At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland
“Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller.”
“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub. “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”
Seabirds Find New Ways to Forage in a Changing Arctic
“On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid…In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland.”
Read the full story by GlacierHub writer Audrey Ramming here.
A First-ever Look at Ice Stream Formation
In this week’s Video of the Week, the world gets its first-ever look at ice stream formation. The video, which was published on the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) YouTube channel on December 17, tracks the rapid movement of the Vavilov Ice Cap, in the high Russian Arctic, from summer 2015 to summer 2018. In the video the glacier’s speed is color-coded by meters per day of movement in what scientists believe is the first documented transition of a glacial surge to a longer-lasting flow known as an ice stream.
On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid.
In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland. One group included foraging surface feeders like the black-legged kittiwake. The other was comprised of divers, like the little auk. The researchers found that while the surface feeders congregate in the area of the cloudy plume, divers prefer to search for food where the water is less cloudy, spatially dividing the bird groups near the edges of glaciers.
Françoise Amélineau, a researcher of seabird ecology at the Norwegian Polar Institute, published a study in Scientific Reports last year, presenting the results of a 12-year monitoring program in East Greenland, which analyzed biological parameters of the little auk, the most common seabird in the Atlantic Arctic. Amélineau says that little auks use vision to detect prey and because meltwater plumes are so cloudy, the birds tend to forage farther offshore in clearer water, where they dive more than 20 meters below the surface.
A 2013 study in Polar Biology noted that little auks inhabiting West Spitsbergen, Norway also preferred to forage in clear water, far from glacier fronts, where they could easily identify water masses containing large, energy-rich prey.
Little auks usually feed in cold waters at the edge of sea-ice, up to 150 km away from their colonies. “In our Greenland study, we looked at sea ice concentration because some of the prey consumed by little auks are sympagic (associated to the sea ice),” said Amélineau, and “the little auks performed shallower dives in the presence of sea-ice, probably to feed on ice-associated amphipods”––a small type of crustacean. However, these ice-covered feeding areas are disappearing as the climate warms, which could make foraging more difficult.
Not only does a warming Arctic affect the presence of sea ice, it also alters the distribution of the little auk’s prey. Little auks feed on large zooplankton, which remain at depth in clearer waters. As the Arctic warms, the smallest (and lower calorie) Atlantic species of zooplankton is extending northward, threatening the range of the two larger (and higher calorie) Arctic species that little auks prefer. The invasion of the small zooplankton has the potential to negatively affect the fitness and breeding success of the little auk, which is thought to have the highest metabolic rate of all seabirds due to its small size and large flying and diving range.
With sea ice disappearing, the fate of little auk survival may be at risk. However, little auks from a colony of Franz Josef Land, located in the Russian Arctic, are actually taking advantage of a glacial meltwater plume––an adaptation that could be crucial. “We show that in Franz Josef Land, little auks have changed their foraging behavior with sea-ice retreat and the increase of glacier meltwater volume. At this site, they foraged at the glacier meltwater front instead of at more distant feeding grounds near the sea-ice because it allowed them to make shorter foraging trips,” Amélineau told GlacierHub.
Amélineau explained that “at the glacier front, zooplankton is stunned by cold and osmotic shock at the boundary between glacier melt and seawater, which makes it easier for little auks to catch. It probably concentrates their prey closer to the colony, but according to Nishizawa’s study, if the turbidity of the water is too high, meltwater plumes become unfavorable foraging areas for little auks who use vision to detect prey.” Discharge mechanisms can differ between glaciers, and this may be why little auks are able to utilize the Franz Josef Land differently than in Greenland, Amélineau added.
Black-legged kittiwakes are the most common type of gull in the world. While they do consume large zooplankton and small crustaceans, they mainly prefer to eat small fish and other marine invertebrates. While they are the only type of gull that dives and swims underwater, they make very shallow dives compared to that of the little auk, and are unhindered by turbid water.
Turbid subglacial discharge, which is unloaded 10-100 meters beneath the surface of the water, upwells at glacial fronts to form plumes that bring zooplankton, as well as marine worms and jellies from depth to the water’s surface. “The foraging behaviour of kittiwakes observed in the tidewater glacier bays revealed them to be swarming over the subglacial discharge, with rapid simultaneous nose-diving and plunging into the surface water in pursuit of rising prey,” according to one study in Scientific Reports.
While the size of meltwater plumes at glacial fronts are increasing with climate warming in the Arctic, apparently benefitting surface feeders, it is also important to consider the stage of glacial retreat. Kittiwakes, as well as other surface feeders, benefit most from deep tidewater glacier bays because they have strong discharges that upwell prey to the surface over a wide area.
According to the IPCC, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. “While other species may be able to shift their distribution to higher latitudes or altitudes,” Amélineau said, “Arctic species may not find suitable habitat anymore.”
This is both ecologically and culturally concerning.
While little auks are ecologically considered a keystone species in the Arctic, they are also culturally important to the Indigenous peoples that live there. “They are hunted in Greenland,” Amélineau told GlacierHub. The Inuit “prepare a food called kiviak, where the little auks are fermented for 3 months in a seal skin!” Approximately five hundred of these birds are stuffed, whole, into the skin, and left in a pile of stones to ferment over the winter. They are a popular treat on weddings and birthdays.
Biological responses to changing climatic conditions are difficult to predict, particularly in remote locations that are already heavily impacted like the Arctic, where the ecosystem is already impacted by ongoing sea-ice decline and warming. Amélineau says this makes long-term seabird monitoring efforts extremely important, especially as these birds can be seen as ‘sentinels’ of what will happen at lower latitudes.
The physical geography of the Arctic Ocean is evolving as the climate warms. Most recently, the Russian Navy discovered five new islands off the coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which were exposed as a result of glacial melt. Novaya Zemlya is situated in a remote corner of the world, northwest of the Russian mainland. There are two islands in the archipelago, and while the whole area is remote, the northern Severny Island is uninhabited and contains more glaciers than the southern Yuzhny island.
The time-lapse map above shows one of the five new islands being exposed off the coast of Novaya Zemlya. To see the emergence of the other four islands via time-lapse images, visit From a Glacier’s Perspective, by Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.
Located in St. Petersburg, the Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping has long been one of Russia’s leading maritime technical institutions, dating back to 1781 when Empress Catherine II opened the first nautical schools in the Russian Empire. Thus, this university is linked to the foundation of Russian maritime navigation and continues to perfect the operation of the Russian fleet. In 2016, Marina Migunova, then a student at the university, noticed five new islands along the coast of Severny while examining satellite images of the Vize (or Wiese) Bay. Migunova is now an engineer of the Oceanographic Measurement Service for the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy.
Interestingly, the Wiese Bay is named after Vladimir Yulyevich Wiese, an early twentieth century Russian scientist, member of the Soviet Arctic Institute, and founder of the Geographico-hydrological School of Oceanography. He spent his life studying the Arctic ice pack, and in 1930, aboard the Icebreaker Sedov, he and his crew discovered the Wiese Island in the area north of Novaya Zemlya. Its hydrometeorological research station, that was established in 1945, is one of the northernmost in the world.
The red arrow points to Wiese Island. Novaya Zemlya is circled in brown. Franz Josef Land is circled in blue. (Source: Demis/Mohonu)
It took three years, but the Northern Fleet has finally visited and confirmed the discovery of these five new islands. The voyage to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago occurred this past summer, and carried scientists and filmmakers from the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Arctic National Park. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, these islands emerged in the wake of retreating glaciers situated near the Vylki glacier and range from 900 to 54,500 square meters in size.
In addition to confirming the existence of Migunova’s five new islands on the North Island of Novaya Zemlya, the crew also surveyed the depth of many straits, as well as the topography of the ocean floor of the Barents and Kara Seas. On this expedition, the Northern Fleet was also searching for the remains of a Soviet scientist who died in 1950 as he was compiling maps of the “New Earth,” Novaya Zemlya. They found his remains along with a weather station that had been destroyed in 1943 by Nazi submarines. The crew then identified the islands of Littrow and also confirmed the presence of a new island in the Gunter Bay of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, which is another remote group of islands located north of the Russian mainland in the Arctic Ocean. It was explored by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1800’s during a period of geopolitcal competition between the Austro-Hungarians and Russians in the Arctic Ocean, and one of its isolated islands may have even served as a secret Nazi war base during World War II.
The expedition follows a recent surge of coastline surveying by the Russian Navy. The Russian Ministry of Defense has reported that since 2015, the Northern Fleet hydrographic service has identified over thirty new islands, capes, and bays near the Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos using remote sensing techniques. Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Defense noted that “critical points” in the boundary waters have been clarified to describe the territories of the Russian Federation as well as their economic reach. As you might guess, both of these archipelagos are important locations for military infrastructure and personnel.
Russian Military Activity in the Arctic
During the Cold War period, Novaya Zemlya was the site of Soviet atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. In fact, it hosted over 130 nuclear detonations, including the “Tsar Bomba,” which was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated – almost four thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Dr. Kristian Åtland, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, told GlacierHub that since the Cold War period, Russia has reinvigorated much of its old military infrastructure as well as built new Arctic infrastructure on Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, and the East Siberian Islands. These include airfields, naval port facilities, radar and early warning installations, and air defense systems. According to Åtland, defense of the coastline is of critical importance to the Russians.
More than half of Russia’s naval nuclear forces are positioned to the immediate east of Norway on the Kola peninsula, and the Russian Navy uses the Barents and Kara seas, which surround Novaya Zemlya, as their patrol and transit areas. “They [submarines] venture into the Arctic Ocean too, where water depths are much greater. Here, it’s easier to hide under the cover of ice or along the ice edge where ambient noise conditions are more favorable, and where their submarines are more difficult to track by western forces,” said Åtland. “The ice cover is shrinking, and Novaya Zemlya’s new islands are showing the changes in the physical geography of the region.”
While the shallow maritime area closest to the coast of the new islands is not very strategic in terms of submarine activity, the changing physical geography is affecting security in a number of ways. “Nuclear subs are more difficult to locate and track under ice, so the shrinking ice cover could be a challenge for strategic forces,” Åtland told GlacierHub. Still, he noted, “the strategic significance of the Barents Sea for Russia should not be underestimated. To ensure safe operations of subs, the Russians can use a number of assets, such as surface vessels, maritime patrol aircraft and different sensors on the sea beds to optimize their monitoring skills and exercise what we call ‘sea control’ over the Barents Sea.” This is especially important as the level of activity in the Arctic Ocean increases with climate change.
“Seasonally, the ice sort of comes down during the winter, and expands and retracts over the seasons, over the years,” said Åtland. He mentioned that this will continue to be the status until the end of the 2030’s, when we are likely to see a total disappearance of Arctic ice in the summer months. It is projected that, by the end of the century, the ice will expand and retract until it is completely gone in every season. “That will be a whole new situation and could change the strategic dynamics of the region. It could lead to a significant increase in sea traffic and other economic activities in the region as a whole.”
Geopolitical Shifts in the Arctic
In the Arctic Ocean, “not only is the ice melting, but it is also thinning,” stated David Titley, a retired Rear Admiral of the US Navy and a professor of Meteorology and International Affairs at Penn State University. As these waterways become clearer, the Russians are making large efforts to monetize their northern sea routes. They have been working with the Chinese to transport natural gas through the Arctic Ocean, and the fact that they are able to run their ships “without ice-breaker assistance, in the winter, in the Arctic, shows just how much the ice is thinning.”
One pressing issue is, of course, the so-called “straits” issue. This raises the question of whether or not the newly formed waterways are part of the internal waters of the Russian Federation, or if they should be seen as international straits where the right of transit applies. This same case is occurring in the northwest passage by Canada, according to Åtland. Indeed, economic zones are expanding with the warming climate. Therefore, “in addition to the changing physical environment, you also have a changing geopolitical environment,” said Titley, “and there are lots of issues that must be worked out before we can see any shift in shipping.”
Because the geopolitical climate suggests transformation, the Suez Canal authority is now promoting their shipping path. Titley noted that we could see an increase in competition between Russia trying to reorient shipping along their Northern Sea route in the Arctic Ocean versus Egyptians promoting shipping through their Suez Canal. “If you’re a shipper, before you can sanction routes, there are questions of insurance, and how much the Russians will charge to move through the route, as well as for ice-breakers and escorts. Shippers will start to get a choice between route options,” said Titley. An “over-the-top” shuttle service across the North Pole to Iceland may even become a possibility in the future, he added.
The Arctic is incredibly rich in oil and natural gas: “there are huge amounts of it up there,” but since working underwater, especially in the Arctic, is hard, “at what cost are we willing to extract it, given how easy it is to obtain elsewhere?” proposed Titley. Ice is dangerous stuff if it drifts around oil infrastructure. Titley laughed, “My guess is, if that becomes the last place to get a barrel of oil, chances are we’re gonna go get it.”
The discovery of Novaya Zemlya’s five new islands is simply the most recent chapter in the escapade of Arctic melt. In Mauri Pelto’s blog, “From a Glacier’s Perspective,” he writes: “Climate change has been driving the recession of glaciers and ice sheets, which in turn has been changing our maps.” Indeed, all the mapping and exploration the Russians are doing in the Arctic gives it the feel of a new frontier exposed from beneath the ice. While exciting in some ways, it is important to consider the potential damaging effects to the planet’s ecosystems and geophysical processes. Titley put it perfectly: “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we used every last stone, so we shouldn’t leave the fossil fuel age because we used every last drop of fossil fuel.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park was established in 1980 and is comprised of 8.4 million acres of rugged landscape. Wilderness advocate Robert Marshall gave the park its name, citing two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, as the gates from the central Brooks Range to the Arctic.
The elements and tectonic shifts have given shape to Gates of the Arctic.
So, too, have glaciers.
The glaciers of Gates of the Arctic are unique—they are the only ones lying entirely above the Arctic Circle. Among them are those snaking through the Arrigetch Peaks of the Brooks Range.
Arrigetch means “fingers of the outstretched hand” in the Inupiat language.
Runoff from the park’s glaciers feeds several rivers that cross Gates of the Arctic, including the Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk. Those rivers provide sustenance to the park’s rich plant and animal life, which, in turn, has provided resources for people going back 13,000 years, when nomadic hunters and gathers inhabited the region.
The park’s glaciers, like many others in Alaska and within the US parks system, are retreating. The National Park Service estimates the Arrigetch Glaciers have receded about a quarter of mile in the past century. And, as those glaciers shrink, salmon populations are declining, which impacts the livelihoods of communities living and working downstream.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate as lower latitudes, which is melting land and sea ice, as well as threatening biodiversity.
Mercury is a contaminant which poses environmental health risks to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems around the world, especially in the Arctic. A recent study in Environmental Science & Technology traces the source of mercury concentrations in Lake Hazen to increased flow in glacial rivers. Lake Hazen, located in Nunavut, Canada, is the High Arctic’s largest lake by volume, and reaches depths up to 267m.
There are both natural and anthropogenic sources of mercury. Global mercury emissions have been declining, specifically after ratification of the Minamata Convention. However, as anthropogenic sources decrease, climate change could be increasing natural sources of mercury—if in a less direct fashion than emissions.
Mercury is stored in permafrost and glacial ice, so as permafrost thaws and ice melts, downstream ecosystems could be impacted. Microbes can also transform mercury into a poisonous neurotoxin called methylmercury, which impacts the nervous system. Both can bioaccumulate in organisms, especially at higher levels of the food chain.
“The primary focus of the research program at Lake Hazen is on understanding the biogeochemistry of freshwater ecosystems downstream of the glaciers of the Northern Ellesmere Icefield,” said Kyra St. Pierre, the study’s lead author, in an interview with GlacierHub. St. Pierre, who conducted this research as a part of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Canada, went on to say that the study aimed to explain how recent warming patterns might impact biogeochemical cycles in the future.
Lake Hazen receives meltwater—and up to 94 percent of total mercury inputs—primarily from three glacial rivers. The study showed that most mercury from these rivers flowed into the lake in particulate form. This means that the particles carrying mercury are not dissolved, making the water flowing into Lake Hazen more turbid, or cloudy, than the lake’s existing water. Due to the weight of the particles it carries, turbid water is also very dense. The increased weight creates what is called a turbidity current, which efficiently deposits most of the mercury particles in the bottom of the lake.
St. Pierre named these turbidity currents the study’s most surprising result, because it revealed important aspects of how Lake Hazen’s watershed functions. “Not only do [turbidity currents] transport mercury from the surface but also oxygen and other nutrients directly to the depths of the lake,” she said.
This study is distinctive in that it approached mercury cycling at a watershed-scale instead of looking at individual system components. St. Pierre called this one of the study’s most important attributes, explaining that if, for example, they had decided to focus simply on Lake Hazen’s outflows, they would have concluded that mercury concentrations were extremely low.
Lake Hazen’s turbidity currents make it a huge mercury sink. Despite huge mercury inputs from glacial rivers, the lake’s main outflow, the Ruggles River, discharges relatively small amounts of mercury and methylmercury. The researchers found that the lake sequestered over 95 percent of total mercury inputs to the system annually. Downstream in the Ruggles River, mercury concentrations rose exponentially, a result of erosion and thawing permafrost.
The High Arctic is extremely sensitive to increasing temperatures and precipitation in the context of anthropogenic climate change. Craig Emmerton and Jennifer Graydon, researchers at the University of Alberta, spoke to GlacierHub about some of the larger implications of this study. “The High Arctic is among the most rapidly changing regions on Earth and its climate is expected to become warmer and wetter,” they said, pointing out the potential role of glaciers and permafrost as developing sources of mercury with the power to contaminate freshwater and marine ecosystems.
“I think we can safely infer that as warming continues in High Arctic latitudes, we can expect a greater delivery of mercury from the cryosphere to downstream ecosystems,” said St. Pierre. Though Lake Hazen retains most mercury inputs from glacial rivers, the researchers found a 3.4-times greater water volume and 2-times higher delivery of total mercury in the notably warm summer of 2015, than in the much cooler summer of 2016. So, as glaciers continue to melt, more mercury will inevitably make its way downstream.
Lake Hazen’s depth and size draw close similarities to High Arctic fjord systems. The researchers showed that these turbidity currents also occur in fjords indirectly fed by land-terminating glaciers. Almost 70 percent of arctic glaciers are land-terminating glaciers, and so could be important sources of mercury for marine ecosystems. More, fjords fed by marine-terminating glaciers can flow directly into high productivity zones, increasing potential for bioaccumulation in organisms and into coastal food webs.
Ultimately, this study highlights an important discovery—even with reduction of direct anthropogenic sources of mercury, there is a lingering, growing anthropogenic driver—climate change.
As global warming increases, cold regions like the Arctic continue to experience great shifts in climate and environment. The effects of these shifts are closely observed in human populations, but how are different species impacted? A recent study examined white whales in Svalbard, Norway, and the climate change effects on their behavior and diet. Researchers looked at how reduced sea-ice formation and melting tidal glacierfronts influence the changes in habitat and movement patterns for this species.
White Whale Background and Observations
White whales, also known as beluga whales, can be found in the circumpolar Arctic. They’re known for their distinct white color and are one of the smallest whale species in the world. They are sometimes referred to as “sea canaries” for their high-pitched calls. With an estimated 150,000 individuals globally, they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Some local populationssuch as those located in Cook Inlet, Alaska, are consideredcritically endangered.
These whales remain off the Svalbard coasts year-round. They live in sea-ice fjords and tidal glacier-front habitats. The fjords are sheltered from open-water predators, human activity, and extreme weather, making them particularly ideal for juvenile mammals. Tidal glacier-fronts are prime foraging areas for the whales. These regions have fresh water ideal for polar cod and capelin, two fish that make up a large part of white whale diet.
White whales migrate seasonally, some travelling 10s of kms, others as far as several hundred. During the warm summer season, seaice in the fjords melts, providing an opportunity for the whales to move and feed in this region. Sea ice formation in the winter pushes the whales out toward the glacier-front habitats, where they spend most of their time during the colder season.
Methodology and Sampling
Increased warming is expected to negatively influence the environmental composition of this region. Svalbard has the greatest decrease in seasonal sea-ice cover in the circumpolar Arctic region. Rapid increase of air and sea water temperatures over the last two decades are the major contributing factors to this change. According to researchers, glacier-front melting and the associated reduction of foraging habitat could lead to changes in diet. Less sea-ice formation in fjords and warmer seasons could also affect biodiversity in these habitats. Could this mean white whales will need to migrate elsewhere for feeding during warmer seasons?
Researchers in this study compared habitat and movement changes of white whales, before and after major warming induced changes in the environment. They believed these changes began in 2006, so the two study periods were 1995-2001 and 2013-2016.
Fortunately for the researchers, satellite data from earlier years was available. They used satellite tracking to take measurements of whale movement patterns for the later period, and were then able to compare movement patterns for both periods. To track movement, white whale groups were live-captured using a nylon net and then tagged.
GlacierHub interviewed Kit M. Kovacs, one of the study’s authors and a senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Kovacs explained that choice of methods reflected concerns for animal welfare as well as data gathering. Groups without calves were netted, to prevent possible injury to young whales, she said. A total of 38 adult individuals were sampled for the study, 34 of them being male. Kovacs also explained that the females travel with their young, while adult males tend to travel in all-male groups, which would explain the sampling bias.
Research Findings and White Whale Resiliency
Results showed that during the later tracking period, the whales continued to remain close to the Svalbard coast. Scientists found this behavior to be striking, particularly when looking at populations in other areas that move long distances. The whales remain close to Spitsbergen, one of the largest islands in Svalbard. They move from the west coast fjords in the summertoward the east coast in the winter. The greatest distance of movement occurred when individuals were forced off the coast by the winter formation of landfast sea ice.
Some changes in habitat were observed. Whales were found to spend much time in glacier-front habitats for both periods, although they now spend more time out in the fjords. Less sea ice formation in the fjords has allowed for an influx of fish species that prefer the warmer waters. Arctic fish, particularly polar cod, have declined in numbers in this habitat, and are being replaced by Atlantic cod, haddock and herring. This new fish composition could be attracting the whales to fjords during the warm season.
Kovacs explained how a change in diet could affect the whales. “White whales use a pretty broad array of food types across their range, so it is unlikely to be a big deal for them to switch to new fish types. They might have to eat more, if the new fishes have a lower fat content, just to keep the same energy intake. As long as enough are available, it should not change their annual intake,” she said.
The white whales’ ability to consume a variety of food resources proves to be beneficial to the species. This helps them build resilience against some of the extreme effects of warming. The beluga may be able to adapt to an environment with less ice than in the past due to this dietary flexibility. Other species may not be so fortunate.
In the new book, “Nordic Narratives of Nature and the Environment,” author Lauren LaFauci analyzes the perceived safety and stability of remote, glacierized locations of the northern Arctic. Her chapter, “The Safest Place on Earth: Cultural Imaginaries of Safety in Scandinavia,” begins its inquiry into this subject by examining the fictional Arctic town of “Fortitude,” popularized by the Sky TV/Amazon television series of the same name.
Fortitude is revered by its community for its safety, due to both its seclusion and the way it is ensconced in a serene, quiet glacier. Because of Fortitude’s recognized safety, it becomes a metonym, or symbol, for the perceived safety of a northern Arctic glacial environment.
Fortitude’s invulnerability is absolute, extending its security all the way to the preservation of life itself. It’s a place where people aren’t allowed to die, and resembles the real-life northernmost Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Norway. The reasoning for this is because deceased bodies remain preserved in extreme cold, their inability to decay rendering any infectious diseases still viable. With the cemetery of Fortitude filled with decay-resistant, plague-infested bodies from the early 1900s, it is evident that Fortitude isn’t as safe as it’s purported to be.
Even the town name, Fortitude, synonymous with terms such as endurance, resilience and grit, signals the hardships endured in order to live there. This imagined safety demonstrates how human order is often privileged over the dangers of the Arctic wild. In her chapter, LaFauci tells how humans use the snow as a blank slate in order to re-write themselves and design new meanings. “The town’s isolation in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago marks the place as a character in its own right, albeit one inscribed with these conflicting human meanings,” she writes.
LaFauci then turns her reader’s attention from fiction to reality as she explores the Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard archipelago, which houses copies of seeds from over 1,700 different crop gene banks from around the world, as well as the Future Library Project in Oslo, a collaborative anthology of books to be published in the year 2114. Both projects take place in similar climates to Fortitude; locations believed to be safe from a Doomsday event due to their glacierized geographies, thereby providing for the conservation of biological and cultural knowledge.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on a remote island halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Crop Trust, the managing organization for the Global Seed Vault, asserts that its location is ideal for long-term seed storage due to its stable geography with low humidity, its location above sea-level where it is safe from flooding and sea-level rise, and the fact that the permafrost ensures natural freezing, which will continuously preserve its contents in case of power loss.
Climate change, however, recently had other plans for the Global Seed Vault’s imagined safety, LaFauci notes. In 2016, increased Arctic temperatures— the average for 2016 was over 7 degrees Celsius— along with frequent heavy rain led to a melting of the permafrost around the vault. This caused flooding within the vault’s entry chamber, putting humanity’s crop insurance at risk.
This warming in the Svalbard archipelago, also known as polar or Arctic amplification, is two to four times greater than warming observed in other areas of the planet. The whiteness of the sea ice in the Arctic typically reflects the sun’s incoming radiation back out into space; however, the rapid rate of melting sea ice changes its ability to reflect radiation. Instead, the darker ocean left after the sea ice melts absorbs heat from the sun. The more heat absorbed, the more sea ice melts, which results in a feedback loop of continual increased warming, ice melt, thawing permafrost and glacial runoff.
After investigating “safety” of the Global Seed Vault and the science around our melting Arctic, LaFauci returns to the fictional story of Fortitude and asks, “How do we tell stories that resist this utopic imaginary rather than reinforce a false sense of security?”
She further encourages narrative to propel us to act when she writes, “As a problem of story-telling, of narrative—what stories can we tell that will move others to action?—the urgency of communicating climate change thus becomes a problem, not only for climate scientists, but for the environmental humanities.”
The University of California, Los Angeles describes the environmental humanities as a “concept for organizing humanistic research, for opening up new forms of interdisciplinarity both within the humanities and in collaboration with the social and natural sciences, and for shaping public debate and policies on environmental issues.” LaFauci believes the cultural stories we tell ourselves can either aid us in embracing or ignoring the hard truths about our changing climate and planetary crisis.
She calls our tendency to ignore harsh realities in storytelling “Anthropocentic folly.” Told differently, these stories can therefore reframe the warming Arctic regions as unstable and unsafe— consistent with the reality of Arctic amplification.
So what does humanity do to store our biological crop library safely in case of an apocalypse? How do we ‘back up’ life on earth ahead of a doomsday event that renders all of our geographies unsafe?
Perhaps the obvious place to backup humanity is in outer space or even on the moon. It’s time to begin having conversations about how we’ll load our biological humanity into the proverbial trunk of our car, spurned by the fictional stories we tell ourselves.
The endless expanse of white snow atop a glacier, framed by Icelandic mountains, served as the set for the new movie “Arctic,” which premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in France. The film, a solo-survival thriller shot in 2017, is director and screenwriter Joe Penna’s feature film debut.
The only survivor of a plane crash in the highlands of Iceland, researcher and explorer Overgård must brave the frigid environment during his decision to either stay with the relative safety of the plane wreckage or venture into the unknown in search of help.
“Arctic” is the man versus nature genre in its purest form, with the story and imagery speaking in place of the film’s lack of dialogue. Mads Mikkelsen, who portrays Overgård, told Variety that the landscape “is the main character in many ways.”
The environment is more than just visually striking, as its physical challenges are not an easy hurdle. About 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and the winter temperatures average around 14 degrees Fahrenheit but can drop well into the negatives. This climate, paired with sustained high winds made for a difficult shoot, but an intense portrayal.
Despite these challenges, Penna maintains that “the tundra is the precise place where ‘Arctic’ was to be shot— the harshest environment on Earth.”
The juxtaposition of a solitary human against the vastness of the Arctic allows the courage and determination of Overgård to shine through.
“Nothing represents as much the fragility of a human as the sight of a simple silhouette crossing an endless sea of snow,” he states. This scene, shot from above, specifically proved difficult when shooting in a snow-covered landscape. “With virgin snow everywhere you look, it was difficult to manage the sets so that they do not look like a construction site where 30 people came and went,” stated director of photography Tómas Örn Tómasson.
With winds 30 to 40 knots throughout the 20-day winter shoot, continuity was difficult with the weather in Iceland’s highlands, where the largest ice caps are located.
“Throughout the filming, weather conditions changed every hour, destroying the continuity of our catch,” said Penna in an interview.
The film, with a 97-minute run-time, was a “Golden Camera” nominee at Cannes. It claimed one of the midnight showings where it received an extended standing ovation. Reviews overall have been favorable. It received a 7.3 out of 10 on IMDB and a 100 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes by critics.
The film will be released in the United States in 2019 by studio Bleeker Street where a wider audience will have the chance to witness the frozen, glacial world of “Arctic.”
Penna encourages the audience to “admire our main character’s silent performance,” which allows them to “take something different away from the film than the person sitting next to [them] in the theatre.”
Glaciers are an excellent way to achieve this effect, and filmmakers have taken notice of glacial settings for many years. Glaciers are able to stimulate the imagination of all those involved by providing a truly unique and striking environment sure to capture the attention of the audience.
Popular images of the Arctic often feature a polar bear with its white fur matching the surrounding sea ice or a narwhal with its tusk piercing the ocean waves. You are less likely to consider the Arctic tadpole shrimp, a tiny crustacean that is vitally important to many food webs in harsh Arctic environments. A recent study in the journal Boreal Environment Research examined the tadpole shrimp and its contribution to the diet of the small salmon-related Arctic charr in a glacial-fed river and lake in Svalbard, Norway.
Arctic tadpole shrimp are found in lakes across the Arctic, from Siberia to Iceland. The size of the shrimp population in a lake reflects the density of the charr population. In deeper lakes, where Arctic charr are prevalent, the shrimp are rare or not found at all, but in shallow lakes with few or no charr, the shrimp are widespread. In lakes where the two species coexist, the shrimp are a key source of food for the charr.
Though the connection between charr and tadpole shrimp populations has been established, no one had ever studied the charr’s diet in Arctic streams, many of which flow into lakes inhabited by both the tadpole shrimp and charr. This study set out to fill this gap by examining the summertime diet of riverine charr on Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands of the Svalbard archipelago.
The study focused on the streams that feed the shallow lake Straumsjøen on Spitsbergen and its outlet river. The streams that empty into the lake from the south and west discharge clear water, while water flowing from the northern stream fed by the glacier Geabreen is cold and cloudy because of glacial meltwater and silt.
To analyze the diets of the charr, the authors captured fish from the the lake’s outlet stream by utilizing electrofishing, a fish surveying method that stuns a fish when it swims near an electrode-generated electric field. The researchers then killed the captured fish and analyzed the contents of their stomachs.
The results were surprising. Charr caught in the outlet river had tadpole shrimp in their stomaches. This discovery was unexpected because young tadpole shrimp are planktonic, meaning they drift in the water instead of swimming, which is why they were previously thought to be unable to inhabit running waters. In fact, this was the first time the tadpole shrimp had ever been recorded in running waters and as a part of a charr’s diet on Spitsbergen.
One possible explanation for the tadpole shrimp’s presence in the outlet river is that the shrimp simply drifted from lake Straumsjøen and ponds connected to the river, according to the authors. However, this possibility was considered unlikely given the significant number of tadpole shrimp found in the diet of riverine charr.
The more likely explanation takes three factors into account, one of which is the glacier. First, the eggs and larva of the tadpole shrimp are adhesive and able to attach to rocks and other objects within the rivers. This trait would allow the shrimp to avoid being washed away down the river. Secondly, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the rivers could signal low fish density. A lower fish density would allow the tadpole shrimp population to remain steady and still contribute to the charr diets.
The third factor is the retreat of the glacier Geabreen which feeds lake Straumsjøen and its outlet river. The glacier’s retreat has caused a subsequent decrease in the discharge of cold, silty meltwater into the lake. Thus, the presence of the tadpole shrimp in the Straumsjøen watercourse may be a result of the upstream retreat of the Geabreen, as resultant river conditions are now more conducive to tadpole shrimp, lead author Reidar Borgstrøm told GlacierHub.
The changing climate driving the retreat of the Geabreen glacier is also likely to impact river conditions and in turn tadpole shrimp populations. Under future climate change scenarios, the Arctic is projected to get warmer and wetter. Rising temperatures in Svalbard during the summer months, however, are unlikely to negatively impact the tadpole shrimp as populations of this widely distributed species in southern Norway, where summers are already fairly warm, have remained stable, Borgstrøm said.
Increased rainfall in conjunction with increased glacial meltwater, on the other hand, could have a negative effect on the tadpole shrimp, as the heightened streamflow could potentially flush the tadpole shrimp from the river. These changing conditions may cause riverine tadpole shrimp populations to fall, which would in turn have a cascading effect on the Arctic charr who rely on the shrimp as a major source of food in the Straumsjøen watercourse.
Future studies in both Svalbard and other places across the Arctic would help scientists better understand how glacial retreat and climate change will impact the tadpole shrimp and other species.
Glaciers around the world are melting, all at different speeds. In this week’s Video of the Week, check out how scientists are using the sounds from melting Arctic glaciers to assess the speed of glacier melting.
The sounds are produced by air bubbles that become trapped when snow turns to ice over time. When the ice melts, the bubbles pop in the water producing a sound that can help show how fast a glacier is melting. By using acoustical recordings, scientists hope to improve our understanding of how sea levels may rise in the future. The video was published by the American Geophysical Union. In addition to this video, check out GlacierHub’s article on the paper behind the video.
Everest Climbing Route at Risk from Climate Change
From The Washington Post: “As climbers begin to reach the summit of Mount Everest, some veterans are avoiding the Nepali side of the world’s highest peak because melting ice and crowds have made its famed Khumbu Icefall too dangerous… Several veteran climbers and well-respected Western climbing companies have moved their expeditions to the northern side of the mountain in Tibet in recent years, saying rising temperatures and inexperienced climbers have made the icefall more vulnerable. Research by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development shows that the Khumbu glacier is retreating at an average of 65 feet per year, raising the risk of avalanche.”
From Variety: “‘Arctic,’ a notably quiet and captivating slow-build adventure film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a researcher-explorer who has crash-landed in the frozen wilderness, is the latest example of a genre we know in our bones, one that feels so familiar it’s almost comforting. It’s another solo-survival movie, one more tale of a shipwrecked soul that derives its spirit and design from the mythic fable of the form, ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ The challenge of watching a stranded man toil away on his own, of course, is that it seems, on the surface, to be inherently undramatic. That’s why nearly every one of these movies has had a buried hook, a way of turning a barren situation into compulsively watchable and suspenseful storytelling. “Robinson Crusoe” (the novel, published in 1719, and its various film versions) set the template by presenting its tale as one of human ingenuity — in essence, it prophesied the Industrial Revolution in the form of a stripped-down one-man show. “Cast Away” had Wilson the soccer ball and Tom Hanks’ plucky enterprise. “127 Hours” had James Franco, as a hiker trapped in a rocky wedge, nattering into his video camera. “All Is Lost,” set on a sailboat adrift at sea, had Robert Redford’s finely aging regret and his character’s technical instincts. “Robinson Crusoe” had Friday.”
Study Examines Plants Exposed Due to Glacial Retreat
From the Journal of Plant Research: “To examine carbon allocation, nitrogen acquisition and net production in nutrient-poor conditions, we examined allocation patterns among organs of shrub Alnus fruticosa at a young 80-year-old moraine in Kamchatka… Since the leaf mass isometrically scaled to root nodule mass, growth of each individual occurred at the leaves and root nodules in a coordinated manner. It is suggested that their isometric increase contributes to the increase in net production per plant for A. fruticosa in nutrient-poor conditions.”