Video of the Week: Time-Lapse Video Shows Fluid Nature of the Cryosphere

A time-lapse video tweeted by NASA Earth captures decades of movement in our planet’s cryosphere. Glaciologist and University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member, Mark Fahnestock appears in the video, describing the changes and the significance of the data. According to Fahnestock, the images taken from space are a product of the Landsat Program, a joint NASA/USGS program, which uses satellites to create a record of Earth’s landscape. Landsat, whose first iteration launched in 1972, is the longest ongoing space-based record of its kind.

The nearly five-minute video provides a glimpse of the land record from Landsat. The time-lapse footage has a frenetic feel to it as the satellite imagery improves with each generation of technology. It shows decades of change in ice cover on glaciers, including the Alsek, Columbia, and Taku Glaciers. Fahnestock noted the changes seen in the Hubbard and Malaspina Glaciers in particular. He draws attention to the time-lapse video of the Hubbard Glacier, in which the glacier can be seen spreading into a neighboring river moving trees, other material, and altering the environment. Fahnestock calls the Malaspina Glacier a “large puddle of ice” and describes how the time-lapse of this glacier helped him understand the looping patterns in moraines, or materials deposited by a moving glacier.

He credits remote sensing with expanding the field of observation glaciology. Fahnestock explains that these time-lapse videos have given glaciologists a better understanding of changes in ice cover. Landsat has provided them with a long record of changes, which allows researchers to recognize long-term trends in ice cover fluctuations and separate the trends from shorter periods of warm or cold years. Satellite observations of glaciers are mentioned in the IPCC’s latest output, Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, which further stresses the significance of this kind of data.

Landsat image of the Taku Glacier, 2019 (Source: NASA/ Landsat Image Gallery )

According to Fahnestock, these time-lapse videos provide a historical record of how quickly glaciers are melting or in some cases, where glaciers are thickening. These changes in ice cover are visible in the video by NASA Earth, even to the untrained eye. Fahnestock addresses criticism he has received from other researchers––that he watches the videos too quickly. He says, “I like to see the fluid nature of the ice. It lets you see the ice on the land as sort of this very active participant in what’s going on.”

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Photo Friday: Province in Turkey Hit by Multiple Avalanches

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Photo Friday: Province in Turkey Hit by Multiple Avalanches

Turkey’s Van Province suffered a series of devastating natural disasters this week, with two avalanches occurring within 24 hours of each other. The avalanches were triggered in the same area near a highway outside of the town of Bahcesaray. The first avalanche struck on Tuesday and the second followed on Wednesday. The Turkish Natural Disaster and Crisis Directorate announced on Thursday that the death toll had climbed to 41 with nearly 100 others injured.

Following the first avalanche, hundreds of rescue workers responded to the scene. As a result, many of the victims of the avalanches were rescuers attempting to aid those first buried by the snow. As of Thursday, emergency workers were continuing to search for their colleagues. However, snow, fog, and windy conditions delayed their efforts. According to Turkey’s interior ministry, at least 30 rescuers had been pulled from or escaped from under the snow and have since been hospitalized for their injuries.

The mountain on which the avalanches occurred is Hasanbesir Tepesi, which has an elevation of 3,497 meters (11,473 feet). The road that was buried is one of the highest in the country and in all of Europe. Known as a dangerous route to travel, it is often closed due to inclement weather.

The Van Province lies on the eastern edge of Turkey, sharing a border with Iran. The region is mountainous and home to nearly 23 square kilometers of glaciers. Hasanbesir Tepesi, the mountain where the avalanches took place, also hosts a number of glaciers.

Van Province highlighted on a map of Turkey (Source: Wiki Commons/ Florenco~commonswiki)

According to the latest IPCC report, glaciers around the world have declined as a result of climate change, which has increased dangers from natural hazards. Retreating glaciers and thawing permafrost leave mountain slopes unstable and weaken infrastructure. Due to this instability, increases in the number of avalanches involving wet snow during winter months are projected. Mountainous regions are home to 10 percent of the world’s population. As Earth’s climate continues to warm it is likely that disastrous avalanches, like those seen in Turkey, will continue to impact mountain communities.

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Tracing the Reach of An Interdisciplinary Antarctic Study

Tracing the Reach of An Interdisciplinary Antarctic Study

A study published in 2018 in the journal Science Advances, has had far-reaching influence in the fields of oceanology and glaciology. The findings are the first to provide evidence that there is currently an ongoing positive feedback loop between the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The research has been cited more than 20 times across a variety of fields and received significant media attention. 

The article originated from a chapter of the lead author Alessandro Silvano’s PhD dissertation, which sought to document that the Totten Glacier in Antarctica was melting rapidly. The data collected for Silvano’s dissertation was the first collected in front of this glacier in Antarctica. In addition to identifying the melting of the Totten Glacier, Silvano discovered the feedback loop between the ocean and Antarctic Ice Sheet occurring in this region. 

Image of the Totten Glacier in Antarctica (Source: NASA )

Silvano explained to GlacierHub, the temperature of the ocean is above freezing, as saltwater freezes at a temperature below 0° C. As the Totten Glacier flows into the ocean, the temperature of the water causes the ice to melt from below, injecting freshwater into the Southern Ocean. The freshwater remains at the ocean’s surface, preventing deep convection and the formation of dense shelf water and Antarctic bottom water. This freshwater isolates the bottom layer of warm water that reaches the continental shelf and keeps it from interacting with the atmosphere. Therefore, the water retains its heat, which contributes to further melting. Preventing the formation of dense shelf water and Antarctic bottom water alters ocean circulation patterns with far-reaching effects. 

Map showing the loss of surface height of glaciers in East Antarctica (Source: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

Silvano’s article received significant press coverage at the time of publication, gaining media attention in both The Guardian and The Washington Post. According to Silvano, there is a growing focus on the interactions between oceanology and glaciology. His article sought to bridge the gap between the two fields. 

The research also inspired and supported other, similar studies. Since the publication of his article in April 2018, Silvano says there have been papers published that have tried to represent the feedback loop between the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic Ice Sheet using simulations. He said other researchers are organizing new campaigns to reach other parts of Antarctica to see whether similar interactions are occurring in other areas of the continent.

His study has had quite the impact on the oceanology and glaciology fields, having been cited in 22 articles, by researchers around the world. One such researcher is David Porter, whose study  was published in June 2019. The study employed autonomous profilers to collect data from the bottom to the surface of the ocean in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Porter’s team found that the surface of the ocean continued to freshen after all the sea ice had melted. This freshening seemed to be the result of ice melt occurring in the nearby Amundsen Sea. These findings show a similar feedback between the ocean and sea ice to that discovered by Silvano’s team. As Porter put it to GlacierHub, the Silvano paper “shows that the feature we see in the Ross Sea is not unique to this region and likely somewhere, changes are happening all around the Antarctic coastline.”

Photo of Porter’s team in Antarctica (Source: David Porter)

Porter also concluded that the buildup of heat that occurs in the surface waters around Antarctica in summer is needed for the stability of ice shelves. This area of research might seem geographically specific, but it has wide-ranging implications for Earth’s ocean and atmospheric systems. Porter detailed the significance of his work to GlacierHub, “Much of the action in the Southern Ocean happens below the sea surface and therefore is invisible to satellite sensors.” He said using the autonomous profiling floats allows for more detailed measurements of ocean water parameters, which provide researchers with a better understanding of the interactions among the ice, ocean and atmosphere. 

Porter’s team deploying Autonomous Micro Observer A1-XB profilers (Source: David Porter)

Silvano’s findings are “quite significant,” according to Porter, who was “surprised at the magnitude of the impact that ice shelf melt can have on convection processes in these regions, which is a significant part of the global ocean thermohaline circulation.” The thermohaline circulation describes the deep-water currents that power the global conveyor belt. The global system of currents that comprise the global conveyor belt help drive the ocean nutrient and carbon dioxide cycles. These cycles support the growth of algae and seaweed, which comprise the base of the world’s food chain. Any disruption to this system is likely to have global consequences. 

Image taken by Porter’s team off the coast of Antarctica (Source: David Porter)

Porter also noted that the Silvano study emphasized the need to continue to record observations and study these processes occurring in Antarctica. He believes his and Silvano’s studies highlight the urgency of Earth’s changing climate. “It seems to me that each new observation of Antarctic ice and the Southern Ocean reveals just how quickly it’s changing, improving our understanding about how change there affects other components of the climate system, having global consequences for society and the natural world.”

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Photo Friday: Glacier Hugging is the New Tree Hugging

You’ve most likely heard the term “tree hugger.” Maybe you even identify as one.  Brian Brettschneider, a research associate academic at the International Arctic Research Center, may have started a new trend––glacier hugging. On a recent visit to Portage Glacier in Chugach National Forest in Alaska, Brettschneider was photographed literally hugging a glacier.

The image was captured by wildlife photographer Don Moore and posted to Brettschneider’s personal Twitter feed with the joke “Old school: tree hugger, New school: glacier hugger.” The tree hugger moniker has long been used to describe hippies, or those who are more environmentally conscious. Brettschneider, however, may have just created a new term for the climate conscious.

Image of the Portage Glacier captured by Don Moore (Source: Don Moore)

Chugach National Forest is the United States’ most northern and westerly national forest. Mountains and glaciers dominate the landscape with 30 percent of the forest covered by ice. Portage Valley contains Portage Glacier, which once spanned the full 14 miles of the deglaciated valley. Portage Glacier has advanced and retreated with climate fluctuations over the millenia. Today, the glacier is significantly shorter than the valley that once contained it and it terminates at a glacial lake. Other glaciers that remain within the forest include the Explorer, Middle, Byron, Burns, and Shakespeare glaciers.

Image of the Portage Glacier captured by Don Moore and posted to his Twitter feed (Source: Don Moore)

Approximately 500,000 people visit Chugach National Forest each year, engaging in fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, and other outdoor sports and activities. Spanning 5.4 million acres, the forest boasts plenty of opportunities for recreation. The National Forest Service highlights the Portage Glacier and Portage Valley as among places to go when visiting Chugach National Forest. Two hiking trails venture past the Portage Glacier, including the Portage Pass Trail and the Williwaw Nature Trail.

Although Brettschneider makes glacier hugging look easy and fun, glaciers are known to be at times unstable and dangerous––probably best to keep glacier hugging metaphorical. Follow Brian Brettschneider and Dan Moore on Twitter for more pictures of Alaska’s beautiful, natural environment and for general knowledge of climate change.

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New Insights into Bergfilm and Contemporary Environmentalism

A study published in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies last fall considers the contributions of the Bergfilm– or “mountain film” — to historical views of nature and environment. The films examined in this article were released in inter-war Germany, at a time when the Nazis were growing in power. The article “Moving Mountains: Glacial Contingency and Modernity in the Bergfilm,” is a key chapter from Alex Bush’s PhD dissertation, which examines how various forms of media have altered how society has viewed nature over time. 

Bush found the Bergfilm a particularly compelling moment in cinema due to the genre’s popularity in the 1930s. The two movies discussed in this paper, Stürme über dem Montblanc (Avalanche, 1930) and SOS Eisberg (SOS Iceberg, 1933) were released during inter-war Germany. They drew large audiences and were considered tremendously successful films. Both Avalanche and SOS Iceberg were directed by Arnold Fanck, a geologist and filmmaker. One centers on a weather-station attendant on Mont Blanc and the other, a glaciologist trapped on a glacier in the Greenland ice sheet. When the two films were released, film critics and theorists described them as antimodernist, a philosophy similar to the pro-fascist agenda that was promoted during this period. 

Arnold Fanck, German cinematographer and director (Source: Wiki Commons/Deutsches Filminstitut)

Fanck was thought to be a fanatic film director who sought to portray nature as realistically as possible. He often insisted on shooting in extreme conditions. When filming SOS Iceberg, Fanck and his crew had to hire two glaciologists to receive access to filming locations, because the Danish government would only grant permits to scientific expeditions. Fanck’s filming techniques resulted in movies with powerful visual effects and an emphasis on the sublime. This emphasis on the natural environment is evident in the camera panning across long mountain ranges and footage of freshly-calved icebergs. As a director, Fanck sought to capture the magnificence of nature. 

Greenland ice sheet, the second largest mass of ice in the world (Source: Wiki Commons/European Space Agency)
Arnold Fanck on the filming expedition for SOS Iceberg (Source: Wiki Commons/Wereldnieuws)

Although Fanck did not join the Nazi party until 1940, 7 years after it came to power, his Bergfilms are politically ambiguous and links can be drawn between them and pro-fascist ideologies. Nazi ideology emphasized the purity of the Aryan race, which could be directly linked to the purity and conservation of the German homeland. As Bush described it to GlacierHub, the “health of the body is the health of the land.” Fanck’s films sought to show the health of the land, displaying the picturesque German landscape and the need for its preservation. Bush explained that German Jews viewed Fanck’s romanticized films as a “brutal exploitation of the mythic aspect of nature.” However, she believed Fanck’s motivation for the Bergfilm was not political. Fanck was a scientist and an artist, and as such, Bush thought his films were produced from a pure love of art and the environment. Despite Bush’s view that Fanck’s films were not overtly political, Leni Riefenstahl, who starred in most of Fanck’s major films, became Hitler’s main propagandist. Riefenstahl started out as an actress before transitioning to directing films such as “Triumph of the Will,” an infamous Nazi propaganda piece. 

Leni Riefenstahl and Heinrich Himmler filming Triumph of the Will, 1934 (Source: Wiki Commons/German Federal Archive)

Bush recognizes the importance of addressing the Bergfilm’s contribution to Nazi cinema, however, she stressed it should not eclipse its participation in environmental history.  Counter to the characterization of the films when they were released, Bush viewed the films as modern and influential to more contemporary views of the environment. These films discuss themes of gender roles, technology, and the German environment. Technology is a prominent feature in both Avalanche and SOS Iceberg. The main characters in each film conduct scientific research and communicate long distances using Morse code. The plot of Avalanche centers around a meteorologist living atop Mont Blanc, who gets caught in an Avalanche and must be rescued by his love interest. The lead character in SOS Iceberg is a glaciologist trapped on a Glacier in the Greenland ice sheet after a calving event. The prominent use of technology in these films and the focus on science directly opposes the original anti-modern interpretation of the films. In Avalanche, the love interest is characterized by her bobbed hair style, pants, outdoor wear, and comfort with technology. These characteristics would have been considered very modern for the time, especially when paired with the storyline where the heroine saves the weather station attendant from a winter storm. The characteristics of the female love interest are in stark contrast to the Nazi party’s efforts to keep women in traditional roles. 

Leni Riefenstahl and Arnold Fanck with cameramen on the set of Avalanche (Source: Wiki Commons/Miraculamundi

The different themes addressed in Avalanche and SOS Iceberg support Bush’s research into modernity in the Bergfilm and their roles in environmentalism. The use of technology, the emphasis on science, and the portrayal of women are obviously evidence of a progressive-minded director. The question is, however, how these modern themes influenced environmental attitudes over time.

Bush’s dissertation sought to identify the difference between how society views the struggle between people and nature from the first half of the 20th century to today. In her article published about the Bergfilm, Bush uses the glacier to make this comparison between past and present. She noted the glacier is an interesting subject when looking at how environmental cinema has shaped society’s views of nature because of the cultural role of glaciers and their scale. At the time of Fanck’s films, the natural world was a popular setting for movies. The time scale at which glaciers are studied also ranges from the shorter human scale to a long-term geological time scale. To capture the changing landscape, Fanck was known to use time-lapse photography, a painstaking method in the 1930’s, such as in his film, Der Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny, 1924). Additionally, one of the glaciologists Fanck hired during the making of SOS Iceberg used time-lapse film to try and capture the movement of a glacier. Bush says this has perhaps helped shift the human view of natural environments from being eternal to exhaustible. Today, people are much more conscious of a changing environment and the importance of preserving natural resources.

Cameramen at Trient Glacier on Mont Blanc filming Avalanche (Source: Wiki Commons/Miraculamundi)

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bush also described the underlying desire in Fanck’s work to dominate and master nature. In Avalanche and SOS Iceberg, the two main characters are at the mercy of their environments. Here, Fanck’s work again differs from Nazi ideology, which emphasized the immense power of the German people and their party. In Avalanche, the weather station attendant nearly dies in a winter storm and in SOS Iceberg, the glaciologist spends the film trapped by sea ice. “There is a bigness and force to environment,” Bush said. “At the end of the day, nature is always going to win.” As Bush noted, today, humans in some ways have mastered nature, harnessing the environment’s energy and power. Although, she concedes the environment is still not completely under our control. Humans produce environmental consequences that ripple throughout ecosystems. Studying the Bergfilm allows researchers to ponder how views of nature have changed and how they have remained the same. 

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Photo Friday: Twitter Feed Showcases Canadian Glacier Paintings

The Twitter profile Canadian Paintings (@CanadaPaintings) offers a wide variety of paintings from the past and current centuries. The feed showcases new and old Canadian artists, their works ranging from over 100 years old to pieces made just a few years ago. Though a few of the works are abstract, most are representational, including portraits, landscapes, and scenes of daily life. Among the many landscape paintings highlighted here are paintings of glaciers and mountain environments. These include a painting of the Kaskawulsh Glacier in Kluane National Park, Yukon by Toni Onley from 1995. This painting plays with light, using mostly bright colors. It differs from the painting Glacier Above Moraine Lake, by Arthur Lismer, created in 1928. Lismer’s image uses darker colors and harsher, thicker lines than those seen in Onley’s painting.

By publishing works from many different artists, Canadian Paintings highlights different painting styles. The artists range in style and each provide a wide array of subjects and distinct perspectives of Canadian life. The Northern Lights are shown in a painting by Tom Thompson from 1915. Thompson’s piece is visually very different from a painting of Bow River and Castle Mt., by Alan Collier. The depiction of the Northern Lights was painted with harsher brushstrokes and less attention to detail than the undated piece by Collier, which has a more realistic feel.  

The landscape paintings reproduced on this Twitter feed include many depictions of snow and ice. These themes accurately represent a nation set in the north and characterized by long, hard winters. The artists reveal Canada’s natural beauty including snow dusted mountains and riverbanks. Among those that illustrate glacial environments is a painting by René Richard in 1954 titled Columbian Ice Fields. Ice fields are expansive forms of ice that collect in regions of high elevation and drain into small outlet glaciers.

The range of images from different places and times throughout Canadian history reveal a culture strongly tied to the natural world. The tagline on the Twitter feed indicates this deep appreciation for Canada’s natural environment. The tagline is simply a quote from Canadian artist Lawren Harris, “Above all, we loved this country and loved exploring and painting it.”  Follow Canadian Paintings for a beautiful glimpse into Canadian life and landscape.

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IMD Marked with Event at United Nations Headquarters

International Mountain Day, which took place on 11 December, emphasized the importance of mountains, which are home to 15 percent of the world’s population, in addition to countless plant and animal species. The UN headquarters in New York hosted a special event marking International Mountain Day this year. The event drew attention to particularly vulnerable ecosystems that play a critical role in populations across the globe. In 2002, the United Nations (UN) declared the year the UN International Year of Mountains. International Mountain Day has been celebrated on December 11 each year since.

International Mountain Day at the UN headquarters (Source: GlacierHub\Elza Bouhassira)

Over one billion people live in mountainous areas, which cover 27 percent of the planet. However, a much larger percentage of the world’s population depends on resources provided by mountain ecosystems. Half of the world’s population relies on freshwater from mountain sources. Agriculture plays a major role in mountain economies, with foodstocks––including potatoes, maize, tomatoes, sorghum, apples, and barley––originating in mountainous regions. Mountain communities in developing countries have high percentages of vulnerability to food insecurity. About 53 percent of all rural mountain populations are vulnerable to food insecurity.

Mountain ecosystems are also particularly vulnerable to the threat of climate change. According to the recent IPCC special report, The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, climate change has altered high mountain areas in recent decades. Changes to mountain ecosystems include declines in snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and variations in the amount and seasonality of runoff. Altering these environments endangers those who live on and near mountains. People are exposed to a greater risk of exposure to natural hazards and reduced freshwater availability.

The event was organized by the Permanent Mission of Kyrgyzstan to the UN with support from members of the Group of Friends of Mountain Countries and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN. Permanent representatives from numerous countries were involved in the event, with keynote statements from representatives of Norway, Canada, Bhutan, Nepal, among others.

Organizers of the International Mountain Day event, including H.E. Ms. Mirgul Moldoisaeva, Permanent Representative of the Kyrgyz Republic to the UN (Source: GlacierHub\Elza Bouhassira)

The theme of this year’s celebration was “Mountains Matter for Youth”. This year’s theme was highly emphasized with many speakers stressing the need to retain youth and increase economic and social opportunities for young people in mountainous areas. Retention of youth was a topic covered by all who provided keynote statements. Permanent representatives detailed the importance of mountains for those living both on and near them, the need for job creation, improved technology, and access to services and education. They detailed progress their countries were making to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They also described the problems faced by those living in mountainous areas within their countries, including high rates of unemployment, changing landscapes, isolation, and lack of technology.

The managing editor of Glacier Hub, Ben Orlove, spoke at the UN event and two of GlacierHub’s student writers attended. Speaking on a panel during which he highlighted key messages of the 2019 ICCP special report, Orlove, one of the lead authors of the report, urged UN ambassadors to submit guiding questions for the next IPCC report. He warned that even if nations were to simultaneously and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world would still lose approximately 20 percent of its glaciers. Orlove additionally commented on the role of youth in mountainous regions, describing mountain cultures, economies, and ecosystems. He discussed specific cases of mountain societies that are already being impacted by the outmigration of youth. To take one example, irrigation systems in the Karakoram in Pakistan are beginning to fail, because the elderly people who remain do not have the strength to rebuild damaged canals, and, as a result, the agricultural areas are declining. He stressed the importance of retaining youth in these regions to act as agents of sustainable development. He delivered the powerful message that “mountains are not just money in your bank account, but are important to who we are and how we live.”

Ben Orlove, managing editor of GlacierHub speaks at the International Mountain Day event at the UN (Source: GlacierHub\Elza Bouhassira)

Other panelists involved in the discussion included Satya Tripathi, the head of the UNEP New York office and Samuel Elzinga, President of Utah International Mountain Forum at Utah Valley University. Both Tripathi and Elzinga spoke about mountain communities and their role in culture and the environment. Elzinga described the impacts of Utah International Mountain Forum on his college campus. He said the organization has helped engage students, presented hands-on learning experiences, and taught students about sustainable development. At twenty-years old, Elzinga noted that youth are concerned about climate change, mountainous regions, and sustainable development. He ended his speech by asking the UN permanent representatives to keep young people involved in climate change and sustainable development discussions and to give them a seat at the table.

Samuel Elzinga, President of UIMF at the International Mountain Day event at the UN (Source: GlacierHub\Elza Bouhassira)

Tripathi focused his speech largely on issues related to climate change. He detailed the meltdown of the Arctic ecosystem, and the need for sustainable finance. During his impassioned speech Tripathi spoke with a sense of urgency, saying humanity is in denial about climate change. He noted that countries continue to invest in fossil fuels, but mountain ecosystems will pay the price. Tripathi stressed that billions to trillions of dollars of funding are needed to protect ecosystems and implement green solutions. With a look of disappointment, he ended by saying “it is within our power to change things and we don’t.” Tripathi’s speech was not so much a condemnation, but instead a call to action and reminder to the representatives in the room why they were present for the International Mountain Day event.

Mona Juul, the Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN summarized the event succinctly in her keynote statement. She said they were present that day to “learn about different ways of living in harmony with, and in, the mountains, the importance of taking care of nature, and the important role of youth and sustainable development goals.” The future is tenuous for youth living in mountainous regions. Climate action is urgently needed and today’s youth continue to pave the way towards sustainability.

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Photo Friday: Bushfires in Australia Blanket New Zealand Glaciers in Soot

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Photo Friday: Bushfires in Australia Blanket New Zealand Glaciers in Soot

Bushfires raging in Australia have taken their toll on New Zealand’s glaciers. Smoke and dust from the fires drifted across the Tasman Sea and settled on glaciers in New Zealand more than 1,300 miles away. Ash covering glaciers in New Zealand is visible in photos published to Twitter. In the images, the snow and ice appears as a pinkish color.

Australia has experienced a severe bushfire season, with multiple lives lost, homes destroyed, and over one million hectares of land burned. The smoke and dust-laden glaciers of New Zealand are representative of the second-order effects of the bushfires in Australia.

The distance the smoke and ash have traveled and the extent to which they have blanketed glaciers in New Zealand speaks to the severity of the Australian bushfires. This coating of smoke and ash poses a significant threat to New Zealand’s glaciers. It settles as black carbon, which darken glaciers’ snow and ice, absorbing heat and contributing to increased rates of melting and extending the melt season.

Glaciers are not only an integral component of mountain ecosystems in New Zealand, but they are major draw for tourists visiting the island. Glacier retreat in New Zealand is reshaping the country’s tourism industry. In October, GlacierHub covered the growing concern over melting glaciers in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand.

The pink hue of New Zealand’s glaciers is not only a grim reminder of the devastating fires burning in Australia, but also makes visceral the threat of melting glaciers. Unfortunately, as Australian bushfires continue to blaze, New Zealand and its glaciers may continue to experience residual effects.

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Proglacial Freshwaters Found to be Carbon Sinks

Researchers in Canada have discovered that proglacial freshwaters are important carbon sinks. Glacier retreat has often been considered a negative consequence of climate change, but this finding suggests there may be benefits as well.  

The study published on September 3 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted in Nunavut, Canada, home to Lake Hazen, the world’s largest Arctic lake. Lake Hazen is fed by rivers, which flow from glaciers within the Northern Ellesmere Icefield. The icefield is located on Ellesmere Island, the world’s tenth largest island. Ellesmere Island is home to polar bears, muskoxen, caribou, and most interestingly, thirteen species of spiders.

Ellesmere Island, Northern Canada (Source: Wiki Commons/NASA/MODIS Rapid Response System)

The results of the study revealed that glacier-fed rivers consume more carbon dioxide than they release into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide concentrations of all seven glacial rivers sampled were found to be below atmospheric equilibrium at all but one sample site. This result indicates that the rivers are storing carbon from the atmosphere.

Kyra St Pierre is a research associate at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia, and lead author of the study. “Glacier-fed rivers differ quite substantially from other rivers because they’re very cold, are located in landscapes without a lot of plant material (i.e., organic carbon), but with a lot of finely ground sediments created by the successive cycles of glacier advance and retreat,” St Pierre told GlacierHub. “Because the landscapes lack things that would otherwise constrain the flow of a river, like trees or well-developed soils, glacier-fed rivers reorganize themselves regularly and in so doing, entrain a lot of finely ground sediment in the rivers.” It is because of these unique characteristics of proglacial rivers and the chemical weathering process associated with them that they can act as carbon sinks.

Researchers collected water samples from Lake Hazen and seven glacial rivers within the Lake Hazen watershed. With these samples, researchers measured changes in river chemistry and carbon dioxide fluxes during the summers of 2015 and 2016. Samples were collected in summer when glaciers were melting rapidly.

Kyra St Pierre conducts field work on the Blister River (Source: Kyra St Pierre)
Jessica Serbu collects water samples downstream from the Gilman Glacier (Source: Kyra St Pierre)

The researchers discovered that the weathering process initiated reactions between minerals within the sediment. The process that dominated in the sampled rivers was one that consumed carbon dioxide. Researchers noted that carbon dioxide concentrations decreased with distance from the glaciers, while dissolved inorganic carbon concentrations increased. Dissolved inorganic carbon is a main component of inland waters and influences organic productivity.

“The concentration of carbon dioxide within the rivers declines as these reactions proceed,” St Pierre said. “The difference between the carbon dioxide concentration in the waters (low carbon dioxide) and the atmosphere (high carbon dioxide) increases, such that more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere moves into the rivers and is then consumed. Chemical substances will always try to move from areas of high concentrations to areas of low concentration in an attempt to find a ‘“balance’” or equilibrium.”

St Pierre also told GlacierHub that most rivers across the globe are sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is released through photosynthesis and decomposition of aquatic plants. For this reason, the discovery of proglacial freshwaters as carbon sinks was initially a surprise to researchers.

Gilman Glacier and its associated proglacial river, Ellesmere Island (Source: Kyra St Pierre)

Researcher Martin Sharp first proposed the idea of proglacial freshwater carbon sinks in an article in 1995. Sharp was a member of the research team and co-authored the journal article with St Pierre. St Pierre and her colleagues have worked in the Lake Hazen watershed for nearly 15 years. They were inspired to develop this study when they began testing water quality parameters of the glacier-fed rivers connected to Lake Hazen. It was by testing the river water temperature and chemical composition, that they first noticed that carbon dioxide concentrations were not what they expected.

Before their study, carbon dioxide concentrations had not been directly measured within glacier-fed systems, making this study ground-breaking. However, there is evidence from related research that supports the findings of this study. Data from study sites in Greenland, Svalbard, central Europe, and western Canada suggest carbon dioxide consumption by proglacial freshwaters is not isolated to the Lake Hazen watershed, but might also be relevant in other regions of the globe. St Pierre said, “In the past, we’ve always thought of freshwater systems as being sources of CO2 to the atmosphere, but these findings suggest that there’s a lot more nuance that needs to be accounted for.”

This research is somewhat of a conundrum for climate scientists. Carbon is a major driver of global climate change and carbon sequestration is viewed as significant for climate mitigation. However, the environmental benefits of glacier-fed rivers consuming more carbon dioxide than they emit to the atmosphere come at the cost of melting glaciers. Climate change and melting glaciers result in sea level rise and change the temperature and salinity of oceans. Ultimately, more research must be done to fully weigh the positive and negative effects of this process.

A river flows from Henrietta Nesmith Glacier, Ellesmere Island (Source: Kyra St Pierre)

Carbon cycling between proglacial freshwaters and the atmosphere also influences aquatic ecosystems. Sediments transported by glacial rivers are an important contribution to freshwater and marine ecosystems. St Pierre explained, “In lake environments, these sediment-laden rivers can also form turbidity currents, which transport lots of sediment and terrestrial materials, but also waters with low concentrations of carbon dioxide and high concentrations of oxygen directly to the bottom of the lake. Lake bottoms typically have low oxygen and high carbon dioxide concentrations, so this is an important downstream impact for organisms at the bottoms of glacial melt-affected lakes.”

There is much more to learn about proglacial freshwater carbon sinks and this study is just the beginning for this research subject. St Pierre’s colleagues from the University of Alberta are continuing this work with a study that began in the summer of 2019 that will examine proglacial rivers and lakes in Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. 

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Photo Friday: GIF Shows Dramatic Reduction of Gergeti Glacier

One of the largest glaciers in the Tergi River basin in Georgia is retreating drastically and there’s a GIF to prove it. This month, Levan Tielidze, a senior research scientist at the Institute of Geography at Tbilisi State University and Ph.D. student at Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, created a 3D map depicting the retreat of the Gergeti Glacier from 1882 to the present. This 3D map, or GIF, is the first of its kind from the Georgian Caucasus.


The Gergeti Glacier lies within Kazbegi National Park in the Georgian Caucasus. Here, glaciers play a vital role in the ecology and economy of the region. They provide a freshwater source that feed rivers in the area. This water from glaciers is essential to river ecology, particularly during the summer months when rivers have lower flows. Without this source of water, the region would be left drier and more vulnerable to wildfires. Glacier retreat is also a threat to local economies. Tourism is important to the area, as glaciers within the National Park draw thousands of visitors annually. If the number of visitors declined significantly, it would result in economic consequences. Consequences that would ripple throughout the economy, beginning with those whose livelihoods depend on tourism.

Tielidze explained to GlacierHub how he developed the 3D map stating, “I used old topographical maps and satellite imagery to measure the perimeters of the glacier. The animation data shows that the Gergeti Glacier has been strongly reduced in the area since 1882.” According to Tielidze, this glacier lost 42 percent of its area between 1882 and 2019 with its front retreating nearly 3 km.

The GIF created by Tielidze opens with an early image of the Gergeti Glacier followed by four other snapshots from the last six decades. As can be seen in the GIF, the size of the glacier in 1882 is drastically different from its size today. This visualization shows the severity of glacier retreat in the Georgian Caucasus over the last 137 years. Tielidze also used his research to associate climate change with temperature trends in the period 1907-2009. His results suggest that rising temperatures have enhanced glacier retreat in the Georgian Caucasus, like that of the Gergeti Glacier.

Georgia contains 700 glaciers, all of which are affected by climate change. Tielidze warned that “if the increase of the temperature and decrease in the surface area of glaciers in the eastern Greater Caucasus continues over the 21st century, many will disappear by 2100.”

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Tongass National Forest, Threatened by Increased Logging

Tongass National Forest, Threatened by Increased Logging

Considered a treasure of the United States, national forests draw millions of visitors each year. Today, one of the United States’ 154 national forests has become a subject of significant controversy due to a recent proposal made by the Trump administration. This proposal recommends expanding logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. In a state known for its vast, untouched wilderness, this proposal has been met with fierce opposition. Environmental awareness has been on the rise in recent decades and many view this proposal as a step in the opposite direction.

Spanning 500 miles, Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States and contains the world’s largest temperate rainforest. It features mountains, glaciers, old-growth forest, salmon streams and is home to bears, wolves, eagles, and people. Indigenous groups have inhabited the Tongass for over 10,000 years. Approximately 70,000 people live in the Tongass National Forest today. Included in this figure, is the population of Juneau, which is situated within the Forests’ bounds. As surprising as it may sound, the Tongass is not just pristine wilderness, but contains towns and logging areas as well. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 8 percent of land in the Tongass is currently developed. However, that may soon change. 

Juneau, Alaska (Source: Flickr/Andrei Taranchenko)

Forest management in the U.S. has a long history, beginning in 1876, with the creation of an office of Special Agent, within the USDA, to assess forest conditions across the country. The creation of this office was followed by the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 which allowed the President to create forest reserves. Finally, in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was created within the USDA, transferring the responsibility of the forest reserves from the Department of the Interior. 

A comparatively recent measure, the 2001 Roadless Rule, has further protected 58.5 million acres of land within the National Forest System. This rule protects National Forest System lands from development by road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting. The Trump Administration’s new proposal would exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule, releasing millions of acres of the Forest from its protection. The proposal, supported by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, is being publicized as beneficial to the state’s economy.

This October, the USDA published a draft environmental impact statement concerning increased logging in the Tongass. The statement, prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act, outlines various scenarios of logging in the Tongass. The six options detailed in the environmental impact statement vary from no change to the complete removal of the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule. The preferred alternative would remove 9.2 million acres of land from the protection of the 2001 Roadless Rule and would convert 165,000 acres of old-growth forest and 20,000 acres of young-growth forest from unsuitable timber lands to lands suitable for logging.

Reconstruction of a logging road in the Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/
Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA

This proposal to increase logging in the Tongass National Forest has been met with opposition from environmentalist and indigenous groups. An image from a rally supporting the continuation of the 2001 Roadless Rule greets you on the main page of the Southeast Alaska Conservation website. An entire section of the group’s website is dedicated to “Attacks on the Tongass” and posts urge you to submit a comment to the National Forest Service. Similarly, Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network International (WECAN) and Earthjustice are involved in the Tongass activism. The two groups helped bring together the WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation, which traveled to Washington D.C. in March of this year to protest the logging proposal.

Several indigenous groups live near the Tongass and have deep ties to the land, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Tribes. According to local activists involved with the WECAN Indigenous Women’s Tongass Delegation, increased logging will threaten native culture. The delegation strives to preserve their way of life for future generations. Both indigenous and conservation groups fear the impacts increased logging will have on the natural environment within the Tongass. 

Much uncertainty lies in how increased deforestation and development could affect ecosystems, impact water resources, or affect recreation in the Tongass. Freshwater sources in the Tongass provide drinking water and hydroelectric power to surrounding communities. These aquatic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to land use changes, as they depend on glacier flow, snowmelt, and forest health. Fishing in Southeast Alaska is a source of food, recreation, and income. Rivers within the Tongass are kept clean and cool by large trees, creating conditions that sustain an abundance of spawning salmon. However, increased logging in the Tongass may threaten river conditions and salmon populations.

Brown bear catches salmon, Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/brewbooks)
Sockeye Salmon in Steep Creek, Tongass National Forest
(Source: Flickr/ Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)
Historical dam on Nugget Creek in Tongass National Forest, Source: Flickr/ Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)

According to Jason Amundson, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Southeast, glaciers in the Tongass, like all glaciers across the globe, are melting rapidly. Loss of glaciers would disturb the flow of cool water from snow melt to rivers and streams. This disruption, coupled with increased logging may have significant impacts on rivers and fish populations within the Tongass.

Dr. Amundson believes public opinion of the proposal is mainly negative in Juneau, Alaska. This opposition stems from salmon fishermen and others who want to preserve Alaska’s natural resources. Dr. Amundson explained that the state of Alaska is very resource dependent and different groups can have conflicting uses for these resources. Resource development appeals to some, as it provides jobs, however, others argue development damages the natural environment, which is the main draw for tourists to the state.

Dr. Amundson emphasized the uncertainty of repercussions from increased logging. He believes it to be unlikely that increased logging would have significant impacts on glaciers in the Tongass. Although, he speculated that changes to the landscape could result in changes in temperature, producing local effects on glaciers. Dr. Amundson explained that across the globe, glaciers are generally situated on more barren lands and not in close proximity to forests. Glaciers within the Tongass National Forest differ in this way, as they are located near forested areas. For this reason, increased logging in the Tongass may have a significant impact on the Forest’s glaciers. However, Dr. Amundson stressed that there is not enough research on the topic to accurately draw conclusions.

Dr. Amundson visits the Tongass to perform research on the Forest’s glaciers and for recreational purposes. While the proposal does not directly threaten his research on glaciers in the Tongass, he believes it could impact recreation. He thinks increased logging in the Tongass may impact visitor experience for those who come from out of state.

Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest national forest in the U.S. A controversial proposal would open 9.2 million acres of the Forest to logging.
Kayaking with Mendenhall Glacier in background, Tongass National Forest (Source: Flickr/Joseph)

While there is currently no evidence linking increased logging with damage to glaciers in the Tongass, altering the landscape can influence climate change. Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon and reducing carbon absorbed by the atmosphere. As a massive temperate rainforest, the Tongass is one of the world’s major carbon sinks. If logging increases, this carbon sink could disappear, which would result in an acceleration of global climate change and impact glaciers in the Tongass and all over the world.

Mendenhall Glacier, Tongass National Forest, (Source: Flickr/Pat W. Sanders)

The implications of exempting the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule are unclear. This uncertainty has heightened fear and distrust of this proposal, particularly because local culture and the Southeast Alaskan economy depend on the Tongass. Seafood harvests, cultural ties and energy production are just several ways Alaskans depend on the National Forest. The Our Forests Are Alaska campaign stresses this connection between communities in Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest. 

Tongass National Forest Staff in Sitka’s Alaska Day Parade (Source: Flickr/Forest Service Alaska Region, USDA)

The Secretary of Agriculture is expected to make a decision regarding the future of the Tongass National Forest in the 2001 Roadless Rule by June 2020. The National Forest Service has scheduled public meetings and the USDA has opened the draft environmental impact statement to the submission of public comments. If you would like to add your voice to the debate, you have until December 17, 2019 at midnight to submit a comment.

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Video of the Week: High Mountain Summit Addresses Changes to Mountain Ecosystems

Video of the Week: High Mountain Summit Addresses Changes to Mountain Ecosystems

Last week the High Mountain Summit, established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), convened in Geneva, Switzerland. WMO, an agency within the United Nations (UN) organized the conference to address changes to high mountain ecosystems as a result of rising global temperatures. WMO released a short video detailing the environmental changes occurring in high mountain regions and the importance of adapting to these changes.

Global climate change is threatening high mountain ecosystems, endangering wildlife and human populations alike. Approximately half of the world’s population relies on freshwater sourced from mountain ecosystems. Although, changes to seasonal runoff threatens this freshwater source. Retreating glaciers and changes to precipitation patterns increase the risk of flooding and avalanches. Flooding, avalanches, and lack of available freshwater impact human health and safety as well as local economies.

The UN General Assembly Resolution on Sustainable Mountain Development recognized the seriousness of threats from changing mountain ecosystems, warning they could have severe effects. The resolution states, “despite the progress that has been made in promoting sustainable development of mountain regions and conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, the prevalence of poverty, food insecurity, social exclusion, environmental degradation and exposure to the risk of disasters is still high.” In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the population of people living in mountain regions increased between 2000 and 2012 and the number of people in mountain communities in developing countries vulnerable to food insecurity jumped by 30%.

The High Mountain Summit was organized to increase dialogue, connect decision makers, local stakeholders, draw links between policy and science, and create a science-based action plan for addressing changes to high mountain ecosystems. According to the High Mountain Summit website, the main concerns dealt with at the summit included environmental changes in high mountain cryosphere, effects of these changes on both ecosystems and communities downstream, and water resource availability.

The High Mountain Summit came on the heels of the publication of the most recent IPCC report. In September, the IPCC released the “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate”, which included an entire chapter devoted specifically to high mountain regions. The issue of global temperature changes and their impacts on high mountain ecosystems appears to be a growing concern for both governmental organizations and individual communities. A GlacierHub article published last month addressed effects of the melting Chiatibo Glacier on the nearby village of Bumburet in Pakistan. Situated in the Hindu Kush mountain range, Bumburet has experienced devastating flooding and landslides, threatening the community’s way of life.

Visibility of issues related to changing mountain environments will likely increase as concerns continue to grow. The next conference to look out for will be the UN Climate Change Conference, which is being held at IFEMA-Feria de Madrid in Madrid, Spain from the 2nd to the 13th of December, 2019.

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