Court Advances Case Against German Greenhouse Gas Emitter

Last month, a German court ruled that it will hear a case brought by a Peruvian farmer against Germany’s largest energy producer, RWE, potentially having huge ramifications in so-called climate justice cases. Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya sued the company in 2015 for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, increasing the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that endanger his home in Huaraz, in the foothills of the Andes.

This is only the second time a case against a greenhouse gas emitter has reached this stage— the first coming in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which was swiftly reversed— says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who spoke to GlacierHub about the proceedings. Gerrard noted that this case is “very unusual,” and added, “We’ll see what happens with this one.”

The claim cited a 2013 report that stated RWE emitted 0.47 percent of worldwide carbon and methane emissions from 1751-2010, since industrialization, partly due to its use of coal-fired power plants. To reflect this figure, Lliuya is only seeking reimbursement of 0.47 percent of the damages, or $20,000, out of a total cost of about $4.3 million, to help pay for his home flood defenses. 

Justin Gundlach, staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told GlacierHub, “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, the court’s order to the parties to submit evidence is highly significant. Effectively, the court is announcing that it is theoretically possible to trace liability for harms arising from climate change, in part, to a particular corporate defendant.”

“I think the case is mostly seeking to establish legal precedent,” said Gerrard. “He’s alleging very significant injury with a clear causal to climate change.”

Huaraz, a city of population 200,000, was struck by a GLOF in the past from nearby Lake Palcacocha. In 1941, about 5,000 were killed from a GLOF event, and another flood in 1970 also killed thousands following a 7.9 earthquake. While pipes have been installed to lower the water when it gets too high, climate change continues to melt glaciers, some by 90 percent, and increases the size and threat of glacier lakes.

A report in The Guardian indicated that the judges in the case said “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property.”  

According to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization, a representative for RWE stated, “We don’t believe it’s possible under civil law to hold a single emitter responsible for something that countless human and natural resources also contribute to.”

Gundlach told GlacierHub that while RWE may not be liable, “Its decision to admit evidence indicates to would-be plaintiffs around the world that they might prevail if they can present the right set of facts.”

Iceland’s Öræfajökull Volcano, Buried Under Glacier, Shows Signs of Activity

The Öræfajökull volcano in Iceland is showing signs of activity this month, bringing interest and intrigue to the long dormant volcano whose last known eruption was in 1727-1728. Like many other volcanoes in Iceland, Öræfajökull, the country’s tallest volcano, is mostly buried underneath glacier. The recent activity has caused a large depression in the ice, forming what is referred to as an ice cauldron or subsidence bowl.

The presence of ice could cause an eruption to be phreatomagmatic, which refers to a reaction of magma with ice that causes steam to be released. According to Benjamin Edwards, a volcanologist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, “Even a small eruption will likely produce significant melting given the amount of ice in the summit caldera, and in an environment where water can’t leave the area around the volcanic vent rapidly it will probably cause phreatomagmatic eruptions, which are highly explosive.”

It is difficult to know what caused the ice cauldron to form because of limitations in instrumentation, though subglacial eruptions can still be detected through seismic signatures also known as eruption tremors. According to Dave McGarvie, professor at Open University in Milton Keynes, England, the cauldron could be formed due to a small amount of magma that was released or simply from rising heat. He added, “What can be said with certainty is that the presence of a heat source beneath the ice-filled caldera of this volcano is highly unusual. No subsidence bowl in the ice of this caldera has been recorded in the past few centuries.” Cauldrons are found throughout Iceland and have the potential to cause floods. “There are numerous examples of subsidence bowls in Icelandic glaciers that appear to be caused purely by heating– such as those at the ice-covered Katla volcano, and the famous Skaftá cauldrons, which drain periodically and create sizeable glacial outburst floods.”

For this reason, scientists believe Öraefajökull has started to wake up. “Whether she’s just rolling over in her sleep, or getting ready to fully waken up– nobody knows. It’s too early to tell,” McGarvie added.

Past eruptions from Öræfajökull have been devastating and helped give the volcano the first part of its Icelandic name, roughly translating to wasteland, wilderness, or desolation, which describes the post-eruption surrounding region (the second half, “jökull” means glacier). M Jackson, a geographer and glaciologist who has done research on Iceland said, “The idea of Öræfajökull erupting is terrifying, especially when you put it the historical context. When Iceland was settled over 1,000 years ago, the area around Öræfajökull was verdant and forested, but in 1362 the volcano underneath the glacier Öræfajökull erupted, triggering catastrophic jökulhlaups [type of glacier lake outburst flood] that flooded and decimated the entire region.”

Iceland has plans in place if Öræfajökull erupts including partially closing the ring road which encircles the country and links all the major settlements. Gísli Pálsson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland, explained that if an eruption does occur, an immediate alert will be sent to nearby communities with requests for evacuation of farming communities and possibly the town of Höfn and the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. ”The worst scenario would be heavy floods and massive clouds and layers of ash,” he said.

The Icelandic government and community is well-prepared in case an eruption does occur. “Volcanic activity in Iceland is ongoing, and embedded in the social fabric of Icelandic society,” said Jackson. “Volcanic activity is reported in the news regularly, and people are vigilant. The government monitors all activity intensely, and the system is highly functional. When I lived in Iceland, I was impressed how often I received alerts for any activity, such as earthquakes, gas leaks, and floods.”

The interaction between melting glaciers and erupting volcanoes can be causal as well. Pálsson said it seems likely that with the thinning of the glacier, a circular pattern is established and eruptions will be more frequent than before, resulting in further thinning of the glacier. “An interesting and possibly devastating spinoff from global warming,” he said.

According to Jackson, Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull, is located above a hotspot, with many volcanoes buried underneath glaciers. In the last eight hundred years, Vatnajökull has experienced over eighty subglacial volcanic eruptions alone, she said. Many scientists speculate that as Vatnajökull increasingly melts, the rate of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes will increase. “The material products of increased volcanic activity are likely to have long lasting effects on Icelandic society,” she said.

In 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption released ash clouds that disrupted air travel in and throughout Europe for an entire week. Öræfajökull could erupt a similar ash cloud, as could other volcanoes in Iceland. With climate change potentially increasing the frequency of eruptions, the world has one more important reason to quickly mitigate the effects of climate change.

Roundup: Glacier Lakes, Narwhals, and Water Stress

Glacier Lake Deepening in the Himalayas

From Water: “This paper investigates physical processes in the four sub-basins of Ngozumpa glacier’s terminal Spillway Lake for the period 2012–2014 in order to characterize lake deepening and mass transfer processes. Quantifying the growth and deepening of this terminal lake is important given its close vicinity to Sherpa villages down-valley… In areas of rapid deepening, where low mean bottom temperatures prevail, thin debris cover or bare ice is present. This finding is consistent with previously reported localized regions of lake deepening and is useful in predicting future deepening.”

You can read more about glacier lake deepening here.

Overview of the Tsho Rolpa Lake in the Rowaling Valley, Spillway Lake in the Gokyo Valley, and Imja Lake in the Khumbu Valley (Source: Water).


Narwhals To Help Monitor Melting Glaciers

From New Scientist: “An iconic whale species will soon be aiding climate change research. Narwhals are spending more time near melting sea ice and researchers hope to exploit this new behavior by tagging the mammals with temperature sensors to help us accurately monitor underwater sea ice melt for the first time.”

You can read more about narwhals–marine mammals, once confused with unicorns–and glacier monitoring here.

A Narwhal (Source: New Scientist).


A Study of Water Stress in Kyrgyzstan

From Water: “Water vulnerabilities in Central Asia are affected by a complex combination of climate-sensitive water sources, trans-boundary political tensions, infrastructure deficiencies and a lack of water management organization from community to federal levels. This study aims to clarify the drivers of water stress across the 440 km Naryn River basin, headwater stem to the Syr Darya and the disappearing North Aral Sea… Surveys indicate that current water stress is primarily a function of water management and access issues resulting from the clunky transition from Soviet era large-scale agriculture to post-Soviet small-plot farming. Snow and ice meltwaters play a dominant role in the surface and ground water supplies to downstream communities across the study’s 4220 m elevation gradient, so future increases to water stress due to changes in volume and timing of water supply is likely given frozen waters’ high sensitivities to warming temperatures. The combined influence of social, political and climate-induced pressures on water supplies in the Naryn basin suggest the need for proactive planning and adaptation strategies, and warrant concern for similar melt-sourced Central Asian watersheds.”

You can read about this challenging situation here.

The Naryn river in Kyrgyzstan (Source: Nurdjen/Creative Commons).

No-Fly Zone Administered Over Glacier Crash Site

In 1952, a military plane crashed into Mount Gannett, 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 service members on board. The plane was located in 2012 at Colony Glacier, but it has taken years to retrieve the remains as rescuers can only travel to the crash site in June, when conditions are safest on the glacier. Over this time, the receding glacier has made the crash site more visible, but it has also enticed sightseers on helicopters, who risk disturbing the remains or removing artifacts. As a result, a no-fly zone has been administered this month by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop people from disturbing the crash site.

To date, 35 human remains have been repatriated, but it may take several more years to retrieve the remaining 17. The plane went down in the Chugach Mountain range, one of the snowiest locations in Alaska. During the winter of 1952-1953, in the Chugach’s Thompson Pass, a record 81 feet of snow was recorded. Colony Glacier remains dangerous due to deep crevasses, variable weather and sharp pieces of ice.

Erin Pettit, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told GlacierHub about similar plane crashes that have been buried beneath glaciers. “There are a handful around the world – at least one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. Sometimes they weren’t ‘lost’ in the sense that no one knew what happened, but they just couldn’t extract the plane,” she said. “The plane was absorbed by the glacier and won’t re-emerge for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on where it landed and how big the glacier is.”

When a plane crashes into a glacier, it is covered by snowfall and over time freezes into the glacier. When the glacier moves downslope, the plane moves along with it, until it is later revealed at the front of the glacier. Warmer temperatures speed this process up.

Flowpath of Colony Glacier (Source: Bob McNabb).

Bob McNabb, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska, calculated the speed and trajectory of the flowpath of the Colony Glacier and made a map for GlacierHub. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, McNabb said the plane traveled 23 kilometers along the flowpath, which means it would have traveled one meter per year. Using this analysis, which involved the use of satellites, McNabb calculated that the average surface velocity would have been about 1.5 meters per year.

Michael Loso, a physical scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, told GlacierHub that Colony Glacier has a velocity of about 3 feet per day, saying, “That’s fast but not unreasonably fast for a big Alaskan glacier.”

Alaska has a higher rate of plane crashes than the rest of the United States for reasons like frequent inclement weather, jagged terrain, which can be obscured by clouds, and the fact that flying is the only way to get to certain remote places. The cause of the 1952 crash has never been determined.

Loso added that such crashes at glaciers are not that uncommon, saying, “Many glaciers are in mountains, and planes run into mountains every once in awhile.”

Samar Khan Becomes First Woman to Cycle on Biafo Glacier

Samar Khan on her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

In August 2016, Samar Khan, 26, became the first woman to cycle 800 kilometers to reach the Biafo Glacier in northern Pakistan, where she then rode at an elevation of 4,500 m on top of the glacier. Accomplishing one of the highest glacier rides in the world, she proved that glaciers can draw attention to some of society’s most entrenched issues, from climate change to women’s rights.

“In order to change the mindsets of our people, I chose to cycle on glaciers,” Khan told GlacierHub. “I wanted people to realize the importance of what we have, how to preserve it, and what our duties are toward these majestic landmarks.”

Khan reached Biafo Glacier after 15 days of cycling from Islamabad to Skardu, becoming the first Pakistani to accomplish the feat. She was accompanied by other cyclists at various times during her journey and was honored upon her arrival by the sports board of Gilgit-Baltistan. Prior to the Biafo trip, she had previously covered 1,000 km, cycling from Islamabad to the Pakistan-Chinese border. 

Picture of Samar Khan next to her bicycle on Biafo Glacier (Source: Samar Khan).

Biafo Glacier, the third longest glacier outside the polar regions, required Kahn to disassemble her bike and carry the parts, helped by porters, for four or five days up ice and snow to reach the remote glacier before riding it. She camped near the glacier in dangerously cold conditions, telling Images, a Pakistani magazine, “Camping on the glacier was not easy. I was so cold that I couldn’t sleep and later slept with the porters in a cramped space.”

Recognizing that climate change is impacting the glaciers, Khan plans to keep cycling. “I will be cycling on other glaciers, summiting peaks, and documenting it all to create awareness about climate change and its effect on our environment,” she said. “I am going for a peak summit of 6,250 m in Arandu (Karakoram Range), Skardu, and Gilgit-Baltistan on May 14th.” Gilgit-Baltistan is a mountainous administrative territory of Pakistan, home to five peaks of at least 8,000 m in height.

Sadaffe Abid, co-founder of CIRCLE, a Pakistan-based women’s rights group focused on improving women’s socioeconomic status, talked to GlacierHub about Ms. Khan’s achievement. “It’s not common at all. It’s very challenging. For a Pakistani women, it is very unusual, as women don’t ride bicycles or motorbikes. Their mobility is extremely constrained. So, it’s a big deal and its setting new milestones,” she said.

“I am the first Pak girl to break stereotypes and cycle to northern Pakistan,” Samar Khan told CIRCLE in an interview posted on Facebook.

Samar Khan on her journey, being assisted by a porter, who carried parts of her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

Khan has faced sexism and violence by going against the norms in Pakistan. She recounted a story to CIRCLE about her engagement to a man. When she met his family, they gave her a list of demands including not speaking Pashto and not using social media or her cell phone. When she refused, she was beaten and thrown out of a car. She ended up in the ICU and became depressed before eventually finding cycling.

“Steps taken like this boost the confidence of other ladies in underprivileged areas and make them aware about their basic rights,” Khan said. “It makes them realize their strengths and capabilities. The change begins when they start trusting themselves instead of listening to the patriarchal society.”

Khan told GlacierHub that she also faced criticism and disbelief of her accomplishment from other sources. “There was a trekking community who criticized my way of exploring Biafo Glacier, the most challenging and rough terrain for trekkers. I was going there on my cycle, which was really hard for them to accept,” she said. “But the mainstream media supported my efforts, and many international tourists have been attracted to the Karakoram ranges after my expedition. They have seen that Pakistan is the safest place for pursuing such activities.”

Khan plans to continue to break stereotypes on her bicycle (Source: Samar Khan).

In the future, Kahn hopes to pursue her goal of making the Pakistani cycling team and qualifying for the Olympics so she can win a gold medal for Pakistan.

“Thank you Samar Khan for your courage, creativity and determination,” added Abid. “Women are Pakistan’s most untapped resource. When women grow, families prosper and nations progress.”





Photo Friday: Glacier-Themed Parties

Glacier-themed parties have been around for a long time, but recently got a boost from the hit Disney movie, Frozen. And in Iceland last year, the first-ever party inside a glacier was thrown during the Secret Solstice festival in Rejkavik. The party was held inside Langjökull glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe.

In today’s Photo Friday, we’ll show you some ideas for glacier-themed parties.


Glacier punch sounds tasty (Source: PickEasy).


Glacier Juice is another great alternative (Source: PickEasy).


Glacier Water (Source: Pintrest).


In Iceland last year, the first-ever party inside a glacier was thrown (Source: Tiny Iceland).


The party inside of a glacier was held in Iceland (Source: Rave Jungle).


Oh no! A shark got into the glacier punch! You can make this following a recipe, (Source: Hostess with the Mostess).


Excavating dinos from glaciers is another fun idea (Source: The Happier Homemaker).


Two Glaciers in India Granted Personhood Status, Court Rules

The Gangtori and Yamunotri glaciers in India were recently granted “living beings” status or personhood by the Uttarakhand state court in order to protect them, particularly from pollution and climate change. Located in the Himalayas, both glaciers are considered sacred by Hindus, the dominant religion in India, and are important pilgrimage sites. The glaciers also provide fresh water to millions of people through glacial runoff that flows into the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, which were declared “living beings” last month.

The Himalayas (Source: Creative Commons).

The designation of the two glaciers comes on the heels of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent election victories in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has been criticized for its nationalist policies in India, such as ignoring the minority Muslim population in India. 

While the granting of personhood status follows a pioneering trend set by a New Zealand court, which designated personhood to a former national park and later a river, the designation may also be a move by the BJP to earn political favor despite other controversial policies. The coincidence of the timing of the court’s decision and the recent election victories follow a pattern of political action under Hindu nationalism.

Not long ago, for example, the BJP appointed Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath the state leader of Uttar Pradesh, where there is a high population of Muslims. Adityanath has a history of controversial statements about Muslims, which include a comment that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to lessen the Hindu population and a public defense of the killing of a Muslim man in 2015 after his family allegedly ate beef.

Prime Minister Modi (Source: Creative Commons).

On the other hand, the BJP’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), champions religious diversity and tolerance. But for the first time since 2002, the BJP won a majority of seats in Uttarkhand, earning 56 to the INC’s 11. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a landslide 325 seats to the INC’s 54. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which caters to minority Muslims, took 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh of Uttarakhand state court bestowed the legal distinction of “Juristic Persons” on the two glaciers, giving them legal rights. Personhood status allows lawsuits to be brought by features of the natural world, without the need to show harm done to a human.

The ruling recognized glacier retreat as one of the reasons for the personhood status. “Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas,” the Court said. “However, it is receding fast. In over 25 years, it has retreated more than 850 meters.” At 7,100 meters above sea level, Gangtori Glacier is the longest glacier in the Central Himalayas at 30 km in length. But it has been shrinking at a rate of retreat of about 13 meters per year since 2000.

In addition, Yamunotri Glacier is also receding at an alarming rate. In just a few hundred years, the glacier may be gone completely and with it the freshwater rivers. Millions of people depend on glacial melt for water, with glacial ice the largest reservoir of freshwater on earth. A recent report in The Cryosphere states that the mass of Himalayan glaciers may drop by 70-99 percent by the year 2100. 

Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia University School of Law who has practiced environmental law for nearly 30 years, told GlacierHub, “There have been various efforts in the U.S., but none have gotten very far at all. The ruling is a manifestation of a completely different legal system, a non-western legal system.”

The Ganges River (Source: Creative Commons).

In addition to the glaciers, several rivers, streams, waterfalls, jungles, forest wetlands and valleys will also be protected by the new court ruling. Seven public representatives from the cities and towns in Uttarakhand will be appointed to ensure that the communities living along the banks of rivers and near glaciers have a say in their protection.

“Giving the glaciers and the major rivers that flow from these glaciers living entity status is an important direction in preserving India’s remaining water resources,” Meha Jain, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. “These rivers are critical for hundreds of millions of people, including farmers who rely on them for irrigation, which will become even more critical with growing food security demands over the coming decades.”

David Haberman wrote about one of these rivers, the Yamuna River, in his book River of Love in an Age of Pollution, published by the University of California Press. “Celebrated as an aquatic form of divinity for thousands of years, the Yamuna is one of India’s most sacred rivers. A prominent feature of north Indian culture, the Yamuna is conceptualized as a goddess flowing with liquid love—yet today it is severely polluted, the victim of fast-paced industrial development.”

Gangtori glacier (Source: NASA).

Black carbon has been identified as a cause of glacier melt and has been responsible for accelerating the retreat of India’s glaciers by accumulating on top of the snow, increasing the absorption of solar energy. It is typically given off by cookstoves, diesel engines and biomass burning, activities that are ubiquitous in countries like India, which suffers from air pollution as a result of black carbon. Black carbon isn’t nearly as prevalent in many developed countries because of technology advancements and regulation. Perhaps the ruling and emphasis on protecting the glaciers will lead to changes in India’s use of burning activities associated with black carbon.

A woman using a cookstove (Source: Creative Commons).

Climate change continues to warm the Earth and endanger the Himalayan natural landscape and glaciers. While the recent designation by the court may further the preservation of glaciers and river systems, a simple decree will not do much if not acted upon, particularly by the government.


Roundup: Mélange, Ice Microstructures and Ice Caps

Roundup: Mélange, Microstructures and Ice Caps

Breakup of Mélange Increases Calving

From the Journal Nature Communications: “At many marine-terminating glaciers, the breakup of mélange, a floating aggregation of sea ice and icebergs, has been accompanied by an increase in iceberg calving and ice mass loss. Previous studies have argued that mélange may suppress calving by exerting a buttressing force directly on the glacier terminus. In this study, I adapt a discrete element model to explicitly simulate mélange as a cohesive granular material. Simulations show that mélange laden with thick landfast sea ice produces enough resistance to shut down calving at the terminus. When sea ice within mélange thins, the buttressing force on the terminus is reduced and calving is more likely to occur.”

Read more about the study here.


Snapshots of iceberg positions and velocities in two different channel configurations (source: Journal Nature Communications).


Ice Microstructures and Fabrics of Guliya Ice Cap

From Journal Crystals: “This work is the first in the general natural ice literature to compare microstructures and fabrics of continent-type mountain ice in mid-low latitudes with polar ice in order to find out how they evolved based on similar fabric patterns of their vertically girdles. Microstructures and fabrics along the Guliya ice core on the Tibetan Plateau, China, were measured at a depth interval of approximately 10 m…  The thermal kinemics caused by the temperature can play a vital role in different stress cases to cast the similar or same fabric patterns. Normal grain growth, polygonization/rotation recrystallization, and migration recrystallization play roles of different importance at different depths.”

Read more about the study here.

The sketches of the drilling sites of the ice cores for the Guliya (Source: Journal Crystals).


The Projected Demise of Barnes Ice Cap

From American Geophysical Union: “As a remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, Barnes Ice Cap owes its existence and present form in part to the climate of the last glacial period. The ice cap has been sustained in the present interglacial climate by its own topography through the mass balance-elevation feedback. A coupled mass balance and ice-flow model, forced by Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 climate model output, projects that the current ice cap will likely disappear in the next 300 years. For greenhouse gas Representative Concentration Pathways of +2.6 to +8.5 Wm−2, the projected ice-cap survival times range from 150 to 530 years. Measured concentrations of cosmogenic radionuclides 10Be, 26Al, and 14C at sites exposed near the ice-cap margin suggest the pending disappearance of Barnes Ice Cap is very unusual in the last million years. The data and models together point to an exceptionally warm 21st century Arctic climate.”

Read more about the study here.

Map of Barnes Ice Cap and location on Baffin Island, Canada (Source: AGU).


Tribal House in Glacier Bay Park Recognizes Huna Tlingit

A newly constructed tribal house within Glacier Bay National Park in the Southeast Alaskan panhandle begins a fresh chapter in the contentious relationship between the Huna Tlingit, a Native American tribe, and the National Park Service (NPS). For much of the 20th century, the NPS infringed on Huna hunting rights and appropriated the majority of Huna land to create a monument, and later a National Park and Preserve over 5,000 square miles in area

The recently opened 28,000 square foot tribal house coincides with the NPS’s 100th anniversary and will serve as a gathering center for the Huna, displaying artwork and cedar carvings, while also informing some of Glacier Bay’s 500,000 yearly visitors about the Huna’s rich culture. 

The house sits on the Huna’s ancestral homelands in Bartlett Cove, originally known in the endangered Huna language as L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan, which translates to “Town on Top of the Sand Hill.” It will memorialize the lost clan houses which used to dot the coast but were destroyed by the rapidly advancing Grand Pacific Glacier in the 1700s. The glacier cleared the land, including wildlife like salmon found in the streams, and destroyed Huna villages. But beginning in the 1800s, the glacier began to recede, leaving 100 miles of destruction in its wake. By the 1830s, the wildlife returned, along with the Huna, who set up seasonal camps where they fished, hunted and collected gull eggs and berries. The new tribal house will be the first permanent house since the glacier drove the Huna away to their current village, Hoonah, 30 miles south, where over 800 of them dwell.

The tribal house opened last August (Source: NPS).

Remnants of tribal dwellings and other evidence of the Huna’s presence can still be found in the park. For example, cairns are memorials or landmarks made of mounds of stones marking the highlands used to retreat from floods associated with environmental change. In addition, archaeologists have discovered old smokehouses, house pits, and culturally modified trees stripped of bark, which may have been used for markers, baskets, pitch or shelter.

Around the time the Huna returned to Glacier Bay, Westerners also arrived. Captain George Vancouver, an English Naval Officer, surveyed the area in 1794, and John Muir, often referred to as the “Father of the National Parks,” visited between 1879 and 1899. Muir is sometimes credited with the discovery of Glacier Bay, although he relied on Tlingit guides to get there. The area was proclaimed a national monument in 1925, a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, and finally, a national park in 1980.

Sea lions in Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Creative Commons).

When the monument decree was passed under President Calvin Coolidge, the Huna Tlingit were not consulted, leading to anger among tribal members, and in addition many tribe members did not speak English. The NPS increasingly infringed on the Huna’s hunting rights, first limiting firearms to protect brown bears in the 1930s, and then ten years later outlawing all hunting and trapping except for seals, which the Park Service later banned in 1976.  

In 1992, a Huna hunter in the Park was ordered to appear before a federal magistrate in Juneau for shooting a seal that was going to be used in a potlatch, or ceremonial feast, and his gun was confiscated. Around the same time, the Park Service began considering phasing out commercial fishing which prompted peaceful protests on the shores of Bartlett Cove by the Huna. Speeches were given by elders about Huna history and the importance of subsistence. Following the protests, constructive talks began, and in 1997, the idea for a tribal house was accepted by the Park Service.

A tribe member donned in the traditional regalia (Source: NPCA).

However, limited funding slowed the tribal house project down. In 2013, superintendent of Glacier Bay, Susan Boudreau, redirected concessionaire franchise fees toward the Huna Tribal House, which ultimately cost $2.9 million dollars.

Eugene Hunn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, told GlacierHub, “This new tribal house should strengthen Huna Tlingit claims to their traditional territory within Glacier Bay National Park and provides them a long-overdue central role instructing the tourist public about their deep historic ties to the local landscape.”

The tribe hired carver Gordon Greenwald to oversee construction of the handcrafted totem poles, interior posts, and floor-to-ceiling wooden screens, which depict pictures of tribal stories. A carved screen inside the house depicts complex stories of the four clans in separate canoes, and a fifth canoe represents all other people holding their paddles vertically as a sign of friendship. 

Traditionally, each clan would build their own house but they decided on a common house, an idea that was controversial at first. The interior posts feature colorful depictions of wildlife common to Glacier Bay, many of which serve as crests of Huna’s Glacier Bay clans.

Gordon Greenwald , a Huna carver (Source: NPCA).

Last August, the Grand Opening Ceremony of about 800 people– a mix of tribal members, Park staff, and visitors– celebrated as members of the tribe ceremonially arrived in canoes donned in traditional regalia. It had been many years since the Huna paddled the 30-mile journey from Hoonah to their ancestral homeland in Glacier Bay. There was chanting, singing, and drumming while clan elders burned cedar and spruce chips and poured seal oil over themselves as gesture of thanks to the trees that gave their lives for the construction of the house and canoes.

The tribe named the house Xunaa Shuká Hít, which translates to “Huna Ancestors’ House.” They called out the name during the ceremony, a Huna tradition intended to breathe new life into the house. Later in the night, about 300 guests crammed into the house to dance and cheer for the long awaited opening.

Thomas F. Thornton, an anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning the Huna since 1991, told GlacierHub, “It was a great day of celebration in August of 2016 when the Huna Tlingit were again able to inhabit a tribal house in Glacier Bay, having been forced out, first by the glacier’s advance and then by the Park Service’s exclusionary policies.”

Park service staff and tribal members hope the new tribal house can be a model for making amends with Native people.

“These descendants of Glacier Bay should not only have the right to harvest cultural foods and other resources in the park but also to have a meaningful partnership in the interpretation and management of their traditional homeland,” Dr. Thornton observed. “Although there is still healing and work to be done, this is a constructive start to what could be a new era of mutual recognition and cooperation in curating and caring for this magnificent World Heritage Site.”


Iceberg Scars on Seafloor Offer Clues to the Past

Many people know the phrase “tip of the iceberg,” which acknowledges that most of the iceberg sits underwater, but few know what the bottom of an iceberg is capable of. Scientists recently found scars in the North Falkland Basin, north of the Falkland Islands, created by icebergs when they plowed into the seafloor. Known as scours, these u-to-v shaped scars can inform researchers about the Earth’s past in terms of climate, geography and ocean currents. Christopher Brown et al. recently published a paper on the topic in the journal Marine Geology, presenting their latest findings.

Scours recently found in the North Falkland Basin (Source: Marine Geology).

In the paper, the researchers note that the icebergs responsible for the scours in the North Falkland Basin likely calved from glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula. The size of the icebergs must have been immense in order for them to travel 2,000 kilometers and still leave marks on the seafloor hundreds of meters below. Given the freshness and reworking of the scours in the North Falkland Basin, researchers believe they likely formed during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the time period when glacier and ice sheets dominated the globe and Antarctica was larger than it is today.

Christopher Brown et al. later found and analyzed the scours using five high-quality 3-D seismic data sets covering an area of 1550 km². From analyzing the curvature of the scours, researchers can determine what kind of tides and currents were active thousands of years ago. Scours can also inform scientists about southern hemisphere climatology and ocean patterns.

In the North Falkland Basin, Christopher Brown et al. found scours at depths ranging from 280 to 460 meters below sea level, while the depth of the basin reaches up to 2,500 meters. The researchers also located scours measuring nearly 10 meters deep, 38 kilometers long, and one kilometer wide. These scours may have meandered due to the rotation of the iceberg’s keel, or underside, when pushing into the seafloor. External forces that may have also caused a direction change can include ocean currents, tidal changes, subglacial calving, subglacial drainage and storms. Analyzing the location, curvature and orientation of scours provides scientists with insight into the Earth’s past.

Diagram of an iceberg forming a scour (Source: Creative Commons).

For example, the icebergs in the North Falkland Basin were likely carried by the East Falkland Current, an important northward current along the east side of Argentina that brings fresh, cold water north from Antarctica. This suggests that the current was active in the LGM and sheds light on the ocean-climate interactions in the southern hemisphere’s past.

Christopher Brown et al. determined that a collection of icebergs may have even formed an iceberg “graveyard,” suggesting there may have been an ice bridge from Argentina to the Falkland Islands at some point in time. This means that the icebergs would have traveled on the east side of the Falkland Islands in order to get to the basin.

A map of currents in the waters between Antarctica and South America (Source: Marine Geology).

In the northern hemisphere, scour marks have been found far away from where they were sourced, in the low-to-mid latitudes along the southern Atlantic United States coast, for example. In the southern hemisphere, few iceberg scours have been found outside of Antarctica, particularly in the mid-latitudes. The recent findings in the North Falkland Basin support the idea that icebergs could travel into warmer waters farther north of 50°S, the approximate location of the Falkland Islands. Rarely have icebergs been recorded north of the Falklands, but a few mega icebergs were spotted between 1979 and 2003.

A large iceberg (Source: Pal Lter/Flickr).

With much of the ocean floor still unexplored, there are likely more scours yet to be discovered that can tell scientists more about the planet’s past. As the scours in the North Falkland Basin suggest, scours can be useful in unlocking information about climate, oceans and geography from thousands of years ago, by leaving marks at great distances, providing valuable clues to our planet’s history.

Photo Friday: Andean Herders Cope with Climate Change

Allison Caine was recently living in a community of alpaca herders in the Cusco region of Peru conducting extensive fieldwork as part of her PhD program in anthropology at the University of Michigan. These photographs are an element in her research, which focuses on how alpaca herders evaluate environmental changes and adapt their daily and seasonal practices. In many herding communities in this region,  women are often the primary herders.

Glaciers form a key element of Caine’s research. Their rapid retreat in recent decades has altered streamflow and affected the wetlands the herders manage, often negatively. Streamside wetlands are a crucial resource for the herds, particularly in the dry season. The dramatic, visible loss of glaciers has a strong cultural impact as well.

The following photos have been provided to GlacierHub courtesy of Allison Caine.


A herder walks the ridge above pastures, with Mount Ausangate in the distance.


A herder looks over pastures, keeping an eye out for wandering animals.


Two llamas pause on a hilltop. Male llamas roam the hilltops on their own, while herders pasture alpaca and sheep on the hillsides and in valleys below (Photo by Nikolas Sweet).


In a corral on the shores of Sibina Qocha a herder treats her alpacas' illness with an herbal tincture.
In a corral on the shores of Sibina Qocha, a herder treats her alpacas’ illness with an herbal tincture, a type of medicine dissolved in alcohol.


A herder washes quinoa in the glacial springs emanating from the glaciated peaks of the Cordillera Vilcanota.
A herder washes quinoa in a glacier-fed stream in the Cordillera Vilcanota.


A herder washes medicinal plants in a glacier-fed pond in the Cordillera Vilcanota.


A young girl takes a flying leap over a glacial river at 16,000 feet above sea-level.

New Research Offers Fresh Insight into the Iceman’s Death

Ötzi, also known as the Iceman, is showing new signs of life in his gut. Gabriele Andrea Lugli and other researchers from the University of Parma recently published findings on the Iceman in Microbiome Journal. Their research analyzes samples taken from Ötzi’s gut in order to reconstruct and characterize ancient bacteria to provide clues on how bacteria may have affected humans. While some evidence suggests that the Iceman was murdered or died from the lingering effects of an attack, researchers have now uncovered a new possible cause of death: inflammatory bowel disease.

Ötzi was originally found in a receding glacier by two tourists in the Italian Alps in 1991. First thought to be someone from more recent times, research has shown that he lived about 5,300 years ago. Since then, he has become the best known frozen mummy in the world, because his remains are remarkably intact and offer a clear view of the distant past. Though Ötzi’s skin looks like brown caramel and his bones can be seen through his skin, he is very well preserved. Last year, PBS released a documentary titled “Iceman Reborn about artist Gary Staab, who made a replica of the Iceman using 3D printing. One researcher in the film remarked, “He may well be the most studied human being in history.”

Another researcher, referring to new discoveries about Ötzi’s genetic code, noted, “We are rewriting the history of humankind.” It was recently discovered that the Iceman has 61 tattoos, up from a previously smaller number. Ötzi’s tattoos are in locations where there is joint and spinal degradation, indicating the tattoos may have been treatment of some kind. In addition, he was found with a gash on his left hand and an arrow wound in his back, suggesting that he was murdered. He was also found with a copper axe, showing researchers that metalworking was earlier than previously thought.

While climate conditions can alter bacterial communities, low temperatures such as permafrost are optimal for long-term DNA preservation. Using a technique called next generation sequencing, the researchers investigated the human gut microbiota in the soft tissue of the human mummy. The samples yielded an enormous amount of data– about 71 gigabases from 12 biopsy samples.

The Ötztal Alps, where Ötzi was found (source: Creative Commons).

Ancient bacteria, such as the ones found in Ötzi’s gut, can provide clues on the history of diseases, the evolution of bacteria and bacterial infections in humans, allowing scientists to reconstruct pathogens like the plague (Yersinia pestis), leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae) and stomach infections (Helicobacter pylori).

The researchers found that the upper part of the large intestines had ample Pseudomonas species. These bacteria are typically found in the soil. The presence of P. fluorescens in Ötzi’s intestines suggests that his immune system may have been compromised and that he may have been ill with inflammatory bowel disease at the time of his death.

Other findings included the fact that even though modern P. veronii have been isolated from water springs, the ancient strain seems to have the ability to colonize the human gut. The bacteria also shares genetic material with Pseudomonas strains in isolated parts of Antarctica, a fact which supports its ancient origin. Evidence suggests that the evolution of the bacteria was helped by the development of its virulence.

Tattoos found on the Iceman (source: Creative Commons).

The biopsy also revealed the ancient genome of C. perfringens in the Iceman’s gut. It shares the same genetic branch as another species, well-known as a cause of food poisoning. This finding suggests that C. perfringens was a cause of food poisoning in humans during Ötzi’s time. The researchers believe they may have also found a species of Clostridium incapable of metabolizing sucrose.

The scientists analyzed the samples at the Ancient DNA Laboratory of the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. Scientists had to follow stringent guidelines in order to work with the samples, including wearing protective clothing, exposing the equipment to UV-light, sterilizing surfaces with bleach, and using filtered pipette tips. These procedures protected Ötzi against contamination and the researchers against infection.

Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).
Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).

There is still a great deal of research that can be done on the biopsied samples in order to provide more clues on the cause of the Iceman’s death. Future explorations may also reveal more information on the interactions of bacteria and humans thousands of years ago. More than two decades after its discovery, the 5,300 year old mummy continues to yield new discoveries.