Last Sunday, August 12, I had the opportunity to hike the Grinnell Glacier trail at Glacier National Park in Montana with my father to witness the rapidly shrinking Grinnell, Salamander, and Gem glaciers. Today’s Photo Friday showcases just a few photos of the vulnerable glaciers I captured from the strenuous trail.
A 11.4-mile (18.4 kilometer) hike to and from the glaciers, this demanding all-day trip allowed us to witness not only the receding glaciers but also a range of rich and thriving flora and fauna, including a grizzly bear encounter! But outside of my hike, a lightning strike near Lake McDonald on Saturday night sparked three raging fires that led to the evacuation of part of the park and the attraction of journalists, including Eric Holthaus of Grist, to cover the spreading flames and the record-breaking 100 degree heat that occurred the day before I arrived.
Despite the fires on the west side of Glacier NP, where we were staying at Many Glacier, also on the west side, was not directly impacted by the fires. On the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where we stopped to view the Jackson Glacier from afar, we drove up to Logan’s Pass where rangers and barriers blocked off visitors from traveling further. Despite our distance from the evacuation zone, we noticed that the typically crisp blue sky of Big Sky country in Montana was much hazier than visitors normally experience.
As mentioned in this week’s Video of the Week post, all of the glaciers in the park are rapidly receding due to anthropogenic climate change. From an estimated 150 glaciers in the park around 1850 to a mere 50 by 1966 and a remaining 26 today (many of which are merely a fraction of their original size), it’s only a matter of time before the ice is gone and the glacier’s geological imprint is all that remains.
For more on my experience at Glacier NP this summer, keep an eye out for my personal reflection next week.
High above the African continent, Mount Kenya’s glaciers are rapidly receding. A new study published in the American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering is one of the few to analyze the retreat of African glaciers, finding that forest cover has the highest correlation with Mt. Kenya’s glacier coverage. The study’s climate prediction models found that the current trend in glacier thinning will continue, although at a slower rate, until the glaciers completely disappear by 2100. In addition, the research found forest cover to be responsible for 75 percent of changes in glacier coverage during the study period, from 1984 to 2017. But can local deforestation truly be so impactful?
About 7 percent of Kenya is currently forested, and the average trees per person measurement is well below the global average. The country suffered from massive deforestation during the last century due to logging, charcoal burning, and agricultural expansion. In this same period, Mt. Kenya has lost roughly 92 percent of its ice cap, according to the study. Out of its once expansive 18 glaciers that reached thousands of feet beneath the 17,057-foot peak, only eight remain, with all of the remaining glaciers suffering substantial losses in both thickness and area, a change the authors attribute to the lack of forest cover.
However, earlier research conducted on other glaciers in Africa conflicts with these findings. At Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak lying 324 kilometers south of Mt. Kenya, glacier recession has been found to be more dependent on regional precipitation patterns than local deforestation ones, according to studies from both 2008 and 2004. A study in ScienceDirect also found that glacier recession near Mt. Kilimanjaro was not affected by local deforestation. And “long-term ice retreat at the summit of Kilimanjaro is most likely to be influenced by changes in local land-use as well as more regional free-air changes,” argues further research in Global and Planetary Change.
Without additional investigation focused on Mt. Kenya, it remains difficult for scientists to draw firm conclusions about the causes of glacier recession.
The government of Kenya has attempted to reverse deforestation impacts with efforts to prevent logging throughout the early 2000s, but the most recent logging ban has recently been relaxed. This places Mt. Kenya at risk of further glacial retreat, which raises concerns about water sources for the many rivers fed by Mt. Kenya’s glaciers.
“As climate variability increases, the Mount Kenya watershed becomes more important,” Kathleen Galvin, an anthropology professor and director of the Africa Center at Colorado State University told GlacierHub. “If the glaciers retreat at the same time as seasonal climate variability occurs, people, livestock, and wildlife will become more vulnerable,” she warns.
Mt. Kenya’s glaciers serve as the headwaters of the Ewaso Nyiro river watershed which provides water to the high potential agricultural communities around the mountain. The river is also important to the northern Kenyan pastoralists, including the Samburu, Somali, and Borana, according to Galvin. The study finds that the current drying out trend of rivers that have catchments in the Mt. Kenya forests will continue, leading to an increased water shortage and vulnerability for the area.
The researchers used Landsat and climate data from the last 33 years to find correlations between glacier coverage and forest cover, temperature, precipitation, solar insolation, and relative humidity. Forest coverage was by far the leading driver found by the authors for the glacier retreat on Mt. Kenya, with temperature also responsible for 16 percent of the changes in glacier coverage. In addition, models were used to predict future conditions until 2045.
According to Abe Goldman of the Department of Geography and Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, it would be a considerable achievement if forest cover within Mt. Kenya National Park boundaries could even be maintained at present levels in the coming years.
“Given current demographic and land use trends and conditions, there is little probability of actual forest increase (though there might be slightly more trees on farms),” he told GlacierHub.
Goldman’s concerns ran deeper, however, as he found some of the study’s assertions to be “questionable.”
“There is no causal mechanism noted that would generate increased glacial mass if ‘forest cover’ were increased,” he said. “Nor is it clear which forest cover at which location(s) might lead to glacial expansion.”
He also notes that the populations and intensive land use of Kenya and the surrounding countries, and especially close to Mt. Kenya National Park, have drastically increased, with 60 percent of the population being agricultural and reliant on biomass for energy. “The major role of population growth surrounding Mt. Kenya, especially adjacent to park boundaries, is neglected in the article,” said Goldman.
The authors of the study could not be reached for comment by the time of publication of this article. However, it is clear that further research is needed to study Mt. Kenya’s glaciers and other glaciers throughout the African continent in order to grasp the rapid changes that have heavy ties to both surrounding ecosystems and local communities.
From Nature: “The sensitivity of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) to prolonged warm periods is largely unknown and geological records documenting such long-term changes are needed to place current observations in perspective. Using cosmogenic surface exposure and radiocarbon ages, the magnitude of NEGIS margin fluctuations over the last 45 kyr (thousand years) was determined. The NEGIS experienced slow early Holocene ice-margin retreat of 30–40 meters per year, likely as a result of the buttressing effect of sea-ice or shelf-ice. This retreat was smaller than present for approximately half of the last ~45 kyr and is susceptible to subtle changes in climate, which has implications for future stability of this ice stream.”
Discover more about ice stream and melting in Greenland here.
Sea Ice, Blue Carbon and Antarctic Climate Feedbacks
From The Royal Society: “Sea ice, including icebergs, has a complex relationship with the carbon held within animals (blue carbon) in the polar regions. Sea-ice losses around West Antarctica’s continental shelf generate longer phytoplankton blooms (less sea ice increases phytoplankton blooms, benthic growth, seabed carbon and sequestration) but also make it a hotspot for coastal iceberg disturbance. Significant benthic communities establish where ice shelves have disintegrated (giant icebergs calving), and rapidly grow to accumulate blue carbon storage. When 5000 km2 giant icebergs calve, we estimate that they generate approximately 106 tonnes of immobilized zoobenthic carbon per year (t C yr−1).”
Read more about the physical, chemical and biological processes of carbon sequestration here.
Analysis of Mt. Kenya’s Glacial Recession
From the American Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering: “In a bid to discover what has been causing the retreat of glaciers of Mount Kenya, Optical Landsat data for 1984 to 2017 and climatic data of the same years were used. Glaciers and forest coverage were extracted from Landsat images and its thermal band was used to extract temperature data. Correlation with the respective year’s climatic data and forest cover area were done to justify the assumption that the shrinkage in the glaciers coverage has been caused by changes in climate and/or deforestation… Mt Kenya glaciers are likely to have still completely disappeared by the year 2100.”
Explore more about the modelling of Mount Kenya’s glaciers here.
Tucked away in northeastern Yunnan Province of China at an altitude of 2,700 meters (8,858 ft), a sacred, low-altitude glacier called Mingyong Glacier has experienced rapid recession in recent years. With close proximity to the famous tourist site Meili Snow Mountain Range, Mingyong Glacier’s recession has substantial environmental consequences for the remote Tibetan villages, as well as economic consequences due to the fact a major portion of the regional economy depends on tourism to sites like Mingyong and Meili.
For this Photo Friday, enjoy some images from the lowest-lying glacier in China: Mingyong Glacier.
The glaciers of the Pyrenees stretch along the border between Spain and France. Since the mid-1800’s, a majority of the glaciers in the area have been in a state of recession. Currently, there are only 21 glaciers in the Pyrenees, with 10 on the Spanish side. Since 1990, glaciological calculations have shown that rapid melting has caused the total regression of the smallest of these glaciers and 50-60 percent of the surface area of the largest glaciers. A study released in 2009 by the Spanish Environmental Ministry further confirmed that between 2002 and 2008, the Spanish Pyrenees lost about a quarter of their total glacier ice as a direct consequence of global warming and changes in rainfall patterns.
This Friday, see images of the rapidly disappearing glaciers of the Spanish Pyrenees.