Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes
Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica’s largest contributors to sea level rise from Antarctica. Its rate of loss has doubled in the past three decades, earning it the moniker “doomsday glacier.” Understanding why it’s retreating so quickly has been a challenge, but glaciologists have recently discovered that the glacier is now generating its own seismic activity when it calves (breaks off icebergs into the ocean), which could help in unlocking the physical keys to this process. The findings were published early this year in Geophysical Research Letters.
A Catastrophic Glacier Collapse and Mudflow in Salkantay, Peru
On 23 February 2020 an enormous, catastrophic debris flow tore down the Salkantay River in Santa Teresa, Peru. This event has killed at least four people, with a further 13 reported to be missing. Given the magnitude of the flow, this number is probably uncertain. The mudflow was captured in an extraordinary video posted to YouTube.
Read the full post on the Salkantay ice/rock avalanche by Dave Petley on GlacierHub here.
A Classification of Streamflow Patterns Across the Coastal Gulf of Alaska
From the plain language abstract: “Streams provide society with many benefits, but they are being dramatically altered by climate change and human development. The volume of flowing water and the timing of high and low flows are important to monitor because we depend on reliable streamflow for drinking water, hydroelectric power, and healthy fish populations. Organizations that manage water supplies need extensive information on streamflow to make decisions. Yet directly measuring flow is cost‐prohibitive in remote regions like the Gulf of Alaska, which drains freshwater from an area greater than 400,000 km2, roughly the size of California. To overcome these challenges, a series of previous studies developed a tool to predict historical river flows across the entire region. In this study, we used 33 years of those predictions to categorize different types of streams based on the amount, variability, and timing of streamflow throughout the year. We identified 13 unique streamflow patterns among 4,140 coastal streams, reflecting different contributions of rain, snow, and glacial ice. This new catalog of streamflow patterns will allow scientists to assess changes in streamflow over time and their impact to humans and other organisms that depend on freshwater.”
Read the full study published by the American Geophysical Unionhere.
On 23 February 2020 (corrected – this was erroneously reported as 24 February 2020) an enormous, catastrophic debris flow tore down the Salkantay River in Santa Teresa, Peru. This event has killed at least four people, with a further 13 reported to be missing. Given the magnitude of the flow, this number is probably uncertain.
A mudflow on this scale usually requires an extraordinary cause. Diario Correo in Peru has an explanation – this event was caused by glacial collapse on Salkantay mountain. This hypothesis is proposed by Oscar
Vilca Gómez, who the article describes as a specialist in Hydrology and
Glaciology. He visited the site site of the detachment as part of a
research team from the National Institute for Glacier Research of the
Ministry of Environment. They propose that an ice / rock avalanche
detached from the mountain, crossed the Salkantay Cocha lake, and
generated the huge debris flow.
The article includes the following image of the site:
In first inspection this appears to be a wedge failure in the rock mass that has fragmented to generate the rock / ice avalanche. The photographer appears to be standing on the landslide deposit.
Salkantay (which also appears to be named Salcantay at times) is located at -13.340, -72.540. Salkantay Cocha lake appears to be at -13.342, -72.569. At the moment it is not clear as to which slope has failed to generate this ice-rock avalanche and debris flow. There is excellent Google Earth imagery of this area, so it should be possible to get a better understanding in due course.
Over the last 24 hours more information has become available about the Salkantay landslide and mudflow. Oscar Vilca has kindly contacted me to say that the event occurred on 23 February 2020, and not 24 February as had been widely reported.
The triggering event is being described as an ice/rock avalanche with an initial volume of 400,000 cubic metres. This has clearly bulked up to form a mudflow with a much higher volume, presumably through entrainment of ice and saturated debris in the channel. This is similar to the Seti River rock avalanche and debris in Nepal in 2014, which also had devastating effects. On this occasion the initial collapse may have been smaller, but the mudflow was on a similar scale.
If this is indeed the scar then my interpretation is that this is a classic wedge failure in the rock mass, with a near vertical fall onto the ice and moraine at the toe of the slope. The rock slope would have been a mixture of rock and ice, both on the surface and within fractures. On impact the mass has probably fragmented to form an ice/rock avalanche, which has then entrained debris and ice/snow/water, transitioning to become the mudflow seen in the videos. This has behaved in a manner that is akin to a lahar, with a large volume, high velocity and long runout.
Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.
Sonam Sherpa, lead author of the study and PhD candidate at Arizona State University, spoke to GlacierHub about the study’s primary objectives. She and the other researchers aimed to “capture the complex natural-social system interactions of cryospheric hazards in the Nepal Himalaya.” She further emphasized the importance of understanding how communities, “perceive the risk coming from glacial lake outburst flood, as perceptions can influence their actions, beliefs, and responses to natural hazards and associated risks.”
GLOFs occur when a lake’s natural barrier, usually a moraine, suddenly fails. The trigger can be a natural disruption, like a landslide, earthquake, or avalanche, or simply the buildup of excess water pressure from increased melt. GLOFs result in a rapid discharge of a lake’s water, inundating the downstream ecosystem with little to no warning. These events are destructive and endanger the lives and livelihoods of communities downstream.
While scientists are clear about the threats posed by GLOFs, downstream communities often ignore or underestimate the potential impact floods could cause to life and livelihoods. So what are the factors contributing to how communities perceive this risk, and what factors influence their opinions?
The researchers conducted a survey of 138 households across nine villages within the Mt. Everest region. The survey elicited self-reported demographic information, such as age, gender, and sources of income. It also assessed risk perception regarding climate change, natural hazards, and hazards specific to regions with glaciers.
One survey question asked locals to rank various hazards “based on their likelihood and potential to damage.” Twenty seven percent of people ranked earthquakes first, while 23 percent put glacial floods first.
The researchers noted the 7.4 magnitude Gorkha earthquake in Nepal one year before, and attributed this result to cognitive availability, whereby recent or common events are more readily recalled than rare events. Sherpa, who is from the Khumbu area within the Mt. Everest region, even recalled her own fear that a glacial lake outburst flood would occur following the Gorkha earthquake.
In addition, the researchers found that rapid-onset events, namely earthquakes and GLOFs, were consistently ranked much higher than slow-onset impacts of climate change, such as changing weather patterns and water availability. GLOFs and earthquakes, though infrequent, occur rapidly and have catastrophic impacts, so people fear these events more.
Experience was a huge influence on risk perception. Both among individuals and communities that had previously experienced a GLOF event, the researchers observed a direct correlation between their experience and their perception of GLOFs as a critical threat.
When responses were analyzed by demographic, however, there was increased variation in the results. For example, young people perceived GLOFs as a greater risk than older people. The researchers surmised that media exposure coupled with more sources of information on climate change among the younger generation could explain this result.
In search of more factors influencing risk perception, the researchers chose two of the nine villages to compare—Dingboche and Monjo. The two villages are located in different altitudinal zones, Monjo at 2,835 meters and Dingboche at 4,350 m, are considered high-risk areas for GLOFs. Residents of Monjo perceived the most risk from earthquake, then unseasonal rainfall, and finally drought, while residents of Dingboche ranked earthquake, GLOF, then wind in order of risk.
“As a local Sherpa from Khumbu (the Mt. Everest region) myself, I had a little hint with regard to how one would perceive risk from glacial hazard based on spatial proximity,” said Sherpa. “It was surprising to see that in the data showed a similar result as well.”
The study identifies several reasons for the two villages’ variety in rankings. First is their geographical location. At its higher altitude, Dingboche is in closer proximity than Monjo to glacial lakes. The Dingboche village sits directly below Imja Lake, a heavily studied glacial lake which scientists categorize as a moderate to critical GLOF risk.
Geographical location further influences the primary source of livelihoods. Villages dependent on tourism are more likely to have access to have information about GLOF risks. Dingboche is heavily dependent on tourism because its altitude is too high to support much agriculture. In contrast, Monjo relies equally on the tourism and agriculture industries.
In 2016, Imja Lake underwent emergency remediation work to lower its water levels by 3.5 m. Following the project’s completion, perceived risk of GLOFs decreased in Monjo, but not in Dingboche. For Monjo, the remediation was a cognitive fix, but not for Dingboche. The project lowered the probability of a GLOF occurring, but as the closest village to Imja Lake, residents of Dingboche continued to perceive it as a critical threat to their community. Sherpa noted the remediation’s function as a cognitive fix as one of the study’s most interesting results, following the finding that proximity was a huge influencing factor on risk perception.
“I went through an emotional roller coaster thinking how rapid the changes are, in the glacial system and how it could impact my community, but at the same time how, very little is understood with regard to what’s happening in this biophysical system,” said Sherpa. Through this risk perception analysis, the researchers aimed to emphasize the necessity of including locals in the development of climate change adaptation policies.
Accurate scientific information is critical, but it is equally as important to communicate potential hazards properly so communities truly understand the risks they face. Only then will scientists, government, and local communities truly be able to work together to create a comprehensive plan to mitigate and adapt to the risks they face.
From Earth-Science Reviews: “This paper comprehensively reviews the current status and recent changes of the cryosphere (e.g., glacier, snow cover, and frozen ground) in the TP from the perspectives of observations and simulations. Because of enhanced climate warming in the TP, a large portion of glaciers have experienced significant retreat since the 1960s, with obvious regional differences. The retreat is the smallest in the TP interior, and gradually increases towards the edges.”
From Nature: “Here we find that subglacially produced methane is rapidly driven to the ice margin by the efficient drainage system of a subglacial catchment of the Greenland ice sheet…We show that subglacial hydrology is crucial for controlling methane fluxes from the ice sheet…Overall, our results indicate that ice sheets overlie extensive, biologically active methanogenic wetlands and that high rates of methane export to the atmosphere can occur via efficient subglacial drainage pathways. Our findings suggest that such environments have been previously underappreciated and should be considered in Earth’s methane budget.”
From Landslides: “On April 20, 2017, a flood from the Barun River, Makalu-Barun National Park, eastern Nepal formed a 2–3-km-long lake at its confluence with the Arun River as a result of blockage by debris. Although the lake drained spontaneously the next day, it caused nationwide concern and triggered emergency responses…This study highlights the importance of conducting integrated field studies of recent catastrophic events as soon as possible after they occur, in order to best understand the complexity of their triggering mechanisms, resultant impacts, and risk reduction management options.”
Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are sudden, fast flowing releases of glacial lake water that move downslope as a result of dam failures. Glacial lakes are either moraine-dammed or ice marginal-dammed. GLOFs are triggered by the buildup of water pressure, ice and rock avalanches, earthquakes, erosion, and other natural disruptions. As water rushes downslope, it picks up rock, mud, and debris, endangering people, infrastructure, fields and livestock in its path. Recent research, published in Landslides, provides new understanding of GLOFs by studying their trigger mechanisms and disaster impacts.
The research group on the recent study, led by Alton Byers, reconstructed a destructive GLOF that occurred on 20 April 2017 in the Upper Barun Valley, Nepal. The Langmale GLOF, as it was called, was rebuilt using remote sensing, field measurements, modeling, personal testimony and video footage. Results revealed a peak velocity between 4 to 8 m/s, the scale of the flood channel, and sand/silt/clay discharge estimates.
Byers and his team discovered the GLOF was triggered by a massive rockfall from Saldim Peak, which led to a chain reaction of events. The rockfall forcefully hit an unnamed glacier hundreds of meters below. This resulted in an avalanche of snow and ice, plummeting down into Langmale glacial lake, causing a tsunami-like wave to form and topple over terminal and left lateral moraines. The enormous wave then tumbled downslope, causing immense damage and rearrangement of the local landscape, according to the researchers. The Langmale GLOF carved into the land, ripped vegetation from its roots, and carried boulders thousands of feet. Imagine a landscape which once supported local livelihoods, now covered with mud and debris.
Researchers like Byers who study GLOFs face substantial limitations due to the remoteness and harsh weather of high mountain regions. They also face difficulties in terms of financing their research projects. The Langmale GLOF research group was able to overcome these obstacles in order to analyze the source, cause, and impacts of the Upper Barun Valley GLOF event. The research group highlighted the growing necessity for the implementation of early warning systems and urged for increased risk management and field studies of GLOFs.
How GLOFs Impact Local People
Although GLOFs often take place in secluded mountain regions, local people are also affected. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed in the Langmale GLOF, but the researchers report that four community buildings and six bridges were demolished. In addition, agricultural land was completely covered and tourism to the Upper Barun Valley suffered.
The Langmale research group reported growing concerns of local people due to the danger posed by GLOFs and associated economic tolls. A YouTube video captured the Langmale GLOF, its sheer velocity, and the destructive aftermath.
“Settlements in the Himalayan region are mostly situated near to the river bank or within the high flood plain,” shared Finu Shrestha, a research associate atICIMOD. “Communities living downstream of a glacial lake are the first ones who get threatened and face the potential damage if a GLOF happens. GLOF events produce huge impacts in the downstream [area] causing loss of lives and livelihood, damage to the settlements, roads, tracks and trails, bridges (wooden, suspension, motorable and highway bridges), and hydropower projects,” she told GlacierHub.
It is clear that humans are negatively impacted by GLOFs, but are humans impacting the frequency of GLOFs too?
The Langmale research group commented that hundreds of glacial lakes have formed in the Nepal Himalayas in recent decades due to the rapid glacial recession caused by the warming climate. An increase in glacial lakes could lead to increased frequency of GLOFs. Due to projected temperature increases, GLOF frequency is only expected to increase in upcoming decades, according to additional research published in Cryosphere.
Restless Glacier-Covered Volcano on Alaska Peninsula
From Alaska Volcano Observatory: “Unrest continues at Veniaminof. Seismicity remains elevated with weak tremor, but levels have decreased since midweek. Webcam views of the volcano have been obscured by clouds. Cloudy satellite data over the past 24 hours show intermittent elevated surface temperatures. No significant ash emissions have been observed or reported.”
Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Bolivian Andes
From Natural Hazards: “Previous research has identified three potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Bolivian Andes, but no attempt has yet been made to model GLOF inundation downstream from these lakes… We suggest that Laguna Arkhata and Pelechuco lake represent the greatest risk due to the higher numbers of people who live in the potential flow paths, and hence, these two glacial lakes should be a priority for risk managers.”
Read more about GLOF risk in the Bolivian Andes here.
Feeding Ecology of Capelin in a Greenland Fjord
From Polar Biology: “Capelin (Mallotus villosus) is an important trophic node in many Arctic and sub-Arctic ecosystems. In Godthåbsfjord, West Greenland, the zooplankton community has been shown to change significantly from the inner part of the fjord, which is impacted by several glaciers to the shelf outside the fjord. To what extent this gradient in zooplankton composition influences capelin diet during their summer feeding in the fjord is yet unknown.”
Learn more about the feeding ecology of Capelin here.
Few areas of the planet have been more affected by climate change than the mountain cryosphere, where negative impacts like glacier recession far exceed any positives like short-term increases in glacial runoff. These adverse changes make highland environments ideal for examining the policy concept of Loss and Damage (L&D), which deals with the impact of climate change on resources and livelihoods that cannot be offset by adaptation. A recent study in Regional Environmental Change analyzes L&D in the mountain cryosphere by extracting examples from existing literature on the subject and developing a conceptual approach to support future research to address the subject.
L&D has become an important issue within the international climate policy realm in recent years. In the mountain cryosphere, the effects of climate change and the resultant L&D are directly evident. However, despite the visibility of these changes, research on L&D has rarely focused on these mountain environments, says the study’s lead author Christian Huggel, who spoke with GlacierHub about his paper.
The dearth of research presented a unique opportunity for Huggel and his team to analyze L&D in the mountain cryosphere, to provide information to policymakers, and to create a framework for future research.
L&D work within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) first emerged around the impacts of sea-level rise on Small Island Developing States in the early 1990s, gaining further traction at the UNFCCC’s COP19 in Warsaw, where the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was established. Then in 2015, at the landmark COP21 in Paris, the Paris Agreement’s Article 8 was dedicated to L&D. Although this article acknowledges the importance of L&D, it also states that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation,” which is a serious limit to concrete action.
Despite the attention to L&D in international climate negotiations, significant controversy still surrounds the issue. Most of this controversy centers on the historical responsibility and potential liability of the developed countries for climate change impacts, with developing countries arguing for compensation, risk management, and insurance from the developed world.
Huggel told GlacierHub, “As the first systematic study of L&D in the Mountain Cryosphere, the researchers had to first frame existing literature on mountain climate change impacts within the concept of L&D.” To do this, they considered peer-reviewed literature published in English between 2013 and 2017 that dealt with issues of glaciers and climate change, and more specifically glacial shrinkage and permafrost degradation. Their search procured 41 papers for the final analysis.
They next considered the geographic distribution of these papers. Surprisingly, the majority of papers focused on the Andes and the Himalayas, while fewer focused on Europe and North America, despite better documentation of climate change effects in those regions. Overall, none of the papers explicitly mentioned L&D while highlighting glacial and climate change processes. Half of the papers focused on slow-onset processes, namely changes in river runoff and water availability, while a smaller subset focused on physical changes to landscapes due to glacial retreat and ecosystem changes.
The second biggest group of papers examined both slow-onset and sudden-onset processes. Finally, the smallest group of papers focused solely on sudden-onset processes, mainly glacial outburst floods (GLOFs), which can also be considered a combination of both slow and sudden-onset processes.
Next, the researchers grouped the socio-economic impacts found in the reviewed papers. These groups included cultural impacts, impacts to livelihoods, loss of productivity and revenue, loss of natural resources, loss of lives, loss of security and social order, and damages to property and assets. The group with the highest number of papers was damage to and loss of natural resources, followed by loss of productivity and revenue.
The timeframes for the impacts were also considered. More than half of the papers examined potential future impacts and often highlighted strategies to address them.
A majority of the papers fell within the researchers’ avoidable L&D category, meaning they could be mitigated with the right actions. A smaller subset were categorized as unavoidable L&D, impacts that could have been prevented if the correct steps were taken, while only two papers were identified as avoided L&D. Some papers suggested that glacial retreat was unavoidable because of the delayed response of glaciers to climate change, meaning they will continue to shrink in the future even if mitigation measures are undertaken. Other papers, however, highlight that when comparing low-emission to high-emission scenarios, there is a discernible difference in glacial retreat; thus, it may be partly avoidable.
From their literature review, the researchers made several observations. First, they note the current disconnect between mountain cryosphere research and L&D, which indicates that the concept of L&D has yet to be analyzed and applied for these environments. Second, their study reveals that L&D in the mountain cryosphere is a worldwide phenomenon occurring in all major mountain ranges with a higher proportion of L&D in developing rather than developed countries. Third, they highlight the seven groups of L&D outlined above as particularly relevant to the mountain cryosphere. Out of these, the non-economic ones, of which five of the seven can be considered, have attracted attention in research and policy due to the loss of values associated with glacial retreat, such as community and self-reliance.
Finally, the researchers propose an analytical and process-based framework to understanding L&D in the mountain cryosphere, considering the driving physical processes, the secondary physical processes (slow-onset and sudden events), and the associated societal impacts. These three elements will help to foster an understanding of how L&D is “connected, driven, and caused by climate and cryosphere change,” in addition to the social, political, and economic factors.
The driving physical processes in the framework are broken down into three elements: glaciers, snow, and permafrost, which are all primarily affected by the warming climate. The secondary primary processes are more numerous and include impacts such as GLOFs, losses of seasonal melt water, and ecosystem changes. Finally, the tertiary societal impacts include loss of lives, loss of natural resources and livelihoods, and loss of income, security, and social order.
This L&D framework highlights the cascading impacts in the mountain cryosphere. One illustration of this is glacial retreat leading to a reduction in water availability, followed by low agricultural yields which lead to a loss of income to farmers.
Overall, this study represents an initial advance of research and policy for L&D in the mountain cryosphere. The concepts and framework outlined in the study may well encourage future research on the subject and ultimately lead to policies to better manage L&D in the mountain cryosphere.
The previously dry Barsuwat riverbed in Ishkoman, Pakistan, was inundated with flood waters from the melting Barsuwat glacier last month. The water triggered landslides that blocked the flow of the Immit River and formed an artificial lake. On July 18, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) event originating from the artificial lake produced significant flooding in nearby villages in the Ishkoman Valley of the Ghizer district, Gilgit-Baltistan. Two people were killed during the initial rush of floodwaters, and around 1,000 people were evacuated to safer areas ahead of the GLOF by Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).
During the GLOF, the melting glacier released debris, including mud and stones, which damaged over 40 houses and cut off roadway access to upwards of 10 local villages. Part of the Karakoram Highway became submerged, while some smaller roads were washed away along with over a dozen vehicles and hundreds of cattle in the upstream areas.
The Barsuwat glacier has been melting more rapidly than normal due to a May heat wave in the region that killed 65 people in Karachi, Pakistan. According to Dawn, an online Pakistani newspaper, the deputy commissioner of Ghizer, Shuja Alam, said that the glacier started melting on July 17, the night before the flooding event, at about 7 p.m. The floodwaters have since waned as the ice and debris have melted and washed away.
The evacuation of the villagers prior to the GLOF event was made possible by a community-based flood early warning system in Gilgit Baltistan developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an organization that monitors glacier melt and the dams that can lead to lake formation and flooding.
Earlier in April, ICIMOD’s Director General David Molden had pledged “ongoing support to Pakistan’s government and community institutions” and highlighted the organization’s partnership in disaster risk management in Gilgit Baltistan as key to enabling locals to respond to the consequences of climate change, including an increase in glacial lakes and flooding events.
ICIMOD is currently collaborating with the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority and the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat on disaster risk management in the area. These kinds of collaborations are becoming increasingly necessary as disasters like the one in July become more common. “Today, the fast melting glaciers pose the greatest disaster risk to Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. I see massive deforestation that the region has experienced over the decades as a major factor behind this situation,” Ghulam Rasul, director general of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told Dawn.
However, Ken Hewitt, professor emeritus of the department of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, who spent his career studying glaciers in Northern Pakistan, warns of a greater threat to the region. “Bigger risks come from ice dams, of which there have been seven or more in the upper Ishkoman (Karambar tributary) since late 19th century,” he told GlacierHub.
He added that there is potential for one of these ice dams and resulting GLOFs from a recent advance of Chillinji Glacier. “Its terminus has advanced across the Karambar River, but not sealed a dam to date—though it has in the past,” Hewitt said.
News outlets in Pakistan have likened the July 2018 artificial lake formation in Ishkoman to the formation of Attabad Lake in Hunza River Valley, Pakistan, in January 2010. Attabad Lake was created after a natural rock landslide buried the village of Attabad and dammed the Hunza River. The lake grew to 21 kilometers across and over 109 meters deep.
The Ishkoman Valley lake is different, however, in that it does not have the same blockage characteristics that could withstand warming temperatures and height of the rising waters to form a permanent lake.
As the region looks to the future, Hewitt is keeping his eye on the Hasanabad Glacier in Hunza, about 50 kilometers downstream from Attabad, which is currently undergoing a massive surge. “It had the longest, fastest surge on record a century ago and is a unique glacier in other ways,” he said. He remains doubtful it will reach the Hunza River, but he cautions that it could form a dam on its large tributary, risking another GLOF in the region.
The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring the “Doomsday” glacier, a new study on GLOFS and climate change, subglacial lakes in Canada, and some beautiful aerial shots of the Rockies!
This week’s news report features:
Project Aims to Better Understand “Doomsday” Glacier
By: Andrew Angle
Summary: The largest joint United States-United Kingdom Antarctic project since the 1940s was announced at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration or ITGC will focus on the Thwaites glacier of West Antarctica, one of the world’s largest and fastest melting glaciers. A five-year collaboration between the U.S. National Science Foundation and U.K. Natural Environment Research Council worth $25 million will include six scientific field studies with over 100 scientists to analyze changes to the Thwaites and surrounding ocean.
Will Climate Change Be Responsible for More Glacial Lake Outburst Floods?
By: Natalie Belew
Summary: How certain is it that climate change increases the frequency and severity of glacier lake outburst floods or GLOFs? It turns out the answer is a bit complicated and the subject of a new study published in The Cryosphere. This recent study provides the first global assessment of the problems involved in developing a robust attribution argument for climate change and GLOF events.
Unprecedented Subglacial Lakes Discovered in the Canadian Arctic
By: Jade Payne
Summary: A joint study published last month in Science Advances predicted the presence of two hypersaline subglacial lakes. The lakes are located on either side of the east-west ice divide of the Devon Ice Cap, an ice cap located in Nunavut, Canada. The lakes could represent significant microbial habitats that could be used as analogs to study the conditions for potential life on other planets.
Summary: In lighter news, Garrett Fisher, a writer, photographer and adventurer, recently set out to capture the beauty of the Rockies. To do so, he flew an antique plane across the sky for aerial views of the last remaining glaciers in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. He was inspired by the need to document the glory of the Rockies before the glaciers disappear completely. His photos from the trip can be found in his recently published book, “Glaciers of the Rockies,” which features his collection of 177 carefully curated photos.
The GlacierHub News Report is a bi-monthly video news report that features some of our website’s top stories. This week, GlacierHub news is featuring an interview with Sophie Elixhauser, a new study on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a discussion of hazardous development in Nepal, and a theory about snowballs and slushies!
This week’s news report features:
East Greenland’s Iivit Communities: An Interview with Sophie Elixhauser
By: Natalie Belew
Summary: GlacierHub interviewed anthropologist Sophie Elixhauser to discuss her recently published book, “Negotiating Personal Autonomy: Communication and Personhood in East Greenland.” She shared her perspective of her time observing the Inuits in East Greenland. She explained that she began her research in East Greenland with a very broad question about how people relate to their environment.
A New Low for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
By: Sabrina Ho
Summary: A new paper published in Nature has shown that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has decreased drastically in strength, especially in the last 150 years. Increasing freshwater input from melting glaciers and ice sheets in the Nordic and Arctic Seas have contributed to the slowdown. GlacierHub interviewed Wallace Broecker, a well-known geoscience professor in Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who coined the term “the great ocean conveyor belt.” He claims that there are dozens of “water hosing experiments” that simulated freshwater input of higher magnitudes coming from Greenland. “Still they failed to shut down the AMOC,” he said.
Communities in Nepal Expand to Risk Areas, Despite Hazards
By: Jade Payne
Summary: A recently published study in the journal Land has found that more than a quarter of the new houses in Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal, are being built in highly dangerous areas susceptible to multiple natural hazards, including glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and avalanches. The study lists a number of challenges for this rapidly-growing city, located in a region with a number of geological hazards. Most of the newly settled areas are located in agricultural areas, which are attractive to prospective residents because they are flat and have owners who permit construction. However, these locations place new houses at great risk. The researchers indicate that this growth will continue until at least 2035.
Summary: Many scientists are coming up with hypotheses about a global ice age during the Cryogenian geologic period that took place between 720 to 635 million years ago. Two main hypotheses are on the table: “Snowball Earth” theory, which argues that ice covered the entire Earth, and “Slushball Earth” hypothesis, where the sea near the equator stayed open, allowing the evaporation and precipitation of water to persist. However, neither of these hypotheses are set in stone, but are rather part of an ongoing debate that requires much clarification. Developing different climate models with many parameters is necessary to better understand what happened during the Cryogenian period, giving flexibility to the ever-unknown complexity of past climate conditions. Moreover, careful study of the organisms that survived during this period could further help us understand the truth behind the Cryogenian ice age.
David and Goliath In a phone interview earlier this week with GlacierHub, Saul Lliuya, a mountain guide and farmer from Huaraz in northwestern Peru, explains how he is preparing for the next step in his legal battle with multinational German energy corporation RWE. Just last Nov. 30, a court in the northwestern German city of Hamm ruled that it will hear Lliuya’s climate lawsuit. The suit was previously dismissed in 2016 by the Essen Regional Court in Germany where the RWE headquarters is located.
Lliuya decided to sue RWE for roughly $20,000 in disaster preparedness funds for the Peruvian city of Huaraz in 2015. Moreover, Lliuya is demanding another $8,000 for the personal expenses he had to shoulder in preparing for the worst.
According to Lliuya, “RWE presented additional documents because they didn’t want to accept the judge’s decision. However, in the end, they [the German court] decided the case will move along and go into the evidentiary phase.”
Lliuya added that the Peruvian research organization Instituto Nacional de Investigacion en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña (INAIGEM) is studying glacial retreat in the region. They have agreed to provide him with information that he can use in his case against RWE. When asked how he felt about people thinking of him as a hero, he said he felt he was just doing his job. “I don’t feel like a hero… Glacier retreat since the 1940’s has killed a lot of people… just this feeling of climate justice,” he said. Lliuya understands that the odds are stacked against him, but he is still hopeful that he will win against RWE. He is happy to have received help from the NGO Germanwatch. Germanwatch focuses on advocating for global equality and preserving the livelihoods of the marginalized. Lliuya says if other people would like help, their team is in need of funding for future legal assistance. When asked why he selected RWE as a target for his suit, Lliuya pointed to RWE’s coal burning. “It’s one of the largest contaminators in Europe,” he said. He argues that the German company should be held responsible for the disasters caused by the rapidly melting glaciers in the Andes, disasters which have endangered his livelihood and people.
Glacial retreat has resulted in dangerously high water levels in the glacial lakes above Huaraz, for example. Unfortunately, this places Huaraz and other cities along the river at greater risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Lliuya argues that big energy players like RWE should be held accountable and contribute in preparing for the problems faced by the local population due to climate change.
The Risk to Peruvian Glaciers Peru’s glaciers have lost up to 90 percent of their mass. The meltwater could potentially end up in glacial lakes like Palcacocha. Palcacocha is located in the Ancash region in the Cordillera Blanca within the Peruvian province of Huaraz. The lake drains into Quebrada Cojup which drains into Quilcay River. The Quilcay River flows through the city of Huaraz and empties into the Santa River. Since 1970, Palcacocha has grown 34 times bigger. The lake itself contains 17 million cubic meters of water, which is the equivalent of 6,800 Olympic swimming pools. Unlike like some other lakes in Peru, Palcacocha has no early warning system. In fact, Johnny Salazar, a Huaraz civil defense official said in an interview with Reuters that he initially requested $1 million from regional authorities to fund the project. Unfortunately, the plan fell through because the regional authorities didn’t provide any money to help fund the early warning system.
German anthropologist Noah Walker-Crawford explained to GlacierHub that GLOFs are a very real threat. “Increasing glacial retreat is causing existing glacial lakes to grow in volume and new lakes to form. This is particularly significant for downstream cities with large populations living in areas that would be affected by potential GLOFs,” he said. “In Huaraz, around 50,000 people live in the hazard zone threatened by Lake Palcacocha. Saúl is one of them.” Anthony Oliver-Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida, agreed, telling GlacierHub that a GLOF in the region could be disastrous, especially for a city like Huaraz. “If in fact, a GLOF took place…if a village is in the way, we’re talking total annihilation… complete obliteration.” In northwestern Peru, according to some studies, if a large scale avalanche were to take place and fall into Palcacocha it could result in a 100-foot wave within the lake. That wave could potentially create a flood made of meltwater, trees, mud, and rocks which would rush down the valley. That could mean death for the inhabitants of Huaraz living in flood risk zones who currently lack an early warning system to prompt an evacuation. However, according to Oliver-Smith, draining the lakes regularly is one way of making sure that GLOFs don’t happen. According to him, the drained water is used for things like irrigation. For now, the overflowing lakes are a valuable source of freshwater. However, he added that the water may eventually run out.
“The problem in the long term with glacial melt is that once that water is gone it’s gone,” he said. Walker-Crawford concurred, saying, “For rural farmers such as Saúl, this is an existential threat. With increasingly unstable rain patterns and decreasing water supplies, they will have no reliable source of irrigation for their crops. This is a threat to their livelihood.”
Setting Legal Precedent with a Climate Suit With so much at stake for mountain populations and the world’s glaciers, why can’t a company like RWE contribute $20,000 to mitigate climate change-induced losses? After all, the company earned 45.8 billion euros in 2015 by generating 216.1 terawatts of energy for 23.4 million customers.
According to Oliver-Smith, the reason RWE won’t bend is that any negotiation would set a precedent for future claims. “That’s pocket change for RWE,” Oliver-Smith said. “They could do that in a heartbeat and never even notice it, but if they do that they are accepting responsibility… so that’s not going to happen.”
Who Will Pay for the Damages Brought About by Climate Change? Huaraz is just one community facing climate change-related problems. According to some reports, developing nations around the world will need between $140 and 300 billion annually by 2030 for disaster relief funds and management. Right now, these expenses are being shouldered by local taxpayers, national governments, NGOs, and foreign aid. Some civil society stakeholders like Germanwatch, and Lliuya, argue that multinational energy companies who have contributed to climate change should help shoulder the financial burden. Lliuya says that watching the glaciers melt made him feel helpless. That’s why he filed the case against RWE. He wants everyone to know that addressing climate change will not be easy. However, he believes that we can make a difference if stakeholders around the world can come together to address the problem.
“Every kind of a change comes through a fight or perseverance,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, we know what the consequences will be. So I hope that cases like what we’re doing can be done in other places as well so that we can contribute to reduce the temperature.”
Imagine waking up at 4 a.m. to the wails of a siren. For Sherqilla, a small village in Pakistan, that siren was the difference between life and death. The siren is part of an early warning system that woke up all the villagers in time for them to get to higher ground and avoid the floods that ensued in 2017. Just one year earlier a similar flood swept away six households, livestock, 250 acres of cropland, and roughly 600 acres of fruit and trees.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to the Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and Karakoram mountain ranges. The population of the region is roughly 1.9 million people, around 80,000 of whom are vulnerable to “inland tsunamis.”
Normally one would think of a tsunami and imagine waves crashing down on an unsuspecting coastal community. In the case of Pakistan, the tsunamis come from within. These inland tsunamis are known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. GLOFs occur when the water of a glacial lake breaks through its natural dam and floods the nearby areas. Based on a 30-year average from 1981 to 2010, climate change has warmed the mountainous regions of Pakistan by an estimated 1.2 degrees Celsius, leading to an increase in GLOFs and natural disasters. The impacts on the local community is both swift and unforgiving.
The Chitral Valley is another prime example of a remote mountain village impacted by climate change. Three major floods have occurred in less than six years, claiming the lives of 50 people and leaving hundreds of thousands stranded, according to the Washington Post.
The Indus Basin Initiative
In light of the constant threat of GLOFs, ICIMOD made the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority more pro-active in the face of such natural disasters. Aside from improving the local irrigation systems and agricultural conditions of the communities, ICIMOD established hazard management systems in Gulmit, Passu, Hussaini, and Gulkin. These systems are known as community-based glacier monitoring and early warning systems or CBFEWS.
According to ICIMOD, CBFEWS consists of tools and plans used to detect and respond to flood emergencies. The monitoring priorities of the system depend on the community. In Gulmit, for example, locals monitor the debris flow. However, as previously mentioned, in Sherqilla, the system monitors flash floods. In Passu, the locals look out for GLOFs. This is all part of the ICIMOD’s Indus Basin Initiative.
Back in September, following floods in August, ICIMOD implemented a five-day training program to improve the ability of participants to install and use the community-based flood risk management system. The training consisted of learning both the technical and conceptual knowledge behind the early warning device designed by ICIMOD. The 17 participants in the training came from local governments, NGOs and other partners. They hailed from Nepal, India, and Pakistan. According to the ICIMOD, in order to be effective, the CBFEWS should involve a number of elements: “risk knowledge and scoping, community-based monitoring and early warning, dissemination, and communication and response capability and resilience.”
In the hopes of further increasing resilience in the region, ICIMOD recently aided in facilitating an international conference. ICIMOD, the Government of Nepal, and the European Union worked together to make the conference “Resilient Hindu Kush: Developing Solutions Toward a Sustainable Future for Asia” a reality.
At the event, the director general of ICIMOD, David Molden, gave words of thanks and encouragement. In his speech, he recognized the importance of future collaboration saying, “Building resilience also calls us to improve participation of all groups, particularly communities, women and youth in creating a vision and action plan for a more prosperous future.”
See ICIMOD Director General David Molden’s Full Speech here.
Of course, GLOFs are not the only natural disasters that plague the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Avalanches, monsoon rains, and other natural disasters make the socio-economic conditions even tougher on the people of the remote mountain villages. ICIMOD further recognizes that Gilgit-Baltistan isn’t the only country under threat from impending GLOFs. As such, it has begun discussions on the possibility of replicating the early warning system in other areas. ICIMOD hopes that these expansion efforts will help to ensure the safety of villagers living throughout the region.