In a bid to preserve ice cores and valuable climate information from some of the world’s most endangered glaciers, scientists are creating a global ice archive sanctuary in Antarctica. The Ice Memory project is being led by the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation.
From Mont Blanc Massif’s Col du Dôme glacier to the Illimani glacier in Bolivia, over 400 ice cores have been retrieved to be preserved in the ice bunker.
To learn more about Ice Memory, see the video below from the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation:
High in the Bolivian Andes, the pace of glacial retreat is accelerating, which may significantly decrease the amount of glacial meltwater available to streams and aquifers critical to farming communities in the region’s river basins. In addition to the long-term threat posed by glacial retreat, these communities are alsothreatened by economic uncertainty and climatic variability. As a response to livelihood insecurity, many Bolivian farmers choose to migrate, temporarily or permanently, to nearby urban centers. But how exactly are migration decisions understood within these migrant households?
In a recent chapter in Global Migration Issues, Regine Brandt and her team interview farmers in two Andean valleys to understand the factors contributing to migration decisions. The research demonstrates that migration has increased in importance as a livelihood strategy and that rural Bolivians consider environmental factors, social ties and economic needs together when making these decisions.
To obtain these findings, the team conducted research in the municipality of Palca, a high-altitude rural area where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They asked members of migrant farming households in two separate glacier-fed river basins to describe any factors that had influenced temporary or permanent migration decisions. In analyzing their data, the researchers looked to the frequency with which each causal factor was mentioned in each interview. If, for example, climate change was mentioned several times as a factor for a household, but social conflict was only mentioned once, climate change was understood to be of greater importance to that household in making their decision.
According to Raoul Kaenzig, one of the article’s co-authors, the impact of glacial retreat on farmers in the Andean highlands is still poorly documented. In the 1980s, Bolivia underwent a severe droughtand has since experienced a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events, as well as a shift in rainfall patterns. In response, some peasants changed their agricultural practices, while others began sending individual family members to urban areas. Internal migrants rarely travel beyond their home region and maintain connections to their rural origins, often spending only part of the year in nearby cities, according to the study. In Bolivia, migration is seen as a means of contributing to the greater household economy— an individual may migrate to find work but with the intention of helping to support the family back home.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Corinne Valdivia, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, explained how the threats posed to farmers in this and surrounding regions have increased in recent years. “The production risks have increased in the region of the North and Central Altiplano of Bolivia, as well as in Southern Peru, with longer periods without rainfall, and short and intense rains,” she said. “Pests and diseases have also increased. These threaten the livelihoods of families who are producing for their consumption and for the market. Migration is a strategy to address this, but in turn means that less labor is available to tackle the stresses posed by the changing climate.”
For 60 percent of the regional migrants interviewed in the study, better educational opportunities were the primary driver of their migration decision. Additionally, nearly every respondent pointed to an increasingly unpredictable climate as a factor in their migration. Individuals living near the Illimani glacier, which has become a symbol of climate change in Bolivia, were significantly more likely to emphasize climatic variability, glacier retreat and water problems as factors in their migration than those living near a less iconic symbol of glacial melting, Mururata. The authors attribute this difference to a combination of observable environmental change and discourse.
Unsurprisingly, off-farm work, which is more commonly available in urban areas, has become important in diversifying household income. Of migrants from Mururata, 94 percent were between the ages of 14 and 38, meaning that the onus of migration tends to fall on the most productive members of the household. However, young migrants do not typically return to rural areas. In an interview with GlacierHub, Kaenzig stressed that there are political rootsto this phenomenon. “Since the agrarian reform of 1953, household agricultural land is divided within the family. Therefore, each generation has less agricultural acreage, and eventually, only one family member typically maintains the farm while others migrate in search of alternative income sources,” he said.
Other factors affecting migration decisions include inadequate income, employment opportunities, and farming resources, such as access to water and land. Because the links between climate change and reduced productivity are not always clear to farmers, the authors conclude that environmental factors should not only be understood through statements the farmers make that directly bear on climate change, but also through the economic factors that are distinctly tied to climate change. In an interview with GlacierHub, Regine Brandt, one of the chapter’s co-authors, emphasized the importance of understanding how these stressors work together. “There are no simple explications for causes and effects, nor simple solutions for how to support the farmers to adapt to the effects of multiple stressors. I think that social, technical, political and other factors and their roles as stressors should not be ignored in the debates about climate change adaptation,” she said.
What does the future hold for these communities? Depending on temperature and precipitation scenarios, as well as high-altitude water conservation efforts, millions of people in the Bolivian highlands could be without a continuous source of freshwater in the coming decades, Kaenzig told GlacierHub. But so far, necessary steps are not being taken to prepare for these changes. “Despite wide recognition that rapid retreat of glaciers necessitates the construction and strengthening of existing water reservoirs and dams, few measures have been undertaken in Bolivia,” he said.
The authors conclude with a call to action: impoverished farming communities, both in the Central Andes and other mountainous regions around the world, are in urgent need of support to cope with current and looming climatic instability. According to Brandt, it is only by understanding linkages between migration factors that rural development programs can be adapted to meet the needs of these vulnerable farmers.
Glaciers contain valuable information about past environments on Earth within the layers of ice that accumulate over hundreds or thousands of years. However, alpine glaciers have lost 50 percent of their mass since 1850, and projections suggest that glaciers below 3500m will not exist by 2100. Concerns about the loss of this valuable resource motivated Jérôme Chappellaz, a senior scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and an international team of glaciologists, to create the world’s first archive of ice cores from different parts of the world.
Ice cores are cylindrical sections of ice sheets or glaciers collected by vertical drilling. Chemical components within different layers of ice in glaciers, such as gases, heavy metals, chemical isotopes (forms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) and acids, allow scientists to study past atmospheric composition and to draw inferences on environmental variables such as temperature changes and sea levels. Cores will be extracted between now and 2020, after which they will be transported for storage to Concordia Station in Antarctica, a joint French-Italian base located on the Antarctic Plateau. Antarctica serves as a natural freezer, allowing the cores to be stored 10 meters below the surface at temperatures of -54°C. International management of the archive, which will be large enough to contain cores from up to 20 glaciers, will be facilitated by the lack of territorial disputes in Antarctica.
The first cores that will go into the archive were collected in summer 2016 between August 16th and 27th. Over this time period, two teams of French, Italian and Russian researchers successfully collected three ice cores, each 130 meters long and 92 millimeters in diameter, from France’s Col du Dôme glacier (4300m above sea level) on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Drilling was carried out within drilling tents at nighttime because daytime temperatures were too high. The cores were then cut into one meter sections for storage and transportation purposes.
“The cores are currently stored in our commercial freezers at Grenoble, France, waiting for the long term storage cave at Concordia Station in Antarctica to be built,” Chappellaz told GlacierHub. “One of the three cores will be used during the coming two years to produce reference records of all tracers (chemical components of ice that reveal information about the natural environment) that can be measured with today’s technologies.”
The next drilling for the archive will take place in May 2017 at Illimani glacier in the Bolivian Andes (6300m above sea level). As with the drilling at Col du Dôme glacier, the project will be overseen by Patrick Ginot, a research engineer at the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE) in Grenoble. The collection of ice cores has relied on intense international collaboration, and Ginot will be working with glaciologists from Bolivia to extract the cores.
Illimani is one of the few Latin American glaciers that contains information stretching back to the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago. Although ice cores collected from the Arctic and Antarctica, such as those from Dome C, provide information stretching back to that period, the value of the cores lies in the information they are able to provide about specific regions. For example, ice cores from France’s Col du Dôme glacier can provide information about European industrial emissions, while ice cores from Bolivia’s Illimani glacier could offer insight into the history of biomass burning in the Amazon basin.
Glaciers will be selected based on a number of criteria, with priority given to glaciers that contain large amounts of information about the regions from which they are collected, that are in significant danger of melting, and for which relevant expertise is available. Col du Dôme glacier was chosen by Chappellaz and his team as the first site because it met this criteria, while the proximity of the site to the CNRS laboratory allowed the starting budget to cover the logistics of the project.
Gaining funding has been one of the main obstacles to the creation of the archive, according to Chappellaz. “As we are not the scientists who are going to perform new science on the heritage ice cores, the usual funding agencies for science are not really interested by the project. Therefore, we had to build it entirely around donations,” he explained. Nevertheless, the project is gaining ground, with future plans to extract ice cores from Colle Gnifetti glacier at the Italian-Swiss border, Mera glacier in Nepal, the Huascaran glacier in Peru, and Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. More information about current and future plans can be found here.
Scientists participating in these plans to extract cores from these regions hope to be able to preserve a valuable resource that will be the property of the international community. They are in discussions with UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme to coordinate the creation of a political and scientific governing body to manage the ice core archive.
Further uses for these ice cores will depend on the development of scientific ideas and technology, which may allow new aspects of data within the ice to be analyzed. However, as Chappellaz suggested, “What we can already indicate is that studies of the biological content in the ice, such as bacteria and viruses, will probably become an important area for ice core science in the future, with possible applications in medical research.” As such, efforts to preserve rapidly disappearing resources not only enhance our understanding of Earth, but could also allow for new uses yet to be discovered.