Roundup: Cyanobacteria, Glacier Calving and Glacier Fluctuations

Arctic biocrust cyanobacterial communities

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Microcystins Souce: Flickr

“In the polar regions cyanobacteria are an important element of plant communities and represent the dominant group of primary producers. They commonly form thick highly diverse biological soil crusts that provide microhabitats for other organisms. Cyanobacteria are also producers of toxic secondary metabolites. The north-west coast of Spitsbergen, are able to synthesize toxins, especially microcystins and anatoxin-a. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report on the presence of ANTX-a in the entire polar region. The occurrence of cyanotoxins can exert a long-term impact on organisms co-existing in biocrust communities and can have far-reaching consequences for the entire polar ecosystem.”

See more about this article here

 

Dynamics of Glacier Calving

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Glacier Calving Source: Flickr

“During summer 2013 we installed a network of nineteen GPS nodes at the ungrounded margin of Helheim Glacier in south-east Greenland together with three cameras to study iceberg calving mechanisms… The glacier calved by a process of buoyancy-force-induced crevassing in which the ice downglacier of flexion zones rotates upwards because it is out of buoyant equilibrium. Calving then occurs back to the flexion zone… “

See more about this article here.

 

Reconstruction of glacier fluctuations

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Reconstruction of glacier fluctuations Source: Flickr

“It is presented the results of study of bottom sediments of the proglacial lakes enriched with meltwater of Peretolchin Glacier, Chersky Glacier and glaciers of the Kodar Ridge. Bottom sediments were investigated with time resolution in year-season, using X-ray fluorescence. We have defined three periods in significant increase of glacier flow/melting during the last 210 years. The first period (ca. 1800–1890), supply of suspended material by meltwater into Lake Ekhoy and Lake Preobrazhenskoe, was not intense until 1850 and 1875, respectively. However, the rate of meltwater supply into Lake Izumrudnoe was high during the Little Ice Age, and it is likely attributed to local moisture from Lake Baikal. The regional glacier water balances were most likely positive during the second period (ca. 1890–1940). The third period (ca. 1940–till present) was characterised by moderate melting rate of glaciers located on the Kodar and Baikalsky Ridges, in contrast to Peretolchin Glacier that demonstrated the highest rate of melting and changes in outlines during this period.”

See more about this article here

Supercool water found near glaciers

Temperatures in Spitbergen, Norway may be below freezing, but the water around the Glacier Front isn’t frozen, researchers Eugene Morozov from Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Aleksey Marchenko from the University Center in Svalbard, and Yu. D. Fomin from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, found,

This process of supercooling, also known as undercooling, happens when the temperature of a liquid or a gas drops below its freezing point without it becoming a solid. Experiments on Youtube show people taking liquid water out of their freezers, and pouring it on white plate under normal temperature. As the water hits the plate, it instantaneously turns into ice.

There are two methods for making water supercool. The first method, like the one show in Youtube videos, can only be achieved when water is extremely pure. Impure water has ‘nucleation sites,’ where water molecules gather and gradually solidify during the freezing process. People can make supercool water with a simple refrigerator and a bottle of pure water.

The other method relates to salinity and water pressure. Supercool water can occur under conditions of heat removal, different rates of heat and salt diffusion and rapid pressure decrease, chemists Valeria Molinero and Emily Moore in University of Utah found after much experimentation in 2011.

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Figure 1: Supercool water with no impurity. Source: BBC

With higher pressure, water will freeze at temperatures below 0 degree Celsius. In addition, higher salinity will also result in a lower freezing temperature. According to Figure 2, the freezing point will change depending on salinity and water pressure.

 

 

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Figure 2 Relationship between freezing point and Salinity/ Water Pressure. Source: London South Bank University

Previously, supercool water had only been created under laboratory conditions. However, the new findings from Eugene Morozov and his colleagues show that there is Glaciohydraulic supercooling water around the glacier that mixes and cools with high salinity and high pressure water.

The bottom of the glacier is approximately 15 m from the sea surface. The melt water (fresh water) flows from the glacier at a temperature of 0 C. After mixing with surrounding seawater with a temperature of – 1.8 C, melt water cools to temperatures lower than -1.8 C while ascending to the surface. As it surfaces, its temperature is close to the freezing point of seawater(-1.8 C). That temperature is lower than the freezing temperature of freshwater and its internal energy does not reach the equilibrium state required for freezing. This freshwater from glaciers cools to temperatures lower than freezing without becoming ice.

 

 

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Figure 3: Scheme showing freshwater flow from the glacier and measurement of water properties near the glacier front

The finding in Spitbergen is supported by research from Dr. Igor Dmitrenko, who works for Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at University of Kiel. He found that supercool water also exists in polynas, an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. However, this condition cannot be observed all the time since it cannot exist for an extended period. Supercooling water will transfer to the other states of water in a short time. It could play a crucial role in sea ice formation, researchers say.

“While frazil ice [needle-shaped ice fragments in water] formation in the Arctic was carefully examined over the past several years for the St. Lawrence Island and the Storfjord polynyas […] the processes controlling the sea ice growth due to supercooled water and frazil ice formation over the Siberian Arctic shelf remain poorly understood, owing to the scarce instrumental records and extreme climatic conditions,” Dmitrenko wrote in his study.  “From these considerations, supercooling might play a critical role in the shelf salt budget and sea ice production”

Check more information about glacier at Glacierhub.

Photo Friday: Visible Glacier Shrinking in Puncak Jaya

Even though mountain peaks near the equator have supported glaciers for thousands of years, they have retreated significantly in the last century because of climate change. Many tropical glaciers have lost more than half of their volume with the rapid development of global industry. Puncak Jaya, the earth’s highest island peak in Indonesia, holds the last glaciers in the tropical Pacific. Back in 1989, five ice masses sat on the slopes of Puncak Jaya. But by 2009, two of the glaciers, Meren and Southwall, were gone. The other three, Carstenz, East Northwall Firn, and West North Wall Firn, have retreated dramatically since the 1970’s, according to satellite imagery analyzed by Joni L. Kincaid and Andrew G. Klein, from the department of Geography in Texas A&M University. The Meren Glacier melted away sometime between 1994 and 2000. Pictures below, provided by NASA and U.S. Government show, the dynamic shrinking glacier in Puncak Jaya.

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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com

Climate Change Adaptation is Key to Water Security

A significant research gap may be hindering community efforts to withstand climate-induced glacier melt, according to a new review from researcher Graham McDowell and his colleagues at McGill University.

Understanding how to help communities adapt to the effects of glacier melt, which threatens water sources for communities worldwide, will require deeper assessments of existing projects, the review found. A research agenda should focus on assessing different adaptation measures to better inform policy and community projects in the future.

The glacier region in the Lewis Range, Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana, Source: Flickr
The glacier region in the Lewis Range, Glacier National Park in the U.S. state of Montana, Source: Flickr

Glaciers are key water sources in mountain areas, especially in South America and South Asia. More than 72 million people live in mountain regions, and large proportions of these populations reside in glaciated regions. Without glaciers, the livelihoods and health of communities worldwide will be threatened, but the issue is not well understood. Only 36 studies of adaptation projects have been published. In total, studies document 74 adaptations, mainly in Peru, India and Nepal, though the lack of research in this area suggests the number of existing adaptation plans may be greater than researchers have studied.

Almost 50 percent of documented adaptation plans are driven by a need to cope with the repercussions of climate change. Adaptation plans differ depending on how communities living near glaciers make their livelihoods, whether they are in ski towns in the European Alps or subsistence agrarian communities in the Himalayas and Andes.

Country-level distribution and count for documented adaptations, Source: Graham McDowell et al/Climatic Change
Country-level distribution and count for documented adaptations, Source: Graham McDowell et al/Climatic Change

McDowell found that most of the work on adaptation in glaciated regions comes from academic institutions, while NGOs and governments contribute much less. 50% of the projects in the papers which McDowell et al. reviewed concentrated in agricultural sector, followed by hazard management (31%), tourism (26%), water management (24%) and public health security (19%).

McDowell’s assessment suggests that adaptations to climatic changes are frequently embedded within responses to other socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges. To address these challenges, autonomous adaptation without government help at local scales may be especially important in often-remote glaciated mountain regions, where 58 % of adaptation initiatives were at an individual, household, or community scale, and 46 % were categorized as being autonomous, the review found.

Communities in need

South America, which holds more than 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers, is particularly vulnerable to global warming.

As climate change converges with human activities in glacier-filled mountains, the degradation of high Andean ecosystems is accelerating. These glaciers, which provide drinking water and sustain rivers, are crucial to water supply in South America and are used for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry such as agro-exports and mining. At the same time, there are growing concerns that the rainy season will bring a higher risk of flooding, even if climate change leads to seasonal drought in the region. Facing abnormal rainfall, local farmers have to adapt to avoid economic loss.

Unavoidable glacier melt will severely reduce water supply in a continent that is already water-poor. In Peru, 8.9 million people live in rural areas and 3.3 million currently don’t have access to safe portable water. Around 3 million people, most of them children, die each year related to disease linked to consumption of contaminated water.

In order to provide more safe potable water, people are now trying to build large public facilities, such as reservoirs to store drinking water. However, microorganisms such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter are a concern as studies show increased temperatures favor conditions under which these microorganisms thrive.

A research agenda that addresses projects that can help communities adapt to the cascading effects of climate change is becoming increasingly urgent as the lives of millions come under threat.

For more information about adaptation in glacier areas, look here.

Photo Friday: Tulips in the Wild

Few people have had seen tulips grow in their original habitat even though they are a familiar presence in gardens and florist shops. Here is a great opportunity to discover the tulips that are native to some of the most remote places on earth. Mountains at high elevations, especially the area centering on the glacier-filled Pamirs and Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia, are the habitats of wild tulips. The bulbs of these flowers store energy which allows them to grow quickly in the short spring and summer seasons at high elevations. Many wild tulips grow in rock crevices on these mountains. Some wild tulips may languish in garden soil in a more temperate climate – they can only survive in their natural habitats. “Ironic as it may seem, many of these rugged beauties are easily killed with kindness.” Eric Breed, a freelance bulb photographer and a member of Tulips in the Wild , states on his website. Eric and his friends travel to the lands where tulips grow wild and capture the most beautiful moments of these flowers.

For more wild tulips photographs, please check out Tulips in the Wild

Many thanks to Sally Ferguson, Colorblends and the Amsterdam Tulip Museum for their help.

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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com

Pre-industrial Anthropocene Detected in Peru

Humans may have begun to pollute the atmosphere earlier than we thought. So says recent research conducted at the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, where scientists drilled into the ice to pull out cores, which they could read like ancient texts.

QuelccayaThose cores show widespread traces of copper and lead starting in about A.D. 1540, which corresponds to the end of the Inca empire and a period of mining and metallurgy when the areas that are now Peru and Bolivia became part of the Spanish Empire. The findings, published by Paolo Gabrielli and colleagues in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest for the first time that the Anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by massive and widespread human impacts on the planet, began about 240 years before the industrial age arrived on the scene with its steam engines and its coal plants.

Scientists have long used glacier ice cores to learn about the Earth’s climates and air pollution and reconstruct pollution histories. In Greenland, for example, they have traced metals found in ice cores back to ancient Greek and Roman mining operations. The pattern of climate changes and air quality are recorded in the ice itself as glaciers grow, accumulating layer after layer of ice, year after year. For example, winter layers are often thicker and lighter in color, while summer layers are often thinner and darker because of less snowfall and more dust in summer. Scientists can read these layers much in the same way they read tree rings to calculate historical environmental conditions, including snowfall and atmospheric composition.

Layers in Quelccaya ice cap (Source: Emporia State)
Layers in Quelccaya ice cap (Source: Emporia State)

Once the scientists have removed the ice cores from a glacier, they can analyze the trace elements in the ice itself. They also study the air bubbles trapped in those cores at the time of their formation to learn about the chemical components of the atmosphere. According to Paolo Gabrielli, an Earth scientist at Ohio State University, anything in the air at the time the glacier layer was formed, such as soot particles, dust and a wide variety of chemicals, will be trapped in the ice layers as well. Gabrielli says there are no glaciers on Earth in which traces of anthropogenic air pollution cannot be detected.

Gabrielli and his team found that lead levels in the Quelccaya ice core doubled between 1450 and 1900, while the amount of chemical element antimony (Sb) in the ice was 3.5 times greater than  before. They also compared data from a peat bog in Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and from sedimentary lake records from regions including Potosí and other mines throughout Bolivia and Peru to determine the path the pollution took, and found that most of the pollution was carried to the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru by the wind.

In the 16th century, the Spanish colonial authorities forced the indigenous populations in South America to extract ore and refine silver from the mountaintop mines of Potosi. They introduced mercury amalgamation, a new technology, to expand silver production, which lead to dramatic increases in the amounts of trace metals released into the atmosphere.

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Silver Mining in South America Source: La Salle University

“This evidence supports the idea that human impact on the environment was widespread even before the industrial revolution,” Gabrielli said in a statement on Ohio State University’s website.

While the industrial economies in 20th century produced more pollution than any other time in human history, colonial mining should be considered the beginning of the Anthropocene, according to these new findings.

For more information about Quelccaya, look here.

New Route Up Mt. Everest

Everest Base Camp: Expedition Tents ©Hendrik Terbeck
Everest Base Camp: Expedition Tents ©Hendrik Terbeck

Last year’s deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest in Nepal, which killed 16 Sherpas–mountaineering guides indigenous to the region–has led to new safety recommendations for both guides and tourists.

The Nepalese authorities have ordered climbers to shift their path up the mountain, to avoid the route of last year’s disaster, according to Vice magazine. The new path will bring people to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, instead of the west shoulder of the Icefall, where the guides were buried in the avalanche. The new path might be more technically difficult for climbers, but government officials say it is safer.

Last year, the Nepalese government came under fire for failing to sufficiently compensate Sherpa families for the guides’  deaths and for attempting to keep climbing season open, putting the lives of guides and climbers at risk. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, providing 4% of gross domestic product, and the tourists come for Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. Of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013, over 10% went hiking or climbing.

Numbers of death ranked by cause of death for all peaks from 1950-2006. Source:
Figure 1. Numbers of death ranked by cause of death for all peaks
from 1950-2006. ©Richard Salisbury & Elizabeth Hawley

Though the number of guides killed last year is high, the record for highest number of total deaths from a single accident occurred in 2001, when a blizzard and several avalanches in central Nepal are reported to have killed at least three local guides and 26 tourists, including Israelis, Poles, Nepalese, Canadians, Slovaks and one person from India.

Recent data suggests that avalanches are the primary cause of death among guides in the Nepalese Himalayas, while falls are the primary cause of death among visitors. (See Figure 1 to the left.) Some 102 guide deaths were caused by avalanches between 1950 and 2006 of a total of 211 guide deaths, while 223 tourist deaths were caused by falls from high elevations, followed by 170 tourist deaths by avalanches over the period.

A steady decrease in deaths among both tourists and guides began in about 1975 and lasted until 2005, at which point the trend reversed itself. The Kang Guru avalanche and three separate avalanches on Ama Dablam, Ganesh VII, and Pumori in 2006 killed 14 tourists and 18 guides and marked the beginning of an upswing. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in death rates from 1950 to 2006 among both tourists (“members,” in blue) and guides (“hired,” in red).

Figure 2 Member and hired death rates by expedition year for all peaks from 1950-2006
Figure 2. Member and hired death rates by expedition year for all peaks from 1950-2006 ©Richard Salisbury & Elizabeth Hawley

As climate change melts glaciers around the world, avalanches could increase, threatening tourists and guides with more accidents. Even for the local Sherpa guides, the Himalayas become unfamiliar territory when the landscape is changed by receding ice. “Warmer temperatures and water from melting ice can combine to weaken a glacier’s grip on the underlying rock,” Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona geologist, who has conducted regular studies on glaciers near Everest, told Vice magazine.

To read more about last year’s Everest accident and the aftermath, read this post.

Tracking Glaciers From Space: GLIMS

Picture of GLIMS book coverIn 1994, an international group of scientists came together to form GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space), a worldwide initiative to monitor and study glaciers using satellite data. For at least one hundred years, scientists had primarily used traditional field measurements to track glacier dynamics, but field data are by necessity limited in scope, and can be expensive and laborious to obtain.

The GLIMS team ultimately chose to use an imaging system called Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), jointly managed by NASA and Japan, for their glacier measurements. ASTER is installed aboard Terra, the flagship satellite of NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), which was launched in December 1999. ASTER data can be used to map land surface temperature, reflectance, and elevation, which allows the scientists to distinguish between glacier ice and snow and to measure changes in glacier volume.

Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.
Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.

Using digital images and data provided by ASTER, GLIMS created an up-to-the-minute database of the world’s glaciers, which includes ID, name, cross-references, and analysis of the state and dynamics of individual glaciers. In August 2014, GLIMS published their findings in book form: Global Land Ice Measurements from Space compiles these glacier profiles, provides a review of analysis methodologies for measuring changes in glacier volume, and offers predictions for future glacier change as well as some interpretations of potential impacts for policymakers in the context of climate change. The GLIMS scientists provide firm evidence that glaciers are shrinking worldwide, and they believe the cause is global warming.

The GLIMS book offers a basic theoretical background in glacier monitoring and mapping as well as remote sensing techniques. It also discusses measurements of glacier thinning from digital elevation models (DEMs), and calculation of surface flow velocities from satellite images. DEMs can provide specific data for every pixel in a satellite image, with a margin of error at 0.5m/year. Although cloud cover can interfere with accurate satellite data on glaciers, scientists are able to identify and discard this faulty data.

As described in the book, GLIMS scientists Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa and his colleagues have been able to assess the mass balance of alpine mountain glaciers by comparing historical topographic maps and DEMs derived from ASTER. For instance, they built a model and limited the error in the computation of mass balance from field measurements of China’s Sarytor glacier to less than 150mm/year.

Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.
Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.

Similarly, using techniques established by Dr. Todd Albert,who is also a member of GLIMS, a set of images of the Quelccaya Ice Cap spanning four decades was analyzed to create a history of ice surface area. Overall, Albert found that the ice cap has retreated from 58.9 km2 in 1975 to 40.8 km2 in 2010, with a loss of surface area of 31%. This history matches what has been observed in the field by glaciologists Lonnie Thompson and Henry Brecher since the 1970s.

Thanks to GLIMS, the rate of glacier melting can be measured and documented more precisely, providing readers with potential evidence of climate change. The GLIMS data provides solid support for future scientific research and planning in the face of climate change.

For other stories on the measurement of glaciers, look here.

Roundup: NZ photos, vanishing ice art, murder mystery

Glacier melting recorded by photos

source: the New Zealand Herald
source: the New Zealand Herald

“A series of photographs taken over 10 years has revealed the dramatic changes to one of New Zealand’s most famous glacier.The Massey University scientists who took the pictures – at the same time each year during surveys – say the changes to Fox Glacier on the South Island’s West Coast are also having a major impact on the surrounding landscape, with the valley rising by more than a metre in the last two years.”

Read more about these photos here.

Vanishing Ice Exhibition across Canada

Jean de Pomereu (French, b. 1969), Fissure 2 (Antarctica) from Sans Nom, 2008, archival inkjet print, 107 x 129 cm, Whatcom Museum, Gift of the artist
Jean de Pomereu (French, b. 1969), Fissure 2 (Antarctica) from Sans Nom, 2008, archival inkjet print, 107 x 129 cm, Whatcom Museum, Gift of the artist

“The exhibit shows climate change in a new way, says Barbara Matilsky, the curator behindVanishing Ice. “Many people are aware of the critical importance of ice for the planet,” she says, adding that she wanted to focus on how the artistic legacy of ice has helped shape Western views of the natural world. The exhibition — which contains over seventy works by fifty artists from twelve countries — begins a three-month run on Saturday at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario (before this, it visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.) Because it covers a span of over two centuries, the exhibition provides some unique opportunities to see changes, both in the icy landscapes themselves and society’s view of them.”

Read more about this exhibition here.

New murder mystery

 "Fortitude," an Arctic murder mystery series on the Pivot channel
“Fortitude,” an Arctic murder mystery series on the Pivot channel

““Fortitude,” an ambitious 12-episode murder mystery beginning on last Thursday night, takes place in two unusual locales. One is its slightly fantastical far-far-north setting, a fictional Arctic island — based on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard — where a small international community is outnumbered by polar bears; crime is thought to be nonexistent; and anyone near death is exiled to the mainland, because bodies can’t be buried in the permafrost.”

Read more about this here.

New Glacial Lakes to Transform Swiss Landscape

Ongoing climate change is causing glaciers in the Swiss Alps to shrink dramatically, and some predict they will disappear entirely by the end of the century. As they melt over the coming decades, Swiss scientists estimate that 500 to 600 new lakes covering close to 50 square kilometers of land will form in Switzerland. That’s about the equivalent of two Lake Eries, the eleventh largest lake in the world.

“The rapid melting of glaciers is radically changing the Alpine landscape,” world renowned Swiss glacier expert and University of Zurich professor Wilfried Haeberli reported at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna, according to Spiegel.

Haeberli and a team of scientists recently completed a project that attempts to predict where and when these new lakes will form using glacier bed models and time-based ablation scenarios for all Swiss glaciers. Using case studies, they also looked at the potential natural hazards that could be created by these new lakes, the development potential they might offer in terms of hydroelectric energy and tourism and legal issues they might present in terms of ownership, liability, exploitation and conservation.

One lake in particular they studied was Lake Trift in the Valley of Gadmen, which appeared in the 1990s due to melting of the Altesch Glacier. Local authorities built a breathtaking suspension bridge over the lake that has since become a tourist attraction. Energy companies are also considering putting it to use for the generation of hydroelectric power. The creation of a dam, which would be necessary for such a project, would likely diminish the attractiveness of the site for tourists, but it could protect the area against the risk of flooding.

“Whether the lake remains natural or becomes artificial, there is a significant risk of rock or ice avalanches due to the longterm destabilisation of slopes previously supported by the Trift glacier and the potential collapse of the current glacier tongue,” the scientists write. “Such avalanches can trigger a surge wave in the lake with disastrous consequences. The construction of a dam of adequate size could protect the area from floods and allow for the generation of power but it would reduce the appeal for tourists.”

Haeberli and his colleagues urge that debates over some of these complex issues begin now, before the Swiss landscape transforms from one of glaciers to one of glacial lakes.

Photo Friday: Nunataks in Antarctica

Nunataks are small volumes of rock that emerge above ice sheets and glaciers. They are isolated from mountain ranges and are often easier to access. This makes them particularly useful to geologists as a source of data about bedrock. The photos here shows the view of nunataks in Antarctica taken by Euphro and Chantal, who are both nunatak scientists and photographers.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Ice Cavers Travel Into the Heart of Glaciers

Ice cave at Lamplugh Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Photo: Allyhook/Flickr)
Ice cave at Lamplugh Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (Photo: Allyhook/Flickr)

As their name suggests, ice caves are tunnel-like features that occur within ice bodies, usually glaciers. They have been known to science at least since 1900, when the American explorer and scientist Edwin Balch described them in his book Glacières or Freezing Caverns. In recent decades, some ice caves have become major tourist attractions.

Ice caves are formed by the horizontal movement of liquid water through glaciers. This movement causes some of the ice to melt. In some cases, the liquid water is produced by melting on the glacier surface; it then descends through a vertical tunnel or moulin to the glacier bed, where it flows out and emerges at the glacier snout. In other cases, geothermal activity provides the heat to melt the ice. Caves can also form on glaciers that terminate in lakes or the ocean; melting at the front of the glacier can proceed under the glacier, sometimes for considerable distances.

Ice caves attract tourists in a number of countries. Norway and Iceland are major destinations for people who wish the visit them, but they are found in other countries as well, including Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand. The nature photographer Kamil Tamiola entered an ice cave on the north face of an Alpine summit in France at 3,800 meters above sea level. “You need to stay focused, pay attention to every single move and commit yourself entirely to this climb,” he said. He used mountaineering gear, including ice axes and crampons.

Less equipment is needed to enter the ice caves of Lake Superior, which form each winter from seeps in a limestone cave rather than from melting within a glacier. Tourists wear warm clothing and boots, and bring only trekking poles for balance. “It’s just fantastic, ” said Jim McLaughlin, who visited them in 2014. “It’s unique to see water in so many different forms and different colors and the way it’s sculpted.” McLaughlin and the others

Ice cave in  Belcher Glacier, Devon Island, Canada (Photo: Angus Duncan/NASA)
Ice cave in Belcher Glacier, Devon Island, Canada (Photo: Angus Duncan/NASA)

In all these countries, the best time to visit ice caves is during the winter. There is a greater risk of collapse from melting at other seasons. Tourists have to bring appropriate gear to enter an ice cave. Helmets, gloves, sturdy boots, and warm layered clothing are often required. Headlamps and kneepads are highly recommended.

There is a sense of urgency about glacier caving, since some of the caves are at risk of disappearing. Bob Krumenaker, the park superintendant at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where the Lake Superior ice caves are located, mentioned that people treat ice caving as “a truly endangered national park experience, because, like endangered animals, we can’t predict its future, and it may not be there,” The Sandy Glacier Cave System on Mount Hood in Oregon is also shrinking. In his website From a Glacier’s Perspective, Mauri Pelto writes of the complete disappearance of the caves on Paradise Glacier on Mount Rainier in Washington. For the meantime, though, a visit to an ice cave can provide a striking experience of the interior of a glacier.

Pond in ice cave under the Nigardsbreen, Jostedalsbreen, Norway (Photo: Guttorm Flatabø)
Pond in cave under the Nigardsbreen, Jostedalsbreen, Norway (Photo: Guttorm Flatabø)