A Cap on Climbers at Mont Blanc

As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.

Pointing at the 3842m height of Mont Blanc (Source: Masin/Flickr).

As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.

Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.

Arnaud Temme climbs Mont Blanc from a harder route to avoid the “traffic jam” on the overcrowded Royal Route (Source: Arnaud Temme).

“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”

One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.

The Mer De Glace has retreated at least 80 meters in depth over the years. Climbers now have to ascend steep ladders to reach the icy areas (Source: Theodore/Flickr).

As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.

According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.

“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.

It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.

Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.

Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”

The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.

Glacier Retreat Unveils Truth of ‘Predator First Paradox’

A recent paper published in Molecular Ecology studies ecological evolution in areas exposed by glacial retreat, shedding light on the “predator first paradox,” a phrase used by ecologists to describe the predator-dominated primary succession in glacier forelands. The authors found that predator anthropods such as spiders and beetles can show up as pioneering dwellers on newly exposed land, even before plants colonize the area. The predator first phenomenon shakes up the traditional understanding of a bottom-up ecological pyramid in which plants serve as the basis of the food chain that feeds the predators. Less was known about the prey that sustains these predators in the early stages of succession. By examining the stomachs of insect predators, the researchers determined that spiders and beetles can survive without vegetation on the prey species of local food webs as well as some flying insects.

View from the separating ridge of two of the valleys investigated by the researchers. Gaisbergtal lies to the left and Rotmoostal to the right (Source: Daniela Sint).

Daniela Sint, the paper’s lead author from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, told GlacierHub, “We could show that the amount of local production and the importance to sustain the arthropod predators on those sites was underestimated over many years.” This conclusion is at odds with previous studies that found that flies from other areas, instead of local mites, are the primary food source of the spiders and beetles.

To understand how ecological evolution starts on bare land, the authors selected several glacial forelands in three valleys in the Tyrol region of Austria, namely Gaisbergtal, Rotmoostal and Langtal, which have recently undergone glacial retreat. All three areas have a glacier above them and lie close to each other, with similar climatic conditions. The researchers found that the three glacier toes had retreated 1.5 to 2 kilometers each since 1850, placing these forelands in the early stages of the ecological progress.

Sint and her colleagues pictured as they approach the study sites located close to the edge of the glaciers (Source: Daniela Sint).

Using self-made pitfall traps, the authors collected samples of spiders and beetles from exposed areas to study how the anthropods feed themselves. The paper notes that the authors went so far as to turn over the stones to catch spider and beetle species missed by traps.

“It’s the first time that so many different prey types were molecularly checked for,” Sint explained to GlacierHub. Sint and her team examined the gut of nearly 2,000 spiders and beetles and conducted a DNA analysis on a total of twenty species.

Through the “autopsy” of these captured spiders and beetles, and a DNA detection of prey within their guts, the researchers found only 30 percent of gut content was made up of flies from other places. The rest of the anthropods’ diet comprises mites and other prey found locally.

The researcher’s data shows that the spiders and beetles have dietary preferences toward mites (not flies), regardless of the differences between the sites. Meanwhile, as time passes, the prey options for spiders and beetles increases, providing more food for the predators. Gradually, this positive interaction empowers the substantial development of the food chain and ecological community.

Some dry ground beetles trapped by the pitfall set by the researchers (Source: Daniela Sint).

Although the researchers identified different food sources for the spiders and beetles, resolving important questions about the prey of predators, Sint also discussed with GlacierHub her team’s plans for future research. “We still were not able to cover the whole food web on the study sites. For example, we found out that springtails are very important food for the predators, but we still don’t know what the food for the springtails themselves is,” she said. “There are several options as they might feed on locally produced algae or fungi, but it could also be that ancient carbon and nitrogen released from the melting ice might play a role.” A follow-up study at the University of Innsbruck is currently focused on this question.

Sint says she will continue to research glacier areas, as “glacier retreat is the factor initiating the whole process of primary succession.” When the glacier melts, land that has been covered by ice for thousands of years is “released” and colonization by microorganisms, plants and animals starts immediately.

Sint further described her concerns about global warming-driven glacial retreat worldwide, saying, “This does not only have the local effect of additional land becoming ice-free and being thus available as new habitat exposed to primary succession, but it also has strong influences on numerous other aspects. Many of them will only become obvious once a specific glacier is gone.”

Earth in Danger of Tipping into ‘Hothouse’ State, Scientists Warn

Global temperatures, already more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial indicators, are projected to rise by at least 0.17 degree Celsius per decade. The heatwaves scorching Europe and rapid glacier melting in Greenland offer further evidence that we should not be complacent about the 2-degrees Celsius cap set by the Paris Agreement. But recently, a team of international researchers led by Will Steffen, a climate scientist from Australian National University, published a major report, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” in PNAS that warns that the climate accords may not be enough to stop Earth from tipping into an irreversible “hothouse” state. 

An alpine glacier in Albert, Canada (Source: Jim Nix/Flickr)

The paper, which attracted broad coverage from dozens of major media worldwide including CNN, BBC, Paris Le Monde, and Sina in China, sparked renewed concerns across the scientific community about thresholds of the Earth system that could lead to a runaway “Hothouse Earth” warming scenario. Among the thresholds discussed, alpine glaciers, such as those in Glacier National Park in Montana, are particularly vulnerable to global warming. What’s more, their melting is likely to trigger uncontrollable chain effects that could lead to “Hothouse Earth.”

Unlike other published papers on global average temperature rise, this paper extended its scope to the broader Earth system and components that could reinforce Earth’s decline once certain thresholds are passed.

Previously, researchers have viewed humans as an external component of this system, which consists of land, oceans, and atmosphere, and includes the planet’s natural cycles such as carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. In the PNAS article, the authors consider humans an integral component of the Earth system, with the capacity to both affect and respond to the changing climate. As we witness changes in climate, human decisions and actions are evolving as well. Knowing how anthropogenic activities have affected climate may formulate more effective solutions.

The paper presents a theory of how human activities, coupled with a natural “Tipping Cascade,” may lead to a human-driven “Hothouse Earth.” The authors argue that there is a threshold at which Earth’s natural systems can no longer support and withstand human activities. Once this limit is exceeded, abrupt changes will be evident and lead to a chain reaction of impacts. For example, a rise in temperature by 2 degree Celsius will immediately lead to Greenlandic glacier melting, followed by sea level rise. Thereafter, other effects such as changing ocean currents and coral bleaching will also become evident, as these are regulated by an intrinsic, self-reinforcing biogeophysical feedback mechanism within the Earth system.

Global map of potential tipping cascades. Individual tipping elements are color-coded according to estimated temperature thresholds. Arrows show potential interactions. (Source: Steffen et. al).

The predicted domino-like chain reaction will increase the difficulty of reversing these cascading impacts, the authors caution. The melting event of the Greenlandic glaciers is just one event that may push Earth toward a “Hothouse” pathway, moving the Earth system off its trajectory of the past 1.2 million years and toward hotter, irreparable conditions. Eventually, Earth is estimated to become 4-5 degrees Celsius hotter, with 200 foot higher sea levels, making areas of our planet inhabitable to many.

As a default mechanism of the Earth system, the biogeophysical feedback process works to activate significant interactions among different subsystems, such as glaciers, ice-sheets, ocean, forest, wind, rainfall, and others. The subsystems involved are called “tipping elements.” Some negative feedbacks can maintain a given state, while other positive feedbacks are set to drive a transition to a different state. Usually, the processes can balance each other and achieve a relatively stabilized situation. But if the climate thresholds are crossed, the authors argue certain feedbacks will be activated and become harder to predict, pushing Earth further away from its original state.

Glaciers have always been central to the Earth system, and the cascading effects of glacier melting have been consistently on the science community’s radar. The feedback processes involving glaciers and ice sheets work in at least two ways. As Will Steffen elaborated to GlacierHub, one is rather obvious. “If glaciers or sea ice retreat, they uncover darker land or sea, which absorbs more sunlight, warming the regional climate, and causing further retreat of the ice.” he said. “This a positive feedback.”

The other process is more nuanced. “Loss of significant amounts of ice from land-based glaciers and ice sheets can actually influence ocean circulation, which can then have impacts elsewhere on the planet. This is a more complex feedback process and could be positive or negative depending on the situation,” he continued.

The authors present a doomsday scenario but also provide an alternative pathway called “Stabilized Earth.” This requires radical and scalable changes in the relationship between society and the planet. For example, the paper described the need to maintain glacier volume within the Late Quaternary limits to prevent the progression toward a hothouse. At this current juncture, doing nothing is no longer an option to stop the glaciers from melting and achieve stability. Rather, humanity must commit to managing its current activities, stopping the staggering loss of ice, and perhaps even engaging in counteracting measures to neutralize previous impacts on Earth.

The authors also offered a wide range of human activities that are urgently required to hold the ultimate temperature rise to between 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius. Steffen believes this is particularly pressing for glaciers. “At these temperatures, most continental glaciers will probably disappear, as perhaps much of the West Antarctic ice sheet, as well as some erosion of marine-grounded ice sheets in East Antarctica,” he said. “A big question is whether the tipping point for the Greenland Ice Sheet would be crossed at a 1.5-2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. It is possible that the tipping point lies in this range, but there is no consensus in the scientific community yet on this. It is a critical issue for further research.”

Two towering icebergs in the freezing waters of Scoresby Sund in Eastern Greenland (Source: Marie and Alistair Knock/Flickr)

Interestingly, the discussion on tipping points is centered on predicting a certain temperature threshold without stating when that temperature threshold might occur. Most of the analysis was also based on a qualitative assessment of the current literature instead of modeling and data analysis, which has sparked some different opinions.

Steffen told GlacierHub, “Experts on each of the individual tipping elements were asked to estimate the vulnerability of the tipping element to a range of temperature increases. The experts, of course, were aware of the relevant literature in their fields, so ultimately based their judgments on their assessments of the peer-reviewed literature.”

Richard Betts, another climate scientist who previously published a paper about the model-based analysis of temperature increases and their association consequences, was consulted by Steffen. After the paper came out in PNAS, Betts offered an overview of the findings and expressed his concerns online about the researchers’ methodology. Still, Betts believes the paper, with its dramatic term “Hothouse Earth,” should serve as a good starting point for further research with modeling and data analysis. “This will help us see better whether ‘Hothouse Earth’ is our destiny, or mere speculation,” Bretts wrote in his article

There is no doubt this “initial analysis,” as the authors put it, will continue to ignite debate and further explorations to narrow the uncertainties and provide actionable suggestions to policymakers.

“We hope the glacial community gets even more support in the future,” Steffen said. “Glaciers and ice are critical parts of the Earth system, and we urgently need to know more about how vulnerable it is to human forcing.”

We are, in short, at a fork in the road. Whether humanity progresses toward a Hothouse or a Stabilized Earth depends on our social and technological trends and decisions over the next decade. Regardless of which path we choose, we will have to bear the consequences of our choices for thousands of years.


Subglacial Meltwater Boosts Greenland Ecosystems and Locks Carbon

Following news of the arrival of a Manhattan-sized iceberg from a retreating glacier next to a village in Greenland, a recent paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has unveiled new research on how subglacial meltwater in Greenland is pumping nutrients and carbon from the deep sea to drive a boom of microorganisms in the upper layers. This effect fuels the ecosystems around it and impacts carbon cycling within the fjords and ocean close to the glaciers, further increasing the carbon uptake from the atmosphere.

Since 2002, Greenland has lost around 270 billion tons of ice per year. The glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland are key to the magnitude of future sea level rise, prompting scientists and researchers from around the globe to travel to the glacier-laced land to study and measure the physics of glacier melting and retreat. A team of researchers from Hokkaido University, led by Naoya Kanna and Shin Sugiyama, found a new perspective to understand the interactions of glaciers with ecosystems under a changing climate.

Bowdoin Glacier and Fjord. Bowdoin is a tidewater glacier in northwestern Greenland (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

Since 2012, the team’s focus has been measurements of the ice in the region, with specific interest in the mechanisms of the Bowdoin glacier’s rapid retreat. Shin Sugiyama, the second author of the paper, wrote to GlacierHub, “We recognized the glacier-ocean interaction as the key process and expanded our activity to the ocean.”

The researchers moved from geophysical measurements to geochemical measurements over time. They started to camp in the nearby village of Qaanaaq beginning in the summer of 2016, surveying the water temperature, salinity, ocean currents and other physical properties.

A researcher collects water samples from the front of Bowdoin Glacier using a fishing rod (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

They collected biogeochemical samples from the top of Bowdoin Glacier, the plume along the glacier front, and nearby fjords. They found that the plume water is more turbid, and its chemical composition is significantly different from waters in other locations due to a higher concentration of nutrients and salts. At the same time, phytoplankton blooms were also detected.

They then found an underwater nutrient and carbon transfer route that may explain these observations. Sugiyama describes the transfer as a “nutrient pump.”

At the bottom of the sea, due to the gravity and ocean currents, there are water flows from the fjord moving toward the glacier front. These flows carry a lot of descended nutrients and dissolved carbon. There is also subglacial freshwater discharge that is turbid because of the subglacial weathering. The two flows meet at the deep sea and create massive fluxes of sediments along the glacier fronts.

When the sediment-laden upwell water reaches the sea surface, it forms an opaque layer below the relatively fresher sea surface water. During the upwelling process, the mixture of subglacial discharge water and flows from the fjord pumps nutrients and carbon from the deep water to the upper layers.

Schematics of the nutrient and carbon rich subsurface plume water formation at the front of Bowdoin Glacier (Source: Kanna et al.).

Later, phytoplankton blooms were observed in between the sea surface and the near surface plume water. Phytoplankton are plant-like marine microorganisms at the base of the ocean’s food pyramid. These tiny organisms absorb nutrients and carbon to fuel their growth. Some of the nutrients and carbon fall to the bottom with the phytoplankton when they wither. Other portions of the nutrients and carbon further pass into the food web through organisms that graze on the phytoplankton.

The growth burst of the phytoplankton went unnoticed until recent years. Through their analysis of samples from supraglacial meltwater, proglacial stream discharge, fjord surface water, and plume surface water, the authors identify a distinct vertical distribution of nutrients and carbon along the centerline of the fjord. The data prove that the upwelling associated with the subglacial discharge has been pumping the nutrients and carbon from the deep water toward the surface, catalyzing the formation of phytoplankton blooms.

As the planet warms, glacier melting is increasing in Greenland. For its implication on their findings, Sugiyama said, ”Our study implies that nutrient supply to fjord surface water is enhanced by an increase in meltwater discharge under the warming climate. This results in higher primary production [of microorganisms]. On the other hand, turbid plume water also disturbs the production by limiting light availability in water.” He noted the team will continue their research to understand how these positive and negative impacts counterbalance.

The researcher conduct measurements near the Bowdoin Glacier front with a boat operated by a local hunter (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

The study not only showed a critical role of freshwater discharge in the primary productivity of microorganisms in front of the glaciers, but it also indicated that changes in glacier melt might impact the fjord ecosystems.

“Tidewater glacier front is a biological ‘hot spot.’ We see many birds and sea mammals near the front of Bowdoin Glacier. Change in the ecosystem is not clear at this moment, but we suspect such a highly productive ecosystem is sensitive to the warming Arctic climate,” Sugiyama said.

The ocean also acts as an immense carbon sink, which scientists need to explore. This finding may provide ideas for how carbon transfers within the marine ecosystem.

Sugiyama added, “A possible influence on the carbon cycle is more carbon storage in the ocean when primary production is enhanced by increasing amount of upwelling meltwater. Nevertheless, the plume process is not directly related to the intake of carbon from the atmosphere.”

Bowdoin Glacier is smaller than other rapidly retreating glaciers in Greenland, such as the Jakobshavn and Helheim glaciers. The team hopes to find out if the processes observed in Bowdoin Fjord resemble the situations in the fjords of larger glaciers.

Iceman to Make Comeback in Solo Series

Iceman, one of the legendary superheroes from Marvel Entertainment’s X-Men franchise, will slide back into the spotlight with his very own solo comic book series out this September. Among his many capacities, Iceman can fashion an icy armor to protect his body, form ice slides to move fast, create glaciers and utilize his destructive power to fully control water, ice and cold, making him the most powerful of the cold-based fictional characters. His comeback this fall is backdropped by an earlier 2015 revelation that the character is gay.

Until he discovered his superpower to manipulate water, ice and cold, Iceman was Bobby Drake, a regular teenage boy living in Long Island, New York, during the 1960s. Like others from the mutant race, Iceman found his born superpower when he hit puberty. He staged his first appearance in The X-Men #1 comic published in 1963. Since then, as one of the original X-Men characters, he has been critical in fighting antagonist Loki and other notorious bad guys.

As the youngest member of the first six X-Men, including Professor X, the founder and leader of X-Men, Bobby has always been the most chill of the superheroes, never showing any interest in becoming the strongest fighter. However, despite his slack personality, his superpowers stand out. Iceman is an omega-level mutant, the most powerful class of mutants in this fictional universe. Years of battling have seen him transformed from a chubby kid to a sharp fighter with a more crystalline and sleek, almost glacier-like, exterior. Over the years, his superpowers have only become more potent.

Marvel's Iceman on GlacierHub
Iceman creates glaciers anytime and anywhere he pleases (Source: Blindzider Photography).

Iceman can now convert the latent thermal energies in and around his body into efficiently dissipated energy, decrease the temperature to absolute zero within seconds, and freeze objects in any environment, even the desert, as long as there is water vapor. His power is so immense that he once saved the world from a massive nuclear explosion.

As one writer of the Iceman series, Mike Carey, said in an interview in 2008, Iceman has “powers that can influence the ecosystem of the entire world.”

Another mighty ability is that Iceman can turn himself into organic ice. By reforming his own body, adding sharp ice to his shoulders, knuckles and fists, he becomes a living weapon. Sometimes, he even uses his powers during a fight to conceal himself in an enormous glacier.

In fact, glaciers have likely served as an inspiration to the Marvel writers and artists in developing Iceman’s personality and heroic actions.

For example, Iceman gives a signature “glacier fist” to punch the villains and often creates glacier-like ice piles around himself to demonstrate the might of his power. It may be a coincidence, but even Bobby’s personality mirrors our public perception of ice and glaciers. For example, the writers gave Bobby a sensitive and emotional personality, with Bobby often making cold jokes and puns to hide his true feelings from others.

GlacierHub interviewed Ryan Haupt about the image of glaciers in X-Men and other comic books. Haupt is a Ph.D. candidate in paleoecology from the University of Wyoming and also a huge fan of comics. He has been involved in an AGU science communication project on counting the carbon footprint of superheroes. “There is a long history of heroes and villains with cold-based powers or themes,” he said. “In general, those characters tend to be villains, like Mister Freeze, Icicle, Captain Cold, or even the Penguin. I would guess that has to do with our cultural perceptions of cold versus hot. When we say someone is cold, we mean that they’re unaffectionate, standoffish and distant, whereas someone who is warm is welcoming, caring and nurturing.”

Haupt added, “These ideas might also apply to the image of glaciers; they’re remote, gigantic, unfeeling blocks of ice that I would guess most folks don’t think of as having any particular significance in their day-to-day life.”

The upcoming solo series will focus on Bobby trying to stop a new potential mutant massacre. The writers will also give more room to depict Bobby’s life as a gay man. Although the responses to Iceman’s solo comeback are not all positive, there is no doubt Iceman’s return will create some chill this autumn, maybe even bringing the discussion of glaciers and cold closer to the public.

Still Unresolved, Saga of Jumbo Glacier Resort Heads Back to Canadian Court

Jumbo Glacier on Canada Day (Source: Lucas Jmieff/ Facebook Wildsight).

Ever since it was first proposed in 1991, the development of the Jumbo Glacier Resort in British Columbia, Canada, has drawn fierce opposition for its threat to the surrounding ecosystem and indigenous population. Now a recent move by developers in the glacier-rich region has added a new twist to the ongoing saga. Following a three-year hiatus, the developers have decided to take the case back to court to overturn the government’s 2015 decision not to renew their environmental assessment certificate, a decision that effectively put the project on ice.

The idea for a mega-resort at Jumbo Glacier was originally launched by Oberto Oberti, an Italian-born, Vancouver-based architect, and Grant Costello, a Canadian ski coach. Costello had long dreamed of opening a year-round, high-altitude ski training center in North America to rival those in Europe. The remote land along the east Kootenay Mountains in southeastern B.C. seems like a prime location, covered in 400 inches of cold snow every winter and boasting glaciers and spectacular landscapes. However, it also serves as a critical grizzly bear habitat and is considered sacred to the Ktunaxa First Nation.

The construction of the proposed resort includes a 3,419-meter high lift service, 6,000-bed lodge, and roads to make Jumbo Glacier accessible to tourists. The developers promised the mega-resort would serve as an economic source to the local communities, but the project has faced ongoing resistance from environmental groups like Wildsight concerned about the region’s wildlife habitat, as well as locals who feel there are already several ski hills in the area.

There has been an intense debate since 1991 within the provincial government on whether commercial activities should be allowed at Jumbo Glacier. By the end of 1994, the provincial government made a decision, designating the area as a special management area, a designation which generally would not allow commercial development such as a ski resort. However, the decision did in fact make a provision for the proposed resort subject to the provincial Environmental Assessment Act. The law meant any major project of large scale like the Jumbo Glacier Resort would need to pass an environmental impact assessment conducted by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in order to gain an Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC) and conduct actual construction activities.

It took the EAO nine years to proceed with their assessment and exhaustive consultations. Withstanding environmental campaigns against the resort and protracted court battles between resort proponents and opponents, the EAO of the B.C. government finally granted a certificate in 2005 with 195 conditions to mitigate the negative impact of the project on the environment. However, by 2015, only two concrete pads had been built on the site. Thus, the B.C. government considered the project to have “not substantially started” and the certificate was set to expire.

“Jumbo Wild for our children and their children and their children!” (Source: Patty Kolesnichenko/Facebook Wildsight).

But the controversy is far from over. As Robyn Duncan, executive director of Wildsight and the lead of the two-decade environmental campaign against the resort, Jumbo Wild, wrote to GlacierHub, “The developers remain committed to trying to push forward this ill-proposed resort. Challenging the decision that canceled their environmental certificate was one of the only avenues to continue the fight.”

In the developers’ 2017 petition to overturn the government’s 2015 decision, they argue that the construction delays were derived from various factors outside of their control, such as blockades by environmentalists and political concerns from then provincial Environment Minister Mary Polak. The current minister, George Heyman, is expected to defend the government’s 2015 decision in court.

Wildsight and the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society were granted intervenor status in the case in May, which allows the organizations to join the ongoing litigation without permission from the original litigants. “If built, the Jumbo Glacier Resort would fragment a critical section of one of North America’s most important wildlife corridors. Grizzlies depend on this connected habitat to maintain healthy populations regionally and even continentally,” Duncan said.

The law firm that represents them, Ecojustice, said in an interview, “This assessment [2005] that it’s based on is now ten years out of date. Things have moved on, scientific understanding of the impacts that this project would have on grizzly bears, for example, has moved on. That’s why it’s really important that the courts uphold the law and prevent this project from going ahead based on outdated information.”

The case was heard during the last week of June by the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, but it could take months for the court to reach a decision. Several legal scholars in Canada told GlacierHub they prefer not to speak on the case until the matter has concluded in court.

In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with developers on a separate but relevant case in which the Ktunaxa First Nation claimed a land use change would infringe on their right to freedom of religion. The ruling concluded that the Ktunaxa have a right to their belief that the Grizzly Bear Spirit inhabits Jumbo Glacier and that the spirit would be driven away in the event of permanent development, but that the government is “not required to protect the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit itself in order to preserve the right to freedom of religion.” There were divided opinions among the judges in the case. Seven judges thought the Ktunaxa did not sufficiently establish that the area is a sacred site to them and that the land should be at the public disposal instead of indigenous territory. Two other justices found that constitutional religious rights could be reasonably infringed in the public interest and that the Ktunaxa should not be granted exclusive ownership over the land. The developers may use this recent court decision in their future legal arguments to justify the legality of the resort.

Meanwhile, Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, an administrative jurisdiction established in 2012 for the planned resort, remains business as usual, releasing its annual report in late June. The municipality, with no development, population or tax revenues, has received a $855,299 grant from the B.C. government. The possible re-appointment of the municipality major, without a vote, has also gained harsh critics for being undemocratic.

Despite some negative signs in favor of the resort, Duncan told GlacierHub that she remains hopeful. “The Jumbo Wild campaign has been going strong for 26 years. There have been many ups and downs within those years, and I am confident that whatever comes our way, the people of the Kootenays will continue to rally against this ill-proposed resort that threatens grizzly bear habitat and the sacred territory of the Ktunaxa Nation,” she said.

A New Discovery: Why and How Glaciers Flow?

For the 40 percent of the world’s population who live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, sea-level rise is more than just a mathematical calculation, it’s a survival challenge. Although scientists are confident about the impacts of accelerated glacier melting and ice flow on rising sea levels, projections for future ice loss remain at a fairly early stage. Developing better predictions for how glaciers melt and flow in the future remains a daunting task for glacier modelers.

Helheimregion of Greenland, with the midmorning sun glinting off of the Denmark Strait in the background (Source: NASA).

A new analysis published in the Journal of Science argues that the “largest uncertainty” in ice sheet models used to predict future sea-level rise originates from our limited understanding of underwater processes at the ice-bed interface. These ice-bed processes beneath water involve interactions among the weight of the ice, water pressure, and the roughness of the bedrock. One of the major consequences, of these underwater interactions and a cause of sea-level rise is basal sliding, when the glacier slides over the bed as a result of meltwater between the ice and the bed acting as a lubricant.

To address the uncertainties of ice sheet models, the paper analyzed 140 wet-based glaciers in Greenland. Wet-based glaciers are known to have a thin layer of water between the ice and the rock bed. In contrast, glaciers found in the frigid Antarctic lack such a layer and are frozen to the end.

Red polygons show the 140 marine-terminating glaciers analyzed. Jakobshavn Isbræ, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier, and Helheim Glacier are circled in blue (Source: Stearns and Van Der Veen).

Scientific research on glaciers began in the early 18th century and developed more fully later on. Although glaciers seem static, their waning and waxing over time has long been recognized. Several theories have been proposed for this characteristic, including the Weertman formula, named after scientist Johannes Weertman. The Weertman formula states that the speed a glacier moves at its bed beneath the water is determined by both the friction and the amount of water surrounding the bed. Withstanding some bickering between Weertman and other scientists during the 1950s, the Weertman model has been widely accepted since then. An array of sea-level rise prediction models have built on this theory, with the latest study challenging the findings of the Weertman formula.

One of the two authors of the study, Leigh Stearns, a scientist at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets from the University of Kansas, spoke to GlacierHub about her research on the topic. “We found that the commonly-used model for basal sliding (the Weertman model) does not apply to all 140 Greenland glaciers that we analyzed,” she said.

Instead, the researchers found that subglacial water pressure, the water pressure difference between the ice sheet end and the hard bed underwater, dominates the speed of glacier flow.

Intrigued by their initial observations of the 140 overlooked mountain glaciers in Greenland, Stearns and her university colleague C. J. van der Veen found the effect of friction on glacier sliding speed to be “virtually non-existent,” which implicitly defers the Weertman notion. As a result, they spent a long time trying to figure out what other factor correlated better with glacier speed, according to Stearns.

This analysis involved a closer study on the subglacial water pressure in Greenland. Stearns and van der Veen believe this aspect has been largely overlooked by the glaciological community to date. They started their observations by calculating water pressure from the thickness of the ice and then calculating the effective pressures under the water. Stearns and van der Veen paired these findings with the latest observational data about glacier flow speed and found that the two are highly related.

However, Stearns also discussed the limitations of her study with GlacierHub. “We don’t understand all the mechanics for why the relationship between sliding velocity and effective pressure are so good, and why the relationship between sliding velocity and basal drag is so bad,” she said.

Ice Sheet in Greenland (Source: Christine Zenino/Wikimedia Commons).

Recognizing these uncertainties, the paper focused on current models of sea-level rise, which are based on the strong relationship between sliding speed and the roughness of the bed.

“Hopefully it will allow them to constrain their sea-level rise prediction models better, so uncertainties of future ice sheet mass balance are reduced,” Stearns added.

The paper notes that it is “imperative for the ice sheet modeling community to explore the impact that this new relationship may have on sea-level rise prediction.” With that said, the consequences of the researchers’ new and challenging theory are still unfolding and could be highly significant.

GlacierHub contacted other scientists who built their work on the Weertman theory for feedback on Stearns and van der Veen’s latest findings, but these scientists did not respond to GlacierHub’s request for comment.

Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Tourism in Tibet

For centuries, Tibet has played a special role in the imagination of travelers, who know it as the “roof of the world.” Because of its remoteness, many of these would-be adventurers could not reach the high plateau or see the snow-capped ranges, ancient monasteries and nomadic yak-herders. However, the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006 gave people across the globe access to this cut-off region. By 2017, Tibet was the host of 25.61 million travelers worldwide, a 12-times growth compared to a decade ago. The exponential increase in tourism is a valuable income source for the local communities, but it also raises significant concerns about environmental degradation in this fragile ecological hotspot.

Blossoming peach trees in the spring in Bayi, Tibet, China (Source: Tibet Discovery/ Facebook).

Coupled with the critical timing for local authorities in China to flesh out the implementation details for the 13th Five-Year National Plan (2016-2020), the expected growth in tourism in Tibet poses a pressing challenge to ecological sustainability. In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Mountains, six researchers from the Tibetan Plateau provide science-based suggestions for policymakers to decide where and how ecotourism should be conducted, so as to sustain both the distinctive cultural and natural landscapes of the region as well as the income source of its people.

Xiaoming Wang, a professor from the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources of the Chinese Academy of Science, highlighted to GlacierHub the complexities of balancing environmental conservation and tourism development. “A view should be taken in a more systematic or national or even global manner for planning and policy development, or very often, actions for a short-term and local benefit may compromise long-term national interests. This is exactly what the environmental and climate researchers should start to pay an attention to,” Wang said.

The diversified landscape and geography of the study area, Bayi District, Tibet, China (Source: Kan et al. 2018).

The case study focused on the Bayi District located in southeast Tibet, close to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. The relatively accessible, mild-altitude plateau is a favorite tourist destination. Bayi District boasts stunning views from its highest cliffsides, awe-inspiring glaciers, the winding Yarlung Zangbo River, boundless grasslands dotted with yaks, religious traditions and the most hospitable people.

According to the authors, “the ecology [of Tibet] is fragile, and if it gets destroyed once, it will degrade and is difficult to be restored.” As the backbone of the local economic growth and even overall Tibet tourism, a more environmentally-minded tourism in Bayi District calls for further efforts to map out the vulnerabilities of different landscapes and adopt contextualized approaches.

Colorful autumn in Bayi District, Tibet, China (Source: Ping Lin/Creative Commons).

Traditional approaches were used to classify and assess the ecosystem components that may affect its vulnerability. In addition, the authors further introduced advanced spatial technologies. With these technologies, such as spatial principal component analysis, remote sensing, and GIS, the authors were able to “analyze the ecological vulnerability at a regional spatial scale.”

The data, such as land use and vegetation coverage, were retrieved from various databases, such as satellite data from NDVI, MODIS, and gauge data from 38 local meteorological stations of Tibet. The team also extracted and processed spatial variables, including the potential risk of geological disasters, landscape pattern disturbance, vegetation resilience, and tourism pressure from a GIS platform.

The ecological vulnerability range distribution map from this paper (Source: Kan, et al. 2018).

One of the study’s most significant products was a map that shows the ecological vulnerability levels of the different areas within the district. As the map suggests, the overall vulnerability degree of Bayi District is relatively high, and the vulnerability levels are distributed unevenly within the district. For example, the authors divided the district into five classes of vulnerability, from potentially vulnerable to mildly vulnerable and then to moderately, severely and extremely vulnerable. There were roughly similar proportions of each (14 percent, 21 percent, 18 percent, 27 percent and 20 percent respectively). The authors note that “areas of severe and extreme vulnerability were mainly located in … alpine pasture and glacier zones.”

These severe and extreme areas with steep slopes and valleys have an average altitude of 4,400-4,800 meters. During the beginning of the growing season (April to May), the abundant and intensive precipitation over these areas heightens the probability of soil erosion. Drought also strikes the area during the summertime as a result of the Indian monsoon movement. The relatively ecologically resilient regions are scattered along the river basin, where both the altitude and climate are milder to encourage rich vegetations and sound ecosystems.

The authors further translated their findings to classify the Bayi District into different functional areas for tourism, including regions for holistic ecotourism development, key ecological conservation and strict protection.

The region for holistic ecotourism development is composed of parts of both mild and moderate vulnerable regions and extends along the main road, accounting for 33 percent of the district. It is centered around Lulang Town and favorable to environmentally-minded tourism activities including glacier trekking, snow sports, and mountain trekking. According to the downscale version of 13th Five-Year Plan in Tibet, the “Lulang tourism town of Bayi District would be the key priority for the sustainable development of Tibetan ecotourism,” with detailed implementations under discussion.

The region for key protection is the area away from the main human activity areas, where explorers can immerse themselves in nature and visit the region’s pristine glaciers and lakes.

The remaining severe and extremely vulnerable areas are in the canyon, blanketed by grasslands and glaciers, and are classified as a region for strict protection. Thus, the authors note that limited access should be granted for scientific purposes.

In the paper, the researchers also express their hope that the local authorities of all the mountain tourism areas in China may use their analysis as a critical reference for more detailed policies to meet the 13th Five-Year Plan of China. As Emily Ting Yeh, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado who has spent her career in Tibetan areas, wrote to Glacierhub, “The idea of ecotourism is certainly a good one, but the problem is that it often does not work out in practice.” A comprehensive vulnerability assessment itself may be a good start, but is definitely not the end.