Over 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park were at risk of mining contamination, but they will now receive increased federal protection aimed at better preserving them.
The largest public lands bill in decades was passed in February by the US Congress with bipartisan support. In the House, the vote was 363-62 and in the Senate 92-8. President Trump signed the bill in mid-March. The Natural Resources Management Act sets forth provisions that aim to protect land, rivers, and ecosystems across US public lands. The bipartisan effort extends protections to over 300,000 acres of land in areas around North Cascades and Yellowstone National Parks. The measure also adds 1.3 million acres of wilderness to the western United States, protecting those areas from resource extraction, such as oil and gas drilling. Utah will be granted 661,200 acres of wilderness land, California 375,500 acres, and New Mexico 272,900. A full list of the expansions of national parks, wilderness areas, and trail extensions can be foundhere.
Advocates for the legislation, including national park visitors, conservationists, and environmentalists, hope that it will reduce or prevent harmful impacts of climate change and water contamination on sensitive environments, such as the glaciers in North Cascades. Mining creates soot that falls onto glacier surfaces, reducing their albedo, which in turn causes greater amounts of melting.
According to the National Parks Service, North Cascades is among the snowiest places on Earth and is the most heavily glaciated area in the United States, outside of Alaska. Glaciers in the park are shrinking due to the impacts of climate change—20 percent of North Cascade National Park’s Boulder Glacier has been lost to glacial retreat. North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP) has tracked changes on the glacier since 1988. According to NCGCP, Boulder Glacier has retreated about 20 meters per year from 1984-2009, a total of about 515 meters.
The Natural Resources Management Act will provide a larger buffer zone between mining sites and the park.
After the bill was passed in February by the US Senate, Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservancy Association stated: “We are one step closer to adding over 2 million acres of parks, wilderness, and conservation lands into protected status.”
Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, opposed the bill, fearing land in his home state would miss out on development opportunities.
Lisa Dale, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has extensive experience with wilderness designation. Dale, who worked for the Wilderness Society, which was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 National Wilderness Act, explained to GlacierHub the process for expanding wilderness protections on public lands.
The land must not have any roads and must be a minimum of 5,000 acres. And the areas under consideration should, according to Dale, “provide an opportunity for solitude … and not have any presence of modern life.” The presence of modern life includes noise and light pollution from nearby cities and towns.
Land under considered for protection must be deemed a valuable and unique ecosystem—North Cascade National Park, for example, which hosts awe-inspiring terrain and hundreds of glaciers.
The process for granting wilderness status is not typically fast or easy. First, it is important to note that land turned into wilderness is not taken from the private sector. Rather, wilderness comes from land that the federal government already possesses. What makes it wilderness, however, is added protection and restrictions of the land. After the land is constituted as wilderness, the area is designated for recreation—fishing, hunting, backpacking, and finding solitude. Mechanized vehicles are prohibited.
Dale said the process often starts with a small, grass-roots organization that has a substantial amount of data on federal areas. These areas are usually designated Wilderness Study Areas. In order to be considered a Wilderness Study Area, it must have been identified by the Land Management Agency, Forest Service, Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management as having “wilderness quality.” This wilderness quality will be maintained by organizations such as the Wilderness Society as they wait for wilderness approval.
There is much to celebrate with the passing of this bill, and with it comes the protection and conservation of sensitive ecosystems like the glaciers of Northern Cascade National Park.
“To have all of these things happening at once happening in one bill is pretty exciting and worth celebrating because of the bi-partisan nature of the support that came around to support these actions,” Dale said.
A recent New York Times interactive article documents the changes of glaciers around Washington State and Alaska. The melting of these glaciers has a heavy impact on more than just sea level rise. It impacts salmon spawning, river and stream patterns, and nearby landscapes. Changes to glaciers also impact the nutrient balance and temperature of glacier-fed watersheds. These disruptions can shift a whole ecosystem.
Climate reporter Henry Fountain and photographer Max Whittaker ventured to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to evaluate the impacts of melting glaciers on local ecosystems.
Glacial ecosystems have adapted to fit this cold water environment. As the temperature of the water rises, it becomes more difficult for smaller species to remain in their habitat and could potentially cause them to die out.
The impact on glacial melt on salmon, however, is more complex. Salmon are major income source in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Though temperature is also important to salmon migration and reproduction, there could be some temporary benefits for salmon in terms of glacial melt. The melt brings rocks and boulders that were not in the river bed before, providing excellent spawning sites. Because of this, some areas could actually see an increase in salmon populations.
This Video of the Week provides an introduction to the World Bank’s newly released Human Capital Index (HCI); it explains what the Human Capital Index is, how it works, and why it is important.
The HCI measures investment in human capital in countries around the world. It highlights the necessity of basic human rights for children of the next generation of workers, such as: social and economic equality, good health, proper nutrition, and access to education. Proper investment in human capital is essential to facilitate economic development and prosperity on the national level. At the individual level, investment in human capital works to help people reach their true potential, provide for their future families, and improve overall quality of life.
This index also calls attention to existing disparities between glacier countries. The United States, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Iceland, and New Zealand have HCIs ranking in the top (fourth) quartile of countries; Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Kyrgyzstan rank in the third HCI quartile; Tajikistan and Nepal rank in the second HCI quartile. Bolivia and Bhutan both lacked data to calculate HCI values.
In early August, at the Goldschmidt Conference on geochemistry, a team of scientists from Columbia University presented evidence from seafloor cores that suggest that a million years ago ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere began sticking to their bedrock. The team proposes that as the glaciers grew thicker, it led to a global cooling that disrupted both the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the ice age cycle. But how exactly might glaciers have been involved in this perplexing shift in paleoclimate ice age patterns?
As skeptics of anthropogenic climate change often note, Earth’s climate changes and has changed before. Aside from humans’ unabashed consumption of greenhouse gases, a wide variety of natural factors cause shifts in this complex system. For instance, scientists have long acknowledged how tiny changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, collectively known as the Milankovitch Cycles, drive the coming and going of ice ages. As the Milankovitch Cycles interact, the planet’s movements displace the incoming solar radiation across the globe, dramatically affecting the Earth’s climate system and the advancement and retreat of glaciers.
For a while, ice ages were known to occur steadily every 40,000 years. However, a million years ago, that metronome inexplicably got off course. Instead of periods of intense glaciation occurring every 40,000 years, it shifted to every 100,000 years. But the likely culprit, the Milankovitch Cycles, hadn’t changed a million years ago. It didn’t add up.
And that’s not all. Around the same time, the massive AMOC— the conveyor belt that brings warm, shallow water to the North Atlantic, where it cools and sinks to the sea floor before returning south— nearly collapsed. Were these events related? If so, how and what was behind them?
These questions have perplexed scientists for years, as was apparent even at last month’s conference. But through an analysis of the chemical composition of basin-wide ocean sediment cores over several years, geochemist Steve Goldstein from Columbia University, who led the study presented at Goldschmidt, found unique shifts in isotopic signals that reflect a slower turn of the AMOC 950,000 years ago.
For the present study, the team examined five more ocean cores, in addition to two analyzed earlier in the decade, that also demonstrated signs of a weak AMOC. The group believes two of the cores from the North Atlantic indicate possible triggers for the AMOC crisis. They suggest that such a slowdown could have rapidly cooled the North Atlantic region, in turn lengthening the ice age rhythm.
Peter Clark, a glaciologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has advanced this hypothesis as the only plausible explanation for many years, wrote Paul Voosen in Science last month. Three million years ago, a sustained warming period allowed for the build-up of thick soil in the Northern Hemisphere. Ice sheets would often collapse as the soil acted as an oiled buffer. But repeated glaciations wore down the warm protective layer and enabled glaciers to dig deeper into older rock that stabilized them and helped them thicken and advance.
But as exciting as the findings may be, not everyone is sold on the hypothesis. Climate scientist Amy Clement from the University of Miami told GlacierHub it sounded like an interesting concept, but she has problems with how the AMOC idea is applied in the modern climate. Clement explains how some argue that variations in the AMOC strength control the North Atlantic surface temperature on these multi-decadal timescales.
“The problems are (1) timescale and (2) magnitude. On these short timescales, the AMOC doesn’t seem to be the driver,” she noted to GlacierHub. “Instead we think the North Atlantic surface temperatures are controlled by external forcing (some natural, such as the sun and volcanoes) and some anthropogenic (such as greenhouse gases and aerosols).”
Others including Henrieka Detlef, a paleoclimatologist at Cardiff University in the U.K., told Science that while she accepts something important happened in the North Atlantic to lead to AMOC crisis, she has yet to see conclusive evidence that northern ice sheets were increasing in thickness prior to the AMOC slowdown.
Still, most agree that ice age rhythm shifts were likely caused by more than one trigger. The Columbia team is confident that thickening ice sheets in addition to other factors played a role in the perplexing transition. “The interactions between the different components of the Earth’s climate are elusive, but understanding them is crucial for reconstructing past changes,” Maayan Yehudai, part of the research group and a graduate student at Columbia, told GlacierHub. “We still have a long way to go as scientists before we can characterize them perfectly, but I think this is another important step forward on this account.”
A 30-meter, Komelon-branded measuring tape, a pencil, and a yellow paper form are all Hallsteinn Haraldsson carries with him when he travels to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland. But unfurling the measuring tape before me at his home in Mosfellsbaer, a town just outside of Reykjavik, he says it is a significant upgrade from the piece of marked rope he used to take with him.
With 11 percent of the landmass covered in ice, rapidly ebbing glaciers are threatening to reshape Iceland’s landscape, and Haraldsson, 74, is part of a contingent of volunteer glacier monitors who are at the frontlines of tracking the retreat. Every autumn, Haraldsson, often accompanied by his wife and son, sets off on foot to measure the changes in his assigned glacier.
Their rudimentary tools are a far cry from the satellites and time-lapse photography deployed around the world in recent decades to track ice loss, and lately there’s been talk of disbanding this nearly century-old, low-tech network of monitors. But this sort of ground-truthing work has more than one purpose: With Iceland’s glaciers at their melting point, these men and women— farmers, schoolchildren, a plastic surgeon, even a Supreme Court judge— serve not only as the glaciers’ guardians, but also their messengers.
Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country. The numbers they collect are published in the Icelandic scientific journal Jokull, and submitted to the World Glacier Monitoring Service database. Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters, like Haraldsson, when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen.
It’s very likely one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world. But in an age when precision glacier tracking can be conducted from afar, it remains unclear whether, or for how long, this sort of heirloom monitoring will continue into the future. It’s a question even some of the network’s own members have been asking.
As Haraldsson tells it, his father was raised in a modest yellow farmhouse on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. As an adult, he spent his days tending his fields and teaching at the local school, and in his free time, he studied the geology of the region, walking miles through the lava beds that lay in the shadow of the crown gem of the region: Snaefellsjokull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped volcano.
It was a quiet life, unremarkable to those who passed through, until the arrival in 1932 of Jon Eythorsson— a young man who had recently returned to Iceland after studying meteorology, first in Oslo, and then in Bergen, Norway.
Eythorsson was now working for the Meteorological Office in Reykjavik, and in his spare time he had established the first program to monitor the growth and retreat of Iceland’s glaciers— but getting around the country to check up on them was troublesome and time-consuming. For the scientific record, every glacier needed to be measured in the same month, and travel was slow, often complicated by fierce, unpredictable storms. If his project was going to succeed, he needed new recruits, ideally farmers who need not travel far.
That, says Haraldsson, is how his family came to inherit Snaefellsjokull. At the time, there was no sense of scientific urgency to glacier monitoring; glaciers had always expanded and deflated naturally in modest increments. But that was decades ago. The world’s glaciers now serve as harbingers of human-caused climate change, providing powerful visual evidence of how people have changed the planet.
Inside Haraldsson’s home, portraits of Snaefellsjokull adorn the white walls in a way often reserved for close family members. Some are rendered in pastels and watercolor, while others are more abstract, etched in black and white. To Haraldsson, his wife Jenny (who painted many of them), and their son, Haraldur, it’s the family glacier.
Haraldsson began accompanying his father on his hikes to the glacier around 1962. Back then, the journey to the terminus was 10 to 15 kilometers by foot through steep, rocky terrain. The glacier itself spanned some 11 square kilometers— tiny as glaciers go. When they arrived, they would pull a long piece of thin rope with meter marks taut to measure the distance between the last icy bit and a metal rod, jotting down the observations they would send to the Society. When his father passed away 14 years later, Haraldsson took over the task full time.
From 1975 to 1995, the glacier actually advanced 270 meters, according to Haraldsson’s records. Such findings weren’t uncommon during that period: In the 1930s, many of the country’s glaciers had retreated significantly due to an unusually warm climate, but beginning in 1970, they advanced once more until human-caused climate change beat them back again.
Eventually his wife, and then his son, joined him in his annual glacial pilgrimage. By then a road had been built, passing within one meter of the glacier. From 1995 to 2017, their records suggest that Snaefellsjokull retreated 354 meters— a net loss of 84 meters from its position in 1975.
Most local people are upset to see the glacier disappearing, Haraldsson says. Everyone on the peninsula uses the glacier as their key landmark; in casual conversation, distance is defined by how far away something is from Snaefellsjokull. Others describe feeling a supernatural pull toward it. Perhaps Jules Verne felt the same: Snaefellsjokull served as the setting for his book “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”When the glacier began its retreat in the 1990s, the family thought of it as a natural fluctuation. But since then, almost all of Iceland’s monitored glaciers have entered a state of decline. Now, they understand, their glacier is disappearing because of global warming. In 2016, scientists announced they expected Snaefellsjokull to vanish entirely by the end of the century.
Lost data contained within the World Glacier Monitoring Service database, which includes more than 100,000 glaciers worldwide, has been created via aerial photograph comparisons. Each glacier inventory includes the location of the glacier, length, orientation, and elevation. “Entries are based on a single observation in time,” reads the WGMS website— a snapshot of a glacier in a particular moment. About half of all glaciers in the authoritative database are measured via a comparison of aerial photographs from year to year and maps.
In 2005, the WGMS and the National Snow and Ice Data Centerlaunched the Global Land Ice Measurements from Spaceprogram. Rather than rely solely on photographs and in-person observations, glacier inventories can now be collected via a remote sensing instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. The benefits of such increasingly sophisticated remote monitoring are substantial in terms efficiency. But if even aerial photography is going the way of the dinosaurs, what’s to become of Iceland’s glacier monitors?
It’s something that even Jon Eythorsson’s granddaughter, Kristjana Eythorsdottir, thinks about. She was only 10 years old when the elder Eythorsson, who formally established the Iceland Glaciological Society in 1950, passed away, but she followed his vocation and today works at the Iceland Meteorological Office. Her grey hair is shorn into a spiky pixie cut, and her hiking pants and running shoes suggest she’s ready to set out into the field at a moment’s notice.
“The [Glaciological] Society has a lot of written songs and texts,” she says, recalling the impact her grandfather’s volunteer network had on her life. “One saying goes that my grandfather loved the glaciers so much they were shrinking.”
When traveling together to examine the glaciers, the society’s members and scientists would sing songs written by Sigurdur Thorarinsson, an Icelandic geologist, volcanologist, glaciologist— and lyricist. They would write new ones, too; sometime before 1970, the Society published a book of glacier songs.
Since 2000, Eythorsdottir has been monitoring a terminus at Langjokull, a large glacier in the south of Iceland 100 times the size of Snaefellsjokull. (She didn’t inherit her glacier, but rather applied when one became available.) Each September, she sets out on the roughly five-hour round-trip hike to the glacier with her husband. “There is a river that goes here,” she says, tracing its path carefully on a map. “It’s kind of a bad smelling, geothermal river— the white-tempered river. We have to take our clothes off, or put on waders,” to get across.
Sometimes they’ll look for different routes, passing through grazing sheep and their herders. The landscape is ever-changing. Already, the glacier has retreated more than 500 meters.
Unlike Haraldsson, Eythorsdottir is using more modern technology. “We used to use measuring tape, but now we are tracking with GPS,” she says. “There are more possibilities to represent the data…but I think we will always go there anyway until it’s gone.”
Whenever he runs into friends, Hallsteinn Haraldsson, the keeper of Snaefellsjokull, says they first they ask how he and his family is doing. And then, he says, they ask, “How is the glacier?”
It’s a question that was intimately familiar to all of Iceland’s volunteer glacier monitors as they gathered in 2016 at the natural sciences building at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Most had never met each other before, and they were there to discuss how the glaciers were changing and what tools would be best to measure the glacier fronts moving forward— mainly whether or not volunteers should increase their use of handheld GPS devices over reference points and measuring tapes.
“There’s been [internal] discussion as to whether we should keep doing this or not since it can now be done with remote sensing,” says Bergur Einarsson, a glacial hydrologist who recently took over management of the network from geologist Oddur Sigurdsson. Though some might see the crude nature of pen and paper measurements as a hindrance, Einarsson argues it’s actually an asset. “One of the strengths is that these measurements have not evolved. They’re done more or less in the same way they were done in the 1930s.”
That means that while scientists can now use remote sensing to gather precise images and coordinates, that record is much shorter and often lacks the same specificity as ground-level measurements. Moreover, complex technological projects require significant funding that often comes with a sunset clause: Time-lapse photography and remote sensors aren’t nearly as cheap— or as dependable— as a few dozen volunteers armed with measuring tapes.
(The strength of Iceland’s program was underscored last year when scientists from around the globe met at the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., to discuss the fate of NASA’s Terra satellite. After 18 years in orbit, the satellite was beginning to run low on fuel— jeopardizing the scientific record.)
But for Einarsson, there’s an even bigger reason to keep it going— one that the Haraldssons and Eythorsdottir and some 33 other volunteer glacier monitors would likely share. “People are going out there, going to the glacier front, [where] they see the changes,” he says. “Then they are going back into society and they are almost like ambassadors of climate change, infiltrating information into different branches of society.”
“It is very important to engage with people in some way,” his predecessor Sigurdsson says, “and keep them interested in their surroundings.”
This Photo Friday, take a look at NASA’s Global Ice Viewer, an online interactive that shows how climate change is impacting glaciers, sea ice and continental ice sheets worldwide. Earlier this month, GlacierHub has also reported that climate change is behind more frequent and powerful avalanches in Alaska. Roughly 10 percent of the world’s surface is covered in ice, but as temperatures rise, the ice is quickly disappearing. Join us in viewing some of Alaska’s great glaciers, before and after several years of intense global warming.
If you wish to view more of Alaska’s glaciers, click here.
The photos displayed below were curated by NASA, but the original collection belongs to the Glacier Photograph Collection, a searchable database of digital photographs operated by the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The Growth of Simple Plant Life in Extreme Conditions
From Polar Biology: “Aerial dispersal in the colonization of bare ground by lichens in the polar regions remains poorly understood. Potential colonists may arrive continually, although extreme abiotic conditions limit their viability. [The authors] investigated the vegetative dispersal of Antarctic macrolichens along a successional gradient (from 8.6–7.0 ka BP up to present) after glacial retreat on James Ross Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula region.“
Future Warming and Water Resource Availability in the Tibetan Plateau
From Earth Science Reviews: “Future climate warming is expected to have a significant effect on the operation of Earth and Ecological systems. A key concern in the future is water resource availability. In regions such as the Tibet Plateau (TP) lakes and glaciers appear to be highly sensitive to climate forcing and variations in the size and extent of these systems will have profound socio-economic and environmental consequences in South and Central Asia.”
Learn more about how these water sources will be affected here.
What Does Glacial Retreat in Alaska Mean for the Salmon Population?
From BioScience: “Glaciers cover 10 percent of our planet’s land surface, but as our climate warms, many glaciers are shrinking. As glacial retreat proceeds northward along the Pacific coast of the continental United States, through Canada, to Alaska, it is creating new stream habitat for salmon that has not existed in millennia. When and how will this new stream rollout happen? Where will salmon be distributed in the future?”
Find out what they discovered about the future of the salmon population here.
Asia will likely lose at least one-third of its glaciers by the end of this century, according to a recent study published in Nature. The ambitious target of keeping global average temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels set by the Paris Climate Accords won’t even be enough to curtail this fate, with rising temperatures having an outsized effect on glaciers in the high mountains of Asia.
“Our work shows that a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees actually means a temperature increase of 2.1 degrees on average for the glacierized area in Asia,” Philip Kraaijenbrink, the lead author on the paper told GlacierHub. “We show that even if the world meets this extreme ambitious target, thirty-six percent of the ice volume will be lost by 2100.”
The goal of 1.5 degrees is generally regarded as extremely ambitious, and Kraaijenbrink and his team found that under more realistic scenarios, ice loss will be between 49 and 64 percent. Meltwater from those glaciers supply water to 800 million people. A loss of even one-third of the glaciers in the region has the potential for serious consequences for water management, food security, and energy production. Kraaijenbrink’s study stops short of investigating the actual impact this loss may have on people, and it is difficult to predict exactly what the future will hold for communities downstream of these glaciers.
Anna Sinisalo, a glaciologist with ICIMOD, who was not associated with the study, told GlacierHub, “There is also a need to reconstruct historical variability of climate to better understand the ongoing change, as without knowing the past we cannot make reliable predictions about the future.” However, this research is still a necessary step to understand how increasing temperatures will affect the region.
In addition to showing that a warming world will lead to losses of glaciers, the researchers also found large differences in how glaciers in the region would respond to climate change. Much of this is due to the characteristics of the individual glaciers, like the amount of debris cover, or differences in local precipitation and temperature projections. Places like Hindu Kush and Pamir, for example, will experience a mean increase in temperature over 2 degrees, while other locations like the Central Himalayas will be closer to the global mean increase.
The team achieved their results by running their model across several climate scenarios and produced a map that showed the differences in glacier loss in different areas under different climate projections. In particular, their model looked at the effects of different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). These pathways range from scenarios that project under 2 degrees Celsius warming (RCP2.6) up to more than 5 or 6 degrees warming (RCP 8.5). The numbers after RCP represent the amount of radiative forcing, which is the difference between the amount of heat from the sun that enters the earth’s atmosphere and the amount of radiation emitted back out into space from the earth. RCP 8.5 is often described as a “baseline” or “business-as-usual” scenario where little or nothing is done to combat climate change.
Of course, there is a fair amount of uncertainty in this research. It is unclear how much the climate will change in the coming decades. For the most part, it depends on how the world tackles carbon emissions, which is why the researchers “included the entire scope of climate projections for this very reason.” Kraaijenbrink and his team also collaborated with other glacier modelers in the Glacier Model Intercomparison Project. According to Kraaijenbrink, “The aim of this is to reduce uncertainties in glacier projections in order to provide better predictions to be used for impact studies and by policymakers.”
The researchers paid special focus to debris-covered glaciers because up until now these glaciers in Asia were not well represented in the models. As part of the study, Kraaijenbrink found that about 11 percent of Asia’s high mountain glaciers are covered with debris, with the largest relative coverage in Hindu Kush.
Debris-covered glaciers are particularly difficult to model because researchers have to take into account how the rocks and other materials covering the glacier will affect retreat. In many cases, the debris insulate or protect the glacier from some amounts of radiation and warming. According to Kraaijenbrink, incorporating the debris-covered glaciers in their model allowed them to get a better estimate of future mass loss and understand how different glaciers in different areas would behave.
While the researchers looked at the effects of all RCPs in the region, Kraaijenbrink says the team chose to spotlight the study on 1.5 degrees because “the IPCC specifically requested studies that consider the effects of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.” The IPCC is currently preparing a report on the effects of 1.5 degrees of warming, and likely this research will be included to assess the seriousness such a temperature increase.
The study pays close attention to the effects of climate mitigation on glacier shrinkage. Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich, who was also not affiliated with this study, told GlacierHub that the research “shows concretely what different mitigation policies imply for the glaciers in the high mountains of Asia. And that [there’s] actually a huge difference whether we will be successful in reducing emissions (like 1.5°C warming of RCP2.6), or not (RCP8.5).”
The urgent need for mitigation becomes more evident as the body of research showing the massive effect of anthropogenic climate change, from the tropical Andes to the high mountains of Asia, grows. This urgency, in turn, may hopefully stimulate more effective action to combat climate change.
In recent years, scientists have found other locations on planets, moons and exoplanets where life might exist. Different animals and organisms like tardigrades (eight-legged microscopic animals commonly known as water bears) have also been sent into space to explore the conditions for survival away from Earth. However, a recent paper published in the journal Contemporary Trends in Geoscience argues that we can look closer to home to understand survival strategies of extraterrestrial life.
More concretely, the authors propose we look to glacier cryoconites, which are granular or spherical mineral particles aggregated with microorganisms like cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, tardigrades and rotifera (another type of multicellular, microscopic animal). Glaciers are among the most extreme environments on Earth due to the high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation received and the permanently cold conditions. These factors make them analogous to icy planets or moons.
The associations of cryoconites and microorganisms on glaciers are held together in biofilms by extracellular polymeric substances (natural polymers of high molecular weight) secreted by cyanobacteria. They exist as sediment or in cryoconite holes (water-filled reservoirs with cryoconite sediment on the floor) on glacier surfaces.
Cryoconites have been found on every glacier where researchers have looked for them. Cryoconite holes form due to the darkening of color (also termed a decrease in the albedo, or reflectivity of solar radiation) of cryoconite-covered surfaces. The darker color leads to greater absorption of radiation, with an associated warming and increasing melt rates.
“Today we think that simple life forms might have survived on Mars in glacial refugia or under the surface. They can and could have evolved on Saturn and Jupiter’s icy moons,” Krzysztof Zawierucha, the lead author from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, shared with GlacierHub. “Imagine a multicellular organism, even a microscopic one, which is able to live and reproduce on an icy moon… It is a biotechnological volcano.”
Organisms that live in glaciated regions are adapted to survive in extreme conditions and could provide insights into the survival strategies of extraterrestrial life. Some possess lipids (organic compounds that are not water-soluble), and produce proteins and extracellular polymeric substances that protect them from freezing and drying. Others are able to enter cryptobiotic states in which metabolic activity is reduced to an undetectable level, allowing them to survive extremely harsh conditions.
The microorganisms in cryoconites cooperate and compete, affecting each other’s survival responses. Therefore, previous astrobiological studies, which have only been conducted on single strains of microorganisms, may not reflect the true survival mechanisms of these microorganisms.
In addition, previous astrobiological studies involving some of these microorganisms used terrestrial or limno-terrestrial (moist terrestrial environments that go through periods of immersion and desiccation) taxa, such as moss cushions, which are less likely to be well-adapted to icy planets than their glacier-dwelling cousins.
Tardigrades found in cryoconite have black pigmentation, which probably protects them from high UV radiation. Along with tardigrades, glacier-dwelling rotifera, specifically Bdelloidea, also possess a great ability to repair DNA damage, which confers high resistance to UV radiation. Both may also be better adapted to surviving in constantly near-freezing conditions than terrestrial forms.
“So far, a number of processes analogous to those on Mars and other planets or moons have been found in the McMurdo Dry Valley as well as other dry valleys or brines in sea ice, both of which were considered to be extraterrestrial ecosystem analoguos. There is a great body of evidence that some bacteria and microscopic animals like tardigrades may survive under Martian conditions,” Zawierucha explained.
“Of course, to survive does not mean to be active and to reproduce. Undoubtedly, however, it triggers consideration regarding life beyond Earth, especially in close proximity or connection with permafrost or ice,” he added.
As such, further research about cryoconites could provide insight to mechanisms that enable organisms to survive such extreme conditions. At the same time, cryoconites could also be used in future astrobiological studies to understand how life on other planets functions.
At GlacierHub, we don’t just love science— we’re passionate about art and photography, too. We’ve featured work by Zaria Forman and Diane Burko, and each Friday we share photographs of glaciers and other mountain scenes. Now we’re excited to try something new: We’d like to invite our readers to share photographs that you’ve taken of glaciers. Specifically, we want your glacier selfies.
President Barack Obama has already demonstrated this, in a video selfie with a glacier he shot in September last year in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, during a trip to the Arctic focused on climate change.
“Behind me is one of the most visited glaciers in Alaska,” Obama said. “It is spectacular, as you can see. And we’ve been able to spend the day out here, just learning more about how the glaciers are receding. It’s a signpost of what’s happening with a changing climate.”
In that spirit— in recognition of the beauty of glaciers, their threatened status, and glaciers as places that humans interact with— we’d like to invite you to submit your own glacier selfies. We want selfies of you standing in front of, on, or near a glacier. This invitation is open to anyone who might visit a glacier: a researcher or scientist, tourist or traveler, or someone who lives near one.
We will likely publish some of these images on GlacierHub. The photos (no videos, please) should be relatively recent, and should be true selfies. Please email submissions to email@example.com with a note giving us permission to publish them, along with some basic information: your name, the glacier’s name, the date it was taken, and what you were doing there. (And don’t take any risks while taking the selfie!)
Please email us your photos by May 1– although if you have a trip to a glacier planned after that, let us know.
Researchers have long used preserved sediment layers in glaciers as time records to understand the climate of the past. But now, researchers, publishing in Quaternary Science Reviews, have used lake sediments in glacier-fed Lake Hajeren in Svalbard to recreate glacier variability during the Holocene period.
The sediments, which were deposited over millennia, have been undisturbed, allowing researchers to develop a continuous and full record of glaciers as early as 11,700 calibrated Before Present (BP). The dates were calculated using radiocarbon calibration, meaning that the dates have been compared to other radiocarbon samples. Atmospheric carbon varies over time, so it does not necessarily correspond to the current Gregorian calendar. By comparing different radiocarbon samples, researchers hope to develop a more accurate dating system.
The researchers’ complete record revealed a number of new findings about the advance and presence of the Svalbard glacier. Sediments in Lake Hajeren indicated that between 3380 and 3230 cal BP there was a glacier advance that lasted more than 100 years. The glacier advance had never before been recorded.
Researchers also noted that during the deglaciation period before 11,300 cal BP, glaciers in Svalbard remained, and that between 7.4 and 6.7 thousand cal BP, glaciers disappeared. It wasn’t until 4250 cal BP that glacier reformation began. The variability in glacier presence and formation can be attributed to pulses from the melting Laurentide Ice Sheet, episodes of cooling in the Atlantic and reduced isolation during summers.
“These findings highlight the climate-sensitivity of the small glaciers studied, which rapidly responded to climate shifts,” the authors wrote.
Their research contributes to a body of work looking to better understand the driving forces behind climate variability in the Arctic, the region most affected by climate change. The Arctic also has a disproportional impact on the global climate compared to other parts of the world.
Arctic response to climate change can also be used to develop climate models that estimate the impacts of global warming.
“The rapid response of the small Hajeren glaciers improves our understanding of climate variability on Svalbard, suggesting that the Holocene was punctuated by major centennial-scale perturbations,” the authors concluded. “As such, this study underlines the value of glacier-fed lake sediments in contextualizing Arctic climate dynamics.”
“Increased ice melting revealed in 2006–2007 many reminiscences of ancient human activity around ice patches near Mt Galdhøpiggen, Norway’s highest mountain peak. The public limited company ‘Klimapark 2469 AS’ was established to develop a heritage interpretation product and to study climate change. A 60-metre long ice tunnel is excavated in the ice patch Juvfonna, where guided walks and a display presenting climate change, archeology, Norse mythology, and glaciology are offered. […] An important outcome is the fruitful exchange of experiences, between public and private partners, tourism and science interests, amateurs and professionals, and between local, regional and national actors.”
“To reveal temporal variability of archaeal and bacterial abundance, community structure, as well as microbial biomass and activity, soils of different ages (young, intermediate, mature) were sampled along a glacier foreland in the Austrian Central Alps, at the beginning (summer) and at the end (autumn) of the plant growing season. […] Our results indicate that temporal variations of microbial activities, biomass, and abundance in alpine glacier foreland soils distinctly increased along with the age of the soils and highlight the importance of sampling date for ecological studies.”
Sediments in Lake Reveals Clues About Glacier Variability
“The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. Holocene proxy time-series are increasingly used to put this amplified response in perspective by understanding Arctic climate processes beyond the instrumental period. However, available datasets are scarce, unevenly distributed and often of coarse resolution. Glaciers are sensitive recorders of climate shifts and variations in rock-flour production transfer this signal to the lacustrine sediment archives of downstream lakes. Here, we present the first full Holocene record of continuous glacier variability on Svalbard from glacier-fed Lake Hajeren. This reconstruction is based on an undisturbed lake sediment core that covers the entire Holocene and resolves variability on centennial scales owing to 26 dating points.”