A Glacier State Congressman Cites Climate Change as Basis for Nuclear Energy Legislation
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican representing the glacier state of Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. On April 24, Barrasso released a draft act reforming U.S. nuclear waste policy, to ensure the federal government’s legal obligations to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste are fulfilled. His reason? Climate change.
“When John Barrasso, a Republican from oil and uranium-rich Wyoming who has spent years blocking climate change legislation, introduced a bill this year to promote nuclear energy, he added a twist: a desire to tackle global warming.
Mr. Barrasso’s remarks
— “If we are serious about climate change, we must be serious about
expanding our use of nuclear energy” — were hardly a clarion call to
action. Still they were highly unusual for the lawmaker who, despite
decades of support for nuclear power and other policies that would
reduce planet-warming emissions, has until recently avoided talking
about them in the context of climate change.
The comments represent an important shift among Republicans in Congress. Driven by polls showing that voters in both parties — particularly younger Americans — are increasingly concerned about a warming planet, and prodded by the new Democratic majority in the House shining a spotlight on the issue, a growing number of Republicans are now openly discussing climate change and proposing what they call conservative solutions.”
Major UN Meeting Raises Minority Rights Issues in Asia’s Glaciated Mountain Areas
The United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its annual meeting in New York City April 22 – May 3. There was significant debate about China’s treatment of minority peoples in the glaciated western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The UN Press reports:
“Despite scattered gains in land, language and legal rights, a glaring lack of political will around the world is inhibiting fundamental change on the ground in thousands of communities in every region, delegates told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today as it continued its work.
Achievements outlined by Member State representatives today were
starkly overshadowed by grave concerns – including high youth suicide
rates, social exclusion and widespread political apathy – raised by many
speakers, as the Permanent Forum concluded its general discussion on
“implementation of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum with
reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples”. The six areas are economic and social development, culture,
the environment, education, health and human rights.
Across these areas – from land marred by war or extractive industries’ activities to ignorance about indigenous history and languages – speakers called on Governments and the Permanent Forum alike to urgently take the kind of actions that will have a direct, positive impact on their communities.”
An Early Warning System for Peru’s GLOF-Prone Lake Palcacocha
In northwestern Peru, government officials announced plans to install an early warning system to alert downstream populations of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) from the Andean glacier lake, Palcacocha,
The lake has a history of GLOFs . Most recently, an avalanche from a calving glacier above the lake on February 5 triggered a wave that tested the moraine holding back the glacial meltwater. The regional capital, Huaraz, which lies downstream, is the second most populous city of the Peruvian Andes.
Peruvian news outlet El Comercio reported on the new warning system, which is expected to take one year to complete.
From the Cryosphere: “Changes in the area and number of glaciers in the Georgian Caucasus Mountains were examined over the last century, by comparing recent Landsat and ASTER images (2014) with older topographical maps (1911, 1960) along with middle and high mountain meteorological stations data. Total glacier area decreased by 8.1±1.8% (0.2±0.04%yr−1) or by 49.9±10.6km2 from 613.6±9.8km2 to 563.7±11.3km2 during 1911–1960, while the number of glaciers increased from 515 to 786. During 1960–2014, the total ice area decreased by 36.9±2.2% (0.7±0.04%yr−1) or by 207.9±9.8km2 from 563.7±11.3km2 to 355.8±8.3km2, while glacier numbers decreased from 786 to 637. In total, the area of Georgia glaciers reduced by 42.0±2.0% (0.4±0.02%yr−1) between 1911 and 2014. The eastern Caucasus section had the highest retreat rate of 67.3±2.0% (0.7±0.02%yr−1) over this period, while the central part of Georgian Caucasus had the lowest, 34.6±1.8% (0.3±0.01%yr−1), with the western Caucasus intermediate at 42.8±2.7% (0.4±0.03%yr−1).
Glacial lake expansion on the Tibetan Plateau
From Society & Natural Resources: “Global climate change is causing the majority of large lakes on the Tibetan Plateau to expand. While these rising lake levels and their causes have been investigated by hydrologists and glaciologists, their impacts on local pastoral communities have mostly been ignored. Our interviews with pastoralists in central Tibet reveal their observations and beliefs about Lake Serling’s expansion, as well as how its effects are interacting with current rangeland management policies. Interviewees reported that the most negative effects on their livelihoods have been reduced livestock populations and productivity due to the inundation of high-quality pastures by saline lake water. However, pastoralists’ collective efforts based on traditional values and norms of sharing, assistance, and reciprocity have helped them cope with these climate change impacts. These local, traditional coping strategies are particularly worthy of attention now, given that the transformation of traditional pastoralism is a goal of current government development initiatives.”
An early warning plan for Ecuador
From the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: “This Early Action Plan aims to establish appropriate early action using volcanic ash dispersal and deposition forecasts that benefit the most vulnerable families in the most potentially affected areas. Ecuador is a country that is under the influence of several natural hazards due to its geographical location, atmospheric dynamics and geological characteristics. The country has historically faced several important events such as floods, water deficit, earthquakes, volcanic activity and landslides, among others, which leave thousands of people affected and generates millions of dollars in losses.”
From the World Glacier Monitoring Service: “In 2019, we will celebrate the 125 year jubilee of internationally coordinated glacier monitoring jointly with IACS during the IUGG General Assembly in Montreal, Canada, and with our National Correspondents during the WGMS General Assembly. The General Assembly will be split into three regional meetings which allows us to focus on regional challenges and networks and to cut in half the related carbon footprint.”
From “Five Approaches to Build Functional Early Warning Systems,” a report published by the United Nations Development Program: “This publication aims to support UNDP practitioners and partners (international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, governments, as well as civil society organizations) in the process of setting up or improving early warning systems. Distinct from the many existing step-by-step guides and checklists, this publication identifies targeted interventions which can boost the efficiency and effectiveness of early warning systems in five key areas.”
From the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio: “This Tuesday, an avalanche was recorded in the Pucaranra mountain, which fell on the Palcacocha lagoon and partially affected two of the siphons that control the level of the same, in the district of Independencia, in the province of Huaraz, Áncash region. […] The event was recorded on video by the surveillance system of the lagoon, implemented by the National Institute of Glacier and Mountain Ecosystem Research (Inaigem). In the images it is observed that the block of ice generated waves, which were retained by the safety dam of 7 meters high.” (Translation via Google Translate)
A longer version of this post appeared in the April 2017 issue of EcoAmericas.
When a flood from a mountain lake threatened to swamp the town of Carhuaz in the Peruvian Andes early one morning in April 2010, Víctor Rodríguez was the only person who knew. From his hut on a plain below the mountain, he heard the jet-like rumble as a block of ice calved off a glacier and crashed into the lake. The force of the fall produced a wave that swept over the earthen dike around the water body, called Lake 513, and cascaded down the steep slope. Rodríguez watched as the water swirled across the plain, swamping the catchment for the municipal water system, where he worked as caretaker. Picking up speed as it funneled into the Chucchún River, the torrent of water carrying mud and boulders swept away crops, livestock and some buildings. But it stopped just short of the town of about 12,000 people beside the Santa River, at the foot of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.
The Destruction of an Early-Warning System
With climate change increasing the threat of such hazards, the Swiss government’s development agency, a Peruvian nonprofit, and a Swiss university teamed up to develop a high-tech early-warning system. By the end of 2013, lakeside sensors and cameras were in place above Carhuaz, with relay antennae that could transmit information quickly to a command center in the municipal offices. Once its kinks were worked out, the organizers of the project hoped the system could serve as a model for other towns that lie below glacial lakes. Then disaster struck again, this time in the form of a drought. Not only was rain scarce, but an unseasonable frost damaged crops. Rumors spread among residents of the farming communities around Carhuaz that the monitoring equipment at Lake 513 was preventing clouds from forming. Early one morning last November, several hundred people from the largely indigenous communities, where traditional Andean beliefs still hold sway, trekked up to the lake and tore down the system. Within a week, it rained.
The events raise questions about how to ensure that in areas where rural residents distrust technology, systems can be created to reliably warn those in the path of Carhuaz-style deluges, known as glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs. It also highlights tensions between growing urban areas and their rural neighbors— tensions that could deepen as dense development encroaches on agricultural land and city dwellers demand a larger share of water from threatened sources.
The destruction of the Carhuaz early-warning equipment came as a shock to the system’s developers, but in hindsight, signs of discontent had been building. During workshops in 2012, residents said they felt unprotected against outburst floods like the one in 2010, says Karen Price Ríos of CARE Peru, a nonprofit development organization that has been active in the area for several years. Price worked with local communities on the three-year early warning project, which was funded by the Swiss aid agency COSUDE and supported by researchers from the University of Zurich. The researchers drew up a risk map, showing the areas in varying degrees of danger from a mudslide like that of 2010, and devised evacuation routes, marking them with signs. The centerpiece of the project was the early-warning system on Mount Hualcán. If a block of ice broke from the glacier and crashed into Lake 513, it would trigger sensors that would turn on cameras and send an alert to local officials. They could then check the images from the cameras to verify the flood and sound an alarm.
The early warning would give local residents about half an hour to evacuate to safety zones. One monitoring station was installed at Lake 513, some 4,491 meters above sea level, with additional equipment several hundred meters higher. A repeater down in the valley boosted the signal before it reached the municipal offices in Carhuaz, at 2,641 meters above sea level. Another monitoring station— on the plain below Mount Hualcán, beside the upper part of a system of irrigation canals and the intake for Carhuaz’s drinking water system— gathered water-level and flow data from the Chucchún River.
The system was installed in 2012. In 2015, CARE’s Glacier Project in Carhuaz officially ended and the system was turned over to the Carhuaz provincial government headed by Mayor Jesús Caballero García, who had taken office in January. Though the head of the local disaster management office could monitor the system, the government lacked funds for specialized maintenance, Caballero says. “We didn’t have personnel trained to evaluate the entire system and say whether it was functioning,” he says.
In 2016, lack of rain became a more pressing concern than an outburst flood for farmers in the rural communities along the Santa River and its tributaries, including the Chucchún. It is not clear when people began to blame the equipment on Mount Hualcán, but in February 2016, one local leader asked Caballero to remove it. Two months later, vandals stole the cameras from the lakeside monitoring station. It might have been an ordinary theft, but observers note that it would be difficult to fence the specialized cameras in local black markets.
CARE and COSUDE agreed to replace the stolen cameras, but before arrangements could be made, leaders from several surrounding communities again demanded that the equipment be removed. A town hall-style meeting was scheduled for November to discuss the problem, but on Nov. 24, several hundred people from surrounding communities marched up the mountain to the lake. Caballero says he accompanied the group to persuade the protesters to leave the equipment in place, but after a few tense hours, they tore down what was left of the equipment beside the lake and the monitoring station on the plain below.
The Search for an Explanation
A few months later, some embarrassment seemed to have set in. It is difficult to find people who will admit to dismantling the equipment, although some will talk about the beliefs that led to the action— that the equipment “blew the clouds away,” or that it might have been placed there to benefit some outside interest, such as a mining company. It was not the first time equipment had been blamed for unfavorable weather near Carhuaz. Nearly two decades ago, farmers demanded that another researcher remove meteorological monitoring devices from the mountain. “People have a very close relationship with the mountains,” says geographer Christian Huggel of the University of Zurich. “The snow-capped peaks are living beings.”
With time, however, a more complex picture of the tensions over the Carhuaz early-warning system have emerged. In workshops with Glacier Project staff shortly after the 2010 outburst flood, people in both Carhuaz and the surrounding farming communities identified floods as the greatest natural hazard they faced. Climate change, it seemed, was on everyone’s mind. And in a study conducted during 2012-14, sociologist Luis Vicuña found that when discussing risks, people in the farming communities around Carhuaz spoke of climate change in virtually the same terms they had heard in the workshops. But when Vicuña changed the question slightly, he found that farmers were actually more concerned about their supply of irrigation water—whether they would continue to have enough water, and how much of a say they would have in managing it.
The water worries reflected tensions between the farming communities and the town of Carhuaz, where population growth has pushed the urban limits farther into the countryside. Farms have been shrinking as demand for food has been increasing, Vicuña says. The expanding urban population has increased demand for drinking water, too, says Lindón Mejía, who manages the city’s water and sanitation system. Since the timing of the Glacier Project happened to coincide with plans to expand Carhuaz’s potable water system, the drought may have exacerbated fears of more water being used for the urban area.
At the heart of those fears is concern that less irrigation water will be available for rural residents, who in addition face a lower risk of outburst-flood damage than town dwellers since they live on higher ground. Such tensions, combined with local urban and rural political dynamics, probably created fertile ground for rumors that led the crowd to tear down the monitoring stations, Vicuña says. Glacier Project staff made a concerted effort to forge consensus, meeting with people in the urban area and in the villages closest to Carhuaz. But many of those who climbed the mountain to pull down the monitoring equipment were from villages outside the area that would be in the path of an outburst flood from Lake 513. They knew little about the system and did not stand to benefit from it, Vicuña says. CARE and COSUDE decided not to reinstall the system at Lake 513, although COSUDE will finance a similar system around Santa Teresa, in the southern Peruvian region of Cusco.
Meanwhile, researchers, project staff and government officials puzzle over what could be done differently next time. Any such project, whether in Huaraz or elsewhere, should involve more extensive studies of local communities and political positions, Vicuña says. Another possibility might be to turn local residents into citizen scientists. Anthropologist Ben Orlove of Columbia University says the citizen scientists might be invited to help gather data and become part of the study, rather than simply witnessing the installation of instruments they don’t understand. And when new local government officials take office, attention must be paid to ensure that they will take responsibility for early-warning systems installed by their predecessors, says Martin Jaggi, COSUDE’s director of global cooperation programs.
The question will only become more critical. The Andes Mountains are home to the largest expanse of tropical glaciers in the world, but the ice fields have been shrinking significantly over the past half-century. A warmer climate means glaciers will continue to recede, and their meltwater will feed lakes high above valley towns. This, in turn, will heighten the risk of outburst floods.
Despite the dismantling of its early-warning equipment, Carhuaz is nevertheless better protected than it was before, Huggel says. Government officials and residents are more aware of the outburst-flood risks, evacuation routes are clear, and the personnel who keep watch over the city’s drinking water intake 24 hours a day can radio a message to the town in case of a flood. It is estimated that town residents can expect warnings 10 to 15 minutes before outburst waters arrive. That’s significantly less time to evacuate than the 30 minutes promised under the high-tech system originally envisioned, but the current plan still could be efficient, Huggel says. He adds: “The early warning system is much more than just instruments.”
Glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose an immediate threat to locations in mountain regions where rising temperatures contribute to glacier melt. This risk makes it crucial that communities at risk to GLOFs develop early warning systems (EWS) to alert residents of impending danger. In order for EWS to be effective, gender needs to be prioritized. In a recent paper published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Mandira Shrestha et al. evaluated flood early warning systems in Bhutan and found that many EWS exclude women, who are especially susceptible to natural disasters like GLOFs.
GLOFs, which are difficult to predict and devastating to local populations, occur when meltwater is suddenly released from a lake just below a glacier. When this occurs, large amounts of water rush down valleys, picking up debris. They can lead to many deaths and to extensive destruction of fields and property.
In total, Bhutan has 24 lakes which are capable of causing GLOFs. As temperatures rise, glacier melt increases, leading to exposed moraines and larger volumes of water. However, an EWS can help save lives during a GLOF, especially if it is combined with preparatory actions before a flood occurs.
In Bhutan, the EWS was first introduced in 1988 as part of the Hindu Kush Himalayan – Hydrological Cycle Observing System (HKH-HYCOS), a project developed by ICIMOD, national governments in the region, and the World Meteorological Organization. However, Shrestha et al. found that none of the current policies in Bhutan’s EWS address specific needs and experiences of women during natural disasters. In planning documents, women are described as victims, rather than presented as playing an important role in disaster risk management.
The Bhutan EWS contains four major elements, also found in other warning systems: risk assessment, monitoring and warning, dissemination and communication, and response capability. The Bhutanese government first prioritized flood early warning systems in 1994, following a detrimental GLOF, which killed 12 people, destroyed 21 homes, and washed away nearly 2,000 acres of land. Shrestha et al. point out that even a good warning system would not be fully effective in preventing such a tragedy if it fails to reach vulnerable populations like women, as well as other such populations including children, disabled people, and the elderly.
As Shrestha et al. explain, while women in Bhutan make up 49% of the population and legally have equal rights and access to education, public services, and health care, most women engage in household labor, while men dominate political work. The authors indicate that only 25 percent of women in Bhutan are involved in non-agricultural work. Extensive male out-migration in Bhutan, as elsewhere in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, leaves women to carry out the work in domestic agriculture. As a result, Bhutanese women are excluded from decision-making processes at community or larger scales.
This pattern is reflected in other nearby countries as well. One study done on disaster-affected people seeking mental health care in Bangladesh, which has the highest natural disaster mortality rate in the world, found that women have higher mortality rates in natural disasters, and are also extremely vulnerable in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, they are more likely to face food shortage, sexual harassment, and disease, among other issues.
Shrestha et al. describe how the social structure in Bhutan leaves women dependent on men for receiving disaster information, because these details are shared in public places, where women typically do not go. Many of the alerts are done through sirens, but some women cannot hear them as they are located in towns rather than rural areas. Even if women do receive the information, it is often too late. Due to cultural norms that restrict their freedom of movement when in public, women are frequently left waiting to ask for permission from men to take actions that can save their lives.
Gender-inclusive EWS emphasizes assuring that women receive early warnings, but also, more importantly, that they participate in decision-making processes. Without these features, early warning systems may prove inadequate to save the lives of women in natural disasters like GLOFs.
Roundup: Rock Glaciers, Floating Glaciers, and Flood Warnings
Ecology of Active Rock Glaciers
From Boreas: “Active rock glaciers are periglacial landforms (areas that lie adjacent to a glacier or ice sheet that freeze and thaw) consisting of coarse debris with interstitial ice (ice formed in the narrow space between rocks and sediment) or ice-core. Recent studies showed that such landforms are able to support plant and arthropod life and could act as warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species due to their microclimate features and thermal inertia. However, integrated research comparing active rock glaciers with surrounding landforms to outline their ecological peculiarities is still scarce… Our data show remarkable differences between stable slopes and unstable landforms as a whole, while few differences occur between active scree slopes and active rock glaciers: such landforms show similar soil features but different ground surface temperatures (lower on active rock glaciers) and different occurrence of cold-adapted species (more frequent/abundant on active rock glaciers)… The role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia for cold-adapted species is supported by our data; however, at least in the European Alps, their role in this may be less important than that of debris-covered glaciers, which are able to host cold-adapted species even below the climatic tree line.”
Read more about the role of active rock glaciers as potential warm-stage refugia here:
Fluid-Ice Structure Interaction of the Drygalski Ice Tongue
From UTAS: “The Drygalski Ice Tongue (DIT) is the largest floating glacier in Antarctica, extending approximately 120km into McMurdo Sound, and exhibits a significant influence upon the prevailing northward current, as the ice draft (measurement of ice thickness below the waterline) of the majority of the DIT is greater than the depth of the observed well-mixed surface layer. This influence is difficult to characterize using conventional methods such as in-situ LADCP (Lowered Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler) measurements, vertically collected profiles or long-term moorings as these are generally relatively spatially sparse datasets. In order to better relate measurements across the entire region of influence of the DIT region, a set of Computational Fluid Dynamics simulations (uses numerical analysis to analyze fluid flows) were conducted using a generalized topography of a mid-span transect of the DIT… Numerical modeling of environmental flows around ice structures advances the knowledge of the fluid dynamics of the system in not only the region surrounding the DIT but also provides a clearer insight into fluid-ice structure interactions and heat flux in the system. This may lead to a better understanding of the long-term fate of floating glaciers.”
Learn more about fluid-ice structure interactions here:
Flood Early Warning Systems (EWSs) in Bhutan
From ICIMOD: “Bhutan experiences frequent hydrometeorological disasters. In terms of relative exposure to flood risk as a percentage of population, Bhutan ranks fourth highest in the Asia-Pacific region, with 1.7% of its total population exposed to flood risk. It is likely that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of flood disasters in Bhutan. Inequalities in society are often amplified at the times of disaster and people living in poverty, especially women, the elderly, and children, are particularly vulnerable to flood hazards. Timely and reliable flood forecasting and early warnings that consider the needs of both women and men can contribute to saving lives and property. Early warning systems (EWSs) that are people-centered, accurate, timely, and understandable to communities at risk and that recommend the appropriate action to be taken by vulnerable communities can save people more effectively. To improve the understanding of existing early warning systems (EWSs) in the region and their effectiveness, ICIMOD has conducted an assessment of flood EWS in four countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan) from a gendered perspective. The objective is to support the development of timely, reliable, and effective systems that can save lives and livelihoods.”
Read more about flood early warning systems in Bhutan here: