Climate Awareness Impedes Adaptation

A lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate change in mountain communities in Tajikistan, Central Asia may endanger traditional modes of life and local economies, according to a study published recently in Climatic Change. If these communities do not begin adapting to climate change before temperatures pass the threshold, it will be too late to make a difference, the authors wrote.

Faces of Wakhi kids by Imran Schah

In discussions with local communities, the authors found that many villagers do not consider glacier loss a serious issue. Some believe that the glaciers will grow again, since they can’t differentiate between temporary snow and the permanent ice on the glacier. Others believe that God will prevent their glacier from disappearing. Researchers found that these notions impede the adaptation process, since people see glacier retreat as a threat that can be resolved by nature or a higher power, rather than through their own actions. The inability to perceive climate change as a factor that contributes to glacier loss makes these communities particularly vulnerable.

 “The adequate presentation of information on climate change to all social groups and a social learning process appear to be crucial to avoid a ‘casual structure of vulnerability,’” the authors wrote.

Mountain communities in Tajikistan rely on agriculture to support the continually growing population. By 2050, the population in the region is expected to double, reaching 5.093 million. More than 47% of these people live below the national poverty line – most people have never used a computer before and most women are illiterate according to the World Bank.

Compared to more developed countries, Tajikistan’s ability to address climate change is limited by a lack of capital and technology to address the issue, the new study found. For people living in remote and less-developed areas, there is not enough money and power to change the current situation. Researchers found that if villagers could unite to develop a collective strategy for adaption to climate change, they may be able to improve the intellectual and general ability of local communities to better understand glacier melt and its impacts, and also to act and adapt collectively.

Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe
Beautiful Tajikistan mountains by Steppe by Steppe


If communities can learn to understand the interrelationship between the environment they are living in and how heavily their lives depend on it. The authors proposed that mountain communities in Tajikistan use a scenario-based participatory learning process to help villagers better understand how climate change may affect their lives if they don’t start adapting.

The scenario-based participating learning process allows scientists and researchers to develop models that assess the challenges that communities will face while also assessing their vulnerability. Many villagers live in areas that are not close to glaciers, so they may not associate glacier melting to their daily lives, but the scenario-based participating learning process is a more visualized method that allows villagers to connect climate related changes to their daily life.

When the awareness has been established, people within the community can better cooperate and work towards the same goal. Communities can be taught about labor immigration for the purpose of building water reservoirs, skill training for villagers to learn about agricultural adaptation, engineering for water reservoir construction, irrigation and processing of oil seeds. By forming a strong kinship or social bonding within the community to act together, communities may still have time to improve their adaptation ability, the authors concluded.  

Perth Conference Highlights Glacier Retreat

From 4-8 October 2015, researchers gathered to discuss and learn about the “Mountains of Our Future Earth.” This conference was held at the Centre for Mountain Studies (CMS) of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Perth, Scotland. It was organized by the CMS, together with the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) and the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA), all members of the Mountain Partnership.

As the organizers noted, mountain areas occupy 24% of the Earth’s land surface; they are home to 12% of the global population, and another 14% of the population live in their immediate proximity. Globally, mountain areas are vital sources of water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use. In an urbanising world, mountain areas are key locations for tourism and recreation; some include major urban areas.

The former ski resort at Chacaltaya mountain, outside of La Paz. The glacier has melted away, 2012. Video Still: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank.
The former ski resort at Chacaltaya mountain, outside of La Paz. The glacier has melted away, 2012. Video Still: Stephan Bachenheimer / World Bank.

However, mountains are among the most disadvantaged regions in a global perspective: they are among the regions with the highest poverty rates, and among those most vulnerable. Vulnerabilities range from volcanic and seismic events and flooding to global climate change and the loss of vegetation and soils because of inappropriate agricultural and forestry practices and extractive industries. Mountain regions are thus key contexts for sustainable global development, which is also recognized in the new Sustainable Development Goals. The vital links between mountain and lowland systems are increasingly recognized in global and regional policy debates and action, and provide the context for the conference.

Glaciers will play a crucial role in climate related vulnerability in the coming decades, and several presentations at the Perth III Conference focused on the study of glaciers and their changes. Glaciers make global climate warming visible: they may serve as thermometers – in the form of ice cores that can be studied to track past climate – or as visible object of climate change: everybody can see the evident retreat of glaciers. Dirk Hoffmann demonstrated this through repeat photography of glaciers over decades as part of a transdisciplinary project of the Bolivian Mountain Institute (BMI).

Interestingly, glaciers in Bolivia showed relatively small changes since the end of the so-called Little Ice Age (ending in the 19th century) until the 1980s. Since then, there has been a rapid change. Where ski competitions on Chacaltaya glacier took place in the 1970s, the ice has gone today. Other glaciers in Bolivia show big retreat over the last years, too. With the expected El Niño event in 2015/16, the impact could even be devastating as less precipitation is expected during such events – the glaciers will lack their essential nourishment. For large parts of Bolivia, glaciers symbolize global warming and climate change.

A map showing the retreat of several glaciers in the northern part of the Central Caucasus between 1971 and 2009. Courtesy of the Zoi Environment Network/Flickr.
A map showing the retreat of several glaciers in the northern part of the Central Caucasus between 1971 and 2009. Courtesy of the Zoi Environment Network/Flickr.

Glacier data from Bolivia are in line with the global trend. As presented at the Perth III Conference, glacier decline in the first decade of the 21st century has reached a historical record, since the onset of direct observations. The glacier data that have been collected by the World Glacier Monitoring Service clearly show that glacier melt is a global phenomenon, and will continue even without further climate change. According to these data, the current rate of glacier melt is without precedence at global scale, at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history, as indicated also in reconstructions from written and illustrated documents. This impressive dataset of global glacier changes has been compiled over 120 years, together with National Correspondents in more than 30 countries and thanks to labour-intensive fieldwork, sometimes in harsh conditions, of thousands of Principal Investigators that measured “their” glaciers.

A new study has investigated the effect of mineral dust on the surface of Djankuat glacier, Caucasus. It was found that particles have been transported over thousands of miles, e.g. from the Sahara, until deposited on the glacier. Using ground-based and satellite measurements, Maria Shahgedanova and her team showed in their presentation that desert dust is present on 50-70% of the snow-covered area in the Caucasus Mountains, which highly affects melting due to at-surface radiative forcing. Such investigations could now, thanks to satellite data, extend to other regions, e.g. Central Asia, where another talk by Christiane Maier and colleagues focused on the use of isotopic composition of water in the River Gunt in Tajikistan to establish the sources of water, e.g. precipitation, ground water or melt water.

From discussions at the conference, it is clear there is a lack of mountain specific data and information at global, regional, national and local levels, which hampers the generation of mountain-relevant knowledge and impedes advocacy work. However, glacier studies gave good examples about how to contribute to a better monitoring of mountains, and of the rapid changes that are going on there.

Emerging Storms: Glacier Dust and Climate Change

When the sand plains of southern Iceland dry out, they form active dust sources under the right weather conditions.
When the sand plains of southern Iceland dry out, they form active dust sources under the right weather conditions.

Dust storms are most often associated with hot deserts. However, there are 5 million square kilometres of cold arid land globally where significant dust storms have been reported. The combination of sparse vegetation and strong winds make some humid cold climate areas important dust sources. These can be found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland in the northern hemisphere, and Patagonia, Antarctica and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere.

The relationship between glaciers and dust is complex. Glacier retreat produces dust, which if mobilised can fall on glaciers, increasing heat absorption, promoting further retreat. Or, it can create an armour on the exposed area in front of the glacier, reducing dust emissions. Current research is looking to develop a more nuanced understanding of the opposed effects of this glacier dust. It may be that one of them is the predominant one in most areas, or that they are in relatively balance, or that each one is the major force, but only in specific regions.

In Southern Iceland, dust sourced from extensive sand plains can travel over 200 km to the capital city, Reykjavik. This leads to air pollution, causes travel disruptions and can impact human health. Glacially derived dust that is transported to the ocean can provide soluble iron, such as in the Gulf of Alaska, which potentially boosts productivity of marine ecosystems. If the Antarctic ice-sheet shrinks to become land terminating, the potential dust load available would be c.300 Mt/yt – equivalent to the total contemporary dust emissions from Asia. However, the conditions which produce dust storms in cold climate and high latitude environments, and the subsequent impacts, have not been fully assessed.

Dust storms reduce visibility in Southern Iceland. These DustTrak instruments determine the amount of dust in suspension and the particle sizes.
Dust storms reduce visibility in Southern Iceland. These DustTrak instruments determine the amount of dust in suspension and the particle sizes.

Monitoring dust storms is a challenge. They are not always active, and can cover several hundred kilometres. Satellite remote sensing has revealed the distances that these dust storms can travel, but capturing events in this way is hindered by cloud cover. It is also difficult to measure how much dust is being transported and deposited. Taking direct measurements in the field allows for direct measurements to be made, including total dust concentrations and the particle sizes.

These stations are spatially sparse, and normally only in operation for a few months of the year. More permanent stations require human intervention to collect samples from the traps, which could be days or weeks apart.

Constant monitoring can be achieved for a period of time during a field campaign, where researchers hope for good amounts of dust movement. In addition, increased snow and ice cover, together with darkness during the winter months means that research focus is placed predominantly during the summer months, despite dust storms taking place throughout the year.

To address the scarcity of existing data, the High Latitude and Cold Climate Dust Network (HLCCD)  has formed. Administered from Loughborough University in the UK, it brings together collaborators from the UK, Iceland, USA, Canada and Argentina to tackle problems associated with dust storms. It aims to collate existing data, and to highlight areas where further work is required.

Wind tower set up during fieldwork in Southern Iceland, June 2015, along with dust traps, to monitor dust transport under varying wind conditions.
Wind tower set up during fieldwork in Southern Iceland, June 2015, along with dust traps, to monitor dust transport under varying wind conditions.

The network has started by producing a bibliographic map, highlighting all the existing dust research in cold environments and the high latitudes. The next step is to map potential dust sources, determined by geomorphological and climatic variables. This will enable researchers to better understand what is required to produce an active dust source and how dust sources could change in the future. Changes could be caused by retreating glaciers, or a change in land use. This will allow an assessment on how air quality and marine ecosystems will be affected in the future.

The network is still in its infancy, but it hopes to provide a basis to facilitate interdisciplinary research. By bringing together researchers with different specialities (remote sensing, aeolian processes, oceanography and climate science), the network is able to tackle the complex questions, which remain regarding dust production, transport and deposition in high latitudes and cold environments.

Find out more about the HLCCD Network: and @HLCCD

PhotoFriday: When I am Laid in Earth

The Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya is one of the most surveyed tropical glaciers on Earth, and has been monitored and mapped regularly since 1934. In 2010, scientists found that the Lewis had shrunk by 23 percent in just the previous six years.

The New York Times reports, “Our glaciers, we’re told, are disappearing freakishly fast, but fast for a glacier can still be too slow for the human imagination to seize on.” How do we document this change, and raise awareness of glacial retreat? Award-winning photographer Simon Norfolk answered this question through photography.  His series, When I am Laid in Earth was developed in collaboration with Project Pressure, a nonprofit organization that aims “to photograph and publish the world’s vanishing and receding glaciers, and to document first hand the environmental impact of climate change.” Norfolk’s photo series relied on historical maps and GPS data to mark the contours of the glacier’s retreat and, in the middle of the night, light those lines on fire.

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When I am Laid in Earth was recently featured at the French photography festival, Les Recontres d’Arles. To read more about the works featured in this series, please download the associated newsletter, which details both the series and the Project Pressure initiative.

Roundup: Fish in Patagonia, Film in Kashmir & Glacial Georgia

One Fish, Two Fish: Black Southern Cod maintain a more diverse diet when near glacier meltwater areas

The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, in southern Chilean Patagonia. (Credit: Fundación Ictiológica)
The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, in southern Chilean Patagonia. (Credit: Fundación Ictiológica)

“The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, is the most important notothenioid fish species in terms of abundance in southern Chilean Patagonia. However, studies on its trophic ecology are scarce. [This study assessed] the spatial variation in the diet of P. tessellata between two localities, one with oceanic influence (Staples Strait) and another with continental influence (Puerto Bories)… The black southern cod presents spatial differences in diet composition among contrasting environmental localities… The results provide evidence of two dietary patterns depending on the type of environment in which they are distributed, highlighting the potential role of the environmental variables on the availability and abundance of potential prey and in structuring diet.”

More here.

Glaciers in the Spotlight: Salman Khan films dramatic scene at Thajwas glacier, Kashmir

“No doubt Salman Khan’s films are incredible exciting and dramatic, but his forthcoming release ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ has even gotten better… ‘The Bajrangi Bhaijaan climax was shot at the base of the Thajwas glacier outside Sonamarg. Located at 10,000 feet above sea level… the 300 strong technical crew had to trek for an hour through snow every morning to reach the location. Added to this was were the 7000 extras that we had on set every day. Transporting them in hundreds of buses and then embarking on the hour-long trek was a huge logistical challenge for the production. To add to their woes was the sub zero temperatures and hail storms that would interrupt the shoot,’ said Kabir Khan who has previously worked with Salman in ‘Ek Tha Tiger.’”

Read more here.


Glacial Melt in Georgia, Communities Threatened by Avalanche

Mt. Ushba in Georgia (Credit: Levan Gokadze, Flickr)
Mt. Ushba in Georgia (Credit: Levan Gokadze, Flickr)

“Considering its size, Georgia has a large number of glaciers. In the mountains of Georgia, there are about 786 registered glaciers, with a total area of about 550 km. About 82.5 % are in the upper courses of the Kodori, Inguri, Rioni, and Tereck rivers. For the past 150 years, significant glacier retreat (0.8–1.7 km) and shrinking of their area by 16 % has been observed. Since the middle of the 1940s, the glaciological situation has been characterized by a sharp reduction in the glacial area, but with the simultaneous increase in their number as glaciers disintegrated into separate smaller ones, although at the same time separate movements have also taken place. Avalanches are common in Georgia. Nearly 340 inhabited places are under the threat of avalanche attacks. About 31 % of the territory of Georgia is subject to avalanches (18 % in eastern and 13 % in western Georgia).”

More here.

Glacier Retreat Threatens Insect with Extinction

As glaciers retreat, a species of glacier-dependent stonefly faces extinction.

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Zapada glacier, a western glacier stonefly only found in alpine streams of Glacier National Park, Montana, to be listed as endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This species – one of more than 3500 species of stonefly –  is highly restricted to cold, glacial meltwater with limited dispersal ability.

Zapada glacier adult female from the Grinnell Glacier Basin in Glacier National Park (approximate length is 12 mm) (Source: Giersch et al./Freshwater Science).

Now, in an effort to save this endangered stonefly, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the urgency of protecting this stonefly. The insect could potentially be taken to other clean cold streams outside its established range, perhaps further north or at higher elevation where it might survive – but time is running out.

Species evolve to survive in specific temperature ranges; however, when the environmental conditions have exceeded the range, species are unable to adapt to new conditions immediately. Climate change has put many species in danger, but this is the first time that an insect species has been threatened with extinction by glacier retreat.

“Protection can’t come soon enough for this stonefly,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in 15 years if we don’t take action to curb climate change.”

Stoneflies are a particularly ancient order of insects that spend most of their lives in water. They are considered the most sensitive indicators of water quality in streams as they require fresh, clean water and don’t tolerate pollution. The insects have a one to two-year life cycle starting in the nymph stage in fresh meltwater. They usually emerge from the water in late spring when the stream is uncovered by melting snow. Z. glacier has a narrow temperature preference around 3.3 degrees Celsius. It is this narrow temperature preference that makes this insect especially susceptible to climate change.

Between 1960 to 2012, the average summer temperature in Glacier National Park has risen by approximately 1 degree Celsius. Additionally, since 1850, 125 of the 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park have melted away while the remaining 25 are predicted to disappear by 2030. The loss of glaciers as well as restricted suitable environmental conditions and limited dispersal ability of the stonefly threaten the species’ ability to survive.

Many Glacier in GNP (Source: Esther Lee/Flickr).
Glaciers in Glacier National Park (Source: Esther Lee/Flickr).

Few studies have investigated the impacts of climate change on alpine species distributions. To compensate for this knowledge gap, J. Joseph Giersch from US Geological Survey and other researchers looked at the current status and distribution of Z. glacier. Their results were published in Freshwater Science.

Giersch et al. sampled 6 alpine streams, where Z. glacier was historically known to live, to examine the relationship between species occurrence and environmental variations of temperature and glacial extent. In order to identify the current geographic distribution and distinguish Z. glacier from the other 6 Zapada species in Glacier National Park, the researchers used morphological characteristics, the outward appearance of adults and the DNA of nymphs.

Giersch et al. identified 28 suitable alpine locations in Glacier National Park as potential habitats for Z. glacier. From this study, Z. glacier was only found in 1 of the 6 historically occupied streams – the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake. The results suggest increased temperature and glacier retreat have already caused local extinction of Z. glacier from several historical locations.

Upper Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, where Zapada glacier can be found (Source: GlacierNPS/Flickr).
Upper Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, where Zapada glacier can be found (Source: GlacierNPS/Flickr).

The stonefly was also detected in 2 new high-elevation locations in Glacier National Park. Therefore, only 3 out of the 28 potential habitats have Z. glacier. The results indicate that the historical distribution of this stonefly in Glacier National Park was already restricted and its distribution will be further reduced in the future due to increased stream temperatures and habitat loss.

“The plight of the glacier stonefly is a wakeup call that unless the United States takes major action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, this special insect and more than one-third of all plants and animals on Earth could go extinct by 2050,” said Curry.

For more stories on invertebrates near glaciers, read here and here.

Glacier Retreat Brings New Islands

In some parts of the world, new islands are forming due to glacier retreat. Glaciers, dynamically responding to the change in temperature and precipitation, reveal the big picture of climate variability and change. During the Little Ice Age (LIA) with cooler temperatures, glaciers around the world grew substantially, from approximately 1350 to 1850. It was then followed by glacier retreat until 1940 as the globe warmed up. Since 1980, glacier recession has become unprecedentedly rapid, in line with significant global warming. “Glaciers are like a visual checking account of the status of the cold part of the ecosystem”, said Dan Fagre, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist.

Sea ice in the Weddell Sea. Source: Hamilton College.

The substantial melting, particularly in Greenland and Antarctica where vast glacial ice concentrates, contributes to major sea level rise globally. While small island countries are worried about being submerged by the overwhelming sea level rise, new islands have emerged near Antarctic Peninsula and Greenland. Mauri Pelto, glaciologist and professor of environmental science at Nichols College, discussed the island formation processes in his blog posts on American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

One of the island formations occurred in Leroux Bay on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula in Graham Land. From 1950 to 2000, the air temperature in the northern Antarctic Peninsula rose by 2.5ºC. As a result, 87% glaciers and ice shelves on the Peninsula were lost in the last two decades. The widespread loss of mass from ice shelves in Antarctica is mainly via basal melting. The spectacular collapse of ice-sheets and glaciers has enabled scientists to examine sediments that had accumulated beneath the floating ice shelves. Retreat from 1990 to 2015 averages 2.1 kilometers. By 2001, the glacier front had already retreated significantly and the new island had detached from the mainland, shown by the yellow arrow on the Google Earth image.

Google Earth image indicating glacier flow directions with blue arrows, island the yellow arrow and glacier terminus the red arrow. Source: AGU
Google Earth image indicates glacier flow directions with blue arrows, island the yellow arrow and glacier terminus the red arrow. Source: AGU

Steenstrup Glacier is located in Northwest Greenland. It has retreated 10km over the past 60 years. Kjer Glacier is immediately to the south of Steenstrup. The area between Steenstrup Glacier and Kjer Glacier is Red Head. Steenstrup Glacier’s northern boundary is near Cape Seddon. Steenstrup Glacier experienced rapid thinning of up to nearly 100m per year since 2000, with a 20% acceleration rate. The glacier could still reach Red Head in 1999, though the connection was less than 2km wide. By 2013, the connection to Red Head had been completely lost, making it an independent island.

The map of Steenstrup Glacier. Source: AGU
The map of Steenstrup Glacier. Source: AGU

The 2012 Google Earth image indicates the narrow connection between the glacier and Cape Sneddon at that time and the unique pattern of deep fractures in the glacier. It is clear that the end of Cape Sneddon will very likely to be part of an island in future summers. The connection to the island at the south end of Kjer Glacier has become much narrower since 1999 and will probably follow the route of Red Head and Cape Sneddon.

Google Earth 2012 image of Cape Sneddon. Source: AGU

Professor Mauri Pelto examined in his posts new island generation from the retreat of Leroux Bay Glacier and Steenstrup Glacier in great detail. The climate change induced glacier melting is creating the seesaw of potentially losing and gaining new islands at the same time.

Glacier stories you may have missed – 9/01/14
Pemba (2nd from left) and his brothers fresh from a carry to Camp 3 (at 23,500 feet) and back to Everest Base Camp in 2003. A conference to reform the mountain guide industry has just finished following an April 2014 avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa guides. (Didrik Johnck/Flickr)

Climate Change adaptation and disaster risk reduction

“As the frequency of disasters is increasing, and more people and properties are at risk, it is time to exploit the natural resource in a way that we can contribute to reduce the global warming. Effective disaster management measures should be taken, and mass awareness, institutional mainstreaming, and integration of DRR into development are to be ensured at all level. ”


Read more here.

Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes


“The development objective Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes Project for Andean Countries is to contribute to strengthening the resilience of local ecosystems and economies to the impacts of glacier retreat in the Tropical Andes, through the implementation of specific pilot adaptation activities that illustrate the costs and benefits of adaptation.”


Read more here.


Preliminary outputs of Mountaineering Worker’s Workshop


“Following the tragic loss of 16 Nepali mountaineering workers during the Mt. Everest avalanche on 18 April 2014, there has been a clear need for reflection and reform in Nepal’s mountaineering industry.”


Read more here.