Let it Snow… and Save a Glacier

Snow machines would be used to cover a section of the glacier (Source: Hans/Creative Commons).

News about shrinking glaciers is not uncommon, but have you ever heard of regrowing one artificially? That is exactly what a team of researchers intends to do: use snow machines, also known as Schneekanonen (snow-cannons) in German, to save Morteratsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps.

Felix Keller, a glaciologist at the Academia Engiadina in Switzerland, and Johannes Oerlemans, director of the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will use snow machines to slow down, or even reverse, the retreat of the glacier as announced at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, on April 27th.

Morteratsch, located in Pontresina in the canton of Graubünden, is the third largest glacier in the Eastern Alps. It is also one of the most easily accessible glaciers: a 50-minute walk from Morteratsch train station along a hiking trail leads visitors directly to the glacier tongue. This makes it a popular tourist attraction that contributes to the economy of the region. However, the glacier has been shrinking rapidly because of climate change, retreating about 2.5 kilometers over the last 150 years.

Morteratsch Glacier is easily accessible by a foot traill (Source: Simo Räsänen/Creative Commons).

The plan to save the glacier using snow machines was inspired by the successful use of white fleece coverings to slow down the retreat of the nearby Diavolezzafirn Glacier. This method has been applied over the past 10 years to help the glacier grow by up to 8 meters in length. Locals reached out to Oerlemans and Keller, who have done prior research in the region, to try to save Morteratsch in a similar manner, except the latest plan involves covering sections of the glacier with snow to reduce melting during the summer.

The municipality of Pontresina, in whose territory the glacier is situated, is trying to position itself as a village at the forefront of climate change issues,” Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at both Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), shared in an interview with GlacierHub.

Pontresina and Morteratsch glacier can be reached by train (Source: Creative Commons).

A layer of snow will protect the ice from incoming radiation, which would warm up the glacier. A secondary and smaller effect would be to protect the ice from overlying air, which could be above freezing. Models used by the researchers suggest that a thin layer of snow covering under one square kilometer at the top of the glacier would be enough to protect the glacier. Oerlemans also estimates that this could help the glacier regain 800 meters of length in two decades.

This plan would involve the use of 4,000 snow machines, which produce snow from water and pressurized air. They will be supplied with meltwater from a nearby glacier, which addresses a key concern: “If we want to do it on a larger scale, the main challenge will be the availability and transportation of meltwater onto the glacier,” Oerlemans shared with GlacierHub.

Not everyone is convinced that the plan will work. “I am still a little skeptical that the technical problems are solved and would like to see answers to some questions,” Greg Greenwood, executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, shared with GlacierHub. These questions include exactly where the snow will be deposited, financial and environmental costs, and a comparison with other technical options.

Oerlemans and Keller are currently conducting a pilot project costing $100,000 at the foot of Diavolezzafirn glacier, also in Switzerland. 13 feet of snow will be blown over the 1,300-square-foot glacier by the end of the month. If it works, they hope that the Swiss government will fund the Morteratsch project, which will cost several million Swiss Francs.

We will try to get the glacier through the summer with one snow machine. We can produce snow only 5 percent of the time, but it could be sufficient as making snow is faster than the melting process,” Oerlemans explained.

The glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run (Source: Terje Sollie/Creative Commons).

Morteratsch glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run, making it part of a popular ski destination. However, the project is also being attempted to protect water supplies, as meltwater is often an important source of water in mountainous regions.

Costs are a concern, particularly those related to “how much energy they would require per unit of time,” Farinotti shared. “This would be one of the key numbers needed to assess whether the project is sensible or not,” he added. Oerlemans also explained that the need to cover a large area for many years will contribute to significant costs.

Snow machines use electricity to make snow from water. Although Switzerland produces about 65 percent of its electricity from hydropower, it still relies on fossil fuels for a proportion of its electricity. As such, energy use is also an important consideration in relation to the indirect production of greenhouse gases.

It is unlikely that this plan can  provide a solution to glacier recession due to the high costs of the endeavor and the difficulties of up-scaling it. However, it could send very compelling messages depending on how it is communicated. “The initiative could be very powerful in conveying the message that even partially offsetting climate change impacts will need tremendous efforts.” Farinotti said. “The project could be powerful in putting a price on this kind of initiative.”

Check out other geoengineering projects, such as this one to refreeze the Arctic or an artificial glacier built to help save some of Ladakh’s winter water for the summertime.

Photo Friday: Inside Glacier Caves

Caves can form within glaciers as a result of water running through or under a glacier. They are often called ice caves, but the term more accurately describes caves in bedrock that contain ice throughout the year. Water usually forms on the glacier’s surface through melting, before flowing down a moulin (vertical to nearly vertical shafts within glaciers or ice sheets) to the base of the glacier. Glacier caves can also form as a result of geothermal heat from hotsprings or volcanic vents beneath glaciers, such as the Kverkfjöll glacier cave in Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, or where glaciers meet a body of water, with wave action.

Glacier caves can collapse or disappear because of glacier retreat. For example, the Paradise Ice Caves on Mount Rainier in Washington had 8.23 miles of passages in 1978. However, it collapsed in the 1990s, and the section of the glacier that contained the caves retreated between 2004 and 2006. Prior to collapse, caves can be used to access the interior of glaciers for research purposes, with the study of glacier caves sometimes known as glaciospeleology. Others also serve as popular tourist attractions due to their beauty.

A woman stands at the edge of one of the streams that flowed out of the Paradise Ice Caves in 1925 (Source: University of Washington Libraries / Creative Commons).


Kverkfjöll in Vatnajökull formed as a result of geothermal heating (Source: David Phan / Creative Commons).


A photo, taken in 1909, of an ice cave in Antarctica containing stalactites (Source: NOAA)


Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia has a cave at its northern end, where it meets Argentino Lake (Source: Martin St-Amant / Creative Commons).


Glacier caves, such as Fox Glacier Cave in British New Zealand, are often popular tourist attractions (Source: anoldent / Creative Commons).


Read about a time when Putin visited a glacier cave here.

Could Cryoconites Hold the Secrets to Extraterrestrial Life?

In recent years, scientists have found other locations on planets, moons and exoplanets where life might exist. Different animals and organisms like tardigrades (eight-legged microscopic animals commonly known as water bears) have also been sent into space to explore the conditions for survival away from Earth. However, a recent paper published in the journal Contemporary Trends in Geoscience argues that we can look closer to home to understand survival strategies of extraterrestrial life.

More concretely, the authors propose we look to glacier cryoconites, which are granular or spherical mineral particles aggregated with microorganisms like cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, tardigrades and rotifera (another type of multicellular, microscopic animal). Glaciers are among the most extreme environments on Earth due to the high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation received and the permanently cold conditions. These factors make them analogous to icy planets or moons.

(Clockwise from top left) An ice sheet in Greenland, cryoconite holes, cryoconite granules, and cryconite granules in high resolution (Source: Zawierucha et al., 2017).

The associations of cryoconites and microorganisms on glaciers are held together in biofilms by extracellular polymeric substances (natural polymers of high molecular weight) secreted by cyanobacteria. They exist as sediment or in cryoconite holes (water-filled reservoirs with cryoconite sediment on the floor) on glacier surfaces.

Cryoconites have been found on every glacier where researchers have looked for them. Cryoconite holes form due to the darkening of color (also termed a decrease in the albedo, or reflectivity of solar radiation) of cryoconite-covered surfaces. The darker color leads to greater absorption of radiation, with an associated warming and increasing melt rates.

“Today we think that simple life forms might have survived on Mars in glacial refugia or under the surface. They can and could have evolved on Saturn and Jupiter’s icy moons,” Krzysztof Zawierucha, the lead author from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, shared with GlacierHub. “Imagine a multicellular organism, even a microscopic one, which is able to live and reproduce on an icy moon… It is a biotechnological volcano.”

Earth’s glaciers could be analogous to environments like floating ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons (Source: NASA).

Organisms that live in glaciated regions are adapted to survive in extreme conditions and could provide insights into the survival strategies of extraterrestrial life. Some possess lipids (organic compounds that are not water-soluble), and produce proteins and extracellular polymeric substances that protect them from freezing and drying. Others are able to enter cryptobiotic states in which metabolic activity is reduced to an undetectable level, allowing them to survive extremely harsh conditions.

The microorganisms in cryoconites cooperate and compete, affecting each other’s survival responses. Therefore, previous astrobiological studies, which have only been conducted on single strains of microorganisms, may not reflect the true survival mechanisms of these microorganisms.

Tardigrades can undergo cryptobiosis and survive in the vacuum of space (Source: UNC Chapel Hill/Creative Commons).

In addition, previous astrobiological studies involving some of these microorganisms used terrestrial or limno-terrestrial (moist terrestrial environments that go through periods of immersion and desiccation) taxa, such as moss cushions, which are less likely to be well-adapted to icy planets than their glacier-dwelling cousins.

Tardigrades found in cryoconite have black pigmentation, which probably protects them from high UV radiation. Along with tardigrades, glacier-dwelling rotifera, specifically Bdelloidea, also possess a great ability to repair DNA damage, which confers high resistance to UV radiation. Both may also be better adapted to surviving in constantly near-freezing conditions than terrestrial forms.

“So far, a number of processes analogous to those on Mars and other planets or moons have been found in the McMurdo Dry Valley as well as other dry valleys or brines in sea ice, both of which were considered to be extraterrestrial ecosystem analoguos. There is a great body of evidence that some bacteria and microscopic animals like tardigrades may survive under Martian conditions,” Zawierucha explained.

“Of course, to survive does not mean to be active and to reproduce. Undoubtedly, however, it triggers consideration regarding life beyond Earth, especially in close proximity or connection with permafrost or ice,” he added.

As such, further research about cryoconites could provide insight to mechanisms that enable organisms to survive such extreme conditions. At the same time, cryoconites could also be used in future astrobiological studies to understand how life on other planets functions.

Roundup: Kayaks, Snow Machines and Drones

Roundup: Kayaks, Regrowing Glaciers, and the Bowdoin


Research Using Remote-Controlled Kayaks

From Alaska Public Media: “LeConte Glacier near Petersburg… [is] the southern-most tide water glacier in the northern hemisphere and scientists have been studying it to give them a better idea of glacial retreat and sea level rise around the world… to get close to the glacier, which is constantly calving, a team of scientists is relying on unmanned, remote controlled kayaks… these kayaks have been completely tweaked by Marion and an ocean robotics team from Oregon State University… The boats are customized with a keel, antennas, lights and boxes of computer chips and wires.”

Find out more about the kayaks and research here.

LeConte Glacier’s calving front (Source: Gomada / Creative Commons)


Regrowing Morteratsch Glacier with Artificial Snow

From New Scientist: “The idea is to create artificial snow and blow it over the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland each summer, hoping it will protect the ice and eventually cause the glacier to regrow… The locals had been inspired by stories that white fleece coverings on a smaller glacier called Diavolezzafirn had helped it to grow by up to 8 metres in 10 years… Oerlemans says it would take 4000 snow machines to do the job, producing snow by mixing air blasts with water, which cools down through expansion to create ice crystals. The hope is that the water can be “recycled” from small lakes of meltwater alongside the glacier… But the costs… are immense.”

Find out more about how this works here.

Snow cannons like this could help regrow Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Calyponte / Creative Commons)


Drones Capture a Major Calving Event

From The Cryosphere: “A high-resolution displacement field is inferred from UAV orthoimages (geometrically corrected for uniform scale) taken immediately before and after the initiation of a large fracture, which induced a major calving event… Modelling results reveal (i) that the crack was more than half-thickness deep, filled with water and getting irreversibly deeper when it was captured by the UAV and (ii) that the crack initiated in an area of high horizontal shear caused by a local basal bump immediately behind the current calving front… Our study demonstrates that the combination of UAV photogrammetry and ice flow modelling is a promising tool to horizontally and vertically track the propagation of fractures responsible for large calving events.”

Find out more about the study here.

Drones are increasingly being used to study glaciers (Source: Creative Commons)

Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Understanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes.

The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes.

Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change.

The researchers hiked to the glacier to conduct surveys (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a halfhour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated.

To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared.

Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs.

A drone selfie taken by Wigmore, with the shadow of the drone in the bottom right corner (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

“No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said.

Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing.

Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception.

High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period.

High resolution images showed rapid ice loss around exposed cliffs and surface ponds (Source: Wigmore and Mark, 2017).

The images revealed, for example, that the location of exposed cliffs and surface melt water ponds serve as primary controls on melt rates in the glacier tongue. Exposed cliffs lack the insulation of thick debris that are common on the glacier tongue, while ponds are less reflective than ice and absorb more solar radiation, causing higher melt rates.

The thickness of debris layers on the glacier constitute a secondary control. Thicker layers (often over 1m deep) provide insulation from solar radiation, while thinner layers increase the absorptivity of the surface to solar radiation.

The study also found that the upper section of the proglacial lake contains sections of glacier ice which are still melting. This suggests that the extent and depth of the lower section of the lake will increase as the ice continues to melt. This could increase the risk of GLOF, as expansion of the lake will bring it closer to the steep headwalls of the valley, which are potential locations for avalanche and rockfall debris.

Wigmore’s research is part of a series of larger projects still under publication that involve using drones to study glaciers, wetlands and proglacial meadows in the region. The results contribute to our understanding of hydro-social changes in the Cordillera Blanca, and how they can be managed.

Find out more about drone research here, or learn about Wigmore’s other research here.

Putin Visits Arctic Glaciers

President Vladimir Putin recently visited Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago in March, where he was briefed about scientific research taking place at the glaciers. He even grabbed an ice pick and carved out a sample from one of the glaciers. The main purpose of the trip was to inspect the progress of a project to clean up more than 40,000 tons of military and other debris from the Soviet era, as reported by Russian news agencies.

Franz Josef Land archipelago is located north of mainland Russia (Source: Oona Räisänen / Creative Commons).
Franz Josef Land archipelago is located north of mainland Russia (Source: Oona Räisänen/Creative Commons).

Accompanied by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Minister for Natural Resources Sergey Donskoy, and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Putin arrived on Aleksandra Land, the westernmost island of Franz Josef Land. Located in the Arctic Ocean, Franz Josef Land lies in the northernmost part of Arkhangelst oblast (a type of administrative division analogous to a province) and consists of 191 uninhabited islands, except for a remote Russian military base.

85 percent of Franz Josef Land is glaciated. He was taken on a tour through a cave in the Polar Aviators’ Glacier, which is used to study permafrost. He also visited the Omega field base in the Russian Arctic National Park, where he was briefed about environmental cleanup and biodiversity conservation efforts in Franz Josef Land, the Kremlin reports. Other activities included participating in the launch of a weather probe and visiting a military facility.

Putin was accompanied by other senior members of government (Source: Kremlin / Creative Commons).
Putin was accompanied by other senior members of government (Source: Kremlin/Creative Commons).

The visit comes amidst a variety of efforts by Russia to assert its foothold in the Arctic. “Putin’s recent visit draws attention to the long-standing objective of Russia to maintain its position as the leading Arctic power,” explained Katarzyna Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, to GlacierHub. “It is to be achieved by strengthening the state presence… by developing rich natural resources and implementing a large-scale military modernization programme, as Putin reiterated himself during the visit. The fact that Putin was accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has highlighted the importance of Russia’s military presence in the region.”

In 2015, Russia submitted a formal claim to the UN that asserted control over a large swathe of the Arctic that extends more than 350 miles from mainland Russia’s coast. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline. However, it also allows countries to claim territory as far as the continental shelf extending from the country’s coast line.

This claim was made under the latter provision and rests on the basis that the Lomonosov ridge, an underwater mountain range in the Arctic, is a natural extension of the Russian continental shelf. Denmark made a competing claim in 2014, which asserts that the Lomonosov ridge is part of Greenland.

The Arctic contains rich oil and gas reserves (Source: USGS / Creative Commons).
The Arctic contains rich oil and gas reserves (Source: USGS / Creative Commons).

“The visit is likely to be read (by other countries with interests in the Arctic) as a reassertion of the Russian interest and a clear message that despite a host of problems Russia has been struggling with at the domestic and foreign policy fronts, the Arctic remains nonetheless strategically important and on the authorities’ radar,” Zysk stated.

Territory within the Arctic is disputed as it holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of the oil reserves. The three other Arctic coastal states – Norway, Canada and the U.S. – also have claims to territory within the Arctic.

“Russia tries to define the Arctic and its cooperation structures isolated from other conflicts … Arctic exceptionalism is the word,” shared Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, professor of Russian energy policy at the University of Helsinki, with GlacierHub. “This is logical, as the Arctic is extremely important for Putin’s future. This is related to the notion that Putin’s regime is suffering from a hydrocarbon lock-in (heavy dependence on oil and gas). Thus it does all in its power to enable exploitation of Arctic energy and sea routes.”

Putin’s visit also has domestic policy implications (Source: Kremlin / Creative Commons)
Putin’s visit also has domestic policy implications (Source: Kremlin/Creative Commons)

In terms of domestic policy implications, Zysk added, “In a time of continued economic decline and domestic instability, the visit has created an opportunity for attractive photo shots and for directing the public attention toward the largely positive success story of Russia’s position in the Arctic.”

Putin is no stranger to attractive photo opportunities. He was photographed discovering two Greek urns while scuba diving in the Black Sea in 2011, for example.

This visit also comes about a month before Finland is due to take over the two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and a day before the 150th anniversary of Russia’s sale of Alaska to the U.S.

During Wednesday’s visit, Putin reportedly stated that Russia is open to “broad partnership with other nations to carry out mutually beneficial projects in tapping natural resources, developing global transport corridors and also in science and environment protection.”

However, this visit and Russia’s previous activities in the Arctic, which include planting a titanium flag on the Arctic seabed, appear to be part of an effort to exert a greater presence in the Arctic, particularly as melting sea ice increases the possibility of exploration.

Read about Obama’s visit to an Alaskan glacier here.

Photo Friday: Edward Theodore Compton’s Artwork

Edward Theodore Compton, usually referred to as E.T. Compton, was a German painter, illustrator and mountain climber who lived from 1849-1921. He is best known for his paintings and drawings of alpine scenery, many of which also contain glaciers. 

Born in London, Compton’s family moved to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1867, for him to continue his education. He was also a skilled mountaineer, making 300 major ascents during his lifetime, mostly within Europe. For example, he made the first documented ascents of 27 mountains, including Torre di Brenta in the Italian Alps and Grossglockner in Austria, which he climbed at the age of 70!

Apart from oil and watercolor paintings, Compton also produced numerous illustrations of alpine scenery. Many of his works help to document the days of early alpinism, showing what mountains and glaciers looked like in the past.

Saleina Glacier on the northeastern edge of Mont Blanc, 1906 (Source: Creative Commons).
‘Saleina Glacier,’ 1906, on the northeastern edge of Mont Blanc Massif (Source: Creative Commons).
The Matterhorn and its glacier (Source: Fredou / Creative Commons).
‘Matterhorn,’ 1879 (Source: Creative Commons).
'Altschmecks in the High Tatras', 1890, a town in the High Tatras Mountain range on the border of northern Slovakia (Source: Creative Commons).
‘Altschmecks in the High Tatras,’ 1890, a town in the High Tatras Mountain range on the border of northern Slovakia (Source: Creative Commons).
An illustration entitled Erzherzog-Johann Hut from the Hoffmanskees, with Grossglockner in the background (Source: Creative Commons).
‘Erzherzog-Johann Hut from the Hoffmanskees,’ 1899, with Grossglockner in the background (Source: Creative Commons).
An illustration of two glaciers within the French Alps: 'Grand Motte and Grand Casse from above Tignes', 1896 (Source: Creative Commons).
An illustration of two glaciers in the French Alps: ‘Grand Motte and Grand Casse from above Tignes,’ 1896 (Source: Creative Commons).
'Knorrhütte in the Weatherstone Mountains', 1890, a hut belonging to the German Alpine Association located at 2052m altitude in the Eastern Alps (Source: Creative Commons).
‘Knorrhütte in the Weatherstone Mountains,’ 1890, a hut belonging to the German Alpine Association located at 2052m altitude in the Eastern Alps (Source: Creative Commons).

A portrait of Compton using a crayon to create an illustration (Source: Creative Commons)
A portrait of Compton using a crayon to create an illustration (Source: Creative Commons).
You can check out more of Compton’s paintings and illustrations, or take a look at other glacier artwork here.

Enduring Benefits of Endurance Races

A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).
A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).

Sporting events, both major and minor, can have significant impacts on host communities. A recent study published by Stefano Duglio and Riccardo Beltramo in the journal Sustainability examines the social and economic impacts of CollonTrek, a mountain endurance race in the Italian and Swiss Alps. The results reveal that this minor event generates significant economic benefits for the host communities and the wider area, while indirect benefits include the extension of the summer tourist season.

CollonTrek is held bi-annually on the first weekend of September. The last race occurred in 2015, and the next will be held on September 8-9th of this year. Participants compete in pairs (they register in pairs and both participants have to cross the finish line), traversing 22 km on foot between Valpelline in Italy, and the Val D’Herens in Switzerland. The trail follows a centuries-old path through the Pennine Alps used by smugglers, ending in the municipality of Arolla in Switzerland.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains, from mountain paths, hiking paths, roads, and the Arolla Glacier. The path across the glacier accounts for about one-sixth of the race, making the CollonTrek more challenging. Participants require special equipment such as crampons— metal plates with spikes fixed to a boot for walking on ice— to cross the glacier.

Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW / Creative Commons).
Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW/Creative Commons).

Events like CollonTrek are considered minor events, as they generate relatively little media interest, limited economic activity (compared to major events like the Olympics or tennis grand slam tournaments), and do not attract large crowds of spectators. Spectators do not pay to watch the race, but economic benefits accrue to host communities due to expenditure on accommodation, food and fuel.

The researchers used a combination of official data from the CollonTrek organization and a survey of 180 athletes who took part in the 2015 race to evaluate the economic and social impacts of the race. The data revealed that €11,000 (about $11,637) of public funds invested by the host municipalities generated revenue of about €200,000 (about $214,000). Around a third of this amount accrued directly to host communities.

Indirect economic benefits arise because of increased visibility of the host regions. For example, foreign participants who made up more than two-thirds of the participants surveyed expressed a desire to return to the area for tourism in the future. This event also extends the summer tourist season into September, generating more tourist revenue.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).
The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).

In conversation with GlacierHub, Duglio explained that this increase in tourism activity also helps to sustain the livelihoods of these communities, reducing depopulation of the mountain regions and helping to maintain their way of life. The race also had the effect of improving community pride, as reported by local athletes who constituted nearly a third of participants surveyed.

Climate change could affect certain segments of the race, particularly as Arolla Glacier has been retreating over the past century. “Climate change will not have much influence on the [rest of the] race, even if the passage on the glacier gives a very particular attraction to this race,” said Christian, a member of the organizing committee. “This race segment will simply be reduced if the glacier shrinks.”

Duglio also stated, “The most important aspect [of climate change] that the organizing committee will have to take into account for the future is related to the participants’ safety both in terms of mountain paths and weather conditions. We do not think, however, that climate change will bring these kind of races to a stop, at least not in the coming years.”

The research, though limited to a specific event, suggests that minor sporting events represent a form of economically and socially sustainable sports tourism activity.

Registration for the race opened last Saturday, and as Christian informed GlacierHub, “The best way to understand the race is to participate. It is an extraordinary adventure.” Check out CollonTrek’s Facebook page for more information.

Roundup: Karakoram, Dust and Prokaryotes

Roundup:  Karakoram, Ice Core, and Chile


Karakoram Glaciers in Balance

From the Journal of Glaciology: “An anomalously slight glacier mass gain during 2000 to the 2010s has recently been reported in the Karakoram region. We calculated elevation and mass change using Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) generated from KH-9 (a series of satellites) images acquired during 1973–1980… Within the Karakoram, the glacier change patterns are spatially and temporally heterogeneous. In particular, a nearly stable state in the central Karakoram (−0.04 ± 0.05 m w.e. a−1 during the period 1974–2000) implies that the Karakoram anomaly dates back to the 1970s. Combined with the previous studies, we conclude that the Karakoram glaciers as a whole were in a nearly balanced state during the 1970s to the 2010s.”

Read more about this study here.

Karakoram's glaciers were in a nearly balanced state between 1970-2010 (Source: mtzendo / Creative Commons)
Karakoram’s glaciers were in a nearly balanced state between 1970-2010 (Source: mtzendo/Creative Commons).


Dust in Ice Core Reflects the Last Deglaciation

From Quaternary Science Reviews: “The chemical and physical characterization of the dust record preserved in ice cores is useful for identifying of dust source regions, dust transport, dominant wind direction and storm trajectories. Here, we present a 50,000-year geochemical characterization of mineral dust entrapped in a horizontal ice core from the Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica. Strontium (Sr) and neodymium (Nd) isotopes, grain size distribution, trace and rare earth element (REE) concentrations, and inorganic ion (Cl and Na+) concentrations were measured in 38 samples, corresponding to a time interval from 46 kyr before present (BP) to present… This study provides the first high time resolution data showing variations in dust provenance to East Antarctic ice during a major climate regime shift, and we provide evidence of changes in the atmospheric transport pathways of dust following the last deglaciation.”

Read more about the findings here.

An ice core from Taylor Glacier reveals changes in dust composition during the last deglaciation (Source: Oregon State University / Creative Commons).
An ice core from Taylor Glacier reveals changes in dust composition during the last deglaciation (Source: Oregon State University/Creative Commons).


Prokaryotic Communities in Patagonian Lakes

From Current Microbiology: “The prokaryotic (microscopic single-celled organisms without a distinct nucleus with a membrane or other specialized organelles) abundance and diversity in three cold, oligotrophic Patagonian lakes (Témpanos, Las Torres and Mercedes) in the northern region Aysén (Chile) were compared in winter and summer…Prokaryotic abundances, numerically dominated by Bacteria, were quite similar in the three lakes, but higher in sediments than in waters, and they were also higher in summer than in winter… The prokaryotic community composition at Témpanos lake, located most northerly and closer to a glacier, greatly differed in respect to the other two lakes. In this lake was detected the highest bacterial diversity… Our results indicate that the proximity to the glacier and the seasonality shape the composition of the prokaryotic communities in these remote lakes. These results may be used as baseline information to follow the microbial community responses to potential global changes and to anthropogenic impacts.”

Read more about the results here.

Prokaryotic diversity is greatest in Témpanos lake, near a glacier (Source: Cuorogrenata / Creative Commons)
Prokaryotic diversity is greatest in Témpanos lake, near a glacier (Source: Cuorogrenata/Creative Commons).

A New View on Border Tensions between India and China

A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the areas outlined in red showing the disputed areas (Source: Creative Commons).
A map of the Sino-Indian border, with the disputed areas outlined in red (Source: Creative Commons).

Numerous disputes exist in remote regions of the world where the terrain makes it difficult to secure and manage borders. One well-known example is the Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas. Known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), this line demarcating the frontier between Indian and Chinese-controlled territory is the longest disputed land border in the world. Natural, human and technological issues complicate the management of this disputed border, as explained by Iskander Rehman in a paper published in the most recent issue of the Naval War College Review.

The entire Sino-Indian border is 4056 km in length, with disputed areas found in Aksai Chin in the western part of the border and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern area. The disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh is sometimes referred to as the McMahon Line, which Britain and Tibet agreed to in 1914, but which has never been acknowledged by China. Both of these areas were taken over by the Chinese in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, and the two countries have remained in an uneasy coexistence since then.

This tweet from Japan offers a humorous take on the long standing border issue between the two countries, saying “The Indian Army and the China People’s Liberation Army intersect near the border. Tension is continuing.”

Several factors have influenced the dynamics of the border dispute since 1962, as highlighted by Rehman. Three relate to military activities: India has a greater military presence along the disputed areas of the LAC, while China possesses better communications infrastructure and a more unified command structure.

Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)
Soldiers at India-China border (source: ArmyComplex/Twitter)

The fourth arises from the climate and terrain in the disputed regions. Due to the remoteness and large expanse of the Himalayas, multiple land border disputes are located within the mountain range. These can involve control of the region’s features, such as glaciers. For example, India and Pakistan have been involved in a stand-off over the Siachen Glacier in Karakoram in the northwestern part of the Himalayas since 1984.

In the case of the Sino-Indian border disputes, the climate and terrain can confer strategic advantages, while creating challenges for both sides. Rehman argues that the high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau create advantages for the Chinese in terms of surveillance and the execution of artillery operations, while allowing troops stationed there to acclimatize to high-altitude warfare. Thick layers of frost and ice can also render regions of Aksai Chin more passable for heavy vehicles in winter, aiding the movement of troops and equipment. 

The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao / Creative Commons).
The Siachen Glacier in Northern Kashmir has been a site of conflict since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Creative Commons).

However, other mountain passes can become inaccessible during harsh winters, and steep slopes contribute to regular landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, disrupting traffic. The highly unpredictable climate of mountainous terrain also makes military operations much more difficult, with extreme changes in the weather creating problems for troops and equipment. The effects of these difficulties are all too evident in the dispute between India and Pakistan, with the vast majority of casualties on both sides attributed to exposure, frostbite and avalanches, according to Rehman.

Although hostilities ceased after 1962, and signs of Sino-Indian rapprochement emerged in the late 1970s, the issue of ‘gray-zone aggression’ (tactics adopted by revisionist powers that are coercive but do not cross established international red-lines) has created concern in India.

Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts)
Soldiers at Line of Actual Control (source: Alignthoughts).

Rehman highlights the fact that India is particularly troubled by China’s use of infrastructure development to cement claims over contested territory. Construction is often undertaken during seasons when snow makes areas inaccessible to India’s military, increasing tension along the border. The Indian military is often unable to detect these in a timely manner, allowing the Chinese to encroach on Indian territory. Gray-zone aggression also occurs in the border dispute between India and Pakistan, and is arguably more of an option in remote, inaccessible terrain.

The importance of these Himalayan territories to both countries is complex. “The Himalayas are the water towers of Asia and China. Chinese Communist Party core interests are first and foremost continued party rule and then territorial integrity,” Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, stated in an interview with GlacierHub. “The Belt and Road Initiative is the key Chinese strategic project and infrastructure project. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan (or Chinese) controlled areas claimed by India in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, is a key and very contentious part of this initiative.”

Climate change could also have implications on this and other border conflicts within the Himalayas. However, Karine Gagne, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University’s Department of Anthropology who has worked in Ladakh, explained that this is an important issue that has been poorly addressed so far. While military tactics and capabilities play a large role in such disputes, the role of natural factors like terrain and climate in regions like the Himalayas is undisputed and can create both advantages and challenges for different parties.

Glacier Retreat Exposes New Breeding Ground for Kelp Gulls in Antarctica

Glacier retreat caused by anthropogenic climate change is often in the news because of its impacts on sea level rise and shrinking habitats. However, a recent study published by Lee et al. in the Journal of Ethology has found that glacier retreat on King George Island could have a positive impact on kelp gulls, exposing new ground with suitable breeding sites.

Kelp gulls have a large range in the southern Hemisphere (Source: Yuri Hutflesz / Creative Commons).
Kelp gulls have a large range in the southern Hemisphere (Source: Yuri Hutflesz/Creative Commons).

The kelp gull, Larus dominicanus, breeds on coasts and islands throughout the Southern Hemisphere, as detailed on the IUCN Red List. It has a large range, from subantarctic islands and the Antarctic peninsula to coastal areas of Australia, Africa and South America. Breeding occurs between September and January, with nests usually built on bare soil, rocks or mud in well-vegetated sites.

King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland islands, is part of the kelp gull’s range. It can be found off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula and is a nesting ground for seabird species during the summer months. Numerous research stations are located on the island, and its coasts are home to a variety of wildlife, such as elephant and leopard seals, and Adelie and Gentoo penguins.

A map of Barton Peninsula on King George Island (Source: NOAA).
A map of Barton Peninsula on King George Island (Source: NOAA).

Research has shown that breeding nests of kelp gulls have been recorded in ice-free areas of King George Island since the 1970s. Studies of Gentoo penguin populations  also suggest that rapid glacier retreat could give species that favor ice-free environments a chance to expand their habitats. As such, Lee et al. used a combination of satellite photographs and field observations of kelp gull nests in newly exposed locations to study possible correlations between glacier retreat and nest distribution in the Barton Peninsula on King George Island.

Based on eight different satellite images, Lee et al. determined that glaciers on the Barton Peninsula have retreated 200-300m from the coast since 1989, exposing an area of approximately 96,000 square kilometers. Within this area, they found up to 34 kelp gull breeding nests between 2012 and 2016, along with evidence that kelp gulls have been breeding on newly exposed ground for decades.

A map of the study site showing the extent of glacier retreat and locations of kelp gull nests (Source: Lee et al.).
A map of the study site showing the extent of glacier retreat and locations of kelp gull nests (Source: Lee et al.).

As the glaciers on the Barton peninsula retreat inland, moraine surfaces made up of glacial soil and rock debris are left on the coast. Rocks within these moraines provide shelter from harsh Antarctic coastal winds, reducing the stress to the gulls arising from these winds. This makes the exposed areas more attractive for breeding.

Previous studies have suggested that kelp gulls select nest sites in favorable locations with rock and vegetation cover, and kelp gull populations are known to nest in neighboring areas like Potter Peninsula and Admiralty Bay. In this study, kelp gull nests were found between 40-50cm away from the rocks, suggesting that a combination of rocks and vegetation present on the moraines help to create favorable nesting conditions.

The rocky moraines left on the coast by retreating glaciers are suitable breeding ground for kelp gulls (Source: Acaro / Creative Commons).
The rocky moraines left on the coast by retreating glaciers are suitable breeding ground for kelp gulls (Source: Acaro/Creative Commons).

These gulls probably originated from neighboring kelp gull populations, such as those on King George Island or the Nelson Islands. Continued retreat of glaciers on King George Island could expose larger areas of suitable breeding ground, attracting more gulls from neighboring islands and increasing kelp gull populations.

Anthropogenic climate change and glacier retreat have many adverse effects, but research like this sheds light on the ways in which some species might benefit in unexpected ways.

Photo Friday: Jotunheimen National Park

Jotunheimen National Park in southern Norway contains more than 250 mountains, including Norway’s two tallest peaks, Galdhøpiggen (2469 metres above sea level) and Glittertind (2465 metres above sea level). Its name means “Home of the Giants” and it is located within the Scandinavian Mountains. Its glacier-carved landscape is a popular camping, hiking and fishing location, as the park’s official website explains. With up to 60 glaciers, the spectacular scenery and diverse wildlife – including reindeer, elk, deer, wolverine and lynx – make it a popular tourist destination.


Galdhøpiggen is Norway's tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas / Creative Commons)
Galdhøpiggen is Norway’s tallest mountain and a popular destination within the park (Source: Tore Røraas/Creative Commons).


The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).
The park contains more than 60 glaciers, making glacier hiking a popular activity (Source: Creative Commons).


Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway (Source: Espen Faugstad / Creative Commons)
Besseggen Ridge, running along a glacier-carved valley, is one of the most popular hiking trails in Norway, attracting more than 30,000 visitors a year (Source: Espen Faugstad/Creative Commons).


The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala / Creative Commons).
The park has more than 250 peaks, giving it the highest concentration of peaks within Northern Europe (Source: Marcin Szala/Creative Commons).


Glittertind, Norway's second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse / Creative Commons).
Glittertind, Norway’s second highest peak, is also located within the park (Source: Anders Beer Wilse, National Library of Norway/Creative Commons).


The park is also a popular location from cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening / Creative Commons).
For those who are more adventurous, the park is also a popular location for cross country skiing (Source: Den Norske Turistforening/Creative Commons).


The park attracts thousands of people every year, ranging from those looking for easier hikes, to those seeking thrilling adventures, as can be seen in this video.



Check out more photos of Jotunheimen National Park here.