Roundup: “At Glacier’s End,” Arctic Seabirds Adapt, and Ice Stream Formation

At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

“Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller.”

“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub.  “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”

Read the full story by GlacierHub writer Elza Bouhassira here.

Source: Chris Burkard

Seabirds Find New Ways to Forage in a Changing Arctic

“On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid…In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland.”

Read the full story by GlacierHub writer Audrey Ramming here.

Source: Françoise Amélineau

A First-ever Look at Ice Stream Formation

In this week’s Video of the Week, the world gets its first-ever look at ice stream formation. The video, which was published on the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) YouTube channel on December 17, tracks the rapid movement of the Vavilov Ice Cap, in the high Russian Arctic, from summer 2015 to summer 2018. In the video the glacier’s speed is color-coded by meters per day of movement in what scientists believe is the first documented transition of a glacial surge to a longer-lasting flow known as an ice stream.

Read the full story by GlacierHub senior editor Peter Deneen here.

At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller. 

“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub.  “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”

The proposed boundaries of the national park. It would be the largest in Europe if created.
Source: Iceland Monitor

In between full page spreads of Burkard’s aerial photography––rich with saturated shades of all the blues and greens imaginable in the waters of glacial rivers––McDonald’s prose captures two main lines of thought feeding into the wider discourse on how to manage Iceland’s rivers; should the rivers be dammed and used to power highly energy consumptive industries, or should they be protected as part of a new national park? 

Untitled
Source: Chris Burkard

“To reach a broader audience, I wrote the book I’d want to read––a narrative that (I hope) gracefully weaves together tales of travel, history, culture, and these endangered glacial rivers,” McDonald told GlacierHub. As a result, At Glacier’s End is a well-rounded argument for why now is the time to create a national park in the Highland. 

The Highland (hálendið in Icleandic) is the sparsely populated, high elevation plateau covering Iceland’s interior. In total, it covers about 40 percent of the country. It is mostly uninhabitable volcanic desert dotted with large glaciers and the rivers they feed. Iceland also has a relatively flat, low elevation ring of land on its coasts which acts as the country’s major transportation route. 

Within the Highland reside brilliantly pigmented glacial rivers. The rivers get their color from the glacial flour suspended in their waters. Because of active volcanoes and a history of volcanism, Iceland has diverse rocks of varying colors that glaciers grind up as they move. Once the rock has been ground into flour, it can be carried by meltwater into rivers, giving the rivers their unique coloring. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

“I think the most challenging part of shooting these photos was being in the air, sticking my hand out of a plane, trying to give perspective by capturing every part of the entire river system from the glacier all the way to the ocean. Our prerogative was to give people the full perspective,” Burkard said. Photography, and art more broadly, can play an important role in broadening viewers’ perspectives on an issue. 

Inside the Book

The book opens with a prologue by Burkard. In it, he says he is hesitant to call himself an environmentalist––a surprising way to begin what is essentially a conservation story. “I grew up in a very conservative home and the concept of environmentalism was, in my head, I always pictured some 80-year old dude in a floppy khaki hat. I didn’t realize that anybody could protect and advocate for places they love simply by sharing them––I realized that my work can actually advocate for places I care about,” he explained.

The text and images flow together over the course of the book. “I ordered the text of the book in chronological order from the beginning (Iceland’s land formation) to today (the issues affecting these glacial rivers right now)” McDonald told GlacierHub. He added that “The text mirrors the flow of the images, from glacier to river mouth, beginning to end. Each chapter features an introduction in the form of a personal travel vignette from my time in Iceland, ordered from landing in the country to leaving the country. Then each chapter’s body text follows the history, science, and culture through time.”

In the third chapter, the conservation message at the book’s heart begins to peek through. McDonald explains how due to hydropower Iceland could offer low electricity rates that other energy producers in Europe couldn’t compete with, attracting the high energy use aluminum industry. To generate hydropower it is necessary to dam the rivers. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

One dam, Kárahnjúkar, was completed in 2008, and affected five percent of the Highland. It was constructed for an American company to smelt aluminum. 

After the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Iceland hard, it looked likely that more rivers would become power sources for industry to create much needed jobs. But, the 2010 volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull launched Iceland onto the tourism map, shifting its focus away from aluminum. Tourism boosted Iceland’s economy and by 2016 accounted for 10 percent of its GDP, creating a significant incentive to protect the wilderness that draws visitors to the country. 

The fourth and final chapter highlights the various benefits that would result from the creation of a Highland national park. Locally, glacial rivers help to maintain Iceland’s coastline by delivering glacial sediment to its edges. Building dams would disrupt this process.

Globally, glacial sediments are important as well. The sediments deposited into the ocean actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process of calcium in the rock binding with CO2. The sediment is also a food source for sea algae that many fish species eat, making it important to the fishing industry. 

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Source: Chris Burkard

Creating a New National Park

McDonald examines the hard choices that need to be made to ensure that rural communities have the jobs they need. He considers the consumption that most people partake in using products like cans and cars that contain aluminum. And he weighs the importance of the landscape and broader environment humans rely on. He then calls for readers to show their support for the creation of a Highland national park and includes a link to a petition readers can sign to show their support. He and Burkard believe that such a park would create jobs in rural communities, further increase tourism, and benefit the planet.

At the time of the book’s publication, the plan had the approval of 65 percent of Icelanders. A vote is meant to be held in late 2020. McDonald suggests that the park may need to make exceptions for activities that are not typically accepted on protected lands––but that compromising to ensure that farmers, hunters, herders, off road vehicle users, and hikers can all continue to use the land rather than converting it into a series of dams for industrial hydropower would be the better option. 

“There will certainly be challenges to overcome, like powerful energy lobbies and polarizing politics, but we are optimistic the park will happen by the end of the year,” McDonald said.

“I think one of the most important things to understand about Iceland is that real change can happen right now, and they value all of our voices,” McDonald stated. “So please use your voice by whatever means necessary to support this national park in Iceland. We have an opportunity––as a worldwide community––to say that even though these are Iceland’s glaciers and rivers, we support their preservation as one of the planet’s greatest works of art.”

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Source: Chris Burkard

The Funeral for Iceland’s OK Glacier Attracts International Attention

On August 18, about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, hiked for two hours to attend a somber event. The gathering was in memory of OK Glacier, which had melted so extensively that, in 2014, scientists pronounced it dead. It is the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. 

To be considered a glacier, an ice mass needs to have movement. OK melted so significantly that it no longer had the mass to move under its own weight and so no longer met the criteria of a glacier.

The event received international coverage, appearing in Time, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the BBC, among other major publications. In a New York Times opinion piece, PM Jakobsdottir called the gathering “a local ceremony but a global story.”

“Glaciers are melting all across the world, contributing enormously to rising sea levels,” she wrote. “Himalayan glaciers help regulate the water supply of a quarter of humankind. Natural systems will be disrupted.”

Funeral attendees gathered around a rock on which a commemorative plaque was installed.
(Source: Gisli Palsson)

Two researchers, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, first proposed commemorating the loss of OK Glacier. The Rice University scientists produced a documentary called “Not Okin order to draw attention to the plight of the glacier. In the process of making the film, Howe and Boyer had the idea to hold a kind of memorial for OK, which is shorthand for Okjökull.

Howe and Boyer attended the August 18 commemoration.

Rice University researchers Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer produced a documentary film about OK Glacier. They pose next to a plaque commemorating the glacier’s demise. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

“As we neared the site of the lost glacier, we followed an Icelandic hiking tradition where you walk in silence, think of three wishes, and never look back,” Howe told GlacierHub in an email. “Completing that last 100 meters in silence was exceptionally poignant. We were stepping forward, to be sure, but also reflecting on what it means to say goodbye to the world that we have known.”

Rice University researcher Dominic Boyer holds the plaque commemorating OK Glacier before it is installed. 
(Source: Rice University/Amy McCaig)

Once the participants reached OK, they reflected on the tragedy of OK’s disappearance and on the need to protect existing glaciers.

“At the site of the memorial we had words of recognition, remorse, and— more than anything—calls to action,” Howe said.

Echoing the sentiment, Robinson told the Associated Press: “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action.”

OK’s demise and the commemoration in Iceland has already had ripple effect. On September 22, mourners will gather at a funeral for the Pizol Glacier in eastern Switzerland.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Alaskan Glaciers Are Melting Twice as Fast as Models Predicted

Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Snow Algae Thrives in Some of Earth’s Most Extreme Conditions

Photo Friday: Glacier Tattoos

The beauty and grandeur of glaciers inspire some people to get tattoos of these natural wonders on their skin. Despite the vastness of glaciers, their presence on Earth may be less permanent than those tattoos, due to increased melting caused by global warming. The ways in which people choose to immortalize glaciers also vary. Some designs capture the simple beauty, while others focus on memories or experiences on glaciers.

See images of these fascinating tattoos below:

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A delicate inner arm tattoo of glacier-covered peaks (Source: Small Tattoos/Twitter).

 

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A tattoo inspired by Kokanee Glacier in British Columbia (Source: Ojas Cats/Twitter).

 

C4WRIgIWYAABM0M
A ribcage tattoo inspired by Icelandic glaciers (Source: Little Tattoos/Twitter).

 

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Before and after photos of a sleeve tattoo of a climber ascending a peak (Source: Owlcat Artists/Twitter).

 

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An upper arm tattoo of Mount Rainier (Source: Paolo Mottola Mastroianni/Flickr).

 

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A large side tattoo of a mountain range (Source: Jeff Tarinelli/Flickr).

 

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A tattoo of Tahoma’s Glaciers and the Wonderland Trail (Source: Phillip Martello).

 

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A small wrist tattoo of glaciers (Source: Station de FLAINE/Twitter).

 

Freed of Ice, Iceland Rises

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GPS station at Skogaheidi, Iceland (Source: The Institute of Earth Sciences)

Iceland is, in fact, a land of ice. It is home to at least 269 glaciers, which occupy the equivalent of over 1.4 billion Olympic swimming pools. But those glaciers are melting, causing the land underneath to rise as the weight of the ice lifts. According to a new study published online in Geophysical Research Letters in February, Iceland is actually rising over 30mm per year in some places, and the rate of rise is accelerating.

These were the findings of a team of researchers led by Richard Bennett, associate professor from the University of Arizona in Tucson. They have been doing field research in Iceland since 2006 to better understand the relationship between warming temperatures, glacial melt and land rise. To track the rate of glacier melt and measure the positioning of the earth, the team collected data from 62 GPS receivers fastened to rocks in Iceland. Most of those GPS receivers were already in place, but the group added 20 new receivers of its own.

It is challenging to accurately measure the uplift response to modern ice loss because the signal can be complicated by the remnant responses to past glacial retreat. But it turns out Iceland is a favorable place for GPS-based study, because research suggests these remnant responses are minimal: the observed changes in land positioning correspond mostly to recent changes in ice mass.

Bennett and his team first learned that land rise was accelerating in 2013 after they examined one of the oldest GPS stations, located in central Iceland. When they checked other nearby stations, these also showed an accelerating rate of rebound. By analyzing the signals from the GPS network using statistical modeling, the team then found that it was the region between several ice caps that rebounded the fastest. They estimated that the largest uplift took place near the center of Iceland, between two ice caps called Vatnajökull and Hofsjökull, with rates of over 30mm each year.

Glacier Vatnajökull, Iceland (Source: Flickr)
Glacier Vatnajökull, Iceland (Source: Flickr)

The researchers also observed a remarkable increase in the rate of ice loss due to melting in the years since 1995, when some of the continuously operating GPS receivers were first placed in Iceland. Kathleen Compton, a geosciences doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona in Tucson, one of the researchers on the team, decided to use mathematical models to test whether the acceleration in crust uplift corresponded to static or accelerating rates of ice melting. Her models indicated that for land rise to accelerate, ice loss must also accelerate. She also found a correlation between rising temperatures in Iceland and land lift. Temperature records for Iceland show an increase in warming began in 1980.

The team plans to analyze land uplift data to uncover seasonal variations in growth and melting of ice caps, especially during winter snow season and summer. “Our hope is we can use current GPS measurements of uplift to more easily quantify ice loss,” said Bennett in an interview published on the American Geophysical Union’s website.

In related research, in a 2006 paper in the Journal of Geophysics Research, Aðalgeirsdóttir et al. found that glacier ice loss in Iceland dates back to at least 1995 and this trend should continue. Scientific models demonstrate that specific glaciers—Hofsjökull and southern Vatnajökull—are likely to shrink by half in the coming two centuries. Another paper by Compton et al., published in Geophysical Research Letters this February, indicates that if glacier melt continues to accelerate at current rates in Iceland, central Iceland will probably rise at a rate of 40mm per year over the next decade.

The continuous station GFUM operated by the Icelandic Meteorogical Office (Source: Institute of Earth Sciences)
The continuous station GFUM operated by the Icelandic Meteorogical Office (Source: The Institute of Earth Sciences)

Recent findings by Schmidt et al., published in 2012 on Earth and Planetary Science Letters, further suggest that continued glacier retreat could bring about upward movement of the earth’s mantle—the layer between the crust and the core—which could result in more volcanic eruptions and increase the volume of volcanic rocks during eruptions.

The natural and social impacts of warming-induced ice loss in Iceland are likely to grow over time and are critical subjects for further research.

To read more about glacial retreat and earth uplift, check out this past story on Glacierhub.org.