Whistler Water’s Glacial Appeal

Bottled water companies often use images of nature to entice consumers with the allure of pure, remote sources. Whistler Water, a Canadian bottled water company, boasts that its water comes from a glacier-fed aquifer at the base of the coastal mountain range in British Columbia. The company draws heavily on nature and mountain themes in its advertising and images. Its social media pages brim with photos of hikers atop snowy peaks, lush forests and bubbling streams. Like many companies, however, the environmental content and sustainability promoted by the company belies its plastic products and unsustainable wellspring.

Whistler Water has incorporated sustainability into their company by using 100 percent recyclable bottles and Forest Stewardship Council certified boxes, which indicates the boxes are sourced from responsibly managed forests. However, the company’s steps towards more sustainable resource use do not directly address climate change, which is taking its toll on Whistler Water’s vital resources. According to a study published in 2015, glaciers in Western Canada––including those of the coastal mountain range––are shrinking rapidly. The study projects glaciers in western Canada will lose 70 percent of their volume by the year 2100. Place Glacier, which feeds Whistler Water’s underground aquifer, is among those quickly decreasing in mass.  

GlacierHub caught up with Richard Wilk, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. The branding of bottled water is an area of interest for Wilk, who has published the results of his research on the cultural influences on marketing of bottled water and consumer opposition of the product. He noted that bottled water companies use both nature and technology to provide a sense of cleanliness and safety. Whistler Water for example, uses nature and technology to promote the purity of their products– advertising ancient, untouched glaciers as well as BPA-free, recyclable bottles that make sure their water remains “exactly as nature intended.” Wilk said this was “a great example of how [companies] use nature as a form of authentication and then turn around and use technology as a form of authentication,” stating “nature undoes the danger of technology and technology undoes the danger of nature.”

The Canadian Coastal Mountain Range near Whistler, British Columbia (Source: Wiki Commons/
Normherr~commonswiki
)

The emphasis on both nature and technology provides a false sense of security to consumers who would be afraid to drink water directly from the source or even straight from the tap. Wilk explained distrust of public water can be traced as far back as mid-19th century London, to the discovery of cholera spreading via a public water pump. Modern issues such as the contamination of drinking water inFlint, Michigan have only fueled suspicion.

Plastic water bottles have come to dominate the beverage industry. In 2016, bottled water became the most consumed beverage in the US. The global bottled water industry is predicted to be worth $334 billion in 2023, which would be a 55 percent increase from the $185 billion it was worth in 2015. Despite the industry’s success, bottled water remains a controversial product. Wilk told GlacierHub that bottled water usually comes from a public source but is used for private profit, a process with which many take issue. Whistler Water is a prime example of using a public freshwater resource for private gain. As of 2014, British Columbia (where Whistler Water is produced) did not regulate groundwater use, nor did it charge companies for groundwater withdrawals.

Environmental concerns also plague the industry. Whistler Water has tried to create a natural, pure image for themselves, but plastic bottles depict one of waste. In an age where single-use plastics have become cultural ignominies, reusable water bottles have been promoted as a sustainable alternative. Wilk told GlacierHub, “water bottles can be status symbols because you have the money to buy the bottle and you’re conscious of environmental problems.” This month, Whistler Water posted an advertisement to their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages showing a woman refilling her reusable water bottle with a four-liter plastic jug of Whistler Water–the latter undercutting the sustainability that the former could support. While Whistler Water does use 100 percent recyclable bottles, Wilk says this is not a cure-all. His reasoning is that “we know most bottles are not recycled—to say this absolves [Whistler Water] of any responsibility is disingenuous.” 

Plastic bottles choke a stream in Madagascar (Source: Wiki Commons
Mouenthias
)

Whistler Water is not the first bottled water company to use glaciers as a marketing device. The water company Svalbardi sells 80 Euro bottles of polar iceberg water, which derive ultimately from glaciers in Greenland, and Alaska Glacier Products sells bottles of water sourced from Alaska’s Eklutna Glacier. As part of his research, Wilk invited 25 marketing professionals and professors to engage in an activity in which they proposed ways to market water. Among them was selling meltwater from named glaciers and jacking up the price as the glaciers shrunk. As controversial as this marketing technique might seem, companies, including Whistler Water, employ similar tactics. The company says its water comes from “ancient glaciers located high in the alpine peaks of the coastal mountain range just north of Whistler, British Columbia, Canada,” appealing to the consumer with its rare resources.

Glaciers provide drinking water to communities around the globe. But they continue to be threatened by environmental dangers. Waste products of human society, such as carbon dioxide, which warms the atmosphere, and plastic particles that have become ubiquitous are causing glaciers to shrink and have littered their surfaces with plastic. Some community-based organizations in mountain regions have sought to address plastic pollution, including Nepal, which has banned single-use plastics in the region around Mount Everest. As with addressing single-use plastics, combating the threats glaciers face from climate change will also require drastic policy and societal changes. 

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Glacier Retreat Poses Threat to Beer Production

From the southeast to the Pacific Northwest, America has been swept up in the craft beer craze. According to the Washington Beer Commission, Washington State alone is home to 420 breweries. A recent report produced by the University of Washington described the impacts of climate change on Washington State’s cryosphere––or frozen landscapes. The study highlighted the glacier retreat experienced by the state’s Cascade Mountain Range, whose glaciers feed the Yakima River. The river flows into the Yakima Valley, irrigating vast agricultural lands, including 77 percent of hops grown in the US.

The Yakima Valley is described by many as a beautiful oasis in Washington. Sunnier than the rest of the state, it receives an average 300 days of sunshine each year. Agriculture is the predominant land use in the valley, yielding hops, mint, vegetables, grapes used for wine production and more. But the valley’s climate is that of a semi-arid desert, making water sources for its flourishing agricultural sector all the more precious.

Aerial photograph of Yakima Valley, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/Flickr upload bot)

The Yakima River originates at Keechelus, a glacial lake, and flows down to the Columbia River, contributing to other rivers and tributaries along the way. However, the glaciers that contribute to this important freshwater source are disappearing. The report that came from the University of Washington reviewed the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere to summarize its implications for Washington State. Researchers found that between 1900 and 2009, 56 percent of glacier area in the Cascade Range disappeared. In a 60-year period, spring snowpack in the state has been reduced by 30 percent.

Glacier in the Cascade Range circa 1900 (Source: Wiki Commons/BMacZeroBot)
Queest-Alb Glacier in the Cascade Range, 1998 (Source: Wiki Commons/Ron Clausen)

The implications of glacier retreat and loss of mountain snowpack include impacts to recreation, reduction of water resources, irrigated agriculture and hydropower production. These changes, including warmer winters and decreased snowfall, are also shifting the arrival of peak streamflow. Altering the timing of peak streamflow increases the likelihood of flooding during winter, while decreasing streamflow during the spring and summer months. Reduced water during these seasons would hinder farmers’ ability to grow hops in the Yakima Valley. This is particularly true as demand for irrigation is greater during warmer months and when plants are at the peak of their growing season. 

The hops grown in the Yakima Valley are not only used to produce American-made craft beers, but over half of those grown are exported to other countries. As of 2016, the value of hop crops in Washington totaled $380 million.

The issue of climate change affecting hops production in Washington State does not simply threaten the ability for consumers to have an ice-cold beer in their hand during a hot summer––it threatens livelihoods and the economy. Since Washington contributes significantly to the global supply of hops, the economic effects of reduced hops production would be felt globally. Both hops farmers and beer producers would experience a significant loss from reduced irrigation––and they wouldn’t be the only ones. Wineries in the area would suffer, as would livestock producers and other farmers. Glacier retreat in the Cascades especially threatens the agriculture-dominated economy of the Yakima River Valley. 

Redhook Brewery, an Oregon run company with operations in Seattle, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/DJC1970)

GlacierHub addressed the potential for climate change to interfere in beer production in an article published in 2018. The story highlighted a climate declaration signed by American beer companies including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium Brewing and many more. With this declaration, “these breweries are showing their leadership and commitment to brewing with the climate in mind.” Among the concerns recognized by these climate conscious breweries is their diminishing water resources. In order to become more sustainable, “they are finding economic opportunity through investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste recapture, and sustainable sourcing.”

For the love of beer, connoisseurs of the craft would be wise to grab an oar––not just for mixing malted hops and barley––but in the upstream paddle for action on the climate crisis.

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Video of the Week: Animation Shows Frequency of Antarctic Calving Events

A new animation of Pine Island Glacier calving events in Antarctica demonstrates the immense power of nature. Adrian Luckman, a satellite imaging glaciologist, produced the GIF that shows not one, but three Antarctic calving events occurring between June 2017 and February 2020. The latest event represented in the animation occurred on February 9 of this year. GlacierHub reported on the lead up to this event in October 2019, after the European Space Agency released a video showing huge cracks in the glacier. The rapid retreat Pine Island Glacier has experienced in recent years has drawn significant attention, which includes a 2018 article published on GlacierHub that highlighted the ice loss experienced by the glacier.

Following the first two calving events illustrated in Luckman’s GIF, the icebergs that broke off from the glacier can be seen moving out into the ocean over many months. Given the recent occurence of the February event, such movements cannot yet be shown. As a result, the GIF provides just a glimpse of the third calving event.

The last recorded calving event from the Pine Island Glacier left icebergs floating in Pine Island Bay off the west coast of Antarctica. According to the Earth Observatory at NASA, the largest iceberg that broke off during the February 2020 event is nearly twice the size of Washington, DC. The monstrous iceberg born this year was named B-49 by the U.S. National Ice Center, which is now tracking the iceberg’s movement. The U.S. National Ice Center is an agency operated by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and NOAA, which provides environmental intelligence to the federal government.

Image taken by the Sentinel-1 satellite of the B-49 Iceberg (Source: NASA/Earth Observatory)

Pine Island Glacier calving events have increased in frequency in recent years. NASA reports that these events used to take place on four to six year intervals, however, calving of the glacier has become a yearly occurrence. The increase in these events is indicative of the warming water in Pine Island Bay. The relatively warm water is melting the glacier from below, causing the ice shelf to thin and calving to occur. The glacier is also among those experiencing the fastest retreat in Antarctica.

The calving events depicted in the GIF produced by Luckman are just three from a series that according to the U.S. National Ice Center began in 2000. As the Pine Island Glacier continues to thin, there are likely to be more occurrences. Luckman shares many videos, animations and observations with his Twitter followers. Follow him @adrain_luckman to stay up to date.

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Photo Friday: Humble Energy Ad Boasts About Melting Glaciers in ’62

On February 2, 1962, Humble Oil & Refining Company published an advertisement in LIFE magazine that proclaimed:

EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER!

Humble Oil & Refining Company was founded in 1911 in Humble, Texas. It was absorbed by Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1959, and later underwent a name change to become Exxon Co. in 1973.

The advertisement continued:

This giant glacier has remained unmelted for centuries. Yet, the petroleum energy Humble supplies — if converted into heat — could melt it at the rate of 80 tons each second! To meet the nation’s growing needs for energy, Humble has supplied science to nature’s resources to become America’s Leading Energy Company. Working wonders with oil through research, Humble provides energy in many forms — to help heat our homes, power our transportation, and to furnish industry with a great variety of versatile chemicals. Stop at a Humble station for new Enco Extra gasoline, and see why the “Happy Motoring” Sign is the World’s First Choice!

HUMBLE OIL

The glacier pictured in the advertisement is Taku, the deepest and thickest alpine temperate glacier in the world. Ironically, while most of the world’s glaciers have been melting, Taku was actually growing for decades after this advertisement was published, as if in protest to Humble’s desire to melt it. Taku only recently started receding. Little did Humble realize how poorly their advertisement would age. Fifty-eight years later, the energy industry has contributed enough carbon into the atmosphere to make glaciers an increasingly endangered earth-feature.

Lately, the recovered advertisement has been circulating the media. One tweet read: “Was this in the 1970’s? When newspaper headlines screamed ‘The next Ice Age is upon us!!’”

Indeed, concern for global cooling began in the 1950s, as people, including American meteorologist Harry Wexler, worried that Cold War atomic bomb testing would accelerate the onset of a new ice age –– in a nuclear-winter-kind-of scenario. Yet, even then, scientists were saying otherwise. In a 1953 issue of Popular Mechanics, Dr. Gilbert Plass, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, warned that “Earth’s ground temperature is rising 1 1/2 degrees a century as a result of carbon dioxide discharged from the burning of about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal and oil yearly.” And, in 1958, Bell Telephone Science Hour produced a video to teach Americans about the greenhouse effect.

Screenshot: “In the 70s, They said there’d be an Ice Age”

Then, in the early 1960s, J. Murray Mitchell Jr., an American climatologist, confirmed a multi-decadal cooling period since around 1945. Popular concern for impending glaciation rose, even as President Johnson’s scientific advisory committee warned that “Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment… emissions by the year 2000 could be enough to cause ‘measurable and perhaps marked’ climate change.” Still, concern for a new ice age grew amongst climate deniers, and peaked in the ’70s after the unusually severe Asian and North American winters of 1972-73.

Today’s climate models speculate that this period of cooling, which lasted from about 1945 – 1980, resulted from the dramatic increase in aerosol emissions (by-products of fossil fuel combustion) which formed low altitude clouds that blocked out the sun.

Global Average Temperature Anomaly from 1880 – 2000. Photo Credit: NASA

Humble Oil had also been studying the carbon-dioxide problem for decades, since before it changed its name to Exxon. In 1957, Humble Oil scientists published a study “tracking ‘the enormous quantity of carbon dioxide’ contributed to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution ‘from the combustion of fossil fuels,’” reported The New York Times. (Exxon was well aware of these findings and would later employ its own scientists to study the global warming effects of its company — though their results would deliberately be hidden for decades.)

While the media of this time incorrectly prioritized the concern for a potential future ice age, Humble Oil used this overarching fear to its advantage, hence the 1962 headline: EACH DAY HUMBLE SUPPLIES ENOUGH ENERGY TO MELT 7 MILLION TONS OF GLACIER! … which would offset the daunting global cooling of the day.

On social media one tweet read: “The mind boggles as to how times have changed. They might have well have just said ‘enough to drown 70 million kittens.'”

An overview of the history of climate science: Despite popular media, climate scientists were overwhelmingly predicting anthropogenic warming, not global cooling.

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Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Resulting from an unprecedented marine heatwave, the nationwide average temperature in New Zealand for the record-breaking summer of 2017-2018 was 18.1oC, over 2oC above average. Sea surface temperatures varied from 2-4oC above average and even reached 6-7oC above in some areas, the highest temperature anomalies in the world at the time. More, small and medium-sized glaciers in New Zealand’s Southern Alps lost over 13 percent of their total ice volume.

The Southern Alps mountain range, which cuts diagonally across New Zealand’s South Island, is home to over 3,000 small and medium-sized glaciers, which respond to climatic changes––both anthropogenic and natural––much faster than large glaciers. Since the last Little Ice Age ended in 1860, these glaciers in the Southern Alps have notably receded, save for four periods of advancement: around 1950, 1980-1987, 1991-1997, and 2004-2008.

Aerial view of the Southern Alps, New Zealand (Source: Tim Williams/Flickr).

In a new study, published in the International Journal of Climatology, lead researcher Michael J. Salinger of Pennsylvania State University and his co-researchers provide new estimates of glacier ice volume changes and the impact of climate variability on New Zealand’s small and medium-sized glaciers. From 1977 to 2018, the total ice volume of small and medium glaciers went from 26.6 to 17.9 cubic kilometers, a 33 percent decrease.

The researchers utilized a 42-year set of measurements––an annual measurement of the altitude of the end-of-summer-snowline (EOSS)––from 1977 to 2018 to calculate the ice volume changes for a sample of 50 glaciers in the Southern Alps. The EOSS is the boundary between the current year’s new, clean snow and older, dirty snow and is measured in mid to late March, which is the end of New Zealand’s snowy season.

If a particular year experiences lots of melting, the snow line rises in elevation, whereas if snow accumulation exceeds ablation, the snow line will move down. “It’s like doing your annual budget reconciliation,” said Salinger. “So on the 31st of March, [you are] working out whether you’ve received more or less income.”

When researcher and co-author Trevor Chinn started the EOSS monitoring program in 1977, Chinn calculated the volume for all of the over 3,000 glaciers he had mapped. Salinger explained that for this study, the researchers looked at current EOSS elevation compared to years past, using that information to work out the area lost or gained, then convert that to volume of water. “I can work out the glacier contribution from sea level rise, and what I’ve found is that it has been much higher than expected,” he noted.

Valley at an entrance to the snow-covered mountains of the Southern Alps (Source: Richard/Flickr).

Natural climate variability was a primary contributor to interannual fluctuations in glacier ice volume during this time period, even though anthropogenic warming is ultimately responsible for the accelerating downward trend. Volume gains in the 1980s and 1990s were offset and quickly surpassed by rapidly accelerating ice loss from 1998-2018.

The primarily land-covered mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere are much different compared to the mostly ocean-covered midlatitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, which results in strong westerly winds. Salinger cited the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) as the most important source of variability in the Southern Hemisphere. “You can think of the [SAM] as squeezing and relaxing of the westerlies, or the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties as we call them, over the Southern Ocean,” said Salinger.

In its negative phase, the SAM produces enhanced westerlies, cooler weather, and storm activity. In the positive phase, the strong westerlies move south while westerlies in the mid-latitudes weaken, and the weather gets warmer.

“Temperatures go up and you get less precipitation producing weather and more rain than snow precipitation,” said Salinger. The SAM usually fluctuates between positive and negative phases over weeks to months, but in response to anthropogenic warming, it is becoming increasingly positive.

Salinger noted that to a lesser extent, the El Niño Southern Oscillation also causes interannual climate variability in New Zealand. During an El Niño event, the equatorial easterly trade winds are subject to westerly wind anomalies, which would enhance the negative phase of SAM, leading to even cooler temperatures. La Niña pulls the trade winds in the opposite direction, further weakening westerlies over New Zealand and contributing to more warming.

As anthropogenic warming intensified over the last century, glaciers all around the world retreated, losing ice volume, and contributing to sea level rise. At the same time, natural climate variations happening on interannual and decadal timescales also worked to temporarily offset this massive retreat, even contributing to periodic glacier advances for small and medium-sized glaciers in New Zealand. Ultimately though, glaciers are driven primarily by temperature, and so the impacts of the global warming trend will prevail.

Fox Glacier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand (Source: CameliaTWU/Flickr).

Changing glacier ice volumes throughout New Zealand pose great risks to the country, which relies heavily on hydropower for energy production and on tourism and agriculture for economic output. Salinger cited recent agricultural droughts on the South Island, and the mounting problems faced by farmers without access to irrigation on tap.

Interestingly, New Zealand uses the visual of their rapidly retreating glaciers as an opportunity to raise awareness about climate change. “Our glaciers are iconic, and people are not too far from them, so they are very familiar with them. They’ve seen the huge retreat of some of the glaciers up valleys with melting, because of global warming. It’s something tangible and people can see the long-term change,” said Salinger. “So that’s why we find our glaciers as sort of the canary in the coal mine.”

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A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

UNESCO recently published a report which addresses the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the Andes. The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas examines the changing climate patterns across western South America, as well the historical and projected rates of retreat of important glaciers in the region. Increased melting will impact societies reliant on glaciers for water resources. The eventual loss of glaciers presents a challenge for countries to address.

An aerial view of the Ojo del Albino glacier in Argentina (Source: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons)

The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, spanning the western edge of South America through several countries. These mountains are considered to be the water towers for the surrounding populations. They provide water to about 75 million people living within the Andes region and 20 million downstream along surrounding rivers. The Andes continue to have a significant influence on local cultures and economies. The impending loss of these glaciers may cripple dependent communities, industries, and various sectors across South America.  

Key Messages and Future Projections

The atlas identifies several key messages essential for discerning the changes in the Andes. Projections indicate that temperatures in the tropical Andes could increase between 2°C and 5°C by the end of the 21st century. The recent IPCC SR1.5 report emphasized the devastating effects of just 1°C of warming, such as extended periods of drought and extreme global heat events. The Andes will likely experience increasingly hotter years with warming driving further glacier retreat.

The report notes that changes in precipitation are harder to project than temperature changes. Nonetheless it presents serious concerns for some regions across the Andes. The atlas refers to the IPCC for precipitation projections. In the southern Andes region, precipitation will greatly decrease by the end of the century, including Chile and Argentina in particular. These regions will likely experience drought events, and loss of glaciers may be devastating to the environment and its people.

Scientists have also observed rapid retreat in glaciers in the tropical Andes, as well as lower-altitude glaciers. According to the atlas, one glacier which remains in Venezuela will likely disappear by 2021. Many large tropical glaciers exist in Peru, including Quelccaya Ice Cap, which may disappear by 2050 at the current rate of warming. Glaciers are also quickly retreating in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This retreat and volume loss of glaciers is “locked in,”and glaciers will continue to retreat no matter what. Even with a moderate level of emissions, the IPCC projects that barely a fifth of the glaciers will remain by the end of the century, with some reduced to barely 3 percent of their current size.

Pico Humboldt, the second highest peak in Venezuela, is home to the country’s last glacier (Source: Okty/Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts of Retreating Glaciers

The loss of glaciers and glacial meltwater is inevitable. As warming continues, a majority of glaciers will soon experience “peak water” (which occurs when melting exceeds new mass accumulated by snowfall), likely within the next 20 years. Many tropical Andes glaciers already reached peak water in the 1980s and have been outputting less water since. Although many countries will benefit from peak water, the aftereffects of less meltwater outflow will heavily strain the available water supply.

Bolívar Cáceres, a specialist of the tropical Andes who worked on the atlas, told GlacierHub about some of the effects of glacier retreat and possible methods for adapting to water scarcity. “One of the indirect effects of long-term melting in communities is the reduction of visitors. Since glaciers no longer exist in some places or become very difficult to climb, tourists are currently opting out and most likely will go to other places in the future,” he said. This will affect local economies that depend on tourism flow and the resources generated. As for adaptation, Cáceres believes that promoting technologies in agriculture and livestock areas to better manage water resources is essential for sustainability.

Water quality will also be affected by the loss of glaciers. Bryan Mark, an expert on Andes and Peruvian glaciers, added: “Recently glacier-free landscapes feature lots of unconsolidated materials that tend to result in more sediment laden, erosive, and ‘flashy’ discharge streams.'” Sediment pollution presents a number of problems for the water supply, including degrading the quality of drinking water for locals and their livestock. Mark also highlighted the importance of diversifying water reservoir resources, utilizing groundwater, small dams, and precipitation capture as alternate water resources.

Vibrant houses and high-rises in the Andean city of La Paz, Bolivia (Source: Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Efficacy and Practicality of Policy Recommendations

The atlas examines the significance of glacier retreat on communities. It provides policy recommendations for countries to sustainably secure future water availability. Some examples include implementing preventative measures for natural glacier-related hazards and developing climate services for water resource management. Although these recommendations are intended to provide direction towards sustainable water supply management, there are concerns of clarity, implementation, and effectiveness of these policies.

Dirk Hoffmann, an expert on glaciers in high mountain ecosystems, commented on the effectiveness of the policy recommendations on communities. “The policy recommendations are all very interesting, but on the whole seem to be somewhat too general as to be useful to specific decision maker,” he said. Hoffmann views the recommendations as well intended and believes the atlas to be effective in raising awareness of these issues. In a practical sense, however, they are too far removed to help decision makers, he said. A clear indication as to whom these recommendations are directed towards would be beneficial.

Deeply entrenched valley below the tree line, with a small town at the river’s edge (Source: UNESCO)

Mark Carey, an expert of the Peruvian Andes, shared similar thoughts on the effectiveness of these recommendations. Carey stated that the lack of social science and humanities research on vulnerability and unequal impacts of shrinking glaciers is an issue. “Vulnerability is framed in ways to conceptualize homogenous ‘affected populations,’ such as those in agriculture or urban areas, rather than understanding the complicated social divisions and power imbalances embedded in the diverse social groups,” he said. Carey added that although the science is necessary, the complex human dimensions of climate change adaptation are essential.  

The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas recognizes the importance of improving interactions between science and policy, bringing awareness of key issues surrounding the loss of glaciers in the Andes. This is a major step towards successful adaptation; climate scientists, social scientists, and policymakers will need to collaborate to effectively allocate resources for sustainable management of the challenges associated with glacier retreat.

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

A recent international study found that glaciers in high mountain Asia (HMA) are actually slowing down. Researcher Amaury Dehecq of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his co-authors analyzed 17 years of data from 2000 to 2017, attributing their results to widespread glacial thinning. They found that 94 percent of variability in glacial flow rates could be explained by ice thickness changes.

The study asserts that glaciers are thinning worldwide and at an increasing rate from the start of the 21st century. However, according to Dehecq, exactly how glaciers respond to mass loss on a regional scale was previously not well understood. This uncertainty highlighted the necessity of understanding the consequences of glacier thinning in a warming world and catalyzed this innovative study.

Nyenchen Tanglha mountains Tibet on GlacierHub
The Nyainqêntanglha mountains of Tibet, where some of the most significant glacier slowdown is occurring as a result of ice loss (Source: randomix/Flickr).

Trending: Velocity Over Time

Dehecq and his co-researchers measured glacier surface velocity changes with 1 million satellite image pairs from Landsat-7, obtaining annual velocities by comparing images taken one year apart over the same area. This was done through feature tracking; the researchers identified specific, recognizable features (i.e. crevasses, dirt patches), then measured how far they moved from one picture to the next. They did this over and over again, millions of times, to translate the image pairs into usable velocity data.

In all, the researchers calculated velocity changes over time for 11 subregions in high mountain Asia. The most significant glacier slowdowns were seen in the Nyainqêntanglha mountains of Tibet and in the Himalayas in India (Spiti Lahaul), with 37.2 and 34.3 percent velocity decreases per decade, respectively.

Lesser but still significant slowdowns were observed for glaciers in the following regions: West Nepal, East Nepal, Bhutan, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tien Shan, and the inner Tibetan Plateau.

velocity map for high mountain asia glaciers on GlacierHub
Velocity changes from 2000-2016 for glaciers in high mountain Asia (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

“It is only recently that big data crunching has allowed this hypothesis to be tested on such a grand scale,” said William Colgan, a research climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, in an interview with GlacierHub.

Noel Gourmelen, a co-author of the study and professor of glaciology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, emphasized the importance of data availability in allowing studies like this one to be successful in the future. “This research was possible because of sustained and open Earth Observation programs,” he said, also calling for continued support, maintenance, and expansion of programs like NASA’s Landsat and ESA’s Sentinels satellite series.

On Thin Ice

Dehecq and his co-researchers matched calculated velocity trends with observations of glacier thickness from 2000 to 2017. Data on glacier thickness is obtained by using remote sensing to create a model of glacier elevation change over time. This comparison showed a strong relationship between the two; each region that observed a decreasing velocity trend also observed a corresponding trend in ice thinning over the same time period.

Colgan also spoke to GlacierHub about the trending relationships this study revealed. “This study is some of the clearest evidence to date of the link between climate forcing and ice dynamics in land-terminating glaciers,” he said. “Based on these Himalayan observations, the study is telling us to expect widespread slowdowns in ice flow in regions where glaciers are experiencing widespread thinning; that’s most regions of land-terminating glaciers.”  

Karakoram region China on GlacierHub
Muztagh Ata and Lake Karakul in the Kunlun region, one of the few places where glaciers are advancing (Source: dreamX/Flickr).

Despite the strong relationship between thinning ice and decreasing velocity, each subregion had a slightly different magnitude of change. The researchers suggested that “regional differences in climate and glacier sensitivity to temperature,” could influence small spatial variations in the overall trend.

Accordingly, this study also found that regions with advancing glaciers are speeding up. Two adjacent regions in high mountain Asia, Karakoram and West Kunlun, experienced a positive mass balance along with slight velocity increases from 2000 to 2017.

The Glacial Pace

Mountain glaciers have a simple motivation for their downhill progression—gravity. Gravity causes the surface ice on a glacier to creep, slowly deforming and thinning the glacier as it moves down the mountain.

How fast glaciers travel on this journey is controlled by two factors: gravitational driving stress and glacier thickness. Driving stress is dependent on slope. The steeper the mountain, the stronger the gravitational force. Since surface ice moves faster than the ice underneath, ice thins as a glacier travels, meaning a glacier will get progressively slower the further it goes. That is, until it reaches an elevation where the surrounding climate is warm enough to rapidly melt the ice.

Dehecq and his co-researchers concluded that these two factors alone can be used to effectively calculate glacier surface velocity. “The strength of the link between mass loss and change in flow was surprisingly strong,” said Gourmelen. “One might have expected that changes at the base of the glacier would have played a role and impacts basal sliding of the ice, but this does not appear to be the case when looking at the HMA region as a whole.”

A Warning for Warming

Mount Kailash on GlacierHub
The sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet and surrounding mountains are home to several glaciers that feed major rivers, lakes, and communities. Read more about Mt. Kailash on GlacierHub (Source: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team).

A warming world means more glacial surface melting, and at higher elevations. However, surface melting also means ice thinning, which slows down the flow of glaciers due to gravity. So although less ice exists overall, there is also less ice reaching the elevation where it will melt.

The findings of this study improve knowledge of glacier feedbacks in the context of anthropogenic climate change regarding sea-level rise and the hydrology of certain regions. Glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia could potentially impact the availability of freshwater for communities in surrounding countries like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and China.

Gourmelen gave GlacierHub an apt overview of the importance of understanding climate-glacier feedbacks:

“This is yet another sign of the impact of climate change on glaciers, the machine is slowing down. Glacier flow is a fundamental component of the glacier machine, it is the conveyor belt bringing ice from high elevation where it forms to lower elevation where it melts. This process impacts glacier met rates and glacier extent and is a key component of glacier modeling and hydrology. By providing a relationship between mass loss and flow change, parameterising model predicting future of glaciers and water availability will be made easier and more precise. It will also help interpreting some of the changes in glacier shape that we have observed in the last decades.”

Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, spoke to GlacierHub about the global implications of this study. “The key takeaway is the same we see for alpine glaciers around the globe, warming temperatures lead to mass balance losses, which is the key driver in glacier response,” he said. “A sustained negative mass balance leads to thinning, which leads to a glacier slow down whether the glacier is in the Himalaya, Alps, or Cascade Range.”

Pelto further explained his considerations for both the short and long-term implications of glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia. “In the short run the slow down will increase retreat rate. In the long run less dynamic mass transfer to lower elevations will lead to a reduction in glacier retreat,” he said.

In all, glacial slowdown could help preserve ice mass in the foreseeable future. However it could be at the cost of abundant freshwater for mountain communities.

Human Capital Investments for Glacier Countries

In October 2018, the World Bank launched the Human Capital Project, which is focused on promoting global economic growth and equity. Its primary component is the Human Capital Index (HCI), an assessment of children’s access to basic human rights around the world. The HCI takes into account information about children’s health and education, using these indicators to compile an ultimate score of the future generation’s productivity as it relates to the country’s economic potential. Read more about the Human Capital Project in the official published booklet, openly available here.

Countries with glaciers face many challenges associated with climate change, and having strong, healthy, educated populations will contribute to their adaptive capacity. Thus, the Human Capital Index has many implications for glacier countries.

What makes up the Human Capital Index?

The HCI is separated into three components, each of which are made up of statistical indicators:

  1. Survival
    • Probability of survival to age 5 (0-1)
  2. Education
    • Expected years of school (0-14)
    • Harmonized test score (300-625)
  3. Health
    • Fraction of children under 5 not stunted (0-1)
    • Fraction of 15-year olds who survive to age 60 (0-1)

World map with HCI quartile scores shaded for every country (Source: The World Bank).

How do we interpret countries’ individual HCI scores?

Through compilation of the above indicators, each country will receive a HCI score from 0-1. Every country is then ranked into quartiles, with the top quartile representing the countries with scores in the top 25 percent of the world, third quartile representing the next 25 percent of countries, and so on.

According to the Human Capital Project Booklet, “A country in which a child born today can expect to achieve both full health (no stunting and 100 percent adult survival) and full education potential (14 years of high-quality school by age 18) will score a value of 1 on the index.”

Take Switzerland, which received an HCI score of 0.77, as an example. A score of 0.77 means that the future productivity for a worker born today, given current levels of survival, education, and health, is 23 percent lower than what it could be. Likewise, Nepal, which received an HCI score of 0.49, could improve by up to 51 percent based on its current state.

What are the implications for glacier countries?

On the right is a table which includes data from the HCI, HDI (Human Development Index), and GDP per capita for several glacier countries, with cells color-coded to the quartile they match on the map above. The HDI measures a country’s achievement in several categories of human development beyond the confines of economic growth; read more about it here

The HCI ranks glacier countries in similar ways to how they are ranked by the HDI and GDP per capita, with some exceptions. For example, Chile has a relatively high HCI score and HDI score when compared with its GDP per capita. In 2006, Chile launched Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows With You), a program focused on early childhood development. Chile’s actions showcase it as an example of a middle-income country that has made the policies highlighted by the HCI feasible on a large scale. Other examples of countries who scored higher on the HCI than their relative GDP per capita are Austria and New Zealand. 

The graph to the left shows the relationship between HCI score and GDP per capita for several glacier countries. Countries that are above the line show high HCI scores relative to their GDP per capita, and countries below the line show low HCI scores relative to their GDP per capita.

This points to the importance of investment in human capital for countries of any income level. In addition, though GDP per capita and HCI scores are positively correlated, countries must allocate part of their income to investment in human capital in order to receive superlinear benefits (meaning they would be placed above the line). 

How do these indicators translate to economic potential?

The survival, education, and health of people in any country can be estimated by the HCI’s parameters. There is a direct link between the education and health of individuals and their potential productivity as workers. Once more, there is a direct link between worker productivity and a country’s ability to increase their GDP in the long-term.

Simply put, investing in the well-being of the future generation is absolutely essential to a country’s long-term economic success. Investing in the children of today will help ensure increased productivity, reduced poverty, and a better quality of life when they become of working age. This will also help countries increase their GDP, allowing for sustainable growth and more opportunity to invest back in survival, education, and health measures for the next generation.

What are the barriers to investment in human capital?

One barrier to investment in human capital is time. Investment in children will likely not see any return for at least another 18 years. Due to both political and economic benefits, policymakers may be inclined to focus on what can be done in the short-term to improve people’s lives, such as building bridges and roads. This attachment to immediacy can lead to an underinvestment in the survival, education, and health of today’s children.

Glacier countries are particularly vulnerable to the accumulating effects of global climate change. However, the slow process of glacial melting and the delayed return on investment in today’s children may similarly lead residents of glacier countries to focus on problems and solutions that are more pressing in the short term. Nonetheless, to increase their prosperity into the future, glacier countries benefit from considering the importance of investing in human capital.

 

Want to know more about the Human Capital Index?

Video of the Week: The World Bank’s Human Capital Index

Climate Change Behind More Frequent & Powerful Avalanches in Alaska

As global temperatures rise, melting permafrost is expected to cause more frequent and hazardous landslides at Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Glacier N PS/Twitter).

Slow-moving changes to the planet are sometimes difficult to grasp on the human timescale. However, on the glacierized peaks of Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska, entire mountainsides are crashing down in spectacular avalanches and landslides. The culprit? Not the more usual earthquakes, extreme rainfall, or volcanic eruptions but melting permafrost from increasingly warmer than normal temperatures due to climate change.

In recent years, southeast Alaska has experienced notable rock avalanches on top of its glaciers. Rock avalanches involve landslides of fragmented rock that become hazardous due to their large size and ability to travel long distances at rapid speeds. In October 2015, the largest non-volcanic landslide ever recorded in North America occurred on the Tyndall Glacier. Second only to the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the massive landslide generated a tsunami wave that rose 600 feet, one of the largest tsunami run-ups ever recorded, and stripped alders off the upper reaches of hills on the shoreline.

Just a few months later, a massive rock avalanche spontaneously materialized on the Lamplugh Glacier. Although initially undetected due to its remote location, seismic instruments captured the event as having as much energy as a 5.2 earthquake.

Intrigued by what was happening in Glacier Bay National Park, a team of three geologists from the USGS explored the timing and characteristics of 24 rock avalanches in the park over a 33-year period from 1984 to 2016. Led by Jeff Coe, the recently published article in Landslide documented three distinct clusters of rock avalanche activity during those years: 1984-1986, 1994-1995, and 2012-2016 through the use of Landsat satellite imagery.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier before the 2016 landslide (Source: Allen Castillo/Flickr).

What they found was remarkable: Coe shared the exceptional size of the rock avalanches with GlacierHub. Since 2012, these avalanches were 1.5 to 5.9 times the next largest avalanche in the 33-year sample. The researchers concluded that the avalanches in this third cluster were primarily caused by the degradation of mountain permafrost from long-term warming, in addition to a record-breaking warm spell from 2014 to 2016 in the region. Besides melting permafrost, the study points to other factors such as glacial thinning, increased precipitations, and accumulating elastic strain, as contributors to the weakened slopes.

The increased size and distance of these avalanches appear to be determined more by winter temperatures as opposed to summer temperatures. Coe explains that the warmer than average winter temperatures are behind the weakening rock masses on top of the park’s glaciers, as conditions fail to refreeze as much during colder months as they have previously. As the temperatures warm up to around freezing-melting point in the late spring to summer months, the masses fail and collapse.

In general, climate change is expected to have an adverse impact on slope stability in Alaska. But there has been limited research to assess what changes have already occurred there. This study provides a robust example to systematically study and document the changes in the size and mobility of rock avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, taken in May 2018 (Source: Allan Watt/Flickr).

One interesting pattern the team noticed in their work was that 75 percent of the rock avalanches come from slopes facing north or northeast. Coe pointed to another study on the European Alps that could be applied to Alaska. Observing similar patterns during the 2003 summer heatwave, the scientists in the Alps study suggested the north-facing slopes in their research had more extensive rock permafrost compared to the southern slopes. With more permafrost, these north-facing slopes would be more impacted by anomalously warm temperatures.

So far, major avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park have struck remote areas of the park where humans rarely visit. But that luck may not continue. These events are a reminder of the increasing instability of the mountains and risks of disasters.

As was evident with the avalanche-induced tsunami in 2015, danger could strike on both land and in the water. Last June, tragedy struck a fishing village in Greenland when a mountain slope collapsed into a fjord, triggering a 300-foot tsunami wave killing four people.

“Going forward, we suggest that rock avalanche activity in Glacier Bay National Park should continue to be monitored to critically assess our results, hypotheses, and interpretations,” said Coe. If their hypothesis holds and warming temperatures are in fact the cause of the destabilization in these historically cold regions, more high-risk areas for landslides and rock avalanches in less remote parts can be expected.

GlacierHub News Report 07:05:18

GlacierHub News Report 07:05:18

The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is covering glacier flow, glacier calving, and the environmental monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen.

 

This week’s news report features:

 

Observing Glacier Calving through Time-Lapse Imagery and Surface Water Waves

By: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin

Summary:

A recent paper published in the Journal of Glaciology explores how a team of researchers studied waves in a Patagonian lake to detect glacier calving events at Glaciar Perito Moreno.

Read more here.

 

A New Discovery: How and Why Glaciers Flow

By: Yang Zhang

Summary: A new analysis published in the Journal of Science argues that the “largest uncertainty” in ice sheet models used to predict future sea-level rise originates from our limited understanding of underwater processes at the ice-bed interface.

Read more here.

 

The Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen

By: Sabrina Ho Yen Yin

Summary: The Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ) is an umbrella program that collects and analyzes environmental data in the arctic regions of Svalbard and Jan Mayen. Some data of interest include the extent and thickness of sea ice around Svalbard, Fram Strait and the Barents Sea; temperature and salinity of the water transported around Svalbard via the West Spitsbergen Current; ocean acidification; and local sea level changes.

Read more here.

 

Video Credits:

Presenter: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Video Editor: Brian Poe Llamanzares

Writer: Brian Poe Llamanzares

News Intro: YouTube

Music: iMovie

Video of the Week: Celebrating International Yoga Day on a Glacier

This week, we take a look at a video showing how Indian soldiers celebrate International Yoga Day. The Indian army holds a tradition of practicing yoga on Siachen Glacier every year on this day despite the on-going tension in the region.

Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalayas and is 6,700 meters above sea level. The video can be found on YouTube and shows how the soliders celebrate even under the most intense conditions.

Is the Martian Hypanis a Glacier? A New Study Says No.

This image from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft shows a thick layer of dust covering the glaciers (Source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin).

Is there life on Mars? Whether it’s the pursuit of little green men or sources of water, Mars exploration holds a particular fascination both within and outside the scientific community. President Trump’s announcement last week directing the Pentagon to create a sixth branch of the military called Space Force further demonstrates how society can’t escape its innate curiosity of space and the final frontier. This appeal toward the red planet has led to new studies on the climate and geology of Mars, particularly as improvements in satellite data enhance our ability to understand our neighboring planet.

A recent study from a team of scientists led by Jacob Adler of Arizona State University explored a unique area of scientific interest on Mars called Hypanis Valles. Considered a potential landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s ExoMars 2018 rover mission, Hypanis is a large, fan-shaped sedimentary deposit on Mars approximately 150 meters tall and 60 kilometers wide. It has been hypothesized whether a major lobe of Hypanis Vallis could be home to a rock glacier. Adler’s team used satellite images to rule out that option. Instead, they found compelling evidence that these layered, fine-grained deposits were a massive delta.  

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) mosaic of the Hypanis deposit. It stands out as light-toned in the center (Source: Adler et al.).

Because of the lack of high-enough resolution satellite data until recently, scientists were uncertain of which landforms composed Hypanis. For the major lobe of Hypanis, the main candidates were a delta, mudflow, or alluvial fan. For the second, dubbed northern lobe, which the team hypothesized was formed by a different mechanism than the major lobe, one of the main landforms considered was a rock glacier. Interpreting the geomorphology and silt compositions, Adler and his team determined both lobes appear to be of deltaic origin and the largest yet found on Mars.

The paper uses the definition of a delta as a “fan-shaped sedimentary deposit formed when fluvial transport reaches a larger body of standing water.” The team explored three hypotheses before determining the delta hypothesis was the most plausible.

Located in the large Xanthe Terra region along the equator of the red planet, Hypanis appears to have existed for over 3.6 billion years, the product of a large lake or sea once spanning the area. The study explored the geological story of Hypanis and used the most recent high-resolution images and data collected on the region to characterize the deposit in greater detail.

Kenneth Tanaka, a scientist and cartographer recently retired from the United States Geological Survey, told GlacierHub that the team compiled a strong argument for a deltaic origin for these layered, fine-grained deposits occurring at the mouth of Hypanis Valles by using the latest and best imaging datasets available from spacecrafts orbiting Mars  

The northern edge of the main lobe ends with cliffs roughly 70 m in height. In these images HiRISE image ESP_021577_1920 is overlaid on a HiRISE stereo DTM (Source: Adler et al.).

The study supports that the ancient layered material was deposited by a large body of water on the surface of Mars. Adler told GlacierHub that a striking fact from the study was the sheer size of the deltaic structure on Mars. As potentially the largest delta on Mars, Hypanis doesn’t compete with the largest ones on Earth and is only slightly smaller than the Colorado River delta. But for the dusty red planet, it is remarkable.

“Its gently dipping layers were surprisingly continuous for many kilometers, implying deposition in a calm environment,” Adler said. “If it were indeed once a delta, then there would have been a large lake or sea spanning this area of Mars.”

A delta origin seems most likely. But what all options had in common was that a large body of water over 4 billion years old was in place to shape the Hypanis region. When Hypanis formed, scientists believe rivers and oceans may have covered Mars and shaped the planet’s geography and climate. But over time, the atmosphere thinned, and the surface dried as water was sequestered to the polar caps or in the soil, or lost to space. To explain how something as strongly associated with water as a delta could be found on a planet so dry, the team describes how “the ancient deltaic deposit we observe today was largely untouched by subsequent catastrophic outflows, and its surface has only been moderately reshaped by over 3 billion years of aeolian [wind-blown] erosion.”

HiRISE image of a crater and infill–likely remains of glacial processes here. (Source: UAHiRise (NASA)/Flickr).

Although the possibility of Hypanis being a rock glacier was ultimately ruled out, glaciers on Mars are a part in understanding the planet. 

“Glaciers on Mars can tell us about the climate history of the planet and could be a great water resource for future astronauts to utilize,” Adler told GlacierHub. He also explained the basic characteristics of Martian glaciers. For one thing, unlike the striking white and blue images of glaciers on Earth, red dust and debris bury the ice on Mars, making Martian glaciers difficult to identify. Additionally, as noted above, Martian features can remain for immensely long periods on Mars.

What’s the significance of all of this? Identifying these structures remains critical to our understanding of water on Mars and whether life may have once existed on the planet. Fortunately, the identification of Martian glaciers appears to be getting easier, as evidenced with this recent study.

According to another author of the article, Peter Fawdon, “the incredible level of detail that can be seen in the HiRISE [High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment] image of the area” is surprising. With the new data, more studies on the geomorphology and geological context of Hypanis are in the works and expected for publication in the near future. Other potential deltas across the planet could also be analyzed in a similar manner. A more thorough understanding of the delta may suggest that Hypanis Vallis could once again become the target of a future Mars mission, a space force or otherwise.