To Travel or Not to Travel

The chilly wind created by the speed of the boat whipped through the coat, sweater, and longsleeve shirt I wore, interrupting my thoughts on the impact my trip had on my carbon footprint. Only two other tourists stayed on the upper deck as the boat wound its way through a fjord in western Norway, near Bergen. The sun caught the top of every small wave, creating an expanse of shimmering water between evergreen-coated mountains. We were heading toward Mostraumen Strait on a popular tourist cruise in the Hordaland region.

From the tourist cruise to Mostraumen Strait.

The fjord was a deep and narrow body of water. Norway’s fjords formed during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Glaciers carved U-shaped valleys in coastal areas that were later filled with water as sea levels rose. The same process created fjords around the world in places such as Alaska, New Zealand, and Patagonia. 

Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world at 58,133 kilometers, which has influenced Norwegian culture. Many of Bergen’s biggest tourist attractions are defined by their relationship with the sea. Some of the highlights of my time in Bergen were visiting the Norway Fisheries Museum, where I learned about the history of Norway’s hefty cod fishing industry, and hiking up to spectacular views over the fjords. Many tourists know of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, as the gateway to the fjords and visit it specifically to see them, myself included.  

View from a hiking trail.

This summer, I was one of the millions of visitors Norway receives each year when I spent six days exploring Bergen and its surrounding fjords. A thought I was never able to fully escape during the course of my vacation touring Norway’s gorgeous, glacially-shaped landscape was whether the choices that led to me standing on the upper level of a ferry boat admiring the scenery were contributing to the destruction of modern-day glaciers that act on current landscapes.

On the way to Mostraumen Strait.

Retracing the steps that brought me to that boat reveals a long trail of emissions; one transatlantic flight into Paris, another quick flight into Bergen, a train into the city from the airport, and the boat ride itself are among the resource-consuming means of transport I used to reach the fjords.

The downside to travel is obvious: flights are among the most carbon-intensive activities an individual can possibly undertake. A 2016 study showed that about 3 square meters of Arctic sea ice area are lost for every metric ton of CO2 emissions. A flight from New York to Los Angeles, for example, results in the loss of 32 square feet of sea ice. Another study shows that the average American’s emissions will cause the deaths of two people in the future. 

But there are benefits to travel. Visiting new places has been shown to increase creativity and foster a stronger sense of self, while reducing stress and feelings of depression. Spending time abroad pushes people to leave their comfort zones and fosters a greater appreciation for the world outside of the familiar.

View over Byfjorden, Bergen.

One path away from the conundrum created by the conflicting pros and cons of travel is the purchase of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets aim to compensate for the emissions released over the course of, for instance, air travel by reducing an equivalent or greater amount of emissions elsewhere. Offsets can take the form of forestry projects or energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To successfully counter emissions, offsets need to meet three criteria. They must have additionality—they need to be an action that would not have taken place if the money had not been received from the offset. They cannot have leakage—they must result in a net reduction of emissions. Lastly, they cannot be undone in the future—they must be permanent.

Some airlines like Qantas, KLM, and Austrian Airlines have programs in place to allow passengers to pay to offset their emissions. Third-parties like Gold Standard also exist to offset past emissions or to offset emissions created when flying with companies without such programs. Such programs place the culpability and responsibility to act on the passenger rather than the company that is producing the emissions and allows airlines to avoid implementing concrete emission-reduction measures.

The inconsistency of individual action led to the development of another approach: the UN Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is designed to hold airlines accountable by requiring that they offset emissions from international flights that emit over 2020 levels of emissions. CORISA, which comes into effect in 2021, contains many loopholes, though, and is voluntary for its first six years, leading some experts to doubt its efficacy.

A small boat on one of the fjords around Bergen.

Carbon offsets seem like an imperfect way to temporarily address the emissions created by air travel. For the kind of travel that brings us to the places that make life worth living like going on a visit to family and friends or for essential business travel, investing in offsets is better than doing nothing. When offsets become a justification for extra journeys that would not have been undertaken without a belief in the remedying powers of offsets, their benefits are outweighed by the harm inflicted by greater quantities of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and by the uncertainty of their efficacy.

Travelling, whether it is long or short distance, for business or pleasure, whether it is by plane, train or automobile, is part of the way we live. It fosters connections between people both by forging new links and allowing us to maintain ties to the past. If we were to give up travel in an increasingly globalized world, we would be giving up big and small life experiences that cannot be had by staying in one place. 

If the planes, trains, and boats I took to reach the fjords were powered by biofuels or renewable energy there would be far fewer emissions from my travels: the development of cleaner transportation would allow us to continue exploring new places without the ecological impact of today’s carbon intensive travel. Norway has become a leader in testing electric planes and predicts that by 2025 electric passenger flights could become a reality. Two-seater, all-electric planes are currently being used to train pilots by a Norweigian aviation firm. Until a large-scale shift becomes possible, Norway is imposing biofuel requirements on airlines operating within its borders to cut down on emissions. These initiatives demonstrate that there are options out there that may allow us to continue reaping the benefits of travel while minimizing the harm it inflicts on the people and places we are drawn to visit.

All images were taken by Elza Bouhassira. You can find her on Instagram here.

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Roundup: Decaying Matter, Glacial Bacteria, and CO2 Uptake

Transport of Nutrients and Decaying Matter by Rivers and Streams

From “Intermittent Rivers and Ephemeral Streams”: “The hydrological regimes of most intermittent rivers and ephemeral streams (IRES) include the alternation of wet and dry phases in the stream channel and highly dynamic lateral, vertical, and longitudinal connections with their adjacent ecosystems. Consequently, IRES show a unique ‘biogeochemical heartbeat’ with pulsed temporal and spatial variation in nutrient and organic matter inputs, in-stream processing, and downstream transport. Given that IRES are widespread, their improper consideration may cause inaccurate estimation of nutrient and carbon fluxes in river networks… Our purpose is to contribute to the flourishing knowledge and research on the biogeochemistry of IRES by providing a comprehensive view of nutrient and organic matter dynamics in these ecosystems.”

Read more about the findings here.

Photo of intermittent river in Boliva
An intermittent river in Bolivia (Source: Thibault Datry‏/Twitter).


Glacial Bacteria Originated on Slopes Near Alaskan Glacier

From Microbiology Ecology: “Although microbial communities from many glacial environments have been analyzed, microbes living in the debris atop debris-covered glaciers represent an understudied frontier in the cryosphere. The few previous molecular studies of microbes in supraglacial debris have either had limited phylogenetic resolution, limited spatial resolution (e.g. only one sample site on the glacier) or both. Here, we present the microbiome of a debris-covered glacier across all three domains of life, using a spatially-explicit sampling scheme to characterize the Middle Fork Toklat Glacier’s microbiome from its terminus to sites high on the glacier. Our results show that microbial communities differ across the supraglacial transect, but surprisingly these communities are strongly spatially autocorrelated, suggesting the presence of a supraglacial chronosequence… We use these data to refute the hypothesis that the inhabitants of the glacier are randomly deposited atmospheric microbes, and to provide evidence that succession from a predominantly photosynthetic to a more heterotrophic community is occurring on the glacier.”

Learn more about glacial bacteria here.

Topographic map of bacteria sample sites
Topographic map of bacteria sample sites on the Middle Fork Toklat Glacier (Source: Darcy et al.).


Simulated High Alkalinity Glacial Runoff Increases CO2 Uptake in Alaska

From Geophysical Research Letters: “The Gulf of Alaska (GOA) receives substantial summer freshwater runoff from glacial meltwater. The alkalinity of this runoff is highly dependent on the glacial source and can modify the coastal carbon cycle. We use a regional ocean biogeochemical model to simulate CO2 uptake in the GOA under different alkalinity-loading scenarios. The GOA is identified as a current net sink of carbon, though low-alkalinity tidewater glacial runoff suppresses summer coastal carbon uptake. Our model shows that increasing the alkalinity generates an increase in annual CO2 uptake of 1.9–2.7 TgC/yr. This transition is comparable to a projected change in glacial runoff composition (i.e., from tidewater to land-terminating) due to continued climate warming. Our results demonstrate an important local carbon-climate feedback that can significantly increase coastal carbon uptake via enhanced air-sea exchange, with potential implications to the coastal ecosystems in glaciated areas around the world.”

Read more about the study here.

Photo of the Gulf of Alaska from space
The Gulf of Alaska from space (Source: NASA Goddard Images/Twitter).


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Glacier Melting Sets Free Organic Carbon

Research has shown that glaciers have a greater role than was previously known in the movement of organic carbon into and through aquatic ecosystems, including the oceans. Organic Carbon (OC) refers to carbon contained in organic compounds that is originally derived from decaying vegetation, bacterial growth, and metabolic activities of living organisms. It serves as a primary food source for marine organisms, particularly microbes. In addition, it contributes to the acidification of water. Particularly in freshwater ecosystems, excessive OC can result in a brownish coloration. In fact, the amount of OC is often used as an indicator of overall water quality.

Figure 1. Location of glacier DOC samples classified by type. a–d, Samples were collected from a wide variety of glacial environments including: Alaska (a), Tibet (b), Dry Valley glaciers in Antarctica (c), and the Greenland Ice Sheet (d). (Source: Hood et al.)
Figure 1. Location of glacier DOC samples classified by type. a–d, Samples were collected from a wide variety of glacial environments including: Alaska (a), Tibet (b), Dry Valley glaciers in Antarctica (c), and the Greenland Ice Sheet (d). (Source: Hood et al.)

A recent research shows that the increase in glacier runoff through melting and iceberg calving has led to a rise of OC flux entering marine and lacustrine ecosystems, and this flux is expected to grow in the coming decades. According to the article, glacier ecosystems accumulate OC from primary production on the glacier surface, particularly in cryoconite deposits, and also from the deposition of carbonaceous material derived from terrestrial and anthropogenic sources.

To quantify the total storage of OC in terrestrial ice reservoirs, the study integrates measurements of organic carbon from mountain glaciers, ice sheets in Greenland, and Antarctica Ice Sheet, with data from locations that span five continents (see Figure 1). It turns out that that largest amount of OC is located in Antarctica, followed by Greenland and mountain glaciers. However, it is found in the study that a large portion of the OC released from melting glaciers is from mountain glaciers and peripheral glaciers which exit from the Greenland ice sheets (see Figure 2). The surprisingly disproportionately high DOC export from mountain glaciers and Greenland is associated with their glacier mass turnover rate, which is higher than in Antarctica. Even as glaciers are losing ice through melting and caving at their lower ends, they continue to receive new snow at the top, which converts to ice—a process of flow, which contributes to the movement of OC through the glaciers.

Figure 2. Storage and flux of glacier DOC. Total glacier storage of DOC (a) and annual DOC export in glacier runoff (b) for MGL, GIS, and AIS.
Figure 2. Storage and flux of glacier DOC. Total glacier storage of DOC (a) and annual DOC export in glacier runoff (b) for AIS (Antarctic Icesheet), GIS (Greenland Icesheet) and MGL (mountain glaciers). (Source: Hood et al.)

Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and particulate organic carbon (POC), two major components of the OC, are both significant components in the carbon cycle, because they are primary food sources in aquatic food webs. In particular, DOC forms complexes with trace metals, which can be transported and consumed by organisms. This may have drastic affects on marine life, “because this material is readily consumed by microbes at the bottom of the food chain,” said U.S. Geological Survey research glaciologist and co-author of the research Shad O’Neel. The microbes are an important source of food for plankton and for larger organisms in the seas, including crustaceans and fish.


Iceberg Calving (Source: Flickr/Indistinct)
Iceberg Calving (Source: indistinct/Flickr)

The study raises questions of the implications of OC input for carbon dioxide concentration in atmosphere. The authors suggest that glacier-derived OC shows a high degree of biological availability, when compared to other terrestrial sources. Hence, it is more likely to result in more rapid decomposition of dead marine organisms, which otherwise would fall from upper zones of the oceans to deeper sections, where they would remain for long periods. This decomposition, in turn, contributes to carbon dioxide outgassing from the oceans to the atmosphere.

For another story about the effects of glaciers on ocean chemistry and ecology, look here.

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