Spiritual Significance of Glacier Melt in Mountain Cultures

Glacier retreat, as an easily observable consequence of climate change, also embodies spiritual significance to local communities.  In some cases, local perceptions of glacier melt differ from that of the scientific community.

In a new paper, Elizabeth Allison of the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, looks at three instances of glacial decline in sacred mountain landscapes—in the Peruvian Andes, the Nepalese Himalayas, and the Meili Snow Mountains of Yunnan, China — and observes how different cosmologies provide different accounts of the rapidly melting ice. She found that the ways in which communities perceive glacier melt also affects the way these communities interact with their traditions and with glaciers themselves. Her work suggests the value of broadening the discussions of climate change in modern urban societies as well, by showing the depth of human engagement with the natural world–and, more broadly, by showing that people everywhere seek meaning from nature.

Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr
Huayhuash Trek in Peru, courtesy of AllOverThePlanet/Flickr

The Peruvian Andes

In the Peruvian Andes, the local residents, the Quechua, believe that the declining glacier is associated with the departure of the mountain god. In their worldview, the mountain gods bestow vitality on plants and animals and are thus  worshipped as a manifestation of Mother Earth.

The local residents have long observed the recession of the mountain glaciers. They believe that their mountain gods have always had white ponchos, but some of their ponchos have brown stripes now. It is a mystery to the Quechua what they have done to irritate the mountain god who is limiting water flow.

Concern for the declining glaciers has led to changes in local rituals and customs. Strict regulations have been in effect to prevent anyone from removing ice, and only small bottles of meltwater are allowed to be collected. Guards are also positioned at the edge of the glacier. Pilgrims who used to light candles while seeking answers for their concerns along the edge of the glaciers have started to use smaller candles to preserve the glacier.

Furthermore, local prophecy predicted future calamity when the world will end after the glacier is gone. Local people believe when the glacier disappears, wind will blow everything away and a new epoch will thus begin.

Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr
Nagarkot , in the Nepalese Himalayas, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Flickr

The Nepalese Himalayas

In the Himalayas, it is believed that gods reside on mountaintops to distance themselves from the filth of human life. Sherpas, like the Quechua, sometimes link the decline of mountain glaciers to gods or deities.

Some of them see it as a moral reprimand by the gods due to the departure from traditional lifestyle to new lifestyles that generate pollution. Some Sherpas invoke both scientific and religious interpretations to explain melting glaciers, including changing weather variability, weakening belief in gods and spirits, etc.

In Tibetan Buddhist societies of Nepal, Ladakh, and Bhutan, activities that upset the boundaries between social groups or substances, including cooking or eating garlic and onions, burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, can be the source of physical or spiritual pollution.

Local residents are trying to prevent the pollution of mountain peaks in fear of releasing the fury of mountain gods.

Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr
Meili Xue Shan or Mainri Snow Mountains, courtesy of Kevin Poh/Flickr

Meili Snow Mountain Range

The Mingyong Glacier below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in Northwest Yunnan, China, is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. From 2002 to 2004, the Mingyong Glacier retreated around 110 meters, and a total of 2.3 kilometers from 1870 to 2004, according to local stories.

A local Buddhist monk suggested that the glacier retreat resulted from insufficient devotion on the part of Buddhists, because outside visitors failed to demonstrate highly reverent behavior around the holy mountain. Others blame the use of electricity and increasing material greed.


Allison believes that the local interpretations that blame lack of reverence for glacier decline reflect larger social, political, and scientific trends that have provided anthropogenic conditions for glacier recession.

Glacial decline, as Allison suggested, is not only a physical and observable process caused by climate change, but also has bearing on how local people understand themselves and interpret the environment they rely upon. Different values stem from different experiences of the landscapes, which reflect the implications of climate change.


Roundup: Tien Shan, Breweries, and Glacier Plants

Glacier Loss in Tien Shan

Tien Shan. Photo Credit: Anguskirk (via flickr)
Tien Shan. Photo Credit: Anguskirk (via flickr)

Populations in Central Asia are heavily dependent on snow and glacier melt for their water supplies. Changes to the glaciers in the main mountain range in this region, the Tien Shan, have been reported over the past decade. However, reconstructions over longer, multi-decadal timescales and the mechanisms underlying these variations—both required for reliable future projections—are not well constrained.

Check out the rest of the article here.


Breweries Support Glacier Research

An ice inspector in the Carriboo Mountains, British Columbia. Photo Credit: Dru! (via Flickr)
An ice inspector in the Carriboo Mountains, British Columbia. Photo Credit: Dru! (via Flickr)

A British Columbia scientist is hoping to use a few cold ones to get the public thinking about really big cold ones – glaciers. Brian Menounos, a glaciologist with the University of Northern British Columbia, has teamed up with Kokanee beer for a project that will result in a better understanding of what’s happening to western glaciers as well as a special batch of suds.

Read more about the story here.

Glacier Plants and Insects

Italian Alps. Photo credit: kurtly100 (via Flickr)
Italian Alps. Photo credit: kurtly100 (via Flickr)

There is a growing interest in understanding the relationship between the structure and dynamics of ecological networks. Ecological network changes along primary successions are poorly known: to address such topic, gradient of primary succession on glacier forelands is an ideal model, as sites of different age since deglaciation stand for different ecosystem developmental stages.

Check out the article here.

Melting Glaciers Inspire Artists

Artists have witnessed, documented, and represented glaciers with performances, photographs, movies, and various forms of art. Recently, the glaciers have come to embody multitudes of social connotations, including as indicators of the most tangible manifestation of anthropogenic climate change, according to M Jackson at Department of Geography, University of Oregon, in her paper Glacier and Climate Change: Narratives of Ruined Futures.

People make sense of the world through narratives, she wrote. The artistic works produced and shared about glaciers and glacier retreat reveal how people structure their thoughts about glaciers and how they interpret a world with glaciers.

Jackson, therefore, presented five examples to illuminate and demonstrate the glacier-ruins narrative: the work of well-known American landscape painter Diane Burko, conceptual artist Kitty Von-Sometime’s 2014 performance Opus, ice installations by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, the documentary film Chasing Ice, and the National Park Service’s Exit Glacier display within south-central Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park.


Ice Installations

In October 2014, Danish artists, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, placed 100 tonnes of glacier ice in the central city square of Copenhagen. After several days, the ice melted naturally. The artists intended to implicitly express that the parent glaciers in Greenland were also retreating due to climate change.

However, the work of art did not have the intended impact on its audience. To many people, the melting ice was a perfectly normal occurrence placed in an urban setting, associated with basic physical science. The climate change context was somehow normalized, or even neglected by transporting melting glacier ice to urban Copenhagen.


Glacier Art

Diane Burko is a well-known American landscape painter. She has been engaging glaciers in her photographs and paintings that correspond with the mixture of science and art in her own work.

Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980–2005. Courtesy of Diane Burko.
Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005. Courtesy of Diane Burko.

Burko’s oil painting Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980–2005 is a classic example. The Columbia Glacier itself is painted vertically from the top to the bottom of the canvas. Scientific recession lines are painted horizontally, in bright primary colors, across the glacier. The glacier, in fact, is no longer existent, but it comes alive in Burko’s interpretation. The ruin of glaciers is highlighted in many of her works.


Glacier Film

Kitty Von-Sometime, a conceptual artist, utilized ruined glaciers to backdrop her most recent film, Opus. The film was shot on Langjökull, an Icelandic glacier. The opening of the short film is striking, with the artist striding across the glacier in a frozen glacial-blue dress composed of thousands of pleats, and a choker wrapped around her throat. The film is loaded with powerful symbolism, and the glacier, as the background of the film, is supposed to convey a metaphor for loss.


Glacier Documentary

The documentary film Chasing Ice records American photographer James Balog’s project to photograph widespread climatic changes across the planet. In the documentary, Balog embarks on a tour of the vast glacier landscapes, including some of the world’s largest ice systems. Many of the ice landscapes have not even been extensively photographed before.

“We feel like we have an obligation to preserve the memory of these landscapes for people of the future, who will be looking at landscapes that will be profoundly different than what we’re seeing here today in 2012”, said Balog in an interview to promote the film.


The Exit Glacier Display

The Exit Glacier. Photo credit: Sathish J. (via Flickr)
The Exit Glacier. Photo credit: Sathish J. (via Flickr)

The Exit Glacier is the most easily accessible glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. Visitors to the Exit Glacier can physically experience the disappearance of ice by tracing the route of glacier recession. During the summer months, buses, shuttles, and cars keep the short park road very busy. The visitors can not only experience glacier loss with climate change, but also understand the implied recovery and growth after glacier loss.


These works of glacier-ruins are of outstanding individual prominence and scholarship. The representation of glacier and ruins not only brings about contemplation of loss, but it is a focal point that reveals the emotions and impacts of glacier loss.

“This is not a case for settling for uncertainty, but rather, an encouragement to continue renovating the cultural imaginary of the future into something that does not necessarily have to absolutely include a world without glaciers”, said Jackson.

Photo Friday: Argentine Glaciers from the Eye of Astronauts

On both sides of the Andes, glaciers form the Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest area of land ice in the world, after Antartica and Greenland. The tremendous ice sheet extends from Chile to Argentina, home to over 300 glaciers. Some of its glaciers are located within the Glacier National Park (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares), a world heritage site acknowledged by UNESCO. The glaciers Perito Moreno, Mayo, Spegazzini, Upsala, Agassiz, Onelli, Ameghino are the major glaciers in the Park, and Glacier Upsala is the largest glacier in South America.

The pictures of these Argentinian glaciers were retrieved from Glacier Photograph Collection provided by National Snow & Ice Data Center. This specific collection called Astronaut Glacier Photographs presents pictures taken by astronauts on the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle Endeavor. They may provide you with a fresh and unique view of Argentine glaciers.

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Photo Friday: Alaska Glaciers in Old Pictures

This week’s Photo Friday features a special treasure: the historic pictures of Alaska glaciers. The images were selected from the special collection of Alaskan glacier surveys led by William O. Field during International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958.

These photos include Alaska glaciers like Columbia Glacier, Worthington Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier, Northland Glacier, Lawrence Glacier, Ripon Glacier, and Yale Glacier, which are only a small part of the enormous collection. These photos represent an attempt to systematically study glacier change in Alaska. The photos can be accessed via National Snow and Ice Data Center.

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Looking at Turkish Glaciers through Satellites

More than half of the ice cover in Turkey has vanished since the 1970s, a mountainous country with an average elevation of 1,132 meters above sea level.

The Taurus Mountains. Photo credit: Stijn Nieuwendijk (via Flickr).
The Taurus Mountains. Photo credit: Stijn Nieuwendijk (via Flickr).

Half of Turkey is covered by mountains and hills. Glaciers now exist on three volcanoes, in the high peaks in the Southeastern and Middle Taurus Mountains, and in the Eastern Black Sea Mountains. However, the glacier coverage was much larger in the 1970s, according to a study from Ege University in Turkey and NASA’s Goddard Space and Flight Center. Over more than 40 years, the total glacial area fell from 25km2 in the 1970s, to 10.85km2 in 2012-2013. Five of the glaciers have completely vanished.

The research team, led by Doğukan Doğu Yavaşlı, professor at department of Geography at Ege University, updated the previous studies of Turkish glaciers from 1970s to 2012-2013, and published their findings in Remote Sensing of Environment.

The researchers observed the decline of Turkish glaciers via Landsat satellite data. The Landsat program delivers the longest continuous global record of the Earth’s surface. Since the 1970s, Landsat satellite and its successors have provided consistent and stunning images of the Earth for researchers and scientists to closely measure changes in the Earth’s landscape. Landsat sensors are characterized by moderate spatial resolution—course enough for global coverage, and clear enough to capture large-scale human activities such as urbanization.


From the Landsat images showing Mount Süphan, a dormant volcano, the glacial part over the mountain has shrunk more than 70% since the 1970s. The current remnant glacier is so small and fragmented that it is challenging for scientists to distinguish the ice from debris.

The ice cap on Mt. Ağrı is the highest (5,137m) and largest glacier in Turkey, which we have covered in a previous Photo Friday. located along Turkey’s eastern border, Mt. Ağrı is also known as Mt. Ararat, the national mountain of Armenia, where it was located until World War I and where it still plays a significant role in culture. Through interpretation of the satellite data, the researchers discovered that from 1977 to 2013, most glacial retreat took place on the southern, western and eastern glacier aspects, all at lower elevations. Ice loss on the northern part is comparatively minimal.

The glacier change for three dates (1977,2000, and 2013) over 36 years for Mt Ağrı. Photo credit: Doğukan Doğu Yavaşlı, Compton J. Tucker, and Katherine A. Melocik.
The glacier change for three dates (1977,2000, and 2013) over 36 years for Mt Ağrı. Photo credit: Doğukan Doğu Yavaşlı, Compton J. Tucker, and Katherine A. Melocik.


Most glacial retreat can be attributed to climate change and its impact on rising summer nighttime and minimum temperatures, the researchers found. They found that there were no variations in precipitation or cloud cover that could explain the high rates of glacier retreat since the 1970s.

The combination of Landsat and commercial satellite data greatly improved the study of glacier change as well as climate change implications in Turkey during this period.

“Without Landsat’s long record, studies like ours would be impossible to undertake, because we don’t have a time machine to go back to the 1970s and 1980s and see how Turkey’s glaciers were doing then. Using Landsat and commercial satellite data together, we can map glaciers with high accuracy. It’s a powerful combination for studying the Earth from space,” said Compton Tucker, one of the researchers of the study.

Alaska Mountain Glaciers Raise Global Sea Level

Alaska’s impact on global sea level rise is becoming more pronounced. Its melting glaciers, particularly the minority mountain glaciers, will be a major driver of sea level change in the coming decades, according to a new study conducted by Chris Larsen, research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and his colleagues.

The glacier world in Alaska. Photo credit: Stephen Kennedy (via Flickr).
The glacier world in Alaska. Photo credit: Stephen Kennedy (via Flickr).

With over 100,000 glaciers, Alaska is home to half of the world’s glaciers. Every seven years, glacier loss from Alaska contributes a 1-foot thick layer of water covering the state of Alaska. Though mountain glaciers hold less than 1% of the total glacier volume on the Earth, the recession of mountain glaciers contribute to nearly 1/3 of current sea level rise.

Larsen and his team examined 116 glaciers across Alaska to estimate ice loss from melting and iceberg calving between 1994 to 2013. Iceberg calving, the unique process of ice chunks breaking off at the edge of a glacier, is underlined in the study because few existing observations or models value the impact of iceberg calving under climate change.

“We’ve long wondered what the contribution of iceberg calving could be across the entire state,” O’Neel, one of the researches, told the American Geophysical Union.  The Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound has retreated more than 12 miles mostly due to iceberg calving since 1980.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks collected airborne lidar altimetry data, highly specialized research aircrafts, as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission since 2009. The mission aims to picture the Earth’s polar ice in unprecedented detail with innovative science instruments to better connect the polar regions with the global climate system.

NASA's Operation IceBridge Survey Flight Over Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (via Flickr).
NASA’s Operation IceBridge Survey Flight Over Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (via Flickr).

The team also integrated the new data with information from the 1990s collected by the University scientists and Keith Echelmeyer, a pilot, mountaineer and pioneer glaciologist. They developed a more detailed characterization of the size and shape of every glacier in Alaska, in addition to the glaciers of southwest Yukon Territory and coastal northern British Columbia.

With the new data inventory, the research team has made some significant discoveries. Across the years from 1994 to 2013, Alaska’s tidewater glaciers contributed to only 6% of Alaska’s mass loss. Glaciers that end in the ocean, called tidewater glaciers, make minimal contribution to sea level rise, while glaciers ending on land are primary contributors to mountain glacier mass loss driven by climate change.

“This work has important implications for global sea level projections. With improved understanding of the processes responsible for Alaska glacier changes, models of the future response of these glaciers to climate can be improved,” Larsen told the American Geophysical Union. Despite the fact that the impact of the large-scale tidewater glacier losses in Alaska is negligible, Alaska will remain a major contributor to global sea level rise through its mountain glaciers.

Roundup: the Glacier Run, Models, and Georgia Glaciers

The Glacier Run

The 8th Glacier 3000 Run and Gstaad Kids Run will take place on Saturday, August 8, 2015. The racecourse passes through a beautiful alpine landscape offering both runners and spectators many spectacular views. Between the starting point on the Gstaad Promenade at 1’050 meters and the finish line at Glacier 3000 (2’950 meters) lie 26 kilometers.

Read more about the events here.


Glacier Retreat Model

Glaciers are crucial in many countries where meltwater from glaciers is an important source of water for drinking water supply, irrigation, hydropower generation and the ecological system. Glaciers are also important indicators of climate change. They have been significantly altered due to the global warming and have subsequently affected the regional hydrological regime. However, few models are able to parameterise the dynamics of the glacier system and consequent runoff processes in glacier fed basins with desirable performance measures.

Read more here.



Glacier changes in Georgia

Considering its size, Georgia has a large number of glaciers. In the mountains of Georgia, there are about 786 registered glaciers, with a total area of about 550 km. About 82.5 % are in the upper courses of the Kodori, Inguri, Rioni, and Tereck rivers. For the past 150 years, significant glacier retreat (0.8–1.7 km) and shrinking of their area by 16 % has been observed.

Read more here.


Photo Friday: Mount Adams

Mount Adams, the second highest mountain in the U.S. state of Washington, is a potentially active volcano in the Cascade Range. Mount Adams was active from about 520,000 to about 1,000 years ago. During the past million years, it has generated considerable eruptive materials. Mount Adams is also home to 12 officially named glaciers. Most of the glaciers originate from the mountain’s summit ice cap.

Roger Reeves and Terrie Heslop began their photography journey with film cameras back in the 1970s and continued until the digital revolution. As a happily married couple, they explore the world around them and share the beauty of natural landscape. The pictures they took in Mount Adams are absolutely breathtaking.

See more about the pictures taken by Roger Reeves and Terrie Heslop here.

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(photo credit: Roger Reeves and Terrie Heslop)


Glaciers Shape Lives in Upper Hunza

Glacier and river dynamics shaped irrigation systems and land use practices in Pakistan since the late 1700’s, according to a new paper by Sitara Parveen and his colleagues. These systems and practices can still be observed hundreds of years later, but they face severe challenges from glacier retreat.

The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.
The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.

Upper Hunza is located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. The Hunza River flows north to south, and is joined by the Shimshal River from the northeast, and by the Batura, Passu, Ghulkin and Gulmit glaciers from the west. The melt runoff from the four glaciers supports approximately 20,000 people in Upper Hunza, and nurtures crops and orchards cultivated by villagers.

Steady and stable agricultural production requires constant and sufficient melt-water supply from glaciers and snowfields. The interactions between hydrological conditions and human communities in Upper Hunza are characterized by various aspects, including the arid environment of human settlements at lower altitudes, the dynamics of snow and ice cover at higher altitudes, the flexible water use practices, and diverse socio-economic conditions.

Upper Hunza is well known for its sophisticated irrigation systems. The earliest recorded irrigation channels in the valley date back to at least 1780 and diverted water from the Batura Glacier. To study the impacts of environmental and socio-economic dynamics on irrigation systems, Parveen and his colleagues examined the irrigation systems in three villages—Passu, Borith, Ghulkin—which are fed by different water sources.

The view across the valley  at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.
The view across the valley at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.

In Passu Village, the largest settlement is located on three fluvial terraces at an elevation of about 2500m above sea level. Over the past 400 years, natural disasters have driven villagers to higher ground. They have also made several attempts to recover and rehabilitate barren land for crop cultivation. In 1983, a project to expand irrigable land was implemented by sourcing water from the Batura Glacier, however, the operation of this project was disturbed by the ups and downs in the volume of melt-water. Despite that, each household received one field on each terrace and 53% of the project area is transformed to irrigated fields.

In Borith, the main water sources are the Passu and Ghulkin glaciers. The community has made efforts to secure access to water due to frequent water crisis caused by glacier retreat since the 1950s. The northern part of Borith used to be served by Lake Ghyper Zhui, which began to shrink in the 1940s as the Passu Glacier started to become thinner with melting. Several attempts were then made to conserve the melt water flow into the lake, with the expansion of natural irrigation channels through daily excavation works. However, all the efforts turned futile as soon as the glacial runoff proved to be insufficient and the land returned to a barren state.

The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)
The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)

Lower Borith sources all of its water from Ghulkin Glacier. Since 1960, many channels have been constructed, adjusted and constantly maintained to divert water in response to the continuous thinning of the glacier, which is highly labor-intensive. As the majority of households migrated from the community due to ongoing declining water resources, an increasing number of fields have gone idle. New pipelines were installed in 2013, but the problem of shifting water sources still remains.

Ghulkin is located between two glaciers—Ghulkin and Gulmit. The village is also facing water shortage due to increasing glacier down-wasting. The problem is even more aggravated by the dispute over water use rights between the original inhabitants and the relatively new immigrants. A water management committee was thus established, but does not function well because the original settlers upstream often ignore the arrangement, leaving the downstream people helpless. Some villages constructed new irrigation channels and cultivated different, drought-tolerant crops.

The dynamics of glaciers and rivers in Upper Hunza have a considerable impact on local adaptation practices and land use patterns. The fluctuation in water supply is one of the major constraints in local communities. Glacier related natural disasters further contribute to the vulnerability of local irrigation systems and livelihoods as well. To make it even worse, the villages lack a sufficient work force to maintain the irrigation systems and manage the problems brought by glacier dynamics, such as equitable water distribution.

Communities of Upper Hunza have experienced substantial external interventions over the past century, and the impacts of glaciers and rivers will extend into the future. The study conducted by Parveen et al. sheds light on irrigation construction and improvement, especially for high mountain areas. Other high mountain communities can also learn from the lessons of Upper Hunza when coping with the effects of climate change.

Melting Glaciers, Changing Careers

Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University
Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University

Climate change is making the work of glaciologists complicated. Scientists that study paleoclimatology of the Earth have come to the realization that melting ice and receding glaciers are getting in the way of their fieldwork.

“Time no longer starts at the surface,” said Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University in Columbus, in an interview with Nature.

His ice-core research career started since the mid-1970s. When he drilled an ice core from the Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes in 1983, melting had not occurred at altitudes above 5,000 meters. However, 20 years later when he returned for another ice core, things changed completely—melting disrupted the pattern of atmospheric isotopes in the top 40 meters of ice.

Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.
Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.

To address challenges like those faced by Thompson, the community of ice-core researchers is developing a better approach to saving ice for the next generation of scientists. Patrick Ginot, a paleoclimatologist at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Marseilles, France, advocated that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) support a program that would sustainably collect ice cores and store extra samples at the Concordia Research Station in central Antarctica, in order to meet the research demands for both current and future scientists.

concordian station
Concordian Research Station in central Antarctica. Source: European Space Agency.

The layers in an ice core are a reliable indicator of its age. Scientists and researchers count the layers that record seasonal changes and date ice cores. Ideally, an intact ice core shows the most recent year on the top layer, which scientists use to link to their knowledge about recent climate conditions—temperature, precipitation, etc.

For example, the nuclear tests in 1950s and 1960s, as well as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, left datable signatures in glaciers all over the world, which mark specific years for scientists. Stable isotopes of oxygen that remain in partially melted ice could enable scientists to obtain average measurements from 5- to 10-year periods, though not year-to year data. Unfortunately, ice core samples with insufficient radioactive signature make it difficult for researchers to identify specific years.

To acquire a pure sample of ice core, glaciologists have no choice but climb higher where melting has not yet begun, though it can be dangerous.

“In most cases, we can’t go higher. We can’t get to a colder environment,” said Douglas Hardy, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an article in Nature. He once placed weather instruments on glaciers to measure temperature, humidity, precipitation rates and the amount of sunlight that shed on the surface of glaciers. These meteorological conditions can help scientists examine the impacts of these factors on layers of ice.

Now, Hardy explained, scientists have to do the work before the ice is gone permanently, otherwise glacier history will remain unknown forever. The pathway to higher altitudes is worthwhile, but risky at the same time. Therefore, collecting and storing ice core samples before they all melt away seems a good solution to the problem.

The major challenge of storing ice cores lies in funding, as most science funding agencies tend to pay for research that is expected to generate quickly published results.

To persuade donors, the International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences prepared a report on the importance of preserving records of climate history. The co-chair of the organization, Ed Brook, expects to present the report on a major geosciences meeting in 2016.

The Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) organizes events to support young polar scientists researchers. Source: APECS.

Younger scientists also expressed their uncertainty of future ice-core research. Aron Buffen, a paleoclimatology doctoral student at Brown University says that scientists will easily lose comparisons for future measurement techniques if all the ice melts quickly.

On the other hand, Buffen also points out that the melting may bring about more research questions, such as distinguishing between melting caused by warming and sublimation caused by lower humidity. If scientists can shed light on how glacier retreat impacts local ecosystems, the research can be used to help communities better adapt to climate change. Additionally, organizations like the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), are helping young glacier researchers develop their career paths and networks in an innovative, international and interdisciplinary approach.

While grieving over the disappearing glaciers, scientists can also see the silver lining as intriguing opportunities arise from the perspective of careers and science.

Roundup: Western Canada, Supercooled Water and Seaweed

Glacier Change: Dynamic Projections


“Mountain glaciers around the world are in decay. According to a modelling study that — unusually — includes full ice flow physics, those in Western Canada will largely be restricted to the coastal region by the year 2100.”

See more about this article here.


Supercooled Water near the Glacier Front 


“Measurements of temperature and salinity were performed in the immediate vicinity of Paula Glacier in the Rinders Fjord (Spitsbergen) in March 2013. At a distance of 15 m from the glacier, we found water with significantly smaller salinity than the surrounding waters. The water temperature appeared 0.35°C lower than the freezing temperature.”

Read this article here.


The Impacts of Glacier Retreat on Seaweed Growth


In Potter Cove, Antarctica, newly ice-free areas appeared due to glacial retreat. Simultaneously, the inflow of sediment increased, reducing underwater photosynthetically active radiation (PAR, 400–700nm).

Read more here.