Scaling Quelccaya: Depicting Climate Change Through Art

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, located in the Peruvian Andes, is the world’s largest tropical glaciated area. In an effort to conceptualize the scale of the glacier’s retreat, Meredith Leich, M.F.A. in film, video, media, and new animation at SAIC, and Andrew Malone, Ph.D. in glaciology and climatology at the University of Chicago, collaborated on a project in 2016 called “Scaling Quelccaya.” The project combines 30 years of satellite imagery of the Peruvian ice cap, 3-D animation, and gaming software to create a virtual representation of the glacier’s retreat using the city of Chicago as a “metering stick,” allowing viewers to develop a more elaborate sense of Quelccaya’s scale.

The 3-D animation enables viewers to visualize the Peruvian ice cap and virtually “fly” through the Andes by converting satellite data into a Digital Elevation Model, then using a gaming software called Unity to transform it into a 3-D model. “Scaling Quelccaya” was initiated by Leich, who acknowledged having only an incomplete idea about the impact of climate change at the start of the project. Malone’s research of the Quelccaya ice cap was then transformed into the 3-D animation in order to allow the audience to visualize the melting effects on the ice cap, a more effective tool than graphs or charts alone. Malone used satellite data from the Landsat program, a series of satellites that has provided the longest temporal record of data of Earth’s surface, including the Quelccaya Ice Cap, to provide an accurate representation of the amount of ice loss over this period.

Qori Kalis, one section of the Quelccaya Ice Cap, shown in 1978 (left) and 2011 (right) (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

This project allowed Leich and Malone to visually portray the consequences of climate change in ways that viewers could understand intuitively, contrasting the disappearance of the glaciers to a hypothetical disappearance of the Chicago area. In an interview with GlacierHub, Meredith Leich explains the inspiration behind the project’s comparison of Quelccaya with Chicago: “Instead of solely describing numerically how much Qori Kallis (one of Quelccaya’s glacial outlets) had retreated, we could show visually that the glacier had retreated the distance between the Willis Tower and the Tribune Tower in Chicago – a distance that an urban resident would understand viscerally, with embodied memories of walking the city streets.” The name of the project plays on the word scale, since it shows the scale of glacier retreat and allows viewers to scale the summit of a virtual glacier.   

To get a better understanding of Quelccaya’s volume of snow, Leich and Malone began generating DEMs – Digital Elevation Models – from the satellite data obtained from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). The DEM calculated the height of every point on the glacier’s surface. The software then selected a shade of black, gray or white to represent each height. The uppermost height was registered as white, the lowest height as black, and every height in between mathematically assigned a corresponding shade of gray. Next, they generated a 3-D model with a gaming software called Unity by importing height maps as “terrains.” The terrain function read a combination of the DEM to create the virtual 3-D model based on the topography of the land. Finally, they used Maya, an animation and modeling program, to apply texture to the surface of the terrain, add light, and be able to move around the glacier to see it from all angles.

Digital Elevation Model of Quelccaya Ice Cap (Source: Meredith Leich/Tumblr).

Once the model was finished, Leich and Malone removed the equivalent of ice in Quelccaya and placed it on a model of Chicago as snow, with different variations of snow such as fluffy snow, firm snow, ice, and others. New York City (specifically Manhattan) is often chosen as a prime example of the effects of climate change because of its popularity. Rather than compare Quelccaya to New York City, the project focused on Chicago because of its lack of representation, and because the research and creation of “Scaling Quelccaya” took place in Chicago.

When asked about any challenges that they faced in recreating the glaciers through the 3-D technology, Andrew Malone told GlacierHub that “passing information between different softwares was a big challenge.” “We found early that files had to be in particular formats and that each software had its idiosyncrasies. One of our first (technologically) successful 3-D visualizations looked as though someone had taken a buzzsaw to every mountain top,” he said. “When I outputted the digital elevation models (DEMs) to an image in the correct format for Meredith, the QGIS default was truncating the highest and lowest elevations.” Once the models were complete, it allowed for their audience to connect to the glacial scenes and bring two distant entities, Chicago and Quelccaya, into the same space.

The project included a feature that enabled viewers to grasp how much of Quelccaya’s snow would cover Chicago. The city itself was under about 600 feet of snow, extending over almost all of the metropolitan area. According to Leich, the inspiration behind this feature was that this kind of visualization would make the science behind climate change more accessible and visually apparent. “Many stories about climate change also involve a doomsday narrative, and we wanted to convey something more subtle and informative than stoking fears,” she said.

Quelccaya Ice Cap (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

Meredith A. Kelly, a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth College, noted in an interview with the New York Times, that “the melting now under way appears to be at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record since the end of the last ice age.” If the ice cap melts away and disappears, it would leave millions of people in surrounding downstream communities, who rely on this water source for drinking and electricity, with a smaller and less reliable water supply.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Gustavo Valdivia, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at John Hopkins University, explained how some in Peru have been adapting: “People who live in Phinaya, the closest community to Quelccaya, are mostly herders of alpacas and llamas. In the last years, they have been building local irrigation systems, changing their herds’ composition – to include more resistant animals – and also changing their herding techniques.” If the Phinaya community does not have a water supply for their animals, ultimately, their livelihoods will suffer, he added. Projects such as “Scaling Quelccaya” attempt to demonstrate the  effects of climate change to the lay public by bringing effects such as these closer to home.  

Using Drones to Study Glaciers

Understanding the nature of glacial changes has become increasingly important as anthropogenic climate change alters their pace and extent. A new study published in The Cryosphere Discussions journal shows how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, can be used to do this in a relatively cheap, safe and accurate way. The study represents the first time a drone has been used to study a high-altitude tropical Andean glacier, offering insight into melt rates and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) hazards in Peru.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

The study was carried out by Oliver Wigmore and Bryan Mark, from the University of Colorado Boulder and Ohio State University respectively. It is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how climate change is affecting the hydrology of the region and how locals are adapting to these changes.

The researchers used a custom-built hexa-multirotor drone (a drone with propellers on six arms) that weighed about 2kg to study changes in Llaca Glacier in the central Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes.

Llaca, one of more than 700 glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca, was chosen for both logistical and scientific reasons. It covers an area of about 4.68 square kilometers in Huascaran National Park and spans an altitudinal range of about 6000 to 4500 meters above sea level. Like other glaciers within the Cordillera Blanca, it has been retreating rapidly because of anthropogenic climate change.

The researchers hiked to the glacier to conduct surveys (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

To obtain footage, the researchers had to drive three hours on a winding, bumpy road from the nearest town, located about 10km away from the valley. “This was followed by a halfhour hike to the glacier,” Wigmore stated.

To overcome some of the challenges of working in a remote, high-altitude region, the drone was custom-built using parts bought directly from manufacturers. In this case, a base was bought from a manufacturer. “I modified it by making the arms longer, lightening it with carbon fiber parts, and adding features like a GPS, sensor systems, infrared and thermal cameras, and other parts required for mapping,” Wigmore shared.

Building their own drone allowed the researchers to repair it or replace parts when necessary, as sending it off to be repaired while in the field was not possible. It also allowed them to customize the drone to their needs.

A drone selfie taken by Wigmore, with the shadow of the drone in the bottom right corner (Source: Oliver Wigmore).

“No commercial manufacturers could promise that our equipment would work above an altitude of about 3000m, which is well below the glacier,” Wigmore said.

Using drones to study glaciers has advantages over conventional methods in terms of access to glaciers and spatial and temporal resolutions of data. These advantages have been further enhanced by hardware and software developments, which have made drones a relatively cheap, safe and accurate remote sensing method for studying glaciers at a finer scale. For example, Wigmore can build a UAV for about $4000, compared to the high cost of airplanes and satellites also used in remote sensing.

Wigmore and his team carried out aerial surveys of the glacier tongue (a long, narrow sheet of ice extended out from the end of the glacier) and the proglacial lake system (immediately beyond the margin of the glacier) in July 2014 and 2015. The drone was flown about 100 meters above the ice while hundreds of overlapping pictures were taken to provide 3-D images and depth perception.

High resolution (<5cm) Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and orthomosaics (mosaics photographs that have been geometrically corrected to obtain a uniform scale) were produced, revealing highly heterogeneous patterns of change across the glacier and the lake. The data also revealed that about 156,000 cubic meters of ice were lost within the study period.

High resolution images showed rapid ice loss around exposed cliffs and surface ponds (Source: Wigmore and Mark, 2017).

The images revealed, for example, that the location of exposed cliffs and surface melt water ponds serve as primary controls on melt rates in the glacier tongue. Exposed cliffs lack the insulation of thick debris that are common on the glacier tongue, while ponds are less reflective than ice and absorb more solar radiation, causing higher melt rates.

The thickness of debris layers on the glacier constitute a secondary control. Thicker layers (often over 1m deep) provide insulation from solar radiation, while thinner layers increase the absorptivity of the surface to solar radiation.

The study also found that the upper section of the proglacial lake contains sections of glacier ice which are still melting. This suggests that the extent and depth of the lower section of the lake will increase as the ice continues to melt. This could increase the risk of GLOF, as expansion of the lake will bring it closer to the steep headwalls of the valley, which are potential locations for avalanche and rockfall debris.

Wigmore’s research is part of a series of larger projects still under publication that involve using drones to study glaciers, wetlands and proglacial meadows in the region. The results contribute to our understanding of hydro-social changes in the Cordillera Blanca, and how they can be managed.

Find out more about drone research here, or learn about Wigmore’s other research here.

Roundup: Karakoram, Dust and Prokaryotes

Roundup:  Karakoram, Ice Core, and Chile


Karakoram Glaciers in Balance

From the Journal of Glaciology: “An anomalously slight glacier mass gain during 2000 to the 2010s has recently been reported in the Karakoram region. We calculated elevation and mass change using Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) generated from KH-9 (a series of satellites) images acquired during 1973–1980… Within the Karakoram, the glacier change patterns are spatially and temporally heterogeneous. In particular, a nearly stable state in the central Karakoram (−0.04 ± 0.05 m w.e. a−1 during the period 1974–2000) implies that the Karakoram anomaly dates back to the 1970s. Combined with the previous studies, we conclude that the Karakoram glaciers as a whole were in a nearly balanced state during the 1970s to the 2010s.”

Read more about this study here.

Karakoram's glaciers were in a nearly balanced state between 1970-2010 (Source: mtzendo / Creative Commons)
Karakoram’s glaciers were in a nearly balanced state between 1970-2010 (Source: mtzendo/Creative Commons).


Dust in Ice Core Reflects the Last Deglaciation

From Quaternary Science Reviews: “The chemical and physical characterization of the dust record preserved in ice cores is useful for identifying of dust source regions, dust transport, dominant wind direction and storm trajectories. Here, we present a 50,000-year geochemical characterization of mineral dust entrapped in a horizontal ice core from the Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica. Strontium (Sr) and neodymium (Nd) isotopes, grain size distribution, trace and rare earth element (REE) concentrations, and inorganic ion (Cl and Na+) concentrations were measured in 38 samples, corresponding to a time interval from 46 kyr before present (BP) to present… This study provides the first high time resolution data showing variations in dust provenance to East Antarctic ice during a major climate regime shift, and we provide evidence of changes in the atmospheric transport pathways of dust following the last deglaciation.”

Read more about the findings here.

An ice core from Taylor Glacier reveals changes in dust composition during the last deglaciation (Source: Oregon State University / Creative Commons).
An ice core from Taylor Glacier reveals changes in dust composition during the last deglaciation (Source: Oregon State University/Creative Commons).


Prokaryotic Communities in Patagonian Lakes

From Current Microbiology: “The prokaryotic (microscopic single-celled organisms without a distinct nucleus with a membrane or other specialized organelles) abundance and diversity in three cold, oligotrophic Patagonian lakes (Témpanos, Las Torres and Mercedes) in the northern region Aysén (Chile) were compared in winter and summer…Prokaryotic abundances, numerically dominated by Bacteria, were quite similar in the three lakes, but higher in sediments than in waters, and they were also higher in summer than in winter… The prokaryotic community composition at Témpanos lake, located most northerly and closer to a glacier, greatly differed in respect to the other two lakes. In this lake was detected the highest bacterial diversity… Our results indicate that the proximity to the glacier and the seasonality shape the composition of the prokaryotic communities in these remote lakes. These results may be used as baseline information to follow the microbial community responses to potential global changes and to anthropogenic impacts.”

Read more about the results here.

Prokaryotic diversity is greatest in Témpanos lake, near a glacier (Source: Cuorogrenata / Creative Commons)
Prokaryotic diversity is greatest in Témpanos lake, near a glacier (Source: Cuorogrenata/Creative Commons).

Tracking Glaciers From Space: GLIMS

Picture of GLIMS book coverIn 1994, an international group of scientists came together to form GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space), a worldwide initiative to monitor and study glaciers using satellite data. For at least one hundred years, scientists had primarily used traditional field measurements to track glacier dynamics, but field data are by necessity limited in scope, and can be expensive and laborious to obtain.

The GLIMS team ultimately chose to use an imaging system called Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), jointly managed by NASA and Japan, for their glacier measurements. ASTER is installed aboard Terra, the flagship satellite of NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), which was launched in December 1999. ASTER data can be used to map land surface temperature, reflectance, and elevation, which allows the scientists to distinguish between glacier ice and snow and to measure changes in glacier volume.

Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.
Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.

Using digital images and data provided by ASTER, GLIMS created an up-to-the-minute database of the world’s glaciers, which includes ID, name, cross-references, and analysis of the state and dynamics of individual glaciers. In August 2014, GLIMS published their findings in book form: Global Land Ice Measurements from Space compiles these glacier profiles, provides a review of analysis methodologies for measuring changes in glacier volume, and offers predictions for future glacier change as well as some interpretations of potential impacts for policymakers in the context of climate change. The GLIMS scientists provide firm evidence that glaciers are shrinking worldwide, and they believe the cause is global warming.

The GLIMS book offers a basic theoretical background in glacier monitoring and mapping as well as remote sensing techniques. It also discusses measurements of glacier thinning from digital elevation models (DEMs), and calculation of surface flow velocities from satellite images. DEMs can provide specific data for every pixel in a satellite image, with a margin of error at 0.5m/year. Although cloud cover can interfere with accurate satellite data on glaciers, scientists are able to identify and discard this faulty data.

As described in the book, GLIMS scientists Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa and his colleagues have been able to assess the mass balance of alpine mountain glaciers by comparing historical topographic maps and DEMs derived from ASTER. For instance, they built a model and limited the error in the computation of mass balance from field measurements of China’s Sarytor glacier to less than 150mm/year.

Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.
Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.

Similarly, using techniques established by Dr. Todd Albert,who is also a member of GLIMS, a set of images of the Quelccaya Ice Cap spanning four decades was analyzed to create a history of ice surface area. Overall, Albert found that the ice cap has retreated from 58.9 km2 in 1975 to 40.8 km2 in 2010, with a loss of surface area of 31%. This history matches what has been observed in the field by glaciologists Lonnie Thompson and Henry Brecher since the 1970s.

Thanks to GLIMS, the rate of glacier melting can be measured and documented more precisely, providing readers with potential evidence of climate change. The GLIMS data provides solid support for future scientific research and planning in the face of climate change.

For other stories on the measurement of glaciers, look here.