Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.
Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research
A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.
Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes
Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier.
“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”
Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here
Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a small mountain restaurant, opened in 1984 at a location high in the Italian Alps—now it might be in Switzerland. The restaurant has become the subject of a dispute between the two states due to a legal agreement which allows Italy’s northern border to move with the natural, morphological boundaries of glaciers’ frontiers, which largely follow the watersheds on either side of the ridges. The moving border has shifted over the last fifteen years since its creation as glaciers retreat and the restaurant may now be in Swiss territory. If decided to be in Switzerland, the restaurant would be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and potentially even customs; Swiss inspectors would need to approve every box of pasta and package of coffee brought up to the restaurant by cable car from Italy.
Borders can follow artificial paths, like those on maps forming perfectly straight lines, independent of the physical and cultural landscapes they may be mincing. Others are fixed by natural boundaries like the Niagara River separating the US and Canada.
However, not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
The moving border is an unprecedented legal concept. It was established through an agreement between Italy and Austria in 2006 and another between Italy and Switzerland in 2009. France did not sign such an agreement because of post World War II territorial gains on the Italian side of the watershed it did not want to risk losing.
The moving border’s flexibility is a highly unusual case in a world where many borders serve to mark defined lines of inclusion and exclusion. “Borders today move following the policies of exclusion from/inclusion in pursued by States. For instance, when it comes to migration, EU South external borders happen to be already in Africa, where migrants are prevented from embarking towards Europe,” international lawyer and Roma Tre University human rights professor Alice Riccardi told GlacierHub.
Since 2008, the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM), which has defined and maintained Italy’s state borders since 1865, has conducted high-altitude survey expeditions every two years to search for shifts in the border and subsequently to update official maps. The collaborative team that conducts the survey is composed of an equal number of experts from IGM and representatives from cartographic institutes of neighboring states.
The concept of the moving border captured the attention of Marco Ferrari, an architect, and Dr. Elisa Pasqual, a visual designer. In 2014, they launched a research project and interactive installation called Italian Limes focused on the moving border. The word limes comes from Latin and was used by the Romans to describe a nebulous, unfixed fringe zone on the edge of their territorial control. The Romans viewed limes as ebbing and flowing as the Roman army advanced and retreated similar to how today the border moves as the ice drifts.
The project, featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale, explores the limits of natural borders when they are tested by long-term ecological processes and reveals how climate change has begun to wear on Western ideas of territory and borders.
“The project makes the speed of climate change visible because we are used to thinking of borders, glaciers, and mountains as things that stay fixed,” Ferrari told GlacierHub. “Climate change changes our conception of territory in a way that is not just material, it’s not just a disruption of infrastructure, but also of the geographical imagery of the planet itself. So the very idea of the border is put into crisis by climate change in this sense, it almost contradicts the possibility of being able to trace a border.”
The Italian Limes projecttakes measurements at the 1.5-kilometer long Grafferner Glacier near Mount Similaun in the Ötztal Alps at the border of Italy and Austria. GPS measurement units were installed at the site to track changes to the glacier and watershed which broadcast their data to a machine, which prints a real-time representation of the moving border.
“By looking at the history of the border we came across this specific moment in time of the mobile border that was initially presented to us as an anecdote, as a funny curiosity, a weird glitch in the normal diplomatic management of the relationship between countries. Because of how it was presented to us, we almost didn’t focus on it, but on second thought we saw that this was the nexus that could allow us to talk about all the things we wanted to talk about; it could allow us to reveal the contradiction in this idea of a natural border–how even the mountains, even the watershed, even glaciers aren’t something that is forever, the fact that they are chosen to be borders is a clear political act and when these things move the contradiction gets exposed,” Ferrari explained to GlacierHub.
The project grew to the point that Ferrari and Pasqual teamed up with architect and editor Andrea Bagnato to create A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a 2019 book which builds on Italian Limes to map out the effects of climate change on geopolitical understandings of the border.
“I saw the project at the Venice Biennale 2014, it was a fantastic installation, and that’s when I proposed to Marco and Elisa to turn it into a book because I thought that after the work they had done physically going up on the glacier and producing these devices to visualize the movements of the glacier, there were a lot of issues to explore in more detail, historical and political issues. The book was a way to do that,” Bagnato told GlacierHub.
“The book provides a kind of historical perspective of the border and also of climate change,” Bagnato said. He continued, saying “Although we don’t address them directly in the book, I think it opens up to a lot of different geopolitical scenarios. Of course there are many situations in the world where borders pass on glaciers like in Chile/Argentina, India/Pakistan, and so on, where the geopolitics are far more heated than in Italy or Austria.”
Ultimately, the effects of climate change will introduce stresses that borders cannot keep under control. The new, quick changes to the moving border are only one such instance. The US state of Louisiana is rapidly losing ground to the waters on its coast. India and Bangladesh were involved in a dispute over who controlled an uninhabited sandbar that vanished beneath the rising seas. The province of Kashmir has long been a point of contention between Pakistan and India––if its glaciers melt and regional freshwater supply is put under great stress, conflict for control of the province could escalate significantly.
In an interview with Vice, Ferrari said “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”
“Thinning Ice”, an installation commissioned by Swarovski for its ninth year at Design Miami (December 3 – 7, 2014), links melting glaciers and climate change through a three-dimensional experience. Architect Jeanne Gang collaborated with James Balog, a National Geographic filmmaker/photographer, to create the installation, which includes a kind of glacier sculpture and a series of photographs, as well as video.
The installation was inspired by Balog’s photographs of the shrinking Stubai Glacier in the Austrian Alps, where Swarovski is headquartered, over a three-year period. The Stubai photographs are part of Balog’s ongoing “Extreme Ice Survey,” an innovative, long-term photography project founded in 2007. The project consists of 28 cameras at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalayas, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains of the United States, which have been recording the rapidly depleting glaciers every thirty minutes over the past several years.
In an effort to bring Balog’s photographs to life, Gang displayed a fluid-formed luminous block, which represents a melting glacier, in the center of the room. This structure, which resembles a kind of table, is pocked with asymmetric holes embedded with a diverse selection of Swarovski crystals, from unprocessed fragments and shards to finely finished pieces. The holes are meant to resemble cryoconite holes, tiny perforations found on glaciers that are created by wind-blown dust made of rock particles, soot and microbes.
The installation’s floor is set with curving illuminated cracks, also filled with small bits of Swarovski crystal, which resemble the crevasses one might find in a receding glacier. Gang finished the installation room with an 11.5-foot tall and a 70-foot long media wall, which presented a running slideshow of epic photographs and video footage of the world’s glaciers.
“‘Thinning Ice’ is a work which captures the haunting beauty of the Earth’s threatened glaciers in a powerful, almost elegiac way,” said Nadja Swarovski, a member of the Swarovski Executive Board, in a statement. The immersive nature of the work is meant to inspire visitors to contemplate the implications of and solutions to the melting of the world’s glaciers.
Swarovski chose to showcase glaciers in Florida to highlight its commitment to sustainability. For 14 years, the company has funded its Swarovski Waterschool Program, which educates children around the world in the principles of sustainable water management. Swarovski also sources materials from suppliers that comply with the United Nations Global Compact’s human rights and environmental standards.
GlacierHub has posted other stories recently about artists from the United States, Italy, and Peru whose work centers on glaciers.
After hundreds of years, the Svinafellsjokull Glacier is ready for its close-up. The Icelandic glacier has a starring role in Interstellar, the sci-fi movie about a team of astronauts lead by Matthew McConaughey that travel to a distant planet in search of a new home for the human race as the Earth becomes uninhabitable.
The glacier, and Vatnajökull National Park where it resides, are stand ins for the of icy, alien world the film is meant to depict. Little set dressing was required for the mid-September 2013 shoot, only a huge model of McConaughey’s space ship was brought to the section of Iceland’s largest glacier.
“How would you recreate the biggest glacier in Europe in a studio?” said actor David Gyasi, who plays one of the astronauts, in a promotional video for the movie. “You wouldn’t.”
The glacier is getting plenty of exposure worldwide thanks to the movie. Interstellar has taken in more than $200 million at the international box office since it opened last week.
The space epic isn’t director Christopher Nolan’s first time filming at the glacier. In 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan used Svinafellsjokull and other areas of Iceland as stand ins for the Tibetan Himalayas, a remote training ground for Bruce Wayne, where he learns how to fight prior to becoming Batman. Iceland is easier to access for film crews than the Himalayas and other mountain ranges, so the tiny North Atlantic country often plays many real and imagined locations.
Iceland’s unique and varied landscapes have also been featured prominently in TV and film before. The country stood in for another alien landscape in Prometheus, the frozen northern region Beyond the Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the black sands of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
This year has been a big one for glaciers in the movies. GlacierHub previously wrote about Austria’s Hintertux glacier appearing in Snowpiercer, a movie about the last of humanity zooming around a frozen Earth on a train. It’s worth noting that both Snowpiercer and Interstellar feature humans searching for a way out of climate problems plaguing the planet. Perhaps the most feared future in science fiction isn’t a world of warm temperatures and high seawater, but one too frozen for people to live.
“Weather can ruin the vacation while climate can devastate a holiday destination. Climate change not only impacts on tourism directly by changes in temperature, extreme weather events and other climatic factors, but it will also transform the natural environment that attracts tourists. Despite the global nature of tourism industry and its economic contributions, scholars of climate change research have hardly acknowl- edged the threat of climate change to the tourism industry.”
Pakistan needs more glacier data-sharing to mitigate disasters
“‘Our elders used to say this glacier was very high, so high there was no one living here. This was a giant glacial lake,’ Sajjad Ali said. Standing on a cliffside, he pointed down at the Hopar Glacier, more than a 1,000 metres below, its surface covered by massive boulders it had swept out of its way as it carved a valley through the Karakoram mountains.”
Austrian and Swiss Alps look back at their history…way, way back
“The landscapes in mountain regions are often strongly influenced by the steep climatic gradients and by past variations in climatic conditions. Therefore, the study of geological landscape features such as moraines, landslides and rock glaciers with appropriate geochronological approaches allows insights into past variations in climate.”
Read the full study in the July 8, 2014 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews.
The year 2013 hasn’t been a good one for climate change (as you might’ve guessed) and mountain glaciers have been singled out, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center.
The largest climate data archive in the world sits in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains and contains 14 petabytes of information, enough to stream 23 million movies. Asheville, N.C. is home to the NCDC, a division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – that provides climatological services and data worldwide. For the last 24 years, NCDC scientists have been producing an annual report on the state of the world’s climate. These reports provide updates on global and regional climate and notable weather from the preceding year. Published by the American Meteorological Society in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), this report is a large international collaboration. The most recent report, covering the year 2013, involved over 400 scientists from 57 countries.
Among the 2013 report’s distinguished highlights, along with carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, and the record-breaking super-typhoon Haiyan, is the news about mountain glaciers. The supplementary report begins by explain the importance of these glaciers:
“Around the globe, some 370 million people live in basins where rivers derive at least 10 percent of their seasonal discharge from glacier melt. Glacier melt provides drinking water for human populations, and irrigation water for crops. Dams on glacier-fed rivers are key sources of hydroelectric power in some parts of the world. The retreat of the majority of mountain glaciers worldwide is one of the clearest signs that climate is warming over the long term; some glaciers have already disappeared.”
The report indicates that mountain glaciers lost more ice from melt than they gained from seasonal snow-fall for the 23rd year in a row. This pattern is expected to continue. Since 1980, glaciers have lost the equivalent of 50 feet (more than 15 meters) of water.
Five regions with long histories of data are used in the report as a barometer for the health of mountain glacier: Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal, and the Northern Cascades of Washington State. The news – a pattern dominated by loss – is grim. Of the 96 glaciers evaluated in the Austrian Alps, 93 are retreating, two are stable, and just one is advancing. Norway is much the same: 26 of the 33 are retreating, another four are stable, and only three are advancing. Things are worse in North America (the 14 glaciers of the Northern Cascades in Washington State and Alaska are all significantly retreating) and in New Zealand, where all 50 are anticipated to have retreated by the end of the 2013 melt season. Only in Nepal, where the 3 glaciers monitored are near equilibrium, this near-balance reflects an unusually good year. In 2013, those glaciers received the largest amount of snow accumulation in the last seven years.
The plight of diminishing mountain glaciers has serious implications for the health, food, energy resources and livelihoods of the 370 million people who live close to them. There are also serious effects in adjacent lowlands. Just as steady upward trend of the Keeling Curve of carbon dioxide concentrations is closely watched, so should be its apparent reflection: the glacier mass balance curve, shown each year in the State of the Climate report for the world to see.
This year’s’ report and all previous reports are available for free download online.
Climate change horror seems to be the new go-to disaster for Hollywood films as of late. Unlike giant floods, tornados or even Godzilla, the world freezing over affects everyone at once. There might be an escape from a giant atomic lizard, but when the temperatures change, there’s nothing we can do as a species but adapt.
That adaptation comes in the form of a speeding, circumnavigating train in the new movie Snowpiercer. The exposition in the opening minutes of the movie sets up the scenario: to counteract warming global temperatures, scientists in the present day developed a chemical that will cool the earth when released into the atmosphere. It worked a little too well.
What’s left of humanity is stuffed into a train, divided so neatly into class sections it would make a political science sophomore blush. The poor are crammed into industrialized bunk beds in the tail section while the rich at the front of the train enjoy saunas, sushi and never-ending raves. After spending 17 years in the squalid back of the train eating gelatinous black protein blocks, Curtis, the film’s lead (Captain America‘s Chris Evans), reluctantly leads an uprising to take over the engine.
What’s interesting about Snowpiercer isn’t so much the setting but that climate change horror seemed to be playing a larger role in movies right now. As New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote about the Snowpiercer, “The current designers of awe, in Hollywood and elsewhere, have gone back to the Apocalypse. They’ve created what might be called the Seven Horsemen of the Multiplex: aliens, pandemics, floods, ice, comets and other interplanetary flotsam, nuclear war, and zombies.”
That fourth one, ice, popped up in last year’s The Colony, which imagines humanity living underground after the world freezes over once climate-changing weather machines break down. In both films, the fear seems to come from geoenginnering gone wrong as much as it does from a permanent Ice Age. (In some sense, this is also what the mega-hit Frozen is about.)
In an odd way, Snowpiercer highlights the seriousness of glacial retreat; only a cosmically huge event is capable of bringing them back. One scene in the movie features a shot of the Hintertux glacier in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria. Though the movie takes place in 2031, the glacier will almost certainly be visibly smaller by time that year actually rolls around.
Over Independence Day weekend, Snowpiercer only took in a little over a million dollars at the box office. In South Korea, where it was co-produced, the movie made nearly $60 million, setting a new record in that country. This was the first English-language production for Snowpiercer‘s director, Joon-ho Bong, whose monster movie The Host achieved popularity in the U.S. when it was released in 2006.
Whether the most expensive Korean movie ever made finds popularity here in America (which accounts for only 2 percent of worldwide box office receipts so far), remains to be seen. Audiences may instead choose to find comfort this summer in a much more comforting disaster from the east: Godzilla.