Roundup: Glacier Collapse, Avalanche, and Loss

Collapse of Two Glaciers in Tibet After Surge-like Instability

From Nature: “Surges and glacier avalanches are expressions of glacier instability, and among the most dramatic phenomena in the mountain cryosphere. Until now, the catastrophic collapse of a glacier, combining the large volume of surges and mobility of ice avalanches, has been reported only for the 2002 130 × 106 m3 detachment of Kolka Glacier (Caucasus Mountains), which has been considered a globally singular event. Here, we report on the similar detachment of the entire lower parts of two adjacent glaciers in western Tibet in July and September 2016, leading to an unprecedented pair of giant low-angle ice avalanches with volumes of 68 ± 2 × 106 m3 and 83 ± 2 × 106 m3… Our findings show that large catastrophic instabilities of low-angle glaciers can happen under rare circumstances without historical precedent.”

Learn more about these rare occurrences here.

An ice-rock avalanche in the Kazbek region sheared off almost the entire Kolka Glacier and devastated the Genaldon valley in 2002 (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).


Five Army Personnel Missing After Avalanche Hits Siachen

From The Express Tribune: “At least five army personnel have gone missing after an avalanche hit an army base in world’s higgest battle ground Siachen. The Pakistan army has started a rescue operation in the area with the help of locals. Heavy machinery has also been sent to speed up the rescue operation. However, the army has still not confirmed any casualties… Avalanches and landslides are common at the Siachen Glacier during the winter and temperatures there can drop as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. An estimated 8,000 troops have died on the glacier since 1984, almost all of them from avalanches, landslides, frostbite, altitude sickness or heart failure rather than combat.”

Read more about the avalanche at the Siachen Glacier here.

An estimated 8,000 troops have died on the Siachen glacier since 1984 (Source: junaidrao/Flickr).


3-D Stereo Images Reconstruct Changes in Antarctic Peninsula Glaciers

From Remote Sensing of Environment: “This paper presents detailed elevation and volume analysis of 16 individual glaciers, grouped at four locations, spread across the Antarctic Peninsula (AP). The study makes use of newly available WorldView-2 satellite stereo imagery to exploit the previously untapped value of archival stereo aerial photography. High resolution photogrammetric digital elevation models (DEMs) are derived to determine three-dimensional glacier change over an unprecedented time span of six decades with an unparalleled mean areal coverage of 82 percent per glacier… The analysis provides insight into one of the most challenging and data-scarce areas on the planet by expanding the spatial extent north of the AP to include previously un-studied glaciers located in the South Shetland Islands. 81 percent of glaciers studied showed considerable loss of volume over the period of record.”

Learn more about the study here.

View of the northern Antarctic Peninsula during IceBridge’s flight back from the Foundation Ice Stream, on Oct. 28 (Source: NASA/Flickr).

Explore the Homeland of the Emperor Penguin

Each winter, thousands of Emperor Penguins leave the ocean and start marching to a remote place in Antarctica for their breeding season. Blinded by blizzards and strong winds, only guided by their instincts, they march to an isolated region, that does not support life for most of the year…

March of the Penguins

The famous documentary March of the Penguins, directed by Luc Jacquet, earned the emperor penguin fanfare and admiration around the world. With their charismatic shape and loving nature, emperor penguins reside on the ice and in the ocean waters of Antarctica for the entirety of their lifespan, living on average from 15 to 20 years. 

Satellite data has been used to help researchers better understand emperor penguin populations and how they respond to environmental variability, including the threat of a rapidly warming planet. But the information gleaned so far remains too limited to significantly help conservation efforts. Enter André Ancel, a researcher who led a team on a mission to study the remaining areas where emperor penguins might breed. His team recently published their findings in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

March of the Penguins Official Trailer:


Photos of emperor penguins taken close to Dumont d’Urville station (source: André Ancel).
Photos of emperor penguins taken close to Dumont d’Urville station (source: André Ancel).
“The climate of our planet is undergoing regional and global changes, which are driving shifts in the distribution and phenology of many plants and animals,” Ancel writes in his paper. “We focus on the southern polar region, which includes one of the most rapidly warming areas of the planet. Among birds adapted to live in this extreme and variable environment, penguin species are the best known.”

Even with their extreme adaption capabilities, emperor penguin breeding colonies are impacted by the fact that chicks often succumb to Antarctic elements. “Though they are one of the tallest and heaviest birds in the world, the survival rate of newborn emperor penguins is really low, only about 19 percent,” Shun Kuwashima, a PhD student at UCSC and self-declared penguin lover, explained. The purpose of Ansel et al.’s research was to predict how the species responds to climate change and to better understand the penguins’ biogeography, or geographical distribution.

“There are only about 54 known breeding colonies,” notes Ancel, “many of which have not yet been comprehensively studied.”

Location of the 54 emperor penguin breeding colonies around the Antarctic continent (source: Ancel et al.).
Location of the 54 emperor penguin breeding colonies around the Antarctic continent (source: Ancel et al.).
But finishing the research was a problem, considering that access to emperor penguin colonies remains limited. Getting accurate measurements on the size and location of the colonies relies on ground mapping and aerial photographs, which is “laborious, time consuming and costly,” according to Ancel. Even with the help of satellites, heavy cloud cover in the winter degrades the quality of images. Not to mention, the lack of light further complicates the collection of accurate data. In addition, the break-out of sea ice at the end of the breeding season can reduce the probability of detecting breeding colonies.

Although the authors did not actually conduct any exploration or examine remote sensing data to locate new emperor penguin colonies, they used data on the location of known colonies to make their findings. Based on the behavioral patterns of penguins, including movement and dispersal, and on the availability of food, the researchers found “six regions potentially sheltering colonies of emperor penguins.”

“What a big ship” (source: Arctic Al / Flickr).
“What a big ship!” (source: Arctic Al /Flickr).
It is true that scientists have looked for emperor penguin colonies with satellite data in the past, but the method was limited. To make improvements and find potentially missing colonies, the team developed an approach for calculating separation distance between colonies.

The approach determined the loxodromic separation distance (the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a sphere) between each pair of geographically adjacent colonies. Then, based on the fact that a breeding adult can travel 100 km from the colony during the breeding period, assuming a circumpolar distribution, the researchers pinpointed the potential areas where emperor penguin colonies might exist or could settle.

Emperor penguins with a chick (source: André Ancel).
An emperor penguin with a chick (source: André Ancel).
“Based on distances between existing colonies, we found six regions potentially sheltering colonies of emperor penguins,” Ancel explained to GlacierHub. “Some of the regions are located near glaciers.”

The regions identified by Ancel et al. do not fundamentally differ from the areas of other known colonies, which makes it possible that there are more than 54 colonies. It is similarly plausible that emperor penguins are adapting to new conditions through behavioral changes, Ancel indicated.

Safe harbor for an emperor penguin chick (source: Ignacio Nazal / Flickr).
Safe harbor for an emperor penguin chick (source: Ignacio Nazal/Flickr).
He expressed anxiety about climate change, noting that emperor penguins do not appear to show much flexibility in this regard. Emperor penguins live on sea ice off the coast, with some living near glaciers, including by Taylor Glacier, Mertz Glacier and Dibble Glacier. They require a proper amount of ice: not too much, so they can walk to the sea and hunt for food, but also not too little, so they can stay away from predators.

“Emperor penguins, like many other sea animals, are critically influenced by the harmful effects of global warming,” Kuwashima told GlacierHub in a recent interview. “The entire emperor penguin population could decrease by a third by the end of the century due to the inadvertent effect of climate change.”

It is heartbreaking to imagine that we may no longer be able to see the adorable emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica, but emperor penguins are in danger. As research conducted by Trathan et al. in 2011 showed, “In the Antarctic Peninsula region, one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet during the latter part of the 20th century, one emperor colony has disappeared.”

Emperor penguin chicks at play (source: Ian Duffy / Flickr).
Emperor penguin chicks at play (source: Ian Duffy/Flickr).
Ancel concluded, “Our analysis highlights a fundamental requirement, that in order to predict how species might respond to regional climate change, we must better understand their biogeography and the factors that lead to their occupation of particular sites.” Armed with this knowledge, we might still be able to protect this beautiful species.

Extreme Skiing Expedition Raises Climate Change Awareness

As glacial ice melts due to global warming, explorers Borge Ousland and Vincent Colliard are in the process of skiing across the world’s 20 largest glaciers to raise awareness about climate change. Deemed the Alpina & Ice Legacy Project, the plan seeks to have the duo cross the world’s most isolated glacial realms over the next 10 years. Ousland hopes that his expeditions will help in develop “new technology, political will, and [understanding about] what’s going on,” according to a November 2016 interview with National Geographic. Given the current state of climate change, the two men may not only be the first to accomplish the feat of traveling the world’s 20 largest glaciers, but also the last. 

The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake. Copyright Icelegacy
The explorers on the edge of an alpine glacial lake (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Both athletes are decorated skiers, with combined expedition experience across all seven continents in the past decade. Borge Ousland, the team’s leader, is credited with the first and fastest solo expedition to the North Pole, a journey that took more than 50 days and resulted in severe weight loss and frostbite. Still, only three years later, Ousland became the first to ski 1,864 miles across Antarctica completely unsupported. Now, for the Ice Legacy Project, 54-year-old Ousland has teamed up with 30-year-old Frenchman Vincent Colliard for a multi-stage glacier expedition.

Derek Parron, an experienced backcountry skier and owner of  Rocky Mountain Underground ski company, attested to the audacity of Ousland and Colliard’s expedition in an interview with GlacierHub: “In all my years of doing long ski treks in the backcountry, I’ve never heard of a team working towards such an extraordinary goal,” he said. “Despite the wealth of experience between the two of them, their project is extremely dangerous with a lot of factors that could potentially go wrong.” 

A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale. Copyright Icelegacy.
A massive crevasse with Colliard for scale (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

The skiing and mountaineering community has a great deal of respect for the duo’s ongoing project, and Parron pointed out that “not only are they touring across the world’s largest glaciers, but they’re documenting the entire process for the world to see.”  

Maintaining a presence on social media is an important piece of the project, allowing the public to track the team’s progress across the numerous expeditions. “The world needs to find technical and political solutions to the environmental crisis,” Ousland told GlacierHub. “This long-term expedition is meant to be an incubator to that process, a visual example and a window to what is happening.”

Ousland and Colliard take a moment to celebrate finally arriving on land after paddling across the Alaskan water (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Despite the risks, the duo has already successfully completed two goals of their project with funding support from watchmaker Alpina: crossing the Stikine Glacier in Alaska and the St. Elias-Wrangell Mountains  Ice Field.  

“We’d get up at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, check to see if we got news from the outside world, then start skiing at 8 a.m,”  Colliard commented to National Geographic about a normal expedition day. “We’d ski for nine hours, towing our sleds, which were about 175 pounds per person, taking 15-minute breaks every hour.” The team would cover approximately 12 miles every day, making sure to keep sufficient food available to sustain a 5,000-calorie daily diet. 

Given the dangers of crossing glacier fields in Alaska, the team’s effort to raise awareness about climate change is all the more admirable. Their project outline states that the plan “combines athletic prowess, human adventure and the sharing of knowledge about the polar environment with as many people as possible, so that future generations may enjoy the fascinating and priceless legacy of glaciers and icecaps.” In order to achieve these goals, Ousland described three major dangers that exist when traveling in isolated glacial environments: hidden crevasses, powerful avalanches from the mountains above, and inclement weather in the form of high winds and cold temperatures.

The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges atop the weather. Copyright Icelegacy.
The variety of surfaces provides additional challenges in addition to the weather (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

Derek Parron, who has skied similar terrain, confirmed these risks to GlacierHub. “When you’re skinning through glacial valleys like Colliard and Ousland are, the ridge lines of the mountains can be more than 4,000 feet above,” he said. “This makes high altitude avalanches a major concern.” In addition to avalanche danger, when temperatures are cold, high winds have the capacity to lower body temperatures, quickly increasing the explorer’s risk of hypothermia and frostbite as they travel across the ice and snow. 

With the project far from over, the team is set to travel to ten different countries to visit the remaining 16 glaciers on their list. Given the sizable nature of the duo’s plan, maintaining both physical and mental strength is of utmost importance.

“On most trips, the mental element is the biggest part,” Colliard explained to National Geographic. Yet, despite the grueling effort that goes into the long expeditions, he also mentioned an upside to his followers on Instagram, “The wilderness answers my questions, and being isolated on an expedition is the best time to let my mind think about life and future projects.”

“Although many of these glaciers are not commonly traveled by the masses, our generation may be the last to have the chance to witness them in all their beauty,” Derek Parron added to GlacierHub. Parron’s comments emphasize the importance of Ousland and Colliard’s present project, covering thousands of miles of terrain to promote positive environmental stewardship. 

Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit. Copyright Icelegacy.
Despite age and cultural differences, the duo is tight-knit (source: Copyright Icelegacy).

In reflecting upon the beginning of the project, Colliard explained, “For me, adventure is a moment, an experience, a journey that takes you to a place of uncertainty, a place where success and failure are one in the same, a place where life is authentic.” It is in these thoughts that the team seems to find the drive to explore, pushing to expose the impending threat of climate change on our planet’s few untouched natural environments. In doing so, the men hope that future generations may have access to the same “authentic,” natural experiences we are privileged to enjoy today. 

Photo Friday: Antarctic Glaciers Monitored by NASA

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


Jean de Pomereu (French, b. 1969), Fissure 2 (Antarctica) from Sans Nom, 2008, archival inkjet print, 107 x 129 cm, Whatcom Museum, Gift of the artist
A large crack leading to an Antarctica glacier (Source: Jean de Pomereu/Creative Commons).