Roundup: Disappearing Ice, Italian Hydropower, and Surface Energy

Unprecedented Ice Loss in Russia

From “In the last few years, the Vavilov Ice Cap in the Russian High Arctic has dramatically accelerated, sliding as much as 82 feet a day in 2015, according to a new multi-national, multi-institute study led by CIRES fellow Mike Willis, an assistant professor of Geology at CU Boulder.”

Read more about ice loss in Russia here.

Depiction of ice loss in Russia (Source: Whyjay Zheng/NASA/USGS).


Glacier Retreat Drives Reduction in Italian Hydropower

From Applied Energy: “We assess the impacts of nine climate-change scenarios on the hydrological regime and on hydropower production of forty-two glacierized basins across the Italian Alps, assumed exemplary of similar systems in other glacierized contexts.”

Read more about hydropower in the Italian Alps here.


Debris-Covered Glaciers in Nepal

From Frontiers in Earth Science: “We present measurements collected between 26 September and 12 October 2016 from an eddy correlation system installed on the debris-covered Lirung Glacier in Nepal during the transition between monsoon and post-monsoon. Our observations suggest that surface energy losses through turbulent fluxes reduce the positive net radiative fluxes during daylight hours between 10 and 100%, and even lead to a net negative surface energy balance after noon.”

Read more about debris covered glaciers here.

Debris below lake on Langmale Glacier (Source: Alton Byers).


Roundup: Scientific Tensions, Italian Hydropower, and Threatened Biodiversity

Scientific Tensions Among Early Glacier Researchers

From Isis: “Historians of science have long recognized the field as a socially heterogeneous space wherein different groups jostle for access and to assert the priority of their activities… The essay analyzes a dispute between a mountaineer and a scientist-mountaineer that took place at this time, in which the scientist turned to mountaineering ethics to confront accusations of pseudoscience.”

Learn more about the dispute here.

Juneau Icefield Research Project crew, 1949 (Source: American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Libraries).


Hydropower and Glacier Shrinkage in the Italian Alps

From Applied Energy: “We assess the impacts of nine climate-change scenarios on the hydrological regime and on hydropower production of forty-two glacierized basins across the Italian Alps, assumed exemplary of similar systems in other glacierized contexts.”

Read more about hydropower in the Italian Alps here.

Map of the basins considered in this work. Two of the six basins used for the validation of hydrological model do not have hydropower plants and were therefore not included in the main sample of forty-two basins (Source: Applied Energy).


Declining Glacier Cover Threatens Biodiversity

From Global Change Biology: “Climate change poses a considerable threat to the biodiversity of high altitude ecosystems worldwide, including cold‐water river systems that are responding rapidly to a shrinking cryosphere… Using new datasets from the European Alps, we show significant responses to declining glacier cover for diatoms, which play a critical functional role as freshwater primary producers.”

Learn more here.

Relationship between catchment glacier cover and both within
-site β-diversity, (a) – (c), and between-site β-diversity, (d) – (f) (Source: Global Change Biology).

Photo Friday: Glacier Drone Photography

The opening ceremony at 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic featured the use of a record-breaking 1,218 drones. In the last few years alone, drone technology has greatly improved, becoming smaller, faster and more precise. Particularly for the science community, these portable unmanned aerial vehicles have made it possible to obtain information from remote and inaccessible areas of interest. For example, glaciologists and others have been using drones for aerial photography of otherwise dangerous glaciers.

Andrew Studer, a professional outdoor photographer based in Portland, Oregon, is one individual using drones to capture aerial images of glaciers from Iceland to the Italian Alps. The condition and extent of the images show that drones are capable of capturing a unique, aerial viewpoint without the risk of danger, death, or the added expense of manned vehicles (for example, helicopters). In this Photo Friday, take a look at aerial images of Icelandic Glaciers and the Italian Alps, photographed with drones.

For more information, visit

Iceland Glacier Aerial
Crevasses on the Icelandic Glacier (Source: Studer).


Sunset Over a Glacier in Iceland Aerial
Aerial image of a sunset over Icelandic Glacier (Source: Studer).


Drone image of the Italian Alps (Source: Studer).


Italian Alps Drone Image
Drone image of the Italian Alps (Source: Studer).

Roundup: Ultra Denials, Temperatures, and Marathons

Trump on Climate: Deny, Deny, Deny

From HuffPost: “Perry went on to defend his and others’ denial of near-universally accepted climate science, suggesting that those who question the scientific community’s findings are more intelligent. Also in June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park started melting ‘right after the end of the Ice Age’ and that it has ‘been a consistent melt.’ He also dismissed the notion that government scientists can predict with certainty how much warming will occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.”

Read more about the Trump cabinet and its tenuous relationship to evidence here.

An artistic rendering of the world if climate change is ignored. (Source: Kevin Gill/Creative Commons).

Ski No More

From Reuters: “High temperatures that have hit Italy over the past weeks have taken their toll on the country’s glaciers, with a summer ski resort at the Stelvio Pass having to make the historic decision to suspend its activities due to worsening conditions at the Alpine glacier. Swathes of southern and eastern Europe have sweltered in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) this week in a heat wave nicknamed ‘Lucifer’ that has fanned forest fires, triggered weather warning alerts and damaged crops.”

Watch the short video here.

The Stelvio Pass, photographed in August 2015. (Source: Matteo Gugiatti/Creative Commons).

A Mountain of an Ultra Marathon

From the Bellingham Herald: “12 runners set out from Bellingham Bay for the top of snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance. To get there and back — a round trip of 108 miles during a hot, sunny weekend — they ran, hiked and climbed to the 10,781-foot summit of Mount Baker over two nights and two days. Eleven of them completed the arduous journey, a trek known as the Mount Baker Ultra Run.”

Read more about this impressive feat here.

The few, the proud, the extreme. (Source: Mount Baker Ultra Marathon).

Enduring Benefits of Endurance Races

A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).
A map of the trail, which spans a section of the alps in both Italy and Switzerland (Source: Trace de Trail).

Sporting events, both major and minor, can have significant impacts on host communities. A recent study published by Stefano Duglio and Riccardo Beltramo in the journal Sustainability examines the social and economic impacts of CollonTrek, a mountain endurance race in the Italian and Swiss Alps. The results reveal that this minor event generates significant economic benefits for the host communities and the wider area, while indirect benefits include the extension of the summer tourist season.

CollonTrek is held bi-annually on the first weekend of September. The last race occurred in 2015, and the next will be held on September 8-9th of this year. Participants compete in pairs (they register in pairs and both participants have to cross the finish line), traversing 22 km on foot between Valpelline in Italy, and the Val D’Herens in Switzerland. The trail follows a centuries-old path through the Pennine Alps used by smugglers, ending in the municipality of Arolla in Switzerland.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains, from mountain paths, hiking paths, roads, and the Arolla Glacier. The path across the glacier accounts for about one-sixth of the race, making the CollonTrek more challenging. Participants require special equipment such as crampons— metal plates with spikes fixed to a boot for walking on ice— to cross the glacier.

Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW / Creative Commons).
Participants in the CollonTrek have to cross the Arolla Glacier using crampons (Source: MattW/Creative Commons).

Events like CollonTrek are considered minor events, as they generate relatively little media interest, limited economic activity (compared to major events like the Olympics or tennis grand slam tournaments), and do not attract large crowds of spectators. Spectators do not pay to watch the race, but economic benefits accrue to host communities due to expenditure on accommodation, food and fuel.

The researchers used a combination of official data from the CollonTrek organization and a survey of 180 athletes who took part in the 2015 race to evaluate the economic and social impacts of the race. The data revealed that €11,000 (about $11,637) of public funds invested by the host municipalities generated revenue of about €200,000 (about $214,000). Around a third of this amount accrued directly to host communities.

Indirect economic benefits arise because of increased visibility of the host regions. For example, foreign participants who made up more than two-thirds of the participants surveyed expressed a desire to return to the area for tourism in the future. This event also extends the summer tourist season into September, generating more tourist revenue.

The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).
The trail crosses a variety of terrains in the Pennine Alps (Source: Pierre Thomas/Creative Commons).

In conversation with GlacierHub, Duglio explained that this increase in tourism activity also helps to sustain the livelihoods of these communities, reducing depopulation of the mountain regions and helping to maintain their way of life. The race also had the effect of improving community pride, as reported by local athletes who constituted nearly a third of participants surveyed.

Climate change could affect certain segments of the race, particularly as Arolla Glacier has been retreating over the past century. “Climate change will not have much influence on the [rest of the] race, even if the passage on the glacier gives a very particular attraction to this race,” said Christian, a member of the organizing committee. “This race segment will simply be reduced if the glacier shrinks.”

Duglio also stated, “The most important aspect [of climate change] that the organizing committee will have to take into account for the future is related to the participants’ safety both in terms of mountain paths and weather conditions. We do not think, however, that climate change will bring these kind of races to a stop, at least not in the coming years.”

The research, though limited to a specific event, suggests that minor sporting events represent a form of economically and socially sustainable sports tourism activity.

Registration for the race opened last Saturday, and as Christian informed GlacierHub, “The best way to understand the race is to participate. It is an extraordinary adventure.” Check out CollonTrek’s Facebook page for more information.

New Research Offers Fresh Insight into the Iceman’s Death

Ötzi, also known as the Iceman, is showing new signs of life in his gut. Gabriele Andrea Lugli and other researchers from the University of Parma recently published findings on the Iceman in Microbiome Journal. Their research analyzes samples taken from Ötzi’s gut in order to reconstruct and characterize ancient bacteria to provide clues on how bacteria may have affected humans. While some evidence suggests that the Iceman was murdered or died from the lingering effects of an attack, researchers have now uncovered a new possible cause of death: inflammatory bowel disease.

Ötzi was originally found in a receding glacier by two tourists in the Italian Alps in 1991. First thought to be someone from more recent times, research has shown that he lived about 5,300 years ago. Since then, he has become the best known frozen mummy in the world, because his remains are remarkably intact and offer a clear view of the distant past. Though Ötzi’s skin looks like brown caramel and his bones can be seen through his skin, he is very well preserved. Last year, PBS released a documentary titled “Iceman Reborn about artist Gary Staab, who made a replica of the Iceman using 3D printing. One researcher in the film remarked, “He may well be the most studied human being in history.”

Another researcher, referring to new discoveries about Ötzi’s genetic code, noted, “We are rewriting the history of humankind.” It was recently discovered that the Iceman has 61 tattoos, up from a previously smaller number. Ötzi’s tattoos are in locations where there is joint and spinal degradation, indicating the tattoos may have been treatment of some kind. In addition, he was found with a gash on his left hand and an arrow wound in his back, suggesting that he was murdered. He was also found with a copper axe, showing researchers that metalworking was earlier than previously thought.

While climate conditions can alter bacterial communities, low temperatures such as permafrost are optimal for long-term DNA preservation. Using a technique called next generation sequencing, the researchers investigated the human gut microbiota in the soft tissue of the human mummy. The samples yielded an enormous amount of data– about 71 gigabases from 12 biopsy samples.

The Ötztal Alps, where Ötzi was found (source: Creative Commons).

Ancient bacteria, such as the ones found in Ötzi’s gut, can provide clues on the history of diseases, the evolution of bacteria and bacterial infections in humans, allowing scientists to reconstruct pathogens like the plague (Yersinia pestis), leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae) and stomach infections (Helicobacter pylori).

The researchers found that the upper part of the large intestines had ample Pseudomonas species. These bacteria are typically found in the soil. The presence of P. fluorescens in Ötzi’s intestines suggests that his immune system may have been compromised and that he may have been ill with inflammatory bowel disease at the time of his death.

Other findings included the fact that even though modern P. veronii have been isolated from water springs, the ancient strain seems to have the ability to colonize the human gut. The bacteria also shares genetic material with Pseudomonas strains in isolated parts of Antarctica, a fact which supports its ancient origin. Evidence suggests that the evolution of the bacteria was helped by the development of its virulence.

Tattoos found on the Iceman (source: Creative Commons).

The biopsy also revealed the ancient genome of C. perfringens in the Iceman’s gut. It shares the same genetic branch as another species, well-known as a cause of food poisoning. This finding suggests that C. perfringens was a cause of food poisoning in humans during Ötzi’s time. The researchers believe they may have also found a species of Clostridium incapable of metabolizing sucrose.

The scientists analyzed the samples at the Ancient DNA Laboratory of the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy. Scientists had to follow stringent guidelines in order to work with the samples, including wearing protective clothing, exposing the equipment to UV-light, sterilizing surfaces with bleach, and using filtered pipette tips. These procedures protected Ötzi against contamination and the researchers against infection.

Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).
Flyer from the Otzi-Museum (source: Creative Commons).

There is still a great deal of research that can be done on the biopsied samples in order to provide more clues on the cause of the Iceman’s death. Future explorations may also reveal more information on the interactions of bacteria and humans thousands of years ago. More than two decades after its discovery, the 5,300 year old mummy continues to yield new discoveries.

Teaching Geology Through Climbing

A map of the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province in Italy (Source: Gigillo83/Creative Commons).

Learning by doing can be an effective educational tool. Irene Bollati et al. discovered this to be true while researching climbing as a way to educate students about earth science in the glacier-rich Italian Alps. Their findings were featured in a recent article in the Journal of the Virtual Explorer, in which they describe how climbing teaches young people about processes like weathering and glacial retreat.

For their research, Bollati et al. looked specifically at the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola Province in the western Italian Alps, where there is a long tradition of mountaineering. As the most northern province in Italy’s Piedmont region, the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola is located in a subduction zone in which the Eurasian and African plates collide. Mountain chains like the Alps are an ideal location for education, because they contain geosites, places where many geological and geomorphological processes are exposed in a relatively small area. By finding these locations on which to climb, younger generations can be inspired to learn and become more invested in the preservation of the site’s features.

Finding geosites typically has one of two goals, according to Bollati et al. The first is geosite conservation when the site is rare and at risk of degradation. The second is earth science dissemination in cases where the site is valuable for educational purposes. In the latter, it is important that the site’s usage for educational purposes not put its scientific integrity at risk. In their study, Bollati et al. focused on methodology to find the most valuable geosites which meet both goals.

Specifically, the researchers focused on a pilot educational project, in which they assessed 100 13 and 14-year-old students from four schools about 80 km from the study region. The project sought to identify the most suitable climbing locations and best mountain cliffs on which students could learn about earth science and geoheritage. According to Bollati et al., geoheritage includes earth features and processes that should be sustained, conserved or managed for their natural heritage value. To determine these regions, Bollati et al. relied on eight major criteria including accessibility, rock cliff quality, and the presence of evident and active hazards. In total, they analyzed 59 crags using the eight major criteria, further dividing those crags into sub-locations.

The subduction zones in Europe (Source: Woudloper/Creative Commons).

In total, the study pinpointed 14 sub-locations or “geodiversity” sites in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province best suited for hiking and climbing. Subduction-collision zones like the Alps are excellent examples of geodiversity sites due to the many different types of rocks found within narrow areas. “Geodiversity,” a term first introduced in 1993, can be understood as the equivalent of biodiversity for geology, according to a paper by Murray Gray. It includes all geological, geomorphological, and soil features. It also encompasses their properties, relationships, and systems, according to Bollati et al.

The researchers defined three categories of geodiversity: extrinsic geodiversity (geodiversity of a region in comparison with other regions), regional intrinsic geodiversity (within a region), and geodiversity of a single site. The best examples of these processes and resulting features are called “geodiversity sites.” The most valuable of these for geoconservation are referred to as “geosites” and form the “geoheritage” of a region.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 11.06.56 PM
A view of the Italian Alps (Source: A. Duarte/Flickr).

In the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province, students can observe several important signs of glaciation. For example, rock slopes along the Ossola Valley and in the tributary valleys demonstrate glacial modeling. In addition, the researchers used rock samples and virtual methods to introduce the students to the three major rock families, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, as well as the geomorphology of the cliffs.  

Bollati et al. also used videos of climbers along three selected routes to help students learn where climbers were finding foot- and hand-holds. The hope was that students would become curious and ask questions about how the rocks formed. However, the authors found that the videos served better as support than as a substitute for the hands-on learning about earth science that climbing provides. By physically climbing the peaks, students learn first-hand how different climates and rock types impact the Earth.

In their study, Bollati et al. confirmed that students can more effectively learn by doing, understanding earth science better by identifying the more suitable locations on which to climb. Their findings encourage future generations interested in geology and conservation to find inspiration while climbing mountains.


Roundup: Siberia, Serpentine and Seasonal Cycling

Roundup: Siberian Glaciers, Vegetation Succession and Sea Ice


Glaciers in Siberia During the Last Glacial Maximum

From Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology: “It is generally assumed that during the global Last Glacial Maximum (gLGM, 18–24 ka BP) dry climatic conditions in NE Russia inhibited the growth of large ice caps and restricted glaciers to mountain ranges. However, recent evidence has been found to suggest that glacial summers in NE Russia were as warm as at present while glaciers were more extensive than today… We hypothesize that precipitation must have been relatively high in order to compensate for the high summer temperatures… Using a degree-day-modelling (DDM) approach, [we] find that precipitation during the gLGM was likely comparable to, or even exceeded, the modern average… Results imply that summer temperature, rather than aridity, limited glacier extent in the southern Pacific Sector of NE Russia during the gLGM.”

Read more about the study here.


Siberia experiences very cold temperatures but has relatively few glaciers (Source: Creative Commons)
Siberia experiences very cold temperatures but has relatively few glaciers (Source: Creative Commons).


Plant Communities in the Italian Alps

From Plant and Soil: “Initial stages of pedogenesis (soil formation) are particularly slow on serpentinite… Thus, a particularly slow plant primary succession should be observed on serpentinitic proglacial (in front of glaciers) areas..Ssoil-vegetation relationships in such environments should give important information on the development of the “serpentine syndrome” .Pure serpentinite supported strikingly different plant communities in comparison with the sites where the serpentinitic till was enriched by small quantities of sialic (rich in silica and aluminum) rocks. While on the former materials almost no change in plant species composition was observed in 190 years, four different species associations were developed with time on the other. Plant cover and biodiversity were much lower on pure serpentinite as well.”

Read more about “serpentine syndrome” here.


Plant communities in the Italian Alps can differ depending on the underlying bed rock (Source: Creative Commons)
Plant communities in the Italian Alps can differ depending on the underlying bed rock (Source: Creative Commons).


Carbon Cycling and Sea Ice in Ryder Bay

From Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography: “The carbon cycle in seasonally sea-ice covered waters remains poorly understood due to both a lack of observational data and the complexity of the system… We observe a strong, asymmetric seasonal cycle in the carbonate system, driven by physical processes and primary production. In summer, melting glacial ice and sea ice and a reduction in mixing with deeper water reduce the concentration of dissolved organic carbon (DIC) in surface waters… In winter, mixing with deeper, carbon-rich water and net heterotrophy increase surface DIC concentrations… The variability observed in this study demonstrates that changes in mixing and sea-ice cover significantly affect carbon cycling in this dynamic environment.”

Read more about carbon cycling in West Antarctica here.


Seasonal sea ice melting influences the cycling of carbon in West Antarctica (Source: Jason Auch / Creative Commons).
Seasonal sea ice melting influences the cycling of carbon in West Antarctica (Source: Jason Auch/Creative Commons).

Roundup: Porcupine Glacier, Patterned Ground and Ciliates

Roundup: Glacier Calving, Ciliates and the Alps


A calving event in Porcupine Glacier shows rapid retreat

From the American Geophysical Union: “Porcupine Glacier is a 20 km long outlet glacier of an icefield in the Hoodoo Mountains of Northern British Columbia that terminates in an expanding proglacial lake. During 2016 the glacier had a 1.2 square kilometer iceberg break off, leading to a retreat of 1.7 km in one year. This is an unusually large iceberg to calve off in a proglacial lake, the largest ever seen in British Columbia or Alaska… The retreat of this glacier is similar to a number of other glaciers in the area: Great Glacier, Chickamin Glacier, South Sawyer Glacier and Bromley Glacier. The retreat is driven by an increase in snowline/equilibrium line elevations which in 2016 is at 1700 m, similar to that on South Sawyer Glacier in 2016.”

Learn more about the retreat of Porcupine glacier, and view satellite images here.

A glacier in Kenai National Park, where Porcupine glacier is located
A glacier in Kenai National Park, where Porcupine glacier is located (Source: Dubhe/Wikimedia Commons)


Patterned ground exposed by glacier retreat in the Alps

From the Biology and Fertility of Soils: “Patterned ground (PG) is one of the most evident expressions of cryogenic processes affecting periglacial soils, where macroscopic, repeated variations in soil morphology seem to be associated with small-scale edaphic [impacted by soil] and vegetation gradients, potentially influencing also microbial communities. While for high-latitude environments only few studies on PG microbiology are available, the alpine context, where PG features are rarer, is almost unexplored under this point of view… These first results support the hypothesis that microbial ecology in alpine, periglacial ecosystems is driven by a complex series of environmental factors, such as lithology [study of the general physical characteristics of rocks], altitude, and cryogenic activity, acting simultaneously on community shaping both in terms of diversity and abundance.”

Learn more about glacier retreat in the Italian Alps here.

Glaciers in the Italian Alps
Glaciers in the Italian Alps (Source: Glac01 /Wikimedia Commons)


Microorganisms found in glacial meltwater streams

From Polar Biology: “Microbial communities living in microbial mats are known to constitute early indicators of ecosystem disturbance, but little is known about their response to environmental factors in the Antarctic. This paper presents the first major study on ciliates [single-celled animals bearing cilia] from microbial mats in streams on King George Island (Antarctica)… Samples of microbial mats for ciliate analysis were collected from three streams fed by Ecology Glacier. The species richness, abundance, and biomass of ciliates differed significantly between the stations studied, with the lowest numbers in the middle course of the stream and the highest numbers in the microhabitats closest to the glacier and at the site where the stream empties into the pond. Variables that significantly explained the variance in ciliate communities in the transects investigated were total organic carbon, total nitrogen, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity.”

Learn more about the ciliates here.

One of the glaciers on King George Island
One of the glaciers on King George Island (Source: Acaro/Wikimedia Commons).