Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.
Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research
A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.
Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes
Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier.
“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”
Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here
Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a small mountain restaurant, opened in 1984 at a location high in the Italian Alps—now it might be in Switzerland. The restaurant has become the subject of a dispute between the two states due to a legal agreement which allows Italy’s northern border to move with the natural, morphological boundaries of glaciers’ frontiers, which largely follow the watersheds on either side of the ridges. The moving border has shifted over the last fifteen years since its creation as glaciers retreat and the restaurant may now be in Swiss territory. If decided to be in Switzerland, the restaurant would be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and potentially even customs; Swiss inspectors would need to approve every box of pasta and package of coffee brought up to the restaurant by cable car from Italy.
Borders can follow artificial paths, like those on maps forming perfectly straight lines, independent of the physical and cultural landscapes they may be mincing. Others are fixed by natural boundaries like the Niagara River separating the US and Canada.
However, not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
The moving border is an unprecedented legal concept. It was established through an agreement between Italy and Austria in 2006 and another between Italy and Switzerland in 2009. France did not sign such an agreement because of post World War II territorial gains on the Italian side of the watershed it did not want to risk losing.
The moving border’s flexibility is a highly unusual case in a world where many borders serve to mark defined lines of inclusion and exclusion. “Borders today move following the policies of exclusion from/inclusion in pursued by States. For instance, when it comes to migration, EU South external borders happen to be already in Africa, where migrants are prevented from embarking towards Europe,” international lawyer and Roma Tre University human rights professor Alice Riccardi told GlacierHub.
Since 2008, the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM), which has defined and maintained Italy’s state borders since 1865, has conducted high-altitude survey expeditions every two years to search for shifts in the border and subsequently to update official maps. The collaborative team that conducts the survey is composed of an equal number of experts from IGM and representatives from cartographic institutes of neighboring states.
The concept of the moving border captured the attention of Marco Ferrari, an architect, and Dr. Elisa Pasqual, a visual designer. In 2014, they launched a research project and interactive installation called Italian Limes focused on the moving border. The word limes comes from Latin and was used by the Romans to describe a nebulous, unfixed fringe zone on the edge of their territorial control. The Romans viewed limes as ebbing and flowing as the Roman army advanced and retreated similar to how today the border moves as the ice drifts.
The project, featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale, explores the limits of natural borders when they are tested by long-term ecological processes and reveals how climate change has begun to wear on Western ideas of territory and borders.
“The project makes the speed of climate change visible because we are used to thinking of borders, glaciers, and mountains as things that stay fixed,” Ferrari told GlacierHub. “Climate change changes our conception of territory in a way that is not just material, it’s not just a disruption of infrastructure, but also of the geographical imagery of the planet itself. So the very idea of the border is put into crisis by climate change in this sense, it almost contradicts the possibility of being able to trace a border.”
The Italian Limes projecttakes measurements at the 1.5-kilometer long Grafferner Glacier near Mount Similaun in the Ötztal Alps at the border of Italy and Austria. GPS measurement units were installed at the site to track changes to the glacier and watershed which broadcast their data to a machine, which prints a real-time representation of the moving border.
“By looking at the history of the border we came across this specific moment in time of the mobile border that was initially presented to us as an anecdote, as a funny curiosity, a weird glitch in the normal diplomatic management of the relationship between countries. Because of how it was presented to us, we almost didn’t focus on it, but on second thought we saw that this was the nexus that could allow us to talk about all the things we wanted to talk about; it could allow us to reveal the contradiction in this idea of a natural border–how even the mountains, even the watershed, even glaciers aren’t something that is forever, the fact that they are chosen to be borders is a clear political act and when these things move the contradiction gets exposed,” Ferrari explained to GlacierHub.
The project grew to the point that Ferrari and Pasqual teamed up with architect and editor Andrea Bagnato to create A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a 2019 book which builds on Italian Limes to map out the effects of climate change on geopolitical understandings of the border.
“I saw the project at the Venice Biennale 2014, it was a fantastic installation, and that’s when I proposed to Marco and Elisa to turn it into a book because I thought that after the work they had done physically going up on the glacier and producing these devices to visualize the movements of the glacier, there were a lot of issues to explore in more detail, historical and political issues. The book was a way to do that,” Bagnato told GlacierHub.
“The book provides a kind of historical perspective of the border and also of climate change,” Bagnato said. He continued, saying “Although we don’t address them directly in the book, I think it opens up to a lot of different geopolitical scenarios. Of course there are many situations in the world where borders pass on glaciers like in Chile/Argentina, India/Pakistan, and so on, where the geopolitics are far more heated than in Italy or Austria.”
Ultimately, the effects of climate change will introduce stresses that borders cannot keep under control. The new, quick changes to the moving border are only one such instance. The US state of Louisiana is rapidly losing ground to the waters on its coast. India and Bangladesh were involved in a dispute over who controlled an uninhabited sandbar that vanished beneath the rising seas. The province of Kashmir has long been a point of contention between Pakistan and India––if its glaciers melt and regional freshwater supply is put under great stress, conflict for control of the province could escalate significantly.
In an interview with Vice, Ferrari said “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established after World War II in an effort to create an “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.” Today, UNESCO plays many roles—maintaining peace and equity, encouraging sustainable development, advancing cooperation, sciences and communication, and preserving culture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, the Dolomites in Italy are now becoming a source of controversy.
The Dolomites is a mountain range spanning more than 140,000 hectares in Northern Italy. Comprised of 18 peaks, the Dolomites boast breathtaking scenery with sheer mountain cliffs, glaciers, and clear mountain lakes. The mountains are a sought-after tourist destination, particularly for thrill-seekers who can ski and mountain climb during winter, and paraglide and hang glide in the summer. Free climbing has also been a tradition in the Dolomites for over a decade.
The mountain range’s rich history is not only defined by its outdoor activities. Communities in the Dolomites speak three languages, German, Italian, and Ladin, an early Romance language. The mountain range also served as a front during World War I from 1915 to 1917, where Italian and Austrian forces clashed. Between battles and natural forces such as avalanches, landslides and frostbite, 150,000 soldiers died in the Alps during WW1. Today, retreating glaciers are beginning to expose buried relics of the Austrian stronghold.
The UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, was formed in 2010 by several Italian provinces and regions. The Foundation is responsible for coordinating the effective management of the mountain range and acts as an intermediary between local authorities and the Italian Ministry for the Environment. According to Jacopo Pasotti, an Italian Journalist who specializes in scientific and environmental reporting, climate change and land use changes currently pose significant threats to the Dolomites. Speaking to GlacierHub, Pasotti explained that the mountains are highly developed in many places, with heavy traffic during peak tourism. Fewer snow days and less snowfall would have affected tourism, if it were not for the government subsidies that have allowed ski resorts to increase artificial snow production. Pasotti stressed the importance of creating protected areas tourists can’t access to protect the natural landscape and wildlife. But he does not hold out hope for the region’s glaciers, “under all scenarios this very sensitive area is going to lose the majority of its glaciers in the next few decades.”
Mountain Wilderness is a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 in Biella, Italy by mountaineers to pursue the preservation of the country’s natural environment and culture of mountain regions. The group encourages sustainable tourism. It has recently taken issue with the management of the Dolomites and is particularly concerned over threats from tourism. Last month, the organization published an electronic letter on their website declaring it was removing itself from the Board of Supporters of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, stating its displeasure with the management of the Dolomites. Signed by Mountain Wilderness President Franco Tessadri, the letter states, “We were assured (in 2017, then postponed to 2018, then again to 2019) that UNESCO would make a further visit to check the management of the Dolomites heritage. This never happened.”
The Mountain Wilderness letter accuses the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation of focusing its attention on tourism marketing rather than sustainable management– a complaint no doubt exacerbated by increased tourism in recent years. The non-profit took particular offense at the Foundation’s failure to condemn the use of vehicles on mountain trails. Mountain Wilderness also criticized the Foundation for failing to effectively communicate with its supporters. They reference a joint letter sent by national and local environmental associations to the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation. According to Mountain Wilderness, this letter was ignored. In their letter withdrawing from the Foundation’s Board of supporters, Mountain Wilderness stated, “That silence was extremely offensive to all the signatory associations, not only to Mountain Wilderness Italy, as if the Foundation had freed itself of the burden of environmentalists with a shrug of its shoulders.”
When reached for comment, the UNESCO Dolomite’s Foundation stated, “we are pleased to inform you that the Board of Directors of the Foundation has acknowledged Mountain Wilderness Italia’s willingness to leave the Board of Supporters, despite the great attention paid in recent years to dialogue and confrontation. As you surely know, the situation in Italy for the coronavirus is still serious and the lockdown still in place. Once the situation will allow it, a confrontation at political level will be proposed to Mountain Wilderness Italia.”
Alessandra Giannini, a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society fondly remembers a family trip to the Dolomites in the mid-1970s. She and her family stayed in San Martino di Castrozza, where they hiked nearby trails and picked blueberries, which her sister ate straight from the bush. Giannini told GlacierHub she remembers finding the lighter colors of the mountains’ barren peaks particularly striking. Years later, she now knows the lighter colors on the barren peaks are due to their oceanic origin.
When asked about preservation efforts and management, Giannini stated that at the time when her family visited the Dolomites, there was “no such thing as any restrictions, except that it was forbidden to collect rare flowers.” Giannini described how her mother noted how much the Dolomites had changed since she visited in the 1950s. Her mother was surprised how different even the small town of San Martino de Castrozza was, as the “woods in the village had given way to construction.” Giannini also drew connections between concern over management of the Dolomites and the situation in Cinque Terre, a section of the Ligurian Riviera close to her family’s home. Cinque Terre is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site. She said in the last two decades Cinque Terre has become a popular tourist attraction in Italy. According to Giannini a “thin veneer of environmentalism” defined by the establishment of a national park or a UNESCO World Heritage site is to blame for tourists overrunning Italy’s natural resources. She said, “local government structures have given preference to the business of tourism over conservation efforts.”
Whether as the result of the actions of the UNESCO Dolomite Foundation, or that of the Italian government, concern over management and preservation of the Dolomites is mounting. Like many other glacierized regions, the Dolomites are under threat of climate change. Organizations like Mountain Wilderness do not want to see these threats exacerbated by land-use changes or the wear of tourist activities. However, the issue is not so black and white, as the local economy depends heavily on tourism. Recent attempts to restrict vehicle use in the Dolomites were met with opposition from hotel and restaurant owners in the Dolomites and criticism from local officials. Preservation of the Dolomites has become a balancing act– conserve the natural environment without damaging the local economy.
Italian officials released last month images showing about 250 cubic meters of ice that were poised to break off of Planpincieux Glacier, which lies on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps and the highest in Europe west of the Caucasus Mountains.
The glacier stretches 2.5 kilometers along Mont Blanc’s southern slope and covers an area a little over a square kilometer.
The images were released just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its most resent report that the world’s oceans and cryosphere are already being radically altered by a warming world.
Carolina Adler, the executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, is a lead author on the report.
“In this report we present key evidence on observed and projected trends in warming and how these trigger physical responses in the ocean and cryosphere,” Adler said. “These physical responses also lead to impacts on both people and ecosystems that are evident today, and are projected to increase into the future. However, despite these significant observed and projected changes, there is still an opportunity to reduce the risk of large impacts and ensure adaptation is more effective through emissions reduction. In essence, we highlight the benefits of ambitious and effective adaptation.”
Experts have warned that a massive glacier on the Italian side of Mont Blanc is melting at an accelerated rate and is close to collapse. pic.twitter.com/4J4mxSgyw9
Further illustrating the decline of ice mass on Mont Blanc, the University of Dundee released last week a comparison of aerial images of the peak taken a century apart. Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer flew over the same landscape in a biplane in 1919.
University of Dundee’s Kieran Baxter described flying over Mont Blanc to capture the comparison photo.
“The scale of the ice loss was immediately evident as we reached altitude, but it was only by comparing the images side-by-side that the last 100 years of change were made visible,” he said. “It was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.”
A case study of the impact of climate change on alpine hydropower
From the journal Water: “Greenhouse gas reduction policies will have to rely as much as possible upon renewable, clean energy sources. Hydropower is a very good candidate, since it is the only renewable energy source whose production can be adapted to demand, and still has a large exploitation margin, especially in developing countries. However, in Europe the contribution of hydropower from the cold water in the mountain areas is at stake under rapid cryospheric down wasting under global warming. Italian Alps are no exception, with a large share of hydropower depending upon cryospheric water. We study here climate change impact on the iconic Sabbione (Hosandorn) glacier, in the Piemonte region of Italy, and the homonymous reservoir, which collects water from ice melt.”
Water availability in Pakistan under Paris Agreement targets
From the journal Advances in Water Resources: “Highly seasonal water supplies from the Himalayan watersheds of Jhelum, Kabul and upper Indus basin (UIB) are critical for managing the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system of the Indus basin and its dependent agrarian economy of Pakistan. Here, we assess changes in the contrasting hydrological regimes of these Himalayan watersheds, and subsequent water availability under the Paris Agreement 2015 targets that aim of limiting the mean global warming to 1.5 °C (Plus1.5), and further, well below 2.0 °C (Plus2.0) relative to pre-industrial level.”
Measuring ambient black carbon near India’s Gangotri Glacier
From the journal Atmospheric Environment: “The warming effect of equivalent Black Carbon (EBC) aerosols due to their light absorbing nature is a serious environmental concern, particularly, in the eco-sensitive and glaciated Himalayan region. Moreover, baseline data on BC is rarely available from most of the glaciated Himalayan region. For the first time, measurements on ambient EBC mass concentration were made at a high altitude site Chirbasa (3600 m, amsl), near Gangotri Glacier in the Indian Himalaya, during the year 2016. The change in the EBC concentration over the year was recorded from 0.01 μg m−3 to 4.62 μg m−3 with a diurnal variability of 0.10 μg m−3 to 1.8 μg m−3. The monthly mean concentration of EBC was found to be minimum (0.089 ± 0.052 μg m−3) in August and maximum (0.840 ± 0.743 μg m−3) in the month of May. The observed seasonal mean concentrations of EBC are less than 0.566 μg m−3 whereas the annual mean is 0.395 ± 0.408 μgm−3 indicating a pristine glacial and absence of locality EBC sources. Further, investigation on the occasional high values extricated that the seasonal cycle of EBC was significantly influenced by the emissions resulting from agriculture burning (in western part of the country), forest fires (along the Himalayan slopes) in summer, and to some extent the contribution from long range transport of pollutants in winter, depending the prevailing meteorological condition.
For many people, climate change feels like a distant threat—something that happens far away, or far off in the future. Scientists and climate communicators often think that if everyone saw the devastating impacts of climate change, we’d all be more likely to accept it as real, and that accepting climate science is essential to taking action against it. A new study, published this month in Regional Environmental Change, challenges the latter part of this assumption.
The study examined decision-making in three places affected by melting glaciers. For these communities in the Italian Alps, the Peruvian Andes, and the US’s North Cascades, glacier retreat is a visible fact—“and the causes of glacier retreat are almost exclusively warming,” explains lead author Ben Orlove, an anthropologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. (Orlove is also the managing editor of GlacierHub.)
Orlove and his colleagues wondered whether the people who live in the three locales notice these changes, whether they understand them to be the result of climate change, and whether this climate connection motivates them to take action.
They found that people in these villages are indeed aware of climate change and are even taking action to adapt to it. But the villagers don’t often talk about climate change as a motivation for adapting. Instead, they’re more likely to look closer to home for reasons to respond to the changing environment, focusing on how the responses can benefit their communities. The study suggests one potential way to reframe the conversation around climate adaptation and make it more appealing.
Exploring different frames of mind
Orlove’s team looked at the frames of thinking that mountain-dwellers use to understand the changes happening around them. Mental “frames” help us sort new information and reconcile it with our previous knowledge and beliefs. For example, says Orlove, “If a hydropower plant in the Italian Alps doesn’t get enough water to generate electricity, what kinds of associations do the villagers make when they think or talk about these changes?”
The team examined how mountain-dwellers utilized two frames when talking about glacial retreat. The first was a climate change frame that focuses on global changes and the need for global solutions. The second was a community frame emphasizing action at a local level and recognizing positive opportunities for local advancement, in addition to the negative challenges of environmental change.
By analyzing peoples’ speech patterns during in-depth interviews, focus groups, and in records of community meetings, the researchers investigated how often people in the mountain communities used these two frames when talking about the impacts of climate change.
Different regions, different challenges, similar framing
The study found that villages in all three research sites are undertaking actions that could be described as adaptations to climate change. However, the communities themselves don’t always think of their actions that way. The authors present three cast studies.
Tourism in the North Cascades
Glaciers, rivers, lakes, and snowpack draw tourists to the slopes of Mount Baker in Washington State, providing the major source of income for the towns of Concrete and Glacier. But those natural resources are at risk as the planet’s temperature climbs.
Orlove’s team argues that these communities in the North Cascades are adapting to glacial retreat by finding ways to expand other forms of tourism. One example is through festivals that celebrate historical heritage and wildlife, and help to bring the community together.
A firemen’s muster during the Cascade Days festival in Concrete, Washington. The study authors argue that festivals like this help to attract tourism independent of the area’s disappearing glaciers, and thus could be considered an adaptation to climate change. (Source: Ben Orlove)
However, Concrete and Glacier residents rarely used words associated with the climate change frame when describing the changes or the local response. Instead, they use a community frame, emphasizing the importance of bolstering tourism and supporting livelihoods and the next generation.
“These kids who get out of high school, there’s not much for them to do except go out of town and find a job in [the nearby town of] Mount Vernon or Seattle,” said one interviewee. “Some of them of course go to college, but probably the majority of them don’t. So there’s no real way to make a livelihood up here. We’re dependent on tourism.”
Hydropower in the Italian Alps
As glaciers in the Italian Alps shrink, river levels are declining, reducing the ability of hydropower plants to generate electricity. To keep up with demand, the villages of Trafoi, Stilfs, and Sulden have installed biomass generators that burn wood chips to generate electricity, and the extra heat gets piped into homes.
The researchers found that although residents sometimes describe the wood chips as a renewable resource — a term from the climate change frame — they’re more often to rely on the community frame. Many villagers mentioned liking the wood heat for its coziness, and emphasized that that the wood chips are a local resource that supports local independence. Others mentioned the next generation, noting that the wood chip industry provides local jobs and that the pipes have provided conduits to install fiber optic cables; both of these encourage younger people to stay in their communities rather than seeking a future elsewhere.
Water in the Peruvian Andes
The village of Copa in the Peruvian Andes is also watching its water supply fall. Meanwhile, its need for water has only increased, as warmer temperatures and irregular rainfall make crop irrigation more important.
To adapt to these changes, Copa has upgraded its water infrastructure to reduce water leakage. It is using concrete to line the canals that carry water from the river, and building pipe systems to bring water into homes instead of hauling buckets from the canal. As with the previous examples, these developments are most often seen through a community frame, with a focus on how the modern water system earns recognition for the village. “They speak with pride of the village square,” says Orlove, “with piped water giving it a more urban look.”
By the numbers
Using both human judgment and computer keyword analysis, Orlove and his team analyzed how often people in these communities referred to environmental changes, whether they attributed these changes to climate change, and whether they described their activities as adaptive responses to the ongoing changes.
They found that the villagers frequently talk about climate change impacts. In interviews, focus groups, and community meetings, changes in ice, water, socioeconomic changes, weather, and agriculture come up in about 13 percent of conversation turns (defined as the words that one person speaks without interruption). “In other words,” the paper notes, “they do not find climate change hard to see.”
However, people linked these alterations to climate change in only 4 percent of the conversation turns, and they describe their actions as adaptive responses in only 5 percent of conversation turns. Overall, people were five times more likely to refer to the community frame than the climate change frame (4.83 percent versus 0.93 percent).
Reframing the conversation
In each of the case studies, communities see the effects of climate change and take steps to address the impacts. Yet they do all of this without making much use of climate change terminology. While the villagers believe in climate change and do occasionally bring it up in conversation, the community is more relevant for them.
To Orlove and his colleagues, this challenges the notion that people need to ‘believe’ in climate change in order to take action against it. Furthermore, the authors write, “it could be argued that the community frame is more effective than the climate change frame because it emphasizes ‘co-benefits’ of adaptation” — such as protecting local resources from outsiders, retaining control over energy production, and increasing one’s connection to their community.
The findings emphasize that climate change communication should be more of a dialogue than a one-way conversation, and that scientists can learn a great deal from the communities they work with.
“It’s not that the only solutions are found in these locally organized communities,” says Orlove, “but people have not often looked for resources there, and when you do, you’ll see that there is social capital. People value their town, and they know each other and interact. They care about their environments and about their communities. We can recognize that as a resource that shouldn’t be overlooked at a time when climate needs far exceed available funds.”
This ability of people to engage with their neighbors and to craft solutions they care about could be helpful outside of mountain villages as well, says Orlove. “If we see self-organizing here, can we see self-organizing in other places, like in New York?”
This article originally appeared on State of the Planet, a news site for Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
In a recent study by Duccio Tampucci et al., rock glaciers in the Italian Alps have been shown to host a wide variety of flora and fauna, supporting plant and arthropod species during temporary decadal periods of climatic warming. Certain species that thrive in cold conditions have been prone to high environmental stress during warm climate stages in the past, but given the results of Tampucci’s research, it is now clear that these species may be able to survive in periglacial settings on the edge of existing glaciers.
Active rock glaciers, commonly found on the border of larger glaciers and ice sheets, are comprised of coarse debris with intermixed ice or an ice-core. The study has valuable implications on how organisms may respond to changes in temperature, offering a possible explanation for species’ resiliency.
Jonathan Anderson, a retired Glacier National Park ranger, spoke to GlacierHub about the importance of periglacial realms in providing a habitat for animals displaced by modern climate change. “In the years spent in and around the park, it’s clear that more and more animals are feeling the impact of climate change and global warming,” he said. “The areas surrounding the larger glaciers are becoming even more important than before and are now home to many of the species that lived on the receded glacier.”
In their study, Tampucci and team analyzed abiotic dimensions of active rock glaciers such as ground surface temperature, humidity and soil chemistry, as well as biotic factors related to the species abundance of plants and arthropods. This data was then compared to surrounding iceless regions characterized by large scree slopes (small loose stones covering mountain slopes) as an experimental control for the glaciated landforms of interest. Comparisons between these active scree slopes and rock glaciers revealed similar soil geochemistry, yet colder ground surface temperatures existed on the rocky glaciers. Thus, more cold-adapted species existed on rock glaciers.
The distribution of plant and arthropod species was found to be highly variable, dependent upon soil pH and the severity of mountain slope-instability. This variability is because the fraction of coarse debris and quantity of organic matter changes with the landform’s activity, or amount of mass wasting occurring downslope. The study notes that the heterogeneity in landforms in mountainous regions augments the overall biodiversity of the region.
Anderson affirmed this idea, noting, “The difference in habitats between glaciated terrain and the surrounding, more vegetated regions is crucial for allowing a wide range of animals to coexist.” This variety of landforms contributes to a wide variety of microclimates in which ecologically diverse organisms can reside in close proximity.
Cold-adapted species are likely the first to be affected by region-wide seasonal warming. As temperatures increase, cold-weather habitats are liable to reduce in size and shift to higher altitudinal belts, resulting in species reduction and possible extirpation. Tampucci et al.’s study affirmed the notion that active rock glaciers serve as refugia for cold-adapted species due to the landscape’s microclimate features.
The local periglacial environment in the Italian Ortles-Cevedale Massif, for example, was shown to be decoupled from greater regional climate, with sufficient thermal inertia (resistance to temperature change) to support cold-adapted species on a decadal timescale.
Despite the conclusive findings that largely affirm previous assumptions about biodiversity in active rock glaciers, the authors carefully point out that the glacier’s ability to serve as refugia for certain species depends entirely on the length of the warm-climate stage, which can potentially last for millennia. Additionally, the macroclimatic context in which the glaciers reside is important and can influence the landform’s thermal inertia, affecting the temporal scale at which the landscape can shelter cold-climate plants and arthropods.
The idea that certain periglacial regions may be the saving grace for small plants and animals is encouraging, yet these landforms fail to offer a permanent solution for conservation ecologists. Although active rock glaciers can harbor cold-adapted species for lengths of time, when an organism is forced to depend upon an alpine microclimate, it has become geographically isolated. In this scenario, the degree to which immediately surrounding terrain is inhospitable governs the species’ extinction risk.
“It’s really important to keep in mind that although certain species are adaptable and resilient, every organism has a limit,” Anderson told GlacierHub. “If the local climate continues to warm, these species will likely die in a few generations.” This means that although certain species of arthropods, for example, may be able to survive in undesirably warm conditions, this climatic shift still influences their long-term extinction risk.
While periglacial landforms may play a valuable role in protecting cold-adapted species in temporary periods of climatic warming, a large variety of external factors can influence the length of time an organism may survive in any given microclimate. The understanding that active-rock glaciers can effectively protect a range of plants and arthropods has valuable implications for conservation biologists and biogeographers, offering insight into possible explanations for cold-adapted species resiliency in historical episodes of climatic warming.
Any avid hiker or mountaineer would agree life as a scientist studying microbes on glaciers is not too bad. Just look the business trips they get to make. Italian scientists Dr. Andrea Franzetti, environmental microbiologist, and his colleague Dr. Roberto Ambrosini, ecologist, took a trip to Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan to collect data and bacteria samples for their latest work on supraglacial microbes.
NASA reports on the Hidden Melting of Greenland’s Glaciers
“What’s causing this ‘big thaw’? Rignot’s team found that Greenland’s glaciers flowing into the ocean are grounded deeper below sea level than previously measured. This means that the warm ocean currents at depth can sweep across the glacier faces and erode them.“In polar regions, the upper layers of ocean water are cold and fresh,” he explains. “Cold water is less effective at melting ice. The real ocean heat is at a depth of 350-400 meters and below. This warm, salty water is of subtropical origin and melts the ice much more rapidly.”
Biological interactions between Microalgae and Glacial Grazers
“Glaciers are known to harbor surprisingly complex ecosystems. On their surface, distinct cylindrical holes filled with meltwater and sediments are considered as hot spots for microbial life. The present paper addresses possible biological interactions within 5 the community of prokaryotic cyanobacteria and eukaryotic microalgae (microalgae) and relations to their potential grazers, additional to their environmental controls…. We propose that, for the studied glaciers, nutrient levels related to recycling of limiting nutrients is the main factor driving variation in the community structure of microalgae and grazers.”
“ROME: Alpine glaciers in Italy have lost an estimated 40 percent of their area over the last three decades, a recent report released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has said.
“The situation of glaciers on the Italian side of the Alps is very worrying,” Xinhua news agency on Friday quoted Gianfranco Bologna, scientific director of WWF-Italy and co-author of the report as saying. The Hot Ice report was unveiled earlier this week, ahead of a crucial United Nations Climate Change Conference due to be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.”
In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter was flying over the Colony Glacier on a routine training flight when the crew noticed bits of wreckage scattered on the ice. The twisted metal, bits of cloth and other debris turned out to be all that was left of a C-124 Globemaster II troop transport that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 people on board.
In June of this year, the Department of Defense said it identified the remains of 17 servicemen from the crash site. “It’s taken 60 years for the wreckage and portions of the plane to actually come out of the glacier underneath all that ice and snow,” said Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist for the military, in a 2012 interview. “It’s starting to erode out now.”
The crash site was nothing like that of a nearly intact World War II-era fighter found in the Sahara. Because of the to the glacier’s splitting ice crevasses, much of the plane, and the plane’s remaining crew, are likely still frozen after 60 years. The location of the troop transport, which was known not long after the crash, had been lost because of the glacier’s movement and the opening and closing of those crevasses.
The most famous glacier find happened over two decades ago. In 1991, two German tourists were climbing the Similaun peak on a sunny afternoon in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border when they spied a body lying facedown and half-frozen in the ice. What was left of the body’s skin was hardened, light brown in color, and stretched tightly across its skeleton.
The man the tourists found turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. Named Ötzi, after the Ötzal region of the Alps he was found in, the natural mummy provided a look into Copper Age Europe. He had tools, clothes and even shoes frozen along with him. Ötzi’s remarkable preservation (he’s Europe’s oldest natural mummy) was due to him being covered in snow and later ice shortly after death, shielding him from decay.
Last summer, elsewhere in the Alps, a rescue helicopter pilot spotted something that shouldn’t be in the glaciers surrounding the Matterhorn: abandoned equipment and clothing wrapped around bones. Those remains turned out to be those of 27-year-old British climber Jonathan Conville, who had disappeared on the mountain in 1979. Hundreds of people have been reported missing from the area surrounding the Matterhorn and melting ice means more of them might be found.
The tiny town of Peio, high up in the Italian Alps, has grown accustomed to this phenomenon. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the peaks, caves and glaciers around Peio were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I between Imperial and Italian forces. From 1915-1918, the two sides fought along the hundreds of miles of the Italian Front where more than a million soldiers died and two million more were wounded in the aptly named White War.
As the Alpine glaciers melt high above Peio, rifles, equipment, bits of tattered uniforms and even letters and diaries from a hundred years ago again see the light of day. Though many of these relics are displayed in the town’s war museum, many more are looted by treasure hunters hoping to resell them on the black market.
The frozen, mummified bodies of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers have also started to resurface. In 2012, two soldiers who died in the 1918 Battle of Presena were given a military funeral in Peio. When they died, the two young Austrian fighters were buried top-to-toe in a crevasse in the Presena Glacier. As with the Alaska crash, only the glacier decides when and where to give up a body. But humans, by changing our planet’s atmosphere and climate, are giving glaciers a strong nudge.
The year 2013 hasn’t been a good one for climate change (as you might’ve guessed) and mountain glaciers have been singled out, according to a new report released by the National Climatic Data Center.
The largest climate data archive in the world sits in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains and contains 14 petabytes of information, enough to stream 23 million movies. Asheville, N.C. is home to the NCDC, a division within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – that provides climatological services and data worldwide. For the last 24 years, NCDC scientists have been producing an annual report on the state of the world’s climate. These reports provide updates on global and regional climate and notable weather from the preceding year. Published by the American Meteorological Society in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), this report is a large international collaboration. The most recent report, covering the year 2013, involved over 400 scientists from 57 countries.
Among the 2013 report’s distinguished highlights, along with carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, and the record-breaking super-typhoon Haiyan, is the news about mountain glaciers. The supplementary report begins by explain the importance of these glaciers:
“Around the globe, some 370 million people live in basins where rivers derive at least 10 percent of their seasonal discharge from glacier melt. Glacier melt provides drinking water for human populations, and irrigation water for crops. Dams on glacier-fed rivers are key sources of hydroelectric power in some parts of the world. The retreat of the majority of mountain glaciers worldwide is one of the clearest signs that climate is warming over the long term; some glaciers have already disappeared.”
The report indicates that mountain glaciers lost more ice from melt than they gained from seasonal snow-fall for the 23rd year in a row. This pattern is expected to continue. Since 1980, glaciers have lost the equivalent of 50 feet (more than 15 meters) of water.
Five regions with long histories of data are used in the report as a barometer for the health of mountain glacier: Austria, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal, and the Northern Cascades of Washington State. The news – a pattern dominated by loss – is grim. Of the 96 glaciers evaluated in the Austrian Alps, 93 are retreating, two are stable, and just one is advancing. Norway is much the same: 26 of the 33 are retreating, another four are stable, and only three are advancing. Things are worse in North America (the 14 glaciers of the Northern Cascades in Washington State and Alaska are all significantly retreating) and in New Zealand, where all 50 are anticipated to have retreated by the end of the 2013 melt season. Only in Nepal, where the 3 glaciers monitored are near equilibrium, this near-balance reflects an unusually good year. In 2013, those glaciers received the largest amount of snow accumulation in the last seven years.
The plight of diminishing mountain glaciers has serious implications for the health, food, energy resources and livelihoods of the 370 million people who live close to them. There are also serious effects in adjacent lowlands. Just as steady upward trend of the Keeling Curve of carbon dioxide concentrations is closely watched, so should be its apparent reflection: the glacier mass balance curve, shown each year in the State of the Climate report for the world to see.
This year’s’ report and all previous reports are available for free download online.