Pakistan Could Be Left High and Dry Even If Nations Achieve Paris Climate Targets

The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change set the goal of keeping global, average  temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-Industrial Age levels, and hopefully below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This month, new research published by scientists from the University of Hamburg predicts how these temperature changes will affect water availability in Pakistan.They found that the timing and abundance of water availability in Pakistan will be much altered in warmer world, and that means of adaptation will be crucial.

The study, published in the September issue of Advances in Water Resources, assesses three Himalayan watersheds in Pakistan: the Jhelum, the Kabul, and the Upper Indus River Basin. The Indus River Basin is estimated to supply water for 90 percent of Pakistan’s food production, and glacier melt is responsible for 50-80 percent of water flow in the basin.

These watersheds are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature because of their altitude, Shabeh ul Hasson, the lead author of the study, told GlacierHub. Mountains are warming faster than the rest of the world. A paper published in September of 2017 in the journal Nature predicts a loss of up to 56 percent of the glacial area of the Hindu Kush and Himalaya region by the end of the century—even if nations achieve the Paris agreement goal of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Caption: The Kunhar River, which is in the Indus Basin watershed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hasson and his coauthors ran 80 simulations of the watersheds under discrete temperature increases of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Using HAPPI (Half a degree Additional warming, Prognosis and Projected Impacts), a resource which provides a selection of climate models, they predicted daily maximum and minimum temperatures, as well as average precipitations, for different conditions possible in the future. Rather than predicting changes in the region’s glaciers, the scientists envisioned water availability under five different scenarios: glaciers remaining intact and glaciers losing 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, and 100 percent of their area. Of these situations, the most likely scenario, according to the study, is a 25 percent decrease in glacial cover in the Upper Indus Basin and a 50 percent decrease in Kabul and Jhelum. Together this amount of loss corresponds to a 38 percent decrease in the contribution of glacier melt to Pakistan’s water availability if global average temperatures increase 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

“We are definitely expecting that the temperature rise will be much, much more,” Hasson said.

As the glaciers melt, they will provide less reliable water. However, in the earlier stages of warming, the quick melting of ice and snow will create a dramatic increase of water influx in Pakistan, according to the study. Specifically, the researchers estimate median changes of a 34 percent increase in water availability under a 1.5 degree rise in temperature and a 43 percent increase under a 2 degree rise. “Hopefully we are talking about a century’s time,” Hasson said.

Water surpluses, along with droughts, are destructive to Pakistan’s agriculture, which forms the major portion of Pakistan’s economy, according to the nation’s Ministry of Water Resources.

“In recent years, there have been a lot of more frequent cases of flooding and more unmanageable amounts of water coming into the canals,” Ayesha Qaisrani, a research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, told GlacierHub. “If the intensity of the water coming in is not right for the crop, then it really heavily damages the crops.”

Qaisrani authored a research paper, which was published last year in the journal Earth Systems and Environment, that evaluates the impacts of climate change on Pakistani farmers and assesses the ability of agricultural communities to adapt.

Irregular water availability is changing the crop cycles for many areas in Pakistan, she said. For instance, in some places the monsoons are becoming more intense but span shorter periods of time, destroying crops that thrive under more mild conditions.

Hasson’s research anticipates more precipitation from October to February, but a drier period from March to June, which will shorten the duration of snowpacks, making them a less reliable water source. The study also predicts a “substantial decrease in the monsoonal precipitation” from July through September.

The unpredictable nature of these changes—one year the monsoon might behave normally, for instance, and another it might not—makes it even more difficult for farmers to adapt, Qaisrani said, since they do not know which crops will thrive.

The situation is worse for small farmers, she said, because they often go into debt to buy feed, so if a crop fails, it affects subsequent crops, creating a vicious cycle. “There is a lot of out migration because of climate change,” she said.

Access to water sources is not equal among farmers either, Qaisrani explained. Although small farmers are larger in number, “the larger farmers that have acres and acres of land have more political power.” Those that can install groundwater pumps, for instance, get an edge over farmers that cannot afford them. Many farmers cannot afford products needed to adapt to climate change, such as drip irrigation technology, she said.

Caption: Pakistini farmers harvest wheat. (Source: U.S. Embassy Pakistan/Flickr

Hasson hopes his research will help policymakers in Pakistan prepare the country for changes in the climate. “We need to have more reservoirs to store the water,” he said. He is approaching stakeholders and policymakers to disseminate the information from his study.

Now that Hasson and his collaborators have predicted mean water availability under Paris agreement targets, they are working to study how increases in global temperature will affect hydrological extremes, such as floods and droughts.

Hasson is hopeful that policymakers in Pakistan will help the country adapt. “They have to listen some time,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t know when.”

Caption: The areas studied (Source: Shabeh ul Hasson)
Please follow, share and like us:
error

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

Avalanches ripped across the landscape. Colorful prayer flags draped between rocks and blocks of ice stood out in bright contrast as they whipped in the wind. Icicles over five meters long dripped into white and blue streams that rushed along smooth, rippled, cavernous walls of ice. Meanwhile, streams of aspiring climbers—I among them—fought gravity and thin air to summit some of the world’s highest mountains.

I recently returned to the US after almost three months—March to June 2019—visiting a tiny portion of the “Third Pole” in the Himalayas of Nepal as part of a scientific research expedition in the Hinku, Gokyo, and Khumbu Valleys in Sagamartha and Makalu Barun National Parks. Part of the expedition focused on collecting high-altitude snow samples on the summits and glaciated flanks of Mera, Lobuche, and 8,516-meter (27,940-foot) Lhotse—the fourth highest mountain on the planet. Other research components of the expedition included botanical surveys in the lower valleys and interviewing locals about subjects as diverse as park management, changes in glaciers, and shifting politics in the region—utilizing Nepali students as translators.

Prayer flags draped across the icefall sometimes mark hazardous or important points on the climbing route. (Source: Chris Dunn)
 

My role on the expedition was primarily as social scientist with a research focus on perceptions of glacier recession, particularly comparing those of scientists with the lived experience and traditional beliefs of park residents. One question I had was how scientific literacy intersects with traditional beliefs and the future implications this may have for conservation and park management—an extension of prior long-term studies. I also investigated how expeditions and journey narratives can be used as tools in communicating climate change, as well as science and environmental issues more broadly.

My research trip happened to coincide with two separate National Geographic expeditions in the area—one attempting an ascent of Lhotse South Face and the other, Everest. In Kathmandu, I interviewed various individuals, including staff of the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), who study, among many other things, Himalayan glaciers. At ICIMOD I spoke with a Nepali scientist who grew up in the Khumbu. Later in Kathmandu, I met a Sherpa owner of a trekking and climbing company, who also grew up in the Khumbu. Their dual perspectives as native residents of these areas and as scientists or business owners were extremely valuable. They provided specific details about the perceived risks of glacial lake outburst floods, long-term impacts of glacial loss on hydropower and drinking water, and how traditional conceptions of Sagamartha (Everest) and other mountains, lakes, and valleys as inhabited by gods, goddesses, and spirits might interact with scientific presentations of climate change and climate adaptation efforts.

An ice “mushroom” perched atop the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The Khumbu Icefall framed by a ring of ice. (Source: Chris Dunn)

In addition to my formal social science research aspirations, I participated in physical science data collection. Due to a variety of mishaps and illnesses, I was the sole member of the expedition to summit Mera and Lobuche, where I collected crucial snow samples, which, when processed, will reveal the quantity and origin of black carbon deposited on the glaciers. Black carbon accelerates the glacial mass loss already occurring due to climate change by reducing the albedo of glacier surfaces, thus absorbing more solar energy. My sample site on the summit of Mera tied the prior record for the highest elevation black carbon sampling site, which has been published in a formal paper (on the summit of Mera as it happens). This was soon broken however by samples collected on the summit push up Lhotse (though not yet published).

An ice “stalagmite” has formed at the base of an icicle over five meters long. (Source: Chris Dunn)
The author, Chris Dunn, collecting snow samples high on Mera Peak. (Source: Ramkaji Tiwari)

The expedition’s initial plans were to send two climbers to the summit of Everest and three to the summit of Lhotse. Once again, however, due to a variety of misfortunes, no Everest aspirants spent a night above Camp 2, leaving no one in position to attempt Everest. Only the expedition leader and I successfully summited Lhotse, as our third had to rescued by helicopter from Camp 2 due to bloody froth in his lungs—a clear symptom of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Our summit day began under a full moon and in the distance we watched a continuous line of headlamps crawling up Everest’s south summit.

Due to the slow process of acclimatization and some weather delays, I was able to spend an exceptionally long time at Everest Base Camp (EBC). Though it was a bit taxing, it gave me the unique opportunity to explore sections of the Khumbu Glacier around EBC that are rarely seen by otherwise occupied climbers and Nepali staff. I documented, through photography, short videos, and writing, the quickly disappearing ice formations in this area. In other words, I spent time with the glacier, getting to know and appreciate it at multiple levels—developing a deep aesthetic appreciation.

A rare cluster of nieves penitentes that the author spotted on the Khumbu Glacier. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I see my work here in part as a fledgling spinoff of photographer James Balog’s wonderful documentation of ice—the subject of the equally wonderful film Chasing Ice by Jeff Orlowski. I hope that my unique contributions include exploring little crevices that are missed by a wider view, creative writing, and an academic investigation into the scientific and indigenous cultural aspects of ice.

As I explored, I was struck by several recurring formations: countless and ever-transforming icicles, “mushrooms,” or small columns of ice capped by rocks; “snails,” which eerily resembled rock-shell-toting ice-creatures; intricately-textured and cracked spires, caves, and waves of ice; and the rare cluster of nieves penitentes—triangular blades of ice formed through sublimation. Each of these dwarfed by the great hanging and mountain glaciers surrounding EBC on all sides.

Avalanches—occasionally of awe-inspiring size and power—were numerous. One night at Camp 2, as I lay buried in my thick down sleeping bag, a nearby avalanche exploded downward at such volume that I was certain it would envelop me in the darkness. I resigned myself to my fate, which never came. Another avalanche roared outside my tent at Base Camp. I was later told by a National Geographic GIS specialist that it partially enveloped our camp in a cloud of snow. At least one client of our company was struck by the tail end of an avalanche, while a member of our expedition came within 10 meters of a different avalanche. It seems likely that the quantity and size of avalanches I witnessed was affected by climate change, part of a larger world-wide trend, well-documented in other regions.

A tiny portion of Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Glacier illuminated under a full moon. (Source: Chris Dunn)

I spent nearly a month and a half camping right on top of a glacier. If not on a relatively thin layer of rock, as at EBC, then directly on the ice. The glacier would often creak, pop, and groan, especially at night as it expanded and contracted with changing temperatures. At Camp 2, I sometimes felt deep vibrations ripple into my body. On one occasion, I heard a pop right near my tent, followed by one after another moving off into the distance. By the end, my tent at EBC hung precariously from its high platform of ice and rock—undercut by melting and ready to fall.

I cherish the time I spent getting to know these glaciers at multiple levels—as an object of scientific inquiry and source of data, a nexus of traditional lifeways and beliefs, an aesthetic and sensual phenomenon, and an ever-changing, perilous obstacle for summiting one of the highest mountains on Earth. I hope that I will have future opportunities to come to know other glaciers in all these ways.

See more photos and a forthcoming essay about this expedition here.

Read More on GlacierHub:

New Mountain Bike Trails Highlight Long Island’s Glacier Remnants

To Travel or Not to Travel

New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Roundup: Expanding Glaciers, Appraising the Himalaya, and Ice Worms

Study shows a glacier is expanding

From Frontiers in Earth Science: “There is strong variation in glacier mass balances in High Mountain Asia. Particularly interesting is the fact that glaciers are in equilibrium or even gaining mass in the Karakoram and Kunlun Shan ranges, which is in sharp contrast with the negative mass balances in the rest of High Mountain Asia. To understand this difference, an in-depth understanding of the meteorological drivers of the glacier mass balance is required.”

Read the study here.

The outer domain (D1, 25 km, middle panel), with its nests. Left panel shows the 1 km domain of Shimshal catchment (D3), and right panel 1 km domain of Langtang catchment (D5). The catchment outlines are indicated by black contours and glacier outlines of GLDAS dataset (Rodell et al., 2004) by blue contours. (Source: Frontiers of Earth Science)

An appraisal of Himalayan glaciers

From Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy: “The present review takes stock of the growth of cryospheric research in India with reference to glaciers and snow in the Himalaya, which are sensitive marker of the climate change. Overview of the snout and mass balance data indicates accentuated rate of glacier recession during the 1970’s and 1980’s, particularly in the Central and NE Himalaya. Like elsewhere on the globe, the retreating trends are consistent with the hypothesis of the global warming resulting from the increasing anthropogenic emissions of Green Houses Gasses. In contrast, the Glaciers in the Karakoram region, Indus basin, fed by mid-latitude westerlies, show marginal advancement and/or near stagnation.”

Read the study here.

A view of the Himalaya (Source: orangems/Flickr)

Ice worms

From Proceedings of the Royal Society B: “Disentangling the contemporary and historical factors underlying the spatial distributions of species is a central goal of biogeography. For species with broad distributions but little capacity to actively disperse, disconnected geographical distributions highlight the potential influence of passive, long-distance dispersal (LDD) on their evolutionary histories. However, dispersal alone cannot completely account for the biogeography of any species, and other factors—e.g. habitat suitability, life history—must also be considered. North American ice worms (Mesenchytraeus solifugus) are ice-obligate annelids that inhabit coastal glaciers from Oregon to Alaska.”

Read the study here.

An iceworm (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Read More on GlacierHub:

New Mountain Bike Trails Highlight Long Island’s Glacier Remnants

To Travel or Not to Travel

New Heights in the Himalayas: High-Altitude Weather Monitoring

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Roundup: Uranium Mining in Nepal, Glacier-Fed Clouds, and a Survey of Xinjiang Land Use

Nepal’s Government Considers Uranium Mining Legislation

From My República: “A hasty push for endorsement of the ‘nuclear bill’ in the parliament is being made amidst rumors of the discovery of uranium mines near trans-Himalayan terrain of Lo Mangthang of Mustang district. In fact, [the] Office of Investment Board’s website claims that ‘a large deposit of uranium has been discovered in Upper Mustang region of Nepal … spread over an area 10 km long and 3 km wide and could be of highest grade. These findings have also been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.’ The bill, tabled by Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology unabashedly grants permission to uranium mining, enrichment, and all steps of nuclear fuel cycle; import and export of uranium, plutonium, and its isotopes; and use [of] Nepal as transit for storage of the nuclear and radio-active substances.”

Tangbe is a typical Mustang village with narrow alleys, whitewashed walls, chortens, and prayer flags. It is located on a promontory with a good view over the main valley. The ruins of an ancient fortress have become a silent witness of history, when Tangbe was on a major trade route, especially for salt, between Tibet and India. (Source: Jean-Marie Hullot/Flickr)

Retreating Glaciers Create … Clouds

From Nature: “Aeolian dusts serve as ice nucleating particles in mixed-phase clouds, and thereby alter the cloud properties and lifetime. Glacial outwash plains are thought to be a major dust source in cold, high latitudes. Due to the recent rapid and widespread retreat of glaciers, high-latitude dust emissions are projected to increase, especially in the Arctic region, which is highly sensitive to climate change. However, the potential contribution of high-latitude dusts to ice nucleation in Arctic low-level clouds is not well acknowledged. Here we show that glacial outwash sediments in Svalbard (a proxy for glacially sourced dusts) have a remarkably high ice nucleating ability under conditions relevant for mixed-phase cloud formation, as compared with typical mineral dusts.”

A view of heavy cloud cover about glaciers in Svalbard, Norway (Source: Omer Bozkurt/Flickr)

What Land Use Changes in Xinjiang, China Mean for Nearby Glaciers

From Sustainability: “[W]e analyzed the temporal-spatial variations of the characteristics of land use change in central Asia over the past two decades. This was conducted using four indicators (change rate, equilibrium extent, dynamic index, and transfer direction) and a multi-scale correlation analysis method, which explained the impact of recent environmental transformations on land use changes. The results indicated that the integrated dynamic degree of land use increased by 2.2% from 1995 to 2015. […] There were significant increases in cropland and water bodies from 1995 to 2005, while the amount of artificial land significantly increased from 2005 to 2015. The increased areas of cropland in Xinjiang were mainly converted from grassland and unused land from 1995 to 2015, while the artificial land increase was mainly a result of the conversion from cropland, grassland, and unused land. The area of cropland rapidly expanded in south Xinjiang, which has led to centroid position to move cropland in Xinjiang in a southwest direction. Economic development and the rapid growth of population size are the main factors responsible for the cropland increases in Xinjiang. Runoff variations have a key impact on cropland changes at the river basin scale, as seen in three typical river basins.”

A glacier feeds a river feeding into Ala-Kul Lake deep inside the mighty Tian Shan, a range of mountains separating the deserts of Xinjiang in western China from the lands of Central Asia. (Source: Journeys on Quest/Flickr)

Read More on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Video of the Week: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

This week’s video digests the sobering findings of the Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment. The montage was published by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), one of the institutions responsible for compiling the report. As GlacierHub reported last week, the assessment is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers.

The video describes the effects of climate change on the Third Pole, as the Himalaya is often called, including the rapid melting of glaciers. It conveys second-order effects on downstream human populations and ecology, which depend heavily on glacial runoff to support the region’s rivers. The major watersheds of southern Asia are fed by the melt from the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, which supports water, food, and energy needs for nearly two billion people.

GlacierHub also reported on the threat to hydropower development in the region posed by climate change.

The video appears during a week in which climate change received significant coverage in the United States, owing to the rollout of the Green New Deal proposal and a skeptical tweet about climate change from President Trump.

The video underscores the need for immediate action to stave off the worst effects of climate change in the sensitive region. In it, Asuncion Lera St. Clair, senior principal scientist at the Climate Action Program, suggests the comprehensive assessment “might be the beginning of a process of uniting the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayas around what the science says needs to happen.”

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Video of the Week: Kazakhstan’s Tuyuksu Glacier in The New York Times

This week’s video was prominently featured on the front page of the January 15 issue of The New York TimesThe feature-length article and images document the impacts of glacier retreat in Central Asia.

As one scrolls through the story, images transition from an aerial shot of a person descending the Tuyuksu Glacier to ablation measurements on the ice and a computer-generated graphic documenting the 60-year-long retreat of the glacier.

The story also takes a viewer to the glacier’s meltwater, where scientists gauge stream flow and analyze samples that reveal the meltwater’s source. The story pans across the Tibetan Plateau, as well as the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.

Millions of inhabitants are dependent on Kazakhstan’s Tuyuksu Glacier for a dependable supply of water, according to the story, highlighting the impacts of climate change.

Check out The New York Times for a detailed glimpse of glacier retreat in Central Asia.

 

Discover more news on GlacierHub:

An Impossible First: Colin O’Brady Completes Solo Trek Across Antarctica

South Georgia Island’s Novosilski Glacier is Retreating Rapidly

Photo Friday: Glacier Covered Volanoes Activity in Far Eastern Russia

 

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Roundup: Collapsing Glaciers, Invertebrates, and Resilient Mountains

Collapsing Glaciers in The Himalaya–Hindu Kush mountain ranges & the Tibetan Plateau

From Nature: “Tibetan communities are dealing with the impacts of collapsing glaciers. In October 2018, debris dammed the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which forms the headwater of the Brahmaputra, threatening areas as far afield as Bangladesh with flooding.”

Read more about how collapsing glaciers are affecting Asian communities and their water supply here.

Tibetan Plateau (Source: Andrew and Annemarie, Flickr)

Benthic Communities in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

From Ecological Applications: ” In this study, we describe contrasting responses to an apparent regime shift [in food particle size] of two very different benthic communities in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. We compared species-specific patterns of benthic invertebrate abundance and size between the west (low productivity) and east (higher productivity) sides of McMurdo Sound across multiple decades.”

Read more about the changes to benthic invertebrates in Antarctica here.

McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (U.S. Department of State, Flickr)

Resilient Mountain Solutions in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

From UNFCCC: “Research at ICIMOD has revealed that temperatures in the mountains have increased significantly faster than the global average, and are projected to increase by 1–2°C on average by 2050. Precipitation patterns and water availability are likely to change.”

Read more about Resilient Mountain Solutions such as vulnerability reduction and improved ecosystem services here.

Hindu Kush Range, Pakistan (Source: Akbar Asif22, Wikimedia Commons)

 

RELATED: South Georgia Island’s Novosilski Glacier Is Retreating Rapidly

RELATED: Powerful Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Himalayas

RELATED: Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Ice Loss, Gravity, and Asian Glacier Slowdown

A recent international study found that glaciers in high mountain Asia (HMA) are actually slowing down. Researcher Amaury Dehecq of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his co-authors analyzed 17 years of data from 2000 to 2017, attributing their results to widespread glacial thinning. They found that 94 percent of variability in glacial flow rates could be explained by ice thickness changes.

The study asserts that glaciers are thinning worldwide and at an increasing rate from the start of the 21st century. However, according to Dehecq, exactly how glaciers respond to mass loss on a regional scale was previously not well understood. This uncertainty highlighted the necessity of understanding the consequences of glacier thinning in a warming world and catalyzed this innovative study.

Nyenchen Tanglha mountains Tibet on GlacierHub
The Nyainqêntanglha mountains of Tibet, where some of the most significant glacier slowdown is occurring as a result of ice loss (Source: randomix/Flickr).

Trending: Velocity Over Time

Dehecq and his co-researchers measured glacier surface velocity changes with 1 million satellite image pairs from Landsat-7, obtaining annual velocities by comparing images taken one year apart over the same area. This was done through feature tracking; the researchers identified specific, recognizable features (i.e. crevasses, dirt patches), then measured how far they moved from one picture to the next. They did this over and over again, millions of times, to translate the image pairs into usable velocity data.

In all, the researchers calculated velocity changes over time for 11 subregions in high mountain Asia. The most significant glacier slowdowns were seen in the Nyainqêntanglha mountains of Tibet and in the Himalayas in India (Spiti Lahaul), with 37.2 and 34.3 percent velocity decreases per decade, respectively.

Lesser but still significant slowdowns were observed for glaciers in the following regions: West Nepal, East Nepal, Bhutan, Hindu Kush, Pamir, Tien Shan, and the inner Tibetan Plateau.

velocity map for high mountain asia glaciers on GlacierHub
Velocity changes from 2000-2016 for glaciers in high mountain Asia (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

“It is only recently that big data crunching has allowed this hypothesis to be tested on such a grand scale,” said William Colgan, a research climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, in an interview with GlacierHub.

Noel Gourmelen, a co-author of the study and professor of glaciology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, emphasized the importance of data availability in allowing studies like this one to be successful in the future. “This research was possible because of sustained and open Earth Observation programs,” he said, also calling for continued support, maintenance, and expansion of programs like NASA’s Landsat and ESA’s Sentinels satellite series.

On Thin Ice

Dehecq and his co-researchers matched calculated velocity trends with observations of glacier thickness from 2000 to 2017. Data on glacier thickness is obtained by using remote sensing to create a model of glacier elevation change over time. This comparison showed a strong relationship between the two; each region that observed a decreasing velocity trend also observed a corresponding trend in ice thinning over the same time period.

Colgan also spoke to GlacierHub about the trending relationships this study revealed. “This study is some of the clearest evidence to date of the link between climate forcing and ice dynamics in land-terminating glaciers,” he said. “Based on these Himalayan observations, the study is telling us to expect widespread slowdowns in ice flow in regions where glaciers are experiencing widespread thinning; that’s most regions of land-terminating glaciers.”  

Karakoram region China on GlacierHub
Muztagh Ata and Lake Karakul in the Kunlun region, one of the few places where glaciers are advancing (Source: dreamX/Flickr).

Despite the strong relationship between thinning ice and decreasing velocity, each subregion had a slightly different magnitude of change. The researchers suggested that “regional differences in climate and glacier sensitivity to temperature,” could influence small spatial variations in the overall trend.

Accordingly, this study also found that regions with advancing glaciers are speeding up. Two adjacent regions in high mountain Asia, Karakoram and West Kunlun, experienced a positive mass balance along with slight velocity increases from 2000 to 2017.

The Glacial Pace

Mountain glaciers have a simple motivation for their downhill progression—gravity. Gravity causes the surface ice on a glacier to creep, slowly deforming and thinning the glacier as it moves down the mountain.

How fast glaciers travel on this journey is controlled by two factors: gravitational driving stress and glacier thickness. Driving stress is dependent on slope. The steeper the mountain, the stronger the gravitational force. Since surface ice moves faster than the ice underneath, ice thins as a glacier travels, meaning a glacier will get progressively slower the further it goes. That is, until it reaches an elevation where the surrounding climate is warm enough to rapidly melt the ice.

Dehecq and his co-researchers concluded that these two factors alone can be used to effectively calculate glacier surface velocity. “The strength of the link between mass loss and change in flow was surprisingly strong,” said Gourmelen. “One might have expected that changes at the base of the glacier would have played a role and impacts basal sliding of the ice, but this does not appear to be the case when looking at the HMA region as a whole.”

A Warning for Warming

Mount Kailash on GlacierHub
The sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet and surrounding mountains are home to several glaciers that feed major rivers, lakes, and communities. Read more about Mt. Kailash on GlacierHub (Source: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team).

A warming world means more glacial surface melting, and at higher elevations. However, surface melting also means ice thinning, which slows down the flow of glaciers due to gravity. So although less ice exists overall, there is also less ice reaching the elevation where it will melt.

The findings of this study improve knowledge of glacier feedbacks in the context of anthropogenic climate change regarding sea-level rise and the hydrology of certain regions. Glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia could potentially impact the availability of freshwater for communities in surrounding countries like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and China.

Gourmelen gave GlacierHub an apt overview of the importance of understanding climate-glacier feedbacks:

“This is yet another sign of the impact of climate change on glaciers, the machine is slowing down. Glacier flow is a fundamental component of the glacier machine, it is the conveyor belt bringing ice from high elevation where it forms to lower elevation where it melts. This process impacts glacier met rates and glacier extent and is a key component of glacier modeling and hydrology. By providing a relationship between mass loss and flow change, parameterising model predicting future of glaciers and water availability will be made easier and more precise. It will also help interpreting some of the changes in glacier shape that we have observed in the last decades.”

Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, spoke to GlacierHub about the global implications of this study. “The key takeaway is the same we see for alpine glaciers around the globe, warming temperatures lead to mass balance losses, which is the key driver in glacier response,” he said. “A sustained negative mass balance leads to thinning, which leads to a glacier slow down whether the glacier is in the Himalaya, Alps, or Cascade Range.”

Pelto further explained his considerations for both the short and long-term implications of glacial slowdown in high mountain Asia. “In the short run the slow down will increase retreat rate. In the long run less dynamic mass transfer to lower elevations will lead to a reduction in glacier retreat,” he said.

In all, glacial slowdown could help preserve ice mass in the foreseeable future. However it could be at the cost of abundant freshwater for mountain communities.

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Glaciers Feature Prominently at COP24 in Poland

From 2-14 December 2018, 197 countries gather in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or better known as COP24. During these two weeks of negotiations, countries will attempt to finish what they started in Paris three years ago. In Paris, parties set 2018 as the deadline to come up with robust plans for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which will include significant reductions in carbon emissions as well as an increased commitment to sustainable development.

Mountain countries are taking an active role in this year’s conference, and the impact of future warming scenarios on glacier melting, sea level rise, and mountain communities has been a prominent point of discussion throughout.

16 November 2018

Postcards created by over 125,000 children from around the world are compiled into a mosaic at the base of Switzerland’s Aletsch Glacier, spelling a message across the snow. “STOP GLOBAL WARMING #1.5 DEGREES C,” it reads, serving as a gesture to countries preparing for COP24. According to Swiss glaciologists at the University of Zurich, the Aletsch glacier, though currently the largest expanse of continuous ice in Western Europe, is receding at a rate of 12 meters per year, and it could completely disappear by 2100.

The quote references the findings of the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, published in October 2018. In order to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change, the report urged limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of the 2 degrees Celsius agreed upon in Paris three years ago.

3 December 2018

“We can’t afford to fail in Katowice,” says UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his opening remarks at COP24. He thinks that public will to fight climate change has faded since Paris in 2015, and now climate change is “running away from us.” Notable climate change impacts detailed in the IPCC special report, such as increasing temperatures, sea level rise, and receding glaciers, are happening faster than we expected.

Speaking up for small states in attendance, Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi said that Nepal has “been bearing the brunt of disproportionate impact of climate change despite being a low carbon-emitting country… We feel as if we have been penalised for the mistakes we never made. It is incumbent on the international community to ensure that justice is done.”

4 December 2018

UNESCO, in partnership with the Norwegian GRID-Arendal Foundation, presents a new report, titled “Andean Glacier and Water Atlas: the impact of glacier retreat on water resources,” which details the consequences of glacier retreat on water availability and security for communities who depend on glaciers for drinking water, hydropower, agriculture, and other industries. Since the 1980s, when Andean glaciers were in a period of peak discharge, there has been less and less meltwater each year. This has huge negative impacts on communities who depend on glacial meltwater, and even more so during times of drought.

Precipitation trends suggest that snow cover will continue to decrease, along with temperatures rising 2-5 degrees Celsius in the tropical Andes and 1-7 degrees Celsius in the southern Andes. The report further estimates that even under moderate warming scenarios, low-altitude glaciers in the tropical Andes could lose 78 to 97 percent of their volume in the 21st century.

  • Peru, home to the largest number of tropical glaciers on the continent, has seen extremely rapid glacier retreat, with very few, brief intermittent periods of advancement.
  • Venezuela’s only remaining glacier will likely cease to exist by 2021.
  • Bolivia’s glaciers have lost more than two-thirds of their volume since the 1980s.
  • Colombia is also experiencing rapid glacier retreat; by 2050 the sole survivors will be the largest glaciers at the highest altitudes.
  • Ecuador’s glaciers have been subject to dramatic losses in the last 50 years.
  • Chile and Argentina are seeing accelerating melting among low-lying freshwater and tidewater glaciers in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

5 December 2018

The World Health Organization (WHO) releases the COP24 special report: health and climate change. The report implicates anthropogenic climate change as the source of huge challenges for human health. The same industries who emit greenhouse gases, which warm the planet, are also responsible for emitting PM2.5, which harms human health. Within the public health and climate change conversation, glaciers receive a small but important cameo on black carbon. Black carbon, a by-product of inefficient combustion (from cookstoves, diesel engines, biomass, etc.) is second only to CO2 emissions in its global warming contribution. 

Not only is black carbon important on a global scale, but it also has impacts on regional climate systems. Black carbon works to accelerate glacier retreat in mountainous regions as well as the Arctic. As it settles, black carbon darkens a glacier’s surface, absorbing instead of reflecting heat, and inducing glacial melting.

Read more about black carbon on GlacierHub.

The Global Carbon Project reports that global CO2 emissions are projected to increase by 2.7 percent by the end of 2018. Following a brief stagnation in global CO2 emissions from 2014-2016, emissions rose by 1.6 percent. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or briefly overshoot it and come back down), global emissions need to be drastically decreasing, not increasing, and at current levels the world will certainly exceed this threshold by 2030.  

7 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – Mountain regions moving towards carbon neutrality

This side event’s keynote speaker, Eric Nanchen, is the director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Mountain Regions (FDDM). His talk covered climate change impacts and vulnerability of mountain regions, in the context of laying foundations for sustainable development. He also discussed the Mountain Research Initiative’s #VanishingGlaciers campaign, which is also being promoted at COP24. Deputy Secretary General of the Alpine Convention, Marianna Elmi, discussed steps that Alpine countries are taking toward climate neutrality, for example, coming up with a climate target system for 2050. 

10 December 2018

Newly released maps from NASA indicate that a group of four glaciers on the eastern coastline of Antarctica have been losing ice over the last decade. Since 2008, these four glaciers, which are located just to the west of the massive Totten glacier, have lost about 9 feet of their surface height. Prior to these findings, East Antarctica was thought to be much more stable than its western counterpart.

11 December 2018

COP24 Side Event – International Mountain Day – Mountain adaptation: Vulnerable peaks and people

On International Mountain Day, UN Environment releases two reports: Mountain Adaptation Outlook Series – Synthesis Report, and its more regionally focused counterpart, Outlook on climate change adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. The same day, in an UNEP press release, Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director at UN Environment says, “Mountain ranges are extremely complex ecosystems home to some of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. It is critical that we focus on helping these communities adapt to changing climate in mountain regions.”

The synthesis report begins by framing the importance of mountain ecosystems, which cover 25 percent of the Earth’s landmass, house 15 percent of the world’s population, and provide essential ecosystem services to over half the world’s population. The report then goes on to call mountainous regions the “frontline of climate change.” Mountainous regions are subject to altitude amplification, whereby warming at high altitudes actually occurs at a faster rate than the global average, much like it does at the poles. Almost every mountain in the world is seeing substantial glacier retreat, which impacts ecosystems all the way downstream. In addition, the steep, sometimes unstable terrain leaves mountain communities more susceptible to floods and landslides. The synthesis report strives to capture regional differences in primary risk factors, climate change impacts, and current policy gaps in order to identify potential adaptation measures for each region.

The second report specifically targets the Hindu Kush Himalaya, and is actually part of a progressive series which has previously covered other mountainous regions around the world. The Hindu Kush Himalaya are of particular importance because it is already one of the most disaster-prone regions on Earth. Further, the report states this region could warm upwards of 4-5 degrees Celsius by 2100. The disproportionate warming effects of climate change at altitude, coupled with increased severity of precipitation events and the high probability of natural disasters in Hindu Kush Himalaya all work in tandem to make the region even more vulnerable to global warming.

12 December 2018

Side Event – IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, NDCs and Cryosphere: Pathways for Both High Urgency and Ambition

This event was focused on the IPCC Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, and working within the emissions constraints set by the report to minimize any further damage incurred by positive global warming feedbacks such as sea level rise and other impacts on mountainous and polar areas. Discussion was focused primarily on how to incorporate cryosphere considerations into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCS) for 2020 in order to minimize future risk and impact. 

During closing remarks for the COP24 High-Level Segment of the Talanoa Dialogue, the Secretary General makes note of three reports published in the past few days that “added to the long list of warnings signals.” Among them is the special WHO report on human health and climate change and NASA’s research showing signs of glacier melting in East Antarctica, which are both discussed above. He used these current events to show that we cannot ignore the rapidly accumulating effects of climate change, and to encourage countries to participate in successful policy-creation during COP24’s final days.  

 

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Where the Yala Glacier’s Ice is Going

Sublimation, the process by which a solid changes phase to gas, is a largely unquantified component of glacier mass loss worldwide. A study on Nepal’s Yala glacier, recently published in Frontiers In Earth Science, quantified the glacier’s loss of ice to the atmosphere during the 2016-2017 winter. Researchers found approximately 21 percent of Yala’s annual snowfall was returned to the atmosphere via sublimation, a rate higher than most glaciers on Earth’s tallest mountain ranges.

Like classroom demonstrations with dry ice, sublimation can occur from a static surface. Snow sublimation is the loss of water from the snowpack directly to the atmosphere. Though Yala is one of the world’s most studied glaciers, a complete understanding of water balance and glacier mass has been limited. In addition, complex terrain and dynamic conditions often inhibit models from accurately estimating sublimation.

Yala (5,350 meters) is one of the world’s most studied glaciers (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr).

 

The process to measure the rate of sublimation is complicated: sublimation varies based on the time of year, hour of the day, cloud cover, complex terrain features, altitude, and specific atmospheric conditions like humidity and wind speed. Even in a static environment, these components are difficult to measure. Add dynamic environmental factors like drifting and blowing snow, ice that melts and refreezes (skewing energy balance calculations), and remote fixed instruments that rise and fall with the glacier itself, and you get a vague idea of the quantification problem faced by scientists.

Researchers utilize two primary methods to measure sublimation: the gravimetric method, which continuously monitors the weight at a specific part of the snowpack, and the eddy covariance method, a process of direct observation to measure and calculate atmospheric factors. The gravimetric method can incorrectly interpret wind-induced erosion of the snowpack as sublimation. The researchers, which were comprised of a team from Utrecht University and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, were able to measure turbulent fluxes at Yala’s surface using the latter technique. Turbulent fluxes act on frozen water molecules the same way wind might affect leaves scattered on a surface; some are lifted and become airborne, while others remain grounded, depending on the wind strength, direction, and location. Through extensive and careful post-processing of the water vapor, air temperature, and vertical wind, the research team was able to accurately estimate sublimation.

The eddy covariance system measures sublimation (Source: Walter Immerzeel).

Out of the myriad components affecting sublimation, the team condensed Yala’s sublimation rate into two primary determinants, wind speed and humidity, which vary depending on the time of year and day. Daily sublimation rates were separated into humid days and non-humid days. Less sublimation occurs on humid days, due to colder surface temperatures and a weaker vapor pressure gradient. When humidity is low, winds increase, resulting in a well-mixed atmospheric layer above the surface and a vapor pressure gradient ideal for sublimation. Sublimation varies greatly from location to location on the glacier.

The project required two trips: one to install equipment and a second to retrieve the data. Emmy Stigter, a doctoral student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and principal author of the study, led the research team. “The fieldwork involves quite some hiking and a lot of logistical challenges,” she told GlacierHub. Yala is a four-day hike from the start of the Langtang Valley, which is a day’s drive from Kathmandu. The instruments required so much energy to power that the team had to lug a car battery up the glacier to ensure it would have sufficient energy to run during the research. Though the equipment was in place all winter, a data card was corrupted, limiting some of the team’s observations to just over a month in autumn.

Base camp for the Yala Glacier team, October 2016 (Source: Walter Immerzeel).

 

During the 32-day study period, which occurred from October to November 2016, Yala lost 32 millimeters of water equivalent. This represents a significant share of the glacier’s net loss during the period (70mm). Yala’s one millimeter per day rate of sublimation is a pace higher than the Swiss Alps, Colorado Rocky Mountains, and Spain’s Sierra Madre. Due to the low atmospheric pressure, sublimation is most prolific at high altitudes, like that of the Himalaya. Only Kilimanjaro and the Andean peaks exhibit comparable rates of sublimation, according to the authors.

Sublimation on Nevado Salcantay in the Peruvian Andes (Source: Peter Deneen)

The researchers found that sublimation rates are highest in November and December and peak around one o’clock in the afternoon. Sublimation rates also differed depending on wind at the locations on the 1.5-square kilometer glacier; the faster the wind, the faster the rate of sublimation. Stigter’s team observed that rates were 1.7 times higher on ridges and .8 times lower at the bottom of the glacier.

Blowing snow, which was not accounted for in this study, may be a consequential factor leading to underestimation of mass loss to sublimation. Suspended particles sublimate on an order several times greater than the surface sublimation, as there is more ventilation and supply of dry air. One study showed that up to 30 percent of annual snowfall was removed in the Canadian prairie and Alaska due to blowing snow sublimation, while Antarctica lost up to 85 percent of its precipitation. Stigter is currently involved in a new study quantifying sublimation during wind-induced snow transport events.

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Roundup: Citizens Tracking Glaciers, Seismic Noise, and Holocene Glaciers

Park Enlists Citizens to Track Changes in Teton Glaciers

From U.S. News: “The project aligns with one of Grand Teton’s fundamental duties, keeping tabs on its natural resources. Estimates vary, but with global temperatures increasing some studies suggest many glaciers could disappear within the next few decades.”

Read more about Citizens Tracking Glaciers here.

Grand Tetons (Source: Brian Perkes/Flickr).

 

Fracturing Glacier Revealed by Ambient Seismic Noise

From AGU 100: “Here we installed a seismic network at a series of challenging high‐altitude sites on a glacier in Nepal. Our results show that the diurnal air temperature modulates the glacial seismic noise. The exposed surface of the glacier experiences thermal contraction when the glacier cools, whereas the areas that are insulated with thick debris do not suffer such thermal stress.”

Read more about glaciers and seismic noise here.

Annapurna, Nepal (Source: David Min/Flickr).

 

Holocene Mountain Glacier History in Greenland

From Science Direct: “Here, we use a multi-proxy approach that combines proglacial lake sediment analysis, cosmogenic nuclide surface-exposure dating (in situ10Be and 14C), and radiocarbon dating of recently ice-entombed moss to generate a centennial-scale record of Holocene GIC fluctuations in southwestern Greenland.”

Read more about holocene mountain glacier history here.

Qoroq Ice Fjord, Narsarsuaq (Source: Alison/Flickr).

 

 

Please follow, share and like us:
error

What the Yak Herders of Northern Bhutan Are Saying About Global Warming

A recent study in the high-altitude Kingdom of Bhutan indicates climate change may have its yak herding population on thin ice. Owing to its topography, the Himalaya provides for a variety of climatic conditions and human populations to study. This diversity makes indigenous peoples who inhabit those areas uniquely qualified to provide traditional knowledge, empirical evidence, and perspective.

This new study, published in Mountain Research and Development, seeks to evaluate vulnerabilities of the yak herding livelihood; no fancy instruments, no ice cores required, just people talking to people who have seen a place change over a long period of time.

New study shows how Yak herders from Bhutan perceive how climate change will impact their culture and livelihoods (Source: Deanne June Scanlan/Twitter).

One hundred village elders, averaging 60 years of age, were chosen as the survey subjects. The researchers from Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forests set out on foot in late summer 2017 to gauge the elders’ awareness of environmental changes as well as their perceptions of climate change signals, weather patterns, water and vegetation changes, and economic impacts. The elders offered keen, spatio-temporal perspectives for the researchers who aimed to measure perceptible changes in climate.

Study sites in major yak herding communities were selected in the districts of Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Wangdue. The elders were interviewed in a two-stage sample, and results of the questionnaire were averaged across the population. Survey questions were pretested and framed as closed-ended with three possible responses: “agree,” “disagree,” and “neither.” The conclusions drawn from the results provide a snapshot of a corner of the world at a tipping point.

The yak herding elders’ observed warming over the past 15 years concurs with climate-research data. Data, often measured from a distance and at brief moments in time, can lack salience when presented alone. But when compared next to the testimony of observant, indigenous people, like the yak herders, the data carries greater weight and texture.

The elders observed the increase in temperature, glacial retreat, and an ascension of the snow line. They noted that weather events like flash flooding have become increasingly unpredictable and severe. A majority of respondents said that the frequency of landslides has also increased, though they were divided on the increase of glacial lake outburst floods, a catastrophic consequence of receding glaciers.

Yak foraging the pristine Lhotse Moraine (Source: Flickr)

The herders have observed changes not only in the weather and the natural environment, but also in the health of the animals on which their livelihoods are centered. The yak themselves are sensitive to warm temperatures— illness and discomfort have increased as a result. The elders’ responses showed the researchers that the declining health of the yak and a shift in timing of the migration have made herding more difficult.

Ruijun Long, a yak expert and ecological and pastoral specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told GlacierHub that due to warming and glacial meltwater availability, the yak herders can remain on the summer pastures longer than before.

But a warmer, longer summer of grazing doesn’t necessarily translate to happier yaks.

With thick black hair, yaks are well adapted to the cold temperatures of the high Himalaya. Warmer temperatures cause physiological stress in yaks and general health decline. Their grazing spaces have also been encroached upon thanks to the upslope proliferation of warm-climate plants like the rhododendron. With less grass available, yak milk production has suffered. To make matters worse, predators like the snow leopard have been forced into bolder descents due to their melting habitat.

Transhumant migration has become difficult for yak with rising temperatures (Source: Ian Cochrane/Twitter).

Though yak herders are few in number, herding is the lifeblood for a majority of inhabitants in Bhutan’s high Himalaya. To provide additional income for the yak herders, in 2004 the government gave them explicit collection rights to harvest cordyceps, a valued element in traditional Chinese medicine.

According to Tashi Dorji, a senior ecosystems specialist and Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” the fungi are complicit in luring yak herders away from yak herding. Dorji told GlacierHub “With good market price, the income from this high value commodity has encouraged yak herders to invest in alternative livelihood in downstream-away from yak farming.” Though now the cordyceps themselves are in doubt due to the changing climate.

A cordyceps, or “caterpillar fungus,” emerges from a larva (Source: Jason Hollinger/Flickr).

Dorji cited another pressure forcing rapid transformation of yak herding in  Bhutan: education. While primary schools are common in yak herding villages, young farmers are forced to migrate downstream for higher education. Dorji told GlacierHub, “This already distances younger generation of herders from their landscape and their traditional farming knowledge. Coupled with inherent difficulties and lack of socio-economic development amenities in those landscapes, young herders are less attracted to yak farming.”

The researchers offered a reduction in herd size as a potential adaptation strategy for the yak herders. A smaller herd equates to reduced income, less security and more hardship. While harvesting prized cordyceps is offsetting losses in yak productivity in the interim, a long-term strategy will likely need to include alternate economic opportunities.

As temperatures advance, the hardships will grow. Hardly a country in the world has contributed less atmospheric emissions than Bhutan. And yet it is populations like the yak herders who suffer from climate change first, and most. External forcings like globalization increases might lure yak herders into exploring other ways of subsistence. As northern Bhutan becomes increasingly connected to the world and the yak herding livelihood continues to be threatened, their way of life will remain tenuous.

Please follow, share and like us:
error