Photo Friday: Nevados de Chillán at Risk of Volcanic Eruption

Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service has issued an orange alert for Nevados de Chillán, a complex of snow-capped stratovolcanoes located in the Ñuble region near the country’s border with Argentina.

The agency’s level-orange alert signifies a significant uptick in volcanic activity.

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory: “Like other historically active volcanoes in the central Andes, the Nevados de Chillán were created by upwelling magma generated by eastward subduction, as the dense oceanic crust of the Pacific basin dove beneath the less dense continental crust of South America. The rising magmas associated with this type of tectonic environment frequently erupt explosively, forming widespread ash and ignimbrite layers. They can also produce less explosive eruptions, with voluminous lava flows that layer together with explosively erupted deposits to build the classic cone-shaped edifice of a stratovolcano.”

According to Chile’s geology and mining agency: “The main volcanic hazards associated with the CVNCh correspond to lahars, debris flows and lava flows, channeled through the main valleys: Estero Renegado, Estero Shangri-La, Chillán River, Estero San José, Santa Gertrudis River, Gato River and Las Minas River . The generation of lahars configures the greatest potential danger for the population surrounding the volcano, given its proximity to the channels and the amount of snow and ice on the summits of the complex. Ash fall determined by the dominant wind direction.”

A view of Nevados de Chillán from the International Space Station (Source: NASA)

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Glacial Ice Core Samples Reveal Sustainable Land-Use Practices in the Ancient Incan Empire

Glacial Ice Core Samples Reveal Sustainable Land-Use Practices in the Ancient Incan Empire

In the Eastern Cordillera of Bolivia, pollen grains travel from near and far to become sandwiched in layers of snow in the Andean mountaintops, ultimately becoming trapped as the layers turn to ice. Such is the case on the Illimani Glacier, which towers approximately 2,500 meters over Lake Titicaca. The lake sits at an altitude of 3,800 meters above sea level in what was the heart of the ancient Incan Empire.

University of Bern paleoecologist Sandra Brugger headed a team of researchers from various European universities to investigate the vegetative history of the Andean region. Their findings, published in Quaternary Scientific Reviews, indicate that the Inca used sustainable land use practices and that large scale ecological changes did not occur until 1740, long after the Spanish invasion and fall the Inca. The study is one of the first to reconstruct past ecology using pollen grains pulled from glacial ice.

The goal of Brugger’s study was to determine the resilience potential of the Andean mountain-forest ecosystem to a varying intensity of anthropogenic land-use practices. The researchers constructed a timeline of vegetation from 10,000 BC through to the present day. Of particular interest were the years following 1438, which represented the transition from the rise to the demise of the ancient Inca, which was then followed by the the reign of their Spanish conquerors. The degree to which the indigenous peoples altered their environment is a topic still deeply debated amongst researchers.

The Moray Agricultural Terraces (Source: Flickr/Shawn Harquail)

Much like tree rings, glacial ice accumulates in distinct annual layers; therefore, scientists can date ice core samples by ring counting, analyzing the layer’s isotopic signature, or by finding evidence of volcanic eruptions that have been well-dated throughout history. These methods are extremely accurate. Ice from the uppermost layers, which correspond to the last two-hundred years, can be dated within two to five years, while the ice corresponding to the time period of the Incas can be pinpointed to within two decades of accuracy.

The methods for extracting ice cores are actually quite challenging, Brugger said. An experienced team is required to extract samples from high altitudes because conditions become increasingly treacherous with elevation. Moreover, they must ensure that samples remain frozen throughout the delivery process—in this case, from Bolivia to Switzerland. “If they melt, samples are no good,” said Brugger.

The team of Margit Schwikowski at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland undertook these dangerous drillings, climbing to an elevation of approximately 6,000 meters above sea level. Additionally, they analyzed the chronology and measured many chemical species in the ice cores. Two core samples from the Illimani Glacier were extracted: one in 1999 and another in 2015.

Ice core drilling in Barrow, Alaska (Source: Flickr/NASA: Kathryn Hansen)

Once in the lab, Brugger applied a series of evaporative and chemical-processing techniques to isolate pollen grains from samples corresponding to specific time periods. Each of the samples held approximately 500 pollen grains. “A good sample took me two to three hours to identify,” she said. A bad sample, she added, could take an entire day. The whole process took about three months.

The trickiest part, according to Brugger, was the patience required to identify the pollen. Not only is the catchment area of Illimani large, but the Amazon basin is also one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, so many different species of pollen were represented in the samples. Undoubtedly, the identification process was painstaking work that required long days behind a microscope at a lab bench – far from the charm of the Bolivian Glacier.

Sandra Brugger counting pollen with a light microscope (Source: Manu Friederich)

Much of the previous research on Andean vegetation was constructed using pollen grains from lake sediments, noted Brugger, which ultimately captures more of a local signal from vegetation directly surrounding the lake. In what was the heart of the Incan Empire near Lake Titicaca, archaeological records suggest that pre-European cultures were highly advanced, domesticating llamas and alpacas, harvesting a wide variety of crops, and practicing metallurgy. Together, these practices could have brought about significant land-use impacts.

Digging deeper, researchers found that llama dung was an important maize fertilizer for the indigenous Andeans.

The switch to agricultural reliance allowed the Inca to abandon traditional hunting and gathering methods and supported the growth of society. An article recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science details how oribatid mites that once dined on llama feces have been found in sediment cores from wetlands such as Lake Marcacocha, high in the Andes. As merchants passed through these areas with their llamas and maize yields, they boosted the oribatid mite population of the wetlands. This population boom strongly correlates with the time period dominated by the Inca (1483-1533), and the mites’ eventual decline corresponds to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who wiped out the Inca and replaced their llamas with cows, horses, and sheep.

Interestingly, a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science suggests that llamas are not as impactful on the landscape as the Old World animals brought over by the Spanish. While llamas graze evenly among the various plant types, cows and sheep appear to be more scrupulous in their dietary decisions. Llamas do not eat plants down to their roots and have padded feet that are less environmentally destructive than hooves. Additionally, explained Brugger, while the native Puna grasses declined around 1740, the population of nutrient-loving weedy species escalated due most likely to the increase European cattle grazing activity. Therefore, the Incan llama grazed the land in a way that was sustainable to the Andean ecosystem, while their European counterparts decimated the land.

Unlike lakes, glaciers trap pollen on a larger scale, as particles drift in from a catchment area of approximately 200-300 kilometers in each direction. Brugger’s research suggests that, on a large scale, the Incan people did not change the Andean forest composition. It is important to note that local versus regional pollen collection methods do not necessarily contradict one another, said Brugger. Instead, they reveal that pockets of disturbance may have occurred closer to the lake where paths and roads were constructed, but overall, the Incan empire did not leave a significant ecological footprint.

Puna vegetation, typical of the Bolivian altiplano (Source: Flickr/Geoff Gallice)

The team identified vegetation that dates as far back as 10,000 BC, establishing an ecological baseline of plant diversity prior to human intervention in the landscape. The baseline served as the control for which human-induced vegetation change over time could be compared.

Brugger found small signs of maize, quinoa, and amaranth, after AD 1, suggesting that the Incas, as well as the indigenous populations before them, grew agricultural crops. Despite signs of human impact, Puna composition did not deviate from previous centuries.

Likewise, the expansion of Polylepis and Alnus after the year 800 followed a warming climate trend. Although Alnus, commonly know as alder, was favored for agroforestry, its range did not dissipate during the Incan regime. According to the book An Environmental History of Latin America, the Incan emperor himself maintained a sustained population of Alder and inflicted harsh punishments for unauthorized logging. In an area naturally defined by so little trees, the alder’s continued existence suggests strict environmental regulation. Its population soon declined with the arrival of Europeans.

A eucalyptus plantation (Source: Flickr/Hari Priyadi)

According to Brugger’s data, changes in the mountain forest composition didn’t occur until around 1740 (two hundred years after the fall of the Incan Empire), implying a long transitional period before the Spanish were able to establish a stable land-use system. After 1740, the pollen record showed a rapid increase in dry grasses and nutrient-loving, weedy species, typical of pasturelands. Then, around 1950, signs of eucalyptus and pine appear in the pollen record, a result of the Bolivian land reform that promoted timber plantations.

Picture from Illimani sitting above La Paz (Source: Margit Schwikowski)

Brugger is now stationed at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, analyzing pollen and charcoal in ice cores from Central Greenland in order to reconstruct the response of sensitive Arctic ecosystems to past climate change. “It was a sensation that the approach actually worked,” said Brugger, “as the site was extremely remote from any plants — and pollen.” The prestudy to the project is published in The Holocene.

Glaciers provide an incredible glimpse into the past because they safeguard microscopic clues that allow researchers to uncover our most ancient secrets. For instance, Brugger’s study suggests that the Incan people, though large in number, were able to form a society that peacefully coexisted with its environment. Modern society has largely degraded the Bolivian ecosystem, but might learn a thing or two by studying ancient Incan methods of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry. Brugger’s research is part of a larger project that examines glacial cores from around the world to explain our past. As the project gains momentum, scientists can begin to unravel other fascinating mysteries trapped within glacial ice.

Read More on GlacierHub

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New Satellite Imagery Shows Rapid Pace of Andean Glacier Melt

New Satellite Imagery Shows Rapid Pace of Andean Glacier Melt

Climate change has long been known to be a stressor on glaciers the world over, but a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, reveals just how bad it’s been for those in the Andes: Glaciers in this South American mountain range have the unfortunate distinction of being both the fastest melting and the largest contributors to sea level rise in the world.

Glacial melt has been watched carefully for decades, but because of limitations in technology and methodologies, scientists haven’t gotten the most precise picture of how much melting is occurring, or how fast.

Previous techniques looked at regional locations scattered throughout the Andes like the Northern Patagonian Icefield and then extrapolated those findings. Others gave hazy estimates from low-resolution, remote-sensing images. But these methods can miss individual glaciers and clusters of just a few or more.

In an attempt to refine understanding of Andes-wide glacial melt, the researchers harnessed the image-collecting power of a satellite with the Asimovian name of the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). ASTER has been taking high-resolution, stereoscopic images of the Andes since 2000. By compiling these images and integrating them into digital models, the study’s scientists were not only able to get a new ice loss estimate for the entire Andes, but also for individual regions and individual glaciers over the past two decades. 

With this high resolution dataset, the researchers determined that the entire glacial range in the Andes shrunk about 23 gigatons (1 gigaton=1 billion tons) since 2000—more than previous studies have found—and account for 10 percent of global sea level rise. At this rate, some of these ancient glaciers will be gone in just over two centuries—but the rate is accelerating.

Digging through the data, the researchers also parsed out an array of differing melt rates between glaciers that revealed the areas of the heaviest melting: Patagonia (Chile, Argentina) and the tropical Andes (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia). Previous research has shown that low altitude glaciers in some of these areas like Peru have lost as much as 50 percent of their mass since 1970.   

“[Patagonia] is the region that contains the largest surface of ice, and [so] it’s normal to expect that the highest loss is going to be there,” lead author and glaciologist Inés Dussaillant told GlacierHub over the phone, adding that glaciers terminating in oceans and large lakes like those in Patagonia also experience heavy amounts of calving—which accounts for more than half of all the ice mass loss observed in the Andes. The glaciers in the tropics—mostly in Ecuador and Colombia—Dussaillant explained, are relatively small and highly sensitive to changes in climate. “A small change in temperature can make tropical glaciers lose a lot of mass,” she said. 

Glaciar el Juncal, Región de Valparaíso, Chile (Credit: Eyal Levy)

Perhaps the most troubling of the team’s findings, however, dealt with glaciers’ contribution of freshwater to rivers through snow and ice melt. During the summer months, snow and ice melt from glaciers flows into streams and rivers, adding to the overall water availability of a particular region. This is particularly important in the Dry Andes of the northern and central regions of Chile and Argentina. Since 2010, these heavily populated semi-arid regions have been strapped in what climatologists have called a megadrought. The team found that increased glacial melting in these areas since 2009 actually helped to mitigate some of the most severe impacts of the drought. But as glaciers continue to shrink because of anthropogenic climate change, their ability to act as this natural salve is going to diminish or disappear.

“They are not going to be able to contribute to rivers eternally,” remarked Dussaillant. “There will be a moment where they’ll no longer be able to contribute during these periods of drought.” 

Campos de Hielo Sur, Parque Torres del Paine Región de Magallanes, Chile
(Credit: Eyal Levy)

This point highlights the larger implications of the study, which is that millions of people live near, and depend upon, these glaciers in the Andes, and the drastic reduction or total disappearance of them is going to have potentially severe consequences. Dussaillant, who is Chilean, pointed out that more than half of the population of Chile lives in or near the capital city Santiago, which lies in this region.

Eyal Levy, an industrial engineer and Andean climber who is also from Chile, told GlacierHub that Chileans are “starting to become very worried about the water stress. He added that rural areas and poorer communes around Santiago have been “seriously impacted.” 

Glaciers are a conspicuous part of the everyday scenery, Levy said, and their shrinking takes a toll on people’s emotions. “People talk about melting glaciers with sadness, worry, and without knowing what to do,” he said.

Dussaillant hopes that the high resolution dataset gathered from this study will be used by other glaciologists for local or regional studies. “I study glaciers because they tell us what is happening,” she said. “It’s showing us that climate is changing, and the climate is a global thing. So what’s happening in the Andes … it concerns us all.” 

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Roundup: Tropical Glaciers, Experimental Cryoconite, and Grand Teton National Park

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Roundup: Tropical Glaciers, Experimental Cryoconite, and Grand Teton National Park

Changes in tropical glaciers in Peru between 2000 and 2016

From The Cryosphere:

“Glaciers in tropical regions are very sensitive to climatic variations and thus strongly affected by climate change. The majority of the tropical glaciers worldwide are located in the Peruvian Andes, which have shown significant ice loss in the last century. Here, we present the first multi-temporal, region-wide survey of geodetic mass balances and glacier area fluctuations throughout Peru covering the period 2000–2016.”

Read the article here.

Llaca Glacier, located in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Edubucher)

Studying cryoconite

From Polar Biology:

“Cryoconite holes are surface melt-holes in ice containing sediments and typically organisms. In Antarctica, they form an attractive system of isolated mesocosms in which to study microbial community dynamics in aquatic ecosystems. Although microbial assemblages within the cryoconite holes most closely resemble those from local streams, they develop their own distinctive composition.”

Read the article here.

Measuring cryoconites on Longyearbreen Glacier during field work of Arctic microbiology, Svalbard (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kertu Liis Krigul)

Mass loss in Grand Teton National Park

From The Seattle Times:

“Officials are studying the glaciers in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming to see how climate change is affecting their movement and melting.

Scientists are using GPS readings from the surface of the glaciers, time-lapse photos and stakes to examine some of the park’s 11 glaciers, the Post Register reported Saturday.

They are trying to see whether the glaciers are still moving slowly or have stopped completely.”

Read the article here.

A view of the Grand Teton Range (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Mayer)

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A First-of-Its-Kind Model of Bolivian GLOFs Projects Significant Risks

The rapid retreat of the world’s land ice means that glacial lakes — bodies of water formed by glacial meltwater — risk collapsing in potentially unexpected and catastrophic floods that threaten downstream communities.

University researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States have, for the first time, modeled the potential risk for glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs, for three lakes in the Bolivian Andes. Their results, published in December in the journal Natural Hazards, show that as many as 2,200 people could be impacted by flooding in six communities located downstream from each of the lakes. And, the researchers found, up to 2,100 people could be exposed to flooding of 2 meters or more, which “could be life threatening and cause a significant damage to infrastructure.”

The researchers focused on Pelechuco, Laguna Glaciar, and Laguna Arkhata, which are located within the Cordellera Oriental, Bolivia’s major mountain system.

Simon Cook of the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom and one of the authors of the study told GlacierHub that the researchers chose the lakes because a previous study they developed a technique for assessing GLOF risk.

Location of glaciers and potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Bolivian Andes, as well as the 2009 Keara GLOF event. The risk of each glacial lake identified by Cook et al. (2016) was assessed by Kougkoulos et al. (2018) using the MCDA methodology; three lakes were graded as ‘medium’ (orange) and ‘high’ risk (red) and form the focus of this study. (Source: Natural Hazards)

“Using a carefully chosen set of criteria, we narrowed down 25 lakes that had been previously recognized to have the capacity to generate a damaging GLOF to three that were estimated to have ‘medium’ or ‘high’ GLOF risk,” he said. “These all have slightly different characteristics, but fundamentally they all sit up-stream from human settlements and are situated very close to either steep valley slopes or hanging glaciers that could shed debris or ice into the lakes, thereby generating an overtopping wave.”

The communities were Agua Blanca and Pelechuco, which are located downstream from Pelechuco, Sorata, which is downstream of Laguna Glaciar, and Totoral Pampa, Tres Rios, and Khanuma, which are located downstream from Laguna Arkhata.

Structures in Pelechuco are typically built of brick and topped with corrugated steel roofing.
(Credit: Dirk Hoffmann)
A view of Sorata, which lies downstream from Laguna Glaciar (Credit: Dirk Hoffmann)

The authors modeled water flows that might result from varying GLOF events. “This modeling approach has already been used to model GLOFs from Lake 513 in Peru and in Chilean Patagonia, as well as in other regions of the world,” Cook said.

To test the accuracy of their model, the researchers ran simulations of a 2009 GLOF that occurred in Keara, located in the Apolobamba region of Bolivia. The model proved to “reproduce realistic flood depths and inundations.”

The researchers modeled three GLOF scenarios that projected “optimistic,” “intermediate,” and “pessimistic” levels of drainage flows. They were then able to estimate the number of buildings and people that might be affected by a flood.

They found, in total, between 1,140 and 2,202 people could be affected if all of the lakes were to burst, and between 843 and 2,119 people could be exposed to flow depth of at least 2 meters. Between 510 and 979 buildings could be affected if all of the lakes were to burst, according to the researchers’ model.

Potentially affected population numbers per community and per modeled scenario. Left (optimistic), center (intermediate), and right (pessimistic). (Source: Natural Hazards)

Ioannis Kougkoulos of the University Nottingham in the United Kingdom and lead author of the study told GlacierHub in an email that economic or infrastructure concerns among residents often trump the risk of flooding. “So they cannot put all the focus on these low-frequency natural disasters,” he said.

Laguna Arkhata and Pelechuco lake, according to the authors, represent the greatest GLOF risk due to the large numbers of people who live in the potential flow paths.

To address these risks, the authors suggest cost-benefit analyses that consider community relocation, community awareness programs, and early-warning systems.

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Roundup: Accelerating Sea Level Rise, France’s Mer de Glace, and Andean Glacier Change

World Meteorological Organization says sea level rise accelerating, fed by land ice melting

From the World Meteorological Organization: “The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold, from 40 Gt per year in 1979-1990 to 252 Gt per year in 2009-2017.

The Greenland ice sheet has witnessed a considerable acceleration in ice loss since the turn of the millennium.

For 2015-2018, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) reference glaciers indicates an average specific mass change of −908 mm water equivalent per year, higher than in all other five-year periods since 1950.”

Read the WMO report here and BBC’s coverage here.

The World Meteorological Organization is the United Nations System’s authoritative voice on weather, climate, and water. (Source: WMO)

The “dramatically changing landscape” of Mer de Glace

From New Scientist: “About a century ago, women with boaters and parasols sat near the Montenvers train station above the glacier, which then was almost level with a tongue of jagged ice snaking into the distance. Today, visitors are greeted by a slightly sad and largely grey glacier that is about 100 metres lower.”

Read more here.

A view of Mer de Glace in France (Source: chisloup/Wikimedia Commons)

An interdisciplinary analysis of changes in the high Andes

From Regional Environmental Change: “The high tropical Andes are rapidly changing due to climate change, leading to strong biotic community, ecosystem, and landscape transformations. While a wealth of glacier, water resource, and ecosystem-related research exists, an integrated perspective on the drivers and processes of glacier, landscape, and biota dynamics is currently missing. Here, we address this gap by presenting an interdisciplinary review that analyzes past, current, and potential future evidence on climate and glacier driven changes in landscape, ecosystem and biota at different spatial scales.

[… ]

Our analysis indicates major twenty-first century landscape transformations with important socioecological implications which can be grouped into (i) formation of new lakes and drying of existing lakes as glaciers recede, (ii) alteration of hydrological dynamics in glacier-fed streams and high Andean wetlands, resulting in community composition changes, (iii) upward shifts of species and formation of new communities in deglaciated forefronts,(iv) potential loss of wetland ecosystems, and (v) eventual loss of alpine biota.”

Read the study here.

Tyndall Glacier, located in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 16 crew member on the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)

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Roundup: Gold Mining in Peru, an Animated Film Featuring the Andes Mountains, and a Lunar Simulation in a Swiss Glacier

Gold mines in a receding Peruvian glacier

Photographer James Whitlow Delano captures the gold mining scene in the world’s highest permanent human settlement.

From The Washington Post:

“High up in the Andes, La Rinconada is a place where people go to seek whatever fortune they can muster in the gold mines nestled there. Delano describes it as a place with no running water or sewage system, populated by about 30,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. It is a place, Delano says, where ‘for over 500 years, La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty) has attracted first the Inca, then the Spanish. For decades, artisanal miners, mostly indigenous Quechua and Aymara, have followed a receding glacier up the valley hoping to find the mother lode, burrowing deep inside the mountain at over 17,700 feet.’”

The town of La Rinconada, Peru (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Animated Netflix film features Andean glaciers and environmentalism

From Animation World Network:

“14 years in the making, Pachamama, Juan Antin’s animated tale about a 10-year old Andean boy’s journey to reclaim his village’s irreplaceable treasure, premieres today on Netflix. Set during the time of the Spanish Conquistadors and their South American incursions, the Cesar Award-nominated film is Antin’s homage to the indigenous cultures of the Andes, and takes its name for the concept of ‘Pachamama,’ both an earth mother goddess figure as well as a more general concept of living in harmony with the Earth, akin to the idea of ‘Mother Nature.’”

Swiss glacier provides a home for an experimental lunar habitat

After their inaugural 2019 campaign, Igluna, coordinated by the Swiss Space Center, is running their 2020 program to enable teams of students across Europe to work on technology that would help sustain human life on the moon. As in 2019, the technology will be tested in a Zermatt glacier.

From the Swiss Space Center:

“IGLUNA 2020 is an international student project to build a space habitat demonstrator for sustaining life in an extreme environment. Not only does it demonstrate technologies of the future, but also a new way of collaboration across universities, industry and the space community – while forming students in applied project work. In one year, student teams from various disciplines and different countries across Europe develop their demonstrator modules. Their common objective: to integrate the projects together in a test bed in Switzerland in July 2020. Through international collaboration and interdisciplinary team work, the students gain practical experience in project management, build life-long networks, and kick-start their careers.”

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How Mountain-Dwellers Talk About Adapting to Melting Glaciers

For many people, climate change feels like a distant threat—something that happens far away, or far off in the future. Scientists and climate communicators often think that if everyone saw the devastating impacts of climate change, we’d all be more likely to accept it as real, and that accepting climate science is essential to taking action against it. A new study, published this month in Regional Environmental Change, challenges the latter part of this assumption.

The study examined decision-making in three places affected by melting glaciers. For these communities in the Italian Alps, the Peruvian Andes, and the US’s North Cascades, glacier retreat is a visible fact—“and the causes of glacier retreat are almost exclusively warming,” explains lead author Ben Orlove, an anthropologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. (Orlove is also the managing editor of GlacierHub.)

Orlove and his colleagues wondered whether the people who live in the three locales notice these changes, whether they understand them to be the result of climate change, and whether this climate connection motivates them to take action.

They found that people in these villages are indeed aware of climate change and are even taking action to adapt to it. But the villagers don’t often talk about climate change as a motivation for adapting. Instead, they’re more likely to look closer to home for reasons to respond to the changing environment, focusing on how the responses can benefit their communities. The study suggests one potential way to reframe the conversation around climate adaptation and make it more appealing.

Exploring different frames of mind

Orlove’s team looked at the frames of thinking that mountain-dwellers use to understand the changes happening around them. Mental “frames” help us sort new information and reconcile it with our previous knowledge and beliefs. For example, says Orlove, “If a hydropower plant in the Italian Alps doesn’t get enough water to generate electricity, what kinds of associations do the villagers make when they think or talk about these changes?”

The team examined how mountain-dwellers utilized two frames when talking about glacial retreat. The first was a climate change frame that focuses on global changes and the need for global solutions. The second was a community frame emphasizing action at a local level and recognizing positive opportunities for local advancement, in addition to the negative challenges of environmental change.

By analyzing peoples’ speech patterns during in-depth interviews, focus groups, and in records of community meetings, the researchers investigated how often people in the mountain communities used these two frames when talking about the impacts of climate change.

Different regions, different challenges, similar framing

The study found that villages in all three research sites are undertaking actions that could be described as adaptations to climate change. However, the communities themselves don’t always think of their actions that way. The authors present three cast studies.

Tourism in the North Cascades

Glaciers, rivers, lakes, and snowpack draw tourists to the slopes of Mount Baker in Washington State, providing the major source of income for the towns of Concrete and Glacier. But those natural resources are at risk as the planet’s temperature climbs.

Orlove’s team argues that these communities in the North Cascades are adapting to glacial retreat by finding ways to expand other forms of tourism. One example is through festivals that celebrate historical heritage and wildlife, and help to bring the community together.

A firemen’s muster during the Cascade Days festival in Concrete, Washington. The study authors argue that festivals like this help to attract tourism independent of the area’s disappearing glaciers, and thus could be considered an adaptation to climate change. (Source: Ben Orlove)

However, Concrete and Glacier residents rarely used words associated with the climate change frame when describing the changes or the local response. Instead, they use a community frame, emphasizing the importance of bolstering tourism and supporting livelihoods and the next generation.

“These kids who get out of high school, there’s not much for them to do except go out of town and find a job in [the nearby town of] Mount Vernon or Seattle,” said one interviewee. “Some of them of course go to college, but probably the majority of them don’t. So there’s no real way to make a livelihood up here. We’re dependent on tourism.”

Hydropower in the Italian Alps

As glaciers in the Italian Alps shrink, river levels are declining, reducing the ability of hydropower plants to generate electricity. To keep up with demand, the villages of Trafoi, Stilfs, and Sulden have installed biomass generators that burn wood chips to generate electricity, and the extra heat gets piped into homes.

The researchers found that although residents sometimes describe the wood chips as a renewable resource — a term from the climate change frame — they’re more often to rely on the community frame. Many villagers mentioned liking the wood heat for its coziness, and emphasized that that the wood chips are a local resource that supports local independence. Others mentioned the next generation, noting that the wood chip industry provides local jobs and that the pipes have provided conduits to install fiber optic cables; both of these encourage younger people to stay in their communities rather than seeking a future elsewhere.

Water in the Peruvian Andes

The village of Copa in the Peruvian Andes is also watching its water supply fall. Meanwhile, its need for water has only increased, as warmer temperatures and irregular rainfall make crop irrigation more important.

A village official and his children in Copa, Peru
A village official and his children in Copa, Peru. (Source: Ben Orlove)

To adapt to these changes, Copa has upgraded its water infrastructure to reduce water leakage. It is using concrete to line the canals that carry water from the river, and building pipe systems to bring water into homes instead of hauling buckets from the canal. As with the previous examples, these developments are most often seen through a community frame, with a focus on how the modern water system earns recognition for the village. “They speak with pride of the village square,” says Orlove, “with piped water giving it a more urban look.”

By the numbers

Using both human judgment and computer keyword analysis, Orlove and his team analyzed how often people in these communities referred to environmental changes, whether they attributed these changes to climate change, and whether they described their activities as adaptive responses to the ongoing changes.

They found that the villagers frequently talk about climate change impacts. In interviews, focus groups, and community meetings, changes in ice, water, socioeconomic changes, weather, and agriculture come up in about 13 percent of conversation turns (defined as the words that one person speaks without interruption). “In other words,” the paper notes, “they do not find climate change hard to see.”

However, people linked these alterations to climate change in only 4 percent of the conversation turns, and they describe their actions as adaptive responses in only 5 percent of conversation turns. Overall, people were five times more likely to refer to the community frame than the climate change frame (4.83 percent versus 0.93 percent).

Reframing the conversation

In each of the case studies, communities see the effects of climate change and take steps to address the impacts. Yet they do all of this without making much use of climate change terminology. While the villagers believe in climate change and do occasionally bring it up in conversation, the community is more relevant for them.

To Orlove and his colleagues, this challenges the notion that people need to ‘believe’ in climate change in order to take action against it. Furthermore, the authors write, “it could be argued that the community frame is more effective than the climate change frame because it emphasizes ‘co-benefits’ of adaptation” — such as protecting local resources from outsiders, retaining control over energy production, and increasing one’s connection to their community.

The findings emphasize that climate change communication should be more of a dialogue than a one-way conversation, and that scientists can learn a great deal from the communities they work with.

“It’s not that the only solutions are found in these locally organized communities,” says Orlove, “but people have not often looked for resources there, and when you do, you’ll see that there is social capital. People value their town, and they know each other and interact. They care about their environments and about their communities. We can recognize that as a resource that shouldn’t be overlooked at a time when climate needs far exceed available funds.”

This ability of people to engage with their neighbors and to craft solutions they care about could be helpful outside of mountain villages as well, says Orlove. “If we see self-organizing here, can we see self-organizing in other places, like in New York?”

This article originally appeared on State of the Planet, a news site for Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

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Planning Meetings to Focus on Water Management in the Andean Region

The objective of a series of workshops on the Andean region is to generate learning, synergies, and develop inputs for the promotion of multipurpose projects (PMP) at the local-regional level that integrate management of water resources and risk management in a context of climate change. The workshops, titled “Exchange of experiences to promote multipurpose water projects as a measure of adaptation to climate change and risk management in mountain areas,” are organized by the Glaciers Project +.

Officials from Chile, Colombia, and Peru who work on issues related to climate change, energy, and water will meet to identify conditions for scaling up PMPs in the Andean Region and other territories. The workshops are expected to generate a roadmap for regional exchange on the PMPs.

Among the topics to be discussed during the two days of the workshops will be the problem of water in the Andean region, which will focus on the consensual construction of the multipurpose approach to adaptation to climate change, management of water resources and disaster risk in the framework of the NDCs. Discussions will also occur focusing on implementing PMP initiatives.

The workshops will be held in the cities of Bogotá and Santiago, the first of which will be held on April 9 and 10 in the Council Room of the Faculty of Rural and Environmental Studies of the Pontifical Javieriana University in Colombia. The workshop in Santiago will be held on May 2 and 3 at the facilities of the National Irrigation Commission.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on El Proyecto Glaciares.

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Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM) is taking steps forward in developing the country’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, one of its principal mandates. INAIGEM recently published an article in its institutional journal titled, “Specific Guidelines for Formulation of the Proposal for the National Policy of Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems of Peru,” which serves as the first publicly available content that could be included in the final policy. The goal of the document is to support INAIGEM and the Ministry of Environment with an initial framework for subsequent policy development. Meanwhile, it also aims to set a foundation for an inclusive policy-making process that is representative of the people and landscapes within its purview.

As a Fulbright Public Policy Fellow and then consultant for CARE Peru, I produced this document in collaboration with INAIGEM’s leadership and diverse external stakeholders. To generate its content, I interviewed a variety of experts across government agencies, NGOs, and academia, did a case study of local community perspectives via surveys in the field, and then translated their responses into its policy lines. Meanwhile, via a database I built, I analyzed existing normative environmental structures in Peru on international, national, and subnational scales to determine how a new policy for glaciers and mountain ecosystems would integrate with, complement, or fulfill said structures.

From left to righ is Engr. Jesús Gomez, director of the Department for Research on Glaciers, Engr. Ricardo Villanueva, former director of the Department for Information and Knowledge Management, Executive President Dr. Gisella Orjeda, and Engr. David Ocaña, former director of the Department for Research on Mountain Ecosystems. (Source: INAIGEM)

Although there are a number of normative environmental mechanisms that incorporate some aspect of glaciers or mountain ecosystems across Peruvian governance, there is no specific apparatus for such topics despite their critical importance to human well-being and economic production. Being that there are many sectors and populations that depend on glaciers and mountain ecosystems in a variety of ways, disjointed management of these landscapes has been a major problem. Thus, with the creation of INAIGEM in December 2014, the government determined the policy will be a necessary tool to ensure the sustainable management of glaciers and mountain ecosystems for populations that live within or benefit from them.

Laguna Parón, shot from a glacial moraine in the Parón Valley, with Nevado Pirámide de Garcilaso (5,885 meters) in the background. (Source: Peter Oesterling)

INAIGEM’s leadership recognized that developing the policy and its subsequent implementation must be a collaborative effort for it to achieve positive socio-environmental outcomes in the Andes. According to former executive president, Engr. Benjamín Morales, “A national policy must be made with national participation … I believe that being a policy, the most important part is the country. The country must intervene. The whole Ministry [of Environment] and the other ministries should be involved in this policy.”[ Engr. Morales’s sentiment was based on avoiding a lack of buy-in across institutions, which is characteristic of Peruvian bureaucracy.

A team that summited Nevado Huascarán on a research expedition along with INAIGEM leadership. (Source: INAIGEM)

Meanwhile, INAIGEM’s heads of research activities echoed Engr. Morales’s point. Former Director of Information and Knowledge Management Engr. Ricardo Villanueva emphasized, “It is not only about doing isolated activities, but to develop an integrated and coordinated strategy of action for different institutions with interests in glaciers and mountain ecosystems.” As an example of the need for greater institutional coordination and integration, Engr. David Ocaña, the former head of research on mountain ecosystems said, “I think a policy is necessary because there are many gray areas between institutions. For example, [there are] gray areas between ANA and INAIGEM or with the Ministry Agriculture. The policy is going to be a tool that may not so much eliminate these gray areas but it will be clearer for each actor what their role and function is within what is glaciers and mountain ecosystems.”[

Nevado Chacraraju (6,108 meters) and Laguna 69, shot from the summit of Nevado Pisco (5,752 m). (Source: Peter Oesterling)

The need for clarity and coordination across institutions is a reflection of how multifaceted a Peruvian policy for glaciers and mountain ecosystems must be. There is a regional trend in developing such normative frameworks; for example, with Argentina having its law for protecting glaciers while Chile is developing a policy for mountains. However, Peru’s aim for the policy is unique in the region in terms of mountain-centered normative frameworks. For instance, it must be every bit about forests as glaciers to reflect the dramatic and diverse montane landscapes where glaciated peaks and tropical cloud forests can neighbor each other. Furthermore, the policy must address the country’s notorious tendency for major natural disasters in the Andes as well as an uncertain future in the face of climate change. INAIGEM’s area for intervention is anywhere 1,500 meters in altitude and above, therefore there are numerous issues that the policy will need to incorporate across varying environmental, social, and economic dimensions.

Thus, this initial document aims to be as holistic and comprehensive as possible in covering such dimensions and comes in the form of a potential national policy. Its framework has policy lines that address necessary outcomes across Peru’s diverse mountain landscapes, with four specific policy axes:

  1. Management and Conservation of Glaciers and Andean Water Resources
  2. Recovery and Sustainability of Mountain Ecosystems
  3. Adaptive Capacity Against Climatic, Geological, and Glaciological Risks
  4. Institutionality, Knowledge, and Socio-Environmental Andean Culture
Core sample collection on a glacier. (Source: INAIGEM)

Within each axis, there are general objectives that link to more specific policy lines. The policy lines were constructed in a coordinated and integrated fashion, with the intention of being transversal within the framework as well as with the existing normative environmental mechanisms of the country. The next steps for developing the policy will be to secure appropriate funding then carry out public consultations to engage various interested stakeholders throughout the country to assure that the end result is representative of their needs and generates applicable solutions to many complex problems. Such consultations should ensure that the policy is human-centered, with a specific focus of strengthening the rights and resilience of marginalized Andean populations. Dr. Jorge Recharte, the director of the Andes Program for the Mountain Institute highlighted that, “Peru is a cradle … of several civilizations centered on issues [within the] mountains … The concept of mountains has … a deep historical value in Peru … Peru needs to generate a mountain policy [that] … has to do with values of the country and has to do with … the identity of the nation.”

Once a final policy proposal is complete, it needs approval from the Ministry of Environment and then the Council of Ministers of the Presidency. Hopefully with their backing, the policy can help generate the necessary political will to acknowledge and address the many problems that pertain to glaciers and mountain ecosystems in Peru. Engr. Villanueva emphasized this as he warned, “If the politicians who make decisions are not aware of the importance of glaciers and mountain ecosystems … investments that are required to be made at the level of these territories will be very limited.”

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Roundup: GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal, UAV’s in the Andes, and Swiss Avalanches

GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal Himalaya

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”

Read more about GLOF risk in Nepal here.

Overlooking a village and glacial river in the Khumbu valley, Mt. Everest region of Nepal (Source: Matt W/Flickr).

 

Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”

Read more about UAV’s for remote sensing here.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore)

 

Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland

“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”

Read more about the Swiss avalanches here.

Avalanche in Zinal, Switzerland (Source: WikiCommons/Camptocamp.org)

Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.

Historically there has been “very little understanding” of how water circulates in areas like proglacial valleys, Jorge Recharte, director of the Andes program at the Mountain Institute, told GlacierHub.

The study’s lead author, Oliver Wigmore of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said his team’s findings help to improve understanding of proglacial hydrology. “This data … is providing unique insights into the patterns and processes that move and store water within these dynamic proglacial environments,” he said.

A view of Huandoy, the second-tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, at sunrise. Just beneath it is the Llanganuco Valley, which was surveyed in the study. (Source: cookierace/Flickr)

This study is the first to apply drone images to the temperature vegetation dryness index (TVDI) method. TVDI demonstrates the relationship between land surface temperature and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), which measures an area’s greenness, or density of vegetation, which can then be used to determine soil moisture.

Anais Zimmer, a Ph.D candidate in the department of geography and the environment at the University of Texas, Austin, said the study offered “excellent outcomes on surface and subsurface hydrological processes that could be used at a broader scale and applied to many other sub-disciplines to understand the functioning and the future of alpine ecosystem services.”

The researchers found that soil moisture varied drastically over very short distances. “The unique, high-resolution multispectral drone imagery that we collected has provided an unprecedented snapshot of the spatial variability of surface soil moisture within these systems,” said Wigmore.

high elevation drone on GlacierHub
A photo of one of the drones used to conduct this study. (Source: Wigmore, et al.)

Drones are essentially the third generation of technology to be used in scientific research. First were direct measurements, which cannot be accurately generalized over such a variable area. Then came remote sensing using satellites, which provides averaged data over larger areas, but would likely miss any important variability happening on a smaller scale. For this study, researchers used two types of drone-mounted cameras: one to measure greenness, an indicator of plant health, and a second to record temperature.

“[The images] provide excellent tools to establish comparisons between valleys, depending on land use changes and climatic factors,” Zimmer said. 

Wigmore and his team conducted their survey in two proglacial valleys in the Cordillera Blanca that were markedly different from each other in terms of precipitation level, glacier extent, land cover, and land use. The researchers found that soil moisture variability across the Cordillera Blanca’s proglacial valleys can be attributed to three criteria: distance from local water supplies; the type and abundance of vegetation; and soil disturbance such as animal grazing.

“We have found that the proglacial valleys in Cordillera Blanca often have substantial groundwater reservoirs that regulate dry season stream flow by storing and gradually releasing wet season precipitation and glacial meltwater,” said Wigmore. He added that knowing the groundwater storage capacity of these valleys could help minimize negative impacts of meltwater decline on downstream communities.

Cordillera Blanca Laguna 69 on GlacierHub
A view of a glacier in the Cordillera Blanca from the Laguna 69, one one of the most famous hikes in Peru. (Source: Esmée Winnubst)/Flickr)

“Research in these high landscapes is key to planning for both local impacts in the short term and whole-watershed impacts in the long term,” Recharte said.

Zimmer emphasized the need for enhanced monitoring, modeling, and case studies that might help to better predict the impact of climate change in mountain communities.

Around the world, many glaciers have already reached peak discharge, which threatens the freshwater supplies of downstream communities. The study by Wigmore and his team not only provides an unprecedented look into the hydrology of proglacial valleys, it also provides a glimmer of hope that not all is lost, at least for now. Their results document the enormous water-storage potential that lies beneath the surface of proglacial valleys, but also highlights the extreme vulnerability of these ecosystems.

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