Photo Friday: Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows in High-Mountain Pastures

This summer’s drought in Switzerland has been particularly harsh with the Swiss Weather Service declaring the months of July and August the driest since 1921. This severe water shortage has hit farmers hard in the heavily glacierized Alps, especially those with herds of cattle. In the highlands of the Canton of Vaud in western Switzerland, each head of cattle requires an astonishing 150 liters of water a day to subsist. To help the farmers and their cows struggling in the record dry conditions, the Swiss Army has been airlifting water by helicopter to these farms in terrain that is too difficult to reach by truck. Check out the photos below of the water airlifts in action.

Photo of a helicopter dropping water
A helicopter delivering water to a farmer in the Swiss Canton of Vaud (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).


Close up photo of airlift water delivery
A close-up view of an airlift water delivery (Source: Global Times/Twitter).


Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow graze in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Reuters UK/Twitter).


Photo of a pasture in Vaud
A pasture in the Canton of Vaud (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Creative Commons).

After ‘Peak Water,’ the Days of Plenty Are Over

In a recent paper in Science of The Total Environment, a team of Chinese researchers created a model of the Urumqi No. 1 catchment in Xinjiang, China, and made a surprising discovery. As they sought to estimate the effects of global warming on glacier thinning, retreat and local supply of water resources, they found that the glacier is expected to reach “peak water,” with runoff shrinking by half of its 1980 extent in the next 30 years. The glacier will also lose approximately 80 percent of its ice volume.

As glaciers shrink, runoff increases (with more melting) but then decreases thereafter when the size of the glacier has permanently decreased. Peak water, or the tipping point of glacier melt supply, when runoff in glacier-fed rivers reaches the maximum, is estimated to occur around 2020. This phenomenon shares its concept with the term “peak oil,” which refers to the hypothetical point in time when the global oil production rate will reach maximum capacity. Thereafter, oil production will only decline.

Urumqi No. 1 Glacier on GlacierHub
Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Far West China/Pinterest).

In contrast to peak oil, glacial reserves can be estimated with a higher certainty. Annina Sorg, an independent researcher with expertise in geomorphology, geography and climatology, explained the concept to GlacierHub. “Peak water for a catchment can be assessed with quite good precision if the past climate and glacial volume loss are well known and if reasonable climate models are being used,” she said. This is because, unlike oil, consumption of glacier meltwater does not have a direct impact on glacial melting. Glaciers will continue to melt no matter if the demand for glacial meltwater is high or low.

“Peak water is an important aspect of glacial impact of hydrology, and the term absolutely makes sense,” Matthias Huss, a senior lecturer from the University of Freiburg, expressed in an interview with GlacierHub. “After peak water, annual runoff sums from glaciers will be steadily decreasing, which might cause problems with water availability.”

Huss’s team recently published a paper on the first complete global assessment of when peak water from glaciers will occur. Huss believes the smaller scale study on the Urumqi glacier uses a very similar approach as he did for all 200,000 glaciers globally but with more accurate data for calibration and validation to fit the local context. Both studies also yield consistent findings.

In the arid regions of Central Asia, meltwater from glaciers determine streamflow. Glaciers are not only valuable water sources for the communities around rivers, but can also serve as buffers against droughts during dry periods.

“Conditions are ‘good’ before peak water— we even have more water than in the case of balanced glacier mass budgets. This water can be used for irrigation or hydropower production. However, after peak water, less water is available, most importantly in the summer months, which might have considerable impact on water resource management,” Huss warned.

Urumqi River on GlacierHub
Urumqi River that is fed by the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier (Source: Remote Lands/Pinterest).

The story is also more complex in a broader context. Whether water shortage is experienced due to glacier recession strongly depends on the climate regime. In general, glaciers play a more important role when summer climates are dry, as in the case of Xinjiang. Peak water also strongly varies with glacier size, with larger glaciers experiencing later peaks than smaller glaciers.

“As Urumqi Glacier is a relatively small glacier, it might not be fully representative for regional peak water, which is governed by the larger glaciers,” Huss explained.

Still, Sorg holds the view that the abundance of meltwater before peak water “might slow down a society’s attempts to elaborate mitigation measures, which would be needed to handle the second period of decreasing meltwater runoff.”

In the case of Xinjiang, runoff from glacier melting will likely experience a dramatic decrease from 2020 to 2050, post peak water. The east and west branches of Urumqi No. 1 Glacier also have different responses to climate change. By the end of the 21st century, as compared to 1980 rates, the area extent and ice volume of the west branch could decrease by up to 58 and 82 percent, respectively. While at the east branch, glacier area could shrink by 95 percent, losing about 99 percent of its ice volume.

Urumqi Glacier Change on GlacierHub
Predicted Glacier Area Changes in 2030, 2050, 2070 and 2100 based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 (Source: Gao et al).


“In my opinion, it is important to spread the term ‘peak water,’ also in popular media, not science alone. It draws awareness to the point that the depletion of glacial reserves is not a continuous process like emptying a bathtub,” Sorg told GlacierHub. Rather, peak water is a period of abundance that Sorg thinks is probably not appreciated enough and is taken for granted.

Sorg concluded with a somber reminder. “After peak water, the days of plenty are over— at least in respect to glacial meltwater availability,” she said. As Xinjiang is very dependent on its glaciers, mitigation measures are required to adapt to glacier mass changes for long-term water security in the region.

Melting Glaciers Create Uncertain Future for Xinjiang

In a study published last month in Elsevier’s Science of the Total Environment, five Chinese researchers assessed the severity of drought in Xinjiang, China, from 1961 to 2015, and the future impact of melting glaciers on the drought conditions. The largest province in China, Xinjang is characterized by its arid climate. The area, located in the heart of Central Asia and surrounded by the Tianshan and Kunlun mountain ranges, is cut off from moist air masses. As a result, the region experienced 26 severe droughts between 1961 and 2000, with annual mean precipitation of only 158 mm.

Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al).
Topography of Xinjiang Region (Source: Chen et al.)

The Xinjiang region relies on its eight rivers derived from glacier melt as water sources. According to the author, there are approximately 6,500 glaciers spanning 10,500 square kilometers in North Xinjiang and 11,000 glaciers across 13,500 square kilometers in the south. Glaciers and their meltwater play a huge role in Xinjiang’s water supply, making the area extremely vulnerable to climate change.

GlacierHub spoke with Yaning Chen, one of the lead authors who is based in Xinjiang at the Institute of Ecology and Geography. He explained that millions of people in Xinjiang depend on water from mountain precipitation and glacial melt-water. “Climate change has led to high uncertainty regarding the advances and retreats of glaciers and snow cover,” he said. Glaciers could grow in some areas while shrink in others, which means that future water availability under climate change is unclear, he added.

To the average person, droughts are commonly perceived as a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, resulting in water shortage. However, droughts can be further classified into specific categories for operational purposes and to aid in the study of drought conditions. These categories provide more detail on when droughts began, how long they last and their severity. Some common categories are meteorological droughts, which look at the changes in climatic conditions that led to a stark decrease in rainfall; agricultural droughts, which focus on soil moisture levels to evaluate agriculture impacts; and hydrological droughts, which use discharge in water bodies as an indicator of water availability.

A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest)
A Settlement in the Taklamakan Desert in Southern Xinjiang (Source: Kasidah/Pinterest).

Using climate observation data from meteorological stations located throughout Xinjiang, coupled with soil moisture data and annual runoff data for the eight rivers, Chen’s team created a model to evaluate the changing severity in these three types of droughts.

Based on the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), a common index used to monitor meteorological drought severity globally, the researchers noted a slight drying trend since 1996, especially in southern Xinjiang. Surprisingly, Xinjiang experienced its most humid decade on record from the year 2000, coupled with a significant increase in annual air temperatures.

Increasing temperatures have enhanced moisture storage in the atmosphere, reducing the frequency and magnitude of rainfall events, the authors explained. Thus, even with more glacier melt, it might not translate to more surface water availability. This is because even if one source of water from glaciers is increasing, the atmospheric source of water from storms is decreasing. With these two sources possibly acting in opposite directions in the hydrological system, their particular balance influences the surface water supply in the region. Hence, river runoffs in four out of the eight basins are decreasing, but there are two rivers that experienced an increase.

A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest)
A small settlement near the Kunlun Mountains and its glaciers (Source: Carlike/Pinterest).

The analysis of hydrological drought is complex, Junqiang Yao, another author of the paper from Chengdu University of Information Technology, told GlacierHub. “Glacial melt-water is one of the most important water supplies. Drought has significant effects on water supplies through climate-driven changes in glacier-fed runoff regimes,” he said. As the paper evidences, although nearly all the glaciers in the Tianshan mountain ranges have experienced retreat, the glaciers of the Kunlun Mountains appear stable or even gaining mass as summer temperatures have decreased over the past two decades. Hence, the decreasing discharge in some rivers supplied by the Kunlun Mountains glaciers could also be due to a decrease in meltwater too.

Enhanced soil moisture loss was also evident up to 50 cm in soil depth, as increased evaporation rates also increase, signaling the potential for worse agriculture droughts.

To Chen and Yao, the effects of climate change are highly complex and uncertain, calling for further studies. Chen added that aggravated drought conditions change regional water balance and affect ecology-social economy development in Xinjiang, posing challenges for future sustainability. After all, water is a key factor restricting socio-economic development and affects ecological security in Xinjiang.

“The influence of aggravated drought on water systems and water resource security is the greatest challenge faced in Xinjiang,” he said. “Thus, it is necessary to strengthen research on the ability of the ecology-social economy system to adapt to drought, and to propose adaptive control countermeasures and dynamic models in response to climate change to guarantee water resource and ecological security.”

Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

A recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years.

Farmers in Pakistan are shifting from wheat to cope with the droughts (Source: Muhammad Darjat/Google Images).

This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels.

Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.”

According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity.

An irrigation system in the Indus basin in Pakistan (Source: GRID Arendal/Creative Commons).

Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global glacier volume loss on populations worldwide in Science magazine. “Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today’s children,” she stated. “This loss of Earth’s land ice is of international concern.”

As temperatures continue to rise, the surrounding regions will begin to lose their source of water for food, agriculture and survival. Due to inadequate scientific studies and evidence, the trends and status of glaciers in the Himalayas and other ranges are not being sufficiently observed and recorded. A lack of adequate monitoring of the glaciers means political action to adapt to the foreseen changes will be limited. More communication between the scientific community and policymakers is needed to relay knowledge about the impacts of changes in glaciers on the region’s hydrology, environment and livelihoods.

East African Glaciers at Risk from “Global Drying”

In the tropical climate of East Africa, glaciers are an unexpected, yet vitally important part of the ecosystem. Since 1900, African glaciers have lost a staggering 80 percent of their surface area, contributing to regional water shortages.

While rising temperatures may seem like an obvious cause of global glacier retreat in many regions, the glaciers of east Africa are a unique exception. A study published in Cryosphere earlier this year has found that the largest glacier on Mount Kenya, the Lewis Glacier, is melting because of decreasing atmospheric moisture rather than increasing temperatures.

Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)
Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)

African glaciers have all but disappeared, except for three locations in East Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Range in Uganda. Scientists have been studying the few remaining African glaciers in hopes of preserving what is left of the rapidly melting ice. While headway had been made in understanding the causes of melting on Kilimanjaro, the melting on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain, has remained a mystery until now.

The complex climatic features of Mount Kenya, combined with the lack of observational data, has made it difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of Lewis Glacier’s retreat. Lindsey Nicholson, a researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, led a study in 2013 that concluded a combination of causes was responsible for the melt, rather than one factor in particular.

Building on  her previous work, the team, led by University of Graz’s Rainer Prinz and Lindsey Nicholson, set out to collect the data they needed to gain a more accurate understanding of why Lewis Glacier was melting. They installed an automatic weather station on the glacier at an elevation of 4,828 meters, and collected 773 days of data over the course of two-and-a-half years.

Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

In conjunction with the data from the weather station, the team used a model to predict how much Lewis Glacier would melt under a range of different scenarios. By manipulating variables, including precipitation, air temperature, air pressure, and wind speed, in the model, the team was able to see which factors played the biggest role in glacier melt.

The team found that moisture had the biggest impact on Lewis Glacier’s surface area, rather than air temperature or a combination of other climatic factors. Despite differences in location and elevation, the glaciers of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are melting for the same reason: East Africa is getting progressively drier, and the lack of water is impacting much more than just the glaciers.

The glaciers on the peak of Kilimanjaro lie significantly above the regional freezing point—year round, the peak is cold enough to maintain its ice levels, even as surface temperatures in East Africa have steadily increased. Yet, Kilimanjaro’s glaciers continue to retreat and are projected to disappear completely by 2020. Temperature changes fail to explain the severity of the mountain’s glacier retreat.

Observational studies have showed that Kilimanjaro is receiving less cloud cover that leads to increased radiation from the sun, and less precipitation, causing infrequent snowfall. The IPCC has projected a 10% decrease in rainfall during the already dry season from June through August, amplifying the impacts of regional dryness and drought.

crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya--the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya–the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

The impact of a drying climate has greatly impacted Kilimanjaro, and caused its glaciers to retreat from sublimation–a process by which the ice changes directly into water vapor rather than melting into water. The theory that moisture is the main factor impacting glacier melt on Kilimanjaro has, up until now, been assumed to be a product of the mountain’s height and not generalizable to all East African glaciers. Prinz and Nicholoson’s findings suggest that drying may be the main reason for glacier melt throughout the region as a whole.

Mount Kenya’s glaciers are at lower elevations compared to Kilimanjaro’s, and lie much closer to the regional freezing level. It was therefore expected that rising temperatures would affect the glaciers of Mount Kenya, and no scientific studies had proved or disputed this assumption.

Droughts, desertification, and crop failure have become increasingly common in tropical Africa, and according to the study this is primarily caused by shifting ocean conditions that are preventing moisture from circulating over East Africa. The lack of moisture means there is not enough precipitation—either as rain over the savannas or snow on the mountain peaks—to sustain the glaciers or the populations that rely on them. In order to preserve the last remaining African glaciers, it will be necessary to understand and prevent changes in water, rather than only changes in temperature.

A Dying Glacier, a Drought-Stricken Village, and a Good View

In the course of researching my new book, “Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World”, I traveled to many communities living in the shadow of retreating snow and ice. I talked to Sherpa villagers who fear potential glacial lake outburst floods in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, and with Naxi people adapting to drought conditions not far from the increasingly bare flanks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China’s Yunnan Province.

One of the two small, shrinking glaciers atop the mountains above Kumik.

But nowhere did I find the consequences of the Himalaya’s shrinking glaciers and snowfields as stark or sobering as in Kumik, a cluster of 39 households hugging a hillside in northwest India. Kumik is one of the oldest communities in the remote Zanskar Valley, and the first there to be abandoned due to a changing climate.

Zanskar lies in the “rain shadow” formed by the Great Himalayan Range, where the only source of water – and therefore life – is melting snow and ice. The villagers of Zanskar long ago developed a sophisticated water-sharing system, to irrigate their fields of barley, peas, wheat and fodder grasses. But physics threatens to overwhelm this cultural ingenuity.

“There are loud indicators that these glaciers are melting,” Shakeel Romshoo, a glaciologist at the University of Kashmir, told me. He has studied glaciers in Zanskar and other parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since the mid-1980s. “Out of 365 glaciers in the Zanskar region that were there in 1969, about 6 of these glaciers are not there.” As in, completely gone. “I would say, all the glaciers I have seen, they are showing the recession.” Ulrich Kamp, of the University of Montana, measured thirteen glaciers in Zanskar, combining field measurements of glacier topography with thermal imaging and remote sensing data. “Most of the glaciers in the Greater Himalaya Range in Zanskar are receding since at least the 1970s,” he and his colleagues concluded.

Kumik’s sole irrigation source is a single stream of meltwater.

Kumik is on the sharp edge of this troubling trend. Its sole lifeline is one small stream coursing down from the glacier-capped mountain of Sultan Largo. This lifeline is frequently severed by the double whammy of declining snowfall and earlier, warmer springs. The stream now often dries up by August, before the harvest.

Ishay Paldan, the oldest resident of Kumik, has watched as the snowfields and small glaciers on the mountains above have steadily retreated over the course of his lifetime. “When I was a child, we had no problems with water,” he told me on my first visit. The view from his window shows just how much things have changed: the snowline that once almost came down to the edge of Kumik is now several kilometers distant.

Kumik’s chronic state of drought became so acute in the summer of 2000 that the entire community gathered and made a painful decision. They would leave their ancient homes, and start over somewhere else.

The government offered them a dusty, wind-scoured patch of desert – a couple miles and almost a thousand feet below – where they could start over. So they began to dig a canal, five miles long, to bring water from the Lungnak River. They gathered stones and mixed mud bricks. They started to build a new village from scratch, hoping to green this no-man’s-land long known as Marthang, “the red place.”

A villager hacks a new canal out of the hard earth of Marthang, (the “red place”) in the shadow of the retreating glaciers of the Great Himalayan Range.

Since my first visit in 2008, I have spent many happy days with the people of Kumik, listening to their stories in the old village they are slowly leaving, and working alongside them in the new one they are slowly coaxing from the desert floor. The villagers are more prone to cracking jokes about the tough spot they’re in, and singing songs as they hack canals out of the dry earth, than to dwelling on their bad luck. “Kumik is like a small flower that grows high in the mountains, and only needs little water!” goes a folk song that I heard the villagers sing late one night.

This stoic good cheer in the face of their slow-motion catastrophe has puzzled and inspired me in equal measure – enough to spend a few years writing a book that tries to ferret out and understand the physical and other forces behind their eviction (spoiler alert: black carbon, a.k.a. soot, is a primary culprit), and that also seeks to share the profound lessons of their resilience for the rest of us living downstream.

One interpretation of “Kumik” says it is a combination of the words kun and mik in the local language, meaning “all is visible.” Every time I go back, it strikes me how apt that name is. Looking up at the ragged, beleaguered patches of snow and ice on Sultan Largo, and down at the modest village taking shape in the “red place,” it seems as though the human consequences of our planet-warming pollution are made all too plain.

And it seems as though the logical response – bold, collective, hope-infused action – is revealed with just as much clarity.

Experts in collective, cooperative action, the people of Kumik are building a new village – one they hope will be more resilient to their changing climate.

Adaptation to Drought in Peruvian Andes

Community-based adaptation strategies are essential for dealing with drought in the Peruvian Andes, according to a new study by Ralph Lasage et al. published in Sustainability.

Extreme Droughts in Quechua (Source: CGIAR Climate/Flickr)
Extreme Drought in  Andean Region (Source: CGIAR Climate/Flickr)

Over 80% of residents in the Peruvian Andes rely on agriculture as a major source of income and are highly dependent on the availability of water resources. But in the past, droughts associated with El Nino events have been devastating for these communities and led to increased migration from rural areas to cities. According to Ralph Lasage and a team of researchers from VU University Amsterdam and Amsterdam University College, the drought of 1982 resulted in 60% – 70% reduction in highland agricultural production.

And water availability in the Andes is set to continue to decline as glaciers recede. Effective water management systems and adaptation measures on the local scale play significant roles in reducing the impacts of climate change on the glaciers thousands of people rely on, Lasage and his team found.

Aguas Calientes (Source: Mariano Mantel/Flickr)
Aguas Calientes, Peru (Source: Mariano Mantel/Flickr)

When glaciers melt, the risk of outburst floods increases dramatically. In 1941, the glacial lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes burst and tons of water crashed into the city of Huaraz, killing around 5,000 people. In the following decade, two more glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) occurred in the Cordillera Blanca in north-central Peru due to excessive water released when glacier moraine dams failed. To address the issue, the Peruvian government strengthened terminal moraine dams, sophisticated valve systems, and drain pipes to prevent extensive damage when future GLOFs occurs. In addition, it initiated glaciological unit, which helped prevent many outburst floods and significant fatalities.

Andean Vista (Source: pdh96/Flickr)
Andean Vista (Source: pdh96/Flickr)

However, outburst flooding is not the only glacier melt-related issue that concerns Peruvians. Droughts associated with climate variability, which threaten the country’s water supply, pose a major concern for residents of the South American nation. Shrinking glacier volume during this century is projected to intensify. But hydrological data gaps limit scientists’ ability to understand cycles of flooding and droughts. it is difficult for them to assess vulnerability to floods and droughts on regional level.

Through their study, Lasage and his team presented a stepwise participatory approach to create a vulnerability index and develop community-based adaptation measures. The study was conducted in the Chorunga catchment, which is “representative of the environmental and socio-economic conditions of farming communities across the Andes”. They found that improving the efficiency of water usage and storage was a bigger challenge for communities than creating water storage at high elevations close to glaciers.

Location of the Chorunga study area in the Ocoña River basin. (Source: Ralph Lasage et al., 2015)
Location of the Chorunga study area in the Ocoña River basin. (Source: Ralph Lasage et al., 2015)

The Chorunga catchment, which is part of the Ocona River basin, is a poor rural area where roughly “68% of the population live in poverty, compared with 14% for the whole of Peru”. Located in the south of the Cordillera Blanca, the Chorunga catchment received the majority of its water irrigation comes from the Coropuna Glacier, which lost 37% of its total volume and has been rapidly retreating, in the form of melting glacier water. In addition, the team conducted in-depth study of the functioning of the villages’ irrigation systems and the governance of water resources. Perceived vulnerability was evaluated alongside a variety of socio-economic characteristics of the respondents, including income, education, access to water, and etc.

Quilted Fields, Andes (Source: Rod Waddington/Flickr)
Quilted Fields, Andes (Source: Rod Waddington/Flickr)

Lasage and his team started by gathering information on local households’ perception of their vulnerability to droughts and the effectiveness of proposed adaptation strategies through questionnaires and face-to-face interview in the Chorunga catchment. The vulnerability index was defined as the product of “exposure” (or frequency of drought periods) and “sensitivity” (or perceived impacts of a drought on people’s livelihoods) divided by “response efficacy” (or perceived effectiveness of adaption measures in response to reduced water availability). In addition, the team gathered information on the governance of water resources as well as irrigation systems through in-depth interviews with government offices, NGOs, and local colleges. More importantly, the team collaborated with a variety of Peruvian stakeholders (e.g. local farmers, Water Associations, Irrigation Commissions, and etc.) and initiated several possible adaption measures. Ultimately, some adaption measures were selected on the basis of climate projections and investment costs.

Ocoña River meets Pacific Ocean (Source: beyondhue/Flickr)
Ocoña River meets Pacific Ocean (Source: beyondhue/Flickr)

Glacier recession has been accelerating since the 1970s, which will likely lead to the disappearance of the glaciers. As a result of rising temperatures, a large portion of the precipitation comes in the form of rainfall instead of snow. Therefore, water availability is anticipated to decline during growing season for crops on the long run even though increased melting glacier water will slightly contribute to water runoff in the short term. In other words, additional melt-water from glacier retreat will not make a difference in increasing discharge, because the effect of reduced precipitation due to high temperatures will most likely be overwhelming.

La Raya Pass (Source: David Stanley/Flickr)
La Raya Pass, Peru (Source: David Stanley/Flickr)

The vulnerability analysis reveals that households with a larger area of irrigated land tends to be less vulnerable to droughts; households with lower income are more vulnerable but less willing to adapt to climate change; and people with a higher education appear to be less sensitive to drought and willing to cope with adaptation measures. There is a strong correlation between households’ water availability and their vulnerability to droughts.

Cayetano Huanca, Peru (Source: Oxfam International/Flickr)
Cayetano Huanca, Peru (Source: Oxfam International/Flickr)

The selected adaptation measures concentrated on improving the efficacy of water usage and storage in the Chorunga catchment. In particular, surface dams were constructed to store rainfall during the wet season, and to be used during the dry season. Low-cost gravity drip irrigation systems and water-efficient crops were introduced to maximize crop production in the fields with limited amount of water. In addition, roof-water harvesting systems were installed to increase useable water. Generally speaking, the implementation of such adaptation measures will possibly increase households’ water availability during the dry season, and hence reduce their vulnerability to droughts.

“The stepwise approach proved to be suitable to structure the process of developing and implementing adaptation measures jointly with a wide range of stakeholders in a rural area in Peru. It enabled the inclusion of information ranging from the local to the global scale and led to the joint implementation of several community-based measures”, said Lasage et al.

Roundup: Mars Habitat, Peru Drought, Wildfires

Terrestrial fluvial-lacustrine environments suggest past habitability in Mars

Vatnajökull Ice Cap, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)
Vatnajökull Ice Cap region, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)

“The search for once-habitable locations on Mars is increasingly focused on environments dominated by fluvial and lacustrine processes, such as those investigated by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The availability of liquid water coupled with the potential longevity of such systems renders these localities prime targets for the future exploration of Martian biosignatures. Fluvial-lacustrine environments associated with basaltic volcanism are highly relevant to Mars, but their terrestrial counterparts have been largely overlooked as a field analogue. Such environments are common in Iceland, where basaltic volcanism interacts with glacial ice and surface snow to produce large volumes of meltwater within an otherwise cold and dry environment”

Read more here.

New community-based adaptation to drought in Peru

Communities in Peru suffer from drought (Photo: Flickr)

“The livelihoods of people in the Andes are expected to be affected by climate change due to their dependence on glacier water. The observed decrease in glacier volume over the last few decades is likely to accelerate during the current century, which will affect water availability in the region. This paper presents an approach for participatory development of community-based adaptation measures to cope with the projected impacts of climate change. It combines in an innovative manner participatory design with physical measurements, modeling and a vulnerability analysis.”

Read more here.

Mineral dust and black carbon from wildfires melt Washington’s glaciers

Mount Olympus in  Washington (Photo: Flickr)
Mount Olympus in Washington (Photo: Flickr)

“Assessing the potential for black carbon (BC) and dust deposition to reduce albedo and accelerate glacier melt is of interest in Washington because snow and glacier melt are an important source of water resources, and glaciers are retreating. In August 2012 on Snow Dome, Mount Olympus, Washington, we measured snow surface spectral albedo and collected surface snow samples and a 7 m ice core. The snow and ice samples were analyzed for iron (Fe, used as a dust proxy) via inductively coupled plasma sector field mass spectrometry, total impurity content gravimetrically, BC using a single-particle soot photometer (SP2), and charcoal through microscopy……The Big Hump forest fire is the likely source for the higher concentrations”

Read more here.


Glacier stories you may have missed this week – 10/6

California droughts and glacier melts lead to massive Mt. Shasta mudslide

“Experts believe glacial melting, accelerated by the drought, may have released “pockets of water” that destabilized massive ice blocks and causing the debris flow Saturday afternoon in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, officials said.”

Read more about Mt. Shasta mudslide in the Los Angles Times.


The culprit of glacier melting – pollution

“When Kaser’s team looked at ice cores previously drilled at two sites high in the western Alps – the Colle Gnifetti glacier saddle 4,455 m up on Monte Rosa near the Swiss–Italian border, and the Fiescherhorn glacier at 3,900 m in the Bernese Alps – they found that in around 1860 layers of glacial ice started to contain large amounts of soot.”

Read more about how pollution melts glaciers instead of rising temperatures in Climate Central news.


Cooling of the Earth increases erosion rates

“Every year, billions of tons of rock and soil vanish from Earth’s surface, scoured from mountains and plains and swept away by wind, rain, and other elements. The chief driver of this dramatic resurfacing is climate, according to a new study. And when the global temperature falls, erosion kicks into overdrive.”

Read more about cold climate shrinks mountains in Advancing Science, Serving Society (AAAS) news.

Glaciers are muddying rivers, with drought to blame
Rivers off of California’s Mount Shasta are increasingly becoming brown. (Eric Leslie/Flickr)

Water flowing off snow-capped mountains has the image of being absolutely pure, but the rivers and streams of California’s Mount Shasta are unusually brown, and geologists are pointing at drought as the cause.

News surrounding the drought in California inundates the media, but we often hear about dying crops and brown lawns. This time it’s the tourism and fishing industries that are up in arms.

Paradoxically, the heavy river flows are caused by the same climatic variations that have created drought throughout the state. A dry winter left California’s glaciers exposed to the sun, without their usual protective cover of snow. Hot weather in the summer is rapidly melting them, particularly on Mount Shasta, home to the state’s largest glaciers. The mountain’s porous volcanic soils can absorb some meltwater, but their capacity has been overwhelmed this summer, and the meltwater is causing debris flows, muddying rivers and streams. More commonly known as mudslides, debris flows are flows of water, rock, soil and other organic material that course downslope, becoming destructive torrents when they enter streambeds. They can muddy the waters of rivers that are usually pristine.
Saying California’s drought is spreading quickly is a small understatement. (Climate Central)

This year, the rapid melt of the mountain’s south-facing Konwakiton Glacier has left the McCloud River opaque with volcanic ash. These highly turbid rivers are not novel phenomena. In the past century, severe debris flows like the current one have been witnessed seven times, particularly in the 1924, 1926 and 1930, other dry years for the region, when debris flows blocked roads and railroads, rendering them impassible for days. During this period in the 1920s, the McCloud River was unfishable. The murky waters do not harm the fish, but simply make them nearly impossible to catch.
Fly fishing in California’s McCloud River is one of the many activities to be affected by brown rivers caused by drought. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Fly fishermen, fly fishing tour guides, and local businesses that relying on tourism fear that the current drought, and the associated glacial melt, debris flows and cloudy waters, will be detrimental to the local economy during the fishing season this fall and in the future years. Some fly fishing groups have already cancelled tours that they had booked—another sign of the cascading effects of glacial melt around the world.

For another story on the effects of glacial melt on fisheries, click here.