Earth in Danger of Tipping into ‘Hothouse’ State, Scientists Warn

Global temperatures, already more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial indicators, are projected to rise by at least 0.17 degree Celsius per decade. The heatwaves scorching Europe and rapid glacier melting in Greenland offer further evidence that we should not be complacent about the 2-degrees Celsius cap set by the Paris Agreement. But recently, a team of international researchers led by Will Steffen, a climate scientist from Australian National University, published a major report, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” in PNAS that warns that the climate accords may not be enough to stop Earth from tipping into an irreversible “hothouse” state. 

An alpine glacier in Albert, Canada (Source: Jim Nix/Flickr)

The paper, which attracted broad coverage from dozens of major media worldwide including CNN, BBC, Paris Le Monde, and Sina in China, sparked renewed concerns across the scientific community about thresholds of the Earth system that could lead to a runaway “Hothouse Earth” warming scenario. Among the thresholds discussed, alpine glaciers, such as those in Glacier National Park in Montana, are particularly vulnerable to global warming. What’s more, their melting is likely to trigger uncontrollable chain effects that could lead to “Hothouse Earth.”

Unlike other published papers on global average temperature rise, this paper extended its scope to the broader Earth system and components that could reinforce Earth’s decline once certain thresholds are passed.

Previously, researchers have viewed humans as an external component of this system, which consists of land, oceans, and atmosphere, and includes the planet’s natural cycles such as carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. In the PNAS article, the authors consider humans an integral component of the Earth system, with the capacity to both affect and respond to the changing climate. As we witness changes in climate, human decisions and actions are evolving as well. Knowing how anthropogenic activities have affected climate may formulate more effective solutions.

The paper presents a theory of how human activities, coupled with a natural “Tipping Cascade,” may lead to a human-driven “Hothouse Earth.” The authors argue that there is a threshold at which Earth’s natural systems can no longer support and withstand human activities. Once this limit is exceeded, abrupt changes will be evident and lead to a chain reaction of impacts. For example, a rise in temperature by 2 degree Celsius will immediately lead to Greenlandic glacier melting, followed by sea level rise. Thereafter, other effects such as changing ocean currents and coral bleaching will also become evident, as these are regulated by an intrinsic, self-reinforcing biogeophysical feedback mechanism within the Earth system.

Global map of potential tipping cascades. Individual tipping elements are color-coded according to estimated temperature thresholds. Arrows show potential interactions. (Source: Steffen et. al).

The predicted domino-like chain reaction will increase the difficulty of reversing these cascading impacts, the authors caution. The melting event of the Greenlandic glaciers is just one event that may push Earth toward a “Hothouse” pathway, moving the Earth system off its trajectory of the past 1.2 million years and toward hotter, irreparable conditions. Eventually, Earth is estimated to become 4-5 degrees Celsius hotter, with 200 foot higher sea levels, making areas of our planet inhabitable to many.

As a default mechanism of the Earth system, the biogeophysical feedback process works to activate significant interactions among different subsystems, such as glaciers, ice-sheets, ocean, forest, wind, rainfall, and others. The subsystems involved are called “tipping elements.” Some negative feedbacks can maintain a given state, while other positive feedbacks are set to drive a transition to a different state. Usually, the processes can balance each other and achieve a relatively stabilized situation. But if the climate thresholds are crossed, the authors argue certain feedbacks will be activated and become harder to predict, pushing Earth further away from its original state.

Glaciers have always been central to the Earth system, and the cascading effects of glacier melting have been consistently on the science community’s radar. The feedback processes involving glaciers and ice sheets work in at least two ways. As Will Steffen elaborated to GlacierHub, one is rather obvious. “If glaciers or sea ice retreat, they uncover darker land or sea, which absorbs more sunlight, warming the regional climate, and causing further retreat of the ice.” he said. “This a positive feedback.”

The other process is more nuanced. “Loss of significant amounts of ice from land-based glaciers and ice sheets can actually influence ocean circulation, which can then have impacts elsewhere on the planet. This is a more complex feedback process and could be positive or negative depending on the situation,” he continued.

The authors present a doomsday scenario but also provide an alternative pathway called “Stabilized Earth.” This requires radical and scalable changes in the relationship between society and the planet. For example, the paper described the need to maintain glacier volume within the Late Quaternary limits to prevent the progression toward a hothouse. At this current juncture, doing nothing is no longer an option to stop the glaciers from melting and achieve stability. Rather, humanity must commit to managing its current activities, stopping the staggering loss of ice, and perhaps even engaging in counteracting measures to neutralize previous impacts on Earth.

The authors also offered a wide range of human activities that are urgently required to hold the ultimate temperature rise to between 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius. Steffen believes this is particularly pressing for glaciers. “At these temperatures, most continental glaciers will probably disappear, as perhaps much of the West Antarctic ice sheet, as well as some erosion of marine-grounded ice sheets in East Antarctica,” he said. “A big question is whether the tipping point for the Greenland Ice Sheet would be crossed at a 1.5-2 degrees Celsius temperature rise. It is possible that the tipping point lies in this range, but there is no consensus in the scientific community yet on this. It is a critical issue for further research.”

Two towering icebergs in the freezing waters of Scoresby Sund in Eastern Greenland (Source: Marie and Alistair Knock/Flickr)

Interestingly, the discussion on tipping points is centered on predicting a certain temperature threshold without stating when that temperature threshold might occur. Most of the analysis was also based on a qualitative assessment of the current literature instead of modeling and data analysis, which has sparked some different opinions.

Steffen told GlacierHub, “Experts on each of the individual tipping elements were asked to estimate the vulnerability of the tipping element to a range of temperature increases. The experts, of course, were aware of the relevant literature in their fields, so ultimately based their judgments on their assessments of the peer-reviewed literature.”

Richard Betts, another climate scientist who previously published a paper about the model-based analysis of temperature increases and their association consequences, was consulted by Steffen. After the paper came out in PNAS, Betts offered an overview of the findings and expressed his concerns online about the researchers’ methodology. Still, Betts believes the paper, with its dramatic term “Hothouse Earth,” should serve as a good starting point for further research with modeling and data analysis. “This will help us see better whether ‘Hothouse Earth’ is our destiny, or mere speculation,” Bretts wrote in his article

There is no doubt this “initial analysis,” as the authors put it, will continue to ignite debate and further explorations to narrow the uncertainties and provide actionable suggestions to policymakers.

“We hope the glacial community gets even more support in the future,” Steffen said. “Glaciers and ice are critical parts of the Earth system, and we urgently need to know more about how vulnerable it is to human forcing.”

We are, in short, at a fork in the road. Whether humanity progresses toward a Hothouse or a Stabilized Earth depends on our social and technological trends and decisions over the next decade. Regardless of which path we choose, we will have to bear the consequences of our choices for thousands of years.


Rock Glaciers Help Protect Species in a Warmer Climate

Grasses and other plant species often thrive on the periphery of major glaciers on active rock periglaciers (Source: Savannah Theilbar).

In a recent study by Duccio Tampucci et al., rock glaciers in the Italian Alps have been shown to host a wide variety of flora and fauna, supporting plant and arthropod species during temporary decadal periods of climatic warming. Certain species that thrive in cold conditions have been prone to high environmental stress during warm climate stages in the past, but given the results of Tampucci’s research, it is now clear that these species may be able to survive in periglacial settings on the edge of existing glaciers.

One of many species of arthropods equipped to survive in cold temperatures on glacier surfaces. (Source: Rebecca Rendon).

Active rock glaciers, commonly found on the border of larger glaciers and ice sheets, are comprised of coarse debris with intermixed ice or an ice-core. The study has valuable implications on how organisms may respond to changes in temperature, offering a possible explanation for species’ resiliency.

Jonathan Anderson, a retired Glacier National Park ranger, spoke to GlacierHub about the importance of periglacial realms in providing a habitat for animals displaced by modern climate change. “In the years spent in and around the park, it’s clear that more and more animals are feeling the impact of climate change and global warming,” he said. “The areas surrounding the larger glaciers are becoming even more important than before and are now home to many of the species that lived on the receded glacier.”

In their study, Tampucci and team analyzed abiotic dimensions of active rock glaciers such as ground surface temperature, humidity and soil chemistry, as well as biotic factors related to the species abundance of plants and arthropods. This data was then compared to surrounding iceless regions characterized by large scree slopes (small loose stones covering mountain slopes) as an experimental control for the glaciated landforms of interest. Comparisons between these active scree slopes and rock glaciers revealed similar soil geochemistry, yet colder ground surface temperatures existed on the rocky glaciers. Thus, more cold-adapted species existed on rock glaciers.

The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source:
The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source:

The distribution of plant and arthropod species was found to be highly variable, dependent upon soil pH and the severity of mountain slope-instability. This variability is because the fraction of coarse debris and quantity of organic matter changes with the landform’s activity, or amount of mass wasting occurring downslope. The study notes that the heterogeneity in landforms in mountainous regions augments the overall biodiversity of the region.

Anderson affirmed this idea, noting, “The difference in habitats between glaciated terrain and the surrounding, more vegetated regions is crucial for allowing a wide range of animals to coexist.” This variety of landforms contributes to a wide variety of microclimates in which ecologically diverse organisms can reside in close proximity.

Cold-adapted species are likely the first to be affected by region-wide seasonal warming. As temperatures increase, cold-weather habitats are liable to reduce in size and shift to higher altitudinal belts, resulting in species reduction and possible extirpation. Tampucci et al.’s study affirmed the notion that active rock glaciers serve as refugia for cold-adapted species due to the landscape’s microclimate features.

A view of the shrinking alpine-glacial environment that many species call home (Source: Daniel Rojillo).

The local periglacial environment in the Italian Ortles-Cevedale Massif, for example, was shown to be decoupled from greater regional climate, with sufficient thermal inertia (resistance to temperature change) to support cold-adapted species on a decadal timescale.

Despite the conclusive findings that largely affirm previous assumptions about biodiversity in active rock glaciers, the authors carefully point out that the glacier’s ability to serve as refugia for certain species depends entirely on the length of the warm-climate stage, which can potentially last for millennia. Additionally, the macroclimatic context in which the glaciers reside is important and can influence the landform’s thermal inertia, affecting the temporal scale at which the landscape can shelter cold-climate plants and arthropods.

The ice crawler Grylloblatta campodeiformis is another example of a cold-adapted arthropod species (Source: Piotr Naskrecki).

The idea that certain periglacial regions may be the saving grace for small plants and animals is encouraging, yet these landforms fail to offer a permanent solution for conservation ecologists. Although active rock glaciers can harbor cold-adapted species for lengths of time, when an organism is forced to depend upon an alpine microclimate, it has become geographically isolated. In this scenario, the degree to which immediately surrounding terrain is inhospitable governs the species’ extinction risk.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that although certain species are adaptable and resilient, every organism has a limit,” Anderson told GlacierHub. “If the local climate continues to warm, these species will likely die in a few generations.” This means that although certain species of arthropods, for example, may be able to survive in undesirably warm conditions, this climatic shift still influences their long-term extinction risk.

While periglacial landforms may play a valuable role in protecting cold-adapted species in temporary periods of climatic warming, a large variety of external factors can influence the length of time an organism may survive in any given microclimate. The understanding that active-rock glaciers can effectively protect a range of plants and arthropods has valuable implications for conservation biologists and biogeographers, offering insight into possible explanations for cold-adapted species resiliency in historical episodes of climatic warming.

Climate Change Increases Flood Risk in Peru

The rising danger of glacial lake flooding in a warmer climate has important implications for humans and animal populations in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. A recent study in CATENA by Adam Emmer et al. examined a large swath of nearly 900 high altitude Peruvian lakes in the mountainous Cordillera Blanca region, studying their susceptibility to outburst floods in light of modern climate change.

A variety of glacial lake sizes in the Cordillera Blanca (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

An outburst flood occurs when the dam containing glacial meltwater, usually comprised of either glacial ice or a terminal moraine (glacial debris lying at the edge of the glacier), fails. Glaciologist Mauri Pelto commented in the American Geophysical newsletter that the moraine dams are “just comprised of gravel, sand and clay dumped by the glacier” and “high water levels caused by upstream floods, avalanches or landslides can cause failure,” leading to major damage of the landscape. The team’s research elucidated that the incidence of glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF) is increasing and the general distribution of alpine lakes is shifting upward in the region as temperatures warm. 

Knowing a lake’s size, configuration and type allows local water management in the Cordillera Blanca to be improved, according to Emmer et al. By mapping lakes with the classification of either moraine-dammed or bedrock-dammed, the team’s analysis can help local hydrological experts improve water management techniques for the changing distribution of alpine water. It also contributes to the scientific community’s overall understanding of ongoing environmental change.

A large, high elevation glacial lake lying before the high Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

By studying the Cordillera Blanca region’s alpine lakes through a combination of remote sensing (high resolution aerial imagery and measurements) and field observations, Emmer’s team categorized 882 lakes by their size and altitude, ultimately referencing their findings with historical data to observe water redistribution over the last 60 years. Emmer et al. established that glacial lakes had expanded in size and number at higher elevations and disappeared at lower elevations since the 1951 study by Juan Concha in the same region. This finding confirms that environmental change and glacier retreat are strongly correlated in the high alpine.

Results from the analyses showed that from 1948 to 2013, lakes that remained in already deglaciated areas tended to be resilient and generally maintained water levels throughout the 65-year examination. Moraine-dammed lakes in particular resisted disappearing despite glacial retreat, suggesting that bodies of water dammed by materials other than ice were more adaptable to recently warmer temperatures. 

The team also noticed that despite the recent resiliency of moraine dammed lakes, glacial lake outburst flooding was caused predominantly by these dams in the early portion of the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial retreat, in the 1940s and 1950s. Flooding in more recent years has occurred in bedrock-dammed lakes. Although glacial lakes were recorded to have shifted from 4250-4600m in the late 1940s to predominantly above 4600m today, no statistically significant trend was established relating outburst flooding to any particular elevation.

A research team gathered at the waters edge (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

In order to reduce the risk of flood damage in local communities, Emmer et al. suggested continuous monitoring of young, developing proglacial lakes, using extensive flood modeling and outburst susceptibility assessments to account for future changes in the glacier. Understanding that the melting of glaciers is accelerating in a warming world, the need for more intensive local efforts in response to the threat of flooding is apparent.  

The Peruvian government has responded to high lake levels in the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca by “building tunnels and concrete pipes through the [weakest] moraines to allow lake drainage to safe levels,” according to Pelto. The government then rebuilds the moraines over the drainage system to strengthen it. By incorporating the monitoring techniques suggested by Adam Emmer, the government has the opportunity to manage and stay ahead of the flood risk as temperatures continue to rise. 

Glacial lake outburst flooding is hardly unique to the Peruvian landscape. This December, the Kathmandu Post illuminated the growing danger of GLOFs as the Nepalese Dhaulagiri Glacier recedes, creating a hazardous environment in the Mt. Nilgiri region. Researchers at the Chinese Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment also established a strong link in Tibet between rising temperatures and glacial melting, contributing to more frequent and larger glacial lakes than in the past 50 years. With the growing number of alpine lakes and increased temperatures, ice dams are highly fragile and prone to failure.

A variety of landscapes exist at different elevations in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Elizabeth Balgord).

Emmer et al.’s study offers an interesting evolutionary perspective on the state of the Cordillera Blanca. The study’s publication illustrates that even the planet’s most dramatic, seemingly unchangeable environments are plastic under the force of global climate change. The redistribution of alpine glacial lakes across the world’s mountainous regions indicates that the risk of outburst flooding should not be taken lightly. The team’s suggestions for future monitoring, to either mitigate the flooding hazard in populated regions or coordinate adaptation efforts, further illustrates the gravity of the situation. Although the risk of outburst flooding has only been studied in specific locations, the changing state of glacial lakes is already quantifiable and may be an effective proxy for monitoring the future extent of global warming.

Glacial Retreat Causes A Yukon River to Disappear

Much to the alarm of Canadians, the glacier-fed Slims River has disappeared following extensive glacial melting associated with anthropogenic climate change. Views of the Slims Valley, where the river once flowed, have been replaced by a dry plain, marked only by the sinuous bevels left behind by the river in the soil. These changes have major implications on local ecosystems and will inevitably result in lower water levels in downstream glacial lakes.

For example, for many years, the Yukon’s Kluane Lake has been fed by the continuous flow of the Slims River. Water in the Slims River had been transported from Kaskawulsh Glacier, feeding the Kluane Lake and flowing into the Bering Sea. The Kaskawulsh Glacier is a large temperate valley glacier that lies in the St. Elias Mountains. It measures more than four miles across at its widest, where it meets the Slims and Kaskawulsh Rivers. With the recent melting of the glacier, water has been diverted in the direction of the Kaskawulsh River, which drains nearly 500 kilometers away in the Gulf of Alaska.

Map showing the re-routing of glacial meltwater. Previous route in green, current one in red (Source: Google Earth).

Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey stated to Paul Tukker of CBC News, “Folks have noticed this spring that the [river has] essentially dried up.” This loss of streamflow is the first regional occurrence in the last 350 years, according to the Yukon Geological Survey. Some of the warmest temperatures on record in 2015 and 2016 have had major implications on glacial health in the region, with ice loss reported throughout the surrounding Saint Elias Mountains, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The rangers in the Kluane National Park noted that the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated nearly a half mile to the point where its melt water is now traveling in a completely different direction. In this case, the diversion of glacial meltwater is so substantial that no water is flowing in the direction of the Slims Valley and the downstream Bering Sea. Despite the Slims normally flowing approximately 19 kilometers from the edge of the glacier to Kluane Lake through the Slims Valley, changes to the Kaskawulsh’s spatial distribution have caused meltwater to flow not westward but to the east, flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

A view across the expansive alpine lake in Kluane National Park (Source: James Bunt).

The change in water patterns has major implications for ecosystems in regions experiencing new levels of flow (both in the dryer and the now wetter areas). For example, in the absence of perennial water, the Slims Valley is more prone to dust storms, at least until new vegetation stabilizes the floodplain. Retired Utah Geological Survey geomorphologist Will Stokes told GlacierHub, “The valley may undergo a major ecological evolution over the next few decades, characterized by new flora and fauna.” Although this may seem like a minor adjustment, Stokes explained, “These changes can drastically alter the local food chain, and if lake levels end up lowering dramatically, there may be a major negative impact on local hunting and fishing.”

Jeff Bond further speculated to CBC News that the melt-water system which fed the Slims Valley may have only been a temporary outflow from the Kaskawulsh Glacier, representing a “300-year blip” on a much longer geological timescale in which large glaciers evolve. A study by Harold Borns in the American Journal of Science supports the notion that water began flowing northward around the year 1700, when climatological events caused the glacier to advance, ultimately diverting a large portion of snowmelt towards the Slims Valley and creating the Kluane Lake. This relationship illustrates the impact that regional climate has had on glacial events, with recent warming reversing the changes that occurred in a colder climate multiple centuries ago.

“Although it’s hard to tell how much lake levels in the Kluane will decrease, locals can expect an abrupt decrease in levels,” Stokes added, “followed by a much slower, long-term loss of water once levels stabilize.”

The Yukon Geological Survey postulates that water levels in Kluane Lake will lower by a meter or more in the foreseeable future. Although the Kluane National Park region is not densely populated by humans, lower water levels in the Kluane may stress trout and whitefish populations that are fished throughout the region’s warm months by both locals and visitors.

Although the diversion of water away from downstream communities may, in this case, be unsurprising to Yukon geologists in hindsight, it does shed light on the powerful effects of warmer temperatures and evolving climate dynamics on natural landscapes. The flow of rivers and plentiful caches of freshwater that exist in many regions due to glacial activity may be at serious risk as melting continues and water flow is redistributed.

The Slims River West Trail running along the receding Kaskawulsh Glacier (Source: Dan Arnold).

It is difficult to tell how quickly changes like those that have occurred in the Yukon may happen in the future, yet these events may serve as a microcosm for the forthcoming state of glacial systems in light of anthropogenic climate change. Despite the ongoing study of glacial evolution by earth scientists, events like this in the Yukon really catch the attention of locals and illustrate first hand the effects of living in a warmer world.

Roundup: Drone Research, Tianshan Glaciers, and Indigenous Alaskans

Roundup: Drones, Glacier Mass and Vulnerability


Drone Research Points to Global Warming

From Pacific Standard: “Aaron Putnam is an hour behind them, hiking with a team of students, research assistants, and local guides. He’s a glacial geologist from the University of Maine, and he and his team are here to collect the surface layer of granite boulders implanted in those moraines that formed at the margins of the glacier…The team hopes that data derived from the rock can tell them when the ice melted. ‘This was the singular most powerful, most important climate event in human history. It allowed us to flourish,’ Putnam says. ‘But we don’t know why that happened.’ Putnam is trying to determine what caused the Ice Age’s demise; the answer could help us identify the triggers that cause abrupt climate change.”

Learn more about how the study of glaciers points to our climate’s future here:

The research team photographs the landscape near the study’s sampling site (Source: Kevin Stark/Pacific Standard).


Central Asia Feels Effects of Global Warming

From Molecular Diversity Preservation International: “Global climate change has had a profound and lasting effect on the environment. The shrinkage of glacier ice caused by global warming has attracted a large amount of research interest, from the global scale to specific glaciers. Apart from polar ice, most research is focused on glaciers on the third pole—the Asian high mountains. Called the Asian water tower, the Asian high mountains feed several major rivers by widespread glacier melt. Changing glacier mass there will have a far-reaching influence on the water supply of billions of people. Therefore, a good understanding of the glacier mass balance is important for planning and environmental adaptation.”

Learn more about glacier mass balance and associated environmental adaption here:

An aerial photo depicting a sector of the Tianshan mountains (Source: Chen Zhao/Flickr).


Perspectives from Indigenous Subarctic Alaskans

From Ecology and Society: “Indigenous Arctic and Subarctic communities currently are facing a myriad of social and environmental changes. In response to these changes, studies concerning indigenous knowledge (IK) and climate change vulnerability, resiliency, and adaptation have increased dramatically in recent years. Risks to lives and livelihoods are often the focus of adaptation research; however, the cultural dimensions of climate change are equally important because cultural dimensions inform perceptions of risk. Furthermore, many Arctic and Subarctic IK climate change studies document observations of change and knowledge of the elders and older generations in a community, but few include the perspectives of the younger population.”

Learn more about the younger generation’s perception of climate change and its impacts here:

An Indigenous Iñupiat Alaskan family (Source: Edward S. Curtis/Wikimedia Commons).


‘Ice Cubed’: A Conference on the Many Sides of Ice on April 15

As melting polar icecaps and receding glaciers have generated a global consciousness of the planet’s fragility, ice is now more than ever a subject of fascination and analysis, whether historically or in the contemporary world. On April 15-16, the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University will host Ice Cubed–a two-day conference exploring the wide range of possibilities and contradictions of ice in contemporary analysis and artistic expression.

“Dawn of the Anthropocene.” New York City. Photo by Nora Ligorano.

With support from two Columbia organizations–the Center for Science and Society and the Heyman Center for the HumanitiesIce-Cubed will bring together artists, academics, scholars, and scientists to explore the generative possibilities of ice as a medium for bridging disciplines within and beyond the academy in an era of global warming.

The conference will begin on the morning of Friday April 15 with a full schedule of interdisciplinary academic panels organized around themes from making and melting ice to material structures. Presentations by humanists  and scientists from Columbia and beyond–including Robin Bell of the Lamont Earth Institute, Hasok Chang of Cambridge University, and SIPA’s Ben Orlove–will be followed by a screening and discussion of Isaac Julien’s 2004 video installation, True North.

Barry Lopez, March 24, 2003
Barry Lopez. Photo by David Liittschwager.

On Friday evening at 6, Ice Cubed is pleased to welcome the public to a Keynote Conversation between Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams and writer Barry Lopez, author of the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams. As artists with long experience living and working in the Arctic, Adams and Lopez will discuss the ways in which the stark, ice-bound landscapes of the Far North become incorporated into their work, and what happens when the boundary between artist and activist blurs under the pressure of contemporary climate change. This special event will include a reading of Lopez’s “The Trail: A Short Short Story,” and a performance of Adams’s “…and bells remembered…” by Sandbox Percussion.

Saturday’s schedule offers a continuation of the scholarly discussion around ice, capped off by a Art + Science WALK, co-organized with City as Living Lab, in which GlacierHub’s managing editor Ben Orlove and public artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese will lead conference participants and the public through the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Since 2013, landscape artist Mary Miss and City as Living Lab have been organizing artist-scientist led WALKs with the goal of bring artists, scientists, and the broader community into conversation around contemporary social and environmental issues. Ice Cubed is thrilled to have partnered with City as Living Lab, and to be able to offer the WALK as part of the conference program. For those who attend Friday and Saturday morning events, footage of Ligorano’s and Reese’s work–including “Dawn of the Anthropocene,” a melting ice sculpture that coincided with the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit and the People’s Climate March–will be on view at the conference.

John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams. Photo by Pete Woodhead.

The organizers of Ice Cubed, Maggie Cao and Rebecca Woods, are both postdoctoral fellows at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. The idea for the conference originated in the Fall of 2015 when Cao, who holds an appointment as Assistant Professor of Art History at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Woods, who will begin a tenure-track position in the History of Technology at the University of Toronto in July of 2016, discovered their mutual interest in things icy and cold. Cao works on nineteenth-century American landscape painting, with a particular interest in objects and art produced in polar settings, and Woods studies the history of cold (natural and artificial) in the British Empire. From conversation around this shared interest, and taking inspiration from recent discourse around the cryosphere, came the idea to host a discussion across disciplines within the academy, and beyond.

All Ice Cubed events will take place on the Columbia Morningside Campus, and are free and open to the public. No advanced registration is necessary, although those who wish to attend the WALK can email Rebecca Woods in advance in order to meet up with the group as it sets out from the Columbia Campus at 11:45 on April 15. This will be a great opportunity for the public to meet and mingle with conference speakers and participants.

Full details, including times, locations, and speaker bios, are available on the conference website.

Ski Resorts Seek Alternatives

Artificial Lake at roughly 2500m, Alps, France. Photo by: will_cyclist/Flickr
Artificial Lake at roughly 2500m, Alps, France. Photo by: will_cyclist/Flickr

As snow rapidly disappears from high mountains, ski and winter sport resorts are looking for alternatives to keep their struggling businesses alive.

The world’s skiing industry is worth $60 to $70 billion, some estimates say. About 44 percent of ski-related travel is in the alps, while 21 percent is in the United States.

In just 30 years, ski resorts in the Alps have seen 30 percent less snow, according to regional authorities. At the same time, temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius since the 1960’s and glaciers in the region have lost 26 percent of their surface.

For professional skiers, who train on glaciers, this could be bad news. If temperatures rise to 2 or 3 degrees higher, glaciers below 3,000 mertres will melt away, experts from the Hydrology Transfer and Environment Research Laboratory in Grenoble say.


Already, Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe in Savoie, France, has closed off its glacier to skiers. But the resort continues to trigger avalanches on the glacier to replenish its slopes below, depleting its glacier. “Before we trained at a very low elevation, around 2,400 meters, even in July,” French Ski champion Fabienne Serrat, who won two golds medals at the World Championships in 1974, told AFP. “Today many youths who compete go to South America [to train].”

Val Thorens, France Photo by: Leo-seta/Flickr.
Val Thorens, France Photo by: Leo-seta/Flickr.

Instead, resorts are investing in dog sledding, snowshoeing and sledding to keep tourists coming. Franck Vernay, first deputy mayor of Biot, a small village in Haute-Savoie, in the Rhône-Alpes region, said the ski season in his commune has been closed for three seasons because no profits were being made. “We haven’t given up on skiing but we’ve got to try to lure people in other ways. Otherwise its certain death,” he added.  

In other parts of the world, like California, ski resorts are looking into other high mountain sports, like biking and rafting. Ski seasons have been shortened, so many resorts are now open year-round so they can stay afloat. They are also developing ropes courses, zip lines and disk golf.

“It’s not just the tourists going to ski or mountain-bike in these elite destinations, but there are also entire communities relying on hotel jobs, rafting jobs, working at a ski lift,” Diana Madson, executive director of Mountain Pact, an organisation that empowers mountain communities, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are a lot of people who are vulnerable to these impacts.”

Freed of Ice, Iceland Rises

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


Roundup: Ice Clock Art, Sonic Sakteng, and Ganges Threat

Ice Watch: The Clock Is Ticking

“The Danes have artist Olafur Eliasson to thank for the strange configuration of Greenland-bred ice. It’s part of a project titled ‘Ice Watch,’ involving a dozen icy chunks arranged to resemble an ominous clock. Though the pieces look as though they’ve been surreptitiously washed ashore in the middle of a city, the melting artifacts serve as a direct call to arms: it represents the amount of ice that disappears every 100th of a second due to conditions of global warming.”

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The Voice of Himalayas 

“Heap creates a sonic collage with field recordings of footsteps, streams, and broken ice. ‘It features vocals by the stunning bird like dexterity of Sonam Dorji’s voice who’s day job is to record and protect all the folk song from this country before all memory of them disappear,’ Heap explains.”

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The Disintegration of Gangotri Glacier Threatens River Ganges

“A 2008 research report published in Current Science titled ‘Estimation of retreat rate of Gangotri glacier using rapid static and kinematic GPS survey,’ stated: ‘The Gangotri glacier is retreating like other glaciers in the Himalayas and its volume and size are shrinking as well.’ The glacier has retreated more than 1,500 metres (m) in the last 70 years. Post 1971, the rate of retreat of the glacier has declined. Dr Kumar said the latest data projects that post 2000 the average rate of retreat of the glacier per year has been about 12 to 13 m.”

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The glaciers win in “Snowpiercer”, but at what cost?

Humanity struggles to stay warm in a train speeding around a frozen Earth in "Snowpiercer". (© 2013 - RADiUS/TWC)
Humanity struggles to stay warm in a train speeding around a frozen Earth in “Snowpiercer”. (© 2013 – RADiUS/TWC)

Remember when Godzilla used to be scary?

Climate change horror seems to be the new go-to disaster for Hollywood films as of late. Unlike giant floods, tornados or even Godzilla, the world freezing over affects everyone at once. There might be an escape from a giant atomic lizard, but when the temperatures change, there’s nothing we can do as a species but adapt.

That adaptation comes in the form of a speeding, circumnavigating train in the new movie Snowpiercer. The exposition in the opening minutes of the movie sets up the scenario: to counteract warming global temperatures, scientists in the present day developed a chemical that will cool the earth when released into the atmosphere. It worked a little too well.

What’s left of humanity is stuffed into a train, divided so neatly into class sections it would make a political science sophomore blush. The poor are crammed into industrialized bunk beds in the tail section while the rich at the front of the train enjoy saunas, sushi and never-ending raves. After spending 17 years in the squalid back of the train eating gelatinous black protein blocks, Curtis, the film’s lead (Captain America‘s Chris Evans), reluctantly leads an uprising to take over the engine.

What’s interesting about Snowpiercer isn’t so much the setting but that climate change horror seemed to be playing a larger role in movies right now. As New Yorker film critic David Denby wrote about the Snowpiercer, “The current designers of awe, in Hollywood and elsewhere, have gone back to the Apocalypse. They’ve created what might be called the Seven Horsemen of the Multiplex: aliens, pandemics, floods, ice, comets and other interplanetary flotsam, nuclear war, and zombies.”

That fourth one, ice, popped up in last year’s The Colony, which imagines humanity living underground after the world freezes over once climate-changing weather machines break down. In both films, the fear seems to come from geoenginnering gone wrong as much as it does from a permanent Ice Age. (In some sense, this is also what the mega-hit Frozen is about.)
On location at the Hintertux glacier in Austria. (from left) TJ Park (Producer), Sung Ho Nam (Production Manager), Dooho Choi (Co-Producer), Alex Hong (DoP), Thomas Fuchs (Cine Tirol), Bong Joon-Ho (Director), Robert Bernacchi (Co-Producer). (Cine Tirol Film Commission)

In an odd way, Snowpiercer highlights the seriousness of glacial retreat; only a cosmically huge event is capable of bringing them back. One scene in the movie features a shot of the Hintertux glacier in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria. Though the movie takes place in 2031, the glacier will almost certainly be visibly smaller by time that year actually rolls around.

Over Independence Day weekend, Snowpiercer only took in a little over a million dollars at the box office. In South Korea, where it was co-produced, the movie made nearly $60 million, setting a new record in that country. This was the first English-language production for Snowpiercer‘s director, Joon-ho Bong, whose monster movie The Host achieved popularity in the U.S. when it was released in 2006.

Whether the most expensive Korean movie ever made finds popularity here in America (which accounts for only 2 percent of worldwide box office receipts so far), remains to be seen. Audiences may instead choose to find comfort this summer in a much more comforting disaster from the east: Godzilla.