Characterizing the Relation Between Interannual Streamflow Variability and Glacier Cover
A new study confirmed the theory that streamflow variability is dependent on relative glacier cover. From the abstract: “Meltwater from glaciers is not only a stable source of water but also affects downstream streamflow dynamics. One of these dynamics is the interannual variability of streamflow. Glaciers can moderate streamflow variability because the runoff in the glacierized part, driven by temperature, correlates negatively with the runoff in the non‐glacierized part of a catchment, driven by precipitation, thereby counterbalancing each other. This is also called the glacier compensation effect (GCE), and the effect is assumed to depend on relative glacier cover. Previous studies found a convex relationship between streamflow variability and glacier cover of different glacierized catchments, with lowest streamflow variability at a certain optimum glacier cover. In this study, we aim to revisit these previously found curves to find out if a universal relationship between interannual streamflow variability and glacier cover exists, which could potentially be used in a space‐for‐time substitution analysis.”
In a new paper published November 28, 2019, in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers has outlined how smoke from fires in the Amazon in 2010 made glaciers in the Andes melt more quickly.
Bushfires raging in Australia have taken their toll on New Zealand’s glaciers. Smoke and dust from the fires drifted across the Tasman Sea and settled on glaciers in New Zealand more than 1,300 miles away. Ash covering glaciers in New Zealand is visible in photos published to Twitter. In the images, the snow and ice appears as a pinkish color.
Australia has experienced a severe bushfire season. At least 18 people have died, over 1,000 homes destroyed, millions of livestock lost, and over 15 million acres of land has burned. The smoke and dust-laden glaciers of New Zealand are representative of the second-order effects of the bushfires in Australia.
The distance the smoke and ash have traveled and the extent to which they have blanketed glaciers in New Zealand speaks to the severity of the Australian bushfires. This coating of smoke and ash poses a significant threat to New Zealand’s glaciers. It settles as black carbon, which darken glaciers’ snow and ice, absorbing heat and contributing to increased rates of melting and extending the melt season.
How are we to inhabit a world ravaged by the Modern? To Bruno Latour, the triple crises of climate change, migration, and rampant social inequality share a common root: the increasing concentration of value in fewer hands. He describes the global elite’s realization since the 1990s that the fruits of modernity cannot extend to all humanity on this finite and degraded planet, and their decision to betray their fellow humankind along with all species of Earth. The elite chose to accelerate processes driving the crises for short-sighted personal gain. So, how do we exist in this place, this outcome of that decision? Latour argues we must “come down to earth,” radically rethinking how we orient ourselves in the world and through discovery of how our existence is tied to others. We must (re)consider with whom we will share resources and create “dwelling places.”
Climate Justice and the Modern
We see a resonance between Latour’s diagnosis and critique from climate justice activists of uneven, unjust, and ecologically devastating global development. While the language differs, the climate justice movement in its variegated guises also urges us to critically and compassionately rethink both the distribution of impacts and benefits of the processes driving climate changes, and the wider relationship between humans and the world in which our existence is embedded.
Latour rehearses a familiar argument: the Modern is an artefact of our times, an outcome of particular historical moments. Because it relies on a distinction between Nature and Society, a separation between humans and their surroundings, the Modern has been a driving force in Earth’s exploitation. The current crises make it all too obvious that such a conceptualization can no longer be sustained. Instead of seeking to return to an illusionary Local or Tradition— as the opposite of the Global or Modern— Latour suggests that we reorient our mode of dwelling toward the “Terrestrial”: that we become rooted in soils, places, and networks.
But what does such a rooting look like, far from the Burgundy soils of Old Europe where Latour crafted his reply to the current state of affairs? What of the many who have never been part of the modernization project? Our own work in Peru and Tanzania has taken place among communities far from mainstream modernization. Modernity— in the guise of colonial masters or post-colonial extractivist or development States— was never really about them. The vanishing glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru and the few remaining patches of ice on Mt. Kilimanjaro link in intimate and culturally specific ways to local lifeworlds and social imaginaries. Their destruction stand as the expression of how the Modern operates both as a horizon of development and as a force, which crushes dwelling places in the Latourian sense. The sharp edge of modernization falls on these communities in ways that disrupt rooted networks. It is here that the extraction of capital N “Nature” enables Modern, or imperial, modes of living in the global north.
Epistemologies of the Critical Zone
This extraction and the acceptance— or indifference— to its devastating consequences are themselves enabled by an epistemological regime that has come to be associated with the Modern. Objective, external, and disinterested knowledge, as opposed to subjective, situated and sentimental. This is what allows climate scientists to dryly remark, “Oh well, the planet will be fine,” when discussing our global environmental predicament. Through removing ourselves from Nature, seeing it from a distance and observing the slow increment in global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses, we remain unaffected. This, Latour argues, is why we need to reorient our thoughts about knowledge and science— to take seriously knowledge that allows for affect and politics.
When climate scientists measure stream flows or ablation rates, complex processes are distilled into numbers, which travel well between locations. Flows measured in cubic meters per second or recession rates measured in meters per year communicate a particular version of reality, which hinges upon a problematic separation between an external world and human beings. The point is not that we should throw science away. The project is not one of becoming less knowledgeable about the world, but to allow for that knowledge to take root and become anchored in places and networks. To understand the world in a different way, we need sciences that are positioned differently. We cannot understand and therefore, we cannot remedy climate change if we do not understand nature as a process in which we are enmeshed, and one which in itself requires that we confront different kinds of knowledges. To Latour, the sciences of nature as process— which, for our specific concerns, would include glaciology and hydrology— cannot assume a “lofty and disinterested epistemology,” but must be prepared to exist in a world of controversies.
The aim is for science and politics to be able to link social struggles to ecological struggles. In a world of dependencies, where different beings, actors, and agents are interconnected in systems of engendering, the distinction between nature and society becomes impossible to uphold. Latour is interested in the diagnosis of major diplomatic events: the Paris agreement in 2015 and President Trump’s later withdrawal from it that reveals that climate is being re-politicized. To the people that we have been working with in the Andes and Tanzania, the struggle to connect ecologies and politics, to connect other forms of agencies and beings, is real and everyday. To learn about their way of being terrestrial could reveal other ways of thinking about engendering connections in the Critical Zone, that thin layer which can sustain life on our planet.
A possible convergence
“Down to Earth” is a provocation. It invites its readers to become terrestrials, to assess their needs, wants and desires, and how these conflict with the needs, wants and desires of others. It sketches out a possible exit-plan, a way of thinking economic, social and ecological relations in new ways that are attentive to our presence and entanglement in the world. But if this is to become more than a linguistic exercise on where we would like to land and with whom we would like to share, we need a different kind of commitment. We cannot trust the apparent forces of self-organization of the terrestrials, which might be implied. As Latour himself identifies, global elites are becoming ever more efficient in hoarding resources for their own good. Surely, their needs, wants and desires run counter to those of most other beings, human and otherwise. Our horizons have ceased to be shared.
Whose attention is Latour then seeking? Surely not the many people who mobilize climate justice discourse and vocabularies across the planet, struggling to stave off extractivism and other projects of ‘development’ that tend to enclose or destroy local environments while siphoning value. They have found— and are actively defending— their place and those with whom they share it, against the forces that drive the triple crises of climate, migration and ravaging social inequality. Latour’s analysis of a triple crises with a common root is familiar to many of these activists who share the view that the planet is not able to shelter modernization. It is also not likely a text directed at the people who are turning toward the local out of a feeling that the Modern is passing them by. Rather, Latour is seeking the attention of people like us, the upper middle classes of what has been called “the West” who have to a large extent benefitted from the Modern, demanding that we declare our allegiance to the terrestrial and join the struggles of those seeking to defend it. This book may open up a space for a productive dialogue. It is perhaps no coincidence that “Down to Earth” was released within days of the latest diagnosis of our time by Bill McKibben in The New Yorker, entitled “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet.” The climate justice movement and Latour have a shared analysis, if not language, and both invite us to engage in the struggle of our time.
In this week’s Video of the Week, watch two poets from two different walks of life unite to call attention to climate change. Aka Niavana is from Greenland, and she reflects on the way life is changing as the glaciers around her melt. Kathy Jetnil-Kijner is from the Marshall Islands, where her home is threatened by the melting ice and rising seas. In a joint expedition to the remote fjords of southern Greenland, the two activists perform their poetry, hoping to inspire action on climate change.
The story, published in The Guardian, is written by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org.