Roundup: Antarctic Species Diversity, Credit Ratings, and an Alaskan Podcast

What Happens to Species Diversity as Glaciers Melt?

Published in July 2019, a study looked at the effects of melting glaciers on seafloor species diversity in Antarctica.

Antarctic ice meeting the sea. 
Source: Tak from HK/ Creative Commons.

As glaciers melt, more sediment is released into the surrounding waters and can smother seafloor communities. As part of the same process, more icebergs are created which can scrape the bottom of the ocean, removing the top layers of sediment, known as soft sediment. 

Soft sediment contains a great deal of life and plays an important role in marine ecosystems The study explains that it is one of the “key components of energy flow through food webs” and is important “in sedimentary processes especially nutrient and carbon cycling, waste breakdown and removal.” 

The authors wrote that it was “the first study to comprehensively analyse the composition of Antarctic soft sediment metazoan communities across all size classes, from < 1 mm up to 10 cm, in two geographically distinct coves.”

The study found that “in contrast to findings from rocky substrata, there was no evidence of an effect of typical Antarctic stressors of iceberg scour and intense seasonality. As at other latitudes, organic content of the sediment was most strongly correlated with community structure, suggesting that increased sedimentation from run-off from melting glaciers may be the main climate change effect on these communities.”

Credit rating agency buys climate risk firm

A New York Times article explains the credit rating agency Moody’s purchase of Four Twenty Seven, a firm that measures climate risk: 

A helicopter dropping water over the 2018 Taylor Creek and Klondike Fires in Oregon.
Source:  Forest Service Photography/ Creative Commons

“Sudden shocks such as floods, wildfires or storms can hurt businesses and send residents fleeing, taking away the tax revenue that governments use to pay their debts. And longer-term threats — such as rising seas or higher temperatures — can make those places less desirable to live in, hurting property values and, in turn, the amount raised by taxes.

Rating agencies translate those risks, along with more traditional factors such as a government’s cash flow and debt levels, into a credit rating, which communicates to investors the odds that a government will be unable to repay its bondholders. Lower ratings generally mean that borrowers need to offer investors a higher return to account for that risk.

Following a string of deadly hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, Moody’s, along with S&P Global and Fitch Ratings, issued reports warning state and local governments that their exposure to climate risk could affect their credit ratings.”

Alaskan glacier podcast 

Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. 
Source: Jeff’s Canon/ Creative Commons

In a 25 minute podcast, Manasseh Franklin describes her experience following the water from a glacier in Alaska to the sea. She “wanted to make the melting of glaciers more real to people through her writing. So on an Alaskan rafting trip, she followed water to its source.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

The credit rating agency Moody’s announced on July 24 that it had acquired a majority stake in Four Twenty Seven, a leading provider of insight on economic climate risk. The acquisition by one of the world’s foremost credit rating agencies stands out as an indicator that the climate crisis is seen as a material risk that corporations and governments must consider.

Four Twenty Seven uses outputs from climate models to assess physical risks associated with climate-related processes for governments and companies. Heat and water stress, extreme precipitation, cyclones, and sea level rise are among the hazards Four Twenty Seven scores to quantify climate risk exposure for its clients.

Moody’s acquisition, which was widely covered in the media, indicates a responsiveness to investors who are clamoring for not just environmental, social and governance (ESG) intelligence to inform their decisions, but climate data too. 

A farm in Paducah, Kentucky is inundated by floodwaters in January 2016 (Source: PO2 Seth Johnson/US Coast Guard)

Richard Cantor is the chief credit officer at Moody’s. “Over the last few years we’ve become much more systematic and transparent about how we are incorporating ESG factors generally, and climate change in particular, into our credit rating analysis,” Cantor said, referring to the Four Twenty Seven acquisition. “This will help us do even more.”

What the acquisition of Four Twenty Seven enables the credit rating agency to do, explained Henry Shilling, a former senior vice president at Moody’s who oversaw the corporation’s ESG integration during his 25-year tenure, is to help Moody’s to make more sound financial decisions.

“It is clear to Moody’s, as well as other rating agencies, that climate risks have become elevated and they have financial and policy implications,” Shilling told GlacierHub. “It would help refine their capacity to anticipate how these risks could impact their ability to generate future cash flow, which is the primary basis for assessing credit quality.”

Reflecting their seriousness about sustainable investing, earlier this year Moody’s acquired Vigeo Eiris, a global leader in ESG research, data, and assessments. What’s become clear is that ESG is not just a values-based approach—it’s a commercial opportunity.

According to the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment, along the U.S. coastline, public infrastructure and $1 trillion in national wealth held in coastal real estate are threatened by rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and the ongoing increase in high tide flooding.

Bruce Usher, a professor and co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, said Moody’s is a traditional firm and that its acquisition of Four Twenty Seven represents a significant shift in how the private sector is evaluating risk. “For them to reach the point where they believe that having a deeper understanding of [climate] risks, and presumably how those risks affect and ultimately are priced into financial assets…that’s an important signal,” he told GlacierHub. “This challenge of pricing financial risk is becoming important to the point where commercially you have to do it.”

Sea level rise is one of the physical factors forcing companies and governments examine their adaptation and mitigation strategy. Glaciers play a significant role in this process.

While glacier retreat is one of the more noticeable—and traceable—effects of the climate crisis, the impact of reduced glacier volume to business operations is not as obvious. Glaciers are referenced in several posts on Four Twenty Seven’s website, specifically on the topic of sea level rise and its effect on maritime shipping and coastal real estate. Glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought, accounting for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961.

The Port of Oakland, California, near Four Twenty Seven’s headquarters (Source: Travis Leech/Flickr)

Seaborne shipping, which accounts for 90 percent of all global trade, is expected to be impacted by more severe storms and inundation of low lying port facilities. Anticipated effects on coastal real estate are even more worrisome.

An estimated 2.5 percent of the global population could be displaced with two meters (6.5 feet) of sea level rise, the level experts say coasts should plan for by 2100. Founder and CEO of Four Twenty Seven, Emilie Mazzacurati said real estate lies on the frontline of exposure to climate change. “Many valuable locations and markets are often coastal or near bodies of water, and therefore are going to experience increases in flood occurrences due to increases in extreme rainfall and to sea level rise,” she said in a 2018 company press release.

“These risks can now be assessed with great precision—the availability of this data provides investors with an opportunity to perform comprehensive due diligence which reflects all dimensions of emerging risks,” Mazzacurati added.

Her Berkeley, California-based company holds detailed climate risk data covering over 2,000 listed companies, one million global corporate facilities, 320 real estate investment trusts, 3,000 US counties, and 196 countries.

The name Four Twenty Seven is an homage to California’s calculated 1990 total emissions inventory: 427 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The figure became the target to reduce emissions by 2020, which the state achieved four years early. It is worth noting that California’s economy grew by 26 percent during the period in which it reduced its emissions.

A destroyed home in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens in New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (Source: Chester Green/Flickr)

Natalie Ambrosio, who manages publications and communications at Four Twenty Seven, says companies and governments are awakening to the need for their services. “They’re increasingly aware that sea level rise and the rippling impacts of sea level rise are going to affect them directly on their own assets and also indirectly through impacts on infrastructure,” Ambrosio told GlacierHub. “We’re seeing more of our clients coming to us wanting assessments on their exposure to these impacts.”

The tricky part is how to price risks with the time horizons associated with climate disruption, which often lie far in the future.

Usher explained the dilemma facing risk managers. “The challenge at the intersection of climate risk and the financial markets is understanding how risk affects the value of assets today when climate risk is primarily considered a long-term risk with significant uncertainty,” he told GlacierHub. “It is very difficult for owners of financial assets to price those risks given those time frames and those uncertainties.”

Intelligence from a climate risk provider like Four Twenty Seven can help.

Regulatory initiatives toward low carbon economies across much of the world are also prodding rating agencies, like Moody’s, toward an embrace of climate risk intelligence. 

Those in the field of evaluating climate risk say the time is already overdue for companies and governments to start addressing adaptation and mitigation risks. “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Risks Report begins. “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking.”

Read More on GlacierHub: 

Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

The Accumulation Zone of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier Is Shrinking

Climate Risk Adaptation for Flooding in the Indian Himalayas

The emergence of the term “climate risk” to describe regions and people negatively impacted by the effects of climate change is now informing adaptation planning in highland areas. A recent study from Environmental Science and Policy reviews a pilot program in the Indian Himalayas that considers climate risk for glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and other weather-related flooding to create an adaptation plan specific to the region. The research finds that a climate risk assessment framework can contribute to sustainable adaptation planning for communities.

How the integrative concept of climate risk was operationalized for the assessment of flood risk in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

The research was a collaborative effort under the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the government of India’s Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP), an initiative based on the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. IHCAP “aims to enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities in the Indian Himalayas through strengthening the capacities of Indian institutions in climate science, with a specific focus on glaciology and related areas, as well as institutional capacities of Himalayan states in India on adaptation planning, implementation and policy.” With this in mind, a statewide assessment was done of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the Himalayas, followed by a more focused assessment of the Kullu District, one of the state’s identified hot spots for climate risk.

Located in the north-west of Himachal Pradesh, Kullu District is home to over 437,000 people and sits along the valley of the Beas River, with many floodplains running throughout. According to the study, floods are considered a major threat and the potential for GLOFs— events caused by glacier melting and lake expansion— is increasing significantly, with “enhanced risk extending far downstream from where the potentially dangerous lakes originate,” according to the research.

Integrated GLOF risk assessment for the tehsils of Himachal Pradesh (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

“Adaptation strategies need to be underpinned by robust science,” Simon Allen, one of the study’s researchers from the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, told GlacierHub. Otherwise, he says, the worst-case scenario is that strategies such as Early Warning Systems could be installed in the wrong locations or may not be adequate for the magnitude of the event expected. This point supported the study’s analysis of climate risk into the categories of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure during the initial scientific assessment. An integrated risk assessment was then undertaken.

Considering components of climate risk combines aspects of disaster risk management and climate adaptation planning to create a comprehensive approach for the management of flood risk. It originates from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an integrative approach to managing vulnerability in the face of climate change, and has been since utilized by the C40 Cities network to increase resilience in cities such as Toronto and Amsterdam. It offers a framework for approaching adaptation that emphasizes locating and managing hot-spots of climate risk.

With a solid scientific risk assessment as a foundation, the Kullu District’s adaptation planning was approached with an emphasis on local participation. “The strategies and the underlying science need to be strongly supported by the local stakeholders, and this support and trust takes time to build,” noted Allen. The element of trust is important as it increases the likelihood of a successful project and allows the sharing of vital local knowledge. To build this trust, the locals were involved from the beginning with repeated consultations during the climate risk study and maintained control over the final decisions on adaptation options.

Multiple adaptation plans were discussed during several community workshops and meetings to address both the GLOF and monsoonal flood risks. This allowed the locals to utilize their unique knowledge of the area to determine what would be most beneficial according to their community’s concerns, goals, and institutional capacity. In the study, the support of the district’s disaster management authority was crucial in the political context of the area.

The River Beas and River Parvati in Bhuntar, Kullu (Source: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons).

This resulted in the final adaptation proposal involving two components: glacial lake development monitoring and an instrumental monsoon flood early warning system (EWS) in the Parvati Valley, which proved to be a risk hot-spot. EWSs have been used successfully in nearby countries such as Nepal, where their remote data collection system alerted local authorities of rising water levels due to monsoonal rains.

“This strategy recognized that monsoon floods are the very real and frequently observed threat to lives and property in Parvati Valley,” according to the study. It was also able to acknowledge the local interest in preparing for a potential GLOF threat.

The study placed an emphasis on low-regret options when working with local authorities. These options include continued knowledge exchange between the Swiss and Indian partners or incorporating training for local decision-makers to ensure successful flood preparation and response. It aims to strengthen local capacities to deal with flood emergencies, which will bring immediate benefits, but also intends to help in the long-term by dealing with the rapidly evolving and uncertain future GLOF threat, according to Allen. “I don’t see it as a barrier, but rather an additional motivation and opportunity to deal with the very real and existing flood threat from seasonal monsoon rainfalls, while also keeping one eye on the rapidly evolving GLOF threat,” he said.

The pilot study is one of the few to thoroughly and successfully integrate climate risk into the assessment framework of the adaptation planning process. The ultimate goal is to utilize the strategies developed during the project in the Kullu District and upscale them to other areas of the Indian Himalayan region. This expansion will ideally be done with one of the study’s core concepts at the forefront: “While science should closely inform the decision-making process, only those actions that are strongly desired and supported by local stakeholders will prove sustainable in the long-term.”

Roundup: East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Mining Impacts and Flood Preparation

East Antarctic Ice Sheet Has Fast-Moving Margins

From Geomorphology: “The identification of different ice flow configurations, evidence of subglacial water and past ice margin collapse indicates a dynamic ice sheet margin with varying glacial conditions and retreat modes. We observe that some of the described morphological associations are similar to those found in the Amundsen sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) where they are associated with ice sheet and ice stream collapse. Although further studies are needed to assess the precise timing and rates of the glacial processes involved, we conclude that there is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that the EAIS margin can behave as dynamically as the WAIS margin, especially during glacial retreat and ice sheet margin collapse.”

Read more about the past behaviors of the East Antarctic ice sheet’s glaciers here.

The East Antarctic coastline where the Totten Glacier meets the ocean (Source: NASA).


Environmental Impacts of Mining in Glacier Regions

From the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies: “The ugly side of Kumtor is that an open-cast mine in pristine mountain conditions is bound to have negative environmental consequences. Combined with global climate change, the threat to glaciers and to sustainable water supplies downstream is severe. Kumtor’s owners and managers are aware of the issue; the questions are to what extent is the company responsible for countering environmental damage and what is the role of the government in protecting the environment?”

Read more about the Kyrgyz Republic’s gold mine here.

An open pit in Kumtor Gold Mine in August 2012 (Source: The EITI/Flickr).


Preparing for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods in India

From Environmental Science and Policy: “Over recent years, at the level of international climate science and policy, there has been a shift in the conceptualization of vulnerability toward emergence of ‘climate risk’ as a central concept. Despite this shift, few studies have operationalized these latest concepts to deliver assessment results at local, national, or regional scales, and clarity is lacking. Drawing from a pilot study conducted in the Indian Himalayas we demonstrate how core components of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure have been integrated to assess flood risk at two different scales, and critically discuss how these results have fed into adaptation planning.”

Read more about translating climate risk in planning for floods in the Indian Himalayas here.

Schematic overview showing how the integrative concept of climate risk as presented by the IPCC (2014) was operationalized for the assessment of flood risk in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).