East and South Asia Are the Largest Sources of Black Carbon Blanketing the Tibetan Plateau

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment suggests that black carbon and dust play a crucial role in the melting of Tibetan Plateau glaciers—and the researchers think they know the sources of that troublesome sediment.

“We believe that black carbon, dust, and other light-absorbing impurities must be important factors in accelerating … ice melting worldwide,” Yang Li, a coauthor of the study, told GlacierHub. And, according to the study, East and South Asia are the largest sources of black carbon emissions that are transported to the Tibetan Plateau.

Black carbon, also called soot, is a byproduct of the partial combustion of organic matter and fossil fuels.

Susan Kaspari is an associate professor at Central Washington University and worked previously with Shichang Kang, another one of the study’s authors. “When you see emissions coming off the back of a truck that’s really black, you’re seeing the black carbon,” Kaspari told GlacierHub.

Along with fossil fuels, an important source of black carbon is the burning of biofuels, such as wood or animal waste, she added.

“[Black carbon] doesn’t stay in the atmosphere a really long time,” Kaspari said. “Usually it will stay in the atmosphere on the scale of a few days to at the most, maybe two weeks.”

Gravity and precipitation eventually pull the black carbon back to earth. And that’s where the trouble comes in for glaciers.

Scientists describe black carbon, along with dust, as a light-absorbing particle, meaning that due to its dark color it absorbs more energy from the sun compared to other light-colored materials—especially the typically bright-colored surfaces of glaciers. When black carbon settles on snow and ice, “It absorbs more energy from the sun, and then that warms the snowpack or ice, and leads to accelerated melt,” Kaspari said.

Kaspari and Kang, among others, published a study in 2011 that detailed how black carbon concentrations in the Tibetan Plateau have increased dramatically. “We documented a three-fold increase from preindustrial to industrial periods, starting around the 1970s, relative to, prior to that period of time,” Kaspari said.

Various anthropogenic activities contributed to this increase, including the Kuwait oil fires set by Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War.

Li’s new study focused on the Laohugou Basin on the northern slope of the western Qilian Mountains, which lie on the Tibetan Plateau. These mountains lost 20.9 percent of their glacial area—about 22 cubic kilometers of ice—in the past 50 years, according to a study conducted last year.

The accumulation zone of the glacier studied by Li and his coauthors (Source: Yang Li)

Li and his co-researchers sampled the ice, snow, and nearby topsoil of the Laohugou Basin glacier during the summer and winter of 2016 and measured concentrations of black carbon and dust. To determine the effect of the black carbon and dust on the amount of energy absorbed by the glacier, they used SNICAR, a model for determining the albedo of snow and ice surface.

They found large spaciotemporal variability in the concentrations of black carbon and dust. Still, they concluded that the concentrations of black carbon and dust on the glacier were “comparable to or higher than” concentrations on most other Third Pole glaciers. The concentrations, though, were lower than those of some select glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, specifically, including the Baishui No. 1 and Xiao Dongkemadi glaciers, which indicated, according to the study, “discrepancies in the deposition, enrichment, and re-exposure of [black carbon] over the Tibetan Plateau.”

Li and his coauthors found, however, that dust plays a more important role than black carbon in accelerating melting.

The researchers walk on a glacier in the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yang Li).

Susan Kaspari found a similar result in her 2014 study that measured black carbon and dust on the glacier ice and snow of Solukhumbu, Nepal.

“Let’s say you had a hundred parts per billion black carbon, which would be certainly enough black carbon to cause a change in how much energy is being absorbed,” she said. “If you put that on a snow pack that was quite clean, that black carbon could have a really large impact.”

“If you took that same amount of black carbon and it was deposited upon a snow pack that already had a lot of dust,” she added, “the efficacy, or how effective that black carbon would be in absorbing energy, would be a lot less because the dust is already absorbing some of that solar radiation that could otherwise be absorbed by the black carbon.”

The Tibetan Plateau is a region that is “naturally dusty already,” said Kaspari, who added that the rising temperatures brought about by climate change exacerbate the situation. “As the glaciers are retreating,” she said, “you’re exposing more and more area that used to be covered with glacier that has a lot of dust.”

And that dust, she added, gets blown onto glaciers.

A shot of the Amphulaptsa Pass, Nepal, taken during a 2009 expedition that resulted in Kaspari’s 2014 study. The dark layers are a combination of black carbon and dust. (Source: Jesse Cunningham)

Li and his coauthors found local topsoil to be a likely source of not only the glacier’s dust, but also its black carbon. Urban activities, such as automobile exhaust and industrial pollution, release black carbon that pollutes the soil, according to the study.

To reduce the amount of black carbon released into the environment, Kaspari suggested more efficient combustion methods, more efficient engines, and the elimination of coal-fired power plants.

Natural sources of black carbon, such as wildfires, are more difficult to mitigate. And there’s no feasible way to remove black carbon that’s already settled across the surface of the world’s glaciers.

Li told GlacierHub that the results of his study do not speak to the possible concentrations of black carbon in other glaciated regions of the Tibetan Plateau. “The concentrations of black carbon and dust in the Tibetan Plateau glaciers must vary broadly, because of the spatiotemporal variability in wet, dry, and post depositional conditions,” he said.

Still, along with other studies that research black carbon concentrations in other glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, the work of Li and his coauthors adds to our evidence that human activity accelerates the melting of glaciers in Tibet and worldwide.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.

During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.

Courtesy of Tsechu Dolma

World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.

A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.

China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.

Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.

She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.

Source: Dream Tibet Travel

The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”

Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.

The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.

World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.

A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.

The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.

The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Historical Data on Black Carbon and Melting Glaciers in Tibet

Black carbon is an atmospheric pollutant. The very small particles are formed through the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, and settle from the air slowly. Also known as soot, this material absorbs solar radiation, trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing heavily to global warming. A recent study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics traces black carbon transport from the Gulf War Kuwait oil fires of January to November 1991 to the atmosphere and ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain on the remote northern Tibetan plateau. Researchers examine the effects of this material on glacier melt at the plateau, considered the “Water Tower of Asia,” which could impact runoff to the major rivers of Asia.

The beautiful Mugtagh Ata mountain. Muztagh Ata means “ice-mountain father” in Uyghur (Source: Dan Lundberg/Flickr).

Black carbon in the air absorbs and scatters solar radiation, impacting the radiative balance. There is also a more direct affect on the ice, contributing to greater melting. Researchers identified past ice core analyses in the Swiss Alps, Antarctica and Greenland. They recognized the great value of ice cores in providing historical black carbon emissions, distribution and regional aerosol transport. The importance of a historical context in current black carbon deposition guided the methodology for this study. The climate in this region is very sensitive to warming, so any small change in the region’s warming mechanisms could have large impacts on the glaciers and the hydrological cycle.

The black carbon in the ice core at Muztagh Ata Mountain was analyzed along with the atmospheric composition of CO2 percentage at the site. Researchers relied on a chemical transport model used to quantify the global budget of trace gases and aerosol particles, and to study movement by wind in the atmosphere and chemical transformations and removals. They were able to trace different source regions through chemical compositions and measured the temporal variations in black carbon concentration. They also analyzed the long-term trend since the early 1990s of black carbon deposition. Muztagh Ata Mountain is downwind from several source regions: Central Asia, Europe, the Persian Gulf and South Asia. These regions were expected to have the greatest contributions to black carbon accumulation at the mountain site.

Results of the study suggested an unusually strong spike in black carbon during the period from 1991 to 1992. Researchers hypothesized that the massive Kuwait fires at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 caused this peak in concentration. At the time, Iraqi forces set fire to over 650 oil wells in Kuwait. An estimated 1.5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the environment, making it the largest oil spill in history. Black smoke plumes were monitored by satellites and observed to spread over 2500 kilometers, with some material eventually reaching the Muztagh Ata Mountain.

Camels search for untainted shrubs and water as Kuwait oil fires send large black smoke clouds into the sky (Source: Pier Paolo Antonelli/Flickr).

The chemical transportation model was used to simulate the atmospheric black carbon concentrations and depositions for the period before and after the fires, from 1984 to 1994. The simulation used data for anthropogenic black carbon emissions for the non-Kuwait fire periods and enhanced emissions by 50 times from January to November 1991 to represent the Kuwait fires. Winds by the fire region move in the northern and northwestern direction, and the highest concentration appeared to have been transported westward toward the mountain. This, as well as the historical context, supports the hypothesis that the Kuwait oil fires contributed to greater black carbon on Muztagh Ata.

The high black carbon concentration from this event also had significant effects on the glacier’s snow cover and radiative forcing, which is the balance of incoming solar heat to outgoing heat. Researchers found the radiative forcing increase was about two to five times higher than the normal period before and after the Kuwait oil fires. Also, the black carbon on the upper portion of the glacier would have been covered with fresh snow, but might have stayed longer, uncovered, on the ablation zone. These processes resulted in a significant increase of melting from the glacier since the time of the fires, strongly impacting the hydrologic cycle and water resources in surrounding regions.

Satellite imagery of oil fires spreading westwards (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

Philip K. Hopke, researcher of environmental chemistry and adjunct professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told GlacierHub about the impacts of black carbon on the Tibetan Plateau. Hopke identifies water supply to be the main issue, considering the glaciers here feed into many major rivers such as the Ganges, Yangtze, and Indus rivers. Loss of glaciers and their water feed could lead to disastrous shortages and conflict over control of resources.

“Enhanced melt by rising temperatures is already an issue and exacerbation by deposited black carbon would make things worse” he added. Hopke also mentions that in some ways, warfare might improve local air quality through reduced economic activity and forced evacuations. Additionally, it would take a major conflict to produce sufficient emissions to have such widespread effects. Fortunately, there are no uncontrolled fires today, though it is important to recognize the risks of war and long-distance impacts. The situation in Syria at present, for example, remains uncertain, as well as the situation in northern Iraq, a country that is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves, which may be at risk. 

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Roundup: Black Carbon, Dying Crustaceans, and Ice Sheet Melting

Kuwait Fires Cause Black Carbon Buildup

From Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics: “Muztagh Ata is located to the east of Pamir and in the north of the Tibetan Plateau. The ice core data provide important information for atmospheric circulation and climate change in Asia. Moreover, the climate in Muztagh Ata is very sensitive to solar warming mechanisms because it has a large snow cover in the region, resulting in important impacts on the hydrological cycle of the continent by enhancing glacier melt.”

Read more about black carbon in northern Tibet here.

Muztagh Ata Mountain, northern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr)

 

Microscopic Crustaceans at Risk in Patagonian Fjords

From Progress in Oceanography: “Glacial retreat at high latitudes has increased significantly in recent decades associated with global warming. Along Chile’s Patagonian fjords, this has promoted increases in freshwater discharge, vertical stratification, and the input of organic and inorganic particles to fjords.”

Read more about the effects of glacial retreat on Patagonian crustaceans here.

Pia Fjord in Chile (Source: Glenn Seplak/Flickr).

 

Melting Greenland Ice Sheet Contributes to Sea Level Rise

From The Cryosphere: “Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated since the early 2000s, compared to the 1970s and 1980s, and could contribute 0.45–0.82m of sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Recent mass loss has been attributed to both a negative surface mass balance and increased ice discharge from marine-terminating glaciers.”

Read more about the research here.

Massive ice island broken off from Petermann Glacier, one of the 18 glaciers observed in the study (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight/Flickr).

 

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A Classic Whodunit: Industrial Soot, Volcanoes, and Europe’s Shrinking Glaciers

In the second half of the 1800s, glaciers in the Alps rapidly shrunk in length, some by hundreds of meters. Their alarming retreat, documented in photographs, has often been a symbol of the human influence on global climate, as the accelerated melting aligned with increased production of industrial soot. But were there other factors that drove the rapid glacier recession in the Alps at the end of the Little Ice Age?

Surface darkening from mineral dust and soot deposited on the Aletsch glacier. The Colle Gnifetti drilling site lies in the background (Source: Michael Sigl).

A new study in The Cryosphere led by Michael Sigl, a chemist and climatologist at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, challenges the notion that human-made industrial soot, or more formally black carbon, from European industrialization was primarily responsible for the observed deglaciation during the 15-year period between 1860 and 1875.

Based on their comparison of high-resolution black carbon deposition records from ice cores from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps and historical data of the changing lengths of major Alpine glaciers, the researchers discovered that “when black carbon concentrations started to significantly rise (around 1875), Alpine glaciers had already experienced 80 percent of their 19th century retreat, meaning that black carbon was not the first responsible for this retreat, contrary to what was suggested in a previous study,” team member Dimitri Osmont, a doctoral student at the PSI, told GlacierHub, referring to earlier research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“Of course, this doesn’t mean that black carbon didn’t contribute at all (especially during the 20th century when concentrations are significantly higher, and also today in the case of Himalayan glaciers), but it was not the first driver,” Osmont told GlacierHub.

Sigl further elaborated on the discrepancies between his team’s findings and that of previous research in discussion with GlacierHub. “If the glaciers had actually been forced to retreat by more abundant soot impurities in the snow, one would expect the glaciers’ retreat to have been synchronous with or slightly lagging increases in black carbon deposition. But we observe the exact opposite and conclude that other factors, predominantly volcanism, account for most of past glacier variability,” he said.

The TUNU ice-core in Greenland containing a continuous archive of global volcanism (Source: Michael Sigl).

Volcanoes? Indeed, a series of massive volcanic eruptions in the early 1800s, like the catastrophic Mount Tambora in 1815 behind Europe’s Year Without a Summer, resulted in a few decades of cooler and wetter conditions conducive for the Alpine glaciers to surge and grow. Not to belittle the sheer devastation experienced locally and the socioeconomic effects of altered agricultural patterns across the globe, other positive takeaways of the eruptions included artistic inspiration for vibrant sunsets in J. M. W. Turner paintings, the backdrop of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the peak of larger glaciers in the Alps to phenomenal lengths in the middle of the 1850s.

The team argues that this more favorable atmosphere for the glaciers allowed them to grow to their peak size in the 1850s and that the rapid retreat from 1860 to 1875 was the glaciers simply returning to their “normal” size. They conclude that whatever role anthropogenic black carbon had in Alpine glacier retreat before 1875 was negligible in comparison to the natural decadal factors.

But other scientists disagree with their findings, including Thomas Painter, the author of the study whose hypothesis was tested and a principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “Sigl et al. performed admirable work with their ice core analysis, and it is alone an important contribution to understanding deposition dynamics of atmospheric constituents,” Painter told GlacierHub. However, he found that the study “attacked a strawman argument that the glacier retreat in the 19th century predated the emergence of black carbon deposition and its additional absorption of sunlight in the snowpack.” He challenges this new study’s claims that they disprove his hypothesis. “The glaciers did start retreating from a cold period, but they then kept on strongly retreating to lengths not seen in the previous centuries, while air temperature and precipitation didn’t change sufficiently to cause this,” he said.

Image of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in 2015. It’s the ice-core drill site hosting a continuous archive of air pollution since 1741 A.D. (Source: Michael Sigl).

Regardless of the differing conclusions, none of the scientists from the recent study contacted by GlacierHub discounted the role of human activity on glacier retreat. “Just to be very clear, the study in no way neglects the generally significant contribution of anthropogenic emissions to the ongoing observed worldwide glacier retreat, but black carbon, at least for the alpine region, was not a major factor for the 19th century retreat,” stated Theo Jenk, another co-author of the study from PSI. Painter and Jenk’s colleagues are sure to butt heads further, but all in the name of sound scientific endeavor.

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China and Nepal Collaborate on Glacier Research

SKLCS research sites in China, Nepal and Pakistan (source: SKLCS).

As China has expanded its capacity in glacier research in recent years, it has also developed its collaborations with other nations, particularly Nepal, in this area.

Chinese glaciological activities date back to the 1950s, and underwent an expansion with the establishment of the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocryology, located in the central province of Gansu, in the 1980s. An Ice Core Laboratory was created in 1991, which expanded into the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), a component of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science (SKLCS) was established in 2007 by CAREERI and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, which is also a unit within the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prof. Shichang Kang, director of SKLCS (source: CAS).

The SKLCS also supports China’s research in Antarctica. As professor Ren Jiawen of SKLCS explained to GlacierHub, this polar work began with the establishment of stations on the Antarctic Peninsula in the 1980s, and in the 1990s at Prydz Bay and on the Antarctic Plateau. In addition, China’s Arctic Yellow River Station in Svalbard was opened in 2004. These high latitude efforts show the logic of using the term “Third Pole” to describe the glacier and permafrost regions of high mountain Asia.

This growth of cryosphere research reflects the general expansion of the geosciences in China, and also the recognition of the environmental and economic importance of the cryosphere for China. Glacier meltwater is a major source of water in a number of small watersheds in the western portion of the country, and in one of China’s largest rivers as well. Glaciers supplied over 10 percent of the flow of the Yangtze River in the last decades of the 20th century. Though this contribution increased early in the present century, due to accelerated melt, the river is likely to reach “peak water” around 2030, and then decline, creating serious difficulties in the country, which has hoped to rely on transfers from the Yangtze watershed to alleviate water scarcity in the country’s north. Studies of the glaciers allow for more precise projections of the nation’s water resources.

The SKLCS addresses other pressing cryosphere issues in China. The thawing of permafrost threatens important infrastructure projects, such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway which links Lhasa with central China. And China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and has turned to the SKLCS to help plan this event within the constraints of declining snow cover, forming a committee to “support and guarantee the snow and ice conditions during the Games.”

Though climate change is a major cause of glacier retreat in China, the deposition of black carbon—soot and other particles—on glaciers also plays a role. The burning of biomass and the use of diesel fuel in South Asia, especially India, provide a major source of this black carbon, which has been a focus of Chinese collaboration with Nepal in cryospheric research since its inception.

Map from recent paper by Kang, Sharma and others, showing transport of pollutants across the Himalayas (source: ES&T).

As professor Shichang Kang, the director of SKLCS, told GlacierHub in a recent interview, “Since 2006, I started a collaboration with professor Subodh Sharma and Dr. Chhatra Sharma at Kathmandu University focusing on water, soil, and precipitation chemistry as well as toxic risk assessment in Nepal-Himalaya. This collaboration is still going on as we are training PhD students and young scientists.” He mentioned that this research examines a number of specific “pollutants in water, soil and air, including black carbon, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [organic molecules which derive from biomass burning and other sources] and heavy metals (mercury, arsenic, lead etc.)”

Kang mentioned that the SKLCS “also started another collaboration in 2013, with ICIMOD [the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, based in Kathmandu], working with Dr. Arnico Panday for air pollution observation in Nepal.” He stated that this research will continue to explore water quality and air quality, and look more extensively at “health risks associated with pollutants, the impacts of black carbon on cryospheric processes, and on the transport of atmospheric pollutants across the Himalayas into the Tibetan Plateau.” Black carbon in the Third Pole is a topic of concern for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Chhatra Sharma, a Nepali limnologist, also described this collaboration. He told GlacierHub, “I completed my Ph.D. at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in 2008 and joined the faculty of Kathmandu University. A year later, I joined professor Kang’s group as a Young International Scientist Fellow in 2009. Kang is currently hosting two researchers within the President’s International Fellowship Initiative at present. And SKLCS and Kathmandu University  have signed a memorandum of understanding for collaboration.” He added that he and Kang have co-authored 17 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Map showing GLOFs in Nepal, including those which originated in China (source: ICIMOD).

Among these papers is a study, published last year in Environmental Science & Technology, about the transport of heavy metal pollutants from South Asia into the Tibetan Plateau. The authors of this paper analyzed samples from ice cores and lake sediments in the Nepal Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. As this study shows, research on this subject requires the collection of field data on both the northern and southern sides of the Himalaya.

These collaborations have allowed China to support its bilateral aid activities in Nepal. It partnered with ICIMOD to study glacier lake outburst floods, including ones which originate in Tibet and spread into Nepal. It put this information to use after the 7.8 earthquake in Nepal on April 25, 2015. It held an emergency meeting to assess the risk of landslides, debris flows and GLOFs, and sent information to agencies in Nepal.

Meeting at CAREERI to discuss April 2015 earthquake in Nepal (source: CAS)

These ties involve other countries as well. In addition to Nepali researchers, cryosphere scientists from Pakistan and Mongolia took part in the International Workshop on Cryospheric Change and Sustainable Development, held in August, at SKLCS in Lanzhou.

In 2015, China established the Belt Road Initiative, also known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Drawing on the history of the Silk Road, it seeks to promote infrastructure investments and trade with countries which neighbor China and beyond. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. In this way, Chinese cryosphere scientists and their collaborators in Nepal and elsewhere are responding to the pressures of climate change on glaciers.

Nepal signed a memorandum of understanding with China in May of this year, promoting its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative and facilitating Chinese investment to address Nepal’s infrastructure deficits. Historically, Nepal has shared close ties with India, a country with which it shares Hinduism as the majority religion. Nepali and Hindi are related languages, and Nepal’s transportation network has developed with roads across the lowland jungles that separate it from India, rather than across the high passes of the Himalayas.

But the potential of Chinese investment opens the possibility of a reconfiguratrion of transportation networks and of economic and political ties in the region. In this context, scientific research, investment, trade and foreign policy can be integrated. These efforts lead cryosphere scientists in China and Nepal to address the pressures of climate change on glaciers in their countries, and to explore ways to coordinate their activities.

 

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Major Report Stresses the Importance of Glaciers in a Global Context

In September, a new report, “Well Under 2 Degrees Celsius,” was released by the Committee to Prevent Extreme Climate Change, a global think-tank group made up of scientists, policy makers and military experts. The premise of the report is to provide governments with practical solutions to implement the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. It emphasizes the importance of glaciers in a global context by highlighting examples of melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet.  

Researchers from a NASA-funded mission examining melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons).
To challenge the impacts of climate change, the group proposes a roadmap that highlights science-based policy pathways to give society an opportunity to limit global temperatures to safe levels and prevent a two-degree Celsius temperature increase. Solutions include decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050 and reducing short-lived climate pollutants. Unfortunately, climatic trends show that the global temperature has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, the authors note. If emission levels stay at the current rate, we can expect to see a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in the next fifteen years, with a 50 percent probability of reaching 4 degrees Celsius by end of century. 

The report uses the Arctic and Himalayas as prime examples of the severe impacts of temperature increases, as these regions continue to warm at nearly twice the global average. In the Himalayas and Tibet, for example, more than 80 percent of the glaciers are retreating, according to data collected by the authors. The South Asian monsoon, which provides the primary source of water for the glaciers, has decreased by around seven percent over the last fifty years.

When asked about the effect of a two-degree Celsius rise on glacial retreat, Eric Rignot, a co-author of the report and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, said, “A two degree Celsius above pre-industrial and even a 1.5 degree Celsius will not be sufficient to stop ice sheet melt. In fact, I think that a 1.5 degree Celsius will still commit us to multiple meter sea-level rise over the time scale of a couple of centuries. My hope is that once we are there, the world will realize that we can do better, sequester carbon and go back to a climate regime from the 1970s to 1980s, which in my opinion was okay for ice sheets.”

The signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement (Source: Martin Schulz/Flickr).
The authors note another concern for glaciers and snowpack in the Arctic and Himalayas: the deposition of black carbon from human activities like diesel combustion and biomass cooking. Black carbon decreases the snow’s albedo, causing surface warming and melting. If greenhouse gas emissions and black carbon deposition increase, these glaciers and mountain ranges will not be able to provide water for many people in the region who rely on connected river systems.

Due to emission trends not decreasing at a fast-enough rate, there is now only a 50 percent probability of achieving the two-degree Celsius goal, and there is a 10–20 percent probability of the warming exceeding three degree Celsius by 2100. To remain below the two-degree Celsius mark, global leaders would have to start on the carbon neutrality pathway by 2020, moving toward 100 percent clean energy as soon as possible. However, the political leaders, corporations, and the public tend to assume that there is more time to take action, the researchers contend, with many people unaware of the severity of the climate crisis.

Shichang Kang, one of the co-authors of the report and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told GlacierHub, “As a scientist, I hope the international community will work together and take action as soon as possible. However, countries have diverse backgrounds and social and political issues. It seems that we can’t use one measurement for different countries.”

It will be a challenge to remain below 1.5 degree Celsius,” Rignot added. “The problem is to transition to a carbon free economy fast enough. You cannot turn around an economy based on burning fossil fuel overnight to an economy using clean energy. This would be a catastrophe. You have to give it some time.” The report advises leaders to begin decarbonizing the global economy with low- or no-carbon technologies and renewables.

The authors equip world leaders to begin taking action by providing four building blocks to achieve these goals. The first building block includes fully implementing nationally-determined mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement. The second scales up numerous sub-national and city climate action plans. The third includes reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) by 2030 and decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050. The final building block aims to make scalable and reversible carbon dioxide removal measures, which can begin removing CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere.

Despite the fact that each country deals with climate change in a different way, climate change remains a serious problem that impacts the global community at large. The question now remains – will we reach our goal of staying below the 2°C mark?

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Wildfires in Peru Could Increase Glacial Melt

A recent study by John All et al., “Fire Response to Local Climate Variability,” investigates whether or not human interference in the fire regime of Huascarán National Park in Peru was the primary cause of an increase in fire activity in the park. The fire activity, whether caused by humans or climate variability, was poorly understood because of a lack of historical data. The wildfires in this park are continuing to grow and could pose a threat to surrounding glaciers. Resource managers believed that the fire increase was human-caused and not necessarily linked to climate processes, but in this instance, fire perception and fire reality are not aligning. The new challenge for resource managers is how best to reconcile these two factors to more effectively manage the parklands. If the wildfires become more frequent, the glaciers in Huascarán National Park could melt at faster rates because of the soot and other material from the fires deposited on them.

The 3,400 km Huascarán National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca range in north-central Peru, the largest glaciated area in the tropics, with 80 glaciers and 120 glacial lakes. The park, created in 1975 and named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, has already seen a significant loss of ice and snow in the region in the past 60 years, according to research published in the journal Mountain Research and Development, altering the glacier melt that supplies water for the Santa, Marañón, and Pativilca River basins.

A fire destroyed 2,000 acres in Huascaran National Park in 2012 (Source: River of Life/Creative Commons).

The study’s goal was to help the park’s land managers understand the patterns of the fires, why they’ve been changing, and how to better manage the park in the future. When asked if climate change could make the wildfires more frequent, Edson Ramírez Henostroza, a security specialist for rescue and fire control at Huascarán National Park, told GlacierHub, “Yes, in our country, there is the popular belief that fire and smoke generate rain, and that ash balances the pH of the soil, which is usually acid in the Andes, causing the peasants to burn more pastures ad bushes in search of rain and more productive soils.”

From 2002 to 2014, Huascarán National Park has seen higher activity of grazing and anthropogenic burning, due to natural ignitions and climate variability, which has altered the regimes and population dynamics of the vegetative communities. Anthropogenic fires are usually caused by livestock owners who start fires to get rid of biomass and improve grass regrowth for the next grazing season. Humans change the characteristics of fires, such as the intensity, severity, number, and spread. “We believe that the best tools to prevent forest fires is environmental education, to reach schools in rural areas and talk to peasants and their children,” Edson told GlacierHub.

Huascaran Park Glaciers (Source: Sergejf/Flickr).

Since the 1970’s, glaciers in the tropical Andes have receded at a rate of 30 percent. Increased black carbon and dust will only quicken this glacial recession. A consequence of man-made fires is the release of black carbona particulate matter released by the combustion of fossil fuels, biofuel and biomass, which accelerates glacial melt when deposited on glaciers. Since black carbon absorbs solar energy, it has the ability to warm the atmosphere and speed up the melting process on glaciers.

In an interview with GlacierHub, John All, a research professor in the Department of Environmental Science at Huxley College and one of the co-authors of the study, said, “There are multiple potential sources of black carbon, but our work indicates that black carbon on glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca is almost entirely ‘young’ carbon – i.e. not fossil carbon like diesel. Mountain fires potentially provide large amounts and large particle sizes of local black carbon that can be deposited immediately onto the glacier.”

Lake 69 in Cordillera Blanca, Huaraz, Peru (Source: Arnaud_Z_Voyage/Flickr).

Park managers are working to save the park from future fire-related accidents by bringing on specialists like John All. “We began this research at the request of the Park Superintendent because he was concerned about how these fires, which are ignited to improve grazing in the Park, were affecting the ecosystem and visitor experiences,” he told GlacierHub. “We’ve worked with USAID and various Peruvian agencies to hold workshops and work with local stakeholders to curb burning practices. However, as natural fire conditions become more explosive, even accidental fires may become widespread in the future.” More research needs to be done in order to improve fire management and learn more about the fires’ impact on the park.

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Roundup: Green Development, Glacier Reduction, and Psychiatry

Green Development in Patagonia

From Project Muse: “This paper examines how Southern Andean Patagonia has been increasingly incorporated within networks of global capital since the 1990s. This remote region has become an iconic center for green development in Latin America. The article develops the argument that a regional territorial imaginary has facilitated this recent shift towards green development across the resource domains of land conservation, hydropower, and forestry. The discussion addresses the different ways in which forests, waterways, and protected areas (public and private) have been integrated into a hegemonic vision promoting eco-regionalism among state, corporate, and civil society actors.”

Read more about Southern Andean Patagonia here.

The Pascua River in Chile is threatened by hydropower, which could disrupt the river’s flow
(Source: International Rivers/Creative Commons).

 

Glacier Reduction in Tibetan Plateau

From AGU Publications: “In this study, we focused on light-absorbing impurities (LAIs), including black carbon, organic carbon, and mineral dust in glacial surface snow from southeaster Tibetan glaciers. This study showed the concentrations of LAIs, and estimated their impact on albedo reduction. Furthermore, we discussed the potential source of impurities and their impact to the study area. These results provide scientific basis for regional mitigation efforts to reduce black carbon.”

Learn more about the light-absorbing impurities here.

The Himalayas, which separate the Indo-Gangetic Plain from the Tibetan Plateau (Source: Manfred Sommer/Creative Commons).

 

Combat Psychiatry of Indian Armed Forces

From Science Direct: “Indian Armed Forces have been engaged in various combat duties for long. The adverse effect of prolonged and repetitive deployment of troops in these highly stressful environment leads to many combat stress behaviors as well as misconduct behaviors. Preventing, identifying and managing these disruptive behaviors are an essential part of combat psychiatry within the larger domain of combat medicine. Indian Armed Forces have a well-oiled mechanism to handle these issues and military psychiatrists are deeply engaged in providing holistic mental health care to the esteemed clientele.” The article mentions the Siachen Glacier (where India and Pakistan meet) as one of the sites in the study.

Learn more about the hardships faced by the Indian Armed Forces here.

Indian Soldiers guarding the Siachen Glacier (Source: Pratibha Sauparna/Pinterest).

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Two Glaciers in India Granted Personhood Status, Court Rules

The Gangtori and Yamunotri glaciers in India were recently granted “living beings” status or personhood by the Uttarakhand state court in order to protect them, particularly from pollution and climate change. Located in the Himalayas, both glaciers are considered sacred by Hindus, the dominant religion in India, and are important pilgrimage sites. The glaciers also provide fresh water to millions of people through glacial runoff that flows into the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, which were declared “living beings” last month.

The Himalayas (Source: Creative Commons).

The designation of the two glaciers comes on the heels of the right wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent election victories in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has been criticized for its nationalist policies in India, such as ignoring the minority Muslim population in India. 

While the granting of personhood status follows a pioneering trend set by a New Zealand court, which designated personhood to a former national park and later a river, the designation may also be a move by the BJP to earn political favor despite other controversial policies. The coincidence of the timing of the court’s decision and the recent election victories follow a pattern of political action under Hindu nationalism.

Not long ago, for example, the BJP appointed Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath the state leader of Uttar Pradesh, where there is a high population of Muslims. Adityanath has a history of controversial statements about Muslims, which include a comment that Muslim men seduce Hindu women to lessen the Hindu population and a public defense of the killing of a Muslim man in 2015 after his family allegedly ate beef.

Prime Minister Modi (Source: Creative Commons).

On the other hand, the BJP’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress (INC), champions religious diversity and tolerance. But for the first time since 2002, the BJP won a majority of seats in Uttarkhand, earning 56 to the INC’s 11. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a landslide 325 seats to the INC’s 54. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which caters to minority Muslims, took 19 seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh of Uttarakhand state court bestowed the legal distinction of “Juristic Persons” on the two glaciers, giving them legal rights. Personhood status allows lawsuits to be brought by features of the natural world, without the need to show harm done to a human.

The ruling recognized glacier retreat as one of the reasons for the personhood status. “Gangotri is one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas,” the Court said. “However, it is receding fast. In over 25 years, it has retreated more than 850 meters.” At 7,100 meters above sea level, Gangtori Glacier is the longest glacier in the Central Himalayas at 30 km in length. But it has been shrinking at a rate of retreat of about 13 meters per year since 2000.

In addition, Yamunotri Glacier is also receding at an alarming rate. In just a few hundred years, the glacier may be gone completely and with it the freshwater rivers. Millions of people depend on glacial melt for water, with glacial ice the largest reservoir of freshwater on earth. A recent report in The Cryosphere states that the mass of Himalayan glaciers may drop by 70-99 percent by the year 2100. 

Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia University School of Law who has practiced environmental law for nearly 30 years, told GlacierHub, “There have been various efforts in the U.S., but none have gotten very far at all. The ruling is a manifestation of a completely different legal system, a non-western legal system.”

The Ganges River (Source: Creative Commons).

In addition to the glaciers, several rivers, streams, waterfalls, jungles, forest wetlands and valleys will also be protected by the new court ruling. Seven public representatives from the cities and towns in Uttarakhand will be appointed to ensure that the communities living along the banks of rivers and near glaciers have a say in their protection.

“Giving the glaciers and the major rivers that flow from these glaciers living entity status is an important direction in preserving India’s remaining water resources,” Meha Jain, assistant professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. “These rivers are critical for hundreds of millions of people, including farmers who rely on them for irrigation, which will become even more critical with growing food security demands over the coming decades.”

David Haberman wrote about one of these rivers, the Yamuna River, in his book River of Love in an Age of Pollution, published by the University of California Press. “Celebrated as an aquatic form of divinity for thousands of years, the Yamuna is one of India’s most sacred rivers. A prominent feature of north Indian culture, the Yamuna is conceptualized as a goddess flowing with liquid love—yet today it is severely polluted, the victim of fast-paced industrial development.”

Gangtori glacier (Source: NASA).

Black carbon has been identified as a cause of glacier melt and has been responsible for accelerating the retreat of India’s glaciers by accumulating on top of the snow, increasing the absorption of solar energy. It is typically given off by cookstoves, diesel engines and biomass burning, activities that are ubiquitous in countries like India, which suffers from air pollution as a result of black carbon. Black carbon isn’t nearly as prevalent in many developed countries because of technology advancements and regulation. Perhaps the ruling and emphasis on protecting the glaciers will lead to changes in India’s use of burning activities associated with black carbon.

A woman using a cookstove (Source: Creative Commons).

Climate change continues to warm the Earth and endanger the Himalayan natural landscape and glaciers. While the recent designation by the court may further the preservation of glaciers and river systems, a simple decree will not do much if not acted upon, particularly by the government.

 

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Roundup: Remote Sensing, Black Carbon, and Skiing

Roundup: Glacier Surface Motion, Black Carbon & Skiing

 

Remote Sensing Measures Glacier Surface Motion

From ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing: “For monitoring of glacier surface motion in pole and alpine areas, radar remote sensing is becoming a popular technology accounting for its specific advantages of being independent of weather conditions and sunlight… Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging is a complementary information source which has the advantage of providing images all year long, with no limitations in terms of weather condition and imaging time. It can reliably collect data with a pre-defined temporal interval over long periods of time with a ground resolution meeting the demands of glacier monitoring. Additionally, active SAR sensors observe both the amplitude and phase information of the backscattered signal from the ground target.”

Read more about remote sensing in alpine areas here.

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A view of glacier surface motion (Source: Jeffrey Kargel/NASA).

 

Effects of Black Carbon on the Tibetan Plateau

From Advancements in Climate Change Research: “The Tibetan Plateau (TP), which has an abundance of snow and ice cover, is referred to as the water tower of Asia. Melting snow/ice makes a large contribution to regional hydrological resources and has direct impacts on local society and economic development. Recent studies have found that light-absorbing impurities, which may accelerate snow/ice melting, are considered as a key factor in cryospheric changes. However, there have been few assessments of the radiative effects of light-absorbing impurities on snow/ice cover over the Tibetan Plateau. Flanner et al. (2007) coupled a snow radiative model with a global climate model (GCM) and estimated the anthropogenic radiative forcing by the deposition of black carbon in snow averaged 1.5 W m−2 over the Tibetan Plateau.”

Learn more about this study here.

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An aerial view of the Tibetan Plateau (Source: NASA/Creative Commons).

 

Skiing Across World’s Glaciers To Raise Awareness

From National Geographic: “Børge Ousland, now 54, teamed up with French adventurer Vincent Colliard, 30, for the Alpina Ice Legacy project. Over 10 years, the duo plans to ski across the world’s 20 largest glaciers in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. They crossed Alaska’s Stikine Glacier on their second expedition in May 2015, and in May 2016 they tackled the project’s third glacier, the St. Elias-Wrangell Mountains Range Ice Field. After 19 days and 267 miles in the field, [National Geographic] caught up with Ousland and Colliard in Alaska to talk suffering, partnership, and coming home alive.”

Read more from the interview here.

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Vincent Colliard on LeConte glacier (Source: National Geographic).

 

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Wildfires Melt Glaciers From a Distance

Scientists have begun to trace a link between climate change, an increased number of wildfires and glacier melting.  Particles emitted by wildfires and then deposited on glaciers are thought to darken the ice’s surface, and may lead to more rapid melting.

Natalie Kehrwald, a geologist from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), is currently studying the levels of wildfire particles deposited on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. Kehrwald and her fellow USGS geologist, Shad O’Neel,  who is tracking the retreat of glaciers in the Juneau Icefield, are working together to document the contributions of wildfires to glacier melting.

Collecting ice cores on the Juneau Icefield (Source: Natalie Kehrwald).

“In the past two to three years there have been huge wildfires [in Alaska]… I am trying to see if there are aerosols being deposited on the Juneau ice field and if they are accelerating the melting,”  said Kehrwald in an interview with GlacierHub.

According to multiple sources, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the non-profit research and news organization Climate Central, rising Arctic temperatures are creating longer and more severe wildfire seasons, with larger and more frequent fires.  Kehrwald proposes that an increase in wildfires has led to a greater volume of aerosols, a mixture of carbon and other particles, deposited onto glaciers.  There may be a minor feedback as well. Since glaciers act as large mirrors and keep the planet cooler by reflecting solar energy back into space, the loss of glaciers could also accelerate the rise in temperaturse.

In early August, Kehrwald and O’Neel led a team of student researchers from the Juneau Icefield Training Program into the field, where they gathered ice cores.  They will later analyze these cores for wildfire indicators in a lab.  

Natalie Kehrwald’s team of Juneau Icefield Research Program students (Source: Natalie Kehrwald).

“We take samples from the highest, flattest parts of the glacier in specific locations that are impacted by air masses.  We drill down 7-9 meters, which date back about two to three years,” said Kehrwald, summarizing their trip.

The carbon deposits from wildfires can be grouped into a larger category called black carbon, which have been linked to rapid glacier melting.  Black carbon refers to carbon released from both biomass burning and fossil fuel emissions.  In order to determine whether the carbon on the Juneau Icefield is from wildfires, Kehrwald will look for a specific molecular marker in the ice.  

“It is a sugar called levoglucosan and it is only produced if you burn cellulose at a temperature of about 250 degrees Celsius,” said Kehrwald.  “So if you see high concentrations of that molecule you know the origin is biomass burning, which is generally wildfires but could be a big compilation of household fires.”

A team of Alaskan  firefighters marches down to meet the flames (Source: BLM Alaska Fire Service/Facebook).

Although the Alaskan wildfires occur predominantly in the boreal forest located in a drier region far north of the Juneau Icefield, smoke from wildfires have been known to travel great distances.  The phenomena of darkening glaciers due to particles from wildfires was well documented last year when large wildfires in British Columbia deposited particles on glaciers across the North American Arctic and as far as Greenland.

According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, three of the top ten largest Alaskan wildfires since 1940 occurred in the last decade.  In 2015, Alaskan wildfires burned over 5 million acres of land.  Alaska’s burnt acreage represented five-sixths of the national total land consumed by wildfires in that year, according to The Washington Post.  The acreage of wildfire burned land in 2015 is second only to the approximately 6.5 million acres burned in 2004.

A 2015 report, The Age of Alaskan Wildfires, produced by non-profit group Climate Central stated that large Arctic wildfires are no longer rare.  

Satellite image showing Alaskan wildfires on June 25, 2015. Actively burning areas are outlined in red. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner (Source: nasa.gov).

“We found the number and size of areas burnt by large wildfires [in Alaska] is on the rise since the 1950s,”  stated Todd Sanford, climate scientist at Climate Central.  “Looking at the length of the fire season in Alaska we found, like in the western US, the length of the season is increasing each year…. Wildfire seasons are over a month longer than they were in the 1950s.”

Additional research will further expand understanding of how much wildfires may affect glacier melting.

“In regards to the glaciers in southeast Alaska,” Kehrwald told GlacierHub “we don’t know if it [the reason for the rapid melting of the Juneau Icefield] is temperature only… or if it’s also due to imputes from outside components such as wildfires.”
Kehrwald and O’Neel plan to test their ice core samples in the lab and by later this year have a clearer view of how a greater number of wildfires due to rising temperatures can contribute to glacier melting.

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