Roundup: A Soldier’s Mother, Hydropower, and Supraglacial Ice Melt

Mother with a Heart of Gold at Siachen Glacier

From Mid-Day.com: “A school teacher and mother of a soldier was so inspired by the sacrifices made by the country’s jawans, that she decided to make one of her own. Pune resident, Sumedha Chithade, 54, has sold her ancestral gold bangles to raise funds to build an oxygen plant for soldiers posted at Siachen Glacier.”

Read the news here.

Sumedha Chithade, the mother of a soldier, who sold her ancestral jewelry to help other soldiers at Siachen Glacier (Source: Midway.com).

 

Controversial Hydropower Along a Trans-Himalayan River

From Water Policy: “Teesta is one such mighty trans-Himalayan river flowing through India and Bangladesh and is recognized as a basin where there is increasing tension between these two nations. Due to upstream interventions including barrage, dam and hydropower construction, the lower riparian region of Bangladesh faces acute water stresses, which hampers the agricultural, fisheries and livelihood activities of the river-dependent communities and impedes the economic prosperity of the greater North-west region. The study provides a robust outline of the transboundary nexus between India and Bangladesh, and identifies upstream intervention-induced economic loss and ecological deterioration in the lower Teesta basin.”

Learn more about the controversy here.

Teesta a mighty trans-Himalayan river flowing through India and Bangladesh (Image: Source)
Teesta, a mighty trans-Himalayan river flowing through India and Bangladesh (Image: (Source: Akuppa John Wigham/Flickr).

 

What Makes Supraglacial Ice Melt Faster?

From PNAS: “Supraglacial ice cliffs exist on debris-covered glaciers worldwide, but despite their importance as melt hot spots, their life cycle is little understood. Early field observations had advanced a hypothesis of survival of north-facing and disappearance of south-facing cliffs, which is central for predicting the contribution of cliffs to total glacier mass losses.”

Find out more here.

High Mountain Asia, the Tibetan Plateau (Image: Source)
High Mountain Asia, the Tibetan Plateau (Source: DaiLuo/Flickr).

 

 

Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

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A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

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A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

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A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

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A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

Damming Switzerland’s Glaciers

An estimated 80 percent of Switzerland’s annual water supply will be “missing” by 2100, as glaciers in the Alps retreat under rising temperatures. A recent study by Swiss and Italian researchers addresses this anticipated loss by exploring whether dams could replicate the hydrological role of glaciers. Like glaciers, the dams would contain and store meltwaters at high elevations in the valleys where the glaciers once resided.

The authors, Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Alberto Pistocchi of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Matthias Huss of the University of Fribourg, call the approach “replacing glaciers with dams.” Their method seeks to harvest the diminishing glaciers’ waters to maintain Europe’s water supply and contribute to power generation.  .

The trio of authors are glaciologists and hydrologists, with expertise in chemistry, engineering, and resource management. Between them they have over 260 published works. Suffice it to say, they know what they are are talking about.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Pistocchi said that the idea occurred to him during one of his many cycling trips across the Alps. The possibility gripped him, and he began searching for colleagues in the field of glaciology to help him run scenarios on the future health of glaciers. He met with Huss, who had “recently investigated in depth the contribution of glaciers” to Alpine water resources. Farinotti was soon invited to provide an engineer’s perspective.

They studied how to “artificially sustain” the role of glaciers within the local hydrological cycle. The idea simply capitalizes on the natural processes already in motion. Meltwaters from glaciers naturally fill depressions, forming glacial lakes, or, if unimpeded, flowing into local rivers. Farinotti and his team were interested in determining how practical it would be to impound the runoff from melting glaciers with dams at the high elevations where the ice remains intact. They proposed that the glacier meltwater which accumulated would serve a similar role as the glacier had, as they would conserve the water and manage its release during drier seasons, thus maintaining a steady supply, and exploiting the newfound stores for power generation.

The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)
The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)

They found that while extensive melting will continue to provide meltwater from the European Alps in the near future, there are considerable logistical, financial, technical, diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles to damming and storing it there.

Farinotti and his colleagues concluded that while their proposed strategy could preserve sufficient volumes to meet Europe’s water demands through 2100, the supply scheme is unavoidably “non-renewable.” The source glaciers’ volumes are finite, as is the quantity of water that could be dammed. Accordingly, without an additional strategy for replenishing the stores (i.e. pumping in Austria) in the high reaches of the Alps, the supply would eventually run out.

Between 1980-2009, glaciers supplied continental Europe with approximately 1,400 trillion gallons (5.28 km3) of freshwater per year — about 1 percent of the total volume consumed by the United States each year. The majority (75 percent) of the melt occurs (unsurprisingly) at the height of summer, from July through September.

Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)
Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces, using a moderate scenario (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)

Rivers flowing from the Alps received considerable contributions from the glaciers at this time every year. During the peak, six percent of the Rhine, 11 percent of the Po, 38 percent of the Inn, and 53 percent of the Rhône comprise glacial meltwater, according to Farinotti and his colleagues.

As many modelers do, Farinotti and his colleagues examined the impacts of a range of climate change scenarios on the Alps’ glaciers. They projected the probable volumes of meltwater, and health of glaciers in response to optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG).

They found that runoff from the European Alps’ 3,800 glaciers — which cover an area half the size of Glacier National Park — will increase over the next 23 years. However, the study finds that the summer meltwater contributions could decline by 15 percent mid-century. From 2070 to the end of the century, they project that the volume will decline by 29 percent in the best case scenario, but potentially up to 55 percent..

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss speculate that two-thirds of the decline in the water supply expected between 2070-2099 could be prevented, by “active water management,” such as their proposed method of damming the glaciers as or before they melt.

Farinotti’s team also see containing the source glaciers as means of overcoming some of the most common and controversial issues related to dam-building. From their perspective, their approach reduces the social and ecological tolls typically associated with dams, since people do not reside directly on the glaciers, and glaciated environments are hostile to most (but not all) plant and animal species. This method should avoid any need to “translocate”, or inundate thriving terrestrial biota, or disrupt river ecologies as elsewhere. Further, there should be next to no need to relocate any inhabitants, or for flooding historically or culturally significant sites.

However, a dam is a dam, and they all have their costs. Whether it be through sediment loading in rivers, increasing seismic activity, or influencing the region climate, dams are fraught with complications, as the World Bank elucidated in 2003.

In correspondence with GlacierHub, Farinotti and his colleagues acknowledged that the paper was not exhaustive and noted that the strategy could alleviate one particular problem, but certainly not solve all challenges.” Other research on the development of lakes in vicinity of glaciers have indicated that Pistocchi’s approach may actually exacerbate the rate of melt.

That’s because the  new presence of ponding water, which would have previously flowed down the mountain, would lower the reflectivity of the surfaces nearby the glaciers. This would result in the lakes absorbing the sun’s radiation, warming and likely accelerating ambient temperatures. Martin Beniston of the University of Fribourg alluded to the influence of glacial lakes on regional climate in 2001, in his paper “Climatic change in mountain regions: a review of possible impacts.” This would subsequently further promote glacier melt, as Jonathan Carrivick of the University of Leeds and Fiona Tweed of Staffordshire University also stated in 2006.

High altitude mountain glaciers, such as in the European Alps, are irrefutably disappearing at an alarming rate. Research led by Alex Gardner of Clark University found that between 2003-2009 approximately 259 gigatons of glacier ice was lost per year (excluding Greenland and Antarctic). That gargantuan loss in difficult to comprehend. But essentially it means that each and every year a quantity of ice greater than the total combined mass of 700,000 Empire States Buildings melts. Much of it ends up in the sea.

Glacier lake Effimero and Belbadere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)
An example of a glacier lake, on Belvedere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss sought to “throw the stone in the pond,” (an Italian aphorism) the trio shared in correspondence with GlacierHub. They “wanted to animate the discussion about an idea that, apparently, has not been considered so far.” Radical approaches to adapting to the evolving threats of climate change are becoming increasingly necessary, though not always advisable.

This paper’s position is to err on the side of caution, and act preemptively to address the predicted water shortages that will plague Europe, while we still can. For the moment it seems a costly and impractical solution. But the same stance was adopted towards fracking when it first proposed. Today fracking provides at least half of America’s oil and gas. Will water become the “new oil”? Will our situation deteriorate to the point that damming glaciers becomes a viable solution?

In Kyrgyzstan, not all glacier lakes are monitored equally

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Two people riding horse in Ala Archa National Park, about 40km south of Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek. Glacier lake levels in the mountains surrounding the city are monitored by the government, especially considering that lake outbursts are on the rise. (Thomas Depenbusch/Flickr)

As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.

Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.

As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.

The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
The rock-dammed Ala-Kul lake in the Terskey Alatau mountains. Floods from glacial lakes are the largest glacier-related disaster.(Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.

In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.

Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.

Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)
Glaciers above the capitol Bishkek are closely monitored in case of flooding. A potential flood could endanger a million people. (Jessica Gardner/Flickr)

The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.

Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.

In Chile, glaciers and dams become political footballs

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Glaciers, an unlikely political player in Latin America, had a major part to play in one of the most striking victories for the environmental movement in South America.

Last month, a committee of ministers in Chile voted to cancel the permit of the massive HidroAysen project located in southern Chile that had sought to construct five large hydropower dams on the Rio Baker and the Rio Pascua. These pristine rivers flow from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean in Patagonia, an area of high mountains, glaciers, ancient forests and fjords. Endesa Chile, the country’s largest private electric utility and Colbun, a power transmission firm, both sponsored the HidroAysen project.

The $10 billion development would have provided 2750 megawatts, about a quarter of Chile’s electricity, by 2020. It also would have required construction of a major transmission line through indigenous lands and agricultural zones, flooded wild rivers whose rapids and waterfalls draw tourists and adventurers, and drowned forests, which are the habitat of an endangered species, the huemul or southern Andean deer.

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Chile’s rapid economic growth has placed pressure on its energy resources, particularly since it lacks fossil fuel resources of its own. Copper exports are a major source of revenue, but the refining requires a great deal of electricity, at the same time that urban demand is growing. Hydropower has seemed like an option, since the southern part of the country has abundant water resources that derive from snowmelt and glaciers, unlike the desert north and the semi-arid central region, where the capital city Santiago and the bulk of the population are concentrated.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Chile’s population opposed the dam. Above all, they valued the unique quality of this remote wilderness region. The endangered huemul was also a potent symbol, since it is featured, along with the condor, on Chile’s national coast of arms. Plans were also in the works to set up a new Patagonia National Park, over 1,000 square miles in area, with support from the former CEO of the clothing company Patagonia Inc.

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Protesters march against the HidroAysen dam project in Santiago, Chile in 2011. ((ivar Silva/Flickr)

In the end, it was not the huemul or the whitewater rapids that the ministerial committee mentioned as reasons to pull the permits on the dams. Their report cited several gaps in the plans that HidroAysen had presented. The proposal did not address the risk that the upstream glaciers might create outburst floods, when vast quantities of meltwater could course down the narrow canyons, damaging or destroying destroy the proposed infrastructure. Glaciers have played an important role in Chile once or twice before. The ministers, as well, commented that the plans did not make provisions for 39 families that would have to be relocated, or address endangered carnivore or amphibian species.

The dams were caught in the political tensions of Chile, a country that is still working out the conflicts that led to the coup of 1973, in which the armed forces deposed the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. HidroAysen had been approved in 2011 under the government of Sebastián Piñera, a center-right figure from the National Renewal Party. Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist Party, was elected president in 2013 and drew support from environmentalists who opposed the dams.

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Bachelet’s term of office ends in 2018, and a more conservative government might yet support another project for dams in Patagonia. But for the meantime, a coalition of environmentalists and left-wing politicians have blocked them, speaking in the name of the endangered species, of displaced local families—and of the power of glaciers to send floods that rush down through canyons.