This week’s Roundup covers discovery of what causes the reddish tint of “Blood Falls,” the Taylor Glacier’s terminus in Antarctica, a bill passed by the US Senate that could protect glaciers in North Cascades National Park, and ICIMOD’s newly published Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.
Scientists Determine the Geochemistry of Antarctica’s Blood Falls
From Journal of Geophysical Research: Geosciences: “Blood Falls is a hypersaline, iron‐rich discharge at the terminus of the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica…Our results provide strong evidence that the original source of solutes in the brine was ancient seawater, which has been modified with the addition of chemical weathering products.”
Good News for Glaciers in North Cascades National Park
From the National Parks Traveler: “Strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate has reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protected Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks from mining on their doorsteps, designated some 1.3 million acres of wilderness, and called for a study into potential units of the National Park System, though the House of Representatives still needs to take up the measure.”
Assessing the Value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya
From ICIMOD: “This assessment report establishes the value of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) for the 240 million hill and mountain people across the eight countries sharing the region, for the 1.65 billion people in the river basins downstream, and ultimately for the world. Yet, the region and its people face a range of old and new challenges moving forward, with climate change, globalization, movement of people, conflict and environmental degradation. At the same time, we also see incredible potential to meet these challenges in a sustainable manner.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced February 7 a resolution laying out the broad brushstrokes of a so-called Green New Deal. The announcement comes after the November 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats gained a majority in the House of Representatives. The Green New Deal framework aims to address the polarizing issue of climate change in the United States.
The resolution proposes a multiplicity of initiatives, the most transformative of which is the decarbonization of the US energy system. It also aims to add jobs and boost the economy while addressing the social consequences that come with such a reformation.
While the idea of a Green New Deal has existed for a decade, Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on a massive public-sector effort to address climate change. The idea has gained traction among a wide array of Congressional Democrats and most leading Democratic presidential contenders.
“The Green New Deal Resolution’s purpose is to define the scope of a climate solution,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “We’ve defined the scope and where we want to go. Now let’s assess and collaborate on projects.”
The Green New Deal resolution references the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 special report on global warming of 1.5°C and calls for the cessation of US fossil fuel use by 2030.
The deteriorating state of the world’s glaciers has framed in many ways perceptions of climate change. An NPR news article on the Green New Deal led with a reference to the hollowing Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, whose collapse might raise sea levels by more than half a meter. Thwaites received recent attention in the news as it perches precariously on a sill in West Antarctica. Glacier retreat also featured prominently in the IPCC 1.5°C report, the US Fourth National Climate Assessment, and the recent Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment.
During the run-up to the 2016 Democratic primary, GlacierHub found that Sen. Bernie Sanders scored two percentage points higher, on average, in counties with glaciers than he did across the entire state of Wyoming.
Glaciers are part of the iconography of the American West and glacier-related tourism is central to the economies of glacier regions. In 2017, Glacier National Park in Montana drew over one million visitors in the month of July alone. The National Parks Service reported Alaska’s parks, which are largely glaciated, added $1.3 billion to that state’s economy in 2018.
Given the incentive to preserve the economic and ecological benefits of glaciers for US glacier regions, GlacierHub has surveyed support for the Green New Deal among glacier-state Senators and members of the House that represent glacier districts.
Of the twenty senators from the ten glaciated states in the US, only three have officially stated their support: Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and California’s Kamala Harris, a Democrat who also announced her candidacy for president.
In the House,18 members represent districts with glaciers—and just six have announced their support.
Rep. Joe Neguse (CO-02), whose district contains all 14 named glaciers in Colorado, co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. “There is no longer a debate about whether climate change is real, the only conversation left is how we reverse its course,” Neguse said in a press release. “We do not have time to wait. We are the generation that will heal our planet.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (CA-02), whose mostly rural district includes the glaciers and icefields of Trinity Alps Wilderness, also signed on.
In the Pacific Northwest, glaciers and political lines get complicated. The representative of the district that includes Seattle, Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), is in support of the Green New Deal. Seattle lies within view of Mount Rainier, a glacier peak in the Cascade Range, though the district itself is glacier-less. But in one of the more vexing nonconformities, the representative of the district containing the glacier peak itself, Democrat Kim Schrier (WA-08), has not announced support. Washington is the most-glaciated state in the continental US, and yet none of the representatives of glacier districts—of which three out of four are represented by Democrats—have endorsed the Green New Deal. Representatives from those three Democratic districts did not provide GlacierHub with comment.
While Washington state was the most confounding, perhaps no region exhibited political division more starkly than Oregon. District boundaries in Oregon run along the spine of the Cascade Range, effectively splitting glaciated peaks between districts. OR-3 and OR-4 lie on the west side of the mountains. Representatives for those districts have endorsed the Green New Deal. OR-1, in western Oregon, also supported but it was excluded from GlacierHub’s analysis since the district lacks any glaciers. But the representative for OR-02, which comprises the entirety of eastern Oregon, from its southern border to the north, has not. The district, which is rural and reliably Republican, has been represented by Greg Walden since 1998. On Walden’s website, he appears draped in an American flag, superimposed in front of Oregon’s glaciated Three Sisters peaks.
Walden is the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Asked about the lack of support for a Green New Deal, Walden’s communications director referred GlacierHub to his remarks at an event last week where Walden held a glass jar of ash as a prop and harped on the need for better forest management in order to combat climate change.
America’s glaciers are in a state of retreat. “It’s inevitable that we will lose them all over the next few decades,” Daniel Fagre, a US Geological Survey scientist, told the Guardian. “The Colorado glaciers started melting before Montana’s and while there are larger glaciers in the Pacific Northwest that will hold on longer, the number vanishing will steadily grow until none are left.”
For now, political division in the US is obstructing efforts to address climate change. Barbara Brower, a geography professor at Portland State University, commented on Oregon’s divided support: “What could begin to change hearts and minds is growing awareness downstream from glaciers—in those intermountain red states—that no glaciers means no glacier-mediated summer streamflow.”
Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region are projected to shrink by one-third by the end of the century even if average global temperature rise is held to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Age levels, according to the authors of a new comprehensive report, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.
Glacier melt of that magnitude has widespread implications. Nearly two billion people live within the 10 river basins that make up the HKH region, and food produced there is consumed by 3 billion people.
The report is likely the most comprehensive climate assessment of the area: It includes input from over 300 experts, researchers, and policymakers.
The HKH region, which spans 3.5 million square kilometers, across eight countries, contains two of the world’s highest peaks, Mount Everest and K2.
“This is a climate crisis you have not heard of,” Philippus Wester, a lead author of the report, toldThe New York Times. “Impacts on people in the region, already one of the world’s most fragile and hazard-prone mountain regions, will range from worsened air pollution to an increase in extreme weather events.”
Key Climate Findings
Factors such as climate change, globalization, human conflict, urbanization, and tourism are quickly altering the HKH region, the assessment authors say.
Warming in the HKH region is strongly attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The authors say that if average, global temperature rise is 1.5°C, the HKH region will see an additional 0.3°C temperature rise.
In other words: The region could warm as much as 1.8°C even under ambitious efforts to limit human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. And the northwestern Himalayas and Karakoram, an expansive mountain range of 207,000 square kilometers that extends from eastern Afghanistan to southern China, could experience at least a 2.2°C temperature rise.
This warming could lead to increased glacial melt, biodiversity loss, and decreased water availability, the authors say. The Tibetan Plateau, which lies south of the Himalayas, will likely face decreased snow cover as temperatures rise. Elevation-dependent warming is a major contributor to the geographic changes in this region.
Other future climate changes include increased frequency of extremely warm days and decreased frequency of extreme cold ones.
The State of the HKH Cryosphere
The Hindu Kush Himalaya cryosphere is comprised of glaciers, snow, ice caps, ice sheets, and permafrost. Future temperature changes will influence the timing and magnitude of meltwater runoff. The report’s authors find that snow-covered areas will decrease and snowline elevations will rise.
Loss of glacial volume in the region will increase runoff and the size of glacial lakes, resulting in a higher potential for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs, and other hazards. Thawing permafrost is also expected to continue, resulting in the weakening of mountain slopes and peaks.
Messages to Policymakers
“Climate change impacts in the mountains of the HKH are already substantive. Increased climate variability is already affecting water availability, ecosystem services, and agricultural production, and extreme weather is causing flash floods, landslides, and debris flow,”according to the assessment’s authors.
Without immediate mitigation and adaptation policies, they conclude that the region’s glaciers—and therefore Hindu Kush Himalaya residents—face extraordinary threats.