Roundup: The Glacier Compensation Effect, Amazon Fires Melt Andean Glaciers, and Australia’s Bushfires Accelerate Melt in New Zealand

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.”

Read the study here.

Amazon Fires Quickening Glacier Melting in Andes

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.

Read the story here.

The Zongo glacier is found on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, one of Bolivia’s highest mountains (Source: Ryan Michael Wilson/Shutterstock)

Soot From Australia Bushfires Settles on New Zealand Glaciers

On December 13, GlacierHub published “Bushfires in Australia Blanket New Zealand Glaciers in Soot.” Since then, the fires in Australia have continued to grow and their fallout is increasingly darkening the surface of glaciers in New Zealand. Media outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and The Guardian, among others, are reporting on the tragedy indirectly befalling New Zealand’s glaciers.

Read the story here.

On January 1, 2020, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired a natural-color image (above) of thick smoke blanketing southeastern Australia along the border of Victoria and New South Wales (Source: NASA).

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Amazon Fires Quickening Glacier Melting in Andes

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.

South America: the Andes mountains run along the western edge of the Amazon basin (center). Image via AridOcean/ shutterstock.

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.

The Zongo glacier is found on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, one of Bolivia’s highest mountains (Source: Ryan Michael Wilson/Shutterstock).

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.

Glaciers are some of the most important natural resources on the planet. Himalayan glaciers provide drinking water for 240 million people, and 1.9 billion rely on them for food. In South America, glaciers are crucial for water supply – in some towns, including Huaraz in Peru, more than 85% of drinking water comes from glaciers during times of drought. However, these truly vital sources of water are increasingly under threat as the planet feels the effects of global warming. Glaciers in the Andes have been receding rapidly for the last 50 years.

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.

Matthew Harris, Ph.D. Researcher, Climate Science, Keele University

This article is republished from EarthSky under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article on The Conversation.

Science on Trial at Pascua Lama

Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin
Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin

Chile’s environmental court ruled on Monday that Pascua Lama, the Andean nation’s most controversial mine, is not responsible for damage done to three glaciers near the mine site.

While the mine’s operations will remain suspended due to a variety of other challenges, the decision was a setback for local environmental groups, who seek to protect the country’s glaciers. Some say it also represents a defeat for Chile’s scientific institutions.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2013, was brought by farming communities in the Alto del Carmen region of northern Chile, who depend on water from the glaciers, together with NGO Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). Alto del Carmen sits in the Huasco Valley, an oasis at the southern end of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. The suit alleged that dust from Pascua Lama, which straddles the border with Argentina, accelerated melt at glaciers in the area, depleting waters that feed into the El Toro river.

Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360
Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360

In a statement (translated from Spanish), OLCA noted that in its decision, the environmental court ignored scientific documents produced by the state’s own scientists in favor of scientists hired by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the company that operates the mine. Though the court recognized that dust from the mine had settled on the glaciers, it did not accept scientific arguments made in a final state environmental rating resolution on the mine, or RCA, that indicated one millimeter of dust could accelerate melting of the glaciers by as much as 15%. An RCA represents the final outcome of the environmental impact assessment process.

The case seemed to bear out the findings of recent research published in Science and Culture, which suggest that Chilean scientists and scientific institutions have little power in policy debates despite efforts by Chile’s democratic government to build them up over the past decade and a half, post-Pinochet.

“Legally there is this ongoing debate over these resolutions, called RCAs,” said Javiera Barandiaran, assistant professor in global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the paper. “How much legal weight do they have vis a vis the law? In the past, there have been challenges, that these resolutions should become the law, the legal standards that the companies are held to. But they say, ‘No, all we’re held to are permits and the country’s laws.’ Because there is no law, it doesn’t matter.”

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid March, Chilean authorities put forward a proposed framework for a glacier protection law, but it was unclear what specific protections it would offer to glaciers outside Chile’s national parks like the ones affected by Pascua Lama.

Controversy over the Pascua Lama mine is what first put glaciers on the map for Chilean authorities, according to Barandiaran, and launched the debate over the need for laws to protect them.

The Pascua Lama decision inspired a renewed call for strong glacier protection laws from the Chilean branch of global environmental organization Greenpeace.

“If today the environmental court couldn’t credit [the mine] with destruction of the glaciers, having concrete evidence in hand, then we urgently need a law that protects and conserves glaciers,” said Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun in a statement. He added that Barrick Gold is still charged with glacier damage by Chile’s environmental enforcement agency, the Superintendencia de Medio Ambiente (SMA).

Run by Minera Nevada, the Chilean subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama still faces numerous environmental, legal and administrative challenges. Among other things, Barrick is waiting to hear from the SMA about fines that could total over $200 million.

Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar
Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar

Barrick said the decision confirmed the findings of its own scientists. “Barrick worked with leading independent experts and glaciologists to develop and implement one of the most rigorous glacier monitoring programs anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Flores, Barrick’s Executive Director for Chile in a statement, available on the company’s website. “We are pleased that the court has confirmed what the technical and scientific evidence demonstrates, that these ice bodies have not been damaged by activities at the Pascua-Lama project.”

The controversy is far from over, but for now Chile’s political and business elites seem to have the upper hand when it comes to competing claims over scientific truth.

Will Chile Get Its Five-Star Glacier Law?

Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford
Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford

Chilean authorities and legislators agreed last week to a new framework for a law to protect thousands of melting glaciers in the towering Andes. The new proposal would safeguard glaciers inside of Chile’s national parks, but it’s not clear what protections would be offered to those glaciers that lie near some of the country’s major mining concessions.

Some 31,000 glaciers span the Chilean side of the cordillera, which represent 82% percent of all glaciers in South America and provide critical water resources to the region. But the billions of dollars worth of copper, gold and other mining projects operating in the Andes represent a significant source of income for Chile, the world’s biggest copper exporter.

Though Chilean authorities pledged to make the new proposed law a priority—it will be presented to environmental authorities this week—glacier laws have been a subject of heated debate for some time in the country, and it’s not clear this one will pass any more readily than its predecessors. While the new legal framework includes approximations of some measures contained in a “five star” glacier law proposal put forward by Greenpeace and a handful of Chilean politicians last year, environmentalists charge that there are too many loopholes for mining companies to exploit.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera
Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera

The new glacier law framework consists of 14 amendments to an earlier law proposed last year, according to Chilean newspaper La Segunda and radio station Radio UChile. These amendments would assign legal classification to different kinds of glaciers, as well as to the frozen land surrounding them, declare them national “patrimony” to be protected by the government, and allow for the revision of environmental permits already granted for projects that would interfere with glaciers. Such permits could not be revoked, but companies could be required to take additional measures to mitigate the impacts their projects would have on glaciers. The law would also describe specific kinds of activities prohibited on glaciers designated as requiring special protection.

The “five-star” proposal included a few extra steps: de facto protection of all areas defined as “glaciers,” as well as surrounding land, banning any activity that damages a glacier, and requiring all projects that today impact glaciers to stop doing so.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 7.52.25 PMEnvironmentalists have been clamoring for good glacier laws in recent months with a string of colorful protests. In January, Greenpeace activists parked themselves in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda, in the capital city of Santiago with a mock food cart full of withered and dried up fruits and vegetables for the “Market without Glaciers.” Produce was advertised at outrageous prices ($5,000 pesos, or around US$7, for every ratty piece of corn). On Twitter, Matias Asun, head of Greenpeace Chile, explained in Spanish that this is what the country’s produce would look like if all of its glaciers were destroyed.

A few months earlier, on Sept. 27, two thousand people, many of them children wearing superhero costumes, marched to the La Moneda to urge president Bachelet to write glacier protection laws. And last March, Chilean Greenpeace activists declared a “Glacier Republic,” a sovereign state covering 23,000 square kilometers of glaciers in Chile that already has over 15,000 “citizens,” to push adoption of a law to protect Chile’s glaciers.

According to at least one politician, 80 to 85 percent of all glacier surface area in Chile exists within its national parks. Under the new legal framework, the fate of the rest of the glaciers would be determined by the council of ministers as opposed to by legislation. Greenpeace’s Asun told Radio UChile that he believes this would open such decisions up to political influence from mining companies such as Barrick Gold, Angloamerican, Los Pelambres de Luksic and Codelco.

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chile’s neighbor Argentina adopted a glacier protection law in 2010 that defines glacier broadly to include rock glaciers and frozen groundwater left by receding glaciers, because some scientists feel these are key sources of glacier water reserves. The Argentine law has caused delays in a few mining projects, such as Canada’s Osisko Famatina gold exploration and the Argentine operations of Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama gold and silver mine. But even before a law has been passed in Chile, the Chilean operations Pascua-Lama have been suspended over concerns that it was interfering with nearby glaciers.

Other countries that protect glaciers under natural resources laws, water laws, or other laws include Colombia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Peru and Austria.

For more on the threats posed to Chile’s glaciers by mining projects, read this prior post.