Indigenous Art Promotes Resilience to Climate Change

Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, Pangnirtung (source: Timothy K/Panoramio)
Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts, Pangnirtung (source: Timothy K/Panoramio)

Indigenous art can play a role in transmitting environmental knowledge between generations and across cultures, according to an article published recently in the journal Ecology and Society. Inuit people in northern Canada produce art that conveys their perceptions of environmental change to younger generations within their community and to the wider world

Authors Kaitlyn Rathwell and Derek Armitage interviewed 30 professional artists in the towns of  Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, both towns in Baffin Island in northern Canada where the decline of sea ice and changing seasons impact traditional hunting and food security. They selected the towns, both former trading posts for the Hudson Bay Company, for their “legacy of artmaking,” including textiles, carving, and printmaking. Cape Dorset is known as the “Capital of Inuit Art,” and carvers there use power tools on their work. The authors wrote, “While walking the streets, one hears the soundtrack of power tools omnipresent as carvers work constantly beside houses.” Local art cooperatives purchase the work and showcase it in national and international markets.

Hudson's Bay Company blubber station at Pangnirtung (source: Slp1/Creative Commons)
Hudson’s Bay Company blubber station at Pangnirtung (source: Slp1/Creative Commons)

Among professional artists, the artwork is an important source of livelihood. Newer generations of Innit are relying on art for income generation in areas where work opportunities are otherwise limited to commercial fishing and local social services.  International market demands, such as the unacceptability of seal skin canvases in European markets, have shifted the type of work that the Inuit produce.

Rathwell and Armitage also undertook a series of activities that led to the creation of a mural. They opened with a planning process to learn local priorities and build local support. These led to a full-day workshop, in which Inuit youth and youth from southern Canada discussed old and new times and sketched vignettes, which the group then integrated into a sketch for a mural. At a later workshop, they presented the mural to a group of elders, who then had a storytelling session about sea ice. The youth made sketches during this session. These activities overlapped with more formal art-making at a print shop and a studio.

Mural produced by Inuit artists in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada (source: Ecology and Society)
Mural produced by Inuit artists in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, Canada (source: Ecology and Society)

Based on their interviews and observations of the workshops, the authors describe how knowledge is shared and recreated through art and art-making. The authors identify mechanisms by which art transmits and fosters knowledge. Firstly, artist embed messages and meanings in the objects they create. The artist Elisapee Ishulutaq stated, “When I was young the ice was not dangerous…now it’s getting dangerous and through art, artists can get [that message] out there.” Another mechanism was the sharing of knowledge through art, particularly across generations. The artist Toonoo Sharky said, “I learned by watching my grandfather and I took his place trying to imitate his carving at that time”

The authors find that the art-making provides a context that bring together the environmental knowledge of the elders and the skills of artists of different generations. One artist, Eddie Perrier, described how one printmaker, Jolly, taught him specific techniques while another, Eena, provided environmental knowledge. He said, “Jolly showed me how to draw icebergs and the mountains [from] his perspective.… she [Eena] is a really talented artist and printmaker and she is the one who told me the stories about…the snow on the mountains and about how the glaciers are changing. Where Jolly was just showing me how to draw it, not the story behind it.”

Andrew Qappak, Favourite Place to Be, 1987 (source: Inuit Art Quarterly)
Andrew Qappik, Favourite Place to Be, 1987 (source: Inuit Art Quarterly)

Another artist, Andrew Qappik, described recently making a “a large watercolor painting a couple weeks ago at the print shop. Painted the fjord where there use to be a lot of glaciers [and] now the glaciers are not there as much as they used to be. That is what I believe I’m showing in the painting.”  

The authors conclude that Inuit in both communities use art to provide livelihoods and to strengthen their communities. They show that the process of making art itself reinforces social ties and cultural understandings. Moreover, the techniques used in the art support not only the production of items for sale, but also maintain the traditional crafts, such as kamik or hand-sewn sealskin boots, which are used on hunting trips. In these ways, the art contributes to the resilience of an indigenous culture in a changing environment.

To see a video about Andrew Qappik from the National Film Board of Canada, click here.

Ivory Gulls Made an Iceberg Their Home

an ivory gull, flying close to the water
Ivory gull. Source: Schneider/Flickr

Researchers recently reported that a threatened species of Arctic seagull had made a colony in an unusual place— on an offshore iceberg. This is the first report of these gulls breeding on an iceberg.

They reported in a short note published in the journal Polar Biology that ivory gulls, Pagophila eburnea, had formed a breeding colony of around 60 adults with numerous chicks and fledglings among them. The gulls, which are named for their all-white plumage, may have made their home there because it allows them to avoid predators (including the Arctic fox, wolf, and polar bear) and because it is close to an area of open water that is a rich source of food. The find represents a new place to look during counts of such birds.

The iceberg where the gulls were breeding. Source: Polar Biology.
The iceberg where the gulls were breeding. Source: Polar Biology.

The iceberg was covered with gravel and debris, and after analysis, the researchers reported that the likely source was a glacier moraine in Greenland. The iceberg was located nearby the North East Water polynya in Northeast Greenland. (A polynya is an area of open water where sea ice would normally be found. These zones open up seasonally, and are rich in foods that the gulls and other predators can consume, including small fish and krill.) The distance from feeding zones to nesting areas can be up to 100 km each way, so having the iceberg near the feeding area saves energy for the parents.

The colony was spotted serendipitously while the researchers were taking observations from the deck of the RV Polarstern on August 9, 2014. The scientists were looking for seabirds and marine mammals as part of a long-term study of the relationship between predator densities and environmental factors in the polar region.

The location of the ship and the extent of the sea ice when the birds were seen. Source: Polar Biology.
The location of the ship and the extent of the sea ice when the birds were seen. Source: Polar Biology.

Ivory gulls typically breed on nunataks, which are areas of exposed rock from mountain ice and snow fields, or on remote coastal islands. It had been suspected that the gulls might breed on offshore ice islands. A few studies also document the birds breeding on gravel-covered sea ice, though these were near the shore.

The iceberg that was home to the colony was 70 km offshore. The researchers state that they assumed the iceberg was grounded, rather than freefloating, based on the typical depth of East Greenland icebergs.

The observation of these gulls is also interesting because they are a near-threatened species, according to the IUCN Red List. While the ivory gull was among the most frequently seen gull in the Arctic in the 1990s, it is not even among the top ten any more, according to the researchers. The estimated total number of individuals of this species in the Greenland sea has also fallen, according to observations by the authors. The global population of these gulls is now estimated at between 19,000 and 27,000, they noted. The number of gulls seen in this colony makes it an average sized colony for this species. The authors weren’t able to provide an estimate of the number of young gulls, because they blend into the gravel so well and because the authors weren’t able to observe all parts of the breeding site closely.

The authors wrote, “Juveniles of different age (from chicks in downy plumage to fledglings) were observed, but not quantified because parts of the breeding site could not be sighted properly at close range and due to their excellent camouflage on the gravel.”

An adult gull and fledglings on the iceberg. Source: Polar Biology.
An adult gull and fledglings on the iceberg. Source: Polar Biology.

The ivory gull does not venture far from the Arctic Ocean, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and the iceberg was located in the Greenland Sea, which is nearby. Earlier this year, an ivory gull was spotted in Duluth, Minnesota which, though close to the border between the US and Canada, is still far from its normal range. The appearance of the gull attracted bird enthusiasts from all over the country who saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add a species to their life lists.

As climate change has resulted in more icebergs calving off Greenland, it will be interesting to see whether birds like the ivory gull will be able to use them as breeding sites, or if other colonies of ivory gulls are found on icebergs in the future.

Roundup: Midges, Rotifers, and Iron-Eating Bacteria

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.


Diversity of Midge Flies Near Italian Glaciers

From Insect Conservation and Diversity:

A winter-emerging midge. Courtesy of Flickr user thepiper351.
A winter-emerging midge. Courtesy of Flickr user thepiper351.

“A collection of approximately 100 000 chironomids (Diptera; Chironomidae) inhabiting glacial areas of the Southern Alps that were collected over a period of approximately four decades from 1977 to 2014 were analysed to evaluate the impact of environmental traits on the distribution of chironomid species. Although the list of species has not substantially changed over time, some rare species captured in the 1970s have not been collected in recent years, while other species have only been collected recently.”

Read more here.

Rotifers Colonize Maritime Glacier Ice

From Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution:

Bdelloid rotifer, the species studied. Courtesy of Flickr user Ian Sutton.
Bdelloid rotifer. Courtesy of Flickr user Ian Sutton.

“Very few animal taxa are known to reside permanently in glacier ice/snow. Here we report the widespread colonization of Icelandic glaciers and ice fields by species of bdelloid Rotifera. Specimens were collected within the accumulation zones of Langjökull and Vatnajökull ice caps, among the largest European ice masses. Rotifers reached densities up to ∼100 individuals per liter-equivalent of glacier ice/snow, and were freeze-tolerant. ”

Read more here.


Bacteria Turn Iron into Food Under Glaciers

“Geochemical data indicate that protons released during pyrite (FeS2) oxidation are important drivers of mineral weathering in oxic and anoxic zones of many aquatic environments including those beneath glaciers.

Bacteria, courtesy of Flickr user AJ Cann.
Bacteria, courtesy of Flickr user AJ Cann.

Subglacial meltwaters sampled from Robertson Glacier (RG), Canada over a seasonal melt cycle reveal concentrations of S2O32- that are typically below detection despite the presence of available pyrite and several orders of magnitude higher concentrations of the FeS2 oxidation product sulfate (SO42-). Here we report the physiological and genomic characterization of the chemolithoautotrophic facultative anaerobe Thiobacillus sp. RG5 isolated from the subglacial environment at RG. The RG5 genome encodes pathways for the complete oxidation of S2O32-, CO2 fixation, and aerobic and anaerobic respiration with nitrite or nitrate.”

Read more here.

Activists Say Chilean Glacier Protection Law Falls Short

A recent incident shows the importance of a social movement in shaping a glacier protection law in Chile. Representatives from indigenous and environmental groups testified in April that the draft law— which designates glaciers as protected areas and limits activities that can damage them— has glaring loopholes that would leave  glaciers and the people who depend on them unprotected. They urged the Commision on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples to review the proposed law.

A glacier in southern Chile. Courtesy of Flickr user Piero.
A glacier in southern Chile. Courtesy of Flickr user Piero.

The group, the Coordination of Territories in Defense of Glaciers, is a coalition of organizations from northern and central regions in Chile with glaciers. According to an article posted by the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), the group’s message was received positively by representatives on the commission, which is part of the lower house of the Chilean legislature. The article was signed by several groups advocating for glacier protection, including the Coordination of  Territories. It was posted by the indigenous media blog Mapu Express as well.

According to the article, advocates for communities living alongside glaciers argued that these communities need to be able to secure their water rights in order to survive. Central and northern areas are the most dependent on glacial waters, and glaciers there would be left vulnerable by the law, advocates argue. They also point out that Chile is currently experiencing a prolonged water shortage.

The draft law is currently under review within the Environment Ministry, and the group asked the Commission of Human and Indigenous Rights to review it.

A mural protesting the destruction of water resources by mining. Courtesy of Flickr user Amilcar.
A mural protesting the destruction of water resources by mining. Courtesy of Flickr user Amilcar.

These advocates stated in an earlier post that industry interests have ensured that “Ningún glaciar quedará protegido”: Not one glacier would be protected. The groups are aligned against mining interests, including the state-owned copper company CODELCO and Consejo Minero, a mining industry group. Representatives on the committee acknowledged the role of mining interests in opposing glacier protection; Deputy Roberto Poblete, who sits on the committee, singled out Barrick Gold, a large mining company that operates in Chile, as an example of the forces at work against the law’s efficacy.

Conflict between mining groups and local activists are taking place in other parts of the world as well, including Kyrgyzstan, as GlacierHub recently covered. The issue has also been picked up in American popular culture, on the TV show Madam Secretary.

Chileans have been pressing their government to protect glaciers in law since 2014, when plans were announced to expand Chile’s largest mine, further impacting glaciers. Greenpeace started an advocacy campaign called “Glacier Republic” in which it jokingly claimed to declare Chile’s glaciers an independent country. Greenpeace’s efforts combined with those of a handful of Chilean politicians and grassroots activists. A march of two thousand people called for Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to protect the glaciers in law. Discussion of glacier protection in the law followed, and a group within Chile’s legislature advanced a bill to protect glaciers. GlacierHub reported in 2015 that though progress was made in bringing a law to the table, there was uncertainty in how far it would go to protect glaciers.

The Chilean groups testified last month that the draft bill did not go far enough. In January, advocates detailed that the law’s impact would be severely limited. That’s because the law would require that a glacier be in a “Pristine Region,” a park or national reserve, or part of a declared Strategic Glacier Reserve to be protected. They wrote that there are several loopholes that could prevent glaciers that fall under these conditions from being protected. One of these loopholes is a legal provision that parkland can be opened to economic development if permission is granted by the government.

These advocates further state that most glaciers would not qualify for protection under these three categories. Small glaciers, found in the northern regions, and types of terrain that function alongside glaciers, such as permafrost, are vulnerable, they argue. They also argue that mining activity in these excluded areas would lead to the fragmentation of glacial ecosystems. Also, the law would not prohibit mining that results in suspended dust or underground activities, which are the most dangerous for these water sources. According to the advocates, at the meeting last month, they argued that the law legalizes and standardizes the destruction of glaciers, rather than protecting them.

The March for Restoration and Protection of Water in 2013. Courtesy of Flickr user Rafael Edwards.

Estefanía González, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, in an article in the online newspaper El Mostrador, stated that Greenpeace has remained active in advocating for a strong glacier protection law, and issued a call for attendance at a march for the Defense and Restoration ofWater and Lands in Temuco, Chile to denounce it. The march was held on April 23, and was attended by an estimated 4,500 people.

González echoed the indigenous groups’ comments and also drew parallels to other nearby countries who were fighting similar battles. In Colombia, activists are fighting to protect tundra as a water resource, and in Argentina, where Barrick Gold, a mining company, is consuming 9 million liters of water per day in the zone where a water emergency was declared, Gonzalez stated in El Mostrador.

Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez spoke about the challenges the law faced. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez spoke about the challenges the law faced. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Members of the Council expressed their sympathy with the message. The advocates wrote. Deputy Gabriel Boric described access to water as an inalienable human right. However, the representatives pointed out that they fought an uphill battle against big business interests that had a strong hold on Chilean politics. Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez, from the Communist Party, compared the law with the Fisheries Act, which was originally designed to promote sustainable use of marine resources but actually ended up supporting large fishing companies while disadvantaging independent fishermen. Protests erupted in 2015 over this issue.

Council members pledged to do their utmost to take the glacier law under review to examine its human rights impact, even in the face of political and industry pressure. The difficulties which they acknowledge shows the obstacles faced by legislation that favors environmental protection, in Chile as in other countries around the world.

Photo Friday: Images from ‘Sherpa’

Pasang Sherpa, a member of the Sherpa community of Nepal, wrote a review of the new documentary Sherpa earlier this week for GlacierHub. She called it, “one of the best portrayals of the Sherpa story on the mountain I had seen.” Directed by Jennifer Peedom, the documentary tells the story of how the climbing industry has changed life for Sherpas, who attach spiritual significance to Everest and yet also rely on it for work. The film also covers a major accident that took place in 2014 in the Khumbu Icefall, in which 16 mountain expedition workers, a majority of them ethnic Sherpas, died.  Sherpa aired at several film festivals last year and recently was broadcast on Discovery.

More information on the film, including “inside look” clips, can be found at the film’s website. Peedom shares her views on the relationship between the climbing industry and Sherpas, and the crew discusses challenges such as working at high altitude. The following photos from the film are courtesy of Discovery.

[slideshow_deploy id=’9366′]

A Glacier Makes a Cameo on ‘Madam Secretary’

Glaciers made an unusual appearance on a primetime American television network last month: the television series Madam Secretary aired an episode whose plot involved a conflict between mining interests and an transnational public over the fate of a glacier in Chile.

Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series. Credit: CBS.
Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series.
Credit: CBS.

The show, on CBS, stars a fictional Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni). In “Higher Learning,” Secretary McCord is pulled into a conflict sparked a hemisphere away when protesters bar an American mining company’s trucks from entering an indigenous heritage site in the Andes. Viewers learn through protesters’ shouts that the miners intend to extract gold that lies beneath the glacier at the site. The miners planned to dig through the glacier to access the gold, and the opponents of the operation say this will destroy the glacier.

The mining company is American, and has a contract with the Chilean government. When an American employee is injured by a protester, the company calls on the State Department to ensure the safety of its workers.

The Secretary attempts to intervene on behalf of the company by negotiating with the Chilean government to shut down the protests. The issue hits her agenda just as she is preparing to leave on a trip with her daughter Alison to visit the fictional Rafferty College, which Alison hopes to attend. Stopping by the office, where she is briefed by her team of four staffers, she points out that she understands the protesters’ perspective, saying, “It’s not surprising that people would object to moving an entire glacier to dig the gold out.”

Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.
Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set in the episode. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.

An advisor, Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, also points out that the whole affair has “a strong whiff of neo-colonialism.” However, the White House Chief of Staff pressures her to respond to the mining company’s interests because the company is based in the home state of a potential ally of the president. Furthermore, the mining company has a legal contract to extract the gold, so the Secretary is left in the position of having to try to protect their right to operate.

The story takes another twist when the Secretary arrives at the college campus she is visiting with her daughter and is confronted by a group of vocal students who demand justice for the Chileans and for the environment. The students jumped on the issue when the media picked up the story of a solo protester who began a hike up the glacier saying he will reach the top to pay tribute to the glacier one last time, or die trying.

GlacierHub has covered controversy over mining in glaciated areas, for example when state-owned Codelco proposed expanding Chile’s largest copper mine in 2014. The expansion, which Codelco announced would continue, albeit with some redesigns, requires major operations near glaciated territory and the removal of six glaciers. The company initially claimed that there would be little environmental damage. Greenpeace responded to Codelco’s move by declaring Chile’s glaciers an independent “Glacier Republic.” This move was a sign of protest against the failure of the state to protect glaciers. Also, in Kyrgyzstan, the Kumtor gold mine’s operations has threatened glaciers and water.

As these stories show, the episode of Madam Secretary is fairly realistic in its depiction of geopolitical issues. We see how transnational politics play a role in resource extraction. We also see how a Secretary of State uses political channels, leveraging US trade policy in a conversation with the Chilean ambassador, who she calls on to shut down the protests. At the same time, we see the human aspects of this political role, as the Secretary follows the Chilean protester’s hike and handles the confrontation with students on the campus who seek to protest injustice.

A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.
A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.

As the protester continues on his hike, he is lost in an avalanche. The mining company and the Secretary discuss workarounds including the use of an independent monitor group to supervise the operations and the possibility of mining the glacier from a site at a lower elevation, which would avoid destroying it. After this hike put the spotlight on the conflict, reports point out that the Chilean government has violated its own laws by granting indigenous lands to a mining interest. The mining company decides to abandon its plans (it finds another site in Argentina) and the protester is rescued.

The episode can be watched for free online for a limited time, here.

Roundup: Kelp, Firn, and Plankton Studied in Svalbard

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Warming of Artic  Changes Kelp Forests’ Density and Depth

From Polar Biology:

Kelp Seaweed. Courtesy of Flickr User snickclunk.
Kelp Seaweed. Courtesy of Flickr User snickclunk.

“Arctic West Spitsbergen in Svalbard is currently experiencing gradual warming due to climate change showing decreased landfast sea-ice and increased sedimentation. In order to document possible changes in 2012–2014, we partially repeated a quantitative diving study from 1996 to 1998 in the kelp forest at Hansneset, Kongsfjorden, along a depth gradient between 0 and 15 m. The seaweed biomass increased between 1996/1998 and 2012/2013 with peak in kelp biomass shifted to shallower depth, from 5 to 2.5 m.”

Read more about this study here.


Firn, Newly-Settled Snow on Glaciers, Stores Water

Firn, courtesy of Flickr User Alpen Picasso.
Firn, courtesy of Flickr User Alpen Picasso.

From  Geophysical Research Letters:

“Ice-penetrating radar and GPS observations reveal a perennial firn aquifer (PFA) on a Svalbard ice field, similar to those recently discovered in southeastern Greenland. A bright, widespread radar reflector separates relatively dry and water-saturated firn…Our observations indicate that PFAs respond rapidly (subannually) to surface forcing, and are capable of providing significant input to the englacial hydrology system.”

Read more about this study on firn hydrology here.


Krill and Crustaceans Play Bigger Role in Warming Ecosystem

From Polar Biology:

Polar Cod, which relies on plankton, being dried in Norway. Courtesy of Flickr User Victor Velez.
Polar Cod, which relies on plankton, being dried in Norway. Courtesy of Flickr User Victor Velez.

“Euphausiid (krill) and amphipod dynamics were studied during 2006–2011 by use of plankton nets in Kongsfjorden (79°N) and adjacent waters, also including limited sampling in Isfjorden (78°N) and Rijpfjorden (80°N). The objectives of the study were to assess how variations in physical characteristics across fjord systems affect the distribution and abundance of euphausiids and amphipods and the potential for these macrozooplankton species to reproduce in these waters…Euphausiids and amphipods are major food of capelin (Mallotus villosus) and polar cod (Boreogadus saida), respectively, in this region, and changes in prey abundance will likely have an impact on the feeding dynamics of these important fish species”

Learn more about these ecosystems here.

Photo Friday: Mia Baila’s “Portraits of Ice”

Mia Baila has been painting glaciers in Alaska since she first saw them in 2008. In an email to Glacierhub, she wrote that she describes these paintings of glaciers as “Portraits of Ice,” and wrote that the process of representing a glacier in a painting is similar to the process of capturing the uniqueness of a human face. She also described the challenge of painting ice: “With some glaciers, the ice is so twisted and convoluted that it’s as though I am finding my way through a maze or labyrinth as I draw and paint on the canvas. With others, the ice is smoother, and less complicated, yet no less challenging.”

Baila writes of the loss of glaciers to climate change: “I am very aware that as I make these paintings of the glaciers, most of my glacier subjects are melting. At some point in time, when the glaciers themselves are very much diminished, or completely gone, my paintings will serve as a record of the beauty that is here now.”

The paintings below are of glaciers in Glacier Bay, including Margerie Glacier, as well as College Fjord and the Mendenhall Glacier. Her website can be found here and she can be followed on facebook.

[slideshow_deploy id=’8784′]

Tourists on Thin Ice in Glacial Lagoon

In February, a group of nearly 50 tourists drew national attention in Iceland when, ignoring posted signs, they wandered onto a sheet of ice. Luckily they were called by back to shore by a tour guide who spotted them, according to Iceland Magazine. However, the event raised the question of tourist safety, which is a growing concern in the area.

The Glacial lagoon Cafe, which is open year round to provide meals to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.
The Glacial Lagoon Cafe, catering to tourists. Courtesy of M Jackson.

The event happened at the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, a popular destination in southeast Iceland and the terminus of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. The group, which included some parents with children, braved the ice in order to get a closer view of seals. They jumped over cracks between floating ice. Though the ice appeared stable, the tourists had placed themselves at risk of being stranded since the ice sheets could have drifted apart.

The Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon is a draw for tourists in the area, since it contains strikingly impressive icebergs and is conveniently situated on Iceland’s Ring Road.

Dr. Þorvarður Árnason, an environmental scientist at the University of Iceland, said that the lagoon’s ice is made complicated by its tidal connection with the Atlantic Ocean.

“Foreign tourists coming to Jökulsárlón during the winter are probably not aware of this,” he wrote in an email message. “They think this is a ‘normal’ frozen lake… and do not consider the danger of the incoming tide of warm oceanic water which can melt the surface ice and also causes the floating icebergs to start moving, so that the ice around them can crack.”

The incident has become known locally as “the stranding of the tourists,” according to M Jackson, a researcher in the area who spoke with GlacierHub.

Jackson is based near Jökulsárlón and is on a 9-month visit to Iceland to collect first-hand observations and accounts of glaciers’ impacts and relationships with humans. In Iceland, Jackson said that the problem of tourist safety is frequent and well-known.

The lagoon is a very popular destination for photography enthusiasts, who get to see icebergs up close.
Photographers get to see icebergs up close. Courtesy of M Jackson.

She spoke with tourists at Jökulsárlón in the days following the incident. When she went to the lagoon, tourists were again walking out onto the ice and she asked them about safety when they returned to shore. Some said they were following footprints in the snow, while others thought it was similar to walking on frozen lakes back home. Others said danger wasn’t a concern.

The responses indicated that tourists were both unfamiliar with the dangers of the lagoon ice and neglectful of “individual and community safety,” Jackson wrote via email. “There appears to be a disregard for the dangers foreign tourists are placing themselves in and the dangers they are placing others in—the rescuers who will volunteer to help them.”

Jackson lives in the town of Höfn, a fishing town of 1,700 near Jökulsárlón, and said that resident volunteers from the town are the first line of response for situations like the one that arose. Volunteer groups fit into a long tradition in Iceland, according to a recent article in the New Yorker. The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue’s original goal was to save fishermen lost at sea. In 1950, they saved both the victims of a plane crash on a glacier as well as a team of first responders from the American military who got stranded. The work is seen as a form of community service, with employers allowing volunteers to take time off for for training and emergencies. The presence of this system has encouraged abuse, and tourists are seen as taking unnecessary risks because they count on it.

Though the tourist group at Jökulsárlón was able to walk back to shore and did not need saving, incidents such as this still ring alarm bells in Höfn. Jackson said that when the Search and Rescue (SAR) receives an alert, “it often takes them 1-2 hours, depending on weather, to even reach the scene of the emergency. Increasingly, this all volunteer force is being called out each day to respond to calls for help from foreign tourists—and many of the SAR members I spoke with are worn out from such an increased call volume.”

A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
A bridge that spans the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Jökulsárlón is not the only site where tourists have flouted warnings. Another article in Iceland Magazine shows pictures taken at Gullfoss waterfall, another nearby tourist draw, of tourists climbing over gated paths and ignoring warning signs. A tourist recently drowned off Reynisfjara Beach, leaving many wondering when the next major accident would occur.

Tourism is increasing in this part of Iceland and hundreds of visitors each day are visiting in the winter as well as the summer, which is different from the past. The winter conditions are more difficult, but the many people who visit do not fully appreciated the risks. According to the Iceland Tourist Board, foreign tourists doubled between 2010 and 2014, when they approached 1 million. That puts Iceland residents, who number at 323,000, at a three-to-one disadvantage compared to tourists.

The concern over safety contrasts with the publicity that some risk-takers are getting. In glacier boarding, extreme athletes ride down glacier liquid channels on boogie boards. Jackson said that  photographs going back to 2011 in popular media showing the stunning interior of an ice cave led to a surge in demand for tours of ice caves. Jackson said she has seen tour groups in ice caves where some members are wearing helmets and some are not, and some are wearing spiked shoes while others are wearing sneakers.

Tour operators have sprung up offering glacier walks and trips to ice caves, and some are less insistent on safety precautions. A study in Norway quoted one tour company stating that safety was their top priority, but another one stated, we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”

Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.
Giant icebergs in the lagoon. Courtesy of M Jackson.

Preventing incidents like the one at Jökulsárlón will require changes from tourists, the tourist industry, and the government. Jackson wrote that the area is an important one for tourists, who get to see icebergs close up, and the tourism industry, which is providing jobs for locals. However, while tourism has increased rapidly, a coordinated approach to the safety issue has lagged behind, she wrote, and while the government is ultimately responsible for leading a response, there is a feeling that this will not happen fast enough.

“Incidents such as what just happened out at the lagoon are likely to increase, and as many observe here, until there is a large scale tragedy, it is unlikely that anything will change,” Jackson wrote.

Crevasses Offer Clues About Glacial Dynamics

A recent article accepted in the Reviews of Geophysics summarizes research on how crevasses form and affect glaciers. Crevasses are fractures in the glacier surface that are renowned for their danger but also have been a research focus for glaciologists and other physical scientists for the past several decades, a subject which William Colgan of York University in Canada and his co-authors examine in detail.

Water enters the depth of a crevasse on the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. Courtesy of Flickr user Ville Miettenin.
Water enters the depth of a crevasse on the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. Courtesy of Flickr user Ville Miettenin.

“Because of the non-trivial safety hazard associated with accidental crevasse falls, crevasses have been a bit of an afterthought in most observational glaciology studies to date,” Colgan told GlacierHub. “In this review, we tried to pull together various crumbs of crevasse insight from about 200 studies published over the past sixty years.”

As glaciers move, the ice within them deforms, expands and contracts, and crevasses form as a result of the resulting tensions in the ice. Glacier ice is constantly in the process of moving, and generally flows downslope from the higher accumulation zone, where snowfall contributes to building up glacier ice, to the lower ablation zone, where ice is lost through sublimation, melting, or iceberg calving. The ice experiences differential stresses as it travels over bumps on the bedrock below, or in areas where the slope changes, leading to cracking.

Another source of stress occurs as ice flows through areas of changing lateral boundaries; these constrict the ice or allow it to spread more widely. Like liquid water in a river, glacier ice speeds up in certain areas and slows down in others. The differential pushes and pulls causes the ice to split. Crevasses can occur in varying locations along a glacier, including curves and straightaways, and on both the top and bottom surfaces of glaciers.

“Ice generally deforms and flows like a fluid, albeit a really, really, viscous fluid,” Colgan said. “Sometimes, however, the stresses exerted on a parcel of ice change too quickly for plastic deformation, and the ice experiences brittle fracture instead, forming crevasses. The distribution of crevasses on a glacier can change with both space and time, which makes crevasses interesting indicators of glacier dynamics.”

An analysis of stresses in a glacier. Crevasses usually open in the direction the glacier expands, which is indicated by the red lines. Courtesy of William Colgan.
An analysis of stresses in a glacier. Crevasses usually open in the direction the glacier expands, which is indicated by the red lines. Courtesy of William Colgan.

Crevasses form, but they can also seal up, like a healing wound, and disappear. Scientists have been conducting research on this lifecycle. When crevasses rapidly appear and then close up within a short span of the glacier’s movement, it is referred to as a low-advection life cycle. If crevasses open up, and persist for a long time as the glacier moves long distances to conditions favorable to sealing up, that is referred to as a high-advection lifecycle. An analysis of published studies suggest that low-advection lifecycles are more common in the ablation zone while high-advection lifecycles are more common in the accumulation zone.

Crevasses’ spatial dimensions determine how they influence the movement of the overall glacier. The authors write that the most important area for research is understanding how deep crevasses will be once they form, rather than their width. Deep crevasses allow water to penetrate further into the body of the glacier. Just as melting ice absorbs heat, this freezing water releases heat into the glacier. Even small amounts of heat can have large impacts on the glacier flow rate, and the deeper this heat is released in the glacier, the greater its impact on ice movement. Faster glacier movement can lead to greater loss of glacial ice, especially by increased calving into the ocean, since this accelerated downslope movement will not change the rate of glacier formation in higher zones.

Crevasse rescuers practice in New Zealand. Courtesy of Flickr user Vielle Miettenin
Crevasse rescuers practice in New Zealand. Courtesy of Flickr user Vielle Miettenin

Data on the depth of crevasses is limited. Many crevasses are covered by thin snow bridges that make them invisible, both to scientists who are trying to study them and to hikers and others who would rather stay away from them. The authors of the study searched for the published record of an air-filled crevasse depth and initially found it not in a study of crevasses but in a report of a skier who was rescued at a depth of 34 meters inside one. Additional reports surfaced through their research, and they report several published accounts of air-filled crevasses exceeding 45 meters in depth. Measurement is difficult, but new robots carrying ground-penetrating radar are coming into use to take measurements of crevasses and identify hazards.

While the interaction of water and deep crevasses is relatively complex, there is a more obvious link between crevasses and the calving of glacial ice chunks into the ocean. For one, crevasses decrease the strength of the ice sheet, since they break its continuity.

The surface of Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, is covered in crevasses, contributing to calving as the glacier meets the sea. Courtesy of William Colgan.
The surface of Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, is covered in crevasses, contributing to calving as the glacier meets the sea. Courtesy of William Colgan.

While it is clear that crevasses on the surface of the glacier are spots where blocks of ice may separate, interestingly crevasses on the underside of glaciers have a particular role in calving. They provide a site for an ice shelf, the portion of a glacier extending on the ocean, to snap upward. There is upward pressure on these ice shelves as the glacier is usually flowing down slope into the ocean and the buoyancy of the ice as it enters the water tends to push the shelf upwards. A crevasse on the underside of a glacier is an ideal spot for the glacier to snap upwards and break. The authors note that such research has supported quantitative modeling of glacial processes.

“Crevasses are the ultimate control on iceberg calving, and therefore the ice dynamic sea level rise contribution of glaciers and ice sheets,” Colgan said. “This makes understanding the crevasse lifecycle, especially formation, important to accurately projecting the future sea level rise contribution of glaciers and ice sheets.”

TinTin being rescued from a crevasse in the Himalayas, from Tintin in Tibet. Click here for the episode synopsis.
TinTin being rescued from a crevasse in the Himalayas, from Tintin in Tibet. Click here for the episode synopsis.

Crevasses are part of popular conceptions of glaciers. In one story in the Tintin comic series, a character Tharkey is nearly lost inside a crevasse when another character, Captain Haddock, releases the end of the rope to which he is tied; this episode forms part of efforts by Tintin and his associates to rescue a friend trapped in the Himalayas after a plane crash. Daring mountain climbers sometimes cross crevasses using ladders stretched across the crevasses’ mouths, and a special type of training is offered in crevasse rescue.  

As Colgan and his coauthors show, crevasses create not only dangers for fictional and real adventurers, but opportunities for scientists as well, who can even use them as a route into the inside of a glacier to conduct research, such as measuring the temperature of the ice.

Roundup: Climate Change and Algae Impact Rivers

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Climate Cycles Influence River Flows in Pacific Northwest

From Advances in Water Research:

“We evaluate interannual flow variability in three transboundary PCTR [Pacific Coast Temperate Rainforest] watersheds in response to El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), Arctic Oscillation (AO), and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO)…We find that streamflow teleconnections occur over particular seasonal windows reflecting the intersection of specific atmospheric and terrestrial hydrologic processes…The strongest signal is a snowmelt-driven flow timing shift resulting from ENSO- and PDO-associated temperature anomalies. Autumn rainfall runoff is also modulated by these climate modes, and a glacier-mediated teleconnection contributes to a late-summer ENSO-flow association.”

The Stikine flows through British Columbia and Alaska and is one of the main rivers that was studied for impacts of climate cycles. Credit: Flickr user Christine and Kevin.
The Stikine, one of the main rivers that was studied for impacts of climate cycles. Credit: Flickr user Christine and Kevin.

Click here to read the article.


Himalayan Region Water Resources Reviewed

From  Water Resources Development and Management:

“The Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakorum mountains and the Tibetan Plateau make up the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region, an area that has more snow and ice resources than any other region outside of the Polar Regions… The HKH region extends 3500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. About 200 million people live in the HKH mountains, while 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on waters that originate in the mountains in 10 major river basins. These mountains are under threat from climate change and other socio-economic changes that will pose a challenge for Asia’s future. This chapter reviews the state of knowledge concerning the mountain’s water resources, draws out implications for downstream users, and recommends key actions to be taken.”

Ramukund lies at confluence of two Himlayan rivers that form the Ganges. Source: Arun Katiyar/Fickr.
Ramukund lies at confluence of two Himlayan rivers that form the Ganges. Source: Arun Katiyar/Fickr.
Click here to read the article.



Canadian Rocky Mountain Streams Experience Algal Blooms

From Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences:

“The first documented bloom of Didymosphenia geminata in Alberta occurred in 2003 and subsequent field investigations revealed that D. geminata was present in the periphyton of a number of lotic systems, yet did not always form blooms. We sampled 76 sites in Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks, chosen to provide ranges in exposure to D. geminata propagules and environmental conditions thought to affect D. geminata growth and bloom formation…. D. geminata was detected at 88% of sites and of those, 34% had blooms, defined as visible mats of D. geminata stalks.”

The algae forms into sticky films and sheets, leading to the nickname "rock snot." Credit: Drew Brayshaw/Flickr,
The algae forms into sticky films and sheets, leading to the nickname “rock snot.” Credit: Drew Brayshaw/Flickr,
Click here to read the article.

Central Chile’s Valleys Irrigated by Glacial Waters

Glaciers are an important factor for the success of agriculture in valleys in Chile. According to a recent study in the International Journal of Water Resources Management, the presence of glaciers at high elevation is one of the distinguishing factors that led to different degrees of agricultural development through irrigation among four valleys in Chile.  More glaciers were present in the higher peaks of the Andes, which are located to the east of the valleys they studied.

The study region in central Chile, with the Andes to the east and the Pacific to the west. Credit: Google Earth .

Author Peter Frederiksen documented the expansion of irrigation and changing land-use patterns in the valleys through in-person and archival research between 2000 and 2014. The study looked at the Petorca, La Ligua, Putaendo, and Aconcagua valleys of Central Chile, which is a major fruit-growing region. The southernmost valley, the Aconcagua Valley, had the greatest water resources, measured in streamflow, while the northern valleys had less. The difference was correlated with altitude, which allows for the presence of glaciers, and a larger catchment area, Frederiksen writes.

5178631212_c58e87029f_o (1)
The Aconcagua valley, with a snow-tipped Andean peak in the background. The river at the valley floor is the source of irrigation. Credit: Robert Cutts/Flickr

More water meant greater development of new fruit orchards, since irrigation was aided by the availability of surface water. While irrigation and fruit plantations expanded in all four valleys during the 14 years, there were differences in the amount of irrigation and the patterns of water use and allocation, with Aconcagua Valley having the most expansion of agriculture.

In addition to studying changes in patterns of natural resource availability and agricultural development, Frederiksen shows that who controls water and land resources has changed with globalization. He found, through interviews with local residents and stakeholders, that large companies and wealthy individuals are the main developers of new irrigation. The pressure of new irrigation increases the demand on water resources, and Frederiksen documents how development plans for fruit export led by wealthy and powerful influences outmatched water management groups that had self-organized.

Looking to the future, Frederiksen identified two trends that will impact irrigation development: climate change and the continued expansion of water resource development. Increased heat in the Andes will melt glaciers, which have already been retreating over the 20th Century. While snowpack is the main contributor to streamflow, glaciers become more important to water supply during dry years, such as La Nina years, when precipitation is usually low. Glacier meltwater thereby reduces the year-to-year fluctuations in water supply.

The government plans to meet the growing needs of fruit irrigation with future dams, improvements in irrigation including canals and use of drip irrigation, and harvesting of groundwater. But if glaciers melt and precipitation decreases, these steps might not be enough. Frederiksen writes, “The two opposite tendencies – the policy and plans for continued irrigation development, and climate change – define uncertain futures.”

Plum orchards in a region to the south of the study area. Credit:

Frederiksen’s study is motivated by the need for “wise, intelligent, and informed strategies” for bringing together water institutions and agents with the goal of protecting water resources, in the face of challenges including climate change, globalization, and development of water resources in more parts of the world. The study puts forward a model for understanding water resource development that is useful, Frederiksen writes, in overcoming confusion and barriers to implementation in water resource management.