Roundup: Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics, Backcountry Avalanche Risk Rises, and Cruikshank Receives Prestigious Award

Study Aims to Better Understand Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics

Iceberg calving can create powerful waves when large chunks of ice fall from glaciers into the ocean. A recent study conducted 66 experiments to better understand the features of iceberg calving to determine iceberg-tsunami strength and parameters.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on GlacierHub here.

The pool used by the researchers during the experiments. In the image, a gravity-dominated experiment is being conducted (Source: Figure 2/Heller et al).

Crowded Backcountry Ski Slopes Increase Risk of Skiers Endangering Each Other

Avalanche risk is on the rise as more people enter backcountry alpine terrain. A new study seeking to quantify the risk to multi-party avalanches hopes to raise awareness and provoke discussion.

Read the story by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.

A skier during a run down Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington State. (Credit: National Park Service)

Cruikshank Awarded Polar Knowledge Canada’s 2019 Northern Science Award

From the Polar Knowledge Canada press release: “Polar Knowledge Canada is pleased to announce that the recipient of the 2019 Northern Science Award is Dr. Julie Cruikshank. The award was presented at the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting on December 5, 2019, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Dr. Cruikshank, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, has a long and distinguished record of documenting the oral histories and life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders, and exploring Yukon First Nations’ systems of narrative and knowledge. Her work, built on a foundation of respectful relationships, has helped Yukon First Nations recognize and honour the strengths of their cultural traditions, and has brought new insight into the nature of history and the interplay of different knowledge systems. Yukon Indigenous governments regularly draw on Dr. Cruikshank’s work and her knowledge.”

Read the story published by Polar Knowledge Canada here.

Dr. Julie Cruikshank (Source: University of British Columbia).

Study Aims to Better Understand Iceberg-Tsunami Dynamics

Iceberg tsunamis can be dramatic and violent events. A recent paper used large-scale experiments to better understand tsunamis generated by iceberg calving. The team of scientists set up a large tank and used heavy blocks to create waves under controlled conditions. The different iterations of the experiments revealed some of the differences that can be found when icebergs fall into water or rise to the surface in various ways. 

The findings were published at the 38th International Association for Hydro-Environmental Engineering and Research World Congress (IAHR 2019) in Panama City. The researchers sought to better understand the different features of iceberg-tsunamis that result when icebergs of different sizes calve. They aimed to expand their research by comparing the new findings to the features of tsunamis caused by landslides. The team hopes that their work will serve to create benchmark test cases that future research can benefit from.   

Lead author Valentin Heller, a professor of environmental fluid mechanics at the University of Nottingham, highlighted the work’s immediate and future impacts. “The research enables the efficient systematic prediction of iceberg-tsunamis for a wide range of calving mechanisms for the first time,” Heller told GlacierHub. “In the longer term, this is likely to impact the design of coastal infrastructure and disaster risk assessment in areas where iceberg-tsunamis occur.”

The process through which blocks of ice break off the terminus (end) or margins (sides) of glaciers, ice shelves, or ice sheets and fall into a body of water, typically an ocean, is called iceberg calving. Calving events range from rarer instances in which very large chunks of ice break off, like in the video above, to more frequent events with much smaller pieces of ice separating, like in the video below. Calving events can cause iceberg-tsunamis, examples of which can be seen in both videos.

Though glacier melt is increasing worldwide due to the climate emergency, Heller said an increase in ice loss will not automatically bring about an increase in number or strength of iceberg-tsunamis. This is because other melting mechanisms are playing a role as well. “Ice mass loss is primarily driven by two main components; (i) melting of ice and runoff in the form of water from the ice sheet surface and (ii) discharge through glaciers terminating in the sea in the form of iceberg calving.” He continued, saying that “an acceleration of ice mass loss through (ii) does not necessarily result in larger iceberg-tsunamis.” 

Iceberg-tsunamis are dangerous to coastal communities, tourists, and the fishing and shipping industries. Greenland has been the site of multiple significant iceberg-tsunamis; one tsunami at the Eqip Sermia glacier in 2013 produced waves so substantial a tourist boat landing was destroyed. The inhabitants of the village Innaarsuit, located in Greenland, were on high alert in 2018 when a 330-foot tall iceberg drifted into the waters near their homes, bringing with it the threat of flooding

The research team conducted 66 unique, large-scale experiments in a 50 by 50 meter basin with heavy blocks of up to 187 kilograms each with different variations of iceberg volume, geometry, kinematics, and initial position relative to the water surface. They looked at five iceberg calving mechanisms; capsizing, gravity-dominated fall, buoyancy-dominated fall, gravity-dominated overturning, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. The researchers wrote that “gravity-dominated icebergs essentially fall into the water body whereas buoyancy-dominated icebergs essentially rise to the water surface,” distinguishing the two categories. 

The pool used by the researchers during the experiments. In the image, a gravity-dominated experiment is being conducted. 
Source: Figure 2/ Large-scale experiments of tsunamis generated by iceberg calving

The researchers looked at nine parameters influencing iceberg-tsunamis that could impact wave heights and their decay. The parameters monitored were released energy, water depth, iceberg velocity, iceberg thickness, iceberg width, iceberg volume, iceberg density, water density, and gravitational acceleration. 

The data showed that tsunami heights caused by gravity-dominated fall and gravity-dominated overturning are approximately an order of magnitude larger than those generated by capsizing, buoyancy-dominated fall, and buoyancy-dominated overturning. In other words, icebergs that fall into the water from above are much more hazardous than icebergs released underwater. Heller told GlacierHub that the researchers were surprised about this large difference because it had not been quantified before.

Diving deeper into the researchers’ analysis reveals that the wave magnitudes generated by the gravity-dominated overturning mechanism created the largest tsunamis, the gravity-dominated fall mechanism created the second largest tsunamis, and the three other mechanisms had waves that were up to a factor of 27 smaller. In other words, the two processes that result from icebergs essentially falling into the water created much larger tsunamis than the mechanisms where icebergs rise to the water surface.

A further difference between the two largest wave producers and the three smaller is that for the gravity-dominated mechanisms the largest wave amplitude was observed earlier in the wave train. For the three processes that resulted in smaller waves, the largest wave amplitude was found in the middle of the wave train. 

The results of the study will be useful to both scientists and policy-makers. Heller told GlacierHub that the “results [will] help scientists looking into wave runup at shorelines and wave impact on infrastructures, such as coastal buildings, by providing the necessary offshore wave parameters to support their work.” He elaborated, saying that predicting the heights of iceberg-tsunamis “helps to make decisions on how close to a glacier front ships can safely navigate or if evacuations are necessary, as in the case of the village Innaarsuit on Greenland.” 

“Iceberg-tsunamis is a relatively new field of research and people are just starting to realize the significance of such waves for coastal infrastructure, tourists and coastal communities,” Heller said. As the body of research grows, we will have a better understanding of how iceberg-tsunamis function. Once more information is available, impacted communities will be better able to prepare for such events.

Video of the Week: A Glacier in Greenland Is Growing—But Probably Not for Long

Famous for being the largest and fastest-thinning glacier in Greenland—and creating the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier has recently increased in size. For the past 20 years it has been melting, but during 2016-2017 it grew vertically about 100 feet, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

With so much news about global warming, it’s rare to hear about a glacier that’s expanding. It is crucial to note, though, that the glacier’s growth is not because climate change has suddenly stopped. Rather, it’s expansion can be attributed to cooler temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. The cooling occurred in 2016 and is likely due to the natural variability of North Atlantic Oscillation.

The waters of the Atlantic will eventually warm again and could bring about renewed melting of the Jakobshavn Glacier—and higher sea levels.

“At first we didn’t believe it,” NASA’s Ala Khazendar said. “We had pretty much assumed that Jakobshavn would just keep going on as it had over the last 20 years.”

NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland studies the impact of ocean temperatures on Greenland’s ice sheets and glaciers.

Last week we brought you a video of a thinning glacier; this week watch NASA’s video explaining the recent growth of the Jakobshavn Glacier.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Nevado Ausangate Glaciers, Peru Retreat, and Lake Formation

Rising Temperatures Threaten Biodiversity Along the Antarctic Peninsula

Ragnar Axelsson Documents Iceland’s Disappearing Glaciers

Supraglacial Lakes Are Not Destabilizing Greenland’s Ice Sheet, Yet

Video of the Week: Glacial Thinning in Greenland

Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier is one of Greenland’s largest tidewater outlet glaciers. This type of glacier terminates in the sea, leading to frequent calving and releases of ice. Kangerdlugssuaq, which translates to “large fjord” in Greenlandic, is located on the southeastern coast of Greenland.

Ph.D. candidate Michalea King, who studies Greenland outlet glaciers at Ohio State University, created this week’s video of the week. The GIF documents glacial thinning in the 21st century on Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier.

The GIF’s x-axis shows the glacier’s change in elevation, which is measured in meters. The y-axis displays the glacier’s upstream distance, which is measured in kilometers. The upstream distance measures the distance of the glacier’s stream channel from the sea to the inner glacier. An upstream distance of 0 kilometers is located at the termination of the glacier, near the sea. And an upstream distance of 35 kilometers is located further inland, towards the inner part of the glacier.

The short video shows a decrease in glacial elevation over time. Years 2000 to 2005 are colored in blue, 2006 to 2010 are colored in green, and 2011 to 2016 are colored in yellow. The most recent recording, from 2017, is colored in orange.

Yellow and orange years reveal noticeable decreases in glacial elevation, meaning that the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier is losing ice mass. The upstream distance, specifically from 5 to 15 kilometers, shows a greater loss of elevation than other upstream distances. This means that regions near the glacier’s termination, by the sea, are particularly vulnerable to ice mass loss. Decreasing ice mass over time is likely due to increased ice calving events.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Epidemics and Population Decline in Greenland’s Inuit Community

Massive Impact Crater Discovered Beneath Greenland Glacier

Roundup: Catastrophe on Mt. Ararat, Albedo Effect in the Alps, and Meltwater in Greenland

Supraglacial Lakes Are Not Destabilizing Greenland’s Ice Sheet, Yet

Subglacial Meltwater Boosts Greenland Ecosystems and Locks Carbon

Following news of the arrival of a Manhattan-sized iceberg from a retreating glacier next to a village in Greenland, a recent paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has unveiled new research on how subglacial meltwater in Greenland is pumping nutrients and carbon from the deep sea to drive a boom of microorganisms in the upper layers. This effect fuels the ecosystems around it and impacts carbon cycling within the fjords and ocean close to the glaciers, further increasing the carbon uptake from the atmosphere.

Since 2002, Greenland has lost around 270 billion tons of ice per year. The glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland are key to the magnitude of future sea level rise, prompting scientists and researchers from around the globe to travel to the glacier-laced land to study and measure the physics of glacier melting and retreat. A team of researchers from Hokkaido University, led by Naoya Kanna and Shin Sugiyama, found a new perspective to understand the interactions of glaciers with ecosystems under a changing climate.

Bowdoin Glacier and Fjord. Bowdoin is a tidewater glacier in northwestern Greenland (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

Since 2012, the team’s focus has been measurements of the ice in the region, with specific interest in the mechanisms of the Bowdoin glacier’s rapid retreat. Shin Sugiyama, the second author of the paper, wrote to GlacierHub, “We recognized the glacier-ocean interaction as the key process and expanded our activity to the ocean.”

The researchers moved from geophysical measurements to geochemical measurements over time. They started to camp in the nearby village of Qaanaaq beginning in the summer of 2016, surveying the water temperature, salinity, ocean currents and other physical properties.

A researcher collects water samples from the front of Bowdoin Glacier using a fishing rod (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

They collected biogeochemical samples from the top of Bowdoin Glacier, the plume along the glacier front, and nearby fjords. They found that the plume water is more turbid, and its chemical composition is significantly different from waters in other locations due to a higher concentration of nutrients and salts. At the same time, phytoplankton blooms were also detected.

They then found an underwater nutrient and carbon transfer route that may explain these observations. Sugiyama describes the transfer as a “nutrient pump.”

At the bottom of the sea, due to the gravity and ocean currents, there are water flows from the fjord moving toward the glacier front. These flows carry a lot of descended nutrients and dissolved carbon. There is also subglacial freshwater discharge that is turbid because of the subglacial weathering. The two flows meet at the deep sea and create massive fluxes of sediments along the glacier fronts.

When the sediment-laden upwell water reaches the sea surface, it forms an opaque layer below the relatively fresher sea surface water. During the upwelling process, the mixture of subglacial discharge water and flows from the fjord pumps nutrients and carbon from the deep water to the upper layers.

Schematics of the nutrient and carbon rich subsurface plume water formation at the front of Bowdoin Glacier (Source: Kanna et al.).

Later, phytoplankton blooms were observed in between the sea surface and the near surface plume water. Phytoplankton are plant-like marine microorganisms at the base of the ocean’s food pyramid. These tiny organisms absorb nutrients and carbon to fuel their growth. Some of the nutrients and carbon fall to the bottom with the phytoplankton when they wither. Other portions of the nutrients and carbon further pass into the food web through organisms that graze on the phytoplankton.

The growth burst of the phytoplankton went unnoticed until recent years. Through their analysis of samples from supraglacial meltwater, proglacial stream discharge, fjord surface water, and plume surface water, the authors identify a distinct vertical distribution of nutrients and carbon along the centerline of the fjord. The data prove that the upwelling associated with the subglacial discharge has been pumping the nutrients and carbon from the deep water toward the surface, catalyzing the formation of phytoplankton blooms.

As the planet warms, glacier melting is increasing in Greenland. For its implication on their findings, Sugiyama said, ”Our study implies that nutrient supply to fjord surface water is enhanced by an increase in meltwater discharge under the warming climate. This results in higher primary production [of microorganisms]. On the other hand, turbid plume water also disturbs the production by limiting light availability in water.” He noted the team will continue their research to understand how these positive and negative impacts counterbalance.

The researcher conduct measurements near the Bowdoin Glacier front with a boat operated by a local hunter (Source: Shin Sugiyama).

The study not only showed a critical role of freshwater discharge in the primary productivity of microorganisms in front of the glaciers, but it also indicated that changes in glacier melt might impact the fjord ecosystems.

“Tidewater glacier front is a biological ‘hot spot.’ We see many birds and sea mammals near the front of Bowdoin Glacier. Change in the ecosystem is not clear at this moment, but we suspect such a highly productive ecosystem is sensitive to the warming Arctic climate,” Sugiyama said.

The ocean also acts as an immense carbon sink, which scientists need to explore. This finding may provide ideas for how carbon transfers within the marine ecosystem.

Sugiyama added, “A possible influence on the carbon cycle is more carbon storage in the ocean when primary production is enhanced by increasing amount of upwelling meltwater. Nevertheless, the plume process is not directly related to the intake of carbon from the atmosphere.”

Bowdoin Glacier is smaller than other rapidly retreating glaciers in Greenland, such as the Jakobshavn and Helheim glaciers. The team hopes to find out if the processes observed in Bowdoin Fjord resemble the situations in the fjords of larger glaciers.

A New Discovery: Why and How Glaciers Flow?

For the 40 percent of the world’s population who live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, sea-level rise is more than just a mathematical calculation, it’s a survival challenge. Although scientists are confident about the impacts of accelerated glacier melting and ice flow on rising sea levels, projections for future ice loss remain at a fairly early stage. Developing better predictions for how glaciers melt and flow in the future remains a daunting task for glacier modelers.

Helheimregion of Greenland, with the midmorning sun glinting off of the Denmark Strait in the background (Source: NASA).

A new analysis published in the Journal of Science argues that the “largest uncertainty” in ice sheet models used to predict future sea-level rise originates from our limited understanding of underwater processes at the ice-bed interface. These ice-bed processes beneath water involve interactions among the weight of the ice, water pressure, and the roughness of the bedrock. One of the major consequences, of these underwater interactions and a cause of sea-level rise is basal sliding, when the glacier slides over the bed as a result of meltwater between the ice and the bed acting as a lubricant.

To address the uncertainties of ice sheet models, the paper analyzed 140 wet-based glaciers in Greenland. Wet-based glaciers are known to have a thin layer of water between the ice and the rock bed. In contrast, glaciers found in the frigid Antarctic lack such a layer and are frozen to the end.

Red polygons show the 140 marine-terminating glaciers analyzed. Jakobshavn Isbræ, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier, and Helheim Glacier are circled in blue (Source: Stearns and Van Der Veen).

Scientific research on glaciers began in the early 18th century and developed more fully later on. Although glaciers seem static, their waning and waxing over time has long been recognized. Several theories have been proposed for this characteristic, including the Weertman formula, named after scientist Johannes Weertman. The Weertman formula states that the speed a glacier moves at its bed beneath the water is determined by both the friction and the amount of water surrounding the bed. Withstanding some bickering between Weertman and other scientists during the 1950s, the Weertman model has been widely accepted since then. An array of sea-level rise prediction models have built on this theory, with the latest study challenging the findings of the Weertman formula.

One of the two authors of the study, Leigh Stearns, a scientist at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets from the University of Kansas, spoke to GlacierHub about her research on the topic. “We found that the commonly-used model for basal sliding (the Weertman model) does not apply to all 140 Greenland glaciers that we analyzed,” she said.

Instead, the researchers found that subglacial water pressure, the water pressure difference between the ice sheet end and the hard bed underwater, dominates the speed of glacier flow.

Intrigued by their initial observations of the 140 overlooked mountain glaciers in Greenland, Stearns and her university colleague C. J. van der Veen found the effect of friction on glacier sliding speed to be “virtually non-existent,” which implicitly defers the Weertman notion. As a result, they spent a long time trying to figure out what other factor correlated better with glacier speed, according to Stearns.

This analysis involved a closer study on the subglacial water pressure in Greenland. Stearns and van der Veen believe this aspect has been largely overlooked by the glaciological community to date. They started their observations by calculating water pressure from the thickness of the ice and then calculating the effective pressures under the water. Stearns and van der Veen paired these findings with the latest observational data about glacier flow speed and found that the two are highly related.

However, Stearns also discussed the limitations of her study with GlacierHub. “We don’t understand all the mechanics for why the relationship between sliding velocity and effective pressure are so good, and why the relationship between sliding velocity and basal drag is so bad,” she said.

Ice Sheet in Greenland (Source: Christine Zenino/Wikimedia Commons).

Recognizing these uncertainties, the paper focused on current models of sea-level rise, which are based on the strong relationship between sliding speed and the roughness of the bed.

“Hopefully it will allow them to constrain their sea-level rise prediction models better, so uncertainties of future ice sheet mass balance are reduced,” Stearns added.

The paper notes that it is “imperative for the ice sheet modeling community to explore the impact that this new relationship may have on sea-level rise prediction.” With that said, the consequences of the researchers’ new and challenging theory are still unfolding and could be highly significant.

GlacierHub contacted other scientists who built their work on the Weertman theory for feedback on Stearns and van der Veen’s latest findings, but these scientists did not respond to GlacierHub’s request for comment.

Supraglacial Lakes Are Not Destabilizing Greenland’s Ice Sheet, Yet

A recent study published in the Annals of Glaciology provides the first account of supraglacial lakes, which form on surfaces of glaciers in Greenland. The paper was a collaboration between University of Cambridge’s Alison Banwell and the University of Chicago’s Douglas MacAyeal and Grant Macdonald. Supraglacial lakes have been studied in detail in Antarctica, where they were found to accelerate glacier melting and thinning while triggering ice shelf instability and break-up upon formation. However, this recent study documents a different pattern in Greenland.

Location of the Petermann Tongue and the study sites
Location of the Petermann Tongue and the study sites (Source: MacAyeal et al, 2018).

The research was conducted at Petermann Glacier’s floating tongue, a long and narrow sheet of ice protruding off the coastline. An ice tongue forms when a valley glacier advances rapidly out into the ocean. It has similar characteristics to an ice shelf, a feature more commonly found in Antarctica. Based on Landsat 8 satellite images from 2014 to 2016, the team was able to view the lakes over the area and discern when the lakes formed, their movement, and changes in surface extent across time.

In an interview with GlacierHub, MacAyeal explained, “Petermann Glacier has one of the few remaining ice tongues in Greenland and has lakes forming on it in each year. The glacier is of particular interest to the community due to its size and catchment, and the notable recent large calving events.”

The Petermann tongue underwent severe volume losses of up to 40 percent during two calving events in 2010 and 2012, for example. Fortunately, the grounded upper portion of the Petermann Glacier remains dynamically stable and showed little change in velocity or thickness.

“Glaciologists believe that supraglacial lakes store water and can become ‘dangerous’ to the continued existence of floating ice, such as the Petermann ice tongue, but more importantly to the ice shelves of Antarctica,” MacAyeal told GlacierHub. These supraglacial lakes usually form in the summer as melting is induced by an increase in air temperatures and solar radiation receipt. In the case of Greenland, the lakes at the Petermann Glacier typically fill in June, reaching their peak in July. At this time, the lakes are largest in area and volume, with their numbers at the maximum as well.

Schematic diagram illustrating the side profile of ice shelves/tongues and their underlying geology
Schematic diagram illustrating the side profile of ice shelves/tongues and their underlying geology (Source: Julian Thompson/Andrill).

“The meltwater can fill cracks and cause them to extend through the ice. Also, when water flows into a depression and forms a lake, the lake is heavy and can cause the ice shelf to flex. Ice-shelf flexure can promote fracturing,” Macdonald further explained to GlacierHub. Fittingly, MacAyeal compares this to hydrofracking in the oil industry, except that this is a natural process when ice disintegrates as “heavy dense water fills crevasses and makes them crack farther open.”

Blue River, Greenland
Blue River flowing through the Petermann Glacier (Source: Pixohub/Pinterest)

As for the Petermann tongue, supraglacial lakes are less potent at inducing glacier thinning since lake drainage occurs relatively quickly. By July and August, even with the sustained high temperatures during the summer, total number, volume, and surface area of lakes were observed to have decreased. Drainage occurs in two ways: across the tongue surface and through the tongue. The former is enabled by the surface river system known as the Blue River which transports meltwater into the ocean across the tongue. The latter requires the process of rapid hydrofracking to occur, causing local lake drainage on the tongue. Overall, limited volume of meltwater storages on the tongue was noted, causing the research to lean toward the former mechanism.

Supraglacial lakes were under the spotlight when the formation of over 3,000 lakes caused the catastrophic disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2002. According to Grant, ice shelves are important as they shore up more than half of the Antarctic coast and several glaciers in Greenland. When this buttressing effect is removed the glaciers feeding the ice shelf accelerate. Without the ice shelves, more ice will enter the ocean at a faster rate, contributing to sea level rise.

Currently, the study indicates that supraglacial lakes cover less than 2.8 percent of the Petermann tongue, as compared to the 5.3 percent surface area prior to Larsen B’s collapse. However, there are warnings of higher density lakes with larger volumes that start developing earlier in the summer season due to higher air temperatures that could potentially destabilize ice shelves and tongues worldwide. “If we are to understand the future of ice shelves in a warming climate, we must understand supraglacial lakes,” Macdonald advised.

Roundup: Greenland Earthquake, Mural Restoration, and Phytoplankton

Greenland Earthquake Triggers Landslide-Induced Tsunami

From Temblor: “Over the weekend, a M=4.1 earthquake on Greenland’s western coast caused a massive landslide, triggering a tsunami that inundated small settlements on the coast. At this stage, four people are feared to have died, nine others were injured, and 11 buildings were destroyed. Glacial earthquakes are a relatively new class of seismic event, and are often linked to the calving of large outlet glaciers.”

You can read more about the glacial earthquake in Greenland here.

Remnants of Nuugaatsiaq, Greenland, after the glacial earthquake (Source: Stephen Gadd/Cphpost).

Mural Restoration at Glacier National Park

From Hockaday Museum of Art: “Early visitors to Glacier Park Lodge were treated to architectural and visual grandeur inside the building that was almost as expansive as the surrounding landscape. The scenic panels covered hundreds of square feet and appeared in a 1939 Glacier Park Lodge inventory as ’51 watercolor panels.’ In September of 2012, Leanne Brown donated the murals to the Hockaday in memory of her grandparents, Leona and Robert Brown, who had saved and restored 15 of the murals.”

Learn more about the restored murals here.

Restoration process of the murals (Glacier National Park/Hockaday).

Phytoplankton Growth in Alaska

From AGU Publications: “Primary productivity in the Gulf of Alaska is limited by availability of the micronutrient iron (Fe). Identifying and quantifying the Fe sources to this region are therefore of fundamental ecological importance. Understanding the fundamental processes driving nutrient fluxes to surface waters in this region is made even more important by the fact that climate and global change are impacting many key processes, which could perturb the marine ecosystem in ways we do not understand.”

Read more about phytoplankton growth in the Gulf of Alaska here.

Springtime brings a massive bloom of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Alaska (NASA/Google Images).

 

Putting Your Best Tusk Forward: Narwhals and Climate Research

A pod of narwhals in Admiralty Inlet, Canada (Source: Kristin Laidre).

In 1576, Queen Elizabeth I paid the equivalent of half a million dollars for a unicorn horn, which she believed could neutralize poison. Of course, it wasn’t a unicorn horn at all, but a narwhal tusk, remarkable in its own right.

Today, over 440 years later, narwhals continue to surprise and attract attention. A recent paper in Biology Letters by Kristin Laidre et al. examined narwhal visits to glacial fronts in West Greenland.

“We don’t fully understand the relation between narwhals and glaciers,” professor Mads Heide-Jørgensen of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources told GlacierHub. Laidre added, “Narwhals in places like the Canadian Arctic, for example, have limited access to glacial habitat. However, in Greenland, most narwhals are close to glaciers in summer because Greenland is so glaciated, and there are glaciers along the entire coastline.”

It has long been observed that narwhals visit glacial fronts in the summer and autumn, but it is unknown why they seek out this habitat. “Glaciers are productive regions,” commented Laidre. “They attract prey, there’s upwelling and nutrient cycling, and sometimes even osmotic shock to small invertebrates which attracts fish… We hope future studies will help us understand this, but we don’t know exactly why they go there.” Belugas, the “sister species” to the narwhal, also favor freshwater habitat in the summer, seeking out shallow water estuaries.

To begin answering this question, Laidre took a novel approach, forming an international, cross-disciplinary team that included scientists from the U.S., Denmark, and the U.K. “The idea was to get biologists and glaciologists to collaborate and share data in an interdisciplinary way,” Laidre said.

The team evaluated which glacial characteristics draw narwhals by collecting data from 15 satellite-tagged whales and following their movements through the fjords of Melville Bay in West Greenland. The narwhals demonstrated three preferences: they spent more time at glaciers that discharge a fresher, rather than siltier melt; they preferred slower-flowing glaciers, which are more stable and calve less; and they favored thicker glacial fronts, perhaps because they maximize access to freshwater.

A narwhal is tagged for research (Source: Mads Heide-Jørgensen).

Sea ice also provides important habitat for narwhals. “All narwhal populations winter, and some even summer, in dense sea ice concentrations,” said Heide-Jørgensen. In summer, narwhals spend time in the high Arctic where ice has receded, and in fall, the ocean freezes solid, pushing the narwhals away from shore, Laidre explained. “They swim away from the forming ice and move offshore, where they overwinter in dense ice cover with cracks so they can breathe. Narwhals are highly associated with sea ice, perhaps the most of all whales,” he said.

Heide-Jørgensen indicated that narwhals will seek out the sea ice when it decreases in coverage rather than wintering in open water. “Reduction of sea ice therefore implies a reduction in habitat, and this will again introduce a reduction in prey base or carrying capacity. In short, less sea ice means less narwhal habitat and eventually less narwhals,” he said.

Laidre agreed that “changes in sea ice and the marine ecosystem will likely be the most important factor” to the future of narwhals as climate changes. Since 1979, sea ice freeze-up has occurred almost a month later in Baffin Bay and Melville Bay, where this study took place, and glaciers, of course, are retreating. But far from being simple victims of global warming, narwhals can aid in the collection of data that can help mitigate climate change.

The glaciated fjords of Greenland provide important habitat for narwhals, and are changing rapidly (Source: Mads Heide-Jørgensen).

In 2005 and 2007, Laidre took advantage of narwhals’ capacity for deep dives and tendency to winter in sea ice, outfitting narwhals with temperature and depth sensors. Narwhals regularly dive over 1,700 meters to hunt bottom-dwellers like Greenland halibut, and 90 percent of the recorded dives reached the bottom. This method effectively turned narwhals into self-powered oceanographic instruments and allowed the researchers to collect wintertime data in Baffin Bay, the dearth of which had long been felt in climate records.

Perhaps, most importantly, the study proved that narwhals can constitute an effective ocean observation platform in remote areas where dense ice cover prevents regular instrument deployment. In this way, narwhals are even more magical than the unicorn Queen Elizabeth I imagined.

 

Roundup: Tyrolean Iceman, Greenland Glaciers and Tibetan Melt

Roundup: Clues to Ötzi, Greenland Glaciers and Tibet

 

Tyrolean Iceman offers insights into Copper Age clothing.

From Nature: “The attire of the Tyrolean Iceman, a 5,300-year-old natural mummy from the Ötzal Italian Alps, provides a surviving example of ancient manufacturing technologies. Research into his garments has however, been limited by ambiguity surrounding their source species. Here we present a targeted enrichment and sequencing of full mitochondrial genomes sampled from his clothes and quiver, which elucidates the species of production for nine fragments. Results indicate that the majority of the samples originate from domestic ungulate species (cattle, sheep and goat), whose recovered haplogroups are now at high frequency in today’s domestic populations. Intriguingly, the hat and quiver samples were produced from wild species, brown bear and roe deer respectively. Combined, these results suggest that Copper Age populations made considered choices of clothing material from both the wild and domestic populations available to them.”

Learn more about the clothing of the Tyrolean Iceman here:

 Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

Reconstruction of Ötzi, the Iceman (source: OetziTheIceman/Flickr)

 

Early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers.

From Exploring Greenland: “Christopher J. Ries sheds light on the disparate goals of three diverse groups that created geological knowledge in post-World War II Greenland: the civilian scientists of the US Geological Survey Military Branch working in northern Greenland, an international team of geologists of the Danish East Greenland Expeditions led by Danish geologist Lauge Koch working in eastern Greenland, and geologists of the Danish Geological Survey of Greenland working in western Greenland. Ries argues that the interdisciplinary American group’s ultimate mission was to enhance the ability of military units to operate in Arctic terrains, while the two mono-disciplinary Danish-led teams attempted to balance academic interests in mapping and interpreting the structure of bedrock against more prosaic pursuit of profitable minerals.”

Read more about the early researchers of Greenland’s glaciers here:

A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).
A Greenland Glacier (source: Kyle Mortara/Flickr).

 

Glacial melt of Tibetan Plateau exceeds USEPA guidelines.

From the Journal of Hydrology: “Global warming has resulted in rapid glacier retreat on the Tibetan Plateau, and the impacts of glacier melting on downstream ecosystems remain largely unknown. Minor and trace elements in stream water draining Dongkemadi Glacier  were examined during the ablation season of 2013…Downstream increased concentrations and/or fluxes of some metals and metalloid (e.g. Cr, Cu and As) suggest potential environmental impacts. Discharge-normalized cation denudation rate (372 Σmeq+m−3) in the Dongkemadi Glacier basin is larger than those from alpine and polar glaciers, suggesting a stronger weathering of carbonate with greater abundance on the Tibetan Plateau in comparison to other mountain and polar glacial catchments. The maximum Fe concentration exceeds the USEPA guideline, and Al, Zn and Pb are close to or of the same order of magnitude as liminal values. This implies that the Tibetan Plateau may face a challenge of ecosystem health and environmental issue in a warming climate.”

Learn more about the Tibetan Plateau here:

The landscape of Tibet (source: reurinkjan/Flickr).
The landscape of Tibet (source:
reurinkjan/Flickr).