Roundup: Tardigrade, Glacier Modeling, and Eyjafjallajökull Eruption

Discovery of a New Water Bear Species

From BioOne: “Glaciers and ice sheets are considered a biome with unique organism assemblages. Tardigrada (water bears) are micrometazoans that play the function of apex consumers on glaciers. Cryoconite samples with the dark-pigmented tardigrade Cryoconicus gen. nov. kaczmareki sp. nov. were collected from four locations on glaciers in China and Kyrgyzstan… A recovery of numerous live individuals from a sample that was frozen for 11 years suggests high survival rates in the natural environment. The ability to withstand low temperatures, combined with dark pigmentation that is hypothesized to protect from intense UV radiation, could explain how the new taxon is able to dwell in an extreme glacial habitat.”

Learn more about the tardigrade population in glaciers here.

An image of a tardigrade (Source: Live Science).


Glacier Mass Change and Modeling

From Nature: “Glacier mass loss is a key contributor to sea-level change, slope instability in high-mountain regions, and the changing seasonality and volume of river flow. Understanding the causes, mechanisms and time scales of glacier change is therefore paramount to identifying successful strategies for mitigation and adaptation. Here, we use temperature and precipitation fields from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 output to force a glacier evolution model, quantifying mass responses to future climatic change. We find that contemporary glacier mass is in disequilibrium with the current climate, and 36 ± 8% mass loss is already committed in response to past greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, mitigating future emissions will have only very limited influence on glacier mass change in the twenty-first century.”

Read more about the glacier modeling here.

Image of mountain glacier model (Source: Antarctic Glaciers).


Glacierized Volcanoes and the Effect of Eruptions on Health

From NCBI: “More than 500 million people worldwide live within exposure range of an active volcano and children are a vulnerable subgroup of such exposed populations. However, studies on the effects of volcanic eruptions on children’s health beyond the first year are sparse. In 2010, exposed children were more likely than non-exposed children to experience respiratory symptoms… Both genders had an increased risk of symptoms of anxiety/worries but only exposed boys were at increased risk of experiencing headaches and sleep disturbances compared to non-exposed boys. Adverse physical and mental health problems experienced by the children exposed to the eruption seem to persist for up to a three-year period post-disaster. These results underline the importance of appropriate follow-up for children after a natural disaster.”

Find out more about the effects of the eruption in Iceland here.

Image of Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption (Source: Time Magazine).

Intimacy and Expertise: A Conversation with Antarctic Anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly

Glaciologists Doing What They Do

When most people think about Antarctica, they do not think about people.  That is not the case for Jessica O’Reilly, assistant professor of international studies at Indiana University.  In her April 2016 paper, “Sensing the ice: field science, models, and expert intimacy with knowledge,” published in theJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, O’Reilly explores the life of Antarctic scientists and their intimate knowledge of their frozen world.

With years of experience and deep contact with their subject matters, experts of the most southern continent develop an understanding that allows the scientific community to most accurately answer pressing questions, even when lacking complete scientific data.  In her paper, O’Reilly explores a common tool called expert elicitation used to garner this educated opinion.  This method is often used in the assessment of glacier melting and assessment reports on climte change.

In an interview with GlacierHub, O’Reilly discusses her adventure to the Antarctic and her findings on the deep connection field scientists and modelers have with Antarctica.  A condensed and edited version of the conversation follows.

Jessica O’Reilly in Antarctica


GlacierHub: Your recent paper discusses the intuitive understanding a scientist develops when working closely with a subject.  In your article’s case, the subject is the Antarctic ice sheet. Can you walk me through the phases of your research?

JOR: In 2004, I began participant observation with Antarctic scientists and policy makers.  Then in 2005 and 2006 I lived in New Zealand, where I worked with Antarctic scientists and policy makers and went on an Antarctic expedition in December of 2005 to do my dissertation project.

I tried to understand how and why Antarctic scientists do what they do.  My main question was how that [their behavior] affects environmental management and policy.  I followed that up with a second project, which was archival research on what scientist believe will happen to the West Antarctic ice sheet and how those projections have changed over time.

In this paper, I looked back at both of these projects and instead of directly studying how the scientists do their research, I tried to understand how the folk tales or legends they spun about their experiences on the ice, or with their data, may affect their perception of the ice sheet.


GH: The word intimacy is very powerful.  Can you explain further how someone can have an intimate relationship with an inanimate object like ice?

JOR: I’m thinking about intimacy as knowing something well, through a long and deep relationship. In the article, I suggest that expert knowledge emerges through these long-term encounters with their field sites and their objects of encounter. This builds from Hugh Raffles’ work on “Intimate Knowledge,” that he published in 2002.


GH: Can you define the term, “expert elicitation,” and discuss its connection to environmental policy?

JOR: Expert elicitation is a formalization of this idea that scientific judgment is highly valued.  It is a… research method where social scientists will send out surveys or gather specialists to give their thoughts about something that is very uncertain, such as predictions about the collapse of the ice sheet.  At the time of expert elicitation there is typically high uncertainty in the data either from the models or field observations about what may happen.  However, there are experts who have living knowledge based on all the time they have spent on the glacier or with their models – or both.

Crevasse Peeking


GH: Why do you think it’s important to bring social research, such as expert elicitation, into scientific analysis?

JOR: A good reason to utilize it is to fill [data] gaps in scientific assessments like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which were used to form the basis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement.

Climate science is a massive interdisciplinary field, and when the science timeline does not match the political timeline, or when policy makers need information quickly and there are gaps in the knowledge, expert elicitation can be one way to fill in a gap.  Everyone understand that the earth is warming and it’s partly caused by humans, but some more specific details like when sea level will rise, where it will rise the most and over what timescale are less certain.  As modeling and data collection continues, some researchers utilize expert elicitation to get as much information on the table as possible so that policy makers can make better decisions.


GH:  According to your work not everyone, even some out in the field in Antarctica, believes that expert elicitation is a viable source of information

JOR: Right, it is contested [see Glacial Drama].  And like all social sciences when exchanged with the hard sciences, or qualitative versus quantitative issues, there are people who are not enthusiastic about it.  The people who conduct expert elicitation or who choose to participate understand the criticisms of it.  It has always been a tool in situations of uncertainty where there isn’t adequate data from natural and physical sciences.


GH: It is very easy to see how someone working in the field in Antarctica can develop an intimacy with the ice.  But what is harder to grasp is the concept of modelers developing intimacy with the glaciers.  How do you explain your observations of the modelers?

JOR: Pure modelers don’t have a relationship with the glacier; they have a relationship with their model… Everyone has relationships with glaciers even if they don’t go, but we don’t all develop relationships with computer code.

U.S. Base: McMurdo Station, Antarctica

That was something that surprised me when I started interviewing modelers.  They love it so much it’s not about going to Antarctica.  It’s about doing the model and seeing a representation of the Earth’s processes unfolding through a series of equations.  The modelers become intimate with their models the same way field scientists come to know the places they are studying, which is through immersion into a long process that is sometimes monotonous but almost meditative.


GH: From your experience and the interviews you conducted, how did working in Antarctic conditions affect the social relationship of the field scientists?

JOR: That is a great question.  My book [The Technocratic Antarctic: an ethnography of science expertise and environmental governance], which is coming out late this year, talks about that.  I don’t think it’s the extreme environment that affects the social relationship as much as the isolation, which does go hand-in-hand with the harsh environment.

The people who choose to go down there are interesting characters and are very thoughtful.  You don’t just happen upon Antarctica.  It is very deliberate decision to get down there.  It involves a bunch of red tape.  Even going on a tourist cruise involves a year of planning, gearing up and training.

There are also a lot of interesting traditions.  Some think it would be hard for an anthropologist in Antarctica because there are not many people, but I found it very rich socially.  You would have to read a whole book to get a glimpse of it.  The culture in Antarctica is a very young culture.  A cool thing about it is that it’s the only continent where the first structure built there is still exists.

Slower Evaporation Rate Spurs Tibetan Lake Growth

A new study in the Journal of Hydrology uses a novel modelling technique that helps scientists understand the effect of evaporation on the expansion of lakes in the inner Tibetan Plateau. This research also has implications for the use of climate models on the Plateau. In addition, the work has broader significance for weather patterns beyond Tibet, due to the plateau’s influence on the atmospheric circulation of the Asian Monsoon system.

Nam Co Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. Photo: NASA Johnson/Flickr.
Nam Co Lake on the Tibetan Plateau. Photo: NASA Johnson/Flickr.

The researchers focused on Nam Co Lake, the second largest of the more than one thousand lakes on the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike many lakes, which drain through rivers, this lake is in a closed basin, losing water only through evaporation. There is no bigger lake at a higher altitude than this body of water anywhere in the world.

In fact, Nam Co Lake is expanding, and the researchers wanted to better understand why. Seeking a fresh approach, the researchers aimed to specify the role of evaporation in this expansion.

Led by Ning Ma of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, they found that the expansion of Nam Co Lake is partly caused by decreased rates of evaporation, possibly due to declining wind speeds and decreased solar radiation.

There have been many studies exploring the rapid expansion of lakes in the region since the 1990’s, but there is no agreement on the explanation for this phenomenon. Past studies have looked at increased glacial runoff or increased precipitation as the main drivers. But the authors of this study explain that to fully understand the expansion of this closed lake, evaporation, a factor often neglected by researchers, needs to be incorporated as well. 

Nam Co Lake. Photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee/Flickr.
Nam Co Lake. Photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee/Flickr.

The authors indicate that evaporation in this lake, as in other lakes, depends on several factors: the radiation that reaches the lake’s surface, air temperature, wind speed, and the dryness of the air. In order to find which of these variables has the largest effect, the scientists correlated the average values of each with the evaporation rates over the lake.

Wind speed, they concluded, was most plausible candidate. However, the lack of nearby weather stations and the mountainous landscape of the region pose an issue for the construction of accurate models which include wind speed. Because of this, the researchers used a different model than is usually employed during evaporation studies; this alternate method is called a complementary relationship lake evaporation (CRLE) model.

The CRLE model did not include wind speed measurements, but the researchers can estimate this factor by including an air stability factor that includes variables for heat and moisture content.

The study suggests that the ability to more accurately model the rates of evaporation without wind speed data is the key to counterbalancing the lack of meteorological observations in this area. Further, the need to examine the lake over decades can best be addressed by models, granted the lack of data from the weather stations in the region. Accurate models may be able to help those in the region better understand lake expansion.

Monsoon in Sri Lanka. The authors argue that lake evaporation on the Tibetan Plateau has some thermal-regulatory effect on the Asian Monsoon. Photo: Guttorm Flatabø/Flickr.
Monsoon in Sri Lanka. The authors argue that lake evaporation on the Tibetan Plateau has some thermal-regulatory effect on the Asian Monsoon. Photo: Michael Grogan/Flickr.

The Tibetan Plateau is of great regional importance because of the role it plays in the Asian Monsoon system. Simply put, the heat energy (which is affected by evaporation) from the plateau thermally regulates the monsoon circulation patterns. Changes in evaporation rates from lakes may have implications for the many areas affected by the Asian Monsoon. By providing an assessment of the CRLE model, which the authors argue provides a more accurate representation of evaporation, this study may aid in the understanding of the processes taking place in this critical, but rapidly changing, region.