Mount Rainier: More Than Just A Holiday Destination

In preparation for the upcoming summer holiday, here are some pictures of Mount Rainier from Mount Rainier National Park in the state of Washington. The park has over 1 to 2 million visitors annually with 260 miles of maintained trails. Being the tallest volcano in the United States, Mount Rainier comprises at least 25 major glaciers and many unnamed snow or ice patches. The mountain provides headwaters to at least six major rivers.

Apart from being a great holiday destination for hikers, the glaciers are important indicators of climate change with extensive studies conducted by the USGS to track annual changes in glacier extent. Unfortunately, gradual loss of ice has been noted annually through satellite images and on the ground surveys.


View of Mount Rainer from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest)
View of Mount Rainier from Alta Vista (Source: US Trekking/Pinterest).


Mount Rainer’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly / Instagram)
Mount Rainier’s glacier covered peak even during the summer (Source: Kelly/Instagram).


Hiking through Mount Rainer National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram)
Hiking through Mount Rainier National Park (Source: Scott Kranz/Instagram).


Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainer (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/ Instagram)
Hiking the Emmons Glacier at Mount Rainier (Source: Timberline Mountain Guides/Instagram).

A New Low for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation

In a recent paper published in Nature, a team of researchers from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom collaborated across the Atlantic to break ground on a new study that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is at its lowest in the past 150 years.

Instrumental in regulating global climate, the AMOC transports heat from the tropics and southern hemisphere toward the North Atlantic and the atmosphere. The strength of the AMOC varies periodically on a 60 to 80 year timescale, which is known as the Atlantic Meridional Oscillation. Currently in its negative phase, a weakening of the AMOC is often associated with the cooling of the Northern Hemisphere. However, it has other widespread impacts on American, African and Asian monsoons.

While other studies have shown that the AMOC has been weakening in recent years, the team demonstrated that the strength of the AMOC is at its lowest in 1,500 years, a finding that is cause for great concern. The researchers also suggested that the magnitude of decline has been severely underestimated due to the lack of sensitivity toward climate (freshwater) forcing. As meltwater is added into the oceans, changes in salinity and water density occur, which disrupt oceanic circulation patterns.

The Global Thermohaline Circulation System, with the AMOC boxed in red (Source: / Twitter).

One such example is the weakening of the circulation in the Labrador Sea as suggested by paleo-oceanographic evidence. This was determined by sorting the size of sediment grains deposited on the ocean bed, which showed a decrease in velocity of the Labrador Sea deep western boundary current.

The deep Labrador Sea density is always used as a predictor for changes in AMOC strength. As the Labrador Sea convection weakens, the velocity of the deep western boundary current decreases, which in turn decreases AMOC strength. This is attributed to freshwater inputs as Arctic and Nordic sea ice, ice sheets, and glaciers started to melt, which is usually thought to have been the outcome of the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, various methods and models were also used to reconstruct the surface temperatures of regions affected by the AMOC. In an interview following the publication of the study, lead author David Thornalley, a senior lecturer at University College London. stated that the “AMOC has weakened over the past 150 years by approximately 15 to 20 percent.”

Yet, the researchers results indicate the onset of AMOC weakening during the late Little Ice Age, coinciding with the industrial era. At that time, increased activity of exporting Arctic and Nordic sea ice occurred, coupled with melting circum-Arctic ice shelves.

In the same interview, Thornally had asserted that “warming and melting are predicted to continue in the future due to continued carbon dioxide emissions.” This comes as no surprise, with many studies already proving that global temperatures have been steadily increasing since the Industrial Revolution.

As the AMOC represents a dynamic coupled ocean-atmosphere system, it can be viewed as both a driver or a responder to climate change. In this case, the study believes that the AMOC has largely responded to the recent century and a half of climate change. Nonetheless, as stated in their report the AMOC may have “modified northward ocean heat transport, as well as atmospheric warming by altering ocean–atmosphere heat transfer, underscoring the need for continued investigation of the role of the AMOC in climate change.”

Thankfully, the AMOC is unlikely to completely shutdown. In an interview with GlacierHub, Wallace Smith Broecker, a well-known geoscience professor in Columbia University’s department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said, “For what it’s worth, there are dozens of ‘water hosing’ experiments” that simulated freshwater input of higher magnitudes coming from Greenland. “Still they failed to shutdown the AMOC,” Broecker added.

Video of the Week: Fodar Map of Alaska’s Denali

This week, journey to Denali in Alaska, the glacier-covered peak that is the highest mountain in North America. Matt Nolan created a new high-resolution map using the software Fodar.

“This story has roots that go back nearly a decade. I’ve never had any desire to climb Denali, but I imagine my desire to map it is similar to what those climbers feel— it’s just there, daring me to test my skills against its challenges. While I’ve been an earth scientist for 25 years, my real passion has been engineering and using contraptions to allow me to make earth science measurements that no one else has made,” Nolan accounted in a blog post on the rationale for this project.

The project was made possible by Fairbanks Fodar, a service that makes maps anywhere in the world, particularly as they relate to assisting underfunded scientists and land managers on issues related to climate change or developmental pressures.


Discover more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

A Women’s Place is at the Top: Interview with Hannah Kimberley

Climate Change in the High Arctic: Lake Hazen’s Response

Roundup: Grounding Lines, Methane-Oxidizing Bacteria and Grazing Patterns

Grounding Lines of Antarctic Glaciers Show Fast Retreat

From Nature Geoscience, “Grounding lines are a key indicator of ice-sheet instability, because changes in their position reflect imbalance with the surrounding ocean and affect the flow of inland ice. Although the grounding lines of several Antarctic glaciers have retreated rapidly due to ocean-driven melting, records are too scarce to assess the scale of the imbalance. Here, we combine satellite altimeter observations of ice-elevation change and measurements of ice geometry to track grounding-line movement around the entire continent, tripling the coverage of previous surveys. Between 2010 and 2016, 22%, 3% and 10% of surveyed grounding lines in West Antarctica, East Antarctica and at the Antarctic Peninsula retreated at rates faster than 25 m yr−1 (the typical pace since the Last Glacial Maximum) and the continent has lost 1,463 km2 ± 791 km2 of grounded-ice area.”

Discover more about Antarctica’s melting situation here.

The calving front of an ice shelf in West Antarctica as seen from above (Source: NASA/Flickr)


Glacier Melt Exposes Land for Methane-Oxidizing Bacteria

From Oxford Academic: “Methane (CH4) is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and identification of its sources and sinks is crucial for the reliability of climate model outputs. Although CH4 production and consumption rates have been reported from a broad spectrum of environments, data obtained from glacier forefields are restricted to a few locations. We report the activities and diversity of Methane-Oxidizing Bacteria along a Norwegian sub-Arctic Glacier Forefield using high-throughput sequencing and gas flux measurements. The overall results showed that the methanotrophic community had similar trends of increased CH4 consumption and increased abundance as a function of soil development and time of year when glaciers retreat.”

Read more about the relationship between methane and glacier retreat here.

Methane-oxidizing Bacteria Methylosinus Trichosporium (Source: Ezra Kulczycki/ PNAS)
Methane-oxidizing Bacteria Methylosinus Trichosporium (Source: Ezra Kulczycki/ PNAS).


Grazing Patterns in Glacier-fed Wetlands

In PLOS ONE, “Grazing areas management is of utmost importance in the Andean region. In these harsh mountains, unique and productive wetlands sustained by glacial water streams are of utmost importance for feeding cattle herds during the dry season. After the colonization by the Spanish, a shift in livestock species has been observed, with the introduction of exotic species such as cows and sheep, resulting in a different impact on pastures compared to native camelid species—llamas and alpacas. Our results suggest that the access to market influenced pastoralists to reshape their herd composition, by increasing the number of sheep. They also suggest that community size increased daily grazing time in pastures, therefore intensifying the grazing pressure.”

Explore the influence of glacier meltwater on wetland size and herd composition here.

Llama in a sea of sheep grazing in a farm (Source: Brianne Hughes/ Pinterest )
A llama in a sea of sheep grazing on a farm (Source: Brianne Hughes/ Pinterest).

Fox’s Glacier Mints Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

This month, Fox’s Glacier Mints, a famous candy brand from the United Kingdom, is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The Fox company was founded in Leicester by Walter Richard Fox in 1895. However, the glacier mints were created by Fox’s son Eric Smart Fox by mistake in 1918. His modified candy recipe resulted in a transparent peppermint, which he named “Clear Mint Fingers.” The candies not only looked like glaciers, with their clear appearance, but many people also thought they tasted like them. As one customer, a woman named Sandy, told GlacierHub in the candy section of a local Bronx Target store in New York City, the mints are “refreshing and cool.” She added, “When you think about it, the name Glacier Mints is quite apt.”

Fox’s Glacier Mints (Source: Fox’s Glaciers/Twitter)
Fox’s Glacier Mints (Source: Fox’s Glaciers/Twitter).

In five years, Fox managed to expand his business to have a space in London’s Oxford Street by 1923. Since then, the image of a polar bear has been used in the marketing of these “Glacier Mints.” Known as Peppy, short for peppermint, the polar bear soon became the official mascot and icon of the brand. With a limited budget for marketing, Fox started to display a 1.5-metre-tall stuffed Peppy at football matches and carnivals to advertise the product in the 1920s, legend has it. This form of marketing continued for some decades, all the way until 1960.

In 2006, the company donated the polar bear to a museum in Leicester. According to Moran, the firm’s brand manager said in an interview that Peppy “had been left forgotten in a factory for over 20 years” since its public appearance drastically declined after the 1960s and was mostly in storage thereafter. However, little was known about the polar bear, including who the designer was, its gender or where it was made.

From 1970 onward, while the original Peppy sat n storage, his or her image was used for print and TV campaigns, joined by other characters, including an arctic fox. In the short commercials, a love-hate relationship developed between Peppy and the fox, often capturing the audience’s attention with a traditional British sense of humor. The mints also alluded to glaciers frequently, with words like “cool,” “clear” and “refreshing” in the advertisements.

However, the Fox brand may still be unfamiliar to many Americans. Through a short survey, admittedly unscientific, conducted in the candy section of the previously-mentioned Target store, GlacierHub discovered that only three out of 15 customers had ever heard of the candy brand. In fact, none had any recollection of watching the TV commercials. Sadly, the Target store also did not carry any Fox’s Glacier Mints, but the mints are available online through sites like Amazon.

Mascot Peppy Display (Source: Carmel Clapson/Twitter)
Mascot Peppy Display (Source: Carmel Clapson/Twitter).

“Although I have never had that particular brand of mints, when you asked me about my opinion on glaciers, the thought of a mint just kept resurfacing now that you mentioned ‘Glacier Mints.’ Whoever thought of associating mints and glaciers is a genius!” exclaimed a customer named Andrew.

“I always associated glacier mints with clear mints, although I did not know it originated from Fox’s. I think there are other brands selling clear mints in the market now– they are not the only one,” another customer Amy told GlacierHub. Indeed, other brands such as Perugina and Cristal have marketed their clear mints as glaciers and crystals.

Perugina’s and Cristal’s Clear Mints (Source: Amazon)
Perugina’s and Cristal’s Clear Mints (Source: Amazon).

With the demand for candy high nowadays, the competition remains fierce for brands in the market. However, Fox’s found the perfect marketing for their clear mints, cleverly using the “cool” and “refreshing” glacier theme. The next time you need a chill pill, you now know the perfect glacier candy.


Melting Glaciers Create Uncertain Future for Xinjiang

In a study published last month in Elsevier’s Science of the Total Environment, five Chinese researchers assessed the severity of drought in Xinjiang, China, from 1961 to 2015, and the future impact of melting glaciers on the drought conditions. The largest province in China, Xinjang is characterized by its arid climate. The area, located in the heart of Central Asia and surrounded by the Tianshan and Kunlun mountain ranges, is cut off from moist air masses. As a result, the region experienced 26 severe droughts between 1961 and 2000, with annual mean precipitation of only 158 mm.

Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al).
Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al.)

The Xinjiang region relies on its eight rivers derived from glacier melt as water sources. According to the author, there are approximately 6,500 glaciers spanning 10,500 square kilometers in North Xinjiang and 11,000 glaciers across 13,500 square kilometers in the south. Glaciers and their meltwater play a huge role in Xinjiang’s water supply, making the area extremely vulnerable to climate change.

GlacierHub spoke with Yaning Chen, one of the lead authors who is based in Xinjiang at the Institute of Ecology and Geography. He explained that millions of people in Xinjiang depend on water from mountain precipitation and glacial melt-water. “Climate change has led to high uncertainty regarding the advances and retreats of glaciers and snow cover,” he said. Glaciers could grow in some areas while shrink in others, which means that future water availability under climate change is unclear, he added.

To the average person, droughts are commonly perceived as a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, resulting in water shortage. However, droughts can be further classified into specific categories for operational purposes and to aid in the study of drought conditions. These categories provide more detail on when droughts began, how long they last and their severity. Some common categories are meteorological droughts, which look at the changes in climatic conditions that led to a stark decrease in rainfall; agricultural droughts, which focus on soil moisture levels to evaluate agriculture impacts; and hydrological droughts, which use discharge in water bodies as an indicator of water availability.

A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest)
A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest).

Using climate observation data from meteorological stations located throughout Xinjiang, coupled with soil moisture data and annual runoff data for the eight rivers, Chen’s team created a model to evaluate the changing severity in these three types of droughts.

Based on the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), a common index used to monitor meteorological drought severity globally, the researchers noted a slight drying trend since 1996, especially in southern Xinjiang. Surprisingly, Xinjiang experienced its most humid decade on record from the year 2000, coupled with a significant increase in annual air temperatures.

Increasing temperatures have enhanced moisture storage in the atmosphere, reducing the frequency and magnitude of rainfall events, the authors explained. Thus, even with more glacier melt, it might not translate to more surface water availability. This is because even if one source of water from glaciers is increasing, the atmospheric source of water from storms is decreasing. With these two sources possibly acting in opposite directions in the hydrological system, their particular balance influences the surface water supply in the region. Hence, river runoffs in four out of the eight basins are decreasing, but there are two rivers that experienced an increase.

A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest)
A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest).

The analysis of hydrological drought is complex, Junqiang Yao, another author of the paper from Chengdu University of Information Technology, told GlacierHub. “Glacial melt-water is one of the most important water supplies. Drought has significant effects on water supplies through climate-driven changes in glacier-fed runoff regimes,” he said. As the paper evidences, although nearly all the glaciers in the Tianshan mountain ranges have experienced retreat, the glaciers of the Kunlun Mountains appear stable or even gaining mass as summer temperatures have decreased over the past two decades. Hence, the decreasing discharge in some rivers supplied by the Kunlun Mountains glaciers could also be due to a decrease in meltwater too.

Enhanced soil moisture loss was also evident up to 50 cm in soil depth, as increased evaporation rates also increase, signaling the potential for worse agriculture droughts.

To Chen and Yao, the effects of climate change are highly complex and uncertain, calling for further studies. Chen added that aggravated drought conditions change regional water balance and affect ecology-social economy development in Xinjiang, posing challenges for future sustainability. After all, water is a key factor restricting socio-economic development and affects ecological security in Xinjiang.

“The influence of aggravated drought on water systems and water resource security is the greatest challenge faced in Xinjiang,” he said. “Thus, it is necessary to strengthen research on the ability of the ecology-social economy system to adapt to drought, and to propose adaptive control countermeasures and dynamic models in response to climate change to guarantee water resource and ecological security.”

Photo Friday: Brucejack Mine Sacrifices Glaciers for Gold

Brucejack Mine is a remote and highly productive gold and silver mine in British Columbia, Canada, near Alaska. To reach the site, the 300 permanent workers of the mine have to traverse a 11 kilometer road over the Knipple Glacier. This road was specially constructed to reach the mine. Parts of it pass over a section of the glacier that is rapidly losing mass, requiring the mining firm to make further alterations to the glacier surface to keep the road operational. In addition, transmission lines were built, extending 57 kilometers over the glacier.


Brucejack Mine with the Knipple Glacier in the background
Brucejack Mine with the Knipple Glacier in the background (Source: De Smog Canada).


In addition, the mine produces large amounts of byproducts known as tailings. These are largely in the form of finely ground powder, with high mineral content. It is very challenging to build stable ponds to store these materials in a remote region with changing hydrology, and the risks are increased by the large size of the tailing ponds at Brucejack Mine.


Operation Facility of Brucejack Mine (Source: Resource Works/Twitter)
Operation Facility of Brucejack Mine (Source: Resource Works/Twitter).


Currently operational, the mine’s owner, Pretium Resources, announced plans to ramp up operations just two months ago. However, the mine has faced criticism for lower than expected mine grades and flaws in its development plan, causing a fall in its share prices by over 20 percent since the announcement in January 2018.


Changes in Share Prices for Pretium Resources over the last 3 months (Source: New York Stocks Exchange)
Changes in Share Prices for Pretium Resources over the last 3 months (Source: New York Stocks Exchange).


Overall, mining activities are still on the growth in British Columbia where plans are in order to develop another mine near Brucejack at Red Mountain, with continued expansion of mine growth along the Alaska border.


List of B.C.’s Mines along the Alaska Border (Source: DeSmog Canada)
List of B.C.’s Mines along the Alaska Border (Source: DeSmog Canada).


Mining near glacier environments has long been criticized for the excavation of glaciers to construct the mine and relevant infrastructure.


Image of Mining Truck on the Glacier Highway en route to Brucejack Mine (Source: Nolan/Instagram)
Image of a mining truck on the Glacier Highway en route to Brucejack Mine (Source: Nolan/Instagram).

Leaving No Stone Unturned: An Interview with Yellowstone’s Ice Patch Archaeologist

Craig M. Lee, from the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), is a renowned researcher in the field of glacier archaeology. Recently, Lee and his team from INSTAAR created a video on ice patch archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone region. The video introduces Lee’s glacier archaeological findings and work in the region since 2005 as he has sought to reveal Native American cultures with impending climate change.

“We really want the people of Montana to know that there is a very deep heritage to their state,” Lee says passionately in the video before the camera pans across a beautiful landscape of ice patches. “High in the alpine, above the modern treeline, ice patches – frozen for millenia – are melting,” he adds.

Lee has experience working in federal, state and municipal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has also directed field projects in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, publishing his research in several major journals, including Antiquity, American Antiquity, Arctic, and The Holocene.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Lee explains more about his work at INSTAAR and his recent video.

GlacierHub: Please give a brief introduction of yourself and your academic interest.

Craig M. Lee: I’m an anthropologist and archaeologist interested in the human use of alpine environments. Beginning in 2000, through impetus of doctors E. James Dixon of the University of New Mexico (formerly of INSTAAR) and William F. Manley (INSTAAR), I was introduced to the then nascent field of “ice patch archaeology” through several years of formative and amazing fieldwork with members of the Ahtna Tribe in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the Interior of Alaska. The field has grown in geographic range and complexity, and we now recognize it to be global in nature (And yet all of Asia remains terra incognita). Researchers in Europe frequently refer to the field as “glacial archaeology,” in part because of archaeological finds in glaciated passes.

Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park
Lee out in the field at Yellowstone National Park (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: What drove you to create the video?

CML: The field is a tiny silver-lining to climate change in that the host of paleobiological material and archaeological material being exposed by melting ice patches is providing an unprecedented window into the past. Archaeological resources emerging from retreating ice patches can capture public interest and integrate education about archaeology and Native American cultures with ancient and modern climate change. The United States Forest Service, a consistent, primary partner in the research for more than a decade recognized it was important to share the results of the project with a broad public audience and helped fund the video. The target audience includes all of the citizens of Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming), but it will resonate with people living elsewhere in the Rocky Mountains and other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world.

GH: After watching the video, what is the main takeaway message you would like the audience to get?

CML: Ice patches and the alpine have been central elements of the socio-cultural landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA)–and of many mountainous areas— since time immemorial. The places, now construed as wilderness— ostensibly devoid of Man— were a “peopled-landscape” and contain clear evidence of sustained human interaction and involvement year-over-year, century-over-century, and millennia-over-millennia. It is patently wrong to think of these places as “intact” ecosystems without humans as an apex participant.

Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region
Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Region with Lee and his team (Source: Craig M. Lee).

GH: Any other information you would like to share with our readers?

CML: In the conterminous United States alone, archaeological material exposed by melting snow and ice has been identified from the Sierra Nevada of California to Olympic National Park in Washington, and from the Colorado Front Range to the Greater Yellowstone. We have no cogent way to respond outside of the sheer force of will brought to bear by a few incredibly hard-working scientists in staff positions in our federal agencies, for example, forest and park ecologists and archaeologists. The ice patch record is finite, and the overt decisions we make to engage (or not) with this opportunity to “know” the past affects all future generations. To quote friend and colleague Francis Auld (Kootenai), “The protection of these resources is essential for sustaining the living cultures.”

GH: The video has received high reception from residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem/Greater Yellowstone Area (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) thus far. If you are living in the Rocky Mountains or other areas with alpine snow and ice in North America and around the world, or are simply intrigued by the work of glacier archaeologists, this video is highly relevant and recommended.

Roundup: Remote Sensing, Arctic Civilizations, and Glacier Disaster

Greenland Iceberg Melt Variability

From Cryosphere Journal: “Iceberg discharge from the Greenland Ice Sheet accounts for up to half of the freshwater flux to surrounding fjords and ocean basins, yet the spatial distribution of iceberg meltwater fluxes is poorly understood. One of the primary limitations for mapping iceberg meltwater fluxes, and changes over time, is the dearth of iceberg submarine melt rate estimates. Using a remote sensing approach to estimate submarine melt rates during 2011–2016, we find that spatial variations in iceberg melt rates decrease with latitude and increase with iceberg draft. Overall, the results suggest that remotely sensed iceberg melt rates can be used to characterize spatial and temporal variations in oceanic forcing near often inaccessible marine-terminating glaciers.”

Discover more about the use of remote sensing for studying glacier melt rates here.

Aerial Image of Greenland Ice Sheet (Source: NOAA).


The History of Civilizations in the Arctic

From “Arctic Modernities: The Environmental, the Exotic and the Everyday“: “Less tangible than melting polar glaciers or the changing social conditions in northern societies, the modern Arctic represented in writings, visual images and films has to a large extent been neglected in scholarship and policy-making. However, the modern Arctic is a not only a natural environment dramatically impacted by human activities. It is also an incongruous amalgamation of exoticized indigenous tradition and a mundane every day. The chapters in this volume examine the modern Arctic from all these perspectives. They demonstrate to what extent the processes of modernization have changed the discursive signification of the Arctic. They also investigate the extent to which the traditions of heroic Arctic images – whether these traditions are affirmed, contested or repudiated – have continued to shape, influence and inform modern discourses.”

Read more about the history of the Arctic here.

Cover of Arctic Modernities Book (Source: Amazon).

The Catastrophic Eruption of Mount Kazbek

From Volcano Café: “What makes a volcano dangerous? Clearly, the severity of any eruption plays a role. So does the presence of people nearby. But it is not always the best-known volcanoes that are the most dangerous. Tseax is hardly world-renowned, but it caused a major volcanic disaster in Canada. And sometimes a volcano can be dangerous without actually erupting. Lake Nyos in Cameroon is a well-known -and feared- example. What happened in the eruption of Mount Kazbek that made it such a catastrophe?”

Explore the famous volcanic disaster that resulted from a glacier-melting event in 2002 here.

Mount Kazbek (Source: Volcano Cafe).

Tracing the Glaciation of the Greater Caucasus Mountains

In a paper published last month in the Open Journal of Geology, four researchers from the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University of Georgia traced the old glaciation of the Caucasus Mountains from the 17th to 19th century during the Little Ice Age. These mountains are the highest mountains in Europe. Despite being remote, studying their processes can aid in the understanding of global climate history.

In this study, it is remarkable that the team had a robust methodology comprising a rigorous review of local knowledge and sources from the indigenous people as well as the analysis of rock samples collected during their expeditions. Reading a collection of folklore from the mountain communities by A. Krasnov, the team was able to reconstruct the advance of local glaciers that stretched all the way down to the populated mountain valleys during that epoch. This collection served as a first-hand account on the extent of glaciation based on the location of the villages.

Map of Caucasus Mountain Range
Map of Caucasus Mountain Range (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Divided into the Greater Caucasus in the North and the Lesser Caucasus in the south, the Caucasus mountain region in West Asia stretches between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It is formed from the tectonic plate collision between the Arabian and European plates, occupying territory in Georgia, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russia, Turkey and Persia. According to a local Georgian Svanetian poem by Nizardze, glacier advances had reached a distance of up to 17km during the peak of the Little Ice Age.

The existence of Russian topographic maps from the second half of the 19th century also helped form a broad picture of the latest glaciation. This knowledge was then further corroborated with other sample data collected in the team’s expedition.

The first technique used was petrography, which is the classification of rocks based on physical structure and mineral content. Present-day block debris from moraines could be reconstructed with this information to find out their main centers and from thereon, historical glacier movement and distribution boundaries.

The second technique used was palynology, which is the study of microscopic matter. It was used to identify the genesis of loose sediments from moraines. Using 590 pollen samples, the fossilized plant spectrum in the loose sediments were analyzed to explore if weathering of the moraines occurred as a result of glaciation or fluvial action and the time periods they occurred in. Information about whether the rocks were covered in ice at that point in time would allow researchers to estimate the extent of glaciation.

The summit of El Ushba, a peak in the Georgian Caucasus Mountain Region
The summit of El Ushba, a peak in the Georgian Caucasus Mountain Region (Source: Inakimiro/ Instagram).

“The glaciers completely filled the river valleys of the Greater Caucasus, passed the foothills and covered some of the piedmont valleys. It is supposed that the strongest glaciation took place in the Terek (the northern slope) and Kodori (the southern slope of the Greater Caucasus) river basins as well as in the Enguri and Rioni basins,” the research notes.

Until today, the actual mudflow activity in the Caucasus is still rather intensive (especially in the east). However, it appears that in the past it was even more intensive due to the tectonic shoves, rock falls and catastrophic thaw of large glaciers during highly dynamic glacial epoch. Based on the traces of glaciers, the Caucasus ancient snow-line is still about 700 to 1000 meters lower than the contemporary one.

Research suggests that the minor glacial epoch experienced by the Caucasus Mountains was intensified by the South European covering glaciation. However, the team believes that atmospheric circulation processes and regional tectonic movements are the main drivers of the glaciation.

The Little Ice Age remains the heart of geological research in the Caucasus Mountains since it is the last stage of glacial advance in the region. Hence, the geological mystery on the relative importance of the drivers for minor glacial epoch is still being debated.


Hunting for History through the Eyes of the Ice

Climate change is melting ice sheets and glaciers, causing panic among the climate scientist community. Yet, to historians and anthropologists, these melting events provide an opportunity to glimpse into the past. Glacier archaeology is mainly concentrated in Scandinavia, the Alps and North America. Those in this field sleuth for artifacts precipitating out from glacial ice. A prominent example is Lars Pilø, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in Norway. His team recently published a paper in the Royal Society Open Science Journal on the chronology of reindeer hunting in Jotunheimen, Norway.

In their extensive fieldwork in the mountains from 2006 to 2015, they uncovered over 2,000 artifacts mainly associated with reindeer hunting, ranging from wood, textile, hide, arrows and other organic materials such as reindeer antlers, bones and horse dung that are rarely well-preserved. By radiocarbon dating 153 of these finds, trends in the intensity of reindeer hunting and civilization in high-alpine environments from circa 4,000 BCE to the present were revealed. The results suggest a peak in human activities during the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age and the Viking Age, as attributed to warmer periods in time, which is within expectations. After all, a harsher climate is likely to deter hunting as both animals and humans alike avoid higher elevation areas.

A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram)
A broken arrow discovered in the field site that is about 2700 years old (Source: Lars Pilø/Instagram).

More striking is the indication of trade with Denmark and even England that began before the dates suggested in historical documentation records. The intensity of reindeer hunting points at regional trading of fur and antlers (used to make combs) that began during the Viking (800-1050 CE) and Middle (1050-1537 CE) Ages. This exceeds formal records of reindeer exports which first appeared in 1400 CE. Also, high hunting activities may not necessarily reflect a rising population and increasing economic activity. Periods of low agricultural yields also intensified high altitude hunting as in the Little Ice Age (AD 546-660).

“The unpredictable weather is perhaps the greatest challenge for the fieldwork,” Pilø told GlacierHub. “The weather in the high mountains changes quickly— one moment we are out surveying, next thing we sit in our tents and wait for a snow blizzard to pass. There is a lot of logistics and scouting for sites involved as well.”

There is also the unpredictability of the ice melt. “Some years we have extreme melting and are just racing around in the high mountains, trying to save as many artifacts as possible. Other years, there is little or no melting, and we cannot get survey work done,” Pilø explained. “This is why we are happy to have a permanent program and not just a short-term project. Many of our colleagues in North America and the Alps struggle with short-term funding for their ice surveys. If you are lucky you get money for a year or two, but if you have lots of snow during this time, you cannot get work done, and funding dries up.”

One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen
One of Pilø’s team members finding an remarkably well-preserved arrow near a melting ice patch at 1900m in Jotunheimen (Source: Secrets of the Ice/ Instagram).

In the same vein, Ralph Lugon, a glacier archaeologist working in the Alps, also described the difficulty of accessing glaciate sites. “Potential prospection areas are vast and there are many types of frozen environment to assess. And the time window for archaeological prospection in the field is constrained to a maximum of two or three weeks at the end of the melting season (summer), in optimal meteorological conditions,” he told GlacierHub in an interview.

Glacier archaeologists must scramble to collect and conserve these findings as most objects consist of perishable materials that degrade and decompose rapidly once exposed to the open air. In fact, this sub-discipline in archaeology is relatively new and only emerged in the last 20 years due to increased ice melting, making glacier archaeology possible.

When asked whether climate change will actually help or hinder glacier archaeology, Pilø and Lugon both readily agreed that with glaciers, ice patches, and snow levels at their lowest point in recent history, they finally have access to unexplored landscapes, throwing new light on how humans interacted with high-altitude and -latitude environments in the past.

However, to Pilø, this phenomenon itself is a conundrum. “The artifacts have been preserved by the ice for such a long time, and the melting is exposing them to the elements, which will destroy them in the end. So we need to get up to the ice and collect the artifacts to avoid the loss of important historical remains,” he said. In the realm of glacier sleuthing, it is a race against time to capture what is frozen in time.

Stop the Dam(ned) Project: Outrage over the Bursar Hydroelectric Project

View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir
View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir (Source: Johann/Instagram).

The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEFF) has approved the construction of a dam for hydropower on the Marusudar River, a tributary of the Indus River in the northwest portion of the country. The approval comes without the site visits required by Indian environmental law. Coined as the Bursar Hydroelectric Project, the 800MW dam is located in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In an interview, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation speaks positively of the Bursar Project, indicating that “the flow of water can be regulated not only to the benefit of this project, but all downstream projects. This will enhance the power generation potential of all these downstream projects during the lean flow months.”

Concern has been expressed over impacts on biodiversity and villages which will be flooded. Based on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project conducted in July 2017, the project will effect 18 hamlets across 14,000 hectares that house over 17,000 people. About 1,150 hectares of forest land will also be cleared. The project site is within 10 kilometers from the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park, a nationally protected park with rich biodiversity and glaciers. The EIA indicates that the dam could impede the seasonal migratory path of fish, affecting endemic fish species and spawning grounds. This necessitates a site visit and an environmental clearance from the MoEFF. However, the project was approved without the site visit, sparking public outrage.

Since the Marusudar basin contains many glaciers, issues of climate change and glacier retreat should also have been considered for planning the project. Thakkar, who is coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), said in an interview that “there is no options-assessment or the assessment of how the project will perform in the changing climate and how the project will add to climate change effects and destroy adaption capacity in changing climate.”

According to research, projections indicate greater warming in the upper Indus, and greater warming in winter than in the other seasons, suggesting a possibility of increased meltwater. In terms of rainfall, the change is not uniform with a forecasted increase in precipitation over the upper Indus basin and decrease over the lower Indus basin. Overall, there seems to be much uncertainty with regard to changes in future discharge and whether it will affect the dam operations.

View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam
View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam (Source: The Chenab Times/ Instagram).

Moreover, the dam is tied up in the tense negotiations between India and Pakistan over the Indus River basin. Based on the Indus Water Treaty, India must allow 80 percent of the water flow into the lower riparian state of Pakistan. The Bursar Project might further reduce discharge flowing into Pakistan. However, an Indian official, who prefers to remain anonymous, is confident that the project will not violate the principles of the Indus Water Treaty and reduce river discharge to Pakistan. In an interview, he explains that “according to the treaty, we would start storing water, after the dam’s construction, during the June and August period when the water level remains very high and does not affect the flow.”

According to Athar Parvaiz, a writer from The Wire, “Worldwide, hydropower projects are running into problems and being scaled back, but India is doing the opposite in what appears to be a determination to maximize the benefits of the Indus Waters Treaty.” While dams prove to be a potent source of renewable energy, there is still a need to consider how dams are changing the local environment and will fare in the changing climate – as a warmer climate has already accentuated glacier shrinkage at the river source.