What the Yak Herders of Northern Bhutan Are Saying About Global Warming

A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates climate change may have its yak herding population on thin ice. Owing to its topography, the Himalaya provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study. This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit those areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspective.

This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.

New study shows how Yak herders from Bhutan perceive how climate change will impact their culture and livelihoods (Source: Deanne June Scanlan/Twitter).

One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects. The researchers from Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions of climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts. The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure perceptible changes in climate.

Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaire were averaged across the population. Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: “agree,” “disagree,” and “neither.” The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world at a tipping point.

The yak herding elders’ observed warming over the past 15 years concurs with climate-research data. Data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.

The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. A majority of respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.

Yak foraging the pristine Lhotse Moraine (Source: Flickr)

The herders have observed changes not only in the weather and the natural environment, but also in the health of the animals on which their livelihoods are centered. The yak themselves are sensitive to warm temperatures— illness and discomfort have increased as a result. The elders’ responses showed the researchers that the declining health of the yak and a shift in timing of the migration have made herding more difficult.

Ruijun Long, a yak expert and ecological and pastoral specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told GlacierHub that due to warming and glacial meltwater availability, the yak herders can remain on the summer pastures longer than before.

But a warmer, longer summer of grazing doesn’t necessarily translate to happier yaks.

With thick black hair, yaks are well adapted to the cold temperatures of the high Himalaya. Warmer temperatures cause physiological stress in yaks and general health decline. Their grazing spaces have also been encroached upon thanks to the upslope proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron. With less grass available, yak milk production has suffered. To make matters worse, predators like the snow leopard have been forced into bolder descents due to their melting habitat.

Transhumant migration has become difficult for yak with rising temperatures (Source: Ian Cochrane/Twitter).

Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s high Himalaya. To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.

According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding. Dorji told GlacierHub “With good market price, the income from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.” Though now the cordyceps themselves are in doubt due to the changing climate.

A cordyceps, or “caterpillar fungus,” emerges from a larva (Source: Jason Hollinger/Flickr).

Dorji cited another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding in  Bhutan: education. While primary schools are common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream for higher education. Dorji told GlacierHub, “This already distances younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and lack of socio-economic development amenities in those landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”

The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders. A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.

As temperatures advance, the hardships will grow. Hardly a country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan. And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most. External forcings like globalization increases might lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence. As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their way of life will remain tenuous.

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Photo Friday: Glacier Retreat in California

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement at age 81 on Wednesday, effective July 31, 2018. Originally from Sacramento, California, Justice Kennedy was confirmed to the court in 1988 after his appointment by President Ronald Reagan. Since then, glaciers in his home state have seen considerable retreat. Mount Shasta in the Cascade Mountain range has glaciers.. These glaciers have experienced some advances but ultimately retreat since a USGS survey in 1981, just several years before Kennedy took office. Whitney Glacier, the longest on Mt. Shasta, has lost over 20% of its length during Kennedy’s time on the Court.

This Photo Friday provides a look at the glaciers of California and the changes that have been seen during Kennedy’s time on the Supreme Court.

A 1993 Google Earth image depicts the advancement and retreat of Whitney Glacier (Source: Mauri Pelto).

 

Mount Shasta glaciers on September 20, 2012, as seen from the International Space Station (Source: NASA).

 

The Lyell Glacier in Yosemite National Park has lost over 80 percent of its surface area since the 19th century. (Source: National Park Service).

 

Darwin Glacier on August 14, 1908 (Source: G.K. Gilbert).

 

Darwin Glacier on August 14, 2004 (Source: H. Basagic).

 

Glacier retreat in the Sierra Nevada (Source: Hassan Basagic).

 

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Indigenous Communities and The Mountain Institute Awarded St Andrews Prize for the Environment

The Mountain Institute, Peru has won a major award for an innovative project to help mountain communities adapt to the complete loss of glaciers. The 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment was awarded on April 26 at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The project successfully integrates indigenous knowledge from the highlands of Peru with modern technology to help local communities.

The Mountain Institute, Peru received the 2018 St Andrews Prize for the Environment (Source: St Andrews Prize for the Environment).

The prize was set up in 1998 and is managed and awarded by a panel of trustees with varying backgrounds and expertise. Individuals and teams from across the world submit applications for the Prize, which has gained international recognition. It comes with a cash prize of $100,000, which The Mountain Institute, Peru plans to use to expand its cooperation with communities in the Andes.

The project began in 2013 to assist communities in the Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve, about 200 kilometers east of Lima, affected by water scarcity. It illuminates the issue of glacial retreat, an increasingly prominent issue for mountain communities in the reserve, which sits 2,500 to 5,700 meters above sea level. The Andes lost 48 percent of its glacial ice since 1975. Many of the smaller glaciers have completely vanished, exposing desolate rocks and creating hardships for those that depend on glaciers for their water supply. The project’s solution captures rainwater with pre-Inca water management systems that have revived the local ecosystem and recharged aquifers.

The prize, given by the University of St Andrews in Scotland and sponsored by the oil and gas company ConocoPhillips, seeks to recognize initiatives that promote positive impacts on the environment and communities. Lord Alec Broers, chair of the St Andrews Prize for the Environment Trustees, called the project “exciting and different” in a statement, referring to its bottom-up approach.

The Nor Yauyos-Cochas Landscape Reserve features the puna landscape (Source: The Mountain Institute).

The partnerships with indigenous groups allowed communities to co-design the revitalization with The Mountain Institute, Peru. Ancient water regulating systems, such as reservoirs and irrigation canals, were reinstated. They date as far back as 1000 A.D. The hydraulic system, which had not been used continuously for five centuries, was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Only now are they being recreated to harnesses the natural resilience of the puna ecosystem, which is comprised of wetlands, peatlands, and grasslands.

The project’s staff indicate that the increased soil and groundwater storage has led to gains in livestock productivity, greater food security, economic benefits, and improved richness and abundance of biodiversity. The result is a healthy puna ecosystem and surrounding community that is more resilient to climate change.

Local farmers from Nor Yauyos-Cochas working to restore their ancient water management system (Source: The Mountain Institute).

In his comments at the award ceremony, Jorge Recharte Bullard, director of the Andean Programme of The Mountain Institute, Peru, said the award is “recognition to the urgency to find solutions that, rooted in local cultures, secure mountain peoples’ water and livelihoods.”

“The communities there are dynamic, full of initiatives, and aware of their role in the stewardship of their environmental resources,” added Enrique Mayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University who conducted fieldwork in the region. “All solutions have a local dimension first and a wider science accumulation of knowledge and expectations afterward,” he told GlacierHub.

The initiative is part of a larger project throughout the Peruvian Andes by the Mountain Institute, Peru, which also won the 2017 Solution Search “Farming for Biodiversity” contest in the “water impact” category. The Mountain Institute has worked for many years in the high Andes, and “deserves the prize and all the applause one can give it,” Mayer said.

For an earlier report on this project, before it received the St Andrews Prize, see this link.

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Glacial Melting Isn’t Someone Else’s Problem

This article was originally published on SAPIENS on February 28, 2018.

High in the Ecuadorian Andes, the peak of Cotacachi was once reliably white. But by the early 2000s, the glacier on top of this dormant volcano, which reaches more than 16,200 feet, had disappeared. This made it—as anthropologist Robert E. Rhoades and his co-authors Xavier Zapata Ríos and Jenny Aragundy Ochoa wrote in the 2008 book Darkening Peaks—one of “the first Andean mountains in the past half-century to completely lose its glacier as a result of recent accelerated global warming.”

As many glaciers throughout the world are retreating at faster rates, they have become powerful symbols of global warming. But glacial retreat is still an abstract idea for many people, which makes it easy to ignore. As environmental historian Mark Carey puts it, “Most people in the United States have never encountered a glacier; nor would they be able to identify one even from close proximity.” Yet due to global interconnection, our actions have far-flung consequences—in unfamiliar landscapes and in places we cannot see.

In communities from the Andes to the Alps to the Himalayas, glacial loss affects people’s lives in concrete ways. In Ecuador, when the last ice crystals from Cotacachi’s glacier melted, a once-reliable source of water evaporated. According to farmers in the area, it also doesn’t rain as much as it used to, Rhoades and his co-authors wrote in Darkening Peaks. The combined effect of less rainfall and drier rivers and streams has made agriculture more challenging, as multiple consequences of climate change intersect.

In some places where glaciers are retreating, meltwater provides a temporary windfall for these communities— by producing more water for irrigation. Yet water quality can also be compromised: As the journalist Nicholas Casey recently wrote in The New York Times, heavy metals exposed by glacial retreat in Peru “are now leaking into the ground water supply, turning entire streams red, killing livestock and crops, and making the water undrinkable.”

This mountain in Ecuador, which is known locally as Mama Cotacachi, used to be capped by a glacier that was a dependable source of ice and water for nearby communities (Source: Florent Figon/Flickr).

While receding glaciers expose rocky mountain peaks, they also expose the complexity of social connections. As anthropologist Ben Orlove and his co-authors Ellen Wiegandt and Brian H. Luckman wrote in their chapter in “Darkening Peaks,” “The global scale of climate change means that the people most directly affected by glacier retreat make a very small direct contribution to the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases that are its root cause. As a consequence, their behavior will have little impact on the future course of this shrinkage.”

This global inequality is one of the greatest tensions at the heart of climate change. According to data from the World Bank, for example, while the United States emitted 16.49 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2014, Ecuador emitted 2.76 metric tons per person.

Because the United States and many countries in the European Union have historically emitted a far greater global share of carbon emissions, representatives from the global south have argued that they should also bear greater responsibility in responding to global climate change.

This graph shows carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and Ecuador from 1960 to 2014 (Source: The World Bank).

As for the communities that live near glaciers, is there anything they can do? There is no equivalent of a tree-planting campaign to respond to glacier loss. Even so, in the Alps, some communities have covered parts of glaciers with synthetic fleece blankets and foam— but while such efforts may slow glaciers’ retreat, they can’t stop it.

What about the rest of us, then— those of us who may never see a glacier, but whose lifestyles are contributing to global warming? How should we respond to communities who are losing the glaciers they have lived with— and, in many cases, depended upon— for centuries? What steps will we take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to hold our public officials accountable? These are just a few of the many difficult questions that we should be asking ourselves.

Meanwhile, the glaciers keep melting.

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Roundup: Bowdoin Glacier, Floods, and Bacterial Populations

Speeding-up of the Bowdoin Glacier

From People Publications: “Glaciers are subject to sudden ice flow speed-up events in response to rapid increase of meltwater in the subglacial hydrological network after a prolonged warm period or the drainage of a supraglacial lake…. lasting a few hours, a period too short to be captured by satellite remote sensing. We used a cost-effective Vertical Take-Off and Landing and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to monitor bi-daily the movements of Bowdoin Glacier. Our results show four distinct short-lived speed-up events, which were in phase with fluctuations of air temperature and meltwater plumes at the glacier snout, showing that recorded accelerations were triggered by an increase of buoyant forces in response to a surplus of subglacial meltwater.”

Read more speed-up events here.

Tongue of the Bowdoin Glacier (Source: ETH Zurich/Creative Commons).

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods at Imja Lake

From MDPI: “Glacial retreat causes the formation of glacier lakes with the potential of producing glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Imja Lake in Nepal is considered at risk for a GLOF. Communities in the path of a potential Imja GLOF are implementing adaptation projects. We develop and demonstrate a decision-making methodology. The methodology is applied to assess benefits in Dingboche of lowering Imja Lake by 3, 10 and 20 m. The results show that the baseline case (no lake lowering) has the lowest expected cost because of low valuation of agricultural land and homes in the literature.”

Read more about Imja Lake here.

Imja Lake in the middle of the Himalayas of Nepal (Source: Kiril Rusev/Creative Commons).

Bacterial Populations of East Antarctic Glaciers

From Frontiers in Microbiology: “Glacial forelands are extremely sensitive to temperature changes and are therefore appropriate places to explore the development of microbial communities in response to climate-driven deglaciation. We investigated the bacterial communities that developed at the initial stage of deglaciation using space-for-time substitution in the foreland of an ice sheet in Larsemann Hills. Our results show that abundant bacterial communities were more sensitive to changing conditions in the early stages of deglaciation than rare community members.”

Learn more about the bacteria populations of East Antarctic glaciers here!

Mineral treasures of Larsemann Hills, Antartica (Source: National Science Foundation/Creative Commons).
 

 

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Future Unwritten: Antarctic Sea Pens’ Secrets to Success

A sponge, Haliclonissa verrucosa, filter feeds in water off of Spume Island (Source: Chuck Amsler).

On the seafloor, beneath the cold, dark waters surrounding Antarctica, life blooms. Sea stars make their glacially-slow journeys along rocks, sponges rhythmically pulse water through their internal cavities, and one particular coral, the delicate sea pen Malacobelemnon daytoni, flourishes.

Sea pens are colonial, meaning that many individuals work together as a whole, each conducting a specialized task necessary for survival. The resulting shape resembles a quill pen, earning them their creative common name.

M. daytoni is one of the most abundant species in Potter Cove, located off the southwest side of King George Island in the South Shetland Islands. The environment of Potter Cove is heavily influenced by local glacial retreat, which discharges increasing quantities of sediment into the ocean. Researchers know little about benthic (defined as the lowest layer in a body of water) ecology in this region, challenging as it is to conduct scientific research in the cove’s remote, frigid waters. A recent paper in Marine Environmental Research by an international team from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and Institute of Marine Science analyzed the biochemistry of M. daytoni to understand its ecological success. They found that the key is a flexible, omnivorous diet and strategic reproductive techniques.

A sea pen in Potter Cove (Source: Ricardo Sahade).

Natalia Servetto, lead author on the study, is part of a group that has been studying the Potter Cove benthos since 1994, thanks to logistic support of the Instituto Antártico Argentina, the Alfred Wegener Institute and the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). These efforts have revealed what Servetto called an “unexpected and marked shift in the system… linked to ongoing climate change processes” and to glacial retreat, which has increased sedimentation rates, affecting the benthic fauna. In the last few years, Servetto says, the abundance and distribution of M. daytoni has increased significantly, while many other Potter Cove invertebrates are becoming less abundant.

Why should the sea pen thrive while its neighbors perish? To answer this question, a team based out of the Argentine Carlini Station scuba dove every month for one year, sometimes through holes in the sea ice, to depths of 15 meters to take tissue samples from sea pens in Potter Cove.

This in itself is a feat. Chuck Amsler, a biology professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham who studies macroalgae and invertebrates in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, told GlacierHub that diving to study Antarctic life is a challenge because, “It’s damn cold!” However, Amsler added, “The scientific reward is that you have the opportunity to observe your study system directly. There is no substitute for the kind of insights one can get from that.”

Carlini Station provides access to the remote Potter Cove (Source: Natalia Servetto).

Many such insights came to fruition back in the lab, where the researchers analyzed the carbohydrate content, stable isotope ratios, and fatty acids in the coral tissues, looking for chemical clues to what the pens eat through the year. Just as a savvy New Englander might buy groceries with the seasons, eating peaches in summer, apples in autumn, root vegetables in winter, and fresh maple syrup in spring, the researchers found that the sea pen’s diet changes seasonally. In summer, M. daytoni feasts on copepods (a type of small invertebrate), phytoplankton, and a bit of macroalgae detritus. In autumn, the menu features more phytoplankton and microalgae, and in winter, macroalgae detritus and sediment are the sea pens’ bread and butter. In spring, their diet becomes fresher again when phytoplankton and microplankton return to the table.

This omnivorous, opportunistic feeding strategy allows the sea pens to eat whatever is available in a given season, reducing pressure on the species during times of food depletion. Such depletion peaks in winter and autumn, forcing M. daytoni to scavenge for organic sediment and detritus that become re-suspended from the seafloor. Sea pens have another major advantage over their neighbors: inorganic sediment from melting glaciers can clog the respiration and feeding mechanisms of filter-feeding invertebrates, while M. daytoni continues to chow down, undisturbed.

Amsler and his team begin a dive to study benthic macroalgae and invertebrates (Source: Maggie Amsler/Antarctic Photo Library).

Not only do they feed resourcefully, but the sea pens also optimize the energy they obtain. Servetto’s team found that lipid content in their tissues, associated with reproduction, increased in rapid bursts that were seasonally linked with higher food availability. This pattern suggests that sea pens can take the energetic resources offered by the environment at a given time and shunt them into reproduction, the most important process for any organism.

Beyond any single year, and beyond the bounds of the Potter Cove ecosystem, the opportunistic feeding and reproductive strategies of M. daytoni will help this species thrive. Nearly 90 percent of glaciers are retreating along the Antarctic Peninsula, causing environmental shifts that threaten many species, but could create an opportunity for sea pens to actually expand their range, Servetto says. As glacial retreat creates new ice-free areas, colonization may occur, according to Servetto, “at a previously unimagined speed.”

However, it’s not yet clear how the Antarctic coastal system will evolve as glaciers melt. Amsler says that decreasing sea ice cover will likely favor macroalgae and their associated communities of small, mobile invertebrates like amphipods and gastropods, and threaten shallow-water sessile invertebrates like the sea pens, probably pushing them into deeper water. Decrease in sea ice cover may also have broader climate impacts: the Antarctic benthos is a net carbon sink (a natural process that stores carbon), and as ice cover decreases, Amsler expects that benthic primary production will increase, removing even more carbon from the atmosphere.

Divers in Antarctica face difficult conditions, including brash ice (Source: Chuck Amsler).

No matter the outcome, the impacts of climate change on benthic Antarctic invertebrates will be manifold. Other forces, like ocean warming and acidification, will also affect M. daytoni and reshape benthic invertebrate communities, though Amsler says more work is needed to understand how. “I don’t know what the community will look like in 100 years, but I’m confident that it will be different from what we see today,” he predicted. As climate changes and glaciers melt, the flexible diet and efficient reproductive strategy of M. daytoni will give it an advantage in changing Antarctic coastal ecosystems.

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Glacial Retreat Causes A Yukon River to Disappear

Much to the alarm of Canadians, the glacier-fed Slims River has disappeared following extensive glacial melting associated with anthropogenic climate change. Views of the Slims Valley, where the river once flowed, have been replaced by a dry plain, marked only by the sinuous bevels left behind by the river in the soil. These changes have major implications on local ecosystems and will inevitably result in lower water levels in downstream glacial lakes.

For example, for many years, the Yukon’s Kluane Lake has been fed by the continuous flow of the Slims River. Water in the Slims River had been transported from Kaskawulsh Glacier, feeding the Kluane Lake and flowing into the Bering Sea. The Kaskawulsh Glacier is a large temperate valley glacier that lies in the St. Elias Mountains. It measures more than four miles across at its widest, where it meets the Slims and Kaskawulsh Rivers. With the recent melting of the glacier, water has been diverted in the direction of the Kaskawulsh River, which drains nearly 500 kilometers away in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Map showing the re-routing of glacial meltwater. Previous route in green, current one in red (Source: Google Earth).

Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey stated to Paul Tukker of CBC News, “Folks have noticed this spring that the [river has] essentially dried up.” This loss of streamflow is the first regional occurrence in the last 350 years, according to the Yukon Geological Survey. Some of the warmest temperatures on record in 2015 and 2016 have had major implications on glacial health in the region, with ice loss reported throughout the surrounding Saint Elias Mountains, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The rangers in the Kluane National Park noted that the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated nearly a half mile to the point where its melt water is now traveling in a completely different direction. In this case, the diversion of glacial meltwater is so substantial that no water is flowing in the direction of the Slims Valley and the downstream Bering Sea. Despite the Slims normally flowing approximately 19 kilometers from the edge of the glacier to Kluane Lake through the Slims Valley, changes to the Kaskawulsh’s spatial distribution have caused meltwater to flow not westward but to the east, flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

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A view across the expansive alpine lake in Kluane National Park (Source: James Bunt).

The change in water patterns has major implications for ecosystems in regions experiencing new levels of flow (both in the dryer and the now wetter areas). For example, in the absence of perennial water, the Slims Valley is more prone to dust storms, at least until new vegetation stabilizes the floodplain. Retired Utah Geological Survey geomorphologist Will Stokes told GlacierHub, “The valley may undergo a major ecological evolution over the next few decades, characterized by new flora and fauna.” Although this may seem like a minor adjustment, Stokes explained, “These changes can drastically alter the local food chain, and if lake levels end up lowering dramatically, there may be a major negative impact on local hunting and fishing.”

Jeff Bond further speculated to CBC News that the melt-water system which fed the Slims Valley may have only been a temporary outflow from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, representing a “300-year blip” on a much longer geological timescale in which large glaciers evolve. A study by Harold Borns in the American Journal of Science supports the notion that water began flowing northward around the year 1700, when climatological events caused the glacier to advance, ultimately diverting a large portion of snowmelt towards the Slims Valley and creating the Kluane Lake. This relationship illustrates the impact that regional climate has had on glacial events, with recent warming reversing the changes that occurred in a colder climate multiple centuries ago.

“Although it’s hard to tell how much lake levels in the Kluane will decrease, locals can expect an abrupt decrease in levels,” Stokes added, “followed by a much slower, long-term loss of water once levels stabilize.”

The Yukon Geological Survey postulates that water levels in Kluane Lake will lower by a meter or more in the foreseeable future. Although the Kluane National Park region is not densely populated by humans, lower water levels in the Kluane may stress trout and whitefish populations that are fished throughout the region’s warm months by both locals and visitors.

Although the diversion of water away from downstream communities may, in this case, be unsurprising to Yukon geologists in hindsight, it does shed light on the powerful effects of warmer temperatures and evolving climate dynamics on natural landscapes. The flow of rivers and plentiful caches of freshwater that exist in many regions due to glacial activity may be at serious risk as melting continues and water flow is redistributed.

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The Slims River West Trail running along the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier (Source: Dan Arnold).

It is difficult to tell how quickly changes like those that have occurred in the Yukon may happen in the future, yet these events may serve as a microcosm for the forthcoming state of glacial systems in light of anthropogenic climate change. Despite the ongoing study of glacial evolution by earth scientists, events like this in the Yukon really catch the attention of locals and illustrate first hand the effects of living in a warmer world.

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Roundup: Breeding Grounds, Ecosystems, Macroinvertebrates

Roundup: Chronosequences, Drift and Catchments

 

Glacier Retreat Exposes New Breeding Grounds:

From Molecular Ecology: “The rate of global glacial retreat has increased due to climate change and is projected to lead to the disappearance of alpine glaciers by 2050 if warming continues at its current rate (Fitzharris 1995). One consequence of glacial retreat is exposure of subglacial till [sediment carried and deposited by a glacier], which subsequently develops into mineral soil that supports grassland ecosystems (Anderson 1988). This process can be observed in the glacier foreland, with increasing distance from the glacier terminus used as a proxy for time since retreat: a chronosequence (Hämmerli et al. 2007)… If the sites follow the same ecological trajectory, chronosequences can provide useful insights into successional processes (Walker et al. 2010).”

Learn more about the consequences of glacier retreat here:

Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada (Source: Creative Commons, Oltgolpis)
Kluane National Park, Yukon, Canada (Source: Oltgolpis/Creative Commons).

 

Drift Patterns in High Mountain Streams:

From Acta Biologica:”This study highlighted the strong seasonality of the diurnal [occurs every 24 hours] drift pattern of the different taxa. This could be explained by the seasonality that characterizes high mountain stream ecosystems in their main physico-chemical features (e.g. discharge, water temperature, suspended solid transport, etc.) (Brittain et alii, 2000)… A second reason could be the low abundance of individuals found, especially in June and August at stations g and ac and in all periods at station ng, that hindered the analysis of the daily activity pattern of most taxa.”

Interested in learning more about these studies? Find them here:

Trentino, Italy (Source: Creative Commons, Marcello Colajanni)
Trentino, Italy (Source: Marcello Colajanni/Creative Commons).

 

Macroinvertebrate Communities in Catchments:

From Hydrobiologia: “Groundwater-fed streams are typically hotspots of aquatic biodiversity within glacierized catchments [natural drainage areas from runoff]. Surface water physicochemistry and macroinvertebrate communities within five groundwater-fed streams were characterized across catchments in Denali National Park, interior Alaska. The main aim of this study was to assess whether hydrological controls on macroinvertebrate communities (e.g. flow permanence) identified within previous catchment-specific studies are present at wider spatial scales, across multiple groundwater-fed streams located on alluvial terraces [a river terrace made of deposits of clay, silt, sand and gravel] within glacierized catchments… The high diversity and structural heterogeneity of macroinvertebrate communities observed across alluvial terrace streams indicated the importance of these systems as biodiversity hotspots in regions under threat from climate change.”

For more on this study:

Denali National Park (Source: Creative Commons, Bill Shupp)
Denali National Park (Source: Bill Shupp/Creative Commons).
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Photo Friday: Jostedalsbreen Glacier

Jostedalsbreen Glacier, the largest glacier in northern Europe, is located within Jostedalsbreen National Park which was founded in 1991 in Norway. The Jostedalsbreen Glacier is so large that it alone covers over a third of the park and separates two of the longest fjords in the world. It is fitting that Norway has such an imposing glacier since the most iconic Norwegian characteristics—fjords and valleys—owe their creation to past glacial movements.

Scientists have flocked to this glacier for centuries to study its retreat since the Little Ice Age, particularly with an interest in studying post-glacial vegetation and landscape. As climate change accelerates glacial retreat across the world, a degree of urgency is added to the quest to learn from Jostedalsbreen Glacier’s retreat. Sometimes, the past can help us prepare for the future.

 

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