Roundup: Glacier Thickness, Hydropower, and Mountain Communities

Measuring Glacier Thickness in Svalbard

From American Geophysical Union: “To this day, the ice volume stored in the many glaciers on Svalbard is not well known… This surprises because of the long research activity in this area. A large record of more than 1 million thickness measurements exists, making Svalbard an ideal study area for the application of a state‐of‐the‐art mapping approach for glacier ice thickness….we provide the first well‐informed estimate of the ice front thickness of all marine‐terminating glaciers that loose icebergs to the ocean.”

Read more about scientific advancements in measuring glacier thickness here.

Monacobreen glacier Svalbard on GlacierHub
The Monacobreen glacier, in Svalbard, calves into the Arctic Ocean (Source: Gary Bembridge/Flickr).


Hydropower in Iceland: Opinions of Visitors and Operators

From Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism: “The majority of visitors are against the development of hydropower in Skagafjarðardalir. They believe that the associated infrastructure would reduce the quality of their experience in the region that they value for perceived notions of it being untouched and undeveloped. If the quality of their experience is reduced, so would their satisfaction with that experience.”

Read more about the views regarding the impact of a proposed hydroelectric plant on the tourist experience in Skagafjarðardalir here.

Skagafjörður, Iceland on GlacierHub
A picturesque view of Skagafjörður, one of the sites where the hydroelectric power plant has been proposed (Source: James Stringer/Flickr).


8 Experts Explain What Mountain Communities Need Most

From National Science Review:

“What happens [in the Third Pole] can affect over 1.4 billion people and have regional and global ramifications.” – Tandong Yao

“Researchers and the media tend to focus on big glaciers, but it’s the much smaller and much less glamorous glaciers and ice fields that are going to affect mountain communities the most.” – Anil Kulkarni

Read more about future difficulties mountain communities will face, and how they should be addressed here.

Tibetan village in the Himalayas on GlacierHub
A Tibetan village sits at the foot of the Himalayas, with Cho Oyo to the left. Mountain communities like this one are extremely vulnerable to climate change (Source: Erik Törner/Flickr).

Photo Friday: Mer de Glace, a “Sea of Ice”

The French Alps lie just about an hour and thirty minutes away from the heart of Geneva. I thought of visiting Chamonix, home of the famous Mont Blanc, after a conference at the United Nations. Though, what I didn’t know was that I could visit the equally majestic Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice” in English, a valley glacier on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif.

I was lucky enough to visit Mer de Glace in the winter outside of peak season. That meant the cable car heading up the slopes actually had seats available. It also meant that I could take breathtaking photos of this winter wonderland without being disturbed. I was in such awe of Mer de Glace that I completely forgot to put my gloves on! I was too focused on capturing the moment. As my hands fell numb, I ran inside the gift shop and waited for the cable car to return. On the way down, I couldn’t help but wonder how long such a magnificent glacier would last. I had suddenly remembered the tour guide explaining earlier that the glacier has been melting and that we were lucky to have seen so much snow.

Upon researching, I came to realize that the glacier was in fact disappearing. The ice has melted so quickly over the past 30 years that it now takes around 370 steps to get down to the ice. In 1988 it took only three steps. Between 2014 and 2015 alone Mer de Glace has lost 3.61 meters of ice. To make matters worse, reports have indicated 40 percent less snowfall over the past 50 years in the region. All over the world glaciers are melting as a result of changing climate. Tourists like myself are left wondering how many more generations will be able to witness the majesty of the French Alps. Will my generation be the last?

This Photo Friday, join me on an eye-opening journey through the snowy mountainside of Mont Blanc.

The quiet town of Chamonix, France (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).


At the heart of the town of Chamonix, you’ll find a statue of Michel Paccard. Paccard was a doctor and mountain climber. This monument is dedicated to his ascent of Mont Blanc alongside Jaque Balmat in 1786 (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).


The author standing on the bridge to the cable car leading up to Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).


Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).


The mountain landscape through which Mer de Glace flows (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

Click here to find out more about the tour I booked in Chamonix.

Villagers Make Glacier Tourism Sustainable in Iceland

Hiking at the Vatnajökull National Park (Source: Adriana Serra/Flickr).

Across the world, tourism surrounding glaciers and national parks has become widespread and essential to the development of sustainable economic strategies. But how can the sustainability of tourism be assured in years to come? A recent study from a team of Icelandic scientists published in the Journal of Rural and Community Development argues for the value of incorporating input from local communities into the process of developing sustainable tourism, particularly in rural, sparsely populated regions of Europe.

In the northern periphery (NP) of Europe, which refers to all the Nordic countries and the autonomous North Atlantic Faroe and Åland islands, tourism has become essential to the development of new economic paths. But according to this study, these regions face many challenges based on the fact that these areas are “as a rule, geographically peripheral, vast territories of especially fragile ecosystems, with limited infrastructure, low and declining population densities and few economically feasible industries.” As a result, “these factors contribute to making tourism an increasingly important industry in the NP, from an economic and social point of view.”

A significant concern is that as low populated areas become increasingly popular as tourist destinations, these sparse periphery regions are expected to experience increased environmental, economic, and social impacts in the area.

Lead scientist Kristín Rut Kristjánsdóttir, a doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland, shared with GlacierHub how holistic assessments are necessary for addressing the complicated implications surrounding glaciers tourism. “Glacier landscape and climate entail fragile vegetation covers, unpredictable weather and regular damage to roads, and other physical infrastructure of natural causes. Therefore, safety issues for tourism in these areas also need extra attention,” Kristjánsdóttir said. “Taken together, all these factors make many economic solutions to peoples livelihoods in the northern periphery complicated.” 

Map of Iceland and Vatnajökull National Park (Source: jaisril/Flickr).

Iceland has been experiencing an exponential increase in foreign visitors over the past few years, for example. In 2016, the Icelandic Tourist Board estimated almost 1.8 million visitors that year, about five times the population of the country. With a vast majority of tourists citing the main reason for visiting Iceland to be to enjoy the natural landscape, the Icelandic government has long noted the need to concentrate on sustainable tourist development that preserves the nation’s unique, vulnerable ecosystems, as GlacierHub reported earlier this month. But even with Icelandic authorities’ focus on sustainable tourism development, “planning and infrastructure that benefits the local tourism development, as well as the local tourism stakeholders, are often not prioritized,” according to the study.

Interviews with the local communities in and surrounding Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland, were integral to this research. This park was established in 2008 and is the second largest national park in Europe with a surface area of nearly 14,000 square kilometers that covers a seventh of the entire territory of Iceland. Over half of this area is comprised of the massive Vatnajökull glacier, the largest ice cap in Iceland and third largest in Europe, covering some of the world’s most active volcanoes.

Due to the stunning landscape, the glacier and national park has become one of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland but is also increasingly vulnerable to physical damage with increased tourism disturbing the glacier’s ecological integrity. According to the study, “rapid growth in visitor numbers together with ecosystems and communities that are sensitive to tourism impact call for active monitoring and continuation of assessment methods.”

Johannes Theodorus Welling, another doctoral candidate at the University of Iceland, explained the antipodal relationship between glaciers and tourism. “On one side glaciers make climate change tangible by showing its recession and shrinkage, which visitors can follow almost on a daily basis… Paradoxically, the same visitor emits substantial amounts of greenhouse gases during their travel,” he told GlacierHub. This notion is particularly true for tourists traveling thousands of miles to reach Iceland, often in the summer months.

Glaciers at the Vatnajökull National Park (Source: Emily Hongyi/Flickr).

The aim of this study was to develop and assess systemic sustainability indicators for glacier tourism. Kristjánsdóttir and her colleagues interviewed 48 tourism stakeholders and concluded 18 sustainability indicators for Vatnajökull National Park from analyzing themes across the interviews. The top five most influential indicators and the major driving forces for local tourism development in the region included destination attractiveness, economic and societal seasonality, social carrying capacity, and the local economy.

But of all of these sustainable indicators, the attractiveness of the region ranked the highest. Stated in the study, “attractiveness is both the most critical and the most vulnerable indicator in the system […] as it is closely interconnected with other indicators and very sensitive to any change within the system.” But the changing climate heightens the region’s vulnerability and uncertainty in maintaining the ecological integrity that attracts tourists and that locals promote.

“The main take away from my study is, in my opinion, that it sheds light to the complexity that needs to be considered in addressing sustainability, especially when applying it to tourism in areas of the northern periphery,” Kristjánsdóttir told GlacierHub. Developing sustainable glacier tourism could, as Welling explained to GlacierHub, use the dynamics of the glacier as a tool to educate its visitors to show that climate change is real and have enormous consequences for landscape, hydrology, local communities, and tourism. But ensuring local participation is key to understanding the effects of tourism in sparsely populated northern periphery regions often home to glaciers. Balancing the cultivation of economic development without harming the ecological stability is complicated, but more integrated reports, such as this study, ensure a holistic consideration of how to develop sustainable tourism in Europe.

Photo Friday: Northwest China’s #1 Glacier

In February 2016, the government in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced that tourists would no longer be permitted to stand atop its retreating glaciers. According to the memo, tourism was a direct cause of glacial retreat. China is home to 46,377 glaciers, and the government has a particular reason to be concerned with the state of its glaciers in this region: comprising 1/6 of China’s land mass, Xinjiang is home to 18,311 of them.

The Tian Shan Glacier No. 1, which has existed for a reported 4.8 million years, is expected to disappear within 50 years. Though the glacier is only accessible via roads that would give Indiana Jones pause, it remains a popular tourist destination. Josh Summers has been living in Xinjiang since 2006 and runs a well-regarded travel blog that provides hard-to-find information for foreign tourists interested in visiting the far-away region. Today, we travel to Xinjiang to see this glacier before it disappears.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


One of the better-paved sections of road leading to the glacier (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


A view from the pass (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


Watch Josh’s drive from Urumqi to Tian Shan Glacier No. 1 via ‘Highway’ 216:


A Kazakh yurt and the entrance to the glacier viewing spot (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


The spoils of an unsafe drive (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).


We weren’t kidding. Do not try this at home (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

Icy Adventures in Norway

Hiking in Sunnmøre, Part 4: Regndalen. (Source: Severin Sadjina/Flickr)
Hiking Site in Sunnmøre, Regndalen. (Source: Severin Sadjina/Flickr)

If you want to walk and climb on glaciated areas for an extraordinary experience, you should visit Norway before the glaciers melt away. You do have some decades ahead, though, before glaciers really become scarce there. Still, rising  temperatures have caused a dramatic decrease in glacial volume in Norway as in other parts of the world. As this trend intensifies, glacier tourism will be largely limited in the future.

Norwegian sunset near Tromso, Norway (Source: Diana Robinson/Flickr)
Sunset near Tromso, Norway (Source: Diana Robinson/Flickr)

There are many opportunities to explore glaciers. There are over 1600 glaciers in Norway, which cover an area of roughly 2600 square kilometers. Most of the glaciers are in mountainous regions along or near the coast, particularly in southwestern and northern Norway. You could choose among guided day tours, longer tours, glacier surface walks, glacier lake kayaking, terminal face walks, ice climbing, and more. But climate change will change the nature of glacier tourism. A 7-year follow-up study conducted by Trude Furunes and Reidar J. Mykletun considered five components of the development of glacier tourism: natural resources, access, demand, entrepreneurship, and the need for skilled delivery of tourism services. Data in the study was collected through analysis of websites, repeated interviews, and participant observation.

Engabreen (Source: Nathanael Coyne/Flickr)
Engabreen (Source: Nathanael Coyne/Flickr)

Most glacier tourism activities involve the edges of the glacier, especially the glacier arm area, which are neither too steep nor too dangerous to enter. Glacier tourism generally occurs from June to August, when snow accumulated during winter has finished melting. A large portion of the study’s respondents expressed concern about impacts of climate change on glacier recession. After all, ice melting limits the accessibility of glaciers. In 2003, some operators decided to include more mountain walks in the tour package due to ice melting, which in the end led to dramatic decline in clients. In 2007, as some glaciers became inaccessible, some operators had no choice but to move to different glaciers in order to minimize financial loss.

Low entry cost attracted many investors into the glacier tourism business, causing a great deal of competition in the region. “Several activity companies pop up. But the Briksdal glacier is now closed due to the reduced glacier area, which makes it difficult to run safe glacier guiding here. This has led to increased tourism on the Nigard glacier,” said one respondent. More and more companies chose to tailor activities for their clients instead of providing highly commercialized products. “Competitors still exist, but they have changed their activity,” said another respondent.

A route between Aurlands and Briksdal in Norway. (Source: Lee Gwyn/Flickr)
A path between Aurlands and Briksdal . (Source: Lee Gwyn/Flickr)

Many operators claimed that they treated safety as priority and few accidents had occurred. “We focus strongly on safety, and use two guides per group, where one is certified. We also focus on equipment needed. It is important that the clients don’t perceive high risk, but get a unique experience.” Another operator stated that, “we have had no accidents, only bone fractures.”

According to T. Furunes and R. J. Mykletun, there was a 30% decrease from 2003 to 2009 in the number of visitors and operators, due to decline in natural resources and access. However, they suspected that relatively rapid melting of glaciers in Central Europe would likely to prompt glacier tourism in Norway. In a sense,  glacier loss in Central Europe could make Norwegian glacier tourism seem more attractive.  This study thus confirms the uneven and complex effects of global warming and its consequences for glacial retreat on national tourist industries.