Characterizing the Relation Between Interannual Streamflow Variability and Glacier Cover
A new study confirmed the theory that streamflow variability is dependent on relative glacier cover. From the abstract: “Meltwater from glaciers is not only a stable source of water but also affects downstream streamflow dynamics. One of these dynamics is the interannual variability of streamflow. Glaciers can moderate streamflow variability because the runoff in the glacierized part, driven by temperature, correlates negatively with the runoff in the non‐glacierized part of a catchment, driven by precipitation, thereby counterbalancing each other. This is also called the glacier compensation effect (GCE), and the effect is assumed to depend on relative glacier cover. Previous studies found a convex relationship between streamflow variability and glacier cover of different glacierized catchments, with lowest streamflow variability at a certain optimum glacier cover. In this study, we aim to revisit these previously found curves to find out if a universal relationship between interannual streamflow variability and glacier cover exists, which could potentially be used in a space‐for‐time substitution analysis.”
In a new paper published November 28, 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers has outlined how smoke from fires in the Amazon in 2010 made glaciers in the Andes melt more quickly.
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. At least 18 people have died, over 1,000 homes destroyed, millions of livestock lost, and over 15 million acres of land has 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.
The smoke from the fires rose high into the atmosphere and could be seen from space. Some regions of Brazil became covered in thick smoke that closed airports and darkened city skies.
As the rainforest burns, it releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and larger particles of so-called “black carbon” (smoke and soot). The phrase “enormous amounts” hardly does the numbers justice – in any given year, the burning of forests and grasslands in South America emits a whopping 800,000 tonnes (880,000 U.S. tons) of black carbon into the atmosphere.
This truly astounding amount is almost double the black carbon produced by all combined energy use in Europe over 12 months. Not only does this absurd amount of smoke cause health issues and contribute to global warming but, as a growing number of scientific studies are showing, it also more directly contributes to the melting of glaciers.
In a new paper published November 28, 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers has outlined how smoke from fires in the Amazon in 2010 made glaciers in the Andes melt more quickly.
When fires in the Amazon emit black carbon during the peak burning season (August to October), winds carry these clouds of smoke to Andean glaciers, which can sit higher than 3 miles (5,000 meters) above sea level.
Despite being invisible to the naked eye, black carbon particles affect the ability of the snow to reflect incoming sunlight, a phenomenon known as albedo. Similar to how a dark-colored car will heat up more quickly in direct sunlight when compared with a light-colored one, glaciers covered by black carbon particles will absorb more heat, and thus melt faster.
By using a computer simulation of how particles move through the atmosphere, known as HYSPLIT, the team was able to show that smoke plumes from the Amazon are carried by winds to the Andes, where they fall as an invisible mist across glaciers. Altogether, they found that fires in the Amazon in 2010 caused a 4.5% increase in water runoff from Zongo Glacier in Bolivia.
Crucially, the authors also found that the effect of black carbon depends on the amount of dust covering a glacier – if the amount of dust is higher, then the glacier will already be absorbing most of the heat that might have been absorbed by the black carbon. Land clearing is one of the reasons that dust levels over South America doubled during the 20th century.
The tropical belt of South America is predicted to become more dry and arid as the climate changes. A drier climate means more dust, and more fires. It also means more droughts, which make towns more reliant on glaciers for water.
Unfortunately, as the above study shows, the fires assisted by dry conditions help to make these vital sources of water vanish more quickly. The role of black carbon in glacier melting is an exceedingly complex process – currently, the climate models used to predict the future melting of glaciers in the Andes do not incorporate black carbon. As the authors of this new study show, this is likely causing the rate of glacial melt to be underestimated in many current assessments.
With communities reliant on glaciers for water, and these same glaciers likely to melt faster as the climate warms, work examining complex forces like black carbon and albedo changes is needed more now than ever before.
Investigating the impact of glacier melt on tourism
From the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism:
“Aoraki Mount Cook National Park in the New Zealand Southern Alps attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. However, this iconic alpine destination is changing due to rapid glacial recession. To explore the implications of environmental change on visitor experience, this study adopted a mixed-methods approach, combining geophysical measurement with visitor surveys (n = 400) and semi-structured interviews with key informants (n = 12) to explore the implications of environmental change on visitor experience. We found the key drawcard to the park is Aoraki the mountain, with the glaciers playing a secondary role. Visitors had a strong awareness of climate change, but somewhat ironically, one of the key adaptive strategies to maintaining mountain access has been an increase in the use of aircraft. Opportunities exist for a strengthening of geo-interpretation in the park that not only educates but also encourages people towards more sustainable life choices.”
“Jeff Malpasʼ concept of place as a bounded, open, and emergent structure is used in this article to understand the reasons for the differences in villagersʼ responses to ‘artificial glaciers’, or ‘Ice stupas’, built in two different places in the Himalayan village of Phyang, in Ladakh. Using archival material, geographic information system tools and ethnographic research, this study reveals how Phyang as a village is constituted by interacting ecological-technical, socio-symbolic, and bureaucratic-legal boundaries. It is observed that technologies such as land revenue records, and cadastral maps, introduced in previous processes of imperialist state formation, continue to inform water politics in this Himalayan region. It is further demonstrated how this politics is framed within the village of Phyang, but also shifts its boundaries to create the physical, discursive, and symbolic space necessary for projects like the Ice stupa to emerge. By examining the conflict through the lens of place, it is possible to identify the competing discursive frames employed by different stakeholders to legitimise their own projects for developing the arid area (or Thang) where the contested Ice stupa is located. Such an analysis allows critical water scholarship to understand both how places allow hydrosocial relationships to emerge, and how competing representations of place portray these relationships. Understanding the role of place in the constitution of hydrosocial relationships allows for a more nuanced appraisal of the challenges and opportunities inherent in negotiating development interventions aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. It is also recommended that scholars studying primarily the institutional dimensions of community-managed resource regimes consider the impact on these institutions of technological artefacts such as the high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes used to construct the Ice stupas.”
From Geomorphology: “Ahora Gorge is a 400 m deep canyon located along the North Eastern flank of Mt. Ararat (Turkey), a compound volcanic complex covered by an ice cap. In the past, several diarists and scientific authors reported a calamitous event on July 2, 1840, when a landslide triggered by a volcanic eruption and/or an earthquake obliterated several villages located at the foot of the volcano. The reasons and effects of this Ahora Gorge Catastrophe (AGC) event have been obscure and ambiguous. To reappraise the 1840 catastrophe and the geomorphic evolution of the Ahora Gorge, we used high-resolution satellite images, remote sensing thermal data supplemented by observations collected during two field surveys.”
Albedo Effect in the Swiss Alps
From The Cryosphere: “Albedo feedback is an important driver of glacier melt over bare-ice surfaces. Light-absorbing impurities strongly enhance glacier melt rates but their abundance, composition and variations in space and time are subject to considerable uncertainties and ongoing scientific debates. In this study, we assess the temporal evolution of shortwave broadband albedo derived from 15 end-of-summer Landsat scenes for the bare-ice areas of 39 large glaciers in the western and southern Swiss Alps. […] Although a darkening of glacier ice was found to be present over only a limited region, we emphasize that due to the recent and projected growth of bare-ice areas and prolongation of the ablation season in the region, the albedo feedback will considerably enhance the rate of glacier mass loss in the Swiss Alps in the near future.”
Glacier Meltwater Impacts in Greenland
From Marine Ecology Progress Series: “Arctic benthic ecosystems are expected to experience strong modifications in the dynamics of primary producers and/or benthic-pelagic coupling under climate change. However, lack of knowledge about the influence of physical constraints (e.g. ice-melting associated gradients) on organic matter sources, quality, and transfers in systems such as fjords can impede predictions of the evolution of benthic-pelagic coupling in response to global warming. Here, sources and quality of particulate organic matter (POM) and sedimentary organic matter (SOM) were characterized along an inner-outer gradient in a High Arctic fjord (Young Sound, NE Greenland) exposed to extreme seasonal and physical constraints (ice-melting associated gradients). The influence of the seasonal variability of food sources on 2 dominant filter-feeding bivalves (Astarte moerchi and Mya truncata) was also investigated. Results revealed the critical impact of long sea ice/snow cover conditions prevailing in Young Sound corresponding to a period of extremely poor and degraded POM and SOM.”
Project BlackIce Examines Microbes and Glacial Albedo
From Project BlackIce: “Algae can protect themselves before damaging UV-radiation by darker pigmentation which results in a darkening of the surface which is increasing the availability of liquid water, hence again the growth of microbial communities. This biologically induced impact on albedo is called ‘bioalbedo’ which has never been taken into account in climate models. So far we have most information on bioalbedo on arctic glaciers which is quite a shame that literally nothing is known about alpine glaciers. The aim of this interdisciplinary study is a quantification and qualification of organic and inorganic particles on an alpine glacier (Jamtalferner).”
From Schütz & Füreder: “Glacially influenced alpine streams are characterized by year-round harsh environmental conditions. Only a few, highly adapted benthic insects, mainly chironomid larvae (genus Diamesa) live in these extreme conditions. Although several studies have shown patterns in ecosystem structure and function in alpine streams, cause–effect relationships of abiotic components on aquatic insects’ life strategies are still unknown. Sampling was performed at Schlatenbach, a river draining the Schlatenkees (Hohe Tauern NP, Austria)… This is the first study to show that harsh conditions in these environments (low temperatures, high turbidity and flow dynamics) may exclude many taxa, but favor other, highly adapted species, when their essential needs (food quality and quantity) are guaranteed.”
From Nature: “In this article, I estimated net glacial melt volumes on the river-basin scale from long-term precipitation and temperature records (1951–2007), taking into account the various mass contributions from avalanching, sublimation, snow drifting and so on… I estimated the second meltwater component (the additional contribution from glacier losses) as −0.35 to −0.40 metres water-equivalent per decade based on a global compilation of long-term mass-balance observations (from table 2 in ref. 32 of the Article). In this table, losses are described as ‘decadal averages (millimetres water equivalent)’ but the units are actually intended to be decadally averaged annual values. Hence, the loss components of total meltwater that I used in my calculations are too small and the summed meltwater volumes reported here should be larger. Asia’s glaciers are thus regionally a more important buffer against drought than I first stated, strengthening some of the conclusions of this study but also altering others. I am therefore retracting this article.”
A recent study by Heidi Smith et al. in the desolate McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica has shown that microbial life in biofilms is present across a large part of the region’s ice, suggesting that the stability of polar ice can be influenced by even the smallest of organisms.
Biofilms—thin, slimy bacterial layers that can adhere to a surface—were discovered in conjunction with the windblown dust that accumulates on snow and ice called cryoconite. The research found that a combination of biofilms and cryoconite is capable of enhancing the rate of glacial melting, meaning that the planet may be more vulnerable to sea level rise than previously imagined.
As an important component in the planet’s hydrological and carbon cycles, glacial melting affects sea levels and the chemistry of our oceans. This meltwater enhances the movement of fluids from terrestrial environments to oceans, as well as the transport of nutrients to aquatic ecosystems. In the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the activity of microorganisms on the glacier surface enables the accumulation of organic matter on minerals found in the ice’s dusty cryoconite layers. This relationship results in the darkening of ice over time, making it less efficient at reflecting incoming sunlight than it would be normally. As most of Antarctica’s ice lies atop the continental landmass, increased melting at the Earth’s southern pole may lead to an appreciable rise in global sea levels.
Prior research in alpine glacial environments and on the Greenland Ice Sheet (Langford et al. 2010) established a correlation between biofilm development and the darkening of cryoconite particles, pointing towards the synergistic possibility of biologically enhanced rates of melting. Until the recent publication of key research by Heidi Smith et al., the role of biofilms in Antarctica was largely unknown.
In conversation with GlacierHub, Smith stated that “the role of biofilms in different glacial locations has not been explored.” She added “due to differences in environmental pressures (temperature extremes, nutrient availability, levels of UV radiation, and rates of flushing), it is possible that the role of biofilms in glacial surface processes varies by location.” Smith’s team was able to establish the precedence of biofilms at extreme southern latitudes in their research and also contributed to the larger body of scientific evidence supporting the role of microbes in influencing reflectivity, otherwise known as albedo, of glaciers.
Smith and her research colleagues employed a variety of methods to investigate the interactions between the biological and mineralogical components of Antarctic ice. Microbial species were identified in the lab via pyrosequencing (which determines the order of nucleotides in DNA by detecting the release of the pyrophosphate ion) as well as epifluorescent microscopy (which utilizes a compound microscope equipped with a high-intensity light source). The team’s research yielded four unique bacterial components in biofilms found in cryoconite holes. Interestingly, Smith told GlacierHub that “while some organisms identified in this study have also been found in cryoconite holes from the Greenland Ice sheet, the relative abundance of individual organisms in each of these locations appears to be geographically distinct.”
The primary region for fieldwork and sampling for the study was an ice-lidded cryoconite hole on the Canada Glacier, located near Victoria Land, Antarctica. When asked about why the team chose to work in this isolated region, Smith replied: “There are previous studies from this region that have focused on cryoconite hole geochemistry, rates of microbial activity and microbial assemblage composition; therefore, we could place samples from this study into a larger framework.”
Following fieldwork on the glacier, subsequent laboratory analysis showed that enriched levels of nitrogen and carbon isotopes were present when Bacteroidetes (one of the four main bacterial phyla) was incubated in the presence of compounds such as sodium bicarbonate and ammonia. These findings point to the conclusion that the spatial organization within a microbially rich biofilm can promote the transfer of chemical compounds and nutrients. Such a result serves to validate the hypothesis that the formation of biofilms may enhance the accumulation of organic material on cryoconite minerals, thus affecting the color and reflectivity of glacial surfaces.
The study concluded that not only are biofilms present in nearly thirty-five percent of cryoconite holes in Antarctica, but that due to regional differences in the distribution of black carbon between the study region and the Arctic, biofilm may play a heightened role (relative to the northern hemisphere) in promoting biological activity on glaciers. Smith added, “In addition to influencing levels of glacial melt, biofilms have the potential to alter marine ecosystems through glacial runoff.” Additionally, she said, “There is also the potential for increases in CO2 release, which contributes to the rising temperatures globally.”
The research by Smith and her team points to important feedback loops with future increases in temperature, as longer melt seasons will stimulate biofilm communities, which alone have the capacity to increase rates of glacial melt. If temperatures continue to rise, the positive feedback between a warmer climate and lower reflectivity on ice surfaces may lead to exponentially faster rates of glacial melt and sea level rise. Overall, these findings illustrate the environment’s sensitivity to the emissions that human populations generate, suggesting that given enough pressure, Antarctic ice may enter a runaway downward spiral of rapid melting.
From Jurassic Wiki: A Jurassic Park video game features a glacier park located in Patagonia. The game follows similar video games in the genre like Zoo Tycoon where the player designs and monitors a park with formerly extinct animals. Some animals require more upkeep than others and the last thing the owner of the park would want is for them to get out and interact with the customers! “Everybody has been calling this animal the saber-tooth tiger. It does kind of look like a saber-tooth tiger, but it’s actually called the Megistotherium. For this animal, you can take a look at its fossils on Wikipedia,” according to Jurassic Park Builders.
From Atmospheric Research: “Mineral aerosols scatter and absorb incident solar radiation in the atmosphere, and play an important role in the regional climate of High Mountain Asia (the domain includes the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, Pamir, Hindu-kush, Karakorum and Tienshan Mountains). Dust deposition on snow/ice can also change the surface albedo, resulting in [deviations] in the surface radiation balance. However, most studies that have made quantitative assessments of the climatic effect of mineral aerosols over the High Mountain Asia region did not consider the impact of dust on snow/ice at the surface. In this study, a regional climate model coupled with an aerosol–snow/ice feedback module was used to investigate the emission, distribution, and deposition of dust and the climatic effects of aerosols over High Mountain Asia.”
From Anthropod-Plant Interactions: “Successional changes of plant and insect communities have been mainly analysed separately. Therefore, changes in plant–insect interactions along successional gradients on glacier forelands remain unknown, despite their relevance to ecosystem functioning. This study assessed how successional changes of the vegetation influenced the composition of the flower-visiting insect assemblages of two plant species, Leucanthemopsis alpina (L.) Heyw. and Saxifraga bryoides L., selected as the only two insect-pollinated species occurring along the whole succession… We emphasize that dynamics of alpine plant and insect communities may be structured by biotic interactions and feedback processes, rather than only be influenced by harsh abiotic conditions and [randomly determined] events.”
Read more about anthropod-plant interactions here.
Scientists have discovered a troubling new characteristic of the tough algae that grow on the surface of Arctic glaciers: not only do they turn the glacier surfaces red, they accelerate the melting of the ice.
Across the Arctic, from Greenland to Sweden, glacier ice is turning red in what has been termed “watermelon snow.” The phenomenon has become increasingly common in recent years, yet little is known about the algae or their broader environmental impacts.
A recent study, published June 22 in Nature Communications, has shed light on the red snow, reporting that the algae are contributing to glacier melting and climate change in the Arctic.
The Arctic region covers the majority of the Earth’s northern pole, and contains over 275,500 square kilometers of glaciers. It is also one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, warming at a rate nearly twice the global average. According to NASA, the rate of Arctic warming from 1981 to 2001 was a staggering 8 times larger than the rate of melting over the last 100 years. Given the severity of glacier melt in the region, understanding the factors that impact melting rates is crucial to preserving the Arctic ecosystem.
Albedo is one of the most important influences on glacier melt, and the presence of red algae is now speeding up the process. Due to their red pigmentation, algal blooms on ice substantially darken the surface of the glaciers and change their albedo—or the amount of light reflected off of the surface of an object.
Just as black concrete is much hotter to the touch than a pale sidewalk, glaciers covered in red algae absorb more light and melt at a faster rate than clean white ice. This sets off a chain reaction of additional melting, as the meltwater creates a habitat for algae to colonize, and low-albedo rocks and dirty ice underneath glaciers are exposed.
The research team, led by Stefanie Lutz of the University of Leeds, found that the algal blooms are decreasing snow albedo by as much as 13 percent over the course of the melt season in the summer. The phenomenon is widespread.
Forty red snow samples were taken between July 2013 and July 2014 from a total of 16 glaciers in Svalbard, Northern Sweden, Greenland, and Iceland. Results were similar across the board in the different regions. Local ecology, geography, and mineralogy did not have an impact on the ability of the algae to bloom—they are cosmopolitan, able to colonize and spread easily across an ecosystem.
While the researchers found a rich diversity of bacteria in the glacier samples, the algae did not show the same pattern. Instead, results revealed that the spread of red algae was almost entirely attributable to a small group of algal species–the Chlamydomonadaceae being the most common. Six taxa groups made up over 99 percent of the algae species found in all Arctic locations. These finding set the Arctic apart from other terrestrial ecosystems, which tend to be less homogenous, and indicate that these few species of algae can survive and thrive under a wide range of conditions, and are also likely to spread to other locations.
This makes the findings of the study even more pertinent, as red snow will become an increasingly common phenomenon while glacier melt accelerates. According to the study, “Extreme melt events like that in 2012, when 97% of the entire Greenland Ice Sheet was affected by surface melting, are likely to reoccur with increasing frequency in the near future as a consequence of global warming.” Lutz and the research team conclude that there is a need for this “bio-albedo” effect to be incorporated in future climate models in order to accurately predict the speed and location of glacier melting in the arctic and prepare for the wide range of environmental impacts that will follow.
“One week-old snow was turning black and brown before my eyes,” American geologist Ulyana Horodyskyj told the Guardian in earlier this year as she stood at her mini weather station, 5,800 meters above sea level on Mount Himlung, on the Nepal-Tibet border. Horodyskyj studies glaciers in Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range and is one of the many scientists, bloggers, and photographers who are documenting the pernicious effects of a phenomenon called “dark snow.”
This so-called dark snow is being discovered everywhere from the Himalayas to Greenland. Snow can be darkened by naturally made particles, such as soot from wildfires and volcanos or dust from bare soil. But industrial pollution is also a culprit: ultra-fine particles of “black carbon” from industrial plants and diesel engines are often carried in on fierce winds from thousands of miles away. The dust, soot and carbon darken the color of the snow, causing it to absorb more light from the sun, which speeds up glacial melting and lengthens the melt season.
“Governments must act, and people must become more aware of what is happening. It needs to be looked at properly,” said Horodyskyj.
In India, about 30 percent of glacial melt is attributed to black carbon, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). In addition, most of the black snow in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau comes from Indian and Chinese soot (e.g. diesel fumes, coal burning, funeral pyres, and etc.). It’s even a problem in the Arctic, according to a paper recently published in Nature Geoscience by a team of meteorologists from the French government. They found that the Arctic ice cap, which is thought to have lost an average of 12.9 billion tonnes of ice a year between 1992 and 2010 due to general warming, may be losing an additional 27 billion tonnes a year due to dust.
This isn’t the first time in the earth’s long history that dust was blamed for glacial melt. Last year, a NASA-led team of scientists published a study in the Proceedings of Natural Academy of Science that found industrial soot led to the retreat of glaciers in the 19th century. The European Alps experienced the abrupt retreat of valley glaciers by about 0.6 miles from 1860 to 1930, during which time the temperature actually dropped continuously. Scientists suspected that the glacier retreats were caused by human activity. After years of research, it turns out that the lower-elevation pollution is a major cause of the mysterious loss of glacier mass.
To better understand and document the dark snow problem, Danish glaciologist Jason Box started the Dark Snow Project around 2 years ago, which measures the impact of changing wildfire soot, industrial black carbons, and snow microbes on snow and ice reflectivity. The Dark Snow Project is currently trying to raise $15,000 for the purchase of three drones to photograph the surface of glaciers in Greenland from a low altitude to examine surface melting.