Global warming will cause substantial glacier retreat for the majority of the world’s glaciers over the next few decades. This will not only spell the end for some magnificent natural monuments, but also importantly affect the water cycle. In high-mountain regions, these ice masses act as reservoirs feeding water to large river systems, and balancing seasonal discharges.
Without glaciers, rivers would carry considerably less water in summer, which would have noticeable consequences for water availability, energy production and agriculture in many regions of the world. Researchers had previously discussed the idea of compensating the shrinking storage function of glaciers with reservoirs (see Zukunftsblog – in German only).
A group of glaciologists from ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL is now again engaging in the discussion about the dwindling ice: in a study published in Nature, they investigate the global potential for storing water and producing hydropower in presently-glacierised areas that will become ice-free within this century.
Using glaciers as reservoirs
In their study, the research team around Daniel Farinotti, Professor of Glaciology at the Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW) at ETH Zurich and at WSL, analysed about 185,000 glaciers. For these sites they calculated a maximum theoretical storage potential of 875 cubic kilometers (km3) and a maximum theoretical hydropower potential of 1350 terawatt hours (TWh) per year.
“This theoretical total potential corresponds to about one third of current hydropower production worldwide. But in reality, only part of it would be realisable”, explains Farinotti.
In order to obtain a more realistic estimate, the researchers conducted an initial suitability assessment for all sites. They identified around 40 percent of the theoretical total potential as “potentially” suitable, equalling to a storage volume of 355 km3 and a hydropower potential of 533 TWh per year. The latter corresponds to around 13 percent of the current hydropower production worldwide, or nine times Switzerland’s annual electricity demand.
“Even this potentially suitable storage volume would be sufficient to store about half of the annual runoff from the studied glacierised basins,” Farinotti says. Assuming an average climate scenario, about three-quarters of the storage potential could become ice-free by 2050.
Cautious estimate of potential
For their analysis, the glaciologists used a global glacier inventory and placed virtual dams at the current terminus of each glacier with an area of more than 50,000 square meters located outside the Subantarctic. They then optimised the size of the reservoirs by appropriate dam positioning and height. In doing so, they minimised the reservoirs’ impact on the landscape and did not just maximise economic return. The team used digital elevation models of the subglacial terrain and combined them with a glacier evolution model to determine the storage volume of the 185,000 glaciers they had selected.
In the suitability analysis that followed, the researchers assessed the sites based on several ecological, technical and economic criteria: “On this basis, we ruled out the most unsuitable sites; this enabled a more realistic assessment,” explains co-author Vanessa Round, who was affiliated at both institutions and had a pivotal role in the study. She also adds that it is neither realistic nor desirable to build a dam for every glacier.
A model for the future?
The team also stresses that local impacts should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, the results indicate that deglacierised basins could significantly contribute to national energy supply and water storage in a number of countries, particularly in High Mountain Asia.
Among the countries with the largest potentials are Tajikistan, where the calculated hydropower potential could account for up to 80 percent of current electricity consumption, Chile (40 percent) and Pakistan (35 percent). In Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Norway, the potential equals 10–25 percent of their current electricity consumption. For Switzerland, the study shows a potential of 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy has recently revised downwards the expansion potential for Swiss hydropower. This is mainly because of revised estimates for the impact of stricter regulations on environmental flows, and because the potential of small-scale hydropower is now considered to be lower than it was in 2012. However, in its assessment, the SFOE explicitly excluded the hydropower potential that could arise from future ice-free basins. For this reason, the glaciologists led by Farinotti do not see a contradiction to their results, as the two studies cannot be directly compared.
This post was written by Michael Keller and originally published by ETH Zurich.
A new study published April 8 in the journal Nature found that glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought and accounts for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961. The research used a new approach to produce more precise and accurate measurements, improving upon previous studies of glacier contribution to sea level rise.
The international research team, based at the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, says glaciers lost more than 9,000 billion tons of ice since 1961, raising ocean levels by 27 millimeters. The team used field observations and satellite measurements from over 19,000 glaciers to reconstruct changes in ice thickness.
The study’s principal author, Michael Zemp, leads the World Glacier Monitoring Service and is involved with various scientific projects in the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich. “Glaciological measurements made in the field provide the annual fluctuations, while the satellite data allows us to determine overall ice loss over several years or decades.” Zemp said in a press release from the University of Zurich. “By combining these two measurement methods and having the new comprehensive dataset, we can estimate how much ice has been lost each year in all mountain regions since the 1960s.”
Glaciers in Alaska were the largest contributors, followed by melting ice fields in Patagonia and Arctic glaciers. Glaciers in different parts of the world make their contributions to sea level rise in different decades. A glacier’s input to sea level rise is determined by their mass and rate of loss. Alaskan and Patagonian glaciers, for example, are not as far poleward as some other glaciated regions. They are melting faster and contributing the most to sea level rise due to their large glacier area. Conversely, Antarctica’s periphery glaciers, situated near the south pole, contributed least to sea level rise during the study period. While glaciers in the western US, Canada, and Iceland, located in even warmer climates than Alaska, lost the most mass. Due to their small total glacier area of those regions, however, they contributed little to sea level rise.
Sea level rise is a direct result of climate change, though its local and regional extent and impact varies, and depends on geologic, oceanographic, and atmospheric influence. The primary contributors to ocean volume and mass are from thermal expansion (water expands as it warms) and the addition of melt water from ice sheets and glaciers. Glaciers are made up of fallen snow that, over many years, compresses into large, thickened ice masses, and due to their mass, flow like very slow rivers. As they melt, their runoff contributes to sea level rise. Ice sheets, which cover most of Greenland and Antarctica, are a mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), whose meltwater raises sea levels. An ice shelfis a portion of an ice sheet that spreads out over water. Because ice shelves are already on the water, they do not contribute to sea level rise as they melt.
Understanding the physical processes behind glacier mass loss and its effect on sea level rise is crucial to projecting the impacts of climate change for society. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report issued by the US Global Change Research Program, sea level rise this century and beyond will pose a growing challenge to coastal communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems from increased (permanent) inundation, more frequent and extreme coastal flooding, erosion of coastal landforms, and saltwater intrusion within coastal rivers and aquifers. Glaciers are not just icons of climate change; their rate of retreat is an indicator of warming and accurate accounting of their melt is necessary for calibrating models of sea level rise.
Zemp and his colleagues aimed to use updated methods to provide a clearer view of the extent of global glacier loss. “Over 30 years suddenly almost all regions started losing mass at the same time,” said Zemp. “That’s clearly climate change if you look at the global picture.”
The most significant improvement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (IPCC AR5) in 2013, according to the authors, is the volume and accuracy of remote sensing data. Sampling increased from a few hundred glaciersto more than 19,000 globally, with an observational coverage exceeding 45 percent of the glacier area in 11 out of 19 glacier regions. Studies included in that report had to rely on data from 2003–2009, while earlier years had to be estimated. IPCC AR5 documented the sea level contribution of all glaciers globally to be 0.71 millimeters per year. Zemp’s study found that glaciers contribute 18 percent more than was reported in IPCC AR5, around one millimeter of sea level rise per year.
Matthias Huss, a Swiss glaciologist from the University of Fribourg and Secretary for Glaciers at the Cryospheric Sciences of the European Geosciences Union, was also involved in the study. Huss told GlacierHub, “In comparison to the knowledge included in the last assessment report of the IPCC the increase in remotely-sensed information on glacier mass change is tremendous.” He added, “our study has now attempted to combine all data, also including development of new approaches for optimally combining the available measurements.”
In the south of Iceland, just inland from the main ring road that circles the country, sits the Sólheimajökull glacier—a mass of ice that stands stark against the black volcanic landscape. Several hundred meters away from the base of the glacier’s tongue, at the far end of the meltwater lake is a modest and unofficial-looking sign: jöklamælingar it reads in handwritten letters—glacier measurements. Below is a list of numbers, also added by hand.
The sign has been here since 2010. That year, and every October since, Jón Stefánsson has brought his grade-seven students to Sólheimajökull from their school in Hvolsvöllur, a town about 60 kilometers west, to track the glacier’s retreat.
To prepare for their field trip, Stefánsson’s students learn how to use GPS devices to carry out their measurements. They chart the distance from the sign to the glacier, providing a reliable measure of its steady disappearance. Since 2010, the school has seen the glacier retreat by more than 350 meters. This past year accounted for almost a third of that. The students also determine the depth of the glacial lake by lowering a sounding weight from a small boat. The fieldwork can be dangerous, Stefánsson says, “because there is a geothermal area beneath the glacier. There is a lot of hot water there, and sometimes it comes out.” Just in case, an expert rescue team is on hand.
The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) manages Heard Island and has undertaken a project documenting changes in the environment on the island. One aspect noted has been the change in glaciers. The Winston, Brown, and Stephenson glaciers have all retreated substantially since 1947 when the first good maps of their terminus are available.
Fourteen Men by Arthur Scholes (1952) documents a year spent by 14 men of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition that documented the particularly stormy, inclement weather of the region. Their journey to the east end of the island noted that they could not skirt past the glaciers along the coast. After crossing Stephenson Glacier they visited an old seal camp and counted 16,000 seals in the area. It is a rich area for wildlife that will benefit from the lagoon formation overall. Three species of seal commonly breed on Heard Island, southern elephant seals, Antarctic fur seal, and sub-antarctic fur seals (AAD, 2019).
Here we examine the retreat of Stephenson Glacier and Winston Glacier from 2001-2019 and the consequent lagoon expansion. As Kiernan and McConnell observed, retreat of Stephenson Glacier had begun by 1971. The glacier had retreated a kilometer from the south coast and several hundred meters from the northern side of the spit. This retreat by 1980 caused the formation of Stephenson Lagoon.
In 2001 Stephenson Glacier has two separate termini: Doppler to the south and Stephenson to the east. There are numerous icebergs in Doppler lagoon but none in Stephenson Lagoon, indicating the retreat is underway. Winston Glacier terminates where the lagoon widens.
In 2008 the two lagoons in front of Stephenson Glacier are joined with a narrow eastern channel, the lagoons are filled with icebergs as a terminus collapse is underway. Winston Glacier has retreated into a narrower inlet from the wider Winston Lagoon.
By 2010 Stephenson Glacier had retreated from the main now singular Stephenson Lagoon and, like Winston Glacier in 2001, terminates at narrow point where the glacier enters the main lagoon.
By 2018 Stephenson Glacier has retreated from the main lagoon: The northern arm of the glacier experienced a 1.8 km retreat from 2001 to 2018 and the southern arm a 3.5 km retreat. The lagoon is free of ice for the first time in several centuries if not several millennia. The period of rapid retreat due to calving of icebergs into the lagoon is over and the retreat rate will now be slower. Winston Glacier has retreated 600 meters from 2001-2018. The overall lagoon expansion has been limited as the glacier has retreated up an inlet that is 500 m wide.
The AAD has a number of images in their gallery of Heard Island glaciers including Stephenson Glacier. The climate station at Atlas Cove indicates a 1°C temperature rise in the last 60 years. The AAD will also certainly be looking at how this new lagoon impacts the local seal and penguin communities. The population of king penguins increased sharply from the 1940’s into the 21st century, while rockhopper, gentoo, and macaroni penguin numbers declined over the same period (AAD, 2019).
This week’s Video of the Week is all about an arrowhead reportedly found close to the edge of a retreating glacier. In the video, posted on Twitter by Secrets of the Ice, a researcher walks along a glacier where he discovers the arrowhead and shaft.
“WHOA! It is out of this world!” the archeologist exclaims.
The location used to be a reindeer hunting area. The iron arrowhead is 13.8 cm long, 3.2 cm wide, and 35 g. Arrows used in hunting might have missed the reindeer or passed straight through the reindeer. This unique arrowhead has likely been lying in its location under the ice for hundreds of years.
You might have heard from your Italian friend complaining about the scorching heat in Europe this past summer. But how did the glaciers react? In the Ötztal region of the Italian Alps, an antique bicycle showed up after Rotmoosferner Glacier melted at 3,000 meters. Scientists estimate that there has been an accelerating trend of glacier retreat in the region where the glacier is located. Where did the bicycle come from? It might be related to the vigorous smuggling business between the Austrian and Italian border after World War II.
This Photo Friday, view images of Rotmoosferner Glacier’s retreat and the surprise find of the antique bicycle.
A recentpaper published in Molecular Ecology studies ecological evolution in areas exposed by glacial retreat, shedding light on the “predator first paradox,” a phrase used by ecologists to describe the predator-dominated primary succession in glacier forelands. The authors found that predator anthropods such as spiders and beetles can show up as pioneering dwellers on newly exposed land, even before plants colonize the area. The predator first phenomenon shakes up the traditional understanding of a bottom-up ecological pyramid in which plants serve as the basis of the food chain that feeds the predators. Less was known about the prey that sustains these predators in the early stages of succession. By examining the stomachs of insect predators, the researchers determined that spiders and beetles can survive without vegetation on the prey species of local food webs as well as some flying insects.
Daniela Sint, the paper’s lead author from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, told GlacierHub, “We could show that the amount of local production and the importance to sustain the arthropod predators on those sites was underestimated over many years.” This conclusion is at odds with previous studies that found that flies from other areas, instead of local mites, are the primary food source of the spiders and beetles.
To understand how ecological evolution starts on bare land, the authors selected several glacial forelands in three valleys in the Tyrol region of Austria, namely Gaisbergtal, Rotmoostal and Langtal, which have recently undergone glacial retreat. All three areas have a glacier above them and lie close to each other, with similar climatic conditions. The researchers found that the three glacier toes had retreated 1.5 to 2 kilometers each since 1850, placing these forelands in the early stages of the ecological progress.
Using self-made pitfall traps, the authors collected samples of spiders and beetles from exposed areas to study how the anthropods feed themselves. The paper notes that the authors went so far as to turn over the stones to catch spider and beetle species missed by traps.
“It’s the first time that so many different prey types were molecularly checked for,” Sint explained to GlacierHub. Sint and her team examined the gut of nearly 2,000 spiders and beetles and conducted a DNA analysis on a total of twenty species.
Through the “autopsy” of these captured spiders and beetles, and a DNA detection of prey within their guts, the researchers found only 30 percent of gut content was made up of flies from other places. The rest of the anthropods’ diet comprises mites and other prey found locally.
The researcher’s data shows that the spiders and beetles have dietary preferences toward mites (not flies), regardless of the differences between the sites. Meanwhile, as time passes, the prey options for spiders and beetles increases, providing more food for the predators. Gradually, this positive interaction empowers the substantial development of the food chain and ecological community.
Although the researchers identified different food sources for the spiders and beetles, resolving important questions about the prey of predators, Sint also discussed with GlacierHub her team’s plans for future research. “We still were not able to cover the whole food web on the study sites. For example, we found out that springtails are very important food for the predators, but we still don’t know what the food for the springtails themselves is,” she said. “There are several options as they might feed on locally produced algae or fungi, but it could also be that ancient carbon and nitrogen released from the melting ice might play a role.” A follow-up study at the University of Innsbruck is currently focused on this question.
Sint says she will continue to research glacier areas, as “glacier retreat is the factor initiating the whole process of primary succession.” When the glacier melts, land that has been covered by ice for thousands of years is “released” and colonization by microorganisms, plants and animals starts immediately.
Sint further described her concerns about global warming-driven glacial retreat worldwide, saying, “This does not only have the local effect of additional land becoming ice-free and being thus available as new habitat exposed to primary succession, but it also has strong influences on numerous other aspects. Many of them will only become obvious once a specific glacier is gone.”
From Bloomberg: “This summer’s exceptionally hot weather has seen the south peak of Kebnekaise lose the crown as Sweden’s highest point… The south peak measured 2,097 meters (6,879 feet) above sea level on July 31, down from 2,101 meters on July 2, according to data from the Tarfala research station. The north peak is 2,096.8 meters high, and the research station estimates that it overtook the south peak as Sweden’s highest point on Aug. 1 as the melting has continued.”
Find out more about glacier melting on Sweden’s highest mountain here.
Melting of Maliy Aktru Glacier Reveals Primary Ecological Succession
In Wiley’s Journal for Ecology and Evolution: “Plants, microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), and soil elements along a chronosequence in the first 600m of the Maliy Aktru glacier’s forefront (Altai Mountains, Russia) were surveyed… Plant succession shows clear signs of changes along the incremental distance from the glacier front. The development of biological communities and the variation in geochemical parameters represent an irrefutable proof that climate change is altering soils that have been long covered by ice.”
Read more about glacier retreat in the Altai Mountains here.
Anthropogenic Influence on Primary Succession in Alps
From the 6th Symposium for Research in Protected Areas: “Glacier forelands are ideal ecosystems to study community assembly processes… This study focuses on possible anthropogenic influences on these primary successions. Floristic data of three glacier forelands show that anthropogenic influences in form of (i) grazing sheep and (ii) hiking trails are creating patterns, visible in the floristic community composition and in change of species numbers. (iii) Additionally, it was found that the special protected area ‘Inneres Untersulzbachtal,’ where grazing has been absent for decades didn’t show any of these patterns, underlining the importance of process-protection in glacier forelands, as one of the last truly wild ecosystems in central Europe.”
Discover the anthropogenic influences on primary successions in glacier forelands here.
A 30-meter, Komelon-branded measuring tape, a pencil, and a yellow paper form are all Hallsteinn Haraldsson carries with him when he travels to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland. But unfurling the measuring tape before me at his home in Mosfellsbaer, a town just outside of Reykjavik, he says it is a significant upgrade from the piece of marked rope he used to take with him.
With 11 percent of the landmass covered in ice, rapidly ebbing glaciers are threatening to reshape Iceland’s landscape, and Haraldsson, 74, is part of a contingent of volunteer glacier monitors who are at the frontlines of tracking the retreat. Every autumn, Haraldsson, often accompanied by his wife and son, sets off on foot to measure the changes in his assigned glacier.
Their rudimentary tools are a far cry from the satellites and time-lapse photography deployed around the world in recent decades to track ice loss, and lately there’s been talk of disbanding this nearly century-old, low-tech network of monitors. But this sort of ground-truthing work has more than one purpose: With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.
Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters, like Haraldsson, when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen.
It’s very likely one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It’s a question even some of the network’s own members have been asking.
As Haraldsson tells it, his father was raised in a modest yellow farmhouse on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. As an adult, he spent his days tending his fields and teaching at the local school, and in his free time, he studied the geology of the region, walking miles through the lava beds that lay in the shadow of the crown gem of the region: Snaefellsjokull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped volcano.
It was a quiet life, unremarkable to those who passed through, until the arrival in 1932 of Jon Eythorsson— a young man who had recently returned to Iceland after studying meteorology, first in Oslo, and then in Bergen, Norway.
Eythorsson was now working for the Meteorological Office in Reykjavik, and in his spare time he had established the first program to monitor the growth and retreat of Iceland’s glaciers— but getting around the country to check up on them was troublesome and time-consuming. For the scientific record, every glacier needed to be measured in the same month, and travel was slow, often complicated by fierce, unpredictable storms. If his project was going to succeed, he needed new recruits, ideally farmers who need not travel far.
That, says Haraldsson, is how his family came to inherit Snaefellsjokull. At the time, there was no sense of scientific urgency to glacier monitoring; glaciers had always expanded and deflated naturally in modest increments. But that was decades ago. The world’s glaciers now serve as harbingers of human-caused climate change, providing powerful visual evidence of how people have changed the planet.
Inside Haraldsson’s home, portraits of Snaefellsjokull adorn the white walls in a way often reserved for close family members. Some are rendered in pastels and watercolor, while others are more abstract, etched in black and white. To Haraldsson, his wife Jenny (who painted many of them), and their son, Haraldur, it’s the family glacier.
Haraldsson began accompanying his father on his hikes to the glacier around 1962. Back then, the journey to the terminus was 10 to 15 kilometers by foot through steep, rocky terrain. The glacier itself spanned some 11 square kilometers— tiny as glaciers go. When they arrived, they would pull a long piece of thin rope with meter marks taut to measure the distance between the last icy bit and a metal rod, jotting down the observations they would send to the Society. When his father passed away 14 years later, Haraldsson took over the task full time.
From 1975 to 1995, the glacier actually advanced 270 meters, according to Haraldsson’s records. Such findings weren’t uncommon during that period: In the 1930s, many of the country’s glaciers had retreated significantly due to an unusually warm climate, but beginning in 1970, they advanced once more until human-caused climate change beat them back again.
Eventually his wife, and then his son, joined him in his annual glacial pilgrimage. By then a road had been built, passing within one meter of the glacier. From 1995 to 2017, their records suggest that Snaefellsjokull retreated 354 meters— a net loss of 84 meters from its position in 1975.
Most local people are upset to see the glacier disappearing, Haraldsson says. Everyone on the peninsula uses the glacier as their key landmark; in casual conversation, distance is defined by how far away something is from Snaefellsjokull. Others describe feeling a supernatural pull toward it. Perhaps Jules Verne felt the same: Snaefellsjokull served as the setting for his book “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”When the glacier began its retreat in the 1990s, the family thought of it as a natural fluctuation. But since then, almost all of Iceland’s monitored glaciers have entered a state of decline. Now, they understand, their glacier is disappearing because of global warming. In 2016, scientists announced they expected Snaefellsjokull to vanish entirely by the end of the century.
Lost data contained within the World Glacier Monitoring Service database, which includes more than 100,000 glaciers worldwide, has been created via aerial photograph comparisons. Each glacier inventory includes the location of the glacier, length, orientation, and elevation. “Entries are based on a single observation in time,” reads the WGMS website— a snapshot of a glacier in a particular moment. About half of all glaciers in the authoritative database are measured via a comparison of aerial photographs from year to year and maps.
In 2005, the WGMS and the National Snow and Ice Data Centerlaunched the Global Land Ice Measurements from Spaceprogram. Rather than rely solely on photographs and in-person observations, glacier inventories can now be collected via a remote sensing instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. The benefits of such increasingly sophisticated remote monitoring are substantial in terms efficiency. But if even aerial photography is going the way of the dinosaurs, what’s to become of Iceland’s glacier monitors?
It’s something that even Jon Eythorsson’s granddaughter, Kristjana Eythorsdottir, thinks about. She was only 10 years old when the elder Eythorsson, who formally established the Iceland Glaciological Society in 1950, passed away, but she followed his vocation and today works at the Iceland Meteorological Office. Her grey hair is shorn into a spiky pixie cut, and her hiking pants and running shoes suggest she’s ready to set out into the field at a moment’s notice.
“The [Glaciological] Society has a lot of written songs and texts,” she says, recalling the impact her grandfather’s volunteer network had on her life. “One saying goes that my grandfather loved the glaciers so much they were shrinking.”
When traveling together to examine the glaciers, the society’s members and scientists would sing songs written by Sigurdur Thorarinsson, an Icelandic geologist, volcanologist, glaciologist— and lyricist. They would write new ones, too; sometime before 1970, the Society published a book of glacier songs.
Since 2000, Eythorsdottir has been monitoring a terminus at Langjokull, a large glacier in the south of Iceland 100 times the size of Snaefellsjokull. (She didn’t inherit her glacier, but rather applied when one became available.) Each September, she sets out on the roughly five-hour round-trip hike to the glacier with her husband. “There is a river that goes here,” she says, tracing its path carefully on a map. “It’s kind of a bad smelling, geothermal river— the white-tempered river. We have to take our clothes off, or put on waders,” to get across.
Sometimes they’ll look for different routes, passing through grazing sheep and their herders. The landscape is ever-changing. Already, the glacier has retreated more than 500 meters.
Unlike Haraldsson, Eythorsdottir is using more modern technology. “We used to use measuring tape, but now we are tracking with GPS,” she says. “There are more possibilities to represent the data…but I think we will always go there anyway until it’s gone.”
Whenever he runs into friends, Hallsteinn Haraldsson, the keeper of Snaefellsjokull, says they first they ask how he and his family is doing. And then, he says, they ask, “How is the glacier?”
It’s a question that was intimately familiar to all of Iceland’s volunteer glacier monitors as they gathered in 2016 at the natural sciences building at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Most had never met each other before, and they were there to discuss how the glaciers were changing and what tools would be best to measure the glacier fronts moving forward— mainly whether or not volunteers should increase their use of handheld GPS devices over reference points and measuring tapes.
“There’s been [internal] discussion as to whether we should keep doing this or not since it can now be done with remote sensing,” says Bergur Einarsson, a glacial hydrologist who recently took over management of the network from geologist Oddur Sigurdsson. Though some might see the crude nature of pen and paper measurements as a hindrance, Einarsson argues it’s actually an asset. “One of the strengths is that these measurements have not evolved. They’re done more or less in the same way they were done in the 1930s.”
That means that while scientists can now use remote sensing to gather precise images and coordinates, that record is much shorter and often lacks the same specificity as ground-level measurements. Moreover, complex technological projects require significant funding that often comes with a sunset clause: Time-lapse photography and remote sensors aren’t nearly as cheap— or as dependable— as a few dozen volunteers armed with measuring tapes.
(The strength of Iceland’s program was underscored last year when scientists from around the globe met at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., to discuss the fate of NASA’s Terra satellite. After 18 years in orbit, the satellite was beginning to run low on fuel— jeopardizing the scientific record.)
But for Einarsson, there’s an even bigger reason to keep it going— one that the Haraldssons and Eythorsdottir and some 33 other volunteer glacier monitors would likely share. “People are going out there, going to the glacier front, [where] they see the changes,” he says. “Then they are going back into society and they are almost like ambassadors of climate change, infiltrating information into different branches of society.”
“It is very important to engage with people in some way,” his predecessor Sigurdsson says, “and keep them interested in their surroundings.”
Franz Josef Islands Separate due to Glacier Retreat
From A Glacier’s Perspective: “Hall and Littrow Island are two islands in the southern part of Franz Josef Land, Russia that have until 2016 been connected by glacier. Sharov et al (2014) generated a map with the MAIRES Project illustrating the glacier connection was failing… The connection between Sonklar Glacier and the neighboring glacier, at the pink arrow, has failed. The lack of sea ice in the region is exposing the marine margins of the ice caps in Franz Josef Land to enhanced melting. This has and will lead to more coastal changes and island separations.”
Scientists Create Glacier Research Forum in Pakistan
From The Express Tribune: “Scientists have resolved to set up a forum which would consolidate all research studies from different institutions on glaciers in the mountainous ranges in Pakistan… “It will be a national platform for glacier research… We want to integrate their [different institutions’] studies to avoid duplications and to consolidate research work of all Pakistani institutions,” PMD Director-General, Dr. Ghulam Rasul explained to The Express Tribune.”
Acid Rock Drainage in Nevado Pastoruri Glacier Area in Peru
From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “The generation of acid rock drainage (ARD) was observed in an area of Nevado Pastoruri as a result of the oxidative dissolution of pyrite-rich lutites and sandstones. These ARDs are generated as abundant pyrite becomes exposed to atmospheric conditions as a result of glacier retreat. The proglacial zone contains lagoons, springs, streams and wetlands, scant vegetation, and intense fluvioglacial erosion. This work reports a comprehensive identification and the results of sampling of the lagoons and springs belonging to the microbasin, which is the headwaters of the Pachacoto River, as well as mapping results based on the hydrochemical data obtained in our study.”
Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. On average, during the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit overall and 6 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has issued an order on climate change strategy with the intention to create “a flexible and long-lasting framework for Alaskans to build a strategic response to climate change,” according to the Office of the Governor. As a key part of the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, Walker has appointed members of a climate action leadership team that will design the strategy and work to investigate ways to reduce the impacts of climate change.
The Alaska Climate Change Strategy is not the first climate-focused policy effort by the state. Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s senior advisor for climate policy, told GlacierHub that “The Strategy and Leadership Team builds on previous initiatives from former governors and the legislature, as well as the wealth of Arctic research conducted through the University of Alaska.” One such effort, for example, was the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet created by former Governor Sarah Palin’s Administrative Order 238 in 2007. The Sub-Cabinet was composed of two advisory groups for adaptation and mitigation as well as two working groups for immediate action and research needs. Each group prepared extensive reports with climate policy recommendations in each of the four areas.
Order to Support the Paris Climate Agreement
The new order supports the Paris Climate Agreement in light of U.S. actions to withdraw from the agreement. It also aims to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and encourages international collaboration, emphasizing the need to assure a competitive economy in Alaska. The order states that “the State may also engage with national and international partners to seek collaborative solutions to climate change that support the goals of the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, ‘Climate Action,’ while also pursuing new opportunities to keep Alaska’s economy competitive in the transition to a sustainable future.”
Although the governor’s actions sound positive, it’s important to note that they are taking place in a state that favors expansion of fossil fuel extraction at odds with environmental groups. For example, Walker himself has promoted Chinese investment in Alaska’s liquified natural gas pipeline to support additional gas extraction and export to Asia. This gas pipeline project agreement was signed by Governor Walker during President Trump’s trade mission to China last November. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski also worked hard to have the U.S. government allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area where drilling had not been permitted. She has personally expressed ambivalence about the Paris Agreement. For his part, Governor Walker changed party affiliation recently for the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, in which he plans to run unaffiliated. Walker has been a longtime Republican, but also ran for office as an Independent. His Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott has been a longtime Democrat. Regarding their decisions to run unaffiliated in 2018, the two said in a statement, “We believe that independent leadership that relentlessly puts Alaska’s priorities first is critical to finishing the work we have started to stabilize and build Alaska.”
Climate Action Leadership Team
In a statement in December, the Alaskan government announced the creation of a climate action leadership team to provide Governor Bill Walker and his cabinet with guidance on climate change issues. The team has a specific task and will be part of the overall climate change strategy to develop a recommended plan of action. On December 12, 2017, Governor Walker appointed 15 members to the team which will focus on mitigation, adaptation, research and response for Alaska. The team members are directly involved in Alaska’s collective response to climate change and have professional backgrounds in science, industry and entrepreneurship, community wellbeing and planning, natural resources, environmental advocacy and policy making. As described by the Office of the Governor, “The expertise of leadership team members includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, coastal resilience, indigenous knowledge and culture, science communication, technological innovation, and transportation systems.”
Governor Walker has expressed the importance of naming the team as a critical step in advancing meaningful climate policy. “I am proud to present a motivated group of leaders, each of whom brings a range of expertise and interests to the table. Our team members not only represent a breadth of experience across the state from the North Slope to the Southeast, but also have strong networks and resources spanning from Alaska to the rest of the world, giving us a voice in the global dialogue on climate change,” he said in his statement.
Shrinking Glaciers Prompt Action
Glaciers in Alaska have lost about 75 billion tons of ice annually since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientific American puts this amount into perspective as they compare it to “the amount of water needed to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.” And as a warmer climate melts ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the sea level is also rising at an increasing rate. Overall, a warmer climate in Alaska has caused retreat of Arctic sea ice, shore erosion, shrinking glaciers, and permafrost and forest fires, with these impacts only likely to accelerate in the coming decades.
Glaciers in southeast Alaska, in the Alaska Range (a 400 miles long mountain range in the southcentral region of Alaska), and along the south central coast, for example, have retreated drastically during the last century. The Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, retreated over 31 miles since the late 19th century, when it was recorded for the first time.
President Barack Obama visited Alaska back in 2015 to illustrate the environmental impacts caused by climate change. The Guardian notes that the Trump administration has “moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs” like the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. In November 2016, it was tasked with safeguarding towns and villages at risk from rising sea levels.
According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, 31 Alaskan communities have been identified to be at high risk due to impacts of rising temperatures. As stated in a report from 2009, “While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats.”
Nikoosh Carlo explained to GlacierHub that responses to new state policies or initiatives tend to vary according to whether and to what degree a constituent or group believes that the action represents their interests. In this case, it is undeniable that the state of Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the United States. Quick actions are needed to protect Alaska’s communities and resources.
“The majority of Alaskans are ready to consider climate change impacts, to address immediate actions at the community level, to mobilize research, and strategic action with the State to work toward the energy transition necessary for our vision of a sustainable future,” Carlo told GlacierHub.
A poll from 2017 by the Nature Conservancy asked Alaskan voters what was on the top of their minds with regard to climate change. In this poll 68 percent of Alaskans said that the effects from climate change have already begun, 86 percent said that they support policies that encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in Alaska, and nearly 80 percent of Alaskans are concerned about climate change impacts on commercial fisheries.
Alaska’s Transition to a Renewable Future
The order states, “To assure Alaska’s continued growth and resilience despite climate challenges requires communities statewide to work together as they have throughout Alaska’s history to pioneer solutions to our most difficult problems.”
Governor Walker further notes how these solutions require the creation of a vision for Alaska’s future that both incorporates necessary long-term climate goals and recognizes the need for non-renewable resources (to meet current economic and energy requirements) during a phase of transmission toward a future based on renewable energy.
An overnight energy transition is not possible. Alaska needs to transition toward a renewable energy-based future. Carlo told GlacierHub that “Alaska’s role as an energy producer and our obligation to protect current and future generations from the impacts of climate change are not mutually exclusive.” The continued development of resources in Alaska is necessary for survival and provision for Alaskans. Carlo further explained that many Alaskans pay the highest energy costs in the nation, while at the same time the state continues to work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing use of renewables and more energy efficient systems.
“Alaska will need to analyze difficult questions such as the timing, scale, impacts, benefits and risk as we discuss the pathways we might pursue while we diversify the economy and drive a shift to a renewable energy-based future,” Carlo added.
The Alaska Climate Change Strategy establishes a framework for the prioritization of climate actions, based on short-term and long-term goals. “Alaska has a role both in meeting the energy needs of the world even as we work to do our part to produce and use cleaner energy,” Carlo told GlacierHub. “I believe that sustainability rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions and to correct for climate change. Our children and children’s children should not inherit a world that we haven’t made our best attempt at ensuring its long-term health.”
The 2018 Olympic Winter Games next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are quickly approaching, and plenty of drama has already unfolded in the preceding months. Some stories have notably involved the Russian doping scandal and security questions with close proximity to a tenser North Korea. But the effects of a changing climate also have left people uncertain. After unsatisfying warm conditions in both 2014 Sochi and 2010 Vancouver, athletes, fans and officials are crossing their fingers that Pyeongchang will be different. But this uncertainty goes beyond the Olympics in terms of how winter sports will fare as glaciers melt and warm winters become progressively prevalent.
Last month, Eddie Pells of the Associated Press released an article reporting on how climate change has been affecting Olympic training for U.S. athletes. Pells articulated how melting glaciers across the world have increasingly threatened the quality and even existence of winter sports that the world loves. As a result, these athletes and officials livelihoods have been directly affected by glacier retreat in surprising ways.
Fate of Winter Olympics
In the face of a changing climate, the future of the Winter Olympics is hazy. As Pells reported, “Scientists warn that worse is to come for winter sports, and that more warming will render proven Olympic venues unsuitable, even with greater use of artificial snow-making.”
Daniel Scott, a geographer at the University of Waterloo in Canada, elaborated why this is the case to Nature back in 2014. Scott’s research suggested that as global temperatures increase, the pool of locations vying to host the Winter Games will dwindle. As a result, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be forced to select colder, more isolated cities that may provide the best conditions for athletes but may not have the infrastructure to handle a massive influx of athletes, spectators and organizers. Moreover, the environmental impact of the Games would be more negative in such remote, relatively undeveloped sites.
Climate change will thus limit which countries may be capable of hosting Winter Games in the future. Historically, IOC selected bids based on the quality of available ski resorts. However, many popular ski resorts are located at vulnerable glaciers. With glaciers retreating significantly in recent years, it is difficult to perceive what will be the fate of these resorts and much of the ski industry even in just a few years.
Of these vulnerable countries, the United States may be one of those that may struggle to find a location to put up for a bid. Warm conditions across the country have resulted in poor skiing seasons over the past few years. Conditions so poor that American athletes have been forced to travel abroad to find suitable training grounds. The aerials team, for example, learned a hard lesson last year. They waited for snow in Park City, Utah, in preparation for the World Cup season, but it never came. The Americans showed up to the competition not having touched snow in months, and the results were as expected: no podium finishes and only one athlete in the top five.
To avoid a similar outcome for the Winter Games, U.S. athletes traveled to glaciers in the Alps to maintain offseason training in hopes to keep a competitive edge. But after a Lucifer heat wave plagued Europe over the summer, even European glaciers could barely support proper conditions. Talks are in place for U.S. athletes to train at the glaciers on Mt. Hood in Oregon for future years, but the team is aware of the physical deterioration occurring and the steps taken to maintain training.
Ben Cavet of the France’s moguls team told Pells his reaction to the melting glaciers: “It’s crazy, you know? I always thought global warming was like your granddad going, ‘Oh, I used to go and ski here 20 or 30 years ago and there was more snow.’ But now we really are talking eight years. I can see a huge difference. Up on the glacier [in Tignes, France], now there’s this huge cliff, you know like a big rock, that you couldn’t even see before.” Pells’s story further elaborates examples of specific glaciers deteriorating that have already affected training preparations, plus examples of how other athletes and coaches perceive the effects of melting glaciers.
Olympic officials recognize the severity of the changing climate. Since 2014, the IOC has made sustainability a central priority in the bidding process with the adoption of the Olympic Agenda 2020. Rio 2016 had its share of successes and setbacks in fulfilling its sustainability promises, but Pyeongchang took note of its environmental legacy. Rhyu Teachul, the Director General of Environment for the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG), released a statement on December 26 alongside the publishing of the committee’s Sustainability Report: “Since we won the bid to host the Games, sustainability and the environment have been at the heart of our plans and procedures. Our venues and infrastructure have all been completed to the necessary standards and we will continue to focus on our sustainability goals throughout the Games and beyond to leave the legacy that the Games deserves.”
On the official 2018 Winter Olympics website, sustainability is one of the primary pages to explore. The Games appear to be vigilant toward mitigating their carbon dioxide emissions, including with a website dedicated exclusively to offsetting their carbon footprint, but little mention can be found about how officials see the Winter Games changing in the future. With glaciers providing reliable summer training grounds in the past, glacier retreat is at the forefront of concern for these athletes and officials. Jon Lillis, world champion in aerials skiing, told Pells, “Something that terrifies every winter athlete daily is the fact that the conditions are not as good as they used to be. You see videos of people skiing on glaciers back in the ‘80s and ‘70s, and half of that glacier doesn’t even exist anymore.”