Based on her other research with Dr Ilan Kelman, Dr Kavita Suri and Dr G.M. Bhat, Field thinks that environmental hazards in the region do not create or resolve conflicts. However, where climate change and hazards exacerbate the vulnerabilities of a population, then (depending on the political context) there can be a risk of conflict escalation and/or increased securitization in the area. Notably, this does not come from the environmental change in and of itself, but rather from the dynamics of the response and the support (or lack of) for recovery and reconstruction.

Field suggests that potential securitization risks from environmental change in Ladakh could involve an increase in environmentally-induced internal migration from the surrounding region. This is not a threat in and of itself, but the central or state government may seek to further expand their security apparatus in Ladakh, given the political dynamics of the state.

“With increased hazards, we are also likely to see the expansion and entrenchment of the military in the area, who are seen as the most appropriate primary responders,” Field added.

 

 

Roundup: Oxygen Isotope, Non-biting Midges and Prokaryotes

Holocene Atmospheric Circulation in the Central North Pacific

From ScienceDirect: “The North Pacific is a zone of cyclogenesis [the development of an area of low pressure in the atmosphere, resulting in the formation of a cyclone] that modulates synoptic-scale atmospheric circulation. We present the first Holocene oxygen isotope record (δ18Odiatom) from the Aleutian Islands supported by diatom assemblage analysis. Our results demonstrate distinct shifts in the prevailing trajectory of storm systems that drove spatially heterogeneous patterns of moisture delivery and climate across the region.”

Read more about the new Holocene oxygen isotope record from the Aleutian Islands here.

A satellite picture of the Aleutian Island Range
Aerial view of the Aleutian Islands amidst the clouds (Source: NASA).

 

The Enigma of Survival Strategies in Glacial Stream Environments

From Freshwater Biology: “Glacier retreat is a key component of environmental change in alpine environments, leading to significant changes in glacier-fed rivers. The species compositions of Diamesinae and Orthocladiinae (of the non-biting midges family) are diverse and strongly affected by the changing habitat conditions upon glacier retreat. Here, we show that Diamesinae have extremely flexible feeding strategies that explain their abundance, high body-mass and predominance in glacier-fed streams.”

Discover more about the insects that live within the glacier-fed streams here.

Midge
A winter-emerging midge (Source: Flickr).

 

Phylogenetic Diversity of Prokaryotes on Lewis Glacier in Mount Kenya

From African Journal of Microbiology Research: “The seasonal snowpack of the temperate glaciers are sources of diverse microbial inoculi. However, the microbial ecology of the tropical glacial surfaces is endangered, hence posing an extinction threat to some populations of some microbes due to rapid loss of the glacier mass. The aim of this study was to isolate and phylogenetically characterise the prokaryotes from the seasonal snow of Lewis glacier in Mt. Kenya. Analyzing snow samples, the results confirm that the seasonal tropical snowpack of Lewis glacier is dominated by the general terrestrial prokaryotes (e.g. Bacillus with 53%) and a few glacier and snow specialist species (e.g. Cryobacterium with 5.9%).”

Find out more about these cellular organisms living on the surface of a Mount Kenya glacier here.

Cryobacterium
Cryobacterium (Source: Reddy et al.).

 

Video of the Week: New Iceberg in Greenland

Earlier this week, Denise Holland from New York University’s Center for Global Sea Level Change captured an epic video of the birth of an iceberg. The new iceberg was formed from a recent calving event as it separated from its parent, the Helheim Glacier, in Eastern Greenland. As described on EarthSky, the iceberg, if laid atop New York City, would stretch from lower Manhattan to Midtown. The wide and flat tabular iceberg proceeded to break into two as it travelled down the fjord.

Holland and her team were studying glacier calving events in Greenland to create more accurate simulations for global sea-level rise. Although the video is only 100 seconds, the entire event supposedly lasted for over 30 minutes. For other techniques, GlacierHub has previously covered this use of time-lapse photography and sound to study glacier calving.

Read more glacier news at GlacierHub:

The Struggle for Water in the Andes

Off with the Wind: The Reproduction Story of Antarctic Lichens

Anthony Bourdain Discussed Bhutan’s Glaciers in Season Finale