French president visits glacier to witness climate change
“PARIS — The French president took a few steps on an Icelandic glacier Friday to experience firsthand the damage caused by global warming, ahead of major U.N. talks on climate change in Paris this year. Francois Hollande went to the shrinking Solheimajokull glacier, where the ice has retreated by more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) since annual measurements began in 1931.”
To read more about the President’s visit, click here.
How to find Yosemite’s disappearing glacier
“The Lyell Glacier, once a mile wide and Yosemite’s largest glacier when measured by John Muir in 1872, could melt off and disappear in as soon as five years, according to park geologist Greg Stock, if warm temperatures at high elevations continue. Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra visited the park to report on the glacier’s vanishing. This is the trek itinerary.”
Global warming creating dangerous glacier lakes in Himalayas, finds study
“As the black clouds heavily pregnant with water vapour hovered over Dehradun on June 15, 2013, it looked ominous. Around 13,000 feet above the sea level, rain was already tanking up Chorabari Lake, a water body created by melting glaciers. On June 16 midnight, the heavy rain caused the lake’s rock bank to collapse, sending down a flash flood that swept through the holy Himalayan pilgrimage site Kedarnath, killing 5,000 people.
There are 1,266 such Chorabari lakes in Uttarakhand’s Himalayan regions, some of which have been created fresh by the rapid retreat of glaciers due to global warming, found a study by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous body of the central government.”
To read more about the study’s findings, click here.
Mines in Kyrgyzstan contribute to increased glacier advance, according to a new study from Durham University. Over 15 years, the Kumtor gold mine dumped debris in layers as much as 180 meters thick on parts of glaciers. For comparison, 180 meters is about twice the height from the base of the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty sites to the top of its torch.
Researchers looked at glaciers covered by debris from landslides and debris from mines to better understand the impact of glacial processes in the Central Asian country. They found that two glaciers, the Lysii Cirque Glacier and the Davidov Glacier near the Kumtor mine, advanced by 1.2 and 3.2 kilometers, respectively. Most of this movement can be attributed to internal deformation of the ice from the pressure of the added material, rather than to increased sliding at the base of the glacier, where the ice is in contact with the bedrock.
“We used high-resolution satellite imagery to map the terminus advance of two glaciers and to map the evolving distribution of mining spoil on the surface of these glaciers,” the authors wrote. “We find not only that glacier ice can have a significant impact upon mining activities, but more importantly, that mining operations can drive significant changes in glacier behavior.”
Between 1997 and 2012, the mines dumped more than 775 million tons of rock and ice waste on the surrounding landscape. Under the heavy load of debris, glacial ice became deformed, enhancing ice flow.
The new study isn’t the first time the Kumtor mine has been associated with environmental damage. The mining project has been criticized by local communities for contaminating ground and surface water in addition to other negative environmental impacts. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development involved with the project has denied these claims.
“Understanding the impact of debris upon glaciers is important not only for gaining insight into past and present glacial response to landslides but also in assessing and mitigating the glaciological, environmental, and infrastructural consequences of mining in glacierized terrain,” the authors wrote.
“Increasingly, large-scale mining operations are being developed in glacierized areas, either as glaciers retreat or through and beneath glaciers whilst they are in situ,” they added. “The loss of ice and rock glaciers as a result of mine excavation is a central environmental concern surrounding these developments.”
Mining companies in Chile have also dumped waste on glaciers, the article reports, and firms in Canada and Greenland are planning to do so as well. These risks to glaciers may become more frequent, if regulations to protect against them. are not established and enforced.
Less than a decade back Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. Although right to information was enshrined in their constitution, availing reports and info concerning glaciers, health of rivers and status of hydropower projects remains a challenge to this day. Most government reports are neither published, nor readily uploaded on to websites, and therefore seldom available for public consumption. Keeping this in mind, we at the South Asia program of International Rivers, a nonprofit, compiled ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’, a one-stop repository of blogs, reports, analysis and latest news from the Himalayan kingdom.
Bhutan, a global hot spot of hydropower development, has 76 identified dam sites with a potential to generate 23,760-megawatts. Most of these projects are in the planning stage, while Bhutan looks to expedite undertakings that will take them towards the 10,000-megawatt mark in the next decade. These interventions will make significant changes in the riverine and physical environment.
Bhutanese rivers are glacier fed, and it is estimated that glaciers cover approximately 1,300 square kilometers of sovereign territory. The Government has been tracking changes in climate by monitoring precipitation, glacial melt, and the changing hydrology of the main river basins. At a meeting organized by International Rivers in Bhutan last year, we learned from officials that glaciers are receding 20-30 meters each year, and in some cases there has been a 75-cm thinning of the ice sheet. But what is most worrisome for the scientific community, and decision makers, is the occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods.
In the mid 1980’s Bhutan and India conducted joint surveys of glaciers and glacial lakes and concluded that there
was no danger to downstream communities. But sadly a glacial lake outburst killed more than 20 people in October 1994, as a raging wall of water wreaked havoc in the upper reaches of the Punatsangchhu River basin. Since then many field studies have been conducted, and the government of Bhutan has been monitoring the glaciers and glacial lakes to ascertain potential impacts on hydropower dams as well as communities living near the river. We now know that more than 20 outburst floods have occurred in the past two hundred years.
According to a 2012 conference held in Thimphu, the nation’s capital, 25 glacial lakes have been identified as ticking time bombs and potentially dangerous. Given the remote locations, officials of the government of Bhutan travel often 3 days by foot to monitor these glacial lakes. These floods could cause dam breaks, which would be catastrophic not just in Bhutan, but also more than a hundred kilometers downstream in India.
We know it is important to keep people in the loop regarding decisions that impact river health and public safety. This lies at the heart of our efforts, and we’ve dedicated an entire page to tracking planned, under construction and commissioned hydropower projects in Bhutan. To view the latest status of projects, click here.
The seventh article of the Bhutanese Constitution declares: “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to information”. Yet, impact assessment studies, for instance, aren’t available in public domain, and as a result there is little public debate and scrutiny on how climate change, receding glaciers and glacial lakes can impact infrastructure such as dams and hydropower projects. This is because of supporting clauses in the constitution that state: “All persons in Bhutan shall have the right to initiate appropriate proceedings in the Supreme Court or High Court for the enforcement of the rights conferred by this Article, subject to section 22 of this Article and procedures prescribed by law.” This section establishes notions of sovereignty, security, unity, integrity, and peace as justifiable reasons for non-disclosure of information.
How hydropower projects will impact downstream riverine communities, besides land and aquatic biodiversity, are of national importance. The ‘Bhutan Rivers Watch’ page is an attempt to compile related information, which we intend to update periodically.
Bharat Lal Seth is the South Asia Program Coordinator of International Rivers based in New Delhi. His twitter handle is @lalseth, and he can be contacted at email@example.com
The nexus between art and science first featured in artist and photographer Diane Burko’s work in 2006. Since then, Burko has traveled around the world to capture monumental landscapes and features. She has spent time in Norway, Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula, documenting and bearing witness to the global disappearance of glaciers.
Burko agreed to an interview with GlacierHub, where she discusses her journey to communicate science and dispel doubt through art.
GH: What first inspired you to draw connections between art and science?
DB: I think I am “science curious”. As a landscape artist, monumental geological environments, dramatic vistas, aerial views, have always captured my imagination. Perhaps growing up in a New York City apartment may be why… The Grand Canyon was one of my first subjects in the 70’s. Understanding its deep history – how it was formed was crucial. When I did a series on Volcanoes in 2000, learning about plate tectonics was part of my process. Knowing how a landscape is put together, the geology, is as important to me as experiencing it by walking, climbing or flying over it…
GH: Why is it important to bring together art and science?
DB: I believe that art can communicate science. My obsession with nature at its most awe-inspiring naturally leads me to want to preserve and protect it. That’s why I want to show how our environment is being threatened by climate change. My strategy is to seduce with beauty and then subtly insert awareness in the viewer by utilizing visual/scientific prompts I’ve garnered through my interactions with climatologists, my observations in the field and my own research.
The visual devices (literal and metaphoric) employed are as simple as presenting chronological images of glaciers receding in multiple panels. Or more mysterious and abstract images redolent with the idea of the landscape as body – as mortal with potential to decay, contrasting ancient rocks with melting ice.
Landsat maps and geological diagrams, and recessional lines are also strategic devices I’ve employed.
GH: Tell us about your trip to Argentina and Antarctica. What challenges did you face? What part of the trip struck you the most?
DB: In January 2015 I was invited to join 26 educators with “Students on Ice” a nonprofit organization offering student expedition experiences to Antarctica and the Arctic. This was my second expedition there – the other in 2013. After the voyage we landed back in Ushuaia and boarded a plane to El Calafate. Having been to the two largest ice fields in the world (Antarctica and Greenland) I was eager to see the third largest one in Patagonia.
Initially my goal was to go to climb on Perito Marino, which has a 3-mile front glacial front. Ironically this is one of the few glaciers that is not receding
However it was Viedma Glacier that totally took my breadth away.
Wearing crampons we climbed very carefully on top of this glacier for hours because it was really treacherous.
Crevasses were everywhere around me as I captured some incredible images
Back in the studio, I am working on a series on Upsala, which was the third glacier we visited – also receding.
GH: How do people respond to your work?
DB: They seem to respond at the exhibitions. And they participate when I give talks on my artistic practice at the intersection of art and science.
GH: The world of ice is at times colorless, white ice and dark rock, but the blue keeps appearing. How do you work with the color?
DB: I just embrace it – attempting to capture it’s magic through my photographs. My paintings, I tend to interpret from the experience and memory when back in the painting studio.
GH: Can you tell us a bit about your choice of mediums? Do you use different mediums to convey different messages or evoke different emotions?
DB: As a painter in oils I strive to make that medium represent the ideas I wish to convey. Here are two examples that might answer the question:
GH: Ice accumulates where snow falls, and snow falls from clouds. Being close to glaciers often means being close to cloud and mist. Does the photographer hope for sun, or accept the cover?
DB: Clouds, fog, all present many more possibilities.
GH: The glaciers of Argentina are huge, but Antarctica is absolutely enormous. Does this contrast influence your selection of images to include in a record of your trip?
DB: No I just include whatever captivates me visually, whatever is presented in front of me.
It is always serendipitous because one cannot predict the weather- the winds or where we actually wind up landing in Antarctica. And in Patagonia I only was able to visit three of the many glaciers in the Argentinian ice field. I would love to return to Chile and explore more.
Before and after: Glacier dynamics and the collapse of ice shelves in Antartica
“Following the disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, in 2002, regular surveillance of its ∼20 tributary glaciers has revealed a response which is varied and complex in both space and time. The major outlets have accelerated and thinned, smaller glaciers have shown little or no change, and glaciers flowing into the remnant Scar Inlet Ice Shelf have responded with delay… Through this study, we seek to improve confidence in our numerical models and their ability to capture the complex mechanical coupling between floating ice shelves and grounded ice.”
“Researchers and citizens have known for some time that Turkey’s glaciers are shrinking. Now scientists have calculated the losses and found that more than half of the ice cover in this mountainous country has vanished since the 1970s. A team of researchers from Ege University (Turkey) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center analyzed four decades of Landsat satellite data to document this steady decline. The team, led by Dogukan Dogu Yavasli (Ege), published their results in June 2015 in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.”
“The De Filippi expedition reached Bombay in August 1913, and, during the next 12 months, carried out extensive explorations of Western Himalaya, Karakorum, and Chinese Turkestan. There are several reasons for remembering the De Filippi expedition to Central Asia: (1) a real interest in a past and present neuralgic area comprising several states, in particular Pakistan, China, and India, (2) the renewed attention in the subject of exploration and Italy’s special contribution in this field, (3) the need—now finally acknowledged—to protect and make appropriate use of our scientific heritage, and (4) an interest in new forms of tourism… One hundred years after the expedition, we focus the attention on the scientific results obtained by persons that we do not hesitate to define as extraordinary, but now partly forgotten.”
Unseasonable heat in Alaska combined with winds and low humidity have triggered major wildfire outbreaks in the Northern state. According to a status report from the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, as of Wednesday, June 24, there were 278 active wildland fires state-wide. The Healy Lake Fires grew to 10,000 acres earlier this month, doubling in less than 24 hours. The Stetson Creek Fire started when lightning struck on the Kenai Peninsula. The fire had consumed about 400 acres last week.
This May was the hottest May on record in Alaska, according to data that goes back 91 years. The immediate cause of the high temperatures can be attributed to the development of an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific, which can trigger extreme climate events around the world. On a longer timescale, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the national average over the last 50 years, the US Environmental Protection Agency found.
“The number of large wildfires (larger than 1,000 acres) suddenly increased in the 1990s, and the 2000s saw nearly twice as many large wildfires as the 1950s and 60s,” according to Climate Central. This increase has been concurrent to rising temperatures. The U.S. National Climate Assessment reports that the area impacted by wildfires in Alaska will double by 2050, and triple by 2100 if emissions continue at present rates and warming continues.
The heat means trouble for Alaska’s glaciers, too. A new study from researchers at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks found that from 1994 to 2013, Alaskan glaciers have lost 75 gigatons (or 75 billion metric tons) of ice per year. That’s equivalent to half the total ice loss of Antarctica.
To report a wildfire in Alaska call 1-800-237-3633
Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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 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.”
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.
A significant research gap may be hindering community efforts to withstand climate-induced glacier melt, according to a new review from researcher Graham McDowell and his colleagues at McGill University.
Understanding how to help communities adapt to the effects of glacier melt, which threatens water sources for communities worldwide, will require deeper assessments of existing projects, the review found. A research agenda should focus on assessing different adaptation measures to better inform policy and community projects in the future.
Glaciers are key water sources in mountain areas, especially in South America and South Asia. More than 72 million people live in mountain regions, and large proportions of these populations reside in glaciated regions. Without glaciers, the livelihoods and health of communities worldwide will be threatened, but the issue is not well understood. Only 36 studies of adaptation projects have been published. In total, studies document 74 adaptations, mainly in Peru, India and Nepal, though the lack of research in this area suggests the number of existing adaptation plans may be greater than researchers have studied.
Almost 50 percent of documented adaptation plans are driven by a need to cope with the repercussions of climate change. Adaptation plans differ depending on how communities living near glaciers make their livelihoods, whether they are in ski towns in the European Alps or subsistence agrarian communities in the Himalayas and Andes.
McDowell found that most of the work on adaptation in glaciated regions comes from academic institutions, while NGOs and governments contribute much less. 50% of the projects in the papers which McDowell et al. reviewed concentrated in agricultural sector, followed by hazard management (31%), tourism (26%), water management (24%) and public health security (19%).
McDowell’s assessment suggests that adaptations to climatic changes are frequently embedded within responses to other socio-economic, political, and environmental challenges. To address these challenges, autonomous adaptation without government help at local scales may be especially important in often-remote glaciated mountain regions, where 58 % of adaptation initiatives were at an individual, household, or community scale, and 46 % were categorized as being autonomous, the review found.
Communities in need
South America, which holds more than 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers, is particularly vulnerable to global warming.
As climate change converges with human activities in glacier-filled mountains, the degradation of high Andean ecosystems is accelerating. These glaciers, which provide drinking water and sustain rivers, are crucial to water supply in South America and are used for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry such as agro-exports and mining. At the same time, there are growing concerns that the rainy season will bring a higher risk of flooding, even if climate change leads to seasonal drought in the region. Facing abnormal rainfall, local farmers have to adapt to avoid economic loss.
Unavoidable glacier melt will severely reduce water supply in a continent that is already water-poor. In Peru, 8.9 million people live in rural areas and 3.3 million currently don’t have access to safe portable water. Around 3 million people, most of them children, die each year related to disease linked to consumption of contaminated water.
In order to provide more safe potable water, people are now trying to build large public facilities, such as reservoirs to store drinking water. However, microorganisms such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter are a concern as studies show increased temperatures favor conditions under which these microorganisms thrive.
A research agenda that addresses projects that can help communities adapt to the cascading effects of climate change is becoming increasingly urgent as the lives of millions come under threat.
For more information about adaptation in glacier areas, look here.
Can you spot the glacier on the picture above? Not that easy… Glacier Noir is a debris-covered glacier located in the French Alps. Contrary to clean-ice glaciers which are shiny white or blue ice masses, debris-covered glaciers are ice masses with a layer of rock debris on the top which makes them look like their surrounding environment: they are the “chameleon glaciers”. They are currently called debris-covered glaciers but in the early 2000s, you could hear “debris-mantled glaciers” and even “buried glaciers” in the 1960s. They are often confused with rock glaciers. There are a lot of names and confusion around debris-covered glaciers. Why? Simply because they are difficult to find, define and study as you can imagine from the picture above.
Debris-covered glaciers represent around 5% of all mountains glaciers in the world. So why is it important to study them – there are many more clean-ice glaciers, aren’t there? Yes, debris-covered glaciers are a small fraction of all glaciers but like any other glacier, the melting of debris-covered glaciers contributes to sea level rise and there is currently huge uncertainty about how fast they melt compared to clean-ice glaciers. In addition, in the Himalayas, they make up a greater proportion of the glaciers and in many valleys, debris-covered glaciers are the main and often the only source of drinking water, like for example the famous Khumbu Glacier just below Mount Everest on the Nepal side.
Some debris-covered glaciers, like the Tasman Glacier, the biggest glacier in New Zealand, are very large features that can be the origin of risks and hazards. The debris layer creates numerous ponds filled with meltwater on the surface of glaciers. These ponds can hold monumental volumes of water that can be suddenly and brutally drained through crevasses in the ice or a breach on their edge. This drainage can create an outburst flood and submerge the valley below.
Debris layers on top of glaciers can come from rock falls, like for the Sherman Glacier in Alaska. This rock cover modifies the dynamics of the ice by slowing down the melting happening underneath. This insulation process creates various phenomena, like thickening of the ice under the debris, building hills of ice slowly moving down the glacier or advancement of the glacier’s tongue. These two phenomena can block or deviate water streams and again generate massive floods.
A less obvious reason to study debris-covered glaciers is that if glaciers on Mars exist, they are debris-covered. So studying debris-covered glaciers on Earth can contribute to space conquest and the human adventure on Mars. In the same vein, studying current debris-covered glaciers and their behavior in the face of climate change can help us understand and interpret the climate of the past. There is an example of a potential misinterpretation of the Waiho Loop moraine in New Zealand in front of the Franz-Joseph Glacier: 12000 years there was a worldwide cooling event (called Younger Dryas) that might have led to the formation of the very large moraine of Waiho Loop. Or, a massive rock avalanche landing on Franz-Joseph Glacier triggered its advance and the deposition of the moraine.
I’ve already described a few examples of debris-covered glaciers: Glacier Noir, Khumbu Glacier, Tasman Glacier, Sherman Glacier and maybe Franz-Joseph Glacier. But where else can you find debris-covered glaciers? They can actually be found in every mountain range: from the Miage Glacier (Italy) in the European Alps with to the Inylchek Glacier (Kyrgyzstan) or Langtang (Nepal) glaciers in the Asian High Mountain; from the Black Rapids Glacier (Alaska) in the Rocky Mountains and the Dome Glacier (Canada), to the Andes with Grosse and Exploradores glaciers in Patagonia (Chile). There are debris-covered glaciers even in Antarctica in the Dry Valleys, such as the Mullins Glacier.
So understanding debris-covered glaciers is an international problem. This is my final reason to study them. I study debris-covered glaciers and their past, present and future evolution. I focus more on glacier-wide aspects like length, surface area and volume change to model their future behavior.
They do not make up a large number, but debris-covered glaciers are important. In the face of climate change, debris-covered glaciers may be the last standing glaciers, as their evolution is slower. But at the current pace, they will still end up like all other glaciers: ice chunks melting in the sun…
Pierre is a PhD student at the Centre for Glaciology at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK (started 2013). His Earth Sciences Master degree from the University of Grenoble, France and his 4 years as a surveyor in the National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN) drove his research interests toward field observation techniques, remote sensing and glacier-wide digital modeling. His current project is entitled “Predicting the effect of climate change on debris-covered glaciers evolution”.
Kathmandu, a Nepalese valley with a rich cultural and religious history, was the venue for the International Symposium on Glaciology in High-Mountain Asia early this month. From March 1 to 6, 240 scientists from 26 countries gathered there to further interdisciplinary understanding of the science of glaciers, snowpack, and permafrost in the high-mountain Asia region—the Himalayan, Hindu-Kush, Karakoram, Tien Shan, Pamir, and Tibetan Plateau mountain chains. The conference was organized by the International Glaciological Society (IGS) and hosted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
IGS, founded in 1936, aims to stimulate interest in and encourage research into the scientific and technical problems of snow and ice in all countries; ICIMOD is a regional intergovernmental organization aimed at spreading knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalayas of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan—both their fragile ecosystems and the communities that live there.
Participants of the symposium exchanged the latest research findings on glaciers and glacier contribution to river flow in high-mountain Asia. This researched looked at past, present and future glacier change, glacier dynamics modeling and observations, glacier and snow melt and glacier hazards, among other subjects. While the coming together of so many scientists and specialists in the field helped to fill knowledge gaps across the region, additional questions were raised during the symposium. In particular, participants believe a more complete and accurate picture of glacier change must still be achieved. Field observations, improved models, inter-comparisons of models, and regional data sharing are considered among the most critical directions and needs for future research.
The high-mountain regions in Asia have been more acutely impacted by climate change than many other regions of the world in recent years, given the high concentrations of glacier ice found here. Glacial melt has overwhelmed not just regional ecosystems, but traditional livelihoods. These glaciers feed rivers that support the agriculture and livelihoods of over one billion people and are crucial for hydroelectric power generation. In addition, accelerated melting can aggravate natural hazards such as flooding and avalanches.
Creating an interdisciplinary understanding of glaciers was one of the primary focuses of the symposium. Glaciology brings together the atmospheric and hydrologic sciences, required to understand the connections between atmospheric processes and cryospheric change, as well as downstream impacts in the region. The cryosphere is defined as the part of Earth’s surface that consists of solid water, including snow cover, glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps, among other formations, and which plays a critical role in global climate and its changes. The interdisciplinary approach to glaciers in the region has provided the opportunity to capture regional and local changes in glaciers, snow and water availability.
Scientists also discussed advances in measurements, modeling, and interpretation of glaciological changes in high mountain Asia, in order to better understand the impacts of these changes. While there is evidence of glacier retreat in the eastern Himalayas and glacier melt rates are projected to rise, river flows will not decline significantly in the coming decades due to projected increases in precipitation. It is one of the major findings presented at the conference. Meanwhile, scientists noticed that the Karakoram glaciers have been identified as an anomaly in the region, given that they are not experiencing retreat, something that has not yet been fully explained by scientific research. The IGS president Doug MacAyeal pointed out at the symposium that the role of debris cover and black carbon in glacier melt is still unclear, and the insufficient observations of high-altitude precipitation remains unsolved.
Peruvian farmer and mountaineering guide Saul Luciano Lliuya, and the town of Huaraz where he lives, long known as the “Switzerland of Peru,” may go down in climate-change history.
The hundreds of tropical glaciers that blanket the mountains above Huaraz are melting, and Lliuya lays partial blame on German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last Friday, Lliuya sent a letter of complaint to RWE, demanding that it pay $21,000 in compensation for its role in climate change, pocket change for a company that earned $1.38 billion in 2014. According to Lliuya’s claim, all the carbon RWE emits into the atmosphere contributes to glacial melt that threatens to flood his town, destroy his home and displace his family.
It is the first such claim in Europe and is backed by a German environmental NGO called Germanwatch, a representative of which met with Lliuya during the Lima Climate Change Conference, COP20, last December. Lliuya sent the letter to RWE through his lawyer Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental attorney. If RWE is not willing to pay or does not answer his request by April 15, Lliuya will evaluate the possibility of suing the company.
“This move is unparalleled in Europe,” said Christoph Bals, Germanwatch’s policy director, in a statement. “It is unprecedented both in legal and political terms. It empowers potential climate change victims. It implements the ‘polluters pay’ principle, a step which is long overdue. A company which creates risks to others has two obligations: stopping to hurt them and limiting the damage.”
Michael Murphy, a spokesman for RWE, told GlacierHub via email that the company could not comment on the letter because it had not yet received it. There is no chance a lawsuit would turn into a class action, because Germany does not have a legal framework for such cases, Verheyen said, also via email. “I do not know whether this will spur similar cases,” she wrote. “My client takes a very courageous step.”
Given the timing, the case could have an impact on negotiations at the climate treaty meeting in Paris this December. According to the most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retreat and melting in the tropical glaciers of the Andes are caused by climate change. In fact, there are few environmental risks in which climate change can as clearly be faulted as Andean glacier melt, says Germanwatch.
“We do think that both the present claim and a potential lawsuit could lend new momentum to a climate agreement and in the international climate debate,” wrote Stefan Küper, Germanwatch press officer, in an email.
Huaraz is the capital of the region of Ancash, which is a site of great social unrest in Peru, in part due to the environmental impacts of mining mega-projects, which have long been charged with contaminating local water resources. Ancash registered the highest number of social conflicts of any region in Peru during February, with 24 cases, according to the Peruvian government’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).
The mountain range that towers over Huaraz is known as the Cordillera Blanca, or white mountain range, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. These dramatic white peaks are covered in 722 glaciers and 296 lakes, according to some estimates. But as the glaciers melt, they threaten not only to deplete a critical water source for the region, but to overwhelm the lakes below, causing torrential and devastating flooding in what are known as a glacial lake outburst floods. One of these lakes, called Lake Palcacocha, sits directly above Huaraz and is thought to pose major flood risk to the town. Over the past 40 years, the lake has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times, according to Lliuya’s claim against RWE.
“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” Lliuya told the Guardian. About 40,000 people live in the high-risk zone for flooding from Lake Palcacocha, according to the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1941, the lake banks were breached by flooding, and within a matter of minutes Huaraz was inundated.
Lliuya says RWE owes Huaraz $21,000 because that sum is equivalent to 0.47% of the estimated cost of protecting the town against flooding and other risks associated with glacier melt. According to the Institute of Climate Responsibility in Colorado, RWE is responsible for 0.47% of all global warming emissions produced between 1751 and 2010. The cost of protecting Huaraz would include drainage of Lake Palcacocha until safety works can be completed, including the building of new dams and the repairing of old ones.
A mutual friend of Lliuya and Germanwatch first introduced them, prior to the meeting at COP20. A small Germanwatch team including Christoph Bals subsequently visited Lliuya and his family in Huaraz, and made a joint visit to Lake Palcacocha. Lliuya could not be reached for comment.
To read more about glacial lake flooding, check out these glacierhub.org stories.
Last year’s deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest in Nepal, which killed 16 Sherpas–mountaineering guides indigenous to the region–has led to new safety recommendations for both guides and tourists.
The Nepalese authorities have ordered climbers to shift their path up the mountain, to avoid the route of last year’s disaster, according to Vice magazine. The new path will bring people to the middle of the Khumbu Icefall, instead of the west shoulder of the Icefall, where the guides were buried in the avalanche. The new path might be more technically difficult for climbers, but government officials say it is safer.
Last year, the Nepalese government came under fire for failing to sufficiently compensate Sherpa families for the guides’ deaths and for attempting to keep climbing season open, putting the lives of guides and climbers at risk. Tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, providing 4% of gross domestic product, and the tourists come for Mount Everest, the highest mountain peak in the world. Of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013, over 10% went hiking or climbing.
Though the number of guides killed last year is high, the record for highest number of total deaths from a single accident occurred in 2001, when a blizzard and several avalanches in central Nepal are reported to have killed at least three local guides and 26 tourists, including Israelis, Poles, Nepalese, Canadians, Slovaks and one person from India.
Recent data suggests that avalanches are the primary cause of death among guides in the Nepalese Himalayas, while falls are the primary cause of death among visitors. (See Figure 1 to the left.) Some 102 guide deaths were caused by avalanches between 1950 and 2006 of a total of 211 guide deaths, while 223 tourist deaths were caused by falls from high elevations, followed by 170 tourist deaths by avalanches over the period.
A steady decrease in deaths among both tourists and guides began in about 1975 and lasted until 2005, at which point the trend reversed itself. The Kang Guru avalanche and three separate avalanches on Ama Dablam, Ganesh VII, and Pumori in 2006 killed 14 tourists and 18 guides and marked the beginning of an upswing. Figure 2, below, shows the trend in death rates from 1950 to 2006 among both tourists (“members,” in blue) and guides (“hired,” in red).
As climate change melts glaciers around the world, avalanches could increase, threatening tourists and guides with more accidents. Even for the local Sherpa guides, the Himalayas become unfamiliar territory when the landscape is changed by receding ice. “Warmer temperatures and water from melting ice can combine to weaken a glacier’s grip on the underlying rock,” Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona geologist, who has conducted regular studies on glaciers near Everest, told Vice magazine.
To read more about last year’s Everest accident and the aftermath, read this post.