Seasonal Lake Changes on the Tibetan Plateau

Kunlun Mountain Chains (source: Yunsheng Bai / Flickr).
Kunlun Mountains (source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr).

The Kunlun Mountains, featured as a mythical location in the legendary Chinese text Shanhai Jing, are one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. From the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the mountains run east along the border of Xinjiang and Tibet to the Qinghai province, forming part of the Tibetan Plateau. A number of important glaciers and lakes are found in the area, attracting glaciology researchers to the region throughout the year. Yanbin Lei, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is one scientist conducting important field work in the region.

Recently, Lei et al. published a paper  in the American Geophysical Union Journal Geophysical Research Letters that describes how lakes in the Tibetan Plateau are growing and deepening due to climate change. In particular, the scientists identified two patterns of lake level seasonality.

Because the climate is warming, an earlier melt and a relatively large increase in spring runoff are observed for all scenarios. This in turn increases water availability in the Indus Basin irrigation scheme during the spring growing season, according to Lei et al. This finding projects that rainfall will increase, according to another study by Su er al. In addition,  the discharge in the major large rivers of South and East Asia will also increase.

Kotra Tso at the Kunlun Mountains (source: Dr. Yongjie Wang).
Kotra Tso at the Kunlun Mountains (source: Yongjie Wang).

“Though crucial, the paucity of instrumental data from the sparsely populated Tibetan Plateau has limited scientific investigations of hydroclimate response to recent climate change,” Lei told GlacierHub. The Tibetan Plateau has a large spatial coverage and high elevation (the average latitude is over 4000 meters), not to mention an incredibly harsh climatic condition, which makes conducting research and taking measurements difficult. Because the seasonal dynamics of the lakes is not sufficiently understood, the research conducted by Lei et al. in the Tibetan Plateau was unprecedented.

“In general, there is a lack of monitoring of lake levels in the Kunlun Mountains, and consequently, data is missing for the lakes,” Lei  added. “Even if remote sensing were developed as a major method for studying inter-annual changes of lakes, the accuracy and frequency of this method would still be limited to study seasonal changes.”

With the help of “situ observations,” Cryosat-2 satellite altimetry data between 2010 and 2014, and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) data, Lei et al. managed to identify two patterns of lake level seasonality. “In the central, northern, and northeastern Tibetan Plateau, lake levels are characterized by considerable increases during warm seasons and decreases during cold seasons, which is consistent with regional mass changes related to monsoon precipitation and evaporation,” Lei et al. describe in their paper.  “In the northwestern Tibetan Plateau, however, lake levels exhibit dramatic increases during both warm and cold seasons, which deviate from regional mass changes.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Lei summarized the reasons for this finding: “The difference was mainly caused by the glaciers and precipitation. There are widespread glaciers in the northwest Tibetan Plateau and the area of glaciers is larger than the area of lakes. The precipitation in summer is also low, resulting in high spring snowfall and large summer glacier melt to feed the lake. Meanwhile, in the northern Tibetan Plateau, there are fewer glaciers but more summer rainfall, causing an increase in the lake level,” Lei told GlacierHub.

The location of the selected lakes in the NWTP, NTP, CTP, and NETP (source: Lei et al. / Wiley).
The location of the selected lakes in the NWTP, NTP, CTP, and NETP (source: Lei et al. /Wiley).

Additionally, the seasonal difference of precipitation is also important. Annual precipitation in the northern Tibetan Plateau is 300-400 mm with 90 percent of precipitation occurring in summer, according to Lei. Annual precipitation in the northwest Tibetan Plateau is about 200 mm because spring snowfall counts more. “The lake level responses to different drivers indicates heterogeneous sensitivity to climate change between the northwestern Tibetan Plateau and other regions,” Lei noted.

As Lei et al. demonstrate in their study, climate change has dramatically influenced the lakes and rivers of Tibet. Higher temperatures saliently have led to the expansion of the watershed. However, Lei is unsure about the exact effect of climate change.

“Since 2006, lakes in the central Tibetan Plateau have been stable, while lakes in the northern Tibetan Plateau and Northwest Tibetan Plateau are growing at a high speed,” he said. “When these lakes will reach equilibrium remains uncertain.”

Roundup: Rock Glaciers, Ice Tongues and Flood Warnings

Roundup: Rock Glaciers, Floating Glaciers, and Flood Warnings

Ecology of Active Rock Glaciers

From Boreas: “Active rock glaciers are periglacial landforms (areas that lie adjacent to a glacier or ice sheet that freeze and thaw) consisting of coarse debris with interstitial ice (ice formed in the narrow space between rocks and sediment) or ice-core. Recent studies showed that such landforms are able to support plant and arthropod life and could act as warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species due to their microclimate features and thermal inertia. However, integrated research comparing active rock glaciers with surrounding landforms to outline their ecological peculiarities is still scarce… Our data show remarkable differences between stable slopes and unstable landforms as a whole, while few differences occur between active scree slopes and active rock glaciers: such landforms show similar soil features but different ground surface temperatures (lower on active rock glaciers) and different occurrence of cold-adapted species (more frequent/abundant on active rock glaciers)… The role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species is supported by our data; however, at least in the European Alps, their role in this may be less important than that of debris-covered glaciers, which are able to host cold-adapted species even below the climatic tree line.”

Read more about the role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia here:

Rock glaciers in the European Alps (source: M Barton / Flickr).
Rock glaciers in the European Alps (source: M Barton/Flickr).


Fluid-Ice Structure Interaction of the Drygalski Ice Tongue

From UTAS: “The Drygalski Ice Tongue (DIT) is the largest floating glacier in Antarctica, extending approximately 120km into McMurdo Sound, and exhibits a significant influence upon the prevailing northward current, as the ice draft (measurement of ice thickness below the waterline) of the majority of the DIT is greater than the depth of the observed well-mixed surface layer. This influence is difficult to characterize using conventional methods such as in-situ LADCP (Lowered Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler) measurements, vertically collected profiles or long-term moorings as these are generally relatively spatially sparse datasets. In order to better relate measurements across the entire region of influence of the DIT region, a set of Computational Fluid Dynamics simulations (uses numerical analysis to analyze fluid flows) were conducted using a generalized topography of a mid-span transect of the DIT… Numerical modeling of environmental flows around ice structures advances the knowledge of the fluid dynamics of the system in not only the region surrounding the DIT but also provides a clearer insight into fluid-ice structure interactions and heat flux in the system. This may lead to a better understanding of the long-term fate of floating glaciers.”

Learn more about fluid-ice structure interactions here:

Drygalski ice tonguet (source: cohnveno / Flickr).
Drygalski ice tonguet (source: cohnveno/Flickr).


Flood Early Warning Systems (EWSs) in Bhutan

From ICIMOD: “Bhutan experiences frequent hydrometeorological disasters. In terms of relative exposure to flood risk as a percentage of population, Bhutan ranks fourth highest in the Asia-Pacific region, with 1.7% of its total population exposed to flood risk. It is likely that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of flood disasters in Bhutan. Inequalities in society are often amplified at the times of disaster and people living in poverty, especially women, the elderly, and children, are particularly vulnerable to flood hazards. Timely and reliable flood forecasting and early warnings that consider the needs of both women and men can contribute to saving lives and property. Early warning systems (EWSs) that are people-centered, accurate, timely, and understandable to communities at risk and that recommend the appropriate action to be taken by vulnerable communities can save people more effectively. To improve the understanding of existing early warning systems (EWSs) in the region and their effectiveness, ICIMOD has conducted an assessment of flood EWS in four countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan) from a gendered perspective. The objective is to support the development of timely, reliable, and effective systems that can save lives and livelihoods.”

Read more about flood early warning systems in Bhutan here:

UNDP Bhutan GOLF Thorthormi lake workers (source: UNDP / Flickr).
UNDP Bhutan GOLF Thorthormi lake workers (source: UNDP/Flickr).

The Skagit Eagle Festival

The Bald Eagles of the Skagit River (source: Joshua Johnson/YouTube).

Floating down the Skagit River in Washington state in a small boat in the winter, you will likely spot many bald eagles along your trip. With wings spreading wide, the eagles soar freely in the sky, having recently returned from northern Canada and Alaska to the Skagit River to hunt migrating salmon.

Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).
Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).

The Skagit salmon depend on the glaciers of the Cascade Range to keep the waters of the river healthy and optimal for breeding. With an abundant salmon population, the eagle’s numbers have become so plentiful during the winter season that the region runs a month-long eagle-watching festival and a year-round interpretive center dedicated to the migrating birds.

During eagle-watching season in eastern Skagit County, which begins in January, tourists and birdwatchers arrive from all over the world to track the bald eagles. First started in 1987, the Skagit Eagle Festival is now a popular annual event. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in the small town of Concrete, it features many activities, including local music, floating tours, outdoor walks and educational programs, including a Salmon Run along the river.

Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source Kenneth Kearney Flickr).
Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source: Kenneth Kearney / Flickr).

During this year’s Skagit Eagle Festival, Native American celebrations also took place along the glacier-fed river, which remains very important to the local tribes. The Samish Indian Nation’s cultural outreach coordinator Rosie Cayou-James and native musician Peter Ali teamed up to organize a special “Native Weekend” at Marblemount Community Hall, featuring Native American history, storytelling and more. Local tribal elders and experts made educational presentations and performed native music at the event. Cayou-James, the main organizer of the weekend, told GlacierHub, “The eagle festival is a way to honor the ancestors. I cannot speak for the other tribes, but the Samish feel very connected to eagles and orcas.”

The Skagit River runs from high in the Cascades to Puget Sound, benefiting both the people and animals that live along the river. It provides a habitat for the five major species of Pacific salmon. Consequently, the river has the country’s largest wintering populations of eagles outside of Alaska. But the health of the eagle and fish populations in the Skagit River depends on the health of the glaciers of the region, which are suffering as a result of climate change.

Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James)
Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James).

“Climate change has damaged the natural flow of salmon, which is the main source of survival for resident eagles and orcas,” Cayou-James explained to GlacierHub. Samish history instructs members to protect the proper relationship to the land and its resources, including the Skagit River and surrounding glaciers, by teaching how the natural and spiritual worlds “cannot be separated,” according to the Samish Indian Nation website.

In total, there are around 375 glaciers in the Skagit River watershed, as reported by the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. The glaciers keep the flow of the Skagit River high throughout the summer. In addition, glacier water keeps nearby rivers at low temperatures throughout the year, making them optimal for salmon. The salmon rely on the cool glacier-fed water to survive. Without glaciers, stream temperatures become higher and keep climbing, becoming lethal to adult salmon.

Because glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate change, higher temperatures have increased rates of melting, reducing snow accumulation in the winter and changing the timing and duration of runoff. Worse even, the glaciers of the Cascades have not been able to fully rebuild themselves in the winter through accumulated snowfall. The glaciers of the Cascades have shrunk to half of what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey. In addition, the average winter freezing elevation in the Skagit has risen consistently since 1948, reducing the area which receives the snow that could replenish the glaciers.

An eagle scans the water near Sammish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).
An eagle scans the water near Samish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).

As climate change has put Pacific salmon in a difficult situation, the annual eagle festival and educational programs run by leaders like Cayou-James have become more important. Because of the glacier loss caused by increasing temperature, salmon habitat is dramatically changing. With a decrease of the salmon population, the eagles are also in danger. As more and more people get to know the eagles of the Skagit River through the Skagit Eagle Festival, there is hope that opportunities will arise for the people of the region to come together to combat climate change before it is too late.



Photo Friday: Mount Kailash

Sometimes called “the third pole,” the Tibetan Plateau is a remote and mysterious place with numerous mountains and glaciers. Among the region’s many mountains, the most sacred is Mount Kailash, a holy place for four religions: Bön, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The Tibetan people believe that Gang Rinpoche (Kailash’s Tibetan name) is their spiritual home. Worshiping the mountain and its surrounding lakes is an integral part of their culture. Every year, people travel from around the world on challenging pilgrimage treks to the mountain and its holy sites. Many of them carry out circumambulations, walking around the entire mountain.

Mount Kailash and surrounding peaks are home to many glaciers, including cirques and hanging glaciers, that feed the rivers and lakes of this sacred area. Four rivers, the Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, and Brahmaputra, source within 50 miles of Mount Kailash. A recent book, “The Way to the Sacred Land,” was jointly published by the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB) in Yunnan, China and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. It discusses the traditional cultures and local species of the Kailash sacred landscape. The book emphasizes the importance of the region for providing herbs and other plants that are important elements in traditional medicine.

See images from the book below, along with a bonus image from another source. And you can read more about the traditional culture and its relation to landscape and local species.


Kailash Mansarovar (Source: Praveena Sridhar/Creative Commons).
Mount Kailash near Mansarovar (Source: Praveena Sridhar/Creative Commons).


The major scenic sites in the Kailash sacred landscape are Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Gurla Mandhata and Lake Rakshastal. (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land)
The major scenic sites in the Kailash sacred landscape are Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Mount Gurla Mandhata and Lake Rakshastal. (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land)


Prayer flags at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Prayer flags at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


Pilgrims at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Pilgrims at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


Lake Manasarovar in front of Mount Kailash, Tibet (Source: Torsten Dietrich/Creative Commons).
Lake Manasarovar in front of Mount Kailash, Tibet (Source: Torsten Dietrich/Creative Commons).


The Mt. Gurla Mandhata (source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Mount Gurla Mandhata (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


The Tibetan landscape near Mount Kailash (Source:
The landscape at Surong County in Ngari Preferecture near Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


Delphinium brunooionum (musk larkspur) as seen by pilgrims performing kora (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Delphinium brunonianum growing near a path taken by pilgrims (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


Plants at the Kailash Landscape (source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
Wildflowers and berries of the Kailash region (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).


A pilgrim at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).
A pilgrim at Mount Kailash (Source: The Way to the Sacred Land).

A New Technique to Study Seals Habitats in Alaska

One harbor seal resting on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS)
One harbor seal resting on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS)

There are numerous harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) living in tidewater glacier fjords in Alaska. Harbor seals are covered with short, stiff, bristle-like hair. They reach five to six feet (1.7-1.9 m) in length and weigh up to 300 pounds (140 kg). Tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the marine environment, which then serve as pupping and molting habitat for harbor seals in Alaska. Although tidewater glaciers are naturally dynamic, advancing and retreating in response to local climatic and fjord conditions, most of the ice sheets that feed tidewater glaciers in Alaska are thinning. As a result, many of the tidewater glaciers are retreating. Scientists are studying the glacier ice and distribution of harbor seals to understand how future changes in tidewater glaciers may impact the harbor seals.  Jamie Womble, a marine ecologist based in Alaska, is one of them.

Harbor seals on the glacier ice. (Source: Jammie Womble/NPS)
Harbor seals on the glacier ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS).

As Womble put in her recently published paper in PLOS One, “The availability and spatial distribution of glacier ice in the fjords is likely a key environmental variable that influences the abundance and distribution of selected marine mammals; however, the amount of ice and the fine-scale characteristics of ice in fjords have not been systematically quantified. Given the predicted changes in glacier habitat, there is a need for the development of methods that could be broadly applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords.”

Map of Wombls's study area(source: Robert W. McNabb).
Map of Wombles’s study area (Source: Robert W. McNabb).

To conduct her research, Womble has used a variety of analytical tools including geospatial modeling (GIS), multivariate statistics, and animal movement models to integrate behavioral and diet data with remotely-sensed oceanographic data. Most recently, she has worked with object-based image analysis (OBIA).

“OBIA is a powerful image classification tool. Many people studying forests and urban areas use it,” Anupma Prakash, a colleague of Womble and professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska, told GlacierHub. “In our case, we could not use the satellite images because the satellite images did not have the details we required. We flew our aircraft quite low so we saw a lot of detail and could identify individual icebergs.”

OBIA offers an enhanced ability to quantify the morphological properties of habitat. Satellite imagery, on the other hand, is not a viable method in Alaska as there are few cloud free days.


“We wanted to classify our images into water, iceberg, and brash-ice (small pieces of ice and water all smushed together),” Prakash added. “The color and smoothness of water helped us isolate it. For icebergs the color, shape, and angular nature helped us isolate it, and the rest was bash-ice.” So it is now feasible to quantify fine-scale features of habitats in order to understand the relationships between wildlife and the habitats they use.

Harbor seals on the ice (source: Jamie Womble/NPS).
Harbor seals on the ice (Source: Jamie Womble/NPS).

Thanks to the work of scientists like Womble and Prakash, OBIA can now be applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords. The method can also introduced in other geographic areas, according to professor Prakash.  Now that there is a more advanced method to study the harbor seals in Alaska, the hope is that other researchers will use the OBIA method to make further discoveries about key ocean habitats.

Roundup: Everest, Subglacial Microbiomes, and Tidewater Glaciers

Roundup: Everest, Anaerobes & Fjords


China Tries to Conquer Everest

From Bloomberg: “Earlier this year, China opened a new paved road that winds 14,000 feet up the slope [of Mount Everest] and stops at the base camp parking lot. Plans are in the works to build an international mountaineering center, complete with hotels, restaurants, training facilities, and search-and-rescue services. There will even be a museum… What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps… And if China sticks to it, it may well become the world’s new gateway to the Himalayas.”

Interested in learning more? Read the latest news here.

China opened a new paved road to Mount Everest (source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).
China’s new paved road to Mount Everest (Source: Mudanjiang Regional Forum).


Implications for the Subglacial Microbiome

From Microbial Ecology: “Glaciers have recently been recognized as ecosystems comprised of several distinct habitats: a sunlit and oxygenated glacial surface, glacial ice, and a dark, mostly anoxic [absence of oxygen] glacial bed. Surface meltwaters annually flood the subglacial sediments by means of drainage channels. Glacial surfaces host aquatic microhabitats called cryoconite holes, regarded as ‘hot spots’ of microbial abundance and activity, largely contributing to the meltwaters’ bacterial diversity. This study presents an investigation of cryoconite hole anaerobes [organisms that live without air] and discusses their possible impact on subglacial microbial communities.”

Learn more about this study here.

Photomicrograph of Gram-stained enrichment culture, showing several cell morphotypes (source: Implications for the Subglacial Microbiome).
Photomicrograph of Gram-stained enrichment culture, showing several cell morphotypes (Source: Microbial Ecology).


Analysis of Icebergs in a Tidewater Glacier Fjord

From PLOS ONE: “Tidewater glaciers are glaciers that terminate in and calve icebergs into the ocean. In addition to the influence that tidewater glaciers have on physical and chemical oceanography, floating icebergs serve as habitat for marine animals such as harbor seals. The availability and spatial distribution of glacier ice in the fjords is likely a key environmental variable that influences the abundance and distribution of selected marine mammals… Given the predicted changes in glacier habitat, there is a need for the development of methods that could be broadly applied to quantify changes in available ice habitat in tidewater glacier fjords. We present a case study to describe a novel method that uses object-based image analysis (OBIA) to classify floating glacier ice in a tidewater glacier fjord from high-resolution aerial digital imagery.”

Read more about this study here.

Map of Johns Hopkins Inlet study area (source: Quantification and Analysis of Icebergs in a Tidewater Glacier Fjord Using an Object-Based Approach).
Map of Johns Hopkins Inlet study area (Source: PLOS ONE).

Rediscovering Julius von Haast, Pioneer of Glaciology

In the history of glaciology, New Zealand’s German-born Julius von Haast ranks as an influential but otherwise little-known pioneer. In the 19th century, Haast’s scientific explorations led him to glacier-rich areas across New Zealand where he gave names to landforms, including the well-known Franz Josef, Hooker, and Mueller Glaciers on the West Coast’s South Island. A recent report by Sascha Nolden for the Canterbury Museum strives to recognize the overlooked life and legacy of Haast, who to this day continues to influence glacier researchers around the world.

Julius von Haast (Source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
Julius von Haast (Source: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand).

“Famous? No, Julius is not famous, even today,” said Joerg Schaefer, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, to GlacierHub. “But he was indeed a great explorer and glacier geologist in New Zealand. He was not only a fellow citizen of mine, but one of my heroes.”

Haast has served as a role model for modern-day scientists like Schaefer, with his work paving the way for future scientific research. “Our team has worked in New Zealand for 15 years following in Haast’s footsteps,” said Schaefer.

By scrutinizing archival material such as manuscripts, letters, photographs and sketches held in the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Nolden carefully rediscovered Haast’s biography, documenting Haast’s notable research, exploration, institution-building and collegial cooperation that continues to influence today’s scientists.

“Haast was one of the leading New Zealand scientists of the second half of the nineteenth century,” writes Nolden, research librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, in his report. “He was a remarkable individual noted for his stamina and perseverance in the face of obstacles, ranging from the mountain wilderness to the tangles of provincial bureaucracy.”

Born in 1822 in Bonn, Germany, Haast first studied geology and mineralogy at the University of the Rhine, although he never graduated. He later spent time in the high mountains of New Zealand in the 1860s, visiting the region’s glaciers and making original watercolor sketches of the mountains. His sketches and maps have been useful to glaciologists as they attempt to date various landforms.

It was during Haast’s explorations in New Zealand that he began to give names to glaciers, creating what he called a “Pantheon” of landforms named for prominent individuals from leading scholars to emperors, according to chief paleontologist Charles Alexander Fleming. In addition, his studies of the effects of past glaciation became the basis for later works on glacier geology.

Painting of the Southern Alps from the Godley river bed, by John Gully, from a sketch by Johann Franz Julius von Haast (Source: the Alexander Turnbull Library)
Painting of the Southern Alps by John Gully, from a sketch by Julius von Haast (Source: The Alexander Turnbull Library).

In 1862, Haast specifically surveyed the geology of the Canterbury district and visited its glaciers. His mapping and mountaineering expeditions of Mueller Glacier, for example, became a valuable first-hand resource to Thomas Lowell et al.’s research on the Rhizocarpon calibration curve (an application tool to assess Little Ice Age glacier behavior) for the Aoraki/Mount Cook area.

In his report, Nolden references 165 of Haast’s drawings from South Island surveys from 1860 to 1868 that can be found in the Haast archives. Other panoramic watercolors of the Southern Alps and map sketches of the glacier geology of New Zealand are in private collections such as in the Hochstetter Collection Basel. In addition to these works, Haast published one book of his research, entitled “Geology of the Provinces of Canterbury and Westland, New Zealand: A Report Comprising the Results of Official Explorations” (Haast 1879). Other useful, unpublished manuscripts written by Haast have also been located and preserved.

Interestingly, despite these archives, little is known about Haast’s early life. Almost everything written about him concerns what he did after arriving to New Zealand, a fact that is often frustrating to historians. The most complete source of Haast to date is a biography written by his son, Heinrich von Haast.

“For the biographer, Haast is a difficult subject,” writes Nolden in his report. “Relatively little is known about him for the period prior to his arrival in Auckland on 21 December 1858, and this is in no small part due to the subject’s own contribution to myths and misinformation.” Knowing about Haast’s upbringing, education, work, family and friends before he came to New Zealand might be helpful in explaining what drove him to accomplish so much during his lifetime.

Julius Haast, ‘From Spur about 6500 above sea level, leading to Mt Cook, over the Great Tasman Glacier & the Murchison Glacier.’ (Source: Dr Albert Schedl Collection, Vienna).
A sketch by Julius Haast of the Mt Cook area, over the Great Tasman Glacier & the Murchison Glacier (Source: Dr Albert Schedl Collection, Vienna).

Colin Burrows, a New Zealand plant ecology educator and professor at University of Canterbury, was one scientist who studied Haast’s explorations in New Zealand, especially the Southern Alps. His book, “Julius Haast in the Southern Alps,” published in 2005, retraces Haast’s exploratory journeys in the mountains and examines his theories of glaciation. But according to Nolden, much of what has been written and repeated about the life of Haast prior to his arrival in New Zealand has been largely based on conjecture.

“Haast’s efforts to forge a new identity for himself and escape his past have become more fully apparent with the present research,” writes Nolden in his report. “Haast was prepared to change both his identity and allegiances whenever it seemed to serve his purposes – to leave behind his past and build a better future for himself.”

What is clear about Haast is that he spent his life exploring, studying and innovating. Although he is not widely known today, his contributions to glaciology became the basis of modern glacier studies. Haast’s efforts reveal how the work of one scientist can pave the way for subsequent generations of scientists. Thanks to the recent efforts of the Canterbury Museum and historian Sascha Nolden, we now have a better understanding of the historic contributions of one of glacier geology’s early pioneers.

Twin Glacier Avalanches Stun Tibet and Baffle Glaciologists

Early on July 17, 2016, the Aru Range of Tibet experienced a massive, unexpected glacier avalanche that propelled ice and rock down into the surrounding valley. The glacier collapse of roughly 60-70 million cubic meters killed nine herders and hundreds of animals within 40 square kilometers. Controversy remains among glaciologists about what caused the avalanche in July.

Over 300 rescuers looked for the missing herders after the first avalanche (Source: Xinhuashe).
Over 300 rescuers looked for the missing herders after the first avalanche (Source: Xinhuashe).

According to the record, in the months prior to the avalanche, temperatures in western Tibet, west of the Aru Co Lake, had been normal, with an ordinary amount of rainfall. Equally perplexing was the fact that the part of the glacier that collapsed sat on fairly flat terrain.

There has only been one other region, Kolka/Karmadon in the Russian Caucasus, where similar events have occurred, according to a publication by the scientific commission GAPHAZ. In the article by GAPHAZ, researchers from the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences (IACS) and the International Permafrost Association (IPA) report that the last Kolka/Karmadon event occurred on September 20, 2002 and “led to a rock and ice avalanche of 120 million cubic meters in volume, killing more than 100 people.”

Within a short period of time, two adjacent glaciers in Tibet caused two giant ice avalanches(Source: Silvan Leinss / ETH Zurich).
Within a short period of time, two adjacent glaciers in Tibet caused two giant ice avalanches (Source: Silvan Leinss/ETH Zurich).

Whats even stranger about the Tibet avalanche is that on September 20, only two months after the first avalanche, a second massive glacier avalanche occurred just 4.8 kilometers to the south of the first collapse. According to Wanqin Guo, an associate professor at CAREERI (Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research) in China and an expert in avalanches, the glacier slide totaled an area of 6.4 square kilometers. The Tibetan Armed Police Force conducted the rescue for the second avalanche, but the casualty count remains unknown.

Guo talked to GlacierHub about what he believes caused the rare glacier avalanches in the region, explaining: “As the remote sensing shows, the avalanche that happened in July was mainly caused by glacier surges. The glacier had been moving slowly since 2013. It significantly accelerated moving in May 2016.” The second avalanche that happened in September was also suspected to be caused by a surge from the same glacier.

Satellites images of the twin avalanches (Source: NASA).
Satellites images of the twin avalanches (Source: NASA).

“Because the first avalanche generated a concussion wave (a shock wave or type of propagating disturbance), it stimulated the southern glacier,” Guo explained. “Though it is hard to predict avalanches, there were clues detected by scientists and warnings.” But, unfortunately, says Guo, the warnings for the glacier collapse came too late, only several hours before the second avalanche struck the region.

“This is very unusual,” added Jeffrey Kargel, a senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, who spoke to GlacierHub about the twin avalanches. “The cause is still not known,” he said.

To date, there are multiple opposing viewpoints about the source of the avalanches among scholars, causing controversy within the scientific community. Guo, for example, believes the two massive avalanches are linked to climate change. “No matter what kind of glacier surges happen, there is always the effect of the meltwater inside of or at the bed of the glaciers,” Guo told GlacierHub. “Climate change caused the melt of the Tibet glacier, consequently causing more melt water to smooth the glacier. This meant the glacier was able to surge further at a higher speed. Without climate change, the glacier surges could happen but would not cause such massive avalanches.”

An SLF RAMMS avalanche simulation (Source: GAPHAZ).
An SLF RAMMS avalanche simulation (Source: GAPHAZ).

One speculation is that a geothermal anomaly is involved. But researchers studying the avalanches don’t see eye to eye. Kargel disagrees with Guo’s assessment: “If it is correct, it may explain why two neighboring glaciers experienced the same thing, but it would also make it less likely that this will happen elsewhere any time soon,” he explained to GlacierHub.

Another possibility, according to Kargel, is that seasonal meltwater (originating at the surface) worked its way down to the bed. But this is also not a very satisfactory explanation.

“Why are there just two glaciers? If this is the correct explanation, then other glaciers may experience something similar in coming summers,” said Kargel.

For now, everything is as Kargel put it to GlacierHub: “Honestly, it is a mystery.”

Photo Friday: Antarctic Glaciers Monitored by NASA

As the world’s fifth largest continent, Antarctica provides a unique record of the Earth’s past climate through its geomorphological record of glacier moraines. Antarctic glaciers terminate on land or in the sea as either floating ice shelves or grounded or floating outlet glaciers. As such, numerous climate scientists are conducting research about the ice shelf and glacier landforms in the southernmost continent to detect melting.

Specifically, a group of scientists with NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission have been doing field research over the Getz Ice Shelf in West Antarctica to collect data to monitor changes in polar ice and glaciers. The leading scientist, Nathan Kurtz, believes that Getz and glaciers in Antarctica are experiencing some of the highest basal melt rates in the world.

Take a look at some photos that demonstrate glacial melt in West Antarctica:

Getz crevasses (Source: Jeremy Harbeck/NASA)
Getz crevasses (Source: Jeremy Harbeck/NASA).


Evidence of a break along the front edge of Getz Ice Shelf, Antartica (Source: Margie Turrin/Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory).
Evidence of a break along the front edge of Getz Ice Shelf, Antartica (Source: Margie Turrin/Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory).


Glaciers on mountains in Marie Byrd Land above Getz Ice Shelf (source:NASA)
Glaciers on mountains in Marie Byrd Land above Getz Ice Shelf (Source: NASA).


Tidewater glacier on Antarctic coast (source: Jason Auch/Flickr)
A tidewater glacier on the Antarctic coast (Source: Jason Auch/Creative Commons).


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
A large crack leading to an Antarctica glacier (Source: Jean de Pomereu/Creative Commons).

How Mendenhall Glacier Teaches About Climate Change

Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Cameron Cowles).

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska is a memorable experience for about 575,000 visitors each year. A top attraction, the glacier stretches 13 miles across the Juneau Ice Field, terminating on the far side of Mendenhall Lake. Surrounded by 38 other glacial remnants of the last ice age, it remains one of the most visited and visible of Alaska’s glaciers.

A trip to Mendenhall offers the opportunity to hike on top of a glacier, drink from a cool stream and talk with other tourists from around the world. Visitors may also interact in the deglaciated landscape with plants, wildlife and birds on one of the trails leading through the Mendenhall Valley and the Tongass National Forest. Most importantly, visitors can witness firsthand the glacial retreat that has visibly altered the Alaskan landscape. U.S. Forest Service Rangers have learned to tell Mendenhall’s tale, a story about the effects of climate change and consequences of a warming planet.

John Neary is telling stories to the tourists (Source: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
John Neary is telling stories about the glacier to tourists (Source: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO).

A visit to Mendenhall comes with an upsetting observation: glaciers in Alaska are retreating at an alarming rate. The Mendenhall Glacier has receded more than a mile and a half in the last half century, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Unfortunately, glacial retreat will only likely continue due to our warming planet, impacting tourism and the surrounding ecosystem. Animals such as the mountain goat, black bear, porcupine, bald eagle, and beaver, as well as countless plants that grow in the area, will all be affected. That is why the staff of the U.S. Forest Service and John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, are using the Mendenhall Glacier to educate visitors about climate change.

“In 1982, the glacier was just another glacier because I didn’t have the experience of watching it disappear over time,” John Neary explained to GlacierHub. “Now that I have watched it quickly shrink, I’m alarmed and feel it should be used to demonstrate how our world is dramatically changing.”

For his part, Neary relies on his own experience with the glacier when talking to visitors about climate change. He tells them about the time he was out hiking on a steep trail beside the glacier and his dog fell 90 feet onto the ice. When Visitor Center was opened in 1962 it was just a quarter mile from the glacial face. In 1982, when he first saw it, the face had retreated another half mile. Most recently, he has been watching the glacier retreat further, leaving the lake that it had once reached.

Neary works with a team of 25 Forest Service staff to explain these effects to the tourists every day. At the visitor center, visitors can learn about Mendenhall’s glacial retreat through art exhibits, a 15-minute film, and guided walks. With a window facing the glacier, the rangers talk regularly about the effects of climate change.

“We describe the mechanics of glaciation, the value of glaciers and the worrisome scale of their disappearance,” says Neary. “But we hope to do much more with this subject in the future.”

Ice Cave Exploration at Mendenhall (S‎ource: Adam DiPietro)‎
Ice cave exploration at Mendenhall (S‎ource: Adam DiPietro)‎.

The glacial retreat of Mendenhall can be easily observed by visitors in photographs at the visitor center or witnessed by repelling deep into the ice caves that are formed when the glacier melts and erodes. Adam DiPietro, a tourist who was exploring one of the ice caves at Mendenhall, described the experience to GlacierHub: “My friend and I discovered the moulin [hole] a couple of weeks ago and came back with gear to descend into it. We repelled 70′ to the bottom and crawled through a small hole at the base…The cave is not continuous yet, but someday it will be since the glacier keeps retreating.”

According to Neary, most visitors he encounters acknowledge climate change, but not all. Some attribute the glacier’s shrinking to a “natural cycle,” not one accelerated by greenhouse gases. “It’s hard to judge how many doubters we are changing because people tend to be very set in their beliefs,” he says. “But we feel we are introducing them to different ways of thinking about the climate and the effects.”

Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Jack Froese).
Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Jack Froese).

This involves promoting and demonstrating sustainability like low-carbon electric transit and renewable energy. “We want to communicate an irresistibly positive vision about what can be achieved when a community has the will to be more sustainable,” says Neary. “We hope to do it in ways that people love. In fact, our slogan is ‘Love Your Glacier.'”

As director of the visitor center, Neary has supported the restoration of a historic hydropower project and the development of a sustainable building that uses clean energy and produces little waste. This would allow the Forest Service to be energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Exploration of the site by foot, paddle, cycle or by non-motorized boats is also being promoted where appropriate. The goal, according to Neary, is to connect people to nature through their direct experience with practical, sustainable solutions to everyday challenges. Neary’s efforts have paid off: the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center has gained national attention because of its use in climate change education for tourists and fellows.

A group of Norway cruise delegates visited the center and learned a lot from it (Source: John Neary)
A group of Norwegian officials studying sustainable tourism visit Mendenhall (Source: John Neary).

Neary seized on the opportunity to awaken a global audience to the relationship between carbon emitting devices and shrinking glaciers. The climate change perspective of the visitor center is unique, with the center standing in front of a rapidly deteriorating glacier that sends a compelling message about global changes and our responsibility to consider sustainable lifestyles.

“Glaciers are rapidly disappearing from around the globe and people want to see them, to walk on them, to touch them while they still can,” says Neary. “Alaska remains a beautiful and safe destination, but we suspect there may be more driving this interest in glaciers and wildlife. It’s possibly what some have called ‘Last Chance Tourism,’ which is when people want to ‘see it before it’s gone.'”

Mendenhall Glacier Juneau Alaska (Source: Takaki Yamamoto)
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (Source: Takaki Yamamoto).

Neary’s job is not an easy one, but he never stops making the effort to convince visitors that climate change is real and that we can all take action to address its effects. He attempts to convince visitors to alter their lifestyles to help fight off global warming.  It may seem scary to some people to give up cars and oil heaters, but Neary, for one, believes Mendenhall proves that the sacrifice is well worth it.

Roundup: Tragedy in Antarctica, Antimony and Glacier Risks

Roundup: Tragedy, Antimony and Risk


Prominent Climate Scientist Dies in Antarctica

New York Times: “Gordon Hamilton, a prominent climate scientist who studied glaciers and their impact on sea levels in a warming climate, died in Antarctica when the snowmobile he was riding plunged into a 100-foot-deep crevasse. He was an associate research professor in the glaciology group at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. He was camping with his research team on what is known as the Shear Zone, where two ice shelves meet in an expanse three miles wide and 125 miles long. Parts of the Shear Zone can be up to 650 feet thick and ‘intensely crevassed.’ Dr. Hamilton’s research, aided by a pair of robots equipped with ground-penetrating radar instruments, focused on the impact of a warming climate on sea levels. He was working with an operations team to identify crevasses.”

Learn more about the tragedy here.

Professor Gordon Hamilton (Source: University of Maine).


Antimony Found in the Tibetan Glacial Snow

Journal of Asian Earth Sciences: “Antimony (Sb) is a ubiquitous element in the environment that is potentially toxic at very low concentrations. In this study, surface snow/ice and snowpit samples were collected from four glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau in June 2015… The average Sb concentration in the study area was comparable to that recorded in a Mt. Everest ice core and higher than that in Arctic and Antarctic snow/ice but much lower than that in Tien Shan and Alps ice cores… Backward trajectories revealed that the air mass arriving at the southeastern Tibetan Plateau mostly originated from the Bay of Bengal and the South Asia in June. Thus, pollutants from the South Asia could play an important role in Sb deposition in the studied region. The released Sb from glacier meltwater in the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas might pose a risk to the livelihoods and well-being of those in downstream regions.”

Read more about the research here.

Location map showing the sampling glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. The red dots represent the location of the four investigated glaciers, and the size represents the average concentrations of Sb in the separate glacier.
Location map showing glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Elsevier Ltd).


Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in Peru

The Climate Change Adaption Strategies: A recently edited book, “The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies – An Upstream – Downstream Perspective,” edited by Nadine Salzmann et al., has several chapters on glaciers. The chapter “Managing Glacier Related Risks Disaster in the Chucchún Catchment, Cordillera Blanca, Peru” discusses some of these glacier related risks: “Glacial lakes hazards have been a constant factor in the population of the Cordillera Blanca due their potential to generate glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) caused by climate change. In response, the Glaciares Project has been carried out to implement three strategies to reduce risks in the Chucchún catchment through: (1) Knowledge generation, (2) building technical and institutional capacities, and (3) the institutionalization of risk management. As a result, both the authorities and the population have improved their resilience to respond to the occurrence of GLOF.”

Explore more related chapters here.

Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat. Diagrams performed over aerial photographs from the National Aerial Photography Service Peru (left) and Google Earth (right) (Source: Randy Muñoz)
Evolution of the Lake 513 from 1962 to 2002 due to glacial retreat (Source: The Climate Change Adaptation Strategies).

Ion Concentrations Are Growing in Himalayan Lakes

The Group Photo of the Whole Team Taken in Himalaya ( Source: Dr. Salerno)
A group photo of the research team taken in the Himalayas (Source: Franco Salerno).

Dr. Franco Salerno and a team of Italian researchers conducted long-term field work in the Himalayan area, discovering a dramatic increase of ionic concentrations in glacial lakes. This increase may lead to some large and irreversible environmental effects, according to Salerno et al. A report detailing their findings was published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology in July.

Over the past two decades, Dr. Salerno and his team have observed a significant rise in ionic content in a total of 20 remote high-altitude glacial lakes located in central southern Himalaya. When asked by GlacierHub about why his team conducted their research in the Himalayan region, Dr. Salerno said, “The Italians have a long experience and passion for the high mountains. The culture and the capacity to climb is probably born around the Alps, and also drove us to study the Himalayan glaciers.”

The group had to overcome many difficulties to perform their research including low temperatures, language barriers, and even snowblindness. But thanks to help from the local people, they managed to finish their research. The scientists also received support from the Ev-K2-CNR Association and the Italian National Research Council (CNR) to conduct studies in the Hindu Kush – Karakorum – Himalaya region and the countries of Nepal, Pakistan, China (Tibetan Autonomous Region) and India.

Dr. Salerno and his team are doing field research (Source: Dr. Salerno).
Dr. Franco Salerno and his team conducting field research (Source: Franco Salerno).

Among their findings, the team detected a substantial rise of in-lake chemistry determined mainly by the sulfate concentration. LCN9, one of the 20 lakes monitored on an annual basis for the last 20 years, was found to have sulfate concentrations that increased by over 4-fold over that time period. In this region, the researchers also observed a significant relationship between the increase in the annual temperature recorded in the area and the enhanced conductivity in two glacial lakes.

After examining several factors, including temperature, precipitation, rocks and soil weathering processes, and seasonal snow cover duration, they concluded that glacier retreat likely was the main factor responsible for the observed increase of sulfate concentrations. Moreover, the weakened monsoon of the past two decades has partially contributed to the lakes’ enrichment through runoff waters that are concentrated in solutes and by lowering the water table, resulting in more rock exposed to air and enhanced mineral oxidation.

Scientists record daily data (Source: Dr. Salerno).
Scientists record daily data (Source: Franco Salerno).

The higher mineral contents have not threatened the ecosystems, but high mountain ecosystems can be especially vulnerable to climate change. The change may lead to some negative outcomes not yet foreseen. Research in other areas including the Florida Everglades, California Limekiln Creek and Vestfold Hills have shown the negative impacts of increased sulfate concentrations on lake ecosystems. By the same token, a notable increase of ionic concentrations may lead to irreversible changes to the fragile local ecosystem, biodiversity in the lakes or even human health.

As Dr. Salerno commented, “We think that the glacier masses in this region are decreasing as coupled effect of the global warming and the weakness of the monsoon. Even if these changes do not pose a direct and immediate threat to the ecosystem, they occurred in a limited time span and significantly modified the average chemical composition of lake water, which will cause some potential changes in the future.”