Roundup: Melting Glaciers Move Borders, Peruvian Study Opens Door for Glacial Research, and Glacier Meltwater Acoustics

As The Climate Shifts A Border Moves

Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.

Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.

Rifugio Guide Del Cervino. Source: Franco56/ Wikimedia Commons

Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research

A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.

Read the story by Zoë Klobus on GlacierHub here.

Dissolved pyrite causes red deposit on rocks along a river in the Rio Santa watershed (Source: Alexandre Guittard)

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier. 

“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”

Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy daily work at the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

Photo Friday: Outlet Glaciers of Greenland

Each August a team of earth scientists and engineers make a routine maintenance trip to Greenland to keep a network of sensors functioning in one of the planet’s most inhospitable climates for humans––and electronics. Their objective is to keep The Polar Earth Observing Network (POLENET) array of autonomous instruments alive and transmitting critical GPS and seismic data. The core of the operations team that keeps the science going includes Thomas Nylen, a polar engineer, who has been making the mission-critical sojourn since 2007. He recently shared several striking images of outlet glaciers from his latest trip to Greenland on Twitter:

Outlet glacier called Sermeq Silarleq, on the west coast of Greenland (Lat: 70.7965°, Lon: -50.8054°). Photo taken 2019-08-26. Shadow is a plane contrail, which there are probably few of these days (Source: Thomas Nylen)

Nylen captured the Greenland glacier images during his team’s support of a POLENET sub-project called the Greenland Network (GNET). The initiative started in 2007, as part of a larger collaborative effort to measure changes in ice sheet mass balance and to provide observational feedback for computer models of glacial isostatic adjustment––the elastic rebound of the Earth’s crust as glaciers melt. Denmark now leads the project, though the US National Science Foundation continues to provide support.

Perdlerfiup Sermia, small outlet glacier on the west coast of Greenland (Lat: 70.9893°, Lon: -50.9291°). Photo taken 2019-08-26. Glacier is on the cusp of losing its tidewater status. A lot of rock poking out at the terminus (Source: Thomas Nylen)

Nylen is responsible for remote power and communications for polar science projects at the non-profit University NAVSTAR Consortium (UNAVCO), in Boulder, Colorado. The university-governed collective facilitates geoscience research and education using geodesy (pronounced: jee-odyssey)––the study of Earth’s shape, gravity field, and rotation. Among the seven founding universities is Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Geological Observatory, the parent academic institution of GlacierHub. The list also includes the University of Colorado, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Store Gletscher, west coast of Greenland, Aug 26, 2019 (Source: Thomas Nylen)

The elements in Greenland and Antarctica wreak havoc on sensitive equipment, but so do wildlife. “Some of the bigger issues we have are with animals,” Nylen told GlacierHub. “Especially polar bears, but also foxes and maybe Arctic wolves.”

A site in NW Greenland where a polar bear chewed the tops off of the two Iridium antennas (Source: Thomas Nylen).

“The unprecedented scale of the POLENET sensor network is allowing investigations of systems-scale interactions of the solid earth, the cryosphere, the oceans and the atmosphere,” the network’s website reads. “POLENET data is enabling new studies of the inner earth, tectonic plates, the earth’s magnetic field, climate and weather, and the solar wind, and will lead to as yet unimagined discoveries about the critical polar regions of our planet.”

GNET Site TREO. The GNSS antenna sits under a radome on a steel mast bolted to bedrock. Access is by Air Greenland helicopter. (Source: Thomas Nylen/Arcus).

Read More on GlacierHub:

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Video of the Week: Nepali Celebrities Take Part in Coronavirus Song

Robotic Kayaks Discover High Rates of Underwater Glacier Melt

Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes

Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier. 

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy daily work at the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”

His research then became directed toward the glacial soundscape, and last month he published an article in Geophysical Research Letters about the sounds he recorded, not with expensive geophysical sensors, but with a smartphone from Bowdoin Glacier (Kangerluarsuup Sermia), located in northwestern Greenland. His recordings captured a unique sound which he used to describe a specific drainage process within the glacier — one that is impossible to observe from the surface: Meltwater drainage through a crevasse. 

Ponds of meltwater that pool on top of the glacial surface drain through the crevasses, entering into the drainage system of the glacier. As the water travels to subglacial environments, it warms up the ice, makes it softer, and increases the subglacial water pressure that causes the glacier to slide faster into the ocean. In his paper, Podolskiy presented the first evidence of unexplained acoustic phenomena being generated by water drainage through a crevasse. 

Unstable Water Flow Through a Crevasse

This acoustic signal is distinct from other drainage processes due to the “two-phase” interaction between air and water. “The main point I want to make is that we totally forgot that there’s air,” he said. The air produces vibrations on water in the near surface environment where they mix. “By listening to these sounds, we can actually determine the type of flow regime — the way fluid flows in these systems — just by looking at the analysis of the signals,” he said.

Water-filled crevasses on Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy
Water-filled crevasses on Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

After many years in the field as a glaciologist, Podolskiy found that different types of glacial environments produce their own unique soundscapes. For instance, during the daytime at a Himalayan debris-covered glacier, exposed ice cliffs slowly melt and the rocks on top tumble down the slope, producing noisy avalanches. Podolskiy noticed that during the afternoon, there is a lot of this particular sound. At night, if a glacier is not shielded by insulating debris cover, the ice begins to contract as it gets extremely cold, and the tensile contraction of the ice produces cracking sounds

Podolskiy’s most recent research concerns the soundscape of Bowdoin, a tidewater glacier. These fast-flowing valley glaciers begin in mountains or on more distant ice sheets and reach their terminus at the ocean where their icy cliff edges occasionally break off, or calve, into the sea. Glaciers recede when the rate of calving and/or englacial melt exceeds the rate of new snow accumulation at higher elevations.

Helicopter view of Bowdoin tidewater glacier, northwestern Greenland (July 29, 2019). Snowfall in the Greenland Ice Sheet feeds the glacier that ends in a cliff at its terminus in the ocean. (Source Evgeny Podolskiy) 

Bowdoin was initially being monitored by Podolskiy and his colleagues because melt and glacier retreat recently began accelerating in the area. Amazingly, the scientists were able to walk right up to the calving front where the icebergs detach, something that is quite uncommon in these environments, making Bowdoin a great study site for all types of glacial research.

The idea of using sensors to passively study the ocean has been around for awhile. In the 1950s, Navy surveillance systems discovered unknown repetitive pulses of traveling through the sea, and they were later attributed to finback whale courting displays. This actually provided much of the stimulus for the early design of ocean acoustic equipment and techniques for observation. According to Acoustics Today, the proposal that “these powerful [acoustic] tools could be applied to a pressing and difficult measurement problem in polar regions: the monitoring of tidewater glaciers with hydroacoustics,” came about in 2008 at a workshop in Bremen, Germany. 

Though his paper only references sounds recorded from his smartphone, Podolskiy pointed to a drawing he made behind him on his whiteboard and explained: “We also have seismic and GPS stations to observe tide-modulated motion of the ice and its fracturing. We have hydroacoustic sensors under water so we can hear processes like bursting or pressurized air bubbles within the melting ice, calving, and even whales. On a mountain nearby we have infrasound sensors, which are basically sensors used to measure air pressure because when icebergs fall, they displace air and produce air pressure waves that can tell us where calving occurred,” he said. 

Podolskiy held up handfuls of hard drives and explained that instead of going through terabytes of complex geophysical data, he realized a simple fact: “Audible sounds recorded with my smartphone over various drainage systems contain a lot of unique acoustic information. Every place you look has a very different signature. We can fingerprint different ways of water flowing into the ice by sound and the fingerprinting of different flow regimes is useful for understanding the glacial hydrology”

Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy with a steam drill and seismic equipment on Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Lukas Preiswerk

“But when I walk on that glacier I just close my eyes and I realize there are so many sounds, audible sounds — not these fancy seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic recorded sounds we have been collecting there for years — just sounds audible to our ears,” he said. 

Podolskiy explained that, after the many summers at Bowdoin, one of the things that directed him to studying acoustics was the sounds of seabirds at the calving front. Birds, like the black-legged kittiwake, are attracted to tidewater glacier discharge plumes which form when meltwater exits from underneath the glacier and, due to its low density, rises in the seawater toward the surface, bringing with it nutrients and zooplankton on which arctic seabirds feed.

Seabird Sounds at Calving Front. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy

Seabirds Feeding in Subglacial Discharge Plume at Calving Front

“On the surface I listen to the birds and then I listen to the crevasses,” Podolskiy said. Crevasses are deep, open fractures on the glacier surface that form as a result of changing stresses as the ice moves and flows toward the ocean. Crevasses can open up overnight. “It is the most intense process on Bowdoin. We can hear it as shooting sounds, like gunshots,” he said. This ice splitting process should not be confused with the description of meltwater drainage through the crevasse which was articulated at the beginning of the article. 

Calving, Podolskiy explained, does not happen as frequently, just several events per day. But calving is very distinct and very loud and can last ten minutes when the ice is collapsing. It produces an array of strong seismo-acoustic signals. 

Moulins are circular-like shafts within a glacier through which water enters from the surface. They are normally found in areas that are heavily crevassed and they too produce their own unique sounds. 

Stable Water Flow Through Moulin
Moulin at Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy 

As the climate warms, understanding the various flow regimes in the englacial conduits is valuable because of their influence on glacial mass flux. In addition to contributing to global sea level rise, the influx of fresh glacial water to the ocean affects global scale heat transport by weakening circulation patterns. Fresh surface water does not sink like dense, salty water, so it slows the overturning movement of the ocean, a powerful regulator of global climate.

“What is clear is that the Greenland Ice Sheet, the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and all the glaciers around the world are getting wet because they’re melting over increasingly larger areas, and all this produced meltwater is bringing our cryosphere into a new state” Podolskiy said. The meltwater flows through the englacial system and affects glaciers from the inside, and he presumed part of this story could be studied with microphones. Certainly, near-source acoustic methods offer advantages over more conventional remote sensing methods because satellites are unable to see how the meltwater enters and flows through the crevasses.

Meltwater Stream at Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy 
Supraglacial Pond at Bowdoin Glacier. Source: Evgeny Podolskiy 
Supraglacial Meltwater Pond Bubbling

Polar explorers and mountaineers were sensitive to glacial sounds for centuries, but now with acoustic instruments we have the ability to learn the things we missed without them. “I hope it will inspire people,” he said, “to pay attention and to just try to see the world like whales or dolphins do because these guys, they don’t see much — they hear the configuration. They are living in soundscapes.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: Nepali Celebrities Take Part in Coronavirus Song

Robotic Kayaks Discover High Rates of Underwater Glacier Melt

Roundup: Covid-19 Reports From Glacier Regions

Black History Month: Honoring an Arctic Explorer

Nearly 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Arctic explorer Matthew Henson became the first African American, and one of the first two humans, to reach the North Pole when he arrived in 1909. Despite the odds stacked against him, Henson’s legacy lives on today through his memoir and Earth features, like Henson Glacier, that have been named in his honor. 

Matthew Henson (Source: Wiki Commons/Robbot)

Henson was born to sharecroppers in Maryland one year after the end of the Civil War. He was forced to grow up quickly after losing his parents at a young age. At just 13 years old he set sail around the world, eventually landing in Washington, DC, where he met a United States naval officer named Robert Peary. Over the next 20 years, Henson would accompany Peary on multiple Arctic missions.

Throughout their years of polar expeditions, Henson assisted Peary in the complete mapping of the Greenland icecap. Henson was honored later in life with a number of awards and commemorations including a special commendation from President Dwight Eisenhower and the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society, which was awarded posthumously.

Less than a decade after reaching the pole, Henson was honored by fellow explorer Knud Rasmussen, who named a glacier after him. Rasmussen was a Danish explorer, born in Greenland, whose journeys across the North American Arctic succeeded Peary and Henson’s expeditions. Rasmussen is thought to be the first person to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled. He is also remembered for documenting Inuit leaders and legends throughout his journeys. Rasmussen named the Henson Glacier during his second expedition from 1916 to 1918.

Map included in Rasmussen’s account of his second expedition (Source: JSTOR)

Henson was already a well-recognized explorer at the time of Rasmussen’s expeditions. In 1912, Henson published an account of his adventures “The Negro Explorer at the North Pole.” In the book, Henson describes how Peary chose only himself and four Inuit to accompany him on the last stretch to the North Pole. Henson wrote, “in extremity, when both the danger and the difficulty were greatest, the Commander wanted by his side the man upon whose skill and loyalty he could put the most absolute dependence.”

Despite the strong bond between Henson and Peary, it was reported that uncertainty over who should be credited for reaching the North Pole first caused a rift between the men. Born into the aftermath of the Civil War and living in an era defined by Jim Crow, recognition of Henson’s achievement was stifled by a racially divided society. Peary was ultimately recognized as having discovered the North Pole and Henson has gone down in history as merely his assistant.

Initially, Henson received very little recognition for his part in Peary’s explorations. Rasmussen named the Henson glacier in 1917, and for a time remained the only real recognition of Henson’s polar contributions. Henson was eventually made an honorary member of the Explorers Club of New York in 1937, which was then followed by recognition from President Eisenhower in 1954, and the Hubbard Medal in 2000.

Henson’s grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery lists him as a co-discoverer of the North Pole (Source: Wiki Commons/FlickreviewR)

Some uncertainty remains surrounding Rasmussen’s motivation for naming the Greenland glacier after Henson in 1917. According to Agata Lubowicka, assistant professor at the Institute of Scandinavian and Finnish Studies at the University of Gdansk, in Rasmussen’s popular account of his expedition, “Grønland langs Polhavet” or “Greenland by the Polar Sea,” there is no mention of the naming of the Henson Glacier.

GlacierHub contacted several researchers familiar with Henson, Peary and Rasmussen who provided their hypotheses:

Henson (center) with Inuit guides (Source: Wiki Commons/DragonflySixtyseven)

Anders Anker Bjørk, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, explained that it was common practice for explorers to name geographical features over the course of their expedition. “The new place names were often given to celebrate expedition beneficiaries, expedition members, royals, and other explorers and scientists,” said Bjørk, who felt confident in saying that the Henson Glacier was named as a tribute to the explorer. However, Bjørk does not necessarily credit Rasmussen for naming the glacier. He mused that it could have been a member of the expedition that came up with the name or it could have been a local Inuit. Bjørk, who stayed with Henson’s grandson this past summer in Qaanaaq, Greenland, said Henson is known to have been popular among the local Inuit. He also noted the Henson Glacier is not the only one to bear the name, as there are other locations near the glacier, including the Henson Fjord and Henson Valley.

A photograph taken of Henson after his trip to and from the North Pole via dog sled (Source: Wiki Commons/Robbot)

Mark Nuttall, who is an anthropologist at the University of Alberta, also shared his views with GlacierHub. Nuttall explained that Rasmussen did not tend to include his reasoning for naming a place, but instead would simply state in his accounts that he or his colleagues had named a new feature. Nuttall said, “I like to think that he named the glacier after Matthew Henson because, on his way to Peary Land, he came across a letter from Peary near Repulse Harbour.” According to Nuttall the letter is “self-celebratory.” He said the letter contained excerpts including, “[I] Have with me my man Matthew Henson, one Eskimo, 16 dogs and 2 sledges, all in fair condition,” “my furthest north,” and the “arctic work undertaken by me.” Nuttall speculated that Rasmussen may have chosen to honor Henson, as he believed Peary failed to do so. 

American society’s failures to recognize the contributions of African-Americans, like Henson, are the impetus of Black History Month, whose origins date back to 1925. Henson created a legacy not just for himself or African American explorers, but all who push the frontiers of discovery. Matthew Henson broke down barriers to make history, unheralded.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: A Daring Swim Across a Glacial Lake to Protest Climate Change

Photo Friday: Lewis Pugh’s East Antarctic Supraglacial Swim

New Laser Technology Reveals Climate Change will Induce a Future of Stronger Saharan Dust Storms

Roundup: “At Glacier’s End,” Arctic Seabirds Adapt, and Ice Stream Formation

At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

“Page after page of curving colorful rivers delight the eye in At Glacier’s End, a recently published book about Iceland’s glacial river systems. The images that lie behind its cover were created by Chris Burkard, a photographer and explorer, and the more than 8,000 words that tell their story were penned by Matt McDonald, a storyteller and traveller.”

“Our main goal with the book was to advocate for Iceland’s national parks and to try to create a voice for them from a visual perspective,” Burkard said in an interview with GlacierHub.  “In Iceland, it’s really surprising, many politicians who are the decision-makers haven’t had a chance to actually see [these places] because they are far away and really hard to access.”

Read the full story by GlacierHub writer Elza Bouhassira here.

Source: Chris Burkard

Seabirds Find New Ways to Forage in a Changing Arctic

“On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid…In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland.”

Read the full story by GlacierHub writer Audrey Ramming here.

Source: Françoise Amélineau

A First-ever Look at Ice Stream Formation

In this week’s Video of the Week, the world gets its first-ever look at ice stream formation. The video, which was published on the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) YouTube channel on December 17, tracks the rapid movement of the Vavilov Ice Cap, in the high Russian Arctic, from summer 2015 to summer 2018. In the video the glacier’s speed is color-coded by meters per day of movement in what scientists believe is the first documented transition of a glacial surge to a longer-lasting flow known as an ice stream.

Read the full story by GlacierHub senior editor Peter Deneen here.

Seabirds Find New Ways to Forage in a Changing Arctic

On Arctic landmasses, valley glaciers––formally known as tidewater glaciers––run all the way to the ocean, where cloudy plumes from their discharge create the perfect foraging habitat for seabirds. Researchers found some birds are reliant upon the turbid, subglacial freshwater discharge, which breaks apart icebergs and forms a column of freshwater foraging ground at the glacier’s edge, while others prefer to forage near the broken sea ice where water is less turbid.

Flock of auks. Source: Françoise Amélineau

In 2019, Bungo Nishizawa and associates published a study in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that investigated the effects of subglacial meltwater on two assemblages of seabirds in northwestern Greenland. One group included foraging surface feeders like the black-legged kittiwake. The other was comprised of divers, like the little auk. The researchers found that while the surface feeders congregate in the area of the cloudy plume, divers prefer to search for food where the water is less cloudy, spatially dividing the bird groups near the edges of glaciers.

Françoise Amélineau, a researcher of seabird ecology at the Norwegian Polar Institute, published a study in Scientific Reports last year, presenting the results of a 12-year monitoring program in East Greenland, which analyzed biological parameters of the little auk, the most common seabird in the Atlantic Arctic. Amélineau says that little auks use vision to detect prey and because meltwater plumes are so cloudy, the birds tend to forage farther offshore in clearer water, where they dive more than 20 meters below the surface. 

A 2013 study in Polar Biology noted that little auks inhabiting West Spitsbergen, Norway also preferred to forage in clear water, far from glacier fronts, where they could easily identify water masses containing large, energy-rich prey.

Little auks usually feed in cold waters at the edge of sea-ice, up to 150 km away from their colonies. “In our Greenland study, we looked at sea ice concentration because some of the prey consumed by little auks are sympagic (associated to the sea ice),” said Amélineau, and “the little auks performed shallower dives in the presence of sea-ice, probably to feed on ice-associated amphipods”––a small type of crustacean. However, these ice-covered feeding areas are disappearing as the climate warms, which could make foraging more difficult. 

Auks on a rock. Source: Amanda Graham/Flickr

Not only does a warming Arctic affect the presence of sea ice, it also alters the distribution of the little auk’s prey. Little auks feed on large zooplankton, which remain at depth in clearer waters. As the Arctic warms, the smallest (and lower calorie) Atlantic species of zooplankton is extending northward, threatening the range of the two larger (and higher calorie) Arctic species that little auks prefer. The invasion of the small zooplankton has the potential to negatively affect the fitness and breeding success of the little auk, which is thought to have the highest metabolic rate of all seabirds due to its small size and large flying and diving range.

With sea ice disappearing, the fate of little auk survival may be at risk. However, little auks from a colony of Franz Josef Land, located in the Russian Arctic, are actually taking advantage of a glacial meltwater plume––an adaptation that could be crucial. “We show that in Franz Josef Land, little auks have changed their foraging behavior with sea-ice retreat and the increase of glacier meltwater volume. At this site, they foraged at the glacier meltwater front instead of at more distant feeding grounds near the sea-ice because it allowed them to make shorter foraging trips,” Amélineau told GlacierHub. 

Amélineau explained that “at the glacier front, zooplankton is stunned by cold and osmotic shock at the boundary between glacier melt and seawater, which makes it easier for little auks to catch. It probably concentrates their prey closer to the colony, but according to Nishizawa’s study, if the turbidity of the water is too high, meltwater plumes become unfavorable foraging areas for little auks who use vision to detect prey.” Discharge mechanisms can differ between glaciers, and this may be why little auks are able to utilize the Franz Josef Land differently than in Greenland, Amélineau added.

Mature little auks have large pouches under their beaks where they store food such as small crustaceans to feed their offspring. This adult little auk has a full gular pouch! Source: Françoise Amélineau

Black-legged kittiwakes are the most common type of gull in the world. While they do consume large zooplankton and small crustaceans, they mainly prefer to eat small fish and other marine invertebrates. While they are the only type of gull that dives and swims underwater, they make very shallow dives compared to that of the little auk, and are unhindered by turbid water. 

Black-legged kittiwakes. Source: Alan Schmierer/Flickr (left); Dominic Sherony/Flickr (right)

Turbid subglacial discharge, which is unloaded 10-100 meters beneath the surface of the water, upwells at glacial fronts to form plumes that bring zooplankton, as well as marine worms and jellies from depth to the water’s surface. “The foraging behaviour of kittiwakes observed in the tidewater glacier bays revealed them to be swarming over the subglacial discharge, with rapid simultaneous nose-diving and plunging into the surface water in pursuit of rising prey,” according to one study in Scientific Reports.

While the size of meltwater plumes at glacial fronts are increasing with climate warming in the Arctic, apparently benefitting surface feeders, it is also important to consider the stage of glacial retreat. Kittiwakes, as well as other surface feeders, benefit most from deep tidewater glacier bays because they have strong discharges that upwell prey to the surface over a wide area.

Margerie Glacier, a tidewater glacier located in Southeast Alaska in Glacier Bay National Park. “The glacier begins high in the mountains and meanders down the valleys like a river of ice.”  Source: National Park Service

According to the IPCC, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. “While other species may be able to shift their distribution to higher latitudes or altitudes,” Amélineau said, “Arctic species may not find suitable habitat anymore.” 

This is both ecologically and culturally concerning.

While little auks are ecologically considered a keystone species in the Arctic, they are also culturally important to the Indigenous peoples that live there. “They are hunted in Greenland,” Amélineau told GlacierHub. The Inuit “prepare a food called kiviak, where the little auks are fermented for 3 months in a seal skin!” Approximately five hundred of these birds are stuffed, whole, into the skin, and left in a pile of stones to ferment over the winter. They are a popular treat on weddings and birthdays.

The Inuit settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit village in East Greenland. Source: Stephan H/Flickr 
Little auks. Source: Alastair Rae/Flickr (left); David Cook/Flickr (right)

Biological responses to changing climatic conditions are difficult to predict, particularly in remote locations that are already heavily impacted like the Arctic, where the ecosystem is already impacted by ongoing sea-ice decline and warming. Amélineau says this makes long-term seabird monitoring efforts extremely important, especially as these birds can be seen as ‘sentinels’ of what will happen at lower latitudes.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Video of the Week: A First-ever Look at Ice Stream Formation

At Glacier’s End: Protecting Glacial Rivers in Iceland

Photo Friday: Thwaites Glacier Bore Hole Drilled

Video of the Week: Study Examines Melting of Greenland

A team of scientists on board a former Danish fisheries research ship and icebreaker is working to measure changes to Helheim glacier and the fjords around it. Helheim, named for the world of the dead in Norse mythology, is one of Greenland’s largest outlet glaciers. This means that it is one of the primary locations for meltwater leaving the Greenland ice sheet. It is responsible for 4% of Greenland’s annual mass loss. 

Understanding the melting at Helheim is crucial because Greenland has the potential to contribute 27cm of sea level rise within the lifetimes of today’s children. 

The project studies Helheim using several technologies in pursuit of the team’s goal to create complex models of glacial fracturing. Some of the methods being used to collect data include drilling into the glacier to determine how much snow is deposited on the glacier during storms, using seismometers to detect the spread of concealed fractures, and checking the status of the glacier’s terminus four times daily with an automatic laser system to monitor calving, among other sources of information. 

To learn more about the study check out this article from Science Magazine which our video of the week draws from. 

Roundup: Accelerating Sea Level Rise, France’s Mer de Glace, and Andean Glacier Change

World Meteorological Organization says sea level rise accelerating, fed by land ice melting

From the World Meteorological Organization: “The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold, from 40 Gt per year in 1979-1990 to 252 Gt per year in 2009-2017.

The Greenland ice sheet has witnessed a considerable acceleration in ice loss since the turn of the millennium.

For 2015-2018, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) reference glaciers indicates an average specific mass change of −908 mm water equivalent per year, higher than in all other five-year periods since 1950.”

Read the WMO report here and BBC’s coverage here.

The World Meteorological Organization is the United Nations System’s authoritative voice on weather, climate, and water. (Source: WMO)

The “dramatically changing landscape” of Mer de Glace

From New Scientist: “About a century ago, women with boaters and parasols sat near the Montenvers train station above the glacier, which then was almost level with a tongue of jagged ice snaking into the distance. Today, visitors are greeted by a slightly sad and largely grey glacier that is about 100 metres lower.”

Read more here.

A view of Mer de Glace in France (Source: chisloup/Wikimedia Commons)

An interdisciplinary analysis of changes in the high Andes

From Regional Environmental Change: “The high tropical Andes are rapidly changing due to climate change, leading to strong biotic community, ecosystem, and landscape transformations. While a wealth of glacier, water resource, and ecosystem-related research exists, an integrated perspective on the drivers and processes of glacier, landscape, and biota dynamics is currently missing. Here, we address this gap by presenting an interdisciplinary review that analyzes past, current, and potential future evidence on climate and glacier driven changes in landscape, ecosystem and biota at different spatial scales.

[… ]

Our analysis indicates major twenty-first century landscape transformations with important socioecological implications which can be grouped into (i) formation of new lakes and drying of existing lakes as glaciers recede, (ii) alteration of hydrological dynamics in glacier-fed streams and high Andean wetlands, resulting in community composition changes, (iii) upward shifts of species and formation of new communities in deglaciated forefronts,(iv) potential loss of wetland ecosystems, and (v) eventual loss of alpine biota.”

Read the study here.

Tyndall Glacier, located in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 16 crew member on the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Countdown to the Release of the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere

New Research Reveals How Megafloods Shaped Greenland And Iceland

Observing Flora Near a Famous Norwegian Glacier

New Research Reveals How Megafloods Shaped Greenland And Iceland

Greenland and Iceland have been periodically reshaped by megafloods over thousands of years, a new paper in the journal Earth-Science Reviews has revealed.

British research duo Jonathan Carrivick and Fiona Tweed have provided the first evidence of gargantuan Greenlandic floods and extensively reviewed the record of comparable events in Iceland. The researchers set out to better understand what constituted a megaflood and find traces of them recorded in the landscapes of these icy islands.

In media stories and even within the scientific literature the authors found that terms like “catastrophic flood,” “cataclysmic flood,” and “super flood” have been used indiscriminately and interchangeably. There are, however, strict definitions associated with each. A “catastrophic flood,” for instance, occurs when peak discharge exceeds 100,000 cubic meters per second — more than 18 times greater than the flow over Niagara Falls. Multiply that by ten (i.e. 1,000,000 cubic meters per second) and you get a sense of what constitutes a true megaflood.

Despite expressly seeking records of megafloods in the landscape and literature, Carrivick and Tweed found that a more practical approach was to identify events with “megaflood attributes.” Scientists have recorded very few true megafloods since those that cascaded off the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which once mantled much of North America in the aftermath of the Last Glacial Maximum. While there have been few recent floods that exceed one million cubic meters per second, there have been several with comparable erosive power and lasting landscape impacts.

Shaped by water

In Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed found 14 sites where huge floods had rampaged down fjords and across expansive “sandur,” or outwash plains. These have typically been outbursts from ice-dammed lakes, which have periodically unleashed inconceivably vast volumes. The glacial lake Iluliallup Tasersua empties every five to seven years and has a capacity of more than six cubic kilometers of water. At its peak, that flow would drown New York City’s Central Park in a column of water deeper than four Empire States Buildings.

Iceland, too, has experienced its fair share of monstrous floods. Many of them have were triggered by volcanic eruptions. Due to the unique setting of Iceland, where the active fire-breathing mountains of the Mid-Atlantic island are blanketed with ice caps and glaciers, erupting magma invariably explodes into the underside of a quenching ice mass. This interaction, more often than not, results in an outburst flood known locally as a “jökulhlaup,” which produces tremendous amounts of power that is capable of reshaping and inundating the island’s plains.

The region surrounding Öræfajökull, one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, is infamous for having suffered from devastation wrought by both fire and ice.

“After it erupted in 1362, the whole area was renamed as ‘Öræfi,’ which means ‘The Wasteland,” Tweed told GlacierHub. “They renamed the area because it had been inundated by a grey sludge, hyper-concentrated flow deposits and volcanic ash which had eradicated the farmland and rendered it unusable.”

The eruption was the largest in Europe since Vesuvius immortalised the communities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79. The floodwaters rushed out at over 100,000 cubic meters per second — qualifying as a “catastrophic flood.” The torrent was so powerful that it was able to transport rocks weighing 500 metric tons, each equivalent to four and a half blue whales. Despite not strictly meeting the definition of a megaflood, the event certainly bore many of the hallmarks of one.

Vast plumes of sediment flow into the Labrador Sea (Credit: NASA)

But the impacts of such deluges are not limited to their power to remold centuries-old landforms, toss about house-sized chunks of ice, or transport a beach-worth of sediment in a matter of hours.

Outbursts in Greenland can release as much as six billion metric tons of water within a matter of 7-10 days. This rapid draining of a glacier-lake basin radically changes the pressure atop the ice sheets, causing isostatic rebound, which can result in fractured shorelines, as localized sections of coast re-expand.

Water from an outburst flood often passes through a highly pressurized network of conduits within, beneath, and alongside ice. This can trigger a “seismic tremor.” So-called “glacier-derived seismicity” has been measured via seismometers since the early 2000s and experienced by eye-witnesses in the vicinity of Grænalón, one of the most famous jökulhlaup systems in Iceland. The authors note that while these events can be detected and felt, there is negligible impact from them.

Consequences for communities and corporations

Glacier floods also impact the communities living in the shadow of ice. Carrivick and Tweed’s previous work revealed that Iceland has experienced at least 270 glacier outburst floods across 32 sites, killing at least seven people. This makes Iceland among “the most susceptible regions to glacier floods” — and the economic costs that often result.  

Icelanders are well acquainted with the natural dangers. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and other geohazards are signature characteristics of their homeland.

Looking to the future, Tweed said: “We can expect to have jökulhlaups for another 200 years, until the ice is gone.”

Such dire flood predictions are unlikely to rattle the stoic Icelanders, who are more liable to fear the prospect of an Iceland bereft of its namesake.

In even less populous Greenland, with people rarely situating themselves in known flood paths, the impacts appear to be less disastrous. That said, Carrivick noted: “When these big outburst floods go into the fjords, and move out of the fjords and up and down the coasts, you get these visible sediment plumes.”

The influx of sediment and freshwater changes the temperature, salinity, and turbidity of the water in a fjord and the nearby ocean, which can drive fish out the region. “It basically shuts down the fishing industry for a couple of days at least,” Carrivick said.

This has potentially massive economic consequences, as 95 percent of Greenland’s exports are fish and fishery products, not to mention that the fishery industry provides employment to approximately 12 percent of the population and puts 87 kilograms of fish on every Greenlander’s table each year.

The Ilulissat Hydroelectric Project, located in Disco Bay, West Greenland, provides energy to 4,500 inhabitants of the town of Ilulissat (Source: Verkís)

Yet longstanding industries are not the only ones exposed to the fickleness of Greenland’s glacier outbursts. As the ice sheet melts, a number of resources are being eyed by extractive industries. Carrivick recounted meeting teams of Swiss experts who had been commissioned by Australian mining companies to set up rigs and conduct mineralogical investigations in deglaciating regions.

He also remarked on the prospects of the hydropower industry, which has taken advantage of booms in other nations, like Nepal. “It might be an exaggeration, but I think it’s goldrush time,” he said. Regulators, he added, might struggle to keep up with monitoring and mitigating environmental impacts.

Whatever the future holds for Iceland and Greenland, Carrivick and Tweed’s research advances significantly scientific knowledge of the history of flooding on these two islands and makes a strong case for remaining attentive to the changes occurring on their diminishing ice masses.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Images From Huascaran Research Expedition

Observing Flora Near a Famous Norwegian Glacier

Annual Assessment of North Cascades Glaciers Finds ‘Shocking Loss’ of Volume

Roundup: Pre-Columbian Land Use, Trump in Tongass, and Greenland’s Ice Sheet

The Inca’s sustainable land use practices

From Quaternary Science Reviews:

“The extent of pre-Columbian land use and its legacy on modern ecosystems, plant associations, and species distributions of the Americas is still hotly debated. To address this gap, we present a Holocene palynological record (pollen, spores, microscopic charcoal, SCP analyses) from Illimani glacier with exceptional temporal resolution and chronological control close to the center of Inca activities around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Our results suggest that Holocene fire activity was largely climate-driven and pre-Columbian agropastoral and agroforestry practices had moderate (large-scale) impacts on plant communities. Unprecedented human-shaped vegetation emerged after AD 1740 following the establishment of novel colonial land use practices and was reinforced in the modern era after AD 1950 with intensified coal consumption and industrial plantations of Pinus and Eucalyptus. Although agroforestry practices date back to the Incas, the recent vast afforestation with exotic monocultures together with rapid climate warming and associated fire regime changes may provoke unprecedented and possibly irreversible ecological and environmental alterations.”

Read the article here.

Lake Titicaca (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Trump proposes logging nearby Alaskan glaciers

From the Washington Post:

“Politicians have tussled for years over the fate of the Tongass, a massive stretch of southeastern Alaska replete with old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar, rivers running with salmon, and dramatic fjords. President Bill Clinton put more than half of it off limits to logging just days before leaving office in 2001, when he barred the construction of roads in 58.5 million acres of undeveloped national forest across the country. President George W. Bush sought to reverse that policy, holding a handful of timber sales in the Tongass before a federal judge reinstated the Clinton rule.

Read the article here.

A view of Mendenhall Glacier, which lies in Tongass National Forest (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Greenland ice sheet mass balance

From GEUS Bulletin:

“The Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE) has measured ice-sheet elevation and thickness via repeat airborne surveys circumscribing the ice sheet at an average elevation of 1708 ± 5 m (Sørensen et al. 2018). We refer to this 5415 km survey as the ‘PROMICE perimeter’ (Fig. 1). Here, we assess ice-sheet mass balance following the input-output approach of Andersen et al. (2015). We estimate ice-sheet output, or the ice discharge across the ice-sheet grounding line, by applying downstream corrections to the ice flux across the PROMICE perimeter.”

Read the article here.

A helicopter takes off from the Greenland Ice Sheet. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Read More on GlacierHub:

What the 2018 State of the Climate Report Says About Alpine Glaciers

The Funeral for Iceland’s OK Glacier Attracts International Attention

Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Photo Friday: Images of Europe’s July Heat Wave

Temperature records fell one after another in Europe last week with five countries—Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg—registering record highs.

A study conducted by World Weather Attribution concluded that temperatures during the hot spell would have been 1.5-3 degrees Celsius cooler if not for the additional warming brought about by human-caused climate change.

Rank of annual maximum temperatures observed in Europe in 2019 compared to 1950 –2018, based on the E-OBS data set (Haylock et al., 2008, version 19, extended with monthly and daily updates to 30 July 2019). This figure is made with preliminary data and should be taken with caution as some measurements are not yet validated. (Source: World Weather Attribution)

Video posted to Twitter shows how rising temperatures are impacting Europe’s alpine glaciers. Severe-weather.EU posted footage of a massive mudslide barreling down a mountainside on July 28th at the height of the heat wave. The group alleges the mudflow was brought about by melting glaciers in Mauvoisin, Switzerland.

The high pressure system that parked over Europe and brought about the record heat has since moved north, where it’s led to potentially record-breaking melt across Greenland’s ice sheet.

The familiar images of temperature anomalies that are produced by the world’s climate and weather agencies have inspired Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based artist Diane Burko, who is currently working on a painting depicting the July heatwave in Europe.

An image, provided by artist Diane Burko, shows progress on her painting “European Heat Wave.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

What Moody’s Recent Acquisition Means for Assessing the Costs of the Climate Crisis

Rob Wallace Installed to Post in Department of the Interior

Dispatches from the Cryosphere: Intimate Encounters with the Intricate and Disappearing Ice of Everest Base Camp

Roundup: World Environment Day, Mount Everest Deaths, and Kangerlussuaq Glacier Retreat

June 5, 2019 is World Environment Day

From GlacierHub writer and environmentalist Tsechu Dolma: “China is hosting World Environment Day 2019, its mounting environmental crisis is endangering hundreds of millions and downstream nations, what happens on the Tibetan plateau has profound consequences on rest of Asia.”

Everest traffic jam blamed for climber deaths

From the New York Times: “Climbers were pushing and shoving to take selfies. The flat part of the summit, which he estimated at about the size of two Ping-Pong tables, was packed with 15 or 20 people. To get up there, he had to wait hours in a line, chest to chest, one puffy jacket after the next, on an icy, rocky ridge with a several-thousand foot drop.


This has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons on Everest, with at least 11 deaths. And at least some seem to have been avoidable.”

Exceptional retreat of Kangerlussuaq Glacier

From Frontiers of Earth Science: “Kangerlussuaq Glacier is one of Greenland’s largest tidewater outlet glaciers, accounting for approximately 5% of all ice discharge from the Greenland ice sheet. In 2018 the Kangerlussuaq ice front reached its most retreated position since observations began in 1932. We determine the relationship between retreat and: (i) ice velocity; and (ii) surface elevation change, to assess the impact of the retreat on the glacier trunk. Between 2016 and 2018 the glacier retreated ∼5 km and brought the Kangerlussuaq ice front into a major (∼15 km long) overdeepening. Coincident with this retreat, the glacier thinned as a result of near-terminus acceleration in ice flow. The subglacial topography means that 2016–2018 terminus recession is likely to trigger a series of feedbacks between retreat, thinning, and glacier acceleration, leading to a rapid and high-magnitude increase in discharge and sea level rise contribution. Dynamic thinning may continue until the glacier reaches the upward sloping bed ∼10 km inland of its current position. Incorporating these non-linear processes into prognostic models of the ice sheet to 2100 and beyond will be critical for accurate forecasting of the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise.”

On April 19, IceBridge’s 23rd flight of the Arctic 2011 campaign surveyed numerous glaciers in southeast Greenland including Kangerlugssuaq Glacier. The calving front of the glacier gives way to ice floating in the fjord, referred to by some as a sikkusak, or mélange. (Source: NASA ICE/Michael Studinger via Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

UNESCO-Recognized Glaciers Could Shrink 60 Percent by End of Century

Scientists Catch Tibetan Snowcocks on Camera in their High-Elevation Habitats

GlacierHub Seeks Contributors for Its New, International Feature Series