Roundup: Melting Glaciers Move Borders, Peruvian Study Opens Door for Glacial Research, and Glacier Meltwater Acoustics

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research

A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.

Read the story by Zoë Klobus on GlacierHub here.

Dissolved pyrite causes red deposit on rocks along a river in the Rio Santa watershed (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier. 

“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”

Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy daily work at the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research

A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.

Dissolved pyrite causes red deposit on rocks along a river in the Rio Santa watershed (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

This Peruvian study was conducted in the Rio Santa watershed in Peru, a freshwater source for 1.6 million people in a country currently suffering from water scarcity issues. For communities living within the Rio Santa watershed, its water resources are essential for drinking water, hydroelectricity, irrigation and recreation. However, freshwater in parts of the Rio Santa watershed have been found to be contaminated with trace metals. Water samples collected during this study showed concentrations of arsenic and manganese in the Rio Santa River are greater than the US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water guidelines, signaling potential hazards for water users. In certain doses, arsenic can be toxic and long-term exposure can lead to skin lesions, cancer, and infant mortality.

Researchers measured the debit of the Rio Santa using an ADCP (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

GlacierHub caught up with Michel Baraer, professor at the University of Quebec and co-author of this study. Baraer said their results yielded 2 major surprises. First, the main sources of trace metal contamination in the Rio Santa watershed are from both active and abandoned mines. Precipitation runoff washes traces of metals such as aluminum, arsenic, and zinc from the mines into nearby waterways. Second, the researchers did not see major differences in concentrations of metals with changes in discharge. In other words, there did not seem to be a connection between the amount of water flowing and metal contamination. This finding was unexpected because of the drastic difference between dry and wet seasons in the Rio Santa watershed. Over 80 percent of the yearly precipitation falls between October and April, leaving the summer months severely dry. River flow is determined by precipitation, snow and ice melt, groundwater, etc., elements that vary seasonally.  These results led Baraer and his colleague to conclude that the processes controlling metal concentrations in the Rio Santa watershed were more complex than simple dilution.

Researchers hiking to study the Quilcayanca glacier and its impacts on the hydrology of the valley (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Baraer says their research found that glacier retreat has an indirect effect on water contamination in the Rio Santa watershed, as it affects different parts of the watershed over time. The researchers found that metal contamination decreased steadily downstream, meaning contaminants have mostly remained upstream and closer to their source. As a result, communities downstream have had a consistent freshwater supply. However, retreating glaciers change the flow pattern of rivers and tributaries, altering the quantity of water flowing downstream. As glaciers first begin to retreat, they increasingly release more water until they reach “peak water,” or the maximum output. The Rio Santa has passed this period of peak water, meaning stream flow is declining.  However, the decline in stream flow will mostly occur during the dry season. The wet season is expected to experience an increase in stream flow, as warmer temperatures cause more precipitation to occur as rain, rather than snow. This increase in discharge during the wet season has the potential to transport contaminants further downstream and closer to more populated areas that have historically had cleaner water. Baraer believes this to be the main takeaway from the article– that glacier retreat does have this indirect effect, and it is a useful case study for researchers in the area and other glaciated regions.

The Pastaruri glacier in the Rio Santa watershed has lost 20% of its size in 30 years (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Baraer stressed the importance of educating the public about water contamination issues. Although he believes there are engineering projects that could address the contamination, they would be expensive and require substantial funding. Instead, Baraer said, “awareness should be the first priority.” Educating the public about trace metal contamination and the effects it may have on children and pregnant women is critical.

Along the Rio Santa in the city of Huaraz during the dry season (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Research connecting glacier retreat to water quality is scarce and the impacts of glacier retreat on water quality remain largely unknown. Baraer says this article is just a starting point. Studies like this one are extremely important for communities dependent on these water sources. While discussing water scarcity issues in Peru, Baraer mused, “what if not only we get less water, but what if this water is not as good?” In addition to linking glacier retreat to water quality, the study begins to question who will be most affected, where and at what time. As for continuing this line of research, he has an article under review regarding organic water contamination. Baraer is also a member of the Transdisciplinary Andean Research Network, which conducts research at the intersections of climate change, glacier retreat, hydrological resources, water use, and societal adaptation.

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Whistler Water’s Glacial Appeal

Bottled water companies often use images of nature to entice consumers with the allure of pure, remote sources. Whistler Water, a Canadian bottled water company, boasts that its water comes from a glacier-fed aquifer at the base of the coastal mountain range in British Columbia. The company draws heavily on nature and mountain themes in its advertising and images. Its social media pages brim with photos of hikers atop snowy peaks, lush forests and bubbling streams. Like many companies, however, the environmental content and sustainability promoted by the company belies its plastic products and unsustainable wellspring.

Whistler Water has incorporated sustainability into their company by using 100 percent recyclable bottles and Forest Stewardship Council certified boxes, which indicates the boxes are sourced from responsibly managed forests. However, the company’s steps towards more sustainable resource use do not directly address climate change, which is taking its toll on Whistler Water’s vital resources. According to a study published in 2015, glaciers in Western Canada––including those of the coastal mountain range––are shrinking rapidly. The study projects glaciers in western Canada will lose 70 percent of their volume by the year 2100. Place Glacier, which feeds Whistler Water’s underground aquifer, is among those quickly decreasing in mass.  

GlacierHub caught up with Richard Wilk, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. The branding of bottled water is an area of interest for Wilk, who has published the results of his research on the cultural influences on marketing of bottled water and consumer opposition of the product. He noted that bottled water companies use both nature and technology to provide a sense of cleanliness and safety. Whistler Water for example, uses nature and technology to promote the purity of their products– advertising ancient, untouched glaciers as well as BPA-free, recyclable bottles that make sure their water remains “exactly as nature intended.” Wilk said this was “a great example of how [companies] use nature as a form of authentication and then turn around and use technology as a form of authentication,” stating “nature undoes the danger of technology and technology undoes the danger of nature.”

The Canadian Coastal Mountain Range near Whistler, British Columbia (Source: Wiki Commons/

The emphasis on both nature and technology provides a false sense of security to consumers who would be afraid to drink water directly from the source or even straight from the tap. Wilk explained distrust of public water can be traced as far back as mid-19th century London, to the discovery of cholera spreading via a public water pump. Modern issues such as the contamination of drinking water inFlint, Michigan have only fueled suspicion.

Plastic water bottles have come to dominate the beverage industry. In 2016, bottled water became the most consumed beverage in the US. The global bottled water industry is predicted to be worth $334 billion in 2023, which would be a 55 percent increase from the $185 billion it was worth in 2015. Despite the industry’s success, bottled water remains a controversial product. Wilk told GlacierHub that bottled water usually comes from a public source but is used for private profit, a process with which many take issue. Whistler Water is a prime example of using a public freshwater resource for private gain. As of 2014, British Columbia (where Whistler Water is produced) did not regulate groundwater use, nor did it charge companies for groundwater withdrawals.

Environmental concerns also plague the industry. Whistler Water has tried to create a natural, pure image for themselves, but plastic bottles depict one of waste. In an age where single-use plastics have become cultural ignominies, reusable water bottles have been promoted as a sustainable alternative. Wilk told GlacierHub, “water bottles can be status symbols because you have the money to buy the bottle and you’re conscious of environmental problems.” This month, Whistler Water posted an advertisement to their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages showing a woman refilling her reusable water bottle with a four-liter plastic jug of Whistler Water–the latter undercutting the sustainability that the former could support. While Whistler Water does use 100 percent recyclable bottles, Wilk says this is not a cure-all. His reasoning is that “we know most bottles are not recycled—to say this absolves [Whistler Water] of any responsibility is disingenuous.” 

Plastic bottles choke a stream in Madagascar (Source: Wiki Commons

Whistler Water is not the first bottled water company to use glaciers as a marketing device. The water company Svalbardi sells 80 Euro bottles of polar iceberg water, which derive ultimately from glaciers in Greenland, and Alaska Glacier Products sells bottles of water sourced from Alaska’s Eklutna Glacier. As part of his research, Wilk invited 25 marketing professionals and professors to engage in an activity in which they proposed ways to market water. Among them was selling meltwater from named glaciers and jacking up the price as the glaciers shrunk. As controversial as this marketing technique might seem, companies, including Whistler Water, employ similar tactics. The company says its water comes from “ancient glaciers located high in the alpine peaks of the coastal mountain range just north of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada,” appealing to the consumer with its rare resources.

Glaciers provide drinking water to communities around the globe. But they continue to be threatened by environmental dangers. Waste products of human society, such as carbon dioxide, which warms the atmosphere, and plastic particles that have become ubiquitous are causing glaciers to shrink and have littered their surfaces with plastic. Some community-based organizations in mountain regions have sought to address plastic pollution, including Nepal, which has banned single-use plastics in the region around Mount Everest. As with addressing single-use plastics, combating the threats glaciers face from climate change will also require drastic policy and societal changes. 

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