The following post was written by Dr. Jeff Kargel.

I am a glaciologist and planetary scientist, now at the Planetary Science Institute, formerly at the University of Arizona and US Geological Survey. I cofounded, then directed Global Land Ice Measurements from Space. My work involves remote sensing and field studies of glaciers, glacial lakes, and landslides. I apply science to human concerns when earthquakes hit mountains, glacial lakes burst, landslides and avalanches dam rivers, or when mountain disasters destroy oil pipelines, highways, villages and military bases.

My earliest University studies in geology taught me about natural coal ages and ice ages. I became concerned about human-caused climate change in the 1980s when the scientific community’s alarm amped up about industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The basic physics is not complex. Human-caused global warming was predicted in the 1890s by Svante Arrhenius and Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin. They recognized that fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor explain the ice ages and interglacials, and that industrial emissions of carbon dioxide eventually would alter Earth’s climate.

If not for greenhouse gases, the Earth would be gripped by a permanent global ice age. But if too much of these gases are added rapidly, then climate change is injurious. Venus, where surface temperatures are near 750 degrees F, has an extreme “super-greenhouse.” Mars, on the other hand, has so little greenhouse gas that, together with its greater distance from the Sun, keeps it more frigid than Antarctica.

Imja Lake, Nepal, near Mount Everest. The lake started as ponds on the glacier surface in the early 1960s; growth has gradually accelerated as the glacier retreated. This is the archetypical hazardous glacial lake, reaching about 150 m (500 feet) deep, 2700 m (1.7 miles) long, all of which was ice until the lake replaced it (Haritashya et al. 2018). The dark blue pond— Amphulapcha Lake— also has a signature of having melted into an ice-bearing substrate. Photo by J. Kargel, 26 Oct 2015.

Global climate is normally regulated by geology and Earth’s rotational wobble, solar physics, and Jupiter’s gravitational tug on our planet’s orbit. The drift of continents and emissions of volcanic gases can cause the climate balance to be tipped toward a full ice age; or to a full hot house, where rain wears down the continents and mountains are partly replaced by global swamps— organic accumulations then eventually form coal, oil, and natural gas.  These swings happen naturally, primarily slowly, and life adapts accordingly.

Civilization has grown during a relatively stable climate. Small natural climate swings have caused famines, desertification, and spread of grasslands, affecting nomadic, agricultural, and urban societies. Natural climate changes have caused civilizations to collapse, including a 13th century mega-drought induced failure of the Anasazi and other Pre-European Native cultures in and near my state of Arizona.

In 2004— a US Presidential election year— my agency (USGS) caved in to the climate change denialism of President George W. Bush, a former oilman, who apparently didn’t want understanding of greenhouse gases and a warming planet to spread among the public. Public communications about the science of glaciers and climate change were stymied. I resigned my civil servant position so that nobody could dictate my public communications. Never one to tolerate either climate change exaggeration or climate change obfuscation, I did not participate in the minimization and hiding of evidence for climate change. I always thought that the modern global economy can adapt and mitigate 21st century impacts from a couple degrees of human-caused climate warming. (And we can if we are smart about it.)

Around 2005, I started paying attention to the continuing work by Dr. Jennifer Francis (then at Rutgers University, now Woods Hole Research Center). The melting of Arctic sea ice, predicted in 1981 by Jim Hansen and colleagues, already was underway. Francis had linked the fast-warming Arctic and melting sea ice to shifts in the behavior of Earth’s jet streams — the great rivers of stratospheric air that guide storms, speed eastward-bound airliners, and slow westward flights. The now familiar, dreaded, related winter weather phenomena known as snowmaggedons, polar vortex disruptions, and bomb cyclones also had begun, and extreme drought and heat waves in both summer and winter were being reinforced by slowly moving or stationary and wildly meandering jet streams— the kind of extreme weather that Francis with colleagues has explained, other climatologists have also supported, and which the public is grasping in terms of consequences.

I was not thinking about abruptly changing behaviors of the gigantic currents of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. In 2005, I thought that climate change was gradual and readily manageable. I was wrong. I didn’t consider nonlinear effects— the tipping points— that climate change would have on individual components of the Earth system.

Hurricane Katrina hit also in 2005, and since then a succession of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have struck North America and Asia, and year-upon-year of ever-warmer, record-warm conditions have hit worldwide. The climate and extreme weather news just in 2019 and 2020 is alarming not just to scientists but to a wider public. Jennifer Francis is onto something big, as she has connected climate change to extreme weather with a climatological understanding as almost nobody else had previously done. Forest fires have raged seasonally on six continents at levels that previously were uncommon or historically unprecedented. Wildfires have become an increasingly frequent feature of the past two decades’ evening news in California, Alaska, Australia, Scandinavia, and Siberia. Wildfire links to climate change are understood scientifically and were predicted and are also understood by the public.

As if the changing atmospheric circulation isn’t enough, there is increasing evidence that some ocean currents are changing from historic behavior. In 2014 I attributed part of the variability in glacier behavior to regional adjustments of ocean currents to shifting global climate. Overall, glaciers started melting 150 years ago in response to a modest natural warming episode earlier in the 19th century, and since the 1990s the melting binge has speeded dramatically. This behavior recently extends to the Greenland ice sheet and parts of Antarctica.

A finely tuned Earth system from a century ago has become more disrupted than at any time in human civilization, by some measures more than since modern humans (Homo sapiens) have lived, and by other measures more than going back halfway to the age of dinosaurs.  Carbon dioxide levels assure that much more change is pent up and is coming our way.

My confession is that the signs and the models were in place by 2005, but I was still thinking in gradualistic terms. I was not thinking about abruptly changing behaviors of the gigantic currents of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. In 2005, I thought that climate change was gradual and readily manageable. I was wrong. I didn’t consider nonlinear effects— the tipping points— that climate change would have on individual components of the Earth system. My change of perspective stemmed partly from my own research into melting glaciers and the roles of exceptional heat or rain in triggering glacier surges, ice avalanches, and glacial lake outbursts, and that these processes involve climate-tipping points and glaciological tipping points. But then there were record breaking hot summers and drought in my home state of Arizona, and record breaking wildfires nearby in California. Those are just the impacts I personally deal with every year. Globally there are so many 500-year floods, 500-year droughts, unprecedented firestorms, so many $10 billion and $100 billion hurricanes that we forget their names, and bizarre weather patterns that have no place in history. At some point, we run out of excuses that it’s just an anomaly for this, and a different anomaly for that. The recognition hits: the data on greenhouse gases and global warming connect to the climate models, and the models connect to the observed rise in extreme weather, and lately, to burning koalas and kangaroos.

Imja Lake and its natural end moraine dam. The great width and bouldery constitution of the dam naturally decreases the instability of this lake compared to some others. However, the moraine is ice cored and is slowly melting, and the small ponds along the drainageway are growing and slowly reducing the effective width and protective features of the natural dam. Meanwhile, as the lake continues to expand at the glacier end of the lake (Haritashya et al. 2018), it will soon enter a region where large rock and ice avalanches can impact the lake directly and send a tsunami-like wave ramping up over the end moraine. To counter this rising hazard, a decision was undertaken to slightly lower the lake and stabilize the drainage conduit. The engineering was completed in 2016. Eliminating the hazard is not feasible. Modest further reductions in the hazard can be undertaken, but risk mitigation should focus on adaptation along the potential flood course, such as moving the most vulnerable downstream homes and hotels in some downstream villages to a little higher ground. Photo by J. Kargel, 26 Oct 2015.

Scientists are by nature cautious in our technical work. However, it can become misleading, even unethical, to leave the public with what to them is a confusing concept of statistical uncertainties and error bars and confidence limits; our language must not obscure the underlying understanding and urgency that the scientific community has about what is happening and why and what is coming.

Earth will not turn into a Venus, but my planetary science mind definitely sees how rain forests turn to deserts, how nations lose their food supplies, and wars erupt. The climate system is in upheaval, and global climate change has global economic reach of course. As a scientist, I see that the gap between climate models and extreme weather observations is not yet closed at the local and regional levels. It is locally and regionally where the most serious impacts of climate change nonlinearities— the tipping points— are being felt. In politics, as a famous American House Speaker once said, “All politics is local.” In climate, we ought to take the same approach to inform public understanding. People care about burning koalas, but they will vote on climate change when they see the local connections.

Fifteen years after my enlightenment, we have more than a crisis, arguably not yet an apocalypse. The planet has been through worse. But humanity, aside maybe from Homo robustus, has never witnessed such drastic changes to our environment, a period now known to geologists as the Anthropocene. Civilization is slowly preparing, but not on a schedule to match climate change’s impacts on people, dollars, and nature.

Scientists, economists, engineers, and business people— and many politicians— know what should be done and how to do it. We can affordably transform our economy to move off fossil fuels. Most nations want to do this. Roadblocks against international climate change agreements and national policy initiatives are erected by crafty saboteurs, who use “manufactured doubt” about climate change. They implement myriad infrastructural supports and subsidies for 20th century technologies to keep the world hooked on fossil fuels.

It might be too late. I am not of a view that is already clearly too late. Too late for what? The worst? No, it is not too late to make things worse. After a depressing January, my almost irrepressable optimism is reasserting that we can chart and follow a better course. Politicians will come onboard, pressured by public opinion and climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. Maybe this year’s record-breaking, nature-killing, sea-to-sea-to-sea bushfires across Australia will awaken politicians there. It’s something everywhere, every year.

Though there are hopeful political glimmers in China, the U.S. and elsewhere, the corporate world may be issuing a mandate for the needed changes. Though still attracting climate activists’ skepticism, a rather believable and substantive action plan has been announced by the $7 trillion BlackRock investments— the world’s largest investment group. Climate activists’ pressure is needed to assure follow through. Around the world, no matter what the economic system, people— powerful people especially— respond to where money flows. Furthermore, the rich and powerful have children, too. Maybe the message is getting across.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Province in Turkey Hit by Multiple Avalanches

Ancient Viruses Awaken as the Tibetan Plateau Melts

Video of the Week: First Footage From Beneath Thwaites Glacier

Tracking Glaciers From Space: GLIMS

Picture of GLIMS book coverIn 1994, an international group of scientists came together to form GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space), a worldwide initiative to monitor and study glaciers using satellite data. For at least one hundred years, scientists had primarily used traditional field measurements to track glacier dynamics, but field data are by necessity limited in scope, and can be expensive and laborious to obtain.

The GLIMS team ultimately chose to use an imaging system called Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER), jointly managed by NASA and Japan, for their glacier measurements. ASTER is installed aboard Terra, the flagship satellite of NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), which was launched in December 1999. ASTER data can be used to map land surface temperature, reflectance, and elevation, which allows the scientists to distinguish between glacier ice and snow and to measure changes in glacier volume.

Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.
Glacier retreat lines at the Brøggerhalvøya Glacier between 1936 and 2007. Chapter, 10, p. 234, Figure 10.3.

Using digital images and data provided by ASTER, GLIMS created an up-to-the-minute database of the world’s glaciers, which includes ID, name, cross-references, and analysis of the state and dynamics of individual glaciers. In August 2014, GLIMS published their findings in book form: Global Land Ice Measurements from Space compiles these glacier profiles, provides a review of analysis methodologies for measuring changes in glacier volume, and offers predictions for future glacier change as well as some interpretations of potential impacts for policymakers in the context of climate change. The GLIMS scientists provide firm evidence that glaciers are shrinking worldwide, and they believe the cause is global warming.

The GLIMS book offers a basic theoretical background in glacier monitoring and mapping as well as remote sensing techniques. It also discusses measurements of glacier thinning from digital elevation models (DEMs), and calculation of surface flow velocities from satellite images. DEMs can provide specific data for every pixel in a satellite image, with a margin of error at 0.5m/year. Although cloud cover can interfere with accurate satellite data on glaciers, scientists are able to identify and discard this faulty data.

As described in the book, GLIMS scientists Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa and his colleagues have been able to assess the mass balance of alpine mountain glaciers by comparing historical topographic maps and DEMs derived from ASTER. For instance, they built a model and limited the error in the computation of mass balance from field measurements of China’s Sarytor glacier to less than 150mm/year.

Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.
Tropical glaciers in the northern Andes. Chapter 26, page 614, Figure 26.1.

Similarly, using techniques established by Dr. Todd Albert,who is also a member of GLIMS, a set of images of the Quelccaya Ice Cap spanning four decades was analyzed to create a history of ice surface area. Overall, Albert found that the ice cap has retreated from 58.9 km2 in 1975 to 40.8 km2 in 2010, with a loss of surface area of 31%. This history matches what has been observed in the field by glaciologists Lonnie Thompson and Henry Brecher since the 1970s.

Thanks to GLIMS, the rate of glacier melting can be measured and documented more precisely, providing readers with potential evidence of climate change. The GLIMS data provides solid support for future scientific research and planning in the face of climate change.

For other stories on the measurement of glaciers, look here.

Round Up: Sounds of Glacier Bay, A New Book, and a Caving Video

“Voices of Glacier Bay” Soundscape Project

The National Park Service has a new project recording various sounds of nature in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. The recordings include sounds of: calving glaciers, humpback whales, singing birds, raindrop polyrhythms, and more!

Check out their website, with tons more sounds and videos.


Over 150 scientists collaborated on a new comprehensive book on glaciers

Picture of GLIMS book cover

The GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space)  project started over 20 years ago to record glacier movement using satellites. The largely never before seen data has been put together in a new comprehensive book by the same name which unquestionably confirms the shrinking of earth’s glaciers.

Read about the project, and the book, here

Extreme ice caving video filmed at Buer Glacier, Norway

Extreme sports buff and outdoor guide Sander Cruiming took his crew and cameras ice caving through Norway’s Buer Glacier. Read more, here.